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St. Albert doctor concerned by Babylon Health app

Dr. Bailey Adams said family doctors are being hit on two fronts right now: patients are already concerned about attending doctors' offices in person, and doctors are now losing their patients to the online app.

A St. Albert doctor is encouraging residents to call their family doctor rather than use the new health app being promoted by the province.

On March 19, the province launched the Babylon Health app, which allows patients to meet virtually with doctors rather than going into the doctor’s office.

But Dr. Bailey Adams said family doctors are being hit on two fronts right now: patients are already concerned about attending doctors' offices in person, and doctors are now losing their patients to the online app.

“So many clinics are laying people off. It's that or shut our doors,” Adams said.

“Many clinics across Alberta are having to lay off their staff and are shutting their doors because they can't pay their overhead to keep the clinical open.”

The app allows for patients to meet with a doctor, but it’s not their family doctor, which takes business away from local clinics.

Adams said working with a family doctor who knows a patient's health history is important.

“Even in a crisis of COVID, people still have high blood pressure and diabetes and sore throat and anxiety,” Adams said.

“They need their support from their care provider who knows them to help them deal with all of this stress.”

The app is an initiative by TELUS Health, which partnered with UK-based Babylon. It is available in Alberta, B.C. and Ontario and offers video consultations with physicians. On its website, TELUS states the intent is to help people who don't have family doctors, who live in remote areas, who have needs outside regular working hours or who have trouble seeing a doctor in person.

Christine Molnar, president of the Alberta Medical Association, wrote to her fellow doctors to give them an update on her understanding of Babylon, which she described as a “virtual walk in clinic.”

“This type of virtual-only clinic could be helpful in providing access to Albertans in remote or underserved areas where they don’t have the option of having a regular family physician. However, like many tools in medicine, what helps can also harm if used the wrong way,” Molnar wrote.

The doctor said patients with access to a regular family physician could be drawn to the virtual clinic, which can result in the fragmentation and disruption of continuity of care.

There is no associated service for conditions that have to be physically evaluated. Evidence shows in comparison with care from a regular family physician, this model of care results in more tests, more referrals, generates more visits to emergency and results in more hospitalizations,” Molnar said.

“These are impacts we could not afford in a pre-COVID economy. In the current pandemic these outcomes will strain the system and are potentially life threatening to affected patients.”

The vast majority of doctor’s offices are set up to deliver tele-health to their patients and the government recently changed billing codes so doctors are able to treat patients through the phone when necessary.

Babylon is a privately owned company headquartered in the United Kingdom. Adams said the government is promoting them in the middle of this pandemic.

“By the government launching Babylon in the midst of this pandemic, they're promoting a for-profit (business) ... it's a foreign-run business.”

TELUS has pushed back against the characterization of this app as privatizing health care. In an FAQ on its website, TELUS stated the app "facilitates the provision of a public healthcare service" and patients do not pay for the service.

Adams said many patients sign up for the service expecting to be able to speak to their own family physician but instead they are being connecting with a doctor they’ve never met before.

Adams noted the privacy settings on the app are much different than if a patient was to talk to their family doctor. The patient’s location is accessed and the app records the conversations.

TELUS states the consultations are recorded so patients can access past sessions. Patients can opt out of having their consultations recorded.

Jennifer Henderson, Local Journalism Initiative reporter

About the Author: Jennifer Henderson, Local Journalism Initiative reporter

Jennifer Henderson is the Local Journalism Initiative reporter for Great West Newspapers based in St. Albert, Alta.
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