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.

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.