Continuity of care trumps instant access to virtual care: Poll

Canadians like the convenience of having instant access to virtual care through virtual “walk-in” clinics but the majority place a higher value on having an established relationship with their own primary care physician.

That’s one of the conclusion that can be drawn from findings of a new poll by Ipsos conducted on behalf of the Canadian Medical Association.

The study focused specifically on the perceived value of the continuity of care that is a cornerstone of the traditional doctor-patient relationship between primary care physicians and patients in Canada. This continuity of care was also the focus of a recent report by the College of Family Physicians of Canada which was highly critical of for-profit virtual care.

The online Ipsos poll of 2,000 Canadians was conducted conducted between September 14-23, 2021.

It found that 81% of respondents agreed it is important to have an ongoing relationship with a family doctor who understands their changing needs, while 79% agree it is important to have an ongoing relationship with a family doctor who understands them as a person.

Asked whether they placed a higher priority on an ongoing relationship with a family doctor or team or on having care that was more convenient, 59% of those polled favoured the ongoing relationship while 33% gave equal importance to continuity of care and convenience.

Asked about virtual walk-in clinics where patients can receive care by phone, video or other means when they want it, only 9% of respondents placed the value of this service above having an ongoing relationship with a family doctor. However about a third of those polled said they are less concerned about having an ongoing relationship with one family doctor, if the doctors and health care providers providing their care had electronic access to their health records.

Of the 36% of Canadians who said they had used a virtual walk-in clinic, 48% said the experience was positive – a rating that falls below the 59% of who report an overall positive experience with a family physician. While only 28% of all those surveyed said they would consider using a walk-in clinic, 40% said they would be more likely to use a virtual walk-in clinic than a family physician for minor illnesses or injuries or for prescription refills. The same percentage said they would trust a doctor in a virtual walk-in if they did not have an established relationship with a family doctor.

Despite the problematic findings about virtual walk-in clinics in this poll, other findings confirm how virtual care is becoming a standard feature of medical care in Canada since the COVID-19 pandemic began. Six in 10 of those surveyed said they were aware their family doctor offers virtual services, an increase from before the pandemic when only 12% knew their family physician offered this service. In addition, more than half (54%) said it was very/somewhat important to them that their family doctor offer virtual services.

While the telephone remains both the preferred means and actual way in which patients access virtual services, the survey did find the percentages of patients wanting to communicate by either video, email or text were significantly higher than what their physician currently offered.

Based on the findings in the survey and more in-depth conversations with a smaller group, Ipsos concluded that “continuity of care is important for the majority of Canadians … but virtual episodic care has a role to play in providing more timely access to health care and it is seen as somewhat overdue in today’s digital world.”

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