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Virtual Care: The Impact on Health Outcomes and the Importance of Physician-Patient Relationships

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Mason Walker
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Virtual Care: The Impact on Health Outcomes and the Importance of Physician-Patient Relationships

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Virtual Care: A Boon or Bane?

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With the advent of technology in healthcare, virtual care has become a pivotal access point for patients. It has significantly improved access to healthcare, especially for patients residing in rural areas. However, studies led by key institutions like the University Health Network, Unity Health Toronto, and ICES have shed light on some aspects of virtual care that might be adding more churn to the healthcare system rather than streamlining it.

Emergency Department Visits Post Virtual Care

A comprehensive study including more than 5 million Ontario residents found that patients receiving virtual care from a doctor outside of their family care team were more likely to visit the emergency department within seven days. This study suggests that patients who had a virtual visit with an outside physician were 66% more likely to visit the emergency department within 7 days compared to those with a virtual visit with their own physician. The study emphasizes the importance of maintaining an existing clinical relationship, even in the realm of virtual care.

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Direct-to-consumer Telemedicine: A Double-edged Sword

The COVID-19 pandemic has driven the robust growth of virtual care, including direct-to-consumer telemedicine. This has amplified the tension between continuity and access to timely or convenient care. While some studies suggest that direct-to-consumer telemedicine was associated with increased total use and costs, others found decreases in health care use by replacing in-person care. Hence it's essential to strike a balance between accessibility and continuity in healthcare services.

The Future of Telemedicine: Challenges and Limitations

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Despite the undeniable benefits of virtual care such as cost savings and improved patient satisfaction, there are certain challenges and limitations that come with it. Disparities in access to technology and concerns about the quality of virtual care compared to in-person visits are some of the major hurdles. The lack of training, inadequate payment, and technological costs are barriers to the use of telemedicine. Moreover, the slow adoption of telemedicine due to factors like capital investment, diagnostic skills, and reluctance of physicians to treat patients virtually are also significant challenges.

Asynchronous Telehealth: Benefits and Barriers

Asynchronous telehealth, a type of virtual care, has become embedded in the healthcare system, providing convenience and timely access to care. It involves secure electronic messaging, sending pre-recorded information, and exchanging various types of data including clinical data and self-reported medical history. It is largely used for chronic disease management and mental healthcare. However, issues such as billing, licensure portability, network connectivity, technology, and monitoring health outcomes were identified as major barriers to the effective utilization and expansion of asynchronous telehealth.

Conclusion

In conclusion, while virtual care has the potential to revolutionize healthcare, it is crucial that it is implemented in a manner that enhances the existing healthcare system without adding unnecessary complications. The integration of virtual and in-person care, especially in the context of a pre-existing physician-patient relationship, is key to the success of telemedicine. The potential of virtual care can only be fully realized when these challenges are addressed and the system is optimized for both patients and healthcare providers.

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