What Backlogged Health Care Looks Like and How to Fix It.

Dr. Silvy Mathew guest blogs for me today. She is hands down one of the smartest people I know. She writes about her experience in visiting the ER to help a family member. Dr. Mathew has been a strong advocate for health system reform and it is a loss for all Ontario residents that her warnings about the impending crisis in health care were not heeded by Health Ministers dating back to Eric Hoskins.

A few days ago I was in the Emergency Room (ER) with a family member. The ER was slammed. The paramedics were lovely and about four teams that I could see were stuck in waiting room, waiting for their patients to be triaged. We were on a stretcher by the front sliding doors. Almost outside.

We were there for urgent imaging, and possibly consultation. We tried to do this in the outpatient setting, but lack of access to both urgent images and consults for urgent care makes that impossible. So we go off to ER by EMS (needed for transport).

I’m fortunate. I am able to fill in gaps. I can advise triage what issue is, as they can’t do physical exam in the waiting room in front of what seems like hundreds of people. I can provide medical information on relevant questions. I can monitor the patient status for changes.

I did remind staff after several hours to check blood sugar as my relative is an insulin dependent diabetic, now off food/fluids. I did remind about necessary medications to be given. Of course, if I wasn’t there, they may have reviewed the chart closer but they were clearly slammed and trying to manage.

And we weren’t in distress. My family member was unable to advocate for themselves. We got imaging about six hours in, and I watched the imaging staff, working with 50% less nursing staff, literally just running in and out moving people. Doing their best.

We had excellent care from people busting their butts. But so many potential falls through the cracks and errors. Twelve hours later, we got home, luckily without any new issues from ER. And we had a plan. And we had a specialist who called first thing in the a.m. to ensure we have close follow-up.

The system in Ontario has relied for decades on individuals and work-arounds making things work (like above) when the system design is archaic. Successive Ontario governments have refused to participate in strategic multi-pronged co-design, instead of piecemeal band-aids.

I have worked for 15 yrs in Ontario health care. I’ve witnessed how far things have fallen and how none of our work arounds previously used are available now after the Covid 19 pandemic, for multiple reasons. I’ve participated with the Ontario Medical Association and sat on bilateral committees with the government to try to advocate for system change.

I’ve witnessed how siloed and unaware most people outside of primary care are. Family Medicine is the canary NOT the Emergency Department. The issues that have caused this system collapse have been occurring since 2012. Many of us, especially Dr. Nadia Alam, tried to be loud and warn.

Last year, in 2021, we gave up. It was obvious to us it was too late. We heard for years from our mid-career colleagues about how they couldn’t do this anymore. How they wouldn’t work in a system that didn’t allow them ANY joy or success while taking more and more from them personally.

Covid-19 just pushed the dial a bit faster. The family doctors who were hanging on from retiring have chosen to live now (not leave, but LIVE). The mid-career family docs are struggling as mentioned above and also choosing to leave family medicine if possible, because nothing is working in it. Obviously, new graduates are terrified.

And so here we are, and the CCFP answer to this is to ADD a third year to residency. Because somehow they think adding more school, asking people to take on more debt, delay starting their lives longer, while having less non-academic preceptor support will somehow help?

What it will do is: add even more fuel to the family medicine crisis and shortage. It’s not gonna teach you how to run a business (last I checked real life experience mattered more). It’s not going to teach how to manage complexity in real life. It WILL drive more people out of family medicine residency.

What we REALLY need is a re design of the health system. You want people to do this job? LET them. You want family doctors to work at the top of their scope? ENABLE them. Support access to resources OUTSIDE of hospital and provide help to coordinate.

Stop advocating for more debt and school CCFP, and advocate for real life mentorship, group practices and shared care. You want Emergency Rooms to not house people? Fund home care and long term care. Fund resource teams to support those in seniors neighborhoods already. Use a community approach.

While we are at it, stop spending all the money on pharmacology. Fund allied health, encourage exercise programs and healthy meals because that’s WAY more useful than the hundreds of thousands of dollars of Botox we spend on contractures AFTER they occur. Keeping people mobile keeps them out of hospital and long term care.

