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Roughly two-fifths (41 per cent) of plan sponsors reported offering virtual health-care services through their benefits plan, according to the 2021 Benefits Canada Healthcare Survey.

Among these plan sponsors, 33 per cent said they paid extra to add virtual care to their plan, while 67 per cent said it was part of their standard plan at no extra cost. While 74 per cent were satisfied with the virtual services available through their plan — including 32 per cent that were very satisfied — 21 per cent were unsure.

Since the start of the pandemic, 43 per cent of plan members received care virtually — by phone or computer — from a health-care provider, a number that increased among those in poor health (57 per cent), with caregiver responsibilities for children and/or parents (52 per cent) and those with a chronic condition and/or chronic pain (51 per cent).

Read: Paramedical benefits sector riding virtual health care wave

Three-quarters (76 per cent) of plan members received virtual care from their usual family physician, while 27 per cent received it from another usual provider such as a pharmacist or physiotherapist and 13 per cent accessed the service through their workplace health benefits plan. Availability through workplace benefits was highest for plan members who normally work in an office setting (20 per cent) and lowest in an educational or daycare setting (six per cent).

The majority (88 per cent) of plan members who accessed virtual care through their benefits plan described it as excellent or very good, compared to 73 per cent who said the same for virtual care from their usual family physician.

Plan members were more likely to use a virtual health-care service for help with a new illness or symptoms (53 per cent) rather than for a chronic condition (33 per cent). However, age is very much a factor, as 70 per cent of plan members aged 18 to 34 used it for a new illness, compared to 26 per cent of members aged 55.

“The population that could most benefit from virtual care — plan members with chronic conditions — indicate a greater willingness to use it,” said Julie Gaudry, an advisory board member and head of group insurance at RBC Insurance Inc., in the report. “That’s a good news story and something to build upon as we navigate the ‘shadow pandemic’ that’s driven by backlogs in medical care.”

Read: Half of Canadians increasing use of virtual health care amid pandemic: survey

When asked how they obtained their prescriptions during the last year, 89 per cent of plan members most often picked them up in person from a local pharmacy. Just 11 per cent ordered prescriptions from a local pharmacy and picked them up curbside or had them delivered at least once, while only five per cent ordered from an online pharmacy.

Post-pandemic, 37 per cent of members indicated they would be likely to order their prescriptions online and have them delivered, including 51 per cent of plan members aged 18 to 34 and 15 per cent members of aged 55 to 64. Those with caregiving responsibilities (46 per cent) and living in Quebec (45 per cent) were also more likely to do so.

“Our experience with virtual care reminds us that, sometimes, change may be more readily accepted when there’s no choice,” said Jennifer Curzon, an advisory board member and regional director of sales and service for Western Canada at iA Financial Group, in the report. “People may not realize what their preferences are until they try something new. That’s an interesting factor to keep in mind as we seek out ways to encourage plan members to be better consumers of health products and services.”

Download the 2021 Benefits Canada Healthcare Survey report here.