Racism is a structural determinant of health and drives health and social inequities. The recent incidents of anti-Black violence, racism and discrimination in the US and Canada also shed light on the structural inequities and racism that exist within the medical profession and the health system.
The profession of medicine is grounded in respect for all people. This commitment recognizes that everyone has equal and inherent worth, the right to be valued and respected, and the right to be treated with dignity.
It’s critical that our medical culture – and society more broadly – upholds these values. But today, we’re reminded that there’s much more to do as a profession, and as a global community, to get us there.
Earlier this year, we launched our first-ever policy on equity and diversity in medicine Opens in a new window to help break down the many broad and systemic barriers that remain, to reduce discrimination and bias within our profession, and to create physically and psychologically safe environments for ourselves, our colleagues and our patients.
Alongside this policy comes a commitment to holding ourselves accountable to recognizing and challenging behaviours, practices and conditions that hinder equity and diversity, including racism.
Instances of racism, intolerance, exclusion, violence and discrimination have no place in medicine, and no place in our society. The Canadian Medical Association condemns racism in all its forms. Today, we stand alongside all those who have been affected by these appalling and inexcusable actions and beliefs.
Dr. Sandy Buchman
President, Canadian Medical Association
The current global pandemic caused by the novel coronavirus has presented the international medical community with unprecedented ethical challenges. The most difficult of these has involved making decisions about access to scarce resources when demand outweighs capacity.
In Canada, it is well accepted that everyone should have an equal opportunity to access and receive medical treatment. This is possible when there are sufficient resources. But in contexts of resource scarcity, when there are insufficient resources, difficult decisions have to be made about who receives critical care (e.g., ICU beds, ventilators) by triaging patients. Triage is a process for determining which patients receive treatment and/or which level of care under what circumstances in contexts of resource scarcity. Priority-setting for resource allocation becomes more ethically complex during catastrophic times or in public health emergencies, such as today’s COVID-19 pandemic, when there is a need to manage a potential surge of patients.
Physicians from China to Italy to Spain to the United States have found themselves in the unfathomable position of having to triage their most seriously ill patients and decide which ones should have access to ventilators and which should not, and which allocation criteria should be used to make these decisions. While the Canadian Medical Association hopes that Canadian physicians will not be faced with these agonizing choices, it is our intent, through this framework, to provide them with guidance in case they do and enable them to make ethically justifiable informed decisions in the face of difficult ethical dilemmas. Invoking this framework to ground decisions about who has access to critical care and who does not should only be made as a last resort. As always, physicians should carefully document their clinical and ethical decisions and the reasoning behind them.
Generally, the CMA would spend many months in deliberations and consultations with numerous stakeholders, including patients and the public, before producing a document such as this one. The current situation, unfortunately, did not allow for such a process. We have turned instead to documents, reports and policies produced by our Italian colleagues and ethicists and physicians from Canada and around the world, as well as provincial level documents and frameworks.
The CMA is endorsing and recommending that Canadian physicians use the guidance provided by Emmanuel and colleagues in the New England Journal of Medicine article dated from March 23rd, as outlined below. We believe these recommendations represent the best current approach to this situation, produced using the highest current standard of evidence by a panel of internationally recognized experts. We also recognize that the situation is changing constantly, and these guidelines may need to be updated as required.
The CMA will continue to advocate for access to personal protective equipment, ventilators and ICU equipment and resources. We also encourage physicians to make themselves aware of any relevant provincial or local documents, and to seek advice from their regulatory body or liability protection provider. It should be noted that some provinces and indeed individual health care facilities will have their own protocols or frameworks in place. At the time of its publication, this document was broadly consistent with those protocols that we were given an opportunity to review.
The CMA recognizes that physicians may experience moral distress when making these decisions. We encourage physicians to seek peer support and practice self-care. In addition, the CMA recommends that triage teams or committees be convened where feasible in order to help separate clinical decision making from resource allocation, thereby lessening the moral burden being placed on the individual physician.
The CMA recommends that physicians receive legal protection to ensure that they can continue providing needed care to patients with confidence and support and without fear of civil or criminal liability or professional discipline. In this time of uncertainty, physicians should be reassured that their good faith efforts to provide care during such a crisis will not put them at increased medical-legal risk. Providing such reassurance is needed so that physicians have the confidence to continue to provide care to their patients.
Recommendation 1: In the context of a pandemic, the value of maximizing benefits is most important. This value reflects the importance of responsible stewardship of resources: it is difficult to justify asking health care workers and the public to take risks and make sacrifices if the promise that their efforts will save and lengthen lives is illusory. Priority for limited resources should aim both at saving the most lives and at maximizing improvements in individuals’ post-treatment length of life. Saving more lives and more years of life is a consensus value across expert reports. It is consistent both with utilitarian ethical perspectives that emphasize population outcomes and with nonutilitarian views that emphasize the paramount value of each human life. There are many reasonable ways of balancing saving more lives against saving more years of life; whatever balance between lives and life-years is chosen must be applied consistently.
Limited time and information in a Covid-19 pandemic make it justifiable to give priority to maximizing the number of patients that survive treatment with a reasonable life expectancy and to regard maximizing improvements in length of life as a subordinate aim. The latter becomes relevant only in comparing patients whose likelihood of survival is similar. Limited time and information during an emergency also counsel against incorporating patients’ future quality of life, and quality-adjusted life-years, into benefit maximization. Doing so would require time-consuming collection of information and would present ethical and legal problems. However, encouraging all patients, especially those facing the prospect of intensive care, to document in an advance care directive what future quality of life they would regard as acceptable and when they would refuse ventilators or other life-sustaining interventions can be appropriate.
Operationalizing the value of maximizing benefits means that people who are sick but could recover if treated are given priority over those who are unlikely to recover even if treated and those who are likely to recover without treatment. Because young, severely ill patients will often comprise many of those who are sick but could recover with treatment, this operationalization also has the effect of giving priority to those who are worst off in the sense of being at risk of dying young and not having a full life.
Because maximizing benefits is paramount in a pandemic, we believe that removing a patient from a ventilator or an ICU bed to provide it to others in need is also justifiable and that patients should be made aware of this possibility at admission. Undoubtedly, withdrawing ventilators or ICU support from patients who arrived earlier to save those with better prognosis will be extremely psychologically traumatic for clinicians — and some clinicians might refuse to do so. However, many guidelines agree that the decision to withdraw a scarce resource to save others is not an act of killing and does not require the patient’s consent. We agree with these guidelines that it is the ethical thing to do. Initially allocating beds and ventilators according to the value of maximizing benefits could help reduce the need for withdrawal.
Recommendation 2: Irrespective of Recommendation 1, Critical Covid-19 interventions — testing, PPE, ICU beds, ventilators, therapeutics, and vaccines — should go first to front-line health care workers and others who care for ill patients and who keep critical infrastructure operating, particularly workers who face a high risk of infection and whose training makes them difficult to replace. These workers should be given priority not because they are somehow more worthy, but because of their instrumental value: they are essential to pandemic response. If physicians and nurses and RTs are incapacitated, all patients — not just those with Covid-19 — will suffer greater mortality and years of life lost. Whether health workers who need ventilators will be able to return to work is uncertain but giving them priority for ventilators recognizes their assumption of the high-risk work of saving others. Priority for critical workers must not be abused by prioritizing wealthy or famous persons or the politically powerful above first responders and medical staff — as has already happened for testing. Such abuses will undermine trust in the allocation framework.
