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Exploring the evolving world of digital health through the pandemic and beyond

Virtual care · Mar 26, 2021

By Daniel Martz, Vice President, Virtual Care, TELUS Health

This article was originally published in Hospital News

The World Health Organization (WHO) global strategy for digital health acknowledges the potential for technology to accelerate human progress, predicting these solutions will help ensure more people enjoy better health and well-being. Specifically noting applications that enable virtual care, remote patient monitoring, and data exchange across the healthcare ecosystem, the strategy suggests these technologies can improve experiences within the care continuum and drive enhanced health outcomes.

While the use of digitally-enabled healthcare tools has increased steadily in the last few years, widespread adoption has grown exponentially since the onset of COVID-19. With an overburdened healthcare system and growing concern of contracting the virus in medical settings, government and healthcare leaders turned to technology to help bridge gaps in care access and ensure Canadians were supported through these challenging times.

A study by ICES, Ontario’s leading health and social data research organization, showed that in the first few months of the pandemic, visits to primary care clinics declined by 79 per cent while virtual visits, per 1,000 individuals per day, rose by a staggering 5,600 per cent. This transformation was made possible by innovations that connected Canadians with care teams from the comfort and safety of their own homes. Whether through functionalities integrated into physicians’ electronic medical records (EMRs) or mobile applications for those without access to a family physician or who have access to health and wellness services through their insurance or benefits provider, healthcare professionals across the country began offering virtual appointments with the support of these technological advancements. This significantly eased the burden on hospitals, enabling them to focus on supporting Canadians requiring urgent care.

Virtual care also presents a modern approach to triaging and monitoring. Technology is being used to virtually triage potential COVID-19 cases before a patient arrives at the hospital. Other solutions, such as TELUS’ Home Health Monitoring (HHM), are being used to track the condition of hundreds of patients at once as they recover from COVID-19 at home. This strategy helps open capacity for more critical cases, reducing pressure on hospitals. The HHM solution has since been used to remotely monitor people recovering from organ transplants and those with chronic conditions, keeping them out of hospitals where risk of exposure is greater.

Digital health solutions have also played a critical role in giving Canadians access to their own health information. Governments in Alberta and Saskatchewan have provided residents with personal health records allowing them to view and track their own medical information. These records have enabled quick access to COVID-19 test results, helping to reduce anxiety associated with waiting days for a diagnosis.

The innovations we have seen emerge have not only addressed the significant challenges posed by COVID-19, but have also positively impacted the sustainability of our health system.

What do Canadians have to say about the future of digital health?

According to them, digital health is here to stay. Research from Canada Health Infoway suggests 84 per cent of Canadians would use technology to help manage their health while a 2020 Canadian Medical Association poll highlighted that Canadians who connected with a physician virtually reported a 91 per cent satisfaction rate.

Public health systems are also taking important steps to prioritize digital health. Alberta was the first to make virtual care physician billing fee codes permanent, enabling the ongoing delivery of virtual care across the province. Meanwhile, the federal government has made significant investments to expand virtual care in British Columbia and Prince Edward Island, supporting the longer-term adoption of high-quality and safe virtual healthcare options.

There is a bright future for digital health in Canada. Already virtual care has expanded to include services by allied healthcare professionals such as physiotherapists, nutritionists and mental health counsellors. With the introduction of new services such as online pharmacies, a fully integrated, end-to-end virtual care experience that addresses multiple aspects of care is not too far in the future. And the roll-out of 5G technology holds great promise in making this complete experience seamless, enhancing connectivity across the country while enabling new applications.

As our healthcare landscape continues to evolve, we must remember the importance of collaboration and interoperability. If we work together to take our siloed platforms and unify them to enable efficient communication across physician EMRs, pharmacy management systems, virtual care solutions and insurance claims processes, we can take a step closer to connecting all aspects of health, supporting the continuity of care for Canadians and ultimately driving better health outcomes.

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