Critical Decisions Looming for Health Care

The past three months have seen us undergo a stress like we’ve never seen before in our lives. People have lost their jobs, been socially isolated, and, importantly, non COVID healthcare has been delayed significantly. It’s estimated that 12,200 hospital procedures are delayed each week in Ontario alone. (Back of napkin math suggests 125,000 procedures have been delayed since the start of the pandemic).

In Ontario, these sacrifices have had the desired effect. The number of patients with serious complications from COVID has been trending down. Because we are not able to test everyone, I look at the number of patients who are in hospital due to COVID, and especially those who are on a ventilator, as an indication of how widespread the disease is. Because Canadians did what was necessary to protect others, our hospitals have not been as overwhelmed as many had feared.

However, we are now facing another critical situation in healthcare. The complications that are arising in the people who had their healthcare delayed are reaching alarming proportions. Even at the best of times, our healthcare system was overburdened and overwhelmed. To add to all of that this additional backlog, and the fact that many of those patients have deteriorated and are sicker, and, well, you understand the dilemma we are facing.

I don’t have a degree in biostatistics, like current Ontario Medical Association (OMA) President Dr. Samantha Hill. I can’t crunch all the numbers and give you a statistically valid analysis of what we are facing. I can only speak to what I’m seeing in my own practice.

  1. a patient with significant stomach pain who had scans delayed for a month, only to discover cancer
  2. a patient who I diagnosed with melanoma, who still hasn’t gotten the required wide excision, and lymph node biopsy 8 weeks later
  3. a patient who sent me an email clearly indicating the desire to commit suicide because of the mental health effects of this pandemic (I got a hold of them and appropriate measures have been taken)
  4. a patient with a cough since January who still hasn’t seen a specialist
  5. a sharp increase in patients requesting counselling or medications for the stress and depression directly caused by the effects of the pandemic
  6. at least 5 patients who were already waiting for joint replacement surgery now delayed even more

Keep in mind that I am just one comprehensive care family in doctor in a province that has almost 10,000, and you get a sense of the scope of how much these delays are going to affect people.

This is why there is a real dilemma for those who make decisions about when and how to open up health care (and everything else). If we loosen restrictions, start opening the economy, and allow scenes such as what happened at Trinity Bellwood’s park, the number of patients with COVID will increase. But if we don’t, other people will die, or at least suffer life altering illnesses, from non-COVID related diseases.

In cold, unfeeling numbers, the worry by people like my esteemed colleague Dr. Irfan Dhalla is that we will accept between 10-40 deaths per day from COVID in Ontario. But the reality is that about 275 people a day die in Ontario from a myriad of causes (cancer, heart disease, stroke, suicide etc). What if the price of lowering the 10-40 numbers to zero, is to increase the 275 to 325? To be clear, I don’t know if we are at that point, and even more frankly, I doubt Ontario’s archaic health data systems could even help us figure it out. I just know that has to be a critical concern going forward.

So what can be done? The OMA has released a document on emerging from the lockdown, referred to as “The Five Pillars” paper. This is an excellent paper and it is worth reading. I would, however, add the following thoughts.

First, it’s obvious now, that wearing face masks going forward is essential. A look at Japan shows they did everything wrong, except wear masks, and they have one of the lowest COVID rates around. (And yes, I and others told people not wear masks before and in hindsight that information was wrong). This is particularly important to mitigate the expected second wave of COVID in the fall.

Second, we need to move procedures out of the hospitals where possible. Many procedures like colonoscopies, cataract surgeries, diagnostic imaging, minor surgeries and so on, can be done outside of hospitals. Ontario has an Independent Health Facilities Act which licences these premises and ensures that they follow a high level of standards. They tend to operate more efficiently than hospitals and can see more patients than hospitals (whole bunch of reasons why). Previous Ontario Health Minister, “Unilateral” Eric Hoskins stopped licensing them, and it’s a decision that desperately needs to be reversed.

Third, we need to get our health data collection done properly. In Ontario, the plan was to develop Ontario Health Teams (OHTs) throughout the province that would allow the different agencies that cared for a patient (hospital, home care, physicians etc) to co-ordinate care. As Drs. Tepper and Kaplan point out, “fighting this pandemic requires collaboration from every part of the system and the patient voice. That is the promise of OHT.” To do this properly requires seamless electronic integration of a patient’s health record, and this should also serve as the basis for collecting COVID data. A system like this could also aid with contact tracing if done properly.

