April 2, 2020

Virtual care connects family physicians to patients

Virtual care – the ability to talk to your doctor via phone or video – has changed the way physicians practise medicine, but one thing remains the same.

A patient’s relationship with their family physician continues to be the cornerstone of the health-care system, and Saskatchewan’s family doctors are ready, willing and able to help their patients, like they have always done, said Dr. Carla Holinaty, chair of the Saskatchewan Medical Association’s (SMA) Section of Family Practice.

“If you need us, don’t hesitate to call,” said Dr. Holinaty. “Call your doctor’s office first if you have questions or want to know whether a virtual or an in-person appointment is needed. Your safety is of upmost importance. We need to make sure that we are screening for COVID symptoms and directing our patients to the most appropriate and safest places to receive care.”

The means by which many patients are communicating with physicians has changed because of COVID-19. Telephone and video consultations have become the first choice in order to avoid unnecessary contact and possible exposure to the deadly virus through visits to doctors’ offices. Temporary fee codes that are in effect during the pandemic, negotiated by the SMA and the Ministry of Health, enable the new means of communication. Thousands of patients in Saskatchewan have contacted their family physicians through these phone or video consultations.

“Your family physician is best-equipped to deal with your situation and to provide you with advice on your next steps,” said Dr. Holinaty. “That could mean a referral for a COVID-19 test if you show any of the symptoms, but it could also mean asking you to come into the office to deal with other medical issues. If you have an established relationship with your doctor you may need to connect with him or her about any other chronic or ongoing treatments that are not related to COVID-19.”

‘The COVID-19 pandemic has prompted physicians to change the way we practise’

Dr Kathy Lawrence, Provincial Head of Family Medicine at the University of Saskatchewan, noted the implications for virtual care beyond the pandemic are enormous for physicians.

“In an ideal world, all patients would be connecting to a family physician who is providing virtual care for them,” she said. “Unfortunately, we know that there are a lot of patients who are not attached to a physician and need care. We also know that many patients currently don’t have access to their family physician outside of regular business hours.”

She suggests that when the temporary virtual fee codes expire after the pandemic, family physicians should be supported through the development of new fee codes that would facilitate an on-call virtual care number that patients could call after hours. This would provide continuity of care between physicians and patients through a medium that patients like – their phones, she said.

She also suggested a system in the future for people who don’t have a family doctor whereby they could call 811 and have access to medical care beyond the scope of a typical 811 call. This could involve medical consultations funded through fee codes within the public system.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has prompted physicians to change the way we practise,” Dr. Lawrence said. “This involves the use of technology in new ways that are convenient to our patients.

“I would like to stress that physicians’ offices remain open today for people who need to see us, much as they always have been. But we have to be mindful about the implications of virtual care, and how that will change the way we practise after the pandemic.”

If you need us, don’t hesitate to call. Call your doctor’s office first if you have questions or want to know whether a virtual or an in-person appointment is needed. Your safety is of upmost importance. We need to make sure that we are screening for COVID symptoms and directing our patients to the most appropriate and safest places to receive care.

Dr. Carla Holinaty

Chair, SMA Section of Family Practice

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