Recently, the Ontario Medical Association (OMA) approved an agreement to extend virtual fee codes for an additional year. There is much to like about the extending fee codes for virtual care. As the pandemic has taught us, there is a role for appropriately provided virtual care. I have used virtual care with my patients for over three years now, and have found it a useful adjunct to in person visits.
In the current environment however, the extension agreement fails family practice. Since family practice is the bedrock of any high functioning health care system, damaging it will have unforeseen negative consequences.
How will this agreement harm family practice? By allowing negation to occur for care that is provided virtually, without implementing some guidelines on the appropriate provision of virtual care.
About 6,000 of Ontario’s family physicians are on a capitation model (basically a salary plus performance bonuses). One of those performance bonuses is for accessibility. The bonus applies if your practice is available to look after your patients. If, for example, a patient can’t see you, and then goes to see a walk in clinic that you don’t work it, the family physician in question will be deducted the value of the visit to the walk in clinic.
The concept of the access bonus is a good one that I support. We’ve got ample evidence that the absolute best health care outcomes occur when patients see their own family doctor as opposed to seeking out itinerant care from physicians who with whom they don’t have an ongoing relationship.
So what’s the problem then? Why should negation of the access bonus apply only to in person visits, and not to virtual care as well? Because the current landscape for virtual care is so open ended, and so rife with potential for overuse/misuse, that it makes it impossible for family doctors to compete on the availability and ease of access front.
There are lots of private, for profit companies that provide a level of virtual care, but for simplicities sake, let’s look at dot health. A glance at its website reveals that, for the low low price of $69.98 per request, you can get your health care information (including labs/diagnostic tests/clinical notes apparently) from providers, and store it securely on the web where you and only you can access it. The website doesn’t go into the two tier nature of the system – those who can afford to pay for multiple requests can then present their data to a new health care provider they meet and presumably get more appropriate care.
More troubling to me personally is the “free” service offered by some guy (I’m assuming he’s a he based on the icon) named “Dr. M” offering to help you “understand” what your records mean to you.
Patients should be able to understand their own private health information/records. But surely it makes much more sense to ask the doctor that you already have a pre-existing relationship with what the records mean. You know, the one who’s followed you all along, and you’ve seen regularly. Asking essentially a stranger on the internet (no matter how well qualified) seems problematic at best.
I have no idea if “Dr. M” bills OHIP for the phone calls he would provide to patients who request this service. I would simply point out that under the existing virtual care codes, if a patient requests this service, it would be legal for him to bill. This would result in the family doctor for the patient being negated.
Also problematic in my opinion, is there seems to be a consolidation of sorts in private for profit virtual care companies. dot health’s website offers seamless integration with Maple.
Maple is a private, for profit virtual health care provider that allows you, for a fee of course, to chat with a doctor/nurse/nurse practitioner and get care through their patented app. Maple was recently bought by Loblaws/Shoppers Drug Mart for $75 million (!).
And no surprise, their focus appears to be on “convenience”. Here’s the example they use from their own website:
Seriously, diagnosing strep throat, without a throat swab (which can only be done in person)?? And then prescribing antibiotics (I wonder which pharmacy gets the prescription). Have these guys never heard of the issue around over-prescribing of antibiotics and the ramifications? Or the fact that the vast majority of sore throats are viral?
The astute amongst you will also recognize that dot health was founded by Ms. Huda Idris. Who also happens to be a Board Director for Ontario MD, the OMA subsidiary that is supposed to be the “Trusted Advisor for EMRs and Provincial Digital Health Tools” for physicians.
To be clear, I have a great deal of respect for Ms. Idrees as a person. Being from the south Asian community and a Muslim myself, I think it’s incredible that we have role models like her out there given some of the patriarchal attitudes that persist in that community. I congratulate her on her success and wish her more of it.
However none of that changes the fact that having the owner of a virtual care company, that has links to another, while OMD is supposed to be taking an impartial look at virtual care solutions going forward creates the impression of a conflict of interest. She likely would recuse herself from discussions around this (she has a reputation for impeccable conduct) but in politics, the reality is that a perception of a conflict of interest, might as well BE a conflict of interest
NB – I should point out that OntarioMD likely had nothing to do with the virtual care extension agreement – that was approved by the OMA Board.
Back to accessibility, I pride myself on being reasonably available to my patients. As with all things, there are some ups and downs, but I have consistently had positive access bonuses for the past 17 years. I have no problem with other clinics trying to set up shop near me (some have tried over the years) because my patients generally know that for the most part either via phone, email, or in person, they can usually get a hold of me in a timely manner.
However it’s not possible for me, or any other family physician, to compete with $75 million operations like Maple or companies like dot health who advertise on Twitter and Facebook, and allow people to simply click on the ads to connect to a physician.
Moreover, this kind of thing is bad for the patients. The example of prescribing antibiotics without a throat swab is just one of many that I could present about inappropriate tests and or prescriptions being given by physicians who may mean well, but don’t know have the insight an ongoing relationship with patients can provide.
This deal will also potentially negatively affect specialists as well. Say you are the best cardiovascular surgeon I know. At some point these private companies will also have other cardiovascular surgeons on staff. Maybe if a patient has a question about their surgery, they will contact, for convenience sake the private company, instead of asking you. Do you think that’s not going to affect consistency and quality of care?
Virtual care is here to stay and I support virtual care. However, when funding virtual care it’s important to ensure that it’s only funded in an appropriate manner. As Drs. Agarwal and Martin wrote in their piece on the virtual care revolution:
“Virtual care should be leveraged to as a tool to interact with your provider – someone who knows you and can see you in person when that’s best.”
Currently, there appear to be no qualifiers on virtual care payments. Maybe there was a sense that the only way to get qualifiers was to approve this first. Maybe the concern was that time was running out on the initial agreement and something had to be done now. I don’t know (I’m not on the OMA Board anymore).
But I do know this, sometimes, you need to walk away from flawed agreements for the sake of the greater good. And this, was a flawed agreement that should not have been approved.