A trio of Nova Scotia doctors and a former biotech executive are aiming to improve the efficiency of the healthcare system via an online platform for consultations with specialist physicians.

Doctors Luke Napier, Daniel Rasic and Jacob Cookey started Virtual Hallway in 2019 because they were struggling to schedule and document the phone consults they were performing. Former Covina Biomedical Chief Executive Justin Hartlen joined as CEO in February.

Initially launched as an online spreadsheet for physicians to book phone consults with specialists who had posted information about their availability, the current version of the service offers the same functionality in a more user-friendly package. The specialist also writes a consult report that is shared with the primary care doctor, and the process of billing the provincial government is automated.

“I've been practicing for 25-odd years, and for years before, it's been a matter of a family doc calling me and leaving a message on my cell or with the secretary in my office," said Napier in an interview. "And then I'll call back, and they'll leave a message, and you're into this kind of phone tag situation.

"So the timing was often suboptimal. The ease of contact was often a challenge.”

Hartlen added that Virtual Hallway is designed to address four key challenges that doctors face during the consult process: finding a specialist to consult; scheduling the consult amidst other commitments; documenting the consult, which can be labour-intensive, but is important for reasons of information-sharing; and navigating the paperwork necessary for billing.

The company showed immediate promise, with a rash of physicians signing up in those early, spreadsheet-based days.

“It's a grassroots movement, right?" said Hartlen. "The reason this company exists is because physicians felt a real world itch and were compelled to scratch it."

One factor differentiating Virtual Hallway from competitors, he said, is that it allows doctors to talk in real time. Most other online consult platforms allow users to communicate only asynchronously.

And crucially, primary care doctors are always matched with specialists from the same province, to encourage trust and help physicians build working relationships.

He added that the service is not suitable for patients that specialists need to see in person, but that many cases can be handled more efficiently via a five or 10-minute phone call, reducing strain on specialists and the medical system overall.

Now, Virtual Hallway has 16 employees, counting its founders, and is active in Nova Scotia, Ontario, Saskatchewan, and as of April, Alberta. Hartlen said he foresees Nova Scotia being a proving ground for the platform, but not its main target market because regions like Ontario offer more potential for scale.

Last year, the company raised a round of pre-seed funding, and Hartlen hopes to raise another $1.5 million by the end of 2022.

“(Virtual Hallway)’s adding utility and capacity to the system,” he said. “We’re unearthing or leveraging slack in the system that otherwise couldn't be accessed.”