Telehealth emerges as one positive legacy of the COVID-19 pandemic, medical leaders say

Dr. Diane Francoeur, President of the Quebec Federation of Medical Specialists and Dr. Louis Godin, President of the Quebec Federation of General Practitioners
Dr. Diane Francoeur, President of the Quebec Federation of Medical Specialists and Dr. Louis Godin, President of the Quebec Federation of General Practitioners

Telehealth is here to stay, and its successful deployment during the COVID-19 pandemic may prove to be a silver lining of the public-health crisis, according to Quebec’s major doctors’ groups.

Leaders of the federations representing the province’s general practitioners and medical specialists say the Jewish General Hospital and other facilities in CIUSSS West-Central Montreal are on the right track in embracing remote consultations and other digital advances to deliver better health care.

“You’re going in the right direction and you just have to continue,” says Diane Francoeur, President of the Quebec Federation of Medical Specialists. “You’re ahead of the game at the Jewish General Hospital. You’ve given yourself the means that other hospitals don’t always have, and I congratulate you.”

Since the start of the pandemic, our CIUSSS launched or expanded several remote services, ranging from family-medicine appointments to psychiatric evaluations and post-partum check-ups for new mothers.

Dr. Louis Godin, President of the Quebec Federation of General Practitioners, says telehealth has enabled physicians across the province to continue treating patients during the pandemic, and the response has been largely favourable.

“The initial feedback we’re getting is that they’re extremely satisfied,” Dr. Godin says. “Telehealth offers flexibility to both doctors and patients. It let us get through the crisis.”

He estimates that 80 per cent of consultations by general practitioners during the coronavirus outbreak were conducted remotely, mostly by phone. He expects the rate to drop to closer to 25 or 30 per cent, as patient visits to hospitals and clinics resume. And face-to-face consultations will always be an essential component of health care, he adds.

However, digital care, whether by phone, Zoom or other videoconference tools, will remain a permanent part of the medical landscape in Quebec, he predicts. It took the COVID-19 outbreak to get the Quebec government to finally allow doctors to invoice the provincial health insurance plan for telehealth consultations, a change that physicians had been seeking for years.

Now that the urgency of deployment has passed, Dr. Godin wants to hammer out longer-term agreements for telehealth with the province that would cover standards, guidelines and fee structures.

“We essentially set up a giant pilot project in record speed,” Dr. Godin says. “We realized that telehealth was a tool that gave us very positive results. No one could imagine turning back now.”

That opinion is shared by Dr. Lawrence Rosenberg, President and CEO of our CIUSSS.

“Our experiences during the pandemic clearly demonstrate why we need to embrace telehealth and take full advantage of its potential,” he says. “Even though the healthcare user and practitioner may be far from each other, the bond between them remains strong. Telehealth provides users with the reassurance that their needs can be taken care of quickly and properly.”

Dr. Francoeur says there’s work to do to increase access to telehealth now—before the possible arrival of a second wave of the virus. One goal is helping seniors to use computers and iPads to connect with their doctors.

After Premier François Legault sought applicants to become orderlies in Quebec’s long-term care facilities, 70,000 people signed up, she notes. “Maybe some of those people weren’t suited to be orderlies, but they could easily walk around a residence and help seniors understand what the doctor is asking on their iPad screen.”

Dr. Francoeur would like to see progress on several digital fronts in healthcare, including in the development of electronic prescriptions and medical files. Overall, digital health remains in its infancy in Quebec, she says.

“The other provinces are well in advance of us,” she says. “Here we are in 2020, in the city that proclaims itself as a beacon in artificial intelligence. How could it be that we’re lagging behind in health, the one area that’s most important to Quebeckers?”

Nevertheless, she reserves praise for the JGH for its digital innovations and its “leadership” role as a government-designated COVID-19 treatment centre.

“You made a difference during the pandemic,” she says.