Citizen Action Monitor

Telus Corp’s subsidiary, Telus Health, aims to privatize Canada’s virtual health care services

The rapid growth of private, for-profit health care, can be attributed to decades of government cuts to social services.—

No 2701 Posted by fw, January 23, 2021 —

Under conditions of the ravaging of Canada’s public health care system—produced by decades of austerity and laid bare by the pandemic—a mad scramble among corporate giants is under way to seize control of potentially profitable parts. A prime example of this process is Telus, the Canadian-based telecommunications giant, which is seeking to dominate Canada’s emerging health tech sector. In 2018, Telus Health, a recently-formed subsidiary of Telus Corp., partnered with Babylon, a UK-based virtual health care start-up, to create a downloadable app that lets patients meet with physicians in private video consultations, and check symptoms and access clinical records virtually. The app is currently available in four Canadian provinces: British Columbia, Alberta, Ontario and Saskatchewan. Since the app was introduced, concerns have grown over patient safety.”World Socialist Web Site

Below is my repost of WSWS’s article outlining corporate giants’ endeavours to control profitable parts of Canada’s virtual public health care services. Should Canadians be concerned? Absolutely. My report features added subheadings, hyperlinks to cited articles, text highlighting, and, in places, bulletted formatting.

The article prompted me to submit the following comment —

Great article. As a resident of Ontario, I would be interested in a follow-up piece on what actions, if any, professional medical associations, government departments, political parties, individual politicians, mainstream news media, and citizen action organizations are taking to address the privatization of our underfunded public health care system.

To read the original article by Penny Smith on WSWS’s website, click on the following linked title.

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Corporatization of Canada’s virtual health services part of broader privatization drive by Penny Smith, World Socialist Web Site, January 22, 2021

Corporate giants aim to control profitable parts of Canada’s virtual public health care services

Under conditions of the ravaging of Canada’s public health care system—produced by decades of austerity and laid bare by the pandemic—a mad scramble among corporate giants is under way to seize control of potentially profitable parts. A prime example of this process is Telus, the Canadian-based telecommunications giant, which is seeking to dominate Canada’s emerging health tech sector.

Telus Corp’s subsidiary’s app risks “undermining existing family practices”, says Alberta doctor

In 2018, Telus Health, a recently-formed subsidiary of Telus Corp., partnered with Babylon, a UK-based virtual health care start-up, to create a downloadable app that lets patients meet with physicians in private video consultations, and check symptoms and access clinical records virtually. The app is currently available in four Canadian provinces: British Columbia, Alberta, Ontario and Saskatchewan.

Concerns are growing over patient safety

Since the app was introduced, concerns have grown over patient safety.

  • Alberta doctor Ruoh-Yeng Chang commented that Babylon sees the new app as the equivalent of a walk-in clinic, where patients are attended by staff who do not know a patient’s history. “This is an undermining of existing family practices and the relationship between family doctors and their patients,” she said.
  • Community pediatrician Dr. Natalie Forbes told the media, “Babylon is substandard private health care, funded by our government, putting money into the pockets of Telus.”
  • Toye Oyelese, a family doctor practicing in Kelowna, British Columbia, believes that Babylon will mean more patients will get worse care. “It’s going to be fast food, because that’s what corporations do,” he said.
  • A group of British Columbian family doctors released a statement stressing that although “the COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated the opportunity for family physicians to use telemedicine within their primary care practice … it is best used within a longitudinal patient-physician relationship.”

Telus’ aim is not to improve public health care but “to liquidate” and “replace” the public system

But the aim of Telus is not to improve public health care by offering a complement to existing in-person health care services. Instead, it intends to liquidate them entirely and replace them with remote, impersonal for-profit health care call centers with as few doctors as possible. Its business model plans for many health inquiries to be dealt with through artificial intelligence “chatbots.”

The aim is to put the doctor’s brain on a mobile phone using AI “chatbots’

For example, in Rwanda, where the Babylon app was introduced in 2016, the company announced its aim was to “take the power of a doctor’s brain and put it on a mobile phone for medical advice and triage.”

Studies found no “convincing evidence” the app performed better than doctors

Predictably, authoritative examinations of the app’s performance have led to stark warnings. An article published in November in the British medical journal The Lancet found that the Babylon app, currently contracted with the National Health Service (NHS) in the UK, did not offer convincing evidence that its symptoms checker performed better than doctors in any realistic situation. The article pointedly noted that it sometimes performs significantly worse. Similar conclusions were drawn by a report published by Pennsylvania State University. It warned that existing symptoms-checker chatbot apps cannot provide a final diagnosis or analyze test results, let alone supervise proper physical examinations.

Use of the chatbot app also raises concerns about patient privacy

Without any regulatory mechanisms in place, medical professionals are also worried about the impact on patient privacy. In Alberta, the app was launched before a privacy review—which could take more than a year—was completed. Doctors have pointed out that Babylon’s terms and conditions include the sharing of patient information with “corporate partners and other entities.”

Telus willingly handed over thousands of patients’ private health information to government police agencies

It is worth noting in this regard that in 2014 Telus Health’s parent company, Telus, willingly handed over private details of thousands of its subscribers to federal government police agencies.

Equally worrying is Telus’ recent acquisition of virtual health services

In addition to partnering with Babylon, Telus has recently acquired an array of virtual health services. These include

    • electronic medical records software company Nightingale,
    • web-based prescription technology ZRx Prescriber,
    • B2B virtual medical consultations service Akira Health, and
    • virtual care company EQ Care.

In addition, Telus Health is developing its own “virtual care initiatives’ to secure a monopoly

Telus Health has also developed a series of its own “virtual care initiatives,” including

    • EMR Virtual Visits, technology that enables doctors to conduct video consultations with their patients, and
    • Espri, a mobile app that provides mental health resources to front-line workers.
    • Telus Health also owns a series of brick-and-mortar clinics that charge patients annual fees in the thousands of dollars while still billing provincial health plans.
    • In Saskatchewan, Telus Health has set up its Home Health Monitoring “solution” to digitally monitor the recovery of lung transplant patients, and plans to expand the use of HHM to include individuals with heart conditions and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). The HHM solution has been used in British Columbia since 2013 to remotely monitor thousands of patients living with chronic conditions such as diabetes, heart failure and respiratory diseases. Discussions with other provincial health authorities about using HHM in other provinces are underway.
    • Telus is shamelessly exploiting desperate patients who lack timely access to basic healthcare services, the need for social distancing restrictions during the COVID-19 pandemic, and rising chronic illness to significantly expand its presence in the health care sector.
    • However, the fact that Telus is on its way to securing an effective monopoly over the primary e-health care “market” with substandard and dangerous virtual services whose main purpose is to turn a profit is not simply the result of corporate greed.

The growth of private for-profit health care can be linked to decades of government cuts to social services

The growth of private for-profit health care is bound up with the decades of social spending cuts, imposed by governments at all levels and all political stripes, from the nominally “left” New Democrats, to the Liberals, Parti Quebecois, and Conservatives. Long waiting lists for diagnostic tests and medical procedures have created a “demand” for alternatives.

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