Virtual care and the future of digital health

By Michael Green

Within weeks of the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, the use of virtual care exploded in Canada. About 60 per cent of all primary care visits were being done virtually, via phone, video or secure messaging. That was a dramatic increase from 2019, where about 10 to 20 per cent of primary care visits were done virtually. Surveys conducted by Canada Health Infoway in early 2021 show that virtual visits now make up about 40 per cent of primary care visits, more than double the pre-pandemic numbers.

What does this tell us?

Prior to the pandemic, we had been making a gradual migration to virtual care. The pandemic provided the spark that really accelerated use, mainly out of necessity — we needed to keep patients and health care providers safe. Now that patients and providers are getting used to virtual care, they like it and they want to keep it, at least as an option for routine visits.

How do we keep the momentum going?

It will take a concerted effort by all health system stakeholders — including governments, clinicians, patients and industry. Over the past few months, Infoway hosted a series of online discussions to talk about the future of virtual care and the related topics of patient empowerment, mental health, and privacy and cybersecurity. Participants included patient and family advocates and representatives from Accenture, Cerner Canada, Orion Health, Roche Canada, Teladoc Health and TELUS Health. These companies are members of the Infoway Alliance, a collaboration between Infoway and industry partners.


Improving access

With the increased demand for virtual services brought on by the pandemic, we need to ensure that all Canadians have access to digital health tools and services and to their personal health information. Equity is essential.

“There are still a lot of dead zones in Canada that don’t have basic internet access,” said Sarah Hissett, an Infoway patient advisor. “So when you’re pushing to a system that’s more digitized, you could be potentially cutting people off.”

While access is growing, there are still some who feel that patients may be overwhelmed or confused by lab results and other personal health information. Bhavanita Patel, patient experience manager for Roche Canada, said we need to debunk that notion.

“There are a lot of assumptions made about what people are comfortable with,” she said. “Generally speaking, I think they want as much information as they can get.”


Giving patients a voice

Patients and providers benefit when patients have access to more information, and when they have a greater say in the health system.

“[Patients] have more at stake than anyone on the health care team to ensure effective, efficient and quality care,” said patient advisor Anne O’Riordan. “And our contribution is unique, as we have a different perspective to offer: our lived experience, perhaps better described as lived expertise.”

This is critically important when it comes to mental health care.

“We need to go where the patient is, and the patient really should be driving their care,” said Dr. Diane McIntosh, psychiatrist and chief neuroscience officer at TELUS Health. “[When I treat a client] I am the navigator—they are the captain of their ship.”


What’s next?

I’m optimistic about the future, and the increased benefits we will see from digital health. I’m especially optimistic about the continued use of virtual care. If technology provides a benefit, people will use it, and that’s clearly what we are seeing with virtual care. Our surveys show that about 90 per cent of patients are satisfied with their virtual care experience, so I expect use to continue to grow beyond the pandemic.

I also think the language that we use to talk about this model of care will change sooner than we think. I’ll leave the last word to Timothy Foggin, vice president with Teladoc Health.

“With digital photography, we no longer say ‘digital’—we just say ‘photography,’” Foggin said. “If we need to talk about film photography, we say ‘film photography.’ Right now, we’re saying ‘virtual care.’ Soon enough, we’ll just be talking about care.”


Michael Green is President and CEO of Canada Health Infoway.