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How Virtual Care Works: An Introductory Guide

July 8, 2024 • read

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How Virtual Care Works: An Introductory Guide

The ease of virtual communication is one of the many benefits of living in a technical age. Although this technology has been around for over two decades, the pandemic normalized online communication for work, school, family, and healthcare visits. Today, it’s normal to leverage video and text communication to book and conduct appointments, collaborate with colleagues, and connect with friends and family worldwide.   

From a healthcare perspective, primary care provider appointments through text, audio or video call are a convenient and efficient way to get the care you need without leaving the comfort of your home. In this blog, we’ll go over the basics of virtual care and how it works. 

What is virtual care?

Virtual care uses technology to connect a patient to a healthcare practitioner without an in-person meeting or direct contact. On Maple, a visit with a primary care provider, such as a doctor or nurse practitioner, can take place by text, audio, or video call, wherever you are. 

The evolution of virtual care

Healthcare providers have used virtual care for decades, although until recently it’s primarily been the exception rather than the rule. The COVID-19 pandemic, however, pushed virtual care to the forefront in Canada as people had to avoid meeting in person. Since then, research has suggested that virtual care is safe and effective. One study published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal found that virtual care visits may be an appropriate alternative for those with non-life-threatening medical concerns and who have difficulty accessing in-person care. People without a primary care provider or who are unsure about pursuing an emergency room visit could also benefit. 

Before the pandemic, only 22% of primary care facilities in Canada offered some form of digital access. By the height of the pandemic, close to 60% of appointments were held virtually. Canadians also seem to be happy with the quality of service provided by virtual care, as 91% of Canadians who have had a virtual care visit reported being satisfied with their care. 

Benefits of virtual care

Virtual care offers many benefits to people of all ages and stages of health. 

Convenience

Anyone with a tablet, smartphone, or camera-enabled laptop can receive virtual care from almost anywhere in the country, making regular healthcare appointments more convenient than ever.

Care accessibility 

Meeting a primary care provider through virtual care, even if they’re not immediately close to you, can help tackle the challenge of doctor accessibility in Canada. About 6.5 million Canadians report they don’t have regular access to a family doctor in their community, and only 35% of patients note they can get same-day or next-day appointments even if they do.  Virtual care can make it easier to access primary care providers for non-emergency health concerns — meaning people can avoid a lengthy in-person wait, and clinics and emergency rooms can put their resources towards those with urgent needs.   

Time-savings

Sometimes, the only time people can talk to a doctor is during work hours. However, this wait has a cost — the Fraser Institute estimates that Canadians lost $3.5 billion in wages and productivity waiting for surgery or treatments. 

Because virtual care is accessible anywhere a patient is, it can be a convenient way to address health issues and ask questions whenever and wherever you need to, without taking unnecessary time off work or commuting. 

Simplified care management

Virtual care and technologies like digital health records make it easier for people to access care and keep track of their health data. For people without a primary care provider, having a resource where all their health data is available anytime can be helpful. Maple, for example, allows patients to access all their data securely so they can reference it anytime they talk to a primary care provider. 

Types of virtual care services

Virtual care services involve multiple components, such as virtual consultations, remote monitoring, and telemedicine.

Virtual consultations

Virtual consultations utilize text and video conferencing technologies to connect patients to their health care team including their primary care provider. Maple, for example, allows Canadians to contact a primary care provider over the phone, text, or video call directly to address non-emergency health concerns, and provide prescriptions if deemed appropriate. 


Virtual care can also provide access to specialists, including: 

Remote monitoring

Remote patient monitoring (RPM) allows healthcare practitioners to monitor patients from outside the traditional setting. RPM digital medical devices include pulse oximeters and blood glucose meters. Some of these devices are connected to Bluetooth or Wi-Fi and send data directly to the care provider, while others connect via USB cord to transfer and upload the data through a portal or email system.  

Telemedicine

Telemedicine utilizes three types of communication:

  • Telemonitoring
  • Store and forward (SAF)
  • Interactive telemedicine

Telemonitoring is a type of RPM that communicates data in real-time to the healthcare provider. SAF is the digital record system that makes data available to all members of the team, after the fact. Interactive telemedicine is the same thing as a virtual consultation — it’s healthcare that takes place remotely, via phone or video conference. 

Virtual care technologies

As technology advances, so does how we use it — and this includes medical applications. However, people may still be unclear on some key terminology and how it’s evolved. 

Telehealth vs. telemedicine

The terms telehealth and telemedicine are often used interchangeably, but they aren’t the same thing. Telemedicine focuses on distance care. Telehealth is the all-encompassing term for the ever-evolving, multifaceted digital healthcare system. It integrates telemedicine with non-clinical services, including training for healthcare professionals, provider-to-provider communication, and patient education. It also includes mHealth (mobile health), which includes wearable health-tracking devices and healthcare apps.

Future trends in virtual care

During the COVID-19 pandemic, three in five Canadians used virtual care to seek out services. That proliferation in services could be translating into a positive sentiment towards virtual care, according to a study from Ipsos and Global News.  While many Canadians unhappy with the current Canadian health system state say they’d be willing to travel to the U.S. to avoid long waits (42%), that same survey found that 78% would support the expansion of virtual care services by a family doctor. 

Most provinces across Canada have embraced virtual care in some form to provide services. Some provinces, like New Brunswick, do not have enough local primary care providers to serve their populations and use virtual care to connect patients and providers virtually. Others use virtual care to help with patient monitoring and support; Ontario, for example, has used virtual surgical care programs to ensure patients receive the most appropriate care before surgery and monitor recovery to optimize outcomes, while addressing hospital capacity. 

Overall, virtual care can minimize the strain on emergency systems while providing convenient and high-quality access to care for patients. 

Accessing virtual care on Maple

Many Canadians without access to a primary care provider have to wait hours in emergency rooms or walk-in clinics, even for non-emergency issues. Virtual care like Maple helps people deal with non-emergency health issues quickly and from the comfort of their homes.

Maple connects patients with a primary care provider within minutes, where they can receive advice on their health concerns and receive medical diagnosis, prescriptions (if deemed appropriate by the provider), and specialist referrals if needed. Specialists are also available on Maple for direct booking. Through virtual care, Maple taps into the excess capacity of primary care providers — like doctors and nurse practitioners — allowing them to help patients without being pulled from their day-to-day work. 

Overall, virtual care can be an efficient way to address health concerns as soon as you have them, with the same quality of care you’d expect from an in-person appointment. While it’s important to note that virtual care is not for medical emergencies, virtual care can help you if you’ve been putting off that important appointment because of lack of time or convenience. 


The information presented here is for educational purposes and is not meant to replace the advice from your medical professional. Virtual care is not meant for medical emergencies. If you are experiencing an emergency like chest pain or difficulties breathing, for example, please call 911 or go to your nearest emergency room.

 

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