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Sault to market health-care delivery model.

SAULT STE. MARIE -Dave Murray knows an opportunity when he sees one.

The chief executive officer of the Group Health Centre (GHC) says health care should be the new economic engine for Sault Ste. Marie and he envisions his institution's model of health-care delivery being duplicated across Canada.

While politicians fret over the North's aging demographic, Murray says there are many homegrown advantages that the city should develop to deliver better health care to the community, to economically grow the sector and put more people to work with good-paying jobs.

"An aging population can actually be an economic driver," Murray says.

If Rochester, Minn. can be the home for the world-renowned Mayo Clinic, why not a similar version in Sault Ste. Marie?

That is one of the many ideas Murray is putting forward to the Sault Ste. Marie Economic Development Corp. with the hope of building public and private partnerships to grow health care in the community.

"Bill Gates decided to live in Redmond, Washington because he liked it out on the West Coast," says Murray. "Today, 7,800 people are employed in the software business in Seattle-Redmond with an average salary of $288,000 (US) and those people generate $2.5 billion for that local economy."

Already health care in the Sault generates $350 million locally, with an average of $3,174 being spent on a per capita basis in public and private funds annually.

Murray believes his nationally acclaimed clinic, along with the city's two world-class government research labs, could be a springboard toward establishing the Sault as a national centre for research, private referrals, health education opportunities and tele-health opportunities.

Among his ideas include becoming a national destination for diagnostic and fitness assessments for corporate clients or possibly franchising out the Group Health Centre community-based concept across Canada.

Recently Qualicum Beach, a British Columbia health-care institution, inquired about the centre, says Murray.

Other possibilities include adding a call centre component with an appointment-booking call centre and medical dictation services offered to other clinics.

There are options to consider consulting work and training for other facilities, as well as pursue health care and research opportunities with the Northern Ontario Medical School and Sault College.

With the Group Health Centre conducting about $2 million worth of clinical and primary care research annually, Murray says there are tremendous opportunities to coordinate, crossover and ramp up research with the Sault's two government forestry and insect labs.

The centre has also developed a leading edge electronic patient chart called the Electronic Medical Record. Instead of paper charts, this tool allows doctors to easily have access to and share patient medical records with all staff.

Through their record keeping, they now can keep tabs on the number of diabetics in the city or those who have heart disease, and know how they are being treated and what their medications are.

That kind of information is very valuable to anybody researching chronic disease management, says Murray, particularly pharmaceutical companies and research agencies.

"Because of the electronic medical record, it puts us at the forefront of research, which will benefit our patients."

The Group Health Centre is a one-of-a-kind medical centre that is part walk-in clinic, part hospital, and is based on a onestop shopping concept.

Started by steelworkers 40 years ago, the centre provides patients with access to primary physician and specialist care, laboratory services, physiotherapy, surgery, vision and eye care, diagnostic imaging, counseling and many other services on a non-fee-for-service basis.

It was one of the first Canadian facilities to employ nurse practitioners.

Regarded for years as the black sheep of the local medical community for its radical concept, today health-care experts and national media flock to the McNabb Street institution for a glimpse at what the future of medicare might look like.

When Roy Romanow and his Royal Commission on health-care reform toured the facility in May 2001, he called it "Canada's best kept secret."

"People don't realize what a gem we have here," says Elizabeth Bodnar, the centre's communications manager, who has fielded calls from media and health-care administrators across Canada anxious to hear about how the model works.

Through a partnership arrangement between the Group Health Association and physicians, the association handles the business end of the operation, providing office space, ordering supplies, booking appointments and providing IT support, while the doctor concentrates on medicine.

Dr. Hui Lee, an internist with the GHC medical group and an associate professor at McMaster University who moved to the Sault 10 years ago, finds the centre's team-oriented approach to sharing research and improving health care a refreshing change.

"I can get around to doing clinical work without a lot of administrative hassles," says Lee. "The ability to improve health care is easier here. You feel you can make a difference."

But the Group Health Centre is bursting at the seams.

With a roster of 60 physicians and a staff of 300, the centre treats about three-quarters of the city and district's population. But their provincially sponsored patient roster cap, upon which their $32-million annual budget is based on, has been frozen by the Ministry of Health at 44,000 patients annually.

"We're actually providing care for 60,000 people," says Murray, who was engaged in negotiations in mid-May with the province to increase the cap.

Their new plans call for a proposed $10million expansion, which would add 50,000 square feet onto their current 80,000-squarefoot building and the GHC staff would double through the addition of about 300 new jobs.

Since capital funding for expansions from the ministry is tight, Murray has approached the Sault Ste. Marie Economic Development Corp. to explore funding possibilities from other government agencies or private partners.

Bruce Strapp, executive director of the EDC, says Algoma Steel's upcoming layoff of 600 workers hammers home the point that economic diversification is critical. Building up health services and clinical research is a component of the city's strategic plan and is a primary source of future job creation, he says.

"We've struck working relationships with the Group Health Centre to support the initiative to create jobs around health care," Strapp says. "We're in the preliminary stages to do a concept-feasibility study and go forward in creating a strategy that will create some jobs in that sector."

The EDC has formed a task group to develop a business case for GHC by identifying possible components and projects, which meet the eligibility requirements of various government funding agencies.

Strapp says the GHC has some attractive business functions which can be marketed internationally such as their ongoing clinical and pharmaceutical research, their call centre services, the clinical record management system and its comprehensive patient database.

"They all have the potential to work with other private-sector players in attracting other players who can promote and market it internationally," Strapp says.

Turn to page 25 to read more health-related stories in this issue.
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Title Annotation:Group Health Centre in Sault Ste. Marie to become a version of Mayo Clinic
Author:Ross, Ian
Publication:Northern Ontario Business
Geographic Code:1CONT
Date:Jun 1, 2003
Previous Article:IT firm spreads wings after incubator program. (Thunder Bay).
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