Nova Scotia Health is piloting a virtual health-care option for many people who don’t have a primary health-care provider, helping upwards of tens of thousands in the province.
The program, called VirtualCareNS, will be free and help people on Nova Scotia’s Need a Family Practice Registry access a primary care provider online through their computer or mobile device.
“We all learn through our lives, and people who learn probably the quickest and the best is babies,” Doctors Nova Scotia’s president Dr. Robyn MacQuarrie said. “I feel like we’ve all been babies in the last year; we’ve just absorbed everything around us and learned so many different ways to do things.
“If you said to me pre-pandemic that a year from now we’re going to be finding ways to deliver care virtually to all Nova Scotians, I would’ve said, ‘You’re bonkers.’”
VirtualCareNS will first open to Nova Scotians in Middleton, New Glasgow, Truro and Yarmouth. They’re the four communities in the province with the highest rate of patients without primary health-care providers.
Around 21,000 people from those four communities are eligible for the first round of the pilot.
At first, the program will only be available by invitation which will first be sent to people who have been on the Need a Family Practice Registry the longest.
As of May 1, 65,526 names were on the registry.
“They haven’t been able to benefit from virtual care in the way that other people have because we weren’t offering virtual care through walk-in clinics,” MacQuarrie told NEWS 95.7’s The Rick Howe Show. “This is actually a way to provide primary care through a virtual option for those patients.”
Nova Scotia Health is partnering with the province's Department of Health and Wellness to provide the program. It'll be delivered through Maple, a Canadian virtual care platform.
“We know that approximately seven per cent of Nova Scotians don’t have access to a primary health-care provider, and can’t access primary care where and when they need it,” Dr. Brett Belchetz, CEO and co-founder of Maple, said in a news release.
Invitations for VirtualCareNS will be sent by email with a unique link to help participants sign up.
On top of being on the Need a Family Practice Registry, participants will need a valid provincial health card number, Internet access and a valid email.
Those who sign up for the program will still remain on the registry so long as they don't have a dedicated primary health-care provider who can see them for in-person appointments.
VirtualCareNS will eventually be expanded to include all communities in the province's northern and western health zones. Those communities currently make up two-thirds of the names on the registry.
The program will allow patients to receive care for a variety of concerns typically addressed by a primary health-care provider. Health concerns that can't be resolved virtually can be switched to in-person care.
It'll also allow primary health-care providers to prescribe medications (except controlled substances), order tests and make referrals for specialized care.
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Nova Scotia physicians were given a temporary billing code for virtual care last year. It was extended until March 2022, but it remains temporary.
However, MacQuarrie said she thinks all physicians acknowledge that virtual care will become permanent in the future.
She said it's temporary because the Department of Health and Wellness woud like to review the program for aspects such as the success rate of virtual care and how patient’s needs are being met.
“I just really think it’s a good way forward to get the right people in the right place at the right time with the right provider,” she said.
The VirtualCareNS pilot is expected to run for two years and cost $2 million, most of which will go toward billing. Included in that cost is a contract — worth around $300,000 — with Maple.
Funding for the pilot comes from last year's Safe Restart Agreement which saw the federal government provide Nova Scotia with $289 million in funding. From that funding, Nova Scotia plans to use $30.9 million to support its health-care system.