Updated October 2020
COVID-19 has, understandably, caused many patients to wonder what to expect from their doctors. The uncertainty and continuously evolving nature of this outbreak has many patients anxious about how to best protect themselves, their loved ones, and access the ongoing care they need and any care needed related to COVID-19.
The landscape is continually evolving and it’s important that patients access information from centralized authorities such as Public Health Ontario, the Ministry of Health, and Health Canada. If you’re experiencing difficulty coping during this time, whether it is due to stress, isolation, grief, or other reasons, you can find a list of resources published by the Ministry of Health.
It’s important to remain diligent in our efforts to protect each other while we work together to prevent the spread of the virus.
Are doctors available to provide care?
Yes, doctors are available to provide care. Due to the pandemic, doctors have had to limit the care they provide in-person in order to help prevent the spread of COVID-19. However, doctors are available virtually, usually phone or video, to help you manage your health care needs and available to see you in-person when it’s necessary and the appropriate precautions can be taken. Reach out to your doctor and find out what care you need and the best way you can receive it.
If you do not have a doctor or you are unable to see your regular doctor, Telehealth Ontario (1-866-797-0000) is a free, confidential service you can call to get health advice or information and determine your options. For non-urgent issues, options such as the Ontario Virtual Care Clinic are available or you can also search for walk-in clinics near you. If you are having a medical emergency, you should call 911 or visit the nearest emergency department.
How can I now get the non-essential or elective care that has been put off for the past few months?
During the beginning of the pandemic, all non-essential or elective care was paused by the Ontario Government. While that’s no longer the case, there is a significant backlog that physicians and hospitals are dealing with. Reach out to your doctor to discuss your needs and to figure out when you can expect to receive care. Your doctor is in the best position to determine when and how you can access care based on individual need and available resources.
Keep in mind that you may still experience delays. Health care providers are attempting to address a backlog and there are many precautions doctors must take to ensure they can provide care to patients safely. There are still shortages of personal protective equipment (PPE) in some areas of the province or in some practices, some medications are in short supply, and some regions of the province are being harder hit by the pandemic than others especially as additional waves of the outbreak are beginning to happen.
The wait time to get an in-person appointment is long. How can I be seen sooner?
There may be many reasons why there is a long wait for in-person appointments. Doctors are attempting to address a backlog from early in the pandemic and are prioritizing care that has been deferred based on need, capacity, and other resources. There are also extra precautions in place to make sure everyone is safe, which may mean fewer patients can be seen in a day. You may wish to speak with your doctor to figure out if there are aspects of your care that are suited for a virtual visit. Be sure to tell your doctor if there has been any change in your health status. Your doctor can help you determine when you can receive care based on your needs and availability.
My doctor wants to see me in-person, but I’d rather be seen virtually – what are my options?
In some cases, your doctor is going to need to see you in-person. This might be because of the type of care they’re providing (e.g., vaccination) or because they need to see you in person to make an appropriate assessment of your needs (e.g., a physical assessment is needed to diagnose).
Your doctor should only recommend in-person care if it is appropriate to do so and they are taking appropriate safety precautions, including using proper personal protective equipment (PPE), practicing good hygiene, ensuring physical distancing in waiting areas, and limiting the number of patients seen in person to help protect everyone so that when you do need to come in, it’s safe to do so. If you are hesitant or have concerns, talk to your doctor about what specific precautions they have in place, and whether any aspects of the care you need can be delivered virtually.
My doctor wants to provide care virtually, but I’d rather go in person – what are my options?
Virtual care is a great way for doctors to deliver care to patients in a safe, secure, and convenient way. In fact, to help manage the pandemic and limit exposure to and transmission of the virus all health care providers are being asked to use virtual care where it can be done safely and appropriately. Depending on the technology your doctor uses, you can get virtual care over the phone, through video, or even sometimes email or secure messaging.
Your doctor should only recommend virtual care when it is appropriate to do so. For example, a lot of the care your family doctor provides might be suitable for virtual care whereas the care you receive if you’re admitted to the hospital may require your doctor to be in-person more often.
If you are concerned about receiving care virtually, including concerns about your ability to use or access technology, let your doctor know. It’s important for your doctor to know about your concerns or limitations, but they might still encourage you to receive care virtually for your own safety and the safety of others. To help protect everyone, doctors are limiting and prioritizing access to in-person care, but they will make a decision that is in your best interests in the circumstances.
