The Rise of Healthtech Amid COVID-19
Ever-growing ER wait times. In-person prescription renewals. Months- and years-long delays for testing and specialist appointments. The list of challenges in the Canadian health-care system is long—but the list of barriers that had traditionally stifled the implementation of new solutions may be even longer.
With the emergence of the COVID-19 crisis, the doors have opened for made-in-Canada health-care technology companies (healthtechs) to accelerate transformation in health care. The pandemic has put pressure on our federal and regional systems to adopt new ways of working, and they’re looking to the tech community to tackle long standing barriers to change.
It’s surreal to think about how drastically the world has changed in such a short amount of time, and Canada’s health-care system is no exception. Our current circumstances have expedited the government’s approach to the adoption of and collaboration on new technologies to provide COVID-related treatments and support better care for Canadians. The federal government is investing more than $240 million to bring health care online and has fast-tracked procurement deals with Canadian healthtech companies. Other Canadian organizations have also stepped up, creating new programs to access funds supporting innovation due to COVID-19. Whether it’s Joule’s COVID-19 innovation grant program, the Creative Destruction Lab’s Recovery program or the Canadian Digital Technology Supercluster’s new $60 million program, it’s clear there’s no shortage of support for innovation. Venture capital activity related to digital health in the first half of 2020 is at an all-time high, and in my view, Canadian firms are breaking through the noise.
“Our current circumstances have expedited the government’s approach to the adoption of and collaboration on new technologies to provide COVID-related treatments and support better care for Canadians.”
We need to keep the momentum going.
For as long as there has been a vibrant Canadian healthtech industry there has been debate about how long it can take for health-care stakeholders (e.g. governments, hospitals and health authorities) to change and innovate. What I once considered an uphill climb has, in a matter of months, become a reality. COVID-19 has broken down the traditional barriers to procurement, compliance and working with less established companies—barriers that have kept the health sector from the kind of collaboration and digital transformation we’ve seen in other sectors (e.g. fintech).
But the question remains: How long will this last? Now that Canadian consumers, health-sector stakeholders and healthtech innovators have seen what the reality of digital health can look like, it’s time to turn short-term change into long-term transformation.
“I can see the ideal future of the state of our health-care system, and it includes changing citizen expectations, increased collaboration, and addressing privacy and cybersecurity concerns.”
People’s eyes have been opened to new possibilities. Since consumers now trust they can collaborate effectively, work efficiently and even visit a doctor virtually, it has changed the perceptions of how our world can operate. And from the provider’s perspective, the shift to online has also fundamentally changed how they bill for services. It’s been a long time coming, but this was the push we needed to enable physicians to provide virtual care and allow for visits across provincial and territorial borders.
I can see the ideal future of the state of our health-care system, and it includes changing citizen expectations, increased collaboration, and addressing privacy and cybersecurity concerns.
1. Understand shifting citizen expectations
PwC Canada’s 2019 Consumer Insights Survey shows Canadians are willing to engage with health-care providers in non-traditional ways, and the emergence of COVID has further accelerated the adoption of new digital tools. They’re more open to sharing their personal information, and a majority are comfortable with digital access to diagnostic tests and virtual doctor visits.
During the pandemic, this has expanded to include visits between families and residents in long-term care facilities, virtual rounding in areas with outbreaks, post-operative check-ins with specialists – the list goes on.
“Now that services can be delivered remotely, the Canadian health consumer is viewing their own health care and the way they receive it in a very different way.”
Canada’s health-care system wasn’t necessarily designed to be flexible to changing user preferences, and as Canadian industries evolve alongside digital innovation, health care has been lagging behind. But now that services can be delivered remotely, the Canadian health consumer is viewing their own health care and the way they receive it in a very different way.
2. Seek out and engage with stakeholders
Governments and the tech sector (e.g. healthtech, digital and precision medicine, device manufacturers) need to engage and collaborate differently. But in my experience, this hasn’t always been an easy sell. When running a healthtech business in Canada, it has historically been a high-risk strategy to convince your team, board and investors to make the government your primary market. Procurement and adoption issues often forced organizations to pivot away from the public sector to other regions and areas like employee benefits, private insurance or direct-to-consumer.
“When there’s a compelling need for the public and private sectors to align and work together, the benefits and impacts to our health-care system are profound.”
Several months into this global pandemic, everything has changed. Our tech sector has the ability to deliver, so now it’s about bringing the two ecosystems together. What we’re seeing today is that when there’s a compelling need for the public and private sectors to align and work together, the benefits and impacts to our health-care system are profound.
3. Securing a new normal
Since March 2020, certain procurement hurdles have toppled. Health authorities are interested in adopting new technologies and the federal government is starting to make bold investments in companies like AbCellera who are working on potential treatments. But once things have stabilized in the near future, will we go back to how things were? Or has innovation become the new reality? Once this phase of the pandemic passes and the financial impacts of massive public spending are felt, will governments still be eager to support innovation?
“Once this phase of the pandemic passes and the financial impacts of massive public spending are felt, will governments still be eager to support innovation?”
My view is that innovation will continue. Consumer familiarity and trust in new health technology and improvement in care delivery combined with operational efficiencies and cost savings will empower stakeholders to move forward. As we begin reopening the economy, Canada has the opportunity and public support for transformative change.
4. Address privacy and security challenges
Regulations around data sharing and privacy are a key challenge. Health-care organizations need to make sure proper security, data privacy and cybersecurity policies are in place, so patients feel safe and existing privacy regulations are adhered to. As security, privacy, reliability and data ethics become increasingly intertwined, leading organizations are integrating their strategies so they can meet evolving consumer demands.
We need to have a more productive discussion about our current privacy and consent management policies and how they can better support providing modern, cloud-based health services that could better serve communities.
How can healthtechs and governments continue to work together to build a health-care model with the patient at the centre of care? The barriers are now surmountable and digital solutions welcomed as we look to increase capacity in a stressed system. The agility of private sector organizations will help us quickly reimagine the health-care model in Canada and improve care and access for all Canadians.
“Accelerating transformation in the Canadian health-care system is possible. It’s happening now—and we need to keep our foot on the gas.”
If we want to keep health-care innovation in Canada and deliver on its potential, healthtechs need to seize the opportunity this pandemic has brought with it. Accelerating transformation in the Canadian health-care system is possible. It’s happening now—and we need to keep our foot on the gas.