The option of virtual care used to be a dream for managing my chronic illness. It took a pandemic for that dream to come true.
When I received a diagnosis of rheumatoid arthritis (RA), I found it incredibly challenging to go back and forth to so many appointments, especially the 10-minute prescription renewals.
I was a 29-year-old single mom trying to balance a chronic illness, a full-time job, and a toddler. A single appointment could wipe me out for days, something I couldn’t (and still can’t) afford.
There was a time when I had many missed appointments because I just didn’t feel well enough to venture out of my apartment. I would have given anything to be able to see my doctors and manage my condition without leaving home.
When the pandemic changed the world, there was suddenly a group of people considered high-risk for COVID-19 who would need frequent and urgent care.
Thankfully, virtual care became more widely accessible during this unprecedented time. While virtual care isn’t perfect and not everyone has had access to uninterrupted care, I can’t imagine what my life would be like right now without it.
Here’s how access to virtual care has affected my RA management, and why I believe it needs to stay an option even after the masks come off.
As someone living with chronic fatigue, I have to balance every day carefully so as not to overdo it. The option of virtual care has saved me valuable energy. This is a game-changer when it comes to my treatment journey.
I’m also able to avoid the costs of traveling back and forth, babysitters, rideshares, parking, and more associated with having so many appointments.
Disability doesn’t pay much, so every possibility of saving money improves my quality of life, and my son’s.
Beyond just a rheumatologist, treating RA takes a team. I also have a chiropractor, physiotherapist, acupuncturist, massage therapist, acupressurist, clinician social worker, general practitioner, and a naturopathic physician.
Some of these appointments taking place virtually or on the phone have been incredible, while some just don’t work out. The option of having some of these virtually saves me time to focus on other areas of self-care.
I have not had a respiratory infection or the common cold in over a year. This was a first for me since my RA diagnosis. It’s also important as I am considered high-risk for any respiratory infection, not just COVID-19.
Waiting rooms can have a lot of germs floating around in them, and so does coming in contact with all those other sick people.
This past year, my rheumatologist was able to call me during an emergency with my health, while she was at home after a COVID-19 exposure, allowing me to stay safe. This would never have been an option without expanded access to virtual care.
Not only have my doctor’s appointments gone virtual, but so have the medical conferences I attend as a patient advocate and partner in arthritis research.
During the 2021 Canadian Rheumatology Association Scientific Meeting, I was able to attend sessions about how virtual care has transformed not only my care but that of millions of other Canadians and their practitioners.
Here are some of the takeaways:
- Doctors report fewer no-shows for appointments.
- Virtual care is great for people in a stable condition who do not need to be seen in person or often.
- The practitioner saves time to focus on care for others.
- Those in rural areas, reserves, or from different cultures can connect with healthcare professionals far easier and have a choice in their care.
Some people in rural British Columbia, like the Yukon, travel for up to 2 days just to see a rheumatologist because there is no rheumatologist living in that community.
Other people only have access to a traveling clinician.
Canada is a very vast and open country, but chronic illness doesn’t care where you live.
Virtual healthcare is life changing for these patients when it comes to accessing the care they need. Not to mention, both practitioner and patient can stay safe from traveling during the harsh Canadian winters while still receiving care.
Of course, nothing is perfect. While virtual care has helped me and so many others manage our health during the pandemic, there are several drawbacks:
- Virtual care is not the best when it comes to urgent or emergency care.
- The value of seeing the joints or a physical exam is not the same, so it can be harder for clinicians to get a proper examination.
- Not all patients have internet access or reliable internet access, especially in more remote areas.
- Not all patients have the tech know-how, especially seniors, to use virtual or telehealth services.
- Practitioners can tell a lot from someone’s body language, which is missing in these appointments.
- Some don’t like that virtual care costs the same as in-person care.
- Getting out of the house and face-to-face contact can really help with the loneliness that comes with chronic illness.
I’ve heard a lot of talk about how the world should change once we finally have the pandemic under control, and I believe that keeping virtual care as an option — and expanding it further — needs to be a permanent change.
While the option will never replace in-person care, the benefits of virtual care are vast.
Eileen Davidson is a rheumatoid arthritis patient advocate from Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. She’s an ambassador for the Arthritis Society, an Arthritis Research Canada arthritis patient advisory board member, a member of the Doctors of BC Shared Care Chronic Pain Advisory Committee, and a patient engagement research ambassador for the Canadian Institutes of Health Research — Institute for Musculoskeletal Health and Arthritis. She’s a regular contributor to Creaky Joints and runs her personal blog, Chronic Eileen. When she’s not advocating or busy being a single mother to her young son, Jacob, she can be found exercising, painting, or cooking.