As more Canadians turn to virtual care services in 2021, experts say the industry needs to integrate more health specialties, implement more stringent privacy, and bridge the digital divide so all Canadians have access.
On Dec. 7, Ontario’s Auditor General Bonnie Lysyk said the province has been too slow to integrate virtual care services, despite the government relaxing rules around billing for remote care.
The report indicated that the Ontario Telemedicine Network and the Ministry of Health “do not have effective systems and procedures in place to offer virtual care services more long term in a cost-efficient manner to meet Ontarians’ needs.”
Mark Satov, a strategy advisor at Satov Consultants and an investor at Mindbeacon (virtual mental healthcare service), said in an interview that the uptick in virtual care is here to stay, but that while the industry grows it should look to add more specialties to platforms.
“Let’s say you went to see your [general practitioner] because you’ve had a rash and it’s a recurring rash so you want to get a referral to your dermatologist. Well the GP is not necessarily going to go on their platform, click three buttons and say ‘your dermatologist virtual appointment is next Thursday at two,’” he said.
“They are doing it the old fashioned way, which is probably, you go to your doctor’s office and they fax things around.”
Juggy Sihota, vice-president of consumer health at Telus, said in an interview that the company’s virtual care platform Babylon has integrated some specialties like mental health services, but that the majority of visits have not resulted in referrals.
“More than 80 per cent of the concerns that we have are addressed in that one primary care visit with us,” she said.
“In a case where you do have to get sent over to a specialist, sometimes that specialist only has a phone call, which is not necessarily ideal. So I think that the challenges going forward are going to be to continue to scale with different types of providers.”
Sihota said that Telus ramped up its service offerings as more Canadians were worried about the spread of COVID-19 and not wanting to go to clinics, indicating that the app saw a “tenfold increase in demand.”
“We saw a dramatic surge happen and the growth was explosive and has remained in an exponential way. Every 30 seconds, someone in Canada is downloading our app, and every 90 seconds someone’s actually having an appointment,” she said.
Sihota also said that Babylon’s platform has software that protects the personal information of Canadians.
“The health and medical information that users share and receive through Babylon is stored in Canada and securely transmitted using encryption mechanisms that meet, and in some cases, exceed the highest industry-recognized standards,” she said.
But Satov said some practitioners might be reluctant to do consultations over traditional video-calling platforms because of concerns around privacy.
“I’ve one healthcare provider that didn’t want to have a consult with somebody in my family until we specifically agreed that we can do it over Zoom and are waiving our rights to privacy,” he said. “They want their own platform to have a different level of security where you can share information.”
Satov added that it might be worth it for more platforms to have their own technology that ensures a higher standard of privacy.
“Dramatic silver wave of citizens” buying technology, learning virtual care software
Duncan Stewart, director of technology, media and telecommunications research at Deloitte Canada, said in an interview that in 2020 more people over the age of 65 purchased smart devices, are learning how to use virtual care, and are ensuring they have internet services to access it.
“It’s been a dramatic silver wave of senior citizens, whether they bought it themselves or whether it’s their children [buying for them],” he said.
“There are three pillars to this. You have the device, you have the connection, and you know how to use the software. The answer in 2017 would have been no, no, and no, and now it’s yes, yes, and yes.”
Stewart said that while many seniors are getting connected, there still is a large digital divide that limits the number of people who are able to access virtual care.
“If you want to have a video call with your doctor, the key is to have a certain upload speed. You’re not going to do surgery over it, but if you want a nice clear picture of that mysterious rash, you need video,” he said.
The federal government recently announced an additional $750 million of funding to the Universal Broadband Fund to help connect Canadians to high-speed internet across the country. The investment aims to connect 98 per cent of Canadians by 2026, with a goal to connect 100 per cent by 2030.
With files from the Canadian Press