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.
CMA Policy : Rural and Remote Practice Issues
The Canadian Medical Association (CMA) believes that all Canadians should have reasonable access to uniform, high quality medical care. The CMA is concerned, however, that the health care infrastructure and level of professional support in rural and remote areas are insufficient to provide quality care and retain and recruit physicians relative to community needs. The CMA has developed this policy to outline specific issues and recommendations that may help retain and recruit physicians to rural and remote areas of Canada and thereby improve the health status of rural and remote populations. The following 3 key issue areas are addressed in this policy: training, compensation and work/lifestyle support. Commitment and action by all stakeholders, including governments, medical schools, professional associations and others, are urgently required.
Canadian physicians and other health care professionals are greatly frustrated by the impact that health care budget cuts and reorganization have had, and continue to have, on the timely provision of quality care to patients and general working conditions. For many physicians who practise in rural and remote communities, the impact is exacerbated by the breadth of their practice, as well as long working hours, geographic isolation, and lack of professional backup and access to specialist services.
This policy has been prepared to help governments, policy-makers, communities and others involved in the retention and recruitment of physicians understand the various professional and personal factors that must be addressed to retain and recruit physicians to rural and remote areas of Canada. This policy applies to both general practitioners/family physicians as well as specialists. The CMA believes that this policy must be considered in the context of other relevant CMA policies, including but not limited to Physician Health and Wellbeing, Physician Compensation, Physician Resource Planning, Principles for a Re-entry System in Canadian Postgraduate Medical Education and Charter for Physicians. In addition, any strategies that are developed should not be coercive and must include community and physician input; they must also be comprehensive, flexible and varied to meet and respond to local needs and interests.
Rural and remote
There are no standard, broadly accepted terms or definitions for "rural" and "remote" since they cannot be sufficiently defined to reflect the unique and dynamic nature of the various regions and communities that could presumably be labelled as such.
The terms "rural" or "remote" medicine may be applied to many things: the physicians themselves, the population they serve, the geography of the community or access to medical services. For each of these factors, there are a number of ways to define and measure rurality. For example, a 1999 CMA survey of rural physicians showed that the most frequently mentioned characteristics of a rural community were (1) high level of on-call responsibilities, (2) long distance to a secondary referral centre, (3) lack of specialist services and (4) insufficient family physicians. As another example, Statistics Canada defines rural and small town residents for some analyses as those living in communities outside Census Metropolitan Areas (population of at least 100 000) or Census Agglomerations (population between 10 000 and 99 999), and where less than 50% of the workforce commute to a larger urban centre.
For the purposes of this policy, a medical school is understood to encompass the entire continuum of
medical education, i.e., undergraduate, postgraduate, continuing medical education and maintenance of
Some Canadian studies have shown that medical trainees who were raised in rural communities have a greater tendency to return to these or similar communities to practise medicine. Some studies also show that individuals who do clerkships in rural or remote communities, or have some exposure to the rural practice environment during residency training, have a greater tendency to consider practising in rural or remote communities upon graduation. The CMA applauds those medical schools that promote careers in medicine to individuals from rural and remote areas and provide medical students and residents with exposure to rural practice during their training. Regular collaboration and communication among training directors for rural and remote programs, as well as rural medical educators and leaders from other health disciplines, are strongly encouraged so that rural training issues and possible linkages may be discussed. The benefits of rural training extend not only to those physicians who ultimately end up in rural practice; those who remain in urban areas also benefit by having an enhanced understanding of the challenges of rural and remote practice.
As outlined in the CMA’s 1992 Report of the Advisory Panel on the Provision of Medical Services in Underserviced Regions, the CMA believes that partnerships among medical schools, the practising profession and communities need to be formalized, particularly since medical schools have a crucial role in helping to recruit and retain physicians for rural and remote communities. The medical school’s role in such a partnership takes the form of a social contract. This contract begins with the admission of students who demonstrate a prior interest in working in rural or remote communities and may come from these communities. It also includes the exposure of students to rural practice during their undergraduate and postgraduate training. It is followed by the provision of specialized training for the conditions in which they will work and ongoing educational support during their rural and remote practice. For these reasons, the CMA strongly encourages academic health science centres (AHSCs), provincial governments, professional associations and rural communities to work together to formally define the geographic regions for which each AHSC is responsible. The AHSCs are also encouraged to include within their mission a social contract to contribute to meeting the health needs of their rural or remote populations.
