FHT clinics turn to Akira to avoid penalties

By Rosie Lombardi

Dustin-WalperThe Akira digital health service that launched this year in Ontario was born out of a millennial’s frustration with the complete lack of technological convenience in the healthcare system. “The way Canadians interact with their doctors hasn’t really changed in 100 years,” says Akira’s co-founder Dustin Walper (pictured). To tackle this, Akira offers many modern medical conveniences for its subscription fee of $9.99 a month. The core of the service is the ability to connect users with board-certified physicians based in Ontario by secure mobile text or video, and there are no time limits on a call.

Doctors can write prescriptions and send them to the user’s pharmacy of choice, refer patients to specialists or allied health professionals, and order tests. Through partners, Akira also offers free, same-day delivery of prescription medications to the home or office. Prescription information including frequency and dosage is also easily accessible in-app. Employers can negotiate deals to offer Akira as an employee health benefit.

“We have well over 3,000 users, and the number of companies who’ve signed up is growing every day,” says Walper. “The feedback we’ve been getting has been really good. People actually write to us to say things like: ‘You saved me two hours. I just told 10 friends about it. I love the service.’ I believe that in five years, most people will begin their interactions with the healthcare system via a telemedicine network, be it ours or another one, every time they have a medical issue.”

Akira has about 15 physicians and 5 nurse practitioners on staff to take calls, and most operate out of their own offices in Toronto or Ottawa. “We pay them per shift. We didn’t want to tie compensation to how many patients they saw because we really wanted them to be able to focus on providing the best possible quality of care.”

The types of medical issues the Akira network handles are very similar to those handled at walk-in clinics, says Walper. “Many are minor issues, like people who just want to know if their symptoms warrant an in-person visit to a doctor’s office or women who need birth control pills. But we also deal with more complex issues, for example, post-miscarriage counseling. We’ve helped people who’ve been newly diagnosed with chronic disease figure out how to manage their condition. And we deal with quite a lot of mental health issues.”

Akira is already starting to change the way doctors look at the way they manage their medical practices. Many of Akira’s staff doctors are lobbying their clinic leaders to offer the service to all their patients as a way to extend their services after hours – and to avoid penalties. “Family Health Teams in Ontario have about 10,000 patients on their rosters. They are penalized out of their budget any time that patient goes and uses a walk-in clinic. A number of our doctors who work at family health team have expressed interest in bringing a proposal to use Akira to reduce outside use of walk-ins.”

Many mainstream physicians are uncomfortable with virtual medicine, but Walper says there is abundant evidence that it’s relatively risk-free if it’s properly managed. “In primary care, based on the data we’ve looked at, probably 70 percent of all consults could be done virtually. There’s no question anymore about the evidence supporting digital care. There’s over 10 years of experience in the US with groups like Kaiser Permanente. And there are groups like the Ontario Telemedicine Network that have gathered all kinds of interesting experience in Canada assuring that this is as safe, and in some cases like with mental health, it actually can be more effective than in-person care because it provides access to people who might not have actually gone to seek help.”

Akira has ambitious expansion plans, and is operating with $500,000 in seed funding from investors including Shopify founder Tobias Lütke, Top Hat founder, Mike Silagadze, and venture capital firm HIGHLINE.

Walper says the company plans to set up shop in Quebec, B.C. and Alberta in the near future, and possibly beyond in the long-term. “We’ll be moving into one of those three provinces by the end of this year. Then we’ll likely be trying to get into the additional two provinces within the first half of 2017. Those provinces represent the majority of the Canadian population. We’re hopeful we’ll then be able to fill in the remainder of the country and make Akira accessible across Canada.”

For more information, visit http://akira.md/