Moving Procedures to IHFs is a Step in the Right Direction

Let’s say you are a patient with high blood pressure in Ontario. It’s time for a check up. If you are lucky enough to have a family physician, you will go their office. Your family doctor will check your blood pressure and perform additional physical exams as necessary. If you are due for additional tests, they will order that and renew your medications. They will likely be paid fee code A007, currently set at $36.85. Out of that $36.85, your family doctor will put some aside to pay the staff, some for cleaning, some for rent, some for other expenses. The remainder, the “profit” if you will, your family doctor will keep for themselves.

Additionally, your family doctor will be required to keep their medical equipment in good order, vaccines in a fridge at consistent temperature, sterilize their equipment and so on. Medial charts must be kept legible and comprehensive. Your doctor will be subject to inspections from their governing body, the College of Physicians and Surgeons (CPSO) to ensure they comply with this.

None of this is new, and it’s how health care has worked in Ontario for decades.

It’s therefore amusing to me to see the righteous indignation on social media when the Ontario Government announced that it would allow more procedures to be done outside of hospital, in an attempt to start to catch up on a backlog of health care that some estimates place at 20 million procedures. The frenzied cries of how this is scheming to create two tier health care where you pay with your credit card have come from the usual suspects.

Premier Doug Ford and Health Minister Sylvia Jones announcing the expansion of Independent Health Facilities

Ontario has had Independent Health Facilities (IHFs) for decades. This is not a new concept. Just like your family doctors, these IHFs bill OHIP for services that are insured, and in return perform a procedure/test/examination on you the patient. They are subject to inspection by the CPSO (just like your family doctor) and have to stay up to standards.

As technology has evolved, many procedures that were once done only in hospital can now be done safely outside of hospitals. Cataract surgery for sure. Colonoscopies/Gastroscopies as well. Arthroscopies are safe and even some joint replacements can be done as outpatient surgery now.

And, just like a visit to your family doctor, you would go to the IHF, the physician would get paid for the work they do by OHIP, some of what they get paid would go to cover their overhead, and the remainder, the profit, they would keep for themselves.

Philosophically, there is NO difference between these two scenarios. So it is extremely curious that people are raising such a furious response to this. Essentially they are saying “it’s ok for family doctors to own their own clinic and keep a profit but it’s not okay for a specialist to do so.” Talk about two tier!

Now that’s not to say there aren’t some practical considerations that need to be thought out.

  1. Where will the support staff (particularly nurses) come from?
    • My feeling on this is that right now we do have a number of nurses who have left hospitals because of the stress of working there. They are never going back. If we build these outpatient surgical centres as part of the hospital bureaucracy, not only will it take longer (hospital bureacrats have never met a committee they didn’t like) but when the hospitals go to hire staff, they will likely want the staff to be able to work in other parts of the hospital and take call. The nurses who left the hospital will NEVER agree to that. Maybe some of these nurses would work in an IHF if they were guaranteed daytime hours. I don’t know how many. But it will be more that the zero that will go back to a hospital owned facility.
  2. Where will the surgeons come from?
    • Fun fact that you may not know. We do have a shortage of doctors. But we also have 150 unemployed orthopaedic surgeons in the province. I’m serious. And I agree with Canadian Medical Association Journal that this is a sign of poor planning. The real problem for most surgeons is lack of operating room time. Having IHFs with operating time will allow them to work and catch up on the health care back log.
  3. Will there be charges outside of OHIP?
    • The reality is that OHIP only covers some things. If you need a Drivers Medical for example, OHIP does not pay for that. Your family doctor will charge you. Same for sick notes, prescription renewals without a visit and more. Philosophically, there is again, no difference between what your family doctor would do, and IHF would do if you wanted something that OHIP didn’t cover (an upgraded cataract lens for example). My father paid for upgraded lenses when he had cataract surgery (in a hospital), and that was something like 15 years ago.
  4. How will we ensure appropriate care?
    • This is a biggie, and the one area that we really need more details on. One example, if I order an MRI of a spine on a patient, I have to fill out an “MRI Appropriateness Form”. This form ensures that clinically, the MRI is required and if the patient doesn’t meet the clinical criteria, the MRI is declined. This is process is only in place at some hospitals. We do need something similar in place if we are to have IHFs do MRIs and other tests.
  5. How do we ensure physician coverage at hospitals?
    • Another biggie. And another area where we really need some more details. What happens if someone has, say, a gall bladder is removed at an IHF and unfortunately the patient has complications? Obviously they will need to go to a hospital. Off the top of my head I would suggest that an IHF only get a licence to do surgical procedures if all of the surgeons have privileges at a nearby hospital so that they can manage their own complications. There may be other ways around this. But there clearly needs to be some work done here as well.

In short, Ontario is finally taking some steps that have the potential to reduce the overwhelming backlog of medical care that patients are experiencing. Instead of throwing up egregious “two tier American style health care tweets” based on ideology alone, we need to work on the practical details of this move to ensure that the roll out is done in the most effective manner possible. Even with that, it will still take years to make a meaningful dent in the backlog of health care.

But I can tell you that if we listen to what the politically motivated folks on Social Media want (have the hospitals run these facilities) it will instead, take decades.

Author: justanoldcountrydoctor

Practicing rural family medicine since 1992. I still have active privileges at the Collingwood Hospital. One Time President of the Ontario Medical Association.

One thought on “Moving Procedures to IHFs is a Step in the Right Direction”

  1. A well thought out response! Point 2: I am an Investigative Coroner and during the pandemic I was a mentor for a new coroner, a Vascular Surgeon twiddling his thumbs with all the lock downs! What a waste of specialist skills! Point 5. I have been asked to investigate a death just days after release of the patient from an IHF. The poor surgeon tried desperately to intervene on the patients admission to hospital with post-op complications, but the antiquated Privileging Process prevented temporary hospital privileges. It didn’t matter that he is a well respected surgeon with hospital privileges in a large urban centre. This is the height of arrogance on the part of our system and needs correction. He tried to intervene, speaking with colleagues and the surgeon in charge of his patient, and his desired intervention was eventually carried out. Great Britain is an excellent example to follow with a superior public service in part due to a mix of privatization with excellent controls. We face serious political fall out trying to educate the public with real world solutions.

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