Providing Virtual Healthcare, Maintaining Real Patient Trust

Feb 25 2021

Today, I had the pleasure of presenting at the annual PHIPA Connections Summit. This year, the summit presenters explored emerging issues related to personal health information management in a pandemic. In my presentation, I shared some health sector statistics from 2020, touched on the recent changes to Ontario’s health privacy law, PHIPA, and introduced our new guidance for professionals in the health care sector, Privacy and Security Considerations for Virtual Health Care Visits. Hopefully, this guide will be a helpful resource for health information custodians (custodians) currently delivering or planning to deliver virtual health care to their patients.

With the onset of COVID-19, and the requirement to adhere to social distancing guidelines, virtual health care has become a convenient alternative for custodians to connect with, and care for, their patients. Virtual health care includes digital communications such as secure messaging, telephone consultation, and videoconferencing.

In May 2020, the Canadian Medical Association (CMA) polled 1,800 Canadians and found that almost half had used virtual care to access a physician and were highly satisfied with the results. The same study found that almost half (46%) who accessed virtual care since the COVID-19 outbreak would prefer a virtual method as the first point of contact with their doctor.  Bearing in mind that this survey was conducted only two months into the global pandemic, one might expect those numbers to be even higher today as people have increasingly adjusted to their digital lives.

While research points to a widespread acceptance of virtual health care, it is important to consider the privacy and security risks posed by the technology used to deliver this type of care. It is also important for Ontario-based custodians to be aware that PHIPA applies equally to virtual care as it does to in-person care.

In addition to providing a brief refresher on PHIPA, our virtual health care guidance explores various considerations for secure videoconferencing sessions and provides tips on how custodians can help patients navigate electronic medical record systems, such as patient portals.

Many studies and discussion papers have signalled that virtual health care is here to stay. For example, in a national survey conducted through the month of September 2020, Environics Research found that 70% of Canadians agreed that virtual healthcare represents the future of health care. This is also a takeaway from the CMA poll, affirming that Canadians would like to see virtual care options continued, improved, and expanded after the COVID-19 crisis subsides.

There is no doubt that virtual health care can provide much-needed advice, consultation, and peace of mind, especially in these changing and uncertain times. However, it is important for custodians to have the appropriate technical, physical, and administrative safeguards in place to ensure that virtual health care platforms are secure and privacy-protected for their patients, today and in the future.

While health care may be going virtual, patient trust should remain real.

On behalf of the IPC, thank you to all those in the health care sector who work tirelessly to help keep us safe.

Stay well.

Patricia

This post is also available in: French