The future of health care is here, and it's digital.
Since March of 2018, thousands of locals have taken advantage of a pilot project that allows them to visit a doctor virtually - with almost 17,000 visits.
Dr. Mohamed Alarakhia is Managing Director of the eHealth Centre of Excellence in Waterloo.
He explained what these 'virtual visits' entail.
"Most people think about video visits, but it also means online chatting back and forth with your physician or nurse practitioner, and audio calls as well."
Alarakhia said this isn't meant to replace one-on-one, in-person visits.
"I think what was important with what we tried out in Waterloo Region is that this complemented in-person visits. It really was virtual care for an established relationship between patient and provider, because we know that's so very important, so this was really a supplement to that. So for those things where you didn't need to see the provider in person, you could do a virtual visit."
Alarakhia said it does take some time to get people used to this new method.
"But we do have this great base right now, with 17,000 virtual visits, so we have a good understanding of the model that we need to implement this in, and how we get people to understand what it's appropriate for and not appropriate for. Once you do that, it can be extremely efficient."
When it comes to what is an appropriate 'virtual care' visit - that can include following-up on blood work and other test results, and checking in with patients with mental health concerns.
"Just sort of seeing how they're doing in between face-to-face visits. Also patients that require certain therapy notes, you can also do that virtually. And chronic disease management, there are a number of conditions where you don't sort of always need to do a physical exam."
If you want to access this kind of 'new wave' care, Alarakhia said they are rolling it out gradually in Waterloo Region.
"You can talk to your physician or nurse practitioner and they can inquire about it. We have a team locally that can support them, and the province has announced its looking to expand this .. so there will be funding to support this. If you talk to your provider, they'll connect with us and we're happy to help them implement this."
The eHealth Centre of Excellence works with provincial partners like the Ontario Telemedicine Network to help deploy these technologies.
"We do a lot of things virtually in our lives .. so done properly, this is a more efficient way for a patient and provider to connect. We know that in our strained healthcare system, this is an enabler that will allow people to see a provider more efficiently and maintain that connection. Again, this doesn't replace all in-person visits, but it can replace some of them."
Alarakhia said over time, this type of service could save money too.
"Four per cent of patients would've gone to the emergency department instead, and 10 per cent would've gone to a walk--in clinic. This is also a way to help reduce emergency room wait times, and a way to follow-up so people aren't re-admitted to the hospital. This will take a bit of time to roll out to everyone .. but we are on the right track."
If you'd like to learn more about these digital health initiatives, click here.