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The Babylon App by TELUS Health has launched

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In early March 2019, Babylon by TELUS Health launched in Canada with a focus on serving British Columbians. A healthcare app created to “fill gaps” and “complement” the healthcare system, the tool includes Artificial Intelligence (AI) chatbot symptom checker. A partnership between British digital health company Babylon and TELUS health, currently one of Canada’s largest healthcare IT company, the app is said to be designed with those who don’t have a general physician, live in rural community, or have after hours health issues. 

At the time of launch, users can use the app to:

  • Type symptoms into the Symptom Checker and get ‘health information’ instantly.
  • Schedule an appointment and consult with licensed in-province doctors.* 
  • Speak to doctors and get prescriptions and referrals for diagnostic tests or specialists when needed.
  • Rate doctors and provide feedback to help TELUS improve the in-app patient’s experience. 
  • Easily access clinical records including doctor notes and prescription history. 

*Users in British Columbia can use the app to book appointments with a doctor, review doctor consultation notes, pick up prescriptions, and be referred for diagnostic tests or to specialists.  

Currently the Symptom Checker is available free of charge across Canada. Doctor consultations in British Columbia are covered by Medical Service Plan (MSP) but those without MSP coverage can pay a fee of $34.18 per appointment. 

Quality Concerns

In a 2018 article in The Lancet entitled, “Safety of patient-facing digital symptom checkers” medical researcher, Dr. Hamish Fraser, details his study of Babylon’s chatbot following it’s 2017 launch in the U.K, and challenged the company’s claim the chatbot “outperformed” a human doctor during exams.

Following their own internal evaluation, Babylon claimed their symptom checker outperformed the average human doctor on a subset of the Royal College of General Practitioners exam. Citing methodological concerns, Dr. Fraser’s article found that, “Babylon’s study did not offer convincing evidence that its [symptom checker] can perform better than doctors in any realistic situation.” Specifically, that trial data was entered by doctors and not average users and that no statistical significance testing was done.

Overall, the article indicates that, “It is not possible to determine how well the Babylon Diagnostic and Triage System would perform on a broader randomised set of cases or with data entered by patients instead of doctors. Babylon’s study does not offer convincing evidence that its Babylon Diagnostic and Triage System can perform better than doctors in any realistic situation, and there is a possibility that it might perform significantly worse.”

About Digital Symptom Checkers

Originally designed for exclusive use by doctors, symptom checkers were created to help them make differential diagnoses and advise patients on further care. According to Dr. Fraser’s paper, “Modern symptom checkers can improve diagnosis, quality of care, and health system performance around the world. Symptom checkers have great potential to improve diagnosis, quality of care, and health system performance worldwide.” He also noted that symptom checkers that are poorly designed and inadequately evaluated can put patients at risk.

Telus Health in British Columbia

Following its launch, thousands of users signed up for the app. And while the BC College of Physicians and Surgeons indicated it did not receive any complaints in the app’s first week of operation, they indicated they have received reports of flawed care received through other telemedicine tools and cautioned that, “The care of unattached (patients) in virtual walk-in clinic models is to be discouraged.” For their part, Telus Health has said it will share “appropriate information” with ministry and monitor use to ensure care is delivered safely and effectively.

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Until next time!

CDA Oasis Team

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