CMA Policy : Rural and Remote Practice Issues
The Canadian Medical Association (CMA) believes that all Canadians should have reasonable access to uniform, high quality medical care. The CMA is concerned, however, that the health care infrastructure and level of professional support in rural and remote areas are insufficient to provide quality care and retain and recruit physicians relative to community needs. The CMA has developed this policy to outline specific issues and recommendations that may help retain and recruit physicians to rural and remote areas of Canada and thereby improve the health status of rural and remote populations. The following 3 key issue areas are addressed in this policy: training, compensation and work/lifestyle support. Commitment and action by all stakeholders, including governments, medical schools, professional associations and others, are urgently required.
Canadian physicians and other health care professionals are greatly frustrated by the impact that health care budget cuts and reorganization have had, and continue to have, on the timely provision of quality care to patients and general working conditions. For many physicians who practise in rural and remote communities, the impact is exacerbated by the breadth of their practice, as well as long working hours, geographic isolation, and lack of professional backup and access to specialist services.
This policy has been prepared to help governments, policy-makers, communities and others involved in the retention and recruitment of physicians understand the various professional and personal factors that must be addressed to retain and recruit physicians to rural and remote areas of Canada. This policy applies to both general practitioners/family physicians as well as specialists. The CMA believes that this policy must be considered in the context of other relevant CMA policies, including but not limited to Physician Health and Wellbeing, Physician Compensation, Physician Resource Planning, Principles for a Re-entry System in Canadian Postgraduate Medical Education and Charter for Physicians. In addition, any strategies that are developed should not be coercive and must include community and physician input; they must also be comprehensive, flexible and varied to meet and respond to local needs and interests.
Rural and remote
There are no standard, broadly accepted terms or definitions for "rural" and "remote" since they cannot be sufficiently defined to reflect the unique and dynamic nature of the various regions and communities that could presumably be labelled as such.
The terms "rural" or "remote" medicine may be applied to many things: the physicians themselves, the population they serve, the geography of the community or access to medical services. For each of these factors, there are a number of ways to define and measure rurality. For example, a 1999 CMA survey of rural physicians showed that the most frequently mentioned characteristics of a rural community were (1) high level of on-call responsibilities, (2) long distance to a secondary referral centre, (3) lack of specialist services and (4) insufficient family physicians. As another example, Statistics Canada defines rural and small town residents for some analyses as those living in communities outside Census Metropolitan Areas (population of at least 100 000) or Census Agglomerations (population between 10 000 and 99 999), and where less than 50% of the workforce commute to a larger urban centre.
For the purposes of this policy, a medical school is understood to encompass the entire continuum of
medical education, i.e., undergraduate, postgraduate, continuing medical education and maintenance of
Some Canadian studies have shown that medical trainees who were raised in rural communities have a greater tendency to return to these or similar communities to practise medicine. Some studies also show that individuals who do clerkships in rural or remote communities, or have some exposure to the rural practice environment during residency training, have a greater tendency to consider practising in rural or remote communities upon graduation. The CMA applauds those medical schools that promote careers in medicine to individuals from rural and remote areas and provide medical students and residents with exposure to rural practice during their training. Regular collaboration and communication among training directors for rural and remote programs, as well as rural medical educators and leaders from other health disciplines, are strongly encouraged so that rural training issues and possible linkages may be discussed. The benefits of rural training extend not only to those physicians who ultimately end up in rural practice; those who remain in urban areas also benefit by having an enhanced understanding of the challenges of rural and remote practice.
As outlined in the CMA’s 1992 Report of the Advisory Panel on the Provision of Medical Services in Underserviced Regions, the CMA believes that partnerships among medical schools, the practising profession and communities need to be formalized, particularly since medical schools have a crucial role in helping to recruit and retain physicians for rural and remote communities. The medical school’s role in such a partnership takes the form of a social contract. This contract begins with the admission of students who demonstrate a prior interest in working in rural or remote communities and may come from these communities. It also includes the exposure of students to rural practice during their undergraduate and postgraduate training. It is followed by the provision of specialized training for the conditions in which they will work and ongoing educational support during their rural and remote practice. For these reasons, the CMA strongly encourages academic health science centres (AHSCs), provincial governments, professional associations and rural communities to work together to formally define the geographic regions for which each AHSC is responsible. The AHSCs are also encouraged to include within their mission a social contract to contribute to meeting the health needs of their rural or remote populations.
