Dr. Jonathan Fitzsimon
Across Ontario, there are more than 2.2 million people without a family doctor. In Renfrew County, an area west of Ottawa with semi-urban, rural and remote areas where Dr. Jonathan Fitzsimon practices has a high number of residents who are unattached to a family doctor.
“The options for the thousands of people without a family doctor or without access to their family doctor was to either go to the emergency department or go without care.”
The substantial number of residents without access to a family physician coupled with the lack of walk-in and urgent care centres in the county has caused a historic overreliance on their emergency departments. This is something that Dr. Fitzsimon has seen firsthand.
Born out of the need to further safeguard the emergency rooms during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, Dr. Fitzsimon helped to plan and create a hybrid form of care known as the Virtual Triage Assessment Centre (VTAC).
VTAC is team-based form of care where residents of Renfrew County can set up an appointment with a family physician who works remotely. Most encounters are dealt with using virtual care, but if an in-person assessment is required, a paramedic can see the patient in a nearby clinical assessment centre or for vulnerable housebound patients, in their own home. Integrated Virtual Care (IVC), grew out of VTAC and goes a step further. Patients are permanently attached to a named family doctor who works predominantly remotely but is also part of a local physician group supported by a family health team.
Through IVC, almost 3,000 patients in Renfrew County are now enrolled with a family doctor and have comprehensive team-based care ̶̶ many for the first time ever.
Although innovative, Dr. Fitzsimon sees VTAC as both a safety net for unattached patients and a bridge to long-term solutions to the crisis. “As we recruit more doctors and our rural residency program grows…we will be able to match all unattached patients to a local family doctor and the need for VTAC will diminish,” he says. “Unfortunately, even though IVC has been a huge leap forward, we are still a long way from that end point and so VTAC will continue to play a crucial role in our healthcare system for the foreseeable future.”