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Virtual health-care services evolving and growing

Posted May 2nd, 2022

This is an opinion column by Niagara Health President and Chief Executive Officer, Lynn Guerriero published in the St. Catharines StandardNiagara Falls Review and Welland Tribune

Virtual health care is here to stay.

Tens of thousands of Niagara Health’s patients have benefited from video and telephone visits over the past two years.

The rapid acceleration of the use of virtual services enabled our health-care professionals to safely provide care during the pandemic. This will remain an important tool that enhances access to quality, timely care for those patients who do not need to be seen in person.

We have learned many lessons from the pandemic, some good, many very hard. One of the things we’ve learned is people don’t want to come to the hospital if they don’t have to. If we can stay safe, get quality, timely care and be more comfortable in our homes, why wouldn’t we want that? And for our health-care system overall, it can be more efficient, save resources, help reduce the backlog of treatments we’ve had to postpone, and hopefully provide some relief to our exhausted staff and physicians.

Using virtual care, patients can communicate with their health-care provider, self-monitor their health, transmit their health data to their health-care team and receive treatment online.

Niagara Health is one of Ontario’s largest hospital systems, and our emergency medicine program is the fourth largest in the province. Niagara is also short almost 100 family physicians for a population of its size.

A significant number of the almost 150,000 annual visits to our emergency departments and urgent care centres are from residents who do not have a primary care provider and use the emergencies and urgent care centres by default.

The Niagara Virtual Urgent Care service we introduced last month presents a significant opportunity to provide residents who have concerns that are not life-threatening with timely access to care through secure video. This reduces the number of unnecessary emergency visits and maintains emergency resources for patients who need this level of care.

Patients can make same-day virtual appointments ( with an emergency nurse practitioner or physician, who will diagnose, recommend treatment, write prescriptions and co-ordinate referrals to specialists and community providers. If medically necessary, patients may be asked to visit the emergency in person.

Another new virtual service is the surgical transitions program. It offers patients the opportunity to virtually connect to pre- and post-operative clinical monitoring and gain access to appropriate supports.

Virtual care has substantially increased in popularity since we began providing these services earlier in the pandemic. Specifically, we have seen a significant number of virtual visits for those with mental health and addictions issues, cancer care appointments and stroke prevention consultations.

There is no doubt that transportation in our large region can be a challenge. With virtual care, it does not matter where you live in the region. Virtual care improves access to health care by removing barriers such as transportation and time.

I also appreciate that accessing health care by phone, tablet or computer isn’t for everyone. Not everyone is comfortable using technology. As well, Niagara residents with limited budgets may not have the financial means to purchase devices or Wi-Fi.

All these considerations are part of our ongoing planning for virtual care, however, the feedback we have received so far from patients and families is overwhelmingly positive.

Niagara Health System