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
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.
The major diseases affecting the quality and quantity of life of Canadians, which include obesity, diabetes, coronary artery disease, depression and cancer, are all linked to physical inactivity. In Canada, 69% of women and 68% of men in Canada are considered physically inactive.(1) The cost of this inactivity and obesity was estimated at $4.3 billion in 2001.(2) A 10% increase in physical activity could potentially reduce direct health care expenditures by $150 million a year. This does not include indirect costs such as lost productivity due to illness, premature death or a range of other factors, including mental illness and poor quality of life.(3)
Thus far, efforts to increase physical activity by changing the behaviour of individuals have had limited success. One reason is that many people have difficulty sustaining behaviours that involve additional time commitments. That is one reason for the increasing emphasis being placed on active transportation, which is any human-powered form of transportation, such as walking and cycling.
Walking and cycling can be efficient alternatives to automobile travel. Cycling is usually the fastest mode of travel door to door for distances under five km, and for up to 10 km in city cores. Walking is simpler and nearly as fast for distances up to two km. When travel times are similar for active and motorized transportation, physical activity is gained with no net time lost, and at much lower cost. The cost of operating a motor vehicle is typically $10,000 per year,(4) while operating costs for a bicycle are much lower.
Communities that have sidewalks, enjoyable scenery, street lights and nearby stores have improved levels of active transportation and physical activity. However, in recent decades communities have often been designed around the automobile. Street design, parking space, sidewalks and distance to retail destinations have all been planned assuming motorized transportation, and this often makes it difficult to move around communities by walking or cycling.
Although individual decision-making remains important in any strategy for increasing active transportation, there is an essential role for communities and governments to play. Major improvements in the health of Canadians in the past 200 years have been due to improved sanitation, access to clean water and injury prevention. The role of individual decision-making in effecting these changes is dwarfed by the impact of the public health measures and infrastructure involved. Just as potable tap water is a health issue, so are decisions about land use, transportation policy and infrastructure.
Community design is a major determinant of whether people use active transportation, whether they are physically active and whether they are obese. Canadians need communities that make it easy to be physically active in their daily living.
Communities can create an environment in which the physically active choice is the easy choice. They can do this via sidewalks, trails, bicycle lanes and bicycle paths, and by providing pedestrian-friendly intersections, parks and green spaces, and safe bicycle parking spaces. They can also arrange zoning so that retail destinations are within walking or cycling distance of residential areas. This process also includes dedicating a sufficient portion of their street maintenance budget (including snow clearing) to maintaining active transportation routes as well as routes for motorized vehicles. It may include redesigning intersections, giving up vehicle lanes or parking spaces, or increasing the price of parking.
Additional benefits to designing communities for pedestrians and cyclists.
* a stronger sense of community with greater civic involvement by citizens
* increased property values and retail activity
* less noise pollution
* lower crime rates
* less smog and other air pollution
* less greenhouse gas production
* decreased risk of injury to pedestrians and cyclists
* decreased costs of roadway and parking construction.
A role for everyone
Other sectors can support communities in making active transportation choices easy choices:
* Businesses can create a work environment friendly to active transportation, including a corporate culture friendly to physical activity. They can incorporate active transportation planning into building design and create an environment friendly to physical activity. These steps could include making bicycle parking, showers and lockers available, and providing stairs that are pleasant and easier to access than elevators. They can also incorporate a culture of physical activity in decisions about where and how to hold meetings, and what people are allowed to wear to work.
* School boards can develop policies to promote active transportation to and from school. These include building and maintaining secure bicycle parking, ensuring safe walking routes within communities, and assisting parents in walking their children to school.
* Citizens can use active transportation themselves and treat with respect those who are already making active transportation choices. They can also lobby governments to make their community safer and easier places for cycling and walking.
* Physicians can encourage patients to use active transportation as a way to boost their physical activity levels and improving their health. They can also lead by example and use active transportation themselves.
The CMA recommends that all sectors (government, business and the public) work together, as a matter of priority, to create a culture in their communities that supports and encourages active transportation.
The CMA urges governments to:
* Commit to long-term plans for active transportation networks that are in keeping with these goals and that include specific benchmarks to measure progress.
* Require that active transportation be part of all infrastructure renewal projects, with investment in active transportation vs. motorized transportation in proportion to targeted active transportation use. (Some cities have achieved active transportation rates of up to 15%.)
* Develop an awareness campaign to help Canadians to recognize the value of active transportation in their communities.
* Require public health impact assessments for all land-use and transportation decisions, including the impact on the chemical environment and on physical activity.
* Assess the impact that changes in the "built" environment can have on public health, and which interventions are most safe and effective.
1 Tremblay MS, Katzmarzyk PT, Willms JD. Temporal trends in overweight and obesity in Canada, 1981-1996. Int J Obes Relat Metab Disord 2002;26(4):538-43.
2 Katzmarzyk PT, Janssen I. The economic costs associated with physical inactivity and obesity in Canada: an update. Can J App Phys 2004;29(1):104.
3 Katzmarzyk PT, Gledhill N, Shephard RJ. The economic burden of physical inactivity in Canada. CMAJ 2000;163(11): 1435-40.
4 Canadian Automobile Association. Driving Costs: 2005 Edition. Available: www.carpool.ca/pdf/CAA-driving-costs-05.pdf (accessed 2007 Feb. 2).
Flexibility in Medical Training (Update 2009)
The Canadian Medical Association (CMA) believes that the medical training system must be sufficiently flexible to enable medical students to make informed career choices, accommodate resident program changes, and allow practising physicians the opportunity to re-enter training to enhance their skills and knowledge, or to enter a new sphere of practice. The system must also be able to accommodate international medical graduates (IMGs) to provide them with a reasonable opportunity to attain their postgraduate credentials and become licensed to practise in Canada. For physicians-in-training, effective career guidance and positive influences on career options (e.g., role modelling, early clinical exposure, etc.) may foster confidence with career path selection and minimize program changes during residency. A flexible and well-designed re-entry postgraduate system would be characterized by: long-term stability, sufficient and appropriate capacity, accessibility, flexibility in the workforce and accountability.
The CMA believes that, ultimately, society benefits from a flexible medical training system. These benefits may include enhanced patient care, improved access to physician services, as well as physician retention, particularly in rural and remote communities. A flexible system may also improve morale and satisfaction among students, residents and physicians, and facilitate better career choices. This policy outlines specific recommendations to help create and maintain a well-designed system for flexibility in physician training in Canada. Commitment and action by all stakeholders, including governments, medical schools, regulatory authorities and others, is required.
The CMA believes that this policy must be considered in the context of other relevant CMA policies, including but not limited to the CMA's policies on physician resource planning, physician health and well-being, physician workforce issues and others.
- Postgraduate trainee - Also known as a "resident," an individual who has received his/her MD degree and is currently enrolled in an accredited program in a Canadian school of medicine that would lead to certification by either the College of Family Physicians of Canada or the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Canada.
- Medical student - An individual enrolled in an undergraduate program in a Canadian school of medicine that would lead to an MD degree.
- International medical graduate - An individual who received his/her MD degree from a training program other than from one of Canada's undergraduate schools of medicine.
- Designated positions - Postgraduate positions within the determined complement of residency positions that are identified to meet a need other than that of accommodating the annual number of new graduates of Canadian medical schools to complete the usual training for certification and licensure. Designated positions may be identified for a variety of purposes.
The need for informed career decision-making and positive influences
Choice of practice discipline as lifelong career can be one of the most difficult aspects of physician training. Exacerbating this challenge are the vast array of available specialties, timing of choices, as well as practice considerations in terms of lifestyle and physician resource needs. The rapidly changing face of medical practice as well as the limited amount of information and time available to consider options, are also contributing factors.
A number of other forces, both positive and negative, may affect students' choices of practice specialty. These can include financial considerations in light of student debt incurred by high tuition fees and insufficient financial support. 12 The biases of faculty, family and others may also impact decisions. In addition, limited training opportunities in general, as well as a lack of flexibility to switch training programs, may also restrict choice of practice specialty. While a myriad of personal factors are acknowledged to also play contributing roles in influencing program selection, these issues are too complex to discuss here. Ultimately, students need to have access to financial support so as to reduce stress and the influence of debt on specialty choice. They also need objective information and guidance and broad clinical experiences early in their medical training as this has been identified as a critical factor in making decisions about their future careers.3
The rotating internship, abolished in the early 1990s, used to permit residency selection at a later stage in medical training. The residency program match now takes place during the final year of undergraduate studies. As a consequence of this earlier timing, some students feel pressured to make their specialty choice too early in their medical education and often before their clerkship has even begun. This can include focusing research and program electives4 in one specific area, rather than sampling a broad range of disciplines, to demonstrate conviction of choice to residency program directors at the time of the match. Fifty-nine percent of respondents to the Canadian Resident Matching Service's (CaRMS) 2006 post-match survey indicated they completed more than half of their electives in their first-choice discipline.5 This, combined with the early timing of the residency match, can lead to an uninformed choice of residency program and the realization, at a later date, that a different training program would be more suitable. Eighty percent of medical leader respondents to the 2008 Core Competency Project survey indicated that timing of career choice was the biggest challenge for career decision-making.6
Those residents who wish to change to new training programs may not believe they have the opportunity to do so. Thirty-seven percent of resident respondents to the Core Competency Project survey considered switching disciplines during their residency training7 and 39% had spoken to a faculty member about switching programs.8 Others who do change programs are ultimately delayed entry into the workforce as a result of their prolonged training. This problem is exacerbated by an insufficient number of re-entry postgraduate training positions and large debt that confine trainees to a single career path.
Lack of student confidence and preparedness in choosing a postgraduate training program, or lack of success in achieving a first choice in the postgraduate match, may predict subsequent program changes. A broad range of strategies must be available to help medical students make informed career choices. These include a wider choice of electives at an earlier stage of training, positive and unbiased mentoring experiences, improved access to career information from residents, as well as career seminars and other resources.
In light of the above, the CMA recommends that:
1. the undergraduate medical school curriculum be re-designed to facilitate informed career choice and, in particular, to ensure that students enjoy a broad range of clinical experiences before they have to choose a specific discipline (i.e., via CaRMS match);
2. national career counselling curricula for both medical students and residents be developed and include the following components: national standardization; stakeholder input (students, residents and others); positive and fair role modelling by both residents and practising physicians/faculty, with appropriate professional respect among medical disciplines; and formal and informal mentorship programs;
3. a wide-range of elective opportunities be developed and communicated at a national level;
4. electives reflect a broad spectrum of experiences, including community-based opportunities;
5. clinical experiences be introduced at the earliest possible stage of undergraduate learning;
6. a national policy be implemented to ensure mandatory diversification of student elective experiences; and
7. medical schools be permitted and encouraged to model alternate systems of postgraduate learning.
