COVID-19 pandemic puts digital health care to test

Experts call level of demand for virtual delivery of medical services ‘unprecedented’

Digital delivery of health care is increasingly becoming a necessity, not just a convenience, as the coronavirus pandemic accelerates | Submitted

While provincial and federal health authorities are prescribing Canadians a dose of “stay home” amid the COVID-19 pandemic, long-gestating forays into virtual delivery of health care look poised to pay off.

“The silver lining on this sombre cloud is we have so many more options today than we had even 18 months ago,” said physician Alexandra Greenhill, CEO of Vancouver-based Careteam Technologies Inc. “Networks are even more robust in terms of sustaining traffic volume and the cloud services are more elastic.”

Careteam’s platform helps care providers working across different organizations collaborate digitally on care plans for patients with complex chronic cases.

Greenhill said government pleas to keep visits to hospitals and clinics for urgent matters only are creating capacity for doctors to attend to cases online.

Meanwhile, jurisdictions throughout North America are now trying to facilitate telehealth billing amid the pandemic, “which is something that easily could have happened long ago but is now being introduced as an emergency measure,” she said.

The pandemic is having other knock-on effects, such as prompting both the Canadian Medical Association and American Medical Association to put together guidelines to further enable telehealth options.

“In an ideal-case scenario, people should be able to do a self-assessment, and a clinician can supervise how they do the swab [via video],” Greenhill said. “This way no one’s exposed either during the clinical visit but also travelling to a location to get tested.”

She said most jurisdictions are not equipped to do that just yet but there’s no reason such measures could not be implemented in a matter of days.

Telus Corp.’s (TSX:T) own health-care app, Babylon by Telus Health, began offering primary care services to British Columbians in March 2019.

It has since handled more than 40,000 patient consultations and has just become available in Alberta and Ontario.

In addition to offering access to health records and enabling video calls with doctors, the app features an artificial--intelligence-powered symptom-checker, which was just updated for COVID-19 screening.

If the symptom-checker determines a user needs to see a doctor, he or she will be directed to book an appointment through the app.

“No one could have predicted where we are now with COVID and this quickly growing crisis,” said Juggy Sihota, Telus’ vice-president of consumer health. “Certainly in this last couple of weeks, demand for this service is at unprecedented levels and we are actively looking at bringing on more doctors to manage the demand that we’re getting from patients.”

Telus is tapping into its own network of doctors who can help with online consultations as more people self-quarantine.

In addition to recruiting more doctors, Telus is reallocating some of its own employees to provide additional support for the app.

“From a technological and infrastructure standpoint, there are no issues,” Sihota said. “It can handle all of the volume that what we want to give it.”

Navya Singh, a psychologist and research scientist at Columbia University’s department of psychiatry, said she expects demand to swell for virtual health and mental health care as the pandemic unfolds.

“More and more people are reaching out to find the right and validated resources for self-care and to manage distress related to the COVID-19 crisis,” she said.  “Not being able to access in-person therapy will lead more people to reach out for digital care.”

Singh, the founder of the wayForward (PsyInnovations Inc.) mental health support platform, said that while the digital health industry is experiencing unprecedented demand for services, barriers remain getting patients and providers to jump on board with new tools.