Nova Scotia

N.S. evaluating virtual health care to determine best uses, possible dangers

The Nova Scotia government has just received a preliminary report on virtual health care that the province plans to use to determine the future of care over the phone or online.

Deputy minister says virtual care provides access, but doesn't replace in-person visits long term

Information in a consultant's report on virtual health care in Nova Scotia is being called 'very significant' and will help shape the practice in the future. (David Donnelly/CBC)

The Nova Scotia government has just received a report from a health consultant who was hired to evaluate virtual health care in the province.

Mary Jane Hampton was asked to determine whether giving doctors permission to bill for visits over the phone or online, rather than in person, has resulted in fewer visits or created any other barrier for patients seeking care.

She is scheduled to present her findings Wednesday to senior health officials, including Nova Scotia's deputy minister of health, Kevin Orrell.

"Her information is going to be very significant and it's going to contribute a great deal to how we view virtual care and what place it will have for the future," Orrell told CBC News following his appearance before the legislature's health committee Tuesday.

As public health measures ramped up last spring to curb the spread of COVID-19, doctors across the province turned to telemedicine for many appointments with patients.

Orrell told the committee patients seemed to be satisfied with virtual visits but that doctors would need to continue seeing some patients face-to-face.

"It does provide access to people, especially for followup, but may not, in fact, provide access to people who have never been seen before," Orrell told the committee. "So it can replace an in-person visit, but it's very important to remember it is not a replacement for it on a long-term basis."

Dr. Kevin Orrell, shown here in 2019, is Nova Scotia's deputy minister of health. (Brian MacKay/CBC)

The Department of Health has extended the temporary billing code it created last spring to next March. It gives doctors the right to continue to charge the province for virtual visits at least another year.

Orrell said he expected virtual health care to continue well beyond that, but that the province needed to establish parameters for its use.

"We're going to look at its place in heath care," he said. "We're going to look to see if it does, in fact, provide more access, and we're going to look all the safeguards that we need to put in place to make sure that it's very safe to use."

Orrell offered a cautionary tale about non-face-to-face care — a story that involved his brother, Liam Orrell, a family physician in Sydney, N.S.

According to the deputy minister, it involved a patient of Liam Orrell's who had an itchy scalp he wanted diagnosed.

"He's an experienced family doctor with 27 years under his belt, and he recognized the patient did not have psoriasis in any of the contact he'd had with them, previously," said Kevin Orrell.

His brother insisted his patient come in for a personal visit and diagnosed a melanoma.

"So there there are dangers with trying to do everything virtually."