What Backlogged Health Care Looks Like and How to Fix It.

Dr. Silvy Mathew guest blogs for me today. She is hands down one of the smartest people I know. She writes about her experience in visiting the ER to help a family member. Dr. Mathew has been a strong advocate for health system reform and it is a loss for all Ontario residents that her warnings about the impending crisis in health care were not heeded by Health Ministers dating back to Eric Hoskins.

A few days ago I was in the Emergency Room (ER) with a family member. The ER was slammed. The paramedics were lovely and about four teams that I could see were stuck in waiting room, waiting for their patients to be triaged. We were on a stretcher by the front sliding doors. Almost outside.

We were there for urgent imaging, and possibly consultation. We tried to do this in the outpatient setting, but lack of access to both urgent images and consults for urgent care makes that impossible. So we go off to ER by EMS (needed for transport).

I’m fortunate. I am able to fill in gaps. I can advise triage what issue is, as they can’t do physical exam in the waiting room in front of what seems like hundreds of people. I can provide medical information on relevant questions. I can monitor the patient status for changes.

I did remind staff after several hours to check blood sugar as my relative is an insulin dependent diabetic, now off food/fluids. I did remind about necessary medications to be given. Of course, if I wasn’t there, they may have reviewed the chart closer but they were clearly slammed and trying to manage.

And we weren’t in distress. My family member was unable to advocate for themselves. We got imaging about six hours in, and I watched the imaging staff, working with 50% less nursing staff, literally just running in and out moving people. Doing their best.

We had excellent care from people busting their butts. But so many potential falls through the cracks and errors. Twelve hours later, we got home, luckily without any new issues from ER. And we had a plan. And we had a specialist who called first thing in the a.m. to ensure we have close follow-up.

The system in Ontario has relied for decades on individuals and work-arounds making things work (like above) when the system design is archaic. Successive Ontario governments have refused to participate in strategic multi-pronged co-design, instead of piecemeal band-aids.

I have worked for 15 yrs in Ontario health care. I’ve witnessed how far things have fallen and how none of our work arounds previously used are available now after the Covid 19 pandemic, for multiple reasons. I’ve participated with the Ontario Medical Association and sat on bilateral committees with the government to try to advocate for system change.

I’ve witnessed how siloed and unaware most people outside of primary care are. Family Medicine is the canary NOT the Emergency Department. The issues that have caused this system collapse have been occurring since 2012. Many of us, especially Dr. Nadia Alam, tried to be loud and warn.

Last year, in 2021, we gave up. It was obvious to us it was too late. We heard for years from our mid-career colleagues about how they couldn’t do this anymore. How they wouldn’t work in a system that didn’t allow them ANY joy or success while taking more and more from them personally.

Covid-19 just pushed the dial a bit faster. The family doctors who were hanging on from retiring have chosen to live now (not leave, but LIVE). The mid-career family docs are struggling as mentioned above and also choosing to leave family medicine if possible, because nothing is working in it. Obviously, new graduates are terrified.

And so here we are, and the CCFP answer to this is to ADD a third year to residency. Because somehow they think adding more school, asking people to take on more debt, delay starting their lives longer, while having less non-academic preceptor support will somehow help?

What it will do is: add even more fuel to the family medicine crisis and shortage. It’s not gonna teach you how to run a business (last I checked real life experience mattered more). It’s not going to teach how to manage complexity in real life. It WILL drive more people out of family medicine residency.

What we REALLY need is a re design of the health system. You want people to do this job? LET them. You want family doctors to work at the top of their scope? ENABLE them. Support access to resources OUTSIDE of hospital and provide help to coordinate.

Stop advocating for more debt and school CCFP, and advocate for real life mentorship, group practices and shared care. You want Emergency Rooms to not house people? Fund home care and long term care. Fund resource teams to support those in seniors neighborhoods already. Use a community approach.

While we are at it, stop spending all the money on pharmacology. Fund allied health, encourage exercise programs and healthy meals because that’s WAY more useful than the hundreds of thousands of dollars of Botox we spend on contractures AFTER they occur. Keeping people mobile keeps them out of hospital and long term care.

The Canadian media can stop asking if health care has collapsed, anyone working in it knows it has. It will show in a year or two, when the numbers of late-diagnosed cancers, life expectancy and other markers of care get affected. But in real-time we are seeing it now.

If we don’t have some real leadership here and some true innovation, we are in for some truly sad times in the next decade. End.

Does Ontario’s Digital Health Strategy Meet Our Needs?

That the health care system is currently in a state of crisis is no secret. That we need to look at bold, radical transformation of the health care system is no secret. That fixing health care means fixing family medicine first is well known. But in order to do all of this, we must finally fix the mess that is digital health infrastructure in Ontario (indeed, all of Canada).

If you speak to any health care worker about Digital Health/Electronic Medical Records(EMR)/Health Information Systems(HIS) you are most likely to elicit a loud, pain filled groan. EMRs have long been cited as a leading cause for physician burnout. Incredibly, 7 out of 10 physicians (!!) have some form of EMR induced stress.

Even the Surgeon General of the U.S. stated that EMRs needed to be fixed (Dr. Glaumcoflecken’s “there are so many clicks” is the exact response you’d get from me):

The reality however, is that there is a bad way of implementing a digital health infrastructure and a good way.

A bad way would be what the four hospitals in my neck of the woods did last year. Implement Meditech Expanse with it’s cumbersome modules, painful clicks, restrictive algorithms and emesis inducing user interface. Better yet, force doctors to learn this odiously inhumane system in the middle of a pandemic when they were already burnt out. The obvious result? At Collingwood Hospital (where I still have privileges but may not after this blog), many family doctors are leaving citing this as a main cause. (Piss off people who are already burnt out, and they leave, who knew?)

