CAN Health Network and MEDTEQ aim to drive healthcare innovation
April 30, 2021
Knowing which door to knock on and who to call has always been a challenge for health technology companies, but that’s changing as more healthcare organizations are laying out the welcome mat for Canadian startups. Much of the credit goes to organizations like the CAN Health Network and Montreal-based MEDTEQ.
Billing itself as a demand integrated marketplace, the CAN Health Network is a national partnership of hospitals, health authorities and private healthcare organizations. CAN Health West includes Vancouver Coastal Health, Alberta Health Services, the Saskatchewan Health Authority and Shared Health Manitoba, while CAN Health Ontario South includes hospitals in the Greater Toronto Area, Hamilton, Kitchener and Ottawa, along with private healthcare organizations SE Health and the Prism Eye Institute.
An Atlantic network is in the process of being launched with five healthcare organizations, and plans for networks in Quebec, Northern Ontario and the Territories are in the works.
MEDTEQ has been around for close to a decade and operates on a different model, but has a network of clinical sites in Quebec along with Alberta Health Services, Vancouver General and Ottawa Hospital. MEDTEQ links healthcare organizations and health technology companies through its Beachhead program to accelerate the adoption of new technologies. It also boasts Beachhead sites in France, Germany, Israel and the U.S. to facilitate export sales.
The 16 healthcare organizations, or Edges, currently encompassing the CAN Health Network have more than $30 billion of buying power, according to Dr. Dante Morra, chief of staff at Trillium Health Partners and chair of the CAN Health Network.
“The Edges tell the marketplace what they want to buy,” he explained. “That’s very valuable to Canadian companies because they’re not guessing what to sell. They take Canadian companies and attach them to the organization to solve a problem.
“For example, Trillium Health Partners may have an agency and overtime scheduling issue for nurses and can’t find a solution elsewhere in the marketplace, so it takes a company and attaches it to that problem in a warm environment. It also cheers for that company because every month all the Edges are talking about the companies they’re working with.”
When a solution is developed and procured, all of the other Edges can also elect to procure it.
Seven of the nine projects completed to date have resulted in sales. Some have resulted in sales to multiple Edges, and one engagement by EZ Referral, an Edmonton-based company, facilitated a significant export sale.
The CAN Health Network has worked with 17 health technology companies to date. “Some of them knock on our door,” said Dr. Morra. “If they’re not quite ready and need early stage assistance, we send them to an accelerator. Some of them come to us from one of the Edges. Others come to us through MaRS, Communitech, Ottawa Invests or ICUBE. In some cases, we’ll issue an RFI. We’ll go to the market and look for companies to solve a specific problem.”
EZ Referral was the brainchild of Dr. Denis Vincent, a family doctor in Edmonton, who developed an online referral system that does away with fax machines.
“Dr. Vincent’s nightmare happened six years ago when a patient’s referral from an Emergency Room doctor to a surgeon was lost,” said EZ Referral president Peter Jurisic. The patient, complaining of stomach pain, had an ultrasound that revealed a mass on her gall bladder, but the surgeon that the fax was sent to was on a four-month sabbatical. “Because of the missed fax,” said Jurisic, “this 33-year-old mother of three died from cancer.”
The EZ Referral solution, designed for use “by psychiatrists, oral surgeons and other specialists, loops in the patient between the sending and receiving offices. When a referral is sent, all three parties know. When an appointment is booked, everyone knows. When a patient confirms, everyone knows. There is no more miscommunication and no more lost referrals,” said Jurisic.
EZ Referral had numerous customers prior to partnering with the CAN Health Network, but its project with the Prism Eye Institute in the Greater Toronto Area helped it expand and customize its offering for eye clinics and eventually secure a sale to a California-based clinic with 12 locations.
“If you’re a Canadian company and you’re knocking on doors in Texas or California, the first question they’ll ask is, ‘Who are your customers in Canada?’ If you can say your customers include the University Health Network, Alberta Health Services and Vancouver Coastal, that’s a huge advantage,” said Dr. Morra.
Furthermore, “the Edges are cheering for these companies, so they will often call their friends in the U.S. or elsewhere and say, ‘This is a great company.’ That’s what the network does.”
Verto Health is another health technology company that has benefitted from its association with the CAN Health Network. Established in 2017, Verto Health bills itself as a leader in connection and communication software for interoperability and care coordination. The company started with four deployments in 2017 and now has 60 customers.
It employs Digital Twin Technology to quickly and cost-effectively bring together multiple health system data sources to support a patient’s journey beyond the brick-and-mortar confines of a single organization.
“Transitions in care are actually the highest risk points throughout any care journey,” said Verto Health CEO Michael Millar. “With our technology, the data always flows with the patient.
“Digital Twin Technology is a methodology where you can amass all the data into one central entity or one central data store and deploy smart clinical decision support or AI to process it so it’s meaningful for a clinician.”
Verto Health joined the CAN Health Network in September 2020 and was working on a project related to its core technology when it recognized the need for a solution to manage appointment booking for COVID-19 assessment centres.
First adopted by Unity Health in Toronto, the system developed by Verto Health allows patients to book an appointment and conduct a self-assessment online. Patients receive appointment booking confirmations and reminders via email or text message, while hospitals have access to a dashboard allowing them to track patient flow and resource allocation.
