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When a massive ice storm hit Eastern Ontario in 1998, Debbie James saw the impact it had on Canadians — from unprecedented damage to infrastructure to power outages that lasted weeks in some areas.
The Ottawa resident sat at home wishing she could help. A few years later, when she was able to devote the time, she joined the Red Cross as a volunteer, ready to help her community in the event of another major disaster.
For the last sixteen years, she has been doing just that, working to help Canadians across the country who’ve experienced climate-related and other humanitarian emergencies.
“We have to really think ahead,” James says. “The number of disasters we have are just increasing. Our reliance on [technology] is increasing — and this is an investment in the future for us all.”
Technology is often used by organizations in various humanitarian settings to respond to needs, streamline processes, and scale solutions. While technology is not a replacement for humanitarian aid or care, it can help collect data, identify problems to supplement in-person care, and empower individuals with information and solutions.
Future of Good spoke to three Canadian organizations and networks using technology to respond to domestic humanitarian needs — from Canada’s aging population who are expected to have major impacts on the healthcare system, to climate disasters such as the 2016 Fort McMurray wildfire — and how these innovations are scaling both within the country and beyond our borders.
Predicting and responding to Canada’s next emergency
When wildfires hit Fort McMurray, Alberta in 2016, nearly 90,000 people were forced to flee their homes — making it the largest evacuation in the province’s history.
As the Canadian Red Cross responded to the emergency, supporting tens of thousands of people, the humanitarian organization’s team soon realized gaps in the software they used to help them manage their disaster response.
“People needed to be relocated, needed financial assistance, and [needed] help in many different facets of their lives,” says Roger Simard, chief digital product officer at the Red Cross. “It was clear at the time that the existing system was not appropriate to provide such relief and recovery services.”
For one, multiple software systems were being used to organize information, and the team wanted to operate within a single system. In addition, instead of a desktop-based solution, the response team wanted a cloud-based system and through mobile devices, and eventually could be accessed offline, as there may be limited access to the internet during emergencies.
Simard, who spearheads a team of 20 people in the Red Cross’ technology group, led an initiative to develop their own software to be used to respond to crises — and ultimately created the new version of Emergency Management Information System (EMIS), which has been used by the Red Cross to manage and respond to several crises in recent years.
During an emergency, community members can register with the Red Cross, which enters information into a platform powered by EMIS to access funds, shelter, relocation assistance, and other support services.
For instance, in the case of a flood, Simard says people who are impacted may need to seek shelter in a hotel. Previously, the Red Cross managed hotel bookings through a travel agency, but their new EMIS software will eventually enable people to book hotels directly, and apply for and receive financial assistance and other support services.
Through the system, community members can receive vouchers, e-transfers for financial assistance (which also means they can receive their payment on the same day they are approved), or debit cards for those who don’t have online banking, and manage insurance claims in addition to other services.
Leveraging data when responding to humanitarian crises
While needs vary for every emergency, looking at data and patterns from previous responses helps the Red Cross predict what the next disaster may look like, and what they would need to fund.
During emergencies, the Red Cross team uses the EMIS system to pull data on community demographics which gives them an indication of what support may be needed. For example, their data shows that most people impacted by the Fort McMurray fires were in the 20 to 40 age range while during the 2017 Ottawa floods, the majority of people impacted were over 50 years of age. These demographics often shape the type of support needed and the Red Cross’ response.
In British Columbia and the Yukon, the Red Cross manages a health equipment home program, which provides short and long term loans of equipment to people with injuries and illnesses, such as hospital beds, orthopedic beds, patient lifts, wheelchairs, canes, and crutches.
If there is a disaster in those provinces, such as flooding, the Red Cross response team could use its software to map out residents in the health equipment home program, who are a demographic particularly prone to be at risk due to mobility issues. Relief teams can then prioritize these individuals and deploy appropriate assistance.
“[We] will know exactly the type of service or equipment that is required to assist these individuals. And so [we can] prevent, to a certain extent, the situation from being far worse than it would have been if [we] didn’t have the data to understand who [we’re] helping,” Simard says.
Leveraging technology to respond to a rapidly aging population
Domestic humanitarian crises aren’t limited to natural disasters — some are slower builds, like the lack of support for a rapidly aging population. According to Statistics Canada, by 2035, Canada will be considered a “super-aged” country — where one in four Canadians will be older than 65 years of age.