The Canadian media can stop asking if health care has collapsed, anyone working in it knows it has. It will show in a year or two, when the numbers of late-diagnosed cancers, life expectancy and other markers of care get affected. But in real-time we are seeing it now.

If we don’t have some real leadership here and some true innovation, we are in for some truly sad times in the next decade. End.

Does Ontario’s Digital Health Strategy Meet Our Needs?

That the health care system is currently in a state of crisis is no secret. That we need to look at bold, radical transformation of the health care system is no secret. That fixing health care means fixing family medicine first is well known. But in order to do all of this, we must finally fix the mess that is digital health infrastructure in Ontario (indeed, all of Canada).

If you speak to any health care worker about Digital Health/Electronic Medical Records(EMR)/Health Information Systems(HIS) you are most likely to elicit a loud, pain filled groan. EMRs have long been cited as a leading cause for physician burnout. Incredibly, 7 out of 10 physicians (!!) have some form of EMR induced stress.

Even the Surgeon General of the U.S. stated that EMRs needed to be fixed (Dr. Glaumcoflecken’s “there are so many clicks” is the exact response you’d get from me):

The reality however, is that there is a bad way of implementing a digital health infrastructure and a good way.

A bad way would be what the four hospitals in my neck of the woods did last year. Implement Meditech Expanse with it’s cumbersome modules, painful clicks, restrictive algorithms and emesis inducing user interface. Better yet, force doctors to learn this odiously inhumane system in the middle of a pandemic when they were already burnt out. The obvious result? At Collingwood Hospital (where I still have privileges but may not after this blog), many family doctors are leaving citing this as a main cause. (Piss off people who are already burnt out, and they leave, who knew?)

A better way of doing things would be to set things up the way my colleague Dr. James Lane did in (ironically enough) the Georgian Triangle region of which Collingwood is a large part. Set up a system where the whole community is on one EMR. Then allow limited information sharing with allied health care providers. Start with pharmacists, then add in home care providers. As a result, there is secure information sharing between health care providers allowing the optimization of patient care.

Some recent examples from my practice:

  1. I renew a prescription for amiodarone. The pharmacists messages me back on the patient’s chart (no faxing, no finding the chart etc) letting me know that the cardiologist had actually reduced the dose of the amiodarone, and I immediately correct the prescription.
  2. The wife of a patient with dementia is concerned her husband is deteriorating. I send a message via my EMR to the Home Care case manager assigned to my practice. I get a response by end of day saying she’s contacted the wife and will arrange for an in home assessment. (This doesn’t solve the problem of actually finding staff to do the work of course, but at least I know that the referral hasn’t been lost).
  3. I send a CT requisition to radiology for staging of a newly diagnosed cancer patient. The local radiologist has questions so he accesses the chart to look at some of the pathology reports to inform his report of the CT.

There’s many more examples but you get the point. These kind of things can not only enhance patient care, but reduce the admin burden of co-ordinating between different agencies. (I cringe when my friends in other centres talk about how hard it is to get home care to acknowledge that they received a referral much less to do something about it).

But this can only happen if the Digital Health team at the Ministry of Health has the vision, the boldness and the fortitude to force these changes and frankly, I’m not sure they do. I had meetings with some of the Digital Health team when I was OMA President. They are well meaning people who want to improve things. But the strategy they are choosing is doomed to failure.

I probably shouldn’t mention this as it was a closed meeting, but I don’t care any more, and besides, what can they do to me? Stop me from running for OMA President again? One of the senior members of the Ministry’s team explained their strategy to me like this:

“If I want to buy a pair of shoes, I have three apps on my phone that allows me to compare different prices from different vendors, and then I choose the best price. Patients should do that when they access health care.”

Now this fellow was in his 40s, and a university graduate. Clearly he can access multiple apps. Good for him.

But the highest users of any health care system are the seniors and the reality is that they are not as technologically able as our friendly government bureaucrat. Do we really expect an 80 year old with multiple medical problems to flip through three apps if they need health care? What if the apps only access part of the system? You’d need one app to access their family doctor, another to access the hospital and a third to access home care. Would anyone want to do this?

