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St. Joe’s launches permanent virtual emergency department in Hamilton

St. Joe's Hamilton says its virtual emergency department – partially launched during the coronavirus pandemic – is here to stay.
St. Joe's Hamilton says its virtual emergency department – partially launched during the coronavirus pandemic – is here to stay. St. Joseph's Hamilton Healthcare

A Hamilton emergency doctor says if there’s a plus for St. Joseph’s hospital amid the COVID-19 pandemic it’s the development of the facility’s virtual care over the last four months.

On Wednesday, St. Joe’s officially launched its newly developed virtual emergency care department, allowing those with urgent, non-life-threatening concerns to reach out to a physician if they are unable to see a doctor in person.

Read more: Hamilton-Niagara hospitals need time to clear backlog of non-essential surgeries

“I think all of us have been confronted with the question of should I come to emerge, should I not? I need to go to hospital for this?” said St. Joe’s chief of emergency medicine Dr. Greg Rutledge.

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The service offers dedicated virtual care Monday to Friday from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. and accommodates up to 45 patients a day at stjoes.ca/emergencyvirtualvisits

“I think first step is always a family doctor, to try and connect with your family physician,” said Rutledge. “But if you can’t get into them, see them or you don’t have a family physician, it’s another service for the community.”

St. Joe’s virtual emergency care is for anyone over the age of 18 and can be accessed from just about any smartphone, tablet or computer to save a trip to the hospital.

Rutledge says it’s staffed by the emergency physicians at both the urgent care side at King Street and Stoney Creek, as well as the Charlton site.

Read more: Mobile van offers COVID-19 reassurance to St. Joe’s outpatients

“So it’ll be rotating in the group of 32 of us, always an emerge physician, who has access to zoom charts,” Rutledge said. “So if you’ve been a previous patient here at St. Joe’s, and it’s not exclusive to St. Joe’s patients, we will have access to any previous information that you have given us.”

The virtual care program was born out of necessity during the start of the pandemic after visits to the hospital dropped 30 to 40 percent.

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Rutledge said the hospital had concerns over the drop in attendance and potential fear over visiting a hospital with the spreading coronavirus.

“Heart attacks and strokes and those sort of things don’t stop happening at a pandemic,” Rutledge said, “and it (virtual emergency care) was out of concern over where these people were.”

Same-day emergency virtual visits are available on a first-come, first-served basis. As of late July, St. Joe’s is reporting that its in-person emergency visits are now back to pre-pandemic levels.

Rutledge says the move to emergency virtual care was always something on the periphery, and that the pandemic just expedited the move to virtual care.

“In a roundabout way, yes, it’s been a plus that we started to think a little bit outside the box more and then not only think about it, but actually start to engage it,” Rutledge said.

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Questions about COVID-19? Here are some things you need to know:

Symptoms can include fever, cough and difficulty breathing — very similar to a cold or flu. Some people can develop a more severe illness. People most at risk of this include older adults and people with severe chronic medical conditions like heart, lung or kidney disease. If you develop symptoms, contact public health authorities.

To prevent the virus from spreading, experts recommend frequent handwashing and coughing into your sleeve. They also recommend minimizing contact with others, staying home as much as possible and maintaining a distance of two metres from other people if you go out. In situations where you can’t keep a safe distance from others, public health officials recommend the use of a non-medical face mask or covering to prevent spreading the respiratory droplets that can carry the virus. In some provinces and municipalities across the country, masks or face coverings are now mandatory in indoor public spaces.

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