Ontario shifting to virtual-first model in bid to halt spread of COVID-19

March 19, 2020

The Star article published Mar. 16, 2020

By Megan Ogilvie

Family doctors across Ontario are rapidly transitioning to a “virtual-first” care model as a way to halt the spread of COVID-19 in their offices and waiting rooms.

Starting this week, most doctors will talk to patients on the phone, by video conference or through email as a first-step to determine who needs to come to the office for an in-person appointment.

Patients who require face-to-face care, including pregnant women, babies requiring scheduled vaccines and some seniors with chronic health conditions, will have in-person appointments. But many patients will receive virtual advice on how to care for their condition at home.

As well, some patients will be told upcoming, non-urgent appointments will be postponed for weeks or months. For example, Cancer Care Ontario on Monday advised physicians to postpone cervical cancer screening for low-risk women.

For the most part, these province-wide measures are in place to protect family doctors, nurse practitioners, office staff and patients from getting infected with COVID-19.

“We don’t want to bring healthy patients into an office where they could be potentially exposed to COVID-19 by mistake,” said Dr. David Kaplan, a family physician at North York General Hospital and the North York Family Health Team. “It’s part of social distancing. If you want to keep people out of communal spaces, it’s the same for keeping people out of waiting rooms. This is just another way that family doctors can help.”

Dr. Thuy-Nga (Tia) Pham, physician lead for the South East Toronto Family Health Team, said her patients are welcoming virtual care, especially with so many having questions about COVID-19.

Last week, the province’s Ministry of Health, after discussions with the Ontario Medical Association, announced new billing codes to allow family physicians and nurse practitioners to move to virtual care.

Pushing more routine appointments to virtual visits will help family physicians more effectively deal with the surge in patients needing treatment or advice on COVID-19. And seeing more patients virtually will help preserve face masks, disposable gowns and other protective equipment which could be in short supply as the COVID-19 pandemic progresses.

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