Plug In and Change Behaviour

It is no question that Canada’s cash-strapped healthcare system is under increasing pressure to meet the needs of its diverse population. One major health system challenge is the rising rates of chronic, preventable illnesses such as obesity, diabetes, and heart disease. These chronic conditions account for an estimated 153,000 Canadian deaths every year, nearly three- quarters of all deaths in the country . As the incidents of these preventable diseases rise, so do the expenses – the combined cost of medical and indirect productivity losses exceeds $93 billion a year . Clearly, we have a problem.

What is causing this trend? It is widely known that lifestyle practice such as smoking, obesity, physical inactivity, and poor nutrition are contributing to the incidence of chronic disease. Changing the unhealthy lifestyles of Canadians is the chief goal of health promoters and behaviour change specialists. According to these specialists, in order for long lasting change to occur, it needs to be self-motivated and rooted in positive thinking. Yet the healthcare system is structured for a one-way flow of information from the physician to the patient. Under this model, how can we expect clinicians to inspire health behviour change among patients?

One promising solution is restructuring the healthcare system to support patient-centered care. Patient-centered care aims to shift the decision-making power back to patients and places them at the center of the treatment plan. The idea is simple: by providing the patient with the knowledge, tools, and information about their health, patients become empowered to take charge. The Ivey Centre for Health Innovation has supported this frame work and recommends Canada’s healthcare leaders to focus innovation on leveraging information technologies and empowering consumers to managing their personal health .

So, how do we implement patient-centered care? One solution can be found by appealing to Canada’s growing world of healthcare technology start-ups. Products offered by these companies range from health and fitness apps, to wearable health technologies, to innovative take-home tools like I.D. My Meds. Studies have shown that wearable health technologies have immense potential in behaviour change, as they work to increase patient engagement, increase self-management, and improve goal setting (6). While these well-established companies have successfully created evidence-based products, their biggest challenge is market penetration and achieving scale . Essentially, we have a healthcare system that needs innovative ways to facilitate behaviour change, and a business sector with the tools to do so.

Canada can meet the challenge of reducing preventable, chronic diseases by supporting partnerships between innovative healthcare startups and primary care clinics. In this model, startup companies would pitch their products to clinicians, who would choose to partner with the companies that they deep appropriate. During clinical appointments, physicians would discuss treatment options with patients and prescribe a health based app, a wearable, or a product that would help in the health behaviour change necessary to improve their health condition. Clinical prescribing of these products is integral part of the treatment plan, as it increases the credibility of the product increases the chance of adherence. Imagine a patient who is at risk for diabetes and is having trouble managing their diet. The physician would prescribe one of the many apps, which tracks meals and alerts the patient when their daily intake veers from the treatment plan.

In order to initiate this systematic change, the provincial governments would allocate a portion of their budget to subsidizing the cost of the prescribed products. In Ontario, the Ministry of Health would asses their healthcare spending and reallocate funds to support this initiative. This governmental funding gives startup companies the comfort of avoiding losses as they enter the new system. Eventually, the exposure that these companies will receive from increased users and popularity will likely make the system self-sustainable.

Benefits of this model extend to all key stakeholders. Startup companies receive the market penetration and exposure that their products need. Physicians receive satisfaction of knowing that their patients are given the empowerment they need to control their health. Governments stand to benefit from significantly reduced healthcare costs, an of course, patients receive assistance in achieving their health goals.

In the ever-changing landscape of healthcare, it is important to leverage technology and innovation in order to improve health outcomes. By combining the innovative startup health technology space with the established healthcare system, we have a powerful strategy to tackle our biggest healthcare challenges. Now all we have to do is plug in.