Saturday, January 31, 2015

BC Provincial Policy Intended to Ensure Quality Care Likely to Erode Quality in BC

There’s a pretty big policy change on the horizon of the healthcare system in British Columbia. One that most patients are probably not remotely aware of, that is likely to have sizeable, and foreseeable, albeit unintended consequences that might well result in achieving the opposite of what was intended. One that might make our already access strained system, even more painful, one in which both patients and the providers being impacted may not have been adequately consulted, and one that is likely not as evidence driven as it should be.

In the wake of a health-system scandal in 2011 involving 4 radiologists in British Columbia, where 12 British Columbians had their treatment delayed or were misdiagnosed and three of those patients died, where thousands of diagnostic images were suspect, British Columbia sought to improve the system by which doctors are licensed, credentialed and given privileges in order to safeguard patients. The policy response included the Provincial Privileging Standards Project an overview of which can be found here. With a blog about the project being established here. The stated goal of the Provincial Privileging Project was to create discipline specific privileging dictionaries along with criteria required to apply for and maintain those privileges for all medical staff disciplines in the province. Not a goal I'd choose for a major policy project, but it is certainly attainable.

The dictionaries would establish the set of procedures and activities a doctor would be permitted to perform based on that physician’s credentials (degrees and post-graduate training already completed), currency (the level of current experience the practitioner has in the activity), and context (the ability of the facility in which the doctor practices to support the procedures and activities). My understanding of how the dictionaries have been developed is that 28 expert “panels” have been established for each specialty with each panel consisting of two or more senior practitioners in each specialty who have delineated all of the activities undertaken in each specialty and have established “core activities” and “non-core activities” for each specialty along with the amount of recent experience in the procedures and in general practice that the expert panel felt would be required to maintain competence in undertaking the services. The physician would be required to request and demonstrate that they meet the qualifications to acquire privileges, and if they were lacking in any area there would need to be a “conversation” about it.

Providers have publicly voiced concern over the pending policy change as illustrated by a recent article in the BC Medical Journal. Provider’s are concerned that the currency standards that have been established have not been shown to demonstrate competency or procedural safety based on sound evidence and that the new dictionaries will ultimately lead to a loss of access to medical services.

In response to the criticism raised the champions of the project replied in a subsequent article . The reply to the concern expressed is that providers are being unjustifiably fearful of the policy change, that failure to meet a standard in the dictionary will merely merit a “collegial” discussion, that they understand that there is a difference between currency and competency and that there was wide consultation with 56 expert panels being established along with collaboration with administrators, and that they recognize that the dictionaries will need to be updated on an ongoing basis.

This policy change is fueled by the best of intentions (to safeguard patients) – however, patients and providers are right to question whether or not the policy will safeguard patients (at all) and to consider the full impact the policy may have on the healthcare system. Was consultation broad enough? Are the standards evidence based or are they arbitrary? What will happen to access to medical services as a result? What is the cost of this new tool and its maintenance and are there other policy tools that are likely to be more effective and less costly? And perhaps most importantly, will quality of care that patients receive actually improve?

Disturbingly, it appears that patients have not been included in the development of this policy. Disturbingly, it appears that including a few members of the specialties involved is considered “broad consultation”. Disturbingly, it appears that the standards that have been set are arbitrary in that every practice and procedure is to be included in the dictionary, whether or not there is clear evidence that volume of service delivery or experience has any clear link to quality or safety. Disturbingly it appears as though concerns with the policy are being brushed off as merely fearing change.

This policy will not improve transparency or shared decision making between patients and care providers. This policy will not improve the recourse patients have when they experience medical error. This policy will not encourage innovation in the delivery of medical services. This policy will not identify providers that have patients that experience qualitatively or quantitatively bad care – it will not monitor clinical performance. By and large this policy appears as though it likely will reduce the number of providers that are available to provide services to the public and will increase the amount of bureaucracy in the system. It appears that patients might well be told they can’t have access to a medical service at all, rather than have access to the service provided by someone who is overwhelmingly likely to be able to provide the service safely.

Quality care and public confidence is critical to the system, but we’d be foolish to think that the “Provincial Privileging Program” is going to effectively advance quality in the British Columbia healthcare system. Policies that are implemented with patient safety and patient confidence being the goal should be robust and subject to scrutiny by providers and patients. Knee-jerk responses to critical lapses in the provision of quality care should be avoided as they may be very expensive responses that fail to meet the goals that matter. If you think access to care in British Columbia is bad now, just wait, things could get substantially worse.

Friday, January 23, 2015

The Great Tale of How I met Mr. W - But is it Prize Winning?