The need for broad-based medical education
In order to provide medical students with the greatest options for flexibility in medical training, they should be actively encouraged to pursue a broad-based medical education. Previously, CMA advocated for a common postgraduate year (PGY1). In the 2008 Core Competency Project survey, 77% of physician respondents, 70% of medical student respondents and 67% of program director respondents expressed support for first year residents to do a broad-based common PGY1-like rotating internship.9 The rationale for and importance of ensuring flexibility has been outlined in the previous sections.
Capacity of the postgraduate training system
An essential component in ensuring flexibility within the medical training system is to establish and maintain sufficient capacity at the postgraduate training level. This is necessary for the following reasons:
* Sufficient capacity may prevent highly-skilled and well-trained Canadian physicians from being forced to seek postgraduate training in the U.S. and remain there to practise medicine.
* It is necessary to provide IMGs with a reasonable opportunity to attain their postgraduate credentials and become licensed to practise in Canada. This reflects the CMA's recognition of the important contribution that IMGs have made, and continue to make, in the provision of medical services, teaching and research in Canada. Opportunities for IMGs will also permit Canadians who study medicine abroad to pursue their medical careers in Canada.
* It is essential to provide students with sufficient choice to seek the training that best matches their skills and interests as well as societal demands.
* It is crucial to provide sufficient re-entry positions to allow practising physicians to seek training in other areas of medicine to meet the demands of their communities. [Please refer to the "Re-entry" section of this policy for more details.]
In light of the above, the CMA recommends that:
8. mechanisms be developed to permit reasonable movement of residents within the overall residency structure and career counselling supports be made available to residents considering such a change;
9. the capacity of the postgraduate training system be sufficiently large to accommodate the needs of the graduating cohort, the re-entry cohort, and the training needs of international medical graduates;
10. there be a clearly defined pool of re-entry postgraduate positions and positions for international medical graduates;
11. government match and maintain undergraduate medical enrolment with a target of at least 120 ministry-funded postgraduate training positions per 100 Canadian medical graduates, to accommodate the training needs of the graduating cohort, the re-entry cohort and international medical graduates; and
12. options be explored for influencing governments to support a flexible postgraduate medical education system that also meets societal needs.
Re-entry medical training system
Note: This section addresses only one kind of designated position, specifically, those for licensed physicians wishing to re-enter training after a period in practice (also known as "re-entry positions"). The re-entry positions addressed in this paper would require no return for service. Designated positions for training in return for service in a specified discipline and location is a separate entity from general re-entry.
Increased opportunity for exposure to the breadth of medical fields in undergraduate training, improved undergraduate career counselling and a postgraduate system that makes the changing of disciplines easier are some of the many aspects that should facilitate residents' satisfaction with career choice. There will, however, inevitably be individual cases where issues of societal need, personal health, lifestyle or personal choice necessitate a change in career direction after postgraduate training. This requires the availability of additional postgraduate positions allotted specifically to this sub-set.
A sufficient and stable supply of re-entry positions is needed within the postgraduate training system to enable practising physicians to enhance their skills or re-enter training in another discipline. While this may apply mostly to family physicians and general practitioners wishing to train in a specialty discipline, it can also include practising specialists wanting to sub-specialize or train in another area, which could be Family Medicine.
The additional or new training of primary care physicians, particularly in obstetrics, emergency medicine, anaesthesia, surgery, psychiatry and general internal medicine, will be of benefit to smaller communities lacking regular access to these specialty medical services. In addition, the availability of adequate re-entry positions may encourage new physicians to accept locum tenens, thus relieving overworked physicians in underserviced communities. Potentially, it could help to increase a community's long-term retention rate of established physicians.
The CMA believes that a well-designed re-entry system for Canadian postgraduate medical education would be characterized by an accessible national registry, long-term stability, sufficient and appropriate capacity, accessibility, flexibility in the workforce and accountability.
Medical students need reassurance that re-entry positions will be available if they wish to re-enter training after a period in practice. This will enable them to better plan their careers, reduce anxieties about career selection and ultimately help to meet the health care needs of society. For physicians re-entering the postgraduate training system, there must also be the guarantee that sufficient program funding will be available to ensure completion of training.
The CMA therefore recommends that:
13. a complement of clearly defined, permanent re-entry positions with stable funding be a basic component of the Canadian postgraduate training system and that the availability of these positions be effectively communicated to potential candidates; and
14. funding for re-entry positions be specifically allocated for the entire training period.
The CMA believes that the capacity of the postgraduate training system must be sufficiently large to accommodate the needs of the re-entry cohort and that postgraduate re-entry positions should be supernumerary to the numbers required for the graduating cohort. [Please refer to the "Capacity of the Postgraduate Training System" section of this policy for specific recommendations.]
The CMA believes that re-entry physicians should not be restricted to competing for particular disciplines for which there is an identified need in their jurisdiction. Re-entry physicians should also be able to compete for any available disciplines across all training programs. Not every discipline will be available for re-entry each year but all should be accessible over the course of a three-year period.
The CMA therefore recommends that:
15. there be accessibility within re-entry postgraduate training positions including:
* open and fair competition at the national level among all re-entry candidates for the clearly defined pool of re-entry positions,
* that the mix of positions available reflect the overall mix of positions in the postgraduate training system, and
* recognizing the limited size of the re-entry pool, access to all specialties be available over a three-year period rather than on an annual basis; and
16. access to entry should be possible through both national and regional pools of re-entry positions, with a process comparable to that currently used for the postgraduate training system.
Flexibility in the Workforce
As previously mentioned, the re-entry positions discussed in this paper would require no return for service. Designated positions for training in return for service in a specified discipline and location is a separate entity from general re-entry.
The CMA therefore recommends that:
17. physicians who have retrained through the re-entry system have the same practice opportunities as physicians entering the workforce for the first time.
The CMA recognizes the importance of public accountability and sound fiscal management and therefore recommends that:
18. there be on-going evaluation of the re-entry system in Canadian postgraduate medical education.
1 Kwong JC, Dhalla IA, Streiner DL, Baddour RE, Waddell AE & IL Johnson. Effects of rising tuition fees on medical school class composition and financial outlook. CMAJ 2002; 166 (8): 1023-8.
2 2007 National Physician Survey Data.
3 Directions for Residency Education, 2009 - A final report of the Core Competency Project. February 2009. Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Canada and College of Family Physicians of Canada.
4 Ibid, page 23.
6 Ibid, page 59.
7 Ibid, page 27.
8 Ibid, page 60.
TUITION FEE ESCALATION AND DEREGULATION IN UNDERGRADUATE PROGRAMS IN MEDICINE (Update 2009)
The Canadian Medical Association (CMA) is very concerned about high and rapidly escalating, undergraduate medical school tuition fees across Canada. Ontario set a precedent for the deregulation of tuition fees in May 1998 and many provinces have since followed. This policy gives universities, including medical schools, the discretion to set fees for training in those areas that lead to professional careers, such as medicine. For the 2008-2009 academic year, first-year tuition fees at most Ontario medical schools were triple the tuition fees in 1997-1998 at an average of $16,550 per year;1 this figure does not include compulsory "other fees" that can be as much as $1,700 per year.2 Irrespective of whether tuition fees have been regulated, some medical schools outside of Ontario have doubled their tuition fees within the same time period. Decreased government funding to universities is increasing the fiscal pressures on institutions and is driving these dramatic tuition fee increases. The CMA believes that high tuition fees, coupled with insufficient financial support systems, have a significant and detrimental impact on not only current and potential medical students, but also the Canadian health care system and public access to medical services.
Broad Effects of High Tuition Fees
Lack of Diversity
Medical education in Canada has traditionally been affordable and accessible to individuals from a range of socioeconomic and ethnic groups who later serve an equally diverse population. Unfortunately, the introduction of high tuition fees may close the door to individuals who either cannot afford the high costs of a medical education or wish to avoid the prospect of significant debt load upon graduation. High tuition fees may therefore create an imbalance in admissions to medical school by favouring those who represent the affluent segment of society and not the variety of groups reflected in the Canadian population. The proportion of medical students from lower income families is already extremely low and decreasing further.3 Paradoxically, funds that should be injected to making tuition fees reasonable - and therefore more accessible by a broader range of society - may soon need to be allocated to creating career promotion and special financial support programs that target those groups that have been alienated by high tuition fees.
Influence on Practice Choice and Practice Location ("Brain Drain")
It is likely that paying off debts as quickly as possible will become a key consideration when determining practice location and specialty. For instance, more students may feel compelled to maximize their earning potential by pursuing those specialties that generate high incomes; others may choose those specialties with short training periods so they can enter the workforce and start to pay off debts sooner.
Debt load may also influence where graduating physicians choose to practise medicine. The increasing willingness of American recruiters to pay off the debts of new graduates provides tremendous incentive to practise in the U.S. and explore research opportunities; unfortunately, it only aggravates the ongoing problem of the "brain drain" of Canadian physicians.4 While we have been enjoying a net gain of physicians from the U.S., we may experience net loss with physician shortages expected in the U.S. More physician retention and recruitment initiatives are needed to encourage physicians to remain in or return to Canada. This is especially true for rural and remote communities. Urban areas are often in a better financial position to offer incentives to new graduates than rural and remote communities where physician shortages are most pronounced.
Effects on Rural and Remote Areas
The CMA believes that governments must be made aware of the potentially negative impact of high tuition fees and student debt on physician workforce supply for the rural and remote areas of Canada. Research shows that medical students from rural and remote areas have a greater likelihood of returning to these communities to practise medicine.5 Research also shows that students of rural origin have higher student debts6 and are underrepresented in Canadian medical schools.7 Students from rural and remote communities face the challenge of not being able to live at home while they attend university. They must assume high relocation expenses and travel costs, as well as separation from their families while they are away at school. Of student respondents to the 2007 National Physician Survey, 53.1% of rural students compared with 67.4% of urban medical students had no debt upon entering medical school. When asked to predict their expected debt upon completion of medical school, 33.2% of rural students compared with 23% of urban students expected their debtload to exceed $100,000.8 Unfortunately, the introduction of high tuition fees might make both the personal and financial costs of pursuing a medical education too significant for students from rural and remote areas to even consider. As a result, this may generate fewer physicians willing to practise in these areas and exacerbate the problem most rural and remote communities already face in attracting and retaining physicians. High tuition fees might also further increase the reliance on international medical graduates in rural and remote communities. While the CMA values the contributions of international medical graduates in alleviating shortages in physician supply, it believes that Canadian governments must adopt the guiding principle of self-sufficiency in the production and retention of physicians to meet population needs.
