Existing heart patients currently receiving information and care from cardiologists over the telephone will still be able to use that method and have it covered by OHIP after new rules take effect on Dec. 1, the Ministry of Health confirmed Friday.

But the association that represents 250 Ontario cardiologists warns the rule changes won’t permit new patients from using the telephone, even though it’s a method many rural patients prefer.

Studies have shown the telephone is convenient for the elderly, Northerners who live long distances from hospitals and medical clinics, as well as those who aren’t comfortable video-conferencing on a computer.

The “new rules make it no longer possible for cardiologists and other specialists to see new (patients) by telephone under circumstances where it is medically appropriate and highly beneficial to the patient,” association executive director Tim Holman said Friday.

“We would like to work with (the ministry) to develop better rules that avoid this collateral damage,” Holman added.

Though patients who are already communicating with cardiologists over the phone can continue to do so after Dec. 1, cardiologists will get paid 15 per cent less, the association notes.

Starting next month, new patients will have to meet cardiologists in person or by video-conferencing.

The telephone won’t be an option, even though “patients are very comfortable talking on the phone, and often give more detailed (medical) histories,” the association says. “Often one or several family members become part of the call. This enriches the information available to the physician and can often take more time.”

The use of virtual care methods became more prevalent two years ago during the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, when Ontarians were encouraged to limit travel, even for medical appointments.

“Virtual care is intended to compliment in-person care, not replace it,” a ministry spokeswoman said. “This approach has resulted in meaningful changes for virtual care that ensures a positive patient-physician relationship is fostered.”

Holman said “our association has never claimed that virtual care should replace in-person care.”

“Clearly,” Holman added, “the new rules favour video conferencing over phone-based virtual care, but no reason is given for the devaluing of phone-based care.”

“Many patients will not have access to virtual care going forward because they don’t use computers or have access to high-speed internet.”