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The New Reality: Virtual health care likely to remain permanent fixture in Maritimes

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Virtual health care likely to remain permanent fixture in Maritimes
WATCH: The sharp rise in virtual health care during the COVID-19 pandemic has patients and physicians alike voicing their support. As Jeremy Keefe reports, provinces in the Maritimes are working to support its use in the future – Jun 12, 2020

This is the 13th in a series of stories looking at the new reality of life during the COVID-19 pandemic in the Maritimes. You can find the full series here.

Meeting with your doctor virtually, either over the phone or online, has become a common way to receive health care during the COVID-19 pandemic.

For many, that isn’t likely to change as restrictions implemented to stop the spread of the disease are relaxed.

“I feel a lot safer,” said Dana Jackson of Halifax, who has been meeting with her doctor virtually over the past few weeks.

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Jackson is now 24 weeks into her first pregnancy and is taking extra precautions.

That includes limiting how often she attends a health clinic.

Jackson believes the decision makes sense for her and anyone else who has concerns about being exposed to the coronavirus or other viruses.

“(My doctor) asks me all my normal questions that she would ask if I had an appointment in person,” she said. “And for the most part that’s what my normal appointment would be if I had to go in.”

Doctors receiving positive feedback on virtual care

The Canadian Medical Association recently conducted a poll that showed nearly half of Canadians have now used some form of virtual health care, with a 91 per cent satisfaction rate.

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Almost half of the respondents indicated that going forward they would prefer for virtual visits to be the first point of contact with physicians.

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“Over the last two to three months, physicians and patients are learning that, certainly, virtual care can be quite convenient on both ends,” said Dr. Chris Goodyear, president of the New Brunswick Medical Society (NBMS).

THE NBMS recently conducted a poll of its own, receiving similar results to the national survey.

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Goodyear says he’s heard from colleagues who say they feel more capable of managing their caseload with the implementation of virtual health care.

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Physicians report being able to schedule followups outside of normal hours, increasing their availability and flexibility.

READ MORE: Demand surges for virtual health care amid novel coronavirus pandemic

Virtual care also makes it less cumbersome for patients, who often had to take time out of their workday to attend doctor’s appointments.

Doctors say the benefits of virtual health care go beyond just the convenience of avoiding the waiting room.

‘Virtual care is here to stay’

“What virtual care can do for patients in the Maritimes is give them access to specialty care and even family doctors who may not be located within a close distance of them,” Goodyear said.

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“We are certainly advocating that virtual care stay after the pandemic is over as we see it playing an important role in the future of health care.”

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In Nova Scotia, doctors are hearing similar feedback to their New Brunswick counterparts.

“There is no question in my mind that virtual care is here to stay,” said Dr. Robyn MacQuarrie, the president of Doctors Nova Scotia. “The patients are going to demand it.”

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MacQuarrie admits that delivering health care from a distance isn’t ideal in all situations but says patients have told her they feel much safer receiving care virtually whenever possible.

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She said many are already expressing their interest in the continued use of virtual care.

“We have a population that sometimes doesn’t feel comfortable getting out on the roads in the winter,” MacQuarrie said.

“So my patients are already asking me now, ‘I’d rather do this than drive in a snowstorm to see you in the winter so what’s coming down the road?'”

‘This is the way of the future’

The leader of Nova Scotia’s PC Party says it’s time for the province to make virtual health care a permanent piece of the puzzle.

“This is a complete no-brainer,” said Tim Houston. “If people can access health-care professionals easier, more efficiently, effectively, it’s better for the patient and it allows the health-care practitioner, the doctor to be more efficient in how they’re managing their caseload.

READ MORE: Canada to invest $240M in online health care amid coronavirus, Trudeau says

Randy Delorey, Nova Scotia’s health minister, points to the signing of the 2016 master agreement with Doctors Nova Scotia as a sign of the province’s willingness to move forward with virtual care.

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He said that at that time, the province implemented a non-face-to-face billing code that opened the door for that type of care.

Delorey says the evolving situation around COVID-19 forced policy changes, many of which are being re-evaluated following weeks of monitoring their results.

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Virtual care is one of the items he says staff are currently looking into and weighing recommendations on in an attempt to improve the service.

Delorey indicated that while much of the feedback has been positive, some issues have arisen concerning doctors’ ability to assess patients without seeing them in person.

Issues like that are what the province is working to mitigate ahead of making virtual care permanent, a measure Delorey said the government is committed to.

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Currently, the temporary fee code being used by physicians is set to expire at the end of the month.

“We recognize that this is part of the evolution of health care,” Delorey said.

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The New Brunswick government echoed the sentiment of the neighbouring province.

Bruce Macfarlane, a spokesperson for the New Brunswick Department of Health, said the province also intends to grow and expand the use of virtual care.

He said New Brunswick has recently partnered with NBMS to increase the number of virtual visits to family physicians and specialists.

“This should result in an increase in use of virtual care and better access to health services for the patients of the province,” Macfarlane said in a statement.

“We will be working with the medical society to make virtual care a permanent part of our health-care system.”

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