Since the COVID-19 pandemic began, many doctor’s appointments have been taking place on-line or on the phone. It’s what’s known as virtual care, which in a time of physical distancing is an important way for us to limit the spread of COVID-19, while still keeping up with our health and continuing to “see” our health care teams without having to actually go into the doctor’s office.
Before we go any further, it’s important to note, that health experts say if you need help in an emergency – get help. Hospital emergency departments are still open. There are reports that visits to emergency departments are down which means people aren’t getting help when they need it and that could lead to further risks.
It’s the same with virtual appointments. Connecting with your doctor for your care, even virtually, is more beneficial to your health than not.
What is virtual care?
Virtual care has been in use at Sunnybrook and other provincial health-care facilities for many years through the Ontario Telemedicine Network (OTN). Virtual Care means you can see your health-care teams and speak with them over the phone, on the computer or on your smartphone to discuss any health conditions or concerns. This can be done by making appointments with your doctor, specialists, physiotherapist, and other health-care experts.
“Some people may feel anxious about virtual care because they haven’t used it before,” says Dr. Philip Lam, a virtual care co-lead in the department of medicine and an infectious disease physician. “But, when they start using it, they realize that it’s easier than they initially thought.”
“Sometimes it’s the fear of the unknown that prevents people from trying virtual care,” explains Dr. Sara Mitchell, virtual care co-lead and neurologist. “We want to assure patients that our health-care teams are doing our part to help make this transition as easy as possible. We are doing our best to support patients and work through this together.”Learn more about what happens during a virtual care visit and patient privacy
Why can’t I just see my doctor when the COVID-19 pandemic is over?
Whether you have a routine doctor’s appointment, or you finally have that specialist appointment you’ve been waiting for – don’t delay. At this point, as the pandemic continues, health experts are encouraging patients to keep up with their health.
“Patients can share their health concerns with their doctor online or over the phone, and we can help guide a patient on next steps. Putting off virtual care could mean a health condition could worsen or other health issues could arise undetected,” says Dr. Lam. “During a virtual assessment, a health-care provider can help keep your health on track, and if it’s determined that an in-person appointment is needed, the heath-care provider can discuss options with the patient.”
Waiting until “later” or “after the pandemic” to see a doctor, could mean even longer wait-times for care.
“Health-care teams are still here to help patients,” says Dr. Mitchell. “When patients attend their virtual appointments, this can help them continue with their care and avoid delays, in addition to helping ease potential backlogs or longer waiting lists in the long run.”
Benefits of virtual care:
- Direct interaction with your health-care provider.
- Continuing to receive treatment and care as appropriate.
- Avoiding delays in care.
- No need to travel to a hospital or doctor’s office.
- No need to worry about parking.
- Comfort of your own home.
- Computer, smartphone and phone can be easy to use.
Virtual care strategies
A patient may not be used to using the computer or may have health conditions that may make virtual care tricky to navigate. Dr. Mitchell and Dr. Lam share some strategies that they and their patients have experienced which can help make the virtual care appointment go a bit more smoothly.
No access to a computer or webcam: where possible, family members or caregivers can help set up the technology for their loved one’s appointment. If a family member is not in the same household, they can have a phone conversation to help the patient get their computer ready for the virtual appointment. If a computer is not available, the appointment itself can take place over the phone which doctors say is effective as well.
Frail or elderly: Often, family members, caregivers or support workers attend appointments with patients who are frail or elderly and can assist both the patient and doctor with any explanations or clarifications during the virtual appointment. On OTN and another videoconferencing option called Zoom, family members or caregivers don’t need to be physically in the same room as the patient, they can join online or on the phone by receiving an invitation link to the virtual appointment.
Worried about technology: If you don’t have a lot of experience with computers, a good way to start getting used to the technology is to check email messages. Be sure to check any appointment emails, which may have step-by-step information about testing your computer and webcam. If you’re feeling anxious about using the technology, you can try arranging a test run with a family member, friend or possibly the administrative assistant to get a better feel for using the computer before the actual virtual appointment itself.
English as a second language: Some hospitals have a translation service that can be arranged ahead of time. It is also helpful if a family member can help provide translation.
The ultimate checklist for a virtual care appointment
Here are some tips for how to plan and prepare for your virtual appointment to help it go as smoothly as possible. Your clinic may also ask you to prepare additional information ahead of the visit.
What to do
- Check any emails from your health-care provider. There may be updates or helpful tips for the virtual appointment.
- If a family member or caregiver is joining the appointment, make sure they know the date and time.
- Be available 15 minutes before and 30 minutes after your appointment time, as the doctor maybe running late.
- Be aware the doctor may call from an unknown or blocked phone number. Please answer the call.
Setting up for your virtual appointment
- Try to find a private, quiet, well-lit area for your visit to help you and your doctor see and hear each other better.
- A room with lots of space can be beneficial if a doctor is assessing movement.
Items to have with you for the appointment
- Eyeglasses, hearing aids or walking aids so they’re available when you need them.
- A list of medications taken or bring the actual bottles. Makes it easier to remember and reference during the appointment.
- Pharmacy information: address, phone, and fax number in case the doctor needs to contact the pharmacist.
- Pen and paper for any notes you would like to take during the appointment.
- Be prepared to show any wounds or rashes for the doctor to assess.