With virtual care agreement set to expire, Doctors Nova Scotia calls for permanent solution

Nancy MacCready-Williams, Doctors Nova Scotia CEO.
Nancy MacCready-Williams, Doctors Nova Scotia CEO. Jesse Thomas / Global News

Virtual care options for patients and doctors in Nova Scotia, like telephone and videoconferencing, are set to expire at the end of the year and there’s no word from the province if the e-health programming will be extended.

Doctors Nova Scotia, which represents all physicians in the province, expects an extension to the virtual health-care programming but is calling for a permanent solution to be put in place.

The province adopted a new virtual care plan early on during the pandemic as a short-term measure to deal with COVID-19, but Doctors Nova Scotia says it’s been a success and, amid a potential second wave of the coronavirus, it protects not only patients but physicians and health-care staff as well.

Read more: Nova Scotia to extend access to virtual care options for doctors and patients

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“The patient response has been overwhelmingly positive. Patients love this, they are asking for it and they are grateful for it and they do not want to go back to not having it,” said family physician Dr. Amanda MacDonald, who appeared before the standing committee on health on Tuesday.

Virtual care could be looked at as a tool for retention and recruitment of physicians, says MacDonald. It’s allowed her to be more flexible in her day-to-day practice and that’s an enticing option for potential physicians who, like her, might have a young family at home.

“I’ve opened up some virtual appointments this evening in lieu of the fact that I’m not in clinic today,” said MacDonald. “It allows me to develop my schedule a little bit more fluidly, which I think is huge for younger physicians, balancing (their work and) families.”

Click to play video 'Doctors Nova Scotia talks virtual care access' Doctors Nova Scotia talks virtual care access
Doctors Nova Scotia talks virtual care access

Doctors Nova Scotia CEO Nancy MacCready-Williams says the association anticipates the virtual care contract will be extended and is calling on the government to make it a permanent health-care option.

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“I have heard government say that virtual care is here to stay; what that looks like is not clear yet,” said MacCready-Williams.

There is still a doctor shortage in Nova Scotia, as the latest figures suggest there are 47,000 individuals on the family physicians’ waitlist.

Doctors Nova Scotia says there are currently 2,553 practising physicians working in the province, an increase of 55 doctors from last year. Keeping tools like virtual care in place permanently, like in Alberta, will only help in recruiting more physicians to the province, MacCready-Williams says.

“If virtual care is not a tool in physicians’ toolkits come January, that will be a significant disadvantage,” said MacCready-Williams.

Read more: N.S. doctor shortage leads to barriers for patients in need of prescriptions for narcotics, controlled drugs

Doctors Nova Scotia said the government hasn’t issued a timeline for discussions around the continuation of virtual care but anticipates those conversations will start soon.

“I have been told that government wants to bring a risk management approach to this topic,” said MacCready-Williams. “To gain a better understanding of what virtual care might look like post-pandemic.”

Doctors Nova Scotia says 95 per cent of patients surveyed who received virtual care were completely or mostly satisfied with the virtual care experience.

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There are currently 130 physician vacancies. That number has been as high as 200 in recent years.