Moving Procedures to IHFs is a Step in the Right Direction

Let’s say you are a patient with high blood pressure in Ontario. It’s time for a check up. If you are lucky enough to have a family physician, you will go their office. Your family doctor will check your blood pressure and perform additional physical exams as necessary. If you are due for additional tests, they will order that and renew your medications. They will likely be paid fee code A007, currently set at $36.85. Out of that $36.85, your family doctor will put some aside to pay the staff, some for cleaning, some for rent, some for other expenses. The remainder, the “profit” if you will, your family doctor will keep for themselves.

Additionally, your family doctor will be required to keep their medical equipment in good order, vaccines in a fridge at consistent temperature, sterilize their equipment and so on. Medial charts must be kept legible and comprehensive. Your doctor will be subject to inspections from their governing body, the College of Physicians and Surgeons (CPSO) to ensure they comply with this.

None of this is new, and it’s how health care has worked in Ontario for decades.

It’s therefore amusing to me to see the righteous indignation on social media when the Ontario Government announced that it would allow more procedures to be done outside of hospital, in an attempt to start to catch up on a backlog of health care that some estimates place at 20 million procedures. The frenzied cries of how this is scheming to create two tier health care where you pay with your credit card have come from the usual suspects.

Premier Doug Ford and Health Minister Sylvia Jones announcing the expansion of Independent Health Facilities

Ontario has had Independent Health Facilities (IHFs) for decades. This is not a new concept. Just like your family doctors, these IHFs bill OHIP for services that are insured, and in return perform a procedure/test/examination on you the patient. They are subject to inspection by the CPSO (just like your family doctor) and have to stay up to standards.

As technology has evolved, many procedures that were once done only in hospital can now be done safely outside of hospitals. Cataract surgery for sure. Colonoscopies/Gastroscopies as well. Arthroscopies are safe and even some joint replacements can be done as outpatient surgery now.

And, just like a visit to your family doctor, you would go to the IHF, the physician would get paid for the work they do by OHIP, some of what they get paid would go to cover their overhead, and the remainder, the profit, they would keep for themselves.

Philosophically, there is NO difference between these two scenarios. So it is extremely curious that people are raising such a furious response to this. Essentially they are saying “it’s ok for family doctors to own their own clinic and keep a profit but it’s not okay for a specialist to do so.” Talk about two tier!

Now that’s not to say there aren’t some practical considerations that need to be thought out.

  1. Where will the support staff (particularly nurses) come from?
    • My feeling on this is that right now we do have a number of nurses who have left hospitals because of the stress of working there. They are never going back. If we build these outpatient surgical centres as part of the hospital bureaucracy, not only will it take longer (hospital bureacrats have never met a committee they didn’t like) but when the hospitals go to hire staff, they will likely want the staff to be able to work in other parts of the hospital and take call. The nurses who left the hospital will NEVER agree to that. Maybe some of these nurses would work in an IHF if they were guaranteed daytime hours. I don’t know how many. But it will be more that the zero that will go back to a hospital owned facility.
  2. Where will the surgeons come from?
    • Fun fact that you may not know. We do have a shortage of doctors. But we also have 150 unemployed orthopaedic surgeons in the province. I’m serious. And I agree with Canadian Medical Association Journal that this is a sign of poor planning. The real problem for most surgeons is lack of operating room time. Having IHFs with operating time will allow them to work and catch up on the health care back log.
  3. Will there be charges outside of OHIP?
    • The reality is that OHIP only covers some things. If you need a Drivers Medical for example, OHIP does not pay for that. Your family doctor will charge you. Same for sick notes, prescription renewals without a visit and more. Philosophically, there is again, no difference between what your family doctor would do, and IHF would do if you wanted something that OHIP didn’t cover (an upgraded cataract lens for example). My father paid for upgraded lenses when he had cataract surgery (in a hospital), and that was something like 15 years ago.
  4. How will we ensure appropriate care?
    • This is a biggie, and the one area that we really need more details on. One example, if I order an MRI of a spine on a patient, I have to fill out an “MRI Appropriateness Form”. This form ensures that clinically, the MRI is required and if the patient doesn’t meet the clinical criteria, the MRI is declined. This is process is only in place at some hospitals. We do need something similar in place if we are to have IHFs do MRIs and other tests.
  5. How do we ensure physician coverage at hospitals?
    • Another biggie. And another area where we really need some more details. What happens if someone has, say, a gall bladder is removed at an IHF and unfortunately the patient has complications? Obviously they will need to go to a hospital. Off the top of my head I would suggest that an IHF only get a licence to do surgical procedures if all of the surgeons have privileges at a nearby hospital so that they can manage their own complications. There may be other ways around this. But there clearly needs to be some work done here as well.

