Invest more in healthcare IT, Conference Board tells governments

Healthcare IT has the potential to radically transform physician productivity and patient care across Canada…but only if backed by more government dollars.

That’s a key conclusion of a recent Conference Board of Canada (CBOC) report titled Understanding Health Care Cost Drivers and Escalators. Canada, it says, spends just 1.8 per cent of health operating budgets on information and communications technologies (ICT), compared to 5.5 percent in the U.S.

“It is difficult to determine whether (this) lack of progress…is a result of pressure from interest groups that benefit from the status quo or from federal and provincial governments’ reluctance to invest the…dollars necessary to establish such systems,” says the report. It urges the federal, provincial and territorial governments to make healthcare IT a priority, but regrets that “to date, adoption of such technology in Canada has not been swift.”

The report points to the wide disparity between IT investment in healthcare, and in other sectors such as banking, where IT spending ranges from 9 – 13 per cent of operating budgets.

Governments, the report says, should consider investing a larger share of the healthcare budget on IT and on training healthcare workers to take advantage of these technologies. “When the healthcare workforce is able to use tools such as ICTs, and participate in continuing education, it results in substantial enhancement to patient care and productivity.”

According to the CBOC report, healthcare IT is most effective when “used at the point of the clinical encounter.” The report says participants in clinical decision-making should be given adequate information, opportunities and incentives, so they can weigh the full costs of adopting new technologies. It also suggests the creation of electronic health records (EHR) and clinical management systems (CMS) that provide computer-aided decision making to practitioners and patients.

EHRs and health information systems, the CBOC report says, can provide computer-assisted decision-making assistance for practitioners and patients. It notes that these systems have a track record of reducing medical errors, improving the appropriateness and effectiveness of prescriptions, and determining appropriate use of diagnostic scanning.

In Ontario, the provincial Ministry of Health is making a concerted effort to encourage use of CMS applications by physicians. Eligible physicians can receive government funding for CMS applications as part of the Province’s ePhysician Program (ePP).

According to ePhysician project director, Marian MacDonald, 13 CMS products have been approved so far by the ePP as meeting technical, functional and security specifications. She said physicians would soon also be able to access CMS applications via an ASP-type model.

An approved CMS application will be hosted by Smart Systems for Health Agency (SSHA) at its data centers. (SSHA is an Ontario government agency with a mandate to create a province-wide IT infrastructure for electronic communication among the province’s health service providers). Physicians will be able subscribe to the ASP service by paying a monthly fee.

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