A better way of doing things would be to set things up the way my colleague Dr. James Lane did in (ironically enough) the Georgian Triangle region of which Collingwood is a large part. Set up a system where the whole community is on one EMR. Then allow limited information sharing with allied health care providers. Start with pharmacists, then add in home care providers. As a result, there is secure information sharing between health care providers allowing the optimization of patient care.

Some recent examples from my practice:

  1. I renew a prescription for amiodarone. The pharmacists messages me back on the patient’s chart (no faxing, no finding the chart etc) letting me know that the cardiologist had actually reduced the dose of the amiodarone, and I immediately correct the prescription.
  2. The wife of a patient with dementia is concerned her husband is deteriorating. I send a message via my EMR to the Home Care case manager assigned to my practice. I get a response by end of day saying she’s contacted the wife and will arrange for an in home assessment. (This doesn’t solve the problem of actually finding staff to do the work of course, but at least I know that the referral hasn’t been lost).
  3. I send a CT requisition to radiology for staging of a newly diagnosed cancer patient. The local radiologist has questions so he accesses the chart to look at some of the pathology reports to inform his report of the CT.

There’s many more examples but you get the point. These kind of things can not only enhance patient care, but reduce the admin burden of co-ordinating between different agencies. (I cringe when my friends in other centres talk about how hard it is to get home care to acknowledge that they received a referral much less to do something about it).

But this can only happen if the Digital Health team at the Ministry of Health has the vision, the boldness and the fortitude to force these changes and frankly, I’m not sure they do. I had meetings with some of the Digital Health team when I was OMA President. They are well meaning people who want to improve things. But the strategy they are choosing is doomed to failure.

I probably shouldn’t mention this as it was a closed meeting, but I don’t care any more, and besides, what can they do to me? Stop me from running for OMA President again? One of the senior members of the Ministry’s team explained their strategy to me like this:

“If I want to buy a pair of shoes, I have three apps on my phone that allows me to compare different prices from different vendors, and then I choose the best price. Patients should do that when they access health care.”

Now this fellow was in his 40s, and a university graduate. Clearly he can access multiple apps. Good for him.

But the highest users of any health care system are the seniors and the reality is that they are not as technologically able as our friendly government bureaucrat. Do we really expect an 80 year old with multiple medical problems to flip through three apps if they need health care? What if the apps only access part of the system? You’d need one app to access their family doctor, another to access the hospital and a third to access home care. Would anyone want to do this?

All this will do is increase the plethora of software out there, cause more confusion and a deteriorate the communications between health care providers and add to the work load of physicians (because, you know, we are not already doing enough clerical work).

What about OntarioMD? Aren’t they supposed to advocate for change that will help physicians? I had issues with OntarioMD when I was on the OMA Board. (Long story for another day).

But I do note with interest that OMA Board Chair Dr. Cathy Faulds announced in her Board Report that there is a new mandate for OntarioMD that includes end to end proof of concepts on policy. I personally won’t hold my breath (one bitten, twice shy) but I do acknowledge it’s a step in the right direction. Maybe they can finally get on with some of the work that I advocated for during my term and relieve some of the burden that physicians deal with.

It’s the 21st Century. We still can’t fix the health system without fixing family medicine. But we can’t fix family medicine without fixing digital health. Here’s hoping the powers that be finally realize that.

Will More Canadians Resort to Medical Tourism?

The health care system in Canada has been in a perpetual state of crisis for a couple of decades now. But I’ve never seen it this bad before (and I’m old, I’ve seen a lot).

Across the country, Emergency Departments are restricting access and having partial closures including not just one, but TWO hospitals, in the nation’s capital for crying out loud. Urgent care centres, ICUs and medical wards are also facing issues with staffing shortages and Covid outbreaks.

Even when health facilities are open, we face ever increasing wait times. We wait in line at after hours clinics. We wait for hours in ERs. We wait for months if not years to see a specialist. And we wait and wait for procedures that bureaucrats call “elective”. (NB not sure how cataract surgery, which helps people to see properly, or joint replacement, which helps people to live pain free can be classified as “elective” – but then again, I never understood how bureaucrats classified anything).

With the recent BC court ruling indicating that patients cannot be allowed to pay for private care (putting us in the same group of countries as Cuba and North Korea) – Canadians will have to be the most patient people on Earth.

Or maybe not. We are now starting to see governments, and people, take matters into their own hands.

Saskatchewan recently unveiled a program where they would pay for patients to have their hip and knee procedures done in Alberta. The catch? Patients would have to pay for their own travel costs. A very cursory glance at Westjet’s website suggested this would be just over $1,000 per person for a return flight from Saskatoon to Edmonton. Hotels/car rentals and food would be extra.

It’s not just governments. “Adele” from Hamilton couldn’t bear to see her partner deteriorate as he languished on a wait list in Ontario for hip replacement surgery that might happen by February of 2023. The couple paid $20,000 out of pocket to have the surgery done privately in Quebec on August 23, 2022. I can’t say I blame them. I’ve seen patients suffer from daily pain. It’s heartbreaking.

It all makes me wonder. Are we about to see an explosion in Medical Tourism as patience wears thin?

Travelling to foreign countries for medical procedures is not a new concept. In the cosmetic surgery field, the most famous example would be Costa Rica. A random look at some of the information out there suggests that you can save about 50% off what you would pay in Canada for similar surgical procedures, and that includes accommodations and travel.

Another up and coming country in the Medical Tourism field is Turkey. Turkey has a very positive reputation in the male 50+ South Asian community for hair transplants. A quick look at hair transplants in Toronto suggests that while prices vary, costs begin at $8,000 and most people will pay much more.

In Turkey, on the other hand, the average cost of a hair transplant is 2,350 Euros (about $3,000 Canadian) and that includes accommodation/meds/transportation from the airpot/follow up etc. Some clinics charge less, and some more, but the point is that you can largely save 50% of the cost of doing this in Canada.