Can I accompany someone or bring someone else to an in-person doctor’s appointment?
Caregivers play an essential role in helping patients during appointments. The pandemic has created new risks for everyone when in-person care is delivered, so deciding whether to attend with someone or have someone attend with you will require a bit of care and thoughtfulness to avoid unnecessary exposure or risk of transmission. Speak with your doctor about your situation and whether it’s appropriate and safe to bring someone with you to your appointment.
My doctor has temporarily closed their practice during the pandemic. How do I get the care I need?
Generally, doctors should not be closing their offices completely. You should only encounter this in special circumstances. At this point most practices should be open for both in-person care, where it is needed, and virtual care, where it’s appropriate and safe to do so.
If your doctor has closed their practice for legitimate reasons, they must take steps to help you get the care you need. This may mean asking a colleague to cover, or helping you understand where to go in the system to access care. You can help by keeping a list of your medications (ask your pharmacy for an updated list if you need to), health history, etc. available to share with others helping to provide care during this time. If you have a concern you can call our Patient Help Centre (416-967-2603 or Toll Free: 1-800-268-7096 Ext. 603).
If you do not have a doctor or you are unable to see your regular doctor, Telehealth Ontario (1-866-797-0000) is a free, confidential service you can call to get health advice or information and determine your options. For non-urgent issues, options such as the Ontario Virtual Care Clinic are available. You may also search for walk-in clinics near you. If you are having a medical emergency, you should call 911 or visit the nearest emergency department.
I’ve been asked to provide a doctor’s note indicating that I can return to work or clearing me of any risks associated with COVID-19. How do I get one?
There are some legitimate pre-existing or chronic conditions you might have that would cause you to answer yes to some of the screening questions. In these cases, your doctor can write a note or complete a form confirming that you have a pre-existing condition which will help your employer, school board, or childcare center manage the routine positive screen.
However, doctors are very limited in what they can say in other situations where you might have developed one of the symptoms associated with COVID-19 and have not done a COVID-19 test. We know some school boards, childcare centres, and workplaces may be asking for a doctor’s note or letter to be completed in order to return. While this is not a good use of your doctor’s time, if you find yourself being asked for a note or form, speak with your doctor to understand your options.
Screening, Monitoring, and Self-Isolation
Why am I repeatedly being asked the same screening questions?
It is necessary to ask screening questions at the point-of-care each time for the safety of everyone involved, including yourself, health care providers, and other patients.
While it may be frustrating to answer the same questions repeatedly, it’s extremely important for everyone to answer the screening questions honestly to help prevent the spread of COVID-19.
Will I still be able to be treated if I have recently travelled or been in contact with someone with COVID-19?
Sharing that you’ve recently travelled or have been in contact with someone known to have COVID-19, will not mean you will be denied care or treatment. It just means that the way care is provided to you will be different to help ensure that you and everyone else involved are protected from exposure to COVID-19. It’s extremely important for everyone to answer the screening questions honestly for the safety of everyone involved, including yourself, health care providers, and other patients. If you’re an essential worker that travels outside of Canada as part of your work, let your health care providers know this so they can determine the best way to help you get access to health care while you work.
What should I do if I’ve recently returned from a trip outside Canada or if I think I’ve been exposed to someone with COVID-19?
The federal government has issued a clear directive that anyone returning home from outside of Canada with no symptoms of COVID-19 must quarantine (or self-isolate) for 14 days (some exceptions apply if, for example, you are an essential worker and cross-border travel is part of your job). This means staying at home, avoiding contact with others, and shopping online or asking friends, family, or a neighbour to help with essential errands like buying groceries.
It is important to self-isolate after travelling, even without symptoms, as it is possible to transmit COVID-19 before you start showing symptoms or without developing symptoms. For more information on how to self-isolate and things you can do while in quarantine, visit the Health Canada website. If you are caring for or living with someone who is self-isolating, guidance is also available on the Public Health Ontario website.
If you have been diagnosed with COVID-19 or have symptoms of COVID-19, or have been in contact with someone who has or is suspected to have COVID-19, then you must isolate. For information on how to isolate at home when you may have COVID-19, visit the Health Canada or Public Health Ontario websites.
If you have questions about whether you should get tested for COVID-19, the province’s self-assessment tool can help you determine whether you should visit an assessment centre to get tested for COVID-19 or contact Telehealth Ontario (1-866-797-0000).
I need to get a prescription – but I think I have COVID-19 symptoms, or I was exposed to someone with COVID-19. Should I go to the pharmacy to get my medication?
