The digital innovations transforming health care in Canada carry huge implications for benefit plan sponsors and the people they serve.

According to MaRS, one of Canada’s preeminent innovation hubs, there are between 800 and 1,000 health-care-related technology startups in Canada today. With investment in research and development by the health information and communications sector expected to increase significantly over the next three years, health-care transformation will continue at an accelerated pace, creating even more new players and options to choose from.

The changes will be profound. Currently, Canada’s health-care system focuses predominantly on providing acute care to patients when they’re sick or they choose to access the system. But digital innovation is creating a system that will focus more on prevention and predictive health care; be easier to access; and hopefully keep costs under better control. Among other things, digital innovation will be able to:

  • Improve access to health care by making it easier to book medical appointments and access health records;
  • Reduce demands on the system by promoting prevention of illness or injury through education and encouraging healthy living;
  • Provide diagnostic tools to aid in the assessment of health or illness and guide appropriate treatment in a more timely and cost-effective way;
  • Facilitate predictive modelling related to health so individuals can modify their behaviour well in advance of the onset of disease; and
  • Compile, aggregate and share data so individuals, health-care professionals, hospitals, pharmacies, employers and other stakeholders can make better decisions about how to manage health care and its related costs.

Read: Hacking your way to a healthier workforce

To the extent that the public health-care system can embrace digital innovation, benefit plans will also need to adapt to and integrate with that new system. While that could take some time to fully unfold, we’re already seeing changes in the vendor landscape in the benefits world.

For most plan sponsors today, an insurer — and perhaps a handful of other organizations — manages their health plan. It handles the interface with employees and health-care providers, pays claims and, if asked, helps manage the cost. The insurer also provides the data to help facilitate decision-making related to plan management and funding.

Digital innovation means benefits plan sponsors may rely less upon their insurers for those services in the future and instead plug into one or more of the new providers that offer better, more customizable solutions. For example, a plan sponsor may turn to a provider of disease management solutions, rather than rely on an insurer to exclusively manage a specific chronic illness.

Read: OMERS Ventures boost funding to health benefits technology startup

One of the biggest challenges for benefits plan sponsors is how to make sense of the constantly evolving vendor landscape and find the right solutions for their specific companies. With so many new players and options, where do you start? Will it fit the company culture and your broader strategy? How much will it cost? And what if it fails?

One answer is to take a multifaceted approach to harness the benefits of digital innovation, starting with an evaluation of emerging trends and solutions and then identifying leading vendors that are driving change in health care and developing a marketplace perspective on best-in-class approaches and differentiators. By vetting new solution providers and monitoring those that offer interesting but still unproven concepts, it’s possible to actively investigate the potential opportunities plan sponsors can test through pilot projects designed to fit their and their employees’ specific needs.

Read: Robo advisors eyeing the group pension market

With the landscape changing so quickly, many new providers of health solutions are popping up each week, so the evaluation and identification of potential vendors is an ongoing, dynamic process. What’s clear is plan sponsors are facing a rapidly changing environment that’s creating tremendous opportunities for them to differentiate their benefit plans and potentially incorporate new providers into the mix.

Digital innovation has the potential to fundamentally change health care in Canada from both from a public and a private health perspective. The change, in fact, is already happening. Plan sponsors may sometimes feel a bit overwhelmed by the rapid pace of change, but it’s no doubt an exciting time that holds great promise for a better, more cost-effective health system that benefits everyone.

Brian Lindenberg is a senior partner and the health and benefits leader at Mercer Canada.. He has more than 30 years of experience in the employee benefits field.

These are the views of the author and not necessarily those of Benefits Canada.

Copyright © 2021 Transcontinental Media G.P. Originally published on

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