Whether it be a simple telephone call or more sophisticated video conferencing systems, virtual care tools have been in use in primary care settings worldwide in one form or another throughout the past two decades. Over time, these tools have grown in availability, matured in their capabilities, but played a largely supportive role as an alternative option to traditional face-to-face consultations. This all changed in early 2020 with the onset of the COVID_19 pandemic.
The COVID-19 pandemic presented a unique opportunity globally which put virtual care tools at the forefront of primary care delivery. The need for social distancing to limit disease transmission resulted in virtual care tools becoming the primary means with which to continue providing primary care services. Hence, our study’s goal was to capture the spectrum of GP experiences using virtual care tools during the initial months of the pandemic so as to better understand the perceived benefits and challenges, and explore what changes are needed to allow them to reach their fullest potential.
We carried out a global study to investigate this further, published in the journal PLOS Digital Health. We received 1,605 responses from 20 countries globally. Our results demonstrated that virtual care tools were beneficial in limiting COVID-19 transmission, improved convenience when communicating with patients, and encouraged the further adoption of virtual care tools in primary care. Challenges included patients’ preferences for face-to-face consultations, digital exclusion of certain populations, diagnostic challenges associated with the inability to perform physical examinations, and their general unsuitability for certain types of consultations. Practical challenges such as higher workloads, payment issues, and technical difficulties were also reported.
Learning from this global natural experiment is critical to both updating existing and introducing new health technology policies concerning virtual primary care. Doing so will be imperative to supporting and promoting the better use of these novel technologies in our evolving healthcare milieu.