Practising physicians are committed to lifelong learning. In order to preserve a high standard of quality care to their patients, they must be knowledgeable about new clinical and technological advances in medicine; they must also continually develop advanced or additional clinical skills in, for example, obstetrics, general surgery and anaesthesia, to better serve the patients in their communities, especially when specialist services are not readily available. There are many practical and financial barriers that physicians in rural and remote communities face in obtaining and maintaining additional skills training, including housing, practice and other costs (e.g., locum tenens replacement expenses) while they are away from work. The CMA strongly encourages governments to develop and maintain mechanisms, such as compensation or additional tax relief, to reduce the barriers associated with obtaining advanced or additional skills training.
In light of these issues, the CMA recommends that
1. Universities, governments and others encourage and fund research into criteria that predispose students to select and succeed in rural practice.
2. All medical students, as early as possible at the undergraduate level, be exposed to appropriately funded and accredited rural practice environments.
3. Medical schools develop training programs that encourage and promote the selection of rural practice as a career.
4. Universities work with professional associations, governments and rural communities to determine the barriers that prevent rural students from entering the profession, and take appropriate action to eliminate or reduce these barriers.
5. A Web site based compendium of rural experiences and electives for medical students be developed, maintained and adequately funded.
6. Advanced skills acquisition and maintenance opportunities be provided to physicians practising in or going to rural and remote areas.
7. CMA divisions and provincial/territorial governments ensure that physicians who work in rural and remote areas receive full remuneration while obtaining advanced skills, including support for the locum tenens who will replace them.
8. Any individual formally enrolled in a Royal College of Physicians of Surgeons of Canada or College of Family Physicians of Canada program be covered by the collective agreement of their housestaff organization.
9. Providers, funders and accreditors of continuing medical education for rural physicians ensure that the continuing medical education is developed in close collaboration with rural physicians and is accessible, needs-based and reflective of rural physicians’ scope of practice.
10. Physicians who practise in rural or remote areas be given reasonable opportunities to
re-enter training in a postgraduate program without any return-in-service obligations.
11. In order to promote mutual understanding, universities encourage teaching faculty to work in rural practices and that rural physicians be invited to teach in academic health science centres.
12. Medical schools develop training programs for both students and residents that encourage and promote the provision of skills appropriate to rural practice needs.
13. Medical schools support rural faculty development and provide full faculty status to these
The CMA believes that compensation for physicians who practise in rural and remote areas must be flexible and reflect the full spectrum of professional and personal factors that are often inherent to practising and living in such a setting. These professional factors may include long working hours and the need for additional competencies to meet community needs, such as advanced obstetrics, anaesthesia and general surgery, as well as psychotherapy and chemotherapy. They may also include a high level of on-call responsibilities as well as a lack or total absence of backup from specialists, nurses and other complementary services that are usually available in an urban environment. Other challenges are professional isolation, limited opportunities for education or training, and high practice start-up costs. Also, if for a number of reasons a physician wishes to relocate to an urban setting, he or she may face billing restrictions as well as challenges in finding a replacement physician. Compensation for these factors is necessary to help retain physicians and recruit new ones. In addition, compensation should guarantee protected time off, paid continuing medical education or additional skills training, and locum tenens coverage. Any pool of locum tenens for rural and remote practice should be adequately funded and cross-jurisdictional licensure issues should be minimized.
Living in a rural or remote community can be very satisfying for many physicians and their families; however, they must usually forgo — often for an extended period of time— a number of urban advantages and amenities. These include educational, cultural, recreational and social opportunities for their spouse or partner, their children and themselves. They may also face altered family dynamics due to a decrease or significant loss of family income if there are limited or no suitable employment opportunities for their spouse or partner.
The CMA believes that all physicians should have a choice of payment options and service delivery models to reflect their needs as well as those of their patients. Physicians must receive fair and equitable remuneration and have a practice environment that allows for a reasonable quality of life. Although the CMA does not advocate one payment system for urban physicians and another for rural physicians, it believes that enhanced total compensation should be provided to physicians who work and live in rural and remote communities.
