Health care needs IT revamp: IBM

Big Blue has some big ideas when it comes to the future of Canada’s health care system, ideas it outlined in a broad advisory document it released last month.

The 42-page report addresses the four main challenges facing Medicare — and offers some possible solutions. Prominent among the solutions IBM Canada. Ltd.’s Business Consulting division identified is the increased use and development of information technology.

“E-health…is a facilitator of the required transformation,” said Ian Cummins, business development executive at IBM, one of several health experts invited by the company to comment on the report, entitled Heading True North.

Cummins added that much work is needed to lay the necessary technology groundwork.

Improving the infrastructure of hospitals, wireless devices and improving the networks that support them are needed, he said.

The IBM report criticized the silo-like nature of the current health system, where hospitals, pharmacies and family doctors often treat the same patients but have no means to effectively share data, or to transfer patient information to each other in a means other than paper.

Thus the advent of an electronic patient record system is long overdue, said Tom Closson, CEO of the University Health Network, an amalgamation of three Toronto hospitals. “But we talked about (it) when I started my career in the early 1970s,” he added, noting that a means of securing e-mail transmissions is required before any large-scale system of electronic records can be considered.

Last October, Alberta became the first province in Canada to deploy electronic health records. The $59-million project (which involved IBM) was expected to enable all Alberta health regions, one-third of physicians’ offices, and half of all pharmacies to use digital records by the middle of this year. In Ontario, a government-sponsored, independent body called the Smart Systems for Health Agency, in conjunction with Hewlett-Packard Co. and EDS, is currently in the midst of a five-year deployment plan to get the entire sector connected — 20,000 network sites and 150,000 e-mail and PKI users.

The goal is to improve the way personal health information is shared among health practioners.

Closson, a one-time hospital CIO, used Ontario as an example of what’s wrong with health care technology, pointing to the dozens of IT departments at various hospitals across the province, each trying to grapple with different standards and systems. And he identified the Toronto region as the worst offender. “We have every vendor’s product in this region,” he said.

Faced with a lack of funding, hospitals are finding novel ways to solve their IT problems, including integrating the back offices of regional hospitals. Several hospitals in the city of London, Ont., for instance, have combined IT forces, as have facilities in other regions across the province.

Another solution is to outsource IT altogether, Closson noted — a service companies such as IBM provide. The University Health Network alone maintains a $45-million IT budget, “and one-third of that is contracted out,” mainly covering the maintenance of its desktops and servers. “We have staff for development and implementation of research systems, because they understand our organization well,” he added. “But we don’t want to have to worry about the other stuff.”

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