Healthcare Leader Should Embrace APIs

Originally published in Healthcare Information Management and Communications Canada magazine:

Despite their technical sounding name, Application Programming Interfaces (APIs) are a strategic weapon that can drive innovation, foster interoperability, and unlock the value of existing information systems. Just as leaders in industries as diverse as retail and finance have embraced APIs as a strategic imperative, so too should Healthcare leaders. 

Over the summer I had the perfect opportunity to pitch the benefits of APIs to a hospital leadership team and I blew it! I was interviewing to fill a vacancy on the leadership team and had been asked (as had the other candidates) to prepare a presentation on how the organization could optimize use of their recently deployed hospital information system replacement. APIs were part of my response. 

While many aspects of my presentation elicited nods and smiles, the mere mention of APIs was met with quizzical looks that quickly morphed into the dreaded “eyes glazed over” expression. I knew that I had failed to clearly explain APIs and why they matter when the CEO asked, “So, what exactly is an API?” 

As I am firm believer in the old adage, “if you at first you don’t succeed, try, try again”, I’m taking another run at convincing healthcare leaders to embrace APIs. 

The U.S. Office of the National Coordinator for Health Information Technology (ONC) describes APIs as “messengers or translators that work behind the scenes to help software programs communicate with one another.” APIs “describe a specific set of technical instructions that allow one piece of software to interact with another piece of software.” 

An October 2015 article in Forbes entitled Why Your CEO And Board Should Be Demanding API Adoption, asserts: 

“Given the benefits that companies of all sizes in a diverse collection of industries are getting from APIs, it is clear now that more CEOs and Boards of Directors should be delivering their own version of the Yegge rant.” (Written by Steve Yegge, formerly with Google, the rant includes a leaked communication from Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos in which he demanded that everyone at Amazon implement APIs or be fired). 

In a companion article entitled Don’t Get Ubered: APIs Hold Key To Digital Transformation, author Dan Woods argues: 

“In a larger sense, APIs are the secret sauce to becoming digital, that is, to transforming business so that innovation can happen at a faster pace, so that barriers to change are reduced, so that many more people can contribute to your company’s success, and so that you can create better products and defend yourself from the competition.” 

Robert S. Huckman, faculty chair of the Harvard Business School Health Care Initiative, and Maya Uppaluru, a policy advisor in the Obama administration’s White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, share Dan Wood’s views on the benefits of API. In a December 2015 Harvard Business Review article entitled “The Untapped Potential of Health Care APIs”, they assert: 

“If the health care industry followed suit, the impact on the quality and cost of care, the patient’s experience, and innovation could be enormous.” 

Many industries have embraced APIs. According ProgrammableWeb, Reference, Financial and Social are the leading users. The health sector, unfortunately, does not make the top ten on the ProgrammableWeb list. 

A Commonwealth Fund healthcare policy and practice commentary entitled “Making Health Data Useful to Patients Through Open APIs” puts the current use of APIs by the health into perspective: 

“APIs have the potential to remove many barriers to the sharing of health information between providers, patients, and others but they are fairly new to health care.” 

The ONC has recognized the transformative potential of APIs and views them as the means to overcome the interoperability challenge that has plagued the health sector. Certification criteria for electronic health record systems include reference to APIs. Since the majority of hospital information systems used in Canadian hospitals are from U.S. vendors, these hospitals can potentially leverage these same APIs. 

The Ontario Hospital Information System (HIS) Renewal Secretariat shares the ONC’s views on the transformative potential of APIs and has included API support as a core requirement that must be incorporated into Master Service Agreements and RFPs. Specifically, with respect to Data Access and Portability, the HIS Renewal Provincial Framework (draft) specifies that an HIS must “support access to the hospitals’ data by other health care solutions including through the use of published APIs.” 

