Further expansion of virtual care 'imminent,' Nova Scotia Health president says

Health Minister Michelle Thompson and Nova Scotia Health President Karen Oldfield  are seen speaking at a Halifax Chamber of Commerce luncheon Friday. (Jean Laroche/CBC - image credit)
Health Minister Michelle Thompson and Nova Scotia Health President Karen Oldfield are seen speaking at a Halifax Chamber of Commerce luncheon Friday. (Jean Laroche/CBC - image credit)

Even more changes are in the works for Nova Scotia's health-care system, as it struggles to cope with overcrowded emergency departments and an ongoing lack of family physicians.

Karen Oldfield told a business audience Friday that the slate of changes announced by the provincial health minister earlier this week are not the only ones being planned or contemplated.

"We're full speed ahead on [virtual care] — as in imminent — [the] next couple of months," Oldfield said about a further expansion of the service, which is only available to some Nova Scotians.

Virtual care can be accessed online for free by the 130,000 Nova Scotians on the province's Need A Family Practice Registry. People can go online to book an appointment with one of the dozens of physicians or nurse practitioners who provide virtual consultations.

Appointments are generally conducted via a video call on a desktop or laptop computer, tablet or smartphone equipped with a camera and microphone.

The virtual care program can also be accessed at hospital emergency departments in Truro, Port Hawkesbury and Yarmouth.

On Wednesday, the province announced other emergency departments would soon be able to offer virtual consults with emergency physicians.

Oldfield took that a step further in responding to a question about virtual care from Patrick Sullivan, the president of the Halifax Chamber of Commerce.

"I love it," Oldfield said, when asked what she thought of virtual care. "This is under the 'go-like-hell category' because the premier loves it, too."

Jean Laroche/CBC
Jean Laroche/CBC

Oldfield said expanding the service is possible thanks to a plan to add physicians from outside the province who are licensed to practice in Nova Scotia to the virtual-care roster.

Speaking to reporters after the luncheon, Oldfield said the goal is to be able to offer the service to any Nova Scotian who wants it.

"We're looking at that as we speak and so it's really just a question [of] determining the right provider and moving forward with the right technology," said Oldfield.

"We have a great system, it needs to scale and I'm looking at [the] first [fiscal] quarter for that."

Oldfield said giving all Nova Scotians a shot at booking virtual medical appointments might take some time.

"It may not be the minute we push the switch, but that will be the plan," said Oldfield.

That commitment seemed to catch Thompson off guard when reporters asked her about expanding the service to all Nova Scotians.

"We've heard from people again and again that they like virtual care, particularly for episodic complaints, and so I think there's opportunity for us to expand and look at that in the future but there's nothing imminent," said Thompson.

Expansion of private-public partnerships

Oldfield and Thompson were on the same page when it came to support for expanding health-related public-private partnerships.

The minister pointed to the larger scope of work pharmacists have been afforded to provide care to Nova Scotians.

"I think we would be remiss if we didn't look for those opportunities throughout the province, using very responsibly taxpayers' dollars in order to improve care," Thompson told the audience Friday.

Thompson said the Houston government would be open to discussing other "mutually beneficial" public-private partnerships in the delivery of publicly funded health services.

Oldfield took that a step further, suggesting physiotherapists or private physiotherapy clinics might offer an "awesome" and "fantastic" partnership opportunity.

Jean Laroche/CBC
Jean Laroche/CBC

She later expanded on that thought when asked by reporters what she had in mind.

"If there's a way to have a private operator provide a physical space and we can put people in there, if we can put patients or those needing care into a physical space that the public purse still pays for, that's smart," she said.

New Democrat MLA Susan Leblanc was puzzled by the suggestion.

"If we can put, you know, publicly funded and universally funded health-care workers into an office that is owned by someone, I feel like that might be a good way to get offices open," said Leblanc.

"The fact is though, is that we don't have the people to put in those offices and that is the actual problem."

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