Barnabe J., Petrie S., & P. Peters. 2020. Virtual Triage and Teletriage in Rural Canada and Australia: A Rapid Review. Spatial Determinants of Health Lab Ottawa, ON. doi: 10.22215/sdhlab/2020.2.

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Public Health Topic

Health care services and healthcare infrastructure in rural areas is continuously adapting in to meet the needs of rural and remote populations. Rural populations are unique and diverse, where there is a diversity of individuals within communities, and an equivalent diversity between communities. There are documented differences in health behaviours, health literacy, perceived health, and health outcomes between and within rural regions and rural communities. While geographic accessibility is often considered the primary driver, differences go beyond distance and include elements of demographic change, economic restructuring, and continued reductions in health and services.

The features of rural health care delivery are further underscored in the wake of the COVID-19 global health pandemic, a rapidly evolving situation which is undoubtedly putting pressure on already strained rural emergency departments (ED). In attempts to alleviate strain on front-line health provision and ensure the safety of the public, many healthcare facilities have rapidly implemented or have scaled-up eHealth solutions such as virtual triage and urgent care systems. These are virtual (virtual triage) or telephone systems (teletriage) in which patients can contact a physician or other healthcare professional who will guide them to appropriate care. The objective of these interventions is most often to reduce the overall number of in-person visits to EDs, potentially tackling ED overcrowding and misuse.

Current Knowledge

Overcrowding, long wait times, and lack of resources is a persistent issue in countries with publicly guaranteed health systems, with EDs being disproportionately affected. This is especially prevalent in rural Canada and Australia, where rural healthcare access and resources are limited. Although it is a complex problem, one of the main contributing factors to this pressure is the growing number of patients presenting to EDs with non-urgent complaints, many of whom are seeking primary care. Although seeking non-urgent care from the emergency department is seen as inappropriate to health system planners, it is often the only choice rural patients have. Over 4.7 million Canadians do not have a primary care provider and only 25% report they have a usual place of care such as an urgent care clinic, a luxury that is hard to come by in rural areas. A similar reality is seen in Australia, where access to general practitioners in regional or remote areas is limited, with many reporting visiting ED’s because a general practitioner was not available.

Initiatives such as telehealth and virtual visits have been suggested to bridge the gaps seen in rural healthcare and are part of broader eHealth initiatives that include electronic medical records, remote health monitoring, and other electronic health technologies. Identified benefits of using eHealth services for primary care provision include reducing the burdens that come with travelling long distances, increasing access to care, and cost savings across various domains. Despite perceived benefits, implementation is often non-existent, difficult, or slow. Cost, technological issues, and slow acceptance by providers is a recurring issue for successful long-term eHealth implementation.

Teletriage and virtual triage are eHealth initiatives proposed to mitigate rural healthcare gaps. Teletriage is the use of telephone conferencing services to guide patients to appropriate care based on patient presentation, the urgency of the condition, and the policy of the organization. Virtual triage is where secure video connections are integrated with secure voice. Various telephone triage initiatives have been slowly developed and implemented across Canada, and Australia. Despite the evidence of success with teletriage, virtual and video integration with these systems has been met with resistance, with few adopting it. However, amid the COVID-19 pandemic, Canadian and Australian healthcare providers have been advised to provide virtual care where possible, resulting in the rapid creation and scaling up of exiting teletriage platforms and integration of virtual triage.

Key Evidence

  • Telephone triage (teletriage) has been slow to expanded in Canada and Australia.
  • Teletriage is effective, safe, with high levels of reported patient satisfaction.
  • Teletriage can provide an alternative to primary acute care when not available.
  • Virtual triage is recent with most new platforms implemented due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • Integration of video creates multiple layers of care, further improving effectiveness.
  • Many of the limitations of tele- and virtual triage are related to existing inequalities in rural areas.
  • Tele- and virtual systems can be effective at deferring patients from emergency departments.

Policy Recommendations

  • Platforms need to be flexible, responsive, and tailored to regional circumstances
  • Successful platforms are locally-based
  • Leadership across stakeholders is essential to success
  • Platforms are partnerships and collaborations
  • Advertising and messaging are important
  • Platforms use and create data, which must be analysed continuously