The federal government is reversing a 16-year-old Health Canada policy preventing so-called orphan drugs from being used to combat rare illnesses.

Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq says the government will approach the authorization of "orphan drugs" differently than it has in the past.

And it's launching a database called Orphanet to provide information about where patients can find treatments for rare diseases.

Aglukkaq says Canadians dealing with rare diseases often face difficulties in accessing the information and medication they need.

It's estimated that 1.8 million Canadians suffer from one or more of roughly 7,000 unique rare disorders, many of which are genetic.

Under current policy, doctors can apply through a special access program to get drugs that aren't available in Canada to their patients. But the process is very time consuming.

The Canadian Organization for Rare Disorders is welcoming the announcement, predicting that it will lead to new drug research.

Dr. Paul Lasko with the CIHR Institute of Genetics says it will also help families get services from specialized clinics, medical laboratories and through clinical trials.