Recommendation 3: For patients with similar prognoses, equality should be invoked and operationalized through random allocation, such as a lottery, rather than a first-come, first-served allocation process. First-come, first-served is used for such resources as transplantable kidneys, where scarcity is long-standing, and patients can survive without the scarce resource. Conversely, treatments for coronavirus address urgent need, meaning that a first-come, first-served approach would unfairly benefit patients living nearer to health facilities. And first-come, first-served medication or vaccine distribution would encourage crowding and even violence during a period when social distancing is paramount. Finally, first-come, first-served approaches mean that people who happen to get sick later on, perhaps because of their strict adherence to recommended public health measures, are excluded from treatment, worsening outcomes without improving fairness. In the face of time pressure and limited information, random selection is also preferable to trying to make finer-grained prognostic judgments within a group of roughly similar patients.
Recommendation 4: Prioritization guidelines should differ by intervention and should respond to changing scientific evidence. For instance, younger patients should not be prioritized for Covid-19 vaccines, which prevent disease rather than cure it, or for experimental post- or pre-exposure prophylaxis. Covid-19 outcomes have been significantly worse in older persons and those with chronic conditions. Invoking the value of maximizing saving lives justifies giving older persons priority for vaccines immediately after health care workers and first responders. If the vaccine supply is insufficient for patients in the highest risk categories — those over 60 years of age or with coexisting conditions — then equality supports using random selection, such as a lottery, for vaccine allocation. Invoking instrumental value justifies prioritizing younger patients for vaccines only if epidemiologic modeling shows that this would be the best way to reduce viral spread and the risk to others.
Epidemiologic modeling is even more relevant in setting priorities for coronavirus testing. Federal guidance currently gives priority to health care workers and older patients but reserving some tests for public health surveillance could improve knowledge about Covid-19 transmission and help researchers target other treatments to maximize benefits.
Conversely, ICU beds and ventilators are curative rather than preventive. Patients who need them face life-threatening conditions. Maximizing benefits requires consideration of prognosis — how long the patient is likely to live if treated — which may mean giving priority to younger patients and those with fewer coexisting conditions. This is consistent with the Italian guidelines that potentially assign a higher priority for intensive care access to younger patients with severe illness than to elderly patients. Determining the benefit-maximizing allocation of antivirals and other experimental treatments, which are likely to be most effective in patients who are seriously but not critically ill, will depend on scientific evidence. These treatments may produce the most benefit if preferentially allocated to patients who would fare badly on ventilation.
Recommendation 5: People who participate in research to prove the safety and effectiveness of vaccines and therapeutics should receive some priority for Covid-19 interventions. Their assumption of risk during their participation in research helps future patients, and they should be rewarded for that contribution. These rewards will also encourage other patients to participate in clinical trials. Research participation, however, should serve only as a tiebreaker among patients with similar prognoses.
Recommendation 6: There should be no difference in allocating scarce resources between patients with Covid-19 and those with other medical conditions. If the Covid-19 pandemic leads to absolute scarcity, that scarcity will affect all patients, including those with heart failure, cancer, and other serious and life-threatening conditions requiring prompt medical attention. Fair allocation of resources that prioritizes the value of maximizing benefits applies across all patients who need resources. For example, a doctor with an allergy who goes into anaphylactic shock and needs life-saving intubation and ventilator support should receive priority over Covid-19 patients who are not frontline health care workers.
Approved by the CMA Board of Directors April 2020
Acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (UPDATE 2000)
The Canadian Medical Association has developed the following general principles to serve as guidelines for various bodies, health care professionals and the general public. Specific aspects of infection with human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) and acquired immunodeficency syndrome (AIDS) that relate to physicians' ethical responsibilities as well as society's moral obligations are discussed. Such matters include: the need for education, research and treatment resources; the patient's right to investigation and treatment and to refuse either; the need to obtain the patient's informed consent; the right to privacy and confidentiality; the importance of infection control; and the right to financial compensation in the case of occupational exposure to HIV.
Physicians should keep their knowledge of AIDS and HIV infection up to date.
Physicians should educate patients and the general public in the prevention of AIDS by informing them of means available to protect against the risk of HIV infection and to avoid further transmission of the virus.
Health authorities should maintain an active public education program on AIDS that includes the school population and such initiatives as public service announcements by the media.
All levels of government should provide resources for adequate information and education of health care professionals and the public on HIV-related diseases; research into the prevention and treatment of HIV infection and AIDS; and the availability and accessibility of proper diagnosis and care for all patients with HIV infection.
HIV antibody testing
Physicians have an ethical responsibility to recommend appropriate testing for HIV antibody and to care for their patients with AIDS or refer them to where treatment is available.
Physicians should provide counselling to patients before and after HIV antibody testing.
Because of the potential psychologic, social and economic consequences attached to a positive HIV test result, informed consent must, with rare exceptions, be obtained from a patient before testing. However, the CMA endorses informed mandatory testing for HIV infection in cases involving the donation of blood, body fluids or organs.
The CMA recognizes that people who have doubts about their serologic status may avoid being tested for fear of indiscretion and therefore supports voluntary non-nominal testing of potential HIV carriers on request.
The CMA supports the Canadian Blood Service and Hema-Québec in their programs of testing and screening blood donations and blood products.
Confidentiality in reporting and contact tracing
The CMA supports the position that cases of HIV infection should be reported non-nominally with enough information to be epidemiologically useful. In addition, each confirmed case of AIDS should be reported non-nominally to a designated authority for epidemiologic purposes.
The CMA encourages attending physicians to assist public health authorities to trace and counsel confidentially all contacts of patients with HIV infection. Contact tracing should be carried out with the cooperation and participation of the patient to provide maximum flexibility and effectiveness in alerting and counselling as many potentially infected people as possible.
In some jurisdictions physicians may be compelled to provide detailed information to public health authorities. In such circumstances, the CMA urges those involved to maintain confidentiality to the greatest extent possible and to take all reasonable steps to inform the patient that their information is being disclosed.
The CMA Code of Ethics (article 22) advises physicians that disclosure of a patient’s HIV status to a spouse or current sexual partner may not be unethical and, indeed, may be indicated when physicians are confronted with an HIV-infected patient who is unwilling to inform the person at risk. Such disclosure may be justified when all of the following conditions are met: the partner is at risk of infection with HIV and has no other reasonable means of knowing of the risk; the patient has refused to inform his or her sexual partner; the patient has refused an offer of assistance by the physician to do so on the patient's behalf; and the physician has informed the patient of his or her intention to disclose the information to the partner.
The CMA stresses the need to respect the confidentiality of patients with HIV infection and consequently recommends that legal and regulatory safeguards to protect such confidentiality be established and maintained.
