Dr. Sameer Masood
"We tend to limit care to the four walls of the Emergency Department. I would say that's not really fair to patients," Dr. Sameer Masood, UHN's Director of ED Quality, Safety and Innovation, says of the idea behind Toronto's Virtual ED. "Patients need care when they need care and where they need care." (Photo: UHN)

"We've always focused on getting patients the 'right care at the right time'," says Dr. Sameer Masood. "Now it's time to focus on the right place."

It's a sentiment Dr. Masood, Emergency physician and UHN's Director of ED Quality, Safety and Innovation, says has been central to the recent launch of Toronto's Virtual Emergency Department (ED), an innovative collaboration between UHN, Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre and Unity Health Toronto, which is expanding virtual ED access for Torontonians in need.

"The fact is, the 'right place' for care can often be at that patient's home," says Dr. Masood, adding that the new centralized model provides access to all three hospital's virtual EDs via one online portal.

"Not every patient needs to be seen virtually, but there are cases where virtual care greatly enhances the experience and enhances access."

Harkening back to its beginnings, Dr. Masood explains that the long-discussed possibility of a virtual ED came to reality at UHN in the summer of 2020 when infection control became even more of a priority.

Since then, UHN's virtual ED physicians have seen approximately 1500 patients experiencing urgent but non-life-threatening health concerns, with many more expected to be seen as a result of the new collaborative model.

"Centralizing our services across Toronto provides patients with more options from a timing standpoint," Dr. Masood says of Toronto's Virtual ED. "There's more flexibility that way and it's making the process simpler and smoother."

Dr. Masood has heard plenty of positive feedback about the service as well as a good deal of skepticism around virtual care as a sustainable method of care delivery. He says it's important to remember that the goal of virtual care is to expand options for patients while making care more efficient.

"Especially in the context of emergency care, we tend to limit care to the four walls of the Emergency Department," Dr. Masood says. "I would say that that's not really fair to patients.

"Patients need care when they need care and where they need care."

Virtual ED should be seen as complementary to existent care

As an example, Dr. Masood recalls the story of a recent Virtual ED patient with a physical disability who would have had to book transportation, arrange accompaniment and endure a long commute to and from hospital for what was a relatively simple concern.

"For that person to connect with us and book an appointment the same day and be seen within an hour of booking their appointment…that was a game-changer," says Dr. Masood. "It really took away the anxiety of planning an entire day around the visit."

Dr. Masood says patients who are considering booking an appointment with the Toronto Virtual ED should first attempt to consult their family doctor.

"We also want to be clear that patients can absolutely choose to go to the emergency room in-person and sometimes, in fact, we encourage in-person care as opposed to being seen virtually," he says. "If patients need to be seen in-person or need to have more investigations done, we direct them to the right pathway."

Emphasizing that virtual care at UHN has never been perceived as a standalone option for patients, Dr. Masood encourages Torontonians to keep Toronto's Virtual ED in mind if they or their loved ones are ever facing an urgent but non-life-threatening issue and are unable to connect with their primary care physician or nurse practitioner.

"Our model has never been to isolate the patient and only provide them with a solo option," he says, speaking to UHN's broader Virtual Care Strategy. "At UHN, we see virtual care as complementary to existent care – a bridge along the healthcare journey."

Toronto's Virtual Emergency Department is now open to patients 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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