Photo credit: Qin Dai.

Transforming healthcare digital data with a focus on accessibility

An alumnus of Engineering Science (2007) and Biomedical Engineering (2009), Melanie Yeung has witnessed the digital transformation of health data – from pen and paper to digital records. Having worked in the University Health Network for more than 10 years, she recently started her role as the Director of Digital Products at Medavie. Now, Melanie is planning to create a digital health ecosystem that incorporates patients, healthcare providers, and new technologies to better understand and engage patients about their health and wellness.

Can you briefly describe your background and how you got into your current role at Medavie?

My background is deep-rooted in clinical settings. I graduated in Engineering Science at the University of Toronto in 2007, with a focus on biomedical options. Soon after that, I completed my master’s in clinical engineering through BME with Dr. Joseph Cafazzo at the University Health Network (UHN). My project was to design and develop an iPhone app to assist nurses in collecting vital signs for early warning systems and critical care response teams.

I also did an internship at Mass General Brigham, looking at how to integrate medical devices into their networks so clinicians could draw that data into a centralized record. I did a lot of interoperability work on connecting standalone medical devices, such as ICU monitoring devices and ventilators, into computer networks.

When I went back to work at UHN in 2012, mobile hardware and application development became more mature and were starting to be integrated into the health care system. At the time, my primary goal was to develop self-management applications for patients with chronic diseases. I focused on creating health apps and digital therapeutics for smartphone devices, bringing what was traditionally recorded on pen and paper by patients and providers into the digital world.

In terms of medical applications, we were enabling the tracking of symptoms, medication, vital signs and observations collected through wireless medical devices such as glucose meters, blood pressure monitors and weight scales. We developed products that were for heart failure, diabetes, asthma, COPD, cancer, and pain management. At the end of my tenure at UHN, I was managing a development team composed of about 30 developers, quality assurance testers, product managers, and product owners. Together, we were creating a variety of patient applications.

After that experience, I decided to venture out of academia and investigate how to scale digital products in the marketplace. Medavie, a health solutions partner that oversees Medavie Blue Cross and Medavie Health Services, had an opportunity for a director of digital products to help start a new line of business to further support the health and wellness of Canadians. That brought me to where I am now.

How has the field of digital medicine changed in the last decade?

Over the last decade, people started seeing the benefits of mobile and digital technology, and access at the point of care. It goes hand in hand with evolving hardware capabilities on mobile devices and it being more amendable to the healthcare environment.

In 2022, it’s common to see healthcare professionals and patients using apps to record health-related data, which has evolved immensely since I started working in this field more than a decade ago. When I shadowed nurses back in 2009, much of the documentation was still done using pen and paper. We have come a long way since then and have surpassed the time when disinfecting digital devices was the primary challenge and major barrier in a clinical setting. Now, it is determining which application works best for the clinician’s workflow and use cases. Without applications, I believe digital technology would not have accelerated to the place we see it in today in the healthcare settings.  

Illustration by sbonaart via Fiverr.

What are some of the challenges and barriers now in the field of digital medicine?

I believe that healthcare should be equitable across any demographic, population, and economic status. We need to all work on building infrastructure and provide everyone with an equal opportunity to connect with their healthcare provider through digital health.

That could include subsidized or lower-cost devices that Canadians can purchase or working with the government and telecommunication companies to create device access points. Increasing access to devices can ensure digital health is available to all Canadians.

What is the goal of Medavie?

At Medavie, we are on a mission to improve the well-being of Canadians. For my team, this would be in the form of creating digital innovations by partnering with technology companies, development groups, and other service providers to create an ecosystem where we can offer something tangible to Canadians. For us, we must learn and understand the needs of the end-user and the environment around them. This includes things like legacy systems, emerging technology companies, and their roadmaps. Together, we can work to create a solution to a challenge we are facing or seize an opportunity to address gaps in care. Importantly, it’s about understanding the patient’s unique needs and creating products and services that best support their healthcare journey.

What is your day-to-day like? What do you do as the Director of Digital Products?

As the Director of Digital Products, I communicate with a variety of departments and stakeholders. Each of these groups has different needs, so I find myself wearing many hats.

If it involves our development team, for example, I’d be getting status updates on how the product is developing, driving the requirements, and designing with the team.

I may have conversations with end users, where I’m learning about current user experiences, identifying opportunities, and how to avoid barriers. Those meaningful conversations with end users and clients help me define the product requirements and specifications.

Legal, privacy and security also play an important role in what we do. We are developing products that have personal health information so it’s paramount that while we are creating our products, we build privacy and security into the architecture of the app. We ensure our end users understand our privacy policy, terms and conditions, and how the information is used.

Lastly, I have meaningful conversations with leaders in my organization about our value proposition, how it relates to our business, how we can accelerate Medavie’s mission, and what type of resources we might need to launch or enhance products and services. We are a not-for-profit organization and have a board of directors who set the strategic direction for the organization. I ensure that the work my team is doing aligns with the strategic direction set for the business. 

What would be the next step for digital healthcare?

I think at the root of it is the patient – making their experiences in healthcare seamless and enjoyable while supporting positive health outcomes.

A digital journey starts with the ability to access an app, use the app, and communicate and send data to a healthcare provider. Healthcare providers can leverage the information available to help prevent disease, diagnose or treat the patient. If anything goes wrong in this pipeline, then we’ve failed.

All those transactions and those interactions need to be done in a very purposeful and seamless way for the best user experience. So, it all comes down to how that patient’s journey is, and how the experiences around that journey lead to the best outcomes.