As the COVID-19 pandemic made in-person healthcare difficult to access, many Canadians turned to telemedicine software to consult with their doctors virtually. Even as vaccines begin to make shared physical spaces safe again, telemedicine users express interest in continuing to use online options.
To get a better picture of the benefits and concerns surrounding telehealth in Canada, Capterra surveyed more than 1,000 Canadian residents who’ve had an appointment with a healthcare professional within the last 12 months (see the bottom of this article for a full methodology).
Despite the surging enthusiasm for telehealth in Canada, the innovative yet unfamiliar technology used to power virtual healthcare could make some patients less comfortable using it.
For the second article of the series, we take a look at the concerns patients have surrounding telehealth in Canada, such as data privacy and uncertainty about artificial intelligence (AI) in healthcare.
61% think implementing AI is important for the patient experience
The majority of Canadian respondents to the Capterra survey (61%) thought that AI-powered tools would be important to improve the patient experience. Artificial intelligence is defined by the Canadian government as “any information technology that performs tasks that would ordinarily require biological brainpower to accomplish, such as making sense of spoken language, learning behaviours, or solving problems.”
Implementing AI in healthcare has already led to improvements in the mental health sector, for example. Artificial intelligence has been used to power therapy chatbots, which aim to coach patients through mental health struggles such as depression and anxiety. AI-powered chatbots make immediate medical assistance a reality, regardless of specialist availability or doctor’s office hours.
The comparison of the Canadian survey results with other countries where the study was conducted (Germany, France, Italy, Australia, the Netherlands, and the United Kingdom) show that Canada is one of the leading believers in the innovation of telehealth. Compared to 61% in Canada, only 57% of patients surveyed in both Germany and the UK thought AI-implementation was important. An even smaller percentage shared the opinion in France and Australia (53% for both).
How does AI improve the patient experience?
In the scope of telemedicine, AI-powered software can automate certain aspects of doctor consultations, such as validating e-prescriptions or setting up recurring appointments. Virtual healthcare trends show that these technologies are already on their way to transforming telehealth around the world.
The most agreed upon benefit of artificial intelligence in healthcare among survey respondents (38%) was the speedy medical assistance it can provide. Using AI to collect and categorize patient data saves medical professionals time on manual data processing. In turn, artificial intelligence software can provide doctors with more time to administer healthcare more attentively and effectively.
In addition to a smoother and speedier healthcare visit, 11% of Canadians surveyed think AI will lead to a decrease in human errors. 8% believe it will make sharing patient data easier, and 6% of respondents believe AI can lead to more accurate diagnoses.
Although most Canadians surveyed saw at least one benefit of artificial intelligence, 36% admit that they’re unsure if there are any benefits to AI-powered telemedicine software at all.
Almost 2 in 3 Canadians feel uncomfortable sharing information with AI-powered assistants
While some patients may be eager for the positive changes that artificial intelligence can bring to telehealth in Canada, not all feel comfortable with the idea. Nearly 2 out of 3 Canadians (61%) surveyed report that they would be uncomfortable sharing their medical history with an AI-powered virtual assistant.
The concerns about explaining medical issues to an AI-powered assistant may be connected to the ages of respondents. 44% of respondents over the age of 55 preferred in-person information sharing, showing a preference for the traditional data collection methods their age group is most accustomed to. Only 23% of those under the age of 35 preferred giving medical information this way.
Younger Canadians seem readier to adapt to innovations in telehealth, with 45% of respondents under 35 preferring to use an AI virtual assistant. Writing to an online assistant is very similar to text messaging and virtual chat platforms, technologies that younger generations were raised alongside. 9% of respondents 55 and over wanted to share information with AI-powered assistants, the least preferred method of communicating medical data for over 55s.
Chatbots are under-utilized in Canada’s telehealth system
In addition to the younger generation’s comfortability with virtual assistants, using AI-based platforms for health communication has many benefits for patients, such as:
- Shortening hospital wait times
- Limiting processing inconveniences
- Streamlining administrative workflows
- Connecting patients directly to specialists
Despite their advantages, only 5% of telemedicine users surveyed encountered chatbots, a type of conversational AI platform software, during their telehealth consultation. Considering this, it’s possible that older Canadians are less comfortable with AI virtual assistants due to a lack of experience with them.
More than half of patients are concerned about medical data protection
Digitally transferring and storing personal and medical information is a necessity of telemedicine. There are federal and provincial Canadian data privacy laws which protect this information from misuse, but 51% of survey respondents still felt concerned about the protection of data shared with their doctors. 33% were not concerned at all, while 16% of respondents claimed not to know anything about medical data protection.
Despite the general uncertainty surrounding the protection of medical data, patients who have experienced telemedicine appointments are less concerned about medical data protection. Only 14% of telemedicine-using respondents were concerned about the protection of medical data shared via telemedicine software.
Canadians trust health apps more than healthcare centres to protect data
According to the Capterra survey, nearly half of Canadians surveyed (42%) are using some form of health-related application. Step-monitoring apps were the most commonly used health app, with 58% of app-users surveyed reporting their use. The next most popular health apps amongst our survey respondents were sleep monitoring apps (37%), heart rate monitoring apps (35%), and Canada’s COVID-19 exposure tracking app, COVID Alert (30%).
Surprisingly, fewer health app users are worried about their data protection than telemedicine users or general healthcare patients. 37% of app users surveyed said they were aware of the data they shared with health apps but weren’t concerned about how the apps protected it. Only 28% of health app users knew and were concerned about the protection of their data, compared to the 51% of overall patients surveyed who worried about data protection in healthcare.
The uncertainty that Canadians feel about medical data protection could be influenced by the complexity and high number of privacy legislation acts in Canada. Each province in Canada has their own privacy laws in addition to the federal privacy protection act, PIPEDA. Paired with the medical data breaches which have already occurred in Canada—such as the data breach of over 3,000 patients in Alberta—Canadians may be confused about who is protecting their data and which data is protected.
Although Canadians show wavering levels of comfort with the technology used in healthcare, AI-powered technologies are continuing to innovate both traditional healthcare and telehealth in Canada. As virtual healthcare trends continue into uncharted territory, it seems Canadian health officials should focus efforts on educating the public about the benefits and risks of new technologies.
To collect the data for this report, we conducted an online survey in April 2021 Of the total respondents, we were able to identify 1,031 respondents that fit within our criteria:
- Canadian resident
- Over 18 years of age
- Had a healthcare appointment within the last 12 months
- Normally goes to the doctor at least once a year