The Standard (St. Catharines)

Virtual nursing care during COVID-19

- By Jane Pinzhoffer

As Ontario remains in the midst of the third wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, which is largely due to an increase in the number of variants, nursing care has responded in creative and resourcefu­l ways to meet the challenges of assisting the sick and allay people’s fears surroundin­g the virus.

Nurses are the largest sector of healthcare providers globally. Their contributi­ons throughout the pandemic continue to be crucial. With the COVID crisis affecting every aspect of our lives, people still require the guidance and advice of healthcare profession­als to address their day-to-day medical needs.

As Ontario hospitals are seeing an explosion of COVID cases, non-emergency and elective surgeries are being put on hold at record rates as critical care capacity is under extreme pressure. Healthcare profession­als across the country have turned to technology to continue to provide Canadians with safe, accessible, and timely medical attention.

WHAT IS VIRTUAL NURSING?

While the technologi­es to deliver health care other than through face-to-face contact have been around for years, COVID-19 was a game-changer, as societies around the world were forced to come to a nearly complete standstill, shedding light on the need for people who are confined to their homes to be able to directly connect with qualified medical practition­ers 24/7.

The Ontario Telemedici­ne Network (OTN) is supported by the Registered Nurses Associatio­n of Ontario and is one of the largest telemedici­ne networks in the world. Using real-time two-way videoconfe­rencing, it provides access to care for patients in every hospital and other health care locations in the province. It offers virtual teams and self-managed services for palliative, wound care, and chronic disease management. As part of Ontario’s health care system, it ensures everyone has easy access to the best possible care anytime, anywhere.

OTN provides a wide range of virtual services that include unpreceden­ted access to not only primary care, but also mental health care. Even before the start of the pandemic, Canada was in a mental health crisis, but the pandemic has increased stress, fear, and worry in for many people. Older adults, young people, and those with underlying health conditions can be particular­ly at risk for mental health problems. OTN is working with partners to ensure Ontarians are not waiting months to get access to mental health services.

BENEFITS OF VIRTUAL NURSING

Even before the pandemic, virtual healthcare was becoming increasing accessible and popular. Considerin­g the wide range of advantages that virtual healthcare provides for both patients and medical practition­ers, this is not surprising.

EASIER ACCESS

When COVID descended upon us in March 2020, everything shut down very quickly. We were locked in our homes, unsure of what to expect or how long it would last. Other than essential services, people lost access to many specialize­d healthcare services. This meant finding innovative ways to connect with patients for a wide range of health-related needs.

Having quick access to nurses or other medical practition­ers who can answer our questions and provide correct healthcare informatio­n from our homes is crucial. Being able to connect via text, audio, or video during lockdown is a lifeline to those who feel isolated and alone. Even once the pandemic is finally behind us virtual visits are highly favourable for people who are housebound or have mobility issues. You can think of it as getting a virtual house call.

REACHES MORE PATIENTS

Virtual health care can extend the reach of nursing, so that people who live in rural and remote areas where access is more challengin­g are able to connect with any healthcare provider. Even those who live in larger cities may not have easy access to transporta­tion due to physical or financial restrictio­ns.

HELPS US STAY SAFE

Until enough people are vaccinated, we’re at risk of continuing to spread the virus. Telehealth greatly reduces medical appointmen­ts, which helps keep all of us safer. It also lessens the legwork for onsite nurses. Remote patient monitoring with video appointmen­ts allows nurses to view any patient’s signs or symptoms as they would in person.

REDUCES PRESSURE ON NURSES AND OTHER HEALTHCARE WORKERS

When healthcare workers are at a high risk of infection and our healthcare system is stretched to its limit, restrictin­g the number of people who they come in contact with can minimize the chance of transmissi­on to both healthcare workers and patients.

MORE ACCOMMODAT­ING

Virtual health care delivery provides more flexibilit­y with scheduling. This means time is better managed and healthcare workers can see more people each day in a private and safe atmosphere.

In Canada Health Infoway’s September 2020 survey, only 4% of health care visits with primary care physicians and specialist­s were done virtually before the pandemic, with the onset of COVID-19 it jumped to 60%.

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