June 08, 2020

New Westminster-based Dr John Yap remembers the exact date he and his four colleagues knew the way they provide care was about to change dramatically: Friday, March 13.

“We got official word to consider shifting to virtual care to help curtail COVID-19,” said Dr Yap. “The following Monday, we showed up to work as usual but as patients started cancelling their appointments, we realized we had to adapt, and quickly.”

Like thousands of family doctors across the province, they responded by embracing virtual care. Tech-savvy colleagues and the introduction of new Doctors of BC billing codes for video and phone appointments made it possible for the practice to pivot its patient-care model within a week. COVID-19 updates from Doctors of BC, as well as the Doctors Technology Office’s introduction  of a suite of online virtual care resources helped doctors continue to support their patients’ health in an unprecedented situation.

“We immediately signed-up for secure video-calling accounts but it wasn’t a seamless transition,” said Dr Yap. “We had a lot of tech issues those first weeks. Also, my practice has a lot of seniors who aren’t comfortable with technology, so the ability to serve patients by phone was important.”

The practice also continued to see some patients in person. Thanks to ample office space and funding the Fraser Northwest Division of Family Practice made available for COVID-19 adaptations, the doctors were able to set up their clinic so they could safely see non-respiratory patients and those who tested negative for COVID-19, including community patients referred from clinics that suspended in-person appointments due to lack of PPE or safety concerns. Possible or confirmed COVID-19 patients are seen at a dedicated clinic in the area.

For now, approximately 90 per cent of Dr Yap’s patients are seen through virtual care.

“While it’s not ideal for every situation, it’s definitely here to stay,” he said. “It can be very efficient in some cases. We also know patients benefit from having a doctor who knows their history, so continuing to offer virtual care to my patients will make it easier for them to see doctors from their own Patient Medical Home even when they can’t make it into the office.”

Patients agree.  “It saves a lot of time,” said Peggy Tam. “No getting ready, no driving, no waiting room. I’m glad we’ve had this option during the pandemic and hope it continues, though there are still some things you need to be seen in person for.”

“Of course, in-person appointments will continue to be vital, particularly for preventative care,” said Dr Yap. “At our practice, we never stopped in-person care for patients who need physical examinations. We each spend a day a week in the office and will see each others’ patients. I look forward to going back to more in-person support but there’s no question we have a new tool in our patient care toolbox and that’s a great thing.”