CORE AND COMPREHENSIVE HEALTH CARE SERVICES
CMA believes that physicians must be actively involved in the decision-making process on core and comprehensive services. It developed a framework for this purpose after review and analysis of national and international decision-making frameworks, and after consideration of the political, policy and legal context of Canadian health care decision making. In addition to the framework, key terms associated with core and comprehensive health care services are operationally defined. Quality of care and ethical and economic factors are considered in a balanced and flexible manner, recognizing that the relative importance of any one factor may vary depending on the health care service being considered.
CMA first prepared this policy in 1994 to help physicians participate in making choices concerning core and comprehensive health care services. Over a decade later, the issue of defining these services remains a central issue for patients, providers and funders of Canada's health care system. Looking ahead, this will become even more pertinent as regional authorities assume greater authority in planning and allocating health funding across a broad range of programs.
Constructive leadership from the medical profession is essential to ensure a high quality Canadian health care system. Specifically, physicians must be actively involved in the decision-making process on core and comprehensive health care services.
CMA reviewed and analyzed several national and international decision-making frameworks and subsequently developed a framework for making decisions about core and comprehensive health care services (Core and Comprehensive Health Care Services: a Framework for Decision Making, CMA, 1994). It also considered the current political, policy and legal context in which decisions on health care are made in Canada. Key terms associated with core and comprehensive health care services were operationally defined.
CMA encourages the use of its framework for making decisions about these services. Quality of care and ethical and economic factors are considered in a balanced and flexible manner, recognizing that the relative importance of any one factor may vary depending on the health care service being considered. Each factor affects decision making at the patient-physician (micro) level, the hospital and regional (meso) level and the provincial, territorial and national (macro) level.
This policy summary addresses the requirement for governments to fund core medical services but not the availability or desirability of private or alternative funding for these services.
Uniform use and interpretation of the terms used in this area are particularly important in policy development, negotiations and communications. The 1984 Canada Health Act stipulates that all "medically necessary" services be insured; however, the act does not define "medically necessary." This lack of a clear operational definition gives the provinces/territories some flexibility in the breadth of coverage provided by their insurance plans. However, it may also cause ambiguity and difficulty in selecting core health care services.
CMA defines medically necessary services as those "that a qualified physician determines are required to assess, prevent, treat, rehabilitate or palliate a given health concern or problem as supported by available scientific evidence and/or professional experience." (Adapted from Core and Comprehensive Health Care Services, page 96.)
Health care services are "not only services provided by or under the supervision of a physician, but also a wide range of services performed by many other health care professionals." (Adapted from Core and Comprehensive Health Care Services, page 92.) Medical services is "a category of health care services provided by or under the supervision of a physician." (Core and Comprehensive Health Care Services, page 96.)
Comprehensive health care and medical services are distinguished from core health care and medical services. Comprehensive health care and medical services are "a broad range of services that covers most, if not all, health care needs. These services may or may not be funded/insured by a government plan." (Core and Comprehensive Health Care Services, page 86.) Core health care and medical services are those that "are available to everyone as funded/insured by a government plan. [Alternative] funding sources for these services are not necessarily excluded." (Core and Comprehensive Health Care Services, page 86.)
Framework for decision making
CMA advocates a systematic and transparent decision-making framework for determining which services are considered core and comprehensive health care services. The framework was originally intended for medical services; however, it can also be applied to health care services. It is flexible so that users may adapt it to their own specific circumstances and needs. It is not a formula or set process that yields a quantifiable result for any given service, nor does it prescribe which services to insure or not insure. CMA has put forth the following principle concerning the framework.
When decisions about core and comprehensive health care services are made, the various levels at which decisions can be made must be considered. These include the patient- physician (micro) level, the hospital and regional (meso) level and the provincial, territorial and national (macro) level.
CMA recognizes that decisions are made at several levels: (1) the micro level, which involves individual decisions about service delivery made by patients, physicians and other providers, (2) the meso level, which involves regional health authorities and health care institutions such as hospitals, community groups and professional staff, and (3) the macro level, which involves system wide decisions made by governments, the electorate and professions as a whole.