Health care institutions and professionals should ensure that adequate infection-control measures in the handling of blood and body fluids are in place and that the rights of professionals directly involved in patient care to be informed of and protected from the risks of HIV infection are safeguarded.
The CMA does not recommend routine testing of hospitalized patients.
The CMA urges appropriate funding agencies to assess the explicit and implicit costs of infection control measures and to ensure that additional funds are provided to cover these extraordinary costs.
Occupational exposure and the health care professional
Health care workers should receive adequate financial compensation in the case of HIV infection acquired as a result of accidental occupational exposure.
Physicians and other health care providers with HIV infection have the same rights as others to be protected from wrongful discrimination in the workplace and to be eligible for financial compensation for work-related infection.
Physicians with HIV infection should consult appropriate colleagues to determine the nature and extent of the risk related to their continued involvement in the care of patients.
CORE AND COMPREHENSIVE HEALTH CARE SERVICES
CMA believes that physicians must be actively involved in the decision-making process on core and comprehensive services. It developed a framework for this purpose after review and analysis of national and international decision-making frameworks, and after consideration of the political, policy and legal context of Canadian health care decision making. In addition to the framework, key terms associated with core and comprehensive health care services are operationally defined. Quality of care and ethical and economic factors are considered in a balanced and flexible manner, recognizing that the relative importance of any one factor may vary depending on the health care service being considered.
CMA first prepared this policy in 1994 to help physicians participate in making choices concerning core and comprehensive health care services. Over a decade later, the issue of defining these services remains a central issue for patients, providers and funders of Canada's health care system. Looking ahead, this will become even more pertinent as regional authorities assume greater authority in planning and allocating health funding across a broad range of programs.
Constructive leadership from the medical profession is essential to ensure a high quality Canadian health care system. Specifically, physicians must be actively involved in the decision-making process on core and comprehensive health care services.
CMA reviewed and analyzed several national and international decision-making frameworks and subsequently developed a framework for making decisions about core and comprehensive health care services (Core and Comprehensive Health Care Services: a Framework for Decision Making, CMA, 1994). It also considered the current political, policy and legal context in which decisions on health care are made in Canada. Key terms associated with core and comprehensive health care services were operationally defined.
CMA encourages the use of its framework for making decisions about these services. Quality of care and ethical and economic factors are considered in a balanced and flexible manner, recognizing that the relative importance of any one factor may vary depending on the health care service being considered. Each factor affects decision making at the patient-physician (micro) level, the hospital and regional (meso) level and the provincial, territorial and national (macro) level.
This policy summary addresses the requirement for governments to fund core medical services but not the availability or desirability of private or alternative funding for these services.
Uniform use and interpretation of the terms used in this area are particularly important in policy development, negotiations and communications. The 1984 Canada Health Act stipulates that all "medically necessary" services be insured; however, the act does not define "medically necessary." This lack of a clear operational definition gives the provinces/territories some flexibility in the breadth of coverage provided by their insurance plans. However, it may also cause ambiguity and difficulty in selecting core health care services.
CMA defines medically necessary services as those "that a qualified physician determines are required to assess, prevent, treat, rehabilitate or palliate a given health concern or problem as supported by available scientific evidence and/or professional experience." (Adapted from Core and Comprehensive Health Care Services, page 96.)
Health care services are "not only services provided by or under the supervision of a physician, but also a wide range of services performed by many other health care professionals." (Adapted from Core and Comprehensive Health Care Services, page 92.) Medical services is "a category of health care services provided by or under the supervision of a physician." (Core and Comprehensive Health Care Services, page 96.)
Comprehensive health care and medical services are distinguished from core health care and medical services. Comprehensive health care and medical services are "a broad range of services that covers most, if not all, health care needs. These services may or may not be funded/insured by a government plan." (Core and Comprehensive Health Care Services, page 86.) Core health care and medical services are those that "are available to everyone as funded/insured by a government plan. [Alternative] funding sources for these services are not necessarily excluded." (Core and Comprehensive Health Care Services, page 86.)
Framework for decision making
CMA advocates a systematic and transparent decision-making framework for determining which services are considered core and comprehensive health care services. The framework was originally intended for medical services; however, it can also be applied to health care services. It is flexible so that users may adapt it to their own specific circumstances and needs. It is not a formula or set process that yields a quantifiable result for any given service, nor does it prescribe which services to insure or not insure. CMA has put forth the following principle concerning the framework.
When decisions about core and comprehensive health care services are made, the various levels at which decisions can be made must be considered. These include the patient- physician (micro) level, the hospital and regional (meso) level and the provincial, territorial and national (macro) level.
CMA recognizes that decisions are made at several levels: (1) the micro level, which involves individual decisions about service delivery made by patients, physicians and other providers, (2) the meso level, which involves regional health authorities and health care institutions such as hospitals, community groups and professional staff, and (3) the macro level, which involves system wide decisions made by governments, the electorate and professions as a whole.
It is important to take into account the likely effect of any decision on each level: a decision that is acceptable at the macro level may be impossible to deliver at the meso level and inappropriate for patients or practitioners at the micro level. Coordination is essential to make consistent decisions among levels and incorporate the concerns of patients, providers and payers.
CMA upholds a second principle concerning the decision making framework.
Quality of care and ethical and economic factors must be considered when decisions about core and comprehensive health care services are made.
Quality of care
Effectiveness, efficiency, appropriateness and patient acceptance are elements of quality of care. To be considered a core medical service, a medical service must be of high quality (i.e., it addresses effectively a health concern or condition through improved health outcomes and is delivered efficiently, appropriately and in a manner acceptable to patients) as well as fulfilling ethical and economic criteria. A medical service that is shown to be of little effectiveness cannot be delivered efficiently or poses many problems for patient safety or acceptance is less "medically necessary" than services that meet the quality of care criteria. Such a service is therefore unlikely to become or remain a core medical service.
The adoption of evidence-based medicine such as through the use of clinical practice guidelines (CPGs) is a key component of quality improvement. CPGs are based on a systematic review of experience and research, and they help physicians to make decisions about necessary care. CPGs that are well developed and appropriately evaluated may also help to define core health care services. CPGs are also tools for the pursuit of quality, to maximize effective care and to reduce waste and ineffective activity in a given service, resulting in savings.
Clinical research is a key aspect of improvement in quality of care. Such research focuses on the effectiveness and impact of health care services on health outcomes. Procedures that demonstrate better outcomes than others should be included in a core health care package, whereas those that demonstrate inferior outcomes may be limited or excluded in some instances. When applying the concept of core health care services, provision must be made for ongoing evaluation of the quality of current services and appropriate assessment of new ones.
While it is important that the decision-making framework be evidence-based to the greatest extent possible, it should not be evidence-bound - that is, decisions may still need to be made from limited evidence.
Balancing finite fiscal resources and high quality medical and other health care services requires explicit societal choices about which services will be publicly funded (and for whom), which can be purchased and which will not be available at all in the Canadian system. These issues are ethical ones because they involve rights, responsibilities and societal values.
