Why virtual health care will be needed long after COVID-19

UAlberta researcher says online patient services will be around post-pandemic

Amanda Anderson - 13 August 2020

Although in-person health-care services are resuming, virtual appointments should not, and most likely will not, become a thing of the past, says one University of Alberta researcher.

“COVID-19 created an imperative to deliver health care virtually,” said Martin Ferguson-Pell, professor in the Faculty of Rehabilitation Medicine. “Before the pandemic, the ability to provide remote health-care solutions came with a lot of perceived barriers. But a lot of these barriers were overcome in a short period of time given the need to provide care during a time of physical distancing.”

Ferguson-Pell says that this ‘new openness to virtual health care,’ combined with the efficiency and convenience of online services for both the patient and the clinician, suggests virtual health care will continue to be available after the pandemic.

“For rural Albertans, seeing a specialist often requires the patient to travel for many hours to Edmonton or Calgary, usually at a considerable cost and even physical risk. Access to a vehicle, the hazards of winter travel, financial strain, inconvenience and disruption to family life are some of the challenges faced by rural Albertans that residents in urban centres are much less likely to encounter,” he explained. “Often, the clinical visit ends up being short and could have easily been conducted virtually, reducing these issues.”

Ferguson-Pell and his team in the Rehabilitation Robotics Lab are working on ways to overcome some of the barriers that limit access to specialized care for rural patients and seniors living in long-term care facilities. Their project, Tele-Rehabilitation 2.0, is developing processes and technologies to expand the range of assessments that can be done virtually. 

In the process, new ways of conducting and recording assessments are being developed that may transform how in-person clinical assessments are performed in the future. 

“Face-to-face services are still very important. There’s some information the specialist just can't get without physically meeting with the patient,” said Ferguson-Pell. “We are starting to talk about opportunities to identify services that can be effectively offered virtually with the support of new, low-cost technologies. 

“Not only will these advances enable patients to stay isolated during the pandemic, but they will also provide a wider range of specialist services to patients who don't live in busy urban centres.”

The program, which officially started in January 2019, is currently servicing Jasper, Peace River and Grande Prairie. The team is also exploring bringing the services to several long-term care facilities in the Edmonton and Camrose areas. 

Right now, patients are seen virtually with the help of specialist rehabilitation clinicians who are working from Edmonton while supporting the patients and clinicians in the rural health centres

Ferguson-Pell says that he can see many more health-care services making the jump to virtual care in the future, and he and his team have begun providing webinars to help people get a glimpse into what exactly this might look like. 

“I certainly believe that health care won’t look the same as it did before COVID-19. But I also think this has the potential to be a very good thing.”

The next virtual health-care webinar, Tele-Rehab: Practice and Progress, is being hosted by the Rehabilitation Robotics Lab on August 20. For more information and to register, visit their Eventbrite page.