How Telus and Dr. Elaine Chin are placing a big bet on health promotion

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      Last month at Telus’s new head office in Vancouver, three executives spent more than an hour talking about the telecommunications company’s bold move into health care. Josh Blair, executive vice-president of Telus Health, revealed that he has been in discussions with B.C. health minister Terry Lake about how technological solutions can assist in the management of chronic diseases.

      “We are by far the largest health–IT company in Canada,” Blair said to a group of executives and a small number of journalists.

      Paul Lepage, president of Telus Health and Payment Solutions, talked about how families can monitor loved ones with the help of technology. As an example, he cited the possibility of devices worn by seniors providing information to people in another location about whether they may have fallen down.

      The third panellist, Dr. Elaine Chin, is Telus’s chief wellness officer. She discussed how digital devices that measure blood pressure and other health indicators are being sold at Bloomingdale’s. “They think it’s going to be the hottest Christmas present going,” Chin said.

      Over the past decade, Telus states that it has invested more than $1.5 billion in its health division, which has more than 1,600 team members. While telecommunications rivals like Bell and Rogers have sunk billions into television and sports teams, Telus has focused its efforts on helping clients live longer, healthier lives.

      In an interview with the Georgia Straight earlier this year, Telus president and CEO Darren Entwistle said that the company is aiming for better patient outcomes at lower costs.

      “We also think that technology and empowering our citizens to greater care of their health and that of their families can not only remediate disease, it can prevent disease from happening in the first place,” Entwistle said.

      As an example, Telus has created a personal-health-records platform that enables people with diabetes to track blood-sugar levels at different times of the day and night. It can also be used by those with congestive heart failure or other chronic conditions to provide long-term information on health indicators. That could include a person’s pulse readings or resting-heart-rate readings.

      Consumers can log in daily and examine a dashboard full of information. They may also decide whether or not they want to provide this information to a physician, coach, mental-health specialist, or family member. It also keeps track of lab-test information, allergies, family immunization records, and a host of other data.

      Lepage said that over the past six years, Telus has tried several different business models to cover the cost of its personal-health-records platform. A small number of people pay for it themselves with an annual subscription. Soon, the province of Alberta will roll it out for all of its residents as part of the provincial health plan. This personal-health-records system gives people access to data even when they’re travelling abroad and encounter health problems.

      Lepage explained that when people are better able to monitor health indicators, they’re more likely to take action before problems escalate. And Telus executives insist that this will end up costing the Alberta health-care system less money in the long run.

      Telus is also providing electronic-health-records applications to doctors, acute-care hospitals, pharmacies, insurers, and employers. “Ultimately, all of those initiatives are focused on the citizen, the consumer, the plan member,” Lepage said.

      Meanwhile, Chin has paid a great deal of attention to one of the hottest new areas of diagnostic testing: telomeres. She said that these are found at the tips of chromosomes, which contain all of a person’s DNA.

      She cited shoelace tips to provide an analogy to describe what happens to people’s chromosomes as they age. Just as tips protect shoelaces from fraying, telomeres protect chromosomes from destabilizing.

      In her new book Lifelines: Unlock the Secrets of Your Telomeres for a Longer, Healthier Life, Chin states that telomeres have now been recognized as a cause of all chronic diseases. And at Telus’s head office, she bluntly stated that these sections of nucleotide sequences weaken with age and lifestyle factors, including poor diet, too much alcohol, smoking, stress, and lack of sleep.

      “That will really determine your biological fate,” Chin said.

      Researchers Elizabeth Blackburn, Carol Greider, and Jack Szostak won the Nobel Prize in medicine for their work in this area. Chin explained that telomeres are usually longer in childhood, but shorten with time as DNA replicates to keep people healthy. When genetic material starts to fragment, it fails to be copied properly. This leads to the production of unhealthy cells. This, in turn, can result in cardiovascular disease, cancer, Alzheimer’s disease, osteoporosis, arthritis, and other chronic conditions.

      “Wellness is, in fact, based on science and it’s not a fad,” Chin insisted.

      In her book, Chin describes a multitude of ways in which telomeres can be tested. Blood or saliva tests will work. She writes that quantitative polymerase chain reaction testing is the most cost-effective at $250 to $500. Fluorescence in situ hybridization will run between $1,000 and $1,500.

      “I generally tell people to opt for the less expensive test; then, if they are concerned by the results because they fall below the average, they can do additional testing to assess the percentage of short telomeres,” Chin writes.