Nova Scotia

N.S. extends pay for virtual care as long-term talks continue with doctors

Long-standing calls from patients and health-care providers were addressed at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic when the province approved fee codes that allow doctors to be paid for treating patients using the phone or video conferencing services.

Premier Stephen McNeil says the service is here to stay, government negotiating with Doctors N.S.

Premier Stephen McNeil says government officials and representatives for Doctors Nova Scotia continue to discuss a long-term plan for compensating doctors who provide virtual care. (Communications Nova Scotia)

Nova Scotia Premier Stephen McNeil says virtual health care is here to stay, but some fine-tuning remains to be done about how it looks in the future.

Long-standing calls for virtual care from patients and health-care providers were addressed at the onset of the pandemic when the province approved temporary fee codes that allow doctors to be paid for treating patients using the phone or video-conferencing services.

Those codes have since been extended several times while the government and Doctors Nova Scotia — the professional association representing the province's physicians — work to finalize a long-term arrangement.

"It's, quite frankly, prudent management between the [Health] Department and Doctors Nova Scotia about what's that look like," McNeil told reporters Wednesday following a cabinet meeting. "But there's been no talk that this service will not be available to Nova Scotians."

Virtual connection beyond COVID

The latest extension for the fee codes expires March 31, 2021.

According to data released Wednesday by the province, more than 1.2 million virtual services were provided by doctors in the province between March 1 and Dec. 1 of this year.

The premier said it's clear from feedback and usage that patients and health-care providers alike are pleased with the service.

Dr. Robyn MacQuarrie, president of Doctors Nova Scotia, said the government's commitment to virtual health care is good news for doctors and their patients.

"It provides the certainty we need to book our clinics over the next few months, knowing that some of the appointments can be virtual," she said in an email.

"Doctors should be able to use the telephone, video conference and other means of virtual connection (like secure messaging) to care for patients beyond the COVID-19 pandemic."

Efficient and effective: Burrill

NDP Leader Gary Burrill called the expansion of virtual care one of the "bright lights" to come from the pandemic.

Burrill said the service is particularly notable because of how it's been able to extend doctors' care and the convenience it provides patients who no longer need to make unnecessary trips.

"This is just opening up all kinds of doors for a more efficient and widespread and effective use of physician resources," he said.

Progressive Conservative Leader Tim Houston said he's heard "overwhelming" support from people who have used the service. 

Houston said he's surprised the government and doctors haven't been able to settle on an arrangement at this point, considering how common virtual care is today.

"This is something that happens all over the world," he said in a telephone interview.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Michael Gorman is a reporter in Nova Scotia whose coverage areas include Province House, rural communities, and health care. Contact him with story ideas at michael.gorman@cbc.ca

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