At the heart of the health care system is the patient. One of the fundamental measures of success for that system must lie in how seamlessly and efficiently patients are routed toward the treatment that will make them well. In Canada where we normally pride ourselves on our health care system, this is an area in which we consistently lag behind.

It has become foundational to our idea of Canada that this is a country where everyone is afforded access to equal, effective, and timely health care. While there is always room for improvement, we do quite well at equal and effective. When it comes to timely though, the situation is less rosy. “Canada performs poorly relative to our peer countries with universal health care,” says John Sinclair, President of Novari Health. “We are one of the poorest performing western industrialized countries when it comes to access to care and specifically wait times. Everyone in the system knows this is a challenge and a lot of hard work has gone into trying to improve access for Canadians. The federal and provincial governments have invested billions trying to improve wait times with only limited success.”

A solution already exists

In part, wait times are driven by the limits of our health care resources, but that’s not the end of the story. With the right solutions, we have the power to be using our resources much more efficiently. It’s fundamentally an engineering problem. “One of the missing ingredients has been leveraging Canadian-made innovative technologies designed specifically to address this issue,” says Sinclair. “The technology is not expensive. It’s low-hanging fruit.”

One solution that such technology can provide involves empowering primary care physicians to find the local specialists with the shortest wait times and make digital referrals to them directly, a big improvement over the current system. “Primary care physicians often don’t have real-time information on all of the specialists in the area, and they especially don’t know the respective wait times of those specialists,” says Sinclair. “And when your primary care provider refers you to a specialist, they typically fax the referral. In 2017, how many industries other than health care are still using the fax machine as a backbone technology? The answer is zero.”

Novari Health is a supplier of digital solutions targeted at smoothing the referral and consultation process. “The analogy is air traffic control,” Sinclair explains. “With all these physicians faxing off referrals right now, no one’s really tracking them to see where they’re going, what the wait times are, and who is getting backlogged. It’s like allowing airplanes to take off without knowing if the receiving airport will have anywhere for them to land and no radar along the way to ensure a safe trip.”

“Doctor, the patient is ready to see you now”

These solutions also open up possibilities like remote consultation, allowing patients to attend appointments with their doctors via teleconferencing, and allowing primary care physicians to consult with specialists directly, often negating the need for the patients to visit the specialist themselves. “That represents a huge savings,” says Sinclair. “It’s always less expensive to provide care for patients at the primary care level. With eConsult you can get great care, more consistent care, more timely care, more continuity of care, and more cost-effective care if it is delivered through primary care with the electronic support from secondary care.”

The health care system, like any industry, has a natural resistance to change, but this is one area where a solution exists that can improve outcomes for everyone. “The change is already beginning to happen in pockets across the country,” says Sinclair. “Individuals should be asking whether their health region has wait list management, eVisit, eReferral, and eConsult technologies. And if not — why not?”