Clinical photography is a valuable tool for physicians. Smartphones, as well as other devices supporting network connectivity, offer a convenient, efficient method to take and share images. However, due to the private nature of the information contained in clinical photographs there are concerns as to the appropriate storage, dissemination, and documentation of clinical images. Confidentiality of image data must be considered and the dissemination of these images onto servers must respect the privacy and rights of the patient. Importantly, patient information should be considered as any information deriving from a patient, and the concepts outlined therefore apply to any media that can be collected on, or transmitted with, a smart-device.
Clinical photography can aid in documenting form and function, in tracking conditions and wound healing, in planning surgical operations, and in clinical decision-making. Additionally, clinical photographs can provide physicians with a valuable tool for patient communication and education. Due to the convenience of this type of technology it is not appropriate to expect physicians to forego their use in providing their patients with the best care available.
The technology and software required for secure transfer, communication, and storage of clinical media is presently available, but many devices have non-secure storage/dissemination options enabled and lack user-control for permanently deleting digital files. In addition, data uploaded onto server systems commonly cross legal jurisdictions. Many physicians are not comfortable with the practice, citing security, privacy, and confidentiality concerns as well as uncertainty in regards to regional regulations governing this practice.1 Due to concern for patient privacy and confidentiality it is therefore incredibly important to limit the unsecure or undocumented acquisition or dissemination of clinical photographs.
To assess the current state of this topic, Heyns et al. have reviewed the accessibility and completeness of provincial and territorial medical regulatory college guidelines.2 Categories identified as vital and explored in this review included: Consent; Storage; Retention; Audit; Transmission; and Breach. While each regulatory body has addressed limited aspects of the overall issue, the authors found a general lack of available information and call for a unified document outlining pertinent instructions for conducting clinical photography using a smartphone and the electronic transmission of patient information.2
The discussion of this topic will need to be ongoing and it is important that physicians are aware of applicable regulations, both at the federal and provincial levels, and how these regulations may impact the use of personal devices. The best practices supported here aim to provide physicians and healthcare providers with an understanding of the scope and gravity of the current environment, as well as the information needed to ensure patient privacy and confidentiality is assessed and protected while physicians utilize accessible clinical photography to advance patient care. Importantly, this document only focusses on medical use (clinical, academic, and educational) of clinical photography and, while discussing many core concepts of patient privacy and confidentiality of information, should not be perceived as a complete or binding framework. Additionally, it is recommended that physicians understand the core competencies of clinical photography, which are not described here.
The Canadian Medical Association (CMA) suggests that the following recommendations be implemented, as thoroughly as possible, to best align with the CMA policy on the Principles for the Protection of Patient Privacy (CMA Policy PD2018-02). These key recommendations represent a non-exhaustive set of best practices - physicians should seek additional information as needed to gain a thorough understanding and to stay current in this rapidly changing field.
* Informed consent must be obtained, preferably prior, to photography with a mobile device. This applies for each and any such encounter and the purpose made clear (i.e. clinical, research, education, publication, etc.). Patients should also be made aware that they may request a copy of a picture or for a picture to be deleted.
* A patient's consent to use electronic transmission does not relieve a physician of their duty to protect the confidentiality of patient information. Also, a patient's consent cannot override other jurisdictionally mandated security requirements.
* All patient consents (including verbal) should be documented. The acquisition and recording of patient consent for medical photography/dissemination may be held to a high standard of accountability due to the patient privacy and confidentiality issues inherent in the use of this technology. Written and signed consent is encouraged.
* Consent should be considered as necessary for any and all photography involving a patient, whether or not that patient can be directly recognized, due to the possibility of linked information and the potential for breach of privacy. The definition of non-identifiable photos must be carefully considered. Current technologies such as face recognition and pattern matching (e.g. skin markers, physical structure, etc.), especially in combination with identifying information, have the potential to create a privacy breach.
* Unsecure text and email messaging requires explicit patient consent and should not be used unless the current gold standards of security are not accessible. For a patient-initiated unsecure transmission, consent should be clarified and not assumed.
* Transmission of photos and patient information should be encrypted as per current-day gold standards (presently, end-to-end encryption (E2EE)) and use only secure servers that are subject to Canadian laws. Explicit, informed consent is required otherwise due to privacy concerns or standards for servers in other jurisdictions. Generally, free internet-based communication services and public internet access are unsecure technologies and often operate on servers outside of Canadian jurisdiction.