In recognition of these issues, the CMA recommends that
14. Additional compensation to physicians working in rural and remote areas reflect the following areas: degree of isolation, level of responsibility, frequency of on-call, breadth of practice and additional skills.
15. In recognition of the differences among communities, payment modalities retain flexibility and reflect community needs and physician choice.
16. Financial incentives focus on retaining physicians currently practising in rural or remote areas and include a retention bonus based on duration of service.
17. Factors affecting the social and professional isolation of physicians and their families be considered in the development of compensation packages and working conditions.
18. Eligibility criteria for including physicians in a pool of locum tenens for rural or remote practice be developed in consultation with rural physicians.
19. Provincial/territorial licensing bodies establish portability of licensure for locum tenens and ensure that any fees or processes associated with licensure do not serve as barriers to interprovincial mobility.
20. Rural locum tenens programs be funded by provincial/territorial governments and include adequate compensation for accommodation, transportation and remuneration.
As previously noted, some studies show that exposure to rural and remote areas during training influences students’ decision to practise in those communities upon graduation. The CMA is concerned, however, that travel and accommodation costs relating to these experiences place an undue financial burden on students. In addition, most physicians in rural and remote areas are already burdened with significant patient loads and find that they have limited time and resources to act as preceptors. The CMA believes that, to ensure the ongoing viability of student rural experiences, physician preceptors should be compensated for their participation and should not incur any additional expenses, such as student or resident accommodation costs.
The CMA recommends that
21. Costs for accommodation and travel for student and resident rural training experiences in Canada not be borne by the trainees or the preceptors.
22. Training programs assume responsibility for adequately remunerating preceptors in rural or remote areas.
Work and lifestyle support issues
To retain and recruit physicians in rural and remote communities, there are issues beyond fair and adequate compensation that must be considered. It is crucial that the aforementioned working conditions, professional issues and array of personal and family-related issues be addressed. The ultimate goal should be to promote physician retention and implement measures that reduce the possibility of physician burnout.
Like most people, physicians want to balance their professional and personal responsibilities to allow for a reasonable quality of life. Physicians in rural and remote areas practise in high stress environments that can negatively affect their health and well-being; as a consequence, the standard of care to their patients can suffer. The stress is intensified by excessive work hours, limited professional backup or support (including locum tenens), limited access to specialists, inadequate diagnostic and treatment resources, and limited or no opportunity for vacation or personal leave. At particular risk for burnout is the physician who practises in isolation. For these reasons many physicians, when considering practice opportunities, tend to seek working conditions that will not generate an excessive toll on their non-working lives. This reinforces the need for rural and remote practice environments that facilitate a balance between physicians’ professional and personal lives.
In light of these issues, the CMA recommends that
23. Regardless of community size, there should always be at least 2 physicians available to serve the
needs of the community.
24. Ideally, the on-call requirement for weekends never exceed 1 in 5 in any Canadian practice.
(This is consistent with current CMA policy.)
25. Provincial/territorial governments have professional support and other mechanisms readily
available to physicians who practise in rural and remote areas, such as sabbaticals and locum
26. Governments recognize the service of rural and remote physicians by ensuring that
mechanisms exist to allow future access to practise in an urban area of their choice.
The CMA believes that rural and remote physician retention and recruitment initiatives must address matters relating to professional isolation as well as social isolation for physicians and their families. This sense of isolation can increase when there are cultural, religious or other differences. For unattached physicians, zero tolerance and unreasonable restrictions with regard to relationships with potential patients can be disincentives to practise in rural or remote communities. Although the CMA believes that such policies and restrictions should be reviewed, the CMA encourages physicians to refer to the CMA policy on The Patient-Physician Relationship and the Sexual Abuse of Patients and the Code of Ethics of the Canadian Medical Association. Also, the CMA recommends that physicians abide by any provincial/territorial policies or legislation that may currently be in place.
The medical services infrastructure in rural and remote areas is usually very different from that in urban settings. In addition to a lack of specialist services, physicians in these areas may often have to cope with a number of other factors such as limited or no appropriate diagnostic equipment or limited hospital beds. Physicians and their patients expect and deserve quality care. The diversity and needs of the populations, as well as the needs of the physicians who practise in rural and remote areas, must also be recognized and reflected in the infrastructure (e.g., demographic and geographical considerations).
