Many health-care providers now use electronic records instead of the paper files being handled by this nurse, but most are not available to patients. ((Canadian Press))

An electronic health service is being developed by Telus and Microsoft that would allow individual Canadians to access and manage copies of their lab results, X-rays and other medical information online and share it with different health care providers, the two companies announced Wednesday.

They are hoping that Canadian governments, regional health networks, hospitals and health insurance companies will pay for the technology in order to give patients control of their health records, said François Côté, president of Telus Health Solutions, a subsidiary of the telecommunications company.

'There was a lot of [electronically available medical] information, but the consumer was basically kept out of it.' — François Côté, Telus Health Solutions

"There's a clear demand, there's a huge appetite for the governments to now ask citizens to take ownership of their own health," he said Wednesday. "And I think that's going to be the major thrust to transform the health-care system that we have."

Côté was speaking to CBC News about an announcement Wednesday by Burnaby, B.C.-based Telus Corp. that it has licensed a platform developed by Microsoft Corp. called HealthVault, which has been available in the U.S. since 2007.

Benefits of electronic health records

Studies by Canada Health Infoway suggest the move towards digital X-rays could improve the productivity of radiology specialists by 25 to 35 per cent. Already, 80 per cent of X-rays in Canada are digitized.

Digital X-rays also mean that radiologists are now able to help  patients in remote areas, which cuts down on expensive delays and injuries from moving patients.

Similarly, a study in British Columbia, where all prescriptions dispensed are entered into a provincewide network linking pharmacies, found 29,000 potential contraindications in prescriptions were flagged by the system.

A 2004 study published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal estimated there are 9,000 to 24,000 deaths each year in Canada because of adverse events, including wrong medications or doses.

Telus will develop a system over the next year to import health data from partners such as doctors' offices, hospitals and pharmacies into an online platform called Telus Health Space, Côté said. There, patients will be able to use online tools to manage the data, which will be stored by Telus in Canada. Patients will also be able to make the information available to health providers of their choice.

The platform is similar to Google Health, which is available free in the U.S. to both patients and partners such as hospitals and pharmacies, which allows patients to import their records into the system.

Many companies, including Telus Health Solutions, already provide electronic record management tools for doctors, hospitals, pharmacies and insurance companies.

"I would say that this is almost the last mile," Côté said. "There was a lot of [electronically available medical] information, but the consumer was basically kept out of it."

Will work with competitors to make data available: Telus

Under the proposed Telus system, if patients consent, they could have information from electronic systems belonging to their health-care providers imported into their personal health space.

For providers that already use Telus systems, that would be simple, but Côté said the company will work with competitors and other government systems to make all their data available also.

He said that will benefit not just patients, but health-care providers.

"It will be a way to exchange information with your doctors without each hospital having to design a communication system to put in place with their own constituents," Cote said.

He said 33 per cent of the population has at least one chronic condition, and such chronic conditions consume 80 per cent of health-care spending. The proposed system would allow those conditions to be managed proactively and remotely, he said.

"It's not an expense. It's clearly an investment in wellness and creating a significant cost avoidance."

No deals with provinces yet

Telus does not yet have any deals with provinces, but Côté said a couple of provinces have already requested presentations about Telus Health Space.

Canada Health Infoway, a federally funded non-profit organization that works with all levels of government and health-care providers to expand the use of electronic held records, appears open to the proposal.

"If they can securely — and I do mean in a secure manner, a private manner — connect to the infrastructures that are being built up in the jurisdictions then we've got a very nice fit in terms of making this information available to Canadians as soon as possible," said Richard Alvarez, president and CEO of Canada Health Infoway.

The organization aims to use electronic health records for all Canadians by 2016. It received $500 million in the 2009 federal budget to help reach that goal.

Canada Health Infoway must certify the security and privacy of the platforms, such as the Micosoft/Telus deal or rival IBM/Google Health, before the platforms could hook up with online government services.

"One of conditionalities of them [Google] coming up to Canada was that they would have to have the databases, the storage in Canada," Alvarez said, to avoid provisions of the U.S. Patriot Act — something that isn't a concern with Telus. The act allows the U.S. law enforcement to search electronic records stored in the U.S., including health records.

Canada Health Infoway's remaining condition is to ensure the data is held securely, not sold and not made available to those not authorized to access it, Alvarez added.

Telus has also consulted with Canadian privacy commissioners such as Ann Cavoukian, privacy commissioner of Ontario. As part of her job, she has looked into many health record systems, including Google Health and Sunnybrook My Chart, a web service developed by Toronto's Sunnybrook hospital to help patients manage health information delivered and exchange by different health-care providers within the hospital.

But Cavoukian said she is also interested in such systems as a patient who has had multiple surgeries, has a large number of medical records and has found it a technical challenge to get her records in one place, as they are often provided on a CD or sheets of paper.

Cavoukian said she is particularly impressed with Telus's proposed system not just because of the company's commitment to security, but because the system could make it so much easier to import records into one place.

"That's the beauty of it — it's going to be driven out to you from the health-care system," she said. "It brings us a step closer to having access in some interoperable way to electronic health records."

Telus Health Solutions launched in November 2008, eight months after Telus acquired Emergis Inc., a company that specialized in record-management software for the health-care industry.