Providing personalized healthcare for Canada’s LGBTQ2+ community
Amaan Banwait earned a business degree at the UBC Sauder School of Business with the intent of using his business skills to help underserved communities. After working in Africa and the U.K., the Bachelor of Commerce (’09) graduate is now based in Toronto – delivering personalized healthcare to Canada’s LGBTQ2+ community.
Banwait is a co-founder and Chief Commercial Officer of Freddie, a direct-to-consumer telemedicine company that serves Canadians who identify as LGBTQ2S+ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and/or two-spirit). The company is dedicated to preventing HIV and increasing public education about sexually transmitted diseases.
“Freddie Mercury was a trailblazer who broke social norms and he is also associated with HIV,” explains Banwait. “Inspired by Freddie Mercury, we are working to destigmatize conversations around taking care of your sexual health.”
Through the company’s team of clinicians and partnerships with drug manufacturers and pharmacies, Freddie offers patients PrEP, a medication that is taken daily and has proven to be effective in preventing HIV transmission.
“HIV is on the rise in Canada and over 50 percent of new HIV infections are in the LGBTQ2S+ community. PrEP is a drug that’s 99 percent effective against HIV, but there are a lot of barriers in accessing it,” says Banwait. “In some provinces, like Alberta, you have to be licenced to prescribe PrEP and fewer than two percent of physicians are licenced, so you could end up waiting weeks if not months to get an appointment with a licenced practitioner.”
Increasing accessibility to HIV prevention therapy
A prospective patient visits Freddie’s website and fills out a medical questionnaire. If they’re a suitable candidate for PrEP, they book a call with a clinician who is trained on PrEP medication management.
After completing bloodwork at a local lab, the patient begins treatment. They check back in their clinician after 30 days and then every 90 days for follow-up consultations and bloodwork.
“We’re trying to offer the most convenient and most inclusive clinical experience possible,” says Banwait. “Eligible patients can start the program in as little as three days.”
Drug therapies can get very expensive, so Freddie patients are supported by dedicated care coordinators to access provincial health insurance programs and other government subsidies. Freddie also offers financial aid to patients in need.
Nick Yarmey is a Freddie patient who lives in Edmonton.
Nick Yarmey heard about Freddie from a friend who works in the company. He says PrEP is still not well known due to the silence surrounding HIV/AIDS.
“I went to Freddie because I knew I wouldn’t have to come out to anyone,” says Yarmey. “In the past, I’ve had some uncomfortable experiences with healthcare professionals who assume I’m straight or weren’t knowledgeable about LGBTQ2S+ issues, which can be a big deterrent to going back. It might sound silly, but even being able to private message the Freddie staff rather than calling on the phone just takes one more element of stress out of the equation.”
Dedicated to removing the stigma around HIV
Dr. Caley Shukalek is Freddie’s Medical Director.
Dr. Caley Shukalek is the Medical Director at Freddie as well as a Clinical Assistant Professor in the Departments of Medicine & Community Health Sciences at the University of Calgary and Alberta Health Services. He helped develop the HIV PrEP guidelines in Alberta.
“HIV and STIs still have a stigma around them and there are still issues with access to affirmative care,” says Dr. Shukalek. “Through Freddie, we are expanding care to the LGBTQ2S+ community in relation to sexual health. While we know that HIV disproportionately affects sexual and gender diverse minorities, it is still spreading among the Canadian population despite being entirely preventable through testing, safer sex practices and treatment as prevention.”
Addressing the mental health challenge in Canada
Freddie is currently a small business with about 40 employees, but it’s scaling fast. The company is also expanding its focus. Later this fall, Banwait’s team will add another form of virtual care – mental health services.
“Mental health is very broad, complex and challenging and there are long wait times to see an expert clinician,” he says. “We surveyed our patients and 64 percent said they would like to access mental health services through Freddie. So, we’re going to start small by offering virtual mental health care to our existing patients. If it works for them, we’ll consider expanding outside of Freddie.”
A business with high social impact
Amaan Banwait says it was at UBC Sauder that he was introduced to the idea of blending business with social good.
Reflecting on his unique career, Banwait says his formative years as a Commerce student at UBC Sauder cultivated in him a love of problem solving. When he looks at the immense challenges associated with healthcare delivery in Canada, he believes many problems can be solved with creative partnerships and a sense of compassion.
“After I finished my Commerce degree and began a career in management consulting, I was hired by the Clinton Foundation to work in East Africa on HIV/AIDS community initiatives. That experience changed my life and led me to the work I’m doing today. I feel so fortunate to be working alongside such an all-star team on the very same mission, one that I care deeply about.”