All this will do is increase the plethora of software out there, cause more confusion and a deteriorate the communications between health care providers and add to the work load of physicians (because, you know, we are not already doing enough clerical work).

What about OntarioMD? Aren’t they supposed to advocate for change that will help physicians? I had issues with OntarioMD when I was on the OMA Board. (Long story for another day).

But I do note with interest that OMA Board Chair Dr. Cathy Faulds announced in her Board Report that there is a new mandate for OntarioMD that includes end to end proof of concepts on policy. I personally won’t hold my breath (one bitten, twice shy) but I do acknowledge it’s a step in the right direction. Maybe they can finally get on with some of the work that I advocated for during my term and relieve some of the burden that physicians deal with.

It’s the 21st Century. We still can’t fix the health system without fixing family medicine. But we can’t fix family medicine without fixing digital health. Here’s hoping the powers that be finally realize that.

CMA Should Do What’s Necessary – Advocate for Pensions for Physicians

Both of my loyal readers will know that I have not always been a fan of the Canadian Medial Association (CMA). I was one of the vocal critics of the infamous Vision2020 plan that the CMA developed. Vision 2020 suggested that the main role of the CMA should be to empower patients (and here I thought they were supposed to be a physicians advocacy organization). I also wasn’t really impressed by the sale of MD Management to Scotia Bank either.

Interestingly enough I note that the original links in my blog to the articles on Vision 2020 and the MD Management sale have been deleted from various CMA websites. Such scrubbing suggests the CMA would rather we all forgot about these things too.

It would seem that I am not the only physician who was upset with the CMA. Buried deep in the CBC article on the election of Dr. Alika Lafontaine to the role of CMA President is this line:

“As CMA president, he’ll oversee more than 68,000 member physicians and trainees.”

When Dr. Gigi Osler took over as president in 2018, this Globe and Mail article stated the CMA had 85,000 members. A drop of 17,000 members in four years shows that rather a lot of physicians felt that the CMA betrayed them, not just a loud mouthed old country doctor.

In fairness, since 2018, the CMA has done some things very well for physicians. First, the CMA has had some truly excellent Presidents in Dr. Gigi Osler and most recently Dr. Katharine Smart. While I completely understand the significance of Dr. Alika Lafontaine taking over as President, I was saddened about losing a voice as effective for physicians as Dr. Smart. However, I will say that Dr. Lafontaine knocked it out of the park during his inauguration speech and if he keeps that up it will good news for physicians across Canada.

Drs. Gigi Osler, Katharine Smart and Alika Lafontaine

Secondly, the CMA seems to be making its main priority these days the issue of physician burnout. A brief look at their twitter feed shows them reaching out to multiple media outlets to raise awareness of the alarmingly high burnout rates in the profession.

This is good work and shows an organization that maybe has realized that indeed, there is nothing wrong with advocating for physicians. You cannot have a high functioning health care system without happy, healthy and engaged physicians.

As part of the approach to alleviating the stress on physicians and the broader health care system, the CMA also is advocating for a national licence for physicians. The CMA feels this is a priority and a glance at an advanced search of their twitter feed suggests that they feel this will improve virtual care, increase the ability of physicians to support remote communities and reduce burnout.

Now to be clear, I support a national licence for physicians. But the reality is that this is going to be nigh on impossible to do in the short term. I suspect that this will require an amendment to the Canadian Constitution as Health Care is provincial responsibility. Amending the constitution is a dizzyingly complex process. I suspect that Premiers of what may be considered “have-not” provinces would balk at this, fearing that national licensure would lead to more physicians leaving their provinces for greener pastures.

Instead, I would ask that the CMA employ the philosophy espoused by St. Frances of Assisi:

“Start by doing what’s necessary; then do what’s possible; and suddenly, you are doing the impossible.”

The CMA should advocate for immediate Tax Code changes to allow physicians to have pension plans. This is both necessary and long overdue.