It is important to take into account the likely effect of any decision on each level: a decision that is acceptable at the macro level may be impossible to deliver at the meso level and inappropriate for patients or practitioners at the micro level. Coordination is essential to make consistent decisions among levels and incorporate the concerns of patients, providers and payers.
CMA upholds a second principle concerning the decision making framework.
Quality of care and ethical and economic factors must be considered when decisions about core and comprehensive health care services are made.
Quality of care
Effectiveness, efficiency, appropriateness and patient acceptance are elements of quality of care. To be considered a core medical service, a medical service must be of high quality (i.e., it addresses effectively a health concern or condition through improved health outcomes and is delivered efficiently, appropriately and in a manner acceptable to patients) as well as fulfilling ethical and economic criteria. A medical service that is shown to be of little effectiveness cannot be delivered efficiently or poses many problems for patient safety or acceptance is less "medically necessary" than services that meet the quality of care criteria. Such a service is therefore unlikely to become or remain a core medical service.
The adoption of evidence-based medicine such as through the use of clinical practice guidelines (CPGs) is a key component of quality improvement. CPGs are based on a systematic review of experience and research, and they help physicians to make decisions about necessary care. CPGs that are well developed and appropriately evaluated may also help to define core health care services. CPGs are also tools for the pursuit of quality, to maximize effective care and to reduce waste and ineffective activity in a given service, resulting in savings.
Clinical research is a key aspect of improvement in quality of care. Such research focuses on the effectiveness and impact of health care services on health outcomes. Procedures that demonstrate better outcomes than others should be included in a core health care package, whereas those that demonstrate inferior outcomes may be limited or excluded in some instances. When applying the concept of core health care services, provision must be made for ongoing evaluation of the quality of current services and appropriate assessment of new ones.
While it is important that the decision-making framework be evidence-based to the greatest extent possible, it should not be evidence-bound - that is, decisions may still need to be made from limited evidence.
Balancing finite fiscal resources and high quality medical and other health care services requires explicit societal choices about which services will be publicly funded (and for whom), which can be purchased and which will not be available at all in the Canadian system. These issues are ethical ones because they involve rights, responsibilities and societal values.
Whether decisions about resource allocation are made at the macro, meso or micro level, they must be fair. This means that those likely to be affected by a decision, whether they are patients, providers or payers, must have adequate opportunity for input into the decision-making process and must be informed about the reasons for the decisions.
When the availability of a health care service is inadequate to meet the demand, the criteria for allocating it should be fair and explicit. One such criterion is medical need: even if not all needed services can be publicly funded, services that are clearly unnecessary should not be funded in this way. Funding decisions should be nondiscriminatory; decisions about which health care services should or should not be publicly funded should not be based on age, sex, race, lifestyle and other personal and social characteristics of the potential recipients of a service.
Economic factors (Cost-effectiveness)
The level of public funding for health care services is ultimately a societal decision, as discussed in the section on ethical factors. Once such a societal decision has been made, economic factors are useful in determining the allocation of resources among health care services, especially in times of fiscal restraint.
There are various economic methods for evaluating funding decisions, the most common of which is cost effectiveness analysis. This approach suggests that decisions to insure a particular service should take into account cost in relation to outcome, e.g., cost per quality-adjusted life-year. Services that have a low cost for a significant gain in effectiveness may be more acceptable for public funding than others. This approach cannot be used in isolation; quality of care and ethical considerations must be taken into account before a final determination of the source of funding for core or comprehensive health care services is made.
Determination of which health care services are to be included in or excluded from a publicly financed health insurance plan should also incorporate an economic analysis of the primary and secondary effects on both the patient and provider populations. Some of the factors that should be included in such an analysis are: availability of substitutes, discretionary income, availability of private insurance, direct and indirect costs of service provision, barriers to entry and the existence of fixed global budgets. Economic analyses also include measurement of the opportunity costs, in terms of foregone services, associated with public financing of health care services. When possible, the public's needs should be distinguished from its wants for the purposes of public policy and funding.
