Setting Up Your Virtual Practice: 5 Ways to Get Started

Kristen Campbell
September 28, 2020

Going virtual? As an online physician in Canada, one of the benefits of offering virtual healthcare services is the ease and flexibility with which you can get set up. With little more than a laptop, camera, and microphone, you can turn your home into a virtual clinic for patients – here’s how to get started!

1. Find a Virtual Provider Role

Online physicians in Canada have many options for the provision of virtual care. With some modifications, one option for a virtual provider role would simply be taking your existing practice online. 

How this will ultimately look will depend on your specialization, the patients in your practice, and the issues to which you typically respond.

For example, a mental health professional could take 100% of their patients virtual, while a family clinic would need to remain open with a mix of virtual and in-person meetings. The CMA offers some guidelines on when patients need to be seen in the office versus when it’s alright to take things virtual – sexual health issues, mental health issues, or skin problems are all options for virtual appointments, while abdominal symptoms, chest pain, or shortness of breath are issues that will need to be dealt with from inside the office. 

If you’re looking for a virtual role full time, part time, on weekends, or to earn additional income, there are plenty of options for this as well. Check out sites like Maple, telemedicine focused roles on sites like Indeed, or the College of Family Physicians job board – in the advent of the increased need for online physicians in Canada and how virtual reality is changing healthcare, more jobs than ever are being offered on a virtual basis.

2. Set Up Your Office for Virtual Work

Have everything in order? It’s time to get your office set up for virtual visits. This could mean everything from upgrading your computer system, carving out a place to work in your home, and arranging for patient booking, billing, and EMR systems for records.

If you’re sticking with your existing office and taking some (or all appointments) virtually, keep in mind that there is some information on your patients that you will need to collect in order to conduct business digitally. You’ll need their email address and phone number, as well as their consent (which you will need to record in their chart), so it’s a good idea to set out protocols for requesting this information prior to beginning your virtual practice.

Remember that even when working from  home, you’ll need to make sure your office looks clean and welcoming for your patients. Set yourself up in a quiet room in front of a neutral background to minimize distractions, and ideally have a closed door or other means of keepings pets, children, or members of your family out of the office. Privacy is key – position your workstation in a location that can’t easily be seen or heard by others. If sharing your home for the duration of the visit is unavoidable, consider using headphones in order to protect patient privacy, at least on one side of the conversation. 

And don’t forget your ‘webside’ manner – some patients might be unfamiliar with how virtual reality is changing healthcare, and nervous about seeing an online physician. The Canadian Medical Association says patients of all ages prefer when you wear a white coat for your visits, but even dressing similar to how you would dress in the office (at least on the top!) can ease patient anxiety and create a familiar atmosphere. By trying to keep everything consistent in how you look, act, and dress, you can make the transition easier for you and your patients.

3. Book and Attract a Patient Book

If you work from a traditional practice, this part will simply involve informing and transitioning patients from in-person visits to virtual. Keep in mind if you’re planning to offer a mix of in-person and virtual services that you may need to have two separate virtual workstations – one in your office, and one at home – while you’re busy with the transition. Since the technological requirements for setting up these workstations are quite low, the benefit to having two places to conduct your virtual visits will easily outweigh the costs. 

Just remember when you’re booking patients from your regular clinic, that you’ll need to keep in mind the additional notice required for a virtual visit – same day or last minute bookings should be discouraged, and you might need to set aside certain hours in which to virtually see your patients in order to make for a smooth transition. 

If you’re just starting out in a virtual practice, similar rules apply to attracting patients to a physical practice – being professional and compassionate, having systems in place to keep things organized, and avoiding long wait times are all great ways to keep patients coming back. Virtual practices can choose easy to use booking software or hire an assistant or administrator who also works virtually in order to keep things running smoothly.

 

4. Practice your ‘Webside Manner’

You might have all the tools you need to jump into virtual practice, but are you ready to take your skills digital? While many aspects of the traditional patient visit will remain the same as an online physician in Canada, there might be parts of your practice that take some getting used to. Even if you stick to the recommended reasons for virtual visits, sometimes patients are more complex than they seem. Patients with a lengthy history, a complex diagnosis, or one that seems to require physical examination should be redirected to an in-person visit, but even simple questions might need to be handled differently from an online physician. For example, a patient looking for birth control options can easily be handled in a virtual appointment, but the patient education materials you would have shown in-office might need to be given via a weblink or scanned pdf.

The Canadian Medical Association’s paper on virtual health describes the many hidden ‘cues’ that patients see when they come to an office – the equipment, tools, nurses, or medical licenses on the walls all provide subconscious information to a patient that tells them they are in a safe office with a qualified doctor. 

Since you don’t have an office to rely on, professional mannerisms, dress, and wearing a white coat are good places to start when seeing virtual patients. So is setting up your webcam above the patient image on your monitor so you can make eye contact, and using speech or hand motions to keep the patient continually engaged – while you might have gone out of your way to minimize distractions on your end, the patient might be dealing with a busy home, noises outside, or a condition that makes focusing on a screen more difficult. Putting a little extra time and care into reading and engaging your patients with nonverbal cues and body language can go a long way into helping them feel comfortable in an online appointment and make the most out of your meeting.

5. Keep In Touch

Connecting with patients via email or text is one of the biggest gaps between what physicians currently offer and what patients say they need – while 71% of Canadians would like to book their appointments online, only 9% of family physicians offer patients the option. Similarly, 63% of Canadians want to email their physician, but only 24% of online physicians in Canada offer the service.  These are big gaps! While it might be tempting to leave your work at the office, physicians should keep in mind these statistics when setting up their online practice. One of the mechanisms for how virtual reality is changing healthcare is that patients are increasingly expecting to be able to connect with their physician in a way that is easiest and most convenient for them. 

Since you have to collect their email address as part of the compliance protocols for booking anyway, it might be worthwhile to offer booking or provide quick answers to patient questions via email or text. Some issues – like a prescription refill for a long term medication – might not need a long visit at all and can be a quick question handled by your staff. This can free up more of your day to see patients and help keep your office running smoothly.

 

Conclusion

For online physicians in Canada, offering virtual services is a new and exciting frontier – and one patients are increasingly happy to take advantage of. With minimal barriers to entry and plenty to be gained in terms of personal work-life balance and flexibility, the time to start providing virtual care for your patients has never been better!

 

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