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.

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.

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.

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.

Covid is Not Over – and It Won’t EVER Be

As provinces across Canada begin to lift restrictions from the Covid pandemic, there is a plethora of opinions raging about this. Some physicians feel the restrictions are being lifted too slowly. Others feel that it is just right. In Ontario at least, the most outspoken group are the physicians who demand ongoing restrictions. They have taken to using #Covidisnotover on Twitter.

Obviously, when dealing with a once in a century pandemic that has truly decimated patients and health care workers alike, there are still going to be unknowns going forward. But personally speaking, I think we have to realize a couple of things. First, Covid is not over. Second, and most importantly, it never will be.

Is the flu over? Is HIV over? Heck, are measles and RSV over? The answer to all of those is no. The viruses are still around, they are still infecting people and are mutating all the time (that’s why we need an annual flu shot).

There are always a certain amount of these viruses in the ecosystem. Why would Covid be any different? We are not going to completely eradicate Covid.

Given this – the question becomes, what do we do as a society?

One option, and certainly one that is promoted by the #covidisnotover types, is to continue ongoing restrictions, for much longer. Be it mask mandates, enforced vaccine passports, or continued limits on indoor capacity, the message from them seems to be to keep imposing restrictions for……well, I couldn’t really find consensus on an end date.

The most common argument for continuing restrictions (in Ontario anyway) is the continued positive case load. There are more positive cases than ever before, so why should we stop restrictions now?

Well, the short version is that while it is absolutely true that our case load is higher now than in, say October of 2020, many other factors have changed. In October of 2020, there were no vaccines. There were no oral medications that could help treat those who were infected. Guidance on the fact that Covid is airborne was still (shockingly) lacking.

In comparison, in March of 2022 over 90% of the adult population of Ontario has two covid vaccines, and are well on the way to their third. Evidence is clear that the vaccines are remarkably effective at preventing serious complications of Covid. There is now a strong emphasis on good ventilation as a way to reduce the Covid burden. The government is providing funding for Hepa filters in schools and child care settings. A protocol for rolling out the new oral medications exists, and, like all things, supply of the medications will increase with time.

So to compare just case numbers from October 2020 to March 2022, quite frankly is just comparing apples to oranges. We need to take all these other factors into account.

The other common argument is essentially “Look at Denmark!“. Pro restriction types point to the fact that Denmark lifted all Covid restrictions on February 1st, 2022, and now seems to have an exploding number of cases and mortality. Graphs like the one below are designed to shock people into thinking there is a catastrophe in Denmark:

But the graph doesn’t tell the whole story, and in fact a much more nuanced approach requiring a deep dive into the data is needed. I was going to try but I can’t do a better job of it than Michael Petersen did in his twitter thread:

The short version is that because so many people have Covid now, we need to do a better job of determining who died because of a covid infection (usually a covid pneumonia) vs who died of other causes, but incidentally happened to have Covid at the same time. A better graph showing the Denmark situation (taken from Petersen’s thread) taking this into account is here:

Before people start jumping all over this, let me also point out that I am acutely aware that there is a significant spike in deaths in Denmark recently, even if not specifically caused by Covid. We clearly need to do a deeper dive into why there were excess deaths. But part of that deeper dive must include whether deaths were caused by the restrictions themselves (delayed care, depression and mental health issues leading to people just giving up etc). In essence, is the cure (restrictions) causing more harm than the disease (Covid)?

Look, lockdowns and restrictions were initially necessary. There is good evidence that they helped to blunt the course of Covid. But there is also evidence that they have harmed society as well. The economic impacts with record government deficits that will tax our great grand children are well known. However, there are also other health care impacts.

In Ontario, we have a back log of 20 million health care services, leaving many patients feeling forgotten. There are consequences to delayed care and I have seen that in my own practice, and expect to see much more in the coming year. Yes, those consequences sadly will include deaths.

All of this is before we even consider the collateral damage done to mental health especially in our pediatric population. As Dr. Jetelina points out in her excellent sub stack, there has been a world wide increase in paediatric mental health issues. A 24-31% rise in children presenting with mental health issues and a shocking 69-133% (depending on age group) increase in children presenting with suicidal thoughts to Emergency Departments.

What does all this mean?

