On a cold weekend in January 2003, nearly 200
grassroots activists from across Canada gathered in a small community
centre just outside of Moncton, New Brunswick to participate in the
annual Solidarity Network Assembly.
Solidarity Network is a national Canadian organization that brings
together community based social justice activists from a variety of
struggles. The annual Assembly contributes to coalition and skills
building by offering workshops on topical struggles. This year the
battle to save and expand public Canada’s Medicare was a key workshop
Polaris Institute offered a healthcare workshop titled ‘Waiting in
the Wings’. The session focused on identifying some of the for-profit
health care corporations or perhaps more aptly dubbed ‘corporate sick
shops’, that are positioning themselves to exploit public Medicare for
Medicare in Canada is an integral part of Canadian society, it is a
part of who we are - like an arm or leg, and it is essential and visible
to us. However, Medicare is under attack by corporate interests. The
healthcare privateers are largely unknown, unseen – nearly invisible to
It is important that healthcare activists dedicated to saving and
expanding public Medicare focus their campaign attention on unmasking
these corporate sick shops. Medicare campaigns must identify and expose
the track record of healthcare privateers and the level of political
influence they have. After all –public scrutiny is like a disinfectant
that can cleanse our public healthcare system of skulking pests.
Healthcare services are very lucrative – globally this sector
generates 5 trillion dollars/year in economic activity and in Canada
healthcare services are a 90-billion/year operation.
Lets understand what such large numbers mean simpler terms. If you
were to receive a 100-dollar bill every second- you would be a
millionaire 8 x times over in just 1 day. But if you received a $100
bill every second, you would have to have your hand out for 317 years –
for just 1 trillion dollars!
Make no mistake, corporate sick shops are determined to privatize
Canada’s healthcare system- and they won’t stop at our domestic
systems. Through corporate lobby groups they doggedly push for further
privatization of healthcare systems worldwide via trade and investment
agreements like the GATS.
Their motivation is clear. It is for the money.
Healthcare privateers are sophisticated and are often difficult to
spot appearing in places we least expect. The technology sector holds
great promise for health care privateers. Globe and Mail, columnist Jack
Kapica reported early in 2003 that the technology sector was regaining
its allure to investors because of important public policy and private
Kapica has written about a the results of a
significant e-health project that were released in March 2002 showing “
how telecommunications could help governments ease the stress on the
health care system.”
Who conducted this project? It was private healthcare and
telecommunications companies, with indiscernible names like, ‘Ottawa’s
March Networks’, ‘Aliant’, ‘Canarie’ and ‘We Care’. With such unclear
monikers it is not surprising that healthcare privateers remain
invisible to the general public.
The study paid for by private sector Internet and healthcare service
corporations’ proclaimed “remote health care can maximize
resources without sacrificing patient care.”
Study that phrase carefully and take note that it does not say –
governments will save money, rather there will be a ‘maximization of
resources’. A good thesaurus suggests other ways to phrase this concept
with words like, ‘exploit’, and ‘take advantage of’.
Do you wonder who is likely to get the ‘maximization of resources’?
The final report from the Commission on the Future of Canadian Health
care also known as the Romanow report is supportive of the increased use
of ‘e-health and tele-health’ projects. The Commission’s final
recommendations include a call for the expansion of tele health projects
for remote and rural communities and for the development of a pan
Canadian electronic health record system.
Kapica also notes in a related public policy initiative, supported by
former Health Minister, and now Industry Minister Alan Rock has put
two-dozen Canadians (not likely candidates for the new I am Canadian
beer commercial) on a special committee that will oversee the
development of a major ‘e’ project to bring remote communities within
Taken together, the tele-health and ‘e’ project for remote
communities has the potential to bring both healthcare and educational
services to remote communities. Of course it also yields business
opportunities for information and technology based companies that can
orchestrate a convergence with healthcare and educational service
It matters not, that the meteoric rise and fall of the dot-com sector
merits little attention to financial investment advisors who notice that
government, healthcare and information technology [IT] industry players
are increasingly cooperating.
Without missing an opportunistic beat, financial advisors exhort
investors to join the convergence game.
But where will the great speculative gains be made? What are the most
lucrative applications and who will finance the ‘maximization of
Perhaps the treasure will be found near a Golden Pond.
Consider, that today the planet is hosting the largest group of
elders alive in human history. In fact between 2010 and 2030 says
Philippe Fauchet, director of the Center for Future Health at the
University of Rochester, says we can expect a huge explosion in the
senior population. Fauchet notes that in 2000 about 22% of the
population was over 55, but in 2030 it will be around 32% and during
that period the percentage of the population over 65 will jump from 14%
The growth of our elder population also includes a growth in the
number of people who suffer from ‘cognitive decline’ – an inevitable
fate that accompanies the aging process.
