The federal Liberals moved to streamline and secure health data across jurisdictions Thursday with a new bill that imposes new rules on technology vendors.

The bill would require vendors to ensure that health information tech they license, sell or supply as a service is interoperable.

That means patients and health-care providers would be able to completely and securely access the data and exchange it with other systems — for example, those being used in another hospital or jurisdiction. 

Health Minister Mark Holland, who tabled the legislation in the House of Commons on Thursday morning, said data “saves lives in a very real and appreciable way.”

The bill will “help take the blindfolds off of practitioners,” who are asked to see patients without having access to critical information about their health, Holland said at a press conference Thursday.

“The fact that only 35 per cent of physicians can share information outside of their offices is entirely unacceptable. The fact that fax machines are still used is entirely unacceptable.”

The bill is designed to fill gaps in provinces and territories where similar provisions don't already exist. 

It would also prohibit data blocking, or any practice that would prevent, discourage or interfere with a user's access to their own health data or their ability to transfer it to another system.

There are roughly 100 different technology vendors, with about 30 of those dominating the space, government officials said in a briefing provided to reporters on the condition they not be named.

Some of those vendors are Canadian and some are international, and they differ by sector. 

Holland said the companies have a “corporate responsibility” to share data. 

“It's wonderful that they're making extraordinary profit by being involved in life sciences. But the data that they're gleaning is often being paid for by public funds.”

He said by blocking or siloing data, companies are putting lives at risk while profiting from the public system. 

Having access to health information like immunization records and lab results will make it easier for patients to manage their own care, the Canadian Medical Association said Thursday.

It also “improves patient safety and patient outcomes by ensuring that providers have access to the right information at the right time when providing care," the association said.

Last year, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau offered provinces and territories a new 10-year health accord in response to pleas from jurisdictions that said they were facing an urgent shortage of health workers and massive backlogs to deliver care.

In exchange for an estimated $17.3 billion in new health funding from the federal government through the Canada Health Transfer, Trudeau asked provinces to share comparable data and digitize the health information of Canadians so it can be more easily accessed and shared between hospitals, clinics and jurisdictions.

The federal government has argued that better comparable health data is an important part of making sure the new funds go toward actually improving health outcomes for Canadians.

All the provinces and territories have signed on to the deal as of March this year.

Canada Health Infoway has developed a federal and provincial plan to make individual health records and information more accessible to patients and clinicians, which can then be used to measure the health of the population and the system overall.

The group expects health systems will save hundreds of millions of dollars and doctors could save millions of hours by making patient info and health data easier to access.

The plan is still in the very early stages and some provinces are farther along than others when it comes to upgrading their technology.

Having complete records could also allow the future integration of artificial intelligence to analyze patterns, Holland said Thursday.

AI has “the ability to be able to scan massive amounts of data and see connections that no individual human can make,” he said. 

For example, it can look at symptoms in many different patients and see how they might relate to a disease that was previously thought to be unconnected, he said.  

This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 6, 2024.