Canadian e-health sector could use a booster shot

There’s a host of opportunities for Canadian companies looking to serve the burgeoning electronic health record market, but insiders say serving the market is not going to be easy.

A number of hospitals have already set up electronic record systems with patient information, and a national agency, Canada Health Infoway, has a mandate to create a unified e-health record by 2009. Despite this momentum, as well as the handful of programs to help fund the automation of doctors’ offices in Canada, however, resistance to the idea still runs high.

“The real challenge in health care is cultural,” said Ross Armstrong, senior research analyst at London, Ont.-based Info-Tech. Persuading doctors to invest thousands of dollars of their own money in a system that will benefit the health care system as a whole and change the way they work is a huge challenge.

To encourage doctor buy-in, vendors, he said, need to better craft their messages to show doctors how digitizing their offices will give them more time to dedicate to the most profitable parts of their practice.

Armstrong said the market for electronic health record services will take off once some hospitals start offering patients free access to their medical records online. “Once one hospital in one region offers this service for free, then all other hospitals or clinics will start doing so as well in order to maintain or gain competitive advantage,” said Armstrong. “If the health care enterprise dovetails the portal project with an existing electronic medical record or electronic health record project, then the costs of the portal could be reduced since that back end is now in place.”

Michael Martineau, director of the Branham Group, has similar predictions. Branham foresees a major increase in the automation of doctors’ offices over the next 18 to 38 months. “It’s the next frontier,” said Martineau. Alberta’s physician office system program), for example, had 61 per cent of the province’s physicians signed up as of July 2006, making it one of the leading jurisdictions in physician automation world-wide, it claims.

Martineau said to advance that uptake, companies in the electronic health record market in Canada will benefit by having their products certified by Canada Health Infoway’s e-Health Collaboratory, an initiative designed to help vendors comply with CHI’s e-health record standard.

“It shows the health care system that you are being part of the process, so it’s a good corporate citizen thing to do,” he said.

But the biggest challenge Canadian companies face in cracking the e-health market is the lack of a Canadian “brand,” said Barry Gander, executive director of The Canadian Advanced Technology Alliance (CATA).

Canadian companies, he said, toil in obscurity not only within the country but on the global stage as well.

“If people are looking for a solution or a partner Canada doesn’t come to mind,” he said. “We really have to adopt a co-ordinated strategy to become better known.”

That’s what CATA hopes to change with the debut of its global webinars, described as “the founding step in the creation of a new healthcare community spanning the world’s biggest block: the Commonwealth.”

Gander said the idea is to use the global webinars to present profiles of Canadian companies to build awareness of the capabilities that exist within Canada in an interactive way that can lead to Canadian partnerships and dealmaking.

“We need to fuse all these public sector needs with the knowledge of our private sector capabilities, and we’re just on the beginning of that road now,” said Gander. “Our aim is to create a system where everybody knows what everybody else is doing.”

Another challenge Canadian companies face is the same one any Canadian company faces: Canada represents such a small market it’s often not worth pursuing.

“The market (in Canada) is one-tenth of the size so when you’re dealing with an organization in the U.S. with 600,000 members, the equivalent in Canada is 60,000,” said Jay Couse, senior vice-president of business development for Toronto-based Diversinet.

Diversinet, a vendor of mobile security products, for example, recently signed a deal with Blue Cross of Northeastern Pennsylvania (BCNEPA) to provide members access to their personal medical records through mobile phones, handheld wireless devices and personal computers using Diversinet’s MobiSecure Wallet and Vault soft token technology.

Its business model is to make the technology available on an OEM basis to large health insurance providers.

Diversinet has built the back end but Blue Cross is responsible for the interface consumers will use, he said, as well as for negotiating the connections to the data.

The project will roll out to 100,000 users in the first half of this year, gradually scaling up to all 600,000 members.

“MobiSecure Vault is designed to give consumers the ability to access their personal information anywhere, anytime from a mobile device,” said Couse. “It acts like a remote control in that you don’t have to store everything on the phone – the phone can be used as a pointer.”

The first phase of the project will allow consumers to access all the information warehoused by Blue Cross, such as insurance claims, as well as pharmacy-related and medical record information.

Americans, said Couse, are used to the idea of paying for health care, a concept that has not yet proved popular here at home.

‘In the U.S. market even if people have insurance they are paying US$250 a month on average,” he said. “They also pay a co-pay every time they visit the doctor … so their out-of-pocket costs can be very dramatic.”

That’s not to say Diversinet is not interested in the Canadian market. Couse said the company is close to announcing a Canadian customer.

“They built the system to handle all the medial records at the physician level and we will then give our technology to them and they can give it to their patients.”

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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