Increasing Rural Access to Healthcare: What Canada Can Learn from China

Though a comparison of Canada and China’s health-care systems may not come naturally, there is one chief parallel: both of these vast countries’ rural populations experience a lower standard of health care than those of urban areas. As Canada seeks to improve rural access to health care, there may be lessons it can draw from China’s experience.

Different Approaches to a Common Problem

In China, extensive and systemic issues in health-care access have stimulated an explosion in Artificial Intelligence (AI) solutions targeted at addressing capacity constraints. China has seen the creation of AI firms to improve medical imaging, database management, treatment development, and more – all in an effort to address widespread doctor shortages and inequitable access made all the more complicated by the country’s aging population.

In pursuing AI for health-care solutions, companies are doing something that doctors can’t do: learn all they need to know about a patient within the time constraints of a rushed appointment. For individuals in rural areas, maximizing the efficiency and effectiveness of visits to the doctor is of utmost importance in closing the gap in quality of care. This is a problem being quickly addressed by companies in China. One company, iCarbonX, impressively develops a digital avatar of patients utilizing saliva, protein, and DNA samples, while another startup, Koboro, has created an application called Daxia Health that processes large amounts of health data for a patient before having the resulting recommendations checked by human doctors.

While China is moving rapidly to integrate AI solutions into its health-care systems, Canada – a country that is seen as having significant competencies in both AI and health-care provision – is unfortunately lagging behind.

Barriers and Opportunities for Canada

Canada is lucky. The country does not need an overhaul of its existing medical framework, a universal program that many other countries look to for inspiration as they develop or improve their own. Any incorporation of AI, therefore, only increases and improves Canadians’ access to health care as it complements the existing system. This presents an opportunity for Canada to focus AI-based solutions on specific health-care issues, rather than the functionality of the overall health-care system, an opportunity that not many countries can replicate.

Canada is a well-known spender on health care, but less so in the dual spheres of technology and innovation. These two worlds are slowly colliding, as AI is predicted to enter the health-care industry sooner or later, with no other technological or health-care development yet providing the same opportunity to streamline patient treatment plans and provide more complete information to physicians. The sheer number of companies exploring AI-based solutions to health-care issues in China allows a greater proportion of the financial burden to fall on the private sector. For Canada, more deliberate movement in this direction will allow the centralized health-care system to improve without additional public cost. The potential benefits for Canada’s rural populations include improved access to medical information and advice, streamlined patient care plans, and better informed doctors: without taxpayers footing the bill.

The good news is that Canada is structured in such a way that the system’s centralized health data makes it easier for AI companies to assess demographic trends. However, Canada faces the privacy issue that comes with AI access to medical records. Measures to protect privacy, in the form of data protection and cybersecurity, don’t hold the same weight in China, as evidenced by the sheer number of companies attempting to tackle the country’s systemic health-care issues through the use of AI. In Canada, the values of privacy and access to health-care services may soon be pitted against one another.

Here, Canada might look to the EU, which maintains an assortment of frameworks that allow but limit the usage of technology in health care. For example, upon meeting certain conditions, a software program may be considered a medical device, though it must still adhere to the updated, soon-to-be implemented EU General Data Protection Regulation. This includes the impending installment of Data Protection Officers for all enterprises that possess “special categories” of data, including health data, to ensure that personal information is processed in compliance with the applicable data protection rules.

Though Canada has similar governance under the Personal Information Protection and Electronic Documents Act, the EU GDPR shows unique promise in allowing technology to complement existing procedures, while ensuring security remains in the hands of humans. This is what Canada should aim to achieve: a state in which technology is utilized to its full potential in solving social issues, without compromising the privacy and security of the system’s end users. Canada can take the best of both Chinese and European approaches by combining an innovative business ecosystem with human-centred checks and balances. With any luck, this new promise will reinvigorate domestic efforts to improve rural access to health care.

The views expressed here are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent the views of the Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada.

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