Digital Healthcare Meets Pandemic Tipping Point

June 07, 2021 | Jennifer Marron


How many times did you visit a doctor's office in the past year? If the answer is zero, you're not alone.

Digital Healthcare Meets Pandemic Tipping Point in page

This article originally appeared on the RBC Thought Leadership.

According to a recent study done by the Canadian Medical Association Journal, Ontario saw an almost 80% decrease in primary in-person health-care office visits during the early months of the pandemic. Meanwhile, virtual consultations with doctors skyrocketed across Canada.

The pandemic has accelerated digital adoption across the economy and society. Healthcare is no exception. Telemedicine holds the promise of enabling more Canadians to get the medical help they need, at a time when that need has arguably never been greater. A recent RBC Insurance national poll among working Canadians found that COVID has had a negative impact on their wellbeing, health and access to healthcare.

To better understand the challenges, we spoke to three executives from telemedicine firms Maple, Well Health Technologies and Dialogue on our latest Disruptors podcast. All three firms experienced exponential growth during the past year and are cautiously optimistic for a more digital, patient-centric future for all Canadians.

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Here’s some of what we heard:

Technology democratizes access to care, and helps make the system more efficient

Maple CEO Dr. Brett Belchetz is an emergency-room physician whose own experience of giving quick medical advice to friends and family over FaceTime inspired the vision for his company. Maple's platform enables patients to connect directly with doctors in minutes via a smartphone or computer. Belchetz says telehealth provides a more convenient option for less-urgent medical needs and care, and frees up capacity for those who require in-person care.

“Every time I went to work in the hospital, I would see patients waiting eight hours to see me for three minutes of my time for really simple needs, like a prescription renewal, treatment of a urinary tract infection, or to have a rash looked at," he said.

Changing the system is very complex and difficult, but telehealth has proven its worth

As CEO of the fourth-largest operator of health clinics in Canada, Well Health Technologies' Hamed Shahbazi understands the challenges in driving change or pushing for the adoption of new technologies in an already overwhelmed health care system.

“I think a big reason for the lag in digitization and modernization is just how busy and burdened this group is and how little time they have for change management — and that's where COVID was both treacherous and valuable," he said.

According to Statistics Canada, most Canadians (91%) use the Internet and 75% also use social networking websites and apps, making telehealth a great option for care with fewer logistical efforts. A 2015 Harvard Medical School study estimated that, on average, a typical visit to a doctor takes over two hours — of which only 20 minutes are spent face-to-face with the physician. Virtual care offers a convenient and accessible solution for both patients and physicians in the comforts of home.

Digital health enables better communication and proactive insights

A 2018 study showed that around 40% of Canadians track one or more aspect of their health using connected care technologies, with 68% saying smart digital devices have allowed them to maintain or improve their health condition. Proponents of digital health believe that if they can measure an aspect of their life on a regular basis, they can improve it.

Digital tools may also be particularly valuable when it comes to treating mental health care. Montreal-based Dialogue launched a “high touch" mental health program before the pandemic, where every patient is assigned a doctor and therapist, along with a dedicated case manager for maintaining regular contact.

“This multidisciplinary team works with that patient to bring them to remission as quickly as possible, and then we maintain ongoing follow-up to make sure that these people don't dip or don't go back to some of those mental health issues that we know can be recurring," said Anna Chif, the company's co-founder and chief strategy and product officer.

“I think medicine overall is moving from, 'I'm sick, I'm getting care', to, 'here are some behaviours you can change and here are some tools to do that' in order to ensure that you don't go down a path that leads you to sickness," she said.

This article originally appeared on the RBC Healthcare - Advice & Learning