* Efforts should be made to use the most secure transmission method possible. For data security purposes, identifying information should never be included in the image, any frame of a video, the file name, or linked messages.
* The sender should always ensure that each recipient is intended and appropriate and, if possible, receipt of transmission should be confirmed by the recipient.
* Storing images and data on a smart-device should be limited as much as possible for data protection purposes.
* Clinical photos, as well as messages or other patient-related information, should be completely segregated from the device's personal storage. This can be accomplished by using an app that creates a secure, password-protected folder on the device.
* All information stored (on internal memory or cloud) must be strongly encrypted and password protected. The security measures must be more substantial than the general password unlock feature on mobile devices.
* Efforts should be made to dissociate identifying information from images when images are exported from a secure server. Media should not be uploaded to platforms without an option for securely deleting information without consent from the patient, and only if there are no better options. Automatic back-up of photos to unsecure cloud servers should be deactivated. Further, other back-up or syncing options that could lead to unsecure server involvement should be ascertained and the risks mitigated.
4. Cloud storage should be on a Canadian and SOCII certified server. Explicit, informed consent is required otherwise due to privacy concerns for servers in other jurisdictions.
5. AUDIT & RETENTION
* It is important to create an audit trail for the purposes of transparency and medical best practice. Key information includes patient and health information, consent type and details, pertinent information regarding the photography (date, circumstance, photographer), and any other important facts such as access granted/deletion requests.
* Access to the stored information must be by the authorized physician or health care provider and for the intended purpose, as per the consent given. Records should be stored such that it is possible to print/transfer as necessary.
* Original photos should be retained and not overwritten.
* All photos and associated messages may be considered part of the patient's clinical records and should be maintained for at least 10 years or 10 years after the age of majority, whichever is longer. When possible, patient information (including photos and message histories between health professionals) should be retained and amalgamated with a patient's medical record. Provincial regulations regarding retention of clinical records may vary and other regulations may apply to other entities - e.g. 90 years from date of birth applies to records at the federal level.
* It may not be allowable to erase a picture if it is integral to a clinical decision or provincial, federal, or other applicable regulations require their retention.
* Any breach should be taken seriously and should be reviewed. All reasonable efforts must be made to prevent a breach before one occurs. A breach occurs when personal information, communication, or photos of patients are stolen, lost, or mistakenly disclosed. This includes loss or theft of one's mobile device, texting to the wrong number or emailing/messaging to the wrong person(s), or accidentally showing a clinical photo that exists in the phone's personal photo album.
* It should be noted that non-identifying information, when combined with other available information (e.g. a text message with identifiers or another image with identifiers), can lead to highly accurate re-identification.
* At present, apps downloaded to a smart-device for personal use may be capable of collecting and sharing information - the rapidly changing nature of this technology and the inherent privacy concerns requires regular attention. Use of specialized apps designed for health-information sharing that help safeguard patient information in this context is worth careful consideration.
* Having remote wipe (i.e. device reformatting) capabilities is an asset and can help contain a breach. However, inappropriate access may take place before reformatting occurs.
* If a smartphone is strongly encrypted and has no clinical photos stored locally then its loss may not be considered a breach.
* In the event of a breach any patient potentially involved must be notified as soon as possible. The CMPA, the organization/hospital, and the Provincial licensing College should also be contacted immediately. Provincial regulations regarding notification of breach may vary.
Approved by the CMA Board of Directors March 2018
i Heyns M†, Steve A‡, Dumestre DO‡, Fraulin FO‡, Yeung JK‡
† University of Calgary, Canada
‡ Section of Plastic Surgery, Department of Surgery, University of Calgary, Canada
1 Chan N, Charette J, Dumestre DO, Fraulin FO. Should 'smart phones' be used for patient photography? Plast Surg (Oakv). 2016;24(1):32-4.
2 Unpublished - Heyns M, Steve A, Dumestre DO, Fraulin FO, Yeung J. Canadian Guidelines on Smartphone Clinical Photography.
These Guidelines constitute an implementation tool of seven recommendations and are informed by Guidelines for CMA’s Activities and Relationships with Other Parties (aka CMA’s Corporate Relationships Policy) and CMA’s Advertising and Sponsorship Policy.
These Guidelines apply to the Canadian Medical Association (and not to its subsidiaries). As these are Guidelines, exceptions may be necessary from time to time wherein staff may use their discretion and judgment.
