This week, it appears that the “surge” of COVID-19 patients entering Ontario hospitals has begun. In particular the number of patients on a ventilator (essentially life support) has gone from 62 two weeks ago, to around 200 today. Additionally, the number of people in hospital with COVID-19 related illness has risen to about 740 as of today, with about 261 in Intensive Care. Ontario has about 2000 ICU beds, so there appears to be some capacity, but if the surge worsens, this may disappear.
Unsurprisingly, the focus of the government has been to prepare the hospitals for inpatient care as best as possible. This includes ensuring more staff, funding for ventilators, investing in PPE (although it’s unclear how this will arrive) and so forth.
However, while this is all appropriate, it’s important to remember that there are other areas of health care that will need support. For example, hospitals perform many outpatient services like specialty clinics and diagnostic imaging. There are also community clinics that provide patient services (your doctors office for example). All of these clinics have been effectively shuttered due to the physical distancing guidelines, but all of them also keep patients healthy and prevent them for becoming inpatients.
There are likely to be four “waves” to his pandemic. I would try to explain them all to you, but Dr. Victor Tseung has done a great job illustrating this, and, as they say, a picture is worth a thousand words:
Currently, we are at the beginning of the first wave. A lot of preparation has been done for this stage, and rightfully so. I will also say that the Ontario Medical Association (OMA) has done a lot of work to anticipate the fourth wave, by offering virtual check in clinics for our members and by messaging the availability of the services we offer for help with burnout and stress. I believe it was Dr. Mamta Gautam who coined the phrase “pre-TSD”, which is what many physicians are experiencing right now. Better to address this head on now, then wait for it to turn into something worse.
Quite frankly I worry, that not enough attention is being paid to waves 2 and 3. Canada’s health care system was already overburdened to begin with. We were (sadly) famous for having ridiculously long wait times. Along with those increased wait times comes increased morbidity. Morbidity refers to the burden of multiple health conditions over time. Supposing, you have terrible arthritis in your knee. You don’t walk because of the pain. Over time you become more sedentary and develop a blood clot in your legs, that then breaks off and goes to your lungs. All of which could have been avoided if you had your surgery in a timely manner. That’s morbidity.
See many (if not most) of the medical services provided to patients who will suffer in wave 2 and 3 are provided by outpatient physicians. These physicians work at clinics in hospital, or their own offices or at what are called Independent Health Facilities (IHFs). IHFs are non-hospital clinics with equipment (e.g. X-ray, Ultrasound, Labs, heart imaging). They are provide the kind of care that reduces the load off our hospitals in difficult times. By allowing doctors to diagnose and treat chronic illnesses sooner, they prevent morbidity. Their work has never been so important.
What’s a good example of a wave 2 patient? Supposing a patient has glaucoma, a build up of pressure in the eye. Untreated, this will lead to blindness. Many patients require laser surgery to relieve the pressure, but eye surgery has been stopped due to the current pandemic. Eventually this will catch up to people.
Wave 3 patient? Someone who has heart disease, but isn’t able to get their Echocardiogram (a type of heart ultrasound) to assess their condition. Waiting a few weeks is probably ok, but at some point, their heart is likely to deteriorate further, and they will wind up in hospital, which is the last place you want to send someone these days.
What’s that you say? Why can’t health care infrastructure just start up again in a few weeks? Here’s where the business side of medicine, which no one likes to talk about, comes in. Many clinics and IHFs are run on a tight budget after years of cut backs by previous governments. So what happens is a patient comes in for a test, OHIP pays for the test, and the clinics use that money to pay for nurses, technicians, rent and leases on some of the equipment. Some of the equipment can cost millions of dollars.
These are generally small businesses. The simple reality is that without people coming in (which they aren’t right now as non-essential treatments have stopped), there is no money coming in, and so the overheads don’t get paid. Unlike large companies like Apple or Google, these businesses don’t have much cash in reserve as the overhead is so high, so they will go under. I know of many clinics that have laid off staff right now, in order to try and get an extra months rent and lease paid.
Of course, this is the same plight that faces all small businesses across Canada. Certainly, it would be remiss of me not to point out that just about everybody is feeling economic pain right now. Many people have been laid off, gone on EI and are suffering.
The thing is, health care is an essential service. Without them, all of the ongoing outpatient care and preventative care I was talking about won’t get done. If that happens, patients will get sicker and wind up in hospital. Or worse.
These are difficult times for all of us. But if we are to get through the COVID-19 crisis, not only do we need to take a short term view and address the immediate surge, but a much longer view must also be taken. This means supporting health care infrastructure. The well being of our patients depends on it.