Canadian Medical Association

Physicians are embracing virtual care, with a majority planning to continue virtual consults after the pandemic, according to a recent survey of Canadian physicians.

The survey, conducted this spring by Canada Health Infoway and the Canadian Medical Association, aimed to better understand the use of digital health and information technology amongst physicians in Canada.

“The use of virtual care has increased greatly since the beginning of the pandemic, but work is still required to ensure quality care and equitable access.” — Dr. Ann Collins, CMA president

More than 2,000 physicians were surveyed, with 94% reporting that they currently provide virtual care:

  • 93% offered telephone consults
  • 51% offered video visits
  • 36% provided services via secure email or messaging
  • 5% used remote patient and home health monitoring

Despite this growing use of virtual care, the survey highlighted that in-person visits still remain the most common type of consult for physicians. Half of patients are currently seen in person compared with four in 10 by telephone. One in 10 patients are seen by video and fewer than 2% by secure email or messaging.

Virtual care barriers include technological limitations

While the pandemic prompted many physicians to offer virtual care, the vast majority said they expect to continue using it in their practices after the pandemic.

Despite this shift, numerous barriers remain. Eighty percent of physicians reported virtually examining patients as their greatest challenge. Physicians also reported other difficulties, including balancing in-person visits with virtual care, technological limitations and patients’ preference for in-person care.

“We still have work to do to such as creating national licensure, developing quality standards, addressing interoperability as well as ensuring digital health literacy, education and training,” said Dr. Collins. “These are crucial elements to the successful integration of virtual care into our health care system and should be part of our post-pandemic road map.”

Physicians suggest providing more video care

Even with these challenges, physicians reported being generally satisfied with virtual care options, in particular telephone and video. Family physicians tended to use telephone visits more than specialists, who relied more on in-person visits and video calls. Two-thirds of physicians using video visits said they would like to provide more video care.

Collectively, physicians reported that virtual care improved patient access, enabled quality care and ensured efficient care and that they managed to integrate virtual services into their workflow.

The survey also examined use of electronic medical records (EMRs) and found the tool has become more popular among physicians:

  • 87% use EMRs compared with 82% in 2017
  • 93% of general practitioners (GPs) use EMRs
  • 80% specialists use EMRs

“It’s clear from these findings that virtual care is here to stay in Canada,” said Michael Green, Infoway president and CEO. “Physicians are satisfied with it and they recognize the benefits to their patients and their practice. It’s also good to see that almost all GPs are using EMRs, which can really help enable virtual care.”

Scaling up virtual care is a priority for the CMA, as an important tool in helping Canadians access care and supporting older adults and others living with chronic conditions to remain in their homes and communities. This includes improving broadband access in rural and remote areas and supporting digital literacy.

In February 2020, a task force co-led by the CMA, the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Canada and the College of Family Physicians of Canada issued a report outlining recommendations on how the federal government and stakeholders can improve and expand virtual care. The CMA also supports national licensure that would allow physicians to practise in all provinces and territories by leveraging virtual or in-person care.

The 2021 National Survey of Canadian Physicians was conducted between Apr. 29 and May 25, 2021, with 2,071 physician members responding, including 1,000 GPs, 973 specialists and 98 residents.

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