No. Call your pharmacy first so they can help you find the best way to get your medication. This might mean having your doctor fax or call in your prescription to your choice of pharmacy and then coordinate with the pharmacy for a delivery or to have a family member, friend, etc. pick-up the prescription on your behalf. If you have COVID-19 or are experiencing symptoms of COVID-19 it’s essential that you isolate, and not visit the pharmacy, as this can put other patients or pharmacy professionals at risk.
I’ve heard about some drugs that might be able to help treat COVID-19. Should I ask my doctor for these drugs?
There are currently no proven treatments for COVID-19. Be careful about relying on information about COVID-19 treatments from unknown or non-medical sources or information heard through word of mouth, as this can be false or misleading. The situation is rapidly changing, and it is important to follow recommendations from public health authorities and to follow the medical advice from your doctor. Using unproven treatments may expose you to harm and lead to drug shortages for patients who need the drugs for their intended use. If a drug is found to be helpful in treating COVID-19 it will be made available through appropriate channels. If you have COVID-19 and have questions about how to manage your health, speak to your doctor or call Telehealth Ontario (1-866-797-000).
Prevention and Treatment
Where do I go to get tested for COVID-19? Why is my doctor sending me somewhere else to get tested?
If you are experiencing symptoms of COVID-19, (e.g., fever, cough, difficulty breathing), going to your physician’s office may expose others and put them at risk. Do not show up to your doctor’s office unannounced. Call ahead to see if it is appropriate to go to their office, go elsewhere, or see your doctor virtually.
Testing guidelines are changing as the province’s response to the pandemic shifts. This means there are different rules about who should get tested and where. For the most up to date guidance go to the Government of Ontario’s COVID-19 website.
Completing the province’s self-assessment tool will also help you and your physician understand where you should be seen and whether you should be tested.
Once you’ve been tested, there is also an online portal where you can review the results quickly at the comfort of your own home.
What safety precautions do doctors have in place to help keep me and others safe?
If you are visiting your doctor in person, they should be taking several safety precautions, including screening patients for COVID-19 before seeing them, wearing masks and having staff and other patients wear masks, limiting in-person visits, scheduling patients to minimize the number of patients in a waiting room, enforcing physical distancing, and ensuring proper hygiene and sanitization. If your needs can be addressed through virtual care, your doctor should let you know that is an option available to you. If you have questions or concerns about the specific precautions your doctor is taking to help keep you and others safe, you can contact them for more information.
My doctor is asking me to bring and wear a mask to my appointment. Do I have to? What if I don’t have symptoms?
Yes, you should wear a mask even if you are not experiencing symptoms of COVID-19.
Our public health officials are advising that wearing a non-medical or homemade mask may provide an added layer of protection, particularly when physical distancing is not possible. It is important to follow public health advice and any provincial directives or local by-laws which mandate masks indoors to help prevent the spread of the virus.
You can buy masks from physical and online locations and there are resources online for how to make your own. If you have a health condition that makes it difficult to wear a mask, explain this to your doctor or their staff in advance so they understand why you are not able to wear one, and can discuss whether other accommodations or options are available for you to ensure that you can safely receive the care you need.
For more information on how to properly wear, fit, remove and clean masks and face coverings, visit the Ministry of Health’s website. Remember that a mask is just one tool in a bucket of tools to help prevent the spread of COVID-19. You should still be limiting outings, avoiding close contact with others, and practicing good hand hygiene.
Can my doctor charge me for a mask or a fee for accessing care in-person?
No, your doctor should not be charging you for a mask or a fee for accessing care in-person. The Ministry of Health has confirmed that infection prevention and control products or practices, including masks provided to patients, are part of the insured services physicians provide and so cannot be charged for.
I was in a waiting area that was completely full of people. I thought the guidance was to stay 6 feet away from people with symptoms?
Doctors are making changes to their practice to help patients, staff, and themselves practice safe physical distancing. Unfortunately, sometimes delays can add up and patients might need to wait longer than planned and may lead to more crowded waiting areas.
If you feel unsafe, you may want to speak to staff to express your concern. You can tell them that you prefer to wait outside or your vehicle, if that is an option, or in a less crowded area, such as the hallway or entrance, and leave contact information for when you are ready to be seen.
Remember to continue following other guidelines the best you can, including maintaining physical distance from others, practicing good hand hygiene, and wearing a face covering or mask.