Digital Health Summit focuses on virtual care, calls for industry cooperation for long-term sustainability

By Hiba Kamal-Choufi

The surge of digital technologies during the COVID-19 pandemic brought together more than 2,000 world-class leaders, entrepreneurs and innovators at Alberta's Digital Health Summit on Jan. 26. The virtual event was part of Inventures Unbound and Alberta Innovates Digital Health Strategy.

Virtual care, artificial intelligence-based health technologies, and computation-assisted drug discoveries were among the key topics that speakers discussed during the half-day summit. The purpose was to explore what's possible in the digital health industry and the tools needed to get there.

Alberta Innovates CEO Laura Kilcrease said that scientists, health-care professionals and innovators around the world are more connected and finding solutions faster than ever.

"We've seen the acceleration towards virtual care offering patients convenient and timely access to health-care providers," she said. "At Alberta Innovates, we've already been heading in that direction, shifting from the traditional method of providing health to new models of care enabled by innovation."

Kilcrease spoke about the role Alberta Innovates plays in supporting research, helping the startup community build new technology, and creating a vibrant digital health-care sector in Alberta.

'Care continuity'

President and CEO of Alberta Health Services (AHS) Dr. Verna Yiu talked about the diverse virtual health programs that AHS has been working on since 2009.

"Virtual care provides an opportunity for care continuity," she said, mentioning the benefits of AHS virtual health programs and their role in the pandemic — supporting individuals in self-isolation and increasing access to physicians, plus visual information and assisted-therapy programs.

When it comes to Alberta's virtual care, Yiu said it's important to focus on improving patient experiences as well as the sustainability of the health-care system.

Alberta Innovates CEO Laura Kilcrease presents at the summit. (Hiba Kamal-Choufi)

Alberta Innovates CEO Laura Kilcrease presents at the summit. (Hiba Kamal-Choufi)

The summit also addressed the impact of COVID-19 on digital health.

"What changed in 2020 is the acceleration of the use of digital and virtual health tools in services that are a necessity due to the pandemic," said president and chief executive officer of GE Healthcare Canada Heather Chalmers.

She explained that the pandemic has helped prove that Canada's health system is able to adopt new digital and virtual technologies to adapt.

According to Kilcrease, COVID-19 has also challenged the industry to look at equal access to care in rural areas, where internet access may be limited and isolation contributes to other issues such as mental health concerns.

The future

In addition to the current state of digital health, the event addressed how the health-care system may evolve over the next few years.

According to Yiu, a recent survey showed that 94% of respondents intend to continue to use virtual care permanently. Yiu said that AHS has a three-year plan until 2023, which includes big plans for virtual care.

It involves shifting from acute care to community-based care, enhanced integration of primary care and a strong focus on community-based addiction and mental health supports, as well as leveraging available technology and innovation.

Alberta Innovates' CEO said that organizations want to harness the ingenuity of innovators and entrepreneurs who are developing and commercializing digital technologies through a more coordinated community-based approach.

"By the year 2024, the global digital health market is poised to grow to $207 billion US, an increase from today of about 20%. We can all be a part of this growth," said Kilcrease.

President and chief executive officer of GE Healthcare Canada, Heather Chalmers. (Hiba Kamal-Choufi)

President and chief executive officer of GE Healthcare Canada, Heather Chalmers. (Hiba Kamal-Choufi)

As Chalmers looks beyond 2021, she thinks there's still tremendous room for improvement in the digital health industry and said solutions should support real-time care delivery.

Chalmers called for greater collaboration between startups, researchers, governments, and healthcare providers.

"Healthcare providers should work with governments for long term sustainability," she noted.

"The future of innovation will be about working collaboratively across the healthcare ecosystem."