Virtual tools are becoming more deeply integrated into British Columbia’s health system, and residents of remote, rural communities are seeing some of the biggest benefits.
Atlin, a town of fewer than 500 just south of the Yukon border, is one of those communities. Whitehorse, more than 170 kilometres away, is the nearest major centre, and residents often struggle to access doctors and specialists.
The community is now making use of RTVS — real-time virtual support — a program that launched in April 2020, which puts a pool of 200 specialists and physicians, including ER doctors, at their fingertips 24 hours a day.
“It’s been enhancing our practice and the lives of our community on a daily basis, pretty much,” Atlin nurse Jen Stronge said.
In past emergency cases, Stronge would have to call the ER in Whitehorse, and then wait in a queue for a doctor to return her call when possible.
With the RTVS system, she’s able to do it instantaneously.
The system is also helping to fill other gaps in rural healthcare in the province, both in terms of attracting doctors to smaller centres and in supporting rural hospitals facing resource shortages.
“Whether its a new grad we can help support through uncertain times, or we’re even helping to support an understaffed rural emergency department where they would close otherwise,” explained Dr. Matt Petrie, a Kelowna ER physician participating in the program.
Expanding the province’s virtual and telehealth capabilities has also paid dividends for British Columbians living in remote locations, who might otherwise need to travel hours to access medical care.
With the new system, they’re able to speak with a doctor from the comfort of their home.
“What it’s like in downtown Vancouver versus what it’s like on the central coast or north coast is very different,” said Dr. John Pawlovich, virtual health lead for the Rural Coordination Centre of B.C.
“This is an attempt to address equity in how care and support both for patients and healthcare professionals looks in the 21st century.”