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The doctor can see you now

Why virtual visits may be the future and how you can prepare

Before COVID-19, Sarah Fletcher’s experience with virtual healthcare was limited to the odd phone call from her family doctor, to review test results.

But in April, at the height of the current outbreak in Canada, the 22-year-old medical student was forced to find another way to connect with her cardiologist for a follow-up appointment. New restrictions at an out patient clinic in Vancouver meant she could no longer visit.

“If I hadn’t been given the virtual care option, my appointment would have been cancelled entirely and I’d still be waiting for answers.” – Sarah Fletcher, Patient advocate

Fletcher’s physician scheduled a virtual visit -- by phone -- to discuss her progress and next steps.

“It felt really personable,” she said. “I felt I had more than enough time to get all my questions answered and it was very convenient to be able to do it from home.”

Canadians who try virtual care are satisfied

Fletcher’s experience with virtual care is shared by many Canadians. A recent national survey commissioned by the Canadian Medical Association (CMA) found that nearly half of respondents had used the phone to access services from a doctor, and of those people, 90% were satisfied with the exchange of information. Though the number of people using video was much lower, 80% of them were satisfied with the advice they received during the visit.  

In the months ahead, as physicians begin re-opening their offices for in-person care, social distancing requirements may mean many doctors will continue to use text, phone, or video with patients, when physical examinations are not required.

Getting more patients comfortable with the technology

As a physician offering virtual care for the past three years, Dr. Mark Dermer has fielded many patient questions about online visits. The fear of the unknown, coupled with the frustrations around using new technology are barriers he sees often — barriers that can discourage people from trying out virtual care.

“Some patients worry about setting up that first video call and whether it’s going to go well. The good news is, the learning curve is very short,” says Dr. Dermer

To help physicians and Canadians fully adopt the technology, the CMA has consulted with leading experts in telemedicine, like Dr. Dermer, and with patient advocates, like Sarah Fletcher, to put together a how-to guide for patients.

Here are some tips from the guide:

1.     Some medical conditions are not suitable for virtual care

Not all medical conditions can be assessed or treated through video conference, or by phone or text messaging.

Conditions that don’t require a physical examination, like mental health issues, skin problems or the review of lab tests, are suitable for virtual care.

Conditions that require a physician to see and/or touch a patient, like chest pain or ear pain, are NOT suitable for virtual care. Patients may need to see a doctor in-person for their first appointment, and follow-up visits may be better suited for virtual care.

2.     Be ready to submit information to your doctor in advance

Patients should know they may have to:

  • Complete and submit any required forms to give their consent for the use of virtual visits, including video appointments and text messaging.
  • Send any items that will make the visit more efficient, such as symptom questionnaires or photos related to the medical problem.

3.     Make sure you have the right technology

Patients should have the necessary tools and technology:

  • A fully-charged smartphone, tablet or computer.
  • A high-speed and stable Internet connection.
  • The app or software the doctor’s office uses for video visits.
  • Earphones/headphones to provide better sound and greater privacy.

If the patient can’t connect by video, ask the doctor if they can connect by phone instead.

4.     You’ll need your health card or other ID for the visit

Patients need to have the same information on hand that they would for an in-person appointment, including their health insurance card, list of symptoms and any relevant health history.

Once the video visit starts:

  • The doctor will ask them for photo ID and geographic location.
  • The doctor will identify themselves and tell them where they are located and where they hold a medical license.

Want to learn more about preparing for a virtual visit? Download the Virtual Care Guide for Patients.

Sarah Fletcher says comfort is key to helping more Canadians adopt virtual care. While she feels prepared for future video consults with her physician, she sees older Canadians – like her parents – needing more help adapting to the technology.

“It is a barrier for some people,” says Fletcher, “but giving them clear steps on how to prepare in advance for virtual visits should hopefully improve the accessibility and success.”

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The Virtual Care Guide for Patients was co-created with members of the Patient Voice, a group of patient representatives who advise CMA on key health issues from a patient’s perspective.

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