In short, Ontario is finally taking some steps that have the potential to reduce the overwhelming backlog of medical care that patients are experiencing. Instead of throwing up egregious “two tier American style health care tweets” based on ideology alone, we need to work on the practical details of this move to ensure that the roll out is done in the most effective manner possible. Even with that, it will still take years to make a meaningful dent in the backlog of health care.

But I can tell you that if we listen to what the politically motivated folks on Social Media want (have the hospitals run these facilities) it will instead, take decades.

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.

Euthanasia (MAiD) Activists Put A Dollar Value on Human Life

Recently, a patient of mine who I was really fond of, chose euthanasia. The politically correct would prefer to call it Medical Assistance in Dying (MAiD) since it sounds “softer.” But the fact of the matter is we are killing people (presumably to relieve suffering) which is the clear definition of euthanasia. Let’s call it what it really is.

My patient was a nonagenarian, had fairly advanced cancer with probably about 6-9 months left to live. They were still walking (albeit in some discomfort) and toileting independently. They did their own taxes, and anyone who can do their own taxes is mentally competent if not a genius. They looked at the natural course of their illness and, said to me:

“You mean I’m going to spend the last 3 months of my life, likely bedridden with some stranger changing my diapers and wiping my butt?”

And they chose euthanasia, which was provided to them this past year.

The above scenario represents exactly what most Canadians believed they were getting when euthanasia was legalized in 2016. Truth be told, even people like myself, who have qualms about the concept of healers taking lives, completely understand why my patient felt that way. It’s impossible to argue against the autonomous wish of a competent individual.

However, almost as soon as the euthanasia was legalized in Canada, physicians were warning that this was going to open up a slippery slope of ever loosening criteria and increasing permissiveness for euthanasia. Pro Euthanasia types derided these arguments for using “the fear of the unknown“. And yet, six years later, as a nation, we are now on the verge of expanding criteria for euthanasia to include:

And finally, we have a report promoting what many all along thought was the real reason for allowing euthanasia. Basically, that it is cheaper for the health care system.

To be fair, one of the authors of the report, Dr. Aaron Trachtenberg does state that the work is meant to be “theoretical.” He also goes on to state:

“We are not suggesting that patients or providers consider costs when making this very personal and intimate decision to request or provide medical assistance in dying.”

But the blunt reality is that the authors put out a report broadly suggesting to the general public that there are cost savings if, you know, you did the decent thing and just ended it all when you became a burden on the rest of us. Intentional or not, the implication is clear that there is a monetary worth to your life and at some point, you dear patient, are no longer “worth it.” Reminds me of the Star Trek The Next Generation episode “Half a Life“, where the intrepid crew of the Enterprise meets a planet where everyone commits suicide at age 60.

It’s not only people like myself (who have been demanding conscience rights because we saw this coming) that are upset about this. The Toronto Star had a column saying Canada was going too far with euthanasia and warning of the dangers of abuse. The Canadian Society of Palliative Care Physicians has been expressing concern about euthanasia for some time. The Council of Canadians with Disabilities points out that the disabled cannot access supports to live a dignified life but can now access euthanasia. (I’m guessing Dr. Trachtenberg’s report did nothing to ease their concern). Dr. Sonu Gaind, a psychiatrist who himself has done euthanasia assessments has expressed significant concerns about the many flaws in the guidelines for those seeking death when their sole reason is mental illness.

Most tellingly, the National Post reported on a “crisis” in supply of doctors willing to provide euthanasia. Among the reasons cited are the “increased “legal risk and moral hazards” related to ever-widening eligibility.” Also a noted was that many euthanasia providers were curtailing and limiting their practice to those patients for whom the law was originally intended. You know you have a problem when even providers of euthanasia are telling you the rule changes are going too far.

Now perhaps some of the recommendations (like the one around babies) won’t make it through to legality, but the blunt reality is that the slippery slope that was warned about when euthanasia was legalized has come to pass. Its due a combination of lack of foresight and the ineptness of the initial legislation that we are at this place.

It was one thing to allow competent people (like my patient above) to self determine what to do in the face of an incurable illness or suffering. But it’s quite another to recklessly expand criteria . And it the case of those with disabilities, or mental illness, to not provide adequate supports as an option seemingly pushes them in the direction of choosing euthanasia.

Is this really what Canadians wanted?

As for the dollar value of a human life. The study authors write:

“we expect that net health care costs would be reduced by $33.2 million per year if 1% of deaths are due to medical assistance in dying”

This was based on their estimate of about 2,700 cases a year (there were over 10,000 last year). Based on their numbers however, your life is now worth $12,296.30

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.

Will More Canadians Resort to Medical Tourism?

The health care system in Canada has been in a perpetual state of crisis for a couple of decades now. But I’ve never seen it this bad before (and I’m old, I’ve seen a lot).

