How MedicAlert is Partnering With Startups to Disrupt the Field of Dementia
As MedicAlert revamps for the future, the charity is in an ideal position to leverage its massive subscriber database to help keep Canadians safe
When most people think of disruptive technology they think of Uber and Airbnb, companies that have upended long-standing industries. However, game-changing tech doesn’t just have to disrupt old-school sectors – it can have a major impact on healthcare, too.
After operating in analog mode for the majority of its 62-year history, MedicAlert Foundation Canada is in the middle of a digital revolution that will transform the way it works, and how people with dementia are supported.
The charity’s strength lies in the exchange of vital health information, rather than on disease education or research funding for cures. As it moves into the future, MedicAlert is leveraging one of the largest healthcare databases in the country and partnering with innovative technology companies to help extend its reach and the services it provides.
“We don’t benefit fundamentally from the data we hold,” says Leslie McGill, the President and CEO of MedicAlert. “Our whole purpose is to provide high-quality health information at a time of need. In a technology driven society, what better way to do that than to build tech ourselves?”
MedicAlert is introducing new technologies at all levels of its organization. For instance, when McGill took over four years ago, one of her first orders of business was to upgrade the 20-year-old legacy systems it had been reliant on for far too long. “We replaced our entire technology backbone with the most modern tech stack we could build, and are completely state-of-the-art and compliant with respect to cybersecurity and privacy,” she says.
The organization has also embarked on an ambitious plan to upgrade its systems to communicate more effectively with first responders who are becoming more reliant on technology to do their jobs. The charity partnered with RapidSOS, an intelligent safety platform that will make MedicAlert’s health database accessible to first responders before they arrive at the scene of an emergency. “If they have that information before they get there, they know exactly what to do,” McGill says. “Most people think first responders already have access to this information – they don’t.”
The lay of the land
For too long, there’s been no easy way to access health information in Canada. There’s no national health database, which would make it easier for organizations to share and analyze patient information and improve the way providers care for patients. Outdated laws that govern health data have made it difficult for patients and caregivers to access and share their own information.
MedicAlert, however, is legislated differently from hospitals or clinics, a distinction that allows it to share the health information it collects as long as the subscriber gives consent to do so. That consent comes in the form of a legal Agreement each subscriber sign prior to giving their information to MedicAlert. “This allows us to work at a systemic level and drives many of the things we’re doing from a technology perspective, particularly in the area of wandering and Alzheimer’s and dementia.”
For instance, this year, it partnered with CounterCrisis Tech, a digital disruptor that provides technology based solutions to ground search and rescue teams as they react to natural or human-induced emergencies. Far more complex than a simple application, this technology integrates multiple apps to ensure decision-makers have access to information from multiple sources in real time. The Ottawa-based company, which was founded in 2020 by CEO Don Williams, secured a contract from Public Safety Canada to build the country’s first national ground search and rescue incident command system.
Once active, the system will provide first responders who arrive at the scene of a large emergency – such as the wildfires that have plagued much of the country – with the situational awareness they need to do their job. It will tell them which agency is spearheading the effort and which ones are playing a supporting role while serving up the information they need to help Canadians who are in danger or distress.
CounterCrisis Tech will be able to access MedicAlert’s database and incorporate the data in its search-and-rescue system, making it easier to find Alzheimer’s patients who have wandered away from home. The project has added importance for Williams, whose mother had to move out of her home and into a long-term care facility after being diagnosed with the disease.
“My mother locked herself out of the house in the middle of winter in her housecoat,” Williams says. “She was up past her waist in the snow and trying to make her way around to the backyard in freezing temperatures when she fell down. If it wasn't for the fact that her neighbour just happened to see her, you don’t know how that incident could have turned out.”
More than 10,000 Canadians were diagnosed with dementia every month in Canada in 2020, according to the 2022 Landmark Study undertaken by the Alzheimer’s Society of Canada. With this number expected to rise to more than 15,000 per month by 2030, wandering is an issue that won’t be going away any time soon. There will come a day, Williams says, when patients will be easier to locate because they will be wearing a GPS-enabled bracelet or a similar device that will notify a MedicAlert call centre the moment a patient moves beyond the boundaries of a predetermined area. That’s something he is working on with MedicAlert and hopes to have ready in 18 months to two years.
From there, a caregiver could quickly find the missing person without enlisting emergency services. “I’m absolutely confident this will save lives,” he says. “You reduce the likelihood of the wanderer making things worse for themselves and you greatly increase the likelihood that the outcome of the incident will be positive.”
A prescription for change
Will Falk, a Senior Fellow at the CD Howe Institute, isn’t surprised to see tech companies working with MedicAlert. The charity holds an enticing trove of data that was willingly provided by patients and, unlike other health organizations in the country, the organization's mission is to share information. The data has also been assembled in a way that’s demonstrably useful to first responders.
Falk has long advocated for Canada to update its privacy laws to require all health-care organizations to produce a useable, digital copy of their patients’ health-care records, a move that would bring the country in line with other nations. “The barriers to solving privacy and security are no longer technical,” he says. “Other countries have solved this. All of our major trading partners have legislation of this type on the books.”
Until that happens, though, MedicAlert is in an ideal position to leverage the data it holds on behalf of its subscribers. In addition to the partnerships it’s already forming, Falk says the organization would benefit from creating an open but secure sandbox that would give disruptors access to its data while protecting the identity of subscribers.
Ultimately, the end goal needs to be getting health information into the hands of those who need it most. “I think, overwhelmingly, that people involved in the healthcare system understand that better sharing of records among care providers is critical for the functioning of a modern medical system,” says Falk.
The future is promising
One of the most significant benefits to MedicAlert’s tech partnerships is the money to be saved by not having to send resources to find those who wander – an average of about $15,000 per search-and-rescue mission, says McGill.
She hopes the value MedicAlert provides will convince the government to offer support for the non-profit organization as it works to meet the public safety, health and social needs of its subscribers. “If technology can bring these elements together and help us more effectively serve, then we’re meeting our modern mission as an organization,” she says. “We’re not in the cure business, we’re in the prevention business. We’re there to fill a gap and that gap is getting bigger and bigger.”