Digital health sees ‘expedited’ growth: Expert

‘Paramedical has had a significant drop in visits but drugs stay constant and, in some cases, have actually increased due to the frequency of dispensing’

Digital health sees ‘expedited’ growth: Expert

With revenues dropping in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, some employers may have to reconsider how they offer health-care benefits – and that could include digital health. Unlike virtual health, which offers doctor consultations via video calls, digital health is about offering physical products such as pills, via a website or app.

Online pharmacy company PocketPills, for example, has seen a 35-per-cent, month-to-month growth rate during the outbreak, says co-founder Harj Samra. The company provides prescription refills, online chats with pharmacists, and four dispensing locations in Canada (with a fifth one opening in Quebec sometime in the third quarter), PocketPills offers a savings of 15 to 30 per cent for employers, he says.

“By leveraging automation and centralizing dispensing, we’re able to save a significant amount of money and pass those savings to members, employers and insurers,” says Samra, who is based in Surrey, B.C. “That’s the key difference as you’re centralizing, using technology in every aspect to really deliver a unique experience and a significant cost savings.”

Harj Samra

Due to the coronavirus negatively affecting revenue streams, many organizations are looking for health-care cost relief, he says.

“Some employers are reaching out to their benefit advisors and saying, ‘What do we do right now? We’re barely working, I am providing benefits, can I scale them back? Can I cancel them? Can I put a hold on them?’ And I know that paramedical has had a significant drop when it comes to dentist visits, physio visits, that part of the benefits have dropped, but drugs stay constant and, in some cases, it’s actually increased due to frequency of dispensing.”

Virtual and digital health was already increasing its footprint but when the pandemic struck, that amplified its growth, says Samra.

“Prior to this -- from a telemedicine standpoint and also digital pharmacy standpoint -- you had employers thinking of adding these platforms for their employees and after COVID-19 hit, what really kind of pushed it forward is the provincial governments also adopting this as well,” he says.

“[It’s about] people wanting the convenience of free home delivery to an app or web, but it’s been a secular trend. And it’s definitely being expedited with COVID-19.”

However, there’s the challenge of a Canadian health regime that is federally funded but provincially run, says Samra.

“Most people think of a universal health-care system but that doesn’t apply to medications: it applies to physician visits, but it doesn’t apply to medication, it’s very regulated. Each province has its own formularies. Each province has their own billing system and it’s a fragmented market.”

While the virtual health industry is growing, there will always be a need for in-person doctor visits, he says.

“We’re looking at 50 per cent of physician visits not being able to be seen digitally. When a patient comes into a digital-health solution, it’s very important to queue that patient up to see if that person should be seeing a physician virtually or not before they see the physician, because if they see the physician with an earache, that physician may say, ‘Well, it’s not getting better, go to a physician tomorrow, and make sure that they look inside your ear, OK?’ That physician has to look at that patient’s ear, regardless, if there’s an infection, so there’s always going to be a marriage of both.”

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