A conversation with Dr. Richard Heinzl, Founder, Doctors without Borders Canada

Dr. Richard HeinzlAs Global Medical Director of Harvard-affiliated WorldCare International and the Founder of the first North American chapter of Doctors without Borders (DWB), Dr. Richard Heinzl is a man who understands very well the tremendous healthcare benefits that technological innovation can offer to remote communities. Whether providing direct medical care in remote Cambodia or spearheading advances in Telemedicine through his role as a special advisor to DWB’s Telemedicine Advisory Committee, Dr. Heinzl’s work continually finds him on the frontier of emerging health care innovations. However, as we learned in a revealing conversation with Dr. Heinzl, while the rapid advances in medical technology are undeniably impressive, it’s the patients themselves that are never far from this doctor’s mind.

“In many ways, the greatest driver of adoption of innovation and technology in healthcare is the individual patient who can learn for themselves. They’ve been handed an extremely powerful tool in the Internet and they can now see what is possible.”
Dr. Richard Heinzl

In this succinct and insightful response to our query, ‘what are the key factors to ensure the widespread adoption of new technologies in health care,’ Heinzl quickly dispels the widely held myth that today’s medical professionals have come to dread the Internet, or more specifically the ability it provides to patients to both self-diagnose and/or potentially misdiagnose their symptoms. Having seen firsthand the critical role that the Internet can play in facilitating timely and visually rich communications for medical practitioners in remote settings, Heinzl sees patient treatment input not as an impediment, but rather as a key driver in the market conditions driving current advancements in the medical field.

“The equation has been shifted and the power has much more been put in the hands of patients, and I think rightfully so. In that sense, patients and their caregivers have to work in partnership to see what kind of best solutions there are whether they’re standard solutions or new ones,” says Heinzl.

This detailed dialogue between patient and caregiver lies at the heart of Telemedicine, a medical approach that Dr. Heinzl defines in summary as, “Healthcare delivered at a distance where geography becomes irrelevant.”

Working in remote Cambodia with minimal access to the latest technology or even the second opinions of other medical specialists, Heinzl witnessed firsthand the transformative impact of Telemedicine when he was able to devise ways to share a patient’s actual Tuberculosis smear with an overseas colleague via a photo taken from his smartphone. In explaining the stakes involved for a mistaken diagnosis of this patient (I.E. a mistaken positive diagnosis embarking the patient on a potentially difficult and stigmatizing treatments OR a mistaken negative diagnosis potentially resulting in further infection or possibly even outbreak in the community), Dr. Heinzl provides a stark reminder of the grave responsibilities borne by all medical professionals – both in the field and closer to home. The experience taught Heinzl lifelong lessons about the importance of technology access in even the most remote regions.

“The remote world, whether it’s Northwest Territories or Yukon, or remote Cambodia, taught me something very valuable about innovation and how technology can make a difference for people. I learned about hi-tech from very primitive parts of the world,” recalls Heinzl. 

This perspective is sure to inform Dr. Heinzl’s keynote speech at the upcoming Opportunities North conference, a presentation sure to attract medical professionals from across Western Canada and the North. Dr. Heinzl’s insights will also resonate with the many business owners and entrepreneurs in attendance seeking potential opportunities to commercialize new product and treatment innovations in the medical sector. Thanks to rapid advances in the affordability and accuracy of human genome mapping, Dr. Heinzl says there’s never been a better time in history for the tech sector to access and advance the crucial research needed to stimulate and guide nascent innovations.

“A person’s genome sequence can now be done for under a $1000 within a day. This scientific discovery has now made available to the masses this ability to check your genetic information. So, it goes from something that was cumbersome, not available, super expensive, time consuming, and error prone, to something that is now available for really any entrepreneur to purchase—to see if there’s an opportunity or something they want to take further.”

Given this treasure trove of research information, one key in driving the adoption of new innovations is the question of ‘what does the market actually want and need? As with all things, the good Doctor brings the conversation back to the needs of the patient.

“What I’ve seen all my life is people want the very best,” asserts Heinzl.This need to get the best treatments drives patients to research alternatives, maintain a dialogue with their caregivers, and challenge them when they feel alternatives are not being fully explored. Of course, the process is also driven by the committed efforts of dedicated medical professionals, motivated to save lives and be the best they can be.

“People want to do these new treatments. They know they’re life-saving,” says Heinzl, in stressing the medical community’s wont to explore and embrace new technologies and techniques.

Coming from an accomplished humanitarian who is as humble as he is accomplished, those words carry great weight and offer much comfort to every person who’s ever wondered whether they’re getting the best possible medical treatment in their time of need. The key in achieving this aim is to inform both yourself and your doctor to the absolute best of your abilities. Fortunately, living as we do in the age of information, this once daunting task has never been easier.

And, for our fellow Canadians to the North, possibly living in remote regions without the ubiquitous Internet access we take for granted, we look forward to hearing your thoughts and experiences at Opportunities North. As our conversation with Dr. Heinzl has taught us, the next powerful new medical innovation can start with something as innocuous as a photo taken from a smartphone. Just imagine what might happen when we gather some of the brightest medical minds in Canada in one room with this simple thought in mind. Transformative! 


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