Effects on New and Potential Medical Students
Medical students affected by high and escalating tuition fees will graduate with unprecedented debt loads. Enormous education costs, already a reality in some provinces, are a growing trend. In 2007, over one third (36%) of students said they expected debtloads of $80,000 or more upon completion of medical school.9
A number of factors, as highlighted below, contribute to students' financial burden and may affect their ability to pay off debts and meet financial obligations. This, in turn, may influence their choice of medical discipline and practice location. Exorbitant education costs may also result in students considering dropping out of, or taking longer to complete, their medical studies because they cannot afford the ongoing costs, or are too overwhelmed with the combined stress of their medical studies and trying to make financial ends meet. The CMA is very concerned that excessive debt loads will exacerbate the stress already experienced by medical students during their training and will have a significant and negative impact on their health and well-being.
Previous Education Debt and Accumulative Debt
Most Canadian medical schools make an undergraduate degree a prerequisite to application. As such, by the time most students are accepted into medical school, they may have already accumulated debt from a previous undergraduate degree. Many students have also completed postgraduate degrees before entering medical school.10 This debt continues to accumulate during the undergraduate years of medical school and into the postgraduate training period, which is anywhere from two years to seven years in duration. This does not include additional time spent doing fellowships. It may be very useful to establish a national clearinghouse of public and private financial assistance programs to help students in their search for financial support.
Limited or No Employment Opportunities during Undergraduate Training
Tuition fees, along with ongoing increases in living expenses, are already making it very difficult for some students to make ends meet. It makes matters worse that there are limited or no opportunities to generate income through employment during the academic year and the summer months. Given the intensity of the medical school program, some schools strongly advise against working part time. To further compound the problem, some schools have very short summer breaks. For those schools that do provide summer holidays, the holidays often start later than other university programs, by which time employment opportunities are scarce or low paying. There is also the common expectation that medical students will undertake unpaid clinical or research elective experiences during the summer to enhance their desirability for postgraduate medical programs.
Limited or No Remuneration for the Clinical Clerkship
During the clerkship years, there are no summertime breaks because students spend these years working in hospitals and other clinical settings. All Canadian medical students (outside of Québec) receive a relatively small stipend during their clerkship varying from $2,808 to $6,000;11 however, the stipend had previously been abolished in medical schools in Ontario and Québec in the early 1990s. Fortunately Ontario reinstated the stipend as the Final Year Medical Student Bursary in 2004.12
In addition to very limited or no opportunities to generate employment income, medical students must bear a number of unique and significant costs. These include very high textbook and instrument costs, as well as a variety of expenses associated with their clerkship, such as travel to and from the clinical setting and the need for professional attire. The introduction of distributed medical education including satellite campuses, co-campuses and rural learning sites has increased the amount of travel required of medical students as well as the associated costs.
Off-site electives also generate many additional expenses, including the cost for travel to the site - which may be in a different province - as well as accommodation and other living expenses. A 1999 survey of graduating medical students revealed that more than half took an off-site elective at a specific institution in order to increase their chances of being matched to that site.13 As postgraduate training becomes even more competitive, the number of students taking off-site electives may increase and so will the number of students who are adding this expense to their overall debt load.
Medical students must also assume considerable costs related to interviews for residency training, including the high costs for travel to various interview sites, accommodation expenses, application fees for the resident matching service and other miscellaneous expenses. There is also a considerable fee for the qualifying examination that is written at the end of medical school.
Insufficient Public Funding and Increasing Reliance on Bank Loans
Government financial support programs (bursaries and loans) are not increasing to meet students' needs due to rising tuition costs and living expenses. As a consequence, the number of students who must rely on interest-bearing bank loans to help support themselves while they are in school may increase. Unlike some government programs, repayment of bank loans often cannot be postponed until after graduation and interest payment is required during the course of study; this further exacerbates students' financial stress.
Upon graduation from medical school, students must pursue two to seven years of postgraduate training to obtain a licence to practise medicine. This training period is marked with fees for examinations as well as an annual tuition and/or registration fee. During 2008-2009, the tuition fee was as much as $3,900 in some provinces.14 Residents are also required to work long hours in hospitals and other clinical settings and have frequent on-call responsibilities. Although residents do receive a salary for this work, the remuneration is relatively modest when these factors and debt servicing payments are considered. In fact, mandatory debt maintenance can consume a very significant proportion of a resident's pay.15 The CMA opposes tuition fees for residents. While the CMA's opposition to residency tuition is based on a number of factors not limited to its financial impact, clearly, tuition fees exacerbate debt.
High Practice Start-up Costs and Decreased Pay Potential
Licensed physicians wanting to establish a clinical practice currently face start-up costs estimated between $30,000 and $50,000, depending on their practice specialty and type (e.g., solo versus group practice).16 Some specialties require capital investment over and above the basic start-up costs. These expenses will add to the significant debt that new physicians will bear in the next few years.
In addition to significantly higher debt load than the previous generation of new physicians, a number of factors may influence the net income of physicians and their ability to pay off debts. These include billing caps, stagnant fees for services, high malpractice insurance fees, overhead expenses and increasing non-remunerative administrative responsibilities.
In summary, the CMA believes that high tuition fees, coupled with insufficient financial support systems, have a significant impact on not only current and potential medical students, but also the Canadian health care system and public access to medical services. This impact includes:
* creating socioeconomic barriers to application to medical school and threatening the diversity of future physicians serving the public
* exacerbating the physician brain drain to the U.S. where new physicians can pay off their huge debts more quickly
* generating fewer physicians available or interested in practising in rural and remote areas of Canada
In response to its concerns regarding the deregulation of tuition fees and high tuition fee increases, the CMA recommends that:
1 governments increase funding to medical schools to alleviate the pressures driving tuition increases
2 any tuition increase should be regulated and reasonable
3 financial support systems for students be developed concomitantly or in advance of any tuition increase, be in direct proportion to the tuition fee increase and provided at levels that meet the needs of students.
Glossary of Terms
Undergraduate Program in Medicine, also known as "Medical School"
Medical school is the period of study, usually four years in duration that leads to the doctor of medicine or "MD" degree upon graduation. Most Canadian universities require applicants to the undergraduate medicine program to have at least a three-year degree (e.g., Bachelor of Science degree) before they are eligible to apply. Although the title "Doctor" is conferred upon successful completion of the undergraduate program, an additional two to seven years or more of residency training is required before these individuals can apply for a licence to practise medicine in Canada.
The clerkship is the period during the last one to two years of undergraduate studies in medicine during which medical students work in hospitals, clinics and physicians' offices.
Many students take off-site electives during their clerkship. An "elective" is a course or training that is not mandatory to the curriculum, but may be elected or chosen by the student. An "off-site" elective means that the training is being provided at a location different from the medical school where the student is enrolled; for example, the elective may be in a different city, province, or even a different country.
During the last year of undergraduate training, most graduating medical students participate in a national process that matches them with available residency training positions in Canada.
Residency/Postgraduate Training Period
After earning his/her MD degree and receiving the title "Doctor," additional training is required in a specific area before an individual may practise medicine in Canada. This period of training is referred to as "residency" or "postgraduate training;" the individuals undergoing the training are called "residents." Residents usually work in hospitals (also called "teaching hospitals") under the supervision of a licensed physician. Depending on the field of study, residency training may range from two to seven years or longer if subspecialty training is pursued (e.g., pediatric cardiology). At the end of residency training, individuals must pass a number of examinations to practise medicine in Canada.
A fellowship is training sought by individuals who wish to obtain expertise in a specific area of medicine above and beyond basic residency requirements.
1 Tuition Fees in Canadian Faculties of Medicine: Session Commencing Fall 2008. Office of Research and Information Services, Association of Faculties of Medicine of Canada, November 2008.
3 Kwong JC, Dhalla IA, Streiner DL, Baddour RE, Waddell AE & IL Johnson. Effects of rising tuition fees on medical school class composition and financial outlook. CMAJ 2002; 166 (8): 1023-8.
4 "Are We Losing Our Minds? Trends, Determinants and the Role of Taxation in Brain Drain to the United States," The Conference Board of Canada, July 1999.
5 Advisory Panel Report on the Provision of Medical Services in Underserviced Regions. Canadian Medical Association, 1992.
6 2007 National Physician Survey.
7 Dhalla IA, Kwong JC, Streiner DL, Baddour RE, Waddell AE, Johnson IL, et al. Characteristics of first-year students in Canadian medical schools. CMAJ 2002;166(8):1029-35. 
8 2007 National Physician Survey.
9 2007 National Physician Survey.
10 "Educational Attainment at Time of Application of Registered and Not Registered Applicants to Canadian Faculties of Medicine - 2006-2007 (Table 105)." 2008 Canadian Medical Education Statistics. Association of Faculties of Medicine of Canada, Volume 30, p154.
11 "Duration of Clinical Clerkship and Amount of Stipend in Canadian Faculties of Medicine 2008-2009 (Table 7)." 2008 Canadian Medical Education Statistics. Association of Faculties of Medicine of Canada, Volume 30, p9.
12 Clinical Clerkship Stipends by Faculty of Medicine, 1995-1996 to 1999-2000, Canadian Medical Association Research Directorate, January 2000.
13 Results of the Post-Match Survey of Students Graduating 1999, Canadian Resident Matching Service.
14 "Post-MD Clinical Trainee Fees in Canadian Faculties of Medicine - 2008-2009 (Table 6)." 2008 Canadian Medical Education Statistics. Association of Faculties of Medicine of Canada, Volume 30, p8.
15 2007 National Physician Survey.
