Patient perspectives on virtual health in B.C. during COVID-19

By Alix Main

In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, virtual health has become an essential means of delivering care safely to citizens across British Columbia. Numbers show that health care providers and patients quickly adapted to a new normal – since March, the number of virtual health visits across B.C. rose from 1,800 a week to 21,000 a week in December. The ability to receive care without having to leave home has become a great option for many, especially those in more remote areas or with specific needs.

Airlie Pinkerton, a Vancouver Island resident who had been in the process of immunotherapy for years preceding COVID-19, was able to convert what would have been in-person appointments to virtual check ins – saving her the nearly three-hour drive to her Victoria-based physician’s office. Based on what she needed clinically, and her previous relationship with her care team, this was an ideal solution.


Jim Lyster, another patient on Vancouver Island, had a similar experience to Pinkerton; his self-monitoring pacemaker electronically transfers reports on his heart activity directly to his specialist at Royal Jubilee Hospital in Victoria. Because Jim’s physicians and care team are able to see this data remotely, his physical presence in the hospital isn’t required for standard check-ins. Given the present circumstances, having the ability to check in virtually with his physician to discuss how he is feeling and review any changes needed to his care, lowers his risk of acquiring COVID-19.

There can be concerns around the logistics of arriving at a health care practitioner’s office; some patients who don’t have their own vehicles may have other challenges to accessing in-person health care. Taxis or public transit can be out of the question, especially for those considered high-risk for COVID-19. Some people can feel considerable stress around vehicles in general; Diana Campbell, who has suffered the consequences of several car accidents, noted that when she is in the car, she “takes all the oxygen out when there’s a near miss … it’s very stressful.” These stressors highlight the advantages to attending appointments virtually when appropriate.

Avoiding a commute and reducing exposure to the virus are a few of the benefits to virtual interactions between patients and health care providers. For example, patients who suffer from migraines, chronic pain, or have experienced traumatic brain injuries may find it very draining to sit in a waiting room. The process of getting to the office can affect the entire visit and ultimately detract from the patient’s care.

Campbell explains that when she has to travel to see her physician, “by the time I see him, I have trouble holding a conversation because … I am overstimulated and cannot process information.” When attending appointments from home, “I can get health concerns addressed, I know I have an appointment with the doctor and I can rest beforehand so I don’t get to that place where I don’t remember what he said … but I don’t have that option in a facility.” In the right circumstances, a virtual health visit is just as effective and safe as one done in person, if not more so.

Virtual health is helping to create real change in how we access and give care. For someone like Campbell, who has had multiple concussions and brain injuries, “sitting in an office makes the sensory overload almost unbearable. Having a virtual health visit from home is more comfortable and allows me to focus on the issue I need to discuss with my GP.”

The Office of Virtual Health is a service of Provincial Health Services Authority (PHSA). It leads and provides strategic direction and innovation for the overall virtual health initiative across PHSA. It works collaboratively with clinical, operational and corporate partners, and leads organization-wide planning, and facilitates transformation, including process redesign, change management, project management, education and reporting. For more information, please visit the OVH webpage or send an email to officeofvirtualhealth@phsa.ca.

Alix Main is a Communications Officer, Provincial Health Services Authority.