"It saved our bacon," says Sue DeVries, (R), who accessed Toronto's Virtual Emergency Department earlier this year to get care for her 88-year-old mother, Betty. (Photo: Courtesy Sue DeVries)

When Betty Morrell suspected she had a urinary tract infection (UTI), her priority was to obtain antibiotics as quickly as possible. At age 88, an untreated UTI can lead to severe complications such as kidney damage and sepsis.

The pharmacy declined to provide her with antibiotics due to the presence of blood in her urine, and her family doctor was unavailable for several weeks. Determined to seek medical attention, Betty woke up early the next morning and made her way to a walk-in clinic, only to be confronted with an overwhelming line of people at 7:00 a.m.

Given her sore hip and reliance on a walker, waiting in the long line was simply not an option.

After exhausting all possibilities, Betty reached out to her daughter, Sue DeVries, for help. Sue, who had recently retired as a nurse practitioner from UHN, recalled hearing about Toronto's Virtual Emergency Department (ED) and decided to give it a try.

"I visited UHN's website, filled out the form, and secured an appointment for my mom within an hour," Sue explains. "I was challenged by how to help her given I was not close by.

"It took me the entire morning to figure out how to help her. I wish I had thought about the virtual ED right away."

After visiting the virtual ED, Betty was able to get antibiotics within 24 hours and was feeling better after two days.

Toronto's Virtual ED is an online portal offering same-day virtual appointments for Ontarians facing urgent but non-life-threatening medical conditions.

80 per cent of patients managed without need for visit to in-person ED

The virtual ED at UHN launched in 2020 as part of a pilot program with Sunnybrook and Unity Health Toronto. Since its inception, more than 3,000 patients in Ontario have been able to avoid unnecessary visits to physical Emergency departments.

"The Virtual ED at UHN demonstrates the successful integration of innovation in Canadian health care, prioritizing patient-centered care," says Dr. Sameer Masood, Emergency physician, UHN's Director of ED Quality, Safety and Innovation, and a key person to the success of Toronto's Virtual ED since its launch.

"It has been well received by patients and providers alike and is key to combating our current health care crisis."

Dr. Masood says Betty's dilemma is just the type that he and his team had hoped could be helped by the existence of this service. The vision of the virtual ED, he adds, is focused on enhancing access for patients and ensuring that everyone is receiving the right care, at the right time, at the right place.

On average, patients are seen within two minutes of their booked appointment time and 80 per cent of patients are managed without a need for in-person emergency care.

Unity Health Toronto has discontinued its participation in the service; however, UHN and Sunnybrook will continue offering the program.

Betty was so impressed by the Toronto Virtual ED that she gave a presentation to her sorority group about how to use the service.

"It saved our bacon," Sue says. "This is a brilliant service that needs to continue – it's a no-brainer."

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 TorontoVirtualED.ca for more information.

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