Tuesday, May 28, 2024

Virtual doctors now on tap at local hospitals

  • April 10 2024
  • By Alec Bruce, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter    

GUYSBOROUGH — Residents needing urgent care at any one of Guysborough County’s three hospitals now have access to a virtual doctor at the tap of a tablet computer, thanks to a new pilot program of Nova Scotia Health (NSH).

According to Andrew Heighton, NSH’s director of integrated rural health for the Eastern Zone, the virtual urgent care service – which is being tested over the next few weeks partly to reduce wait times at the emergency departments of Eastern Memorial Hospital in Canso, Guysborough Memorial Hospital, St. Mary’s Memorial Hospital in Sherbrooke and Strait Richmond Hospital in Evanston – is both simple and timely.

“Basically, a person comes into the hospital and they’ll be triaged to understand their situation just like always, and then, if they meet the criteria for virtual urgent care, they’ll be asked if they would like to see a virtual physician. If they say ‘yes,’ then they are provided with a tablet to correspond with one ... These are doctors who have privileges or licences in Nova Scotia, but they could actually be located in Toronto.”

He added: “It’s an option that we’ll be utilizing on emergency department closure days to provide an access point to this level of care for the community versus not having any care.”

A persistent shortage of doctors and nurses in recent years has caused some emergency rooms, particularly in rural Nova Scotia, to shut down for extended periods. Keeping family physicians in Guysborough County – which has lost two of four recently recruited practitioners to the province’s Central Health Zone since 2022 – has also been tough.

Still, Heighton emphasized, the virtual urgent care service “is not, by any means, a replacement for low staffing. We continue to recruit and retain healthcare workers. Virtual care is an additive or an enhancement when we are open; and it’s also a resource that we can use in the unforeseen instances, where we do have closures temporarily while we try and recruit to have better staffing levels.”

It’s also not for everyone. According to the NHS backgrounder, patients with urgent, but non-life-threatening health matters, include those with “coughs, colds, sprains and urinary tract infections ... [Those] who come to emergency departments and need further assessment or are not appropriate for virtual care will be treated by the on-site team ... At sites where there is no physician on site, patients with emergency health matters should call 911 for care.”

A patient who consents to urgent virtual care uses the onsite tablet to consult with a physician, who can order any tests or prescriptions (excluding controlled substances) required. Once the physician finishes, on-site staff then follow up to review results, provide any orders for tests or prescriptions, and ensure the patient understands any next steps before they are released/discharged. Virtual nurses may also provide patient support during and after a visit.

According to Heighton, the service – which is covered by the province’s health insurance program – has been underway in five other hospitals in the province over the past three to five months, is working well and continues to be a great, great service.”

He anticipates the program in the Eastern Zone, launched on April 1, could be fully implemented by May.

“We’ll be monitoring it over the next month or so. We’re very hopeful that it’ll just continue and be something that just becomes part of our everyday access.”