Safety not convenience needs to guide use of virtual care: CMPA

CMPA Panel on Virtual Care

Safety not convenience should determine when to offer virtual care, according to a new white paper from the Canadian Medical Protective Association (CMPA). The CMPA document places a strong emphasis on the need for the development of clear and consistent professional and clinical guidelines and standards for delivering virtual care.

The document was released in conjunction with CMPA’s annual meeting which hosted an information panel of experts discussing the medical-legal realities of offering virtual care emerging from the COVID-19 pandemic.

In its white paper, the association called on guideline development to be done by specialty societies and by regulatory authorities who should “adopt consistent licensure requirements for virtual care delivered from another province or territory.”

“Physicians must be allowed to continue to use their professional judgment about whether virtual care is appropriate in the circumstances of each patient,” states the white paper. “However, guidelines and standards can help physicians make these decisions in a way that enhances both access to, and safety of, care and minimizes medico-legal risk.”

The report details some of the ongoing challenges with rolling out virtual care in Canada:

  • the fragmented approach across the country with respect to interprovincial licensure requirements;
  • an inconsistency in standards and guidelines for the reasonable to use virtual care;
  • lack of proper infrastructure and training about the various modalities of virtual care; and
  • lack of access to secure virtual care platforms.

While the decision when to offer virtual care rests in the hands of the physician, the CMPA also notes patient preference and autonomy should be respected.

It was CMPA CEO Dr. Lisa Calder who perhaps most accurately summarized the panel discussion and current state of virtual care in Canada in her remarks after the panel when she noted the lack of clear focus and direction for the appropriate use of virtual care.

Speakers in the panel session such as CMA President Dr. Katharine Smart and College of Physicians and Surgeons of Ontario CEO Dr. Nancy Whitmore noted the huge advances made in the use of virtual care made necessary by the COVID-19 pandemic. Dr. Smart also suggested that if regulatory hurdles could be overcome then virtual care could help address the current crisis in healthcare staffing.

“The reality is we know there’s areas that are very well resourced and areas that aren’t and and I think there’s some potential for virtual care to bridge that,” she said, “(and) I think there are also opportunities to be providing virtual supports in places that don’t necessarily have a physician.”

Cautionary notes were struck by CMPA panel representatives who noted the impact of the huge increase in the use of virtual care on the medico-legal landscape is still not clear. “I think many of us intuitively think there are risks (but) we haven’t seen the hard data to confirm that at this point in time,” said Dr. Pamela Eisener-Parsche, executive director of member experience.

“The judgment that physicians need to bring to deciding how they implement virtual care in their practices is actually different today, than it was in April or May of 2020 when many of us were in lockdown,” said Dominic Crolla, senior legal counsel for CMPA. “Although we’re in Western Canada (the CMPA meeting was being held in Vancouver), it’s not the Wild West. Virtual care, for physicians at least, has real, ethical, legal and professional standards.

Another cautionary note was struck by one physician in the audience who commented “I’m seeing virtual care being used for the convenience of physicians, and not in small ways.” However, Dr. Smart countered that when it comes to virtual care “the vast majority of people are going to do a great job and the right job and make good decisions.”

While Dr. Smart spoke enthusiastically about the positive impact of virtual care on her pediatric practice in Whitehorse it was her comment that “there is no substitution still in medicine for a good history and physical exam” that seemed to resonate most with those commenting on the session through Twitter.

Discussion during the panel also touched on the need for appropriate remuneration, the problematic nature of virtual walk-in clinics offering only episodic care, the important role of equity in delivery of virtual care services and the toll providing virtual care has taken on some physicians.

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