The future of healthcare is evolving in front of our very eyes with many advances in virtual care and artificial intelligence to the benefit of Canadians. During these times, healthcare workers and patients across Canada are embracing the new reality.

TELUS Health is the largest health IT company in Canada helping to transform the way we access healthcare by working collaboratively with provincial governments and the physician community along with many other healthcare professionals. To learn more, I reached out to Juggy Sihota, Vice President of Consumer Health at TELUS. Juggy leads several initiatives to support people who may have difficulty accessing healthcare – including the five million Canadians without a family doctor as well as seniors and those with mobility issues.

Bringing AI-powered intelligence to the delivery of healthcare is quite interesting in that it needs to be designed to understand the unique way humans describe symptoms. As such, the company’s latest service, called Babylon by TELUS Health, truly places healthcare in the hands of Canadians virtually. The service has been receiving high praise from users and allows you to leverage an AI-powered Symptom Checker to get more information about your illness; and in B.C., AB and Ontario users can also have a video consultation directly with a licensed family physician.

Juggy is a visionary leader that is passionate about continually striving to enable positive healthcare outcomes for all Canadians. I connected with Juggy over a video call to gain insights into a variety of topics that are top of mind for many during this time.

Brian: TELUS Health has been a leading health IT company for more than a decade. Why did the company decide to venture into virtual care?

Juggy Sihota, Vice President of Consumer Health at TELUS

Juggy: “As a telecommunications company, we’re in the business of moving information securely and efficiently. For years, we did that for many different sectors and industries. But as an organization driven by our social purpose and committed to leveraging technology to improve the experiences of all Canadians, it was a natural next step to explore opportunities in healthcare. Thanks to the vision of our CEO, Darren Entwistle, we made the decision to invest in healthcare more than a decade ago and have invested more than $3.2 billion since then. Today, we’re Canada’s largest health IT company.

Virtual care became an area of interest for us as we learned more about the very real challenges Canadians experience in accessing care. We have a lot to be proud of when it comes to our healthcare system, but we can’t ignore the fact that nearly five million Canadians don’t have a regular family doctor and more than half find it difficult to quickly access after-hours non-emergent care without going to a hospital emergency room. Powered by our world-class networks, our virtual care services like Babylon by TELUS Health are revolutionizing access to care and making it easier to connect patients with doctors so they can get the care they need, whenever they need to and wherever they are.”

 

Brian: What led to the decision to partner with Babylon Health on this venture?

Juggy: “We’ve always believed that we have a responsibility to help the public sector address certain challenges, including in healthcare. So when it came to choosing a partner for our virtual care offering, we wanted to find an organization that shared those same values.

Babylon Health is a global leader in health technology and its virtual care platform has made significant positive impacts in several international markets, including in the UK, where Babylon is the only in-country digital health provider working in partnership with the National Health Service (NHS). They are democratizing healthcare by providing virtual care support through their ‘GP in hand’ service at no cost to users.

In partnership with Babylon, we are delivering this same innovative virtual care technology to Canadians, offering them another way to access timely, quality healthcare support and information when and where they need it most. With Babylon by TELUS Health, residents across the country can not only check their symptoms, but those in British Columbia, Alberta and Ontario can also video chat with a locally-licensed doctor and manage their health records all through a smartphone app. Video consultations are covered by provincial health insurance plans so patients don’t have to worry about paying for anything themselves. We are rapidly expanding our service to cover the country from coast-to-coast.”

 

Brian: Tell me about the artificial intelligence component of Babylon by TELUS Health. How does it work and how does it set the technology apart from other virtual care solutions?

Juggy: “Developed by a team of dedicated doctors and scientists, the Artificial Intelligence (AI)-powered Symptom Checker draws on over 500 million streams of medical knowledge to assess a user’s symptoms and suggest a course of action. Users type their health concern into the chatbot-style application and respond to a number of questions about their condition. The Symptom Checker then takes this information and provides a response based on risk factors and statistics. The response users receive isn’t a diagnosis, but it does help them understand what they can do in the moment, whether that means having a virtual consultation with a local doctor or seeking urgent in-person care. It empowers them to make a data-driven decision without the anxiety and uncertainty that comes with a basic internet search.

The system has undergone a thorough review process by clinicians and healthcare providers from multiple specialties, which involved inputting a variety of medical conditions through the feature to improve its ability to match a user’s symptoms with an appropriate next step. As with any AI technology, as more people use the Symptom Checker, the more it learns and enhances its capabilities. The Symptom Checker is never intended to replace a doctor; it’s there to complement health care delivery.”

  

Brian: Babylon by TELUS Health also enables users to connect with locally-licensed doctors. How does it work alongside existing health services?

Juggy: “In primary care, we know we need a quarterback provider– a family doctor or a GP. Maintaining a relationship with that quarterback provider is so important for the continuity and quality of your care. But the reality is that not all Canadians have a regular doctor they visit and many have health issues that come up after hours. Virtual care services like Babylon by TELUS Health are designed to help those individuals access care right when they need it.

If a patient does have a family doctor, we support the continuity of their care by enabling them to have their consultation notes sent directly to their own family doctor. We always encourage users to reconnect with their family doctor when they can for their regular check-ups.

With limited options for care outside of traditional clinic hours and many turning to hospital emergency departments for non-emergent issues, Babylon by TELUS Health also aims to help relieve some of that pressure by providing another option for accessing care.

For physicians, virtual care services like Babylon by TELUS Health offer more flexibility and work-life balance where that’s needed. It also diversifies their patient pool as they provide to patients outside of their community in the rest of the province, opening up more opportunities for learning.”

  

Brian: In what ways is virtual care transforming the way we access healthcare in Canada?

Juggy: “Virtual care truly empowers Canadians to play a more active role in managing their health. Solutions like Babylon by TELUS Health come at no cost to the user and offers them a seamless experience that makes it easy to get primary care support whether they’re at home or on the go.

Right now, COVID-19 is driving the virtualization of everything. With the pandemic keeping all of us in our homes and many feeling anxious about exposure to the virus in clinics and hospitals, virtual care is needed now more than ever before. Governments are responding by opening virtual care fee codes across the country allowing doctors to bill for consultations that are not in-person. And according to a new study by the Canadian Medical Association, the demand is there – half of Canadians reported that they’ve used virtual care over the last few months and would use it again in the future. We even saw it in our user base of Babylon by TELUS Health, which has tripled in the last few months. People are seeing the benefits of virtual care — the convenience and ease it offers, the high quality of care doctors can provide — and they don’t want to go back to a time when this wasn’t available.”

 

Brian: As the use of virtual care has increased significantly over the past few months due to COVID-19. In your opinion, what is the future of virtual care and how will it continue to evolve?

Juggy: “COVID-19 has certainly been a catalyst for change. It’s dramatically driven up adoption of virtual care and taken away many of the barriers that have limited access to these innovative solutions in the past. For years we’ve known that Canadians wanted virtual care. COVID-19 has demonstrated that they will use it, and the spike in the use of our service can attest to that.

So what’s next?

I love the prospects of the future and how virtual care can evolve. From increasing access to specialists, to remote appointments with dermatologists and even allied healthcare professionals like physiotherapists, I believe virtual care will be embedded into nearly all aspects of our healthcare system.

Virtual care bridges time and distance for so many Canadians. Today it’s enabling people across the country to easily access the care when it may have been difficult in the past. I know we can do so much more for Canadians by increasing adoption and improving the options to access more of our healthcare system.”