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Featuring Dr. Abhinav Sharma, professor and researcher at McGill University Health Center, and Valérie Pisano, CEO of the Montreal Institute of Learning Algorithms (MILA)

This article originally appeared on the RBC Thought Leadership site on June 16, 2020.

As hospitals and health centres reckon with one of the biggest public health crises in a century, they have to contend with the simultaneous transformation into a digitally-enabled future. Think video consultations, tracing apps, biometric screening – all of which are rapidly becoming part of the new normal.

Many Canadian hospitals and technology companies are already leaders in healthcare innovation. Dr. Abhinav Sharma, professor and researcher at McGill University Health Center, and Valérie Pisano, CEO of the Montreal Institute of Learning Algorithms (MILA), joined the RBC Disruptors podcast to share how the pandemic has been a catalyst for the adoption of new technologies and how Canadian healthcare is transforming.

What amazed Sharma is how quickly doctors and healthcare professionals pivoted to telemedicine amid the pandemic.

“It was a big shift to actually embrace this technology, which seems sort of basic and rudimentary, he said. “But actually from a medical point of view, to deliver healthcare over a phone or over a Skype visit is actually quite a paradigm shift.”

Arguably, the ability of front-line professionals to adapt in real-time is made possible by the ongoing work of the tech community over the past several years. When the COVID-19 crisis hit, tech and AI researchers were able to respond immediately.

Pisano said that within days of the pandemic hitting Canada, dozens of researchers at MILA mobilized around nearly 10 projects, including lung imagery for diagnostic testing and predictive analytics for virus tracing.

“There’s so many different ways where AI is being solicited right now,” Pisano said.

“It really is the perfect context to say, ‘OK, if we push the boundaries of innovation, how can these technologies support us as humble and vulnerable human beings as we face this pandemic in the months and probably years ahead?'”

That’s a question researchers are exploring.

So, what can we expect? Here are 4 key takeaways.

1. The future of healthcare is here. COVID has shown us that virtual healthcare is possible. Telemedicine and online doctor visits aren’t hard. Yes, we will still need and want face-to-face contact for all sorts of reasons, but we need to focus on evolving to create a better, more inclusive, and accessible system.

2. Data and privacy. Right now, we have an opportunity to help more Canadians be proactive with their health. But to do that, people need to be comfortable with the idea of allowing their data to be used through new technologies and protocols. So the question becomes, so how do we clearly communicate the benefits of these new innovations and how data helps us get there?

3. Healthcare is global. We in Canada focus a lot on the balance of power between the federal and provincial governments while the pandemic has shown us how health problems and health solutions are increasingly global. How can we ensure that the innovations being developed here in Canada are global in their ambition?

4. Humans matter. Yes, technology is going to increasingly shape healthcare. But without the human adoption of technology, we’ll never see its potential. A cultural shift needs to take place in how we view the use of technologies and the implications of data sharing. Researchers and entrepreneurs can develop the best AI or equipment, but it’s up to healthcare professionals and patients to talk through how to make this work in our daily lives.

As Canada fights the COVID pandemic, health tech has never been more important. The challenge will be to continue to innovate, and to build on our existing foundation to create a system that’s both inclusive and accessible.