It’s not just cosmetic surgery, however. Turkey is making a name for itself as a medical tourism centre for Europeans. In the bigger Turkish cities, private hospitals offer services in English. The cost of a hip replacement varies depending on the severity and type of joint used. It’s usually between $7,500 to $20,000 Canadian and that includes hotel accommodations, travel to hospital and food. Far cheaper than the United States.

Knee replacements also vary depending on what’s needed, but the average seems to be $9,800 Canadian. There’s a whole list of elective surgical procedures that are done in Turkey that people can find with a little bit of searching.

Why is Turkey so popular? According to passport symphony.com, it’s a combination of Turkey’s private hospitals having invested heavily in medical infrastructure over the years and the fact that Turkey has beautiful and scenic sites so you can have a mini – vacation at the same time. Add to that that Turkey has aligned its health care to meet European Union (EU) standards (particularly with Medical Devices and Implants) and you have the potential for the highest quality health care at a much lower cost.

Don’t underestimate the importance of aligning with EU standards by the way. Many other medical tourism destinations (Caribbean, Asia) have wildly varying standards. It can be hard to determine what quality of service you are getting. At least if you have EU standards in the facility you are getting treatments done, well, there’s a reassurance of a certain standard of care.

Now to be clear, there are always risks to surgery, especially if you leave the country. Even the best hospitals and surgeons have complications. If you are considering exploring surgery out of Canada, two rules apply:

  1. Caveat Emptor
  2. Contact a trusted agency to help find the best, approved facilities and surgeons.

For Turkey, you should contact the Canadian Turkish Business Council. Their job is to promote business in Turkey, and they can provide you with information on which hospitals and specialists are appropriate for you to consider. I understand they can also help with flights.

I imagine there are such organizations for some of the Caribbean countries as well.

I recognize that many Canadians will be offended by the idea of paying for essential health services elsewhere. Our tax dollars are supposed to pay for those services here. But decades of mismanagement of our health care system have left many people languishing on wait lists, and the reality is it will take decades to fix.

It would not surprise me in the least if more and more Canadians looked to Medical Tourism as a way of relieving their suffering quicker than the Canadian system allows.

CMA Should Do What’s Necessary – Advocate for Pensions for Physicians

Both of my loyal readers will know that I have not always been a fan of the Canadian Medial Association (CMA). I was one of the vocal critics of the infamous Vision2020 plan that the CMA developed. Vision 2020 suggested that the main role of the CMA should be to empower patients (and here I thought they were supposed to be a physicians advocacy organization). I also wasn’t really impressed by the sale of MD Management to Scotia Bank either.

Interestingly enough I note that the original links in my blog to the articles on Vision 2020 and the MD Management sale have been deleted from various CMA websites. Such scrubbing suggests the CMA would rather we all forgot about these things too.

It would seem that I am not the only physician who was upset with the CMA. Buried deep in the CBC article on the election of Dr. Alika Lafontaine to the role of CMA President is this line:

“As CMA president, he’ll oversee more than 68,000 member physicians and trainees.”

When Dr. Gigi Osler took over as president in 2018, this Globe and Mail article stated the CMA had 85,000 members. A drop of 17,000 members in four years shows that rather a lot of physicians felt that the CMA betrayed them, not just a loud mouthed old country doctor.

In fairness, since 2018, the CMA has done some things very well for physicians. First, the CMA has had some truly excellent Presidents in Dr. Gigi Osler and most recently Dr. Katharine Smart. While I completely understand the significance of Dr. Alika Lafontaine taking over as President, I was saddened about losing a voice as effective for physicians as Dr. Smart. However, I will say that Dr. Lafontaine knocked it out of the park during his inauguration speech and if he keeps that up it will good news for physicians across Canada.

Drs. Gigi Osler, Katharine Smart and Alika Lafontaine

Secondly, the CMA seems to be making its main priority these days the issue of physician burnout. A brief look at their twitter feed shows them reaching out to multiple media outlets to raise awareness of the alarmingly high burnout rates in the profession.

This is good work and shows an organization that maybe has realized that indeed, there is nothing wrong with advocating for physicians. You cannot have a high functioning health care system without happy, healthy and engaged physicians.

As part of the approach to alleviating the stress on physicians and the broader health care system, the CMA also is advocating for a national licence for physicians. The CMA feels this is a priority and a glance at an advanced search of their twitter feed suggests that they feel this will improve virtual care, increase the ability of physicians to support remote communities and reduce burnout.

Now to be clear, I support a national licence for physicians. But the reality is that this is going to be nigh on impossible to do in the short term. I suspect that this will require an amendment to the Canadian Constitution as Health Care is provincial responsibility. Amending the constitution is a dizzyingly complex process. I suspect that Premiers of what may be considered “have-not” provinces would balk at this, fearing that national licensure would lead to more physicians leaving their provinces for greener pastures.

Instead, I would ask that the CMA employ the philosophy espoused by St. Frances of Assisi:

“Start by doing what’s necessary; then do what’s possible; and suddenly, you are doing the impossible.”

The CMA should advocate for immediate Tax Code changes to allow physicians to have pension plans. This is both necessary and long overdue.

I do feel compelled to point out that it is possible for physicians to set up either retirement plans or individual pensions through corporations. However these programs are extremely variable, not easy to implement, and carry high administrative burdens. They also add to physicians workload to set up, at a time when physicians are so tired from a days work that they don’t really have time to think about such things. I don’t know about you, but when I get home, I want to turn my brain off for a couple of hours (before I log back on to my EMR to review lab work and finish charting). I don’t have the mental bandwidth to think about corporate pension schemes.

Making a few changes to the Tax Code is easy. It can be done at the federal level without involving the Provincial Premiers. Doing it will send an immediate message to physicians by the Federal government that they are doing something right here, right now to make life easier for physicians and reward them for all the extra hours they have worked during the pandemic. It will significantly improve physician morale. As physicians realize that there will be an element of security in retirement planning, it will also reduce the stress level of physicians.