Practising physicians are committed to lifelong learning. In order to preserve a high standard of quality care to their patients, they must be knowledgeable about new clinical and technological advances in medicine; they must also continually develop advanced or additional clinical skills in, for example, obstetrics, general surgery and anaesthesia, to better serve the patients in their communities, especially when specialist services are not readily available. There are many practical and financial barriers that physicians in rural and remote communities face in obtaining and maintaining additional skills training, including housing, practice and other costs (e.g., locum tenens replacement expenses) while they are away from work. The CMA strongly encourages governments to develop and maintain mechanisms, such as compensation or additional tax relief, to reduce the barriers associated with obtaining advanced or additional skills training.
In light of these issues, the CMA recommends that
1. Universities, governments and others encourage and fund research into criteria that predispose students to select and succeed in rural practice.
2. All medical students, as early as possible at the undergraduate level, be exposed to appropriately funded and accredited rural practice environments.
3. Medical schools develop training programs that encourage and promote the selection of rural practice as a career.
4. Universities work with professional associations, governments and rural communities to determine the barriers that prevent rural students from entering the profession, and take appropriate action to eliminate or reduce these barriers.
5. A Web site based compendium of rural experiences and electives for medical students be developed, maintained and adequately funded.
6. Advanced skills acquisition and maintenance opportunities be provided to physicians practising in or going to rural and remote areas.
7. CMA divisions and provincial/territorial governments ensure that physicians who work in rural and remote areas receive full remuneration while obtaining advanced skills, including support for the locum tenens who will replace them.
8. Any individual formally enrolled in a Royal College of Physicians of Surgeons of Canada or College of Family Physicians of Canada program be covered by the collective agreement of their housestaff organization.
9. Providers, funders and accreditors of continuing medical education for rural physicians ensure that the continuing medical education is developed in close collaboration with rural physicians and is accessible, needs-based and reflective of rural physicians’ scope of practice.
10. Physicians who practise in rural or remote areas be given reasonable opportunities to
re-enter training in a postgraduate program without any return-in-service obligations.
11. In order to promote mutual understanding, universities encourage teaching faculty to work in rural practices and that rural physicians be invited to teach in academic health science centres.
12. Medical schools develop training programs for both students and residents that encourage and promote the provision of skills appropriate to rural practice needs.
13. Medical schools support rural faculty development and provide full faculty status to these
The CMA believes that compensation for physicians who practise in rural and remote areas must be flexible and reflect the full spectrum of professional and personal factors that are often inherent to practising and living in such a setting. These professional factors may include long working hours and the need for additional competencies to meet community needs, such as advanced obstetrics, anaesthesia and general surgery, as well as psychotherapy and chemotherapy. They may also include a high level of on-call responsibilities as well as a lack or total absence of backup from specialists, nurses and other complementary services that are usually available in an urban environment. Other challenges are professional isolation, limited opportunities for education or training, and high practice start-up costs. Also, if for a number of reasons a physician wishes to relocate to an urban setting, he or she may face billing restrictions as well as challenges in finding a replacement physician. Compensation for these factors is necessary to help retain physicians and recruit new ones. In addition, compensation should guarantee protected time off, paid continuing medical education or additional skills training, and locum tenens coverage. Any pool of locum tenens for rural and remote practice should be adequately funded and cross-jurisdictional licensure issues should be minimized.
Living in a rural or remote community can be very satisfying for many physicians and their families; however, they must usually forgo — often for an extended period of time— a number of urban advantages and amenities. These include educational, cultural, recreational and social opportunities for their spouse or partner, their children and themselves. They may also face altered family dynamics due to a decrease or significant loss of family income if there are limited or no suitable employment opportunities for their spouse or partner.