The Harvard Business Review article that I referenced earlier describes the benefits of APIs for patients, healthcare providers, and researchers. With respect to optimizing use of hospital information systems (the topic I was asked to address in my interview), the article explains: 

For providers, who often report difficulty with using EHR technology, APIs represent an opportunity for internal innovation. Open APIs can allow provider systems to build their own custom user interfaces in-house or shop around for a better solution than the interface that comes standard with their EHR system. EHRs could eventually become a platform on top of which other companies could build more tailored applications and improve usability for clinicians. 

What are your thoughts on the strategic importance of APIs? Are they strategic a strategic imperative that healthcare leaders, including CEOs, should embrace? 

Mike

 

Guest Blog: The hidden cost of healthcare IT

Fellow blogger Tim Wilson recently mused about the true cost of deploying new health information systems.   I asked Tim if I could share these musings with my readers on the eHealthMusings blog.  He graciously agreed.
——-

When analysts assess the material benefits associated with digital health, they’re happy to crunch numbers that reveal the overall savings that electronic health information systems (HIS) deliver to the bottom line.

But there’s a hidden cost to HIS that’s often overlooked, and it’s related to security and privacy. Although digital systems can be made more secure than the old lock-and-key filing cabinets, they also add immense risk. We all know why: With a digital system, a breach can result in access to immense volumes of personal healthcare data.

To protect ourselves, we need to increase spending in two key areas: IT security and privacy training. Unfortunately, that’s not happening. Why? Because these added cost aren’t associated with improved system efficiencies and healthcare outcomes.

IT security is understood to be a critical concern in healthcare, but is cybersecurity spending keeping up? Well, no. According to Juniper Research, cross-organizational cybersecurity spend is expected to increase by an average of 9% per annum. Canada’s hospitals aren’t seeing that kind of growth in targeted IT spend for cybersecurity. A typical hospital CIO would no doubt say that—barring a specific initiative or rollout—a 9% budget increase year-over-year is excessive in any one IT area, security included.

And that CIO might have a point, because the big privacy breaches in hospitals often center on human activity, and not a technological failure. A recent study by U.S.-based cybersecurity software company Protenus found that insiders were responsible for 31% of the total number of healthcare breaches, and that almost 30% of privacy violations were repeat offenders.

The followup to that would naturally be to ask what the budgets are for workforce training on privacy. You can be sure of two things: those budgets are very low, and they also aren’t growing at 9% a year.

The answer is to maintain constant investment in both areas, and for the initiatives to be inter-related. But for that to happen there has to be a broad cultural shift that’s reflected in more rigorous legislation. The European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) requires privacy breach notification within 72 hours—far beyond the requirements of Canada’s Personal Information Protection and Electronic Documents Act (PIPEDA).

With a more significant legal deterrent, one could argue that healthcare privacy training with organizations would be more effective, thus reducing the cost burden. As it stands, in Canada the legal repercussions for privacy breaches are minimal. A nurse in Alberta who was recently caught snooping on two individuals—she illegally accessed their health information 138 times over a three year period—was fined $3,000. She kept her job, and was ordered to take some “remedial privacy training.”

Back in May, a nurse at Grace Hospital in Winnipeg accessed emergency room data on hundreds of individuals. The motive, apparently, was “personal curiosity.” The nurse lost her job. End of story.

More recently, in June CarePartners in Ontario was hacked. The criminals claimed they had hundreds of thousands of patient records and related materials dating back to 2010. If CarePartners were to be found guilty of not properly safeguarding the data, as an organization they could be fined up to $500,000 (individuals max out at $100,000).

It’s extremely unlikely that CarePartners will be fined. And maybe that’s okay, because a fine is not necessarily the best approach. Instead, CarePartners could be ordered by the courts to commit to permanent and ongoing investments in improved security and training. (This would be far more rigorous than their current “Privacy Pledge” and the requirement that their workers sign a “Pledge of Confidentiality.”)

The three stories mentioned above have one thing in common: it wasn’t the healthcare organizations’ internal processes that figured out what was going on. In the case of Alberta, the problem was discovered because two patients requested access to their audit logs. At the Grace Hospital in Winnipeg, it was a manager who caught on to the inappropriate behaviour, and reported it. And at CarePartners, it was the criminals themselves who blew the lid on things, even contacting the media.

