Canadians are ready to embrace “Virtual First” in health care

By Shelagh Maloney

I recently participated in a podcast where we were discussing the rapid uptake of virtual care as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. When one of my colleagues turned the phrase “necessity is the mother of invention” into “necessity is the mother of adoption,” I thought it was very applicable to today’s situation. From the evidence we’ve been collecting for years, we know virtual care is a viable care delivery option that can improve access to care, give patients agency so they can better manage their care, and can save them time and money. The pandemic has necessitated the adoption of virtual care, and Canadians are mostly embracing this change — they are ready to include virtual care in their health management.

Well before the pandemic began, Canada Health Infoway (Infoway) engaged Environics Research to consult with Canadians about their needs, expectations and concerns about the future of their health system, and the role of technology in the delivery of better health care. We called this consultation A Healthy Dialogue, and it reached more than 58,000 Canadians through a national survey (including a representative sample of Indigenous people), online focus groups, an online engagement forum, interviews with people who are underserved by the health system (e.g., new immigrants, members of the LGBTQ community), and focus groups with Indigenous people in their communities.

After the dramatic shift to virtual care in March and April, we felt it was important to see whether the attitudes of Canadians had changed, so a second survey was undertaken in June with a representative sample of those who had participated in the first survey.

The second survey found that seven in 10 Canadians who sought medical care during the pandemic used virtual care, 91 per cent were satisfied with the experience, and 86 per cent agreed that virtual care tools can be important alternatives to seeing doctors in-person. Regardless of whether they had used virtual care during the pandemic, 76 per cent are willing to use it in the future. That’s up from 64 per cent in the first survey.

This growing appetite for “virtual first” is very encouraging. Our research also found that the appetite for digital health in general is growing. Ninety-two per cent of Canadians want technology that makes health care as convenient as other aspects of their lives, and 84 per cent say they would use technology tools to help manage their health. They have seen how technology has transformed banking, commerce and many other areas of their lives, and they have a strong desire for health care to catch up.

Canadians also recognize the benefits of digital health tools and services. Of those who have used health technology in the past year, nine in 10 said it saved them time, eight in 10 said they were better able to manage their health, and 53 per cent said it helped them avoid an in-person visit. Eighty-six per cent also agree that technology can solve many of the issues with our health care system and 80 per cent believe investing in health care technology should be a top priority for government.

The findings were not all positive, however, and the message is clear that there is still work to do. For example, nearly four in 10 Canadians say their level of understanding of their health information and/or their comfort with technology is a barrier to their use of digital health, while nearly six in 10 feel they don’t know enough about digital health apps and services. Canadians also want assurances that privacy and security of personal health information will be a top priority and they say this is the main barrier that prevents them from fully embracing health care technology.

Some Canadians face additional barriers. Twenty-six per cent say they don’t have access to the reliable internet service needed to use health technology. Those who typically face discrimination in the health system are also more concerned about privacy, and they need greater assurance that their personal health information will be protected and not used to marginalize them further.

Governments, health care organizations, health care providers, industry and other partners can choose to view these barriers as opportunities. Opportunities to improve digital health literacy and Canadians’ access to their personal health information, and to alleviate concerns about privacy and security of that information. Opportunities to bridge the digital divide. And opportunities to address the very real concerns of underserved groups, especially related to equity in our health system.

One of the lessons learned about the pandemic is that, through collaboration and determination,  we can make a difference. The pandemic can be an opportunity for us to make lasting changes to our health system. Canadians want digital to be an option for certain aspects of their care journey, and we can work together to ensure that this option is available to all Canadians for the long term.

Shelagh Maloney is Executive Vice President, Engagement and Marketing at Canada Health Infoway.