Virtual care can be a solution to health professional shortages. It can also be a way to manage surging demand for healthcare as aging population alarms more and more countries. Fonemed CEO Charlene Brophy told DIGITIMES Asia that demand for medical care has been overwhelming, and telehealth can "remove some of the demand of frontline workers."
Fonemed provides medical triage and medical support online or on the phone by registered nurses or other health professionals such as dietitian. It operates across Canada and the US despite the huge differences in the two countries' healthcare systems.
In Canada, where citizens are insured with public-funded healthcare system, Fonemed is connected with the provincial electronic health records in some of the provinces. With medical records shared, nurse practitioners are able to diagnose and prescribe for the patients calling in, and whenever it is an emergency situation, Fonemed would always advise patients to go to the nearest client – such as walk-in clinics, mental health crisis centers, hospitals, pharmacies, or others.
By entering the area code, Fonemed is able to find available resources in any community wherever the patient is located.
In the US, Fonemed provides B2B solutions to help individuals connect with primary care resources through their benefits provider. In addition to insurance providers, it works closely with universities, private practices, and hospital systems providing efficient and adaptable healthcare solutions.
The majority of Fonemed's current business is shared equally between Canada and the US. With demand rapidly growing, the company is now looking to adopt more medical technologies and expand to other countries including Asia and South America. Meanwhile, the company has already seen success operating in Puerto Rico, Venezuela, Haiti, and Singapore.
Growing usage of technology-based medical services
Dealing with an enormous volume of calls every day, Fonemed is not shy about adopting AI or other new technologies. It now offers the ability to interact with patients through video calls, built-in chatbots, and self-symptom checkers to sustain the business and manage demand.
Fonemed receives in excess of 100,000 calls a month on average. An average triage call with a registered nurse is about 10-12 minutes but may be much longer, such as required with mental health crisis calls. Fonemed now allows patients to self-queue for callbacks and even schedule a callback at a specific time. When urgent symptoms such as breathing difficulties or chest pain are present, callers receive an immediate response.
Brophy said tech-based services are just starting to gain some ground, particularly in Canada, but she assumed that around 60-70% of the calls can be managed by AI in a couple of years, and the rest of the 30% would be answered by humans.
Technology helps Fonemed sustain the business and to provide efficient service; however, it will never replace a human voice. Brophy said there are always going to be situations where they need to get back to the patients, and "that is why we have had such success as a company because we have always made that our mandate."
There are triggers in the self-symptom checker and the chatbots that could trigger a call to a nurse so that the patient can get comfort from a human voice.
A registered nurse herself, Brophy said with an aging population, the demand for care will continue to escalate, and Fonemed is "already bursting at the seams." She added that innovative solutions are a must.
She shared that while they get calls for emergency situations, some symptoms that seem very frightening could very easily be treated at home, and sometimes individuals just need to know the right dose of medication or learn at-home interventions to manage the symptoms. A simple call not only saves lives but also saves thousands of dollars that a visit to an emergency room could cost.
Right now, Fonemed is still handling a lot of calls related to COVID-19, and also a significant increase in influenza cases. Additionally, as people are living longer, people are dealing with multiple comorbidities, placing an increasing demand on the healthcare system. Brophy said, "we need to find a way to make sure that the hands-on resources are there when hands-on care is required."
According to Brophy, nearly 40% of the population will need to reach out for health counseling at some point in life and around 25% will need significant healthcare to get through mentally. The world is talking more about mental health, and the taboo of asking for help is shrinking. "We must keep the conversation going," she said, "one in four people will need to access mental health services and we need to make sure access is available and a supportive voice answers the call at the hour of need."
Brophy pointed out there is still not enough education for children about healthy eating and the importance of exercise and not enough awareness of how addictive smoking can be, as well as its health impact. She said, "A lot of conditions and comorbidities are related to the lifestyle patterns that one chooses."
Medical professionals, especially frontline workers, deal with life-and-death situations every single day. Their job being to save lives, it is a highly stressful work environment and burnout is a growing concern.
During the height of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020-2021, doctors and nurses chose to live in hospitals or hotels because they feared bringing the virus home. Even before the pandemic, they were asked to work double shifts and missing important events in life because of the demands of their job.
Brophy said some just feel like they cannot keep this off anymore, and consequentially, it results in shortages of health workers that ultimately impact patients as there is a growing need for additional front-line healthcare workers.
Although the fear of COVID-19 has waned, frontline workers need to find their work-life balance; the government needs to hear their needs; the community needs to have conversations going to help them find the work-life balance back.
Virtual healthcare is a vital piece of the solution. Fonemed aims to introduce its platform to healthcare decision-makers throughout Asia, sharing lessons learned and helping reduce the burden of overcrowded emergency departments.
In the end, Brophy noted that introducing virtual care will ensure the most appropriate use of our emergency care system and will improve performance and sustainability of health care systems worldwide.
Updated on Jan 31
Fonemed CEO Charlene Brophy Credit: Fonemed