COVID-19: Has the Pandemic Changed Our Attitude About Virtual Health Care?

Health care

The COVID-19 pandemic changed attitudes about virtual health care, but Canadians and Americans do still have some concerns. Photo: John Fedele / Getty Images

To help flatten the COVID-19 curve as we headed into lockdown in March, whomever could work from home did just that — including our family doctors and specialists. Medical visits went virtual and we had little choice but to embrace the change. But is our attitude about virtual health care keeping pace with that change?

survey by the Canadian Medical Association (CMA) would suggest that by mid-May, 47 per cent of Canadians had accessed health care virtually as a result of the pandemic.

A phone call represented the most popular method, with 34 per cent of people using it to seek medical advice as compared to 12 per cent of the time before the pandemic.

Provincial telehealth lines also saw a lift, from 2 to 7 per cent. Twice as many people texted or emailed with a health care provider, although still only a modest 4 per cent. And video conference, a platform people have taken to in record numbers, rose from 2 per cent to 6 per cent of ‘visits.’

And how do people rate the experience of going virtual? According to  91 per cent, they’re very satisfied.

For its part, the CMA wants to see virtual health care expanded. “We need to seize the moment. We need to find if there’s a silver lining on this,” Dr. Sandy Buchman, CMA president and a palliative care physician in Toronto, told CBC News when the survey results were released in June.


The Human Touch


Still, despite the uptick necessitated by COVID-19, given the choice well over half of Canadians surveyed would prefer a return to in-person appointments after the pandemic — at least for the initial visit.

Such preference has also been reported by our neighbours to the south who, like us, have also embraced telehealth through the pandemic.

Results released in August from a poll by the University of Michigan show that one in four Americans over the age of 50 had a virtual medical visit in the first three months of the pandemic — most by video. That’s much higher than the 4 per cent who said they’d never had a virtual visit with a doctor in a poll taken in 2019.

Again, necessity seems to be driving uptake. Almost half of the people polled said that safety concerns around COVID-19 inspired their interest in telehealth. Despite this, in-person care still holds a gold-standard appeal.

There was nearly no movement on the number of people who would consider going virtual for initial visits to a new doctor or for a new health concern, which was 34 per cent in 2019 compared to 36 per cent this year.

And the most common concerns about virtual visits were that a health care provider cannot conduct a physical exam (75 per cent); that the quality of care is not as good as in-person (67 per cent); and not feeling personally connected to the health care provider (45 per cent).


What About Privacy?


While the CMA didn’t report on the issue of privacy, participants in the American poll were asked whether they had privacy concerns about using virtual health care. The result: 24 per cent said yes, a decrease from 49 per cent the year previous.

“This has been an extraordinary time for the telemedicine movement, and these poll results show just how powerful this ‘trial by fire’ has been,” said Jeff Kullgren, M.D., M.P.H., M.S., associate director of the poll and a primary care provider who uses telehealth.

“But our data also highlight areas of continued concern for patients that need to be addressed.”


A Second COVID-19 Wave? Here Are 6 Lessons From the First 

How COVID-19 Could Impact Travel for Years to Come