Even better, some provinces have already started retirement planning programs. Ontario for example, has the truly excellent OMA Insurance Advantages Program. (NB – if you are an Ontario physician, you really need to strongly consider enrolling in this program. It’s simple, straightforward and really can take a lot of the usual retirement worry away). If tax code changes came into effect, I’m sure a few lawyers and accountants could convert these programs into true pension plans.

The CMA is a national advocacy organization for physicians. They have made much progress since 2017 in supporting physicians. The next, easiest step for them to make would be to push for physicians pensions. It’s relatively easy to do. If successful, maybe they can turn around the trend of declining membership in their organization.

Most Health Care in Canada is Publicly Funded, Privately Delivered

NB: My thanks to Dr. Hemant Shah, who inspired the title of this blog with his statements on health care delivery in Canada.

Well, here we go again. Yet another kerfuffle caused by absolutist ideologues who are so hell bent on forcing their immovable views on the rest of us that they are resorting to fear tactics.

Ontario Health Minister Won’t Rule out Privatization as Option to Help ER Crisis” – screams the headline in the Toronto Star (a newspaper known for its extremely biased reporting on health care). The article comes after Ontario Health Minister Sylvia Jones had a press scrum. The only problem is that’s not quite what she said.

Here’s the tweet from Mark McAllister, who embarrassingly reached a similar conclusion in his summary:

At no point does the Minister say she is going to privatize Emergency Rooms. Her quote is:

“Look, we’ve always had a public health system in the province of Ontario and we will continue to do so.”

Exactly what part of this screams “privatization”? Even the snippet after where she refers to looking at “options” she clearly mentions other jurisdictions in Canada, where, you know, you have public health care.

The reality is that public health care is for the most part, privately delivered in Canada. Take your family doctor for example (assuming you are lucky enough to have a family doctor). Supposing you go to your doctor to get assessed. In Ontario, your family doctor will likely get paid $36.85 (see page A5 on the Schedule of Benefits). Out of that $36.85, your doctor will allot some of it for the receptionist, the nurse, the cleaners, the rent, the computers and so on. The remainder is the profit, which you family doctor will keep for themselves.

Your family doctor is a private business.

The infuriating thing about this kerfuffle is that this kind of absolutist, hyperbolic nonsense has prevented real advances in health care over the past twenty years. Every time there is a new proposal on how to look at health care differently, some nitwit politician screams out that we are opening the door to two tier American style health care. The new idea gets shut down without taking a thorough look at its merits.

It’s the rigid, inflexible thinking by geniuses like Jagmeet Singh that prevent any such exploration of new ideas. Just have a look at our hospitals. We currently have a crisis with our hospitals over capacity and many waiting in ERs for beds. Yet we still do procedures in hospitals that could be done elsewhere, and free up hospital capacity.

For example, there is ample evidence that independently operating cataract surgery clinics are more efficient and can cut cataract surgery waiting lists. In Canada, these clinics would have to be funded by public health insurance. All absolutists like Singh see is that procedures will be done in a “private” clinic, and are therefore un-Canadian and Tommy Douglas must be rolling in his grave to hear of such a possibility.

Fun fact: Tommy Douglas supported user fees for health care.

Singh and his absolutists would rather you go blind on 2 year wait lists than have publicly funded health care done in a way they don’t approve.

To be completely fair, there are some legitimate concerns about doing procedures in independent clinics. For example, there was concern that colonoscopies in outpatient settings were suboptimal. However, those concerns were addressed by some needed changes made by the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Ontario, with the setting of minimum standards and inspections. As a result of that, there was a strong feeling that colonoscopies could be done safely and efficiently outside of hospitals.

And let’s face it, it’s not as if public institutions are without issues either. Remember the time there was concern the Niagara hospital mishandled a c.difficile outbreak? Or the public nursing home that has been shut to new admissions for over a year? In fact there’s a suggestion that harm to patients in public hospitals costs $1 Billion a year.

No matter if public or private, so long as human beings are involved, mistakes will get made. What’s really needed is a way to do appropriate inspection and review of facilities that are funded by the public purse, so that mistakes are minimized. Then let them get on with their jobs.

What I don’t get is how these folk don’t recognize the hypocrisy of their views. In their mind, it is okay for a family doctor to bill OHIP for a blood pressure check, then use that money to pay for their clinic and keep the profit. But it’s not okay for a gastroenterologist to bill OHIP for a colonoscopy in a health facility (which is safe to do), and use that money to pay for their clinic and keep the profit. Or for an ophthalmologist to bill OHIP for a cataract removal out of hospital (also safe to do) pay for their clinic and keep the profit. And they accuse Sylvia Jones of promoting two tiered approach to medicine???

What about the fact that these private clinics charge patients for some things? Um…..have you ever gone to your family doctor for a Driver’s Medical? You know it’s not covered by public health insurance right? And you have to pay your family doctor for it? How about a sick note? An employment form? The reality is that ALL clinics will charge you for things that public health insurance won’t cover.

As our health care system continues to collapse all around us, we need to take a thoughtful, intelligent and open minded look at how we deliver health care. Yes it should be paid for by the public purse. But we need to recognize the reality that appropriately funding private clinics (with levers to ensure high quality care) is the most effective way start clearing the immense backlog of health care cases.

As for absolutists who snarl at the mere mention of the phrase “private”. While everyone with a modicum of intelligence recognizes that Star Trek is a much better franchise, let me leave them with this from the other, weaker franchise:

What is Going on at Sunset Manor?

Full Disclosure: Sunset Manor is a public, long term care facility in Collingwood, Ontario. I don’t have patients at Sunset Manor. The only interaction I have with Sunset Manor is when I am on call. My personal experience is that the nature of those calls from them has been no different than those from other long term care homes. All the information in my blog is based on what has been publicly reported in the media (with links attached as appropriate).

