Canadian Medical Association

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Fear of the unknown
What medical conditions are suitable/NOT suitable for virtual care?
How to arrange a virtual visit
Tools you need for a virtual visit
What to expect from a virtual visit: from start to finish

Since the onset of COVID-19 and physical distancing rules, many patients have had to forego in-person visits with their physician — despite the fact they require ongoing care. Virtual care and telemedicine are new ways for patients — and their physicians — to continue working together to achieve the best health outcomes possible.

This guide was created by the Canadian Medical Association, the College of Family Physicians of Canada and the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Canada in collaboration with Canadian patients and their families to help patients prepare for “virtual visits” with their doctor, by video chat, phone call, text message or email.

Fear of the unknown

Many patients are enthusiastic about virtual care’s potential but have concerns about key issues: 

  • Is virtual care safe and effective?
  • Can I manage the technology to connect with my doctor? 
  • Will the system be secure enough to ensure my privacy?
  • How will virtual care affect my relationship with my doctor?

Fortunately, the answer to the first three questions is usually yes, and those who have experience with virtual care report it has a positive effect on the patient–doctor relationship.

Who pays for virtual care? Click here for more information.

What medical conditions are suitable/NOT suitable for virtual care?

You can safely use virtual visits for:

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  • mental health issues;
  • many skin problems;
  • urinary, sinus and minor skin infections;
  • sore throats;
  • eye redness without pain or change in vision;
  • sexual health;
  • travel-related health care;
  • conditions monitored with home devices and/or lab tests; and
  • review of test results and specialist reports.

Medical problems that can’t be treated without an in-person physical examination are NOT suitable for virtual care. These include:

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  • chest pain;
  • shortness of breath;
  • loss of vision;
  • loss of hearing;
  • sudden weakness or numbness;
  • ear pain;
  • cough;
  • abdominal or digestive problems; and
  • muscle and joint injuries.

Although you may need to see a doctor in person for your first appointment for these types of problems, follow-up visits may be well suited to virtual care.

How to arrange a virtual visit

If you have a regular family doctor, that office should be your first point of contact for any medical problem that is appropriate for a virtual visit. If you are looking to see a specialist virtually, start by seeing your family doctor, who is already familiar with your condition.

Here are some steps to arrange a virtual visit: 

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  • Book an appointment with the doctor. 
  • If your doctor sees patients without appointments, find out how to get into the “virtual waiting room” so you can be seen when the doctor is next available.
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  • Complete and submit any required forms to give your consent for the use of virtual visits, including video appointments and text messaging.
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  • Ask the doctor’s office how to send any items that will make the visit more efficient, such as symptom questionnaires or photos related to the medical problem.

Tools you need for a virtual visit

To be ready for a video visit, you must first prepare your communications device and Internet connection.

Here are some steps to take:

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  • Choose whether you will use a smartphone, tablet or computer.
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  • Make sure the device is fully charged or plugged in.
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  • Download the app or install the software that your doctor’s office uses for video visits.
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  • When possible, use earphones/headphones because they provide better sound as well as greater privacy.
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  • If possible, arrange a test call with the doctor’s office or with a family member or friend.

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Video requires a high-speed and stable Internet connection. To get the best possible Internet performance:

  • Use a wired rather than wireless connection whenever possible.
  • If you have to use a wireless connection, be prepared to switch from your WiFi to your cellphone data plan. Although it can be costly to use your cellphone data plan, your phone will often give you a faster Internet connection.

Also take time to prepare the location for the video visit:

  • have a comfortable seat with adequate lighting so the doctor can see you;
  • choose a private space where other people can’t see or hear you; and
  • eliminate as much surrounding noise as possible.

If you can’t connect by video, ask your doctor if you can connect by phone instead.

What to expect from a virtual visit: from start to finish

Before the start of the video visit

Video visits are similar to in-person appointments when it comes to the information you need on hand:

  • your health insurance card (if your province/territory’s health cards don’t include a photo, also be sure to have photo ID so the doctor can confirm your identity);
  • a list of your symptoms, when each started and how severe they are;
  • any recorded data such as weight, temperature, home blood pressure and pulse readings;
  • information about any contacts with similar symptoms;
  • if you haven’t seen this particular doctor before, your relevant health history:
    • chronic conditions
    • prescription medications (have your pill containers at hand with the pharmacy label)
    • allergies
    • immunizations
    • past surgeries and hospitalizations
    • your immediate family’s health history (parents and siblings); and
  • any questions you want to ask the doctor.

Note: for video visits for children, your child must be on camera for at least part of the visit.

During the visit

Be aware that you may have to wait “on the line” before the doctor joins the video visit. Once the video visit starts, there are both familiar and new things to expect:

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Proving identity (“verification”):

  • Expect that the doctor will ask you for your photo ID and geographic location.
  • The doctor must identify themselves and tell you where they are located and where they hold a medical license. Ask for that information if they don’t volunteer it.

Ensuring clear communication:

  • Remain in front of the camera and speak clearly so the doctor can see and hear you.
  • Let the doctor know if someone else is with you and introduce them.
  • If there is background noise where you are located, mute your microphone when not speaking.
  • Present your symptoms and answer questions as clearly and directly as possible.
  • Make notes about the doctor’s opinion and recommendations and ask questions if anything isn’t clear.

After the visit

Once the visit is over, you may receive a written summary from the doctor via secure messaging (e.g., a “portal,” like online banking, or through the video software chat feature). Review it and communicate with the doctor if there is anything that appears unclear or incorrect.

If you feel your health care can benefit by replacing in-person visits with video visits, phone calls or messaging, speak with your doctor about introducing this kind of visit into your patient–doctor relationship.

Download and share the Virtual Care Guide for Patients

This Virtual Care Guide for Patients was co-created with members of the CMA Patient Voice, a group of patient representatives who advise the CMA on key health issues from a patient’s perspective.

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