Ontario Expands Access to Telemedicine in Response to COVID-19

Telemedicine allows health care providers and patients to communicate remotely through their computer, mobile device, or telephone for the provision of health care. Ontario’s COVID-19 management strategy is leveraging telemedicine to reduce the risk to patients and health care providers of contracting or spreading COVID-19, and to reduce the strain on emergency hospital services. This will be the first-time telemedicine has been deployed on this scale in Ontario.

On March 16, 2020 the Ontario Ministry of Health announced increased resources for Telehealth and the approval of new physician billing codes that will allow physicians to continue to provide routine health care services by video and telephone, including assessment of possible COVID-19 symptoms. This comes on the heels of an earlier announcement that several enhanced measures would be deployed to protect Ontarians from COVID-19 and requests by the provincial government and the Ontario Medical Association urging physicians to join the Ontario Telemedicine Network to enable remote patient assessments to help keep both patients and doctors safe from the spread of COVID-19.

Telehealth Ontario, a phone service that connects Ontarians with Registered Nurses, has become the first point of contact for Ontarians needing an assessment, with over 8,000 COVID-19 related calls to date. Increasing call volumes and wait-times have prompted the government to hire an additional 130 nurses to conduct assessments and referrals, with plans to further expand Telehealth’s resources in coming weeks.

The approval of new physician billing codes enabling physicians to provide routine health care services by video and telephone will further expand remote access to medical advice for patients and help maintain continuity of treatment for Ontarians observing social-distancing. The College of Physicians and Surgeons of Ontario (CPSO) has also released a physician advisory encouraging physicians to use virtual care options to provide care to patients who are symptomatic, if personal protective equipment becomes unavailable, or while in self-isolation where it is appropriate in the circumstances to do so.

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