The Canadian Medical Association and the Canadian Nurses Association put forward the following principles to guide the transformation of the health care system in Canada toward one that is sustainable and adequately resourced, and provides universal access to quality, patient-centred care delivered along the full continuum of care in a timely and cost-effective manner. Such a system promotes health, effectively manages illness and focuses on outcomes, thereby contributing to a country's social and economic development and well-being.1
Canada's health care system is in need of transformation to better meet the health needs of Canadians. First, while it is recognized that elements of transformation are already taking place across the country, it is important that regional or jurisdictional change be guided by a common framework. Second, health care transformation must build on the five principles of the Canada Health Act (universality, accessibility, portability, comprehensiveness and public administration) that currently apply only to hospital and physician services. Moving beyond these services, a common set of principles is required to guide a national transformation toward a more effective and comprehensive medicare system. A transformed Canadian health care system demands national standards for service quality and outcomes, for which both federal and provincial/territorial governments share responsibility.
The principles below have been organized according to the Institute for Healthcare Improvement's (IHI) Triple Aim Framework, which describes the three goals of "better care for individuals, better health for populations and lower per capita costs."2 It has been IHI's experience that all three must be addressed; where organizations address only one or two, results may be achieved to the detriment of the other(s).
ENHANCE THE HEALTH CARE EXPERIENCE
The patient must be at the centre of health care. Patient-centred care is seamless access to the continuum of care in a timely manner, based on need and not the ability to pay, that takes into consideration the individual needs and preferences of the patient and his/her family, and treats the patient with respect and dignity.3 Improving the patient experience and the health of Canadians must be at the heart of any reforms.
A strong primary health care foundation as well as collaboration and communication within and between health professional disciplines along the continuum are essential to achieving patient-centred care.
Canadians deserve quality services that are appropriate for patient needs, respect individual choice and are delivered in a manner that is timely, safe, effective and according to the most currently available scientific knowledge. Services should also be provided in a manner that ensures continuity of care. Quality must encompass both the processes and the outcomes of care. More attention needs to be given to ensuring a system-wide approach to quality.
IMPROVE POPULATION HEALTH
HEALTH PROMOTION AND ILLNESS PREVENTION
The health system must support Canadians in the prevention of illness and the enhancement of their well-being. The broader social determinants of health (e.g., income, education level, housing, employment status) affect the ability of individuals to assume personal responsibility for adopting and maintaining healthy lifestyles and minimizing exposure to avoidable health risks. Coordinated investments in health promotion and disease prevention, including attention to the role of the social determinants of health, are critical to the future health and wellness of Canadians and to the viability of the health care system. This is a responsibility that must be shared among health care providers, governments and patients, who must be actively engaged in optimizing their health and be involved in decisions that affect their overall health.
The health care system has a duty to Canadians to provide and advocate for equitable access to quality care and multi-sectoral policies to address the social determinants of health.4 In all societies, good health is directly related to the socio-economic gradient - the lower a person's social position, the worse his or her health. The relationship is so strong that it is measurable within any single socio-economic group, even the most privileged.
It is due to the sum of all parts of inequity in society - material circumstances, the social environment, behaviour, biology and psychosocial factors, all of which are shaped by the social determinants of health.5
Some health inequities are preventable; failure to address them will result in poorer health and higher health care costs than necessary. Improved health literacy (defined as the ability to access, understand and act on information for health) would help to mitigate these inequalities.
IMPROVE VALUE FOR MONEY
Sustainable health care requires universal access to quality health services that are adequately resourced and delivered along the full continuum in a timely and cost-effective manner. Canada's health care system must be sustainable in the following areas:
* Resourcing: Health services must be properly resourced based upon population needs, with appropriate consideration for the principles of interprovincial and intergenerational equity and pan-Canadian comparability of coverage for and access to appropriate health services.
- Financing: The health care system needs predictability, certainty and transparency of funding within the multi-year fiscal realities of taxpayers and governments, and funding options that promote risk-pooling, inter-provincial and inter-generational equity and administrative simplicity.
- Health human resources: Health care will be delivered within collaborative practice models; pan-Canadian standards/licensure will support inter-provincial portability of all health care providers; health human resource planning will adjust for local needs and conditions.
- Infrastructure: Health care in the 21st century demands a fully functional health care information technology system as well as buildings and capital equipment.
* Research: Health research in Canada will inform adjustments to health service delivery and to the resourcing of health services.
* Measuring and reporting: Outcome data are linked to cost data; comparable and meaningful performance measures are developed and publicly reported; outcomes are benchmarked to high-performing, comparable jurisdictions.
* Public support: The health care system must earn the support and confidence of the users and citizens of Canada, who ultimately pay for the system.
