Solving for the Silver Tsunami

Nov 11, 2019 | John Stackhouse


A conversation with two health care leaders about whether digital technology is our cure.

Forget, for a moment, cryptocurrency and delivery drones.


One of the biggest opportunities out there for digital disruption is much closer to home: your local hospital.


Canada’s health care system has everything that would inspire a Silicon Valley entrepreneur: scale, data, money—and a big problem to solve. It’s breaking under its own weight.


This year, the number of people turning 83 starts to tick up—that specific age is critical because it’s the average age at which people start to enter long-term care homes. In about four years, this wave of 83-year-olds hits Canada like a tsunami.


By the end of the 2020s, we’ll be spending about $200 billion on health care—and half of that will go to senior care. Even then, we’ll be short nearly 200,000 long-term care beds, and won’t have the support workers we’ll need. The numbers aren’t working.


At our most recent RBC Disruptors, we sat down with two health care leaders to talk about whether digital technology is our cure.


  • Mike Wessinger is the founder and CEO of PointClickCare, one of Canada’s top software companies that is transforming elder care in North America.
  • Michelle DiEmanuele is President and CEO of Trillium Health Partners, a leading hospital with three sites in Ontario that treated 1.7 million patients last year.


New technologies, like artificial intelligence and the Internet of Things, will benefit health care in two ways. Importantly, these innovations will solve some of the issues around patient care in terms of safety and quality.


Just as urgently, tech could relieve worker shortages, while also creating demand for more skilled positions. Ideally, the transition will help free health care workers spend more time on the “human” side of their jobs, and also attract and retain a new generation who expect to see and work with new technologies and innovative approaches.


“It’s a very positive thing, but it’s going to happen slower than we would like,” DiEmanuele said.


That’s because game-changing health care will require significant investment up front—and in long-term care, where most senior care takes place, the margins are so razor-thin the sector struggles to attract new capital. Most hospitals in Canada also don’t have shareholder capital to use for new tech, forcing them to squeeze other budget priorities.


Even where the money is available, technology is not a cure-all. Consider, for example, that seniors have been slow to embrace new devices that could help with their care. DiEmanuele said the “non-adoption” rate among seniors, when presented with new technologies for self-care or managed care, is upwards of 50 percent.


Another part of the puzzle is making the job more attractive, in a country where unemployment is low and personal support workers start out making near-minimum wage.


Wessinger tries to put himself in the shoes of a typical support worker arriving at work after a long commute – “and the first thing you do when you get there is change adult incontinence products. If somebody offered you 25 cents more an hour to go work at Walmart—what are you going to do?”

To learn more about the promise of new technologies, and the many challenges of implementing them—think regulatory, security and privacy issues—listen to our latest podcast episode, recorded live at RBC Disruptors.


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As Senior Vice-President, Office of the CEO, John Stackhouse advises the executive leadership on emerging trends in Canada’s economy, providing insights grounded in his travels across the country and around the world. His work focuses on technological change and innovation, examining how to successfully navigate the new economy so more people can thrive in the age of disruption. Prior to joining RBC, John spent nearly 25 years at the Globe and Mail, where he served as editor-in-chief, editor of Report on Business, and a foreign correspondent in New Delhi, India. He is the author of three books and has a fourth underway.


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