Skype a specialist: How tech will change health care

Mark Farrow, chief information officer at Hamilton Health Sciences, recently took home a prestigious award – he was named among the top IT experts in health care by Computerworld magazine. He tells us how tech will shape health care in the future.

A Hamilton expert tells us how technology will shape health care in the near future

How do you bill for a virtual visit? The provincial government recently established a protocol for billing for email consultations and communications between doctor and patient. (iStock)

Mark Farrow remembers a time when a room full of bulky computers powered the IT system for an entire hospital. That one room had the processing power of one iPhone, Farrow said.

That was 1984. The landscape is quite different in 2013 and it makes Farrow wonder.

“If 10,000 employees have iPhones,” said Hamilton Health Science’s chief information officer, “How do I unleash that power?”

When Farrow wonders, people listen. He's on the prestigious list of 100 IT Leader’s list put out by Computerworld.

On a day-to-day basis, Farrow makes patient care and information transfer easier. That includes a portal that allows physicians to have patient information at their fingertips on any device, and can be updated in real time. That portal, Clinical Connect, is now used in LIHNs (Local Health Integration Networks) across southern Ontario.

In Ontario, funding for community health centres, hospitals, mental health centres and other health-related facilities comes through one of the province's 14 Local Health Integration Networks.

“It improves the quality of life for patients, physicians and staff,” he said. “That’s what we should be doing.”

Here are a few ways Farrow suggests technology will impact health care in the next ten years.


Mark Farrow, Hamilton Health Science's CIO, has been working with health care technology since 1984. (Julia Chapman/CBC)

HHS and Farrow has a “BYOD” (Bring Your Own Device) policy for physicians and staff.

“It’s hard to find someone who doesn’t have a smartphone these days,” Farrow said.

With this policy, staff use the device they are comfortable with and are more likely to frequently update charts and keep patient information up to date.

Physicians can also tend to after-hour emergencies using portals on their devices. Farrow recounts a time when one of the hospital’s physicians was still able to make it home to his family on time – hot dinner in hand ­– after dealing with a medication issue on the road. The doctor used his iPad to look up his patient in the online portal and told the nurse over the phone what to do.


“Take two apps and call me in the morning,” Farrow said with a laugh.

But if his predictions are correct, that might be just what the doctor ordered.

Hospital — or health care — controlled smartphone apps are a likely next step in patient-doctor communication.

The apps could be produced in-hospital and downloaded for free from an app store.

“It could involve secure messaging when a patient has an issue,” Farrow said.

There are, he said, various health apps on the market now, even one for diabetics to manage blood work on their devices.

What’s important here is that app use could make health care more about prevention that reaction, Farrow said. Uploading blood work information, for example, into an app that tracks and charts data could allow a doctor to see important trends, and can recommend an adjustment in medication, behavior or exercise based on that up-to-date data.

Skype with a specialist

Aside from apps, patient-to-patient sites and programs that eliminate face-to-face communications are starting to come to the forefront of health care.

“Patients are taking more control over their health,” he said.

Farrow cites Patient Like Me, a site for patients with rare diseases or conditions to connect with each other and discuss symptoms and treatments.

Not only can social media make it easier for patients to discuss what care works best for them, it makes accessing a doctor easier.

“A patient could immediately Skype with a specialist rather than waiting for six months,” he said.

That specialist can use a webcam to see the patient and assess what they’re dealing with in minutes, and establish if he or she can help, Farrow said. If not, the patient can immediately move on to someone who can.

But how do you bill for a virtual visit? The provincial government recently established a protocol for billing for email consultations and communications between doctor and patient.

“Doctors are basically businessmen,” he said.

Farrow’s concern is that legislation may not catch up with the advancements in doctor-patient communication, he said.

Natural Language Processing

A Watson-like machine could become a physician’s new best friend. Farrow said his latest project at HHS is getting a ‘natural language processing’ machine that he hopes will be installed and in use in the new year.

NLP computers can “review and read hundreds of pages of information and unstructured data” in a short period of time, Farrow said.

“If a chart is a hundred or 200 pages, how do you find that one piece of information that is important to the case?” he said.

An NLP computer will save physicians time and uncover “trends that we may not be seeing otherwise,” Farrow said.


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