My personal feeling is that while we cannot ignore Covid (it’s a bad disease) and we need to continue to encourage vaccinations (they work), we need to start looking at the health care system as a whole. Should we mask in high risk areas? Sure. But should we continue to isolate people socially and restrict interactions in a lower risk population, when that clearly causes other harms? I would argue no.

We have been making decisions for a long time based on Covid numbers alone. There are other illnesses and disease that are out there, many of which have been worsened by the restrictions Covid has forced on us. We need to start basing our health care decisions on what’s best for overall population health, not just Covid.

It’s Time to Open Up Nursing Home Capacity

Recently, I posted what I referred to as a controversial tweet about the need to open up nursing home beds that had been closed during the seemingly never ending Covid pandemic.

While there was not much “controversy” in twitter feed as a result of this, it did lead to some questions being asked during an interview I gave for CTV News.

While I certainly appreciate the professional nature of the reporter (the always adept Kraig Krause), the reality is that 30 second blurb on this topic, in an interview about all things COVID, can’t really do it justice. So let’s delve into this deeper.

It’s no secret that Ontario’s Nursing Homes were hit hard by the Covid pandemic. One nursing home in my region, Roberta Place in Barrie, was ravaged badly by the disease. I still grieve for all of the residents and families there, including those who survived as they likely continue to suffer some of the after effects of what transpired.

In the wake of these and other such stories, the Ontario government quite correctly limited the number of residents in ward beds at nursing homes. Many of Ontario’s nursing homes are very old buildings. The nursing home I’m honoured to be a medical director for has great ownership (private as it happens) and great staff, but the building itself if 52 years old and would not meet newer, more modern standards for nursing homes.

When my nursing home was built, having a ward bed (four residents to a room) was thought to be reasonable. Given that Covid is airborne (like most other respiratory illnesses!) the COVID19 Directive #3 (linked above) for nursing homes limited the number of residents to two per room. This made perfect medical sense at the time, and I certainly supported it then.

The reality however, is that health care is not limited to a single disease. We do have Covid of course, but we have a whole lot of other illnesses that we need to deal with. The Ontario Medical Association has estimated that a minimum of 16 million visits or procedures have been delayed as a result of the pandemic. We can’t keep delaying these. We need to address all the other health care issues that Ontarian’s have, and not just maintain sole focus on Covid.

Right now, I personally have two patients who are in hospital waiting for a nursing home bed. They are not acutely ill. They do not need aggressive medical treatment. They need a nursing home. But they can’t get one because of the massive shortage of nursing home beds. And while I strongly applaud the government for planning to build more beds, they won’t be here for 4-5 years.

At the nursing home I work at, normally 60 patients could be housed, but it’s now limited to 45 because of the rules implemented during the pandemic. I imagine it’s one of many nursing homes that has been limited. While opening up those closed beds (at all the homes) likely won’t be enough, it will help alleviate the stress on hospitals. This is particularly important given (as I write this) no one knows how bad the on coming Omicron wave will be.

But wait – are we not risking increased covid infections in the nursing homes by doing this? We would be increasing, for lack of a better phrase, population density in these homes. The answer is not as straightforward as one would think.

First we now know that three doses of the Covid19 vaccine provides the maximum amount of protection. Just about every resident of a nursing home has had three doses – as have staff. There will never, ever, ever be a vaccine (for any disease) that is 100% effective. But that fact that our most vulnerable patients have had three doses is incredibly reassuring.

Second, we would have to ensure that nursing homes have the funds to put in proper air purifiers (with Hepa Filters) in their facilities. I’m not asking for a complete re-vamp of the HVAC systems (that will take too long). But even small portable air purifiers will make a difference.

Third, we would need to ensure a rapid swab and immunization policy for staff and visitors of nursing homes to further reduce the risk of Covid entering a facility. Just tossing it out there but how about all staff get swabbed once a week regardless of vaccine status, and visitors twice a week?

Fourth, as one of the smartest people I know put it, a bed is just a piece of furniture. We have to ensure that the homes who are short on staff, now have the ability to hire extra staff to take care of the residents in these beds.

The health care system is a behemoth. It is also interdependent on all of its various parts working together. A shortage of nursing home beds, means more people in hospital waiting for nursing homes, which reduces the hospitals ability to provide acute care which leads to further backlogs and delays in medically necessary treatments.

