It’s a brave new world in health care. Since the COVID-19 pandemic began, Canadians have turned increasingly to virtual care. According to Infoway’s ongoing tracking survey, virtual visits accounted for almost half of health care visits in May 2020. But what does this shift to virtual care mean for patients and how patients engage with the health care system?
Digital Health Canada defines virtual care as, “…any interaction whether synchronous or asynchronous in nature between patients and/or members of their circle of care, without direct contact, using any form of communication or information technology.” This means virtual care can include everything from telehomecare, to video visits, to telephone consultations, to email and secure messaging.
In our previous blog post, we investigated patient engagement and defined engaged patients as individuals who are both highly confident and highly involved in managing their health care. As our health care system continues to meet the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s a timely opportunity to explore how patient engagement intersects with virtual care services.
Infoway’s 2019 citizen survey indicates that compared to those who are not engaged, engaged patients are “power” users of virtual care services. 42 per cent of engaged patients indicated that they had used a virtual care service in the past year, compared to 34 per cent of non-engaged patients. In addition to the services outlined above, engaged patients were also more likely to have their prescriptions renewed electronically: 14 per cent of engaged patients had done so, compared to 10 per cent of non-engaged patients.
Virtual care has been particularly important during these past months of physical distancing, allowing for continuity of care without in-person interactions. But even as jurisdictions begin reopening, the benefits of virtual care remain, particularly in regard to patient travel. Non-engaged patients indicated that they travel further to see their health care provider in person than do their engaged counterparts: 72 kilometres versus 23 kilometres. Providing these more remote patients with access to virtual care services might have benefits not only for their health outcomes, but also for the environment as the need for patient transportation is reduced.
Finally, some data suggests a correlation between engaged patient status and income. Individuals with an income of less than $25,000 are 40 per cent likely to be engaged, compared to 54% per cent of those with incomes more than $150,000. Only one in three of those lower-income individuals report accessing virtual care services. Providing better access to virtual care service and bridging the digital divide is an important step towards ensuring health equity.
Throughout the pandemic, virtual care has taken an increasingly prominent role in Canada’s health care system. As we consider our post-pandemic reality, we have the opportunity to ensure that it remains an important means of care delivery. Working together, we can extend its benefits more broadly and make Canada a nation of engaged patients.
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Katie Bryski serves as Coordinator for Marketing and Engagement at Canada Health Infoway. She is particularly interested in how digital health relates to intersectionality.
Ellie Yu is a Performance Analyst with Canada Health Infoway where she drives business decisions using data analytics and business intelligence to demonstrate the adoption and benefits of investments in digital health. She holds a Ph.D. in Health Policy from McMaster University.