How Technology Can Prevent Canada’s Looming Health Care Crisis

We’ve heard it many times before. Canada is headed for a health care crisis. Our system isn’t sustainable. Our aging population will bankrupt us.

These ideas can make for compelling news stories, but they are perhaps a tad dramatic. Health care leaders and practitioners know that the factors impacting expenditures in the sector are complex. Distilling them into soundbites does little to accurately inform the public.

That said, there is cause for alarm. The way we allocate health care resources is increasingly at odds with the needs of patients. And the signs of this imbalance are everywhere.

Luckily, a shift in thinking has already begun. Recent government measures, such as providing more funding for home care, will help in the long run. But in order to bring about real positive change, service providers must be equipped with the right tools. And today, many of those tools are digital.

This post will explore the trends that threaten to cause a Canadian health care crisis – and how technology can help reverse them.

Pinpointing the Causes of a Potential Health Care Crisis

As of 2015, there were more Canadians over the age of 65 than under the age of 15. As members of the boomer generation continue to age, we’ll need more health care funding to cover the cost of their care. So the argument goes.

Of course, an influx of older adults is bound to strain provincial health care systems. We know that, in Ontario alone, these individuals already make up 14% of the population. And yet they use about one half of every health care dollar.

That said, any explanation based on the idea that “old age” can cause a health care crisis is overly simplistic.

If you’re a health care practitioner or policymaker, you know the statistics. Of every five Canadians over the age of 20, three have a chronic disease. Like the older adult population, these rates are rising quickly. Along with them, comorbid and complex conditions are also becoming more common – even in children.

The problem is clear. Chronic disease rates are exploding, yet Canadians continue to rely on a system designed to treat acute conditions.

The consequences of this imbalance are all too visible. High hospital readmission rates. Long wait times for many different types of services. Burnt-out family caregivers. The list goes on.

While these aren’t exactly new problems, they’re now becoming impossible to ignore. It’s clear that an overhaul of our health care systems is needed. And it’s not going to be easy.

Luckily, some of the seeds have already been sown. Increasingly, chronic and complex conditions are being recognized as root causes of health care spending. Ongoing treatment – whether it’s for older adults or patients of other demographics – is improving.

In Ontario, recent funding for home and respite care show just how much attitudes are changing. But as the critics are quick to point out, there’s still a whole lot of room for improvement.

Looking for Solutions – Outside of the Box

The growing number of older adults in Canada isn’t the sole factor leading us toward a potential health care disaster. But imagine, for a moment, that it is. Pretend that aging is occurring in exactly the same way as it has in the past, that patient needs (and the health issues that drive them) aren’t shifting.

If this were the case, the answers would be clearer. More funding to scale existing delivery models. More doctors, nurses, and acute care beds. In short, more of the same.

But patient needs are changing. And chronic and complex conditions – which require ongoing management and care – are largely responsible. These changes are impacting older adults disproportionately. But they’re having a very significant effect on other groups as well.

It’s worth noting that an increase in funding can always bring about improvement in the sector. But of course, cost efficiency is becoming more critical as demand for services grows. Wise investments are key.

Home care provides real value – both in terms of outcomes for chronic patients and cost savings. Estimates peg the cost of care in the community at about a quarter of what the same care costs in a hospital bed.

By recognizing this fact, practitioners and policymakers have turned in a new and promising direction. But the shift hasn’t gone far enough. And until it has, service providers will struggle to provide individual clients with the care they need.

What Canadians need is a whole new vision for health care.

This vision should maximize the potential of care at home in order to tackle the system’s biggest challenges. It should be truly patient-centred, which means it should be more proactive, more supportive, and (perhaps most importantly) more coordinated. In short: better management is key.

What does this look like in practice? A workable model has an engaged and empowered patient at its centre. A team of closely-connected health practitioners and family members communicate continuously with the patient, and with one another.

Every person within this circle of care can play a role in managing the patient’s chronic condition(s). If she’s capable of doing so, the patient also can also play a management role. At the same time, as communication is strengthened, workflow and accountability are clear.

In many cases, this type of model can prevent the occurrences that eat up health care resources – like hospital readmissions.

Initiatives exist to encourage close collaboration within patient circles of care. But to start seeing large-scale results, providers need to accelerate the process. Having the right tools can make all of the difference.

New Tools to Improve the System

To claim that government and service providers need to build an entirely new health care system is overstating the case. But the use of technology to implement new models of care will radically transform our existing systems. By streamlining the process of providing care in new environments, this transformation will go a long way toward reversing a potential health care crisis.

Take electronic health records (EMRs). A 2013 PWC study found that EMRs have contributed to time savings of 3.8 hours per physician per week. Within our existing system, this number is very impressive. But just imagine the time that home care practitioners can save when they use this resource effectively. For frontline workers, remote access to patient information means less running around and less miscommunication.

Of course, these systems are not without their drawbacks – incompatibility issues between facilities is one. But they do illustrate the sheer power of technology as a force for quicker and more efficient care.

Let’s return to the goal of achieving better coordination within circles of care – a common sense objective. Patients and their family members often complain about this issue, which can cause hospital readmissions and costly treatment errors, among other serious consequences. During consultations for a 2013 report, geriatric expert Dr. Samir Sinha found that many people are worried about the fact that their providers don’t “talk to each other”.

Still, until recently, care professionals haven’t always known what coordinated care looks like in day-to-day practice.

Now, there are apps that can clarify and streamline the workflows that patient health and wellbeing depend on. In some cases, these apps are looped into larger, more comprehensive care-management systems. They can serve numerous functions to help chronic patients at home, which means that their positive impacts are far reaching.

This is why Aetonix and likeminded organizations focus on creating comprehensive solutions. Consider the benefits of incorporating fall detection into a circle-of-care communication system, or medication reminders and tracking features into a videoconferencing platform for remote care.

Technology that serves functions related to safety, coordination, and the transfer of patient information can achieve a vast scope of goals aimed at strengthening our health care systems. These include enabling proactive disease management, offering more support for home care patients, and improving overall care team coordination and communication.

The Bottom Line

Patient needs are shifting, and health care leaders are recognizing the need for change. Embracing home and community care wholeheartedly will be crucial in the years ahead. And understanding the importance of circles of care and better coordination is just as important.

Technology enables health care leaders and frontline workers to turn plans into action. It does more than provide better, more responsive care and support for chronic patients at home. When paired with the right attitudes, technology can change the entire health care system, offering cost-efficient care for a growing number of patients. When it comes to whether Canada slides into health care crisis or not, strategically-used innovation just might make the difference.

Feature image courtesy of Washington State House Republicans

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