Integrated Health Care: If Not Now, When?

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

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

Reaction from many physician leaders was generally positive:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Four Years Later, What’s Changed at the OMA?

This past weekend marked the fourth anniversary of the defeat of the 2016 tPSA (tentative Physician Services Agreement) at the Ontario Medical Association (OMA). It marked the culmination of the efforts to mobilize almost 2/3 of the membership to vote against the deal, despite heavy pressure from the then Board to approve it.

In the aftermath of that agreement, there have been some significant and rather seismic changes at the OMA, and it’s worthwhile looking back to see what’s different, and what still needs to be done.

What’s Different?

Many of the more vocal critics of the OMA from the past have actually become more involved in the OMA. Heck from Dr. Shawn Whatley (2017) onwards, all of the Presidents of the OMA have been people who took a much more different approach to things than Presidents in the past. Frankly, that’s been good for the profession despite whatever tension it may cause at the OMA. Current President Dr. Samantha Hill and President-Elect Dr. Adam Kassam appear to be carrying on this path (which is good).

The Presidents are elected by Council, not from the Board like previous. It’s important to ensure that the President is not elected by a small group, and I’m glad to see it’s being proposed the President will be elected by the members going forward. The Board must listen to the President, because they represent the will of the members.

There has also been a significant shift in how the OMA is structured. In the past the OMA had something like 50-60 committees, all of which were chaired by a Board member. This led to the Board being too operational. Now the Board is down to four committees (Finance, Human Resources, Governance and Strategy) in keeping with the oversight function a Board must have. The total number of committees have been reduced to about 15.

The CEO, Mr. Allan O’Dette, has made a number of operational changes as well. He has brought in a number of cross-functional teams (essentially teams with members from each department) to deal with issues. These efforts paid off in fighting for changes to Bill 10, and the push to bring back arbitration after the government took it away. However, clearly the biggest impact of this approach was in how the OMA handled the COVID-19 pandemic.

I can tell you that I have never, ever seen so much praise for the OMA as I did around the COVID-19 response. Led by Dr. James Wright and Dara Laxer from the Economics, Policy and Research arm (and supported by just about everybody else in the organization – too many to mention but always in my thoughts with immense gratitude) they provided physicians with education, support, resources and timely updates.

I don’t believe the OMA could have mounted a response as strong as this if it was still structured the way it was in the past.

What Still Needs to be Done?

First and foremost, the last set of governance changes endorsed by the Board, must pass through Council. These changes will result in (most importantly) a reduction in the size of the Board from 26 physicians to 8 physicians and 3 non-physicians. Having been on the Board for the past 2.5 years, I can tell you first hand that it is extremely difficult to have a productive meeting with such a big Board. A leaner Board, with some true professional Board members to guide them can dramatically increase the productivity of the Board, and allow the Board to focus specifically on membership wide issues.

The restructuring of the Council to the General Assembly (GA) similarly is essential to the proper functioning of the OMA. The biggest selling point to me, of the GA, is the creation of the Working Groups. In the past, Council would appoint committees but they would be made up members of Council. Now, the Working Groups can include members of the entire profession. So if you have an interest in a specific policy, you don’t have to run for the GA. You can just go into a Working Group, and focus on your area of expertise. It’s a great way to broaden member engagement by allowing members to participate in areas of interest to them, and not take on the full responsibility of a GA or Board member.

The COVID-19 pandemic, and the resulting change to Spring Council delayed these changes, but we need to get them passed.

I will say, that while culture change is occurring, there is always the danger of falling back into bad habits. For example, the OMA staff (who I will say have really done an excellent job on multiple issues) will probably continually need to be “nudged” to focus on skills based recruitment. If the OMA sends out a call for members to join a specific committee, it is human nature to look at the applicants, and then pick people you already know because of their “institutional knowledge”. But the reality is that to serve members best, it is often important to pick new and different people, who also bring a broad set of skills to the table. It’s a hard change to make, and we must guard against slippage into old habits.

The OMA must continue to get bolder. Heck the Mission Vision and Values of the OMA clearly states that the organization will be bold, and will courageously pursue new ideas and solutions. Part of being bold, is taking risks. Again, there has been progress on this front at the OMA, but when you are historically a risk averse organization, it’s easy to take the path of least resistance on issues.

Finally, the last little bit of what has to continue to happen falls, quite frankly, on the rank and file members. Over the past few years, there has been a gradual increase in the number of members who vote in elections. This is a GOOD thing of course. However, we always need more members voting, and frankly, members need to THINK about who they are voting for.

Are you voting for someone just because they seem to spam you inbox/twitter feed/facebook page with and seem to “want it”? Are you just picking alphabetically the first candidate so that you can just get the damn website to go to the next page so you can finish off your renewal of membership? Have you actually read the position statements and seen the videos?

