Amy Arnold and her family were stringing Christmas lights along the eaves of their house last winter when her son fell off the steps. When he got up, his ankle was severely swollen. “I wasn’t sure if he had broken it, so I used Maple,” says Arnold. She logged onto a virtual health-care app called Maple to send photos to a doctor and describe her son’s symptoms. Within 10 minutes, the doctor determined the ankle wasn’t broken, and gave her advice on how to care for the sprain.

What is virtual health care?

With virtual health care, house calls are no longer a thing of the past. Virtual health care services allow you to call, text or video-call a health-care professional from your living room, with your desktop or mobile device. Patients in the U.S. and U.K. have been texting and video-calling their doctors for a few years, and now virtual health-care apps are gaining popularity in Canada. Services such as Akira (Right Health) and Maple are being used by Canadians across the country.

Studies show that treating minor injuries and common illnesses (e.g., bites and bruises, sinus infections, respiratory infections) via telemedicine is safe and clinically effective. Virtual health care is not meant to replace your family doctor, but it can give you additional support when life gets busy. It’s also not meant for emergencies, when you should always call 911.

Why use virtual health-care apps?

“Whether you are bedbound fighting a nasty virus or running a busy schedule with back-to-back meetings, fitting in a doctor’s appointment can be tough,” says Dave Jones, Senior Vice-President of Group Benefits at Sun Life, which has partnerships with several virtual health-care providers.

A 2017 Ipsos survey found that almost 7 in 10 Canadians avoid seeing a doctor when they are sick because of long wait times, limited hours and physical barriers to care. Virtual health care is a convenient health-care option that helps solve some of those issues.

Sandy Delamere, Vice-President of Digital Health Solutions at Sun Life, recently downloaded Akira. As a busy professional, she says she likes using virtual health-care apps because they can save time, “Using the app and getting a diagnosis took me 10 minutes,” says Delamere. “That’s a huge time saver compared to going to the doctor and taking a half-day off work. To me, time is money.”

Some benefits of virtual health-care programs:

  • Access to 24/7 care (via select service providers)
  • Short waiting times (generally under 10 minutes)
  • Access to quality care wherever you have wi-fi or cellular service, so you can get care at home in your pajamas or on the go, and get a prescription or a doctor’s note without having to drive to a doctor’s office
  • Remote health-care access: Virtual health-care services provide people in remote communities where there is no doctor with access to care, as long as they can access wi-fi.
  • On-demand access to mental-health care via on-call specialists such as psychologists and mental-health counsellors

What do virtual health-care services cost in Canada?

The cost for a virtual health consultation on a weekday is around $49. Generally, calls after midnight or on weekends are slightly more expensive. However, these services all offer a subscription option, which may bring down the cost. Monthly subscriptions are generally about $30 for individuals and $50 for families.

Currently, most provincial health insurance plans don’t cover virtual healthcare apps, but coverage differs among provinces. For example, the B.C. plan pays for some telehealth services. However, some workplace health and wellness plans offer discounts for virtual healthcare apps — check to see what your benefits provider offers.

Sun Life recently launched a virtual health-care referral network that offers Canadians a discount on 3 innovative virtual health-care providers via the Sun Life mobile app. “The virtual care referral network will help individuals get quick and reliable care, save precious time and focus on what matters the most,” says Jones.