The CMA recommends that
27. A basic medical services infrastructure for rural and remote areas be defined, such as hospital beds, paramedical staff, diagnostic equipment, transportation, ready access to secondary and tertiary services, as well as information technology tools and support.
28. Provincial/territorial governments recognize that physicians who work in rural and remote areas need an environment that appropriately supports them in providing service to the local population.
This policy addresses the role of the treating physician in assisting their patients return to work after an illness or injury. The treating physician's role is to diagnose and treat the illness or injury, to advise and support the patient, to provide and communicate appropriate information to the patient and the employer, and to work closely with other involved health care professionals to facilitate the patient's safe and timely return to the most productive employment possible. Fulfilling this role requires the treating physician to understand the patient's roles in the family and the workplace. Furthermore, it requires the treating physician to recognize and support the employee-employer relationship and the primary importance of this relationship in the return to work. Finally, it requires the treating physician to have a good understanding of the potential roles of a return-to-work coordinator and of other health care professionals and employment personnel in assisting and promoting the return to work.
The CMA recognizes the importance of a patient returning to all possible functional activities relevant to his or her life as soon as possible after an injury or illness. Prolonged absence from one's normal roles, including absence from the workplace, is detrimental to a person's mental, physical and social well-being. The treating physician should therefore encourage a patient's return to function and work as soon as possible after an illness or injury, provided that a return to work does not endanger the patient, his or her co-workers or society. A safe and timely return to work benefits the patient/employee and his or her family by enhancing recovery and reducing disability. A safe and timely return to work by the employee also preserves a skilled and stable workforce for employers and society and reduces demands on health and social services as well as on disability plans.
In recent years, an increasing level of responsibility in the return-to-work process has been placed on treating physicians. There has been an increased demand for medical information and advice from physicians and other health care providers concerning patient functionality, restricted work and modifications to the workplace to help accommodate the disabled patient. i There has also been a blurring of the lines between the provision of forms/reports for benefits and dealing with requests for information related to helping patients return to work (e.g., completing Functional Abilities Forms). Treating physicians are often asked to provide information related to complex issues affecting patients in the workplace and to assist in the eligibility of insurance claims while lacking information related to job description or the insurance company's definition of disability.
There is also the issue of consent, where employers/insurers are asking employees to sign "blanket consents," which include information well outside what is medically necessary to determine eligibility to return to work. In addition, the complex nature of the return-to-work process can lead to conflict between employees, physicians, and employers. Finally, the majority of physicians outside occupational medicine have not received training on the return-to-work process and thus may feel uncomfortable providing these types of services.
Cooperation from the employee, employer, insurer and health care provider is necessary to ensure a safe and timely return to work for the patient. The purpose of this statement is to address the role of the treating physician in the patient's return to work. A treating physician refers to a physician from any medical specialty - including a family physician - who preferably knows the patient the best. The CMA supports a shift away from reliance on physician certification for work absences and a move toward greater cooperation between the employee and his or her employer with the use of medical input, advice and support from the employee's treating physician and other involved health care professionals.ii
Although this policy addresses the treating physician's role in helping patients return to work after an illness or injury, many of the concepts are applicable to accommodating employees who are in need of a modified work arrangement with their employer.
The Role of the Employer
The employee and the employer generally have an established relationship and this is central to the return-to-work process. In all cases of impairment or disability, an unbiased workplace supervisor, manager or employer representative must be a closely involved partner in this process.
Employers increasingly recognize the value of making changes to the workplace than can facilitate a return to work. The employer's role is to ensure that the workplace culture supports a safe and timely return to work; for example, by being flexible in modifying tasks, schedules and environmental conditions to meet the temporary or permanent needs of the employee. Employees are often unaware of their employer's capacity to accommodate special needs. Direct communication by an employee with his or her employer after an illness or injury often enhances the employee's perception of his or her ability to work. With careful planning and appropriate physician input and advice to both the employee and the employer, an employee may often successfully return to work before full recovery.
The employer and employee have a responsibility to provide the treating physician with any employment-related information that can be useful in giving medical advice and support. It is the employer's responsibility to provide the treating physician with a written job description, identifying the job risks and available work modifications, upon request.
