Universal health care is an expectation of all Canadians, who are thankful for a system that, when it works, works very well. When a breakdown occurs, however, it can be a matter of life and death.
Juggy Sihota, vice-president of Consumer Health at TELUS, experienced a glitch in the system about a decade ago when her mother suffered a heart attack and needed immediate attention. It was a long weekend, and reduced access to emergency services threatened a possible treatment delay.
Seemingly unable to help a family member in serious need, Ms. Sihota says she had “never felt more hopeless.”
Happily, her mother received the necessary care and regained her health. But for Ms. Sihota, it was a crucial moment when she committed to “being a part of a solution that makes health care accessible to everyone, whenever they need it.”
Ms. Sihota, a dynamic leader who had led several emerging technology businesses and operations at TELUS, turned her sights to the health division of the telecommunications company. Today, she leads the national strategy, execution and operation of Consumer Health.
Establishing TELUS Health approximately 12 years ago, TELUS’s CEO Darren Entwistle decided to “put a shoulder behind one of the greatest social challenges of our generation: access to health care,” explains Ms. Sihota. A socially oriented organization, the business was poised to leverage its network infrastructure and technological expertise to tackle this vital issue.
“Who better than us?” points out Ms. Sihota. “A telecommunications company that is really good at protecting information, and is the best at making connections to move information fast and make sure it gets into the right hands at the right time.”
TELUS engaged its stakeholders – government, health authorities, practitioners and the public – to explore where it could make the most impact, she says. “What we learned is that continuity of care is critical, and it’s not acceptable the way it exists today.”
For example, more than five million Canadians lack a family physician, and 50 per cent report difficulty in accessing health care outside of nine-to-five office hours, says Ms. Sihota. “We said, ‘Okay, we can help close that access gap.’"
The company spent $3-billion to develop and launch a suite of innovative solutions and programs, from its mobile clinics and Living-Well Companion PERS support for seniors to Home Health Monitoring and Babylon by TELUS Health, a virtual care app that offers an array of primary care services. As the largest health-care IT company in Canada, “the goal is to revolutionize access to health care and drive greater wellness and better health outcomes for Canadians,” she says.
Babylon by TELUS Health includes an AI-powered symptom checker that references more than 500 million streams of medical knowledge. It sets up a video appointment with a local family physician, a mental health professional or other practitioners – with bookings available within minutes, including outside traditional clinic hours. It securely stores personal information in Canada and provides post-appointment support, such as delivery of clinical records to a patient’s health-care team. The primary care services are publicly funded, so there is zero cost to users.
TELUS launched Babylon by TELUS Health in British Columbia in March of 2019. Uptake was immediate, says Ms. Sihota. “The response has been unlike anything else I’ve ever seen dealing with emerging technologies here at TELUS.”
Feedback, shared by some of the hundreds of thousands of individuals who have downloaded the app, is glowing. Asked to rate their experience, users, on average, give a mark of 4.9/5, with 96 per cent of patients likely to recommend the service.
Barely a year after Babylon by TELUS Health was introduced, COVID-19 hit. With the initial lockdowns and movement restrictions, with the loss of access to clinics and visits to primary care professionals, the demand for home health care skyrocketed. “We saw 10 times growth,” says Ms. Sihota. “We were working around the clock to hire new doctors and clinical operations staff to support the demand.”
TELUS quickly mobilized – expanding and introducing Babylon by TELUS Health in Alberta, Saskatchewan and Ontario. “We were motivated to help, as was everybody,” she says. “But we had a service that everybody desperately needed.” Provincial governments responded to the unprecedented situation by removing policy barriers, allowing virtual care providers to act swiftly.
TELUS Health stepped up to assist with virtual screening for the new coronavirus. Its home health monitoring solutions are ideally designed to support those who are ill and isolating at home to recover. The organization also developed video consultation technology, enabling more than 26,000 doctors across the country to remotely communicate with their patients.
Today, TELUS Consumer Health continues to “pivot and innovate to address the demand that’s coming at us,” according to Ms. Sihota. The company plans to continue scaling up and evolving operations. Already supporting 34 million Canadians with digital health services, she adds that “we have a very strong foundation in the health-care ecosystem.”
There’s a growing consensus that access to health care must be multi-model, believes Ms. Sihota. “People realize the benefit of using this technology. You don’t have to drive somewhere and wait hours for your appointment. You don’t have to take time off work. You have access to health care from wherever you are.”
As for Ms. Sihota, she’s grateful for work that serves a purpose and aids her fellow Canadians. “I have an opportunity to help save lives. There’s an unbelievable amount of satisfaction in that.”
Produced by Randall Anthony Communications. The Globe’s editorial department was not involved in its creation.