Now hear this: Dave Wilson, VP of Agfa HealthCare in Canada

Health care is a leading issue among Canadians and, with an aging population, is destined to remain so. Agfa VP Dave Wilson says if we want to meet the challenge we have to invest in the technology professionals we'll need.

There’s an old school of thought that commercial interests should not sully academia’s hallowed halls. But Dave Wilson, VP of Agfa HealthCare in Canada, tells Andy Holloway that idea is changing, partly because all levels of education are in dire need of funding, and corporate Canada needs to know graduating students have learned real-world lessons, particularly in technology. One industry slow to catch on has been health care, but even that’s changing.

The use of IT has proven to make cost savings, make more efficiencies, reduce errors, and make health care better, but health care has been slow to adopt IT, whereas the financial industry is much further ahead. And spending on IT in health care is further behind than in the financial industry. There are certain hospitals that are very forward thinking and are bringing in the latest and greatest technology, and then there are other hospitals that are buying other hospital’s old equipment and calling that being up to date.

That being said, the people who have that health-care-focused IT skill set don’t really exist. We as a company have a responsibility as much as the health-care industry to put some glitz and glamour around these jobs. Up and coming students should be able to look at health care and say, “Wow, that’s some pretty cool technology.” I went into nuclear medicine because I thought it was kind of a cool-looking business and kind of a cool job — injecting people with radioactive stuff. Techies are the same way: they want to do stuff that’s cool and exciting, not boring and mundane.

Part of the challenge is funding. Where does the money come from to implement the IT programs and applications that will make our lives easier? But at the end of the day, you need somebody who is going to manage that, you need somebody who is going to build that software, keep it running over the long term — updates, improvements, that sort of thing — and that’s where some of the shortage comes in. For example, there’s a shortage of radiologists to actually report and dictate exams, there’s a shortage of family physicians, and IT can help in these areas to make things more productive and allow better access to information. But again, it’s support for that IT infrastructure in the long run that seems to be lacking.

There is a perception out there that health care isn’t growing. And some of the things that Agfa is doing are trying to push and change that perception — things like sponsoring or investing in universities in different types of contexts. We did an innovation award with the University of Waterloo’s Conestoga College students. We also sponsor scholarships and we sponsor chairs for informatics programs. It’s starting to grow and build and it’s that kind of awareness that people need to have. Students who are up and coming need to see that there are opportunities in health care.

If you look at the innovation award, we put together a contest that allowed students in the program to come together and find an innovative way to solve a real-life problem in a hospital. The top five entries were presented to a board, and the winner got to go to our head office in Belgium and present their program to the chief technology officer and CEO of Agfa HealthCare. Raising awareness that way shows people that there are problems and there are needs for this technology in the field.

We are investing in chairs of informatics programs and labs. At Laval we’ve invested in a computer lab and done the same thing for Conestoga’s health informatics programs. We don’t have any say in what they teach there, but Agfa benefits from getting students who come out of that program; the schools benefit from having modern up-to-date labs that they can teach in. There’s a good partnership there.

There are new programs that are being developed across the country where health informatics is the major — everything from diploma programs up to degree programs. Students are getting into hospitals and learning how technology actually works there, how to manage information. Conestoga has a program that is eight months long, followed by a four-month work term and Agfa takes part in that. We bring some of those students into the R&D centre in Waterloo and it’s sort of like you try it before you buy it. Students come in, they work, we see how they are and if we like them, we hire them full-time. Conestoga has something like a 95% hiring rate out of this program for the past two years.

For companies like Agfa that do hire these students, word spreads very quickly that the opportunities in health care are viable and long term, they’re not fly by night. The health-care industry is, I won’t say protected from the economic decline, but it is a little more robust that way. Companies have to invest to some degree in promoting these types of informatics programs through the universities and recruitment drives. We’ve just been part of the new job fund that the government of Ontario put together. Agfa was awarded $29.6 million in grant money, which we then put $170 million behind, which means we have to hire 100 staff in the next five years. That kind of program, working with the government to show that there is innovation and job growth in the health-care industry will go a long way.

I’ve been working in health care for a long time and IT in health care has a lot of rewards. When you look at what you’re doing in a hospital, you’re working to really save lives. It sounds a bit floppy and out there, but the reality is that if you’re writing software programs that allow a physician to access a patient’s history, that’s going to contribute to better care and could in the long run save someone’s life. You get a bit of personal satisfaction from knowing that your work and the stuff that you do every day actually makes a difference in someone’s life. Can you say the same about the finance industry? Well, I guess if you bounce my cheques unintentionally, it probably would have an impact on my life, but it’s not a matter of life and death like it is in health care.

I’m not a techie, so I may be speaking out of turn, but I get the impression from talking with a lot of these technologically inclined people that they want to work on cool stuff. They want to work on things that are innovative and creative and they want to be able to use their minds as best they can to create these solutions. Health care has enough problems that they can put together some really creative and innovative ideas and that’s the kind of thing that needs to get out there. It’s not boring blood-test work that you’re doing here; this is creating exciting technology that makes a difference in people’s lives.

The schools are under pressure for funding and investment. Partnerships between the commercial side and the education side are very viable. At the end of the day, schools want to have a good hiring rate for their students and if their students come out with something that’s available commercially as far as their skill sets go, that speaks well for the school. At the same time, educators have to maintain the level of education of their students and commercial people have to work on influencing the direction of that education. We can’t be having them build Agfa products for us without learning something out of it. But from the university perspective, a company can be a good partner with the right terms and conditions in place so that they can get funding for innovative programs that industry supports.

On the industry side, we have a lot of experience and expertise that we’re willing to share with the schools so that they can stay current as well. Whether it’s a guest lecture or a tour of an R&D facility or an intern program, universities can take advantage of the real-time, real-life commercial side of the business, which is what the students are looking for. They’re looking for a job and the more exposure and experience they get ahead of that, the more viable they are to an employer.