Go to content

Healthcare utilization and outcomes of patients seen by virtual urgent care versus in-person emergency department care


Background — Virtual urgent care (VUC) is intended to support diversion of patients with low-acuity complaints and reduce the need for in-person emergency department visits. We aimed to describe subsequent healthcare utilization and outcomes of patients who used VUC compared with similar patients who had an in-person emergency department visit.

Methods — We used patient-level encounter data that were prospectively collected for patients using VUC services provided by 14 pilot programs in Ontario, Canada. We linked the data to provincial administrative databases to identify subsequent 30-day healthcare utilization and outcomes. We defined 2 subgroups of VUC users; those with a documented prompt referral to an emergency department by a VUC provider, and those without. We matched patients in each cohort to an equal number of patients presenting to an emergency department in person, based on encounter date, medical concern and the logit of a propensity score. For the subgroup of patients not promptly referred to an emergency department, we matched patients to those who were seen in an emergency department and then discharged home.

Results — Of the 19 595 patient VUC visits linked to administrative data, we matched 2129 patients promptly referred to the emergency department by a VUC provider to patients presenting to the emergency department in person. Index visit hospital admissions (9.4% v. 8.7%), 30-day emergency department visits (17.0% v. 17.5%), and hospital admissions (12.9% v. 11.0%) were similar between the groups. We matched 14 179 patients who were seen by a VUC provider with no documented referral to the emergency department. Patients seen by VUC were more likely to have a subsequent in-person emergency department visit within 72 hours (13.7% v. 7.0%), 7 days (16.5% v. 10.3%) and 30 days (21.9% v. 17.9%), but hospital admissions were similar within 72 hours (1.1% v. 1.3%), and higher within 30 days for patients who were discharged home from the emergency department (2.6% v. 3.4%).

Interpretation — The impact of the provincial VUC pilot program on subsequent healthcare utilization was limited. There is a need to better understand the inherent limitations of virtual care and ensure future virtual providers have timely access to in-person outpatient resources, to prevent subsequent emergency department visits.



McLeod SL, Tarride JE, Mondoux S, Paterson JM, Plumptre L, Borgundvaag E, Dainty KN, McCarron J, Ovens H, Hall JN. CMAJ. 2023; 195(43):E1463-74. Epub 2023 Nov 6.

View Source

Contributing ICES Scientists

Research Programs

Associated Sites