Seeking evidence to guide the future of virtual care

Virtual care is rapidly reshaping the healthcare system in Canada. It encompasses remote interactions between patients and care providers, leveraging various communication and information technologies to enhance patient care.

While Canada’s interest in virtual care was growing even before the COVID-19 pandemic, the global health crisis has significantly accelerated its adoption.

The COVID-19 pandemic compelled healthcare providers to swiftly explore virtual care as an alternative to in-person visits, marking many people’s initial exposure to this mode of healthcare delivery.

A preliminary assessment conducted by Health Canada on Canada’s pandemic response highlighted that while the crisis necessitated change, virtual care reforms were often long overdue. Virtual care has the capacity to enhance healthcare by improving access and convenience for patients.

After a period of respite, healthcare decision makers have turned to CADTH, an independent agency specializing in research and assessment of drugs, medical devices, tests, and procedures, to gather evidence on virtual care.

As in-person care gradually resumes, healthcare providers seek guidance on determining which services are most suitable for virtual delivery and which are better conducted in person.

CADTH has released multiple reports covering various aspects of virtual care. In a recent publication, CADTH conducted a search and provided summaries of evidence-based guidelines pertaining to the appropriate utilization of virtual care.

Among the identified guidelines, five were included in the report. Three of these guidelines were developed in response to the increased demand and utilization of virtual care during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The pre-pandemic guidelines encompassed topics such as remote telecommunications in stroke care and digital interventions across healthcare, as outlined by the World Health Organization (WHO).

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Additionally, the guidelines developed during the pandemic addressed virtual care in rheumatology and telehealth for oncology, reflecting the evolving needs and context of healthcare during the crisis.

Across the guidelines reviewed, a consistent message emerges: virtual care should be seen as a supplementary tool, rather than a replacement for in-person care.

Additionally, the guidelines emphasize that virtual care should only be considered when sufficient resources and personnel are accessible, and patient privacy can be safeguarded. It is crucial to recognize that a uniform approach to virtual healthcare may not be suitable for all patients, as stated by multiple guidelines.

The guidelines formulated in response to the pandemic incorporate valuable lessons learned and novel perspectives gained during that period.

For instance, recommendations include the use of teleconsultation in rheumatology for patients requiring adherence to social distancing measures, as well as utilizing telemedicine for patient consultations during medication adjustments when regular healthcare services are disrupted.

Another guideline suggests leveraging virtual modalities to extend medical care to individuals who are home-bound, reside in remote areas, or belong to underserved communities.

These recommendations hold the potential to enhance patient care even beyond the pandemic context.

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