Building a Learning Health System for Canadians

Report of the Task Force on Artificial Intelligence for Health (AI4Health)

Read the full report  


In the spring of 2019, CIFAR convened AI and health innovation leaders from across Canada in a roundtable discussion to understand Canada’s opportunity to advance AI for health.  A strong consensus emerged that with a concerted effort to leverage Canada’s world-leading AI research ecosystem, together with its extensive population-wide data holdings within the publicly funded health system, Canada could become a world-leader in the development and adoption of AI-based approaches to health and healthcare. However, we need to act quickly. The roundtable stakeholders supported the establishment of a Task Force to develop recommendations towards a national strategy on AI for health. 

The Task Force was convened by CIFAR in September 2019 and comprised 17 leaders with diverse expertise and, including co-chairs.  The AI4H Task Force endeavored to align its work with both federal and provincial strategic priorities and activities. The Task Force has been in close contact with officials from both Innovation, Science and Economic Development Canada and Health Canada throughout the course of its work.  The Task Force also took several opportunities to engage with officials from provincial and territorial Ministries of Health to ensure that their perspectives and priorities were understood. The Task Force also engaged directly with stakeholders across sectors, and across the country as it developed its recommendations, culminating in a series of town hall consultations in Toronto, Montreal, Edmonton, and via webinar in January 2020 to share and receive feedback on a set of draft recommendations. 

Key Recommendations:

The Task Force recognizes that responsible use of AI for health can deliver strong positive benefits to Canadians in three primary ways, by: 

  • Improving the effectiveness, efficiency and safety of health service delivery;

  • Providing insights to inform both disease prevention and policies addressing broader population health determinants; and

  • Underpinning the discovery and development of new diagnostic tools and treatments.

In order to realize those benefits, governments need to act urgently on three broad fronts.

  1. Establishing AI4H info-structure that enables responsible access to health data while ensuring data are secure and privacy is protected

    The types of comprehensive datasets that will optimize the impact of AI in the health sphere cannot be created without strong public engagement to help guide terms and conditions for their use.  More generally, members of the public and patients should be included as active partners in the development, governance and evaluation of AI4H policies and strategies.

  2. Accelerating the development of safe, high-performance AI4H applications by both public institutions and private enterprises, alongside deployment of incentives that promote strategic procurement and responsible scaling of these applications within Canada’s healthcare systems

    This involves two mutually reinforcing elements. One is smart development and procurement of AI within Canada’s publicly funded healthcare systems. The other is an effective commercialization plan, supporting the growth of Canadian-led AI4H enterprises through both direct and indirect funding, targeted procurement, and facilitating access to international markets. Success in both domains depends critically on the implementation of the right set of incentives.

  3. Ensuring that federal and provincial/territorial plans to advance digital health are coupled to an explicit AI4H strategy with the relevant policies, investments, partnerships, and regulatory frameworks

    Such a plan should aim to ramp up research, enable improvements in healthcare delivery and population health policymaking, and facilitate the development of scalable AI4H innovations under the aegis of both private enterprises and public institutions. Without this alignment, Canadians will not reap the full health benefits of the opportunities available from responsible use of AI and machine learning more generally.

Further recommendations relating to these three fronts for action can be found in the body of the Task Force report.

These recommendations are intended to lay foundations for a national, coordinated, and integrated effort that will help Canada take full advantage of transformative new technologies that are rooted in Canadian research and have widely-recognized potential for use in every corner of the world and by people in every conceivable walk of life. Failure to seize these opportunities will have adverse consequences for the quality and efficiency of our healthcare systems, the health of our communities, and the prosperity of the nation. We call on the Government of Canada and all interested provincial/territorial governments to collaborate urgently in developing an AI4Health strategy in lockstep with broader plans to accelerate digital healthcare innovation.

AI for Health Task Force Membership

Tim Evans (Co-Chair), Director and Associate Dean, School of Population and Global Health and Associate Vice-Principal (Global Policy and Innovation), McGill University

David Naylor (Co-Chair), Professor of Medicine and President Emeritus, University of Toronto

Elissa Strome (CIFAR Lead), interim AVP Research and Executive Director, Pan-Canadian AI Strategy, CIFAR

Alan Bernstein (Ex Officio), President and CEO, CIFAR; inaugural president of the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR)

David Dodge, Senior Advisor, Bennet Jones LLP; former Governor, Bank of Canada; CIFAR Board member

Audrey Durand, Canada CIFAR AI Chair, Mila; Assistant Professor, Université Laval

Anna Goldenberg, Canada CIFAR AI Chair, CIFAR Fellow (Learning in Machines & Brains program), Vector Institute; Associate Research Director Health, Vector Institute; Senior Scientist, SickKids

Randy Goebel, Professor, AVP Research and AVP Academic, University of Alberta

Jordan Jacobs, Co-founder and Managing Partner, Radical Ventures; Co-Founder Vector Institute; CIFAR Board Member

Alexandre Le Bouthillier, Co-founder, Imagia; Mila Board Member    

Ted McDonald, Professor of Economics and Director, NB Institute for Research, Data and Training, University of New Brunswick

Kim McGrail, Professor, University of British Columbia; Scientific Director, Population Data BC; Scientific Director, Health Data Research Network Canada

Gail Murphy, Vice-President, Research and Innovation, University of British Columbia

Alison Paprica, Health Data Research Network Canada; University of Toronto

Carole Piovesan, Partner and co-Founder of INQ Data Law

Michael Strong, President, Canadian Institutes of Health Research

Robyn Tamblyn, Scientific Director, McGill Clinical and Health Informatics Group