North

N.W.T. health authority ramping up phone appointments in light of COVID-19

'This is really about trying to limit the close contact between people. We know that social distancing is critical to containing the spread of coronavirus,' says Dr. Sarah Cook, with the Northwest Territories Health and Social Services Authority.

Increasing phone appointments are an effort to reduce burden on health system in anticipation of COVID-19

Dr. Sarah Cook, territorial medical director of health with the Northwest Territories Health and Social Services Authority, says people with COVID-19 concerns should call before going to a health centre. (Submitted by the Northwest Territories Health and Social Services Authority)

Northwest Territories physicians are increasing the number of appointments they're taking over the phone amid worries about a future COVID-19 outbreak in the territory.

"This is really about trying to limit the close contact between people. We know that social distancing is critical to containing the spread of coronavirus," said Dr. Sarah Cook, territorial medical director of health with the Northwest Territories Health and Social Services Authority (NTHSSA).

"It's also really important that we preserve the capacity of our health care facilities to deal with the people who actually need to be assessed in person." 

Doctors in the N.W.T. have been doing appointments over the phone since well before the COVID-19 pandemic, said Cook, but now the health authority is ramping up these efforts.

People with COVID-19 concerns should call ahead

While in-person appointments are necessary for certain ailments, Cook said things like reviewing blood work, mental health issues, and most anything else that doesn't require a physical assessment can be handled over the phone.

It's especially important that people with flu-like symptoms, or people who are worried they've been exposed to coronavirus, call ahead, said Cook. They'll be given directions on what to do.

Information on COVID-19, and the number to call in your community, can be found on the NTHSSA website

Cook also emphasized that anyone who has a health concern that needs to be assessed in person should go to a health care centre.

Health authority 'rapidly developing' virtual care plan

Phone appointments are an initial phase of a broader virtual care plan the health authority is rapidly developing, said Cook. 

"The pandemic is really speeding up the process of the evaluation and likely rollout of virtual care solutions," she said, adding the health authority is also working on video conferencing.

Cook said the Northwest Territories health system is well-suited to virtual care, as all health care providers use the same database. It's easier for them to communicate and coordinate patient care from a distance, she said. 

Of course, there are some downsides to phone consultations. Cook said it's more difficult to provide care over the phone when there are language barriers. Doctors also lose the ability to factor body language into their evaluations of what a patient is presenting with, and how best to treat those patients.

But the benefits go beyond compliance with social distancing, she said. For one, home appointments may be more convenient for patients. 

"We really need to balance the benefits of virtual care with the risks of virtual care," said Cooke.

Written by Sidney Cohen based on an interview with Lawrence Nayally

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