Your Health

St. Michael’s tests virtual emergency department

“There’s a lot of value in virtual care, and COVID has opened the doors for us to use that technology,”

Virtual medical appointments have become common during the COVID-19 pandemic as both physicians and patients try to reduce exposure and infection. But could they work for the Emergency Department?

Dr. Alun Ackery, deputy chief of Emergency at St. Michael’s Hospital, aims to find out. In December, Dr. Ackery and his team launched a six-month Virtual Emergency Department pilot where patients book online consultations with St. Michael’s ED physicians on the hospital website.

“There’s a lot of value in virtual care, and COVID has opened the doors for us to use that technology,” he says. “There are many advantages. People don’t have to come in if they live at a distance, need support to get here, or have a low-risk issue. Sometimes they’re just anxious and need someone to tell them it’s OK, they don’t need an X-ray, give it a couple of days.” Of course many are still advised to come in to the hospital, but their visits can be expedited since the ED team already has their information. And Dr. Ackery emphasizes that patients who have family physicians should always try that route first.

It’s too early to evaluate the impact on ED volumes, but a survey showed that patients—124 used the service in the first month—value the Virtual ED. “The feedback in terms of patient satisfaction is through the roof,” Dr. Ackery says. “People are very happy with the service. And even if they end up having to come in, they’ve navigated the question of ‘Do I need to go or not?’ and have had someone validate that concern, so there’s benefit there.”

Health-care providers are also pleased. “Emergency physicians are able to do their shift remotely, as long as they have the proper security and privacy,” says Dr. Ackery. “So there’s a lot of satisfaction with being able to perform a job they’d normally have to go into the hospital to do.”

Dr. Ackery sees benefits in the Virtual ED continuing beyond the pandemic, particularly if the team can provide tools for vulnerable community members—some of whom currently default to St. Michael’s ED for low-acuity issues like prescription renewals—to access care. “St. Michael’s has this unique patient population, and we want to bridge some of the digital inequity that’s happening right now,” he says. “So we’ve spent a lot of time forming partnerships with shelters and long-term care homes to try and give them access. This is where I see the value of a long-term solution.”