I do feel compelled to point out that it is possible for physicians to set up either retirement plans or individual pensions through corporations. However these programs are extremely variable, not easy to implement, and carry high administrative burdens. They also add to physicians workload to set up, at a time when physicians are so tired from a days work that they don’t really have time to think about such things. I don’t know about you, but when I get home, I want to turn my brain off for a couple of hours (before I log back on to my EMR to review lab work and finish charting). I don’t have the mental bandwidth to think about corporate pension schemes.

Making a few changes to the Tax Code is easy. It can be done at the federal level without involving the Provincial Premiers. Doing it will send an immediate message to physicians by the Federal government that they are doing something right here, right now to make life easier for physicians and reward them for all the extra hours they have worked during the pandemic. It will significantly improve physician morale. As physicians realize that there will be an element of security in retirement planning, it will also reduce the stress level of physicians.

Even better, some provinces have already started retirement planning programs. Ontario for example, has the truly excellent OMA Insurance Advantages Program. (NB – if you are an Ontario physician, you really need to strongly consider enrolling in this program. It’s simple, straightforward and really can take a lot of the usual retirement worry away). If tax code changes came into effect, I’m sure a few lawyers and accountants could convert these programs into true pension plans.

The CMA is a national advocacy organization for physicians. They have made much progress since 2017 in supporting physicians. The next, easiest step for them to make would be to push for physicians pensions. It’s relatively easy to do. If successful, maybe they can turn around the trend of declining membership in their organization.

All Ontarians Should Hope New Health Minister Sylvia Jones Succeeds

New Ontario Health Minister Sylvia Jones

Sylvia Jones is now Ontario’s Minister of Health, the largest, most volatile ministry in government. The Ontario Medical Association’s (OMA) correctly tweeted about this:

My first thought when I saw this was a somewhat flippant “should have sent her condolences instead.” Minister Jones has a whole lot of headaches going forward. To succeed, she pretty well needs to be perfect. A cursory glance at the issues she faces is mind boggling.

Should she support further lifting of Covid-19 restrictions? This will make some doctors mad. Should she instead support re-introducing mask mandates and tightening of Covid-19 policies? This will make other doctors angry. Worse, both sides have credible experts, so the whole “listen to the experts”can’t apply when the experts themselves are saying different things.

There is a Health Human Resources crisis unfolding in Ontario (and Canada). Hospital ERs are being closed due to staffing crises and there does not seem to be a quick solution. As more health care workers plan on retiring or leaving the profession early, finding replacements is going to be exceptionally challenging.

The Long Term Care (LTC) situation is equally dire. Wait times for LTC beds in Ontario are skyrocketing. In 2017 I wrote about how we needed 26,000 hospital beds right away, and another 50,000 by 2023. More beds are being built by the Ford government, which is great, but they will take time to arrive.

A quick solution to ease the burden would be to allow older homes who had ward beds in their facilities, open them up again. Rules were changed under covid to no longer allow 4 residents per room. However, if you do that, people will scream you are committing gerontocide. (This is despite the fact that just about all residents in nursing homes have got four covid shots now).

Need more? (As if that wasn’t enough). Over 20 million medical procedures were delayed due to the pandemic. Many of these procedures are early detection screening tests for cancer (sooner you catch, the sooner you cure and, cold-heartedly, the less cost to the health care system).

How about wait times? Wait times for medically necessary procedures continues to rise. MOH bureaucrats like to refer to these as “elective” procedures. But the reality is that if you are suffering from knee pain every day, and have to wait a year to get a knee replacement, it’s not elective, it’s necessary.

All of which makes me realize just how courageous Minister Jones is to take on the Health Portfolio. Allah/God/Yahweh/(insert deity of your choice) knows I wouldn’t want the job. But if I may, I would suggest the Minister should focus on a few things in the first year, as even improvements in a couple of areas will have benefits across the health system.

A word of caution first. She should take what bureaucrats tell her with a grain of salt. There were a few times when I was on the OMA Board when it became obvious that the MOH Bureaucrats had NOT fully informed then Health Minister Christine Elliot about some issues around physicians that caused needless kerfuffles. The bureaucracy has a certain way of thinking that is rigid, ideological and focussed on self perpetuation as opposed to making meaningful change.

