Providers and hospitals across Canada have had to quickly leverage virtual visits and digital health tools to ensure ongoing healthcare access throughout COVID-19. And while virtual care was a growing area of interest prior to the pandemic, many healthcare providers and patients remained skeptical of its benefits and use. A recent study by the Women’s College Hospital Institute for Health System Solutions and Virtual Care (WIHV) published in BMJ Open, addresses this very concern within the primary care setting.
In 2017, the Ontario Telemedicine Network (OTN) launched one of the largest virtual primary care projects in Canada – taking place in five different Ontario health regions, involving 278 primary care physicians and registering over 32,000 patients. To ensure that this pilot was rigorously tested and evaluated, OTN partnered with WIHV.
“This initiative provided WIHV with the opportunity to scientifically assess the value of virtual primary care. We know that family physicians see the highest number of patients and are often a person’s first access point to the health system. As a result, we believe that virtual primary care has the potential to significantly improve patient experience in Ontario”, said Dr. Sacha Bhatia, Chief Medical Innovation Officer at Women’s College Hospital (WCH) and scientist at Women’s College Research Institute (WCRI).
What they found was that eVisits were beneficial, convenient and accessible. Of the patients surveyed, 98 per cent felt that virtual care was the same or better than in-person care and 99 per cent said they would use eVisits again. Patients overwhelmingly expressed that virtual primary care saved them time and travel costs.
Given the option to use either video calls or direct messaging, patients strongly preferred the flexibility and ease of messaging their physician. While eVisits have the ability to enhance care for all patients, interviews with healthcare providers suggest that these visits may be particularly beneficial for residents living in rural or remote communities and those with mobility issues.
“Patients reported that eVisits replaced in-person visits to their doctor, as to a lesser extent, to walk-in clinics and emergency departments. By providing timely access to a physician, virtual care can quickly respond to a patient’s health condition and prevent it from deteriorating”, explained Dr. Onil Bhattacharyya, innovation fellow at WIHV, senior scientist at WCRI and family physician at Women’s College Hospital.
“The eVisit Primary Care project represents the future of healthcare – a system with increased convenience, ease and access,” adds Dr. Bhatia. “Many other industries have incorporated digital tools to produce a better customer experience. It is time the healthcare industry did the same.”