Patient Accountability II

In January, I wrote a brief introductory essay on the reasons I feel patients must be included as full partners in health care, having not just the right to good care, but also responsibility for certain facets of the health care system.  There were so many comments and concerns raised by that introduction that I felt it was important to follow up with a bit more information to think about and clarification of why, in my view, patients need to be full partners in accountability.

One of the striking facts about the Canadian provincial health plans is that government documents and websites highlight patients’ rights and never mention patients’ responsibilities. I looked through the documents for each province and territory. Here are links from the British Columbia website and an Ontario government website for new immigrants as examples. I attempted to find a document for Ontario similar to the British Columbia Document, but this did not seem to exist, except for new Canadians. The document for new Canadians does list responsibilities but I was struck by the fact that the website also contains this phrase: “You are entitled to all of the patient rights that are described in Ontario laws, even if you do not follow these “responsibilities.”  The other document I have included is a Government of Canada comparative overview of patients’ bills of rights from around the world. Note once again that rights are noted without mentioning responsibilities.

Contrast this with the fact that other countries with a publicly funded system do list both patients’ rights and responsibilities. This is also true of many physician practice groups in Canada and hospitals. Both hospitals and physicians’ practices absorb the costs in their budgets if time or resources are not productive. In my hospital’s Youth Psychiatry program, missed appointments or late arrivals mean delays for another patient’s assessment or treatment. That’s why we have a rule that, if a patient misses more than two appointments without 24 hours’ notice, we close the file. Given that Ontario’s healthcare budget covers the cost of the therapy provided in the Youth Program, most patients and their families understand that missed appointments affect access to care and accept the rule.

The emphasis of patients’ rights, in the absence of a consideration of any responsibilities, makes physicians uneasy. It also makes many physicians, including me, feel as though the responsibility for stewardship of the system is not shared by patients.

All physicians have days when we feel as though every appointment consists of reviewing with patients that the tests they want are unnecessary and treatments they would like are proven to be ineffective. Physicians honestly want to follow best practices, and improve system efficiencies and these discussions with patients about necessity prove that. Physicians could have much less conflict in our days if we just agreed to order every blood test, consultation or x-ray that patients request. At the same time, every physician I know is very understanding when a person’s living conditions or financial situation make it impossible for them to follow the recommendations they’ve received for examinations or treatment.

One reader of my last Patient Accountability essay commented that defining patients’ responsibilities was a “slippery slope” to blaming patients for their health problems. My experience is that anything less than a full discussion of a patient’s history, examination and diagnosis, along with an outline of the best practices for further tests and treatment is a “slippery slope” to an old style of medicine in which the patient was expected to “do what the doctor ordered”. That kind of paternalism is no longer acceptable in medical practice. The standard of care today is to review the diagnosis and recommended tests and treatments thoroughly so that patients understand the options for further evaluation and treatment and consider with their doctor and other care providers what would best for them. Patients no longer want to be patronized by the doctors providing their care.

Canadians are aware that their much-celebrated health care system is not keeping up with demand and it would be a relief for most people to know that there was something they could do to preserve and improve their health care. We are all aware that many Canadians can no longer afford necessary medications, but we also realize as our national and provincial deficits increase that we cannot spend away the health care system.  Providing good care in the context of excellent information about best practices is what all doctors try to do. My experience with patients is that they want this information so that they can do whatever it takes to get well. How is that not taking responsibility? Why can governments in Canada not accept that this is the right thing to do?

Patient Accountability: Is it reasonable?

I am puzzled by Canadian federal and provincial governments’ collective reluctance to make patients partners in their own healthcare by expecting them to accept certain responsibilities for their own health and for the sustainability of the healthcare system. Why does it seem unreasonable to governments to ask citizens to meet a minimal set of expectations in relation to health care? All Canadians pay taxes, follow traffic laws and remember to get their passports renewed. Why would they not manage similar expectations in relation to their healthcare? Healthcare is thought to be a right by many Canadians – don’t we expect to have responsibilities related to rights? Why wouldn’t we be as accountable for our health care as we are for our taxes?

