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70 million fewer hours waiting for doctors

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CALGARY -- When assessments are made of Canada's health-care system, they often focus on the quality of treatment, cost per patient and outcomes. While such criteria are vitally important to consider, one other critical factor needs to be added to the equation -- the potential economic benefits of adopting best practices used in other jurisdictions.

Despite the best efforts of dedicated health professionals, our health-care system costs us much more than it needs to -- not only in direct costs to taxpayers, but also in its impact on the economy overall. These vexatious costs are the result of an outmoded patient-practitioner paradigm that fosters unreasonable time demands on health-care consumers.

Consider that people often must take time away from work for even the simplest of needs, such as getting a prescription renewed.

Anyone who has been forced to while away precious hours in a doctor's waiting room, only to be told he or she is allowed to discuss one issue per visit, knows intuitively this system is wasteful. There has to be a better way.

There is. In fact, there are several examples of better practices that suggest Canada could provide more convenient, and arguably better, health care, which would not only relieve citizens of frustration, but also provide a measurable boost to our economy.

A new Conference Board of Canada study commissioned by Canada Health Infoway, an independent, not-for-profit organization funded by the federal government, found evidence that the implementation of electronic solutions in health care would not only save patients time, but also improve work efficiencies and time management by health-care professionals. A further benefit, according to the report, would be improved health outcomes and reduced administrative costs over the long term.

The study was based on a user-experience survey, conducted by Harris Decima in March of this year. It found some astonishing potential gains to be had by providing consumers with access to their own electronic health information and tools to manage appointments or renew prescriptions. Currently, only four per cent to eight per cent of Canadians have access to consumer health solutions that allow them to virtually consult with their health-care providers, access their test results or even request prescription renewals electronically. Yet patients in several European countries, notably Denmark, are well advanced in this area.

The study found the potential for time saved by patients could reach as high as 18.8 million extra working hours. This would increase our country's output by an estimated $408 million. In addition to this boost to our economy, patients would enjoy an estimated 51 million hours of non-work time currently spent on health-care activities.

Fewer in-person visits would be required as well. In fact, providing Canadians with access to consumer health solutions could result in a 40 per cent to 50 per cent reduction in trips to the doctor's waiting room -- a collective saving of nearly 70 million hours.

Not surprisingly, the benefits vary depending on the age group studied, and face-to-face appointments will also be required in some cases. Men in the 18 to 34 age group, for example, have many fewer visits to the doctor, so the potential savings are smaller. Men and women in the 55-plus age group have more mandatory visits to the doctor, reducing the potential for savings. The largest saving is in the 35-to 54-year group -- the cohort with the highest number of people, highest employment rate, high levels of comfort with computers and avoidable in-person visits.

Setting aside the savings in personal frustration, the potential economic gains and improved health-care efficiencies alone justify serious consideration of these results. As Canadians strive to improve their publicly funded health-care system, these innovations represent the low-hanging fruit -- simple improvements that can be made. Quite simply, there is the potential for very high returns on the technological investments required to empower Canadians with secure electronic access to their health information and tools.

We're on the right track, but the journey is far from over.

Doug Firby is editor-in-chief of Troy Media.

--Troy Media

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 27, 2012 A17

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