We cannot make nursing homes 100% safe (we can’t make anything 100% safe). But re-opening currently closed nursing home beds in the safest possible manner, will be a small step in the right direction. It will also provide the hospitals with a little bit of extra capacity, should Omicron stress the system more.

A New Day for the OMA

For many of us 2020 was arguably the worst year we will (hopefully) ever see. The annus horribulus of our lifetimes. But for the Ontario Medical Association (OMA), arguably its worst year was 2016. Reeling from repeated attacks from then Health Minister “Unilateral” Eric Hoskins, the OMA as an organization made a decision to try to play nice by agreeing to a tentative Physicians Services Agreement (tPSA) in an effort to end the war Hoskins started. Unfortunately the deal was substandard, and like everything Hoskins did, was bound to hurt patient care.

Amongst much controversy (which I won’t restate) the tPSA was rejected by physicians. This led to a realization that the OMA needed to change. The organizational structure was archaic, pondering and built on the concept of “politicking” at a large Council meeting of almost 250 people, and passing motions as opposed to developing solutions. A revolutionary change was needed, which required a “disruptor” as leader.

Out of nowhere, in a seemingly vertical career trajectory, came my friend and colleague Dr. Nadia Alam, who wound up becoming the OMA president based on a promise to transform the organization. Her greatest strength was her ability to inspire people that they could be better. Becoming the face of a change agenda, she helped all of us believe that the impossible was possible, and that with hope, and a leap of faith, a better organization could be there for us.

Dr. Nadia Alam, a Past President of the OMA, who became the face of a movement that demanded change for the better.

The first step was to revamp the operational side of the organization. Led by CEO Allan O’Dette, the staff became more organized in cross functional teams, and had a clear purpose delivered to them.

These changes were unquestionably helpful, as seen by the strong response to the COVID19 pandemic. I’ve never heard so many members actually say nice things about the OMA staff as I did over that response. All the staff deserve a great deal of credit for how they came together around this issue, which would not have been possible without the operational re-alignment.

But the governance of the OMA was still antiquated. The bylaws said OMA Council governed the OMA (even though this was a direct contravention of the corporations act). Council has 250 well meaning physicians who give up their own personal time to serve the profession. Unfortunately, trying to secure blocks of votes to pass motions, is simply not a modern way to deal with issues.

The OMA Board had 25 physicians, also well intentioned, who gave up much more personal time and tried to represent the profession as a whole, while mindful of the constituencies that elected them. Twenty-five is just too big for an organization that needs to be nimble, and as dedicated as Board members are, it was apparent that some professional Board Directors were needed to guide the Board so that it could do the best for the profession.

Over the past 18 months, the Governance Transformation Task Force 2020 (GT20) worked overtime to make the OMA a much more modern organization. There were a lot of people involved in GT20, from OMA staff, other physicians, and the consultants. They all are extremely deserving of the thanks of the profession, but to name all of them would use up the word allotment of my blog.

However, I need to make a special mention of the GT20 Co-Chairs, Drs. Paul Hacker and Dr. Lisa Salamon. I have had the opportunity to provide a bit of support to Dr. Salamon, and somewhat more to Dr. Hacker (P.S. Yes, General Manager of OHIP all those K005 claims are legitimate). If not for their dedication and focus, this process could have gone off the rails at multiple occasions.

Drs. Lisa Salamon and Paul Hacker, co-Chairs of the OMA GT20 Task Force and providers of inspirational leadership and dedication the physicians of Ontario

Change is hard. It’s one thing to want change, it’s another to look at proposed changes and realize just how significant they are. Human nature being what it is, many people suddenly had second thoughts or concerns about the transformation at multiple points throughout the consultations and reviews.

But Drs. Hacker and Salamon (and the rest of GT20), stayed the course. They focused on what physicians in Ontario deserve – a leaner, more nimble and strategic organization. An organization where elected leaders come together in a manner that enables them to create positive solutions instead of politicking for votes on motions at a large meeting. An organizational structure that allows for rapid responses when crises inevitably arise.

This past weekend, after many many ups and downs in the process, OMA Council reviewed the proposed changes. As expected, there were lots of well thought out questions about the changes.