Which brings us to the necessary conclusion that there are a lot of digital health system breaches that aren’t being found in regular audits. Sadly, this has allowed for the laissez-faire attitude to continue. That serves CIOs, because it means they can keep a hold on their cybersecurity technology and training costs, while also maintaining or increasing investments in priority “high reward” areas that directly relate to improved system efficiencies and patient outcomes.

According to Juniper Research, over 33 billion records will be stolen by cybercriminals in 2023, an increase of 175% over the 12 billion compromised this year. A lot of those 146 billion records will be in healthcare. Among those that will be in Canada, rest assured that many will fly below the radar. The result is that the depth of the problem will be obscured, and the response won’t be as serious as it should be.

Ask yourself: are the training requirements in your organization for security and privacy becoming more rigorous? Is the training an ongoing, and recurrent phenomenon, designed to maintain awareness, or is it a one-off?

My guess is that your healthcare organization’s cybersecurity budget is an annual line item that, as a percentage of overall spend, is well below the steady increases in the overall threat level—unless a specific project is being funded. My guess too is that training is a one-time affair. You’ll see lots of signs reminding people to wash their hands. You won’t see many advisories reminding digital health workers to respect patient privacy.

Around the world, cybersecurity breaches are expected to result in over 146 billion records being stolen by 2023. The number of records breached annually will nearly triple over the next 5 years. And unless someone does something about the poor training and oversight, the situation will only get worse. The Protenus report stated clearly that “health systems accumulate risk that compounds over time if proper reporting and education do not occur.”

This is happening now in Canada’s hospitals and clinics, and without better training and stricter oversight it’s only going to get worse. The solution requires leadership and investment akin to how we approach hospital infection and safety. Imagine having a ward with a notice in a hallway bragging about the numbers of days since the last privacy breach. Imagine if privacy were understood to be part of the “continuum of care”—a reasonable idea, given the psychological and emotional damage that breaches cause patients.

It’s time for an honest discussion about what this kind of commitment will cost. Once that’s understood, it can be baked into budgets, and not treated as ad hoc spending, or addressed in a reactive basis after a crisis. Only that way can we keep Canadians as safe as possible from data breaches.

 

Photo

Tim Wilson is principal of T Wilson Associates. Follow him on Twitter: @TimothyEWilson

Guest Blog: Are we getting value from our healthcare technology?

A recent article by Tim Wilson caught my attention and I asked Tim if I could share it wiht my readers on the eHealthMusings blog.  He graciously agreed.
——-

The Council of Academic Hospitals of Ontario (CAHO) recently launched a new tool to help hospitals pull innovation into Ontario’s healthcare system. The tool is actually a quick reference guide titled “The Art of the Possible,” which exposes 16 myths with regard to public sector procurement in Ontario. The idea is that awareness of these myths will then help bring innovation into the system faster, while also improving patient care and health system efficiency.

It’s a reasonable idea, but it’s also debatable to what extent a 19-page reference guide can function as a strategic tool for improved procurement practices. Instead, it’s more of a handy factsheet. The guide itself, which was developed by a small panel of experts, claims to be of use for hospital executives and for individuals with intermediate to advanced knowledge of procurement. However, I can see how it would also be helpful for vendors who are either new to the market or considering entering into it.

The rationale for the reference guide was a 2016 survey across CAHO’s membership of Ontario’s 23 academic research hospitals, in which 76% of respondents identified “policies, directives and procurement rules as major hurdles to innovation adoption within their organizations.”

That isn’t surprising. What is surprising—to me at least—is that in setting out to expose the myths, CAHO is in effect saying that the barriers to innovation have more to do with a series of misunderstandings, as opposed to real structural problems.

The first myth tackled in the guide, and of course a real bugaboo in the discussion of value and innovation, is the notion that organizations must pick the lowest cost option in order to be consistent with the “value for money” principle in Ontario’s Broader Public Sector Procurement Directive.