I don’t always agree with columnist Brian Lilley of PostMedia, but he hit the nail on the head when he wrote:

“…Ford and his team shouldn’t rely on the Ministry of Health for solutions. These are the people who got us into this mess and who have been failing upward for years..”

and

“..Ford has a real opportunity to change health-care delivery, to speed up access to services, to do away with wait lists and all without changing the single-payer system that Canadians rely on..”

The last comment lines up nicely with the first part of the OMA’s Prescription for Ontario, where they recommend developing outpatient surgical clinics to move simple operations out of hospitals and free up beds. The bureaucracy will oppose it because they are incapable of new ways of thinking and are beholden to hospitals. But at least the Minister will have the support of Ontario’s doctors to work through some of the blowback (there’s always blowback to anything new).

The other easy win is to develop a digitally connected team of health care providers for each patient (also an OMA recommendation). We have something similar in the Georgian Bay Region for the past 12 years and I cannot stress how much it has improved patient care. If I have a patient in need of increased home care, all I have to do is message the home care co-ordinator directly from their chart and ask for help, and they usually respond within 24 hours among other benefits.

This also ties in with a project I was pushing hard for during my term on the OMA Board that got sidetracked mostly by the pandemic but also with some political issues around OntarioMD. I remain convinced that had that project gone forward there would be people alive today that aren’t because of the improved communication it would have provided. But at least preliminary work on it has been done, and with a nudge from the Health Minister this could potentially be restarted to give patients a digitally connected health care team.

NB- this is another area where the Digital Health Team at the Ministry of Health is going in the wrong direction. Their plans are (in my opinion) needlessly complex and won’t result in the kind of robust digital health infrastructure that is absolutely essential to a high performing health care system.

In short, Minister Jones has a monumental task ahead of her. Someone will will criticize her no matter what choices she makes (it’s no secret that health care is referred to as the third rail of politics). If however, she can set, say, three attainable goals in her first year (my suggestions would be open LTC beds, start building outpatient surgery clinics and get the digital infrastructure done), while keeping the bureaucrats in check, then real progress can be made in improving the health system.

All Ontarians, regardless of political stripe, should hope she succeeds. Our crumbling health system depends on it.

Time for the OMA Board to Invoke Arbitration in Stalled Negotiations

While most front line physicians continue to deal with the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, and the resultant backlog of care, the OMA has continued to perform it’s most important function, that of trying to negotiate a Physician Services Agreement (PSA). A quick summary of what has already been disclosed:

  • The Binding Arbitration Framework (BAF) between the Ontario Government allows for negotiating a Physician Services Agreement (PSA) every four years. The last one was for 2017-2021 . We should already have had an agreement for 2021-2025 but the Covid Pandemic got in the way and delayed negotiations.
  • Negotiations for a PSA are supposed to start the year before expiry of a PSA. There is a framework that allows for a minimum of 60 days for negotiations following which either side can call for mediation. After a minimum of 60 days of mediation, either side (or the mediator) can call for Arbitration.
  • IF Arbitration does occur, the Arbitrator must hand down a ruling within 60 days of the conclusion of the arguments presented at Arbitration. After the ruling is handed down, the work of implementing the Award (or if by some chance an agreement is reached – the PSA) begins, and that in itself can take several months to a year. Those of us who were involved in the last implementation process in any way likely still have nightmares about how complex and fraught with challenges it was – I know I still do.

For the current negotiations, we know the following:

  • Negotiations began in October of 2020. The OMA Board gave the Negotiations Task Force (NTF) a mandate for negotiations. A mandate is essentially a confidential, bare minimum set of asks that the NTF must get from the government before accepting a deal. Considering there is no deal, the NTF clearly has not met that minimum. And no, the members can’t know what that is, it would significantly compromise the negotiations process.
  • Mediation began on April 9, 2021. “A large gap” remained between the OMA’s asks, and the MOH’s offer as of June 2021. As I’m no longer on the OMA Board, I have no idea what the gap is like now. Obviously, if there was no gap, we would have a deal by now.

Why should the OMA Board move to Arbitration now? Why not follow the mediator Mr. Kaplan’s recommendation, and wait till January 25, 2022 to go to Arbitration? Wouldn’t going against his recommendation run the risk of adversely affecting the outcome of a potential award?