However, at the end of the day, one unassailable fact remained. All of the issues that had previously plagued the organization (contracts that paid sub-inflationary increases, not enough progress on relativity, concerns about representation, gender pay gap and much more), would still be around. Yet these were the very things the Council structure had failed to fix.

So the choice for Council was to stick with the old model, or to build a new one. In the end, they followed the advice of someone much smarter than me:

What does this mean for physicians? It means that come May the OMA Board will go from 25 physician members to 8 (plus three non-physician Board members to provide professional guidance). Council has been sunset. In its place, a new model with a Priority and Leadership group (max 125 docs) will exist. The bulk of the policy work and recommendations will be done by Working Groups dedicated to a specific task and which will allow expert members from throughout the profession.

How well will this work? Well it will depend on how much thought members give to the election process. They need to focus on who can represent them best at the various levels. But the reality is that a newer model of representation that is more nimble, strategic and rapidly responsive is finally here for physicians of Ontario. And we all owe a huge vote of thanks to Dr. Alam for starting the change and Drs. Hacker and Salamon for seeing it through.

COVID19 and Nursing Homes

For those of you who don’t know, I am the Medical Director of Bay Haven Care Community, a combined retirement and nursing home. Below is a letter that I sent to the family members of all the residents of the nursing home, updating them with information about COVID19. Reproduced here so it can be shared if others wish to copy it.

Dear Family Members of Residents of Bay Haven,

As the Medical Director of Bay Haven, I wanted to write to all of you to update you on some important new information about COVID19.

As you are likely aware, Ontario is now firmly in the second wave of the seemingly never-ending COVID19 pandemic.  As I write this, 99 out of 626 nursing homes in Ontario are in outbreak from COVID19.  Thankfully, Bay Haven is not one of them.  I hope and pray that it will stay that it will stay that way, and that the other nursing homes get out of outbreak as soon as possible.

Our knowledge of the COVID19 virus has increased significantly over the past few months.  We still don’t know everything about it, nor do we have a cure, but we can be better prepared than we were in the past.

We now know that the virus is largely spread by what’s called “aerosolized” means.  That’s to say that it is expelled by your mouth when you breath/talk/sing and floats in the air for a large period of time, thus spreading to others.  This is why wearing a mask is so important.  All of our staff and visitors have been required to wear masks for many months, in addition to all the other screening that we do.

With this knowledge, it is becoming more and more apparent for the need for high quality ventilation and air purifiers, particularly those with HEPA filters.  While the physical plant at Bay Haven is quite old, I am extremely grateful that the management of Bay Haven invested in HEPA air purifiers for all the large common areas, even before Health Canada updated their website to indicate the risk of airborne spread.  I applaud their commitment to keeping residents safe.

Additionally, there has been much speculation about the benefits of Magnesium, Zinc and Vitamin D in fighting viruses.  To be candid, the evidence for Magnesium is not that great.  Magnesium may kill viruses “in-vitro” – that’s to say, in a petri dish in a lab – but more study is needed to see how it works in a human body.  But at least it’s not harmful.

There is actually decent evidence that Zinc can help fight off viral infections.  Taking 25 mg of Zinc daily is not harmful and has benefits.

There’s been evidence that Vitamin D can help fight viral infections for some years now. Recently however, a large clinical trial showed that people with low vitamin D levels were more likely to get COVID19.  It’s a very large trial, and the first one I am aware of where the benefits vitamin D were proven for one specific virus.

What can you do?

First, of course we ask that you abide by our visitor polices, that have been mandated by the Public Health Departments.  These policies are sometimes frustrating to follow, but they have been implemented to keep our residents safe.  We ask that you please help us keep your loved ones safe.

Second, if you wish to provide additional protection, you could purchase a small room HEPA air purifier for your loved one.  These would stay next to the head of the bed in the room, and provide additional protection.  Currently they range in price from about $60 to $90 from Amazon. There are other models as well, of course, but they should be HEPA certified to be effective.  At that price, frankly these devices will only last 6-9 months before going bad, but hopefully by that time we will have a vaccine. (While a vaccine is expected shortly, there are many distribution problems with them, and I don’t expect them to be available for a few months).

