Private virtual health services are booming in a ‘policy vacuum’

By Theresa Boyle Staff Reporter

Jan. 17, 2021
[Excerpts] When over-the-counter medication failed to quell a sudden and intense allergic reaction, the Toronto senior turned to her computer in search of a remedy.

A quick Google search brought her to the website of Maple Corp., one of the country’s largest providers of virtual health care.

In no time at all, she was communicating, via secure text messaging, with a family doctor who gave her a prescription for a nasal spray. The doctor also recommended that she try to get out of a dog-sitting arrangement, which appeared to bring on the allergic reaction.

The virtual visit cost the patient $49.

Such transactions are occurring at record rates during the pandemic, which has seen a surge in the use of virtual health-care services.

While it’s widely accepted that growth in virtual care is long overdue, defenders of public medicare question the expanding role of private providers in a publicly funded health system.

Critics charge that private providers don’t always act in the best interests of patients and taxpayers, or operate within the provisions of the Canada Health Act.

The Canada Health Act requires that medically necessary services provided by doctors be covered by provincial health insurance plans.

“Charging patients out of pocket for it would mean that the Canada Health Act would be meaningless if that were allowed to continue,” Mehra [executive director of the Ontario Health Coalition] argued.

A recent article in the CMAJ — “Private virtual care thriving in a legal grey zone” — said confusion and convenience may explain why Canadians are still paying privately for virtual-care services even though the public system covers variations of the same service.

There is much concern among family doctors that virtual care could interrupt the “continuity of care” for patients. For example, it’s possible that a patient’s family doctor would never be informed of services provided through virtual care.

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