I submitted the tale of how I met my husband to a contest with the Vancouver Observer and it made it to the top 5 - it'd be fun if it won - so I'd like to ask my readers to check it out and vote at the following link on Facebook.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Little in the Canadian Healthcare System Fosters Patient Centred Care

To be blunt, there is little about the Canadian healthcare system and how it works that fosters and encourages patient centred care, and there is much about it that stymies efforts to develop and deliver truly patient (or family) centered care. Much of how the system works is even in direct conflict with improving health outcomes. As a result, we have a system that is relatively expensive, while performing poorly particularly with respect to measures of access to healthcare services.

This might seem to be a harsh criticism of a system that is held in high regard by many Canadians (many of whom are actually non-users of the system, and so may hold beliefs about it that are in stark contrast to the realities faced by actual patients). However, there are a number of critical ways in which the system hinders the development and delivery of patient centred care.

A patient centred system would be accountable to patients for the services that are delivered. The reality is that there is little meaningful accountability. Currently, the only avenue for patients to be compensated for harm caused by the medical system (either by medical error or negligence) is to pursue a medical malpractice claim. Sadly, doing so is often a tale of David and Goliath, where the harm caused by the error or negligence must be very significant and the evidence exceptionally clear in order to merit the substantial resources needed to pursue the claim. In part this is because of a medical protective association that seeks to aggressively defend every claim that is made, and as a result many meritorious claims are never pursued and many patients never receive compensation for the harm that they have suffered. Absent compensation for harm caused, the other avenues for accountability include the Patient Care Quality Offices, the Colleges of Physicians and Surgeons across the country, the media and patient advocacy groups. Sadly, as a result of their limited powers to remedy the harms caused, many patients with poor experiences never have their voices heard as the cost of doing so simply exceeds the expected benefits. In the Canadian system patients are not even routinely surveyed about their experiences of care and outcomes. As a result, there is likely a large under reporting of poor experiences of care or outcomes. A no-fault compensation system similar to what exists in New Zealand would be a meaningful step in the direction of patient centeredness.

A patient centred system would reward care that meets the needs of patients and penalize care that fails to meet the needs of patients. The reality is that the doctor who makes a patient make 3 appointments (one for each issue needing to be addressed) gets paid more than the doctor who accommodates a patient’s need to have your appointments consolidated or who spends a bit more time with a patient to ensure questions are adequately answered, or who provides access to information before the appointment so that the patient can come prepared. The reality is the doctor who forces his or her patients to come into the office has an advantage over the one who is open to being available via email or phone to address minor concerns. The reality is that there is no incentive for a doctor to go above and beyond – because at the end of the day they will be paid exactly the same (or worse) as their colleague who does the bare minimum. Further, given the relative scarcity of doctors, patients who are dissatisfied with their care are often trapped between a rock and a hard place, where the choice is a doctor with whom they are dissatisfied with or no doctor at all. There is no reason for doctors to actually care about whether or not their patients are happy (except for the intrinsic desire to deliver good service) or to solicit feedback from patients about the care that was received. There is no reason for doctors to be innovative in order to set themselves apart from their competition. At the end of the day the doctor who delivers the most services (regardless of the quality of services delivered) takes home the fattest paycheque. There might even be a disincentive to actually improve the health of patients, as healthy patients do not see doctors and absent service use, there is no pay. Further, many doctors are in a conflict between serving the interests of their patients and serving the interests of the broader healthcare system.

A patient centred system would be transparent. Medical records in this country are often held for ransom (it is not uncommon for doctors’ offices to charge fees to patients if and when they change doctors to transfer the file to the new care provider). Test results and referral letters are rarely communicated or shared directly with patients absent an office visit. Few patients have care and control of their medical information. In order to gain access to information about our bodies, a referral for tests or imaging is needed. Data about the system is often hoarded and the metrics that are publically available are carefully scrutinized to limit the amount of potential political fallout that might result from their publication. Patients are largely kept in the dark about things that critically impact their lives such as hospital policies and practices or even the expected amount of time that they will wait before gaining access to the care that they need.

A patient centred system would be truly comprehensive and co-ordinated. A lot has changed since medicare started – including the options for treatment of many conditions. Pharmacological care, dental care and optometric care are all excluded from the publicly funded system. Not to mention many para-medical services including those provided by psychologists, massage therapists, physiotherapists, chiropractors, nutritionists, and others. Further there is limited communication between different care providers and navigating the system as a whole is often a daunting task for patients.

A patient centred system would respect patient choice and patient autonomy and recognize that different people value different things. There remains a culture of paternalism in medical care. As an example the approach to maternal request caesarean in Canada – where many Canadian women have difficulty accessing the care they desire. As another example, the prohibition against the purchase of medically necessary care means that the supply of care and access to care is regulated regardless of patient preferences.

There is considerable reason to believe that a system (similar to that in many European countries) that allowed for privately funded medically necessary healthcare services in addition to more comprehensive publicly funded healthcare services would be more patient centred than the current system.

However, absent significant changes and considerable courage on the policy front – patient centred care in Canada will happen in spite of the system because of those driven by a higher purpose to make the lives of others better rather than because of it.