Across the country, Emergency Departments are restricting access and having partial closures including not just one, but TWO hospitals, in the nation’s capital for crying out loud. Urgent care centres, ICUs and medical wards are also facing issues with staffing shortages and Covid outbreaks.

Even when health facilities are open, we face ever increasing wait times. We wait in line at after hours clinics. We wait for hours in ERs. We wait for months if not years to see a specialist. And we wait and wait for procedures that bureaucrats call “elective”. (NB not sure how cataract surgery, which helps people to see properly, or joint replacement, which helps people to live pain free can be classified as “elective” – but then again, I never understood how bureaucrats classified anything).

With the recent BC court ruling indicating that patients cannot be allowed to pay for private care (putting us in the same group of countries as Cuba and North Korea) – Canadians will have to be the most patient people on Earth.

Or maybe not. We are now starting to see governments, and people, take matters into their own hands.

Saskatchewan recently unveiled a program where they would pay for patients to have their hip and knee procedures done in Alberta. The catch? Patients would have to pay for their own travel costs. A very cursory glance at Westjet’s website suggested this would be just over $1,000 per person for a return flight from Saskatoon to Edmonton. Hotels/car rentals and food would be extra.

It’s not just governments. “Adele” from Hamilton couldn’t bear to see her partner deteriorate as he languished on a wait list in Ontario for hip replacement surgery that might happen by February of 2023. The couple paid $20,000 out of pocket to have the surgery done privately in Quebec on August 23, 2022. I can’t say I blame them. I’ve seen patients suffer from daily pain. It’s heartbreaking.

It all makes me wonder. Are we about to see an explosion in Medical Tourism as patience wears thin?

Travelling to foreign countries for medical procedures is not a new concept. In the cosmetic surgery field, the most famous example would be Costa Rica. A random look at some of the information out there suggests that you can save about 50% off what you would pay in Canada for similar surgical procedures, and that includes accommodations and travel.

Another up and coming country in the Medical Tourism field is Turkiye. Turkiye has a very positive reputation in the male 50+ South Asian community for hair transplants. A quick look at hair transplants in Toronto suggests that while prices vary, costs begin at $8,000 and most people will pay much more.

In Turkiye, on the other hand, the average cost of a hair transplant is 2,350 Euros (about $3,000 Canadian) and that includes accommodation/meds/transportation from the airpot/follow up etc. Some clinics charge less, and some more, but the point is that you can largely save 50% of the cost of doing this in Canada.

It’s not just cosmetic surgery, however. Turkiye is making a name for itself as a medical tourism centre for Europeans. In the bigger Turkish cities, private hospitals offer services in English. The cost of a hip replacement varies depending on the severity and type of joint used. It’s usually between $7,500 to $20,000 Canadian and that includes hotel accommodations, travel to hospital and food. Far cheaper than the United States.

Knee replacements also vary depending on what’s needed, but the average seems to be $9,800 Canadian. There’s a whole list of elective surgical procedures that are done in Turkey that people can find with a little bit of searching.

Why is Turkiye so popular? According to passport symphony.com, it’s a combination of Turkiye’s private hospitals having invested heavily in medical infrastructure over the years and the fact that Turkiye has beautiful and scenic sites so you can have a mini – vacation at the same time. Add to that that Turkiye has aligned its health care to meet European Union (EU) standards (particularly with Medical Devices and Implants) and you have the potential for the highest quality health care at a much lower cost.

Don’t underestimate the importance of aligning with EU standards by the way. Many other medical tourism destinations (Caribbean, Asia) have wildly varying standards. It can be hard to determine what quality of service you are getting. At least if you have EU standards in the facility you are getting treatments done, well, there’s a reassurance of a certain standard of care.

Now to be clear, there are always risks to surgery, especially if you leave the country. Even the best hospitals and surgeons have complications. If you are considering exploring surgery out of Canada, two rules apply:

  1. Caveat Emptor
  2. Contact a trusted agency to help find the best, approved facilities and surgeons.

For Turkiye, you should contact the Canadian Turkish Business Council. Their job is to promote business in Turkiye, and they can provide you with information on which hospitals and specialists are appropriate for you to consider. I understand they can also help with flights.

I imagine there are such organizations for some of the Caribbean countries as well.

I recognize that many Canadians will be offended by the idea of paying for essential health services elsewhere. Our tax dollars are supposed to pay for those services here. But decades of mismanagement of our health care system have left many people languishing on wait lists, and the reality is it will take decades to fix.

It would not surprise me in the least if more and more Canadians looked to Medical Tourism as a way of relieving their suffering quicker than the Canadian system allows.

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.

Most Health Care in Canada is Publicly Funded, Privately Delivered

NB: My thanks to Dr. Hemant Shah, who inspired the title of this blog with his statements on health care delivery in Canada.

