Virtual care not associated with overpopulated emergency departments in Ont. during pandemic: study

Woman receives virtual care from a doctor. (Courtesy: Canva)

Ontario families did not use emergency departments (EDs) in lieu of in-person visits to their family doctors during the pandemic, according to a new study.

The Ontario Medical Association examined records of 7,936 physicians from health groups and health organizations from April 1, 2020, to March 31, 2021. The report did not show any significant relationship between emergency department visits and the proportion of virtual visits.

“We did not find evidence that enrolled patients substituted emergency department visits because of less availability of in-person care,” Dr. Jasmin Kantarevic, OMA’s chief economist, wrote in the report released on Monday. 

The study addresses concerns that Ontarians were opting to visit EDs for immediate care instead of the non-intimate alternative of virtual care during the first year of the pandemic. 

“This finding is important given concerns about virtual care adversely affecting quality of care, leading to calls to substantially reduce care delivered virtually,” Kantarevic said. 

In 2018, nearly four per cent of family physicians offered video calls, according to the report. At the height of the pandemic in 2020, when the government temporarily stopped non-emergency services to avoid the spread of the novel virus, doctors across Ontario quickly adapted to primarily virtual care. 

Although many were hesitant to contend with rapid changes in the public health-care system, virtual visits now account for over 25 per cent of physician visits. Family doctors see approximately 60 per cent of their patients in person and 40 per cent virtually, the report says.

OMA’s latest statistic follows reports of increased wait times in Ontario hospitals. Back in Oct. 2022, Ontario hospitals reached a new record with a wait time of 22.9 hours, according to Health Quality Ontario (HQO). 

However, wait times are a little more manageable for patients not being admitted to the hospital. On average, the HQO reports patients waited about 2.2 hours to be assessed by a doctor in Oct. 2022. High-urgency patients left after eight hours and low-urgency patients left within the target time of four hours. 

This data is revealed weeks after the Doug Ford government was issued an appeal from Ontario’s largest health-care unions, critiquing the government’s current approach to addressing the overburdened health-care system as “failing miserably.” 

OMA President Dr. Rose Zacharias believes there are many benefits to virtual visits. 

“Research shows that virtual care is particularly well-suited for mental health consultations, refilling prescriptions and discussing lab and other test results. This study shows that the unprecedented strain on emergency departments is not associated with patients being unable to see their family doctors in person,” she wrote.

Instead, Zacharias suggests emergency departments could be experiencing increased pressures as a result of patients largely re-engaging with health-care needs after the pandemic, and showing up sicker and in need of more treatment from both EDs and family physicians. Meanwhile, urgent care centres are suffering from staff shortages and burnt-out health-care professionals who have been on the front lines throughout the pandemic. 

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