Whether decisions about resource allocation are made at the macro, meso or micro level, they must be fair. This means that those likely to be affected by a decision, whether they are patients, providers or payers, must have adequate opportunity for input into the decision-making process and must be informed about the reasons for the decisions.
When the availability of a health care service is inadequate to meet the demand, the criteria for allocating it should be fair and explicit. One such criterion is medical need: even if not all needed services can be publicly funded, services that are clearly unnecessary should not be funded in this way. Funding decisions should be nondiscriminatory; decisions about which health care services should or should not be publicly funded should not be based on age, sex, race, lifestyle and other personal and social characteristics of the potential recipients of a service.
Economic factors (Cost-effectiveness)
The level of public funding for health care services is ultimately a societal decision, as discussed in the section on ethical factors. Once such a societal decision has been made, economic factors are useful in determining the allocation of resources among health care services, especially in times of fiscal restraint.
There are various economic methods for evaluating funding decisions, the most common of which is cost effectiveness analysis. This approach suggests that decisions to insure a particular service should take into account cost in relation to outcome, e.g., cost per quality-adjusted life-year. Services that have a low cost for a significant gain in effectiveness may be more acceptable for public funding than others. This approach cannot be used in isolation; quality of care and ethical considerations must be taken into account before a final determination of the source of funding for core or comprehensive health care services is made.
Determination of which health care services are to be included in or excluded from a publicly financed health insurance plan should also incorporate an economic analysis of the primary and secondary effects on both the patient and provider populations. Some of the factors that should be included in such an analysis are: availability of substitutes, discretionary income, availability of private insurance, direct and indirect costs of service provision, barriers to entry and the existence of fixed global budgets. Economic analyses also include measurement of the opportunity costs, in terms of foregone services, associated with public financing of health care services. When possible, the public's needs should be distinguished from its wants for the purposes of public policy and funding.
From a clinical perspective, providers have always addressed patient needs on a case-by-case basis. However, fiscal restraint and the rationalization of health care services often result in the onus being placed on the provider to make micro resource allocation decisions. Local decisions (i.e., at the hospital and community level) about the rationalization of health care resources can restrict providers' ability to deliver services and patients' ability to receive them. Therefore, it is critical that the patient and provider perspectives be included in any economic analysis undertaken to define core health care services.
As enunciated in its policy statement, Federal Health Financing, the CMA will urge the federal government to ensure that full funding be available to support provincial and territorial provision of core medical services.
Nevertheless, there remain concerns regarding how the comprehensiveness principle is being interpreted. First, the array of core services varies considerably among the provinces/territories (e.g., prescription drug coverage). Second, the basket of core health services needs to be modernized to reflect Canadians' emerging health needs and how health care is now being delivered (e.g,. more out-patient care).
While a degree of latitude is required to accommodate differing regional needs, core services should be available to all Canadians on uniform terms and conditions and should not be limited to physician and hospital services. There should be ongoing periodic monitoring and reporting of the comparability of Canadians' access to a full range of medically necessary health services across the country.
Furthermore, there is a need for a federal/provincial/territorial process that is transparent, accountable, evidence-based and inclusive to regularly update the basket of core services. CMA will work with provincial/territorial medical associations and other stakeholders to develop a process for defining a national list of core medical services.
Greater transparency is required when de-insuring services, including the need for consultation and providing an adequate notice period for patients, providers and funders.
A new framework is also required to govern the funding of a basket of core health services that allows at least some core services to be cost-shared under uniform terms and conditions in all provinces and territories.
When physicians believe their patients may require the expertise of another physician, effective, timely and informative communication between all physicians is essential to ensure appropriate use of specialty care services. The results of physician surveys indicate a lack of informative referral communication exists in Canada. Significant variation exists in referral request processes*. This is contributing to the poor access to specialty care that many patients are experiencing.
Some of this variation is necessary, however, which means that a single, standardized solution to improve the entire referral and consultation process is not feasible. Nonetheless, while communication processes and information requirements for referral requests vary considerably, the communication and information needs in consultant responses is essentially the same for all referring physicians. Unfortunately, provision of this information is often lacking. This problem can be addressed through standard communication protocols because all referring physicians benefit from receiving the same types of information in response to referral requests; for example, acknowledgement of referral receipt or patient consult reports.
Furthermore, when referrals are initiated, specific types of requests can benefit from standardization of communication methods and information requirements. Such activities are already underway in Canada in select areas. These successful initiatives, used together as complementary approaches to address the varying needs of referral requests, should be adopted throughout the country. Visit CMA's Referral and Consultation Process Toolbox1 for examples.
Recognition, in the form of appropriate compensation, must also be given to the time spent preparing and analyzing referral requests as well as conducting consultations. Support for the use of information technology infrastructure, where available, will also facilitate efforts to streamline referral and consultation processes.
It should be noted that, while the language of this policy statement has a focus on primary to specialty care referrals, the concepts and recommendations apply to referrals between all specialties.
* All stakeholders, especially physicians, but also, where appropriate, office assistants, nurses, other health care providers as well as patients, must be engaged in an early and meaningful way regarding any initiative that has a goal to improve referral or consultation processes.
* There is no single best way to access specialist expertise; as a result, a combination of complementary initiatives (e.g., formal consultation systems, standardized referral processes with central intake systems and/or physician directories) should be implemented to reduce variation in the approaches that are used and to facilitate more timely access to specialty care for patients.
* While acknowledging the referring physician's ability to interpret certain test results, the referral must be accompanied by appropriate information to allow the consulting specialist to fully assess the request, and the referring physician must be informed of what is "appropriate".
* The referring physician (and family physician if different), as well as the patient, should be kept informed, in a timely fashion, of the status of the referral request, using standardized procedures, minimum information requirements and timelines.
* Physician and/or physician practices should receive compensation and support in recognition of the time and effort undertaken to communicate appropriate information regarding referral requests as well as to conduct electronic or real-time consultations.
When a physician decides that a patient requires the expertise of another specialist, the most appropriate next step can range from the specialist answering a question to assessing the need for a particular procedure or treatment. No matter how simple or complex the specialist's involvement may be, successful communication between all physicians is critical. Unfortunately, this does not occur as often as it should. In October 2012, a survey of physicians on the topic of referrals found that while over half of both family physicians (52%) and other specialists (69%) agree that referral communication is effective, two-thirds of family physicians noted that some kind of communication problem was a main source of frustration for them; for example not being informed about: referral receipt, the patient's appointment, a treatment plan, or that the specialist does not do the service requested. A similar proportion of specialists noted a lack of basic or supporting information (e.g., reason for referral or lab test results) as a main frustration with referral requests.2
The most appropriate method of communication differs depending on the degree of specialist involvement that is required. There are no standards about which method of communication is the most appropriate or effective, or what information is required, for each situation. Referral request processes† vary significantly; not only across specialties but among specialists within a particular specialty and even within a geographic region. Examples of this variation include: some consulting specialists will accept referrals only if the referring physician has used their specific referral form; others accept referrals using only one particular communication method (e.g., by fax); and others accept referrals on just one day each month. Such variation creates inefficiencies because referring physicians must familiarize themselves with each request process that is required by each consulting specialist. The range and quality of information provided in a referral request also varies considerably; for example, too little information (i.e. no reason for referral provided), insufficient information (i.e. out-of-date or a lack of lab or imaging tests), or to too much information (i.e. non-contributory family history).
