Nova Scotia's health-care system is finding new ways to get more patients in to see doctors sooner by adapting video conferencing technology and cellphone apps.
Virtual care has been around for decades. But progress in computer and video technology over the last few years has allowed the Nova Scotia Health Authority to more easily offer patients appointments with specialists without having to travel to Halifax.
A specialized video camera and computer screen can be set up in a hospital or clinic to allow a patient to talk to a specialist in real time.
Some of the stations are even equipped with specialized cameras that can zoom in on wounds to provide a clearer picture for doctors.
"It means greater access for the patient, it means a reduction in that wait time in some situations as well," said Katie Heckman, virtual care lead in the health authority's central zone. The zone includes the Halifax area, Eastern Shore and West Hants.
"Some of the feedback that we're receiving for some of these more sick patients is that it's a huge stress reliever because they don't have to worry about that transport [into Halifax]," she said.
The virtual-care system has already allowed a wound-care specialist in Sydney to see more patients. The doctor uses the technology to meet with patients in more rural parts of the island far faster than if they drove to Sydney.
Before the virtual-care technology was introduced, that doctor could only see four patients during clinic hours. Now the doctor can see 12.
In the past, Nova Scotia has run into trouble trying to bring health-care services to the digital age.
Back in August, the province halted plans to expand its MyHealthNS web portal system that allows patients to view routine medical test results and message their physicians.
Fewer than 10 per cent of doctors signed up for MyHealthNS. The service is still operating for those physicians, but no one else can join the program.
The Department of Health and Wellness has not said why its service provider, McKesson Canada, opted against renewing its contract to manage the web portal.
The province is currently looking for a new company to manage the system.
Despite the hiccups, technology is slowly making health care more efficient for patients.
For example, Medimap is an app that makes it easier for people in the Halifax area to find walk-in clinics with the shortest wait times.
The app displays the current wait times at walk-in clinics on a sidebar and on a map of Halifax.
The map helps people determine how far they are from a walk-in clinic. The app was developed by a company in British Columbia and has been used in that province for years.
Medimap has proven its usefulness in the Halifax Regional Municipality according to Dr. Mohamed Alzrighe, a family doctor who manages walk-in clinics in Halifax, Dartmouth and Lower Sackville.
Alzrighe started submitting his wait times to the app back in June.
"It's a tremendous help and relief because most of the time if there is a clinic in the same neighbourhood that's closed or at capacity, we see a tremendous increase in the volume in our location. That usually puts more pressure on the docs and staff," said Alzrighe.
But Medimap helps relieve some of that pressure.
Alzrighe said once people see that wait times are increasing at one clinic they simply go to another walk-in with a shorter wait time, allowing patients to see doctors sooner.
"People using technology for seeking health care, I think this is the future and this is the way it's going to be for most of the health-care services that we provide including virtual care, online booking, online reminders for appointments and so on," said Alzrighe.
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