Health-care innovation needs politically neutral body, panel says

KELLY GRANT - HEALTH REPORTER

The Globe and Mail

The federal government should play a stronger role in spurring innovation in Canadian health care, according to an expert panel that is recommending Ottawa set up a new arm’s-length agency and a $1-billion fund to transform successful pilot projects into systemwide improvements.

The report from the Advisory Panel on Healthcare Innovation comes just three months before a federal election in which the opposition parties are hoping to make health care a more prominent issue than it has been in recent contests.

“I think there is a moral responsibility and an onus on the federal government to come back to the table,” David Naylor, the former University of Toronto president who chaired the panel, said. “I also think there’s a big onus on the provinces and territories to work together with the federal government and with stakeholders and try to improve this system.”

When the panel, which was introduced by Health Minister Rona Ambrose at a splashy news conference in Toronto in June, 2014, first embarked on its cross-country research, members had to decide whether to take a narrow approach or look at the systemic problems impeding the modernization of Canada’s health-care system.

“I think the flurry of submissions we received from people who had a great piece of software or who wanted to pitch some device to us suggested there was a bit of a sense that we would be headed in a Dragons’ Den direction,” Dr. Naylor said.

Instead, the panelists decided to take a wider approach and suggest changes that would not immediately get bogged down in jurisdictional bickering.

The group’s chief recommendations are that three existing agencies – the Canadian Foundation for Healthcare Improvement, the Canadian Patient Safety Institute and Canada Health Infoway – be collapsed into a single, politically neutral agency that would help guide health-care innovation.

The panel proposes a health-care innovation fund be established to support the new agency with a budget target of $1-billion a year by 2020.

The idea, Dr. Naylor said, is that the agency would act as an “Innovation Switzerland,” helping to bring together coalitions of two or three provinces or stakeholders at a time to scale up innovative ideas that are already working well on a smaller level.

“The degree of politicization, we believe, would be reduced,” Dr. Naylor said.

The panel avoided recommending changes to federal health transfers to the provinces, which the Conservative government, beginning in 2017-18, plans to reduce to 3-per-cent annual growth or the growth rate of gross domestic product, whichever is larger.

Despite the fanfare with which the panel was first introduced, its $700,000, 164-page report was released quietly by Health Canada on a Friday in July when Parliament is not in session.

“When you release a report on a Friday afternoon in the middle of the summer, one can draw certain inferences from that,” Murray Rankin, health critic for the NDP, said. “Maybe this panel is taking positions that the government of Canada doesn’t share.”

Ms. Ambrose declined an interview request. “We will review that panel’s report,” her office said by e-mail. “To date, our government has increased health-care transfers to the provinces to record levels.”

A spokesman for Health Canada, meanwhile, said the department received the report just this week and required time to prepare for its release.

“Stakeholders were eager to see the report and therefore the Department worked quickly to release it at the earliest opportunity.”

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