Thousands of patients in Ontario have been able to access virtual healthcare over the past several months, and with the new Ontario Onwards action plan, it is set to become the new norm. The Action Plan is expected to build on the existing digital infrastructure to provide best-in-class, user-centric, secure digital health solutions to Ontario’s people and providers.
This pivot towards virtual healthcare is essential as COVID-19 has forced the rapid adoption of telehealth services in Ontario. This is reflected in the fact that only 8% of primary care visits were attributed to virtual care in Q1 and Q2 of 2019. However, once COVID-19 turned into a pandemic and became rampant in early 2020, almost 43% of Canadians preferred their first point of medical contact to be virtual. To ensure seamless transition to virtual healthcare, the federal government pledged an initial investment of $240 million in virtual care and equitable access to virtual care services.
Recently the CMA, the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Canada and the College of Family Physicians of Canada, established a Virtual Care Task Force. The task force identified areas that might require improvement to deliver virtual care seamlessly. Specifically, the taskforce identified, need for regulatory changes across provincial/territorial boundaries, developing new health care delivery models, improving digital health literacy, and access to the internet. The task force found that the continued adoption of virtual care is mostly reliant on educating patients on how to access it.
By including some of these recommendations by the Virtual Care Task Force in the Ontario Onwards action plan, the province can edge closer to its goal to becoming the most advanced digital jurisdiction in the world. Within the next two years, the program will ensure that 70 percent of Ontarians’ services use most, like enhanced virtual health care, are available online.
However, it is an uphill task as a lot of challenges remain. Provincial funding for virtual care is set to end on March 14, 2021, and it is imperative that the province make it a permanent option.
This is one of the reasons why the Ontario Medical Association (OMA) says it has been collaborating with the province on a model that would include virtual care. “The OMA is committed to working with the government to continue virtual care in a way that makes sense for patients and physicians alike,“ says Dr. Samantha Hill, OMA president. “I think not just physicians, but patients have seen the value.“