By Isabelle d’Entremont
DIGBY - Most people know what to expect when they go for an appointment with their primary care provider. It usually involves chatting face-to-face in the exam room with a doctor or nurse practitioner.
So when patient Marie Wheelock was contacted about a virtual care appointment at the Digby and Area Health Services Centre, she was a bit apprehensive. But she quickly realized it wasn’t very different from a regular doctor’s appointment.
“Once I’d seen how it worked, I was fine with it,” she said.
Virtual care connects patients with their health-care provider through videoconferencing technology. It’s been around for many years in Nova Scotia. It has mostly been used for hospital-based appointments in rural communities with specialists located in other parts of the province and has required specialized equipment and quite a bit of space.
Today, with newer technology, virtual care uses videoconferencing software so that appointments can be hosted in an exam room at a family practice, using a computer or tablet. Think Skype or Facetime, but specifically made for health care, to ensure patient privacy.
This type of appointment enables family doctors and nurse practitioners who are not local to provide access to care in the Digby area. The time a primary care provider would spend driving is transformed into more appointment time to see patients.
“I was impressed with it,” said Wheelock. “For people who are apprehensive, I didn’t see a whole lot of difference between a regular visit and a virtual care visit.
“If you have something physical that the doctor should look at, it is a bit more difficult, but you can book a face-to-face appointment later on to get it checked out. If people ask me about these appointments, I will recommend it to them.”
Nova Scotia Health Authority’s (NSHA) virtual care team works with a number of different health-care providers to bring specialty services to rural areas of the province, more recently expanding its technologies beyond facility-based telehealth units. Videoconferencing software can now be downloaded on NSHA computers, laptops and tablets to allow for a broader range of uses for virtual care – including family practices.
Patients can see a primary care provider virtually for a variety of health-care needs, from people who need a new prescription to those with ongoing health-care needs for a chronic illness.
During a virtual care appointment at the Digby and Area Health Services Centre, everything is set up beforehand, and patients don’t have to do anything with the computer other than communicate through it. The doctor will connect to the appointment, and a nurse will be in the clinic room with the patient during the entire appointment.
Dr. David LaPierre and licensed practical nurse (LPN) Chantelle Hazelton are the health-care professionals who are currently participating in the virtual care clinic in Digby. Both are very excited to be part of this initiative.
"This initial clinic was a great success from my perspective and from what patients relayed to us. I plan to continue coming to Digby in person, and adding regular virtual care clinics,” said Dr. LaPierre, who lives and works in Kentville.
“While many concerns can be addressed through virtual care, it is important to also have face-to-face options for patients and providers,” he said. “We are working hard to gather feedback from patients and staff to ensure we are using both types of clinics effectively.”
After having a few virtual care appointments under her belt, Hazelton is enthusiastic about the possibilities.
“I’m very excited about virtual care,” Hazelton said. “I’m hopeful that we will have more providers sign on for this type of appointment. It’s a great option for patients to access care, and we’ve had a lot of positive feedback so far.”
In fact, all of the patients who were seen in the virtual care clinic so far have indicated they would attend another virtual care appointment and would recommend it to family and friends.
The team hopes to expand the virtual care clinic in 2019. Patients of the collaborative practice team at the Digby and Area Health Services Centre can learn more about virtual care from a display board at the clinic entrance and by visiting the team’s website.