The Implementation of a Virtual Emergency Department: Multimethods Study Guided by the RE-AIM (Reach, Effectiveness, Adoption, Implementation, and Maintenance) Framework.

Publication date: Dec 05, 2023

While the COVID-19 pandemic dramatically increased virtual care uptake across many health settings, it remains significantly underused in urgent care. This study evaluated the implementation of a pilot virtual emergency department (VED) at an Ontario hospital that connected patients to emergency physicians through a web-based portal. We sought to (1) assess the acceptability of the VED model, (2) evaluate whether the VED was implemented as intended, and (3) explore the impact on quality of care, access to care, and continuity of care. This evaluation used a multimethods approach informed by the RE-AIM (Reach, Effectiveness, Adoption, Implementation, and Maintenance) framework. Data included semistructured interviews with patients and physicians as well as postvisit surveys from patients. Interviews were transcribed and analyzed using thematic analysis. Data from the surveys were described using summary statistics. From December 2020 to December 2021, the VED had a mean of 153 (SD 25) visits per month. Among them, 67% (n=677) were female, and 75% (n=758) had a family physician. Patients reported that the VED provided high-quality, timely access to care and praised the convenience, shorter appointments, and benefit of the calm, safe space afforded through virtual appointments. In instances where patients were directed to come into the emergency department (ED), physicians were able to provide a “warm handoff” to improve efficiency. This helped manage patient expectations, and the direct advice of the ED physician reassured them that the visit was warranted. There was broad initial uptake of VED shifts among ED physicians with 60% (n=22) completing shifts in the first 2 months and 42% (n=15) completing 1 or more shifts per month over the course of the pilot. There were no difficulties finding sufficient ED physicians for shifts. Most physicians enjoyed working in the VED, saw value for patients, and were motivated by patient satisfaction. However, some physicians were hesitant as they felt their expertise and skills as ED physicians were underused. The VED was implemented using an iterative staged approach with increased service capabilities over time, including access to ultrasounds, virtual follow-ups after a recent ED visit, and access to blood work, urine tests, and x-rays (at the hospital or a local community laboratory). Physicians recognized the value in supporting patients by advising on the need for an in-person visit, booking a diagnostic test, or referring them to a specialist. The VED had the support of physicians and facilitated care for low-acuity presentations with immediate benefits for patients. It has the potential to benefit the health care system by seeing patients through the web and guiding patients to in-person care only when necessary. Long-term sustainability requires a focus on understanding digital equity and enhanced access to rapid testing or investigations.

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Concepts Keywords
December digital emergency department
Ontario emergency care
Pilot emergency department
Ultrasounds evaluation
implementation science
mixed methods evaluation
virtual care


Type Source Name
disease MESH Emergency
disease VO effectiveness
disease MESH COVID-19 pandemic
disease IDO quality
disease VO efficiency
disease VO time
disease IDO blood
disease VO Equity
drug DRUGBANK Methylphenidate
disease VO Canada
drug DRUGBANK Coenzyme M
disease MESH uncertainty
disease IDO intervention
disease VO population
disease MESH stroke
disease VO organization
drug DRUGBANK Sodium lauryl sulfate
disease VO frequency
disease MESH Marital status

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