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Virtual family physician care during COVID-19: a mixed methods study using health administrative data and qualitative interviews

Ryan BL, Brown JB, Freeman TR, Richard L, Stewart M, Meredith L, Choi YH, He JW, Cejic S, Thompson K, Reichert S, Shariff SZ, Booth R, Terry AL, Mathews M. BMC Prim Care. 2022; 23(1):300. Epub 2022 Nov 25. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1186/s12875-022-01902-9


Background — The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic necessitated a rapid shift in primary health care from predominantly in-person to high volumes of virtual care. The pandemic afforded the opportunity to conduct a deep regional examination of virtual care by family physicians in London and Middlesex County, Ontario, Canada that would inform the foundation for virtual care in our region post-pandemic. Objectives: (1) to determine volumes of in-person and virtual family physicians visits and characteristics of the family physicians and patients using them during the early COVID-19 pandemic; (2) to determine how virtual visit volumes changed over the pandemic, compared to in-person; and (3) to explore family physicians’ experience in virtual visit adoption and implementation.

Methods — We conducted a concurrent mixed-methods study of family physicians from March to October 2020. The quantitative component examined mean weekly number of total, in-person and virtual visits using health administrative data. Differences in outcomes according to physician and practice characteristics for pandemic periods were compared to pre-pandemic. The qualitative study employed Constructivist Grounded Theory, conducting semi-structured family physicians interviews; analyzing data iteratively using constant comparative analysis. We mapped themes from the qualitative analysis to quantitative findings.

Results — Initial volumes of patients decreased, driven by fewer in-person visits. Virtual visit volumes increased dramatically; family physicians described using telephone almost entirely. Rural family physicians reported video connectivity issues. By early second wave, total family physician visit volume returned to pre-pandemic volumes. In-person visits increased substantially; family physicians reported this happened because previously scarce personal protective equipment became available. Patients seen during the pandemic were older, sicker, and more materially deprived.

Conclusion — These results can inform the future of virtual family physician care including the importance of continued virtual care compensation, the need for equitable family physician payment models, and the need to attend to equity for vulnerable patients. Given the move to virtual care was primarily a move to telephone care, the modality of care delivery that is acceptable to both family physicians and their patients must be considered.

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