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Ontario government and doctors reach last minute deal in effort to save virtual ERs

Ontario has granted a three-month funding extension for doctors to provide care through virtual emergency departments, The Canadian Press has learned.

Several hospitals had said they planned to shut down their virtual ERs — and one says it still will — because the provincial funding was set to run out after Friday.

The last-minute deal reached between the province and the Ontario Medical Association extends funding until June 30, said Health Minister Sylvia Jones.

“We will continue to work with the OMA to ensure that care is available to Ontarians where and when they need it,” Jones wrote in a statement.

The government will “assess what is needed across the health-care system” for a long-term plan on virtual ERs, she said.

Click to play video: 'Code Blue: Can virtual health care ease Canada’s ER crisis?'

Code Blue: Can virtual health care ease Canada’s ER crisis?

The Unity Health Toronto hospital network said the last-minute deal will not change its plan to shut its successful virtual emergency department.

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Spokeswoman Jennifer Stranges said the department was “key in ensuring access and continuity of health services” during the pandemic.

“We’re now looking at how as an organization we use virtual care to provide access to health services to our patients and community,” she said.

Unity Health, which runs St. Michael’s Hospital and St. Joseph Hospital, had partnered with University Health Network _ the largest hospital system in the country _ and Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre on a virtual ER pilot project.

Last week, the CEO of the University Health Network said his hospital system’s virtual ER program would not “cease,” regardless of whether provincial funding came through or not.

“We’ll continue to work with government to demonstrate to them why this is a worthwhile investment and how it helps one of their — and our first — priorities: not overwhelming emergency departments,” Kevin Smith said.

“It’s been a very successful endeavour — about 85 per cent of people we see virtually don’t need to come to hospital.”

Click to play video: 'Virtual emergency rooms bridge patient care gap amid pandemic'

Virtual emergency rooms bridge patient care gap amid pandemic

That equates to more than 3,000 patients who avoided an unnecessary trip to the emergency room.

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The Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto also said its virtual ER program will continue.

Hospitals across the province have grappled with extended periods of overwhelmed emergency departments over the past three years. Many emergency departments run close to 100 per cent capacity during normal times and struggle when surges hit.

Some were overrun with COVID-19 patients while others dealt with record numbers of viral respiratory patients, particularly pediatric hospitals last fall.

Numerous emergency departments across the province, especially those in smaller or rural communities, closed for hours, days or even weeks at a time last year. Hospital officials have said those closures were primarily due to severe staffing shortages, particularly nurses.

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