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Calgary’s Next Economy: Virtual Kids providing barrier-free Alberta health care for families

One of the things the pandemic has shown the medical community is that virtual health is a valuable tool.

But, even before Alberta was in the throes of COVID-19, Drs. Edward Les and Jonathan Guilfoyle, founders of Virtual Kids, thought providing care virtually was an opportunity in waiting. Especially if you can provide specialized pediatric care for kids.

“Like many enterprises, the pandemic gave us the boot in the pants to an idea that was a good one before the pandemic came along,” Les said.

“In essence, what we endeavor to do is to deliver excellence in pediatric care to families in a way that erases the barriers to that care.”

Les, a UCalgary medical grad with a pediatric specialty, has been on staff as an emergency doctor at the Alberta Children’s Hospital since 2004.  He leads a group of pediatric doctors that provide after-hours virtual care to Alberta families.

“We’re very good at handling a whole smorgasbord of problems and we’re very good at triage,” Les said.

“So, we’re very good at trying to figure out very quickly what’s needed and where to steer people to address the problems that we can’t solve ourselves.”

Les said the current medical system works well for acute care emergencies where patients can be triaged and treated immediately. He said the example of mental health is one the urgent care system isn’t especially equipped to handle. It’s an ideal situation for Virtual Kids so families can get the help they need.

Les also said they can help with many other health concerns: Sleep problems, concussion management, lactation consulting and nutrition.

Appointment based

Families can make same day appointments through an online portal, seven days a week. Since these are all practicing doctors, patients meet with the doctors virtually in the evening. With the run up in volume, some patients are being pushed to the next day, Les said.

By summer’s end, Les said they’re hoping to have 50 doctors signed up across Alberta to expand the hours and the accessibility.

It’s a straightforward booking system where a family clicks on an appointment time.

“Five minutes before their time they click on the link, and voila, they see somebody like me with my blue shirt, and I listen to their problem, handle their concern, and then we move on from there,” Les said.

Since launching last June, Les said they’ve helped more than 2,000 families, with 95 per cent of the consults being handled in a family’s home.

Families must have a valid Alberta Health Care number to schedule an appointment.

Cost vs. Benefit

What’s made this service possible is the new virtual fee code provided by Alberta Health. That allows doctors to provide the service virtually and for the service to be covered by Alberta Health Care.

Les said it might seem like more money paid out to doctors. It’s not, he said. They get a portion of what they’d normally be paid for an in-person visit. It helps them “keep the lights on,” Les said.

There’s health care saving here, though, Les said. The average urgent care visit costs the system $1,000 to $1,200 per visit, he said.  The virtual fee code provides them $60.

“Hmm $60 as opposed to $1,000. Add to the fact that the family doesn’t have to leave their house, burn the fuel to go to the hospital, then pay for parking, which can often be $40 or $50 by the time you’ve finished your visit at the emergency department,” he said.

“That family doesn’t have to invest their time in waiting in the emergency department with their child. You get home bleary eyed at one or two o’clock in the morning then have to function the next day at work.”

Varying business experience

The group of doctors has a varying degree of business experience. Some have operated clinics and you have to understand entrepreneur basics.

Les said participating in the Platform Calgary Junction program provided a granular level of detail they could use to build a sustainable business model.

It’s helped them build a data room, how to structure their management team and build finance, legal and accounting process.

“We’re almost a year into this thing. We are at the point where we have to have in place the personnel, as we roll this thing forward and bring it up to the next level with regard to adding in all of those other wellness spheres,” he said.

Alberta is the beta project, Les said. But, they’re hoping that it can be rolled out in Western Canada, then across the country.

With it being virtual, Les said there’s no reason they can’t deliver the service outside of Canada. Some people have found them from other parts of the world and they’ve provided advice pro-bono to families in need.

“We see this more as something that can be successful, can really bring benefit to families beyond Alberta,” Les said.