Endorsement is an umbrella term encompassing “policy endorsement”, “sponsorship1” and “branding”.
Policy endorsement includes:
(a) CMA considering upon request, non-pecuniary public approval, which may include the use of
CMA’s name and/or logo, of an organization’s written policy, on an issue that aligns with CMA policy, where there is no immediate expectation of return; or,
(b) CMA adopting the policy of another organization as our policy; or
(c) CMA asking another organization to publicly support our policy.
(a) Criteria: For policy endorsement requests from another organization to endorse their policy2 the following criteria shall be applied:
i) we have a policy on the subject-matter and
ii) we are actively working on advancing that policy position and
iii) the organization has a follow-up action plan associated with its request.
(b) Approval: Where policy exists, approval requires a policy staff member (with portfolio responsibility) and the VP of Medical Professionalism, or the policy staff member (with portfolio responsibility) and the Chief Policy Advisor. Where no policy exists, approval of the Board of Directors is required.
(c) Annual confirmation: Where CMA adopts the policy of another organization3, CMA staff shall confirm annually, or more frequently if circumstances dictate, that the policy has not been altered by the other organization.
(d) Requests: Pursuit of personal endorsement requests are not appropriate. Wherever possible, requests should come from an organization and not an individual.
(a) Where CMA adopts the policy of another organization, the adopted policy shall become CMA policy, and will include a notation on the document as being an adopted policy of [organization].
(b) All adopted policies will be housed in an accessible searchable database.
(c) All requests by organizations for CMA to endorse their policy will be tracked in a central location, along with any response.
1 Sponsorship means, to consider upon request, pecuniary public approval, which may include the use of CMA’s name and/or logo, of an organization’s event (eg., conference), on an issue that is supported by CMA policy or that promotes CMA brand awareness, where there is an immediate expectation of return.
2 That is, part (a) of the definition in Section 2.
3 That is, part (b) of the definition in Section 2.
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
Medical professionalism (Update 2005)
The environment in which medicine is practised in Canada is undergoing rapid and profound change. There are now continued opportunities for the medical profession to provide leadership for our patients, our communities and our colleagues through strengthened professionalism. The Canadian Medical Association (CMA) is strongly committed to medical professionalism and has developed this policy both to inform physicians and others about its meaning and value and to promote its preservation and enhancement. This document outlines the major features of medical professionalism, the opportunities which exist in this area and the challenges which lie before us.
Why Medical Professionalism?
The medical profession is characterized by a strong commitment to the well-being of patients, high standards of ethical conduct, mastery of an ever-expanding body of knowledge and skills, and a high level of clinical independence. As individuals, physicians' personal values may vary, but as members of the medical profession they are expected to share and uphold those values that characterize the practice of medicine and the care of patients.
Medical professionalism includes both the relationship between a physician and a patient and a social contract between physicians and society. Society grants the profession privileges, including exclusive or primary responsibility for the provision of certain services and a high degree of self-regulation. In return, the profession agrees to use these privileges primarily for the benefit of others and only secondarily for its own benefit. Three major features of medical professionalism - the ethic of care, clinical independence and self-regulation - benefit physicians, their patients and society:
Ethic of care: This is characterized by the values of compassion, beneficence, nonmaleficence, respect for persons and justice (CMA's Code of Ethics). Society benefits from the ethic of care whereby, in the provision of medical services, physicians put the interests of others ahead of their own. Dedication and commitment to the well-being of others is clearly in the interests of patients, who are the primary beneficiaries.
Clinical independence: Medicine is a highly complex art and science. Through lengthy training and experience, physicians become medical experts and healers. Whereas patients have the right to decide to a large extent which medical interventions they will undergo, they expect their physicians to be free to make clinically appropriate recommendations. Although physicians recognize that they are accountable to patients, funding agencies and their peers for their recommendations, unreasonable restraints on clinical autonomy imposed by governments and administrators, whether public or private, are not in the best interests of patients, not least because they can damage the trust that is an essential component of the patient-physician relationship. Conversely, physicians are not morally obliged to provide inappropriate medical services when requested by patients despite their respect for patient autonomy.