In June of 2021, the Ministry of Long Term Care issued an order to stop admissions immediately, to Sunset Manor in Collingwood. According to the CTV News Barrie report:

  • The Ministry stopped admissions because of a belief “that there is a risk of harm to the health or well-being of residents in the home or persons who might be admitted as residents.”
  • Sunset Manor received “several written notifications and compliance orders” for not following requirements highlighted after inspections between July 2018 and April 2021.
  • What shocked me the most – the Ministry stated “There are reasonable grounds to believe that the licensee cannot or will not properly manage the long-term care home or cannot do so without assistance.”

Bureaucrats generally tend to use bland, inoffensive language to avoid controversy. That last sentence jarred me. I’ve lived through some pretty bad health care facility situations in my time and have never seen a sentence that strong.

As I write this blog, Simcoe County’s website lists Jane Sinclair as the General Manager of Health and Emergency Services for Sunset Manor, which would make her the admin person in charge of the place.

The CTV News report stated:

  • Jane Sinclair called the ministry’s report “excessive,” adding,  “We don’t agree with the level of severity of these ministry findings.”

Over a year later, Sunset Manor still isn’t allowed to accept new patients, and an exclusive article on Collingwood Today suggests why. You can read the whole article for more details but briefly, Sunset Manor is alleging that the investigations were tainted because an ex-employee of Sunset Manor, Katy Harrison, was part of Ministry Inspection team. Jane Sinclair swore out an affidavit that she told the Ministry the termination of the ex-employee was “not amicable”. Sinclair further states she complained to the Ministry in 2019 about having an ex-employee do an inspection of the home stating she “could not conduct a fair and impartial inspection of the home.”

However, the Ministry elected to have her continue inspecting Sunset Manor as a “junior” member of the team. They state the allegations of bias are “spurious and unsupported by evidence” and that multiple officials inspected Sunset Manor, not just Harrison.

There’s a whole set of details about the inspection process in the Collingwood Today article that I won’t bore you with. But I will note that the article points out there have been four further inspections of Sunset Manor since last June, none by Harrison, and the facility remains closed to new admissions.

Generally speaking, the admin person at an LTC would report to the representative of the owners (in this case the County of Simcoe) to inform them how things are going. As I write this blog, the County of Simcoe’s website indicates that person is one Mark Aitken, the CAO. The website further states one of his responsibilities is overall management for Long Term Care and Seniors Services. Yet another wrinkle thrown into this mess is that Mark Aitken is married to Jane Sinclair. (Yes I know it was a letter to the editor, but it has gone un-retracted which the press would do if it was challenged).

In summary, Sunset Manor has been repeatedly investigated by the Ministry of health over the past four years. One of the investigators was an ex employee whom the Manor feels was biased. As a result of investigations, Sunset Manor has not been allowed to admit new residents to the facility for over a year. The Administrator answers to the owner (or in this case, the owners representative) who happens to be her husband. The response of the owners is to sue the ministry alleging the inspections were biased and unfair.

Here’s my take.

1) I think it was wrong of the ministry to allow ex-employee to investigate Sunset Manor. I’m in no way suggesting that Miss Harrison acted inappropriately. The reality however, is that optics matter. If you’re going to level the most serious punishment possible to a long-term care facility you need to make sure that there’s absolutely no margin for people to think that that punishment is anything other than completely justified.

2) Similarly the administrator of Sunset Manor should not be reporting to her husband. The Administrator may have handled the situation perfectly, but again optics matter. The public needs to be reassured that if the Administrator made a mistake, appropriate action would be taken, and people won’t believe that if your spouse is your boss. (ADDENDUM: While the Simcoe County Website continues to list Mr. Aitken as the person responsible for LTC – please see the first comment below from Mr. Manary – who wrote the initial letter stating Mr. Aitken and Ms. Sinclair were married. At this time I’m simply putting the information out there, but if there is a factual correction to be made by someone in authority at County of Simcoe – I will do so).

3) You know how there are people like Dr. Samir Sinha who write articles that we must stop private nursing homes? Or that tweet the incessantly that public long term care facilities are better? Sunset Manor is public.

This situation has been allowed to drag on for over a year to the point where according to Collingwood today there are now 43 empty beds at Sunset Manor. While four compliance orders have been lifted, the home was fined another $5,500 for failing to comply with medication management.

The frustrating thing is it it should never have come to this. It’s a travesty when we have so many people waiting for long-term care beds. I recently had a patient wait over 90 days in hospital for one. Getting Sunset Manor open again would really help our community.

I don’t know who’s right and who’s wrong here, but hopefully whatever needs to be done there gets done, and our seniors can once again get the care they deserve, in the location they need.

All Ontarians Should Hope New Health Minister Sylvia Jones Succeeds

New Ontario Health Minister Sylvia Jones

Sylvia Jones is now Ontario’s Minister of Health, the largest, most volatile ministry in government. The Ontario Medical Association’s (OMA) correctly tweeted about this:

My first thought when I saw this was a somewhat flippant “should have sent her condolences instead.” Minister Jones has a whole lot of headaches going forward. To succeed, she pretty well needs to be perfect. A cursory glance at the issues she faces is mind boggling.

Should she support further lifting of Covid-19 restrictions? This will make some doctors mad. Should she instead support re-introducing mask mandates and tightening of Covid-19 policies? This will make other doctors angry. Worse, both sides have credible experts, so the whole “listen to the experts”can’t apply when the experts themselves are saying different things.

There is a Health Human Resources crisis unfolding in Ontario (and Canada). Hospital ERs are being closed due to staffing crises and there does not seem to be a quick solution. As more health care workers plan on retiring or leaving the profession early, finding replacements is going to be exceptionally challenging.

The Long Term Care (LTC) situation is equally dire. Wait times for LTC beds in Ontario are skyrocketing. In 2017 I wrote about how we needed 26,000 hospital beds right away, and another 50,000 by 2023. More beds are being built by the Ford government, which is great, but they will take time to arrive.

