People who used a virtual-only medical service — a kind of virtual walk-in clinic — during the pandemic were more likely to later go to an emergency room than patients who did appointments with their own family doctor online, a study by Toronto researchers has shown.
The study published Thursday in the Journal of Medical Internet Research explores the different outcomes between two kinds of virtual medical care during the pandemic — that given by walk-in-style clinics and that given by family doctors.
Conducted by the University Health Network, ICES, Women’s College Hospital and Unity Health Toronto, the study found that the patients who saw a physician who was not their family doctor through a virtual-only medical service were twice as likely to visit an emergency department within 30 days.
The visits “can add to an already overwhelming strain” on emergency departments caused by staff shortages and the prevalence of viruses, says lead author Dr. Lauren Lapointe-Shaw, a general internist at Toronto General Hospital and an assistant professor at U of T.
“To add any potential demand related to these virtual appointments is suboptimal.”
Emergency departments in Ontario have been experiencing record-high wait times and some rural emergency departments have closed temporarily because of a lack of staff.
The study showed that patients who had a virtual-only walk-in appointment often had a virtual follow up and then ended up in emergency, in contrast to patients who had a virtual appointment with their family doctor and then could have an in-person follow up, possibly avoiding a hospital visit because they were able to have a physical exam.