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e-Health 2014: Why a Healthy Dose of Innovation is Recommended

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This year marks my 15th year at e-Health Canada’s national health IT conference. Steve Huesing and the others who started it originally established this conference as a creative forum to share experiences in applying computers in healthcare – successes and failures. Yet I cannot help but notice that over the years the event has lost its original focus on experimentation and evidence of innovation.

This year saw two major additions to the conference agenda:  First, e-Health organizers joined forces with Hacking Health to run an amazingly successful hackathon.  Second, converging the Canadian Health Informatics Awards (CHIA) Gala with the conference enabled industry participants to more efficiently come together to recognize success and vision in a single event.

The hackathon, a de rigueur activity in healthcare IT circles these days, brought together over 200 participants and resulted in some amazing examples of how technology can rapidly be brought to bear to improve the health of Canadians, and everyone around the globe.

The CHIA Gala awarded individuals, projects, teams, and companies for excellence in leadership, telehealth, health informatics, implementation, patient care, and more.  In my opinion, however, the Gala offered little if any recognition of the transformational types of advances exhibited in the hackathon. While it is important to recognize the successes accomplishing things that, with all candor, were cutting edge years and in some cases decades ago, recognizing the same level of creative thinking that these hackathons exemplify will help to move the needle in a positive way.  I wonder though if this is possible in a Canadian context?

The health industry faces intense pressure when it comes to risk mitigation. Let’s face it, a mistake in our industry costs lives so it’s no wonder we tend to be risk-averse.  This is further compressed when the front-line care givers are (for obvious reasons) forced to focus on ‘evidence-based best practice’.  Finally, how can one fail when they are under the constant scrutiny of ‘the opposition party,’ and at the threat of another election with a lay public?

So how are we to innovate in such an environment?  How are we to applaud the successes and, perhaps more importantly, learn from the failures when we’re not allowed to do anything new?

It would be refreshing to hear researchers and creative thinkers present something they tried that didn’t work. Or something they are trying that is not yet known to be a success. This is where I believe a national conference for an entire industry stands to deliver the most value.  I’d be far more inclined to bring a bigger team of people to the event if they could learn from the successes and failures of entirely novel things. To me, this would help spark healthcare innovation.

I would welcome an effort by our industry to create an innovation framework that serves as a ‘safe zone’ for innovation.  For example, allow for the allocation of a portion of budgets for pure innovation; require the innovation to be governed under an institutional review board (IRB) to ensure patient safety is considered; and proactively market the work as ‘experimental’ to avoid political condemnation.  If we create the environment, I’m confident that we as Canadians can demonstrate our capacity to be leaders in healthcare on a global scale.  And our national conference would be the perfect place to highlight this work, to elevate the dialogue.

What are your ideas on how we can foster an environment of risk-taking in a risk-averse industry?