SASKATOON -- The Ministry of Health and eHealth Saskatchewan are planning to enhance virtual health care services, the province says in a news release.

"Physicians are open to new ways of providing services to residents, and having more virtual care options will ultimately improve residents’ access to care," Saskatchewan Health Authority senior medical information officer Dr. Vern Behl said.

"In addition to secure videoconferencing and messaging solutions, investment will be needed to ensure improved information flow which is foundational to good virtual care, moving away from our paper based systems to electronic health information systems. This allows for improved patient and family engagement and involvement in their own care, as well as better communication between our health care teams. It is encouraging to see investments in technology that will support this important work."

From March to December 2020, Saskatchewan patients participated in more than 1.7 million virtual appointments with a physician, according to billing data. While the COVID-19 pandemic accelerated use of virtual care technology, improved technology is also helping improve access to care for residents in rural or remote areas, and providing greater convenience for patients who need to connect with a physician for basic concerns, the release says.

"It is critical that we have the appropriate systems and technology in place to support virtual health care services, for the safety of both our residents and health care providers," Health Minister Paul Merriman said.

"We know that investing today will improve patients' access to care and support privacy and security of health information. It will also help relieve pressure on the health system during the pandemic."

Saskatchewan has signed a bilateral agreement with the Government of Canada to expand virtual care services, the province says. Saskatchewan will receive almost $6.5 million for initiatives that provide high quality, safe virtual health services and complement in-person care.

Saskatchewan's priorities will include secure videoconferencing; remote patient monitoring; eHealth Saskatchewan's patient portal; and an auto-dialer system which notifies residents within 24 hours of a lab-confirmed negative COVID-19 test result.