Finally, if you would like your loved ones to start Magnesium, Zinc and Vitamin D, please let me know by replying to this email, and I will ensure these are ordered. To be clear, this is “off label”- it’s not specifically an approved therapy, but it is at least very safe, and not harmful at standard doses.

None of these measures of course, is guaranteed to prevent a COVID infection, or an outbreak, but right now, represents the best possible protection we can provide.

I hope and pray you all continue to stay safe and well.

Your sincerely, 

Dr. M. S. Gandhi, MD, CCFP

Medical Director,

Bay Haven Seniors

Physician Autonomy Essential for Good Patient Care

Several years ago, one of my colleagues was having a disagreement with an external health care agency. She’s a very bright young family physician, and is extremely passionate about one part of comprehensive family medicine care. She really felt the external agency was failing in providing a reasonable level of service for one group of marginalized patients. In particular, she felt the agency’s process for accepting referrals was deeply flawed.

After months of advocacy by her, the agency finally reviewed their intake process. They then pronounced that everything was ok, because 90% of the referrals were processed accordingly.

In response, my tenacious colleague sent an email to all the family docs in the area, asking them for feedback on the referral process. She the proceeded to blast said agency for the 90% processing rate. “If a server at McDonald’s got the order wrong 10% of the time, would he still have a job?” was the line in her email that really got everyone’s attention. As a result, my colleagues sent feedback, the external agency’s response was proven inadequate, and changes were made. In her own way, my colleague was following the wisdom of Ruth Bader Ginsburg:

It also shows, in one neat example why physician autonomy is so important to patient care. Because without that autonomy, and independence, we can’t speak out. We can’t advocate for our patients even if it makes bureaucrats uncomfortable. We can’t expose those situations where patient care has been compromised.

This is, of course, exactly what those who want to take autonomy away from us want. For the most part this includes two types of people. First are health care bureaucrats, who feel that because they control the purse strings, everything should be done their way, and no pesky front line physicians should dare question their judgement or expose their flaws. The second group consists of a small number of physicians, who, while well intentioned, feel that physicians autonomy impedes whatever fancy new health program they want to implement.

Suppose you are an employee in the IT department of a corporation. You make a statement like say, “If our legal department worked at McDonald’s they would get fired because they get orders wrong 10% of the time.” What happens then? Human Resources gets involved, you get called out for making derogatory comments, the CEO might even get involved, you get disciplined and basically told to shut up. Even (especially?) if you are right in the first place.

This is exactly what those who oppose physician autonomy want.

The anti-autonomy crowd feels that physicians resist change. Therefore, the thinking goes, physicians will use their autonomy and independence to impede whatever new program/model/team is being promoted. Hence, autonomy must be curtailed so physicians can do what they are told, and accept whatever the powers that be tell them is good for them.

However, this couldn’t be further from the truth. The vast majority of physicians are open to new ways of doing things. If they truly believe a new process will help their patients, and help their lives, they will adapt. This is why we use new medications, new treatment protocols and yes, newer models of health care delivery than we used in the past. Medicine would not have changed so much in the past 25 years, if it wasn’t for the willingness of physicians to explore newer and different methods of delivering health care.

But as my friend’s example shows (and there are many like hers), what is essential to the provision of good patient care, is for physicians to retain their ability to speak out. My friend saw an area where a health care agency was failing a group of patients. Because she didn’t have to fear retribution in the form of being hauled up in front of Human Resources, she was able to effectively advocate for patients (who in this case happened to be too frail to advocate for themselves). Eventually, due to her persistence, the agency recognized their errors and fixed their flawed process.

In much the same way as we explore transforming the health system again (in Ontario these are to be done with the Ontario Health Teams or OHTs), it is fundamentally important to ensure that physician autonomy is protected in these models. This will allow physicians to speak up if the implementation plans are not going the way they should, or if programs promoted by the leaders are not really going to help patients. While painful for those in charge to hear criticisms, it results in better outcomes in the long run because the new programs will be better, stronger and more effective.

Let’s hope that as the new OHTs are developed (full disclosure, I support the concept) the message of the essential nature of physician autonomy is not lost. Physician autonomy has allowed us to be the best possible advocates for patient care in the past. If we can no longer, as Ginsburg urged, fight for the things we care about, it will be the patients who suffer.