Health-care orgs explore scheduling app for pandemic preparation

TORONTO – The health-care system would not be ready for another SARS-like outbreak if one hit as soon as tomorrow, according to a Sudbury doctor who has invented a scheduling and communications tool for health care workers.

“We would have the same confusion as SARS if a pandemic occurred tomorrow,” said Dr. Dennis Reich, president and medical director of Sudbury and District Medical Society. “In a pandemic situation, not everyone would run to their Tablet PC.”

Reich, who founded Chyma Systems Inc., added the health-care community needs to divert its attention to improving communication when planning for a pandemic.

Health-care systems worldwide are bracing themselves for the possibility of a global disease outbreak or pandemic of a new influenza virus such as the H5N1 or “avian bird flu” for which people have very little or no immunity and for which there is no vaccine.

Reich was one of three presenters at a session Tuesday at the Ontario Hospital Association’s HealthAchieve2006 convention here. The session looked at how physician scheduling software like Chyma could be used as a pandemic communication tool.

Chyma, which is owned by its parent company ISAIX, stemmed from a Web site that Reich created in 1999 and was launched as a software product several years ago. The online tool replaces paper-based scheduling systems with one that gives doctors a single access point to physician scheduling and shift trades, calendars and events, documents, contacts, messaging and discussions. There are currently 12,000 users located across Canada. The scheduling module, called OnTime!, costs $5.95 per user per month while the communications component is based on a volume pricing model.

While this type of tool is not a means to an end, it would help to eradicate some of the confusion, especially at the family physician level, that surrounded the SARS outbreak in 2003. Janet Kasperski, executive director and CEO of The Ontario College of Family Physicians, said during the SARS break family doctors had to deal with the majority of people affected by the disease but were given the least information.

“We were treated like mushrooms,” said Kasperski. “We were kept in the dark and fed with sh–t.”

Eighty per cent of people access the health-care system in Ontario through their family doctor and not the hospital. Yet much of the media attention and information coming down from the Ministry of Health Care focused on the hospitals and other tertiary care facilities.

“During SARS, family doctors weren’t informed by authorities,” said Kasperski, adding that at Scarborough Hospital, where the first outbreak occurred, many family doctors didn’t even have the privileges to access the information. “We struggled alone.”

The mass chaos that surrounded the SARS outbreak was the catalyst for Scarborough Hospital to implement Chyma a couple of years ago. Dr. Christopher Jyu, who works at the hospital and was at the front lines during SARS, said at that time, only 50 per cent of the hospital’s staff used e-mail as a means to communicate with each other. This made it difficult to communicate changes to staff that were happening on a daily basis, such as which entrances were open and which were closed.

Now, with the tool in place human resource planning is, “easy for us to regroup doctors in case of change of location,” said Jyu. Some of the other key benefits include the ease of swapping shifts, up-to-date contact information and the ability to access the software from anywhere  in the world, Jyu added.

Reich, who sits on a pandemic planning panel, said while he supports top-down approaches to improving the flow of information in the health-care system such as Canada Health Infoway’s billion-dollar initiative to eradicate paper from the system by the end of the decade, grassroots initiatives like Chyma help to break down the silos created by a smattering of proprietary-based electronic medical record systems.

“The other way is to have systems that are technology agnostic without the concern that the privacy of records is compromised,” he said.

The OHA Achieve conference wraps up Wednesday.

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