Because health care is political in Canada. Being political, the time for governments to attack physicians is always, always, always early in their new mandate. In 1991, the NDP government of Bob Rae imposed a hard cap on the physicians budget (first year in power). In 2015 in the first year of Kathleen Wynne’s government, she also imposed unilteral cuts to physicians and in 2018 the Doug Ford government tried to take away binding arbitration.

The short version of the above is that I’m old, and I’ve been screwed by the government of every political party. It doesn’t matter who wins the provincial election of June 2022, the government that is in power will be sorely tempted to revoke any arbitration award if it seems to meet their short term interests. (Yes I know, the BAF is “evergreen” – meaning the process should continue in perpetuity, but the reality is that governments do stupid things all the time, and if one government has tried to take away a BAF process from physicians to suit their interests, then we can be sure another will as well).

And NO, having Arbitration currently as scheduled for Jan to March 2022 is not good enough. Finishing Arbitration hearings at the end of March gives the Arbitrator until the end of May for a ruling. By that time the election campaign will be in full gear, and Ministry bureaucrats will do absolutely nothing to implement any award as they wait for the outcome of the election.

Obviously, going to Arbitration now entails some risks. The NTF will likely argue that the Arbitrator himself recommended waiting till January, and we should try our best to seem reasonable to him. I have a great deal of respect for the NTF for the job they’ve done for the doctors of Ontario, in particular the negotiation of the BAF. But they are paid a lot of (well deserved) money to let the Arbitrator know of legitimate concerns of the membership.

I’ve met the Arbitrator and I have no doubt he will hand down a fair decision, whether in December or March. But members have every reason based on history to fear politicians of all stripes, and it’s the job of the NTF to let him know that that’s a legitimate concern.

Moving to Arbitration immediately, means the Arbitration hearings end likely by the end of December. An Award is announced (likely) by March. At that point, the government is faced with accepting the award, or revoking it three months before an election, and risking the type of anti-government ads the OMA did so well last time. By the time the election is over, whoever wins, the MOH bureaucrats will be well on the way to implementing the award and any “noise” that the award is too much (there will always be noise) will have gone away.

From the OMA’s Negotiations Page

The OMA’s main responsibility is to negotiate a fair PSA for members. The BAF is the best tool they have for not only keeping the government honest, but for political use to reduce the risk of awards being overturned. (NB- There’s no guarantee of anything, politicians do stupid things all the time. This is simply about risk reduction).

Will the OMA Board stand up for members and direct the NTF to immediately move to Arbitration, as we are now legally allowed to? I guess we’re going to find out.

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.

The Cruelty of COVID-19

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

Cruel.

This disease is unrelentingly, unwaveringly and inexorably cruel.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

… you made a difference.

“Gentleness is the antidote for cruelty.”Phaedrus

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

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

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

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

Mornings

Note: The following blog was written by new OMA President Dr. Samantha Hill (pictured). It was originally published on protecthealthcare.ca. That website is dedicated to supporting health care infra structure so that you health care needs are taken care of.

The alarm goes off.  I wake my kids, get them dressed, brush their teeth. I hug them a little longer than usual.  Run my hands through their hair. They get wiggly, and I let them out onto our balcony.  It’s an enclosed space off the third floor, about the size of a bedroom.   It’s fresh air, a space to be loud (sorry neighbours!) and some vitamin D.

We go downstairs, they get breakfast, I get tea, and I try to help get them set up for the day.  My eldest, the 5-year old, has e-learning.  He’s bright as a whip with the attention span of a pregnant goldfish, a wild creature who lives to run and move and make his friends laugh. These days are hard. He tells me he’ll try harder today, but I know he is trying as hard as his developing brain can.  This just isn’t how 5-year-olds are supposed to be learning.  The two-year-old is blissfully oblivious to most of the changes.  I kiss them both one last time and go to the door.  

Will today be the day I can’t come home?  Should I have hugged them a little harder, a little longer? My sister sees the look in my eyes and sends me all the strength she can: We’ll see you soon.  I am eternally grateful to her for being here, for having moved from another province to help me.  I’m a single mom, and a cardiac surgeon.  In these harrowing days, family support is a blessing I do not take for granted.  There are not strong enough words to express my gratitude.

