Hamilton family doctors like virtual visits, want them to continue after COVID: survey

More than 100 Hamilton-area family doctors hope to incorporate virtual visits into their practices even after the COVID-19 pandemic according to a new survey.

87 per cent of family doctors in a survey want to continue online appointments after the pandemic

Family doctors plan to keep using virtual visits in their practices according to a new survey. (TippaPatt/Shutterstock)

More than 100 Hamilton-area family doctors hope to incorporate virtual visits into their practices even after the COVID-19 pandemic according to a new survey.

The data offers a glimpse into how well doctors have been able to dive into online and over-the-phone appointments during the COVID-19 shutdown.

Virtual healthcare has been talked about for years, but the pandemic has forced it to become a reality. Experts also say it's not often doctors get a chance to offer feedback through surveys. 

The numbers show doctors had to adapt and faced complications, but overall, want to keep the digital alternatives.

"I believe we have entered a new positive tech phase. It has to be used carefully as we want to keep our relationships real," read one comment from a doctor in the survey.

Hamilton Health Team surveyed 126 physicians and six nurse practitioners and physician assistants about online healthcare. Participants submitted anonymous responses between April 23 and May 6.

In it, about 36 per cent said they want virtual care — mainly phone calls, video calls and email — to be a regular part of its care, while another 51 per cent hope to see it incorporated in a limited way. That's 87 per cent of health-care providers surveyed.

Beth Gerritsen, a local primary care nurse practitioner in Hamilton and one of the organizers of the survey, told CBC News the results allowed doctors to give feedback about virtual care and share what resources they needed to improve it.

"It was interesting, the thing we learned the most from is they were already using each other and were more interested in seeing what everyone else was doing, so just getting them the results was actually a great deliverable to the docs," she said.

The vast majority of family doctors reported using video calls. Some of the complications for physicians in the survey include doctors facing more time constraints, a lack of integration into the normal workflow, technology issues and, of course, not being face-to-face. Most doctors hope to learn more about optimizing video calls and fixing up the tech problems.

"It was exciting to see how quickly everyone adopted virtual care and embraced whatever way possible. They did whatever they had to do to see and manage patient care ... we have this new standard of care," Gerritsen said.

The results aren't surprising for Dr. Samantha Hill, president of the Ontario Medical Association.

"We've seen an explosion of virtual care emerge throughout COVID-19, demonstrating the extremely tremendous value of in investing in digital health solutions. And we've seen whether patients live rural communities or big cities, ability to deliver care virtually is a game changer," she explained.

Hill noted online options tend to be easier for patients than for doctors, helping them skip waiting rooms.

Gerritsen, who says she has used virtual care for years, said right now patients using digital options are much less stressed.

"Patients can see my face and I'm in regular clothes, versus coming into the office ... in my full personal protective equipment."

But patients who fear they'll never see their doctors beyond a screen again have nothing to worry about.

"It's just another tool, it does not replace all visits to the doctor and it's not appropriate for all problems or all visits. It's not going to work for every patient in every individual situation and it's not going to work for every physician," Hill said.