This lack of standardization is problematic. In this context, standardization means simplification rather than obligation. Standardized processes facilitate communications for referrals by removing ambiguities about which method is most appropriate for each situation. Communication methods and the types of information that are transferred between referring physicians and consulting specialists vary based on numerous factors, ranging from those beyond the control of physicians such as regulations and available technology, to those completely within their control such as their own individual preferences.
An effective way to facilitate appropriate and timely access to specialty care that is within the control of the health care profession is to explore the rationale behind these varying communication and information preferences and address these variations by developing, with meaningful participation and approval from physicians and their administrative staff, standard processes for requesting a specialist referral and for communicating back to the referring physician.
Some of the provincial Colleges of Physicians and Surgeons have guidelines or standards of practice specifically about referrals and consultations. The most comprehensive of these are the College of Physicians & Surgeons of Nova Scotia's (CPSNS) Guidelines for Physicians Regarding Referral and Consultation3 and the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Alberta's (CPSA) Standard for Practice on The Referral Consultation Process.4 In addition, the College of Family Physicians of Canada (CFPC) and the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Canada (Royal College) developed collaboratively a guide to enhancing referrals and consultations between physicians.5 While these documents do not discuss which method of communication should be used for each referral request scenario, they do provide guidance in a number of areas, including:
* minimum requirements for information that should be provided with all referral requests
* information that should be conveyed to patients (e.g., why they are being referred, information about the specialist appointment, etc) as well as who should be providing this information
* processes that should be followed for patients requiring ongoing care from the consulting physician
While standardization of the minimum information requirements that should be included in communications between referring and consulting physicians is essential for finding efficiencies with referral processes, these efficiencies will not be fully realized without proper consideration of the information technology infrastructure that is used to convey this information. The way in which the information is provided should not require additional effort for either the sender or the receiver. Electronic referral systems, where all data necessary for an informative referral can be easily obtained by the appropriate physician from the patient's electronic health record, would be the best way to ensure that this occurs. However, until this becomes a reality, a suitable compromise can be found by allowing flexibility in the format in which the information is provided.
Communication from Primary Care to Specialty Care
When the extent of a specialist's involvement in patient care is simply providing a second opinion or advice about appropriate next steps, standardizing the process for this kind of communication is relatively straightforward. This is because the variation that exists in this situation is primarily due to the availability of the consulting specialist and the methods of communication that each referring physician can use to contact the specialist.
Certain regions of the country have established consultation services whereby specialists participating in the program must respond to consult requests within a specified time frame. Examples of effective consultation systems include the telephone advice line known as Rapid Access to Consultative Expertise (RACE)6 in BC or the secure electronic consultation system known as Building Access to Specialist Care through e-Consultation (BASE)7 in the Champlain Local Health Integration Network (LHIN) in Ontario. Such services have proven quite effective at reducing the number of unnecessary referrals8,9; thereby ensuring more appropriate use of specialty care and helping to reduce wait times for this care. Through both of these systems, specialists ensure that they are available to respond to the consult question in a timely manner and each system uses only one form of communication.
At the other end of the spectrum of specialist involvement in patient care, when the patient sees the specialist, there is a much greater degree of variation in what is required of the specialist - from one-time interventions such as surgical procedures, to chronic care. The best approach for streamlining the referral process in these more complex situations varies, depending on the type of specialist care that is required.
With central intake referral systems, the referring physician sends a referral request to one location. This central location can be organized in two ways; central triage or pooled referrals. With central triage, referrals are assigned to specialists based on their level of urgency. With pooled referrals, each referral is allocated to the next available specialist, who then does the triaging. The differences in where the triaging occurs exist due to a number of factors; including the type of care the specialty provides as well as the number of specialists in the geographic region. However, for both types of central intake systems, the referring physician follows a standard process regardless of the specialist who assumes care of the patient.
Regardless of the type of central intake method that is used, the option to choose a particular specialist must always be available. However, even with this option in place, a central intake system of any kind is not necessarily the most appropriate solution for all specialties. This is often the case when ongoing patient-specialist relationships are quite common. For example, a woman might prefer that the same obstetrician cares for her during all of her pregnancies, or patients with chronic conditions such as arthritis or diabetes and require continuous care throughout their lifetime. In these situations, coordinating a central intake program where a significant proportion of specialist appointments are repeat visits is difficult.
A physician directory might be a more useful referral tool in situations where specialties do not have sufficient numbers of specialists in one geographic region or for those that have a high degree of sub-specialization. Such directories provide, at a minimum, details of the services each specialist provides and does not provide. Those that provide information regarding wait times, especially those with information on the wait for the first specialist visit, are extremely useful for referring physicians as it allows them to select a specialist with the most appropriate wait time for their patient and, where relevant, it also allows the referring physician to develop an appropriate care plan based on the time the patient must wait for specialty care.
Despite the fact that the complexities with specialty referrals mean that there is no one solution that is appropriate for all types of specialties, the extreme variation in processes that currently exists is also unnecessary.
Standard referral information requirements for specialty groups with similar needs, such as most surgical specialties, have been effectively established in some areas of the country. For example, in Calgary, Alberta, a major initiative known as Medical Access to Service10, has, among other things, successfully developed a standard referral form and process for central intake for multiple specialties. While most of these specialties also request additional information, each specialty has agreed on a standard set of minimum requirements. These standards were developed collaboratively with physicians and could be expanded nationwide, while taking regulatory and technological differences into account.
When establishing the requirements for an informative referral, consulting specialists must acknowledge that the referring physician may not have the expertise necessary to appropriately interpret certain test results. In such cases it is the consulting specialists who should order these tests.
Communication from Specialty Care to Primary Care
What must not be overlooked is that referral communication is bilateral. Informative and timely communication from the consulting specialist to the referring physician is also critical for a successful referral. Such a referral can be defined as one where the patient receives appropriate and timely specialty care where all parties - patient, specialist(s), referring physician and family physician (when the referring physician is not the patient's family physician) - are aware of all of the patient's relevant interactions with the health care system as well as any follow-up care that may be required. To ensure this occurs, after the referral request is initiated, the referring physician (and family physician if different) should be informed, in a timely manner, of the status of the referral at all stages:
* referral receipt
* request for more information
* referral acceptance/rejection (with explanation and suggested alternatives)
* patient appointment has been scheduled
* patient consult notes (including recommended treatment plan and follow-up)
A definition of what is considered "timely" is required. Standards must be established based on what is considered to be an acceptable response time at each stage. The patient must also be promptly informed of the status of the referral request throughout the entire process.