From a clinical perspective, providers have always addressed patient needs on a case-by-case basis. However, fiscal restraint and the rationalization of health care services often result in the onus being placed on the provider to make micro resource allocation decisions. Local decisions (i.e., at the hospital and community level) about the rationalization of health care resources can restrict providers' ability to deliver services and patients' ability to receive them. Therefore, it is critical that the patient and provider perspectives be included in any economic analysis undertaken to define core health care services.
As enunciated in its policy statement, Federal Health Financing, the CMA will urge the federal government to ensure that full funding be available to support provincial and territorial provision of core medical services.
Nevertheless, there remain concerns regarding how the comprehensiveness principle is being interpreted. First, the array of core services varies considerably among the provinces/territories (e.g., prescription drug coverage). Second, the basket of core health services needs to be modernized to reflect Canadians' emerging health needs and how health care is now being delivered (e.g,. more out-patient care).
While a degree of latitude is required to accommodate differing regional needs, core services should be available to all Canadians on uniform terms and conditions and should not be limited to physician and hospital services. There should be ongoing periodic monitoring and reporting of the comparability of Canadians' access to a full range of medically necessary health services across the country.
Furthermore, there is a need for a federal/provincial/territorial process that is transparent, accountable, evidence-based and inclusive to regularly update the basket of core services. CMA will work with provincial/territorial medical associations and other stakeholders to develop a process for defining a national list of core medical services.
Greater transparency is required when de-insuring services, including the need for consultation and providing an adequate notice period for patients, providers and funders.
A new framework is also required to govern the funding of a basket of core health services that allows at least some core services to be cost-shared under uniform terms and conditions in all provinces and territories.
Federal Health Financing (Update 2008)
The Canadian Medical Association believes that financial support from the federal government for health care should provide the following:
* The maintenance and improvement of standards of health care service across Canada.
* The financial stability necessary to effectively plan health care delivery and flexibility in spending across Canada to respond to local circumstances, emerging health needs, and new patient-care modalities.
* The indexing of federal health cash payments to provinces and territories to reflect changes in population growth, ageing, epidemiology, current knowledge, new technology and economic growth.
* Greater accountability, visibility and improved linkages of services to users.
* Greater equity across the provinces and territories in the ability to finance necessary health care programs.
* The joint policy discussions necessary to address health issues of national importance.
The CMA is committed to preserving the right of reasonable access to high-quality health care regardless of ability to pay. It is also committed to achieving national health care standards (accessibility, universality, portability, comprehensiveness and public administration) and to developing health goals to ensure that all Canadians receive the best possible care when required. The CMA supports the goal of maintaining the national integrity of the health care system. It encourages the federal government to be sensitive to the concerns of equity, and to ensure that provinces and territories that have not attained a level of health care services and facilities equivalent to those of other provinces and territories, because of fiscal incapacities, have access to additional funding requirements to reduce the gap. The CMA recognizes that flexibility in spending across Canada is important to respond to changing health care needs and changes in the delivery of health care, as is the necessity of joint policy discussions to address health issues of national importance. Stability in funding is viewed as the mechanism to achieving effective health care planning.
Over 50 years of federal financing
In 1957 and 1966, the federal government introduced the Hospital Insurance and Diagnostic Services Act and Medicare Act. These programs reflected the federal government's desire to implement 50-50 basis with the provinces for the funding of hospital and physician services. The federal support was program specific, with contributions determined to be about half the national average of per-capita expenditures on health care. This provided greater assistance to provinces with lower per-capita costs.
In 1977, the funding arrangement was replaced by the negotiated Established Programs Financing (EPF) arrangements. The new "block-funding" agreement established a predetermined level of financial contributions by the federal government that was linked to the rate of change of gross national product (GNP) and changes in the provincial/territorial populations. It is important to note that federal transfers are comprised of cash and tax points.
The objectives of the EPF arrangements as set out by the Prime Minister in June 1976, were (a) to maintain across Canada the standards of service to the public under these major programs, and to facilitate their improvement; (b) to put the programs on a more stable footing, so that both levels of government are better able to plan their expenditures; (c) to give the provinces the flexibility of in the use of their own funds which they have been spending in these fields; (d) to bring about greater equity among the provinces with regard to the amount of federal funds that they receive under the program; and (e) to provide for continuing joint policy discussions relating to the health and post-secondary education fields.