The Role of the Treating Physician
The treating physician's role in helping a patient return to work has four main elements:
1. Providing to the patient medically necessary services related to the injury or illness to achieve optimum health and functionality;
2. Providing objective, accurate and timely medical information for the consideration of eligibility of insurance benefits;
3. Providing objective, accurate and timely medical information as part of the timely return-to-work program; andiii
4. Considering whether to serve as a Timely Return-to-Work Coordinator when requested by the employer/employee or other third party (outlined below).
In relation to the first three elements, the treating physician should remain cognizant of the potential for legal proceedings and should, therefore, ensure, as always, that any statements made regarding a patient's capacity to return to work are defensible in a court of law. The physician should ensure that any statements made are, to the best of the physician's knowledge, accurate and based upon current clinical information about the patientiv. If the physician relies on information that cannot be substantiated independently, then the physician should note in the report the source of the information and the fact that it has not been independently confirmed. Comments unrelated to the treating physician's professional opinion or that are extraneous to the stated objectives should not be included in the report. Reports should be written in language that is appropriate for the intended audience. This may require the physician to avoid medical short forms, or jargon. Where this is not possible, the physician should include, in addition to technical medical terminology, more colloquial terms or explanations to ensure the reader understands the report's contents. Where the physician is not able to answer some of the questions, even with the assistance of the patient, the physician should indicate his or her inability to respond.
For more information with respect to completing forms and reports, please refer to Canadian Medical Protective Association articles entitled "Forms and Reports: The Case for Care (2002)" v and "Reasonable Delays for Filling out Insurance Forms (2007)." vi
Considerations for Treating Physicians who wish to Participate in the Timely Return-to-Work Process
Treating physicians need to ensure that a timely return-to-work plan is incorporated into the care plan for their patient. A timely return-to-work program is one that is initiated early and ensures a safe return to work at the earliest and most appropriate time. The treatment or care plan should be evidence-based, when possible, and should identify the best sequence and timing of interventions for the patient.
The treating physician should facilitate the patient's return to work by encouraging him or her early in treatment or rehabilitation to take an active role in and take responsibility for the return to work, and to communicate directly and regularly with his or her employers. Furthermore, the physician should discuss expected healing and recovery times with the patient, as well as the positive role in physical and psychological healing of a graduated increase in activity.
Unnecessary waiting periods and other obstacles in the care plan should be identified and discussed, when relevant, by those involved in the patient/employee's return to work. In some cases, it may be appropriate for the treating physician to advise the patient that a timely return to work can facilitate his or her recovery by helping to restore or improve functional capabilities. The physician should be familiar with the family and community support systems available to the patient. Moreover, the physician should be knowledgeable about and use, when appropriate, the services of a multidisciplinary team of health care professionals, who can be helpful in facilitating the patient's safe and timely return to work. In cases of employers with occupational medical departments, the treating physician, with the patient's prior expressed consent, may contact the occupational physician or nurse to understand specific workplace policies, supportive in-house resources, essential job demands and possible health and safety hazards in the patient's workplace. Where occupational medical resources are available, the treating physician generally assumes a supportive or advisory medical role. For assistance with specific cases, provincial and territorial medical associations and the Occupational Medicine Specialists of Canada, as well as the Occupational and Environmental Medicine Association of Canada, have information identifying physicians who specialize in assisting with the return to work. vii In complex cases, the treating physician should consider referring the patient/employee to medical specialists or other appropriate health care professionals for a comprehensive, objective assessment of his or her functional capabilities and limitations and their relation to the demands of the employee's job.
The Return-to-Work Coordinator
The CMA supports the concept of the return-to-work coordinator as described in the Ontario Medical Association Position Paper, "The Role of the Primary Care Physician in Timely Return to Work."viii A return-to-work coordinator may be a health care professional who "works with the employer and the patient/employee to assist in developing and overseeing a timely return to work program that is individualized to the employee and meets the requirements of the employer. A return to work plan or program is "a compilation of services required to safely and effectively return an individual to work as soon as possible." ix Return to work requires that the employee's capabilities match or exceed the physical, psychological and cognitive requirements of the work offered. It may involve designing a modified work setting and timetable to facilitate reintegration in the workplace based on the patient's physical and psychological condition.
