Canadian companies that provide online health consultations are seeing demand explode and are looking to hire hundreds of new employees as provinces’ traditional health-care systems experience unprecedented backlogs and delays from the coronavirus pandemic.
A surge in demand from Canadians worried about COVID-19 symptoms has led to outages and delays at traditional government-run services such as Telehealth Ontario. Now, two prominent and well-funded telemedicine startups, Toronto’s Maple Corp. and Dialogue Technologies of Montreal, say they’re ready to help reduce the load.
Ontario took the unprecedented step last weekend of allowing virtual doctor visits, following the lead of British Columbia, opening up Canada’s most populous province for video assessments through apps such as the one Maple provides. On Tuesday, Maple began screening for COVID-19 symptoms, and added 75 physicians to its roster of 500 in recent days.
The company says demand for its services has doubled each of the past three days. “It’s just been a tidal wave of cases coming at us,” chief executive officer Brett Belchetz said. And it isn’t just demand to assess for the possibility of COVID-19 infection. “It’s people from all walks of life with routine medical needs who are terrified of going to their doctors’ office.”
Dr. Belchetz added that while Maple usually has 90-second waits, the spike in demand has pushed that to 20 minutes – still much less than some users have reported for Telehealth Ontario. (The public-health line has recently added 130 nurses to conduct assessments and 300 new call lines to relieve pressure on the system.)
The venture arm of Telus Corp.'s has invested in many health companies, and runs similar apps called Akira and Babylon that allow users to consult with clinicians. Babylon downloads have tripled in the past week owing to the coronavirus pandemic spread, a Telus spokesperson said.
Dialogue – which primarily offers its services as add-ons to employer health-care plans to provide employees with automated answers to health questions from chatbots or speak online with medical professionals – this month launched a chatbot called Chloe.
The automated service, which it has made accessible for free, routes callers to public-health information offered in their regions. Dialogue says it has also seen a surge of customer interest, with 100 companies subscribing to its annual service in the past two weeks, providing access to 100,000 employees. The company had 700 customers at the end of February.
The company, which had 350 employees at the end of February, is looking to hire 250 more, most of them medical professionals, to provide advice virtually, “as soon as possible,” CEO Cherif Habib said. He had originally planned to add 50 this year. “We feel very fortunate to be in a position where we can really help. The good part about the way we’re setting up is we use a lot of technology to minimize the need for human health-care providers.”
“We’ve been preaching the benefits of telemedicine” for years, Mr. Habib said. “For various reasons, we haven’t had as much traction as we would have liked from the regulators and provincial health services. I think now there’s a huge realization virtual health care has a huge role to play. That has been extremely gratifying.”
While Maple usually takes a percentage of billing fees, the CEO said it has waived collection for coronavirus screening. “We want to get as many doctors on as possible and provide as much help as possible,” Dr. Belchetz said. He added that the coronavirus crisis has prompted an “incredible” increase in the number of workplaces contacting Maple to sign up their employees.
Toronto app-maker InkBlot Technologies Inc., which gives users video access to mental-health counselling, has also been busy since the pandemic broke out. User demand has increased at least 200 per cent this week, co-founder Arash Zohoor said – while the number of counsellors asking to use the platform has increased tenfold as many shut their physical offices.
Dr. Zohoor said it is allowing the new counsellors to take care of their existing clients for free during the pandemic. “We’re a mental-health company, so it matters a lot that we support people right now, when things are rough,” he said.
With a report from Carly Weeks