The guide points out that value for money is to be assessed alongside accountability, transparency, quality service delivery and process standardization. And value for money itself can include other factors, such as the qualifications and experiences of the supplier.

The second myth is that organizations are stuck with traditional procurement models. In fact, the directive permits a variety of approaches as long as the approach is “fair, open and transparent and in compliance to the organization’s procurement-related trade obligations.” What that means is that negotiated requests for proposals (RFPs)—including with outcomes-based specifications—as well as competitive dialogue, innovation partnership, reverse auctions, and best and final offer, are all allowed.

Another myth is that the directive is inflexible; not true—as long as the procurement process is transparent, there are ways to build in flexibility. And organizations needn’t always go to market, given that non-competitive procurement processes are allowed in specific circumstances. The guide also asserts that the directive isn’t overtly bureaucratic nor is it only a “guideline”—compliance is required by law.

There are plenty of myths around vendor engagement, too. For example, you’re allowed to talk to vendors about unsolicited proposals outside of the procurement process, and RFPs can include opportunities for alternative proposals. Importantly, the guide clarifies that requests for information (RFIs) and requests for expressions of interest (RFEIs) can’t be used to prequalify or shortlist vendors. That said, there is some wriggle room with regard to conflict of interest, which is worth knowing given how small the community is in Canada.

In the sometimes rarefied world of hospital procurement, the guide confirms that advance contract award notice (ACAN) is permitted when no other vendors can provide the good or service, or meet related conditions. And you can still negotiate with vendors if desired, so long as that intent is covered in the RFP. Before the procurement process is initiated there is also plenty of legitimate opportunity for market engagement.

With regard to intellectual property, all IP issues needn’t be resolved to start a pilot, though they should always be taken into consideration. As well, an open process may not be required for a pilot. It could kick in if you then move to actual procurement, but co-development may not always require you to go to market. To help with this, organizations can consider engaging a fairness adviser.

That summation of the 16 myths is a lot to digest, and the guide does an admirable job of setting the record straight. It’s a bit of an overstatement, however, to say that it offers any deep strategic advice. That said, as panel member and procurement expert Sarah Friesen has noted, the guide “will increase confidence in exploring innovation procurement opportunities,” which in itself is a worthwhile goal. To some extent, the guide helps flesh out CAHO’s role as an innovation broker with the office of the chief health innovation Strategist.

Where I see the “The Art of the Possible” having an important—and perhaps unforeseen—role is in the vendor community. Brian Mackie, co-chair of CAHO’s Innovation Broker Task Force and vice-president of finance and chief financial officer at Baycrest Health Sciences, has said that “this work is helping us pull new technologies into our hospitals faster.” If that’s true, then healthcare tech innovators will be thrilled with this shift in focus.

But they may be wary, as well. There’s much in the document that suggests Canada—or in this specific example, Ontario—can move beyond a pre-commercial test-market, with wave after wave of small-scale pilots, and little transformation when it comes to using procurement as a tool of innovation. Still, we remain in a zero-sum environment, in which stakeholders compete for limited budgets, and in which administrators are pressured to satisfy numerous disparate interests.

In these environments, no matter what method or scorecard system you use, there is often a temptation for the final decision-making to default to arbitrary, executive-level preferences for purchases that keep as many people happy while solving as many urgent problems as possible—often in limited timeframes. In these scenarios, the emphasis is on keeping the ship afloat as opposed to embarking on longer voyages that embrace at times nebulous concepts of “innovation” and “value.”

Here is where it might be helpful to have a larger strategic discussion with regard to how to make decision-making objective and autonomous, and what we really mean by “transparency.” We don’t really have full public transparency and accountability on how individual organizations allocate budgets, or to what extent final procurement decisions off of RFPs are autonomous from administrative interference. A strategic approach to dealing with the political reality of budget-conscious decision-making, the real size of opportunistic shadow spending, and the positive role that the vendor community can play, could help bring about the cultural shift needed to get the best technology into our hospitals.