Specific services of the return-to-work coordinator may include:
* Compiling all medical information, along with the employee's workplace and job functions information.
* Providing advice on the limitations, restrictions and modifications that may be necessary to accommodate the employee in a timely return-to-work program.
* Periodically reviewing the prescribed program and suggesting modifications until the patient eventually assumes full-duty status or has resumed work in a modified manner acceptable to all parties.
The treating physician has the choice to assume this role or it may be assumed by an alternate health care provider. It is the employer/insurer's responsibility to ensure that a health care provider is assigned to this role. The treating physician also has the choice to suggest the patient/employee undergo a functional capacity assessment or an independent medical examination (IME). Treating physicians should only provide such services if they have the necessary training and expertise. The CMA believes educational sessions should be provided to support treating physicians who feel they need them and who wish to assume the role of the timely return-to-work coordinator.
If the treating physician agrees to participate in developing a modified work plan, the physician should consider and make recommendations related to the employee's task limitations, schedule modifications, environmental restrictions and medical aids or personal protective equipment. Whenever possible, the physician should state whether restrictions are permanent or temporary and give an estimate of recovery time. The physician should also specify the date when the patient's progress and his or her work restrictions need to be reassessed.
The treating physician must be aware of the risks to the patient, his or her coworkers or the public that could arise from the patient's condition or drug therapy. If the patient's medical condition and the nature of the work performed are likely to endanger the safety of others significantly, the physician must put the public interest before that of the patient/employee.
When the treating physician, acting as a return-to-work coordinator, believes that the patient has recovered sufficiently to return to work safely, the patient should be clearly informed of this judgment. If the employer and the employee cannot agree on a return-to-work plan, the employer should contact the treating physician and employee to identify the minimum level of capability that can be accommodated in the workplace.
When there is a conflict between the employer and the employee, it is recommended that the treating physician use, where available, the skills of an occupational physician. The CMA recommends that, when conflicts occur, conflict-resolution processes be put in place to address all participants' concerns. The treating physician's role should be limited to providing relevant clinical information about the functional limitations of the employee and recommending any corresponding work restrictions.
Ultimately, the employer determines the type of work available and whether a physician's recommendations concerning an employee's return to work can be accommodated. Under provincial and territorial human rights laws, an employer may not discriminate on the basis of disability or other illness and has legal obligations with respect to the accommodation of employees. For details, refer to the Human Rights Code in the relevant jurisdiction.
The CMA holds that legislation should be enacted in all jurisdictions to protect physicians from liability associated with such decisions.
Respecting Patient Confidentiality and Managing Medical Information
Medical records are confidential. Physicians must respect the patient's right to confidentiality except where required or permitted by law to disclose requested information. In general, physicians should not, without the patient's consent, give information to anyone concerning the condition of a patient or any service rendered to a patient, unless required by law to do so. For example, in some cases, provincial or territorial legislation may require physicians to provide information to workers' compensation boards without prior patient approval. Physicians should be aware of the legal requirements with regard to prior patient approval and of the legal requirements in their province or territory. Where a physician has the discretion to make a disclosure (i.e., where it is permitted by law but not required), the decision should be made bearing in mind the duty of confidentiality and the facts of the case. Physicians will want to consider if it is appropriate under the circumstances to advise the patient when a disclosure has been made pursuant to applicable legislation.x
In circumstances where a physician provides a third party with information or an opinion for an individual he/she is not otherwise treating (for example during an IME mandated by the employer), the duty to provide the individual with access to the information, opinion and or notes prepared for the opinion will vary according to the applicable law, the nature of the agreement with the third party and the consent of the individual. Physicians should be aware that their working notes may be, in some circumstances, accessible to an individual being examined for the purpose of a third-party process. Physicians conducting an IME and preparing a report on behalf of a third party should ensure the individual being examined understands the nature and extent of the physician's responsibility to the third party, including that the report will be forwarded to this third party. Moreover, an IME is distinct from a regular physician-patient encounter and, as such, it does not obligate the independent examiner to treat or provide health care to the examinee. However, should the medical examiner discover an unexpected significant clinical finding which requires essential intervention, then he or she should advise the examinee of this fact to enable the examinee to obtain timely medical attention.