The CMA believes that all physicians should have a choice of payment options and service delivery models to reflect their needs as well as those of their patients. Physicians must receive fair and equitable remuneration and have a practice environment that allows for a reasonable quality of life. Although the CMA does not advocate one payment system for urban physicians and another for rural physicians, it believes that enhanced total compensation should be provided to physicians who work and live in rural and remote communities.
In recognition of these issues, the CMA recommends that
14. Additional compensation to physicians working in rural and remote areas reflect the following areas: degree of isolation, level of responsibility, frequency of on-call, breadth of practice and additional skills.
15. In recognition of the differences among communities, payment modalities retain flexibility and reflect community needs and physician choice.
16. Financial incentives focus on retaining physicians currently practising in rural or remote areas and include a retention bonus based on duration of service.
17. Factors affecting the social and professional isolation of physicians and their families be considered in the development of compensation packages and working conditions.
18. Eligibility criteria for including physicians in a pool of locum tenens for rural or remote practice be developed in consultation with rural physicians.
19. Provincial/territorial licensing bodies establish portability of licensure for locum tenens and ensure that any fees or processes associated with licensure do not serve as barriers to interprovincial mobility.
20. Rural locum tenens programs be funded by provincial/territorial governments and include adequate compensation for accommodation, transportation and remuneration.
As previously noted, some studies show that exposure to rural and remote areas during training influences students’ decision to practise in those communities upon graduation. The CMA is concerned, however, that travel and accommodation costs relating to these experiences place an undue financial burden on students. In addition, most physicians in rural and remote areas are already burdened with significant patient loads and find that they have limited time and resources to act as preceptors. The CMA believes that, to ensure the ongoing viability of student rural experiences, physician preceptors should be compensated for their participation and should not incur any additional expenses, such as student or resident accommodation costs.
The CMA recommends that
21. Costs for accommodation and travel for student and resident rural training experiences in Canada not be borne by the trainees or the preceptors.
22. Training programs assume responsibility for adequately remunerating preceptors in rural or remote areas.
Work and lifestyle support issues
To retain and recruit physicians in rural and remote communities, there are issues beyond fair and adequate compensation that must be considered. It is crucial that the aforementioned working conditions, professional issues and array of personal and family-related issues be addressed. The ultimate goal should be to promote physician retention and implement measures that reduce the possibility of physician burnout.
Like most people, physicians want to balance their professional and personal responsibilities to allow for a reasonable quality of life. Physicians in rural and remote areas practise in high stress environments that can negatively affect their health and well-being; as a consequence, the standard of care to their patients can suffer. The stress is intensified by excessive work hours, limited professional backup or support (including locum tenens), limited access to specialists, inadequate diagnostic and treatment resources, and limited or no opportunity for vacation or personal leave. At particular risk for burnout is the physician who practises in isolation. For these reasons many physicians, when considering practice opportunities, tend to seek working conditions that will not generate an excessive toll on their non-working lives. This reinforces the need for rural and remote practice environments that facilitate a balance between physicians’ professional and personal lives.
In light of these issues, the CMA recommends that
23. Regardless of community size, there should always be at least 2 physicians available to serve the
needs of the community.
24. Ideally, the on-call requirement for weekends never exceed 1 in 5 in any Canadian practice.
(This is consistent with current CMA policy.)
25. Provincial/territorial governments have professional support and other mechanisms readily
available to physicians who practise in rural and remote areas, such as sabbaticals and locum
26. Governments recognize the service of rural and remote physicians by ensuring that
mechanisms exist to allow future access to practise in an urban area of their choice.
The CMA believes that rural and remote physician retention and recruitment initiatives must address matters relating to professional isolation as well as social isolation for physicians and their families. This sense of isolation can increase when there are cultural, religious or other differences. For unattached physicians, zero tolerance and unreasonable restrictions with regard to relationships with potential patients can be disincentives to practise in rural or remote communities. Although the CMA believes that such policies and restrictions should be reviewed, the CMA encourages physicians to refer to the CMA policy on The Patient-Physician Relationship and the Sexual Abuse of Patients and the Code of Ethics of the Canadian Medical Association. Also, the CMA recommends that physicians abide by any provincial/territorial policies or legislation that may currently be in place.
