Canada Health Infoway received an additional $400 million in funding from the federal government in the March budget that should ensure the funding body meets its targets for introducing electronic health records.
Infoway’s original goal was to have 50 per cent of the population covered by e-records (EHRs) by 2010. But so much progress has been made on e-health initiatives across the country, says CEO Richard Alvarez, he’s confident the entire population could have an EHR by 2013.
In an interview a few days before the budget announcement, Alvarez said the organization had committed most of the $1.2 billion it received at its launch in 2001 to provincial and territorial projects that marry information and communications technology with health care delivery. That meant Infoway at some point would have to seek additional funding from the government, Alvarez said.
The budget noted much progress had been made on the e-health front. “More needs to be done and the government is prepared to support this national initiative and Infoway’s success.”
EHRs support the implementation of patient wait-time guarantees, the budget pointed out. “In addition to improving access to health services, EHRs support improved clinical decision-making, leading to more effective diagnosis and treatment, greater patient safety and increased efficiency in the health care system.”
“Infoway’s aim is to use IT to transform health care so it is more accurate, safe and productive,” Alvarez noted.
Despite years of political wrangling and the transfer of billions of dollars by Ottawa to the provinces, concerns over wait-times to see specialists or to have surgery remain front-page news.
Infoway has invested in more than 200 provincial and territorial e-health projects with the long-term goal of having all the systems interoperable among doctors’ offices, pharmacies, hospitals, health clinics and residences right across the country, Alvarez explains.
In its annual report, Infoway describes how each province and territory has taken the lead in a particular e-health development. British Columbia is working on public health surveillance, Ontario on monitoring labs, Quebec on networking hospitals, Nova Scotia on a province-wide diagnostic imaging system and Manitoba on telehealth. All the projects have been supported by Infoway funding.
Alvarez says e-health has been well accepted. “In my 30 years in the health and IT fields, I have never seen the kind of public support there is for improving the health care system.”
He also says e-health enjoyed support across the political party spectrum “because they have seen the progress it has brought across the whole health care field.” The main focus of Infoway remains the development of individual e-health records.
With additional funding, it could increase its involvement in electronic registries, diagnostic imaging systems, drug and laboratory information systems, telehealth, innovation and adoption, and infostructure. “As more money becomes available, we can help expand the whole e-health system,” he says.
Wayne Mills, vice-president of information systems and CIO of the Trillium Health Centre in Toronto’s west end, says Infoway has been doing as much as it can to advance e-health. “It is the start of the journey of setting health care standards for Canada.”
He agrees that Infoway needs more money. “I don’t think anyone thought that the first Infoway funding would be enough.”
Trillium sees e-health as an enabler. “It gives our caregivers the ability to actually help everyone,” adds Mills.
Digitizing diagnostic imaging systems so that test results can be seen readily by the top experts at other facilities is an example of the important work Infoway can support, says Mills. “We have to be able to share these images with other hospitals.”
It is also important to remember that the primary goal of bringing IT into the health care system is to bring better care to patients, he added.
One contentious issue surrounding an EHR system is protecting the privacy of patient information. The funding agreement that created Infoway stipulates that patient privacy must be respected. Infoway notes that every project is required to conduct a privacy impact assessment that describes how the system will function and how it will address privacy.
Alex Binkley is a freelance journalist based in Ottawa. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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