Examples of the types of information that should be conveyed include (where appropriate):
* how the referral request will be processed; e.g., pooled referral or central triage
* expected wait time or when the appointment has been scheduled
* whether another specialist has been contacted
* whether a repeat visit is required
* whether the patient has been contacted about anything that is relevant to them; e.g., referred elsewhere, wait time, appointment(s) scheduled
The information and communication that the referring physician requires from the consulting specialist for all referrals is much more homogeneous. In addition, there are no regulatory or technological barriers preventing the provision of this information at the appropriate stages of the referral process. This is one area where communication between physicians is within their control. Therefore, improved communication for responses to referral requests through standardized processes can be much more easily established. Unfortunately this is not the case, causing considerable effort to be undertaken by referring physicians and/or their office staff to track the status of referrals.
Considerably less attention has been given to this part of the process; however, some activities described in the CMA's Referral and Consultation Process Toolbox1 do address problems regarding the referral response. Central Intake systems are an example. These often include standard response times for at least the first three stages noted above, as well as information about the specialist who has received the referral request.
The previously cited guidelines developed by the CPSNS 3, the standard of practice by the CPSA4 and the guide to enhancing referrals and consultations between physicians developed by the CFPC and the Royal College5 also have recommendations for consulting specialist responses to referral requests (including information requirements and timelines). These resources can be used as a starting point for establishing referral communication standards in both directions and with patients. As an important example, the guidelines for both provincial colleges specifically indicate that the consulting specialist is responsible for arranging appointments with the patient and notifying the referring physician of the date(s).
Compensation and Support
Another aspect of the referral process that is not given sufficient consideration is the time and effort that is involved in preparing and responding to a referral request. Both preparing an informative referral request and responding to one is time-consuming; very little recognition is given towards this work. In some areas of the country, physicians receive compensation for participating in electronic or telephone consultation programs. This form of recognition has successfully helped avoid unnecessary referrals and should be expanded nation-wide; however, much more should be done to acknowledge this effort, especially when a specialist visit is necessary.
The time referring physicians spend gathering the necessary data for a referral request, or the time consulting specialists spend analyzing this data, triaging the referrals accordingly and preparing patient consult notes, is almost never acknowledged as part of a physician compensation package. In most jurisdictions this work is considered to be just a component of a typical patient visit. Since many primary care group practices employ administrative staff who are "referral coordinators"; whose main role is to assist physicians in the data gathering and preparation that is required for an informative referral request, as well as following up on referral requests; the process of referring a patient to specialty care is much more than "just a component of a typical patient visit".
Support for widespread implementation of effective information technology infrastructure can facilitate the preparation of appropriate referral requests and responses and can also encourage timely and informative communication between referring physicians and consulting specialists.
The high degree of variability in both the methods of communication and the information transferred between physicians is a significant barrier to timely access to specialty care for patients. Significant effort by physicians and their office staff is expended unnecessarily in the referral process, not only in initiating or responding to the request, but also in tracking and follow-up.
While there is no single solution that will address all referral communication problems, several complementary solutions exist that can reduce this variability and wasted effort, thereby simplifying the process and facilitating appropriate, timely and informative communication between referring physicians and consulting specialists. Examples of such initiatives can be found in the CMA's Referral and Consultation Process Toolbox.1
* For the purposes of this policy statement, this term applies to all situations where another physician is contacted regarding patient care.
† For the purposes of this policy statement, this term applies to all situations where another physician is contacted regarding patient care.
1 Canadian Medical Association. Referral/Consultation Process. Available at: http://www.cma.ca/referrals. Accessed 29 Nov 2013.
2 Canadian Medical Association. Challenges with patient referrals - a survey of family physicians and other specialists; October 2012 (Unpublished).
3 College of Physicians and Surgeons of Nova Scotia. Guidelines for Physicians Regarding Referral and Consultation. Available at: http://www.cpsns.ns.ca/Portals/0/Guidelines-policies/guidelines-referral-consultation.pdf. Accessed 15 Nov 2013.
4 College of Physicians & Surgeons of Alberta. The Referral Consultation Process. Available at: http://www.cpsa.ab.ca/Libraries/standards-of-practice/the-referral-consultation-process.pdf?sfvrsn=0. Accessed 16 Sep 2014.
5 College of Family Physicians of Canada, Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Canada. Guide to enhancing referrals and consultations between physicians. Available at: http://www.cfpc.ca/ProjectAssets/Templates/Resource.aspx?id=3448. Accessed 27 Nov 2013.
6 Rapid Access to Specialist Expertise. Available at: www.raceconnect.ca. Accessed 27 Nov 2013.
7 Liddy C, Rowan MS, Afkham A, Maranger J, Keely E. Building access to specialist care through e-consultation. Open Med. 2013 Jan 8;7(1):e1-8. Available at: http://www.openmedicine.ca/article/view/551/492. Accessed 27 Nov 2013.
8 Wilson M. Rapid Access to Consultative Expertise: An innovative model for shared care. Available at: https://www.cma.ca/Assets/assets-library/document/en/advocacy/RACE-Overview-March-2014.pdf. Accessed 16 Sep 2014.
9Afkham A. Champlain BASE project: Building Access to Specialists Through e-Consultation. Available at: https://www.cma.ca/Assets/assets-library/document/en/advocacy/Champlain-BASE-Dec2013-e.pdf. Accessed 16 Sep 2014.
10 Alberta Health Services, University of Calgary Department of Medicine. Medical Access to Service (MAS). Available at: http://www.departmentofmedicine.com/MAS/ Accessed 15 Nov 2013.
Appropriateness in Health Care
This paper discusses the concept of appropriateness in health care and advances the following definition:
The Canadian Medical Association adopts the following definition for appropriateness in health care: It is the right care, provided by the right providers, to the right patient, in the right place, at the right time, resulting in optimal quality care.
Building on that definition it makes the following policy recommendations:
* Provinces and territories should work with providers to develop a comprehensive framework by which to assess the appropriateness of health care.
* Provinces and territories should work with providers to develop robust educational products on appropriateness in health care and to disseminate evidence-informed strategies for necessary changes in care processes.
* Provinces and territories should work with providers to put in place incentives to decrease the provision of marginally useful or unnecessary care.
As health systems struggle with the issue of sustainability and evidence that the quality of care is often sub-optimal, increasing attention is focused on the concept of appropriateness. A World Health Organization study published in 2000 described appropriateness as "a complex, fuzzy issue"1. Yet if the term is to be applied with benefit to health care systems, it demands definitional clarity. This policy document presents the Canadian Medical Association definition of appropriateness which addresses both quality and value. The roots of the definition are anchored in the evolution of Canadian health care over the last two decades. The document then considers the many issues confronting the operationalization of the term. It concludes that appropriateness can play a central role in positive health system transformation.
At the Canadian Medical Association General Council in 2013 the following resolution was adopted:
The Canadian Medical Association adopts the following definition for appropriateness in health care: It is the right care, provided by the right providers, to the right patient, in the right place, at the right time, resulting in optimal quality care.
