The promise of innovation: better health and quality life

The promise of innovation: better health and quality life

January 16, 2006

My first really personal connection to health care in Canada was in 1973, when I suffered a spinal cord injury. Back then, few advancements had been made in the area of spinal cord injury and while I certainly received the finest care at the time, much has changed since then. In the years since I acquired my injury, incredible transformations have taken place in health care and health innovations in Canada and I’m encouraged by our progress, for example 90% of what we know about spinal cord injury has been discovered in the past 10 years. Needless to say, it’s not just spinal cord injury that is seeing advancements—innovations are happening in all facets of health care and I’m proud to say that Canada is leading the way in many of these areas.

Indeed, no system is perfect and I believe that there are areas on which Canada could more actively focus, such as increasing our investment in research, clinical trials and discovery science and forging collaborations with specialists from other countries, in order to share knowledge on a global platform. Furthermore, we need to build upon the excellence that Canada is known for, by developing innovations and new ways of responding to health care needs that have greater impact on the people of our country and around the world.

Innovation is typically based on creative responses to challenges and or needs and often matches best strengths against best opportunities to ultimately produce breakthrough solutions that will improve quality of life. I know that Canada has made tremendous strides in innovation, however we continue to face the fundamental challenge of elevating the time and attention of our leaders; of removing them from the intensity of their day to day obligations, so that they can have the thinking time, the engagement time and ultimately the creative and implementation time, to develop new and exciting innovations.

We tend to be good at recognizing a plethora of great ideas and initiatives here in Canada and at carrying out extensive dialogue to cultivate menus of new and desired states, however we often do not acknowledge the time and ability of our leaders, or create opportunities that allow them to engage. I believe that we’re doing ourselves an injustice through this type of behaviour because ultimately, it translates into great ideas that do not have the ability to cross the creative threshold into later stages of maturity and development. Where I’ve seen success in a variety of disciplines throughout Canada, and in my own experience with spinal cord injury, is in situations where the leadership is poised and capable of making room to advance beyond the planning into execution, because it is only through execution and implementation that we make improvements in quality of life.

Quality of life, for me, is the key—innovation should always be focused on improving quality of life for Canadians. To do that we need to extend ourselves to think in terms of systemic innovations and promoting an environment where we are taking greater risks and engaging more actively in things like clinical trials. That being said, if we take the responsibility to engage more avidly in clinical trials and research, we need to be prepared to work harder at being more accountable to the people that health care or health research ultimately serves. If we’re trying to make an advance in cancer research, heart and stroke, spinal cord injury or parkinson’s, we have to truly connect with the people who have the disorder and ultimately ask them what their needs are and then measure our results against their progress. We need to engage them, not only as recipients of productivity and goodwill, but as the authority against which we measure the effectiveness of our actions.

An excellent example of this type of behaviour is the spinal cord model. At multiple levels, spinal cord injury is a great standard to assess everything from emergency response, to best practices, to outcome measures, to national and international registries, to the effective treatments of rehab and clinical trials. People with spinal cord injury, engaged in the system proactively, keep researchers honest in terms of their assessed priorities, the energy and effort they’re placing on the balance between cure and quality of life and also the ability to measure effectiveness as stated by the individual, as opposed to outside assumptions about what is important.

The participation of patients, along with the expertise that our leaders bring to the system is the critical link between diagnosis, treatment and cure. Nationally, we’ve played a key role in many health care developments by bringing people together and recognizing the collective knowledge that can contribute to the betterment of health in our country. Further to that, as the world continues to transform, the investment in our ability to lead internationally by bringing together researchers, clinicians and health care providers from around the world in research consortiums, clinical trials, networks, or think-tanks, is an area where I think Canada can play an even greater role. Investing in knowledge and skill is absolutely vital; continuing to recognize talent for its global potential and acknowledging the need to recruit, attract and maintain the best and brightest people from around the world is fundamental to our future accomplishments and to the health and well-being of the people who benefit from the expertise along the way.

Canada has immeasurable excellence in the field of health innovation and should be proud of the leadership and excellence it has demonstrated in these areas. We have all benefited from the developments in health care that Canada has embraced and I am continually encouraged by the advancements taking place every day. Yet, we must continue to invest in people and knowledge, not merely in infrastructure. We must uphold the value we place, not only on basic discovery science, but on curiosity and discovery-based research, because innovation comes not always from direct problems and solutions—sometimes it’s just curiosity and chance that lead to incredible discoveries. Most importantly, we must maintain our goal of providing the best, most advanced care to all Canadians. To that end, we must support our investments in knowledge and exploration and build upon our expertise by bringing together specialists from around the world to not only think and imagine new possibilities for our country, but to carry out those dreams into reality.

I believe in the possibilities for health innovation in Canada. I have seen incredible improvements realized over the years and am encouraged by the advancements happening today. As I look to the future, I am confident that greater things are yet to come and trust that the investments Canada is making in the field of health care will benefit not only the men, women and children of our country, but people all over the world.

Rick Hansen is President and CEO of the Rick Hansen Man In Motion Foundation.

The views and ideas expressed in this column do not necessarily reflect those of the Canada Foundation for Innovation or its Board Directors and Members.