A quick solution to ease the burden would be to allow older homes who had ward beds in their facilities, open them up again. Rules were changed under covid to no longer allow 4 residents per room. However, if you do that, people will scream you are committing gerontocide. (This is despite the fact that just about all residents in nursing homes have got four covid shots now).

Need more? (As if that wasn’t enough). Over 20 million medical procedures were delayed due to the pandemic. Many of these procedures are early detection screening tests for cancer (sooner you catch, the sooner you cure and, cold-heartedly, the less cost to the health care system).

How about wait times? Wait times for medically necessary procedures continues to rise. MOH bureaucrats like to refer to these as “elective” procedures. But the reality is that if you are suffering from knee pain every day, and have to wait a year to get a knee replacement, it’s not elective, it’s necessary.

All of which makes me realize just how courageous Minister Jones is to take on the Health Portfolio. Allah/God/Yahweh/(insert deity of your choice) knows I wouldn’t want the job. But if I may, I would suggest the Minister should focus on a few things in the first year, as even improvements in a couple of areas will have benefits across the health system.

A word of caution first. She should take what bureaucrats tell her with a grain of salt. There were a few times when I was on the OMA Board when it became obvious that the MOH Bureaucrats had NOT fully informed then Health Minister Christine Elliot about some issues around physicians that caused needless kerfuffles. The bureaucracy has a certain way of thinking that is rigid, ideological and focussed on self perpetuation as opposed to making meaningful change.

I don’t always agree with columnist Brian Lilley of PostMedia, but he hit the nail on the head when he wrote:

“…Ford and his team shouldn’t rely on the Ministry of Health for solutions. These are the people who got us into this mess and who have been failing upward for years..”

and

“..Ford has a real opportunity to change health-care delivery, to speed up access to services, to do away with wait lists and all without changing the single-payer system that Canadians rely on..”

The last comment lines up nicely with the first part of the OMA’s Prescription for Ontario, where they recommend developing outpatient surgical clinics to move simple operations out of hospitals and free up beds. The bureaucracy will oppose it because they are incapable of new ways of thinking and are beholden to hospitals. But at least the Minister will have the support of Ontario’s doctors to work through some of the blowback (there’s always blowback to anything new).

The other easy win is to develop a digitally connected team of health care providers for each patient (also an OMA recommendation). We have something similar in the Georgian Bay Region for the past 12 years and I cannot stress how much it has improved patient care. If I have a patient in need of increased home care, all I have to do is message the home care co-ordinator directly from their chart and ask for help, and they usually respond within 24 hours among other benefits.

This also ties in with a project I was pushing hard for during my term on the OMA Board that got sidetracked mostly by the pandemic but also with some political issues around OntarioMD. I remain convinced that had that project gone forward there would be people alive today that aren’t because of the improved communication it would have provided. But at least preliminary work on it has been done, and with a nudge from the Health Minister this could potentially be restarted to give patients a digitally connected health care team.

NB- this is another area where the Digital Health Team at the Ministry of Health is going in the wrong direction. Their plans are (in my opinion) needlessly complex and won’t result in the kind of robust digital health infrastructure that is absolutely essential to a high performing health care system.

In short, Minister Jones has a monumental task ahead of her. Someone will will criticize her no matter what choices she makes (it’s no secret that health care is referred to as the third rail of politics). If however, she can set, say, three attainable goals in her first year (my suggestions would be open LTC beds, start building outpatient surgery clinics and get the digital infrastructure done), while keeping the bureaucrats in check, then real progress can be made in improving the health system.

All Ontarians, regardless of political stripe, should hope she succeeds. Our crumbling health system depends on it.

I Pray The Experts Are Wrong, Because Ontario Can’t Handle a Surge in Flu Cases

Note: this article initially was published in the Huffington Post in November of 2017, and is being reproduced on my personal blog site. The purpose is to outline that our system isn’t collapsing because of Covid. It’s collapsing because despite multiple warnings from people like myself that our system was NOT EVER prepared to handle an unexpected event. My thanks to Dr. Adam Stewart for reminding me I wrote this.

We know the hospital system has no surge capacity. If you are already at 110 per cent, where’s the room to surge?

This year, Australia has suffered through one of its worst flu seasons in history. There were 166,000 cases of the flu through September (their flu season lasts through October) which was up from 91,000 for all of 2016. Over 300 deaths were attributed to the flu in Australia this year, including many people who were apparently healthy.

Tragic as this was in Australia, is this a concern for Canada? Unfortunately, the answer is yes. While the influenza virus is famously described as “predictably unpredictable,” leading flu experts have noted that Australia (where the flu season typically starts first) is often a predictor of what happens in North America. It’s usually the same strain of influenza that crosses the ocean to our continent each year.

Now, there are something like a gazillion strains of influenza. I won’t bore you with molecular biology, but keep in mind that one particular family of the flu virus, H3N2, is a bad one. What’s worse, there are multiple sub-types of H3N2, which makes immunization a real challenge. You see, each year leading experts make the best possible guess at predicting which flu strain is going to affect the public and cater the flu shot to that strain. Last year, for example, they were spectacularly successful and we had a relatively mild season.

This year, Australia was hit by the H3N2 family, and while their vaccine DID have protection for H3N2, it still appeared to be a mismatch. Most likely this was because the H3N2 virus mutated and formed another sub-type that was not as effectively covered by the vaccine.

Which flu vaccine are we getting in Canada? The same one the Australians got. Which strain of flu seems to be coming to Canada? According to Health Canada, as of last week, the majority of detections are H3N2. So the experts who were expressing concern are unfortunately being proven correct.

The flu, of course, generally affects the elderly, the very young and the patients with chronic medical conditions (heart disease, kidney disease, cancer, etc.), or those with compromised immune systems (e.g. patients with diabetes). What’s worse, it weakens patients considerably and makes them prone to a secondary infection (usually a pneumonia on top of the flu) which may ultimately lead to their death or prolonged sickness.

