The hard facts about virtual care: house calls with a twist
At Elizz, we have been following the development of virtual care in Canada. We see potential benefits for all caregivers, especially busy daughters and sons of aging parents. We asked our Elizz readers whether they had ever accessed a doctor online. The responses varied: some had, others haven’t but expressed an interest or planned to do so in the future. Others again responded that they hadn’t accessed and never will. A few of our readers also raised concerns about costs and the quality of this care compared to traditional face to face visits with a doctor.
What we do know is that many of the stories we hear from daughters and sons revolve around the stress and worry about mom or dad’s health. This stress and worry increases when parents seems to require immediate medical attention. This is precisely why being able to access a doctor online was so appealing to us at Elizz. No travelling, no waiting, no parking costs, no ongoing anxiety about what to do. We investigated further, focusing on the ‘hard facts’ about virtual care.
Clearing up the language
Virtual care is “… the use of any technology (e.g., telephone, private messaging, videoconferencing) that supports health providers to collaborate with one another and to deliver remote care to patients.” It can be confusing because different terms tend to be used interchangeably: telehealth, telemedicine, virtual medicine, remote health care. For the purposes of this article, we will use the term ‘virtual care’.
Virtual care is NOT new in Canada
Virtual care has been around for decades, especially in rural and remote areas with physician shortages. It is interesting that, 30 years ago, Canada was a leader in the world when telehealth consultations were provided through the publicly funded system. Given Canada’s vast geography and populations of people who live in remote and rural areas, this is understandable.
Bringing the Healthcare system in Canada up to speed
Fax machines. Need I say more about the state of Canada’s adoption of technology in our health care system? In other sectors, like banking, the use of fax machines is long gone and is now one for technology history books.
The primary model of health care delivery also continues to be physical visits with doctors in their office. While once a leader, Canada lags behind other countries, such as the United States and the United Kingdom, in its uptake of virtual care. Governments at the federal and provincial level and the Canadian Medical Association are all currently exploring and advocating for greater adoption of virtual care.
The COVID-19 pandemic and virtual care
The COVID-19 pandemic has really given virtual care an opportunity to shine and demonstrate its value. Governments have worked out billing systems to enable doctors and other health care professionals to be paid for virtual visits with their patients. Governments and companies like Shopper’s Drug Mart teamed up with Maple, a private sector organization, to temporarily provide FREE access to a doctor online. The Canadian Medical Association, the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Canada and the College of Family Physicians of Canada all support making changes to the healthcare system in order to support virtual care in Canada.
Physicians and other healthcare providers have been using virtual care to: provide continuity of care to patients, triage patients to both determine and evaluate risk and to assess and treat patients with minor medical issues and ailments. In fact, telemedicine has been described as one of the better tools we currently have to respond medically during this pandemic.
Patients and caregivers want virtual care
Almost 15 years ago, a survey of Canadians revealed that they wanted the online world to expand to include managing their health. In a more recent survey of Canadian employees, 2 in 3 stated they would use virtual care if it was provided in their employee benefit plan, and 71 % were even willing to trade off current benefits for improved access to healthcare professionals and virtual care. In this survey, virtual care appealed most to parents and caregivers (69%), those dealing with chronic health conditions (70%) and millennials (67%).
What are the benefits of expanding virtual care?
- Improves access to a health professional (goodbye lengthy wait times)
- Saves time and money (no travel expenses or need to take time off work)
- Safe option for care. It reduces risk of infection, especially important during this pandemic (by not travelling to medical appointments, and not being in doctor’s offices or emergency rooms (unless necessary).
Virtual care is as good as physical care
In the United States, one of the largest health networks provided more patient consultations virtually than in person, and it was found that the patient satisfaction and outcomes were just as good as in-person consultations. In fact, studies have shown that patients perceive the quality of virtual care to be equal or even better than in-person care.
In addition, human connection and compassion is NOT lost with virtual care. This is quite good to hear because it is a concern for many Canadians. In the same poll of Canadians, three-quarters were concerned about a loss of human connection and compassion with the advancement of virtual care. The CEO of Maple , Dr. Brett Belchetz wisely notes that delivery is the issue more than technology. Whether the doctor is compassionate or not, is not related to whether the patient interaction is physical or virtual. Many of us have met a doctor who could use a little more training, practice or commitment to compassionately interacting with their patients!
We will likely hear and read more about virtual care options in Canada as we wrestle with this COVID-19 pandemic. In my mind, virtual care options are a consoling health and safety net.
We would love to hear what you think.