Virtual emergency department visits

By Elaine Mitropoulos

St. Joseph’s Healthcare Hamilton has introduced a new method of patient care to better meet the needs of the community; virtual care for emergency department services. All it takes is a smart phone, tablet or computer to save a trip to the hospital.

“This service is meant for individuals 18 years of age and older who are experiencing urgent but non-life-threatening concerns, and who are unable to obtain timely access to their family physician, or for those who do not have a family physician,” says Dr. Gregory Rutledge, Chief of Emergency Medicine at St. Joe’s.

Same-day emergency department virtual visits are available to patients on a first-come, first-served basis. By filling out a virtual appointment request form on the hospital’s website, the patient is booked in to the next available opening on that day. At the appointed time, patients connect with an emergency department physician through a secure video portal.

The dedicated virtual care emergency department physician can accommodate as many as 45 patients a day. Through the video visits, physicians provide fulsome and safe patient assessment and clinical recommendations for further treatment, including referrals to other care providers. Physicians can also prescribe new medication but cannot provide regular refills of medication already prescribed.


St. Joseph’s Healthcare Hamilton has launched an innovative program that offers virtual emergency department visits to patients, providing safe and fulsome medical assessments from the comfort of their own home or space.

A timely solution to providing care


At the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, the hospital’s emergency department saw a significant decline in visits. Physicians worried people with urgent issues needing assessment were choosing not to come to the hospital out of fear of contracting the virus.

“As St. Joe’s gradually reintroduces services and volumes at the hospital increase, having virtual options, including a virtual emergency department, helps to limit traffic in the hospital, while providing the right care to patients from the comfort of their own home or space,” Dr. Rutledge says.

A virtual appointment with an emergency physician may be the right option for those experiencing an urgent medical issue that is not life threatening and who cannot obtain timely access to their family physician, or do not have a family physician.

Patients who are in severe medical distress should call 911, and should not drive themselves to the hospital. Likewise, if symptoms worsen while waiting for a virtual appointment, it’s advisable patients visit the emergency department in person.

Accessing a virtual appointment

Patients with a valid Ontario health card, and who meet the age requirement, can fill out the online registration form to be scheduled for a virtual appointment at St. Joe’s. Patients who are successful in securing a same-day appointment can expect to wait an average of one hour before hearing back.

Patients can use the service if they have access to the following:

  • Computer or mobile device with video and microphone capabilities
  • The Zoom application
  • Internet access
  • E-mail (to access appointment link and reminders)
  • A quiet, secure space to engage in virtual visit

Emergency physicians provide virtual appointments through a secure version of Zoom video chat integrated with Dovetale, St. Joe’s digital health information solution.

While virtual care sessions are not recorded, they will be documented in a patient’s electronic health record. Moreover, notes from the virtual visit will be shared with a patient’s family physician through secure fax within 24 hours from a visit.

“Emergency departments and urgent care centres in Hamilton are still open for in-person visits, and are safe for those seeking care,” Dr. Rutledge adds. “Virtual appointments are an ideal option for anyone who might be hesitant about coming to hospital. In addition, this new care method may help with physical distancing requirements.”

To learn more about the program, visit


Elaine Mitropoulos works in Public Affairs  at St. Joseph’s Healthcare Hamilton.