Well, here we go again. Yet another kerfuffle caused by absolutist ideologues who are so hell bent on forcing their immovable views on the rest of us that they are resorting to fear tactics.

Ontario Health Minister Won’t Rule out Privatization as Option to Help ER Crisis” – screams the headline in the Toronto Star (a newspaper known for its extremely biased reporting on health care). The article comes after Ontario Health Minister Sylvia Jones had a press scrum. The only problem is that’s not quite what she said.

Here’s the tweet from Mark McAllister, who embarrassingly reached a similar conclusion in his summary:

At no point does the Minister say she is going to privatize Emergency Rooms. Her quote is:

“Look, we’ve always had a public health system in the province of Ontario and we will continue to do so.”

Exactly what part of this screams “privatization”? Even the snippet after where she refers to looking at “options” she clearly mentions other jurisdictions in Canada, where, you know, you have public health care.

The reality is that public health care is for the most part, privately delivered in Canada. Take your family doctor for example (assuming you are lucky enough to have a family doctor). Supposing you go to your doctor to get assessed. In Ontario, your family doctor will likely get paid $36.85 (see page A5 on the Schedule of Benefits). Out of that $36.85, your doctor will allot some of it for the receptionist, the nurse, the cleaners, the rent, the computers and so on. The remainder is the profit, which you family doctor will keep for themselves.

Your family doctor is a private business.

The infuriating thing about this kerfuffle is that this kind of absolutist, hyperbolic nonsense has prevented real advances in health care over the past twenty years. Every time there is a new proposal on how to look at health care differently, some nitwit politician screams out that we are opening the door to two tier American style health care. The new idea gets shut down without taking a thorough look at its merits.

It’s the rigid, inflexible thinking by geniuses like Jagmeet Singh that prevent any such exploration of new ideas. Just have a look at our hospitals. We currently have a crisis with our hospitals over capacity and many waiting in ERs for beds. Yet we still do procedures in hospitals that could be done elsewhere, and free up hospital capacity.

For example, there is ample evidence that independently operating cataract surgery clinics are more efficient and can cut cataract surgery waiting lists. In Canada, these clinics would have to be funded by public health insurance. All absolutists like Singh see is that procedures will be done in a “private” clinic, and are therefore un-Canadian and Tommy Douglas must be rolling in his grave to hear of such a possibility.

Fun fact: Tommy Douglas supported user fees for health care.

Singh and his absolutists would rather you go blind on 2 year wait lists than have publicly funded health care done in a way they don’t approve.

To be completely fair, there are some legitimate concerns about doing procedures in independent clinics. For example, there was concern that colonoscopies in outpatient settings were suboptimal. However, those concerns were addressed by some needed changes made by the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Ontario, with the setting of minimum standards and inspections. As a result of that, there was a strong feeling that colonoscopies could be done safely and efficiently outside of hospitals.

And let’s face it, it’s not as if public institutions are without issues either. Remember the time there was concern the Niagara hospital mishandled a c.difficile outbreak? Or the public nursing home that has been shut to new admissions for over a year? In fact there’s a suggestion that harm to patients in public hospitals costs $1 Billion a year.

No matter if public or private, so long as human beings are involved, mistakes will get made. What’s really needed is a way to do appropriate inspection and review of facilities that are funded by the public purse, so that mistakes are minimized. Then let them get on with their jobs.

What I don’t get is how these folk don’t recognize the hypocrisy of their views. In their mind, it is okay for a family doctor to bill OHIP for a blood pressure check, then use that money to pay for their clinic and keep the profit. But it’s not okay for a gastroenterologist to bill OHIP for a colonoscopy in a health facility (which is safe to do), and use that money to pay for their clinic and keep the profit. Or for an ophthalmologist to bill OHIP for a cataract removal out of hospital (also safe to do) pay for their clinic and keep the profit. And they accuse Sylvia Jones of promoting two tiered approach to medicine???

What about the fact that these private clinics charge patients for some things? Um…..have you ever gone to your family doctor for a Driver’s Medical? You know it’s not covered by public health insurance right? And you have to pay your family doctor for it? How about a sick note? An employment form? The reality is that ALL clinics will charge you for things that public health insurance won’t cover.

As our health care system continues to collapse all around us, we need to take a thoughtful, intelligent and open minded look at how we deliver health care. Yes it should be paid for by the public purse. But we need to recognize the reality that appropriately funding private clinics (with levers to ensure high quality care) is the most effective way start clearing the immense backlog of health care cases.

As for absolutists who snarl at the mere mention of the phrase “private”. While everyone with a modicum of intelligence recognizes that Star Trek is a much better franchise, let me leave them with this from the other, weaker franchise:

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.

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.