Pandemic has revolutionized virtual medical care, say doctors

Virtual doctor visits surge

The pandemic has revolutionized virtual care in family medicine and may help ease the impact of a doctor shortage, says the head of Doctors of B.C.

Just as online services forever changed banking, the pandemic has sharply increased the use of telemedicine to the point that there’s no going back, said president Matthew Chow, whose group represents 14,000 physicians, residents and medical students in the province.

“Our health policy, our remunerative models, our team models are catching up with the fact that virtual care is here to stay,” Chow said. “I feel very optimistic about virtual care. I think there’s a lot potential here.”

Telemedicine has long been touted as a way to transform the delivery of health care, but it has emerged as the “new normal” during the pandemic.

On June 1, 2020, the province temporarily adjusted telemedicine fee codes that family doctors use to bill the Medical Services Plan for visits, counselling and consultations conducted by phone or video so that they have the same value as the in-person fee codes for similar patient encounters.

The Doctors of B.C. wants those telemedicine fee codes to become permanent.

A recent survey by Insights West on behalf of London Drugs found 65 per cent of respondents — polled Feb. 3 to 7 — said they were more likely to choose virtual care rather than in-person visits for simple or routine health advice.

People without doctors — 18.2 per cent in B.C., according to the latest Statistics Canada report, from 2017 — can turn to the 811 provincial health line, which is now answered by both nurses and doctors. Previously, it was just operated by nurses.

While it doesn’t replace a family doctor, Chow said someone in an urgent situation can call the line, and if it requires a physician’s attention, a doctor can speak to the patient and assess the problem, offering advice about where to turn next.

As well, both walk-in clinics and family practices now offer telephone or online video visits, where they may have offered limited or no access to such services in the past.

“I think it’s definitely going to be one of those tools to help, because we need more efficient ways to utilize our existing workforce to look after more people,” said Chow. “Quite frankly, there are some significant inefficiencies.”

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