Provide better health experiences with virtual healthcare

In the spring of 2003, as Ontario was deep into waging a battle against SARS, the ministry of health issued a bulletin, announcing it would open billing codes to allow physicians to receive fee-for-service payments for telephone services. Doctors were eligible to bill against these “K codes” if they were treating a patient who was under quarantine or in isolation or if a physical visit between the doctor and patient wasn’t possible due to the state of emergency.

Eventually, as we know, SARS faded. And with it went the telemedicine billing codes.

We all went back to our old ways, spending hours sitting in a doctor’s waiting room, despite the advancements being made, right here in Ontario, to offer remote medical care with audio, video, and text messaging functions. Our brightest minds developed a way to safely and securely offer doctor’s appointments on any device, at any time.

The technology leaped forward, but without a framework to support it, adoption of virtual care in Ontario by physicians and patients remained sluggish and available, almost exclusively, to those who could afford to pay for it out of pocket. That is, until now.

Here we are, facing the COVID-19 pandemic with an arsenal of made-in-Canada telehealth solutions at our fingertips. Made-in-Ontario remote care solutions from health technology companies like Maple, Think Research, Tia Health and Novari are designed to work seamlessly in our province’s health system.

The province has responded quickly by opening a series of billing codes to allow physicians this option, which has helped us keep up a high quality of patient care, while helping to reduce the risk of spreading the virus. And despite some early speed bumps that delayed some doctors’ pay, overall it has been a resounding success for patients.

In June, a survey conducted for the Canadian Medical Association found that 47 per cent of Canadians have used virtual care during the pandemic, whether that was through phone calls, email, texts or video. Of those, 91 per cent said they were very satisfied with the experience.

Canada Health Infoway, a not-for-profit organization funded by the federal government, reported that 98 per cent of patients who participated in a remote care pilot project felt e-visits were the same as or better than an in-person visit and 99 per cent said they’d do a virtual visit again.

It makes sense. At one of our clinics, in Parkdale, we see first-hand the sacrifice and struggle it can be for patients with mobility issues to arrange doctor appointments to line up with WheelTrans availability. We see seniors who rely on a loved one to take a day off work so they can get a prescription renewed.

Especially in a province like ours, virtual care offers so much. It’s the potential to offer better, more convenient care to those who live in remote parts of Ontario. It’s the potential to save precious time for patients and physicians who simply don’t need to conduct every visit in-person.

Cloud healthcare will never replace the need for in-person doctor visits — but there is no question they must remain as part of the future of family medicine. So it’s troubling, seven months into the pandemic and facing rising case numbers and a second wave that could lead to renewed shutdowns, that the future of virtual care in Ontario remains unclear.

The current landscape is a patchwork of billing codes that offer different rates based on the complexity of the encounter and by medical specialty. All of them have a potential expiry date. We can do better. In June, the province of Alberta chose to make its virtual billing codes permanent. Ontario must do the same.


Related: Cloud Healthcare

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