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Demand surges for virtual health care amid novel coronavirus pandemic

B.C. patients turning to virtual doctors during COVID-19 pandemic
With many doctors offices and walk-in clinics closed, more patients are turning to virtual health care services. Nadia Stewart reports.

With Canada under strict social-distancing rules and facing an unprecedented demand for medical resources due to COVID-19, many British Columbians are turning to virtual medicine for help.

The idea of telemedicine is not new, but operators of video-based health-care say they’re witnesses a never-before-seen interest in their services.

“Many clinics are just not accepting walk-in clients at this point. Most clinics are having people call ahead and do a screening. It’s really challenging out there for people to find access to care,” said Blake Adam, the CEO of Medimap, a website that lists real-time waits at walk-in clinics in five provinces, including B.C.

READ MORE: Coronavirus: Ontario government announces expansion of Telehealth resources

“People are struggling to navigate the system right now, the health-care system is totally overwhelmed right now, (and) people end up relying on the emergency department when they shouldn’t.”

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Kelowna doctors proving telemedicine can slash patient travel time
Kelowna doctors proving telemedicine can slash patient travel time

The company has launched a new online service that connects people with a doctor via video.

The service is free for people with provincial health insurance coverage, and can be used for routine care needs, such as getting a prescription filled. The wait is about 10 minutes.

READ MORE: Is there a doctor in the village? Search for physician continues in Apsley as telemedicine project launches

Medimap does not have access to personal medical information, Blake said, and doctors using the new video service can directly fax prescriptions to pharmacies so patients can go pick them up.

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Dr. Essam Hamza, a physician and CEO of CloudMD in Victoria, said his video platform is also booming.

“It’s been exploding. We’ve been seeing a lot of patients now (to whom) we used to have to explain what telemedicine is, coming to us because they can’t get in through 811, their doctors’ offices are closed, they can’t go to emergency, they’re told not to go anywhere if they’re sick,” he said.

Video doctor pilot project underway in Ontario
Video doctor pilot project underway in Ontario

CloudMD is also free for people with provincial health-care coverage.

Before COVID-19, the service only connected patients to four clinics, Hamza said, but now covers more than 315 clinics across the country.

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“There are thousands of patients now using telehealth that were not using telehealth before, so we know it is helping,” he said.

“It’s like what banking was five or six years ago, where you used to go to a teller to deposit a cheque — there’s no such thing anymore.”

READ MORE: Kelowna doctors hail the benefits of telemedicine

The Canadian Medical Association, the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Canada and the College of Family Physicians of Canada recently formed a task force to study the future of virtual care.

In a report in February, the group determined that “the patient demand is here, the technology exists,” and made 19 recommendations aimed at expanding capabilities for a future where the tools become a regular part of care.

“Telerounding” doctors keep PEI hospital unit open
“Telerounding” doctors keep PEI hospital unit open

According to 2016 data from Statistics Canada, around 4.8 million Canadians over the age of 12 do not have a family doctor.

Hazma said he believes that could be partially solved through telemedicine.

He said he expects the future of health care to be a hybrid model where some people still need to go to a doctor or clinic for help.

But other services, such as mental-health support, will likely move online, he said, and the idea of taking a day off to visit a doctor or needing to wait weeks for an appointment will become a thing of the past.

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– With files from Nadia Stewart