The biggest barrier to Canadian health care reform? Mythology.

One of the best pieces of wisdom I’ve ever heard came from Dr. Jack Kitts, the CEO of the Ottawa Hospital. He said, (and I’m paraphrasing): “One of our biggest challenges is persuading Canadians that our health care system is not the best in the world.”

For those of us who work in advocacy, trying to improve our health care system, the biggest challenge, indeed, is generating the sense of urgency in the public that is necessary to prompt political action. Political leaders only respond to political pressure, and that pressure can only come from Canadians themselves.

Part of the problem is that, historically, Canadians are somewhat reluctant, afraid even, to question the status quo in health care. To do so, many believe, is to somehow reject Canadian values of inclusion and egalitarianism and to embrace what is often called, “American-style” health care. And so the status quo is perpetuated, bolstered by the common mythology that Canadians have “the best health care system in the world”.

There are certainly many good things about Canadian health care. And I am delighted that the most recent survey shows that Canadians are generally happy with the quality of care they receive once they finally get in. That is heartening for those of us on the front lines who are doing our very best for our patients. And it’s good that virtually all of hospital and doctor costs are publicly funded; patients do not pay out of pocket. This is rightfully a point of national pride.

However, the good news stops there.

We rank dead last in a survey of affluent Western countries when it comes to access. That means Canadians wait longer in Emergency Departments, for surgeries & procedures, and for appointments with specialists than people in all these other peer countries. Most of us are not able to get same or next day appointments with our family doctors.

Our hospitals across the country are bursting at the seams. Occupancy is routinely over 100 percent. It’s called, “Code Gridlock” and it means that patients are in hallways, that surgeries are cancelled, that Emergency Departments are filled with admitted patients with no place to go. This is now the norm; it is everyday life in the hospital.

And how about this: 15 percent of all acute care hospital beds in Canada are occupied by patients who are not acutely ill. They’re there because they have no where else to go. They’re waiting for home care, or, more often, for a long term care facility bed. Fully 50 percent of all Canadians currently waiting for long term care in this country are currently languishing in a hospital bed, just waiting. In NB, my home province, 10 percent of these hospitalized patients wait over two years in that hospital bed until they get to the long term care bed.

Two years!

Who wants to live in a hospital!!

Not only are we not serving these frail seniors well, we are creating intolerable hospital congestion that creates incredible economic inefficiencies, poor quality care, long waits, and siloed patient experiences.

We must and can do better, but we need you – the public – to be outraged that this is happening. As patients and families, you should demand ( that we do better for our seniors. As taxpayers, you should ask your elected representatives why Canada has one of the most expensive health care systems in the world, but one that ranks at the very bottom in international rankings of quality, value for money, access and outcomes.

The solutions are within reach, but we need vision, we need leadership, and we need solidarity from Canadians. The starting point? Let’s acknowledge that Canada doesn’t have the best health care system in the world. But then, let’s be relentless in our drive to make it so.

Smartphone communication between healthcare providers: quality and timeliness meets privacy

The exchange of information between health providers is a critically important piece of modern medicine. Timely, accurate information helps patients and enhances quality. A picture is worth a thousand words, as they say. If I need an opinion from a dermatologist, should I write to her and say, “the lesion is a raised papule with irregular borders”, fax it to her office, and wait 6 months for my patient to get an appointment; OR should I snap a pic with my smartphone, send it to her, and get an answer back in 5 minutes – so that I can inform the patient of the dermatologist’s opinion in real time? (Or even within 24 hours – in which case I can call or email my patient with the opinion…..)

Or how about when I, as a cardiologist, get a call in the middle of the night from a young family doctor in Moose Factory (the only doctor in town) who has a patient having chest pain? The young doc is concerned about some ECG changes, but he isn’t quite sure. He just graduated, and he hasn’t seen too many patients with chest pain. Should he transfer the patient south, by air ambulance, to Kingston? Should he fax me a grainy copy? (I don’t even own a fax machine – does anyone? I’d have to drive into the hospital to see it.) Or should he snap a quick pic of the ECG with his smart phone and text it to me, followed by me calling him back with a, “oh, that’s fine nothing to worry about”, or “better get him down here – that looks like an early heart attack”?

To me, the answer is easy. Smartphone communication is awesome, fast, and dramatically enhances the quality and timeliness of patient care.

The privacy concerns cannot be simply pooh-poohed, however. Your personal patient data are confidential, and must only be shared with those involved in your circle of care. Your funny skin bump or your ECG have no business being in my pictures folder next to pictures from my last family reunion. And how do we make these images part of your medical record when they are only on our personal smart phones?

