The ability to access health services virtually is a rapidly growing trend across Canada. New realities resulting from the COVID pandemic, staff shortages and the changing nature of primary care have inspired innovative responses from the health care profession. Nova Scotia Health is on the leading edge and VirtualCareNS is one way they are enabling people on the Need a Family Practice Registry to access health care professionals online.
But there can be challenges. What seems like a simple solution can come with significant barriers for those without a computer, internet access or the necessary experience with the online tools.
To help remove those barriers, the Pictou-Antigonish Regional Library (PARL), Aberdeen Health Foundation and Nova Scotia Health partnered to launch “Virtual Care @ Your Library”.
As part of the project, PARL hired Samantha Zuberovic as a Virtual Care Technician. Samantha assists people in getting set up, signing in and navigating the virtual platform. So far, Samantha has spent the bulk of her time helping people get signed up for the VirtualCareNS service, setting up their profile, and entering their health history. She has also noticed just how much anxiety some people feel from having to navigate technology. This can be a significant barrier that prevents someone from taking advantage of the invitation to book a virtual care appointment.
“If the program is really going to make a difference, people have to be comfortable and not intimidated by the technology or process,” says Zuberovic. “Computers and mobile devices are available at the New Glasgow, River John and Westville libraries. I spend my time between the three locations making things as easy as possible for people.”
Zuberovic’s background in healthcare and working with the public is apparent in her relaxed and compassionate approach. Her experience working with seniors is especially helpful in her understanding and ability to deal with the barriers that many face. The fact that she is also a New Glasgow Firefighter speaks to her commitment to community and serving others.
“It’s incredibly rewarding to see the weight lifted from people’s shoulders,” she says. “They come in nervous and tend to leave smiling and a lot more relaxed. I love helping people and being able to play a role in making such a critical connection is quite amazing. I had no idea how big this actually was or how dramatically it can affect people’s lives.”
Dr. Tara Sampalli, Senior Scientific Director for Nova Scotia Health is leading an evaluation of the pilot project. “We are optimistic about the positive feedback we have heard so far from Nova Scotians about the Virtual Care @ Your Library initiative,” says Dr. Sampalli. “We understand that there can be barriers to accessing virtual care or having the confidence to try it for the first time. Our evaluation team is working on identifying these reasons. As the program continues, we will learn from the evaluation and work to identify additional locations across the province.”
The effectiveness of the program and Zuberovic’s role are confirmed by the feedback Dr. Sampalli’s team is getting. 95% of those using the program have reported positive or very positive experiences. Many indicated that if they had not used the virtual care services and needed to seek care they would have had to go to the hospital emergency department.
There are several reasons people use the library to access the virtual health care services including: not having access to a computer, phone or device; no access to cellular service or internet; no private space at home to take appointments; poor internet connection; and feeling that the library is more convenient than taking appointments at home.
The Virtual Care Technician can assist people who are on the Need a Family Practice Registry and have received an invitation to make an appointment for VirtualCareNS. She can also help those who have been scheduled for a virtual appointment with their primary care provider or a specialist; anyone needing guidance with the technology and process, logging into the program or having issues accessing appointments.
Virtual Care @ Your Library is free to the public and the initiative is unique to Pictou County where more than 10,000 people are on the Need a Family Practice Registry. The Aberdeen Health Foundation is proud to play an instrumental role in this important pilot project.
Last fall the Aberdeen Health Foundation met with the leadership team for Nova Scotia Health’s Northern Zone, and they shared how VirtualCareNS was going. The team reported that although invitations were going out every week a surprisingly small number of people were responding. “This was for a variety of reasons, including the kinds of barriers we were aware of,” says Foundation, Executive Director, Michelle Ferris. “We asked a question that really snowballed into the pilot project. Had Nova Scotia Health considered partnering with the local library to improve access?” From that simple question the project was born and Virtual Care @ Your Library was launched in February.
The Foundation wishes to thank the excellent teams at Nova Scotia Health – from primary and virtual care to research and innovation, and the excellent leadership at our local library. Everyone was 100% committed to the idea, made it a top priority, and as a result the pilot could be launched in a matter of weeks following the initial meeting.
The Foundation is also supporting the project with funding to add an additional private space for virtual appointments at the New Glasgow branch, which will increase capacity at the busiest branch.
For more information or to book an appointment with the Virtual Care Technician at the library email email@example.com or call 1-866-779-7761 or 902-759-5227.