Four reasons why the time has come for virtual health in Canada.

Decreased wait times for patients across the country; improved quality of care for people living in rural areas; access to cutting technology; and buy in from major insurance companies—these are just a few of the reasons why the time has come for virtual health in Canada.

Virtual health—remote interactions between patients and care providers using communication and information technologies to facilitate and improve the care experience—is an idea that’s been around for decades[1]. In recent years, countries such as the Unites States and the United Kingdom have begun implementing virtual health, but Canada has lagged behind the trend. For example, the American Telemedicine Association estimates there are currently 200 telemedicine networks and 3,500 service sites in the U.S., a much higher adoption rate than in Canada.

In the last few years, however, dozens of technology providers across Canada have sprung up, offering a wide variety of apps and programs to facilitate the virtual healthcare experience. When it comes to widespread implementation of virtual health across the country, many experts say the timing has never been better to make virtual healthcare a reality for patients and caregivers. Here are four reasons why now may be the time for virtual health in Canada:

It could help relieve pressures facing the Canadian healthcare system

The Canadian healthcare system is facing some tremendous pressures that are likely to grow in the next decade. Canada has some of the longest medical appointment wait times in the developed world, with one in five people waiting seven days or more to see a doctor. Further, 50 per cent[2] of Canadians report waiting a month or more to see a specialist. Virtual health allows for decreased wait times and better continuity of care.

Further, Canadians have increasingly busier lifestyles, making virtual health more and more desirable. Many people (especially those with small children) would prefer to seek care virtually rather than spend time travelling to a doctor’s office. The nearly 16 per cent[3] of Canadians who don’t have a family doctor may also benefit from virtual health, which would make it more convenient to seek medical attention.

We need better access to healthcare for people living in rural areas

Virtual healthcare offers a way to level the playing field, reducing geographical inequalities in healthcare. Canada is the second-largest country in the world when it comes to total land mass, and nearly a fifth of the population lives in rural areas with limited access to healthcare. Further, attracting doctors to work in rural communities across the country is a constant challenge for the provincial healthcare systems. Virtual health may be the key to solving these challenges, allowing anyone with internet access to receive high-quality care.

This could be especially beneficial for those living with long-term conditions such as mental and neurological disorders, Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD), and heart conditions. Patients who require continuity of care but live in rural areas could access regular medical guidance and potentially make fewer trips to the hospital.

We have the technology to make it work

Virtual health connects patients with physicians using electronic devices and high-speed internet, two technologies that are rapidly expanding across Canada. A 2017 survey by Statistics Canada[4] showed that more than three-quarters of Canadians own smart phones, and 91 per cent of Canadians aged 15 and older use the internet at least a few times a month. Interestingly, internet use rose most dramatically in seniors, a demographic with typically high healthcare needs. Between 2013 and 2016, usage increased from 65 to 81 per cent for those aged 65 to 74, and from 35 to 50 per cent among those aged 75 and older. This widespread and growing technological access is paving the way for virtual healthcare, which depends on these platforms to succeed.

Major insurance groups are jumping on board

While most Canadian provinces currently don’t offer coverage for virtual care, major insurance companies have begun to recognize the importance of including it in health plans. In November 2017, Great West Life began a pilot project for employers in Quebec and Ontario, and in March 2018, Sun Life Assurance Company of Canada became the first Canadian insurer to offer clients across the country access to virtual health as part of their plan. Some regional virtual health care programs are already demonstrating results for patients, and it will be interesting to see how the landscape will unfold in the future.

See how one employer integrated virtual care into their health insurance plan here.

[1] Smithsonian Magazine
[2] Commonwealth Fund Survey 2016
[3] Statistics Canada
[4] http://www.statcan.gc.ca/daily-quotidien/171114/dq171114a-eng.htm?HPA=1

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