 

Photo

Tim Wilson is principal of T Wilson Associates. Follow him on Twitter: @TimothyEWilson

What Do Patients Want?

Originally published in Health Information Management and Communications Canada magazine

Wednesday night is date night. Every Wednesday after work my wife and I walk to a nearby restaurant and enjoy a tasty meal and a lively chat. While this weekly event is not particularly noteworthy – many couples do the same – our topic of conversation is perhaps less common. Each week, for most of the meal, we explore the question: “What do patients want?” 

About 12 years ago Tracy was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis. Her life was dramatically and forever changed. 

Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is an autoimmune disease. Tracy’s own immune system is attacking her joints, tendons, ligaments, bones, and muscles as though they were intruders. In addition, the medication she is taking to combat her RA leaves her vulnerable to viral and bacterial infections. Not a month goes by that Tracy is not battling a cold or some form of flu-like infection. 

A former technology executive and aspiring writer, Tracy decided a little over a year ago to use her communication skills and marketing experience to “speak for those whose voices are not quite loud enough and to provide perspective to those who want to listen.” 

Tracy’s first initiative is a blog entitled simply “This is my life” in which she offers a chronic disease patient’s perspective on a variety of topics. Not surprisingly, given my social media presence and professional focus on the health sector, I took an interest in Tracy’s work and she, in turn, solicited my input. 

As Tracy’s caregiver I am party to and, in some cases, an active participant in the patient experiences that influence her writing. This shared experience has transformed what started as basic mentoring into an active collaboration to explore and articulate the patient perspective. 

One of the early topics that Tracy and I explored was the patient perspective on digital health. Although she led and eventually sold an early Internet start-up and has edited all my published work, Tracy keeps telling me that she doesn’t understand what the term “digital health” means. 

As a digital health advocate, I was more than a little surprised to hear that Tracy doesn’t get “digital health.” The more I looked at the matter from a patient’s perspective and really thought about the words “digital” and “health”, I realized that her confusion might be warranted. 

In an April 2018 Forbes CommunityVoice™ post, cardiologist and engineer Dr. Joseph Smith succinctly captures my emerging views: 

“Disease processes rely on underlying complex biological, biochemical and neurological constituents that vary with time, temperature and myriad other continuous (read: analog) variables.” 

In other words, health is analog, not digital and the term “digital health” may be an oxymoron. At the very least, the term does not seem to resonate with patients. 

So, what do patients want? 

To prepare for their May 2017 annual gathering, the Council of Accountable Physician Practices (CAPP) sponsored focus groups across the country to compare patient and physician perceptions about what is most valuable in healthcare delivery. 

According to a June 2017 article by Dr. Robert Pearl, author of the bestselling book “Mistreated: Why We Think We’re Getting Good Healthcare—And Why We’re Usually Wrong,” the top three themes for both patients AND physicians cited in the focus groups were: 

1. Doctor-patient relationship 

2. Evidence-based medical treatment 

3. Care coordination 

Dr. Pearl notes that “neither patients nor doctors saw technology, including the electronic health record and online tools for patient engagement, as particularly important.” 

A U.K. National Health System survey of 200 patients in Buckinghamshire offers further insight into the nature of the relationship that patients want with their healthcare providers: 

To be informed clearly about their choices. 

To be listened to. 

To have their questions about their health answered. 

To take an active role in their healthcare decisions. 

To be treated with respect, empathy and compassion. 

If the phrase “digital health” doesn’t resonate with patients and technology is not viewed as particularly important, does technology have a role to play in the health sector? 

A McKinsey & Company report entitled “Healthcare’s digital future” contends that technology does have a role but notes that patients have been slow to adopt digital services because “existing services don’t meet their needs or because they are of poor quality.” 

The report further suggests that too much emphasis is placed on innovation when what patients really want is quite basic: “efficiency, better access to information, integration with other channels, and the availability of a real person if the digital service doesn’t give them what they need.” 