16 Practice Management, MD Management Ltd.
Health equity is created when individuals have the opportunity to achieve their full health potential; equity is undermined when preventable and avoidable systematic conditions constrain life choices.1 These conditions are known as the social determinants of health. The World Health Organization (WHO) defines the social determinants of health as the circumstances in which people are born, develop, live and age.2 In 2002, researchers and policy experts at a York University conference identified the following list: income and income distribution; early life; education; housing; food security; employment and working conditions; unemployment and job security; social safety net; social inclusion/exclusion; and health services. 3
Research suggests that 15% of population health is determined by biology and genetics, 10% by physical environments, 25% by the actions of the health care system, with 50% being determined by our social and economic environment.4 Any actions to improve health and tackle health inequity must address the social determinants and their impact on daily life.5
THE SOCIAL DETERMINANTS OF HEALTH AND HEALTH STATUS
Social status is one of the strongest predictors of health at the population level. There is a social gradient of health such that those with higher social status experience greater health than those with lower social status. The social gradient is evident not only when comparing the most disadvantaged to the most advantaged; within each strata, even among those holding stable middle-class jobs, those at the lowest end fare less well than those at the higher end. The Whitehall study of civil servants in the United Kingdom found that lower ranking staff have a greater disease burden and shorter life expectancy than higher-ranking staff.6 Differences in medical care did not account for the differences in mortality.7 This gradient has been demonstrated for just about any health condition.8
Hundreds of research papers have confirmed that people in the lowest socio-economic groups carry the greatest burden of illness.9 In 2001, people in the neighbourhoods with the highest 20% income lived about three years longer than those in the poorest 20% neighbourhoods (four years for men; two years for women).10 Dietary deficiencies, common in food insecure households, can lead to an increased chance of chronic disease and greater difficulty in disease management. It is estimated that about 1.1 million households in Canada experience food insecurity, with the risk increasing in single-parent households and in families on social assistance.11
Studies suggest that adverse socio-economic conditions in childhood can be a greater predictor of cardiovascular disease and diabetes in adults than later life circumstances and behavioural choices.12 Effective early childhood development offers the best opportunity to reduce the social gradient and improve the social determinants of health,13 and offers the greatest return on investment.14
Low income contributes not only to material deprivation but social isolation as well. Without financial resources, it is more difficult for individuals to participate in cultural, educational and recreational activities or to benefit from tax incentives. Suicide rates in the lowest income neighbourhoods are almost twice as high as in the wealthiest neighbourhoods.15 This social isolation and its effects are most striking in Canada's homeless population. Being homeless is correlated with higher rates of physical and mental illness. In Canada, premature death is eight to 10 times higher among the homeless.16
The gradient in other social determinants can have an adverse impact as well. A study conducted in the Netherlands estimated that average morbidity and mortality in the overall population could be reduced 25-50% if men with lower levels of education had the same mortality and morbidity levels as those men with a university education.17 Employment status also follows this gradient, such that having a job is better than being unemployed. 18 Unemployment is correlated with increased blood pressure, self-reported ill health, drug abuse, and reductions in normal activity due to illness or injury.19 Unemployment is associated with increases in domestic violence, family breakups and crime. Finally, job security is relevant.20 Mortality rates are higher among temporary rather than permanent workers.21
Canada's Aboriginal people face the greatest health consequences as a result of the social determinants of health. Poverty, inadequate or substandard housing, unemployment, lack of access to health services, and low levels of education characterize a disproportionately large number of Aboriginal peoples.22 The crude mortality rate for First Nations is higher and life expectancy lower than the Canadian average.23 Aboriginal peoples experience higher rates of chronic disease, addictions, mental illness and childhood abuse.24 Aboriginal peoples have higher rates of suicide, with suicide being the leading cause of potential years of life lost in both the First Nations and Inuit populations.25
THE SOCIAL DETERMINANTS OF HEALTH AND CANADA'S HEALTH SYSTEM
These differences in health outcomes have an impact on the health care system. Most major diseases including heart disease and mental illness follow a social gradient with those in lowest socio-economic groups having the greatest burden of illness.26 Those within the lowest socio-economic status are 1.4 times more likely to have a chronic disease, and 1.9 times more likely to be hospitalized for care of that disease.27 Chronic diseases such as diabetes account for 67% of direct health care costs and 60% indirect costs.28
Research has shown that Canadians with low incomes are higher users of general practitioner, mental health, and hospital services.29 People in the lowest income group were almost twice as likely as those in the highest income group to visit the emergency department for treatment. 30 Part of this may be caused by differences in access to care. Low-income Canadians are more likely to report that they have not received needed health care in the past 12 months.31 Those in the lowest income groups are 50% less likely than those in the highest income group to see a specialist or get care in the evenings or on weekends, and 40% more likely to wait more than five days for a doctor's appointment.32
Barriers to health care access are not the only issue. Research in the U.K.33 and U.S.34 has found that compliance with medical treatment tends to be lower in disadvantaged groups, leading to pain, missed appointments, increased use of family practice services and increased emergency department visits, and corresponding increases in cost. In the U.S., non-adherence has been attributed to 100,000 deaths annually.35 Researchers have reported that those in the lowest income groups are three times less likely to fill prescriptions, and 60% less able to get needed tests because of cost.36
These differences have financial costs. In Manitoba for example, research conducted in 1994 showed that those in the lowest income decile used services totaling $216 million (12.2%). In the same year, those in the highest income decile consumed $97 million (5.5%) of expenditures. If expenditures for the bottom half of the population by income had been the same as the median, Manitoba would have saved $319 million or 23.1% of their health care budget. 37 According to a 2011 report, low-income residents in Saskatoon consume an additional $179 million in health care costs than middle income earners.38
To reduce the burden of illness and therefore system costs, Canada needs to improve the underlying social and economic determinants of health of Canadians. However, until these changes have time to improve the health status of the population, there will still be a large burden of illness correlated to these underlying deficiencies. As a result, the health system will need to be adequately resourced to address the consequences of the social determinants of health.
AREAS FOR ACTION
The WHO Commission on the Social Determinants of Health identified four categories through which actions on social determinants can be taken. These include:
* reducing social stratification by reducing inequalities in power, prestige, and income linked to socio-economic position;
* decreasing the exposure of individuals and populations to the health-damaging factors they may face;
* reducing the vulnerability of people to the health damaging conditions they face; and
* intervening through health care to reduce the consequences of ill health caused by the underlying determinants.39
All of these areas offer possibilities for action by the physician community. The following section provides suggestions for action by the medical profession through: CMA and national level initiatives; medical education; leadership and research; and clinical practice.
CMA and national level initiatives
Despite the strong relationship between the social determinants of health and health, little in the way of effective action has resulted. CMA and its partners can and should, advocate for research and push for informed healthy public policy, including health impact assessments for government policies. Additionally, targeted population health programs aimed at addressing the underlying determinants should be supported.
All Canadians need a better understanding of the health trends and the impacts of various social and economic indicators. Information about the differences in specific health indicators, collected over time,40 is essential to the task of describing underlying health trends and the impacts of social and economic interventions. Data within primary care practices could be assembled into (anonymous) community-wide health information databases, to address this need.
CMA recommends that:
1. The federal government recognize the relationship of the social determinants of health on the demands of the health care system and that it implement a requirement for all cabinet decision-making to include a Health Impact Assessment.
2. Options be examined for minimizing financial barriers to necessary medical care including pharmaceuticals and medical devices necessary for health.
3. Federal and provincial/territorial governments examine ways to improve the social and economic circumstances of all Canadians.
4. Efforts be made to educate the public about the effect of social determinants on individual and population health.
5. Appropriate data be collected and reported on annually. This data should be locally usable, nationally comparable and based on milestones across the life course.
Medical education is an effective means to provide physicians with the information and tools they require to understand the impact of social determinants on the health of their patients and deal with them accordingly.41 In 2001, Health Canada published a report in which they stated that the primary goal of medical education should be the preparation of graduates who know how to reduce the burden of illness and improve the health of the communities in which they practice.42 Among the report's recommendations was a call for greater integration of the social determinants in medical curricula.43 Although the CanMEDS framework has been a part of the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Canada's accreditation process since 2005, challenges to the integration of these competencies remain.44
The report called for a greater emphasis on providing medical students with firsthand experiences in the community and with distinct populations (service learning),45 which addresses the difficulties in teaching the social aspects of medicine within a traditional classroom or hospital setting.46 Many such programs exist across the country.47 However, these programs are still limited and there is a need to increase the availability of longitudinal programs which allow students to build on the skills they develop throughout medical school.
Increasingly residency programs which focus on the social determinants of health are being offered.48 These programs are a means of providing physicians with the proper tools to communicate with patients from diverse backgrounds49 and reduce behaviours that marginalized patients have identified as barriers to health services.50 It also provides residents with physician role models who are active in the community. However, medical residents note a lack of opportunities to participate in advocacy during residency.51 Further, while experiential programs are effective in helping to reduce barriers between physicians and patients from disadvantaged backgrounds, greater recruitment of medical students from these marginalized populations should also be explored and encouraged.
Finally, physicians in practice need to be kept up to date on new literature and interventions regarding the social determinants. Innovations which help address health equity in practice should be shared with interested physicians. In particular, there is a need for accredited continuing medical education (CME) and a means to encourage uptake.52
CMA recommends that:
6. Greater integration of information on the social determinants and health inequity be provided in medical school to support the CanMEDS health advocate role
7. All medical schools and residency programs offer service learning programs, to provide students with an opportunity to work with diverse populations in inner city, rural and remote settings, and to improve their skills in managing the impact of the social determinants on their patients.
8. CME on the social determinants of health and the physician role in health equity be offered and incentivized for practising physicians.
Leadership and research
Within many communities in Canada, there are physicians who are working to address social determinants and health equity within the patient populations they serve. This is done in many cases through collaboration with partners within and outside of the health care system. Providing these local physician leaders with the tools they need to build these partnerships, and influence the policies and programs that affect their communities is a strategy that needs to be explored.
Evidence-based research about health equity, the clinical setting and the role of physicians is underdeveloped. Interested physicians may wish to participate in research about practice level innovations, as a means of contributing to the evidence base for 'health equity' interventions or simply to share best practices with interested colleagues. Further, physicians can provide the medical support to encourage the adoption of early childhood development practices for example, which support later adult health. In time, research will contribute to training, continuing medical education and potentially to clinical practice guidelines.
Physicians can provide leadership in health impact assessments and equity audits within the health care system as well. Data is essential to identify health equity challenges within a program, to propose and test measures that address the issues underlying the disparities. Formal audits and good measurement are essential to develop evidence-based policy improvements.53 Innovative programs such as those within the Saskatoon Health Region and the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health in Toronto are examples of using these tools to improve access and reduce inequities.
CMA recommends that:
9. Physicians who undertake leadership and advocacy roles should be protected from repercussions in the workplace, e.g., the loss of hospital privileges.
10. Physician leaders explore opportunities to strengthen the primary care public health interface within their communities by working with existing agencies and community resources.
11. Physician leaders work with their local health organizations and systems to conduct health equity impact assessments in order to identify challenges and find solutions to improve access and quality of care.
12. Physicians be encouraged to participate in or support research on best practices for the social determinants of health and health equity. Once identified, information sharing should be established in Canada and internationally.
In consultation with identified health equity physician champions, a number of clinical interventions have been identified which are being undertaken by physicians across the country. These interventions could be undertaken in many practice settings given the right supports, and could be carried out by various members of the collaborative care team.1
First, a comprehensive social history is essential to understand how to provide care for each patient in the context of their life.54 There are a number of tools that can be used for such a consultation and more are in development.55 However, consolidation of the best ideas into a tool that is suitable for the majority of health care settings is needed. There is some concern that asking these questions is outside of the physician role. The CanMEDS health advocate role clearly sees these types of activities as part of the physician role.56 The 'Four Principles of Family Medicine' defined by the College of Family Physicians of Canada, affirms this role for physicians as well.57
Community knowledge was identified as a strategy for helping patients. Physicians who were aware of community programs and services were able to refer patients if/when social issues arose.58 Many communities and some health providers have developed community resource guides.59 For some physicians, developing a network of community resources was the best way to understand the supports available.
