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Is Telemedicine The Next Big Thing In Canadian Health Care?

The digital revolution has made impressive strides in redefining modern health care, and we’re once again seeing technology shake up this industry by making medical care more efficient for both patients and healthcare providers.

This virtual healthcare, or “Doctor in a Pocket” model is providing a powerful new way to facilitate consultations between Canadian doctors and patients and provides a healthy compliment to both an employee benefits plan and the provincial health care coverage.

We just have to look to our southern counterpart to see that this is the beginning of something huge. American companies with over 400 employees who used virtual healthcare saw their numbers double in just one year, climbing from 15 million in 2016 to 30 million in 2017.

Despite the widespread adoption rates skyrocketing in the United States, telemedicine has not seen the same impact in Canada. And while it has incredible potential, there’s still a bit of ground to cover before fully taking flight.

How Telemedicine Helps Patients Become Actively Engaged in Their Health

While we might not be operating at the same playing field as the U.S, the U.K or even New Zealand for that matter, virtual consultations have already proven to be beneficial to Canadians in so many unique ways.

Akira, Maple, Dialogue, eCare, GOeVisit and Wello are the big telehealth providers in Canada, all with a similar business model, and all aiming to cut down on in-person medical visits. Telemedicine has the power to help patients be more engaged in their health and enable better management of chronic diseases, resulting in fewer and shorter hospital stays, reduced prescription frequency, lower dispensing fees and reduced absenteeism at work.

This mobile on-demand service allows users to get medical attention at the tap of a button, and be connected with a registered nurse or nurse practitioner that does the initial triage with patients electronically. They then figure out where the service needs to go next, whether it’s to bring in a medical doctor, a referral for lab tests or be recommended to a specialist.

Whether a patient calls, texts or video chats, this innovative healthcare solution has already helped people:

  • In remote communities with limited access to doctors and expertise,
  • With limited transportation options,
  • Send cardiograms from patients to doctors,
  • With young children, and no babysitting options,
  • Limited mobility,
  • Save time at walk-in clinics for general information,
  • Use their smartphones to capture and transmit blood pressure and lung function readings,
  • Remote monitoring and health coaching.

A Supplementary Form of Healthcare

When you read the fine print for each of the big providers, the terms and service all claim it’s for “informational purposes only,” so they are really quite adamant that they aren’t giving medical consultations. Right now, it is best utilized for specialist referrals where you could get some really high-level advice in a virtual visit that provides individuals with immediate care and peace of mind.

Canada boasts some pretty phenomenal doctors, which makes this kind of framework a perfect supplement to a world-class health care system.

“From a medical perspective, it’s incredible how many diagnoses – over half – do not require a hands-on in-person consultation,” said Roxana Zaman, COO of Maple.

The numbers above come from a study between Cossette and Dialogue, reinforcing the idea on how telemedicine can be used to curb unnecessary waiting room visits, and provide quicker access to medical information and questions.

While all these point to a healthy and sustainable model in telemedicine, there are a few areas we need to monitor closely as the technology develops.

  1. Are we sacrificing quality for convenience? 

Will the quality of care suffer as we try to keep up with the rapid growth in tech? “More care isn’t always better care,” said Dr. Monika Dutt, a family physician in Sydney, N.S. “We need to make sure it does benefit the patient and makes sense within the system.

  1. Rules defining and regulating telemedicine

While there isn’t a national framework for telemedicine, each territory and province has their own set of licensing requirements physicians must abide by. “They also might need to be licensed in both the jurisdiction in which they are located and the jurisdiction where the patient is located.”

Sun Life made it known that they will continue to transform their business by expanding their digital offerings and collaborating with innovative partners – but outside of that, most insurance companies haven’t indicated too much.

  1. Will there be a break in continuity?

Some of the feedback I’ve heard is that the medical doctors that are in the platform are doing it in between shifts, on call in the hospital where they have a one-hour window – so the problem is that if you go on the platform, chances are you wont see the same doctor, and not having an ongoing relationship between the physician and patient is a concern.

  1. Who will have access to the data?

There is the privacy legislation that stipulates how information is collected and distributed, which raises the question about how health data will be shared. And if physicians are getting access to it quick enough, along with a seamless transition to deliver high-quality health care.

It also brings up the conversation over the growing number of data breaches, making privacy a major concern.

“Doctor in a Pocket” and the Startup Community

I wholeheartedly believe this has the power of transform healthcare, and while it is gaining momentum in Canada, I don’t think we as a country are large enough to sustain six of these platforms. I think what we will likely see are companies getting acquired, merged, or shut down – and the ones that survive will build out more comprehensive features, especially in with more robust mental health services.

I see it evolving away from just being a medical consultation to the point where you will see psychologists, psychotherapists, and other mental health practitioners added into the applications. Toronto-based company, TranQool, who were actually recently acquired, might have been ahead of their time with their platform that allowed you to speak directly with a licensed therapist.

Telemedicine has the potential to expand globally, and continue to build out a network of highly regarded doctors. For now it’s something that large companies are really embracing. Especially when you consider that 75% of large U.S companies now offer virtual healthcare in 2017 compared to 48% the year before.

This is a very positive sign of the times, and while it gives the user more control and ownership over their health – there’s still a lot of runway left before this thing really takes flight in Canada.