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Virtual visits with own family physician vs outside family physician and emergency department use


Importance — Virtual visits became more common after the COVID-19 pandemic, but it is unclear in what context they are best used.

Objective — To investigate whether there was a difference in subsequent emergency department use between patients who had a virtual visit with their own family physician vs those who had virtual visits with an outside physician.

Design, Setting, and Participants — This propensity score–matched cohort study was conducted among all Ontario residents attached to a family physician as of April 1, 2021, who had a virtual family physician visit in the subsequent year (to March 31, 2022).

Exposure — The type of virtual family physician visit, with own or outside physician, was determined. In a secondary analysis, own physician visits were compared with visits with a physician working in direct-to-consumer telemedicine.

Main Outcome and Measure — The primary outcome was an emergency department visit within 7 days after the virtual visit.

Results — Among 5 229 240 Ontario residents with a family physician and virtual visit, 4 173 869 patients (79.8%) had a virtual encounter with their own physician (mean [SD] age, 49.3 [21.5] years; 2 420 712 females [58.0%]) and 1 055 371 patients (20.2%) had an encounter with an outside physician (mean [SD] age, 41.8 [20.9] years; 605 614 females [57.4%]). In the matched cohort of 1 885 966 patients, those who saw an outside physician were 66%more likely to visit an emergency department within 7 days than those who had a virtual visit with their own physician (30 748 of 942 983 patients [3.3%] vs 18 519 of 942 983 patients [2.0%]; risk difference, 1.3% [95%CI, 1.2%-1.3%]; relative risk, 1.66 [95%CI, 1.63-1.69]). The increase in the risk of emergency department visits was greater when comparing 30 216 patients with definite direct-to-consumer telemedicine visits with 30 216 patients with own physician visits (risk difference, 4.1% [95%CI, 3.8%-4.5%]; relative risk, 2.99 [95%CI, 2.74-3.27]).

Conclusions and Relevance — In this study, patients whose virtual visit was with an outside physician were more likely to visit an emergency department in the next 7 days than those whose virtual visit was with their own family physician. These findings suggest that primary care virtual visits may be best used within an existing clinical relationship.



Lapointe-Shaw L, Salahub C, Austin PC, Bai L, Bhatia RS, Bird C, Glazier RH, Hedden L, Ivers NM, Martin D, Shuldiner J, Spithoff S, Tadrous M, Kiran T. JAMA Netw Open. 2023; 6(12):e2349452. Epub 2023 Dec 27.

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