As a corollary, physicians noted their work in helping their patients become aware of and apply for the various social programs to which they are entitled. The programs vary by community and province/territory, and include disability, nutritional supports and many others. Most if not all of these programs require physicians to complete a form in order for the individual to qualify. Resources are available for some of these programs,60 but more centralized supports for physicians regardless of practice location or province/territory are needed.
Physicians advocate on behalf of their patients by writing letters confirming the medical limitations of various health conditions or the medical harm of certain exposures.61 For example, a letter confirming the role of mold in triggering asthma may lead to improvements in the community housing of an asthmatic. Additionally, letters might help patients get the health care services and referrals that they require. As identified leaders within the community, support from a physician may be a 'game-changer' for patients.
Finally, the design of the clinic, such as hours of operation or location, will influence the ability of people to reach care.62
CMA recommends that:
13. Tools be provided for physicians to assess their patients for social and economic causes of ill health and to determine the impact of these factors on treatment design.
14. Local databases of community services and programs (health and social) be developed and provided to physicians. Where possible, targeted guides should be developed for the health sector.
15. Collaborative team-based practice be supported and encouraged.
16. Resources or services be made available to physicians so that they can help their patients identify the provincial/territorial and federal programs for which they may qualify.
17. Physicians be cognizant of equity considerations when considering their practice design and patient resources.
18. All patients be treated equitably and have reasonable access to appropriate care, regardless of the funding model of their physician.
Socio-economic factors play a larger role in creating (or damaging) health than either biological factors or the health care system. Health equity is increasingly recognized as a necessary means by which we will make gains in the health status of all Canadians and retain a sustainable publicly funded health care system. Addressing inequalities in health is a pillar of CMA's Health Care Transformation initiative. Physicians as clinicians, learners, teachers, leaders and as a profession can take steps to address the problems on behalf of their patients.
1 A full review of the consultations is provided in the companion paper The Physician and Health Equity: Opportunities in Practice.
1 Khalema, N. Ernest (2005) Who's Healthy? Who's Not? A Social Justice Perspective on Health Inequities. Available at: http://www.uofaweb.ualberta.ca/chps/crosslinks_march05.cfm
2 World Health Organization (2008) Closing the gap in a generation: Health equity through action on the social determinants of health: Executive Summary. Available at: http://whqlibdoc.who.int/hq/2008/WHO_IER_CSDH_08.1_eng.pdf
3 Public Health Agency of Canada (N.D.) The Social Determinants of Health: An Overview of the Implications for Policy and the Role of the Health Sector. Available at: http://www.phac-aspc.gc.ca/ph-sp/oi-ar/pdf/01_overview_e.pdf
4 Keon, Wilbert J. & Lucie Pépin (2008) Population Health Policy: Issues and Options. Available at: http://www.parl.gc.ca/Content/SEN/Committee/392/soci/rep/rep10apr08-e.pdf
5 Friel, Sharon (2009) Health equity in Australia: A policy framework based on action on the social determinants of obesity, alcohol and tobacco. The National Preventative Health Taskforce. Available at: http://www.health.gov.au/internet/preventativehealth/publishing.nsf/Content/0FBE203C1C547A82CA257529000231BF/$File/commpaper-hlth-equity-friel.pdf
6 Wilkinson, Richard & Michael Marmot eds. (2003) Social Determinants of Health: The Solid Facts: Second Edition. World Health Organization. Available at: http://www.euro.who.int/__data/assets/pdf_file/0005/98438/e81384.pdf
7 Khalema, N. Ernest (2005) Who's Healthy?...
8 Dunn, James R. (2002) The Health Determinants Partnership Making Connections Project: Are Widening Income Inequalities Making Canada Less Healthy? Available at: http://www.opha.on.ca/our_voice/collaborations/makeconnxn/HDP-proj-full.pdf
10 Wilkins, Russ; Berthelot, Jean-Marie; and Ng E. . Trends in Mortality by Neighbourhood Income in Urban Canada from 1971 to 1996. Health Reports 13 [Supplement]: pp. 45-71
11 Mikkonen, Juha & Dennis Raphael (2010) Social Determinants of Health: The Canadian Facts. Available at: http://www.thecanadianfacts.org/The_Canadian_Facts.pdf
12 Raphael, Dennis (2003) "Addressing The Social Determinants of Health In Canada: Bridging The Gap Between Research Findings and Public Policy." Policy Options. March 2003 pp.35-40.
13 World Health Organization (2008) Closing the gap in a generation...
14 Hay, David I. (2006) Economic Arguments for Action on the Social Determinants of Health. Canadian Policy Research Networks. Available at: http://www.cprn.org/documents/46128_en.pdf
15 Mikkonen, Juha & Dennis Raphael (2010) Social Determinants of Health...
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18 Wilkinson, Richard & Michael Marmot eds. (2003) "Social Determinants of Health...
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20 Marmot, Michael (2010) Fair Society Healthy Lives: The Marmot Review: Executive Summary. Available at: http://www.marmotreview.org/AssetLibrary/pdfs/Reports/FairSocietyHealthyLivesExecSummary.pdf
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22 Aboriginal Healing Foundation, Frequently Asked Questions (Ottawa: Canadian Government Publishing Directorate, 2009) Available at: http://www.ahf.ca/faq
23Health Council of Canada, "The Health Status Of Canada's First Nations, Métis And Inuit Peoples", 2005, Available at:http://healthcouncilcanada.ca.c9.previewyoursite.com/docs/papers/2005/BkgrdHealthyCdnsENG.pdf
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28 Munro, Daniel (2008) "Healthy People, Healthy Performance, Healthy Profits: The Case for Business Action on the Socio-Economic Determinants of Health." The Conference Board of Canada. Available at: http://www.conferenceboard.ca/Libraries/NETWORK_PUBLIC/dec2008_report_healthypeople.sflb
29 Williamson, Deanna L. et.al. (2006) "Low-income Canadians' experiences with health-related services: Implications for health care reform." Health Policy. 76(2006) pp. 106-121.
30 CIHI/CPHI (2012) Disparities in Primary Health Care Experiences Among Canadians...
31 Williamson, Deanna L. et.al. (2006) "Low-income Canadians'...
32 Mikkonen, Juha & Dennis Raphael (2010) Social Determinants of Health...
33 Neal, Richard D. et.al. (2001) "Missed appointments in general practice: retrospective data analysis from four practices." British Journal of General Practice. 51 pp.830-832.
34 Kennedy, Jae & Christopher Erb (2002) "Prescription Noncompliance due to Cost Among Adults with Disabilities in the United States." American Journal of Public Health. Vol.92 No.7 pp. 1120-1124.
35 Bibbins-Domingo, Kirsten & M. Robin DiMatteo. Chapter 8: Assessing and Promoting Medication Adherence. pp. 81-90 in King, Talmadge E, Jr. & Margaret B. Wheeler ed. (2007) Medical Management of Vulnerable and Underserved Patients...
36 Mikkonen, Juha & Dennis Raphael (2010) Social Determinants of Health...
37 Dunn, James R. (2002) The Health Determinants Partnership...
38 Saskatoon Poverty Reduction Partnership (2011) from poverty to possibility...and prosperity: A Preview to the Saskatoon Community Action Plan to Reduce Poverty. Available at: http://www.saskatoonpoverty2possibility.ca/pdf/SPRP%20Possibilities%20Doc_Nov%202011.pdf
39 World Health Organization (2005) Action On The Social Determinants Of Health: Learning From Previous Experiences. Available at: http://www.who.int/social_determinants/resources/action_sd.pdf
40 Braveman, Paula (2003) "Monitoring Equity in Health and Healthcare: A Conceptual Framework."Journal of Health, Population and Nutrition. Sep;21(3):181-192.
41 Royal College of Physicians (2010) How doctors can close the gap: Tackling the social determinants of health through culture change, advocacy and education. Available at: http://www.marmotreview.org/AssetLibrary/resources/new%20external%20reports/RCP-report-how-doctors-can-close-the-gap.pdf
42 Health Canada (2001) Social Accountability: A Vision for Canadian Medical Schools. Available at: http://www.medicine.usask.ca/leadership/social-accountability/pdfs%20and%20powerpoint/SA%20-%20A%20vision%20for%20Canadian%20Medical%20Schools%20-%20Health%20Canada.pdf
44 Dharamsi, Shafik; Ho, Anita; Spadafora, Salvatore; and Robert Woollard (2011) "The Physician as Health Advocate: Translating the Quest for Social Responsibility into Medical Education and Practice." Academic Medicine. Vol.86 No.9 pp.1108-1113.
45 Health Canada (2001) Social Accountability: A Vision for Canadian Medical Schools...
46 Meili, Ryan; Fuller, Daniel; & Jessica Lydiate. (2011) "Teaching social accountability by making the links: Qualitative evaluation of student experiences in a service-learning project." Medical Teacher. 33; 659-666.
47 Ford-Jones, Lee; Levin, Leo; Schneider, Rayfel; & Denis Daneman (2012) "A New Social Pediatrics Elective-A Tool for Moving to Life Course Developmental Health." The Journal of Pediatrics. V.160 Iss. 3 pp.357-358; Meili, Ryan; Ganem-Cuenca, Alejandra; Wing-sea Leung, Jannie; & Donna Zaleschuk (2011) "The CARE Model of Social Accountability: Promoting Cultural Change." Academic Medicine. Vol.86 No.9 pp.1114-1119.
48 Cuthbertson, Lana "U of A helps doctors understand way of life in the inner city." Edmonton Journal Dec 22, 2010. Available at: http://www2.canada.com/edmontonjournal/news/cityplus/story.html?id=943d7dc3-927b-4429-878b-09b6e00595e1
49 Willems, S.; Maesschalck De, S.; Deveugele, M.; Derese, A. & J. De Maeseneer (2005) "Socio-economic status of the patient and doctor-patient communication: does it make a difference?" Patient Education and Counseling. 56 pp. 139-146.
50 Bloch, Gary; Rozmovits, Linda & Broden Giambone (2011) "Barriers to primary care responsiveness to poverty as a risk factor for health." BioMed Central Family Practice. Available at: http://www.biomedcentral.com/content/pdf/1471-2296-12-62.pdf; Schillinger, Dean; Villela, Theresa J. & George William Saba. Chapter 6: Creating a Context for Effective Intervention in the Clinical Care of Vulnerable Patients. pp.59-67. In King, Talmadge E, Jr. & Margaret B. Wheeler ed. (2007) Medical Management of Vulnerable and Underserved Patients.
