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.

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.