According to data shared by the Canadian Medical Association, the cost of healthcare for younger Canadians is $2,700 per year, while the average cost for seniors is more than quadruple that cost, at $12,000. By some estimates, Canada’s healthcare spending could spike by up to 88 percent to support the aging population. In addition, the existing shortage of healthcare professionals serving seniors poses a challenge: how will the aging population access the care they need if there aren’t enough workers? And underpinning all of this, how will they access the care they need amid a climate crisis that disproportionately affects older people?
With this aging population comes “unprecedented challenges to our social and health systems,” says Bridgette Murphy, managing director and COO of AGE-WELL, a network of researchers and innovators focused on technology and aging across the country.
“We need to move quickly,” says Murphy — emphasizing how COVID-19 has dramatically shifted the timeline for implementing tech-based solutions, such as virtual consultations with healthcare providers. “The need for technology has intensified. It is no longer acceptable to ‘wait and see’ on virtual and digital health.”
Technology, which has been shown to increase independence and promote healthier communities and societies, can be leveraged to improve the quality of life for older adults and help them stay in their own homes and communities for as long as possible, which is what nearly 80 percent of Canadians want.
The AGE-WELL network, which has more than 400 industry, government, community, and academic partners, has also supported more than 60 Canadian startups focused on developing technologies, services, policies and practices to support aging populations. In addition to being implemented in communities across Canada, many of these innovations have been recognized internationally.
For example, Startup Braze Mobility developed the world’s first blind-spot sensors that notify wheelchair users about obstacles in their blind spots. The company sells their product across Canada and is in the U.S., Germany, Australia, and New Zealand.
Another AGE-WELL-supported company, Curovate, developed a smartphone app for those with knee replacements, and provides a six month video-based rehabilitation program. In Slovenia, when Miro Sobocan was unable to access in-person rehabilitation during the country’s pandemic lockdowns, the 72-year-old used the app to improve his mobility until his rehab facility reopened.
Tech can help — but access is a major barrier
While tech solutions like these play an increasing role in supporting our aging population, a lack of high-speed internet access, appropriate technological devices, and digital literacy — prevents some people from benefiting from existing tools.
Access to digital technology has become a “key digital determinant of health that impacts how connected Canadians are to their friends, families and even public services like healthcare,” Murphy says, noting that the seniors who live in rural communities are the most impacted by the digital divide.
In response, AGE-WELL supports research involving under-served populations, to determine how a lack of connectivity impacts their health. The network also advocates for equitable access to technology for older adults, such as more accessible internet access and access to technological devices. While widespread accessibility to these tools is the ultimate goal, AGE-WELL is working to increase access to technology for older adults in Northern B.C. The network helped establish the Centre for Technology Adoption for Aging in the North in Prince George, which makes technology available to older adults, caregivers, and healthcare systems in the province’s northern and rural communities.
Providing quality care to an aging population
With Canada’s aging population, comes concerns about their ability to access quality care. With an aging population, a shrinking workforce of professionals working with seniors, and a climate crisis that could contain older people to their homes more often, this already limited face-time that seniors have with healthcare providers is set to reduce even further.
“When was the last time a healthcare professional or your family doctor came and sat and had tea in your living room and spent an hour with you and really understood… what your concerns are.” says David Price, professor and past chair in the Department of Family Medicine at McMaster University.
Having this deep understanding of a patient’s social context enables their healthcare providers to give more personalized support. However, Price says with doctors spending more time filing patient charts than meeting with patients face-to-face, the social context of an individual’s health and living situation is often missing.
To improve access to this important information, the team at McMaster University’s Department of Family Medicine developed Health Tapestry, a system that allowed seniors to share their social context with their healthcare providers. Health Tapestry deployed volunteers from the Canadian Red Cross who visited patients’ homes and used the TAP-App to collect information about a person’s life, health, and goals by asking questions about their memory, sleep, medication, mobility, and other topics. Volunteers use this information to link patients to services they may benefit from — whether it be a physician, social worker, or community services.
According to Price, one of the main benefits of incorporating this technology in the care of patients, is the access professionals like him have to see notes in a patient chart from other care providers who have met with that patient in their home. By accessing this information, health professionals are better informed when treating patients. Health Tapestry has been piloted in urban and rural locations and is looking at scaling to additional communities — which may be key in supporting Canada’s aging population to access comprehensive care.