The need for funding predictability
Over the course of their existence, the EPF arrangements were amended four times - 1982 (Bill C-97), 1984 (Bill C-96), 1989 (Bill C-33) and 1991(Bill C-69). These changes resulted in freezes in the growth of federal health transfers and created a period of funding uncertainty for provinces and territories.
On April 1, 1996, the federal government introduced the Canada Health and Social Transfer (CHST) which combined two transfer programs, EPF and the Canada Assistance Plan into one transfer program for insured health services, post secondary education and social assistance programs. Cash payments under the CHST were subject to the five program criteria of the Canada Health Act (1984) - accessibility, portability, comprehensiveness, and public administration as well as the single condition that the province/territory must provide social assistance to applicants without a minimum residency requirement.
In combining these programs the federal government used the opportunity to cut cash entitlements to the provinces/territories from $18.5 billion per year 1995-1996 to a low of $11.1 billion per year in 1999-2000. However, due to improving economic conditions and a rapidly impending balanced budget, the federal government announced in its September 1997 Throne Speech that it would be increasing the cash floor to $12.5 billion per year in 1998-1999 to 2002-2003. This measure was announced in the 1998-1999 budget; however, rather than an increase in funding, it was merely a partial reversal in cash reductions to the provinces/territories.
Targeted federal financing
Since 2000, the federal government has increased the use of targeted investments and in the health arena.
On Sept. 11, 2000, First Ministers issued a Communiqué on Health announcing a series of investments, over five years, which focused on health and other social programs. The CHST cash floor was "increased" by $2.5 billion effective April 1, 2001.
The February 2003 Budget in support of that year's First Ministers' Accord on Health Care Renewal confirmed: (1) a two-year extension to 2007-2008 of the five-year legislative framework put in place in September 2000, with an additional $1.8 billion; (2) a $2.5 billion CHST supplement, giving provinces the flexibility to draw down funds as they require up to the end of 2005-2006; and (3) the restructuring of the CHST to create a separate Canada Health Transfer and a Canada Social Transfer effective April 1, 2004, in order to increase transparency and accountability.
In September 2004, First Ministers signed an agreement on health care that included commitments to reduce wait times, address gaps in health human resources, expand home care, continue efforts in primary care reform, implement a national pharmaceutical strategy, and develop national public health goals.
To support the new agreement, the federal government committed to increase health funding by a total of $18 billion over 6 years or $41 billion over 10 years. This includes:
* $3 billion to close the "short-term Romanow gap;"
* $500 million for home care and catastrophic coverage;
* $4.5 billion for a Wait Time Reduction Fund;
* $1 billion for health human resources (to be transferred in last four years of agreement);
* $500 million for medical equipment; and
* a 6% escalator for the Canada Health Transfer.
The 2007 budget provided over one billion additional dollars for the health care system mainly through a $612 million investment to accelerate the implementation of patient wait-time guarantees, $400 million for Canada Health Infoway to support the further development of health information systems and electronic records, and $300 million for a vaccine program to protect women and girls against cancer of the cervix.
Clarifying responsibilities and accountability
The 2007 budget made reference to the federal government's constitutional responsibilities for health care and stressed an increased concern of accounting for federal health transfers to the provinces/territories.
The Oct. 16, 2007 Speech from the Throne, to open the second session of the 39th Parliament of the Government of Canada, included a commitment to introduce legislation that would place formal limits on the use of the federal spending power for new cost-shared programs in areas of provincial/territorial jurisdiction, and would also provide an opt-out option with compensation for provinces and territories if they offer compatible programs.
The main foundation for this proposal is set out in the Feb. 4, 1999 Social Union Framework Agreement (SUFA), in which the federal government gave several undertakings with regard to new "Canada-wide initiatives" in areas of provincial jurisdiction:
* collaboration with provincial/territorial governments to identify priorities and objectives;
* not to introduce new initiatives without agreement of a majority of provincial governments;
* provincial/territorial governments to determine detailed program design and mix;
* provincial/territorial governments can reinvest any funds not needed to deliver objectives;
* federal/provincial/territorial governments to agree on accountability framework; and
* funding to be contingent on meeting or committing to objectives specified in accountability framework.