The worry that Ontario physicians have with this situation is twofold. First and foremost, we are concerned for our patient’s well being. Despite many attempts to get EVERYONE vaccinated, the legion of anti-vaccination followers (led by leading virologist/immunologist/brain surgeon Jenny McCarthy) seems to have increased. Even a partially effective vaccine is better than none, and so it behooves everyone to get their shots.

Secondly, physicians already know that due to the woeful mismanagement of the Ontario health-care system by Premier Kathleen Wynne and her hapless Health Minister Eric Hoskins, Ontario hospitals simply don’t have the resources to cope with a surge of patients. This was proven in dramatic fashion this past summer when a shortage of beds in neonatal intensive care units played out. The short version is there was a strong need for an increased number of beds, and these beds weren’t planned for. Health Ministry spokesperson David Jensen tried to spin this in the media as a one-off event, referring to it as an “unusual surge.”

However, this is just ridiculous. All health systems NEED to plan for unexpected circumstances. That’s why best practice evidence shows that hospitals should, on average, run at 85 to 90 per cent occupancy. This allows planning for unexpected events (that are becoming more and more common).

Under Wynne and Hoskins’ watch, Ontario hospitals now routinely run at over 100 per cent capacity (many are between 110 to 120 per cent). This essentially means that if you have a 100-bed hospital, there will ALWAYS be between 10 to 20 people in the emergency room, lying on a stretcher, waiting for a bed in an inpatient unit. And that’s WITHOUT any unexpected surge.

What happens this year if the flu season is as bad as experts suggest it may be? Patients who are already weakened from other illnesses will, of course, go to the hospital to treat the dehydration, muscle aches, vomiting, secondary infections and so on that all come with the flu. But if they need to be admitted, where will they go? Will they wind up in “unconventional spaces?” (FYI: “unconventional spaces” are spots like storage rooms.) Is this what we can expect from our vaunted health-care system — to lie for days in a hallway with no dignity? We know the hospital system has no surge capacity. If you are already at 110 per cent, where’s the room to surge?

So, I ask everyone to do a couple of things. First, get your flu shot (some protection is better than none). Second, if you are unfortunate enough to need hospital care, please remember that the doctors and nurses in the emergency department are going all out with the resources they have (they just don’t have the space to provide adequate care). Third, if you are upset about your situation in the hospital, please contact Premier Kathleen Wynne (there’s an easy link here), and tell her what you think of her management of the health-care system. (We doctors have tried for the past three years, but she just doesn’t seem to want to listen to us.)

Here’s praying that the experts are wrong about this year.

What Role Should Nurse Practitioners Play in Health Care?

A recent look at some of the news stories around health care do not paint a pretty picture for Family Medicine. In Ottawa, a truly wonderful 41 year old Family Physician (whom I had the pleasure of meeting when I was OMA President) is closing her family practice due to burn out. The BC government is on the defensive over the shortage of Family Physicians. Medical School graduates are avoiding Family Medicine. The list goes depressingly on, but the point is clear.

Family Medicine is in crisis.

Jumping into this environment is former Ontario Deputy Health Minister Bob Bell and his colleagues. To fix Family Practice, they recommend expanded use of Nurse Practitioners (NPs), allowing them to work independently to replace much of what family doctors do. They claim that NPs can independently provide care for rosters of 800 patients, and collaborate with Family Doctors only for more complex patients. The authors reference a British Medical Journal (BMJ) study that suggests this will be “cost-saving.”

Bell doubles down on his beliefs that NPs can replace family doctors on Twitter by cherry picking data, in this case a Cochrane review:

One wonders if Bell and his colleagues bothered to read the reviews. If they had, they would have seen that the BMJ study on “cost-effectiveness” admitted:

“…it was not possible to draw conclusions about the cost-effectiveness of the complementary provider specialized ambulatory care role of nurse practitioners because of the generally low quality of evidence.

And that the “authoritative” (Bell’s words not mine) Cochrane review also stated:

We are uncertain of the effects of nurse‐led care on the costs of care because the certainty of this evidence was assessed as very low.

For those of you not versed in medical literature those phrases are the author’s way of saying they did studies where the results couldn’t be relied upon to be reproducible. Using these to promote a belief that allowing NPs to work independently to replace family docs is…….puzzling.

Bell’s belief that Family Docs are easily replaceable is nothing new. He planned on actually ending his career as a general practitioner. Apparently he thought he could easily slide back into it after having done it for a couple of years early in his career, then gone on be an orthopaedic surgeon for another few decades before getting involved in health administration and the MOH:

I don’t personally attribute any malice to his statement (though others on that thread did), I’m not sure that that Bell realized just how much he insulted every single GP in Canada with his seeming belief that he could simply suddenly switch gears after 4 decades of not being in primary care, and go back to being a GP without at least a residency. Hate to tell you this Dr. Bell, but Family Medicine has changed a LOT since you last practiced it. We have more than just beef or pork insulin for diabetes for example.

More to the point however, is there data out there that actually looks at the kind of system that Bell and his colleagues would propose? One where NPs scope of practice is drastically increased allowing them to work independently, and they replace the bulk of work that Family Doctors do? Turns out, there is.

In South Mississippi, the Hattiesburg Medical Clinic, an Accountable Care Organization that is very similar in structure to the proposed Ontario Health Teams (OHTs), did exactly what is Bell and his colleagues are proposing. Fifteen years ago, based on ongoing shortages in Family Physicians, NPs and Physician Assistants (collectively referred to as Advanced Practice Providers or APPs) were hired and allowed to work separately and independently with physician colleagues.

Did this work? In a word: Nope.

A comprehensive analysis of their findings (minimum of 11 years of data over a large patient population) was published in the Journal of the Mississippi State Medical Association. You can read the details for yourself but here are some highlights:

  • the cost for looking after patients who did not have end stage renal disease (i.e. were on dialysis) or were not in nursing homes was $43 a month higher per patient for those who were looked after by APPs than family docs
  • when the data was adjusted for complex patients, the cost of having an APP look after them, rather than a family doc was $119 per month higher (!)
  • these costs were attributed to ordering more tests/more referrals to specialists and MORE emergency department use (yes MORE)
  • Physicians performed better on 9 out of 10 quality metrics in the review

In short, doing what Bell and his colleagues are suggesting led to poorer overall health care outcomes at an increased cost.

