In the age of health apps and Fitbits, younger patients want more tech options from their doctors

A new survey finds Canadians — especially young ones — think virtual visits, AI and wearable health monitors will make healthcare better. But incoming CMA president Dr. Gigi Osler says Canada's health system isn't quite ready for more tech.

'We need to start looking at this quite seriously now'

A doctor performs a virtual visit with a remote patient. (Nir Elias/Reuters)
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Ahead of a national healthcare summit next week, the Canadian Medical Association (CMA) has released survey results showing Canadians, particularly those aged 18-34, want more technology in healthcare.

Respondents generally agreed that virtual visits, artificial intelligence and wearable health monitors, like Fitbit and smartwatches, will make checkups and treatment better and faster.

But Dr. Gigi Osler, the incoming CMA president, says the Canadian health system isn't ready to up its tech game.

She tells Day 6 guest host Gillian Deacon that these results are an early-warning sign showing the system must change to meet users' wants and needs.

Gill Deacon: The CMA survey shows young adults are using the healthcare system an average of 11 times a year which sounds like a lot. It's almost twice the national average of six. Why do you think that is?

Dr. Gigi Osler: This generation of Canadians aged 18 to 34, what they're calling the Google generation really, are young, healthy adults. I think they're interested in wellness care and being healthy and not just sick care.

You can tell this because they're actively using and monitoring their own health using technology like the wearables or health apps more so than any other generation. And I look at that as a good thing. It tells me they're interested in their own health and they want to be an active participant in managing it.

Dr. Gigi Osler, president-elect of the Canadian Medical Association says Canada needs to invest in more resources for health technology. (Nigel Jones/Handout photo/Canadian Press)

GD: When we talk about more technology in healthcare, what does that look like?

GO: I think the Google generation, and everybody that has a Fitbit or one of the health apps, has all this information about their health and wants to share it with their doctors.

But as a doctor, we still don't have the technology readily available to adopt or to take that information they have, put it into their health record and help them use it. If we could do that, it would make for better health monitoring.

The other thing that a lot of the survey respondents were very excited about was virtual visits and in particular, the Google generation had indicated they would be excited to start using virtual visits.

If we could help them at home and do it via virtual monitoring maybe or telehealth, we could potentially keep people at home, keep them in their communities, perhaps reduce physical visits to health care providers, decrease hospital admissions and maybe even decrease emergency room visits.

GD: It's amazing to think of the difference this new kind of technology might make for people in marginalized or remote communities.

GO: One of the most exciting things, I think, about this technology is improving access for Canadians who live in remote or rural areas where they may not have a hospital or they may have very few doctors and maybe no specialists.

But we can't rush into this without taking into consideration what they need. And that's why we're calling for policy and investment in resources because, for example, if you live in remote or rural Canada, you might not have access to [high speed internet] even if you wanted to take advantage of it.

A Canadian Medical Association survey found over half of Canadians say they are likely to use a continuous health monitoring device, such as a wearable step counter. (The Associated Press)

GD: How far behind is Canada lagging on this compared to similar countries when it comes to healthcare technology?

GO: Canada lags behind the other G7 countries in terms of technology adoption. Today, I was just reading about a new health app in the U.K. that the National Health Service has put out.

Through this app, people can get access to their medical records. They can book appointments with their family doctor, order repeat prescriptions, change who they want to share data with — so that addresses some of the privacy concerns — and make changes to end of life choices.

They're using the technology already. It's really exciting and so I think we need to start looking at this quite seriously now.

Interview edited for length and clarity. To hear the full interview with Gigi Osler, download our podcast or click the 'Listen' button at the top of this page.