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Babylon Was Going to Transform Alberta Health Care. Now It’s Bankrupt

The UCP went all in on the app supporting virtual doctor visits in 2020.

David Climenhaga 12 Oct 2023The Tyee

David J. Climenhaga is an award-winning journalist, author, post-secondary teacher, poet and trade union communicator. He blogs at AlbertaPolitics.ca. Follow him on Twitter at @djclimenhaga.

Just in time for the run-up to Halloween, we learn that Babylon the Great is fallen.

I speak, of course, of Babylon Health, creator of the Babylon app with which the Alberta United Conservative Party — always credulous when it comes to scams and quackery that promise to pave the way for privatization of health care — was so entranced in the spring of 2020.

Perhaps you missed it — I did until I noticed an interesting tweet thread on the topic on Thanksgiving Day — but early last month the London-based telehealth company founded in 2013 by British-Iranian ex-banker Ali Parsa was put into bankruptcy administration in the U.K.

In mid-August, the company filed for bankruptcy at two subsidiaries in the United States. The same month, it announced it was “winding down” its operations in Rwanda — once featured in every stock tout’s sales pitch about its reach and scope, along with the investment in the company by the Saudi sovereign wealth fund — potentially depriving 2.8 million people of care.

Said to be worth about US$4 billion when it went public in 2021, Babylon Health is presumably now worth nothing more than what its constituent parts can fetch to pay off its creditors.

It turns out that its founders and bosses wildly exaggerated the capabilities of its chatbot program, which was described as using artificial intelligence, raising the hope here in Wild Rose Country that it could all but make family physicians obsolete.

Alert readers will recall that in 2020, then-premier Jason Kenney’s minister of health, Tyler Shandro, was engaged in an effort to cut physicians’ incomes that came to be known as the UCP’s “war on doctors,” and from which Alberta is yet to recover.

That, and presumably a sales pitch from Vancouver-based Telus Corp.’s communications subsidiary, which in 2019 had signed a “new long-term strategic partnership and multi-year licensing agreement” with Babylon, seems to be what made Shandro’s eyes twinkle.

Who can forget the UCP government’s gee-whiz news release on March 19, 2020, headlined “New app helps Albertans access health care... Albertans can now meet with Alberta-licensed physicians through their smartphone, thanks to an initiative by Telus Health.”

“This app is now available and ready for use in Alberta thanks to an alternative relationship plan, and it comes at a time when our health system is actively asking people to self-isolate as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic,” the release quoted Shandro proclaiming.

“Using this app is an alternative to visiting physicians face-to-face when you’re not sure if your symptoms are related to the novel coronavirus or at any other time,” he went on, not shy about taking advantage of a bad situation to advance the UCP’s agenda.

Shandro also shamelessly hyped the Babylon app on Twitter, now known as X.

In the same news release, Telus president and CEO Darren Entwistle was quoted saying the company was “committed to driving improved health outcomes for Albertans by bringing our Babylon by Telus Health virtual care service to communities and families across the entire province.”

“In partnership with the Government of Alberta, our virtual health-care service bridges time and distance for Albertans in need of expeditiously accessing a physician at no cost from the comfort of home, while simultaneously keeping our amazing health-care professionals protected,” he continued.

A spokesperson for Telus Health said soon after that the company was “actively looking for ways to integrate Babylon’s virtual care technology into the primary care ecosystem.”

This was not received well by many of the province’s doctors — especially when it got around that Alberta Health would be paying Telus $38 per televisit under that “alternative relationship plan” while family doctors who could actually see your charts and knew your history were restricted to $20 per call.

Several were quoted by the CBC the day after the government news release was published.

“I am very upset as a physician in practice for over 20 years that the government is promoting and funding a service for my patients to call an unknown physician, with no access to my patients’ charts, when I am available for the same service,” wrote one, Edmonton general practitioner Dr. Alice Bedard.

Eventually, the Kenney government caved and agreed to pay Alberta docs the same $38 rate for virtual visits.

Physicians also raised earlier criticisms of the Babylon app, which in light of recent events seem prescient.

For example, an article in Wired magazine in March 2019 criticized Babylon Health’s U.K. operation for cherry-picking “easy, low-maintenance patients” in a system that pays general practitioners a set amount for patients regardless of the complexity of their needs. It dumped the harder cases on emergency departments.

According to Forbes magazine in 2018, “the bot’s advice was often wrong.” When Babylon boasted that its AI program could diagnose conditions better than a living, breathing doctor, it earned a sharp rebuke from Britain’s Royal College of General Practitioners, which turned out to be right.

In 2021, two reports by Alberta’s privacy commissioner found Telus had ignored Alberta’s privacy laws when it launched Babylon. Journalist Charles Rusnell reported that the company collected more information than necessary from patients, including their photos, and used facial recognition technology without notifying patients.

At some point, Telus stopped using the Babylon brand. This was probably a sound decision from a marketing perspective, given its ancient namesake’s bad reputation thanks to the Bible’s Book of Revelation.

At any rate, it looks as if the company that once described its ambition as “to put an accessible and affordable health service in the hands of every person on Earth” will soon go the way of that other Babylon.

What impact this will have on Telus’s bottom line and the operations of Telus Health, if any, remains to be seen. It’s unlikely ever to be mentioned again by anyone associated with the UCP.  [Tyee]

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