The issue of patient accountability is important for me as a physician. Whenever I see resistance by the government to patients accepting reasonable accountability, it feels as though the government is saying that the responsibility for the sustainability of the health care system mostly rests with frontline providers, especially physicians.

The Government of Ontario seems to like many aspects of Kaiser Permanente’s model for health care delivery so I thought I would see what Kaiser expects of patients registered in their programs, just to see how far-fetched my notions of patient accountability are. This is a link to the section of Kaiser Permanente’s website called Your Rights and Responsibilities. The section has a list, first of all, of rights. A quick read through this will show that these are the same expectations of any Ontarian of the Ontario Health Insurance Plan, although some of these include such statements as: “Receive emergency services when you, as a prudent layperson, acting reasonably, would have believed that an emergency medical condition existed.” The next portion is about patients’ responsibilities as a client of Kaiser Permanente. There are sixteen expectations in all, grouped under three broad categories: Promote your own good health; Know and understand your plan and benefits; Promote respect and safety for others. All are reasonable; all would be easily adaptable to the Ontario situation.

So what is the big deal? Unfortunately, Minister Hoskins has often said that health care is “free” – he did this last flu season, suggesting patients get their “free” flu shot at their nearest pharmacy. Leaving aside the fact that health care is not at all “free” from a financial perspective, it sounds as though governments believe that “free” should also mean “free from any inconvenience or expectation of the patient”. But we don’t say this for other government programs – try being free from the “voluntary” aspect of your income tax, or paying a parking ticket. You’ll soon learn that the government has ways of making you meet these expectations. When health care is the single largest budget item for a provincial government, why not expect the same attention to missed medical appointments, or seeing multiple doctors through walk-in clinics? It almost seems as though the government knows that this is one of those places where you can let someone else be the bad guy. You can let me be the one to say, “You missed two appointments with no notice and, as you were told at the outset, we will not continue to see you at the clinic if you miss appointments without letting us know.”

Now that Ontario’s ability to provide health care is being limited by the resources available to fund it, now that all other efficiencies in the system have been found, is it not time to turn to patients to ask them to contribute to the system? Is it not time to say, “There are some ways you could make the system more sustainable”? This is true in Ontario, but it’s also true in the rest of Canada as well.

The Ontario government is so desperate to find resources for health care that cuts to both physician and hospital services are continuing. However, it seems that legislators are not so desperate as to risk the anger of voters by asking patients to be accountable for those elements of health care that they control. I think that most citizens are committed enough to the health care system that they would welcome the chance to make it better. As baby boomers see how cutbacks are affecting health care, either through their own experience or that of family members, they are realizing that there is a role for them to play. It’s time to ask everyone to embrace accountability.

Patient Accountability

The Ottawa Citizen published my letter on patient accountability. This is one very important aspect of the tentative Physician Services Agreement, that the government finally acknowledges a need for patients to take responsibility for their own healthcare.

Here is the text of the letter:

Thank you to Mr. Reevely for interviewing Dr. Walley and reporting so reasonably on the tentative Physician Services Agreement.

 I do want to take issue with Mr. Reevely’s characterization of “patient accountability” as “code for giving people reasons to go to the doctor less”. To me and my colleagues, this means that my patients will be asked to take some responsibility for their health care and its cost. It means they will ensure that their health card is up to date, that they will go to their own doctor’s after hours clinic and not a walk-in clinic, that they will honour their specialist appointments. My physician colleagues and I believe that patients should realize the role of unnecessary tests and procedures in driving costs in the system and work with their doctors to limit these.  Most of my patients understand this. Since the sixteen year olds who are my patients understand these concerns, I believe everyone will. 

Including patients as accountable partners in health care is very important for the sustainability of the health system.