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Government and policy

Infoway may start investing in physician IT, CMAJ reports

OTTAWA – The Canadian Medical Association Journal speculates that 50% of the $500 million awarded to Canada Health Infoway in Ottawa’s January budget is earmarked for computerizing physician practices. For its part, Infoway says it is currently working on an investment strategy for the new tranche of funding.

In an assessment of the budget and its package of deficit spending that’s designed to stimulate the economy, the CMAJ noted that physicians are big winners: “Without question, the $500-million outlay for the Canada Health Infoway is the single measure that could theoretically have the greatest impact on physicians and the health community,” said the journal, in a January 28 response to the budget.

“The previous $1.6 billion that the independent, not-for-profit corporation had received was largely aimed at large electronic systems such as drug information and lab information networks within hospitals. But Finance officials said at least half of the new monies are intended for projects aimed at getting individual physicians to start keeping electronic health records for their patients.”

“The goal is to have 50% of all Canadians with electronic health records by the end of 2010,” said one official. Although program details are sparse and must still be ironed out with the provinces, it is expected physicians will eventually receive some measure of direct financial aid to purchase electronic equipment or hire staff that would be necessary as part of any move toward electronic record keeping.

That would be a major shift in direction for physician IT programs across Canada, as Infoway hasn’t in the past funded the computerization of physician practices. Until now, all subsidized programs have been financed by provincial programs, such as PITO in British Columbia and POSP in Alberta.

In a related measure, the budget introduced a temporary 100% Capital Cost Allowance Rate for computer hardware and systems software acquired before February 1, 2011, for which physicians would be eligible. The move is projected to cost the government $340 million in the coming fiscal year and $355 million in 2010/11.

On another front, Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd. received a whopping increase for the second consecutive year. Its budget was topped up by $351 million, with federal officials saying a “small portion” of that is aimed at assessing how the lifetime of the aging National Research Reactor might be extended beyond 2011 to ensure some measure of domestic medical isotope supply in the wake of its recent shutdown and the cancellation of its replacement, the flawed Multipurpose Applied Physics Lattice Experiment reactors.

Interestingly, the Canada Foundation for Innovation receives $150 million to top up its current “Leading Edge and New Initiatives Funds Competition,” while $600 million has been set aside for a new research infrastructure competition to be established by 2011, on the provisos that the monies are spent in areas deemed a “priority” by the federal industry minister and that the foundation develops a new strategic plan.

The CFI has been a huge source of funds for many leading-edge research initiatives in Canada’s academic and research-oriented hospitals, especially in the areas of Diagnostic Imaging and Surgical technology.

However, the budgets for Health Canada and the Public Health Agency of Canada will be reduced by an aggregate $167.8 million over the next 3 years. Again, no details were provided but the department and agency will take a $42.7 million hit in the coming fiscal year, $52.9 million cut in 2010/11 and $72.2 million cut in 2011/12.