The COVID-19 pandemic and official advisories to avoid social contact have spurred the growth of remote and touchless health services in Yellowknife.
Health care providers in government and in the private sector have found new opportunities in the pandemic.
The need for healthcare services with minimal physical interaction has become more important than ever, especially after the NWT’s second confirmed case of coronavirus was reported on Wednesday.
The Northwest Territories Health and Social Services Authority (NTHSSA) has been working on developing remote medicine – or telemedicine – for a long time and the COVID-19 pandemic has been an opportunity to further it, said Sarah Cook, territorial medical director with NTHSSA.
“It’s our hope this is more efficient for more patients so they spend less time in the clinic and of course the reason why we’ve expedited this is to reduce the viral spread during this pandemic,” Cook said.
Officially called “virtual care,” the telemedicine service starts with a phone call to assess the individual’s health issue and then the medical professional and patient switch to video chat if it’s necessary to make a visual assessment.
Consumer chat apps such as Facetime and Whatsapp are used for the video sessions.
Since the virtual care officially launched in late March, Cook said the demand for it has increased.
In addition to addressing social distancing concerns and helping people who are in self-isolation, virtual care allows health staff to reduce unnecessary medical travel and the time and expenses involved.
“A lot of people in NWT move around a lot for medical travel. It’s been difficult to advance change in that over the years, but now we have an opportunity to advance more virtual care,” Cook said.
Fewer in-person appointments, more remote care
Juniper Health Clinic, which offers naturopathic, chiropractic, massage therapy and other services, has experienced a recent uptick in patients using the clinic’s telemedicine.
“Our services at the clinic have been in decline (since the coronavirus outbreak but) the use of telemedicine on a day-to-day basis has increased. So, if a naturopathic doctor normally has 10 appointments a week (prior to COVID-19), one of them would be telemedicine — now they may have five appointments per week, three of them are telemedicine,” said Dr. Mike Bokor.
“The increase in telemedicine is directly related to steps we have taken to protect and reduce the risk of spreading COVID-19. Normally, it is offered to patients who are out of town, or unable to make it to the clinic — seeing as that is the whole territory now, it has increased usage a lot.”
Five or six of Bokor’s practitioners have been utilizing telemedicine exclusively since the chief public health officer strongly advised in March that all social gatherings be cancelled.
The clinic’s telemedicine happens through a video chatting program that uses a lot of data. The rise in telemedicine activity has bumped up Juniper’s data usage, raising costs for the clinic while there has been decreased overall demand for his practitioners and hence less income.
“Having data caps lifted would allow us to practise telemedicine appointments and keep costs lower, allowing my practitioners to stay in business for longer, if these uncertain times continue,” Bokor said.
Northwestel announced on March 23 that its residential customers in Northern Canada would receive temporary relief for internet overages in March and April. However, that applies only to residential customers, not commercial ones like Juniper, said Northwestel spokesperson Andrew Anderson.