In British Columbia we are overlooking a vault of public treasure. If we allowed people we trust to open it, and analyze the treasure within, we could save thousands of lives and, potentially, billions of dollars in B.C. alone.
This treasure is in the form of electronic data collected over many decades, under the stewardship of successive provincial governments, on everything from hospital admissions to doctor visits and prescriptions filled by every pharmacist in this province. It’s one of the best collections of health data anywhere in the world.
It’s time to use it to help researchers save lives, to make better use of taxpayer dollars and to discover cost-effective ways to get better health outcomes.
As soon as anyone raises the subject of accessing health data, the immediate reaction by many is, “You can’t do that – it would violate an individual’s privacy rights!” Well, we have laws and systems already in place that make sure privacy is protected by removing personal identifiers. Researchers have no way of tracing the data they receive back to individual citizens.
The upside of opening British Columbia’s unique trove of data sets is huge.
For example, how many people suffer (or even die) from avoidable adverse drug interactions? Drug manufacturers do clinical trials before a new drug can be declared safe. These trials are in very controlled settings and they do try to ensure that new products are not only effective but also safe and that any side effects are identified up front.
But the trials are often short, and involve only certain population groups. What happens when the drug is used in the real world, often over long periods of time? Sometimes two harmless drugs, when taken at the same time, can trigger effects that the clinical trials did not identify.
Sometimes side effects don’t show up until a drug has been taken for longer than a trial might have run. Sometimes drugs intended for one use or one group during a trial end up being used for other purposes and on other people once they have been approved. Adverse drug reactions are often identified by doctors or pharmacists who observe the effects on the front lines and then trigger an investigation.
By tapping into health care data that we already have, more of those adverse reactions could be identified earlier. Lives could be saved.
Making use of our health care data also has the potential for huge savings in delivering health care.
We often throw around the term “evidence-based medicine.” In theory, every procedure and every medication has been scientifically tested to prove that what common medical practice says should be done will, in fact, lead to the desired improvement in health outcomes. In reality, much of what is done in medical practice is done because that is the way it has always been done. We have the data to determine whether some of the things we do really do help, whether other things we do offer no benefit whatsoever, and whether there are ways of achieving better health results at less cost.
A study done last year by the McKinsey Global Institute concluded the annual value of using data effectively could be more than US$300 billion, “two-thirds of which would be in the form of reducing national health care expenditures by about eight per cent.” And that is in the United States alone. In Europe, the McKinsey report also states, “we estimate that government administration could save more than 100 billion euros (C$149 billion) in operational efficiencies alone.”
Just think of what that could mean in this province. Our health care budget is $18 billion a year. Eight per cent of that is $1.44 billion a year. This could make a huge difference in our ability to deliver effective health care in the future in B.C., as well as Canada.
The McKinsey study predicts it would take a decade to achieve those cost savings in the United States. Why? Because the Americans don’t have the data. They would have to start today to systematically build the data sets needed. In B.C., we already have those data sets waiting to be harnessed, to help us take the lead in improving health care.
British Columbia is already known globally for leading-edge health research. The research community adds hundreds of millions of dollars to our economy. But we limit researchers’ access to this data, because of concerns about protecting privacy that provincial regulations now make moot.
It’s time we proactively opened this B.C. advantage to health researchers and research funders locally, nationally and internationally. Not only would a more open-door policy bring in millions of new research dollars and human talent, it would lead to discoveries that will save more lives, improve quality of life and cement British Columbia as a centre of excellence for bringing efficient/effective health care solutions to Canada and the world.
This is one of those rare opportunities where there are no downsides, only remarkable potential benefits. The protection of individuals’ privacy must be paramount. And it is. B.C. has the safeguards to guarantee privacy is protected. We now owe it to ourselves, and to our fellow citizens, to unlock the treasures hiding in our data and use them to save lives.
- post by Colin Hansen