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In Toronto, a Transnational Discussion on Data Analytics in Healthcare

December 15, 2014
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At the Third National Summit on Data Analytics for Healthcare, held Dec. 2-3 in Toronto, a range of transnational discussions on healthcare data topics


It was excellent to participate in the Third National Summit on Data Analytics for Healthcare, sponsored by the Strategy Institute, a Toronto-based organization, and held at the International Plaza Hotel in Toronto during the first week of December.

The event was one that brought together leaders in the healthcare analytics and population health spheres from both Canada and the United States, and the environment was a wonderful one for facilitating the rich range of opportunities and challenges facing leaders on both sides of the border, particularly as speakers included not only Canadians, but a large number of Americans.

Trevor Strome, the analytics and process improvement lead in the Emergency Program at the Winnipeg Regional Health Authority, and a leader who speaks regularly at both Canadian and U.S. healthcare conferences, moderated the panel that I participated in on Dec. 3, titled “Open Up Accessibility to Data and Develop Innovative Solutions to Current Healthcare Issues.” My distinguished fellow panelists were Brent Diverty, vice president of programs at the Canadian Institute for Health Information (CIHI; Ottawa), and Stanley Ratajczak, group director of privacy and Security, at Canada Health Infoway (Ottawa).

Strome, Diverty, Ratajczak, and I engaged in a warm and spirited discussion around data privacy issues in the population health management and value-based purchasing realms, in a transnational context.

And a fascinating context it is. To begin with, the organizations that Diverty and Ratajczak helped lead, CIHI and Canada Health Infoway, are institutions that have no precise equivalents in the United States. CIHI combines a variety of functions that in the U.S. are provided by the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ), and by several different, disparate agencies within the Department of Health and Human Services and the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. It gathers and analyzes clinical outcomes, spending, activity, and other healthcare data, and shares all those types of data publicly on its website. It has a power and influence that are notable, and that were reflected in the many questions and queries coming to Diverty from audience members during the Q&A portion of our panel discussion session.

Ratajczak, too, received a number of questions. Canada Health Infoway,  as its website indicates, “collaborates with the provinces and territories to facilitate and invest in a network of electronic health record systems across Canada.” Its work combines some elements of what the Office of the National Coordinator for Health IT (ONC) does in the U.S., promoting the implementation of electronic health records (EHRs), as well as also serving as a data standards clearinghouse.

What was truly interesting was to compare the broad data privacy environments in the U.S. and Canada. As a single-payer system, Canadian healthcare has a completely different landscape around the collection, sharing, and privacy of data. On the one hand, the federal government there has a strong, broad, ongoing mandate to collect, share, and publicize a very broad range of healthcare data of all types, and it does so in a centralized, efficient way, through a small number of federal agencies that are empowered to act very broadly and comprehensively. In that regard, there really is no close equivalent to those agencies in the U.S., as the work they do is here diffused across a variety of agencies, and lacks the centralization of focus and concentrated power that CIHI and Canada Health Infoway enjoy.

Not surprisingly, the data privacy landscapes of the two nations are very different. Canada has a small number of centralized, empowered agencies working with data; in the United States, we have HIPAA- and meaningful use-based data privacy regimens that govern data sharing and management policies and processes.

What particularly distinguishes Canada in all this is that CIHI and Canada Health Infoway can act very quickly and decisively, and with clarity, in ways that are simply not available to their semi-equivalent agencies in the U.S. And that speaks to the centralization of effort and focus in Canada more broadly in both healthcare policy and non-healthcare policy areas, in comparison to the U.S.

Meanwhile, numerous fascinating and stimulating other sessions took place at the Strategy Institute conference as well, and included both Canadians and Americans. Liam Whitty, the CIO of Health PEI, the provincial healthcare authority of Prince Edward Island, offered very practical insights on the topic, “Recruit the Right Team in a Rapidly Evolving Data Analytics and Healthcare Environment”; Sarah Hutchison, CIO of the Ontario Medical Association, spoke on the topic, “Take Advantage of Electronic Medical Records to Improve Quality of Care and Patient Safety”; Bill Bria, M.D., chairman of the board of AMDIS (the Association of Medical Directors of Information Systems), the U.S. national CMIO group, spoke eloquently on the topic, “Redesign Current Practices and Workflow to Optimize Efficiency and Improve Outcomes,” advocating strongly for clinical workflow redesign efforts; and Laura Madsen, enterprise BI & analytics program manager at Children’s Hospitals & Clinics of Minnesota, gave a stimulating presentation titled “Build Staff Buy-in and Develop a Data Analytics Framework that Improves Healthcare Quality.”