Self-regulation: Physicians have traditionally been granted this privilege by society. It includes the control of entrance into the profession by establishing educational standards and setting examinations, the licensing of physicians, and the establishment and ongoing review of standards of medical practice. In return for this privilege, physicians are expected to hold each other accountable for their behaviour and for the outcomes they achieve on behalf of their patients. Self-regulation is exercised by many different professional organizations, from medical practice partnerships to the statutory provincial/territorial licensing bodies. It has evolved into a partnership with the public. Self-regulation benefits society by taking the best advantage of the professional expertise needed to appropriately set and maintain standards of training and practice, while providing suitable accountability in matters of professional behaviour. The profession's commitment to the maintenance of those standards is demonstrated by its willingness to participate in outcomes review at many levels, from institutional quality assurance activities to formal prospective peer review, and to actively support their statutory and legislated licensing authorities.
Opportunities in Medical Professionalism
Over the past few years much has been written about the issue of medical professionalism in both the lay and scientific media. The practice of medicine has changed considerably, and with these changes have come challenges but also opportunities. The medical profession continues to be a greatly respected one, and it is still generally seen as being distinct from many others because of the unique nature of the physician-patient relationship. There exists now an opportunity to reinforce the professional values and priorities that have sustained medicine for so long, and to embrace new approaches which will serve it well in the years to come.
Medical professionals must recognize that patients have a wide variety of resources available for their health care needs, from traditional physician services to paramedical practitioners, to complementary medicine and to information obtained from the internet. While maintaining responsibility for care of the patient as a whole, physicians must be able to interact constructively with other health care providers within an interdisciplinary team setting, and must be able to interpret information for patients and direct them to appropriate and accurate resources.
The relationship of physicians with their colleagues must be strengthened and reinforced. Patient care benefits when all health care practitioners work together towards a common goal, in an atmosphere of support and collegiality.
Although there are some challenges to professionalism, as outlined below, the greatest opportunity before us may be to remind physicians of the reasons they chose a career in medicine to begin with - for many, it is a calling rather than a job. In spite of the numerous recent changes in the health care system and the practice of medicine, the primary reason most physicians entered the field remains the same - the sanctity of the fiduciary relationship between physicians and their patients. The renewal of medical professionalism must be led from within the profession itself, and the CMA and its members are in a unique position to take advantage of the many opportunities which exist and to respond to the challenges we face.
Challenges to Medical Professionalism
Medical professionalism is being challenged from within and without. These challenges arise from pressures that may serve to undermine the ethic of care, clinical independence and self-regulation and may result, for individual physicians and the medical profession, in diminished morale and changes in lifestyle and practice patterns. These changes may have a detrimental impact on the health of physicians, and also on the quality of patient care.
Resource restraints: The CMA has identified scarcity of resources, whether human or material, as undermining the ability of physicians to maintain excellence in clinical care, research and teaching. Although much attention has been paid recently to the insufficient number of physicians in Canada, and although recent developments indicate some limited cause for optimism, much work remains to be done. Issues of access to continuing professional development, workforce sustainability, inadequate numbers of training positions for new doctors, the integration of foreign-trained physicians into the workforce and the apparent inability of governments to resolve inadequacies in health care funding continue to frustrate physicians' attempts to achieve their professional goals and care for their patients. These factors all have the potential for contributing to the decline of professional morale.
Bureaucratic challenges: This refers to the introduction of layers of management and policy directives between the physician and the patient. It is a result of changes that have taken place in the organization and delivery of medical care, especially the involvement of governments in all aspects of health care. The traditional one-on-one relationship of physician and patient is now set within a context of government and corporate interests, in which the physician may sometimes assume the status of an employee, that pose considerable challenges to the exercise of the professional values of clinical autonomy and self-regulation. Moreover, while the responsibility for organizing the delivery of scarce resources has been increasingly transferred from physicians to managers, physicians are still ultimately responsible, both morally and legally, for providing quality care. Although the increasing complexity of health care delivery requires recourse to sophisticated management systems, there is a danger that as physicians become increasingly answerable to or constrained by third parties, their ability to fulfill their commitment to their individual patients can be seriously compromised.
Unprofessional conduct: Some physicians do not uphold the values of the profession. A few put their interests or the interests of third parties ahead of the interests of their patients. The profession needs to meet this challenge by demonstrating its ability to uphold its values and its commitment to doing so. Supporting strong and transparent self-regulatory systems will be a key component of this endeavor.
