Twenty years ago, Dr. Alan Forster was working at Harvard when he decided to join the team at The Ottawa Hospital. While other hospitals were focused on chasing the latest technology, our hospital was focused on whether that same cutting-edge technology would actually improve the patient experience.
In his role as Executive Vice-President and Chief Innovation and Quality Officer, Dr. Forster is helping change the way we deliver healthcare by harnessing the latest digital innovations — including data —to personalize treatment, advance research, streamline operations. Where some researchers look at specific diseases, Dr. Forster looks at the whole system and how it can be improved to help patients.
What led you to healthcare tech and innovation?
I always wanted to be a physician, but I didn’t anticipate that I would be focused on helping the health system improve. I didn’t really know what hospital administrators did, or what researchers did early on. But after I trained and was working as a physician, it became clear that while our system has amazing technologies, they weren’t always connecting well. And sometimes, patients couldn’t get access to them. Probably what got me most interested in this field was the fact that sometimes technologies can be used incorrectly and can actually lead to harm. I started to think about how we can make what we have even better than it is today, which led to me going down to Harvard and learning about how to apply these technologies in a real-world setting.
What drew you to The Ottawa Hospital?
I’m from Ottawa, and I think Ottawa is an amazing city to live in. The research institute and the University of Ottawa may be small compared to some other centres around the world, but they punch above their weight in terms of impact. Both institutions are very focused on clinical effectiveness research, patient-centred research, and healthcare as being a top priority. The leadership at the research institute and the hospital really wanted to get behind quality of care as an academic discipline. That wasn’t really seen as being an area of focus in the early 2000s in Canada.
When you talk about quality of care, what do you mean by that?
Ultimately, quality of care is the degree to which you’re meeting your patients’ needs. Layered into that are a few things. It’s not just about whether the treatment is effective and achieving the outcomes. It’s not just about whether care is being provided efficiently in the most reliable manner. And it’s not just about whether the patient is being treated with respect and compassion. It’s really all of those things put together. Quality of care is a very complex subject, which goes all the way from the very technical, most futuristic advances on one side, all the way to that very human touch, and how we make people feel like they’re treated as a loved on the other side.
How has the field of healthcare innovation, technology, and data changed since you started?
Our concept of data is changing, and our concept of what kinds of pieces of information help guide therapy and guide treatments and guide decisions has changed greatly in the last five to 10 years as a result of computing power and artificial intelligence. For example, we recently worked with a local company to help us monitor patients in their own environment, which allowed us to identify when they were having complications much earlier. This was only possible because we now have this ability to monitor that data and then run algorithms that are able to predict the future, as opposed to using just what we enter into the computer as physicians and nurses. It’s making a big difference in how we think about what’s possible.
How does The Ottawa Hospital stand out when it comes to innovation?
We look at research and innovation as a continuum. At the beginning is the researcher who’s asking a question and developing discoveries that are fundamental to our understanding of health and disease. But those discoveries alone aren’t very useful, they can only become practical when they get implemented in a real world setting to solve a problem; that’s when we move into the realm of innovation. I think one thing that’s always been very exciting is how The Ottawa Hospital is willing to try new ways of doing things. I feel our Innovation Program is one that will create an impetus for people to come here from other places to learn on a global stage; we will be bringing people and companies and ideas to The Ottawa Hospital.
What will our New Campus Development mean for the future of innovation and quality of care?
Ultimately, it is about having better patient outcomes and better patient experience. We always go back to that as the reason we’re doing this. If we’re thinking about what the future looks like, I think of care being much more humanely delivered, where we have opportunities to be both customized and also do things at a larger scale. In terms of the built environment we’ll have, it’s something people wouldn’t dream of compared to what we have today, the Civic being a 100-year-old building. But it means more than just the building; we’re going to have care in people’s homes that seamlessly integrates with what we’re doing in the hospital — there will be a continuity of care. I think the future is really exciting, and I would just say it all comes down to data, because data helps us know what’s working, helps us identify where the gaps are, and helps us develop solutions to improve.
What can we find you up to when you’re not in the office?
I really enjoy spending time with my family. We do a lot of different things together; we cross country ski in the winter, and we bicycle and run in the summer. Then on the flip side, I also like my downtime. A lot of times you’ll catch me reading my book, either on my couch or on the dock up at our cottage. There’s nothing better than reading a book on the dock.
The Ottawa Hospital is a leading academic health, research, and learning hospital proudly affiliated with the University of Ottawa.