Dr. Abhinav Sharma will lead the MUHC’s new digital health initiative.

Canadians are facing a health crisis. Cardiovascular disease, obesity and diabetes are all on the rise. So many of us just don’t move enough, in fact, data from Health Canada suggests that 80 per cent of the population is physically inactive. Physical inactivity is associated with more than 18 diseases including diabetes, six types of cancer, and cardiovascular disease. In addition, 5 million premature deaths worldwide every year are attributable to physical inactivity.

Now, one young physician expert in digital health wants to change that. Dr. Abhinav Sharma is relocating from California to Montreal this month to help launch an exciting new digital health hub at the McGill University Health Centre (MUHC).

As one of the top research-based hospitals in Canada, the MUHC is well placed to take the lead in advancing innovation in digital health in this country. The hub, which will serve as a cardiovascular digital innovation centre, will test, validate, and create digital health apps to reduce the burden of heart disease – and other conditions – among Canadians.

Born in India, and raised in Hong Kong, Dr. Sharma completed medical school at McMaster University, before undertaking more study in internal medicine, and subsequent fellowships in cardiology at the University of Alberta, Duke University, and most recently Stanford University. His clinical research interests focus on the intersection of diabetes and heart failure, but what the slim snowboarding enthusiast would really like to do is pretty simple – he wants Canadians to be healthier by moving more.

“So many of us don’t exercise enough,” says Dr. Sharma. “Especially during the winter, a lot of people wake up, get in the car, go to work, and then they come home. Maybe they go on a ski trip once a year. When you think about a person’s day to day life, people don’t actually move that much. So what can we do to get people moving?”

Dr. Sharma’s goal is to transform our health. At Stanford University, he has been working on a program called My Heart Counts Cardiovascular Study, a collaboration between the University and Apple. This study was one of the first mobile phone applications which aimed to study cardiovascular disease and risk factors at a country level. As many as 60,000 Americans took part in this study and downloaded the application onto their iPhone. The My Heart Counts team gathers data on health status, physical activity, and symptoms. Dr. Sharma plans to launch a My Heart Counts Canada in his new role at the MUHC.

“In addition to talking to your family physician about physical activity – which you should still do – imagine an app on your phone or watch to help coach you to be more active,” he explains. “Now imagine launching that across the country. We would be able to reach a lot more people to help promote increased physical activity, and other healthy behaviours.”

It’s a far-reaching initiative and one that could revolutionize the way we seek out or manage our care, but Dr. Sharma is quick to assert that digital health is more than one mobile application. It includes wearables, even device and computer algorithms – all tools to help figure out optimal treatments and therapies for patients. Digital health also has exciting implications for remote follow up care with patients who find it difficult to get to a clinic or doctor’s office, or who live in parts of the country where there is no regular full-time physician in the community.

Dr. Sharma believes there’s no end to the ways in which technology can improve our health.

“Using technology as a tool to co-manage care with your patient is ideal,” he says. “As a physician, when I’m dealing with a patient, I want this to be a cooperative solution. If one person just tells another person what to do it’s far less effective than if the two of us come up with a strategy together.”