51 Dharamsi, Shafik; Ho, Anita; Spadafora, Salvatore; and Robert Woollard (2011) "The Physician as Health Advocate...
52 UCL Institute of Health Equity (2012) The Role of the Health Workforce in Tackling Health Inequalities...
53 Meili, Ryan (2012) A Healthy Society: How A Focus On Health Can Revive Canadian Democracy. Saskatoon: Canada. Purich Publishing Limited. pp.36
54 UCL Institute of Health Equity (2012) The Role of the Health Workforce in Tackling Health Inequalities...
55 Bloch, Gary (2011) "Poverty: A clinical tool for primary care "Family & Community Medicine, University of Toronto. Available at: http://www.healthprovidersagainstpoverty.ca/system/files/Poverty%20A%20Clinical%20Tool%20for%20Primary%20Care%20%28version%20with%20References%29_0.pdf ; Bricic, Vanessa; Eberdt, Caroline & Janusz Kaczorowski (2011) "Development of a Tool to Identify Poverty in a Family Practice Setting: A Pilot Study." International Journal of Family Medicine. Available at: http://www.hindawi.com/journals/ijfm/2011/812182/ ; Based on form developed by: Drs. V. Dubey, R.Mathew & K. Iglar; Revised by Health Providers Against Poverty (2008) " Preventative Care Checklist Form: For average-risk, routine, female health assessments." Available at: http://www.healthprovidersagainstpoverty.ca/Resourcesforhealthcareproviders ; Based on form developed by: Drs. V. Dubey, R.Mathew & K. Iglar; Revised by Health Providers Against Poverty (2008) " Preventative Care Checklist Form: For average-risk, routine, male health assessments." Available at: http://www.healthprovidersagainstpoverty.ca/Resourcesforhealthcareproviders
56 Frank, Dr. Jason R. ed. (2005) "The CanMEDS 2005 Physician Competency Framework: Better standards. Better physicians. Better Care." Office of Education: The Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Canada. Available at: http://rcpsc.medical.org/canmeds/CanMEDS2005/CanMEDS2005_e.pdf
57 Tannenbaum, David et.al. (2011) "Triple C Competency-based Curriculum: Report of the Working Group on Postgraduate Curriculum Review-Part 1
58 UCL Institute of Health Equity (2012) The Role of the Health Workforce in Tackling Health Inequalities...
59 Doyle-Trace L, Labuda S. Community Resources in Cote-des-Neiges. Montreal: St Mary's Hospital Family Medicine Centre, 2011. (This guide was developed by medical residents Lara Doyle-Trace and Suzan Labuda at McGill University.); Mobile Outreach Street Health (N.D.) Pocket MOSH: a little MOSH for your pocket: A Practitioners Guide to MOSH and the Community We Serve. Available at: http://www.cdha.nshealth.ca/mobile-outreach-street-health
60 Health Providers Against Poverty (N.D.) Tools and Resources. Available at: http://www.healthprovidersagainstpoverty.ca/Resourcesforhealthcareproviders
61 Meili, Ryan (2012) A Healthy Society: How A Focus...pp.61; UCL Institute of Health Equity (2012) The Role of the Health Workforce in Tackling Health Inequalities...
62 Rachlis, Michael (2008) Operationalizing Health Equity: How Ontario's Health Services Can Contribute to Reducing Health Disparities. Wellesley Institute. Available at: http://wellesleyinstitute.com/files/OperationalizingHealthEquity.pdf
Restricting Marketing of Unhealthy Foods and Beverages to Children and Youth in Canada: A Canadian Health Care and Scientific Organization Policy Consensus Statement
Federal government to immediately
begin a legislative process to restrict all
marketing targeted to children under the
age of 13 of foods and beverages high in
saturated fats, trans-fatty acids, free
sugars or sodium and that in the interim
the food industry immediately ceases
marketing of such food to children.
PURPOSE OF STATEMENT
This policy consensus statement was developed to
reflect the growing body of evidence linking the
promotion and consumption of diets high in
saturated fats, trans-fatty acids, free sugars or
sodium1 to cardiovascular and chronic disease
(hypertension, dyslipidemia, diabetes mellitus,
obesity, cancer, and heart disease and stroke)—
leading preventable risk factors and causes of death
and disability within Canada and worldwide. (1-3)
(1) For the remainder of the document, reference to foods
high in saturated fats, trans-fatty acids, free sugars or
sodium will be framed as foods high in fats, sugars or
The current generation of Canadian children is
expected to live shorter, less healthy lives as a
result of unhealthy eating. (4) Canadians’
overconsumption of fat, sodium and sugar, rising
rates of childhood obesity, growing numbers of
people with cancer, heart disease and stroke, and
the combined strain they exert on the health care
system and quality of life for Canadians necessitates
immediate action for Canadian governments and
policy-makers. Restricting the marketing of
unhealthy foods and beverages directed at children
is gaining increasing international attention as a
cost-effective, population-based intervention to
reduce the prevalence and the burden of chronic
and cardiovascular diseases through reducing
children’s exposure to, and consumption of,
disease-causing foods. (2,5,6)
In May 2010, the World Health Organization (WHO
released a set of recommendations on the
marketing of foods and non-alcoholic beverages to
children (5) and called on governments worldwide
to reduce the exposure of children to advertising
messages that promote foods high in saturated fats,
trans-fatty acids, free sugars or sodium and to
reduce the use of powerful marketing techniques. In
June 2012, the follow-up document, A Framework
for Implementing the Set of Recommendations on
the Marketing of Foods and Non-Alcoholic
Beverages to Children, (7) was released.
The policy aim should be to reduce the impact
on children of marketing of foods high in
saturated fats, trans-fatty acids, free sugars,
WHO (2010): Recommendation 1
What this policy consensus statement offers is the
perspective of many major national health care
professional and scientific organizations to guide
Canadian governments and non-government
organizations on actions that need to be taken to
protect the health of our future generations, in part
by restricting the adverse influence of marketing of
foods high in fat, sugar or sodium to Canadian
children and youth.
SUMMARY OF EVIDENCE AND RATIONALE
-Young children lack the cognitive ability to
understand the persuasive intent of marketing
or assess commercial claims critically. (8) in
1989 the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that
“advertisers should not be able to capitalize
upon children’s credulity” and “advertising
directed at young children is per se
-The marketing and advertising of information or
products known to be injurious to children’s
health and wellbeing is unethical and infringes
on the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child
which stipulates that, “In all actions concerning
children … the best interests of the child shall
be a primary consideration.” (9)
- Unhealthy food advertising during children’s
television programs in Canada is higher than in
many countries, with children being exposed to
advertisements for unhealthy foods and
beverages up to 6 times per hour. (10)
- Unhealthy food and beverage advertising
influences children’s food preferences,
purchase requests and consumption patterns
and has been shown to be a probable cause of
childhood overweight and obesity by the WHO.
- The vast majority of Canadians (82%) want
government intervention to place limits on
advertising unhealthy foods and beverages to
- The regulation of food marketing to children is
an effective and cost-saving population-based
intervention to improve health and prevent
- Several bills have been introduced into the
House of Commons to amend the Competition
Act and the Food and Drug Act to restrict
commercial advertising, including food, to
children under 13 years of age. None have yet
been passed. (15)
- Canada’s current approach to restricting
advertising to children is not effective and is not
in line with the 2010 WHO recommendations on
the marketing of foods and beverages to
children, nor is it keeping pace with the direction
of policies being adopted internationally, which
ban or restrict unhealthy food and beverage
marketing targeted to children. (16,17)
The Supreme Court of Canada concluded
that “advertising directed at young
children is per se manipulative”
Irwin Toy Ltd. v. Québec (AG), 1989
FOOD MARKETING TO CHILDREN: A TIMELY
OPPORTUNITY FOR CANADA
Childhood obesity and chronic disease prevention
are collective priorities for action of federal,
provincial and territorial (F/P/T) governments.
Strategy 2.3b of the 2011 Federal, Provincial and
Territorial Framework for Action to Promote Healthy
Weights stipulates “looking at ways to decrease the
marketing of foods and beverages high in fat, sugar
and/or sodium to children. “(5, p. 31)
The 2010 Sodium Reduction Strategy for Canada
has also identified the need to “continue to explore
options to reduce the exposure of children to
marketing for foods that are high in sodium" as a
key activity for F/P/T governments to consider. (19,
In their 2010 set of recommendations, the WHO
stipulated that governments are best positioned to
lead and ensure effective policy development,
implementation and evaluation. (6)
To date, there has been no substantive movement
by the federal government to develop coordinated
national-level policies that change the way
unhealthy foods and beverages are produced,
marketed and sold. Current federal, provincial and
industry-led self-regulatory codes are inconsistent
in their scope and remain ineffective in their ability
to sufficiently reduce children’s exposure to
unhealthy food marketing, nor have they been
adequately updated to address the influx of new
marketing mediums to which children and youth in
Canada are increasingly subjected.
Quebec implemented regulations in 1980 restricting
all commercial advertising. (20) Although the ban
has received international recognition and is viewed
as world leading, several limitations remain, in part
due exposure of Quebec children to marketing from
outside Quebec, weak enforcement of the
regulations and narrow application of its provisions.
Accordingly, the undersigned are calling on the
federal government to provide strong leadership
and establish a legislative process for the
development of regulations that restrict all
commercial marketing of foods and beverages high
in saturated fats, trans-fatty acids, free sugars or
sodium to children.
Strong federal government action and commitment
are required to change the trajectory of chronic
diseases in Canada and institute lasting changes in
public health. Specifically:
Efforts must be made to ensure that
children…are protected against the impact
of marketing [of foods with a high content
of fat, sugar and sodium] and given the
opportunity to grow and develop in an
enabling food environment — one that
fosters and encourages healthy dietary
choices and promotes the maintenance of
healthy weight. (7, p. 6)
Such efforts to protect the health of children must
go beyond the realm of federal responsibility and
involve engagement, dialogue, leadership and
advocacy by all relevant stakeholders, including all
elected officials, the food and marketing sector,
public health, health care professional and scientific
organizations, and most importantly civil society.
The undersigned support the development of
policies that are regulatory in nature to create
national and/or regional uniformity in
implementation and compliance by industry.
“Realizing the responsibility of governments
both to protect the health of children and to
set definitions in policy according to public
health goals and challenges — as well as to
ensure policy is legally enforced — statutory
regulation has the greatest potential to achieve
the intended or desired policy impact.”
WHO (2012), p. 33
The following outline key definitions and
components of an effective and comprehensive
policy on unhealthy food and beverage marketing
to children and should be used to guide national
policy scope and impact.
