Virtual clinic gives health care access to Alberta's isolated Indigenous communities

A new virtual clinic for Indigenous people in Alberta launched last month to address a gap in care that’s becoming more apparent as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Alberta Indigenous Virtual Care Clinic launched on Dec. 1

In situations where it's difficult to to access in-person health care, a new virtual clinic has been set up for Alberta's First Nations, Inuit and Métis peoples. (Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

A new virtual clinic for Indigenous people in Alberta launched last month to address a gap in care that has become more evident during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Alberta Indigenous Virtual Care Clinic is a new health service, launched on Dec. 1, that will provide health care access to Indigenous people in Alberta, regardless of whether they live in remote locations or the inner city.

Dr. Esther Tailfeathers, a community family physician with the Blood Tribe Department of Health and one of the doctors working on the clinic, says the clinic will help patients who have had issues accessing primary care.

Community members would have to travel two hours or more by gravel road to get to a clinic or hospital, Tailfeathers said.

This access issue has become even more pressing during the COVID-19 pandemic, with those barriers compounded by public health guidelines against travel.

"When COVID hit, there were a number of Indigenous communities that had to completely shut down letting people come in and out," Tailfeathers told CBC's Edmonton AM on Tuesday. "Therefore doctors and nurses weren't able to come in and out."

Tailfeathers, who is also the senior medical director of Alberta Health Services' Indigenous Wellness Core, said the clinic works through telephone consultation and virtual video calls with 17 physicians who work under Alberta's Indigenous Wellness program.

The seed for the clinic was planted in at the start of the pandemic in March, when several Indigenous groups reached out to Indigenous Wellness physicians seeking ways to access primary care in more remote locations.

'Multitude of barriers' getting health needs met

Dr. Amy Gausvik, another physician at the virtual clinic, said the goal is care that's accessible as well as medically and culturally safe.

"We know Indigenous people face a multitude of barriers to getting their health needs met," said Gausvik, who also works on First Nations community of Eden Valley, located  south of Calgary.

"Sometimes those barriers are geographic — living remotely or not having access to transportation. Sometimes those barriers are cultural or have to do with safety — people not feeling heard or understood when they meet with health-care professionals."

The clinic helps patients with any health issue that can be tackled over the phone or video, including chronic health issues and problems like hypertension or infection.

Lately, there have been a lot of calls about mental health issues. Tailfeathers said this common issue during the pandemic has been especially hard for people living in remote communities.

"The availability of mental health or counselling is very little in those communities. So our physicians also do a lot of mental health, either referrals or counselling," Tailfeathers said.

So far, Tailfeathers said that patients are happy to get medical care from home without having to defy pandemic travel advisories. She's heard from people who haven't been able to see a doctor for a while — and heard frustrations about not receive care for issues like hypertension or diabetes that should have been attended to long ago.

"It's a new, innovative way of delivering health care to people who ordinarily wouldn't get that," Tailfeathers said.

Gausvik said the clinic provides written updates to a patient's other health-care providers, and tries to find family doctors for patients who don't have one.

The virtual clinic will remain open after the COVID-19 pandemic ends, Gausvik said, pointing out that barriers to accessing primary care will still exist for many First Nations, Inuit and Métis communities.

"We feel that this has been a long time coming," Gausvik said.

"COVID was just kind of a catalyst to allow this clinic to be created to help improve accessibility of patients to getting in touch with a family doctor."