Video appointments, emailed records should be part of health care system: N.W.T. doctor

A doctor in the Northwest Territories says virtual health care could improve the quality of care for patients across the North. 

Ewan Affleck, a family doctor in Yellowknife, and the other physicians behind a new report released by what's known as the Virtual Care Task Force, says Canada is lagging when it comes to providing health care beyond in-person appointments.

The report states Canada has the technology to add virtual care to its publicly funded health-care system, but won't make the jump. It states virtual care — when a medical professional interacts with a patient remotely or electronically — would better the quality of health care in the country.

"We're sort of bound to this notion that if you're not seeing the person face to face, that somehow the care isn't as good," Affleck said.

But Affleck said that's not true. He said virtual health care is meant to supplement in-person care. It includes everything from having a video appointment with a physician, receiving personal health records via email, to sending questions via a secure text message to a doctor. 

Affleck said virtual health care also means health-care workers in remote communities, like in the Northwest Territories, could collaborate with specialists in larger centres. 

That's something he wishes he had had early in his career when he was working in Salluit, in the northern Nunavik region of Quebec. 

Firsthand experience

Working at a small nursing station in Salluit, Affleck said he was the only doctor in town. He said if a patient needed an X-ray, the janitor did it.

Affleck recalled an example when he said he misdiagnosed a six-week-old baby, which could have killed them. 

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He said if he had been able to send the patient's X-rays to a radiologist down south for their expertise — a collaboration that's much more accessible in larger hospitals — they would have made the correct diagnosis the first time, not days later. 

"What that tells us is our ability to send information has a great bearing on the quality of care we can provide to people, particularly in remote places," Affleck said. 

'People want this'

Dr. Gigi Osler, another author of the report, said the Canadian government needs to create standards and regulations for virtual health care, so it can be implemented as soon as possible. 

She said it's becoming more and more accessible in the private health-care sector in Canada, and it needs to extend into the public sector. 

"People want this," she said. 

And she said if it isn't put into place soon, "we potentially risk widening the gap between folks who can afford it [in the private sector] ... versus those who don't have access to it."