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Women’s College Hospital in Toronto has created a COVID-19 Virtual Assessment Centre and is ramping up virtual appointments during the public health emergency.Supplied

With the COVID-19 pandemic highlighting the need for alternatives to in-person health care, Women’s College Hospital (WCH) is accelerating a bold new strategy that “challenges traditional ideas about how care is delivered,” says Dr. Danielle Martin, executive vice president and chief medical executive at Women’s College Hospital.

The hospital’s COVID-19 Virtual Assessment Centre includes an online self-assessment tool where people who feel they may be at risk of having the novel coronavirus can be screened and then assessed by phone and fast-tracked for testing if they are in the Toronto area, she says. “Our virtual capabilities have helped us to be nimble and flexible and have positioned us to respond to the current pandemic in ways that we feel can really help the system and the community.”

The COVID-19 virtual assessment program is part of Women’s Virtual, a new model of care designed to remove barriers to services, reduce wait times and improve integration between different parts of the health-care system.

In addition, the hospital has ramped up large numbers of virtual appointments during the COVID-19 public health emergency, where these are appropriate and workable for both clinicians and patients, Dr. Martin says. “We are pulling out all the stops to rapidly implement virtual tools so that appointments can continue to take place with patients in the safety of their own homes.”

Even before the pandemic, the hospital was building its virtual care capacity. For example, new mothers struggling with post-partum depression were receiving care through video visits. Many surgical patients also received their follow-up care by video and phone in order to “provide treatment and care for patients in the setting most appropriate for them,” says Dr. Martin.

“Physicians can securely schedule, launch and take notes during the visit, all within the patient’s electronic medical record. They can also share their screen with the patient to show them diagrams or other visuals,” said Dr. Simone Vigod, chief of psychiatry, whose department has been a leader in converting to virtual care.

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Dr. Danielle Martin says studies show that, in many cases, patients find virtual care the same or better than in-person care.Supplied

Virtual visits are just one of many tools being deployed at Women’s Virtual. “From e-consultations for family doctors to online peer support groups to curated apps and more, we are integrating a variety of digital tools to ensure that patients get care in the way that best addresses their needs,” said Dr. Martin. The hospital is also working with partners across the system to use virtual care to support long-term care facilities in the city in order to avoid transfers of long-term care residents to hospital emergency departments as much as possible.

Creating Canada’s first virtual hospital requires resources to implement unique technologies that are dramatically transforming interactions and processes at the 136-year-old institution. “The Women’s Virtual team has identified a series of digital health tools to enable us to re-imagine care,” says Heather McPherson, president and CEO of Women’s College Hospital.

This work has now been accelerated in response to the pandemic. “We are aiming to continue as much care as possible throughout the pandemic through virtual means, helping to support the system in a variety of different ways,” says Ms. McPherson.

Face-to-face visits may still be the best way to address certain health challenges, Dr. Martin says, but the variety of virtual care tools being rolled out can be adapted for use in departments across the hospital, from dermatology to family medicine.

Studies show that, in many cases, patients find virtual care the same or better than in-person care, Dr. Martin says. Taking time off work, spending money on transit or parking and finding childcare are “barriers to receiving timely and convenient health care,” she says, noting that leveraging digital tools also enables the hospital to provide care for patients living in rural and remote communities or with mobility issues.

Implementing a multiple-year initiative like Women’s Virtual requires a heavy investment in information technology and data infrastructure. With limited government financing, donor support is needed to accelerate the roll-out of the vital program.

Understanding the importance of investing in virtual care, a number of individual philanthropists and corporations, such as the Baldassara family, the Slaight Family Foundation, Symcor and KPMG, have stepped forward with significant donations to help lead this healthcare revolution.

Elio Luongo, CEO and senior partner of KPMG in Canada, says their donation will support the hospital’s ability to invest in “bold health-care solutions rooted in virtual technology and pioneer the transformation of health-care systems across the country.”

KPMG is “further enabling WCH to create transformational change in health-care and the health and well-being of all Canadians,” Mr. Luongo remarks. “By bringing virtual care into the mainstream, we are helping to improve access to care for all Canadians, including the most underserved communities across the country and beyond.”

Ms. McPherson says, “Through philanthropic support, Women’s College Hospital can dare to offer care in new ways and disrupt existing models to the benefit of the whole community.”

“In the long term, we believe that virtual care will help to reduce preventable emergency department visits and keep patients healthier, longer - reducing costs to the health system,” she adds.

Produced by Randall Anthony Communications. The Globe’s Editorial Department was not involved in its creation.

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