If I have learned nothing else as a caregiver it is that patients want to be heard, that they want people to really listen to what they have to say. They are willing to tell us what they want…we just need to engage them in conversation. 

You can check out my wife Tracy’s blog offering a patient’s perspective at themadnessmaven.ca

Caregiver Musings

I am a caregiver. At least my wife tells me that I am. Until earlier this year I just thought that I was being a good husband, son, and father.

Tracy has a chronic illness. About a year ago she starting writing about the patient viewpoint so that she could, as she puts it, “speak for those whose voices are not quite loud enough” and “provide perspective to those who want to listen.”

It was by looking at my role through Tracy’s eyes – from the patient perspective – that I began to understand that I was a caregiver not only to Tracy but to other family members as well.

Carers Canada, an alliance of diverse partner organizations that work collectively, and autonomously, to identify and respond to the needs of caregivers (whom they refer to as a “carer”), defines a “carer” as:

“A person who takes on an unpaid caring role for someone who needs help because of a physical or cognitive condition, an injury or a chronic life-limiting illness.”

I am, it seems, not alone in my caregiving role. According to a 2012 Statistics Canada study, “28% of people aged 15 and over, had provided help or care to a relative or friend with a chronic health problem.” Their efforts, according to a CARP (Canada’s largest advocacy association for aging Canadians) briefing note on caregiver support, are “conservatively estimated at $25-26 billion annually, taking into consideration the number hours of care provided and market wages.”

First launched in 2008 and updated in 2014 by Carers Canada, the Canadian Carer Strategy identifies five universal priorities based on input from caregivers and caregiver support groups. One of these five priorities is to “enable access to user friendly information and education” which includes caregivers using technology to “support safe, effective care, gain knowledge and communication with others.”

This view on the need for digital health tools targeting caregivers is shared by MaryAnne Sterling, co-founder of Connected Health Resources and recognized speaker and educator on the impact of Alzheimer’s Disease. She believes that caregivers are “the perfect audience to both use and influence the development of health information technology.”

Unfortunately, the currently available tools fall short of meeting caregiver needs. In a white paper entitled What Family Caregivers Need from Health IT and the Healthcare System to be Effective Health Managers, Ms. Sterling claims that “there is a gap in understanding the real time data and information needs of caregivers” and asserts that the healthcare system is not “prepared for and willing to collaborate with them [caregivers] as they support a loved one’s treatment or recovery.”

Based on my experiences to date as a caregiver, I concur with Ms. Sterling’s observations. I would add that the digital health tools for patients are also not nearly as useful as they could be and are rarely integrated into the care process by the various health service providers with whom Tracy and I interact.

In the past six months both Tracy and my Dad have been hospitalized, Tracy for issues unrelated to but exacerbated by her chronic illness and my Dad for a serious but fortunately treatable illness. Not surprisingly, as I accompanied them through their hospital stay, I was constantly on the lookout for opportunities to apply digital health to improve the patient experience. Two observations in particular have stuck with me:

  • Discomfort and pain raises anxiety levels and interferes with a patient’s ability to fully understand what they are being told. I quickly learned to assess by their facial expressions and tone of voice whether Tracy or my Dad fully comprehended what they had been told and to intervene when needed to ensure that questions were fully answered.
  • Waiting is an excruciatingly frustrating experience when you don’t long how long the wait will be. While patients would like whatever they are waiting for to happen as soon as possible (e.g. when will the doctor be available to discuss my test results?), knowing when it will happen helps them manage their expectations and allows them to turn their attention to other matters while they wait.

Despite the large gaps that exist between what Tracy and I need to manage her health and the digital health tools that are currently available, some of the tools that we have tried offer a tantalizing glimpse of what is possible. Patient portals, for example, while falling short in many areas, offer access to test results and consultation notes that Tracy and I use to review what had been discussed during our last encounter and to prepare for our next visit.

As Tracy notes in a July 2017 blog post, caregivers are “the people that stand up for us when we cannot, that hold us when we need holding, that quietly manage their own needs after ours.” We are, in my view, an underutilized resource with too few digital health tools at our disposal. Let’s change that.

