It’s a Good Thing: Telus aims for a healthy bottom line

As Telus's traditional wireline business contracts, a new use for those lines—health-care data, delivered straight to patients' hands—takes off.

Credit: Karen Mackenrot, Telus

Juggy Sihota, Telus VP of consumer health, with boss Darren Entwistle

As Telus’s traditional wireline business contracts, a new use for those lines—health-care data, delivered straight to patients’ hands—takes off

In every election, including the one just past, Canadians put health care at the top of their political priorities. We have a love-hate relationship with this country’s system: love that it’s (mostly) free and (mostly) equitable, but hate the waiting times and gaps in delivery. Somebody (we shout) should do something about this!

A variety of private enterprises across Canada have heard the screams and latched onto the opportunity presented by market failure—perhaps none more enthusiastically than Telus. Just over a decade ago, the Vancouver-based telco got into the sector—initially more on the back end of the system, providing IT services related to electronic medical records (EMR) technology, pharmacy management software and health benefits management software.

Then the app revolution hit, wearables took off, and people began taking matters into their own hands. “What we’ve seen is that consumers are getting very interested, active and engaged in measuring and managing their own health,” says Juggy Sihota, VP of consumer health at Telus. “When I started [the consumer health] business three years ago, we did a very thorough needs analysis: What does the Canadian market need? What are the things out there, from a health-care perspective, that aren’t delivering the services people want?”

In the past decade, Telus has invested more than $2.5 billion building up its health division, with consumer health its fastest-growing segment. Sihota has introduced a slew of new products and services since early 2018, from the Babylon app (allowing access to medical records and consultations with doctors) to a LivingWell Companion medical alert service for seniors, to a variety of health-related programming on Optik TV. With data services revenue in Telus’s traditional wireline business (where Sihota’s portfolio falls) up almost 13 percent in 2018, it’s clear why health care has become one of the company’s top corporate priorities.

While Telus isn’t exactly a charity—”we are focused on delivering for the shareholders, and we know that we can deliver some of these services at a lesser cost”—Sihota is quick to add that social capitalism and, indeed, philanthropy are part of her company’s DNA. That’s why Telus launched its not-for-profit Health for Good initiative last fall, with a series of mobile health clinics (in Montreal, Calgary, Vancouver and Victoria), equipped with doctors, nurses and Telus’s EMR technology and Wi-Fi network, delivering health-care treatment to hard-to-reach patients.

“Our Health for Good program is really focused on the marginalized populations, people who are vulnerable, who are on the streets,” Sihota says. “It’s difficult for them to get access to health care. So instead of hoping that they’ll come in and introduce themselves into the system, we’re meeting them where they are—and delivering the health care where they need it, when they need it.” The original plan was to have 10 vans on the street by the end of 2019, but because of the health-care bureaucracy, they’re stuck at four, with a new goal of 10 by mid-2020.

For Sihota, who’s been with Telus for 24 years, the career shift was inspired by her own life’s events. Several years ago, her mother had a heart attack on a long weekend. “She was young and healthy and vibrant, and it was out of the blue,” Sihota recalls. The ER couldn’t provide her with the emergency angioplasty she needed, and the family was told she’d have to wait until the following Wednesday for treatment.

Ultimately, her mom got transferred to another hospital and received the right care, but for Sihota it was a wake-up call. “I’d enjoyed a really wonderful career dealing with emerging technologies, but at that point, I decided that I needed to now focus my efforts on making the health-care system better for everyone.”

Source: Ipsos survey of 3,352 people for the Canadian Medical Association