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Alberta Health Minister Tyler Shandro should walk back Babylon by Telus deal

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Alberta Health Minister Tyler Shandro. Image: Government of Alberta/Flickr

This whole Babylon smartphone app partnership between the Alberta government and Telus Corp. is starting to look like a major blunder.

If he's smart, Health Minister Tyler Shandro will recognize he needs to walk back Thursday's news release announcing the deal with Telus, quickly.

Probably the best way for him to do that and still retain a few remnants of credibility would be to explain that Babylon is just part of the government's entire COVID-19 initiative, which also includes higher rates for family physicians doing telephone and internet consultations with patients, and other initiatives.

This is better advice than Shandro will likely get from the United Conservative Party brain trust, which tends to believe that what are known in right-wing circles as "flip-flops" don't go over well with the base. Plus, it's free. Alas, the kind of people who run the UCP are likely to distrust any political advice that doesn't come with a big price tag and the imprimatur of an ideologically reliable source.

They certainly didn't advise the sensible course of drafting a new provincial budget when COVID-19 and the Russian-Saudi oil price war together blew Finance Minister Travis Toews's February 27 budget to smithereens.

Only two days have passed since Shandro and his staff shamelessly plugged this dubious Telus service in an official press release as a great way to get medical advice in the midst of a global pandemic.

I'd say the portion of Alberta's medical profession that is active on social media pretty well laid waste to that claim in the hours after the press release was published, complete with enthusiastic quotes from Shandro and Telus CEO Darren Entwistle.

It was pretty well established within minutes that, as was suggested here yesterday, Babylon's clinic-free tele-docs didn't exactly offer the best clinical practice -- or necessarily even the most prudent advice -- knowing neither the patients they were texting nor the communities where they resided.

And that was before people began digging into Telus Babylon's terms and conditions and privacy policies. "I would not feel safe sharing my confidential health information through this app," observed Edmonton physician Amir Pakdel in a tweet.

Physician-patient confidentiality? "We may share your personal data with members of our corporate group and our partners," the terms and conditions say. Moreover, "while outside of Canada, personal data may be accessible by foreign government agencies under applicable law."

Yesterday, the Alberta Medical Association weighed in on Babylon.

"Babylon was introduced without any consultation to the profession, which means we are getting information at the same time you are," said AMA president Dr. Christine Molnar in a statement to her members. "It is in effect a virtual walk in clinic. … It provides access to a small number of doctors who work in rotation. There is no mechanism to assign patients to a consistent Babylon physician in order to maintain continuity. This service is focused on episodic care."

Moreover, Molnar said, "The Babylon physicians have no access to the medical records of existing clinics nor do they contribute to those medical records directly."

"This type of care results in fragmentation and disruption of continuity of care," she explained. "Evidence shows in comparison with care from a regular family physician, this model of care results in more tests, more referrals, generates more visits to emergency and results in more hospitalizations."

"These are impacts we could not afford in a pre-COVID economy. In the current pandemic these outcomes will strain the system and are potentially life threatening to affected patients."

Molnar called on the government to make an effort to fairly compensate all physicians who offer their services through virtual media and immediately provide virtual options for all physicians.

"We need government to stop 'advertising' for one particular physician clinic and ignoring the rest," she concluded. "We need government to be more transparent with patients about the pros and cons of new services provided."

Meanwhile, back at the Economic Recovery Council

Well, if Babylon done anything for the government, at least this Babylon babel has kept the talk from turning to the membership of Premier Kenney's "Economic Recovery Council."

If the presence of Jack Mintz, Kenney's favourite professor, as the chair of the panel isn't enough to make your blood run cold, then the appearance of Stephen Harper, Canada's former Conservative prime minister sure as heck should. If you have your savings in a government pension, it might also cross your mind to worry about the presence of the CEO of the Alberta Investment Management Corp.

To give the UCP its due, it actually found a labour guy after a fashion, lawyer Bob Blakely, a former union plumber, and there's only one actual member of the Laurentian elite. What's more, the only certifiable billionaire on the list, as far as I can tell, was born in Calgary.

That said, for all the UCP's pretences about representing the little guy, this is not a crowd that's going to instinctively think very hard about how to bail out the poor gig worker who can't meet her rent or a waiter whose restaurant has just been shut down.

Kenney said: "The Government of Alberta will do everything in its power to protect jobs and job creators," by which he presumably means oil companies. We already know what Mintz's advice will be, if his past pronouncements are a guide: more tax cuts for corporations, pay cuts for the front-line health care workers battling the COVID-19 pandemic, and, if Ottawa won't knuckle under and send more money, maybe "Albexit."

Here's the full list of members of the new high church version of Kenney's earlier "Fair Deal" panel -- by which I mean, better vestments, same old neoliberal dogma:

  • Jack Mintz, University of Calgary economist, chair
  • Clive Beddoe, former president and CEO of WestJet
  • Robert Blakely, lawyer, Canadian operating officer of Canada's Building Trades Unions
  • Brent Belzberg, founder and senior managing partner of TorQuest Partners, a Bay Street private equity firm
  • Bob Dhillon, president and CEO of Mainstreet Equity Corp., a rental property manager
  • Chris Fowler, president and CEO of Canadian Western Bank
  • Stephen Harper, former prime minister and current leader of the International Democrat Union, the right's internationale
  • Peter Kiss, owner and president of Morgan Construction and Environmental Ltd.
  • Zainul Mawji, president of Telus Home Solutions
  • Nancy Southern, CEO of ATCO Ltd.
  • Kevin Uebelein, CEO of AIMCo, the Crown-owned pension management company
  • Mac Van Wielingen, founder of ARC Financial, another private equity firm

David Climenhaga, author of the Alberta Diary blog, is a journalist, author, journalism teacher, poet and trade union communicator who has worked in senior writing and editing positions at The Globe and Mail and the Calgary Herald. This post also appears on his blog, AlbertaPolitics.ca.

Image: Government of Alberta/Flickr

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