Canadians ready for health care to modernize, CMA poll suggests

People are interested in connecting to health-care providers virtually, a new report from the Canadian Medical Association says, but they're also concerned about a potential loss of human touch.

Report on the future of connected health care suggests medicine needs an upgrade

Registered nurse Diane Whalen demonstrates a virtual critical care consult between intensive care and the emergency room at Health Sciences North in Sudbury, Ont. (HSN)

Many Canadians want to connect virtually with their doctor in an Amazon-like experience, but the country's health-care system first needs to modernize, according to a new report.

The Canadian Medical Association released a report Thursday — titled The Future of Connected Health Care — with a focus on how people feel about health-care technology, such as virtual visits and robot-assisted surgery.

It was based on an online poll conducted by Ipsos of 2,005 Canadian respondents aged 18 and older between June 26 and July 2.

According to CMA president Dr. Gigi Osler, the health-care system still relies on pagers and fax machines and needs an upgrade to reflect how much of our lives connect through technology; she pointed to the widespread use of smartphones apps for banking, social media and online shopping.

"It is time for the health-care system to modernize," Osler said. "Doctors are ready for it. Patients are ready."

The poll results found that more than two-thirds of respondents (68 per cent) agreed that technology helps their "physician keep me informed and up-to-date." And 63 per cent further agreed technology "is improving my health-care experience."

Anticipation of more improvements shouldn't come as a surprise, according to the CMA report's authors, given the rapid growth of new technologies across so many aspects of our lives in the last 15 years.

But despite overall optimism, respondents also expressed some concerns.

While 73 per cent of respondents agreed virtual care will improve access to health care, like family physicians and specialists, about 77 per cent of people said "human connection and compassion are lost with virtual platforms."

Half of those surveyed said virtual care is a step in the right direction. But nearly three-quarters (71 per cent) feared it would put their personal privacy at risk or open the door to private health care.

Promise of benefits

The report also comes as Amazon's Alexa becomes more integrated in Alberta's public health-care system, as private-sector services, such as Telus's digital platforms, connect within hospitals, and as more online medical consultations launch for patients, noted Aude Motulsky, who studies electronic medical records and tools for patient care at the University of Montreal's Hospital Research Centre.

Motulsky, who wasn't involved in CMA's report, said she's not surprised respondents were concerned about who will have access to their health data and what they'll do with it.

"Canada has a lot of work to do to increase the public trust and make sure promises of benefits are not counterbalanced by risks," she said in an email.

Research shows anonymized data isn't enough, Motulsky said, as it can be de-anonymized with just three pieces of information. Other researchers have found that some prescription-drug tracking Android apps also routinely share data with Google, Amazon and Facebook.

"Safeguards have to be put in place for citizens to be protected," Motulsky said. "This starts by being informed and involved in the decision about who uses your data, and which data they use, and the right to be disconnected and even forgotten."

Privacy paramount

Motulsky pointed to the recent data breaches at Desjardins Group and Capital One affecting millions of Canadians to illustrate why security and confidentiality are key. That's particularly true for sensitive health-care data, she said.

But according to Osler, the CMA will speak out and push for such safeguards. "For doctors, protecting the privacy of our patient information is always a priority," she said.

Many doctors already have basic electronic medical records in their office, Osler said, while hospitals often have systems that can't talk to each other, never mind incorporate heart-related data from a FitBit or Apple Watch.

A tablet is placed into a sterile bag before liver surgery at a hospital in Hamburg, Germany. A new report from the Canadian Medical Association says the country's health-care system needs to modernize to keep pace with technology. (Fabian Bimmer/Reuters)

If the health-care system doesn't modernize, she said it will continue to fall behind.

Currently, about one per cent of Canadians report using virtual care or online patient portals with all their health information. And about five million Canadian don't have access to a regular doctor. 

One limitation of the report is that a proportion of the Canadian population, particularly in rural and remote areas, likely were not included in the survey and have no access to the internet or low e-literacy, Motulsky said.

The CMA also advocates for investments in high-speed internet to allow all patients to access virtual care, Osler said.