Canada spends about $228 billion each year on health care but the system still can’t keep up with demand.
Despite the undeniable dedication, skill and hard work that physicians, surgeons, nurses and administrators put in, the fact remains that demand for health care is gradually exceeding supply.
It’s time for a technological revolution — and we have the technology. Advances in artificial intelligence, robotics and 3-D printing are opening up new fronts in the battle for health.
That is what the Senate Committee on Social Affairs, Science and Technology discovered when we studied these advancements and how they could be integrated into the health-care system.
Our recent report on the subject showed how much Canada has to gain if we can harness these technologies — provided that we take steps to ensure that we avoid potential pitfalls.
Our primary recommendation is for the federal government to convene a recurring national conference that would unite a broad range of professionals from the health-care system.
We’re not talking about a group of talking heads, but rather a perpetual, dynamic affiliation of experts nimble enough to adjust to the curve balls these technologies will throw our way.
And we will get curve balls.
Take artificial intelligence. It has grown by leaps and bounds since the earliest days of computers.
These days, it is already proving to be as accurate as human doctors — in some cases, even more so.
It is possible to imagine a future in which doctors are replaced by software capable of analyzing a patient’s symptoms and coming up with a course of treatment. High-quality health care could be delivered in the comfort of a patient’s home without the need for human help.
But also — potentially — troubling.
AI works best when it is flooded with data. In a home care setting, an AI device might be continuously monitoring its patient, amassing a trove of incredibly detailed, incredibly personal information at the same time.
It’s a double-edged sword. Access to these data allows AI machines to do a good job — but that information must be jealously safeguarded to prevent patients from being exploited and from losing control of their personal information.
There is also the question of whether it is desirable to hand over control to AI. From an ethical point of view, we were told this would be unacceptable. It could remove decision-making authority from patients, as well as doctors.
We were encouraged to learn that rigorous ethical guidelines are being developed; it seems to me as though AI, while an incredibly useful tool, must remain just that — a tool, directed by human hands.
There is, on balance, more reason to be excited about these technologies than to fear them.
During a fact-finding mission we watched a 3-D printer produce a brace for a broken knuckle in just 15 minutes. Couple this with AI and it’s conceivable that the average person might be alerted to a weakening joint and get a replacement part made to order in hours.
It’s also possible that these technologies could help people discover health problems before they become serious, enabling doctors to provide timely, preventative treatment that would save scarce resources.
As well, people who live in remote areas could benefit from better access to health care thanks to remote diagnosis or even remote surgery.
If we make the right choices, we can look forward to a bright future of better health care delivery, more accurate and speedy diagnoses and greater equity in health care delivery.
It will require federal government leadership to make sure the provinces, territories, health care providers and researchers are ready to seize the opportunities these technologies provide — while making sure that the risks are managed.
Our report is available to anyone who wants to learn more about what 21st century medicine might become.
A technological revolution is at our doorstep. It’s time we started to figure out how it can transform Canadian health care for the better.
Senator Art Eggleton, P.C., is chair of the Senate Committee on Social Affairs, Science and Technology. He represents Ontario in the Senate.
This article appeared in the May 7, 2018 edition of The Hill Times.