Corporate sick shops are not troubled by the possibility of large
groups of addled elders roaming the streets in pursuit of yesterday’s
memories. Instead information technology [IT] corporations like Intel
see a great investment opportunity ahead --especially if they partner
In fact, the Intel Research Institute has set up a multi-phase
research ‘partnership project’ with US based health care researchers.
Through its support of the Proactive Health Research Project, Intel is
learning how it can garner new technology markets to ‘prevent disease,
foster independence and improve quality of life’.
Intel capitalizes on both the research interests of universities and
government agencies addressing healthcare policy and at the same time,
taps families who are in need of in-home assistance for family members
who are suffering from cognitive decline ailments, like Alzheimer’s.
Volunteers offer homes and their loved ones to be equipped by Intel’s
Research crew with high-tech technologies – essentially a network of
micro sensors embedded throughout the home, in clothing and furniture
which tracks the daily routines and behaviours of Alzheimer’s patients
to a central computer for analysis.
The level of data collection possible is astounding. For example,
pressure sensors can be placed under rugs or cushions recording normal
walking and sitting movements. Researchers extrapolate that with
computer assisted analysis the data can differentiate between walking
and limping. In the kitchen, placing sensors on cookware and utensils
are intended to provide indicators to the ‘main frame’ that they are
being used for regular meal preparation.
Sensors on doors can track the traffic patterns of residents entering
and leaving their homes; placed in mattress they will assess changes in
a person’s body weight over time. This Orwellian thinking includes
directly monitoring individuals by sensors placed in bracelets or
contained in ‘jewellery’ to track data like blood pressure.
The reference to embedding Intel’s cutting edge research tools in
‘jewellery’ is perhaps predicative of the income group where such
healthcare technologies will most likely be applied in order to optimize
the ‘maximization of healthcare resources.’
Undoubtedly, as a care giver or family to someone suffering from such
degenerative diseases as Alzheimer’s these technological tools offer a
sense of protection from in home dangers as well as providing an
elaborate tracking system intended to ensure well-being.
But, what happened to home care services? Where are the investment
interests in enhancing care systems that involve people? Rather than
acknowledging a huge shift in age based demographics and directing
healthcare resources to recruit, train and employ people to work with
our elders – Intel and healthcare researchers are investing in computer
chips and main frames.
The application of ‘smart home technologies’ as it is being called,
has a variety of applications like security and surveillance.
Researchers are thinking about applying it to as a large a market group
as possible. Dr. Eric Tangalos, a professor of medicine and the
Director of the program on aging at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester,
Minnesota notes “these technologies are already creeping into our
environment – making our lives better by making our environments easier
to navigate.” After all he says, “don’t we all want a VCR that resets
itself after the power goes off?”
The visionary researchers imagine the embedded network of sensors
being so ubiquitous that if a person forgets to take their medication on
time, there will be a computer based technological reminder–a digitized
voice already dubbed a ‘personal health assistant’ emanating from a
home computer system, or PDA reminding the forgetful soul to take their
The growing convergence between healthcare systems and information
technologies is revealing. To Intel, perhaps the fact that 80% of the
world’s population has yet to even hear the sound of dial tone in their
homes, or that less than 2% of the population is connected to the
Internet are indicators of market potential for their research
Intel may also be thinking that if they play their cards right, it
might be able to cash in on public monies to advance their own research
agendas for profit making. Consider that Intel has spent $12 billion
dollars in the past two years (2001-2003) getting ready to move into new
kinds of manufacturing technologies.
Ironically, the same day the Globe and Mail reported on the ProActive
Health Research venture for Intel, they also reported in a separate
section that Intel was leading a number of major technology stocks
The reason cited for the share price plummet was that investors were
responding to a company warning that it was cutting its 2003 capital
budget. Andy Bryant, Intel’s Chief Financial Officer offered inquiring
financial analysts assurances that “what we are really trying to do is
manage the company very cautiously.”
Of course shaving off nearly a billion dollars from its capital
spending plans would fit most CFO’s definition of cautious management.
But looking into the not too distant future, it might be possible for
IT corporations like Intel to build a field of dreams from our rapidly
growing aging population and support their venture with publicly funded
investments in smart home technologies.
Cognitive decline, may be inevitable as we age, but until it takes
hold it will be important for healthcare activists to sharpen our
remaining faculties on the future plans of IT companies leering at the
public healthcare purse.
Karl Flecker is the Education Coordinator with the Polaris
Institute. May - 2003.