Telemedicine, commonly referred to as virtual healthcare, has been defined as any “medical service provided remotely via information and communication technology” by the Federation of Medical Regulatory Authorities of Canada.
Telemedicine in Canada has been publicly available for years, with the Ontario Telemedicine Network boasting one of the largest telemedicine networks in the world. With the arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, virtual healthcare options have been expanded to protect Canadians during doctor visits. Remote consultations, especially those using telemedicine software, allow health providers to control the influx of patients to their locations, limiting the transmission of COVID-19.
As provinces around the nation come out of lockdown, people are wondering whether telemedicine is here to stay. To gauge the future of telemedicine in Canada, Capterra surveyed more than 1,000 Canadian residents who’ve had an appointment with a healthcare professional within the last 12 months (see the bottom of this article for a full methodology).
84% of telemedicine users will continue to use it after the pandemic is over
Out of 1,031 respondents to the Capterra survey, 56% have consulted their doctor using telemedicine over the past year. COVID-19 was the main driver of uptake in telemedicine use, as 89% of telemedicine users surveyed turned to virtual healthcare for the first time during the pandemic. However, only 13% of these appointments were related to COVID-19 symptoms.
The majority of telemedicine users from our survey had a positive experience, with 84% interested in continuing to use those services after the pandemic ends. Most respondents (74%) want to continue using telehealth with the same or higher frequency, which could be a sign for the future of digital health in Canada.
While 65% of virtual healthcare patients say that their health issue was solved during their virtual consultation, telemedicine isn’t without nay-sayers. In fact, 16% of telemedicine users surveyed do not want to continue using it – most of whom cite issues with the lack of physical examinations (40%) and feeling more comfortable in person (51%).
Video services can ease concerns about telemedicine in Canada
The disadvantages of telemedicine reported above stem from the technology used to facilitate telemedicine appointments. Medical information is sensitive, and some patients may not feel comfortable sharing such information via mobile applications or other live chat software.
Despite their concerns about face-to-face connection, only 14% of telemedicine users from our survey used a medical video conference app for their consultations. The majority of telemedicine users surveyed (76%) consulted with their doctors via a phone call.
Using technologies that help mirror the traditional doctor visit, such as video conferencing software, could help to ease the main concerns of telemedicine users. 30% of telemedicine users in Canada stated that video consultations would encourage them to consult a doctor online more often.
Canadians like telemedicine because it saves time
Canadians also found many upsides to telemedicine, most of them related to convenience. 57% of telemedicine users surveyed liked that they had less waiting time before an appointment, while 47% of respondents liked that there was less waiting time overall compared to doctor’s office visits.
In fact, 38% of survey respondents chose to use telemedicine specifically because it was more practical and less time-wasting than an in-person appointment. Considering the struggle that northern and rural Canadian populations face to access healthcare professionals, the convenience of virtual health appointments could transform healthcare in Canada for some populations. 34% of respondents to the survey reported needing a car to reach their nearest healthcare provider, which could have influenced their appreciation of telemedicine’s convenience.
Patients had other reasons to test the digital health options in Canada, as well.
- 41% of respondents used telemedicine because their problem did not require an in-person consultation.
- 40% used telemedicine because their doctor was only available online.
- 38% wanted to avoid the risk of contagion during the COVID-19 pandemic.
- 25% took a virtual appointment because it was available sooner than an in-person one.
The convenience of telemedicine appointments has benefited Canadians regardless of the distance they normally travel to see a doctor. Even amongst those surveyed who live within walking distance of a healthcare centre, 56% consulted a doctor using telemedicine.
Almost 1 in 3 use telemedicine to fill prescriptions
While the majority of telemedicine users attended regular consultations and follow-up appointments using telemedicine, nearly one in three (28%) of users surveyed used telemedicine to consult their doctors about medication. Patients also used telemedicine to reach their doctors for an initial consultation (48%), to follow up after an in-person appointment (30%), and to have a consultation about treating a chronic condition (24%).
To facilitate the demand for online medication, almost half of respondents (44%) report being given electronic prescriptions, a feature of telemedicine software which allows healthcare professionals to connect with pharmacies and send prescription medication orders completely online.
While most virtual healthcare users reported using at least one technology during their telemedicine appointments (88%), some healthcare providers have yet to upgrade their technologies to adapt to telehealth. 12% of respondents to the survey said the health professional they consult with did not use any technology, despite the range of features available with telemedicine software such as electronic medical records, online appointment scheduling, customer service via SMS, etc.
Patients want to use telemedicine with their family doctors
While patients have been consulting a variety of specialists using telemedicine in Canada, the large majority (65%) of telemedicine users consulted with a general practitioner/family physician. To a much lesser extent, Canadian patients reported using virtual appointments to reach specialists, such as internal medicine specialists (11%), psychiatrists (11%), dermatologists (11%), and gynecologists (6%).
Among the Canadians surveyed who did not use telemedicine, 20% said that they weren’t interested in trying telemedicine because their doctor does not offer virtual consultations. Digital health in Canada has changed a lot about doctor-patient relationships; some Canadians may not be ready to face those changes without their trusted family doctor.
Convincing skeptical patients to try telemedicine for the first time may be as simple as bringing their doctor’s practice online. 30% of Canadians surveyed who haven’t tried telemedicine say they would change their mind about using telemedicine if it was the only way to reach their particular practitioner.
To continue addressing the concerns that Canadians have about telemedicine, our next article on this subject will explore the issues patients report regarding the use of artificial intelligence (AI) in medicine. We will also look into issues plaguing the current Canadian healthcare system to see how technology and medicine can continue to work together.
To collect the data for this report, we conducted an online survey in April 2021. Of the total respondents, we were able to identify 1,031 Canadian respondents that fit within our criteria:
- Canadian resident
- Over 18 years of age
- Had a healthcare appointment within the last 12 months
- Normally goes to the doctor at least once a year