*EDITOR’S NOTE: This article originally stated the app let Albertans meet with their doctor virtually; however Babylon is a small project, limited to a select number of doctors. It lets Albertans meet virtually with a doctor.
The Alberta government announced an app Thursday that gives people the option of connecting with a physician using an app on their phone.
It is not available to any doctor, however, as it is a small project that involves a small number of Alberta doctors.
“We recognize the pandemic will place unprecedented demands on physicians to support patients while minimizing office visits, and we will announce further steps in the coming days,” Steve Buick, spokesperson for the health ministry, told Global News on Friday.
The government said the app is meant to supplement existing services.
The province sent out a news release Thursday, describing it as a new tool for Albertans to access health-care information and support in response to COVID-19 from anywhere in the province.
Residents can use the service to check symptoms, book appointments, see a doctor and get prescriptions and referrals for diagnostic imaging and specialists, and it’s all covered by Alberta Health Care, the government said in a news release.
Babylon by TELUS Health is a service already available in B.C. using a free downloadable app.
“Alberta is pleased to partner with TELUS to deliver physician services in a new way,” Health Minister Tyler Shandro said.
“This app is now available and ready for use in Alberta thanks to an alternative relationship plan, and it comes at a time when our health system is actively asking people to self-isolate as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Using this app is an alternative to visiting physicians face-to-face when you’re not sure if your symptoms are related to the novel coronavirus or at any other time,” Shandro said.
Alberta doctors have been urging the province to support alternative ways all physicians can meet with patients during the pandemic.
They’ve also been asking the province to improve compensation for telephone or video-chat appointments with patients — especially in light of COVID-19.
A government spokesperson said it is working on a plan to address this and it will be coming soon.
“In partnership with the government of Alberta, our virtual health-care service bridges time and distance for Albertans in need of expeditiously accessing a physician at no cost from the comfort of home, while simultaneously keeping our amazing health-care professionals protected,” said Darren Entwistle, president and CEO of TELUS.
“It is our sincere hope that we can mitigate the enormous pressure on our health-care system through our technology, human ingenuity and compassion.”
The service is being delivered to Albertans through an alternative relationship plan (ARP) between the Alberta government and TELUS.
There are currently 61 ARPs in Alberta involving 2,500 doctors. It was not immediately clear how many Alberta doctors were part of the Babylon project. The total cost of the project is $1.5 million per year.
All physicians providing advice through phone, email and videoconferencing — including virtual care — can bill for services using the health service code (HSC) 03.01AD, the government said.
This includes care related to COVID-19 as well as care not related to the virus. The code will remain active as long as the chief medical officer of health determines it should remain active. There is no limit on calls per day, the government said.
More information for health-care providers is available in an Alberta health bulletin.
The province also said it hears calls from physicians for more supports and a solution is coming soon.
Another company developed a secure email system clinics can use for free to communicate with patients. Brightsquid Secure-Mail is available for clinics across the province to access and invite patients to sign up, joining the 80,000 already using the system.
“A lot of clinics are challenged right now to find something they can use to communicate with their patients without having them come into the office so they can work with them in isolation,” said Jeff Mackay, with Brightsquid. “We are really doing everything we can to use secure mail at no cost to them.”
Patient Paul Ghazar and his family have been using the service for the past couple of years.
“I personally feel more comfortable,” he said. “I am cautious now, trying to socially distance.”
Community-based neurologist Dr. Scott Wilson is working with the Alberta Medical Association, discussing technological options, and has support of the College of Physicians and Surgeons and AHS when it comes to exploring efficient and effective options.
“At a time like this, we need to move to all modalities — whether it’s secure mail, video messaging… In my job, as a neurologist, sometimes I need to lay hands, but I can do a lot of preemptive work and then decide what has to be done.
“If I get an MRI result back and a patient is waiting to find out results, almost as quickly as I got the results, I can email them. I can even send a picture of it or the direct report right to the patient,” Wilson said.
— With files from Global News’ Jill Croteau
Questions about COVID-19? Here are some things you need to know:
Health officials say the risk is low for Canadians but warn this could change quickly. They caution against all international travel. Returning travellers are asked to self-isolate for 14 days in case they develop symptoms and to prevent spreading the virus to others.
Symptoms can include fever, cough and difficulty breathing — very similar to a cold or flu. Some people can develop a more severe illness. People most at risk of this include older adults and people with severe chronic medical conditions like heart, lung or kidney disease. If you develop symptoms, contact public health authorities.
To prevent the virus from spreading, experts recommend frequent handwashing and coughing into your sleeve. And if you get sick, stay at home.
For full COVID-19 coverage from Global News, click here.