Will Pharmacy Prescribing Improve Health Care?

Pharmacists do a great job as part of a health care team. In hospital and nursing homes, I get expert guidance on dosages of potentially dangerous medications. I am also fortunate to have community pharmacists on a secure electronic messaging platform to discuss issues around medication complications/interactions/dosages and so on for my patients.

But, will it improve health care to let them treat minor conditions?

I expressed my displeasure on Twitter about the recent move to allow pharmacists to treat certain minor ailments:

A few pharmacists were not amused. It was pointed out to me that Ontario is one of the last provinces to allow this, and that it has “worked well” in other provinces.

But what exactly is the definition of “working well”? Politicians love it, mostly because it allows them to say “see we are taking steps to make your life easier.” Patients love it because they can say, “Jee, I think I have a bladder infection, now I can just get the antibiotic when I want.” Of course patient satisfaction will be high.

Unfortunately, as I wrote about a few years ago in the Huffington Post, patient satisfaction does NOT correlate with good health care or outcomes. As counter intuitive as it may seem, higher patient satisfaction scores correlate with a 9% higher cost per patient AND a 12 percent higher hospital re admission rate. Patient satisfaction should not be used as a metric to determine any health care policy.

On Twitter, Nathan McCormick suggested that pharmacists have a lot to offer and linked to an article from New Brunswick on how it’s worked well there. Unfortunately (and I stand to be corrected) the article suggests the diagnosis of urinary tract infections was made without a urine culture, or even a urine dipstick test (which is less accurate but still something). So there’s no way to sort out how many people had a true bladder infection, or simply “felt” like they did, which happens. The article also puts a strong focus on patient satisfaction and convenience, which as mentioned above, is not the same as good health care.

Nardine Nakhla asked me to familiarize myself with an article she wrote about how Ontario developed the process. There’s a lot to like in what’s written there:

  • A recognition of overprescription of antibiotics as a world wide problem
  • a focus on ethical standards based behaviour by pharmacists
  • A minimum amount of training for pharmacists before treatment minor ailments
  • The requirement for pharmacists to contact the family doctor or nurse practitioner when treating a minor ailment

Once again this doesn’t really reflect true health care outcomes. It also references the aforementioned New Brunswick article and specifically stated there was high patient satisfaction there.

Let’s look at just one area of concern, antibiotic usage.  Global overprescription of antibiotics is a world wide concern.  It leads to increasing antibiotic resistance and the formation of new, drug resistant bacteria.  A look at Canadian data shows that there is intra provincial variation in the number of antibiotic prescriptions.  Newfoundland, where pharmacists have been treating minor ailments for years, has the highest rate of antibiotic prescriptions. British Columbia, where pharmacists are expecting an expansion of their scope this spring, had the lowest.  

From CMAJOpen: Interprovincial variation in antibiotic use in Canada, 2019: a retrospective cross-sectional study

World wide , of the ten countries with the most antibiotic use, Cyprus, Romania, and Greece allow them to be purchased directly from pharmacies. (I stuck to EU countries with more modern health systems for examples).

Kristen Watt wrote a piece in the medical post criticizing physicians for complaining about these new powers and asked me on Twitter to provide evidence from other locations.  She stated that Ontario was “15 years behind the trailblazing Alberta”. And yet the data in the CMAJ article above shows that Alberta has a higher rate of antibiotic prescriptions per capita.

One area I do agree with her is when she wrote:

“the government roll-out video, shot in a noticeable big box pharmacy, didn’t help us”

That big box is Shoppers Drug Mart, and their CEO Jeff Leger is seen promoting this change on the video.   Shoppers Drug Mart recently invested $75 million in Maple, a virtual care company.  Maple’s home page still shows the following:

Screenshot from Maple as of Jan 12, 2023

Gee, if you think you have a sore throat, you can just call a company (that Shoppers invested in), and get an antibiotic without a throat swab (who cares if it’s really strep) and lo and behold, there just happens to be Shoppers nearby that will deliver it to you. Yes, I know patients can request the pharmacy of their choice, but….

