British Columbia is leading the global digital health revolution

When we entered the new 2020 year, few people were prepared for the tremendous global impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. There has been no pandemic as severe since the 1918 H1N1 Spanish flu, which killed more than 50 million people worldwide.

Despite how COVID-19 has drastically changed the way we live and operate, we have seen examples of how innovation has risen to the challenges to create opportunities and accelerate health technology advances.  

B.C. has taken up the global race for digital health innovation, and it did so well ahead of the pandemic. We’ve since seen the health-care industry move past institutional barriers and with rapid uptake of virtual and online health services. It has been possible to leverage advances in artificial intelligence, data mining and high performance computing to update archaic systems of disconnected health data buried within a labyrinth of hospitals and clinics.

I’ve witnessed rapidly evolving health-care innovations that are now disrupting barriers to clinical care. Nearly every medical practitioner is now finding innovative ways to treat their patients virtually. We are observing quickly acquired literacy around innovation and digital solutions focused on leveraging technology to improve health outcomes.

In Surrey, the Health and Technology District has a number of organizations that are pioneering digital health technologies to change healthcare delivery. It began well ahead of the pandemic to bring innovative solutions to busy hospitals like Surrey Memorial. The pandemic effect has been to rapidly accelerate the implementation of these solutions. 

Companies like the Surrey Neuroplasticity Clinic immediately ramped up their telehealth neuro-rehabilitation services and offered patients one-on-one virtual physiotherapy sessions. They were created to support the sudden need for virtual services, with new ideas like online laughter yoga, sleep management workshops and mental health education sessions. They launched several new virtual treatment programs, such as neuro-feedback and concussion treatments, and shipped specialized equipment safely to their clients’ homes.

Another example is Conquer Experience Inc. and its PeriopSim virtual reality-based medical simulation training software for perioperative clinicians. PeriopSim provides virtual surgical training that grew from B.C.’s expertise in the video game industry. The company is now rapidly expanding safe virtual surgical procedure training to leading medical centres around the world.

Wellin5 Inc. is a team of ambitious forward-thinkers in the field of mental health who developed an online counselling platform to combat mental health challenges. Their app connects patients with counselling and mental health services through virtual online and video chat platforms. The benefit to using a digital health platform like Wellin5 is the “stigma-free approach” to accessing mental health counselling and treatment options discreetly, without the fear of others knowing.

To lead by example, our HealthTech Connex team discovered new ways to apply the NeuroCatch Platform, an objective measure of cognitive function that records brainwaves and outputs event-related potential (ERP) information (measured brain responses) using a portable device. ERPs have been used extensively by clinicians for many brain conditions and injuries such as concussions, dementia, Alzheimer’s, multiple sclerosis, post-traumatic stress disorder and brain performance optimization. The recent increasing linkage between COVID-19 and brain health has accelerated NeuroCatch applications to find effective, economical and accessible innovations in treatment.

Technology-driven health-care advances often come as a result of crises. COVID-19 is no exception. What is exceptional is B.C.’s head start as an established health technology leader. The prior acceleration of digital health solutions resulted in direct benefits to our pandemic readiness and response, and it is important for B.C. to continue to invest and strengthen this industry sector, along with our overall innovation economy. •

Ryan D’Arcy co-founded the Health and Technology District and HealthTech Connex. He is a professor at Simon Fraser University and the University of British Columbia.