After a year and a half of the new normal of virtual visits with the family doctor, physicians in British Columbia are being encouraged to resume more in-person appointments.

In a letter to physicians, provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry says now that more than 75 per cent of eligible British Columbians are fully vaccinated, the virus should no longer be a barrier to many in-person health-care appointments.

“With appropriate measures in place, we expect all practitioners to resume routine in-person visits based on clinical needs and patient preferences,” the letter states.

“Potential drawbacks of providing only virtual care could result in unnecessary emergency room visits when patients are unable to access necessary face-to-face visits, specialist referrals that lack sufficient or pertinent clinical information for accurate triaging and care, and lack of access to important preventive and screening health services.”

Dr. Matthew Chow of the Doctors of BC says virtual care has proven convenient for many British Columbians.

“Virtual care has been so helpful for folks that are busy, which is most people these days, and allowing them the convenience of being able to see their doctor and do all the other important things they do in a day,” he said.

Chow adds that the letter does not mean that telemedicine is going away, adding that virtual care is “here to stay.”

“The future of medicine is a blend, a hybrid of in-person care and virtual care,” he said. “That’s become abundantly clear during this pandemic.

“What is that balance? What’s the right balance to make sure that we’re doing the right amount of in-person care …. but also balancing that with virtual care because it just has so many benefits.”

Questions remain about the compensation doctors receive for virtual care, which is under review.

“The ministry is actively reviewing the current temporary fee codes and considering the appropriate path forward for virtual care compensation for the continued benefit of patients, while also supporting our strategic focus on access and attachment within the context of longitudinal primary care,” the letter states.

“The trick here, though, is to make sure that all the supports are in place, including the financial supports are there so that virtual care and in-person care are appropriately supported,” Chow said.

During the pandemic, payments for both virtual and in-person care are on par. The health ministry did not answer questions about whether a lower fee for virtual care was in the works.

Dr. Marjorie Docherty of the BC College of Family Physicians notes there is little difference between in-person and virtual visits when it comes to time and costs.

“Over the last week I’ve been timing how long it takes me to see my patients virtually and it’s really not much less than an office,” Docherty said.

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