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The Future Of Telehealth In Canada

Everything nowadays is online. Amplified by the COVID-19 global pandemic, we were connected to work, school, friends, and entertainment entirely through our mobile, smartphone, and tablet devices. And now, as we begin to heal and look to the future collectively, the natural extension of technology in our day-to-day lives will seep into how we receive healthcare.

And it now opens up the question; could telehealth be the primary way we deliver healthcare in this country? Many point to this being the tip of the spear in healthcare delivery; however, when done correctly, it should really complement and support our existing in-person model. For example, during the COVID-19 global pandemic, the benefits of telehealth were on full display. Adoption rates were up, and patients were utilizing virtual mental health support systems.

Now, as we prepare to rebuild and come back stronger from this health crisis, it’s time to evenly weigh the advantages and disadvantages of this virtual method for healthcare delivery and how the evolution of telehealth could look like for all Canadians.

Telehealth can help us come back even stronger and more resilient

The experience is everything. Creating a meaningful experience for both the doctors and the patient starts with training healthcare providers in online consultations around how they can offer patients new ways to access their healthcare providers remotely and show that they can receive the same level of care even beyond the hospital walls.

“It gives them a sense that we care about them in their own homes.”Dr. Joanne Liu, former international president of Doctors Without Borders

Getting strong adoption from doctors to interact with the technology and accessing data from their electronic medical record, and integrating it into the conversation will be necessary from that end of the experience.

When you look at the tech-savvy generation of Millennials, you already have a pre-built audience that leans on their devices for everything and wants that seamless experience for mental health services. Putting the patient in the driver’s seat by feeling empowered with their health is the end goal – and the way to get there is to focus on the end-to-end experience.

Faster access to care is a huge benefit – but not without its downsides

Virtual care has the power to eliminate distance barriers in Canada’s remote and rural communities and for those with mobility issues. According to Deloitte, “remote monitoring – a component of virtual care – is enabling patients to better manage their health condition(s) without the need for standard check-ups either in their homes or in community medical clinics.” Telehealth can be a great equalizer between the convenience factor, cost savings, helping people with mobility limitations, and those who don’t have a local doctor.

Telehealth has the power to save Canadians millions of dollars in travel costs and time off work to attend a doctor’s visit. Having access to on-call hospital specialists can also decrease hospitalizations and length of stay in hospitals, thereby reducing costs on the system.

However, virtual health isn’t without downsides.  

  • Every visit can’t be done remotely: Imaging tests, blood work and other hands-on diagnosis will still need to be done in person regardless of how well the technology evolves.
  • Wait times are a big problem: And now with an increased dependence on telehealth for quick health-related questions, wait times for private and public platforms are keeping people on hold for so long. So much so that in 2020, it was reported that COVID-19-related wait times were averaging 1 day until speaking to a nurse, and non-COVID-19 calls averaged 2.5 days. Just because the platform is built, doesn’t mean people will flock to it. These are serious health inquiries, and timeliness needs to be a factor for getting adoption levels up.
  • Security concerns: Not to mention the security concerns surrounding how our personal health data is electronically transmitted will be a huge issue that won’t go away anytime soon.

Do we have the infrastructure to protect against cyber risks?

Ransomware attacks are on the rise, leaving hospitals susceptible with no real recourse other than paying the ransom to get back up and running.

This exposes the dark underbelly of relying solely on a virtual healthcare model. With all of our sensitive healthcare information left unprotected, healthcare organizations in the U.S. remain a vulnerable target. As a result, there need to be stronger investments made in the world of cybersecurity and data encryption.

There’s also a responsibility for both health practitioners and patients to be educated around security best practices when they connect from home. Many younger generations have been schooled in safety procedures. Still, older generations that need more care are newer to these forms of technology and aren’t up to date with user authentication, virtual private networks, and access control mechanisms that safeguard data flow.  

It’s time for Canada to play catch up

According to a report from Deloitte, before COVID-19, only 4% of primary care visits
in Canada were conducted virtually (such as by phone, video, text, or app). Since then, this number has increased to 60%.  

The use of digital technology for patient care in Canada has fallen behind other countries over the years, and we need to bridge the gaps between what patients want, what providers are currently offering, and how to communicate that in a fluid experience.

It was only a matter of time until technology collided headfirst with healthcare. And while the time is now to double down on taking this virtual path, the in-person approach to healthcare should never be neglected, and we need to create a world where the two works in harmony with each other.