These are the challenges we face as we try to practice 21st Century medicine with 1980’s technology. I mean honestly – FAXES? Yes – we still rely on faxes to transmit patient documents. We cling to the belief that your patient record is more secure when it is transmitted by fax (clearly this is not true – one missed digit; one paper dropped to the floor for the housekeeping person to pick up…)

We need an adult conversation in this country about medical information. Doctors want to serve their patients and patients want timely, quality, care. Instant, electronic communications are clearly the way forward. Instead of hand-wringing on privacy issues and clinging to fax technology, let’s figure out a way to make electronic medical communications secure. The banks have figured it out. Why can’t we?
Saving lives or risky pics? ‘Revolution’ in MDs’ smartphone photos raises ethical concerns

Wait Time Alliance (WTA) releases its 10th Annual Report Card

Yesterday, the Wait Time Alliance (WTA) – a federation of 18 medical specialty societies and the CMA – released its 10th annual report care on wait times in Canada.

Wait Time Alliance 10th Annual Report Card

While the wait times for the original “Big 5” procedures are undoubtedly better than they were 10 years ago, there is still considerable variation across the country and even within provinces.

And even more importantly, perhaps, is the continued problem with non-measurement. Our “Table 1” of wait time performance is filled with “?” symbols – meaning that the provinces aren’t collecting or reporting the data at all.

This year we have shed light once again on the impact of our aging population and the impact this has on wait times. Until we can start to de-hospitalize our system with more community and home-based solutions for seniors, congested hospitals will remain the norm.

In addition, we have drawn attention to patients for whom the federal government has primary responsibility – indigenous peoples, inmates, and those serving in the military, for example. The federal government spends 4.5 billion dollars annually on direct medical services – but surprisingly, there is precious little public reporting on wait times or any other quality metrics.

Saskatchewan is the star of the show this year. Their concerted efforts to reduce wait times through mechanisms like pooled wait lists are starting to pay off. Congratulations!

Hope you enjoy the report. Your feedback is welcome!


Physician Leadership in the “Social Determinants of Health” Sphere – Upstream Thinking

Earlier this week, I joined colleagues from 20 nations in London, England to discuss the social determinants of health and health inequity in our societies. Specifically, we wanted to explore the role of doctors and their national associations in addressing these gaps by viewing socioeconomic issues through a health lens.

Why should doctors care about things like poverty, housing, nutrition insecurity, education status and early childhood development? Well, the answer is that, more than anything else, these and other social determinants contribute significantly to the health of our patients. In fact, these factors constitute about 50% of what makes people sick.

What makes us sick

This graphic always surprises doctors at first. We live, for the most part, in a world where we treat disease. Even when we talk about prevention, we usually mean things like managing risk factors for disease like high cholesterol, hypertension, smoking and alcohol consumption.

But to truly get upstream in the trajectory of human disease, one must consider the “causes of the causes” of disease. This leads us directly and squarely to the social determinants of health; the socioeconomic circumstances in which our patients live. And so, even if this is not our traditional area of expertise, we must as doctors be at least aware of these associations and consider, I would argue, what role we might play in addressing these issues both in our individual clinical practices as well as at a macro level through organized advocacy.

The evidence for a “social gradient” of disease is overwhelming. Incoming World Medical Association President Sir Michael Marmot – a British epidemiologist who established the UCL Institute of Health Equity has assembled an impressive, international body of evidence showing clear correlations between social determinants and important health and wellness metrics.


Sir Michael Marmot

It is well worth browsing the Institute’s list of presentations to get a sense of the consistency of the findings. Since I am a cardiologist, I will reproduce one of his slides here on the prevalence of circulatory disease death rates to illustrate the power of this work:

Age standardised circulatory disease death rates at ages under 75, by local ward deprivation level, 1999 and 2001-2003 : England

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A self-described optimist, Sir Michael steadfastly rejects any suggestion that change cannot be achieved rapidly. He cites post-conflict Colombia, where some attention to the social determinants has seen a reduction in the percentage of citizens living below the poverty line over the past 10 years:


At this unique two-day conference (co-sponsored by the British and Canadian Medical Associations (shout-out to CMA’s Jenny Buckley and Karen Clark for their great work in organizing the meeting!)) there were many lessons shared from countries around the world. The meeting itself was also shared with the world, as several physician social media enthusiasts were tweeting the proceedings under the hashtag #doctors4healthequity. At one point, it was trending in fourth place on Twitter in Canada, just behind #angelinajolie.

