Virtual emergency department visits help patients get urgent care from home

By Robyn Cox 

Since piloting a new virtual Emergency Department in late 2020, the team at St. Michael’s Hospital of Unity Health Toronto has received positive feedback about the service, which allows patients to connect with an emergency physician to speak about non-life threatening health issues online, or over the phone. We spoke to two people who have used the service to learn more about their care experience.

Dave’s ‘soap opera’


It all started with a switch to a new foaming hand soap. While Dave had never experienced allergies, he formed a strange rash – first at his hairline and then spreading to his arms and legs. When the rash started to swell, he knew he needed to speak to a health professional.

“I wasn’t in extreme physical danger but it was very uncomfortable,” says Dave. “My family physician had been in a state of semi-retirement for a number of years so my wife recommended that I try out a virtual ED.”

After signing up online and speaking to a St. Michael’s staff member on the phone to confirm all his details, he had his appointment.

“The whole process was very simple and the doctor was very personable,” says Dave. “I sent over some photos of the rash to help him make a diagnosis and he gave me a prescription for a cream and a referral to a dermatologist.”

Later, Dave faced some difficulties getting his dermatology appointment lined up, so he called the virtual ED and they connected him with a clinic closer to home.

“They really went above and beyond to help me get the care I needed. I would use the service again in a heartbeat if something else were to come up.”

How is Dave doing now? “In the end, the dermatologist thought the rash was likely due to using a new kind of foaming hand soap – the offending soap is long gone and I’m feeling much better.”

Ronit’s care experience from the comfort of home

“I woke up one day and I had a terrible pain in my left hip,” says Ronit. “The pain was debilitating and it was impeding my ability to walk – I have four small kids at home and I wanted to get back on my feet for them.”

She heard about the St. Michael’s virtual ED through an email forum in her community. Wanting to avoid a hospital visit when her family doctor wasn’t available, she made her appointment.

“The doctor was great – very helpful and empathetic,” says Ronit. “He told me to order a cane so I wasn’t compensating so much and causing pain in other areas of my body.”

Since her first virtual ED visit, she has connected with the virtual ED a few times for further support and direction. After one of her virtual visits, the doctor suggested she come in for some tests.

“It was honestly the best experience I’ve ever had in an emergency department. The doctor had already briefed the team by the time I arrived, I didn’t have to wait long and the tests I needed were already ordered – everything was so smooth.”

While Ronit is still experiencing pain and waiting for an appointment with a specialist, she is grateful for the virtual ED service.

“It gave me such peace of mind to be able to speak with a doctor from home – especially when I would need to arrange for childcare if I had gone into the ED in-person each time,” says Ronit. “When you’re at home you feel calm – and the doctors have been so engaged and present during the virtual appointments.”

What you need to know about St. Michael’s Virtual ED

The goal behind the virtual ED is to give people access to care when they are unable to make an urgent appointment with their family doctor. In this way, it can help you avoid an unnecessary in-person ED visit. It also makes the process easier if you are asked to come into the ED after your virtual visit or you require a follow-up appointment with your family doctors or a specialist. Learn more about how to book a virtual ED visit.

This initiative received provincial funding to enhance the pandemic response through appropriate virtual care options, which are key in ensuring continuity of health services while preventing the spread of COVID-19. There are similar virtual ED services in the Greater Toronto Area available at Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre and University Health Network, as well.

Robyn Cox is a senior communications advisor at Unity Health Toronto