'We'd like to see an increase': Uptake slow for new virtual health care

·3 min read

A new virtual health care program for Islanders without a family doctor hasn't had as much buyin as Health PEI had hoped.

Since the program was launched in August, about half of the 14,200 people on the Island's patient registry have been sent an invitation to register for free.

According to Health PEI, just 700 have actually signed on.

"We're doing invites as quickly as we possibly can, with the target that hopefully all of those people take part in that program. But at this point, we haven't seen that quite yet," said Christina Phillips, a primary-care manager with Health PEI.

"I'd really urge patients who've received one of those invites to register for the program. It doesn't have any impact on your place on the registry. That remains the same."

Steve Bruce/CBC
Steve Bruce/CBC

The pilot program is part of a partnership with telemedicine provider Maple, which has been handling virtual appointments for Western Hospital in Alberton.

Eight P.E.I. physicians have signed on to meet with patients over a phone or computer, using the secure Maple platform.

'We want as few patients sitting around in groups or waiting rooms as possible.' - Christina Phillips, primary-care manager, Health PEI

Phillips said the big goal is to make it easier for Islanders to access care that doesn't require a face-to-face visit, and to save them from having to travel to a walk-in clinic.

She said that's particularly important in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic.

"We've seen family physician offices and walk-in clinics, there's reduced access, because of the need for increased cleaning. And certainly some walk-in clinics may not actually be operating, or they may be operating at reduced hours during the pandemic," said Phillips.

"In addition to that, we want as few patients sitting around in groups or waiting rooms as possible. We want to reduce the risk of infection and spread of infection between patients. So virtual care eliminates that risk."

'I love the fact I can do this on my phone'

Ron Kierstead says he's surprised more Islanders haven't registered for the program.

He signed up for virtual care after receiving the invite from Health PEI last month. As a Type 2 diabetic without a family doctor, he said the program's already proven beneficial.

"I love the fact I can do this on my phone, my tablet, my mobile," said Kierstead. "For me, it's a lifelong condition, so every 90 days, I need a prescription renewal, or need to see a healthcare professional. So, I don't have to spend an hour sitting in someone's waiting room."

Steve Bruce/CBC
Steve Bruce/CBC

As a self-described 'techie,' Kierstead said he didn't hesitate to embrace virtual care.

Health PEI suspects some others may be more reluctant.

"It is new, and with something new, it may take time for patients to choose to sign on for that," said Phillips. "They may want to see how it goes first before they rush into it. But we've had really great comments and success to date."

Use it or lose it?

There's no guarantee the pilot program will continue beyond next spring, though. Phillips said federal and provincial funding is only in place until March.

Without more people using the virtual program, she worries it will be tough to evaluate whether it's worth continuing.

""The more comments we receive, the more utilization we see, the stronger case there'll be for continuing the program."

Since the start of the pandemic, Island family physicians have started providing more virtual care to their own patients.

According to Health PEI, one-third of their care is now delivered over the phone or computer.

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