Do you visit your doctor online?

An older woman talks to her doctor online

The use of publicly-funded telehealth services, or virtual visits, in the primary care setting in British Columbia has dramatically increased over the last five years, as has the cost of providing these services. So far, however, such virtual visits have undergone little objective evaluation.

Data access has just been approved for a research project, funded by the Canadian Health Infoway, which aims to shed some light on this relatively new, fast-growing practice.

Telehealth services are currently offered by private vendors allowing BC residents and their physicians to participate online via home computers, tablets and smart phones. Through this service, patients can securely send images and health files to their physicians. Additionally, physicians can electronically fill prescriptions and make referrals to other clinicians. All BC residents with a valid Medical Service Plan may access this service without incurring any additional costs.

“We will use population-based, administrative data to investigate whether virtual visits are substituting or complementing traditional patterns of primary care and whether health utilization patterns of individuals accessing virtual visits differ from their counterparts,” says project lead Dr Kimberlyn McGrail, Associate Professor at the Centre for Health Services and Policy Research in UBC’s School of Population and Public Health.

“The project also aims to describe the demographic characteristics of individuals utilizing virtual e-visits and the practice characteristics of physicians providing this service. This project is, therefore, an important step in defining how this service is being used, who is offering the service and who is using it.”

McGrail believes that the project will serve as an important bridge to further research evaluating the efficacy of this increasingly utilized service.

PopData will link data from the BC Ministry of Health and PharmaNet for the project.