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One million virtual health visits highlights transformation of care delivery in British Columbia

As B.C. marks a health care milestone, two families share how having appointments virtually has been a “game changer” for their children’s health care experience.
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​When Charlotte Palmer was one year old, she was diagnosed with MIRAGE Syndrome, an extremely rare genetic disorder. Now six, she has a tracheostomy tube and ventilator to help her breathe, and has ongoing health challenges due to her compromised immune system. 

The condition carries a number of health complexities and means Charlotte needs regular appointments with her health care team at the Complex Care program at BC Children’s Hospital. Prior to the pandemic, the family would travel from their home in Penticton to BC Children’s Hospital every few months, and stay in Vancouver for a month at a time, which meant regular costs incurred for travel and accommodation. 

The stress on Charlotte was the biggest issue.

Because of Charlotte’s health complexities, she needs a lot of breaks during road trips. The breaks double the length of time it takes to make the road trip to Vancouver, and puts a lot of stress on her.  

“I felt like we lived at BC Children’s prior to the pandemic, honestly,” says Christina Palmer, Charlotte’s mother. “Traveling for a full day made her sick. She would have to be admitted to the hospital and it would take her a few days to recover.”


Charlotte 

Switching to virtual health visits has been huge. “They’ve reduced her stress one hundred per cent because she doesn’t have to travel.” The Palmer’s pediatrician in Penticton can help with hands-on tests, such as blood work and X-Rays, and sends the results to the Complex Care team at BC Children’s Hospital. When it comes time for the virtual appointment, the surgeon at BC Children’s Hospital can show Charlotte’s X-Ray image using screen sharing. 

“It’s the same as if we’re sitting there in person and we can see exactly what they’re talking about. It’s no different, really. After a 15-minute appointment, I think ‘we just saved a 14-hour round trip drive!’”
Sharp increase in virtual health visits during pandemic
Virtual health visits are not new to B.C., but once the COVID-19 pandemic hit, the number of visits shot up from 1,500 to 20,000 per week, with the one millionth milestone hit early in June.

“I don’t think we realized how stressful the travel was until we didn’t have to do it.”
Nolin Jutten, a nine-year-old in Mission, B.C., has a rare metabolic disease known as NANS Deficiency. One of 12 children in the world to be diagnosed, Nolin has a compromised immune system as part of his multiple complexities, and needs to be hospitalized when he’s sick. 

Pre-COVID, Nolin’s parents took him to the Complex Care program at BC Children’s Hospital every two weeks for symptom management. That meant 20 or 30 in-person appointments per year that involved three hours of driving each time. 

“The stress that comes with the travel to the hospital – all of Nolin’s health issues that happen during travel, the things we have to deal with when we get there,” says Darlene Schopman, Nolin’s mother. “I don’t think we realized how stressful the travel was until we didn’t have to do it.”

When COVID hit, Schopman started scheduling virtual health visits as much as possible. “The change to using virtual health was a huge sense of relief. It also means Nolin’s Dad and I can join and be there together for many of the appointments.”


Darlene with Nolin 

Survey with patient and clinician feedback
Throughout the pandemic, PHSA virtual and digital health teams have collaborated with the B.C. Ministry of Health, regional health authorities (First Nations Health, Vancouver Coastal Health, Fraser Health, Northern Health, Island Health and Interior Health), Doctors of BC, Rural Coordination Centre of BC and the community care delivery sector to ensure citizens of B.C. have access to virtual health to keep them safe and healthy.

In a recent survey conducted by PHSA and its partners, patients gave virtual health visits top marks.  Patients felt that virtual health visits made it easier and faster to access care and allowed the inclusion of family members. Overall, the virtual health visits saved the patients travel time and travel costs.

Based on a recent analysis, it is estimated that the one million virtual health visits have saved patients in B.C. over 800,000 hours of travel time, over 22,000,000 km travelled, and reduced the carbon footprint of our health care system by an estimated 8,000 tonnes. 
For health care providers, the experience of offering virtual health visits to patients was also positive. So positive, in fact, that over 90 per cent of surveyed health care providers felt virtual health visits were an effective way to deliver care during a pandemic, that they could effectively communicate with patients – and would continue to use virtual health visits in the future. 

“I’m very thankful that we have the opportunity to do the virtual appointments,” adds Palmer. “It’s the same as sitting one on one and we get the same level of care for Charlotte’s treatment that we would in person. I’d continue it in a heartbeat.”


BC Children's Hospital; COVID-19; Office of Virtual Health; patient experience; Patient feedback; Patient story; virtual health
 
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