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COVID-19 ushering in a digital health revolution: Ottawa-area doctor

Dr. Wally Archibald says, "Even after this crisis has eased, there is no doubt that health care will be permanently changed, and very likely for the better."
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The following is an op-ed by Dr. Wally Archibald, a general practitioner based in Russell, with a focus on family medicine, as well as geriatric and palliative home care. 

The COVID 19 crisis has greatly affected all aspects of health care in Canada. The focus for health care providers has been testing or treating positive or presumptive cases, but primary care is still a priority for millions of Canadians and access has become rather complicated in a world trying to practise physical distancing.

When COVID-19 prompted drastic changes to our way of life last month, my partners and I had to figure out a way to assess patients without having as many in-person visits. This meant exploring a variety of digital health tools for my family practice in the rural Ottawa area.

Though I had offered virtual care in the past, COVID-19 forced me to explore new technologies quickly. In the weeks since the federal government urged Canadians to stay home and help flatten the curve, I've seen a boom in telephone and email appointments with patients. Prior to this, I only used email for select patients from remote locations or with special needs. Now, every type of virtual care solution is on the table, for all patients, as we settle into the new normal.

Health providers and patients are in the midst of a digital health revolution. The adaptations and lessons we are learning in real time will help shape the future of health care for all Canadians. Even after this crisis has eased, there is no doubt that health care will be permanently changed, and very likely for the better.

Certainly, in-person appointments will still be needed as they are essential in many cases, but in some scenarios, they may be eliminated or deferred to make the best use of time for patients and physicians. For example, I have some patients with diabetes who come to my office every three months for physical check-ins, which could likely be done virtually. Similarly, if patients are coming to me with a rash or skin ailment, they could instead send me a photo via email, or consult via video conference and we could discuss the best way forward virtually.

Additionally, many months ago prior to the pandemic, I transitioned my practice to e-prescribing and have been able to send prescriptions directly to a patient's pharmacy using PrescribeIT, a secure electronic prescription service from Canada Health Infoway. I also like that Infoway is a not for profit organization and am happy to support their vision to accelerate the use of digital health solutions across Canada.

Electronic prescribing, when combined with a virtual visit, has been amazingly effective during recent weeks, since it reduces the need for in-person visits and enables vulnerable populations to limit their time in pharmacies waiting for prescriptions to be filled, thereby reducing their risk of possible infection. It also allows me to quickly communicate directly with pharmacists using secure digital messaging on an appropriate course of action and provide the best medication approach for patients.

COVID-19 is a global tragedy. But we now have an opportunity to deliver health care differently and hopefully better in the future. The virtual health revolution is already happening and, after the pandemic is over, there will be no going back to business as usual. The legacy of this pandemic will ultimately be a new, more connected, more efficient digital health system for all Canadians.


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