IBM facility assists Alberta project to improve IT in health care

IBM’s third Canadian e-Business Innnovation Centre is working with an Alberta government project to bring new technology solutions to the health-care market.

Located in downtown Edmonton, the 20,000-sq. ft. facility will employ more than 200 of IBM Canada’s 1,800 Alberta employees. It follows the introduction of similar centres in Vancouver and Toronto, and 14 others worldwide.

Part of the centre’s raison d’etre is the Alberta Wellnet initiative, which falls under the umbrella of Alberta Health and Wellness.

A recipient of the 2001 Canadian Information Productivity Award of Excellence, Alberta Wellnet develops solutions in electronic health records, population health management, demographics registries and secure exchange of health information.

“We provide information technology solutions to the health sector that are all about the exchange of health information,” said June MacGregor, executive leader of programs for Alberta Wellnet. “We work to connect hospitals to physicians to pharmacists. We’re all information exchange in order to enable better care and better management of the health system.”

IBM has been a primary strategic partner with Wellnet for nearly five years. One of the big projects is the Pharmaceutical Information Network, a resource for sharing information about what medications patients are currently taking among a variety of different health care providers and practitioners, said MacGregor.

Willie Gruber, director of the IBM e-business Innovation Centre, said many of IBM projects in Alberta are in the public sector, particularly healthcare through Wellnet. “Because we’ve been doing a lot of work in that area, we decided it had grown to such a critical mass that it was logical to create an e-business Innovation Centre in Edmonton using Wellnet as the core suite of applications to begin the centre,” he said.

The centre will house a combination of IBM employees and sub-contractors, and will start with 100 employees, said Gruber. “We’ve been growing fairly quickly in this space over the years, and we foresee it continuing to grow.”

When Wellnet was initially set up, there was a request-for-proposal issued to identify and select an IT partner for the development of the systems and provide guidance for planning and architecture of systems. “Wellnet looked for an IT partner that could bring a range of expertise to the table, not simply a development shop,” said MacGregor.

Since IBM has been working with Wellnet, it has been developing most of the systems, although it doesn’t completely preclude Wellnet from working with other vendors where appropriate. “Most of the work is done for us by IBM,” said MacGregor. “They’re really what we would view as our strategic partner. They help us with all phases of work — the planning, the architecting, the solution development and the delivery. They provide a whole range of IT services to us under contract.”

Some of the systems already in use that IBM have developed include a senior’s drug profile system. This is the precursor to the Pharmaceutical Network and available at 400 sites across Alberta, as well as newborn metabolic screening application, which allows newborn babies to be registered for certain disorders that cause long-term problems. “There’s been a screening process in place for a number of years in Alberta,” said MacGregor, “but the computer application really make sure that all newborns are caught.” Also in the works are cervical cancer and breast cancer systems.

“Underlying all of this is the gateway infrastructure,” said MacGregor. “The gateway infrastructure really manages the routing of messages. It’s really essential that you infrastructure if you’re going to be sharing information across the health sector.”

The infrastructure also manages security and privacy. The province has the Alberta Health Information Act, which means in order for an individual’s information to be available on these systems, the individual must have given their consent.

“The gateway is a big part of what (IBM) has done,” said MacGregor.

Screening and pharmaceuticals have been the main focus to date, she said. “The next area we will likely be focusing on in the next few years is labs.”

MacGregor said what’s appealing about having single partner like IBM is that all the systems are architected in the same manner. The screening applications are generic enough that they can be adapted for other purposes. “So if you develop something for breast cancer you can use it for cervical cancer and maybe down the road for prostate cancer.”

While Wellnet is the cornerstone of the centre’s activity, Gruber said a broader area of potential work would be with government online initiatives. Another project IBM has already worked on is fish and game licensing system, as well as Alberta Agriculture’s popular Web site, which gets visitors from 140 countries each year.

“The Alberta government has shown themselves willing to invest in online solutions,” said Gruber, including the deployment of SuperNet, which push bandwidth out throughout the province. “There’s a lot of future in the public sector.”

Consolidated into the centre will be IBM’s current e-business integration team, including those working on Wellnet and those working on other projects. The centre will be the hub for IBM’s activities in Alberta – which also include work out of Calgary for the financial and energy sectors – and falls under IBM’s Global Services group.

“Having a nucleus of people working together and focused on e-business will make it grow faster,” said Gruber. “That’s been the experience in our other centres.”

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Gary Hilson
Gary Hilson
Gary Hilson is a Toronto-based freelance writer who has written thousands of words for print and pixel in publications across North America. His areas of interest and expertise include software, enterprise and networking technology, memory systems, green energy, sustainable transportation, and research and education. His articles have been published by EE Times, SolarEnergy.Net, Network Computing, InformationWeek, Computing Canada, Computer Dealer News, Toronto Business Times and the Ottawa Citizen, among others.

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