Virtual healthcare has potential to reduce the burden on the healthcare system and provide benefits to patients and caregivers long after COVID-19 related public health measures roll back. Heart & Stroke spoke with experts, reviewed current evidence, surveyed people living with stroke or a heart condition, and funded a telephone poll of Canadians, revealing great promise and a continued desire for virtual healthcare opportunities.
Access to virtual healthcare has accelerated over the past 14 months as the pandemic disrupted the healthcare system, allowing patients to stay in touch with healthcare providers and continue progress on their recovery. While this approach to technology is not new the pandemic has accelerated its use, for example in under-utilized areas such as prevention and rehabilitation.
According to a new Heart & Stroke online survey* of more than 3000 people living with stroke, heart disease or vascular cognitive impairment (VCI) and caregivers, more than half want the option for virtual appointments in the future, beyond COVID-19 – an increase from a similar survey carried out a year prior. The survey also brought to light:
- Virtual appointments were most often the only option offered during the pandemic.
- The number of people who participated in virtual appointments increased during the past year from about five in 10 people attending a virtual appointment at the beginning of the pandemic to about eight in 10 in Spring 2021.
- Over half feel competent or very competent using the technology required.
- Eight in 10 confirm virtual appointments are convenient and they were able to ask questions and get answers.
- Nine in 10 do not have privacy concerns.
“As we plan for a post-pandemic future and public health measures begin to lift, virtual healthcare will remain an effective and efficient tool for patients, providers and the healthcare system,” says Dr. Patrice Lindsay, Director, Health Systems Change, Heart & Stroke. “Virtual care is meant to complement, not replace, in-person visits. But virtual healthcare has enormous potential to provide quality care for people living with stroke or heart conditions as well as reduce the burden on the healthcare system from prevention to acute care, disease management, rehabilitation and end-of-life care.”
Research has shown that a virtual healthcare diagnosis can be up to 91% accurate across a wide range of conditions. As well, virtual healthcare can improve management for patients with heart failure, chronic coronary artery disease and other chronic conditions.
Virtual healthcare has shown to reduce wait times and preliminary studies reveal patients miss fewer of these appointments. Appointments can be booked quickly, it is easier for people with mobility issues or who do not have their transportation and caregivers can conveniently join. Other benefits include decreased travel, less time taken off work and fewer childcare and other costs such as transportation and parking.
"Virtual care has been a blessing. It has allowed me to save the time and energy I would have spent on getting ready and driving or walking to my appointments. Virtual appointments mean that I have more energy for other activities during my day and they are easier to fit into my schedule because I take them from home," says Céline Bédard, a 48 year-old mother of five from Gatineau who had a stroke on March 4, 2020.
Virtual care helps beat inequity
“Virtual care opens up new options for accessing healthcare especially for people in underserved communities,” says Dr. Inderveer Mahal, a family doctor in Vancouver. “In remote and northern regions, including Indigenous communities, the growth of virtual care has the potential to redress health inequities by helping people connect to a range of health services without leaving their communities. With the help of outreach workers, people who live in shelters or tents can actually more easily attend virtual appointments – if they are provided the technology and a safe space to do so.”
There is still much to be done to ensure the full potential of virtual healthcare is realized and everyone across the country can access and benefit from it equally. Some groups continue to face challenges getting healthcare services, including through virtual healthcare. This includes seniors, low-income earners, northern/remote communities, newcomers, Indigenous peoples, people with disabilities, people experiencing homelessness and those with low literacy levels. And for some – including seniors and those with low digital literacy – using technology can be overwhelming.
According to a recent public opinion poll** the majority of Canadians (more than seven in 10) want their provincial government to provide funding to improve access to virtual healthcare among groups who face barriers. Additionally, eight in 10 Canadians also want their provincial government to invest in training for healthcare professionals and education for patients around virtual healthcare.
“As we plan how we deliver healthcare going forward, Heart & Stroke is committed to working with health systems planners, governments and other partners to ensure the momentum of virtual healthcare is maintained and it becomes embedded in the system in an equitable and person-centred way,” says Dr. Lindsay.
*Heart & Stroke carried out two online surveys of people living with a heart condition, stroke or vascular cognitive impairment and caregivers. The first survey took place May 8 –31, 2020 with a total of 1186 respondents; the second survey took place March 23 – April 26, 2021 with a total of 3016 respondents.
**Telephone poll carried out by Sentis Research of 2233 Canadians between April 6 – 14, 2021
About Heart & Stroke
Life. We don’t want you to miss it. That’s why Heart & Stroke leads the fight against heart disease and stroke. We must generate the next medical breakthroughs, so Canadians don’t miss out on precious moments. Together, we are working to prevent disease, save lives and promote recovery through research, health promotion and public policy.
Heart & Stroke virtual healthcare resources
- Ensuring equitable, sustainable and quality virtual healthcare for all people in Canada. Heart & Stroke position statement developed based on current evidence and expert input outlining the resources provincial/territorial governments needs to invest in to ensure equitable access.
- Heart & Stroke is empowering healthcare professionals and systems leaders to increase adoption of virtual healthcare through inclusion in Canadian Stroke Best Practice Recommendations, a Virtual Care Delivery Decision Framework which provides guidance across the continuum of healthcare for planning, developing and implementing systems and processes that integrate virtual care and toolkits to engage in effective virtual healthcare visits.
- Heart & Stroke continues to support people living with stroke and heart disease through our online peer support and newsletter and with resources including the Virtual Healthcare Checklist, a guide to help people to prepare for and participate in virtual appointments and a webinar.
- Heart & Stroke continues to provide information for Canadians on our website including a consumer article explaining the potential of virtual care, and through our social channels.