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St. Joseph’s says use of virtual visit tech has increased 450 per cent

Rob DeLuca, a bodybuilder with stage-four lung cancer and pulmonary hypertension, uses St. Joseph’s Healthcare Hamilton’s digital patient portal, MyDovetale, from his Ancaster home.

Apr 01, 2020 by Sebastian Bron Hamilton Spectator

For Rob DeLuca, an ordinary trip to the doctor’s office often feels like tiptoeing through a room filled with trip wires.

The bodybuilder with stage-four lung cancer and pulmonary hypertension is acutely vulnerable to commonly transmitted germs. Touchscreen parking posts, arm rests on chairs, door handles, washrooms: they’re all akin to booby traps that could trigger an infection and kick his immune system into overdrive.

But that’s changed as the outbreak of COVID-19 has forced health-care providers to embrace physical distancing and modify their outpatient care services.

DeLuca was one of more than 1,000 at-risk St. Joseph’s Healthcare Hamilton (SJHH) patients to have received virtual care in March, chatting with doctors and getting condition updates from the comfort of their own homes.

“It’s made a big difference, especially since we’ve always had to be ultra-mindful when going to the doctor and now that’s been (amplified) with the virus,” said DeLuca, who meets with a respirologist every three months.

“There’s no travel, getting through several doors, touching many surfaces. There’s more time to discuss with (the doctor) and my wife can sit comfortably on the couch taking detailed notes.”

SJHH has seen an approximately 450 per cent increase in virtual-care volume since its personalized, digital patient portal, MyDovetale, was streamlined last month to cope with the number of people who wouldn’t be able to access on-site services.

Tara Coxon, chief information officer, said SJHH has seen an increase from 100 patients before the crisis — most of them mental health — to about 5,000 now across 19 clinics.

“Emergency visits to clinics are still operating, but for the part we’ve had every service go digital,” she said.

The user-friendly system has given doctors a reliable means of adapting their care to the current limits of the health crisis. For patients whose technical capacity is underdeveloped, like seniors, the health centre has a team of nurses and researches help get them on board.

“Physical distancing is critically important during COVID-19, and this has helped us go on with business as usual,” said Dr. Nathan Hambly, a respirologist at SJHH’s Firestone Clinic and DeLuca’s doctor.

The Firestone Clinic has about 700 patients with complex respiratory diseases, a majority of which boast survival rates of around three to five years.

With appointments typically scheduled months ahead of time, Hamby said the virtual portal — and in particular seeing his patients over a screen — has proven imperative in offering patients consistent, accurate care during the health crisis.

“One might say that a telephone would be just as good in these situations, but it isn’t. By looking at a patient, you’re able to ask questions and see their breathing and how hard it is for them to breath in real time,” he said.

Sebastian Bron is a Hamilton-based reporter at the Spectator. Reach him via email: sbron@thespec.com