Nova Scotia

Nova Scotia pilots virtual health-care option for those without a family practice

Nova Scotia is piloting a virtual care option for some of the tens of thousands of people who don’t have a primary care provider.

People in northern and western health zones will be eligible first

There are more than 65,000 names on a list of Nova Scotians looking for a primary care practice. (David Donnelly/CBC)

Nova Scotia is piloting a virtual health-care option for some of the tens of thousands of people who don't have a primary health-care provider.

The program, called VirtualCareNS, will open first to people in Middleton, New Glasgow, Truro, and Yarmouth, according to a news release Monday from the provincial health authority.

Health Minister Zach Churchill said those four communities have the highest rates of unattached patients. He said 21,000 people from those communities are eligible for the first round of the pilot. 

"And then, of course, we're going to look at expansion," Churchill said in an interview.

"I do anticipate success with this. And we think this is going to help us reach more people, particularly those who are unattached to primary care providers currently."

Zach Churchill is Nova Scotia's health minister. (Robert Short/CBC)

The program will initially be available by invitation only, opening first to those who have had their names on the Need a Family Practice Registry longest.

That registry, which is used to track Nova Scotians who don't have a family doctor or primary care nurse practitioner, had 65,526 names on it as of May 1.

Churchill said patients who sign up for the virtual care program will remain on the registry so long as they don't have a dedicated family practitioner who can see them for in-person appointments.

Eventually, the pilot program will expand to include all communities in the northern and western health zones, which together accounted for about two-thirds of the names on the registry as of the last report.

People will be notified by email if they're eligible for the virtual care program, and some notifications have already been sent. Participants will have to have a valid Nova Scotia health card number and a valid email address they regularly use.

The news release from Nova Scotia Health says the program will connect patients with primary care providers online either through a computer or a mobile device, so participants have to be able to access the internet through one of those means.

If a virtual visit proves insufficient for dealing with a patient's health concerns, the health authority says they'll be offered in-person care options.

The future of virtual care in Nova Scotia

Physicians in Nova Scotia were granted a temporary billing code for virtual care last year with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. That code was recently extended to March 2022, but it remains temporary.

Churchill said it's clear that virtual care is necessary, and he expects an assessment of this new pilot will inform what virtual care might look like in the future.

"We obviously want feedback from the primary care providers that will be administering it, feedback from patients, and of course, looking at the overall impact of the program on access," Churchill said.

The pilot is slated to run for two years at an expected cost of about $2 million. Most of that money will go to billing, Churchill said.

Included in that $2 million is a contract with Maple, a company known for its pay-for-access virtual medicine service, which will provide the platform for Nova Scotia's new program. The contract is worth about $300,000, said the Health Department.

A good interim measure, says Doctors NS

Dr. Heather Johnson, a family doctor in Bridgewater, N.S., and president-elect of Doctors Nova Scotia, said the pilot program is a good interim measure while the province tries to recruit more doctors.

Johnson said the shortage of primary care practitioners in communities like hers is detrimental for patients, who don't get regular medical checks and screenings, and may have to go to an emergency room for basic health-care needs.

Dr. Heather Johnson runs a collaborative practice in Bridgewater and is the president-elect of Doctors Nova Scotia. (Robert Short/CBC)

She said her office gets phone calls every day from people asking if the clinic is accepting new patients.

"That's a horrible time burden for Nova Scotians who feel like they have to call around and try and search out a family doctor," Johnson said in an interview. 

"The pilot program is not going to fix this, but what it's going to do is give people who don't know where to turn to have primary care a place that they can go."

Johnson said she thinks the pilot is a good sign for the continuation of virtual care in Nova Scotia. 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Taryn Grant

Reporter

Taryn Grant is a Halifax-based reporter and web writer for CBC Nova Scotia. You can email her with tips and feedback at taryn.grant@cbc.ca

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