The most notable application of SUFA principles in respect of new programs to date has been the Sept. 15, 2004 Asymmetrical Federalism that Respects Quebec's Jurisdiction Agreement in which Quebec agreed to develop and implement its own plan to attain the objectives of the First Ministers' 10-Year Plan to Strengthen Health Care, and to report progress to Quebecers using comparable indicators, mutually agreed to with other governments.
The accountability framework set out in SUFA would appear to be the linchpin of assuring the national character of any future health programs. Its implementation has thus far been a failure. While governments did agree to common indicators in 2000 and 2003, and did produce them in 2002 and 2004, they have been resistant to any attempts at comparability/benchmarking between jurisdictions and they failed to produce them at all in 2006. The Health Council of Canada lamented this lack of cooperation in its 2007 annual report.
Ensuring federal health financing is responsive to Canadians' health needs
The CMA believes that the federal government has a special responsibility for financing health care. The development of the health care financing system on a cooperative federal/provincial/territorial basis has many merits. It has resulted in the clear perception that the federal government has an obligation to ensure that reasonably comparable, high quality health care services are available, on a reasonably comparable basis, to all Canadians.
Through its financial contributions in support of the 2000, 2003 and 2004 health accords, the federal government has effectively restored the cuts made to federal health transfers during the early 1990s. However, health care which is now at 40 per cent of total provincial/territorial program spending continues to grow. The CMA must remain vigilant to ensure that the federal government continues to provide stable, predictable and adequate funding necessary to maintain and improve the standards of health care service across Canada. This federal funding should provide for a system that is effective, efficient and responsible.
With respect to the broader continuum of care, the future of Medicare is uncertain. While the federal government's role in funding health care remains tied to the Canada Health Act, Medicare must be modernized to reflect the current and future reality of the delivery of care. In 1975, just after Medicare was fully adopted, hospital and physician expenditures represented 60% of total health expenditures; as of 2006, this share has dropped by almost one-third to 43%. Over the past two decades, prescription drugs, as a proportion of total health spending, have doubled from 7% in 1986 to an estimated 14.2% in 2006. While a majority of Canadians have prescription drug coverage from either private or public plans, it is estimated that some 3.5 million are either uninsured or underinsured for prescription drug costs.
However, there is a clear consensus on the need for catastrophic prescription drug coverage and a growing concern about how to address the issue of very costly "orphan" drugs for rare diseases, and expensive treatments for common diseases such as breast cancer. In 2003, First Ministers committed to having catastrophic drug coverage in place by the end of 2005-2006, and while this is one of the elements of the National Pharmaceuticals Strategy, little collective action has taken place beyond further study. Similarly a 2003 commitment by First Ministers to first-dollar coverage for a basket of short-term acute home care, community mental health and end-of-life care services remains unmet.
The issue of long-term care of the elderly also looms on the horizon as the first cohort of the baby boom generation turns 65 in 2011. Indeed hospitals are already feeling the pinch of a lack of alternative level of care beds. International experience suggests that long-term care cannot nor should not be financed on the same pay-as-you-go basis as medical/hospital insurance.
Innovative approaches will be required to provide funding for the broader continuum of care (see CMA Policy Statement, It's Still About Access: Medicare Plus). We can expect to continue to see a mix of public and private plans and out-of-pocket payments (e.g., co-payments) and greater use of tax policy. This is the experience of most European and other industrialized countries. In Canada and internationally, the prospects for additional health programs funded on a first-dollar basis out of general taxation revenues are slim. In its 2007 budget, the federal government introduced a Registered Disability Savings Plan to help parents of children with a severe disability to ensure their children's future financial security by investing after-tax income on which the investment income will accumulate tax-free. Consideration should be given to implementing a similar contributions-based program for long-term care as is found in some other countries.
Another possibility would see the creation of a Canada Extended Health Services Financing Act that would provide a mechanism for sustainable federal funding to support provinces and territories providing necessary health services in the home and community setting. Such legislation would be based on a series of principles supported by Canadians to meet their health care needs.
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.