An Ontario agency that helps health-care providers share information electronically says the arrival of a new minister has brought improved governance to the way it manages the needs of hospitals, clinics and long-term treatment facilities.

Speaking at a two-day conference on health-care

efficiency on Wednesday, the CEO of the Smart Systems for Health Agency (SSHA) said changes were made late last month that will create a new framework for coordinating provincial e-health activities. The moves are also intended to remove some of the restrictions the SSHA has said have hindered its efforts with various health-care providers.

“”Nobody was in charge,”” explained Michael Connolly, SSHA’s CEO. “”(Health and Long-Term Care Minister George Smitherman) wanted to know who to talk to about e-health, but there was no one person.””

The framework will see the creation of a formal e-health program in Ontario led by an e-health council composed of industry practitioners, Connolly said. The council will have a secretariat within the Ministry of Health and Long-Term Care which will be responsible for policies, planning, developing a business architecture for e-health projects and setting standards. E-health system development and maintenance work will move out of the ministry and into the SSHA, which will have more flexibilty than it has enjoyed in the past, Connolly said.

“”We’re taking an activity that was loosely managed at best and turning it into a formal program,”” he said, much like programs that coordinate resources and projects concerning pharmacies, doctors and other areas of health care. “”It’s probably the biggest advance we’ve ever had in e-health.””

Connolly said previous regulations had precluded the SHHA from hosting information in its data centres at the request of health-care organizations, or providing bandwidth for specific projects. The new framework will allow it to do those things now, he said.

The SHHA is involved with a range of activities that include indentity management, portal services and securing e-mail. Priorities for 2005 include the rollout of an integrated Public Health Information System (iPHIS) which will manage information about outbreaks like SARS and many other reportable diseases. Another project will see information contained in the Ontario Drug Benefit database — which is currently available only to claims managers — sent electronically to emergency room doctors. A similar initiative is already underway in British Columbia, Connolly said.

“”It’s almost inconceivable that a doctor has to start with a blank sheet of paper (in the ER), or a patient’s faulty memory to know what medication you’re on,”” he said.

Some health-care organizations are taking e-health into their own hands. Joseph Mora, president of Kingston General Hospital, discussed a range of measures taken to improve efficiency that included the development of waiting list management software. The tool, called Access Rx, was created in-house by Kingston General IT staff and is now available to every surgeon in the organization, Mora said.

“”It not only tells you about the wait times, but it also tells you what the priority surgeries are,”” he said. “”We’re now starting to get a lot of interest for it out there in the province.”” A startup has been spun out of Kingston General, AdaptCS Corp., to market the software.

The SHHA is focused not merely on sharing information within health-care organizations but between them, Connolly said. One of the most challenging projects to date is the creation of a common e-mail directory service that could be used across the province. “”Right now there is no way to send out alerts should an outbreak occur,”” he said.

Last year, the SSHA said it had completed the first stage of an infrastructure development deal by establishing two data centres that will be managed by HP Canada as part of a 10-year, $30-million outsourcing contract.

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