Home Regular Contributors Elan MacDonald Shared Health Data Creates Healthier Communities — and Economies

Shared Health Data Creates Healthier Communities — and Economies

Elan MacDonald

The way our province handles health information is unique. More than 4.5 million Albertans’ health data — the prescriptions they fill at pharmacies, the laboratory tests they take to assess and diagnose their health, and the types of health services they access — are all linked. I recall working for the Health Minister in the early 2000s, when there were many discussions about opening up access to this data and the impacts it would have on the public industry. It has taken decades for health data to be leveraged the way it is now.

Today, our system allows healthcare professionals to share and access our health information across disciplines to provide better, more accurate care. It also provides population-level health data that enables the province to target, monitor and respond to public health conditions; use predictive analytics to anticipate disease risks and patients’ responses to treatments; and track and research social determinants of health to more adequately target non-medical interventions.

“Historically, companies have been shut out from this data,” Dean Eurich, professor in the University of Alberta’s School of Public Health, tells me. “It has been for the patient, the health-care professional or the researcher alone. But now, there are a number of groups trying to liberate the data to make it more market accessible and business friendly.”

Of course, as health data becomes more open, it also becomes anonymized to ensure it stays private, Dean explains. Over the next five years, open health data will steadily become a reality in Alberta, contributing to healthier communities, customers and employees as well as opportunities for significant economic growth and diversification.

First, health data will be most useful, and accessible, to health-oriented companies. It will help them better develop, test, evaluate and market their products. Whether they’re developing new drugs, medical devices or health tests, companies can use public health data to provide real-world evidence to help improve or bolster their products.

Second, lifestyle companies may begin to benefit from accessing health data. Opportunities to link personal health data recorded at home — on smartwatches or Fitbits — are right around the corner. That would not only help health-care providers gain a more holistic picture of patients’ health and provide more precise care, it may also one day allow third-party businesses to market products and services to the right people based on population-level health data.

Third, these developments promise to attract and retain more top talent in the region.

Companies are already coming to Alberta to research cures and treatments and to run their trials and tests — like the very first clinical trial for a strep A vaccine that just launched at the U of A. With open health data, they’ll also come to find the expertise to analyze it. The U of A ranks third in the world in artificial intelligence and machine learning research over the last 25 years, according to CSRankings.org, and is home to Amii, one of the most elite artificial intelligence and machine learning groups in the world. As health data becomes more liberated, we’ll see companies flock to Alberta, attracting new investment to the region and creating opportunities for current businesses to diversify their offerings. They’ll want to place their products here and get information about how they are being used in real time — and Edmonton will be the perfect place to do that.