Getting eHealth back on track

The continuing expense scandal at eHealth Ontario, and the McGuinty government’s seemingly laissez-faire supervision of the agency, has cast concerns on not only the competency of the government but also on the status of Ontario’s electronic health records system.
It should be said at the outset that no government agency should be given carte blanche in their operations, regardless of the importance of the final product. The gross mismanagement and disregard of precious health care dollars, the backhanded deals between friends, and the continued bungling of launching a provincial electronic health records system is unacceptable.
But where do we go from here, and how do we get the development of an electronic health records system back on track?
For starters, there is no question that eHealth Ontario must shed itself of the corporate culture of entitlement that has left Ontarians appalled. These are the same Ontarians who have patiently waited a very long time for an electronic health records system to roll out across the province.
In the health care sector itself, you would be hard-pressed to find anyone who would deny the importance of electronic health records. Thus, it is essential that this scandal does not leave Ontario even further behind in achieving a system of electronic health records.
Sure, heads must roll as a result of the current scandal, including the one of the minister in charge. But it’s also wise and prudent to take a moment and think about where we ought to be headed.
Electronic health record systems have the potential to save our health-care system millions of dollars each year. They also can lead to fewer health care errors, ensure greater co-ordination, and provide for better care and health outcomes for Ontario patients.
Yet, in spite of these benefits, Ontario sadly is lagging behind other jurisdictions.
We are standing on the sidelines while a place like Denmark, with about half of Ontario’s population, demonstrates an advanced and comprehensive electronic health system. The level of integration and the close to 100 percent compliance that has been achieved in Denmark is something we should set our sights on.
But before we think that the only leading example of this kind of system is located in a far-off country, let’s take a look at an Ontario-grown model.
The Group Health Centre, located in Sault Ste. Marie, has been described by Roy Romanow as “the jewel in the crown of medicare.” The centre is a model of inter-disciplinary, comprehensive care–all supported by an electronic health records system that’s been successfully functioning for more than a decade.
This system allows the centre’s health care team, as well as hospitals and pharmacies in the broader community, to have instantaneous access to patient records and manage chronic conditions in ways that the rest of Ontario’s health care providers can only dream of.
This system was not the product of high-priced consultants. Rather, it was developed internally, growing out of an already-established model of co-ordinated and patient-centered care.
Given what we know and what we’ve seen, the Ontario government would be wise to take a moment to reconsider eHealth Ontario’s present path. The agency’s penchant for the glamour of high-priced consulting is not only unnecessary, but also ill-advised.
Bringing the development of an electronic health records system back into the public sector, alongside proper accountability mechanisms, should lead to far greater results than we have seen over the past seven years–during which hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars have been largely squandered.
There’s no question that building an electronic health records system will require significant investment. But New Democrats want it to be investment that’s based on the needs of patients and the ultimate goal of building a co-ordinated, inter-disciplinary health care system.
What is at stake here is not just the completion of a complex information technology puzzle, but also the provision of world-class health care to all Ontarians.
Even before this scandal, New Democrats had expressed concern that eHealth Ontario was not focused on implementing a system that priorizes co-ordination over all else. Health care professionals have raised red flags about the absence of proper plans to have existing systems communicate seamlessly with each other.
For example, doctors’ offices may have some level of electronic records but rarely are able to share these records with external partners such as hospitals. This greatly undermines the effectiveness of any electronic health records system.
Ontarians need and deserve a system that works. With a total investment that is now fast-approaching $1 billion, we should have it. But sadly we don’t.
The eHealth Ontario scandal is a serious setback, but it shouldn’t derail the objective of delivering a sound, fully-functioning electronic health records system–sooner rather than later.

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