With five million Canadians not having regular access to a physician, more and more patients are embracing virtual medicine. The field is steadily growing – a recent survey reporting that 74% of Canadians saying they would be happy to use virtual medicine for routine things like prescription renewals.
At its best, the concept has the potential to improve access to care, be easier for patients who have to travel great distances to see a physician and provide for better access to specialists. Virtual medicine has the potential to help make physicians’ practices more efficient, decrease wait times in hospitals and reduce some of the health care burden Canadians experiences.
We’ve come a long way accepting technological and web-based advances, from digital options for medical transcription services to wearable healthcare devices, but the truth is our country is not as up-to-speed as others when it comes to the adoption of virtual care.
To help remedy that, the Canadian Medical Association is teaming up with the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Canada and the College of Family Physicians of Canada as part of a new task force. Their mandate is to identify the regulatory and administrative changes needed to support virtual care in Canada, and to allow physicians to deliver care to patients within and across provincial/territorial boundaries.
According to an Ipsos poll, just under one in ten Canadians (eight percent) say they have had a virtual visit/consultation with a physician (contacting a physician through a smartphone, table or computer), but the low usage seems to be a result of availability rather than lack of interest. That number is, of course, higher among Millennials (15 percent) and parents of children under 18 (12 percent).
When asked if they would choose virtual health visits if the option was available, seven in ten say they would take advantage of this option (69 percent).
There are definitely some pros to consider in the virtual care world:
It’s a time-saver (and a money-saver)
Many physicians are overloaded and it can be difficult to book appointments with them, if you even have a primary care physician. There just aren’t enough doctors in Canada in comparison to the demand for timely medical care. Tack on the patient’s time for travel and the appointment, not to mention the search for and cost of parking that’s often involved, and the time taken off work adds up. A quick fix for an obvious ailment could be a video chat away.
It saves frustration
More than 600,000 Canadians use emergency room services on a regular basis for situations that are far from urgent. In fact, more than half of visits are for non-urgent care, according to Stats Canada. Not only are patients waiting endless and unproductive hours to be seen, there is also the frustration of physicians having to weed through the crowds of ER patients for things that could have been handled with a phone call or video chat.
Continuity of care
Virtual healthcare enables patients to be more actively involved in their own care because they participate more actively in the process and can feel more in control. Instead of going to the ER and seeing a different specialists each time, virtual care can allow for patients to book multiple virtual appointments with the same specialist.
As far as we’ve come in making mental health an acceptable and important part of self-care, there’s still a stigma attached to it in some patients’ eyes. There is no more private way to access care than over the phone or computer, either from the privacy of your own home or in a general healthcare setting, where no one but the health team know what specialist you are seeing.
Technical training and equipment
Building an effective virtual practice means setting up more in-depth IT structure which has related equipment, maintenance and training costs.
Loss of personal touch
Acceptance of virtual health visits doesn’t come without reservations, and when it comes to concerns, more are concerned with a loss of human touch and compassion (67 percent) and accuracy of diagnosis (64 percent) than about privacy of personal health information, according to Ipsos. And visual clues from body language are not as easily interpreted using video conferencing equipment as opposed to in-person.
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