- Age of Child: In the context of broadcast
regulations, the definition of “age of child”
typically ranges from under 13 years to under
16 years. In Canada, Quebec’s Consumer
Protection Act (20) applies to children under
13 years of age. Consistent with existing
legislation, this report recommends that policies
restricting marketing of unhealthy foods and
beverages be directed to children less than
13 years of age at a minimum.
While the science on the impact of marketing on
children over 13 is less extensive, emerging
research reveals that older children still require
protection and may be more vulnerable to newer
forms of marketing (i.e., digital media ), in which
food and beverage companies are playing an
increasingly prominent role. (21-23) Strong
consideration should be given to extending the
age of restricting the marketing of unhealthy
food and beverage to age 16.
- Unhealthy Food and Beverages: In the absence
of a national standardized definition for “healthy”
or “unhealthy” foods, this document defines
unhealthy foods broadly as foods with a high
content of saturated fats, trans-fatty acids, free
sugars or sodium, as per the WHO
recommendations. (5) It is recommended that a
robust and comprehensive definition be
developed by an interdisciplinary stakeholder
- Focus on Marketing: Marketing is more than
advertising and involves:
…any form of commercial communication or
message that is designed to, or has the
effect of, increasing the recognition, appeal
and/ or consumption of particular products
and services. It comprises anything that acts
to advertise or otherwise promote a product
or service. (6, p. 9)
This definition goes beyond the current legal
definition of advertisement outlined in the Food
and Drug Act as “any representation by any
means whatever for the purpose of promoting
directly or indirectly the sale or disposal of any
food, drug, cosmetic or device.” (24)
- Marketing Techniques, Communication Channels
and Locations: Legislation restricting unhealthy
food marketing needs to be sufficiently
comprehensive to address the broad scope of
marketing and advertising techniques that have a
particularly powerful effect on children and
youth. This includes, but is not limited to, the
. Direct electronic marketing (email, SMS)
. Mobile phones
. Video and adver-games
. Characters, brand mascots and/or celebrities,
including those that are advertiser-generated
. Product placement
. Point-of-purchase displays
. Cinemas and theatres
. Competitions and premiums (free toys)
. Children’s institutions, services, events and
activities (schools, event sponsorship)
. “Viral and buzz marketing” (25,26)
. Directed to Children: The criteria used by the
Quebec Consumer Protection Act (20) to
determine whether an advertisement is “directed
at children” offers a starting point in developing
national legislation regarding child-directed
media. The loopholes in the Quebec Consumer
Protection Act criteria, namely allowing
advertising of unhealthy foods and beverages
directed at adults during children’s programming,
will necessitate the development of an
alternative approach or set of criteria that
reflects the range of media to which children are
exposed and when they are exposed, in addition
to the proportion of the audience that is made up
Quebec Consumer Protection Act
To determine whether or not an
advertisement is directed at persons under
thirteen years of age, account must be taken
of the context of its presentation, and in
a)the nature and intended purpose of the
b)the manner of presenting such
c)the time and place it is shown.
1. Federal Government Leadership
1.1 Immediately and publicly operationalize the
WHO set of recommendations on the marketing
of foods and non-alcoholic beverages to
In working toward the implementation of the
WHO recommendations, the federal
government is strongly urged to accelerate
implementation of the WHO Framework for
Implementing the Set of Recommendations on
the Marketing of Foods and Beverages to
Children. To this end, the Government of
Canada is urged to:
1.2 Convene a Federal, Provincial and Territorial
Working Group on Food Marketing to Children
to develop, implement and monitor policies to
restrict unhealthy food and beverage marketing
to children. As stipulated within the WHO
The government-led working group should
ultimately reach consensus on the priorities
for intervention, identify the available policy
measures and decide how they best can be
implemented. (7, p.13)
1.3 In developing policies, it is recommended that
the working group:
- Develop standardized criteria and an
operational definition to distinguish and
classify “unhealthy” foods. Definitions
should be developed using objective,
evidence-based methods and should be
developed and approved independent of
- Develop a set of definitions/specifications
that will guide policy scope and
implementation. Consistent with the WHO
recommendations, the working group is
encouraged to apply the policy
specifications identified above.
- Set measurable outcomes, targets and
timelines for achievement of targets for
industry and broadcasters to restrict
unhealthy food marketing to children in all
forms and settings. It is recommended that
policies be implemented as soon as possible
and within a 3-year time frame.
- Establish mechanisms for close monitoring
and enforcement through defined rewards
and/or penalties by an independent
regulatory agency that has the power and
infrastructure to evaluate questionable
advertisements and enforce penalties for
(2) Such an infrastructure could be supported
though the Canadian Radio-television and
Telecommunications Commission (CRTC), similar
to the authority of the US Federal Trade
Commission (FTC), the Canadian Food
Inspection Agency or the Food and Drug Act via
the development of an advertising investigation
The nature and extent of penalties imposed should be sufficiently
stringent to deter violations. Enforcement
mechanisms should be explicit, and infringing
companies should be exposed publicly.
- Develop evaluation mechanisms to assess
process, impact and outcomes of food
marketing restriction policies. Components
should include scheduled reviews (5 years or
as agreed upon) to update policies and/or
strategies. To showcase accountability,
evaluation findings should be publicly
1.4 Provide adequate funding to support the
successful implementation and monitoring of
the food marketing restriction policies.
1.5 Collaborate with the Canadian Institutes of
Health Research and other granting councils to
fund research to generate baseline data and
address gaps related to the impact of marketing
in all media on children and how to most
effectively restrict advertising unhealthy foods
to children. (27)
1.6 Fund and commission a Canadian economic
modeling study to assess the cost-effectiveness
and the relative strength of the effect of
marketing in comparison to other influences on
children’s diets and diet-related health
outcomes. Similar studies have been
undertaken elsewhere and highlight cost–
benefit savings from restricting unhealthy food
1.7 Call on industry to immediately stop marketing
foods to children that are high in fats, sugar or
2. Provincial, Territorial and Municipal
2.1 Wherever possible, incorporate strategies to
reduce the impact of unhealthy food and
beverage marketing to children into provincial
and local (public) health or related strategic
action plans, and consider all settings that are
frequented by children.
2.2 Pass and/or amend policies and legislation
restricting unhealthy food and beverage
marketing to children that go beyond
limitations stipulated in federal legislation and
regulations and industry voluntary codes.
2.3 Until federal legislation is in place, strike a P/T
Steering Committee on Unhealthy Food
Marketing to Children to establish
interprovincial consistency related to key
definitions and criteria and mechanisms for
enforcement, as proposed above.
2.4 Collaborate with local health authorities, non-
governmental organizations and other
stakeholders to develop and implement
education and awareness programs on the
harmful impacts of marketing, including but not
limited to unhealthy food and beverage
2.5 Call on industry to immediately stop marketing
foods to children that are high in fats, sugar or
3. Non-governmental Organizations
(NGOs), Health Care Organizations,
Health Care Professionals
3.1 Publicly endorse this position statement and
advocate to all Canadian governments to
restrict marketing of unhealthy foods to
children and youth in Canada.
3.2 Collaborate with governments at all levels to
facilitate implementation and enforcement of
federal/provincial/municipal regulations or
3.3 Wherever possible, incorporate and address
the need for restrictions on unhealthy food
and beverage marketing to children into
position papers, strategic plans, conferences,
programs and other communication mediums.
3.4 Support, fund and/or commission research to
address identified research gaps, including the
changing contexts and modes of marketing
and their implications on the nutritional status,
health and well-being of children and youth
3.5 Call on industry to immediately stop the
marketing of foods high in fat, sugar or
4. Marketing and Commercial Industry
4.1 Immediately cease marketing foods high in fats,
sugar or sodium.
4.2 Amend the Canadian Children’s Food and
Beverage Advertising Initiative (CAI) nutrition
criteria used to re-define “better-for-you
products” to be consistent with currently
available international standards that are
healthier and with Canadian nutrient profiling
standards, once developed.
BACKGROUND AND EVIDENCE BASE
Non-communicable diseases (diabetes, stroke,
heart attack, cancer, chronic respiratory disease)
are a leading cause of death worldwide and are
linked by several common risk factors including high
blood pressure, high blood cholesterol, obesity,
unhealthy diets and physical inactivity. (1,2,3 28)
The WHO has predicted that premature death from
chronic disease will increase by 17% over the next
decade if the roots of the problem are not
Diet-related chronic disease risk stems from long-
term dietary patterns which start in childhood
(8,28). Canadian statistics reveal children, consume
too much fat, sodium and sugars (foods that cause
chronic disease) and eat too little fiber, fruits and
vegetables (foods that prevent chronic disease). (3)
There is evidence that (television) advertising of
foods high in fat, sugar or sodium is associated with
childhood overweight and obesity. (6,11) Children
and youth in Canada are exposed to a barrage of
marketing and promotion of unhealthy foods and
beverages through a variety of channels and
techniques – tactics which undermine and
contradict government, health care professional
and scientific recommendations for healthy eating.
Available research indicates that food marketing to
children influences their food preferences, beliefs,
purchase requests and food consumption patterns.
(8,29) A US study showed that children who were
exposed to food and beverage advertisements
consumed 45% more snacks than their unexposed
counterparts. (30) Similarly, preschoolers who were
exposed to commercials for vegetables (broccoli
and carrots) had a significantly higher preference
for these vegetables after multiple exposures (n=4)
compared to the control group. (31)
Economic modeling studies have shown that
restricting children’s exposure to food and beverage
advertising is a cost effective population based
approach to childhood obesity prevention, with the
largest overall gain in disability adjusted life years.
(13,14). Canada has yet to conduct a comparable
Marketing and Ethics
Foods and beverages high in fats, sugars or sodium
is one of many health compromising products
marketed to children. It has been argued that policy
approaches ought to extend beyond marketing of
unhealthy foods and beverages to one that restricts
marketing of all products to children, as practiced in
Quebec (7,26,32). Article 36 of the Convention on
the Rights of the Child, to which Canada is a
signatory, states that, “children should be protected
from any activity that takes advantage of them or
could harm their welfare and development.” (9)
Restricting marketing of all products has been
argued to be the most comprehensive policy option
in that it aims to protect children from any
commercial interest and is grounded in the
argument that children have the right to a
commercial-free childhood (7, 25,26,32). The focus
on restricting unhealthy food and beverage
marketing was based in consultations with national
health organizations whose mandates, at the time
of writing, were more aligned with a focus on
unhealthy foods and beverages.
This policy statement is not opposed to, and does
not preclude further policy enhancements to
protect children from all commercial marketing, and
therefore encourages further advocacy in this area.
In order to inform the debate and help underpin
future policy direction, further research is needed.
