When Debbie Smith’s daughter began struggling with some physical issues at the end of May, she brought her to see their family doctor.
But the Cole Harbour mother said their doctor was dismissive of the issue and they left frustrated with no resolution. When her daughter’s health didn’t improve, Smith knew she had to do something.
“In my mind as a mom, I was seeing her symptoms getting more extreme and I just wanted an answer for this poor girl,” Smith said.
After trying to get a spot at a walk-in clinic where people were lined up for the 5pm intake by 3pm, Smith went online desperately searching for another solution.
She stumbled upon an app called Your Doctors Online. All she needed was a valid provincial health card, and it claimed her daughter would be seen. Believing she had nothing to lose, she tried it.
“In less than five minutes I was in to see a doctor,” Smith said.
After a 15-minute consultation, the doctor identified what she believed to be the problem and prescribed an antibiotic. Two hours later, it was ready to pick up at her pharmacy.
“In 15 minutes we had a resolution, and we were like, ‘This is unbelievable,’” Smith said.
“She quickly started having some decrease in her symptoms, and this had been months and months she’d been dealing with this.”
Smith posted her story on a provincial Facebook group and was overwhelmed by the response. She heard from several people who despite having family doctors also felt dismissed and hadn’t been able to get help for their issues.
Many others with (and without) family doctors reached out to thank her for making them aware of another option beyond the emergency department. Others shared that they’d also used the app and posted about their successes online.
“The app stopped us from actually going to the hospital because we were at the point where there was nowhere else to go. They were there for us when the family doctor wasn’t there,” Smith said.
“And walk-ins are almost impossible now to get in. It’s so bad. I just want folks to know that there’s hope and that there’s another place to go to if you do have something. This is another alternative and we need that. And it’s free.”
Help fill a gap
While Maple virtual care was an option for Smith, she couldn’t access it without paying a fee as it’s only covered by the province for those without a family doctor.
Last year the provincial government entered into an arrangement with virtual care provider Maple to expand its coverage across the province.
Nova Scotians on the Need A Family Practice registry can access Maple, and it’s covered by Nova Scotia Medical Services Insurance (MSI).
That virtual service ensures that patients without a primary care provider can meet with a doctor who can prescribe medications, order tests, make referrals for specialized care, and provide options for in-person care if and when warranted.
But for people who have a family doctor but can’t get timely access (or have issues crop up on weekends, holidays, or late at night) as well as those who want or need another option, Smith believes the app can help fill a gap.
‘Want more people to be aware of it’
Ahead of this past long weekend, Nova Scotia Health once again advised patients that “significant patient capacity and staffing challenges” would create longer than usual waits in emergency departments and for admission from emergency departments into hospital beds.
Yarmouth County resident Mona Doucette is no stranger to long emergency department waits for care.
“In rural Nova Scotia this has been part of our lives for more years than I can count,” Doucette said in an interview.
When Doucette began experiencing pain in her left ear a few weekends ago, she knew it was an ear infection and that it was going to get worse because she’d been plagued with them for years. She didn’t want to wait six to 12 hours or more in a packed emergency department, but didn’t have any other option to get the antibiotics she knew she needed.
While Doucette considers herself extremely fortunate to not only have a family doctor but “one of the best outside of Halifax,” she couldn’t wait days for an appointment and also couldn’t access Maple virtual care without paying a fee.
As she was preparing for a long wait at Yarmouth Regional Hospital, someone mentioned the Your Doctors Online app. She downloaded it and got started. In less than 15 minutes she said she was having a virtual conversation.
“They asked a lot of questions, so it was basically like a triage nurse asking questions like when you go to outpatients and you wait your turn,” Doucette said.
After speaking with a doctor and answering questions about her health, medication history, and ear issue, the doctor told her she needed ear drops and an antibiotic prescription and said they’d be faxed to her pharmacy.
It all happened in under an hour. When Doucette finished the call, she reached out to her pharmacy to tell them to expect the fax. She was told it had already arrived.
“After I was done, I said to my mom, ‘Why go to the ER for something as minor as this if there’s another option? Why take up a spot when I don’t have to,” Doucette said.
“This was just so much easier. People who need prescriptions filled or those who have things happen in the middle of the night or on weekends but don’t require emerge could really benefit from this. It’s a really good system and I want more people to be aware of it.”
In an emailed statement, the Department of Health and Wellness said the province isn’t aware of the company Your Doctors Online and doesn’t have any arrangements with them.
“We advise Nova Scotians to be cautious when asked to provide their health card number to a third-party provider that is not affiliated with the Province, Nova Scotia Health or Mediavie, in order to access a service,” spokesperson Khalehla Perrault wrote.
“The Department of Health and Wellness is going to review this situation to better understand this service and how they are using MSI to receive payment, as Nova Scotians are not directly billed through their health card.”
‘Need all the help we can get’
The Halifax Examiner reached out to Mississauga-based HealthATech Solutions Inc., the company behind the app, to learn more about its services. They’ve not yet provided anyone to answer our questions, but we’ll provide an update if they do.
According to the company’s website, locations served include Nova Scotia, Ontario, Alberta, Texas, Michigan, California, Georgia and Texas. They say they have a diverse team of board-certified doctors available 24/7, including a team of Canadian doctors.
The website also says patients with a valid health card don’t pay to chat with a doctor and get 10 free chats per day. After that, they must wait 24 hours or pay a $6 fee for the next consultation. Prescriptions and/or medication refills are also listed as being free with a valid health card, as are lab requisitions.
The service doesn’t provide prescriptions or refills for controlled medications and urges people to go to an emergency department if they require emergency care.
Doucette said since her own experience, she has been “shouting from the rooftops” about the app’s existence as another alternative. Her hope is that others who can’t access Maple for free and who don’t require an emergency department visit will try the app and have the same success she did.
“This is a valuable tool for Nova Scotians and I think a lot more people need to be made aware of the app and they (government) need to look at this, but also at other things and more things like this,” Doucette said.
“We need all the help we can get. For me, it was perfectly 100% on the up and up. And even if you’re not tech savvy, if you have somebody that can help you with it this is the easiest thing to do.”