All stakeholders - the public/patients/families, providers and funders - have a responsibility for ensuring the system is effective and accountable. This includes:
* Good governance: Clear roles, lines of authority and responsibilities are necessary for the funding, regulation and delivery of health care services, even where these may be shared between levels of government and among health care providers. Patients, families and providers must be partners in the governance of the system.
* Responsible use: Services should be funded, offered and used responsibly.
* Strong public reporting: Timely, transparent reporting at the system level on both processes and outcomes that can be used and understood by stakeholders and the public are necessary.
* Enforceability and redress: Mechanisms are in place to enforce accountability and provide redress when the system does not fulfill its obligations.
* Leadership/stewardship: Long-term strategic planning and monitoring is necessary to ensure the system will be sustainable.
* Responsive/innovative: The system is able to adapt based on reporting results.
APPLICATION OF PRINCIPLES AND NEXT STEPS
Over the next several months, a number of health care initiatives will be considered at both the provincial/territorial and federal levels. This will include discussions aimed at signing a new health care accord between the federal government and the provinces/territories. Any such agreements or initiatives must be consistent with the principles set out in this document.
Approved by the CMA and CNA Boards of Directors, June 2011
1 World Health Organization. Regional Office for Europe. The Tallinn Charter: Health systems for health and wealth. Copenhagen, Denmark, 2008. http://www.euro.who.int/__data/assets/pdf_file/0008/88613/E91438.pdf.
2 See http://www.ihi.org/IHI/Programs/StrategicInitiatives/IHITripleAim.htm.
3 Canadian Medical Association. Health care transformation in Canada: Change that works. Care that lasts. Ottawa, 2010. http://www.cma.ca/multimedia/CMA/Content_Images/Inside_cma/Advocacy/HCT/HCT-2010report_en.pdf.
4 Canadian Nurses Association. Social justice: A means to an end; an end in itself. Ottawa, 2010.
5 The Marmot Review. Fair Society, Healthy Lives, February, 2010. http://www.marmotreview.org/AssetLibrary/pdfs/Reports/FairSocietyHealthyLives.pdf.
This policy statement provides operational principles for the measurement and management of wait list systems that support timely access to necessary care for patients. This statement is based on the understanding that in order for wait list systems to be effective in improving timely access to medically necessary care for patients, physicians and other providers must be centrally involved and appropriately supported to assist in their development, measurement and management.
Since the late 1990s, Canadians have become increasingly concerned over lengthening wait times to access medically necessary care. As a result, a major focus of the 2004 Health Care Accord (10-Year Agreement to Strengthen Health Care) was to improve timely access to necessary medical care. Since then, provinces and territories have taken steps to measure, monitor and manage patient wait times. However, most efforts thus far to improve wait times have been focused on the wait between the specialist consultation and the scheduled date for treatment. Patients may also experience waits in accessing a family physician (many Canadians do not have a family physician) and waiting to see a specialist following a referral by a family physician.
Canadians deserve timely access to medically necessary care. Governments must ensure that patients are treated within established wait-time benchmarks for all major diagnostic, therapeutic, and surgical services. Physicians recognize that it is desirable to minimize waits and to properly prioritize and manage patients' wait for care by accurately capturing and utilizing wait-time data.
However, there remain serious concerns over the quality of wait-time data and who has the primary responsibility for capturing the data. Physicians and other providers are increasingly being requested to input wait-time data (e.g., length of wait for consultation or for start of treatment). Yet, in many instances, they are expected to do so without the necessary resources and supports.
Outlined below are Operational Principles for the Measurement and Management of Wait Lists developed originally through CMA's Access to Quality Health Care Project(1) with input from public opinion research as well as stakeholder groups, including CMA Core Committees, Provincial-Territorial Medical Associations and CMA Affiliates.
1. To maintain or enhance patients' quality of life and health status through effective development, measurement and management of wait lists.
2. To ensure that the development, measurement and management of wait lists are based on the best available evidence of clinical appropriateness, clinical effectiveness, rational use of resources, clinical need and patient quality of life.
A. Stakeholder Involvement
1. Physicians in clinical practice must have a leadership role:
- in identifying clinically relevant data elements through consensus;
- in developing standard definitions and measures for prioritization for wait lists; and
- in developing wait-time benchmarks.
2. Health care providers and other stakeholders should be involved in the development, measurement, maintenance, monitoring, management and evaluation of wait list systems, and should be appropriately compensated for their time and effort.
B. Database Development and Management Systems
1. Systems for developing and managing wait lists must require and provide reliable, current, useful and valid data and information.
2. Database development and wait list management requires involvement of multidisciplinary panels.
3. Systems for managing wait lists should:
- provide accurate, reliable, timely, publicly accessible and real-time information in a cost-effective manner. Deadlines for inputting data should be reasonable and implemented without the use of threats or penalties;
- collect and assess data on need, quality of life and health outcomes; be flexible and dynamic so that they can adapt over time with the development of new technologies and approaches to treatment; and
- require policies and procedures on confidentiality, so that patients' and providers' privacy are protected.