Look – there are other aspects of this process that need review.  Accurate diagnosis of a rash for example (several of the new pharmacist powers are for skin ailments). Or communication with the patients family physician about the treatments given.  Probably more.

I WANT pharmacists to help.  I really truly am grateful that so many are willing to step up in a time where our health care system is collapsing faster every day. But I want pharmacists to help in ways that support good health care outcomes.

 Might I offer three suggestions for how pharmacists can do that:

  1. As a group, they can petition Shoppers Drug Mart to put pressure on Maple to change the example on their website.  It’s great marketing (focusing on convenience) but terrible health care.
  2. Get involved with Choosing Wisely, Canada’s leading group looking at all ways to pick the right health care treatments.  There doesn’t appear to be a pharmacist in looking at their leaders.  I think pharmacists could provide extremely valuable information on not just anti-biotic stewardship, but also overall medication management (eg. reducing pill burden in the elderly)
  3. Strongly lobby the government for a unified integrated electronic health system that will allow them secure communication with physicians and access to limited health care data (eg creatinine clearance).  We’ve got this in my neck of the woods, and it’s a huge benefit to physicians, pharmacists and most importantly patients.

In order to save what’s left of our health care system (if that’s even possible now) we need to focus on health care outcomes, and ensuring proper an appropriate care. Doing the three things I listed above would be a big help in that direction.

Open Letter to Nadia Surani, Director, Primary Health Care Branch of MOH

Dear Ms. Surani,

On November 21, 2022 you wrote a letter to primary care organizations requesting that they offer seven day a week availability. For those who may not have seen this letter – I’ve attached a copy for upload here.

The response to your memo has been probably not what you expected. You’ve got one Past President of the Ontario Medical Association calling it dumb. Mind you, that guy always was a bit of a boorish loudmouth. But you’ve got another, much more eloquent past President of the Ontario Medical Association also calling you out on this:

You can’t even say you didn’t know the consequences of your letter, because you’ve got the really smart Dr. Premji warning you against blaming family docs FOUR DAYS before sending your letter:

There’s a lot more upset physicians (and other health care professionals) on social media and elsewhere, but you get my drift. This letter was, to put it far too mildly, not well received. In light of all this, might I humbly suggest that I re-write your letter for you.

From: Nadia Surani, Director, Primary Health Care Branch

To: Family Health Teams, Nurse Practitioner Led Clinics, Indigenous Primary Health Care Organizations

Re: Important Ministry Request

First and foremost, on behalf of the Ministry, I want to thank each and every one of our primary care providers for working tirelessly through the pandemic. I know that there are not enough of you to take care of all the health care needs of Ontario’s residents. Despite that, you continue to do your best and have been working at 110% capacity for longer than seems humanly possible. Your efforts have not gone un noticed and are truly appreciated.

Unfortunately, we are now experiencing a difficult and complex fall season, full of the respiratory illnesses that many of you had predicted. The combination of earlier than expected Influenza A, returning RSV infections and ongoing Covid-19 is pressuring our healthcare system like never before. The paediatric sector is particularly hard hit and sadly, we are expecting high volume pressures across our health system throughout the winter months.

As a result of the above I would like to offer you what support I can to help the residents of Ontario get care during these challenging times. You are all on the front lines, and you see the day to day challenges of providing care first hand. You see the inefficiencies and you see where things can be made better. Many of you may have ideas as to how better manage the flow of patients and many of you have some unique solutions that will help us cope, despite the shortage of health care workers.

Knowing there are limited resources, I obviously can’t promise that we can implement everything suggested. But I want you to know that every reasonable suggestion that will increase the ability of your organization to see patients and alleviate pressure on the health care system as a whole will be considered. If you feel that there will be extraordinary costs associated your suggestions, please contact your ministry representative.

Thank you once again for your ongoing commitment and dedication in the fight against the pandemic and other urgent system pressures. I truly appreciate it and I will do my best to support any innovative solutions you may have.

Please connect with your assigned ministry contact with any suggestions you have for enhancing your organization or any other questions.

Nadia Surani, Director, Primary Care Branch, Ministry of Health

There you have it. I hope that was helpful.

Sincerely,

Your humble servant.

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.

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.