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Canadians think their beloved, although struggling, health system needs a technological fix but worry that it could open the door to privatization and loss of privacy, according to a new poll commissioned by the Canadian Medical Association.

The survey shows that patients are particularly interested in virtual care – consulting health professionals online – and want everyday tasks such as booking appointments and consulting their medical records to be readily available online.

“Today, we’ve become accustomed to doing almost everything online, and Canadians are clear: They want the same thing when it comes to managing their health and their journey through the health-care system,” said Dr. Gigi Osler, president of the CMA.

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She said for that to happen, however, many technical and bureaucratic hurdles need to be overcome, “from funding to regulations to policies.”

The poll, conducted by Ipsos, surveyed 2,005 adults online between June 26 and July 2. It is considered accurate within 2.5 percentage points, 19 times out of 20.

The survey shows that Canadians are unsure about the direction of the health system in the next decade, with respondents pretty well evenly split on whether care will improve, stay the same or worsen.

However, among the most optimistic, the principal reason for hope was technological innovation, with a large majority saying it will make providers more efficient and improve the health-care experience, and one in four saying it will lead to better health outcomes.

Currently, only about 1 per cent of patients in Canada report using virtual care or online patient portals, but there is significant enthusiasm for both.

Three-quarters of survey respondents said virtual care would improve access and lead to more timely treatment, and two-thirds say they believe virtual care is more convenient than an office visit and will lead to better care overall.

The large majority of those polled said they would embrace virtual care, and that was true in all age groups, from boomers to millennials.

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The data are similar for patient portals – secure websites that give users 24/7 access to personal health information and connect them to health-care providers.

Almost three in four of patients in the survey, however, said they worry that the human connection in care could be lost, and that their privacy is at risk. Fully 71 per cent said that “virtual care opens the door to private health care.”

Dr. Alexandra Greenhill, a Vancouver family physician who is also the chief executive officer of Careteam Technologies, said that the new survey is simply reinforcing what Canadians have being saying for years.

“Patients welcome virtual care, electronic access to records and everything else that allows them to be more active in their health management,” she said. “But we keep asking them the same questions instead of giving them answers.”

The CMA report says that 80 per cent of Canadians do some of their banking online, and that it’s the most common banking method for more than half the population.

Dr. Greenhill said there is no reason utilization rates should not be similar in health care.

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“Banks don’t expect you to be an expert. They are a trusted source of data, and provide tools to their customers to be co-managers. That’s what we need to do in health care – open up the data and allow patients to do as much as they are comfortable doing,” she said.

Dr. Greenhill said that, in the health system, administrators and clinicians are too quick to come up with reasons technology won’t work, instead of focusing on how to use it to improve care.

Next week in Toronto, the CMA is hosting a two-day Health Summit that will focus on the issue of connectedness, and how technologies such as virtual care, artificial intelligence and robotics could improve health delivery for patients and clinicians.

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