This year in particular, if the proposed changes do happen, it will be absolutely imperative for members to pick the right candidates for the Board and the General Assembly. Read all the position statements. Find the candidate you identify with. Then vote for them.

The OMA’s transformation is happening, slower than many would like, and often times with two steps forward and one back, but it is happening. To continue to make progress, the members will need to do their bit.

This blog was inspired by Dr. Graham Slaughter, who reminded me of the fourth anniversary. Graham is one of the smartest people I know, a exceptionally dedicated father and husband, and has been a tremendous help help to myself and others behind the scenes. Pictured with his new daughter Nora.

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.

Better Contact Tracing Essential: Requires Improved Public Health Systems

Recently, I came across the following graph of the waves of the Spanish Flu in 1918-1919. I don’t know the exact source of this graph. However, the information on the graph lines up exactly with what the Centre for Disease Control (CDC) describes as the three waves of the Spanish Flu.

To be clear, nobody at this time knows if the same pattern will be followed by COVID19. We know that the flu tends to have decreased transmission in humid weather, but we don’t know if COVID19 (caused by a different virus) will follow that pattern. Or even if that will make a difference during the first season of a pandemic. There’s a nice video explaining that here.

However, should this pattern be followed by the COVID19, suffice it to say that we are all in for a very long road ahead.

So what can be done to reduce the intensity of the second and third waves (if they come)? Physical distancing of course is number one on the list. While many physicians (myself included) suggested not wearing masks in public initially, we know know that doing so will keep YOU from spreading COVID19 if you are a carrier. So wear a mask. Finally, we need a robust tracking and isolating system (aka Contact Tracing) for people who test positive for COVID19, which frustratingly, we don’t have right now.

Widespread testing for COVID19 along with Contact Tracing is what the four most successful governments in the world have done to control the spread of COVID19. We need to learn from these governments. But for now it is something that we seem to be unable to do in Ontario, and there are multiple reasons why.

Piecemeal Structure of Public Health Units (PHUs)

The first is the piecemeal structure of PHUs in Ontario. Now to be clear, PHUs are manned by terrific doctors and front line staff. I had the pleasure of meeting many of them during my term as President of the Ontario Medical Association and they are all excellent, hard working people. But the infrastructure of PHUs, from the point of view of this family doctor, leaves a lot to be desired.

By my count, there are about 40 Public Health Units across the Province. To a large extent, they work somewhat independently from each other and use different referral forms. My office has patients from patients in both the Grey Bruce and the Simcoe Muskoka health units, and while the staff in both units is excellent, it’s frankly annoying to have two different sets of forms to refer patients (and have two different formats of reports come in).

Worse, not all of the Public Health Units are on an electronic records (seriously, some use paper), and there is not one consistent electronic record for PHU’s across the Province. This only complicates the collection of data and the ability to Contact Trace.

Curiously enough, addressing the disjointed nature of the public health units was something that the current provincial government tried to address early in it’s mandate. Part of the initial plans were to reduce the number of PHUs and standardize the processes. This was supposed to result in savings of 25% in the PHU budgets. (NB – personally I can’t see that much in savings, I’m thinking closer to 10% would have been achieved).

Of course given what happened with the COVID19 pandemic, and the “two second sound bite” nature of our media reporting, the story has become “Doug Ford cut spending – we have a pandemic – solution – spend more”. It’s a nice simple argument. “Hey we spent more money, problem solved.”

However, just spending more on public health (and to be clear again – I support wise investments in public health), isn’t enough. There’s no sense in spending more on a disjointed system. What’s needed is to get all the PHU’s across the Province to integrate into one standard electronic system of record keeping, so that they can more efficiently and effectively contact trace.

More Wide Spread Testing for COVID19

Next of course, we still need more wide spread testing, and ideally we need something called “point of care” testing. Once again, the four countries I referenced earlier led the way in testing as many people as possible. So this needs doing as well.

APP for Contact Tracing

Finally, we really should authorize a provincial app for Contact Tracing. Alberta already has one. Alberta has taken many precautions to ensure that patient privacy is protected (app does not use GPS, has a randomized non-identifiable ID, erases data every 21 days etc). We could just use that one, or a more Ontario centric one like this excellent one developed by physicians . It has some what more features and ease of use but uses GPS. Better yet, why not link and App to a patient’s own health care portal like MyChart, which already integrates COVID19 test results?

As the New York Times pointed out, Contact Tracing is hard. However, we need to get on with it. Without effective Contact Tracing, we can’t mitigate against the potential second and third waves of this pandemic. Without mitigation, the economic and health disaster will continue and untold millions more will continue to suffer.

Here’s hoping that instead of just throwing money at a problem, governments of all levels invest smartly at the right tools (standardized PHUs, contact tracing APPs etc.) to deal with the COVID19 Pandemic. The alternative is too frightening to consider.