The medical services infrastructure in rural and remote areas is usually very different from that in urban settings. In addition to a lack of specialist services, physicians in these areas may often have to cope with a number of other factors such as limited or no appropriate diagnostic equipment or limited hospital beds. Physicians and their patients expect and deserve quality care. The diversity and needs of the populations, as well as the needs of the physicians who practise in rural and remote areas, must also be recognized and reflected in the infrastructure (e.g., demographic and geographical considerations).
The CMA recommends that
27. A basic medical services infrastructure for rural and remote areas be defined, such as hospital beds, paramedical staff, diagnostic equipment, transportation, ready access to secondary and tertiary services, as well as information technology tools and support.
28. Provincial/territorial governments recognize that physicians who work in rural and remote areas need an environment that appropriately supports them in providing service to the local population.
A physician's assessment and signature on a third-party form have a value that reflects the physician's formal education and training as well as his/her professional experience. Similar to the signatures of other professionals, a physician's signature carries certain responsibilities and a commitment that the information provided is accurate and based on objective data and the patient's medical history. This value needs to be formally recognized and appropriately used. Most third parties have historically relied on the goodwill of physicians to complete their forms free of charge. However, the steady rise of third-party form requests (see Appendix A) and the cumulative time that form completion takes away from direct patient care necessitates a more reasonable approach to form requests and fair remuneration for the physicians' time and expertise.
SCOPE OF POLICY
This document provides guidance for physicians, patients and organizations that request third-party forms1 subject to federal/provincial/territorial legislation and regulations. Several strategies aimed at reducing the administrative burden of third-party forms are recommended to allow more time for direct patient care.2
The physician's role
* The physician has a well-defined and limited role in form completion - to only provide objective information on physical and/or psychological impairments and abilities, limitations and restrictions, time frames and prognosis from the medical record directly required by the third party for the purpose of administering particular programs or benefits. Questions on forms directed to physicians should be restricted to seeking such information.
* A physician has a duty to ensure that he/she has properly completed the form (i.e., he/she has filled out the form completely, accurately and objectively in accordance with the requirements of the physician's provincial or territorial regulatory college).
* When asked to provide an opinion on functional abilities to employers or insurers, the focus should be on abilities; information on restrictions should be objective and specific, and restrictions should be listed only when absolutely medically indicated.3
* A physician must not state that a patient has been under his/her care unless that is the case. The duration of the care should be indicated. If a physician does not have sufficient knowledge of an illness to provide information or an opinion upon it, the physician should state this on the certificate. The certification of absence should be based only on patient history if the patient was seen after the illness and should be clearly documented as "patient reports." In instances where a physician is being requested to complete a form by a transient patient (i.e., not the physician's patient), the physician should only comment on observations based on their own medical assessment.
* A physician must have a patient's consent to disclose information to any third party, such as the patient's employer or insurer. Unless prevented by law, the physician should ensure the patient is aware that the report he/she provides to the third party is outside the physician-patient relationship and that in completing the form, the physician has a professional obligation to accurately and objectively report upon the patient's condition. A physician must not disclose more information than is covered by the patient's consent - this includes only providing information relevant to the nature of the request and that is reasonably necessary. If a patient limits his/her consent, the physician must consider whether such limitation is relevant to his/her report and if it is, report the limitation to the third party.
* An accurate and relevant narrative summary of a patient's clinical files by the physician should be sufficient information for third parties. The requesting of complete copies of clinical files is unwarranted in the significant majority of cases unless mandated by legislation.
* Physicians should consult with the Canadian Medical Protective Association and their provincial regulatory college for guidance and clarification on third-party form requests (see Appendix B).
The patient's role
* To the greatest extent possible, patients should review the third-party form and be aware of the information being requested.
* Most forms request information on patients' subjective complaints and self-reported function. In such instances, it would be more appropriate to have this information reported directly by the patient to the requesting party.
