Province ideal place to pilot health innovations: expert

January 20, 2012
Author: Winnipeg Free Press

Manitoba could be a petri dish for health-care innovations that could save the government $500 million a year.

As provincial premiers wrangle with Ottawa over a new health accord, health-care expert Neil Fraser said new technology and more efficient processes could be piloted in Manitoba because it's a smaller, more nimble place.

"It's not as complicated," said Fraser, who spoke Thursday at a Winnipeg Chamber of Commerce luncheon. "I see a lot of the dynamics in Ontario, and it's really hard to get anything done. There are too many interests."

Fraser, president of the medical technology firm Medtronic and chairman of the Ivey International Centre for Health Innovation at the University of Western Ontario, said Manitoba is already home to one in 10 Canadian biomedical companies. And, the province has a track record of pioneering innovations. Fraser pointed to the province's use of implantable defibrillators that let doctors monitor a patient's heart remotely without forcing people to make frequent office visits.

Manitoba, along with other provinces, is grappling with a clampdown on federal health-care funding as it renegotiates the national health-care accord. Before Christmas, federal Finance Minister Jim Flaherty unilaterally capped health-care spending increases at the rate of inflation, or at least three per cent, starting in 2016-2017. That, say several premiers, will damage front-line health services.

But Fraser said the country needs to stop seeing health care as a huge money pit and begin seeing it as a way to get people back to work faster, keep them productive longer and create jobs through medical innovation.

He pointed to an American study that suggested savings of 40 to 50 per cent if the full breadth of private-sector technological innovation was used. In Manitoba, that would amount to $500 million, he said.

That means creating electronic health records, a process that's well behind European countries and has been mired in scandal and overspending in some provinces.

"There are still a lot of fax machines used," said Fraser. "It's a bit like listening to an eight-track when you can get all your music online."

And it means investing in technology like insulin pumps, which sit under a diabetic's skin and constantly monitor blood-sugar levels. That can reduce the many complications of diabetes.

Fraser's company makes insulin pumps.

He said the way governments pay doctors also needs an overhaul. About a quarter of doctors' visits could be done remotely, using real-time data from gadgets such as insulin pumps or implantable defibrillators. But doctors don't get paid for reading an email or reviewing a chart remotely.

THE looming federal-funding crunch could cost Manitoba's health-care system millions in the coming years. Find out what's driving the province's health costs, from drugs to chronic illness, and what the government might do about it.

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