Canada’s Food and Beverage Marketing
Television remains a primary medium for children’s
exposure to advertising, with Canadian children
aged 2–11 watching an average of 18 hours of
television per week. (26) In the past two decades,
the food marketing and promotion environment has
expanded to include Internet marketing, product
placement in television programs, films and DVDs,
computer and video games, peer-to-peer or viral
marketing, supermarket sales promotions, cross-
promotions between films and television programs,
use of licensed characters and spokes-characters,
celebrity endorsements, advertising in children’s
magazines, outdoor advertising, print marketing,
sponsorship of school and sporting activities,
advertising on mobile phones, and branding on toys
and clothing. (25,26)
A systematic review of 41 international studies
looking at the content analysis of children’s food
commercials found that the majority advertised
unhealthy foods, namely pre-sugared cereals, soft
drinks, confectionary and savoury snacks and fast
food restaurants. (33) In an analysis of food
advertising on children’s television channels across
11 countries, Canada (Alberta sample) had the
second-highest rate of food and beverage
advertising (7 advertisements per hour), 80% of
which were for unhealthy foods and beverages
defined as “high in undesirable nutrients and/or
Illustrating the influence of food packaging in
supermarkets, two Canadian studies found that for
six food product categories 75% of the products
were directed solely at children through use of
colour, cartoon mascots, pointed appeals to parents
and/or cross-merchandising claims, games or
activities. Of the 63% of products with nutrition
claims, 89% were classified as being “of poor
nutritional quality” due to high levels of sugar, fat,
or sodium when judged against US-based nutrition
criteria. Less than 1% of food messages specifically
targeted to children were for fruits and vegetables.
Food is also unhealthily marketed in schools. A
recent study of 4,936 Canadian students from
grades 7 to 10 found that 62% reported the
presence of snack-vending machines in their
schools, and that this presence was associated with
students’ frequency of consuming vended goods.
(36) In another Canadian analysis, 28% of
elementary schools reported the presence of some
form of advertising in the school and 19% had an
exclusive marketing arrangement with Coke or
Pepsi. (37) Given children’s vulnerability, a key
tenant of the WHO recommendations on marketing
to children is that “settings where children gather
should be free from all forms of marketing of foods
high in saturated fats, trans-fatty acids, and free
sugars or sodium.” (6, p.9) and need to be included
in development of food marketing policies directed
The Canadian public wants government oversight in
restricting unhealthy food marketing to children. A
nation-wide survey of over 1200 Canadian adults
found 82% want limits placed on unhealthy food
and beverage advertising to children; 53% support
restricting all marketing of high-fat, high-sugar or
high-sodium foods aimed directly at children and
Canada’s Commercial Advertising Environment
Internationally, 26 countries have made explicit
statements on food marketing to children and 20
have, or are in the process of, developing policies in
the form of statutory measures, official guidelines
or approved forms of self-regulation. (38) The
differences in the nature and degree of these
restrictions is considerable, with significant
variation regarding definition of child, products
covered, communication and marketing strategies
permitted and expectations regarding
implementation, monitoring and evaluation. (38,39)
With the exception of Quebec, Canada’s advertising
policy environment is restricted to self-regulated
rather than legislative measures with little
monitoring and oversight in terms of measuring the
impact of regulations on the intensity and
frequency of advertising unhealthy foods and
beverages to children. (39)
Nationally, the Food and Drug Act and the
Competition Act provide overarching rules on
commercial advertising and (loosely) prohibit selling
or advertising in a manner that is considered false,
misleading or deceptive to consumers. These laws,
however, contain no provisions dealing specifically
with unhealthy food advertising or marketing to
children and youth. (26) The Consumer Package
and Labeling Act outlines federal requirements
concerning the packaging, labeling, sale,
importation and advertising of prepackaged non-
food consumer products. Packaging and labels,
however, are not included under the scope of
advertising and therefore not subject to the
administration and enforcement of the Act and
Such loopholes have prompted the introduction of
three private member's bills into the House of
Commons to amend both the Competition Act and
the Food and Drugs Act. Tabled in 2007, 2009 and
2012, respectively, none of the bills have, to date,
advanced past the First Reading. (15)
The Canadian Code of Advertising Standards (Code)
and the Broadcast Code for Advertising to Children
(BCAC) together cover Canadian broadcast and non-
broadcast advertising. (23) While both have explicit
provisions/clauses to cover advertising directed to
children (12 years and younger), neither address or
explicitly cover unhealthy food and beverage
advertising. Further excluded are other heavily
used and persuasive forms of marketing directed to
children, including in-store promotions, packaging,
logos, and advertising in schools or at events, as
well as foreign media. (40)
Formed in 2008, the Canadian Children’s Food and
Beverage Advertising Initiative (CAI) defines
marketing standards and criteria to identify the
products that are appropriate or not to advertise to
children under 12 years old. Under this initiative,
participating food companies (N=19) are
encouraged to direct 100% of their advertising to
children under 12 to “better-for-you” products. (41)
In 2010, the scope of CAI was expanded to include
other media forms, namely video games, child-
directed DVDs and mobile media.
Despite reportedly high compliance by CAI
participants, (41) several fundamental loopholes
undermine its level of protection and effectiveness,
- Participation is voluntary, exempting non-
participators such as President’s Choice,
Wendy’s and A&W, from committing to CAI core
- Companies are allowed to create their own
nutrient criteria for defining “better-for-you” or
“healthier dietary choice” products. (32) A 2010
analysis revealed that up to 62% of these
products would not be acceptable to promote to
children by other countries’ advertising nutrition
- Companies are able to adopt their own
definition of what constitutes “directed at
children” under 12 years. (32) Participants'
definitions of child audience composition
percentage range from 25% to 50%, significantly
more lenient than current Quebec legislation
and other international regulatory systems.
- The initiative excludes a number of marketing
and advertising techniques primarily directed at
children, namely advertiser-generated
characters (e.g., Tony the Tiger), product
packaging, displays of food and beverage
products, fundraising, public service messaging
and educational programs. (26,27)
The Quebec Consumer Protection Act states that
“no person may make use of commercial
advertising directed at persons under thirteen years
of age.” (26) Despite its merits, the effectiveness of
the Quebec ban has been compromised. In its
current form, the ban does not protect children
from cross-border leakage of child-directed
advertisements from other provinces. (40) One
study found that while the ban reduced fast food
consumption by US$88 million per year and
decreased purchase propensity by 13% per week,
the outcomes primarily affected French-speaking
households with children, not their English-speaking
counterparts. (44) A more recent study looking at
the ban’s impact on television advertising arrived at
similar conclusions and found that Quebec French
subjects were exposed to significantly fewer candy
and snack promotions (25.4%, p<0.001) compared
to the Ontario English (33.7%) and Quebec English
(39.8%) groups. (40)
The ban has further been criticized for having a
weak definition of “advertisement”, which allows
adult-targeted advertisements for unhealthy foods
during children’s programming (37) and having
weak regulatory and monitoring structures. (37,40)
In assessing the effectiveness of Quebec’s
legislation in reducing children’s exposure to
unhealthy food advertising, it is important to note
that the ban was not developed to target or reduce
the marketing of foods and beverages specifically,
but rather to reduce the commercialization of
Public Policy: The Way Forward
Several legislative approaches have been
undertaken internationally to restrict unhealthy
food and beverage marketing. (7,43,45) While
more research is needed with regards to the impact
of restricting unhealthy food and beverage
marketing on child health outcomes (i.e., obesity), a
US study estimated that between 14-33% of
instances of childhood obesity could be prevented
by eliminating television advertising for unhealthy
food. (46) An Australian study found that a
restriction on non-core-food advertisement
between 7am and 8:30pm could reduce children’s
exposure to unhealthy food advertising by almost
80%. (47) An evaluation of the UK regulations
which restricts television advertising of all foods
high in fat, sugar and sodium found that since its
introduction there has been a 37% reduction in
unhealthy food advertisement seen by children.
Restrictions on food marketing are being
increasingly advocated internationally. A 2011
International Policy Consensus Conference
identified regulating marketing to children as a key
policy strategy to prevent childhood obesity. (48) A
similar recommendation was made at the
September 2011 United Nations high-level meeting
on the prevention and control of non-
communicable diseases. Restrictions on television
advertising for less healthful foods has also been
identified as an effective (Class I; Grade B)
population-based strategy to improve dietary
behaviors in children by the American Heart
Within Canada, non-governmental and other health
organizations are assuming an equally active role.
Among others, the Chronic Disease Prevention
Alliance of Canada, the Dietitians of Canada, the
Alberta Policy Coalition for Chronic Disease
Prevention, the Simcoe Board of Health, the
Thunder Bay and District Board of Health and the
Kingston, Frontenac, Lennox and Addington Board
of Health have issued position papers or statements
urging the federal government to implement more
stringent regulations on food and beverage
marketing to children. (26,42,48)
The current voluntary, industry self-regulated and
ineffective system of restricting the marketing and
advertising of foods and beverages fails to protect
Canadian Children and thereby contributes to the
rising rates of childhood obesity and the likelihood
of premature death and disability in our children’s
and future generations. Strong federal government
leadership and nationwide action from other levels
of government and other key stakeholders are
needed. Regulation restricting unhealthy food
advertising is internationally supported, with a
growing evidence base for expanding such
regulation to all forms of food marketing.
This policy statement offer an integrated, pragmatic
and timely response to the national stated priorities
of childhood obesity and chronic disease prevention
in Canada and supports the F/P/T vision of making
Canada, “…a country that creates and maintains the
conditions for healthy weights so that children can
have the healthiest possible lives.” (4)
This policy statement was funded by The Heart and Stroke
Foundation of Canada (HSFC) and the Institute of
Circulatory and Respiratory Health (CIHR) Chair in
Hypertension Prevention and Control, prepared with the
assistance of an ad hoc Expert Scientific Working Group,
reviewed and approved by the Hypertension Advisory
Committee and endorsed by the undersigned national
HYPERTENSION ADVISORY COMMITTEE
Manuel Arango, Heart and Stroke Foundation of Canada
Norm Campbell, Canadian Society of Internal Medicine
Judi Farrell, Hypertension Canada
Mark Gelfer, College of Family Physicians of Canada
Dorothy Morris, Canadian Council of Cardiovascular Nurses
Rosana Pellizzari, Public Health Physicians of Canada
Andrew Pipe, Canadian Cardiovascular Society
Maura Rickets, Canadian Medical Association
Ross Tsuyuki, Canadian Pharmacists Association
Kevin Willis, Canadian Stroke Network
Norm Campbell, HSFC/CIHR Chair in Hypertension
Prevention and Control, Chair
Tara Duhaney, Policy Director, Hypertension Advisory
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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).
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.