The treating physician should not provide information about the patient to the patient's employer without the patient's authorization. The following are best practices when obtaining patient consent:
* Consent should be specific rather than general;
* Written authorization for such disclosure is desirable and may be required in some jurisdictions;
* A separate patient consent should be obtained for each request for medical information; and
* Patient consent should be considered time-limited.
To respect the privacy of the patient, the treating physician should be careful not to provide medical information that is not needed to facilitate the patient's return to work. The patient has the right to examine and copy medical records that pertain to him or her. Patient access to records may be denied only in accordance with the exceptions specified under the relevant privacy legislation, such as reasonable risk of serious harm, solicitor-client privilege or identification of another person. The treating physician should ensure that he/she is familiar with the applicable legislation and rules with respect to a patient's right of access. If access is denied and the patient challenges the treating physician's decision, the onus is on the physician to justify denial of access.
Treating physicians should consult appropriate statements from the relevant provincial or territorial licensing body and from the Canadian Medical Protective Association for additional information and guidance. Physicians should also be aware of any relevant legislation or other legal requirements in their jurisdictions.
Billing for Return-to-Work Services
Many services related to a timely return-to-work program are not covered by public medical insurance. Although often the case, patients should not be required to cover the costs of services related to a timely return-to-work program. The CMA recommends that the requesting party bear these costs.xi Payment should be commensurate with the degree of expertise and the time expended by the physician and office staff. The physician should consult the billing policy of his/her provincial medical association for further guidance.
i Ontario Medical Association, The role of the primary care physician in timely return to work. OMA position paper. Ontario Medical Review, March 2009. https://www.oma.org/Resources/Documents/2009PCPandTimelyReturn.pdf (accessed 2013 Jan 07).
ii Canadian Medical Association, Short-Term Illness Certificate, 2010. http://policybase.cma.ca/dbtw-wpd/Policypdf/PD11-06.pdf (accessed 2013 Jan 07).
iii The College of Physicians and Surgeons of Ontario, Third Party Forms, Update 2012. https://www.cpso.on.ca/uploadedFiles/policies/policies/policyitems/ThirdParty.pdf (accessed 2013 Jan 07).
iv The College of Physicians and Surgeons of British Columbia, Medical Certificates policy, Update 2009. https://www.cpsbc.ca/files/u6/Medical-Certificates.pdf (accessed 2013 Jan 07).
v Canadian Medical Protective Association, Forms and Reports: The Case for Care, Update 2008. http://www.cmpa-acpm.ca/cmpapd04/docs/resource_files/infosheets/2002/com_is0227-e.cfm (accessed 2013 Jan 07).
vi Canadian Medical Protective Association, Reasonable Delays for Filling out Insurance Forms, 2007. http://www.cmpa-acpm.ca/cmpapd04/docs/resource_files/infoletters/2007/com_il0720_2-e.cfm (accessed 2013 Jan 07).
vii See also Presley Reed, The Medical Disability Advisor: Workplace Guidelines for Disability Duration, Reed Group, As amended. and the American College of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, Guidelines in Preventing Needless Work Disability, 2006. http://www.acoem.org/PreventingNeedlessWorkDisability.aspx. (accessed 2013 Jan 07).
viii Ontario Medical Association, The role of the primary care physician in timely return to work. OMA position paper. Ontario Medical Review, March 2009. https://www.oma.org/Resources/Documents/2009PCPandTimelyReturn.pdf (accessed 2013 Jan 07).
ix Ontario Medical Association, The role of the primary care physician in timely return to work. OMA position paper. Ontario Medical Review, March 2009. https://www.oma.org/Resources/Documents/2009PCPandTimelyReturn.pdf (accessed 2013 Jan 07).
xCanadian Medical Association, Principles for the Protection of Patients' Personal Health Information. 2004, http://policybase.cma.ca/dbtw-wpd/Policypdf/PD11-03.pdf (accessed 2013 Jan 07).
xi Canadian Medical Association, Third Party Forms: The Physician's Role (Update 2010). http://policybase.cma.ca/dbtw-wpd/Policypdf/PD11-04.pdf (accessed 2013 Jan 07).
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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