Alberta gives doctors go ahead to see patients virtually

New billing codes to better compensate doctors who see patients remotely will make a “huge difference” during the COVID-19 pandemic, says the president of the Alberta Medical Association.

New billing codes will help MDs treat patients while maintaining social distance and self-isolation guidelines

A hand holds up a steoscope.
Doctors in Alberta are getting new billing codes so they can visit with patients online or on the phone. (funnyangel/Shutterstock)

New billing codes to better compensate doctors who see patients remotely will make a "huge difference" during the COVID-19 pandemic, says the president of the Alberta Medical Association.

The Alberta government said Monday it will temporarily pay family doctors and specialists the same fees for phone and online appointments as it does for in-person visits.

"So many things can be done now through virtual means — it's really fantastic," medical association president Dr. Christine Molnar said on Monday.

The government made the move to keep people physically separated during the global pandemic, the health minister said in a Monday news release.

As Albertans heed public health officials' advice to avoid contact with others to prevent the spread of a new and deadly strain of coronavirus, many doctor's appointments are being held remotely, Molnar said.

Earlier this month, the government activated a billing code that allowed family doctors to bill $20 for an appointment by phone. An in-person visit nets doctors an $38 fee, and if the patient's condition is complex and needs more time, they can bill $18 more.

Some doctors began to worry they wouldn't be able to pay staff or keep their clinics running with income mainly from phone appointments, Molnar said.

In-person visits still done when needed

General practitioners can now bill $38 when they see patients for longer than 10 minutes by phone or secure video conference. The change is retroactive to March 17 and there is no daily limit on the number of remote appointments.

The government also added new, temporary billing codes for specialists' phone visits with patients and phone or online therapy for patients with mental health problems.

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Doctors will still see patients in person where appropriate, according to the government.

As public health officials plead for people to keep their distance from one another and wash their hands frequently, some doctors' office employees were telling patients to wait in their cars to avoid crowding them into waiting rooms, Molnar said.

Doctors requested changes

NDP health critic David Shepherd said Monday the change was welcome, but too slow in coming.

"That unfortunately took weeks of doctors begging for that change," Shepherd said. "I was talking with doctors weeks ago who were raising this concern. So, we're happy the government has finally heard them and is taking action on this today."

Shepherd is also concerned about an app promoted by the provincial government that allows Albertans to video conference with a doctor on their cellphones.

Last week, the government said Albertans could use Telus' Babylon app to see a doctor virtually, check their symptoms and get prescriptions and referrals. Government covers the cost of the service.

Although virtual health-care access will be important during the pandemic, Shepherd said the app "fragments" the primary care system.

The doctors available through the app have no access to patients' history or records, and information may not be shared with their family doctors, Shepherd said.

"It's undermining the care that the family doctor provides," he said.

Shepherd also raised questions about the privacy and storage of any information captured through the application.