For the sake of the health care of all Ontarians, we need to open up health care and the economy, and we need to do that sooner rather than later. With a little bit of vision and forward thinking, it’s possible to do this in a safe manner. Let’s hope that’s what we see in the next few weeks.

The Cruelty of COVID-19

We’ve been living with restrictions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic for over two months now. I recently lost a patient due to COVID-19, and this loss caused me to reflect on the effects of the disease, and it’s impact on society. There really is only one word to describe it.

Cruel.

This disease is unrelentingly, unwaveringly and inexorably cruel.

This has nothing to do with the actual pathology (the conditions and processes) of the disease. That in itself, is in line with a bad viral illness. You (mostly likely) get a fever,cough muscle aches, etc. In people who are predisposed (elderly, those with immune compromise) COVID-19 is more likely to get into the lungs and cause inflammation. There is, of course a much higher rate of death for those who have multiple other medical conditions.

Doctors have seen viral illnesses throughout the years, and this pattern of the weakest among us been more adversely affected is one that we are all aware of. Indeed, my patient was elderly and had a number of medical problems. Truth be told, it would not have been unexpected for my patient to have died anyway from any of the other conditions they had. While tragic and sad, the fact that COVID-19 took them when infected, is no real surprise.

Instead, however, the cruelty of this disease is manifested in how my patient, and the grieving family spent the last days. My patient was in hospital, isolated, and alone. No family could visit. No comfort in their last days and no ability for the family to say goodbye, which I know will haunt them for a long time to come.

But it is not just the patients with COVID-19 who are dealt this cruel fate at the end of their lives. Another patient recently died in hospital due heart disease and was COVID-19 negative. Didn’t matter, the new restrictions in place to increase physical distancing and reduce spread (all of which make sense on a population level), meant that they too, died alone, with no contact from family, and the grief of not saying goodbye will haunt their loved ones as well.

This doesn’t apply just to hospitals either. The local hospice (my community is fortunate to have one of these) has new, stringent guidelines in place for their palliative patients. Only one visitor per patient at a time. A maximum of two people allowed to visit at all (what happens if you have more than two children who want to say goodbye). Common area not to be used, so no sharing your grief with other families (which is often therapeutic).

Yes, I know, communication via online tools and phone is encouraged. But we humans are social creatures. We need to see each other in person. We need to hold hands. We need to hug each other. We need physical contact. Yet we can’t have it. Of course, this is necessary and appropriate. But that doesn’t make them any less cruel.

The further medical victims of COVID-19 are of course, the patients whose care has been delayed while waiting for the acute stage of the pandemic to pass. My patient who has a growth on her ovary, and has not been able to get a repeat scan (and worries daily about what it could be). My patient with chronic hip pain who was already waiting for 12 months for their hip replacement surgery before it got cancelled since it was “elective”. Numerous patients with cancer who have had their treatments delayed. The 35 (minimum) whom the Health Minister herself said may have died due to the care that was delayed by this pandemic.

Then of course, there are economic victims. The 44% (!!) of Canadians who lost work due to the pandemic. They now struggle with finding ways to pay the bills and provide shelter and food for themselves and their families. The toll as they struggle is heartbreaking.

We are also seeing an increase in domestic abuse, more people with alcohol and drug problems relapsing, and warnings of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder in physicians and allied health care workers who treat patients with COVID-19.

All of the above are victims of the cruelty perpetuated by COVID-19.

But in all that, there is, to my mind, hope.

There has also been this year an explosion of gentleness, kindness and decency amongst Canadians. Whether it is a grass roots group like ConquerCovid19 (which has, to my mind saved an untold number of lives and reduced morbidity), or simple acts of gratitude like shining a light for doctors, these acts make a difference. Whether you provide PPEs, or grocery runs, or other support to health workers, you are making a difference. Whether you call your friend to check on them after they have lost their loved one, or check on isolated seniors, you will make a difference. Whether you sing songs like these students or these doctors, you will make a difference (seriously, click the links, those songs are great).

Or if you are the unknown (to me) person who left this on the front lawn of my office building…

… you made a difference.