A further challenge arose when vaccinations began arriving and hospitals, public health units and other healthcare organizations braced for yet another appointment booking challenge.
Once again Verto Health stepped in with a solution. Unity Health went digital from the start. Other hospitals, including London Health Sciences, weren’t as fortunate, thinking they could make appointment bookings on the phone.
London Health Sciences organized a call centre with six staff, but “very soon after opening, we realized that six was not nearly enough because we were inundated with calls,” said clinical strategist Jeanette Fidler. “We then went to 20 staff manning the phone lines, grabbing people from wherever we could, but wait times still averaged 45 minutes so we determined this was not going to be manageable.”
With the switch to Verto Health’s self-scheduling system, London Health Sciences was able to make do with four staff in its call centre.
The vaccine administration process is complicated by the unpredictability of the supply chain, explained Millar.
“You’ll have days when you’ll have 200 doses more than you thought. Then the harder circumstance is that maybe you’ll have fewer doses than you thought, so now you have to take people that you were promising to vaccinate and shift them to another day. Compound that with the fact that once they come in, you book them for their second dose. Well, at the beginning of the pandemic, it was an interval of two weeks for the second dose. Then it was 21 days, then 35, and now it’s 112.
“We just ran a script last night that rebooked 12,000 appointments. Rebooking 12,000 appointments would have taken 125 clerical days for this one organization to reschedule. It’s really rewarding to solve problems like this because they create a real strain for providers, and when you strain providers, it ends up impacting patients as well.
“When we run a migration script to reschedule all 35-day appointments to 112 days, we feel joy because we know that’s a clinical worker focusing on vaccination optimization rather than phoning people for four days.”
According to Millar, 40 sites are using Verto Health’s COVID-19 assessment and vaccination booking solutions.
The CAN Health Network helped to spread the word about Verto Health’s capabilities because participating healthcare organizations “talk to each other and collaborate, so when they have a problem and someone has a solution, they’re not shy about sharing it with everyone else.”
Funded by both the Quebec and the federal governments, MEDTEQ is an innovation ecosystem with more than 200 members, including startups, SMEs, large multinationals, universities, research centres and hospitals. Though heavily Quebec-centric, it boasts a handful of large teaching hospitals and health authorities across the country among its members and has plans for further expansion across Canada.
While its Beachhead program links startups and SMEs with health organizations, it offers a broad range of additional services to assist health technology companies scale up through grants, investments, prototype development and business coaching.
“Our Toolkit is designed to help support companies through the various stages of development from idea to international markets,” said MEDTEQ CEO Diane Côté.
To date, she noted, MEDTEQ has made 16 or 17 investments totaling $6.5 million. That, in turn, has leveraged a further $75 million in investments from other sources.
Ideas for innovative health technologies come from health technology companies, as well as from clinical members, noted François Bergeron, MEDTEQ’s Vice President of Partnerships.
“We like when the ideas come from clinical sites, because it means there’s an identified clinical need that is not being met. That allows us to help the clinical site find an industrial partner to work with. Very often, it also happens the other way when industry comes to us with a prototype or an idea.”
In other cases, a big company will look for a very specific area of expertise from a startup or SME.
“We excel in facilitating introductions,” said Côté. “If a company comes to us with this really great technology, but needs a partner to make something happen because they don’t have the skillset internally, we can introduce them to lead scientific players, lead clinical players, or even industrial partners.
“Alternatively, they may come to us and say ‘I want to work with this multinational company.’ Well, what door do they knock on? Who is the right person to talk to? It’s the same for an SME that wants to work with a hospital or with clinicians who can help them.”
MEDTEQ prides itself on growing champions like Imagia and Aifred Health, two Montreal companies specializing in artificial intelligence.
Imagia, founded in 2015 by Alexandre Le Bouthillier and Nicolas Chapdos, has developed an AI collaboration platform designed to accelerate diagnosis and treatment selection for cancer and Alzheimer’s patients. The company has raised more than $46 million in financing to date and has projects with clinical sites across North America.
Aifred Health, another Montreal-based champion nurtured by MEDTEQ, received $4 million in seed financing in December to fund a clinical trial designed to test the safety and effectiveness of its AI technology for recommending personalized therapeutic treatment for patients suffering from clinical depression.
The technology analyzes patient responses from periodic questionnaires asking them to describe their feelings and provides a snapshot of a patient’s mental health over time. The solution is currently being piloted without the AI component at the Douglas Mental Health University Institute, the Jewish General Hospital and the Centre intégré de santé et des service sociaux de l’Outaouais in Gatineau.
Founded by four McGill University graduates, Aifred Health is a top three finalist in the global IBM Watson XPRIZE competition.
The CAN Health Network and MEDTEQ models may overlap to some degree, but are essentially different. The CAN Health Network, according to Dr. Morra, operates on the demand side as an integrated marketplace, while MEDTEQ functions primarily on the supply side and describes itself as an accelerator.
“I don’t think we’re in competition,” said Dr. Morra. “It’s a big ecosystem. There are multiple ways health technology companies can accelerate. Healthcare is 12 percent of GDP, so there’s a lot of space for a lot of people.”
Everyone wins, regardless of the model. “The healthcare system gets better because they have Canadian companies working on real problems,” added Dr. Morra. “The companies win because they get access to healthcare organizations, and Canada wins because of the jobs that are created.”