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Alberta privacy commissioner investigating Babylon health app

A woman uses her smart phone as apps are shown on an iPad in Mississauga, Ont., on November 13, 2017. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette

Information and Privacy Commissioner Jill Clayton is looking at TELUS’ virtual health-care app, Babylon, to ensure it complies with privacy laws.

A notice saying Clayton “launched investigations” into the app was posted on the OIPC website Tuesday.

The investigations were opened “after concerns were identified in separate privacy impact assessments (PIAs) that a Calgary-based physician and Babylon Health Canada Limited had submitted on the app,” the notice reads.

READ MORE: Coronavirus: App lets Albertans meet with group of doctors through smartphones

On March 19, the Alberta government said the Babylon app would be another way people could access medical advice, allowing them to meet with a doctor (though not necessarily their doctor) virtually.

It was offered through an alternative relationship plan (ARP) between the Alberta government and TELUS.

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Alberta doctors raised concerns including that the app wasn’t available for all physicians and that it acted as a virtual walk-in clinic.

“Family physicians have been begging the health minister to allow us to provide virtual care to our patients so that we can keep our vulnerable patients at home and promote social distancing,” Dr. Heather Shonoski, a physician in Peace River, said.

READ MORE: Alberta doctors ‘beyond frustrated’ with virtual care app amid coronavirus crisis

On March 23, the province announced it was adding new temporary physician billing codes so that all doctors could be compensated for providing virtual care during the COVID-19 pandemic.

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On Tuesday, the privacy commissioner said that no one is required to use the Babylon app.

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“I encourage physicians or patients with concerns about this app to remain opted out of using it while my office reviews the app’s compliance with Alberta’s privacy laws,” Clayton said.

Section 64 of the Health Information Act requires health custodians to submit a privacy impact assessment for review by the Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner for any new or changed administrative practice or information system relating to the collection, use or disclosure of individually identifying health information.

In a statement provided to Global News, a spokesperson for the ministry of health reiterated Babylon is an optional product and no one is forced to use it.

“We believe that Albertans appreciate options in their healthcare delivery, including embracing technology,” Steve Buick, press secretary for the health minister, said.

“Babylon began operating in British Columbia over a year ago, and the United Kingdom before that. Millions of people use this application around the world.”

He added that the province’s role is limited to its ARP with TELUS Health and that Alberta has ARPs with many providers.

“Telus Health and the physician lead submitted the required Privacy Impact Assessment to the Information and Privacy Commissioner in May 2019,” Buick said. “Of course, we fully expect Telus Health and physicians to comply with all applicable laws and regulations and work with the Information and Privacy Commissioner to address any concerns going forward.”

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Alberta’s chief medical officer of health was asked about Babylon during her daily COVID-19 update on Tuesday afternoon.

“I think the important thing is for people to reach out to their family doctor,” Dr. Deena Hinshaw said, adding there are other online and telehealth options besides the Babylon app if people have concerns and want to wait until the privacy commissioner completes the review.

“There’s certainly other ways to get virtual care other than that app.”

The Opposition NDP says this is another reason the health minister should resign.

“I am very concerned that Tyler Shandro signed a contract, launched the app, and has energetically promoted it using his position as minister, all before these serious privacy issues were addressed,” said David Shepherd, NDP Opposition Critic for Health. “It is yet another damning indictment of his performance as health minister. He must resign.”

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