“Gentleness is the antidote for cruelty.”Phaedrus

Indeed, while it seems that COVID19 is inexorably cruel, the gentleness and kindness that has been exhibited by so many people proves that we will get through it, and we will succeed. It will not be easy. And we will need more kindness and gentleness than we thought possible, but we can do it.

Human kindness has never weakened the stamina nor softened the fibre of a free people. A nation does not have to be cruel to be tough.” Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Canadians have shown COVID19 what we are made of this year. We have shown it that its cruelty is no match for our kindness. We have shown it that we will beat it and all it’s complications, though it will take time and continued effort.

So continue to be good to one another. And together, we will win.

Nothing Wrong With Advocating For Physicians

Authour’s note:  This opinion piece of mine was published in the Medical Post.  However, many physicians are unable to access that as you need a dedicated account.  I’ve reproduced it here.

The Canadian Medical Association (CMA) has been embroiled in controversy this past year.  It first started with the announcement of “Vision 2020”, the new strategic plan for the CMA. What’s the first priority of the plan? “Consistently bring a patient perspective to the work of the CMA.”  The second priority?  “Engage in courageous, influential and collaborative dialogue and advocacy.”

This all sounds nice, and politically correct and oh so socially conscious.  Except for one thing.  The CMA is supposed to represent physicians and their needs.  That’s the whole reason for its existence.  Instead, physician representation is third on the priority list, and even there, it’s couched in phrasing like “based on empowering and caring for patients, promoting healthy populations and supporting a vibrant medical profession.”

From the perspective of the CMA’s leaders, I suppose the needs of the general membership don’t really matter.  The recent sale of MD management to ScotiaBank has provided the CMA with a significant amount of revenue.  So much so that they likely don’t even need members anymore.  It’s worthwhile noting that the first $15 million from the sale has been earmarked for a building for health care innovation, as opposed to, you know, a program to look at the alarmingly high burnout rates of physicians.  Certainly the changes made at CMA Governing Council (no more motions to direct the organization) prevent the CMA Board paying attention to silly little things, like the duly elected representatives of physicians across the country.  (NB – it would be unfair of me not to acknowledge that at least the General Membership will be able vote on all the Board members for the CMA.  However, I’m curious to see what the criteria are for becoming a candidate for CMA Board).

There is similar pressure to advocate for patients and health care policy, being placed on the Ontario Medical Association (OMA), particularly on social media.  Recently the OMA has been asked by various physicians to:

– sign letters opposing the separation of children from parents of migrants

– condemn the changes to sexual education curriculum made by Premier Doug Ford’s government

– speak out against the pause to Vaping rules, also made by Doug Ford’s government

– express concerns about the health care for trans gender patients

– and a bunch more.

There are merits to all of those causes (the separation of children from parents is the one I feel strongest about – it’s just child abuse). There is also the argument that physician’s organizations should use their authority to advocate for social issues, as it increases our standing in the eyes of the public and makes us “leaders”. This enhanced standing will supposedly help us when we advocate for ourselves.  The cynics, especially those of us burnt by the previous Ontario government will strongly disagree with this.

But here’s the thing, there are so many good causes out there to advocate for.  And they will keep coming.  How should the OMA, which unlike the CMA, continues to need broad member support, choose?

There is already disagreement about vaping rules/sex ed curriculums and so on.  What happens when the OMA is presented with information about the poor health care Rohingyan women receive?  Or the damage the contaminated water in Flint Michigan has caused?  Or if you want controversy, how about the malnutrition and mental health issues suffered by Palestinian children?  The OMA is supposed to represent 40,000 members with a diverse range of views, not just those who are motivated by one particular issue.

Many Provincial and Territorial Medical Associations (PTMAs) offer media training and advocacy courses.  The OMA for example, has long been asking physicians to become advocates.  Perhaps rather than criticizing on social media, those who feel passionately about various issues can receive the training to allow them to become leaders in their areas of interest.  They can then directly get their message across to the public and work for whatever their cause is.  They are still doctors, and they will still be seen in the public’s eye as doctors taking a lead on health care issues.

As for the PTMAs is it really too much to ask that they focus on membership advocacy first and foremost?  There is absolutely nothing wrong with advocating for meaningful action on high burnout rates, fair contracts and improved working conditions with less interference from bureaucracy.  It’s what these organizations are supposed to do.  The simply reality is that you cannot have a high functioning health care system without happy, healthy and engaged physicians.  Surely advocating for the same is not unreasonable.