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Telehealth Can Revolutionize Our Healthcare System – And We Need It Now More Than Ever

Millions of Canadians haven’t left their homes in weeks. For many, the only outing is going to the grocery store, or stopping by a pharmacy to pick up their necessities. To adhere to the social distancing guidelines, many haven’t seen their families, their loved ones in nursing homes or their colleagues in person in months.

All of this brings a tsunami of mixed emotions including anxiety, stress, fear and nervousness, all compounded by this overwhelming period of uncertainty.

Fear, stress and worry are normal in a crisis, but when you feel like you are no longer in control of things, mental health can deteriorate rapidly. Canadians are now struggling with debt, worrying about how to pay for necessities and keep their head above water, with a myriad of other concerns that seemed nonexistent when the year started.

Canadians need help. Many are drowning and unsure of when this idea of ‘normal’ will ever return. Throughout this time of social isolation and closed businesses, the adoption of virtual healthcare programs has the unmatched ability to help Canadians that are falling through the cracks. Telehealth will be the glue and an integral component that bridges all of the geographical disparities and improving access to high-quality mental health and psychiatric care that we so desperately need. This pandemic has amplified our collective bond, strengthened by community and the understanding that we are only stronger when united.

This is the most serious public health emergency of our lifetime

While staying home remains the smartest option to limit the spread of COVID, the cumulative impact is slowly chipping away at our mental resiliency and continues to add new layers of stress and deep concern about the long-term mental health implications that may follow.

Canada was already squaring off with a mental health crisis before all of this hit, and now it has magnified the issues that are no longer just simmering under the surface. COVID has greatly exposed our cries for help from those under supported and unheard in our communities.

More than half of Canadians are experiencing mental health issues during COVID-19

A recent survey of Canadians conducted by Sun Life, found that 56% said COVID-19 is having a negative impact on their mental health, with social isolation serving as the top contributing factor. There’s a concern for loved ones, a lingering fear of contracting COVID-19, followed by strong financial and economic stresses.

A part of the Sun Life survey mentioned above showed that almost 60% of Canadians whose mental health has been negatively impacted said they are not receiving treatment or social support. Citing reasons from being unable to afford it, they don’t know where to go, who to ask for help, or they are embarrassed to ask for help.

Telehealth has the proven ability to affect powerful change in the post -COVID world

Candid answers like those cited from the survey bring us to a very sobering reality. It presents all the evidence to desperately make the case for strong virtual care in Canada. Unfortunately, even though Canada was coming toe to toe with a mental health crisis pre-COVID, the virtual framework is considerably lagging from where we need it to be.

Take in some of these numbers from the 2019 Virtual Industry Healthcare Report on how much work we need to do.

  • 20% of Canadians wait 7+ days to see their doctors,
  • Canadians take 2-6 days off per year for doctors visits; those with kids take double,
  • Only 9% of Canadian employers currently offer virtual care.

Telehealth will be heavily leaned upon as we begin to pick up the pieces and deal with the ongoing aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic.

An effective support system through a virtual multidisciplinary team

Digital care can be leveraged as a virtual triage to first meet with a patient to access their health concerns and then provide a referral to a specialist when medically required. Canadians can have secure video appointments with a physician or a mental healthcare professional, like the model provided by CAMH.

It is a powerful virtual solution to be there for patients looking for an assessment or consultation in general psychiatry. It delivers real-time client care via secure videoconferencing to improve high-quality access to mental health care for those who cannot have consultations in a health care facility.

We will likely see the home delivery of prescription medications take off

While the model for virtual mental health has been well documented, there’s another avenue where telehealth can make an immediate impact on the lives of thousands of Canadians: through prescription home delivery.

Per the TELUS 2019 virtual healthcare industry report, some 40,000 Canadians visit an emergency room every year just to renew prescriptions. And for so many Canadians who don’t have the luxury of having access to geographically convenient pharmacies, many are forced to travel a great distance just to get medications refilled. Resulting in long waits to be seen by a pharmacist – and that’s if they can secure an appointment.

An example of a solution already making strides is PocketPills, which has been hailed as the UberEats of pharmacies with their model of free delivery as an easy way to fill prescriptions and manage medications. The model of point-and-click retail is so engrained in our lives, so it wasn’t going to be long until the eventual collision of retail and healthcare came along to streamline and smooth over all of these pain points.

Amazon is growing its global pharmaceutical presence

In September 2019, Amazon launched Amazon Care, a virtual and in-person healthcare model through their telemedicine app, chat and remote video. They also built out a system for follow-up visits and prescription drug delivery directly at an employee’s home or office.

This “first stop” platform was designed to take care of their own workforce while simultaneously laying the groundwork to grow their healthcare presence around the world.

In January of 2020, Amazon filed to trademark its “Amazon Pharmacy” brand in Canada, the UK and Australia. A move that suggests they will intend to expand their pharmacy business in Canada through prescription drug delivery, and cater to customers who need to take multiple daily medications, as an extension of their 2018 purchase of online pharmacy, PillPack.

Telehealth has the power to revolutionize a significant part of our healthcare system

We all need access to health services during this crisis and after. Virtual healthcare is there to support seniors and those with dexterity issues. To empower folks living in rural communities to get proper access to their questions. To help families that work unconventional hours and can’t take time off work to make appointments. To those afraid to speak up and ask for help out of fear of being stigmatized.

Even as writing this, we will see substantial changes within telemedicine in Canada and beyond, so it’s difficult to describe to what end it will be effectively utilized. What we saw pre-COVID was that a lot can be treated remotely, limiting the amount of people grouping in the waiting rooms and helping answer questions through secure lines of communication.

All Canadians should have access to the virtual healthcare model. Through increased institutional interest, government-supported telehealth programs, and workplace adoption, this is the healthcare solution that has an incredible opportunity to be there around the clock for all Canadians – but only if we give it a fighting chance.