Virtual care revs up in BC, using technologies from Think Research
September 27, 2019
Earlier this year, Toronto-based Think Research extended its virtual care platform to British Columbia. The company partnered with BC’s Provincial Health Services Authority (PHSA) on a project to help test and expand the delivery of Virtual Health delivery across the province.
PHSA programs serve patients throughout B.C., which makes access a challenge for many people in remote and rural communities. Virtual Health bridges that gap, bringing physicians, nurses, and allied health professionals to patients’ homes for services such as anywhere-to-anywhere counselling sessions, pre- and post-surgical assessment, and follow-up visits.
With stewardship from the PHSA’s Office of Virtual Health (OVH), Think Research integrated its VirtualCare platform to better serve several specialty clinical areas, such as the BC Centre for Disease Control, BC Emergency Health Services, Trans Care BC, and BC Women’s Hospital & Health Centre.
“It is truly exciting to redefine the boundary of health care in the digital age in collaboration with our clinical partners,” said Ying Jiang, the OVH project manager leading the initiative. “The best part is that our initiatives are always clinically led. We engage patients and providers to ensure the solution addresses compelling clinical and patient needs.”
Patients enrolled in the project have cited numerous benefits, including convenience, cost savings, reduced travel, and ease of use.
A user survey found 90 percent of surveyed patients used the platform to save time and eliminate travel; 75 percent of clinicians found it very easy to use; and 100 percent of patients said they had no concerns with privacy or safety while using the platform.
Comments from registered patients reinforced the program’s success. “I didn’t have the expense and time needed to travel to Vancouver, and I saved on hotel costs. Big savings!” said one.
Another patient observed, “I loved not having to deal with the weekend traffic stress of BC Ferries.” Clinicians and staff also noted that the tool fit into their workflows, “like any other appointment I would have scheduled.”
Michele Fryer, director for the OVH, noted that, “PHSA policy requires the quality of virtual health visits must be equal to – or better than – the quality of an in-person visit. Think Research has been working hard to ensure this is the case.”
Many healthcare experts and members of the public are recommending that technology be used to reduce wait-time logjams in the delivery of healthcare and to improve medical outcomes. However, it’s not always so easy – as the technological solutions offered don’t always match the needs of patients and providers. Testing, fine-tuning and collaboration are needed before systems can be ramped up effectively.
“Health systems across Canada face significant challenges with new technology adoption,” Dr. Mohamed Alarakhia, Director of the eHealth Centre of Excellence. “We’re often given new solutions without being consulted on whether they’re the best way to solve our most pressing challenges. Physicians want to focus on their patients, not digital paperwork.”
“To make an impact in the market, we need deep partner relationships with our clinicians, not a vendor-client dynamic,” says Sachin Aggarwal, CEO of Think Research.
“Engaging directly with frontline users early and often allows us to understand their pain points and tailor our products to better meet their unique needs.”
Take for example, the eVisits Primary Care pilot program. Led by the Ontario Telemedicine Network (OTN) and considered to be the largest of its kind within primary care in Canada, it was launched in 2017 in the Waterloo-Wellington Region through a partnership between Think Research and the eHealth Centre of Excellence.
Its design process integrated feedback from physicians and patients, producing a virtual platform that makes it easy for patients to interact with their primary care provider. Appointments occur via the safe and secure platform using chat, audio, or video for both mobile and desktop devices.
Patient response to the new system has exceeded expectations, with approximately 15,000 virtual visits completed by 65 doctors. New doctors and patients continue to join.
“Beyond the positive patient impact, the eVisits Primary Care pilot demonstrated that when we partner with clinical partners to adapt our technology to their practice, we can provide comparable workflow, benefits, and experiences to a traditional in-person appointment,” says Aggarwal. “As the virtual care market in primary care matures to enterprise levels, we envision running hundreds of workflows within the app while giving physicians and healthcare providers customized technical support lines and branding opportunities.”
Patient feedback confirms the pilot’s success in mitigating the strain on other access points for the healthcare system. In a recent program review, 10 percent of the patients who participated in a virtual visit said that if the service had not been available, they would have sought care at a walk-in clinic. Four percent would have gone to an emergency room.
Aggarwal sees flexibility and clinical partnership as the keys to the VirtualCare platform’s success. “Our experience building networks across geographies and clinical settings has given us unique insight into introducing, embedding and scaling technological solutions.
While the benefits are broadly applicable, our most successful deployments feature virtual visits that complement, rather than replace, in-person visits; build on pre-existing patient-physician relationships; and occur regularly or with advance notice.”
Michael-Jane Levitan is director of client services at Think Research. With special thanks to our project collaborators, the Office of Virtual Health at the Provincial Health Services Authority, eHealth Centre of Excellence and Ontario Telemedicine Network.