This definition has five key components:
* right care is based on evidence for effectiveness and efficacy in the clinical literature and covers not only use but failure to use;
* right provider is based on ensuring the provider's scope of practice adequately meets but does not far exceed the skills and knowledge to deliver the care;
* right patient acknowledges that care choices must be matched to individual patient characteristics and preferences and must recognize the potential challenge of reconciling patient and practitioner perceptions;
* right venue emphasizes that some settings are better suited in terms of safety and efficiency to delivering a specific type of care than others;
* right time indicates care is delivered in a timely manner consistent with agreed upon bench marks.
It is essential to appreciate that the "right cost" is a consequence of providing the right care, that it is an outcome rather than an input. In other words, if all five components above are present, high quality care will have been delivered with the appropriate use of resources, that is, at the right cost. Equally, however, it should be cautioned that right cost may not necessarily be the affordable cost. For example, a new drug or imaging technology may offer small but demonstrable advantages over older practices, but at an enormous increase in cost. Some might argue that right care includes the use of the newer drug or technology, while others would contend the excessive opportunity costs must be taken into consideration such that the older practices remain the right care.
An Evolving Canadian Perspective from 1996 to 2013
In a pioneering paper from 1996 Lavis and Anderson wrote:
...there are two distinct types of appropriateness: appropriateness of a service and appropriateness of the setting in which care is provided. The differences between the two parallel the differences between two other concepts in health care: effectiveness and cost-containment...An appropriate service is one that is expected to do more good than harm for a patient with a given indication...The appropriateness of the setting in which care is provided is related to cost effectiveness2.
This very serviceable definition moved beyond a narrow clinical conception based solely on the therapeutic impact of an intervention on a patient, to broader contextual consideration focused on venue. Thus, for example, the care provided appropriately in a home-care setting might not be at all appropriate if given in a tertiary care hospital. Significantly, the authors added this important observation: "Setting is a proxy measure of the resources used to provide care"2. This sentence is an invitation to expand the original Lavis and Anderson definition to encompass other resources and inputs identified over the ensuing decades. Three elements are especially important.
Timeliness became an issue in Canadian health care just as the Lavis and Anderson paper appeared. In 1997 almost two-thirds of polled Canadians felt surgical wait times were excessive, up from just over half of respondents a year earlier3. By 2004 concern with wait times was sufficiently pervasive that when the federal government and the provinces concluded the First Ministers' Agreement, it included obligations to provide timely access to cancer care, cardiac care, diagnostic imaging, joint replacement and sight restoration4. These rapid developments indicate that timeliness was now considered an essential element in determining the appropriateness of care.
A second theme that became prominent in health care over the last two decades was the concept of patient-centredness. When the Canadian Medical Association released its widely endorsed Health Care Transformation in Canada in 2010, the first principle for reform was building a culture of patient-centred care. Succinctly put, this meant that "health care services are provided in a manner that works best for patients"5. To begin the process of operationalizing this concept CMA proposed a Charter for Patient-centred Care. Organized across seven domains, it included the importance of: allowing patients to participate fully in decisions about their care; respecting confidentiality of health records; and ensuring care provided is safe and appropriate. This sweeping vision underscores the fact that care which is not matched to the individual patient cannot be considered appropriate care.
A third significant development over the last two decades was heightened awareness of the importance of scopes of practice. This awareness arose in part from the emphasis placed on a team approach in newer models of primary care6, but also from the emergence of new professions such as physician assistants, and the expansion of scopes of practice for other professionals such as pharmacists7. As the same health care activity could increasingly be done by a wider range of health professionals, ensuring the best match between competence required and the service provided became an essential element to consider when defining appropriateness. Under-qualified practitioners could not deliver quality care, while overly-qualified providers were a poor use of scarce resources.
To summarize, as a recent scoping review suggested, for a complete conceptualization of appropriateness in 2013 it is necessary to add the right time, right patient and right provider to the previously articulated right care and right setting8.
Why Appropriateness Matters
The most frequent argument used to justify policy attention to appropriateness is health system cost. There is a wealth of evidence that inappropriate care - avoidable hospitalizations, for example, or alternative level of care patients in acute care beds - is wide spread in Canada9; eliminating this waste is critical to system sustainability. In Saskatchewan, for example, Regina and Saskatoon contracted in 2011 with private clinics to provide a list of 34 surgical procedures. Not only were wait times reduced, but costs were 26% lower in the surgical clinics than in hospitals for doing the same procedures10.
There is, however, an equally important issue pointing to the importance of ensuring appropriate care: sub-optimal health care quality. In the United States, for example, a study evaluated performance on 439 quality indicators for 30 acute and chronic conditions. Patients received 54.9% of recommended care, ranging from a high of 78.7% for senile cataracts to 10.5% for alcohol dependence11. A more recent Australian study used 522 quality indicators to assess care for 22 common conditions. Patients received clinically appropriate care in 57% of encounters, with a range from 90% for coronary artery disease to 13% for alcohol dependence12. While no comparable comprehensive data exist for Canada, it is unlikely the practices in our system depart significantly from peer nations. Focusing on appropriateness of care, then, is justified by both fiscal and quality concerns.
Methodology: the Challenge of Identifying Appropriateness
While there is a clear need to address appropriateness - in all its dimensions - the methods by which to assess the appropriateness of care are limited and, to date, have largely focused on the clinical aspect.
The most frequently used approach is the Rand/University of California Los Angeles (Rand) method. It provides panels of experts with relevant literature about a particular practice and facilitates iterative discussion and ranking of the possible indications for using the practice. Practices are labeled appropriate, equivocal or inappropriate13. A systematic review in 2012 found that for use on surgical procedures the method had good test-retest reliability, interpanel reliability and construct validity14. However, the method has been criticized for other short-comings: panels in different countries may reach different conclusions when reviewing the same evidence; validity can only be tested against instruments such as clinical practice guidelines that themselves may have a large expert opinion component2; Rand appropriateness ratings apply to an "average" patient, which cannot account for differences across individuals; and, finally, Rand ratings focus on appropriateness when a service is provided but does not encompass underuse, that is, failure to provide a service that would have been appropriate9.
The Rand method, while not perfect, is the most rigorous approach to determining clinical appropriateness yet devised. It has recently been suggested that a method based on extensive literature review can identify potentially ineffective or harmful practices; when applied to almost 6000 items in the Australian Medical Benefits Schedule, 156 were identified that may be inappropriate15. This method also presents challenges. For example, the authors of a study using Cochrane reviews to identify low-value practices note that the low-value label resulted mainly from a lack of randomized evidence for effectiveness16.
Assessing the appropriateness of care setting has focused almost exclusively on hospitals. Some diagnoses are known to be manageable in a community setting by primary care or specialty clinics. The rate of admissions for these ambulatory care sensitive conditions (ACSCs) - which fell from 459 per 100,000 population in 2001-02 to 320 per 100,00 in 2008-09 - is one way of gauging the appropriateness of the hospital as a care venue9. A second measure is the number of hospital patients who do not require either initial or prolonged treatment in an acute care setting. Proprietorial instruments such as the Appropriateness Evaluation Protocol (AEP)17or the InterQual Intensity of Service, Severity of Illness and Discharge Screen for Acute Care (ISD-AC)18 have been used to assess the appropriateness of hospital care for individual patients. While these instruments have been applied to Canadian hospital data19,20, there is a lack of consensus in the literature as to the reliability and utility of such tools21-23.