Commercialism: In recent years the market mentality has expanded its influence to many areas formerly outside its domain, including governments, universities and the professions. Health care has become a major industry, one in which physicians play a central role, and commercial interests, whether private or public, may pressure physicians to compromise their responsibilities to their patients, research subjects and society. The potential for physicians and medical associations to become drawn into conflict-of-interest situations is increasing. Commercialism may compromise both the ethic of care and clinical independence by its reinterpretation of medical care as a commodity and the patient-physician relationship as something less than a fiduciary relationship. There is an inherent opportunity for the profession to address the issue of conflict of interest and to re-affirm its primary obligation and dedication to the patients it cares for.
Consumerism: Physicians strongly support the right of patients to make informed decisions about their medical care. However, the CMA's Code of Ethics requires physicians to recommend only those diagnostic and therapeutic procedures that they consider to be beneficial to the patient or to others. There is a proliferation of health information and advertising in the popular media and on the Internet that may be inaccurate or poorly understood. Taken to its extreme, consumerism can be detrimental not just to professionalism but to the well-being of patients and the interests of society.
Industrialization: This refers to the increased division and specialization of labour in the delivery of health care, whereby the delivery of health care may become fragmented. There is increasing pressure within medicine to improve efficiency and optimize cost savings. While these may be important goals in the broader context of health care, we must ensure that they do not impact negatively on the doctor-patient relationship.
Realizing Opportunities and Dealing with Challenges
Individual physicians should protect, enhance and promote professionalism in medicine by reflecting the values of the medical profession in their practice and by contributing to the efforts of organized medicine to maintain and enhance the ethic of care, clinical autonomy and self-regulation. These efforts require action in 3 areas: policy, education and self-regulation.
Policy: All those involved in health care - physicians, patients, other health care providers, administrators, governments and the general public (as taxpayers, potential patients, relatives of patients, etc.) - should be informed about the values of the medical profession and where it stands on issue related to accountability, clinical autonomy and self-regulation. Policies of medical associations should reflect these values and should speak clearly on topics such as conflict of interest. Policies should be reviewed frequently and updated when necessary, in order to take account of the rapidly changing environment in which medicine is practiced. The topic of professionalism should be granted increasing importance in policy discussions. Policies should be developed and updated in related areas, such as conflict of interest and physician-industry interactions.
In order to be consistent and trustworthy, medical associations should adhere to the same high standards of behaviour that they require of individual physicians. The challenges posed by resource restraints, bureaucratization, unprofessional conduct, commercialism and consumerism are no less serious for associations than for individuals and require sound harmonized policies for both. The CMA has an opportunity for leadership in this regard.
Education: However professional values and policies are established, they must be transmitted to current and future members of the profession in order to have any effect.
Like most other aspects of medical education, the values of professionalism are both taught and modeled. Professionalism should be an essential component of the formal medical curriculum at the undergraduate and postgraduate training levels. Moreover, active demonstration of professionalism such as role modeling by physicians, and in the internal culture of the medical schools and hospitals where students receive their training, should be used to advantage and challenged when necessary. Likewise for physicians in practice, formal continuing professional development programs and role modeling by other physicians are important for the maintenance of professionalism.
Physicians need to communicate and test their understanding of their professional role with others involved in patient care at numerous levels. Such initiatives, which would engage patients, other professionals and policy-makers, require further development.
The CMA and other medical organizations have taken leadership roles in assisting patients and health care providers in making informed decisions by creating numerous continuing professional development opportunities and readily available clinical information for physicians, effective patient education materials, self-help books and validated Web sites, including www.cma.ca. These efforts need to continue and be strengthened.
Self-regulation: In order to maintain self-regulation in an environment that is increasingly suspicious of such privileges, the medical profession has to demonstrate that self regulation benefits society in general. This requires, among other things, that the medical profession continue to demonstrate its commitment to the tasks required by self-regulation, including setting and enforcing high standards of behaviour for both individual physicians and medical associations.
Physicians continue to value medical professionalism highly. They believe that it benefits patients greatly and that it should be preserved and enhanced. Professionalism will continue to be based on the relationship of trust between patients and physicians, and the primacy of the physician-patient relationship. It encompasses the values of compassion, beneficence, nonmaleficence, respect for persons and justice. As professionals, physicians will strive to maintain high standards of ethics, clinical practice and education and demonstrate a capacity for social responsibility through self-regulation and accountability (see CMA Policy Statement The Future of Medicine).
The CMA welcomes opportunities to engage in dialogue with others as to how professionalism in health care can be preserved and enhanced for the benefit of patients, physicians and society in general.