You can check out Tracy’s blog at themadenessmaven.ca

 

Chronic Pain Has No Provincial Boundary So Why Do Resources?

When I first moved from the west coast, people on the east coast invariably responded with “why on earth would you leave the ocean and mountains” or “ah, the crunchy granola, laid-back west coasters”.  People from the west coast invariably responded with “why on earth would you leave the ocean and mountains” or “ah, the cold and distant east coasters”.

Leaving the ocean and mountains aside for the moment … because I can always go back and visit … what struck me was the characterization of the people from the different coasts of Canada. I can’t say there isn’t something to the judgmental comments. However, it seems to me such an incomplete and superficial assessment.

Until I went looking for a chronic pain resource …

Whether it’s looking for information, support, how to get involved, or additional resources, what you get depends on where you look, but it shouldn’t depend on where you live. At least, not in Canada.

Take a look at these chronic pain sites: pain.bc and ontariopainfoundation.ca to see what I’m getting at.

When I evaluate a resource, I ask three things. Is it Approachable? Is it Appropriate? Is it Adaptable? What I’m really asking is: Is it Patient-friendly, Useful, and Usable?

Is It Approachable / Patient-friendly?

Let’s be honest, first impressions are important. The home page for pain.bc has a photo of a person and the caption “Changing Pain. Changing Minds.” Right off the bat, I’m engaged.

The ontariopainfoundation.ca home page has its name, a logo I can’t understand, and begins with information about migraine headaches. There is a caption which reads “Helping Canada Conquer Pain” which is good except the font is so small it is completely lost. Right off the bat, I’m wondering if I’m at the right place.

Is It Appropriate / Useful?

The pain.bc site is crisp. It is clear. There is no doubt that there are three options: For those in chronic pain, For healthcare providers, and Get involved. When I select the option for me (For those in chronic pain), the information is appropriate: self-management, support groups, and recommended resources.

As for the ontariopainfoundation.ca site, top level options include: About, Mission, Events, Board of Directors, Advisory Council, and Contact. Scrolling after migraine headaches, there are several small options which may be of interest. However, the information consists of a few short paragraphs including description, onset, and typical treatment options. I already know this about my disease and I still have no information on chronic pain.

Is It Adaptable / Usable?

The pain.bc site looks to be a resource geared equally towards patients, caregivers, and healthcare professionals. The ontariopainfoundation.ca site is both poorly organized and unevenly populated with information.

Overall, from the graphic on the home page, to the ease with which you can find a variety of information, to the completeness of that information, to the language used, one thing is clear: I would recommend only the pain.bc site.

So, it got me thinking: Was there something to the provincial characterization after all?

No question, when I first moved here, I found east coasters cooler, a little distant even. And, no question, west coasters seem a lot more laid-back in comparison. Are the apparent different mindsets responsible for the vastly different characteristics of these sites?

Then I gave my head a shake.

Going down that road wasn’t going to answer my original question, because it’s not about the differences. It’s about the similarities.

We need resources for chronic pain. Do we need a resource for chronic pain in each province? How different is chronic pain in each province?

The question I want people to be asking is: Are the currently available resources receiving funding? Then, I would ask: What is the basis for receiving funding for such a resource?

We should get the best site to use; not just the one that our province provides. Remember, chronic pain doesn’t give a rat’s ass about which province you live in.

So, it doesn’t matter where I used to live or where I live now. One thing is for certain: I’ll use the chronic pain site from the west coast because it’s the best resource. So should you.

Hackathons: More Than a Spectator Event

This article originally appeared in Healthcare Information Management & Communications Canada

In just a few short years the Hacking Health hackathon has become a fixture at the annual Canadian eHealth conference.  While many eHealth attendees find the pitches and solution presentations highly entertaining (particularly with the high-energy Hacking Health co-founder Luc Sirois as the master of ceremonies), these hackathons are more than a spectator event … they are an opportunity for attendees to share their experience and expertise to make a difference.

