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Open Letter to the Ontario Liberal Party: An idea for Ontario to Create Jobs and Lower the Cost of Health Care

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Congratulations to Ontario’s Liberals for winning a majority government! The possibilities for what you can achieve are exciting. Four years can be a short time for policy leaders; you need time to consult meaningfully with all stakeholders, make thoughtful decisions, and give your policies time to take effect. In contrast, four years can be a long time for information technology; it can move at light speed and new disruptive technologies are always emerging. How can your government best leverage existing and emergent information technologies over the next four years? What policies can you implement that will both create jobs and lower the cost of health care? Here is an idea to consider: invest in health IT solutions that help people care for their loved ones and manage their own health and wellness.

Ontario has invested a significant amount on health IT. The vast majority of these investments have understandably focused on enabling healthcare providers to more efficiently coordinate and deliver quality care. Moving forward, there are good reasons to reconsider our priorities for future investments. First, there are over 1 million unpaid caregivers in Ontario struggling to juggle their work and family life. They provide the majority of hands on care, support and care management. They are our invisible partners and their services would cost our system billions to replace. Yet very little of our health IT investments have been directed toward easing their burden. Second, 10% – 15% of people’s health status is attributable to formal health services (New England Journal Of Medicine). Personal behaviors account for 40% of health status and the rest is a combination of genetics and environmental factors. This means that most of our past health IT investments have been directed toward only 10 – 15% of the solution at best.

You plan to give all Ontarians access to the “the Right Health Care, at the Right Time, in the Right Place”. As we move toward a system that views patients as partners, the right health care should be based on each person’s own goals for their health and wellness. Patients need tools to collaborate directly with their healthcare professionals to ensure their goals are captured and cared for. The right time and place for fostering sustainable behavior change is when and where people are making their daily choices: what they eat, what they do, and whether they will adhere to their medication regimes. Yet we rarely invest in IT tools that support and encourage people to live healthier lifestyles. For unpaid caregivers, the right care should include IT tools to help them learn, manage, and share information about their loved one’s health and to become partners with their professional care team. Many innovative Ontario businesses including NexJ Systems have built solutions that deliver encouragement and support when it is most impactful and help people collaborate with their healthcare professionals. Why would we not we invest in such solutions?

You plan to create jobs and “seize opportunities in the changing economy and become more competitive on the global stage.” The global cost of the five leading chronic conditions is expected to total US$47 trillion over the next 20 years. This is a massive global need. Ontario’s governments have invested wisely in research and innovation to address this and other challenges. We now need to harvest these innovations and get them to market. This requires highly qualified professionals who are able to transform Ontario’s research investments into commercial returns. These jobs stay in Ontario because they are connected with our research institutions. And each new high-tech job generates multiple jobs in the broader economy; from lawyers and teachers to waiters and carpenters. Yet many Ontario-based high-tech companies that compete successfully on the global stage have difficulty commercializing on their home field. Why not implement mechanisms that direct this innovation toward our biggest challenges and simultaneously bolster our global competitive advantage?

We applaud your Community Health Links Strategy. It wisely integrates care for the Ontarians who need it most. We encourage you to go further. The next logical step for high-needs patients and their unpaid caregivers is to include them as equal partners by giving them tools to easily learn about their conditions, participate in their care management, and take action to be as well as they can be. NexJ Connected Wellness does this. It is built and trialed in Ontario. Successful commercialization will create more high quality jobs and reduce our cost of health care.

We are now in a new age of connected health that is powered by emerging technologies and the rise of patient-consumers. Public spending should build on our past investments and embrace this future. We suggest directing at least half of every dollar spent on health IT toward solutions that empower patients and unpaid caregivers. This would be a catalyst for reducing health care costs and creating jobs. Empowering patients and unpaid caregivers to be partners with their healthcare professionals is the best way to ensure our healthcare system is responsive, nimble and adaptable. It is a highly appropriate way to guide public investments in health IT. And it is a robust strategy for ensuring Ontarians will directly benefit from today’s technologies as well as those that will inevitably emerge over the next four years.