In the age of technology when your smartphone can bring take out, dates and more direct to you, apps are now also bringing virtual healthcare to users.
In B.C., apps such as Babylon by Telus Health, which launched earlier this year, aims to link people who don't have a family doctor with medical advice and online tools that lets patients videoconference with doctors.
Paid promoter of the app, Jasmine Lorimer (previously seen on The Bachelorette Canada) recently moved to Squamish. Often travelling, Lorimer said she hasn't had the time to settle in — or find a doctor.
"I grew up in rural Ontario where it was actually really difficult to access healthcare because we didn't have a walk-in clinic," she said.
"The reason I'm really excited about this app is that it allows you to access everything from your phone," she said of Babylon. "We're so used to doing it with the touch of a button on our phone. Even to call a doctor's office to make the appointment, I find that seems like a very simple task but for some reason making that call, I just haven't even done that."
On the app, however, appointments can be booked directly.
Residents of B.C. have access to all the features, some of which go through MSP. Lorimer said she finds the symptom checker particularly handy. It uses an automated chat that prompts follow up questions. Then it suggests the next course of action, whether that's finding a nearby hospital, making a doctor's appointment or calling 911.
"The really cool thing is that you can speak to a clinician via video, if in the evenings you need to speak to a doctor, or on weekend or especially during the busy holiday season," Lorimer said. "It's also freeing up some resources at local clinics during such a busy time of year."
So how is the app different from Googling symptoms and self-diagnosing?
"I think the most important piece that I take away from it is just the medical data that it's able to scour through to give you the best suggestion," she said. "When you're typing in the symptom checker, it actually feels like you're speaking to a doctor. It's the same questions that your doctor would ask you.
"If you were to Google it, you might not know exactly what to type in. This is actually prompting you to ask more questions about your condition. It gets really specific."
Another option that makes the app accessible, Lorimer said, is the ability to fill prescriptions at your local drugstore, then pick it up once it's ready.
"It helps me just out of convenience, mostly,"Lorimer said.
"I feel like freeing up resources in our local clinics and hospitals, that's just a bonus of this app," she said. "It's nice for anyone living in rural B.C. or places where it's just not as accessible."
The Chief asked if users should be cautious about sharing their medical information with an app. In an email, a Babylon representative said, "Babylon by TELUS Health takes every necessary precaution to ensure personal information is safeguarded and secure. The health and medical information that users share and receive through Babylon by TELUS Health, including symptoms, treatments, test results and consultations, are stored in Canada and securely transmitted using encryption mechanisms that meet, and in some cases exceed, the highest industry-recognized standards."
What the doctors say
"We should be using this technology to support and enhance that longitudinal care with family physicians," Dr. Kathleen Ross, the president of Doctors of BC, told The Chief.
"Unfortunately, in B.C. as across Canada, many patients don't have access to their own family doctor. Walk-in clinics and Babylon-type service is actually filling a gap. I would argue that we don't want episodic care to become the standard of care in Canada. Virtual care certainly makes it easier to access the majority of your care in that episodic way."
When asked if apps such as this one can benefit patients and clinics, Ross said it's a complicated question.
"You have to ask what problem are we trying to solve in providing access through a service like Babylon. We know that the evidence is very clear that a long-standing attachment to a family doctor who knows you, knows your history, knows your background, definitely provides the best healthcare outcomes and costs the system less overall," she said.
Meanwhile, Ross described Babylon's current form as "a virtual walk-in clinic," that could lead to multiple investigations or treatments that may not be medically necessary.
Investigations could include blood tests, ultrasounds, MRIs or referrals to specialists. Evidence has proven, Ross said, that a family practitioner helps eliminate unnecessary testing or treatments, and improves preventative health. She acknowledged that, since Babylon aims to help those without a family doctor and during after-hours, it could possibly help lift some of the burden off of emergency departments.
Ross also pointed to Healthlink BC, the 811 hotline, which is available after hours and allows patients to speak with a nurse.
"At this point in time, these types of services are filling a gap. I would argue that they are not filling the gap with the best possible care," Ross said. "We should be looking at improving our model of care, utilizing all the tools that we have at our disposal, including telemedicine to try and ensure that patients have access to that long-term, quality family medicine."