Hacking Health held its first hackathon five years ago in Montreal.  Since then, Hacking Health has grown to 45 active chapters around the world.  In 2016, these local chapters organized and hosted 161 events including 28 hackathons.

I was initially skeptical of the value of hackathons.  In a December 2013 Technology for Doctors commentary, I noted that “for all the good intentions of those involved, I am not yet sold on the value of hackathons for the Canadian healthcare system, at least as they are currently constituted.”

I was reminded of my initial reticence when I attended the first Ottawa health hackathon in April.   While I must confess that I am not a fan of the over-the-top enthusiasm reminiscent of a multi-level marketing event that seems to be the hallmark of Hacking Health events, I enjoyed the opening night pitches until I noticed the Hacking Health tagline emblazoned on an organizer’s t-shirt:

“Bringing Innovation to Healthcare”

I have an almost allergic reaction whenever the word “innovation” is mentioned.   It has become an over-used word that is quickly losing any sense of real meaning.  As I proclaimed in my “Innovation Rant” at eHealth 2014, I am aghast that a word once reserved to herald inventions such as the personal computer, the cell phone and the Internet has been reduced to a marketing buzzword used to describe products as banal as peanut butter pop-tarts.

Equally troubling, is the “element of hubris to medical hackathons” described by Brian Palmer, Chief Explainer for Slate.  In an April 2014 article entitled “Are Hackathons the Future of Medical Innovation,” Mr. Palmer notes that there are many problems that experts around the world have been trying to solve for years and that there is no shortage of ideas for how best to address them.

If we consider the advances in medical sciences, it is hard not to think of the health sector as innovative. A March 2015 McLean’s article noted that “recent innovations in modern medicine are nothing short of miraculous,” citing kidney transplants performed with minimal surgical invasion via robots and prosthetic eyes that give partial sight to the blind as but two examples.

Yet, the same McLean’s article also observes that “despite advancements in the OR, something as simple as locating the right equipment, or the right doctor, can often leave hospital staff feeling like they’re stuck playing a game of hide-and-seek.”

A similar theme can be found in many of my wife’s blog posts on the patient experience.   Writing about wait times, Tracy (aka The Madness Maven) cites the impact that simple changes can make. For example, a screen that displays a patient’s first name and the number of minutes until they can be seen can have a dramatic impact on the patient experience and, she suspects, the organization’s bottom line.

So, while the Hacking Health vision is certainly ambitious and perhaps even a bit audacious, it makes more sense if innovation is viewed not as an outcome but as a means to an end.

Scott Anthony, author of “The Little Black Book of Innovation”, offers a simple definition of this outcome – “something different that has impact.” These impacts need not be momentous or life changing but, like the screen showing the current wait mentioned in Tracy’s blog post, are felt and appreciated by those to whom they matter.

When viewed from this perspective, the role of Hacking Health in driving change in the health sector is much clearer.  Quite simply, Hacking Health creates opportunities for people who might not otherwise collaborate to tackle healthcare challenges not easily addressed within the walls of any one organization.

The power of the collaborations that Hacking Health seeks to promote is enhanced by the diversity of the participants’ skills and experiences. While media attention of the recent Ottawa hackathon focused on developers, designers, and physicians (and ignored other groups such as patients), the collaborative process that Hacking Health promotes thrives on diversity.

This year Hacking Health is collaborating with the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) and the Mental Health Commission of Canada (MHCC) to tackle workplace mental health and wellbeing at the eHealth 2017 hackathon.

The eHealth hackathon offers a unique opportunity for everyone attending the show to participate in the hackathon process.  I encourage everyone to spend an hour during the conference visiting the various teams as they develop their solutions.

Be more than spectator. Ask the teams what they are trying to achieve.  Offer your feedback.   Share your experiences.  You might just have the insight they need to make a breakthrough.  You might also learn something new that you can apply in your own organization.

You can check out  Tracy’s blog at themadnessmaven.ca