Nurse Practitioner, Abigail Sawler, reducing health system pressures through VirtualCareNS

Abigail Sawler, Nurse Practitioner
Abigail Sawler, Nurse Practitioner

As a nurse for over ten years, Abigail Sawler, now a Nurse Practitioner, has cared for many people who did not have a primary care provider.

When she heard about VirtualCareNS, she was interested in the opportunity to provide primary care to unattached people in such an innovative way.

VirtualCareNS is a pilot program led by Nova Scotia Health’s Innovation Hub in partnership with  Nova Scotia Health’s Primary Health Care team, IM/IT team, and other health system partners, which provides free, temporary access to primary medical care for people on the Need a Family Practice Registry. Through VirtualCareNS, people on the registry can make a same-day virtual medical appointment for their primary health care needs.

Sawler is one of the three Nurse Practitioners who started with the VirtualCareNS program last June. She is pleased with how well the program has evolved over the last year. 

“People are really enjoying the program. They often think that the technology will be intimidating, but once they log in and get familiar with it, it gets easier.” she says.

“It's very rewarding for me to watch somebody who was intimidated by the technology have a successful virtual appointment. They are happy and excited and it’s great to be a part of that.”

Sawler says that the majority of the people she has provided care for find the program to be easy and convenient, and she’s been able to directly reduce strain on other areas of the health system.

“I've been able to support people who are waiting in the emergency department and decided to try a VirtualCareNS appointment while waiting instead. They didn’t require emergent medical care, and I was able to provide the care that they needed so they could leave the emergency department,” she says.

“For example, one patient visited the emergency department with non-urgent concerns about Lyme disease. They decided to try VirtualCareNS while in the waiting room, and through the VirtualCareNS platform, an assessment was completed, a blood work requisition was provided and a follow up plan arranged. They were able to leave the emergency department with a plan in place,” she says.

Sawler reminds patients that VirtualCareNS only provides primary health care, and anyone experiencing urgent health concerns should visit their local emergency department or call 911.

“It feels great to be able to provide a person with timely, appropriate access to primary care, while also being able to reduce some of the health system pressure on the emergency department.”

In addition to reducing some of the immediate pressures on the health system, Sawler says she is also pleased at how VirtualCareNS has been able to catch disease early to create long-term benefit for individuals and the health system.

“When people don't have access to primary care, we're missing an opportunity to catch a disease in its early stages before it causes more severe health impacts. Through VirtualCareNS, we’ve been able to catch some of these diseases before people end up in an emergent situation, which might be several years down the road.”

Sawler says that there is often a misconception that VirtualCareNS is purely virtual, and that there are no opportunities for in-person assessments. Her main role within the VirtualCareNS program is to provide in person appointment needs for people in the Kentville and Middleton areas, and she notes the option is of great benefit to unattached patients.

“People are often surprised that we are able to offer in-person assessments when needed. While this doesn’t mean that you are connected with a permanent primary care provider, it means that you are able to be connected with an in-person appointment from a VirtualCareNS provider and would then continue to seek care through the online platform. We find that we are able to meet many health care needs virtually, and the in-person option is available when necessary.”

She acknowledges that the team is continuously working on ways to improve the program, and says that there a variety of support options available, including an in-app help button, and a VirtualCareNS administrative team.

“Of course, there are sometimes challenges, but we work it out together and we are happy to help. We want people to know that we are here to support them and it’s okay to ask for help.”

To learn more about VirtualCareNS and the support options that are available, please visit www.virtualcarens.ca.

About the Nova Scotia Health Innovation Hub

The Nova Scotia Health Innovation Hub is leading innovation and research within the healthcare system to deliver high-impact solutions for patients and providers. Through strategic partnerships with clinical champions, industry, healthcare foundations, governments and academic partners, Nova Scotia Health’s Innovation Hub is transforming healthcare through the best available evidence and innovative solutions. It’s also a catalyst that is fostering an innovative mindset and approaches to bring about positive system change. Learn more.