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Michael Serbinis, founder & CEO of League Inc., in Toronto, on Oct. 14, 2020. The digital health startup is partnering with Loblaw on the company’s new PC Health app.Christopher Katsarov/The Globe and Mail

In the newest iteration of its health care-focused strategy, Loblaw Cos. Ltd. will begin referring customers to health care providers in a new mobile app, and is tying its PC Optimum loyalty points to customers' health behaviours, including exercising and eating well.

The company’s new PC Health app is a partnership with Canadian digital health startup League, in which Loblaw’s controlling shareholders, the Weston family, have invested.

The move is part of a larger multimillion-dollar strategy by Loblaw, which owns the Shoppers Drug Mart chain, to expand beyond the retail pharmacy business and to provide more health care-related services to customers.

Last month, Loblaw invested $75-million for a minority stake in Maple Corp., a Toronto-based startup that provides online doctor services. The partnership with League Inc. follows its $62-million financing round in 2018, which was led partly by the Weston family, through their private holding company Wittington Investments. Wittington also participated in a follow-on financing with League in September, 2019, for an undisclosed amount.

League helped to build the new app, which includes the option to chat live with registered nurses, dietitians and “care navigators” who can refer users to doctors and other services such as mental-health care, vision care and massage. Users can collect loyalty points for buying health and wellness-related items such as vitamins, thermometers and weighted blankets, or for meeting goals set out by in-app programs, such as fitness challenges or nutrition guides. The app also provides links to articles on preventive care, and on management of chronic conditions such as diabetes, heart disease and high blood pressure.

“We know this has been going on for a couple of years, but specifically accelerated during COVID. … There’s really a rise in people wanting to be able to have efficient connections with health care providers,” Shoppers Drug Mart president Jeff Leger said. While Maple provides telemedicine services, he said, PC Health is meant to act as a first stop for users looking for health information, including information about providers in their area. Eventually, this could include referrals to Maple services, he added.

The app will be available in Atlantic provinces on Thursday, and Loblaw plans to roll it out nationwide in the coming months.

“Anything in the world of digital health has become accelerated, as people are not going to as many places, whether to work, or physically to a pharmacy or a doctor’s office,” League founder Michael Serbinis said. “Pharmacy retailers, we believe, have the right and the permission to be a place where people go for health care more broadly, not just where they go for prescriptions or a flu shot, but to be the front door for accessing more health care.”

Because health care is highly regulated, Loblaw cannot reward Optimum points for prescription purchases or for behaviour such as visits to a doctor. But the app will allow the company to gather more information about users' health and wellness habits and interests.

Loblaw is not the first company to attempt to tie loyalty points to health behaviours. In 2016, with backing from the federal government, Toronto-based Carrot Insights launched the Carrot Rewards app, which awarded points from programs such as Aeroplan and Cineplex’s Scene for users who used its fitness tracker or took health-related quizzes.

The app shut down last June after running out of funding to keep the business going. But Toronto-based tech company Optimity bought Carrot Rewards in December and plans to relaunch the program. PC Health operates on a similar model, Mr. Leger said.

The terms of the partnership with Loblaw were not disclosed, but it represents “transformational” growth for League, Mr. Serbinis said.

“This is a 20-million-person company. They reach that many Canadians,” he said.

Mr. Leger said Loblaw has "some brands that have high degrees of trust with Canadians. ... That allows us to make a change from bricks-and-mortar services, to a digital health ecosystem.”

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