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.

“Smokey” Thomas Fails His Members

Authour’s Note:  Once again, I would like to state that while I am President-Elect of the Ontario Medical Association (OMA), I have not spoken with any of the Family Doctors in Owen Sound about this situation.  I did email them to ask permission to write this.  All of my thoughts are strictly based on reports in the media, and news releases (all of which are hyperlinked).

Last week I had suggested that Ontario Public Services Employees Union (OPSEU) President Warren “Smokey” Thomas should change his approach on how he dealt with physicians in union disputes.  Sadly, Smokey has doubled down on his tactics.  In doing so, not only has he utterly and completely failed his members, but he risks endangering health care in Owen Sound.

In Owen Sound (population ~ 21,000) there are 22 family doctors who have organized themselves into a Family Health Organization (FHO).  The FHO is a fairly common payment model that consists essentially of a salary and performance bonuses.  Like all other payment models the FHO models experienced years of deep cuts to their budgets during the desultory tenure of Premier Kathleen Wynne.  Cuts to physician payments, mean cuts to patient services.  Hence, the FHO focused on controlling expenses as best it could.

The staff at the FHO chose to unionize (which is their right) but unfortunately chose to do so under OPSEU, and became Local 276.  OPSEU and Smokey have absolutely no experience in dealing with intimate small office settings, and the necessary collegiality that is essential to providing high quality front line care.  As a Family Doctor, you MUST trust everyone from the receptionist, to the nurse and even the cleaning staff.  While disagreements occur, and are often healthy, the trust cannot be compromised, or patient care will suffer.

Smokey and OPSEU’s lack of experience showed almost immediately. Their bargaining team agreed to a contract and recommended it for approval to the FHO staff in May.  That’s right folks, OPSEU actually reached an agreement.  But the agreement was rejected by the FHO staff, a clear repudiation of OSPEU’s leadership.

This appears to be when Smokey went off the rails.  He (and OPSEU) could have taken a hard look at themselves and asked a simple question – “How could we be so out of touch with the members we represent, to have endorsed a deal they rejected off hand?”. But they didn’t.  Instead, in what seems to be an effort to prove to their members that they really are relevant, they doubled down and started hurling insults and threats.   Doctors were “punch drunk with greed” they screamed.

The FHO staff then went on strike, and the results appear to be disastrous for them.  Firstly, OPSEU should have told them that doctors office are not factories that make sprockets and cogs.  They provide essential medical services and they cannot be shut down.  The physicians continued to work, with legally allowable replacement staff (albeit at reduced levels).  All a picket line would do is harass patients, and that won’t win you public support.

Reports of harassment and even a serious medical event involving a replacement worker appeared, although it’s unverified.  Again, instead of stopping to think “What exactly are we accomplishing here?” Smokey, doubled down, increased his insults to physicians, demanded that the Health Minister and Owen Sound Town Council get involved (he failed miserably).  He also made a ludicrous allegation that physicians were “private and for profit”. Has Smokey not read the Canada Health Act?  Physicians haven’t been private since 1984.

Apparently, ten of the 30 FHO staff got wise to what a lousy job Smokey and OPSEU were doing, and actually quit their jobs.  Yet another opportunity for OPSEU to reflect on their own failures as a bargaining agent.  But yet again, Smokey lashed out, this time by asking the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Ontario (CPSO) to get involved.

Let’s be clear, the letter written by OPSEU is a collection of hearsay without naming any one physician. As such, it cannot possibly be investigated by the CPSO.  If they were to do so, it would diminish the already poor standing the CPSO has in the eye of most physicians, and would send a pall over the entire profession. They would almost certainly faced increased calls from physicians to lose self-regulation if there was anything other than a cursory “thank you, but this is outside of our purview” type response.

But the reality also is that a letter to regulatory body like this takes you beyond any hope of restoring trust in your team.  It’s the one thing that has potential to destroy careers. It’s the one action that essentially screams “irreconcilable differences”.  By going down this road, in what seems to be a desperate attempt to prove his worth, Smokey has caused a toxic meltdown to the point where there is no hope of a resolution.

The members of OPSEU Local 276 would do well at this point to really ask themselves if this is the kind of leadership they signed up for.

Nothing Wrong With Advocating For Physicians

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

– express concerns about the health care for trans gender patients

– and a bunch more.

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

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

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

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

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