TORONTO - Numerous e-health initiatives are working toward putting access to medical records and doctors at the digital fingertips of Canadians. But one of the more recent additions already comes with a track record south of the border.
RelayHealth has been in use in the United States for more than a decade where 17 million patients and 32,000 doctors use the web-based service.
Since it was launched in the late fall by McKesson Canada, RelayHealth is in the process of working with two pilot sites to implement its service, which is aimed at allowing patients and health-care providers to exchange information. The ability to share test results, book appointments, make electronic referrals along with prescription renewal and refill requests are among its touted features.
RelayHealth product marketing manager David Mosher said one of the aims is to provide a consistent view to all health-care providers for a particular patient.
"Patients are frustrated that they'll go to see a provider and they'll have to repeat all their information, or they won't have it all, or even sometimes tests are repeated because the information is not there," he said.
"We're providing a way that everyone can get the same view of the patient. As long as somebody has an Internet browser and Internet connectivity they can access the patient record and they can update it as well."
Telus Health Solutions is spearheading Telus health space which is currently undergoing testing. The Microsoft-powered service will allow patients and authorized care providers to access and share health information online.
The Mihealth app, developed to work on iPhones, BlackBerrys, Google Android and Microsoft phones, lets patients carry a digital version of their health record and communicate digitally with their doctor.
Both have been certified by Canada Health Infoway, an independent non-profit funded by the federal government.
Canada Health Infoway president and CEO Richard Alvarez said they've conducted focus groups and looked internationally at some of the functions and needs of patients. Among the consistent requests are e-consultations, e-scheduling, refilling prescriptions online and lab test results, he noted.
"Clearly, what we're seeing now is a variety of applications — and, in some cases, actual platforms — that allow these applications to work on starting to come up."
Alvarez said they are funding a variety of pilot studies that will be doing e-scheduling and e-consultations.
"We're convinced that's where the puck is going and we would like to certainly see this functionality. These abilities start to come about and then start to flourish because, again, we sense there's a real need for this," he said.
Despite the advancements, Alvarez said there are a number of key issues that need to be addressed, including the security of providing information over the web and who would be footing the bill.
In the case of RelayHealth, Mosher said the U.S. Department of Defense is a large customer of the service and one with very strict privacy requirements. He said the service will use the same privacy measures in Canada.
They are also working with privacy officers in various provinces to ensure they are in compliance with federal and provincial privacy and security rules, he noted.
Mosher said patients also can set privacy rules for each of the physicians they work with at the touch of a button, and the amount of information shared can be changed at any time.
In Canada, Mosher said RelayHealth would be free to patients, with funding for the service covered by the hospitals, health regions or government. Since it would be delivered as a service, it would be faster and more cost-effective to implement since the infrastructure to run it is already in place.
Mosher said individuals want to be able to better manage their wellness.
"What we're focused on is what tools can we give a patient so that they're more self-sufficient, so that they can take better care of themselves and follow doctors' orders better and all those things."
Dr. Richard Scott, an associate professor at the University of Calgary, has been working in e-health since 1996, and has done work in implementation of telehealth solutions in terms of policy and strategy development.
Scott said individuals who are engaged in their care will gain from the ability to check lab results and monitor their health progress. His concern is for those who perhaps need the access to and capabilities of such technologies even more, such as those with chronic diseases, the unemployed, underemployed and homeless.
"That group of people, I think, really need attention," he said. "When we introduce these very neat solutions, we tend to ostracize that group even more than we have in the past. So there's that issue in the background that I think somehow needs to be addressed as well."
Scott said if physicians and other clinicians were to promote this form of electronic interaction then he believes it would capture interest among a greater percentage of the population. But engaging people and getting them to participate are not easy, he noted.
"Just because you have a tool doesn't necessarily mean that people will actually use it. And that's all this is: it's a tool that's accessible and available to people," he added.
"So you have to somehow engage people and give them some kind of an incentive in order to participate and take full advantage and use this kind of software capability."
With the capability to do everything from banking to buying goods online, Alvarez said he has no doubt Canadians will find a similar comfort level when it comes to accessing digital health records.
"Quite frankly, I think it is something that's inevitable," he said. "It will happen as consumers and Canadians get more assertive in terms of demanding these types of services. But we're still in the initial stages."