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There are more than 3.8 million Canadians living with asthma and another 2 million living with COPD. During the COVID-19 pandemic, these highly vulnerable patients faced clinic closures, misinformation and isolation. This new digital tool can provide them with the care they need, when they need it most.

Watch Dr. Chapman’s announcement of this groundbreaking solution to respiratory care in Canada.

Virtual medicine is on the rise in Canada, and the onset of COVID-19 accelerated its adoption. But for patients with a respiratory disease — such as asthma or Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) — care by phone can only go so far.

A new digital solution from the Canadian Network for Respiratory Care (CNRC), which will go well beyond traditional telemedicine, will connect high-risk patients with care and support from home.

Challenges with Virtual Care

As a Certified Respiratory Educator (CRE), Nikki Breede’s role is to educate and manage care for patients with respiratory diseases. CREs make up a multidisciplinary group of highly trained and skilled healthcare professionals, and include respiratory therapists, pharmacists and nurses. They work throughout Canada in every part of the healthcare system.

Most CREs like Breede would typically work in a clinical setting. She is now seeing a small number of patients in clinic but sees most remotely using telemedicine. While she faces a number of challenges, she does everything possible to help her high-risk patients isolated at home.

“Some of the challenges working virtually have been in getting the information needed to provide comprehensive care to patients quickly and efficiently,” says Breede. Gathering information from different sources — such as medical charts, electronic records and pharmacists — has become difficult to do remotely, and this information barrier inhibits CREs from providing a high level of care by phone. Widespread misinformation and growing anxiety (a result of isolating at home) are additional risks respiratory patients are facing. And they’re added challenges for CREs to manage.

As a result, Breede and other CREs are often spending extended amounts of time on the phone locating details, providing accurate information and providing advice based on fragmented information — all while trying to keep the disease under control.

Introducing the Digital Monitoring and Support System

CNRC’s Digital Monitoring and Support System moves beyond the role of basic telephone advice by linking patients and the reports generated by the program directly to the patient’s CRE, as well as their primary care provider, or respiratory or allergy specialist.

“The immediate goal of the system is to provide excellent evidence-based care at a time when patients are struggling with their access to care,” says Dr. Kenneth Chapman, president of the CNRC, Director of the Asthma and Airways Centre at University Health Network and a specialist in respiratory care states. “We hope to keep patients well. We hope to keep patients free of exacerbations (or lung attacks) so they’re not dashing off to the emergency room, perhaps being exposed to the virus.”

“Our new digital tool will also enhance the work of the CREs and make patients more effective partners in their own care,” says Cheryl Connors, Executive Director of CNRC.

How the Platform Works

The Digital Monitoring and Support System connects high-risk respiratory patients, CREs and important assessment data. Clinics and providers then receive real-time reports that — like a hospital triage system — will help them evaluate and prioritize patient follow-up.

Using the tool, patients complete assessments online, which are presented in real-time to CREs and clinics in actionable reports.

“The tool will allow educators to gather comprehensive data and present it to the clinics responsible for the care of those patients. What will result is more comprehensive management, better patient education and involvement in their own care, and effective and time-efficient use of resources,” says Dr. Chapman.

And while the platform has been made necessary by the crisis, it can improve the overall care of patients with respiratory disease. Adds Dr. Chapman: “We expect this to be a program in existence for a very long time, continuing to improve the health of Canadians with respiratory disease well into the future.”

The Digital Monitoring and Support System will be rolled out in a phased approach across the country.

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This initiative was made possible through the support of Toronto General & Western Hospital Foundation, the RBC Foundation and Lyceum Health.