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.

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.

Corporatization of Medicine Continues Unabated

Last week, a story came across my feed that seems to have been almost completely ignored by most who are in/or follow medicine and health systems. WELL Health technologies announced that it has purchased 100% of CognisantMD, the developers of the Ocean platform. For those who don’t know, Ocean is a platform that links to various EMRs and allows for securely emailing patients, eReferrals, filling out forms online, and a bunch of other features.

Full disclosure, my practice uses Ocean as well (for now). Personally I find it somewhat clunky and not as smooth as advertised, but there are some positive features to it.

What’s the problem then? It’s a friendly corporate takeover. Happens all the time in the business world.

To understand the concerns, let’s look at what WELL Health does. According to their own website, WELL Health offers a wide array of digital health care solutions. But they also state they are “Canada’s largest outpatient medical clinic owner-operator and leading multi-disciplinary telehealth service provider”. In essence, they run the clinics, and physicians work for them.

A further dive into their strategy, under the “Reinvest” tab states:

“Acquisition of cash generating companies leads to increased cash flows which are re-invested to make additional new cash generating acquisitions.”

Pure and simple – WELL Health is a private, for profit corporation. There is of course, nothing wrong with private corporations. Most people who follow my twitter feed know that I am generally pro-business, and on most issues land on the right side of the political spectrum. I firmly believe we need more, not less, businesses in this country and we need to make it easier for businesses to function.

BUT – acquisitions like these, and the continued take over of clinics by corporations should make us ask legitimate questions about protection of individual health care data. It is no secret that the reasons that companies like Google and Facebook have become so successful is that they found a way to monetize personal data. In much the same way, personal health care data has enormous economic value to companies. Whoever can find a way to properly monetize this, will be the next Jeff Bezos/Mark Zuckerberg and so it’s no wonder that companies are extremely interested in getting into this field.

As I mentioned in a previous blog, Shoppers Drug Mart, for example, recently acquired a stake in Maple, a leading virtual care only provider for $75 million. They continue to advertise on their website (as of Dec 6, 2021) the ability to diagnose strep throat virtually (which personally I find questionable) and then to send antibiotics to a pharmacy near you (I’m guessing there is going to be a Shoppers Drug Mart near you).

Screen shot as of Dec 6, 2021

In a circumstance where a patient contacts Maple, the doctor or NP gets paid to virtually assess a patient, Maple gets a percentage of the fee to cover overhead – which presumably will be reflected in shareholder value to Shoppers. If a prescription gets sent to a Shoppers, well, they make a profit there too. Neat business model.

But it’s not just companies that already have an interest in providing health care related services that are trying to get involved in this field. Amazon is jumping into health care with a telemedicine initiative. Google has long planned to get into health care, and while not terribly successful yet, I doubt they will stop trying. Heck even Uber (!) wants to get involved in health care.

It’s easy to see why everyone wants in. There is a lot of money and potential profit in health care. And while I am all for companies making a profit, that doesn’t mean that we can’t ask some hard questions about the protection of personal health care data such as:

  • How secure is the data that is being held in the servers owned by these corporations?
  • How do we ensure personal health data doesn’t go where it’s not authorized? (eg. supposing the parent company owned a family practice clinic AND an disability insurance company)
  • How do we ensure personal health data is not to be used to monetize other aspects of a business (eg. supposing a walk-in clinic was owned by a pharmacy. A patient attends there for a renewal of cholesterol medications, and then gets ads offering, say, flax seed oil capsules that are helpfully sold by that same pharmacy).
  • How do we ensure aggregate health data housed in those servers is only used to help the community at large (eg. finding communities that may need extra resources for, say opiod addiction).
  • If a physician stops working at a clinic owned by MegaCorp Inc. for whatever reason, how does that physician access their charts after the fact (I’m aware of a number of cases where access to patient records were cut off immediately upon the physician leaving such a clinic).

I’ve just posited a few questions. I’m sure there are many more. I believe that most Canadians strongly value health care privacy. As more and more businesses attempt to get involved in health care delivery, it is vital that we have a framework for oversight that ensures that patients have the absolute right to protect their personal health information. Sadly, I don’t see any organization/government agency out there asking these important questions.

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?