Virtual care: A commitment to patient-centred care

By Christine Lyon

There are many reasons a patient might be unable to make an in-person appointment with their health care provider, but the rise of virtual visit technology is removing barriers by allowing patients to stay home and use a laptop, or other electronic device, to see their care provider in real time via video chat.

Expanding the use of virtual visits is just one of the ways Providence Health Care is embracing digital health and committing to patient-centred care. Secure virtual visit platforms such as Skype for Business have been implemented at more than 15 outpatient clinics across the organization, giving patients a convenient alternative for appointments that don’t require a physical exam.

‘Patients have really loved it’

Cardiac electrophysiologist Dr. Zachary Laksman has been doing virtual visits for several years. As Director of the St. Paul’s Hospital Atrial Fibrillation Clinic and the B.C. Inherited Arrhythmia Program, his patients live all over the province. For many, the time and expense required to travel to Vancouver to see him is prohibitive. With virtual visit technology, he can coordinate and review tests with his patients in the comfort of their own homes.

“People are inviting the physician and the clinical team into their living room and just having a discussion,” Dr. Laksman says. “Patients have really loved it. They’re very comfortable in their home, their kids are around, they don’t have to go out of their way. It’s really worked for them.”

Because he specializes in an inherited heart rhythm condition, he often needs to see families together. This is far easier to coordinate when video conferencing is an option. Meanwhile, the flexibility and ease of scheduling that virtual visit technology provides means quicker turnaround in terms of patient management.

“Patients often delay medical care because their life is too busy. So when we need to follow up on test results or communicate more frequently when things are happening fast, that care doesn’t get delayed by trying to make in-person appointments around their schedule,” Dr. Laksman says.

Tip: treat a virtual visit like an in-person visit

Dr. Sarah Cockell, a psychologist in the Heart Centre at St. Paul’s Hospital, started offering virtual visits about a year ago. The technology has allowed her to provide uninterrupted care to patients who aren’t able to see her in person due to mobility issues, long distance, or feeling unwell after surgery.

“It provides that flexibility so when people are just going about life – be it a vacation, be it a sudden move, be it work that doesn’t allow them to take time off – the video option suits them quite well,” she says. “In addition, a virtual visit saves patients money that would be spent on gas, parking or public transportation.”

When it comes to psychological services, a virtual visit can’t replace the human connection that’s established when sitting face-to-face. For that reason, Dr. Cockell prefers to see new patients in person at least once before offering the virtual option in order to build that important foundation. She prefers video-enabled virtual visits over phone conversations, she explains, because seeing the patient on her computer screen allows her to read facial expressions and body language, resulting in better communication.

While virtual visits are often more convenient for the patient, Dr. Cockell says it’s important patients treat the appointment the same way they would an in-person visit. That means being on time, finding a quiet place free of distractions, and focusing on the task at hand. This ensures the most positive experience for both the patient and the care provider.

“The people I have seen by way of virtual visits have benefitted from my services and, had we not had this option, they probably wouldn’t have received any services,” Dr. Cockell says.

Not without challenges

Virtual visits have been taking place at Providence for several years now. Initially patients were required to go to a telehealth room in their community for the appointment.

“While this system works for many, and still exists, several of the hospital outpatient clinics wanted to make it easier for their patients to connect virtually,” says Margot Wilson, Corporate Director of Shared Care and Virtual Health at Providence. That demand prompted the Virtual Health Team to explore options for connecting directly to the patient’s home.

As with any new initiative, there are challenges. Not all patients or health care providers are comfortable with new technology. Plus, it’s a lot of work to ensure the online connection is solid and the cameras and microphones are working on both ends. These are all things that are being addressed as the initiative expands and new opportunities arise. At the same time, different virtual visit platforms are also being trialled to make it easier to connect with patients in their homes.

“New technologies are emerging on a constant basis,” Wilson says. “At the same time, patients are requesting timely and convenient care closer to home. While there will always be a need for face-to-face visits, we’re committed to expanding the use of virtual visits as we position ourselves as a modern, patient-centred health care provider.”

For more information about virtual visits at Providence, email virtualvisits@providencehealth.bc.ca.

Christine Lyon works on the Communications team at Providence Health Care in British Columbia.