I cover up as much as I can.  I am carrying only my hospital ID, phone, a credit card, and a folded cloth bag.  Everything, including my clothes, will get sanitized and washed when I get home.  If I get home.  My hair is tied up and covered to keep a layer between me and others coughing on me.  I wear a mask.  It won’t protect me, but as a health care worker I am more likely to contract COVID-19, and the rate of asymptomatic carriers is high.  I didn’t spend my life learning how to help people heal to be the vector that kills people I never met. Don’t worry though, I use the same mask everyday, no PPE wasted here.

I get to the hospital.  It’s familiar but different now.  The walls and doors and people are the same, but the vibe, the soul, it’s instantly heavy.  We are greeted by a masked security guard who ask for ID.  We queue six feet apart to scan our ID.  “Have you had any symptoms of the flu, fever, cough, travel history….”.  A quick no, and a beep, and we sanitize our hands.  Next step: “will you be in a patient-facing area?” and we are handed three flimsy masks in a plastic bag.  I thank the volunteer handing them out.  There’s no need to comment on how insufficient this is to keep me safe, my children safe, my patients safe.  We all know.  But we hold these masks like talismans, warding off evil.  May they be enough.  At least for today.  It’s a pandemic after all, front line workers can only deal with one day, one patient at a time.  If we look too far ahead the incoming tsunami will drown us in our own fear.  So for today, we take our masks, sanitize our hands and keep going. 

I tie on my first mask and head down the hall.  People give each other a wide berth.  We may be smiling at each other, but you can’t tell.  Fear looms in the eyes peering over the blue fabric.  Get my scrubs.  Try not to touch anything but I have to touch the handle of the scrub dispenser.  There’s no sanitizer nearby; it’s been empty for days.  I assume it gets filled but its always empty anyhow.  I use the plastic bag my masks came in to open the dispenser door, grab my scrubs and head up.  I open doors and press elevator buttons with the same plastic bag.  Finally get to the call room, open one last door and go inside to change.  Plastic bag in the garbage.  Sanitize hands.  Clothes come off and go into cloth bag, trying to only let the outsides of fabric touch each other.  Scrubs go on, and it’s time to head to the OR.  Walk quickly.  Don’t touch anything.  Clean hands often.  Don’t scratch my nose.  Don’t adjust the hair cover.  Don’t touch the mask.  Don’t panic.  Nothing has gone wrong, yet, today.

The OR feels more normal.  Most of us are used to seeing each other in scrubs, masked and hair covered.  There’s a bravado here to which I am well accustomed.  Fear isn’t allowed in the operating room; fear begets mistakes.  But everything takes longer than it normally would.  The nurses have run out of goggles and the case is delayed.  Anesthesia is double masking, gowning, covering necks, in a new system that requires a buddy and signs up on the wall to remind everyone of the new sequence.  Everything pauses for 15 minutes to let the invisible droplets settle.  This is very hard for teams driven by efficiency; we grow uncomfortable staring at each other and making small talk.  Fear nibbles at the edges of our consciousness, reminding us why all of this is necessary.  The minutes tick by painfully.  But if it keeps my friends and colleagues safe it’s worth it, every single minute is worth it.  Reports of doctors and nurses dying in New York, Italy and Spain are not falling on deaf ears.  

Do we have enough personal protective equipment (PPE)?  The worry niggles at us all.  Should we be sterilizing masks, saving gowns?  Two weeks from now will we remember aghast how we threw disposables away?  There it is, the whisper hinting at the roar of the incoming tsunami, rolling inexorably in this direction.  Stop.  Look away.   Focus on this patient; hope and pray that the claims of sufficient PPE are backed with supplies those of us on the front lines don’t see.

Focus on the patient, do our job.  Be kind to each other.  Maybe a little kinder than usual.  Tempers are high.  Everyone is a little irritable.  It’s the fatigue, the worry.  We are all self aware.  We know this is only the beginning.  But we are all in this together, and together we can make it through.

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