No privacy review completed of controversial Telus Health Babylon app

The Babylon app allows people to consult with physicians, get prescriptions and referrals, and check symptoms, including those of COVID-19. The services are covered under Alberta's health-care insurance. (Telus Health - image credit)

A privacy review of Babylon, the controversial telehealth doctor consultation app, may not be completed for a year or more.

Telus Health has submitted a privacy impact assessment of the app to Alberta's privacy commissioner but a review of its impact on the confidentiality of individuals' health information will take time.

Scott Sibbald, a spokesperson for commissioner Jill Clayton, confirmed Monday that Telus Health met its obligation under the provincial privacy act by submitting an assessment before the app was recently launched.

But due to the volume of cases in the queue at the privacy commissioner's office, Sibbald said it could take up to a year just to assign someone to review the privacy impact assessment provided by Telus.

"It's very difficult to gauge how long a review might take," Sibbald said, adding that there "have been a few iterations of the privacy impact assessment submitted over the past year regarding Babylon by Telus Health."

Babylon is a free downloadable app marketed by Telus Health that lets Albertans meet with licensed physicians in one-on-one video consultations through their smartphone.

The app can also be used to check symptoms — including those of COVID-19 — book appointments and get prescriptions and referrals, all covered under Alberta's public health-care insurance.

Alberta Health's joint initiative with Telus Health is being offered as the public is being told to self-isolate as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

App threatens health data, critics say

But the opposition NDP, doctors and others have expressed concern the app may pose a threat to the personal health information of individuals.

On Monday, Alberta NDP health critic David Shepherd said the terms and conditions of the Babylon app states "video recording of patient visits is copied and stored on Babylon's servers, and that the video may be shared with corporate partners and entities outside of Canada, including foreign governments."

"Even if Babylon conforms with all provincial and federal privacy laws," Shepherd said, "who on earth wants a video recording of their private medical visit shared with corporate partners and foreign governments? Why is the UCP allowing a private company to collect sensitive health information on Albertans?"

In an email, Steve Buick, the health minister's press secretary, said "the allegation that patients' information could be shared as suggested by the NDP, (for example through) a video of an appointment, is just absurd."

Buick said the terms of service are "crystal clear" in that interactions with health-care providers, including telehealth interactions, are governed by rules for health professionals that require doctors to safeguard the privacy of patient information.

But NDP spokesperson Matt Dykstra said Babylon's terms and conditions for protecting the privacy of a patient's personal health-care information are not clear.

"It should be for the privacy commissioner to determine if personal health-care information is being properly protected; it's not for the Kenney government," Dykstra said.

"Babylon, a private corporation, states in its terms and conditions that it stores all personal health data including primary care information, medication information and diagnostic information."

Alberta doctors have also publicly complained that the app undermines existing family practices and the relationship between doctors and their patients.

Some doctors who now provide virtual consultations have complained that they are only paid $20 a call by Alberta Health while doctors who work for Telus Health are being paid $38 under an Alternative Relationship Plan.

On Monday, Alberta Health issued new temporary billing codes that will also pay family doctors the same $38 for a brief online consultation as Telus Health doctors.

Premier Kenney responds

Premier Jason Kenney responded Monday to criticisms of Babylon. He said the Alberta government has confidence in the platform after it was used in other jurisdictions like the United Kingdom and British Columbia in full compliance with their privacy laws.

Kenney added he's seen misunderstandings online about the app, calling it the online equivalent of a trip to a walk-in clinic.

He said Babylon is voluntary for patients who want the convenience it provides and for physicians who want to sign a contract to participate in it.

"This is simply a 21st-century version of calling up the doctor," Kenney said.

"Telehealth is going to be part of the future of delivering health services and I think it's more important now than ever during a pandemic when we want to minimize the number of patients who go into doctors' offices and emergency wards."

Kenney said the provincial government is also in discussion with other health information online applications.