Digital health week: Celebrating health care on the digital frontier

The health care landscape shifted dramatically in March 2020 with the onset of the pandemic. A recent study estimates that outpatient virtual care visits in Ontario increased by nearly 70 per cent from pre-pandemic levels.

While many of the tools used to provide virtual health care have been around for years, the pandemic triggered their rapid adoption and acceptance into our lives. They have been a lifeline (quite literally) for many people during these uncertain times. This week, digital technologies and their critical role in health care are being celebrated as part of Digital Health Week.

Digital health lies at the intersection of health care and technology. It includes things like electronic health records that facilitate information-sharing between providers so they can provide more efficient and better integrated care to individuals across their health care journey — from acute care hospitals to community-based services. Virtual communication platforms allow patients to visit their providers remotely, particularly people living in rural and remote areas and older adults or those with chronic conditions, so they can receive care from the comfort of their homes. Digital tools can help fuel innovations in the delivery of health care and support researchers to better understand disease trends and find potential treatments. Innovative platforms like patient portals and easy-to-access health apps, can help us take greater control of our own personal health information and empower us to participate more actively in managing our health.

These technologies come with many opportunities as well as potential risks. That’s why my office selected Trust in Digital Health as one of four strategic priority areas for the coming years. Our goal is to promote confidence in the digital health care system by guiding custodians to respect the privacy and access rights of Ontarians while supporting the responsible use of personal health information for research and analytics that serve the public good.

To help advance this goal, my office recently published, Privacy and Security Considerations for Virtual Health Care Visits that provides guidance on protecting personal health information in a virtual care context and outlines specific recommendations for secure email and videoconferencing. The guidance serves to remind health care providers that the Personal Health Information Protection Act (PHIPA) applies to virtual care as it does to in-person care, with certain practical adaptations to bear in mind.

We also recently published Digital Health under PHIPA: Selected Overview to provide health information custodians with guidance on recent amendments to PHIPA that relate specifically to personal health information in digital format. This resource includes information about the electronic health record, electronic audit logs, interoperability of digital health assets, consumer electronic service providers, and an individual’s right to access records in electronic format.

Digital health is also a hot topic in our Info Matters podcast series. We now have two episodes that offer first-hand insights into the transformations and innovations currently taking place in the health care sector. In our most recent episode, I speak with Shafique Shamji and Nyranne Martin from the Ottawa Hospital about how cutting-edge technologies, when well-governed and backed by a strong privacy and security culture, can help safeguard personal health information against growing cybersecurity risks in large-scale hospitals. In an earlier episode, Dr. Duncan Rozario from Oakville Trafalgar Memorial Hospital shared his views on the unique privacy and security considerations associated with virtual health care offered by individual practitioners and small group clinics. If digital health care piques your interest, these episodes will be time well spent.

While largely accelerated by COVID-19, new digital health tools will almost certainly remain part of the health care landscape even after we finally manage to put the worst of the pandemic behind us. I encourage you to follow #ThinkDigitalHealth on Twitter during Digital Health Week to learn more about how health care in Canada is evolving through technology.

The last twenty months have been a very difficult time for everyone, particularly those unsung heroes on the front lines of our healthcare system struggling to cope with the unprecedented risks and pressures brought on by COVID. I applaud the dedicated health care professionals who have adapted to ever changing circumstances and are innovating creatively and responsibly with new digital solutions to continue to care for their patients in a safe and virtual way. Thank you for all that you do.


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