* Patients must be aware of the following:
o Receipt of their consent authorizes the attending physician to accurately, completely and objectively explain the patient's medical condition as part of the physician's professional responsibility.
o Physicians have a professional and ethical obligation to only document that which is true and medically defensible. The physician does not act as the decision-maker for absences or claims adjudication.
o In some instances (e.g., fitness to drive), physicians also have legislated requirements to complete third-party forms regarding their patient.
The role of the third party
* Third parties should only request medical forms when there is a need for medical information about a patient (i.e., information that could not be provided by a non-physician) to be used for employment/education purposes or the evaluation of a medically related benefit for the patient.
o It is the role of the third party to adjudicate on a patient's eligibility for a benefit, not the physician.
o A request for a patient's non-medical information (i.e., unrelated to the patient's medical condition/history) or a request to certify identity (e.g., asking a physician to certify the principal parent for the purpose of determining eligibility to receive child benefits) is an inappropriate use of medical resources and it is at the discretion of the physician whether to comply with such requests.
o Requests for updates should be reasonable and respect the physician's prognosis.
o Wherever possible, third-party forms should be standardized (e.g., program eligibility, tombstone data, wording of questions) to save time and reduce administrative errors.
o Program eligibility should be made clear to patients and providers to reduce inappropriate form requests (e.g., educating tax advisors on government program eligibility to prevent inappropriate requests for the disability tax credit).
* To make the process of completing a medical form effective and efficient, third parties must involve and inform physicians early and on an ongoing basis, beginning by asking physicians to help to determine whether there is a need for a medical form to be completed in the first place. Medical input is also necessary in the design of the form and to determine how often the form needs to be completed. Physicians should be involved in periodic reviews of existing medical forms with third parties (e.g., governments, insurance companies, associations) for several reasons: to determine whether the forms remain relevant and as a simple as possible; to determine appropriate remuneration for completing the forms; and to ensure that physicians are notified of any changes to requests for medical certification in writing rather than having changes communicated to the physician informally through the patient.4
* In some cases, other health professionals (e.g., occupational therapists) are in a better position to objectively assess patients' abilities and could be designated as qualified practitioners for the purpose of completing the forms, with physicians providing information pertaining to medical assessments and prognoses.
* Confirmation of a short-term absence from work because of minor illness is a matter to be addressed between an employer and an employee directly. Such an absence does not require physician confirmation of illness and represents an inefficient use of scarce health care resources. It is the employer's responsibility -not the physician's - to oversee employee absenteeism. It may be that for many cases, the need for a medical certificate can be replaced by a more effective alternative that does not involve physicians and is agreed to by all parties concerned (e.g., employer and employees).
* If an employer, educational institution or other third party requests an illness confirmation certificate for a short-term, minor illness that would otherwise not have required medical attention, said party should recognize that completion of the certificate is an uninsured service for which physicians are entitled to compensation, preferably from the third party requesting the information, rather than burdening the patient.
* The third party requesting the information should be responsible for compensating the physician for their medical information and expertise. At a provincial/territorial government level, this could mean making the completion of provincial/territorial forms an insured service under the provincial/territorial health insurance plan.
* Physician reimbursement should cover the time and resources devoted to the provision of medical information to third parties (submitted in writing, electronically and/or by phone). This includes compensation for any uninsured medical assessment necessary to complete the form, for the provision of copies of medical information, and for the time and resources needed to respond to any follow-up requests. Wherever possible, the compensation rates should be consistent and should reflect the time and effort necessary to complete the form(s).
* Physicians should be compensated for completing forms related to return to work by provincial/territorial worker's compensation plans; they should be compensated for completing return-to-work forms for non-occupational conditions by provincial/territorial insurance plans, given the important health implications of return-to-work management.
* In the absence of third-party compensation, physicians may charge the patient for the service they provide. As stated in the CMA's Code of Ethics, physicians should consider the nature of the service provided and the ability of the patient to pay, and they should be prepared to discuss the fee with the patient.5 Patient decisions about payment for uninsured services must not negatively affect the physician-patient relationship or pose a barrier to accessing health care services. The physician may decide to reduce or waive his/her fees if the patient lacks the financial ability to pay. Physicians should consult their provincial/territorial medical association for guidance regarding direct billing of patients.