1. Systems for managing wait lists require initial and sustained investment in dedicated human resources, sophisticated information systems and information technology infrastructure at all levels (e.g., medical offices, hospitals, health regions).
1. The parties involved in managing wait lists must accept their responsibilities and obligations to each other and to the public.
2. Privacy and confidentiality of patient and provider information must be respected.
3. The systems, processes and results for managing wait lists should be widely communicated to obtain stakeholder involvement and support.
1. Systems for managing wait lists must:
- be continually monitored and evaluated to identify opportunities for improvement; and
- regularly undergo independent data audits and evaluations of process and outcome.
1. An independent, stakeholder-based, non-governmental organization with an advisory committee should be responsible for overseeing and administering systems for managing wait lists.
(1) Canadian Medical Association, Access to Quality Health Care Project, January 1998. Ottawa.
Principles for Health System Governance
This policy provides principles and recommendations for developing, implementing and evaluating health system governance models such as regionalized health care for the purposes of delivering high quality care to patients.
Since the 1990s, health care systems in many countries including Canada have been searching for more effective health system governance models to accomplish a variety of health policy objectives. These objectives include funding health care based on population health needs and improving service delivery integration. In Canada, most provinces and territories moved to a regionalized model of health system governance during the 1990s.
This "regionalization" approach involved both decentralizing and centralizing specific elements of the health care system. Decentralizing involved moving planning, budgeting and decision making authority from the provincial or territorial level to certain regional bodies. Centralizing involved moving the planning and governance of health care and medical services from individual institutions or agencies to a regional body. In terms of the delivery of health care services, centralization often occurred through the consolidation of several programs into a single program for a region and through the merger and closure of individual institutions.
Since 2003, several provincial governments initiated new changes to their approach to health system governance ranging from vertical integration involving a range of health agencies under a single board (e.g., Quebec) to the creation of boards that oversee the delivery of care for larger portions of a jurisdiction or even the entire jurisdiction itself (e.g., Alberta Health Services). Many of these new models involve an arm's length authority governed by an appointed board that is mandated to manage and integrate the operations of the health system across the province/territory while leaving the ministry of health to set the overall plan and priorities for the health system as well as set standards and monitor outcomes.
No doubt, governments will continue to search for an ideal health system governance and delivery model as part of an effort to develop "high performing health systems". Examples of high performing health systems exist at all levels such as at regional levels within countries (e.g., Jonkoping, Sweden) or at the client group level (e.g., US Veterans Health Administration).
Health system governance models, such as health regions or health agencies, must have an overall goal of ensuring the delivery of high quality, timely and accessible care to its citizens. The Institute for Healthcare Improvement's (IHI) Triple Aim concept identifies three objectives for health systems: improve the health of the population; improve the health care experience for patients; and improve the value for money spent on health and health care. Many previous health system reforms have not resulted in improved care for patients. The CMA's 2010 action plan, Health Care Transformation in Canada: Change that Works. Care that Lasts, calls for patient-centred health care that puts the patients and their families' interests first.
From the health provider perspective, previous regionalization efforts have raised several issues of concern, including whether these models translate into improved delivery of care for patients. There is also concern with the prospect that new models will limit provider involvement in health system governance and that health human resource planning will be localized when mobility of labour transcends local borders.
The CMA is committed to playing a positive role in the debate on the future of health care reform in Canada. It recognizes that health system governance models are subject to change. However, this CMA policy on health system governance identifies fundamental principles that should guide any model under consideration. These guiding principles draw upon previous CMA work starting in 1991 with its Working Group on Regionalization, leading to its Language of Health System Reform report.
Patient-centred: Any consideration of governance models must begin with an overall goal of providing patient-centred care-seamless access to the continuum of care in a timely manner, based on need and not the ability to pay, that takes into consideration the individual needs and preferences of the patient and his/her family, and treats the patient with respect and dignity.
Defined objectives: The development and implementation of health system governance models/strategies must begin with a clear statement of objectives. The objectives should reflect the changes that need to be made to the health care system to address specific problems and, whenever possible, must be defined in measurable terms so that health system governance policies can be evaluated.
Accountability/authority: Aligning accountability and authority is essential to effective and sustainable high performing health systems. Accountability is affected by the degree of authority and the scope of responsibilities (i.e., planning, administration, organization and funding of health care services) transferred to the governing units (e.g., regions). Who is accountable, and for what, need to be defined. There needs to be a clear statement of the roles of government, governing boards, physicians and all health care stakeholders. Physicians have a unique contribution to make and their views should be taken into account in any restructuring of the health care delivery system.
