Does your plan make house calls? (And why it should)

February 01, 2023

For business owners, plan sponsors and administrators

Does your plan make house calls? (And why it should)

By Kim MacFarlane

Kim is Vice-president of Group Benefits Products at Manulife. She is a member of the advisory board for the Benefits Canada Healthcare Survey.

Surveys find plan members and physicians have embraced virtual care

During the lockdowns, virtual health care appointments (aka, the digital house call) were the preferred way, and sometimes the only way, to meet with a doctor or other health care provider.

Fortunately, thanks to vaccines and protocols, people once again feel safe venturing back to the office to see their doctor, nurse practitioner, or other primary care provider. But virtual appointments haven’t gone away. They’ve proven to be both popular and effective in many situations. Indeed, surveys1, 2 show that virtual health care options have been favourably received by both your plan members and the physicians who care for them.

What is virtual care?

The Canadian Institute for Health Information defines virtual care as, “any interaction between patients and/or members of their circle of care, occurring remotely, using any forms of communication or information technologies, with the aim of facilitating or maximizing the quality and effectiveness of patient care."

Today, the most popular forms of virtual care are by telephone and through video conference call. But as new technologies emerge, including wearable fitness devices and other medical monitoring tools that connect patient to provider, virtual care could take many new forms in the future.

For a look at what the next generation of made-in-Canada health care innovations might look like, read The Future of Health.

Connecting patients and providers digitally

When you consider the amount of sophisticated equipment that lines the halls of a modern hospital or medical clinic, it’s hard to fathom how a simple phone call with your family doctor represents such a dramatic shift in our behaviours. But before the pandemic, the idea simply wasn’t on most people’s radars. At that time, while telemedicine and virtual care existed, virtual care amounted to a “very small proportion of all care3.” Of course, that all changed. And based on how quickly and successfully most patients made the switch, this is one of those times when the old advertising slogan rings true: “Try it – you’ll like it.”

They tried it. They liked it

Each year, about 1,000 members of group benefits plans participate in the Benefits Canada Healthcare Survey2. In 2022, 41% of these plan members said they’d had a virtual appointment with a health care provider in the last 12 months. Appointments were most often by phone (75%), followed by video conference call (43%), and secure message/text (9%)2.

Use of virtual services through benefits plan increases

The same survey also found, year-over-year, the use of virtual health services obtained through health benefits plans increased from 13% in 2021 to 24% last year, in 2022. This suggests that the concept of virtual care is taking root and branching out – beyond the traditional doctor’s office. As further evidence, consider that in the 2022 survey, 17% of plan members reported they’d used private virtual care services that were paid for by the members themselves. In all instances, about 8 out of 10 plan members rate the experience as either good or excellent1.

Plan member satisfaction with virtual care

Provider Rated satisfaction either Excellent or Good
Usual family physician 83%
Provider through workplace group benefits plan 78%
Usual provider other than family physician 86%
Private paid services 88%

Source: 2022 Benefits Canada Healthcare Survey


Access has halo effect for the benefits plan

What might be even more compelling for sponsors and decision makers is that plan members view their overall group benefits programs more positively when the plan offers virtual health care options. In plans with virtual care, 92% of members rate the plan as excellent or good*. In plans without virtual care, the number of members ranking their plans as excellent or good drops down to 69%.

When the survey asked plan members how likely they would be to use 24-hour virtual health care services if those services were part of their organization’s benefits plan, 66% said yes. That number increased to 81% for members who have already used some form of virtual care in the past.

*Other drivers of positive scores for the overall benefits plan include a workplace culture that promotes wellness, higher job satisfaction, and plan members who rate themselves as being in better personal health.

Convenience and quality of care

In the past, we’ve written about how the pandemic was the catalyst that paved the way for the rise of virtual care, including Manulife’s Healthcare Online service, and how connecting with a doctor electronically offered patients peace of mind at a time of great uncertainty. Patient and provider safety was the foremost concern, but the savings in terms of time, travel, parking, childcare, and other considerations were welcome side benefits.

Personal safety and added convenience drove the acceptance of virtual care, but it’s also true that connecting with a physician electronically can lead to an increased quality of care in some situations.

For example:

  • Consider an elderly patient whose children live a distance away, or who have responsibilities that prevent them from being physically present at their aging parent’s appointments. Today, they can dial in or log on and be part of their loved one’s appointment, providing an extra set of ears and being virtually present to advocate on the patient’s behalf.
  •  Virtual Health Coaching, a pilot program that Manulife is currently running with selected groups, connects plan members with qualified health professionals including kinesiologists, dietitians, social workers, and nurses. The program connects client and coach virtually 24 hours a day 7 days a week, through a secure platform. Clients can choose to share their data, allowing coaches to track their client’s progress through wearables and medical devices. This data – steps, heart rate, blood glucose and more – allows the coach to support the client in powerful and insightful ways.

These are only two examples of how technology has changed the game and enhanced the experience, quality of care, and our concept of how it can be delivered. And we’re only beginning, because most doctors (64%) expect to maintain or expand the amount of virtual care offered to their patients2.

Snapshot: Manulife Healthcare Online – access, use, and customer ratings

Number of Manulife groups providing access to virtual care through Healthcare Online: 1,000+

Number of Healthcare Online consultations: 200,000+

Healthcare Online app store rating: 4.9/5

Source: Manulife Group Benefits – at time of publication

Doctor recommended

At the end of April 2021, a few months after the COVID-19 vaccines were approved and distribution began, the Canadian Medical Association (CMA) and Canada Health Infoway surveyed over 2,000 physicians, including general practitioners, specialists, and residents3. At that time, 94% of the physicians surveyed were providing patient care virtually. They felt it was both easy for them to provide, and for their patients to receive, virtual care. When asked if virtual care enabled them to provide quality care to their patients, 78% agreed.

Looking ahead, 22% of doctors surveyed said they anticipate increasing their use of virtual care after the pandemic and another 42% expected to maintain the current level of use.

Not without its challenges

Of course, virtual care isn’t the right fit for every situation. All of us will still need to see our doctors in person on a regular basis. It’s no surprise that the biggest challenge doctors reported with virtual care is when it comes to examining a patient (80%). Other top concerns include the inability of some patients and/or communities to access virtual care (53%), and patient preference for face-to-face appointments (44%). Maintaining boundaries with patients – setting expectations around response times to messages and emails – was a concern expressed by 43% of doctors.

Despite the challenges, only 4% of surveyed doctors felt they would discontinue virtual care after the pandemic.

Virtual care has proven to offer many attractive options that deliver benefits for patients, providers, and the health care system. And as new ideas and technology come along, the digital house call is likely to continue to evolve and influence the way we interact with the health care system. It will also play a role in the types of services and supports you make available through your group benefits plan.


1 Report | Benefits, 2022

2 2021 National Survey of Canadian Physicians | Canada Health Infoway (, 2021

3 Shifts in office and virtual primary care during the early COVID-19 pandemic in Ontario, Canada | CMAJ, 2021

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