Benchmarks exist for appropriate wait times for some types of care in Canada through the work of the Wait Time Alliance4. These include: chronic pain, cancer care, cardiac care, digestive health care, emergency rooms, joint replacement, nuclear medicine, radiology, obstetrics and gynecology, pediatric surgery, plastic surgery, psychiatric illness, and sight restoration. The recommendations are based on evidence-informed expert opinion.
The other two domains of appropriateness - right patient, right provider - as yet have no objective tools by which to assess appropriateness.
Determining appropriateness demands a complex and time-consuming approach, and its operationalization faces a number of barriers.
The availability of some health care services may be subject to political influence which will over-ride appropriateness criteria. For example, recommendations to close smaller hospitals deemed to be redundant or inefficient may not be implemented for political reasons.
Patient expectations can challenge evidence-based appropriateness criteria. In a primary care setting, for instance, it may be difficult to persuade a patient with an ankle sprain that an x-ray is unlikely to be helpful. The insistence by the patient is compounded by an awareness of potential legal liability in the event that clinical judgment subsequently proves incorrect. Choosing Wisely Canada recommends physicians and patients become comfortable with evidence-informed conversations about potentially necessary care24.
Traditional clinical roles are difficult to revise in order to ensure that care is provided by the most appropriate health professional. This is especially true if existing funding silos are not realigned to reflect the desired change in practice patterns.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, even if agreed upon appropriateness criteria are developed, holding practitioners accountable for their application in clinical practice is extremely difficult due to data issues25. Chart audits could be conducted to determine whether appropriateness criteria were met when specific practices were deployed, but this is not feasible on a large scale. Rates of use of some practices could be compared among peers from administrative data; however, variation in practice population might legitimately sustain practice variation. For diagnostic procedures it has been suggested that the percentage of negative results is an indicator of inappropriate use; however, most administrative claim databases would not include positive or negative test result data26. This data deficit must be addressed with health departments and regional health authorities.
There are several additional constraints on the use of the concept by health system managers.
First, the vast majority of practices have never been subject to the Rand or any other appropriateness assessment. Even for surgical procedures clinical appropriateness criteria exist for only 10 of the top 25 most common inpatient procedures and for 6 of the top 15 ambulatory procedures in the United States. Most studies are more than 5 years old27.
Second, while the notion is perhaps appealing to policy makers, it is incorrect to assume that high use of a practice equates with misuse: when high-use areas are compared to low use areas, the proportion of inappropriate use has consistently been shown to be no greater in the high-use regions28,29.
Finally, it is uncertain how large a saving can be realized from eliminating problematic clinical care. For example, a US study modeling the implementation of recommendations for primary care found that while a switch to preferentially prescribing generic drugs would save considerable resources, most of the other items on the list of questionable activities "are not major contributors to health care costs"30. What is important to emphasize is that even if dollars are not saved, by reducing inappropriate care better value will be realized for each dollar spent.
These methodological and other challenges31 notwithstanding, the Canadian Medical Association puts forward the following recommendations for operationalizing the concept of appropriateness and of clinical practice.
1. Provinces and territories should work with providers to develop a comprehensive framework by which to assess the appropriateness of health care.
Jurisdictions should develop a framework32 for identifying potentially inappropriate care, including under-use. This involves selecting criteria by which to identify and prioritize candidates for assessment; developing and applying a robust assessment methodology; and creating mechanisms to disseminate and apply the results. Frameworks must also include meaningful consideration of care venue, timeliness, patient preferences and provider scope of practice. International examples exist for some aspects of this exercise and should be adapted to jurisdictional circumstances. Necessarily, a framework will demand the collection of supporting data in a manner consistent with the following 2013 General Council resolution:
The Canadian Medical Association supports the development of data on health care delivery and patient outcomes to help the medical profession develop an appropriateness framework and associated accountability standards provided that patient and physician confidentiality is maintained.
2. Provinces and territories should work with providers to develop robust educational products on appropriateness in health care and to disseminate evidence-informed strategies for necessary changes in care processes.
Both trainees and practicing physicians should have access to education and guidance on the topic of appropriateness and on practices that are misused, under-used, or over-used. Appropriately designed continuing education has been shown to alter physician practice. Point of care guidance via the electronic medical record offers a further opportunity to alert clinicians to practices that should or should not be done in the course of a patient encounter33.
An initiative co-led by the Canadian Medical Association that is designed to educate the profession about the inappropriate over use of diagnostic and therapeutic interventions is Choosing Wisely Canada. The goal is to enhance quality of care and only secondarily to reduce unnecessary expenditures. It is an initiative consistent with the intent of two resolutions from the 2013 General Council:
The Canadian Medical Association will form a collaborative working group to develop specialty-specific lists of clinical tests/interventions and procedures for which benefits have generally not been shown to exceed the risks.
The Canadian Medical Association believes that fiscal benefits and cost savings of exercises in accountability and appropriateness in clinical care are a by-product rather than the primary focus of these exercises.
3. Provinces and territories should work with providers to put in place incentives to decrease the provision of marginally useful or unnecessary care.
Practitioners should be provided with incentives to eliminate inappropriate care. These incentives may be financial - delisting marginal activities or providing bonuses for achieving utilization targets for appropriate but under-used care. Any notional savings could also be flagged for reinvestment in the health system, for example, to enhance access. Giving physicians the capacity to participate in audit and feedback on their use of marginal practices in comparison to peers generally creates a personal incentive to avoid outlier status. Public reporting by group or institution may also move practice towards the mean30. In any such undertakings to address quality or costs through changes in practice behaviour it is essential that the medical profession play a key role. This critical point was captured in a 2013 General Council resolution:
The Canadian Medical Association will advocate for adequate physician input in the selection of evidence used to address costs and quality related to clinical practice variation.
When appropriateness is defined solely in terms of assessing the clinical benefit of care activities it can provide a plausible rational for "disinvestment in" or "delisting of" individual diagnostic or therapeutic interventions. However, such a narrow conceptualization of appropriateness cannot ensure that high quality care is provided with the optimal use of resources. To be truly useful in promoting quality and value appropriateness must be understood to mean the right care, provided by the right provider, to the right patient, in the right venue, at the right time.
Achieving these five components of health care will not be without significant challenges, beginning with definitions and moving on to complex discussions on methods of measurement. Indeed, it may prove an aspirational goal rather than a completely attainable reality. But if every encounter in the health system - a hospitalization, a visit to a primary care provider, an admission to home care - attempted to meet or approximate each of the five criteria for appropriateness, a major step towards optimal care and value will have been achieved across the continuum. Viewed in this way, appropriateness has the capacity to become an extraordinarily useful organizing concept for positive health care transformation in Canada.
Approved by CMA Board on December 06, 2014
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