OMA Fails Family Practice with Virtual Care Agreement

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.

Another screen shot from dot health’s website, where they offer connectivity to 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.

Integrated Health Care: If Not Now, When?

As always, opinions in the following blog are mine, and not necessarily those of the Ontario Medical Association.

Recently, Canada Health Infoway, a non-profit organization funded by the federal government to develop digital health solutions, announced that their electronic prescription solution, PrescribeIT, was adopted by the Shoppers Drug Mart and Loblaw chain of pharmacies. This followed on the heels of PrescibeIT being accepted by the Rexall chain. PrescribeIT allows physicians to essentially send electronic prescriptions from their Electronic Medical Records (EMRs) to pharmacies directly, eliminating the need for paper prescriptions.

Reaction from many physician leaders was generally positive:

Other reports indicate how solutions like this have helped during the current COVID19 pandemic. In England for example, 85% of prescriptions are now electronic, thus helping with social distancing.

While I’m glad progress is (finally) being made, I’m forced to ask one question. Why did it take so bloody long?

As I’ve mentioned repeatedly to various health care bureaucrats over the years, my region (Georgian Bay) has had electronic prescriptions for ELEVEN YEARS now. We’ve regularly been emailing pharmacies and had them message us with either requests, or further information.

Our project additionally allows for pharmacists to become part of the health care team by allowing them limited access to a few important pieces of health information they need to do their job properly. For example, they are allowed access to the patients kidney function tests (knowing that many drugs are excreted by the kidney). In that way, I have gotten much advice about changing the dosage of medicine based on how someone’s kidneys are working.

Building on this project, our local area has also ensured that the our After Hours Clinic uses the local EMR, so if patients have to go there, the physician on call can easily access their charts. The local hospital allows us to house our server in their IT room (increases security because of all the firewalls). The advantage of this is that hospital physicians can access all the outpatient records if needed, and provide better care for patients. Even our local hospice has access to this so that patients can get the care they deserve during their last days.

We were even able, for a three years to have the nursing homes access and securely message our EMRs. The result was an over 50% reduction in admissions to hospital from the nursing homes. The cost of the project was $35,000 per year, but the government couldn’t find the right pocket of money to fund it (sigh – see here for how the bureaucracy works) and so the project died. If you need a cure for insomnia, my talk with more details of how the project worked is here (skip to 7:28):

This then is the real frustration that I, and many other physicians have with EMRs and other Health IT systems. Can you just imagine how much further we would be if all areas of the Province had what a few isolated regions (like mine) have?

For COVID19 for example, our Covid Assessment Centre is on our EMR which means that I get an automatic notification if someone goes for a test. And if that test is positive, it allows for quick notification of the family physician so we can begin the process of contact tracing. It also allows for easy transmission of information of people with febrile respiratory illnesses so that we can track important information like when the symptoms started and ended.

Dr. Irfan Dhalla wrote an exceptional piece in the Globe and Mail on preparing for the winter in times of COVID19. Unsurprisingly, he called for reducing “untraced spread” of COVID19 (50% of all cases have no known contact) and a large part of that solution is a technological one, namely the Canada COVID alert app (available at both the Apple App Store and the Google Play Store).

While he’s correct about that, the reality is that we have more illnesses that we have to deal with than just COVID19. We need to be able to manage cancer, other infectious disease, heart disease, diabetes, the frail elderly with multiple problems and much more. The better we manage those illnesses, the more we can keep those patients out of hospital, which is great anytime, but particularly when there is a risk of hospitals being overwhelmed by a pandemic.

Again, in our neck of the woods the Home Care case co-ordinators are on our system. I often get messages from them about how one of my patients is doing, and requests for information from them (so much easier than faxing). This allows me to remotely address concerns patients are having sooner, and for frail patients, getting treatments sooner can often prevent a rapid deterioration, which will of course, prevent a hospitalization.

So while I really am glad that many more physicians will have access to PrescibeIT, I reluctantly point out that in its current iteration it only does about 65% of what our solution does. I suppose that’s better than 0% which people had before, but it is a testament to the failure of a wide swath of health care bureaucrats over the years that this is the best we have.

Even our system is not perfect. I get miserable situations like some of my COVID19 results come in through OLIS (Ontario Lab Information System) and others through HRM (Hospital Report Manager) and yet others get faxed (!) to me. The auto-categorization in HRM is really a complete joke. I dictated a note on one of my hospital inpatients, and the system classified me as a combined General Surgeon, Anaesthetist and Paediatrician – and while I’m glad the system thought I was that smart, the reality is I now have to go through all this data and spend extra time categorizing it properly.

eHealth Ontario, Ontario MD, Health Quality Ontario, the Ministry of Health and its various digital health teams were all to work co-operatively to build a strong Health Information System. But the reality is that these individual systems do not share information in a way that benefits patients.  The shared vision for health IT in the province (integrated health systems IT) still only exist in pockets around the province. There are lessons to be learned here and steps that should be taken.  All of which would really be beneficial now as we head into a potential second wave of COVID19.

Which leads this old country doctor to wonder: If knowing that a potentially huge crisis is coming our way in health care, will no one step up with a vision to fix Health IT Systems and Integrate Health Care information once and for all? And if not now, WHEN?