Nova Scotia Health Collaborating To Improve Innovation

Posted: June 24, 2022

In less than four years, Nova Scotia Health has developed an innovation arm that is supporting not only new technology but also virtual healthcare and other new processes.

Of course, innovation is a hot topic across the economy, and it usually brings to mind new technologies, digital products, robotics, and in the case of healthcare, new drugs. Nova Scotia Health’s Innovation Hub led by Dr. Gail Tomblin Murphy is involved in all those things, but they’re also working on something more fundamental.

They have been helping to change the mindset in the provincial healthcare system so there is a broader acceptance of testing and trying, and developing new and better ways of doing things. The results are already showing up in some parts of the province’s health system.

“There’s been a change, and the change is real,” said Tomblin Murphy in an interview. “I call it a new culture, a new way of thinking. It’s, ‘How do we help you to get to yes, to bring forward these innovation ideas that will improve healthcare for Nova Scotians?”

Tomblin Murphy spent a decade and a half running Dalhousie’s Centre on Health Workforce Planning and Research, which is backed by the World Health Organization and the Pan American Health Organization. In Oct. 2018, she became Nova Scotia Health’s Vice-President of Research, Innovation and Discovery and Chief Nurse Executive.

The work undertaken by Tomblin Murphy’s team ranges from pioneering virtual healthcare in the province to establishing an Innovation Hub within the Volta tech facility in the Halifax Innovation District. One word that came up repeatedly in the interview was “partnership” as the group is collaborating with a range of partners in government, academia, the private sector, and the startup community.

Virtual Care Nova Scotia is one such initiative where primary care is being provided through the Maple platform for people who do not have a family doctor or nurse practitioner.

“We started in some parts of the province where there were the most people waiting for a family doctor,” said Tomblin Murphy. “It was so successful we scaled it up to the whole province.”

Patients were generally happy to speak with a healthcare provider by a mobile device or computer with relatively short wait times. About 20 percent of them were then referred to health practitioners to be seen in-person, but the rest got their answers virtually.

The team has also experimented with allowing Nova Scotians to access more healthcare resources at pharmacies, starting at a Lawton’s outlet in New Glasgow and Truro. The goal is to have a network of walk-in clinics within pharmacies where patients could receive primary care services from a pharmacist or a nurse practitioner. This would free up resources elsewhere and reduce wait times.

Nova Scotians would be surprised to realize the state-of-the-art work being conducted in some facets of healthcare in the province, such as cancer treatment, cardiology and robotics, said Tomblin Murphy. Dr. Michael Dunbar, an orthopaedic surgeon at QEII Health Sciences Centre and a Professor of Surgery and Biomedical Engineering at Dalhousie University, is an expert in robotics in surgery and is advancing the field. Nova Scotia Health has named specialists such as Dunbar and plastic surgeon Dr. Karen Cross as Innovators-in-Residence to ensure the blend of collaboration includes their expertise.

The province’s health system is also making huge steps in clinical trials – the tests needed to establish that new drugs or devices are safe and effective. Innovators are working more closely with staff, patients and facilities at Nova Scotia hospitals, and the four provincial governments in the region recently announced the Atlantic Clinical Trial Network, which will encourage greater collaboration among the provinces.

The result is that more regional startups and medtech companies can find the support they need in conducting clinical trials, which are essential in gaining regulatory approval and getting to market.

“Recently, we have been involved in running trials of new med devices and new ways of care,” said Tomblin Murphy. “We’ve done this for some time in Nova Scotia but we haven’t done it in the way we have in the last year.”

A crucial part of the drive for innovation is working with the ecosystem within the province to develop better technology and help it get to the patients who need it. The Innovation Hub and the work with groups like Volta and BioNova are key components of this drive. But the health authority is also working directly with startups in ways that Nova Scotia has not done before.

In 2020, Nova Scotia Health, Volta and other parties launched the Health Challenge Pitch Event to help support healthcare innovation produced by Nova Scotians. Each winner in the series of pitch events received $100,000 in development capital and was given a chance to work with Nova Scotia Health in developing its product. The winners included Adaptiiv, whose system uses 3D printing to improve the efficacy of radiation treatment for cancer patients, and WeUsThem, whose imTeen technology helps young people to self-monitor signs of mental and physical illnesses.

Tomblin Murphy said the Innovation Hub is working with other startups as well, such as the IT company Virtual Hallway, which is helping with the virtual healthcare initiative. The health authority intends to get the Health Challenge idea going again in the fall, and she emphasized that the organization works with more startups, even the ones that don’t win the pitching competition.

She said: “We’ll look into how Nova Scotia Health is supporting innovation, including the ways it adopts frontier technology and funds innovation-driven companies.”



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