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How Canadian tech startups are bringing the digital revolution to hospitals

How Canadian tech startups are bringing the digital revolution to hospitals

Posted by PanamericanWorld on November 04, 2015

Cancelling a surgery is stressful, for everyone involved. For patients, it can prolong months of anxiety. For surgeons, it disrupts a highly regimented schedule.

Carmine Simone, chief of surgery at Toronto East General Hospital, had six procedures cancelled over a three-month period in 2013 because the patients had failed to stop taking their medication beforehand. His unit was also fielding waves of calls from discharged patients asking panicky questions after the fact.

Simone found a solution with Seamless MD, a mobile app he and his team prescribed to patients during an 11-month pilot program. Seamless MD guides people through surgery prep and recovery: Before the operation, it provides educational material and videos on patients’ upcoming procedures and sends reminders to stop medication at the right time. After surgery, the app allows patients to track any issues they experience and communicate those electronically to hospital staff. They also get full access to their records. The results of Simone’s test? Zero procedure cancellations and a dramatic reduction in the number of distressed patient calls.

“Seamless allows patients to access reliable information when they want, tailored to their specific needs,” Simone says. “It makes an already stressful situation more bearable for patients.”

Seamless MD is a Toronto-based startup co-founded by three recent university graduates. It’s part of a wave of Canadian companies aiming to transform health care and bring the country’s hospitals into the digital age—a massive opportunity to modernize the country’s aging health-care system, and to meet the expectations of a clientele increasingly used to managing every aspect of their lives through a screen.

Canada is home to between 800 and 1,000 health-related technology startups, with nearly half of those in Ontario, according to an estimate from business accelerator MaRS.

Some startups—such as Toronto-based Shift Health and its tablet-based multi-language admission forms—are aiming to improve hospital workflow through software. Others, such as Limestone Labs in Kingston, Ont., and its ultraviolet sterilization systems for tablets, create practical hardware. Either way, they’re all pushing hospitals to smarten up.

“There’s a lot more urgency for new solutions,” says Joshua Liu, co-founder of Seamless MD and a University of Toronto medical school graduate. His description of how his company is changing surgery prep and recovery might as well apply to what’s happening with Canada’s health-care system in general: “We’re turning it on its head.”

One of the thorniest problems facing hospitals today is patient readmission: patients who are discharged from the hospital only to boomerang back within days or weeks because of complications. In Canada, 8% to 10% of patients are readmitted within 30 days; in the U.S., the rate for Medicare recipients was 18% in 2013, at a total cost of US$26 billion.

In both countries, many readmissions are caused by preventable clerical issues: poor record keeping, lack of patient education or unclear lines of communication—exactly the sorts of problems that startups like Seamless MD are trying to address. Patients are often sent home with instructions printed on paper, which can be lost or misinterpreted. The patient then has little recourse but to contact or visit the hospital again. This isn’t just inconvenient; increasingly, hospitals face fines or funding clawbacks if their readmission rates climb too high.

So it’s no wonder facilities are turning to technological solutions. “It’s driving massive innovation in hospitals to figure out how technology can be leveraged to get more efficient and effective,” says Zayna Khayat, health lead at MaRS. “A smart hospital will allow a shift from episodic care on the doctor’s terms to continuous care, where really the patient is in charge.”

Some institutions are starting from the ground up. The $85-million Upper River Valley Hospital opened in Waterville, N.B., in 2007 as a fully paperless operation. The much bigger Humber River Hospital, opening in north Toronto in October, bills itself as North America’s “first fully digital hospital.” The $1.75-billion, 656-bed facility will have completely digitized and automated health records, video links in rooms, and robots delivering supplies throughout the building.

But most hospitals are retrofitting when and where they can. Mackenzie Health in Richmond Hill, Ont., set up a 34-bed Innovation Unit last year to test novel technologies. The ones that work can be rolled out to the rest of the hospital and may be integrated into a new facility in nearby Vaughan, opening in 2019.

Mackenzie Health started with an upgrade to its wired and wireless networks, done in conjunction with BlackBerry and Cisco Systems. The faster connections allowed for the installation of video communication stations in the rooms. Smart beds, provided by Hill-Rom in Mississauga, Ont., allow nurses to monitor how patients are sleeping. The incremental approach means the hospital can try out technologies and figure out how—or if—they work, without making big upfront expenditures.

“We don’t have to build a new hospital to do this. You really can retrofit legacy hospitals as long as you have infrastructure capable of it,” says Aviv Gladman, Mackenzie’s chief medical information officer. “We’re not rushing to do too many things at once.”

Among the fastest-growing startups servicing both new and older hospitals in their efforts to become smarter is ThoughtWire. The 42-person Toronto-based company, funded by angel investors, makes a platform called Ambiant. It’s a sort of operating system for hospitals, that knits together various systems, from video conferencing to sensors to lighting. Both Humber River and Mackenzie Health have adopted Ambiant as their figurative brains and central nervous systems; new customers in British Columbia and Alberta are also about to come on board, according to ThoughtWire co-founder and chief executive Mike Monteith.

Monteith, an IT strategy veteran, started ThoughtWire in 2009 because he saw hospitals adopting new technologies. They weren’t, however, thinking much about how to integrate them with one another, which limited their effectiveness.

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