In Focus September 2013

Just scraping the surface. Health information can be used to a far greater extent. Health System Use represents that knowledge-filled future.

In the past quarter-century, data groves—like hospital information systems, electronic health records and drug information systems—have changed patient care. Yet these reams of health data can be used in an altogether different way, one that has the potential to transform the entire Canadian health system. It’s called health system use of data.

“Myriad systems have been put in place, but we have only scraped the surface of their value,” said Mike Barron, CEO of the Newfoundland & Labrador Centre for Health Information.

Land caught up with Barron shortly after CIHI, in collaboration with Canada Health Infoway, released a vision for health system use (HSU) of electronic data in Canada. He believes that once all governments begin to understand that the health care system can be managed in part by the “incredible” amount of data available, a robust, sustainable and consistent use of this information will emerge.

An Evolution

“These systems were put in place to deliver patient care,” said Barron, who also chaired an advisory committee for CIHI’s vision report. “In my 29 years in this industry, we’ve always used information this way. But HSU is an evolution, transforming information into knowledge. Here we get into big data and into things like predictive analyses.”

In Newfoundland and Labrador, more mature information (including CIHI’s) is being used to support the health of its population. During the 2009 H1N1 outbreak, for instance, the province used information to prioritize who should get the vaccine most promptly. “That was a good broad use of information—HSU in action—providing value to people and to the health system itself.”

The province has also used electronic health records to help spot the high-cost users of the health system, specific to geography, demography and diseases. Barron said they are looking deeper into this to map the flow of health care dollars and to determine how frequent users of the system can be better served. Not only can efficiencies be found in the system by doing so, but patients ultimately receive more integrated and higher quality care.

Barron said that one of his Centre’s main goals is to empower health authorities to use health information to the full potential. “Tough decisions need to be made—but it’s very difficult not to make the right decision if really good information is put in front of you,” he said.

For HSU to continue evolving, Barron said that more media attention for HSU will help generate more awareness among the health care leaders in Canada. “Good leaders will want to aspire to the highest standard. This is about providing high-quality health care using this information to manage population health.”

The future of HSU is linking together huge databases and discovering trends between them—coast to coast.

He said that CIHI is uniquely positioned to drive HSU into that future, by providing the training, skillsets and tools to the system at large. The more people that dig through data, accurately and confidently, the more answers can be found.


What sustains the system’s high performance is simple: good information. Here are just a few questions that better health system use of electronic data can help answer.

  • Where is time and money being misspent?
  • Are patients receiving the most appropriate services? 
  • What is actually reducing wait times?
  • How are local patterns of disease changing?
  • Which interventions are more cost-effective than others?
  • Are public health programs reaching the right people?

Discover what this is all about at Read our shared vision for the safe, effective health system use of electronic data. Learn what Canadians think of electronic records and health system use of data. See many local initiatives where health data is supporting decision-making. Success stories underscore the tangible benefits to patients, clinicians and the health system.