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Virtual care and emergency department use during the COVID-19 pandemic among patients of family physicians in Ontario, Canada


Importance — The COVID-19 pandemic has played a role in increased use of virtual care in primary care. However, few studies have examined the association between virtual primary care visits and other healthcare use.

Objective — To evaluate the association between the percentage of virtual visits in primary care and the rate of emergency department (ED) visits.

Design, Setting, and Participants — This cross-sectional study used routinely collected administrative data and was conducted in Ontario, Canada. The sample comprised family physicians with at least 1 primary care visit claim between February 1 and October 31, 2021, and permanent Ontario residents who were alive as of March 31, 2021. All residents were assigned to physicians according to enrollment and billing data.

Exposure Family physicians’ virtual visit rate was the exposure. Physicians were stratified by the percentage of total visits that they delivered virtually (via telephone or video) during the study period (0% [100% in person], >0%-20%, >20%-40%, >40%-60%, >60%-80%, >80% to <100%, or 100%).

Main Outcomes and Measures — Population-level ED visit rate was calculated for each stratum of virtual care use. Multivariable regression models were used to understand the relative rate of patient ED use after adjusting for rurality of practice, patient characteristics, and 2019 ED visit rates.

Results — Data were analyzed for a total of 13 820 family physicians (7114 males [51.5%]; mean [SD] age, 50 [13.1] years) with 12 951 063 patients (6 714 150 females [51.8%]; mean [SD] age, 42.6 [22.9] years) who were attached to these physicians. Most physicians provided between 40% and 80% of care virtually. A higher percentage of the physicians who provided more than 80% of care virtually were 65 years or older, female individuals, and practiced in big cities. Patient comorbidity and morbidity were similar across strata of virtual care use. The mean (SD) number of ED visits was highest among patients whose physicians provided only in-person care (470.3 [1918.8] per 1000 patients) and was lowest among patients of physicians who provided more than 80% to less than 100% of care virtually (242.0 [800.3] per 1000 patients). After adjustment for patient characteristics, patients of physicians with more than 20% of visits delivered virtually had lower rates of ED visits compared with patients of physicians who provided more than 0% to 20% of care virtually (eg, >80% to <100% vs >0%-20% virtual visits in big cities: relative rate, 0.77%; 95% CI, 0.74%-0.81%). This pattern was unchanged across all rurality of practice strata and after adjustment for 2019 ED visit rates. In urban areas, there was a gradient whereby patients of physicians providing the highest level of virtual care had the lowest ED visit rates.

Conclusions and Relevance — Findings of this study show that patients of physicians who provided a higher percentage of virtual care did not have higher ED visit rates compared with patients of physicians who provided the lowest levels of virtual care. The findings refute the hypothesis that family physicians providing more care virtually during the pandemic resulted in higher ED use.



Kiran T, Green ME, Strauss R, Wu CF, Daneshvarfard M, Kopp A, Lapointe-Shaw L, Latifovic L, Frymire E, Glazier RH. JAMA Netw Open. 2023; 6(4):e239602. Epub 2023 Apr 28.

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