Australian Medical Association President Dr. Brian Owler and a past CMA President, Dr. Anna Reid, reviewed how their countries’ colonial histories have inflicted upon First Nations and Aboriginal Peoples a multi-generational trauma that very much persists to this day. Hungary’s Dr. Istvan Szilard described persistent systematic racism against the Roma People and the negative impact this has had on their health. Their eloquent presentations demonstrated vividly that health inequities are largely socially engineered.


Dr. Anna Reid recalls Canada’s racist beginnings and the lasting legacy of Canada’s residential schools.

American Medical Association Past-President Dr. Ardis Dee Hoven reported that minorities make up 35% of America, but only 6% of doctors. Health inequities are striking in the world’s richest country, and they closely mirror race and socioeconomic status. “(We) have a history of not making healthcare available to minorities”, she said, while also reflecting on the fact that minorities are more affected by obesity, diabetes and hypertension.


Dr. Ardis Dee Hoven, Past President of the American Medical Association

Dr. David Pencheon, Director of the Sustainable Development Unit (SDU) at NHS England, made a very compelling case for the impact of climate change on health, and in particular, the stark truth that the biggest producers of carbon emissions suffer the fewest health consequences – illustrating a consistent pattern of international (as opposed to intranational) health inequities driven by socioeconomic and political imbalances.


NHS England’s Dr. David Pencheon

And there was so much more. We heard from France, Finland, Zambia and Slovenia. We heard from Portugal and Denmark and Spain. Sweden’s Dr. Asa Wetterqvist delivered a passionate speech on her country’s ambitious health promotion plan – including a tobacco end-game strategy – in which thoughtful incorporation of the social determinants was clearly evident. Trinidad and Tobago’s Dr. Lianne Conyette discussed the rise in obesity paralleling the social gradient and her country’s efforts to get people more active. Advocate Leah Wapner, Secretary General of the Israeli Medical Association, addressed head-on her country’s political and ethnic struggles. “All of our patients are equal”, she said, while acknowledging the impact of income inequity on the health of Israelis, including Jews, Arabs and other ethnic groups. Dr. Wunna Tun, from the Myanmar Medical Association, told a story of how the cost of a motorcycle ride for an injured man was enough to dissuade him from traveling to a hospital following a serious injury.


Dr. Lianne Conyette – President of the Trinidad & Tobago Medical Association

Canadian Physicians and the CMA on the Social Determinants of Health

Canada’s Dr. Gary Bloch, a family doctor working out of St. Michael’s Hospital in Toronto, spoke of the development and implementation of a clinical tool to help assess and “treat” poverty. Treating poverty like a disease, he argues, is the way to bring physician skills directly in touch with the social determinants of health. Helping a low-income patient fill in their income tax form, for example, so that they can be eligible for a refund, puts money in their pocket, he argues. (See Dr. Bloch’s TEDx talk here). His clinical tool for poverty in primary care has been adopted by the Ontario College of Family Physicians and can be found here.

Ritika Goel and Dan Raza (who weren’t at the conference but whose work was cited) have also taken the position that screening for poverty is an important role that doctors can play in their everyday practice. The simple question, “Do you have difficulty making ends meet at the end of the month?” is highly sensitive and specific for the detection (diagnosis?) of poverty.


Canada’s work on the social determinants of health stands out on the international stage, although we have much more work to do. Physician champions like Drs. Gary Bloch, Ryan Meili, Monika Dutt, Ritika Goel, Dan Raza, Cory Neudorf, Elizabeth Lee Ford Jones, Norah Duggan, Vanessa Brcic, Jeff Turnbull and so many others are “walking the talk” and showing how clinical and political interventions can make a real difference. In Saskatchewan, for example, Ryan Meili’s Upstream organization has persuaded the Government of Saskatchewan to pursue a poverty-reduction strategy, and Canadian Doctors for Refugee Care were instrumental in the federal court’s recent ruling overturning federal government cuts to refugee health care.


At the national and organizational levels, the CMA stands tall with its historic work on the social determinants. During Dr. Anna Reid’s presidency, the CMA conducted a series of national town halls which raised the profile of the issue and culminated in a widely-lauded report, Health Care in Canada: What Makes us Sick? We’ve also developed educational modules for physicians on how to treat poverty in practice and on early childhood development. Our CMA representative to the WMA, Dr. Andre Bernard from Halifax, is an articulate and internationally-respected advocate at the policy and political levels. He will be joined by CMA Past President Dr. Louis Francescutti at the next WMA meeting in Oslo later this year.


