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Expert Perspectives

The Year in Review: Is a Virtual Consult Better Than an In-Person Doctor’s Visit?

By Dr. Peter Nord, Chief Medical Officer, Medcan

Now, your doctor is only as far away as your smartphone.

If you look back, one of the most important wellness trends of 2021 actually started in 2020, on March 14, when the Ontario Health Insurance Plan enacted two new billing codes for virtual visits.

Facing the prospect of COVID-19 lockdowns, the province moved to allow for telemedicine, so people could receive care without having to be physically present in a doctor’s office. Suddenly, general practitioners had two ways to bill for a virtual consult: one, for a short visit, and the second being a separate billing code for more complex interactions.

The measure may seem like trivial accounting or red tape, but as pandemic restrictions eased in 2021, it’s become apparent the regulatory change has triggered an enormous, and long-lasting, shift in the balance of power between patient and doctor.

Health care in this country can sometimes feel as though it was designed in a very provider-centric way. Medcan has always taken a more “customer-focused” approach. We aim to provide a truly patient-centred form of care, which positions doctors and patients as partners. The advent of virtual visits means greater convenience for patients, which aligns with the mission and values of Medcan. At the height of the pandemic, nearly 100% of all visits to Medcan were virtual. According to a study by the ICES, virtual physician visits in Canada jumped 5,600% during the pandemic.

Now, patients across the country have slowly been returning to doctor’s offices for in-person visits. At Medcan, 80% remain virtual with 20% in person. My sense is that eventually it’ll even out to about 50% virtual and 50% in person. (Our Annual Health Assessment practice is 100% in person, something appreciated by patients who have been limited by the health system around us.)

Early on, there was a lot of debate about whether virtual healthcare was better or worse than being physically present in the examination room. How could an MD catch all the dozens of little things that contribute to a diagnosis? If you ask those of us at Medcan, that question is missing the point. Virtual visits aren’t inferior or superior. They’re different. They provide another option for a patient to seek care from a doctor.

At Medcan, we’re excited by virtual visits because we believe they are another step on the road to providing patients with greater agency in how their healthcare is managed. Previously the doctor would never have dispensed a diagnosis unless a patient was sitting on an examining table. “I need you to come in,” was the standard refrain. Virtual care shifts the locus of control slightly away from doctors. It also provides travelers and those living in out-of-the-way places, such as our indigenous communities, with a way to seek care from first-class practitioners. In this way virtual care has promoted a degree of equity that previously was impossible.

In October, the province of Ontario’s top health officials urged MDs to scale back on the provision of virtual healthcare, and to resume more in-person visits. The guidance was aimed at docs who hadn’t yet reopened offices to in-person visits. It likely also explains why there is some public confusion surrounding virtual visits. When is a virtual visit appropriate? And when should a patient opt to be physically present with an MD?

Throughout the pandemic, and now, Medcan has provided our clients with the option of seeing a doctor in-person or virtually. That’s because we believe that medical care should be convenient and prioritize the needs of the patient. If you’re not sure whether you require an in-person visit, then by all means start with a virtual consult with a qualified physician. The resulting conversation can often help determine the appropriate next step.

One patient of mine loves the virtual option. “I used to have to drive to the doctor’s office just to get my blood pressure checked,” he says. “Now, I check my blood pressure monitor myself, with a kit I bought at the pharmacy, and provide the number during a virtual consult.” The new way is much more efficient.

A patient shouldn’t have to go in person to a doctor’s office for every little thing. The adoption by the public of virtual medicine as another method for medical care is exciting to the physicians at Medcan. We’re all about making it more convenient to obtain informed advice from doctors. Now, your preferred general practitioner is only as far away as your smartphone.

Are you looking to learn more about the various ways you can see a doctor at Medcan? Call 416.350.3621 to learn more.

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