Feature: Ontario's healthcare system in dire need of an innovation injection: Chief healthcare strategist

BillC

Bill Charnetski loves his job.

For a little more than a year now, Charnetski has served as Ontario’s chief health innovation strategist. He’s been mandated to remove any barriers to advancement in the province’s healthcare system, largely by encouraging the adoption of technological solutions.

He’ll tell you himself that his job is not an enviable one, as the system he’s tasked to fix is in serious need of repair.

“If you wanted to go out and design a procurement model to block the introduction of innovation by small and medium enterprises, you’d be hard-pressed to do better than the Ontario healthcare system,” Charnetski told the crowd at Ottawa’s inaugural Industry, Issues & Insights luncheon in February.

“The healthcare system is not sustainable. It needs to improve. And there is no way it’s going to improve without investment.”

And yet, Charnetski repeatedly told the gathered crowd of healthcare stakeholders and industry leaders that he does indeed love his job.

For him, the prospect of innovation in healthcare is about more than striving to reduce waiting times and keep the population healthy: It’s the opportunity to fuel an economic engine for the entire province.

The numbers don’t lie: The 2016 Ontario budget allocated $52 billion to the province’s healthcare system. When entrepreneurs hear a figure like that related to any field, Charnetski says, their eyes should light up with dollar signs.

Ontario needs to win in the knowledge sector, he said in his speech. Manufacturing will likely never return to its prominent place as the driver of Ontario’s economy, and the time is now for businesses, cities and countries alike to be investing in healthcare.

The future of health innovation, Charnetski says, will be in the form of devices in three key verticals: digital, virtual and mobile health. Today’s healthcare needs are for technologies that will improve access to records, allow for at-home connectivity between physicians and patients, and provide new ways to visualize disease, ailments and injuries. Solutions to these problems, Charnetski says, are exportable and in demand worldwide.

Knowing this, though, is not enough for health innovation to take hold in Ontario. An example of the missing piece can be found in HIP613, a program recently launched in Ottawa by CHEO, alongside sponsors IBM and Gatineau-based software firm Macadamian. The program connects engineers, coders and designers with CHEO’s clinicians to identify the biggest problems in healthcare.

Hospital CEO Alex Munter says the key to healthcare innovation lies in these clinician-led solutions.

“I think that’s the magic in the formula, as it were. It really is a partnership between those (who) have the technical expertise and those who are working with these problems on a day-to-day basis,” Munter told Techopia in an interview.

Both Charnetski and Munter highlighted Clearwater Clinical as a prime example of local innovation. CHEO’s Dr. Matt Bromwich founded Clearwater and helped to develop ShoeBOX, a portable iPad audiometer. The device allows patients to perform hearing tests from home, without the need to clog up a hospital waiting room. On the other side of the app, a physician analyzes the test remotely and can instantly send feedback and updated diagnoses.

Munter says technology like this improves patient experiences, reduces stresses on the system and will help hospitals keep pace in a rapidly evolving field.

“Healthcare is an industry that still uses fax machines. We need to catch up and we need to meet the expectations of our patients and families,” he says.

While he stresses the importance of healthcare innovation to Ontario’s economy, Charnetski emphasizes that the ultimate goal for the sector is to help people.

At the close of his speech, he told the audience about a dinner he had with a friend where he told her about the work his office was doing. She listened intently, and then asked the $52-billion question: “As a patient, in two years, what am I going to see that’s different?”

Charnetski was struck. He took that quote back to his office, told his colleagues about it and posted it in large type above the photocopier.

He told the crowd: “That’s what drives us. That’s why I love this job.”

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