Recently, I attended a webinar hosted by the C.D. Howe Institute. Virtual Beats Viral: Lessons Learned on Digital Health and COVID-19 convened three experts to discuss virtual care’s effectiveness in building capacity within the health system and ensuring continuity of care and access for patients. Throughout the discussion, I was struck by three distinct ways in which virtual care is supporting the health system during the pandemic.
Reducing the Spread
First and foremost, virtual care is reducing the transmission of COVID-19. If a virus cannot be contained, its transmission must be slowed to avoid overburdening the health system, and to buy time until effective treatments and/or vaccines become available. As part of physical distancing measures, many physicians have restricted physical access to their practices.
Fortunately, viruses cannot spread through phones or screens. Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, only ten per cent of health care visits were conducted virtually; that number is now more than 60 per cent. As Canadians stay home, virtual care fills a significant gap in access. Panellist Dr. Edward Brown (CEO, Ontario Health) estimates that nearly 14,000 video visits are conducted each day on the Ontario Telemedicine Network alone — a fraction of those occurring across the province.
Continuity of Care: COVID-19 and Chronic Conditions
Once discharged from the hospital into self-isolation, COVID-19 patients continue to be monitored. Dr. Philip Lam (Virtual Care Lead, Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre) reports that face-to-face connection through video visits decreases patients’ anxiety. In addition to phone and video chats, he emphasizes the importance of monitoring devices. For instance, supplying patients with pulse oximeters allows them to self-monitor their oxygen levels in their home. Patients can also use virtual care tools to monitor and manage chronic conditions such as diabetes, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and congestive heart failure.
By leveraging technology, patients can avoid lapses in care. Not only does this lead to better health outcomes, it potentially prevents further strain on the health system by ensuring that conditions do not worsen without treatment.
Mental Health Support
Isolation is difficult in the best of circumstances. In a time of extraordinary challenges, it hits even harder. Alongside COVID-19, we risk a “shadow pandemic” of depression, anxiety and other mental health issues.
Peer support, internet-based therapies and counselling services are currently being provided through apps, phone and video chats, and online platforms. As Michael Green, President and CEO, Canada Health Infoway, observes, they can provide credible information and raise public awareness about mental health issues, in addition to providing confidential support. In a given year, one in five Canadians will experience problems with their mental health. As with physical health, virtual tools help ensure that those who need care can access it. In the context of COVID-19, it is also important to ensure that front line workers have safe, secure access to mental health support, especially as the pandemic continues.
To protect ourselves, each other and our health system, we need to stay separated. This can seem like a particularly cruel aspect of COVID-19. Yet virtual care is maintaining routine care across Canada and connecting those who would otherwise struggle alone. Each day, we see that virtual beats viral — and we will, too.
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