“Why should I get involved in the social determinants of health of my patients,” you ask? Because everything that affects the health of our patients should concern us. It’s not a left-wing or right-wing thing, it’s a healthy society thing. We have only just begun to explore the positive influence doctors can have at the bedside, in the boardrooms, in academic health policy circles, and at the political level (locally, nationally and internationally). The CMA is proud of Canada’s physician leaders in bringing these issues to the fore and we will continue to make this a core strategic priority for the organization.

This Night Shift Has 7 Days: Spending the Holidays in Hospital

Over the Christmas and New Year’s Holiday this year, I had the privilege of serving as the attending physician in the Cardiac Sciences Unit (CSU) at my hospital – Kingston General – a regional academic tertiary care hospital in Southeastern Ontario. The CSU is a cardiac intensive care unit where we care for seriously ill patients with acute cardiac problems like heart attacks as well as those recovering from cardiac surgery.

I always enjoy working clinically. It is a great privilege to be allowed into the lives of patients and their families – particularly at times when they are vulnerable and scared. It is a responsibility that I take very seriously. We all do. There is no better job in the world.

As I walked around the hospital on Dec 26, from the CSU to the Emergency Department and up to the wards to consult on other patients, it occurred to me that the holiday period was a lot like a perpetual night shift.

Everyone who works in a hospital knows that there are two cultures: the daytime culture and the nighttime culture. At night, everything slows down. Most of the attending physicians are home. There are fewer nurses on the wards. Many of the techs, pharmacists, physiotherapists, dieticians, social workers, and others who help to care for patients are at home. Tests are harder to get. Consultations are on an urgent basis only. Everyone hunkers down for the night.

Now, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Not too many patients want to have their scheduled ultrasound at 2 in the morning, or have an elective gall bladder surgery in the middle of the night. The CT of the head to investigate seizures that have been happening intermittently for a few months can probably wait until the morning. And let’s not forget, patients need to sleep.

But what happens when we stay in nighttime mode for a week? What about when this night shift-like state lasts for several days in a row, as it does over the Christmas and New Year period?

In the hospital world, we talk a lot about patient flow. I’m not a big fan of the term, because I find it de-personalizes patients’ health care journeys. It seems somehow to reduce a profoundly important life experience to a bland and mechanical series of events; the efficiency of and speed at which all the therapeutic and diagnostic events that comprise a health care experience occur. Starkness of the term aside, it is useful to understand because it is precisely the impairment of patient flow that leads to suboptimal experiences for patients who are hospitalized over the holidays.

What does all this mean? What does slower patient flow over the holidays mean to patient care?

Well, if you have an emergent or urgent problem, you will be well cared for. If you have a heart attack, a gastrointestinal or cerebral bleed, a ruptured aorta or acute respiratory failure, you will be treated promptly and treated well, with all the best that modern medicine has to offer. This is the case all the time – night or day; regular day or holiday.

The patients most affected by the holiday slowdown, predictably, are those who are most vulnerable – our seniors with multiple chronic conditions who don’t really need to be in hospital anymore but are waiting to go home or to a long term care facility.

Over the holidays, family doctors’ offices close or have reduced hours. Home care scales down. Partner community hospitals – themselves in holiday mode – are less able to repatriate patients and in some cases even close beds. Social workers and physiotherapists are less available. Unionized employees from nurses to techs are entitled to 5 consecutive days at either Christmas or New Year’s, making staffing a challenge for managers. Not as many doctors are around. In the world of patient flow, there is push and pull. Over the holidays, the pull grinds to a halt. There is only push. All the usual barriers to getting patients to the next step in their journey get higher and thicker.

And so, patient flow slows. And when patient flow slows, bad things happen. Patients fall. They get hospital-acquired infections. They get sundowning and muscle wasting. They experience depression and despair. They languish.

None of this is readily apparent at first glance. Everyone is doing their job. Caregivers are compassionate and capable and I saw them do their jobs admirably. The diminished quality of the patient experience over the holidays is very hard to see when looking at sequenced events individually. It is the totality of the experience; the sum total of the subtle underperformance of patient flow that leads to the collective suboptimal outcomes.

Health care should be a 24/7, 365 day-a-year enterprise. A truly patient-centred system that was designed to serve patients optimally would never take a 7-day vacation.