Taking the Journey Towards Equitable Virtual Care

By Morenike Akinyemi and Ellis Chow

Virtual care is one way in which we can expand safe access to care. But like every health service, virtual care needs to be equitable: matched to the person it’s serving, and not limited by social and digital determinants of health.

The Virtual Care Together Design Collaborative — developed by Infoway and Healthcare Excellence Canada — brought together 25 teams across Canada to prepare, implement and evaluate virtual care tools and resources that focused on community-based primary care.

We recently hosted some of the collaborative’s participants on the Digital Health InfoCast for a conversation about their experiences in the Design Collaborative, delivering equitable virtual care, and supporting digital health literacy. Here are some of their takeaways for organizations at the beginning of their digital health equity journey (be sure to tune in for the full discussion):

Begin with understanding

Participants agreed that the first step to supporting digital health equity is understanding the communities and people you serve. “We know firsthand that communities are wildly different,” explains Harleen Chohan, clinical pharmacist and Community Engagement Officer at the InterCultural Online Health Network (iCON), a community-driven multicultural health promotion initiative in BC. “Even within communities, not all members of that community are at the same point.”

It’s a critical reminder to avoid a “one size fits all” approach. What resonates with one community may not suit another. That’s why it is essential to involve communities in co-developing programs and solutions to ensure that they’re truly meeting the communities’ unique needs, in the manner that serves them best.

Take time to reflect

When the COVID-19 pandemic was declared in March 2020, there was an urgent need to control the virus’ spread and implement virtual care quickly to continue providing health care services while appropriately reducing in-person visits. More than two years on, we can take the time to learn from past initiatives. By assessing what’s worked well — and areas for improvement — organizations can develop and deliver solutions more intentionally.

Dr. Jay Shaw, Assistant Professor, Department of Physical Therapy at the University of Toronto, suggests that organizations view equity in virtual care within the broader context of health equity. “I would say it's more about the overall capacity to support health equity than it is about focusing specifically on virtual care.” Organizations can reflect on their own practices — how decisions are made and where they engage communities — to embed equity as a foundational principle.

Embrace the journey

Ensuring equity in virtual care can seem like a daunting task, but it’s an essential one. Patricia O’Brien, Manager of Education Development, Department of Family and Community Medicine at the University of Toronto, reminds organizations that, “Better is possible, and baby steps are okay.” Even little changes will add up over time.

 “The importance is to take that journey,” explains Dr. Kendall Ho, Executive Director, iCON. “What can we influence in our little universe?”

And in that journey, he adds, “We work as best we can.”

Get started and learn more by listening to the full conversations with two different groups of Design Collaborative participants on the Digital Health InfoCast. You can also download the Clinician Change Virtual Care Toolkit for more information on providing safe and high-quality virtual care.

Have a comment about this post? We’d love to hear from you.

About the authors
Morenike Akinyemi

Morenike Akinyemi

Morenike is the Senior Manager, Change Management and Engagement at Canada Health Infoway, where she is responsible for leading external change management efforts in alignment with Infoway’s objectives and goals, and leading the patient, clinician, Indigenous and mental health engagement portfolios. She is a digital health enthusiast who started off her career as a pharmacist and has progressively transitioned into roles where she is facilitating the use of technology to address clinical priorities.

Ellis Chow

Ellis Chow

Ellis has extensive experience leading national and provincial initiatives in healthcare and regulatory programs, including planning and implementation of new programs, process improvements, quality standards and business intelligence strategies. Her current role at Canada Health Infoway is focused on supporting change management to advance digital health in Canada.