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OTN launching new service to assist innovators

Ed BrownTORONTO – The Ontario Telemedicine Network will soon roll out a Digital Health Stewardship program that will connect inventive companies with potential health-sector customers. The goal is to inject more innovation into the healthcare system, especially in the area of primary care, where virtual visits and apps are beginning to help both patients and physicians.

“We’re looking to stimulate innovation, but we don’t want to invent it here [at OTN],” said Dr. Ed Brown (pictured), CEO of the Ontario Telemedicine Network, speaking at the ONUP conference on April 4th, an event organized by COACH and HIMSS Ontario.

Instead, OTN is encouraging innovators to get in touch, and to make use of the organization’s resources as a conduit to the marketplace. “If you have a big idea, let us know at bigideas@otn.ca,” said Dr. Brown. “Tell us something we should be doing – we’d love to hear it.”

He said that, “we’ll match you up with people who want your stuff and are happy to pay for it.”

In addition to primary care, the OTN is also targeting seniors care and community care and is looking for innovators. “There’s a frothing market of healthcare solutions out there,” he observed.

Dr. Brown noted the uptake of technology has soared dramatically in recent years, with the smartphone becoming ubiquitous. Displaying a New Yorker cartoon in which a patient is told he can’t list his iPhone as his physician, Dr. Brown observed that the situation has changed: today, you can use your iPhone as your doctor, and many people are.

“It’s no longer a joke, and the cartoon is wrong,” he said. “At Walgreen’s in the United States, they’re charging $49 for an appointment with a doctor on your iPhone,” noting the service is available in 25 states. Other drug chains and hospital networks are offering this kind of virtual visit, too.

The goal, said Dr. Brown, is not to go to the hospital or the doctor’s office. “You want to be at home,” he said. Or somewhere that’s more convenient than a medical office.

The OTN’s Digital Health Stewardship is developing methods of evaluating new technologies and ways of assessing their performance. “We want to make sure there is a business model, so we don’t waste people’s time,” said Dr. Brown. “We’re working on ways of evaluating the solutions.”

In short, he said evidence can be collected to show if patients liked the solution, whether providers were happy to use it, if it achieved the desired medical outcomes, and finally, whether it can be scaled up. If all of these questions are shown to be answered with a thumb’s up, a project can be considered a success.

“We want to be able to decide really fast,” said Dr. Brown.

OTN, he said, is already piloting three technologies in conjunction with industry partners. One of them is a diabetes coaching app that’s being run in partnership with Samsung and WellDoc.

Another app focuses on mental health, and it’s being piloted with Ontario Shores and Lakeridge Health. Dr. Brown did not say who the industry partners were.

Of course, he recognizes the goal is to get projects beyond the pilot stage. “Ontario is the land of pilotitis,” he quipped. On this front, OTN wants to help companies scale up their solutions.

At the same time, he noted there are still barriers in the healthcare sector. First, physicians need to be able to bill for virtual visits. “They’re not covered in the OHIP schedule of fees.”

Secondly, public sector procurement cycles are much too long. “We need new models,” he said.

OTN is one of the biggest telehealth systems in the world, and last year it facilitated over 500,000 specialist consultations. That saved patients a great deal of travel, and saved the provincial government $60 million in travel grants.

The agency itself operates with an annual budget of $22 million. “That makes us a profit centre for the government,” quipped Dr. Brown, noting that OTN saved them about $40 million.

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