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Tech-enabled approaches can allow care providers to treat more people, more quickly and more effectively, believes Dr. Danielle Martin, executive vice president and chief medical executive at Women’s College Hospital.SUPPLIED

Take a close look at the interactions and processes inside Toronto’s Women’s College Hospital and you’ll see a long-standing institution in the midst of a dramatic transformation.

In yet another ground-breaking move in its 136-year-old history of innovation, Women’s College is leading the way today with a bold strategy to create the country’s first virtual hospital. Women’s Virtual is bringing to life 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.

“Despite the name, the virtual hospital isn’t really about technology. It’s about rethinking how we deliver health-care services in ways that work better with people’s lives,” says Dr. Danielle Martin, executive vice president and chief medical executive at Women’s College Hospital. “The old model of care – where you drive to the hospital, spend money on parking, wait in the waiting room for a brief face-to-face interaction with a specialist – can be improved, so we’re working to make that a thing of the past.”

What would a virtual hospital look like? At Women’s College Hospital, the building blocks include approaches like electronic consultations between physicians, patient-doctor video visits, peer groups that exist online as well as in person, and an app that gives patients remote access to their treatment information and care team right from their mobile device.

While digital technology powers these solutions, the true power of the model lies in asking whether a traditional health-care visit is actually the best way to meet that individual’s needs, says Dr. Martin.

“If your processes don’t work in the first place, then simply digitizing them will just yield digital processes that don’t work,” she says. “Instead, we are rethinking all our assumptions. For example, does everyone entering the hospital system actually need a face-to-face visit? Or could their needs be met in other ways, such as online education, an online peer support group, or a simple email or phone call between the family physician and the specialist? Does every follow-up visit need to occur through traditional means, or can we approach it differently?”

Dr. Martin points out that these approaches could significantly reduce wait times for specialty care. “So many people on wait lists in Canada could be better served through tech-enabled approaches that allow us to treat more people, more quickly and more effectively.”

Beyond easing access to care and improving patient outcomes, the virtual hospital at Women’s College Hospital can also reduce avoidable hospital admissions, saving money for the health-care system,” says Dr. Martin.

“For example, most people coming in for a hip or knee replacement stay between one and five nights in hospital,” she says. “We believe that over half of those can be done safely as day surgery if we develop effective patient education tools, improve post-surgery pain control and give patients 24/7 access to their care team after they leave the hospital.”

Women’s College Hospital has already rolled out and tested a number of these components and programs to advance its virtual care services and build the virtual hospital, says Dr. Martin.

She cautions that this does not mean that all care at WCH will be delivered virtually. “Of course we will always continue to deliver in-person care; health care is a human enterprise, and the tech-enabled version isn’t always the best approach. But where the quality of care and patient experience are as good or better, we want to push the boundaries of what technology can do to improve access and integration for the communities we serve.

“As we move through this strategy, you’ll see more and more options on offer – we are implementing a big vision to build the virtual hospital of the future, today.”

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

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