“ECharting the Future” By Susan Bartlett, IBM Senior Strategy and Change Consultant, and Loren Cisyk, IBM Manitoba Senior Location Executive

Apr 27, 2011 | Corporate Member News

Through its victory on Jeopardy, the IBM computer Watson showed that artificial intelligence has advanced to the point where computers can understand natural language questions and return useful answers based on expansive knowledge bases.

Suppose you walked into your local bank branch to withdraw some money. Rather than look down at a computer screen, the teller pulls down a thick paper file from the many thousands on shelves behind him. Inside the file, each of your past banking transactions has been carefully recorded by hand.
Think of the problems that would arise. Since the teller can’t read the handwriting on your last deposit receipt, he doesn’t know how much money he can let you take out. When you pay money in at the branch across town, it would take days, maybe weeks, for the paper transaction copy to be added to the paper file at your home branch.

Ridiculous, isn’t it?  It’s obviously inefficient, time-consuming, and error-prone to use handwritten, paper records for something as sensitive and important as banking information.  And yet, most of us think nothing of going to our doctor’s offices, where our health information is stored in paper-based, hand-written files, and test results take days to get from the lab to the doctor’s office.  

That state of affairs is finally beginning to change, with the initial roll-out of EChart Manitoba.  As reported in the Free Pressrecently, the new province-wide electronic health care record (EHR) has gone live at seven sites around the province, with more to follow over the next three months.

Manitobans can take a great deal of pride in this accomplishment.  In many ways, Manitoba is leading the country in electronic health records.  Other provinces got an earlier start with digitizing elements of health records, but Manitoba now boasts the first province-wide EHR that integrates information from the whole health ecosystem – everything from lab tests to prescription drugs to diagnostic images. Health information can now be shared efficiently and securely, creating one unified record for every Manitoban.

The value of EChart is indisputable.  It will save time, as physicians can gather a complete history in a fraction of the time it currently takes.  It will save money, as we reduce unnecessary tests and procedures.  Most importantly, it will improve the health and wellness outcomes for Manitobans.  In one of many studies on this issue, researchers estimated that over a million Americans die every year from prescription errors such as incorrect dosage and adverse drug interactions – errors that are much less likely to happen with a comprehensive, easily legible, electronic health record.  

However, there is still much work to be done.  The first release of EChart only incorporated prescription drugs, immunization records, and lab results.  More comprehensive records of visits to hospitals and doctors offices won’t be available until the next release, scheduled for 2012.  

For EChart to reach its full potential, electronic medical records must be standard practice. Currently, only about 15% of doctors’ offices in Manitoba use computers to maintain their medical records, which is nowhere near enough.  The good news is there is currently a project underway to deploy electronic medical records to as many doctors’ offices as possible.  This is important work that cannot be put off.

Finally, we need to plan for how we will fully capitalize on the integrated, province-wide health records.  Clearly, EChart is a great asset for the province in and of itself.  However, the vast treasure troves of data collected, if we can do the right kind of analysis, have tremendous potential to deliver even better health outcomes.  But health care providers will surely be just as busy as ever.  They won’t have time to sift through gigabytes of data, looking for the patterns and connections that might aide a diagnosis, or even save a patient’s life.  

We have the kind of technology that will help with this. Through its victory on Jeopardy, the IBM computer Watson showed that artificial intelligence has advanced to the point where computers can understand natural language questions and return useful answers based on expansive knowledge bases.  

IBM is already collaborating with the Columbia University Medical Center and the University of Maryland School of Medicine to turn the technology behind Watson into a health care system that can parse medical texts, anonymous patient histories, prior cases, and up-the-minute research from medical journals.  Such a system can then make useful suggestions to physicians and guide them as they examine and diagnose their patients.

Watson’s potential revolutionary benefits depend on the existence of a comprehensive electronic health record like EChart.  Manitoba is already well on the way to improving health and wellness outcomes as the only province with a province-wide, integrated health record.  Moreover, Manitoba will be uniquely positioned within Canada to take advantage of the next generation of smarter technologies and be a national leader and innovator in health care.   

Susan Bartlett is a Senior Consultant in the Strategy & Transformation practice of IBM’s Global Business Services Ms. Bartlett helps organizations derive value from their business transformations by applying her expertise in business modeling, enterprise architecture, change management, and governance.  Susan’s track record of successful delivery is built on an eclectic formal education which includes two degrees in Computer Science, and a degree in Philosophy, Politics, and Economics, obtained while a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford University. 

Loren Cisyk is General Manager, Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Northwestern Ontario at IBM Canada Ltd.  He has 14 years of IBM experience, with the last 7 years leading the prairies region. His current responsibilities include delivering  IBM’s business results and growing business across Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Northwestern Ontario, and for fostering senior executive relationships among private, public and government organizations.

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