The increasing administrative burden
Physicians face a multitude of requests on a daily basis to complete medical forms and certificates. Requests come from many sources, including governments, government agencies (e.g., workers' compensation boards) and the private/non-governmental sectors (e.g., employers, insurance companies, schools, sporting organizations).
In a 2016 survey of CMA physician members on third-party forms, physicians identified sick notes as the form that they were most frequently asked to complete (67.0% of respondents reported having to fill this form out more than five times per week). Short-term disability claim forms were the second most frequently requested form, with 42.3% of respondents reporting completing this form more than five times per week. Medical certificates for sickness benefit claims under the federal government's employment insurance program - just one example of a third-party form requiring medical input - had to be completed for 336,800 approved applications in 2013-20146 (the vast majority of these certificates would have been completed by physicians).
Physicians continue to devote considerable time to completing forms. Government disability forms, just one type of third-party form, require considerable amount of time to complete. Over 62% of the physicians in the 2016 survey indicated they spend 21-30 minutes (31% of respondents) or more than 30 minutes (31% of respondents) to complete the Canada Pension Plan disability form. Similarly, 60% indicated they spend 21-30 minutes (33% of respondents) or more than 30 minutes (27% of respondents) to complete the Veterans' Affairs disability benefit form.
The most frequently identified concern that physicians have with completing third-party forms (75% of those who participated in the 2016 survey) was the time it took from direct patient care. The second most frequently identified concern (63.4%) was the number of inappropriate requests from third parties.7
Increasing administrative workload/paperwork has been identified by physicians as one of the biggest contributors increasing the demand for their time at work. 8 In many cases, these requests can be an inappropriate use of a physician's time, such as requests for patient information for administrative purposes. Responding to such requests reduces both timely access to care and the time available for direct patient care.
Policies in the office to better manage third-party form requests
Office policies and strategies can be instituted by physicians to better manage third-party requests. These strategies include:
* having an office policy or standardized method to manage third-party form requests;
* having clear communication and posted signage on patient and physician responsibilities regarding forms and fees;
* using a standard form template (e.g., for sick notes)9; and
* organizing time to complete forms.
Physicians are also encouraged to consult with their provincial/territorial medical association and their regulatory college for guidance related to form requests.
These strategies can be part of an overall effort by organizations to raise the awareness of employers, governments and other third parties of the need for a more appropriate approach to form requests to eliminate time wasted for all parties and reduce the inappropriate use of health care resources.
1 The term third-party form refers to any form, letter, medical certificate, mandatory reporting form, photocopy or other document containing medical information about the patient that a physician has been requested to complete or provide by a third party on behalf of their patient. The term third party refers to an employer, government department or agency, private insurer or other organization that is requesting medical information about the patient with the intention of using it.
2 This policy should be considered in conjunction with CMA's policy statement entitled The Treating Physician's Role in Helping Patients Return to Work after an Illness or Injury.
3 Choosing Wisely Canada. Occupational Medicine Specialists of Canada. Five things physicians and patients should question; 2014 Oct 29. Available: www.choosingwiselycanada.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/09/Occupational-Medicine.pdf
4 Saskatchewan Medical Association. SMA relative value guide. Saskatoon: The Association; 2004.
5 Canadian Medical Association. Code of Ethics. Ottawa: The Association; 2004.
6 This figure does not include the number of forms completed for individuals who applied but did not qualify for the program. Canada Employment Insurance Commission. Employment insurance monitoring and assessment report 2013/14. Ottawa: Employment and Social Development Canada. Available: www.esdc.gc.ca/en/reports/ei/monitoring2014/chapter2_4.page
7 Canadian Medical Association. e-Panel survey summary: third-party forms. Ottawa: The Association; 2017.
8 Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Canada. National physician survey 2013. Results by FP/GP or other specialist, sex, age and all physicians [table]. Ottawa: The College; 2013. Available: http://nationalphysiciansurvey.ca/wp-content/uploads/2013/08/2013-National-EN-Q13r.pdf
9 Steven Harrison. OMA sickness certificate template: a practical office resource. Ontario Medical Review 2004 Dec.