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Doctors’ virtual visits jumped by 5,600% during COVID. What does that mean for the future of Canadian health care?

The pandemic has radically changed the way Ontarians get appointments with their family doctors, with office visits dropping by almost 80 per cent and virtual-care visits jumping by a whopping 5,600 per cent, a new study shows.

“The change in care from personal to virtual was expected but the magnitude was a surprise, especially the precipitous decline in in-person visits,” said lead author Dr. Rick Glazier.

To get a sense of the pandemic’s impact on primary care, researchers from ICES, an independent, non-profit research institute, and Unity Health Toronto compared billing data from 2020 to 2019, looking specifically at the time period from March to July in both years.

They found that the number of office visits per 1,000 per day went to 1.57 from 7.53, for a drop of 79.1 per cent.

The number of virtual visits per 1,000 people per day went to 3.92 from .07, for an increase of 5,608 per cent.

Total primary care visits — including those done in-person and virtually — decreased by 28 per cent. The number of visits per 1,000 people per day went to 5.51 from 7.66.

Senior author Dr. Tara Kiran said it was reassuring to see that those with the highest care needs maintained higher levels of care.

“Sadly the pandemic has generally widened gaps in equity and many people are not getting the support they need. But our findings suggest that primary care was preserved for those who needed it most. We found the people who were older and sicker had the smallest reduction in overall primary care visits,” she said.

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