A Winnipeg insurance provider appears to be the first in Canada to let its clients claim virtual doctor appointments, getting prescriptions and other primary care without the patients leaving their homes or offices.
Johnston Group is partnering with Teladoc Health, an international company that offers phone or video consultation with a doctor, to offer virtual visits as part of their most popular insurance plan.
"We know that virtual health and telemedicine is something that’s becoming more and more attractive to Canadians," Johnston Group CEO Dave Angus said.
"I think there is demand, because some of the issues of having to wait to get in to see a doctor."
On Friday, the Winnipeg Regional Health Authority said wait times at the Concordia and Victoria urgent care centres rose in July.
Last year, about 16.5 per cent of Manitobans and about 16 per cent of Canadians told Statistics Canada they do not have a primary care provider.
The service isn't a replacement for having a family doctor, but "another channel to get health care" instead of walk-in clinics or emergency room visits, said Karen Grant, vice-president of global products for Teladoc.
"Clinical-quality care, but in a way that’s convenient for them," said Grant.
Many people face barriers to health care, including those who live in remote areas, those who can't travel to appointments and shift workers, she said.
Virtual doctors can easily check up on and issue prescriptions for conditions like cold and flu, allergies, upper respiratory infections, pink eye and urinary tract infections.
But for management of chronic conditions, it's better to wait to see a specialist, Grant noted.
The service is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year.
About 140,000 Canadians working at 30,000 small- to medium-sized businesses will be able to claim telehealth visits through Johnston Group's Chambers of Commerce Group Insurance Plan. The company will consider adding it to other plans, Angus said.
Teladoc just launched in Canada this week, but so far provides care only through Johnston Group. The company hopes to offer the product through more insurance plans and governments.
Manitoba’s public health system is expanding its use of telehealth to connect patients in rural and remote areas with primary care and specialist physicians.
Largely, patients still have to travel to a local medical centre, where a computer and secure line are used to videoconference with a doctor in another location.
Pre-surgery consultations, oncologists, geneticists and psychiatrists are some of the 90 specialty types available.
As of last year, a spokesperson for Shared Health said 500 clinicians are using the service at 189 MBTelehealth sites.
Health care providers can also access a secure app called MyMBT to communicate amongst themselves or eConsult to get a specialist’s opinion.
The Peachey report that has guided the province’s health system transformation recommends increasing telehealth, especially for palliative care patients but also for addictions and mental health.
A spokesperson for Shared Health couldn't comment on future plans for expansion with a provincial election underway.
There are about a dozen other telehealth providers in Canada; many are available to anyone, like Maple, which charges $49 per appointment.
In Manitoba, there is also a nurse-practitioner service, My Virtual NP, that offers care online or in homes.
But so far, it appears none of these providers is covered by health benefit plans.
For small- and medium-businesses especially, Angus said not having to wait in a walk-in clinic will help address productivity losses. The annual cost of productivity losses — not just for medical care — is pegged at $16.6 billion.
"It’s not just about health care, but there’s a big part of it — people who have to wait in waiting rooms or have to wait to see a doctor that could be in their office and access a doctor through this platform," Angus said.
McKenzie Hamp, director of director and people and culture at 7shifts Employee Scheduling Software in Saskatoon, agreed. The company's insurance now includes virtual care.
"I think for us, this just gives a lot of time back to our employees, and I think in this day and age, the most valuable thing you can give someone is time," said Hamp. "That’s going to create a lot of value for them, and convenience."