Managing Arthritis

Understanding Digital Health Tools

A person in a wheelchair at a table working on a laptop

Digital health tools and services can help you manage your healthcare needs and connect with the health information that’s useful for managing your arthritis. This could include online access to test results, e-booking of appointments, and having virtual visits with healthcare providers instead of seeing them in-person for all appointments. As advancements in digital health continue, here’s a look at what’s available and what’s to come in this growing field.

Electronic health records

Thanks to advances in digital health over the past several years, hospitals, clinics and individual healthcare professionals now have access to a lot of patient health information that’s stored electronically in various repositories in every province and territory. This includes diagnostic imaging, lab test results and clinical reports or immunizations — just some of the elements that make up a person’s electronic health record or EHR. An EHR is the secure and lifetime record of a person’s health and health care history that’s available to authorized health care providers and to the individual.

In addition, an estimated 86 per cent of primary care physicians in Canada (family and general practitioners) are also using electronic medical records or EMRs in their practice. An EMR is an office-based system that enables physicians to record the information gathered during a patient’s visit and replaces hand-written notes that were previously stored in a file folder in a doctor’s office. Through EMRs, authorized physicians can also access patients’ test results and other digital health information. In some provinces and territories, you might be able to access your personal health information online through a patient portal. For example, you might be able to view your lab test results or read the notes your doctor took during your visit. Ask your doctor what’s available in your jurisdiction and how you can register.

Digital health tools have a number of benefits, including patient empowerment, increased communication and safety, increased access to health information, better chronic disease management, and increased healthcare system efficiency. However, there are some limitations that may increase challenges for people already experiencing barriers within the healthcare system. For example, according to the Wellesley Institute, some people may have difficulty accessing e-health tools due to unreliable internet access, language or literacy barriers, as well as a lack of familiarity with the technology, which could lead to increased health disparities within the population. Additionally, an individual’s electronic health record could itself pose barriers to care, if for example, a patient has been given a label by one medical professional, only to have that label follow them to other points of care. This labelling could have potential negative consequences for on-going care outcomes, such as when it’s noted that a patient is drug seeking after attempting to access pain control for chronic pain or has been turned away for care in the past.

Virtual care

Before the COVID-19 pandemic began, about 10-20 per cent of primary care visits in Canada were conducted virtually — that is, by video, email, text messaging, secure messaging or phone. That increased to about 60 per cent shortly after the onset of the pandemic, according to statistics from Canada Health Infoway (Infoway). The main reason was safety — keeping people out of crowded clinics and waiting rooms to reduce their risk of contracting the virus. It is expected that the use of virtual care will continue to grow even after the pandemic is over. It won’t replace all in-person visits; many of those visits will still be necessary. But you will be able to save time and money by doing routine visits virtually.  Additionally, new technology to provide prescriptions online is emerging.  Ask your doctor what might be available to you.  And keep in mind that you can always have a caregiver, family member or friend with you at a virtual visit, to help you understand the information and ask questions.

Helpful resources

Canada Health Infoway helps to improve the health of Canadians by working with partners to accelerate the development, adoption and effective use of digital health across Canada. This includes working with all health system stakeholders to improve access to care so patients, families and clinicians have access to the information and digital services they need to better manage their health. For more information, check out Infoway’s website.

The Canadian Medical Association has a number of policies about the adoption of virtual care and the use of EHR data. As healthcare providers continue to adopt different platforms for tracking patient records — and public health plans develop their systems — there is increasing likelihood that you will be able to access your personal health information more easily in the future.

Accessing your digital health information is just one part of your healthcare journey. You can learn more in our Navigating Your Healthcare online module. In some parts of the country, your local telephone health information system, often called Telehealth or 811, can provide you with more information about your regional EHR. Learn more about your call-in options in our Access to Primary Care guide.

Written with editorial support from Canada Health Infoway.