"I just wish more people in Toronto knew this service existed," Rochelle S. says of Toronto's Virtual Emergency Department, which she used earlier this year to get care for her husband. (Photo: UHN)

On a particularly blustery morning in February of this year, 77-year-old Rochelle S. typed "Toronto's Virtual Emergency Department" into her computer's search engine.

In the room next to hers, her husband Michael was facing a dilemma: he had inadvertently run out of his daily thyroid prescription but knew that renewing it would require an in-person visit to his general practitioner (GP).

"My husband has severe mobility issues," says Rochelle, noting that on that day the rain had frozen the surrounding landscape of their home. "He has bilateral venous insufficiency, which makes it very hard to walk outside or up ramps even on the best of days."

Knowing that getting Michael to his clinic in a hurry would be next-to-impossible, Rochelle remembered a unique local service that her daughter-in-law had mentioned in a recent conversation.

"I knew that there was this new virtual emergency service that was allowing people to be seen by a doctor on the same day from the comfort of their homes," says Rochelle. "I wasn't sure if our situation was the right fit, but I decided to give it a try."

It was on that day that Rochelle and her husband first accessed Toronto's Virtual Emergency Department: an online portal that is seeing Emergency doctors from UHN, Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre and Unity Health Toronto collaboratively offer same-day virtual appointments for Torontonians facing urgent but non-life-threatening medical conditions.

"I think people have realized, and we've also realized, that this is something that patients want," says UHN's Dr. Sameer Masood, who has overseen the creation of UHN's Virtual ED since it debuted in 2020.

"Where before the creation of the Virtual ED was driven by COVID, as with many other initiatives, it's clear that this is one service that is going to stay."

Dr. Sameer Masood, a UHN Emergency physician who has overseen the creation of the hospital's Virtual ED, says while it debuted in 2020 because of COVID-19, it's here to stay. (Photo: UHN)

Dr. Masood adds that Michael's dilemma is just the type that he and his team had hoped could be helped by the existence of this service. A service, he adds, with a focused vision of enhancing access to patients and ensuring that everyone is receiving the right care at the right time.

"We had always expected that there would be patients who could turn to this service because something might be preventing them from showing up to the ED in person," he says, adding that the city's aging population is one that he feels might benefit from the service into the future.

"As long as there's a way for someone — anyone — to get to us, whether that's via phone, tablet or computer, this is going to have a major impact on access to healthcare in Toronto, which is so important."

As the collaborative Toronto Virtual ED model is still in its early days, Dr. Masood adds that he and his colleagues are paying close attention to patient feedback and continuing to refine its delivery to best suit the populations it is serving.

Most recently UHN opted to expand its virtual ED time slots, with Dr. Masood stating that ED volumes are at "an all-time high" and demand for virtual healthcare is only increasing as more people become aware of its existence.

"We're very excited about the arrival of Epic — UHN's new health information system — at the hospital," says Dr. Masood. "We'll be able to streamline a lot of these Virtual ED processes such as our documentation and referrals. Hopefully that will allow us to extend our services even more."

Rochelle S. says she feels relief knowing that the Toronto Virtual ED is now there as an option and adds that using the service was surprisingly simple.

"We logged in and everything was laid out beautifully," she says. "There was a video available that explained all we needed to do and within only a few hours we had seen a doctor who listened carefully to Michael.

"He prescribed enough medication to tide him over until he could safely see his GP in person."

Rochelle says she has since contacted friends and family about the service, sensing that it could come in handy to others in a pinch.

"I tell them they should definitely be aware that this service is available," she says. "It's covered by OHIP, you can make an appointment literally the same day without having to go into the Emergency Department and potentially wait six hours to see someone.

"I just wish more people in Toronto knew this service existed."

Toronto's Virtual Emergency Department is open to patients 18 years and older facing urgent but non-life-threatening health concerns. Booking opens daily at 7 a.m. for same-day appointments. Visit www.TorontoVirtualED.ca for more information.

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