TORONTO -- With the COVID-19 pandemic bearing down on Canada, face-to-face medicine is about to change drastically.

The Ontario Ministry of Health and Long-Term Care announced Saturday that patients can have doctor visits by video or phone, opening the door to widespread use of telemedicine for the first time.

Dr. Keith Thompson is among those who welcome the move. The London, Ont. family physician says COVID-19 has put stress on Canada’s health-care system, with patients going to clinics, doctors’ offices and the ER for assessments. It’s a scenario that could lead to patients spreading infection to front line health workers.

“If this becomes a widespread community outbreak, we’re going to think twice about the patient who has a cough or other symptoms. Do we want them coming to the office? No. We want to limit that exposure,” Thompson told CTV News.

Thompson has already been using virtual medical visits to help protect his patients and staff.

He has been registering interested patients with the Ontario Telemedicine Network, a government initiative founded in 2006. Patients supply an email and are then sent a secure link that will let them book an appointment with a doctor. Appointments are conducted  just like a Skype or FaceTime call.

“Hi Katie, how are you?” says Thompson as he connects with a patient who uses a wheelchair and has difficulties travelling to the clinic.

Thompson said other industries have found a way to harness the internet to make services easier for customers, and the he’s found that patients enjoy the convenience of virtual medical visits.

Several private companies have jumped into the field. Medeo Virtual Care, Maple, Babylon Health and MedHouseCall are among the platforms where patients can be assessed virtually by physicians and refill prescriptions. Some charge a fee for the service while others offer care as part of company health plans.

Other provinces may follow Ontario’s lead and announce plans to get more patients enrolled and monitored at home as quickly as possible.

“I think sometimes it does take an urgency or a crisis for us to look at technologies that are out there and realize how critical they are and actually start making proper use of them,” said Dr. Brett Belchetz, an emergency room doctor and  co-founder and CEO of Maple.

Western Hospital in Prince Edward Island is the first in Canada to adopt virtual care in its emergency room, using Maple. The company says a second hospital in Montague, P.E.I. will begin using the platform in the coming weeks.

“This kind of a technology allows patients who are considered to be at risk to be placed into a room where they can....see an emergency room physician by video rather than in person, where that physician can assess them remotely, order the appropriate tests and take the next steps without taking a risk that they might get exposed and then be quarantined,” said Dr. Belchez. 

Virtual medicine has long been hailed as the future of medicine. The method is being used routinely in Europe, and in particular in Italy, where doctors are connecting with COVID-19 patients at home by electronic link– keeping them away from hospitals and emergency rooms.

But some Canadian doctors have been reluctant to adopt the technology.

According to a survey from the Canadian Medical Association, less than 0.15 per cent of all health-care visits in Canada are done virtually.

However, the new coronavirus could spur the use of online medical visits in Canada as doctors turn to technology in hopes of minimizing the outbreak’s spread.