Launching Canada’s first digital health evaluation network
In Canada, COVID-19 opened the floodgates for virtual care. The reception has been generally positive and today most patients and providers agree that the future of healthcare should include some degree of virtual care.
“Virtual care represents a new approach for healthcare and has the potential to reduce wait times, lower health system costs and improve the care experience,” explained Dr. Onil Bhattacharyya, family physician and scientific director of the Centre for Digital Health Evaluation (CDHE) at Women’s College Hospital.
“While there have been benefits beyond social distancing, there is limited evidence on the impact of virtual care in areas like quality and equity. The only way to realize the promise of virtual care is to undertake comprehensive, clinically relevant evaluations. However, there is no common digital health evaluation strategy across Canada,” Bhattacharyya added.
Recognizing this gap, the Canadian Network for Digital Health Evaluation (CNDHE) was launched in March 2021. The CNDHE is supported with Health Canada funding as well as the generous support of numerous long-standing Women’s College Hospital Foundation donors like Louise Fast, who made a $1M gift to accelerate virtual care at Women’s College Hospital.
The CNDHE is led by the Centre for Digital Health Evaluation (CDHE) located at Women’s College Hospital, in collaboration with leading pan-Canadian health organizations – CADTH, Canada Health Infoway and Canadian Institute for Health Information (CIHI) – as well as the Centre for Wise Practices in Indigenous Health at Women’s College Hospital.
Evaluations, led by multi-disciplinary teams of researchers, clinicians, engineers and others, study and test digital health technologies and virtual models of care. During this process, teams can pivot and adjust the technology or the model of care to achieve better outcomes. Over the next two years, the CNDHE will develop a strategy for digital health evaluation across Canada and build the infrastructure necessary to evaluate the substantial federal and provincial investments made in digital health during COVID-19.
Developing a pan-Canadian digital evaluation framework is an ambitious and timely step forward. “Women’s College Hospital has established a leading role in the development of resilient digital health systems and the CNDHE has become a collaborative network for driving this change,” said Dr. Ibukun Abejirinde a scientist with the Centre for Digital Health Evaluation. “We anticipate that the evaluation framework and the overall strategy will be a living tool that can be adapted and tested in different Canadian contexts.”
“We have already made significant headway following the launch of the Network,” said Ena Ujic, manager for the Centre for Digital Health Evaluation. “Fifteen provincial and territorial leads have been selected and we are currently recruiting other members from a variety of stakeholder groups, including policy experts, Indigenous organizations, patient networks and academics.”
A framework is under development, which will act as a guide for research teams across the country as they implement their own digital health evaluations. The CDHE has also undertaken two pan-Canadian evaluations, assessing both billing codes and virtual primary care. Additionally, the CNDHE plans to develop a toolkit, provide training sessions and produce academic publications.
“A key area of focus is to create capacity within local teams so that they can conduct evaluations that leverage the standardized evaluation framework the CNDHE develops, while also tailoring it to meet their specific local needs. A collaborative approach will allow Network members to identify opportunities for evaluation and enable shared learning across provincial and territorial lines,” Dr. Bhattacharyya said. “We have an opportunity to modernize and enhance healthcare across Canada through the use of virtual care. The CNDHE is providing the foundation and setting the strategy for digital health evaluations across the country to improve access, patient experience and equity for all patients.”