Alberta's health-tech sector has grown by 130% since 2018, with 40% of those companies based in Edmonton, but those companies often must look outside the province or even the country to find customers, says a report from the research arm of the Information and Communications Technology Council.
A Resilient Recovery: Alberta's Digital-Led Post-COVID Future, which the Ottawa-based Digital Think Tank by ICTC released on June 30, calls health tech a key subsector that is poised to drive the growth of high-quality jobs in Alberta. But it identified some factors holding the industry back.
Participants in the study felt the health-care sector is reluctant to work with private companies, preferring to deal with foundations or not-for-profits instead. When the sector does invest in new technologies, those contracts tend to be given to large companies rather than local talent, participants surveyed for the report complained.
"One of the biggest threats to Canada, not just to Alberta, is that if we are not able to engage our startup companies — in any sector, but health being a key one — we'll have to outsource everything, and that's what we currently do. We outsource everything," one focus group participant said. "We have tier-one, world-class companies right here in Canada that, based on what I'm seeing, have to sell around the world."
Canada has been slow to adopt health-tech innovations in comparison with other countries, the report said. Telehealth services and online booking tools were identified as two technologies that have been more integrated into health-care systems in other markets. Software and information systems companies made up only 15% of Alberta health-tech companies in the 108-company dataset analyzed in the report, a distant second to biotechnology, which accounted for 65% of the companies.
"The provincial government faces pressure to improve Alberta's health-care system, expand access to health-care services, and adopt new technologies, all while keeping health-care spending in check," the report said. "Health technology is therefore both an additional spending pressure, and — through big data and AI, telehealth, and automation — a way to mediate spending."
Another factor limiting health-tech success is the availability of talent for in-demand roles such as software developers, business development managers, and full-stack developers. These shortages are felt throughout Alberta's digital economy, where industry growth has outstripped the pool of qualified employees. Between 2015 and 2020, Edmonton added 5,522 tech degrees to the labour market, while at the same time adding about 12,000 tech jobs, according to CBRE.