Needs based planning/Responsive to regional needs: The definition of the region(s) or sub-regions should reflect the natural, socio-political and geographic divisions of the population. Once regions are defined, the health care needs of the population served by regional units should be determined through epidemiological studies, input from communities and other needs assessment. In addition to local planning, there is also the need for broader based planning to address medical and scientific research, new technologies and procedures.
Regional health needs can vary requiring flexible delivery models. Credentialing that meets jurisdictional standards should be maintained at the regional level in order to effectively respond to regional needs and issues.
Informed choice: Any form of health system governance should not restrict patients' mobility between providers or regions, physicians' mobility between and within regions, or physicians' choice of practice setting by limiting employment to community health centres or other forms of group practice.
Participatory democracy Both patients/public and providers should be involved in determining governance models and participating in the ongoing governance of health systems. If providers are to be encouraged to get involved, they need to have ready access to the planning and administrative skills needed to participate effectively and make a valuable contribution to management and leadership. Three key areas in which providers must become knowledgeable and involved include governance and credentialing, health care needs assessment and health economics.
Clinical autonomy: Physicians have a responsibility to advocate on behalf of their patients to ensure the availability of needed care. This responsibility should not be hindered by a physician's practice setting, mode of remuneration or paying agency.
Evaluation: Evaluation protocols must be built into health system governance models at the outset, and the results of evaluation must be used to "fine tune" and improve the strategies. These protocols should address cost effectiveness, population health status, patient access to health care services and the interests of government, the profession and the public.
Standards for reasonable access: Certain areas and cultural groups do not have the same level of access to health care services as the national norm. All health system governance models should address these shortcomings to ensure that the entire population of any given region has reasonable access to primary, secondary and tertiary care.
Balancing access and affordability: One of the implicit objectives of new models of health system governance appears to be achieving both control over health care costs and redirecting expenditures from health care to community and social services. Governing authorities must be careful to maintain a balance between access to health care services and affordability allowing for a variety of methods to achieve this (e.g., internal markets). They must also maintain a comprehensive accounting of the cost of implementing any new model.
Balancing curative with preventive and sustaining care: All health system governance models must support not only the system's ability to provide curative care but also an ability to provide effective preventive and sustaining care. Governance models should ensure funds can be allocated toward a comprehensive approach to care as well as allow for models of care that support all three functions.
Support for medical education and research: Policies and structures of health system governance models need to acknowledge and foster the role of medical education and research in the health care system. Governance of medical teaching and research should reside within the academic health sciences centres. These centres should be assured of adequate financial and human resources and of access to cross regional patient populations and to community teaching sites in order to provide adequate learning and research opportunities.
With regard to the development, implementation and evaluation of health system governance models, the CMA recommends that:
* advocacy on behalf of patients and physicians be maintained irrespective of any regional administrative boundaries;
* governments ensure that the introduction of new models of health system governance do not interfere with clinical autonomy and professional freedom in the context of the physician/patient relationship;
* governments, health governing authorities and institutions ensure that physicians, through their professional associations, are included in the development and revision of practitioner/medical staff bylaws and appointment policies;
* family physicians, on the basis of their education, training and skills, are reaffirmed as the preferred point of entry into Canada's health care system;
* governments ensure that catchment area under the governing authority be defined in a way that is sensitive to the political, cultural and geographic circumstances of the population and recognizes established patterns of the demand for, and the provision of, health care;
* governments ensure that the introduction of new governance models does not interfere with reasonable access by the population to medical services at the primary, secondary and tertiary levels;
* leadership be provided to help ensure that the development, implementation and evaluation of health system governance models are based on clear, measurable objectives;
* governments develop and maintain national standards for access to high quality health care, medical education and research, irrespective of regional boundaries;
* governments ensure that programs and policies under any form of health system governance be designed and implemented in a manner that supports key principles of medical education and research, including:
- the governance and resources required for medical teaching, both in the academic health sciences centres and in appropriate community based sites throughout the province or territory,
- academic health sciences centres' responsibilities for providing secondary and tertiary care to catchment populations that cut across regional boundaries, and
- the need for academic physician resource plans to ensure a critical mass for teaching and research;
* governments give priority to mechanisms to protect the mobility of patients and physicians when developing and implementing programs under any new health system governance model; and
* the medical profession work with governments to develop:
- clear role, responsibility and accountability statements for government, health system governing boards, health care providers and consumers,
- mechanisms to ensure that governing boards have broad representation and meaningful input from the community, including physicians, and that regional boards be recruited through a clearly specified appointment or electoral process,
- guidelines for use by communities to assess their health care needs and to provide assistance, as required, with the conduct of such assessments,
- protocols and procedures for evaluating health system governance initiatives,
- mechanisms to ensure adequate and appropriate physician input into operational aspects of regional planning and coordination of health care services, and
- processes under any health system governance model ensure adequate opportunities for research, education (including continuing medical education) and training of physicians consistent with national standards.
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.