Now to be completely clear, I personally have worked with NPs in a number of ways. I strongly believe they are an essential part of the health care team and provide a valuable service. In my practice, they have assisted me in providing care to my patients. When I had a couple of “cardiac kids” in my practice, I dealt exclusively with the NPs on the cardiology team at the Hospital for Sick Children (never once spoke to a Cardiologist or Cardiovascular Surgeon). When the Royal Victoria Hospital in Barrie had NPs on their oncology service, I discussed issues around cases with them exclusively. The NPs were at all times incredibly helpful to me and my patients. NPs definitely have a role to play.

I would also point out that the Hattiesburg Medical Clinic feels the same way. They strongly valued their NPs, and still have them on staff. But they have modified the way they provide care to ensure that all patients now have a Family Doctor but the visits to the clinic now alternate between the Doctor and the APP. On days when only an APP is in house, telemedicine back up by physicians is provided.

We need to build a better Family Practice system. In order to do so, NPs can and should play an essential role. That role however, is not taking on independent rosters of patients. It is working as valued members of a team that looks after a patient population, where each patient has a Family Doctor.

Patrick Brown is the Right Choice to Lead Conservatives

Most of my regular followers know that I am a long time Conservative. Heck, I was one of the Youth for Mulroney back in the early 1980s. Like all members of the Party, I’ve been saddened by the inability to win a national election since Stephen Harper lost in 2015. Canada would have been MUCH better off if he was Prime Minister during the Covid Pandemic. Playing to the media for photo-ops is one thing, but in times of crisis, we needed a leader with intellect, and Harper has that in spades.

Also like most members of the Party, I need to weigh who to vote for in the current leadership contest. Both the party and Canada are at a cross road. It’s not just a potential 10 years out of power. It’s about a current environment where unfortunately, Canada seems to have become a more divisive country.

Those of us who are on Social Media have seen it first hand (there is a reason looking at your Twitter feed is often referred to as “doom scrolling”). But there is also evidence of division elsewhere.

We see people who feel that they can assault store workers for enforcing mask mandates. Whether in Calgary, Peterborough, or elsewhere, this kind of behaviour speaks to a corroding of Canadian’s reputation as a kind people.

There’s also been a seeming uptick in racial violence in Canada. Whether it’s the rise in Islamaphobic attacks on Muslim women in Edmonton and elsewhere, or the increase in hate crimes against Canadians of Asian descent, or the continued inability to squash anti-semitism, or ongoing racism against our Indigenous people or more, Canada seems to be in a darker place than I can recall in my now half century in this country.

Against this backdrop, what we really need is a Prime Minister who can inspire all Canadians to believe that they belong to and are part of Canada. A Prime Minister who can at least be seen as someone who works to unite Canadians. A Prime Minister who truly believes that even if we have political differences, we all matter.

Instead, we’re stuck with Justin Trudeau.

A PM who preached feminism, but summarily dismissed two strong independent women for having the gall to disagree with him. As an aside, just how much better would our Covid19 response have been had Dr. Jane Philpott, now Dean of Queen’s University Faculty of Health Sciences, been in cabinet?

A PM who preached reconciliation with the Indigenous people, but still hasn’t delivered on clean drinking water on reserves. To show you just how much he thinks of the Indigenous, he decided to go on vacation during National Truth and Reconciliation Day.

And finally, yes, a PM who decided to deride and debase those who were involved in the “Freedom Convoy”. Yes, they went too far and should have gone home sooner (I’ve written that before). But the reality is that it was only a small minority of that convoy that were incorrigible racists. A real PM would have met with the group even though they disagreed with his views. It would have shown he listened to Canadians from all sides of the political spectrum. But instead, he chose to be a divisive force, instead of a unifying one.

Which brings me back to the Conservative leadership race. Conservatives face a choice not just of leaders, but of the type of party they want to build. Do we want a party that divides Canadians and marginalizes some groups but from the other end of the political spectrum? Basically a conservative version of Trudeau that will insult and deride those with progressive/liberal views.

Or do we want a truly inclusive conservative party? One that is open to all people. A party based on the principal of sound fiscal management and fair treatment for each and every single Canadian, regardless of background? Even if we have some differences of opinion on how to get there.

Of the current main candidates it strikes me that Pierre Poilievre is best suited to being an “attack dog”. No shame in that, every party needs one. Remember Sheila Copps for the Liberals back in the day? (Google her young ones). But being a good attack dog doesn’t mean you can lead a country.

Leslyn Lewis is clearly a brilliant lawyer but too inexperienced to be PM.

Jean Charest would be a fine leader and I would vote for him if he won. But the reality is that despite being from Quebec, where the party needs to win seats, he carries a lot of baggage as a career politician. This can hamper an election campaign.

This is why to my mind, Patrick Brown is the best choice for leader. He has worked hard to build relationships with many different communities in Canada. He is mayor of an incredibly diverse city (Brampton) and reached out many different minority groups. He’s realized that in order to build a better Canada, one must be able to sell a conservative vision to minority groups that historically have voted Liberal.

The best way to do that is to talk to them and engage them (which he’s done). And in so doing, surprise, surprise, find out that many of these groups value hard work, fair (but not excess) taxes, and fiscal responsibility, i.e. bread and butter conservative values.

For the sake of all Canadians and our children, the Conservatives need to win the next general election. The best way to do that is with a leader who understands the changing demographics of Canada, but also understands that at heart, Canadians are fiscally responsible, kind, and believe everyone matters. That leader is Patrick Brown.

I urge you to joint the Patrick Brown campaign by clicking below.