COVID-19 and the shift to virtual primary care

On March 11, 2020, the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 an international pandemic. The months following forced countries around the world to quickly adapt their health systems, including primary care, to this dramatically changing environment. 

Primary care providers across the world were heavily burdened with the need for a drastic shift in how care was provided to ensure compliance with COVID:19 public health protocol, and provide care in the safest way. This created challenges in Canada, and around the world, but also offered significant opportunity for sustainable changes. 

Due to COVID-19, primary care clinics were forced to close their doors on how care is typically provided and shift to secure virtual visit platforms including telemedicine networks, private digital health solutions, EMR integrated patient engagement platforms, and telephone/email. 

It was imperative that health and social services were available to patients, especially to help them navigate the fear and anxiety of living in a pandemic. Among the tragedy, panic and uncertainty felt across the world, COVID-19 brings opportunity to implement much needed health system changes, such as the seemingly overnight switch to virtual care and telemedicine. Something that otherwise would have taken years or perhaps decades to implement. Providers across Ontario, Canada, and the world were suddenly forced into developing infrastructure to provide patients with high quality care, virtually. 

For example, health authorities in Europe revised virtual care guidance documents and a hospital in Australia kept patients safe by utilizing a “virtual hospital” model to flatten the curve. 

While it is recognized that some countries may not have the same level of developed infrastructure to support these virtual health solutions as others, digital and virtual health efforts in rural/developing countries have been successful. For example, Rwanda enacted a COVID-19 emergency response project supported by the World Bank, which included the use of telemedicine to reduce the number of patients in hospital. Pakistan used telehealth to expand the use of digital health services. This provided patients with access to safe and effective care across disciplines. 

Dr. Rubin, the medical director at Toronto’s Peter Munk Cardiac Centre, told CBC News that he feels that as a result of COVID-19 the health-care system has changed forever. He estimates that at least half of clinical appointments will become virtual after COVID-19, and many initial clinical visits will be done over the phone or by video.

Patients across Ontario, for example, are grateful for the opportunity to contact their providers from the comfort and safety of their own home. A safe space free from the threats of COVID-19. These innovative virtual care solutions have resulted in positive patient feedback across the province. Positive feedback that they hope is here to stay. 

Many experts from around the world are in agreement with these patients stating that “virtual care is here to stay”, and although it may not always be the most appropriate forms of care for a patient, it has offered many people access to physical and mental health services during these unprecedented times, and into the future. 

There is still much work that needs to be done by global policy makers at the national and international level to ensure that there is a unified worldwide strategy for access to primary care through adapting digital and virtual health infrastructure globally. Health technology can improve health outcomes and access to care around the world, but it must be equitable and accessible by all to ensure global access to virtual care solutions now and in the future.


September 15, 2020


Sarah Grace Bebenek