Mandatory reporting of health professionals: has COAG delivered on its promise?

On the one hand patients must be certain that health practitioners are fit to practice in a competent and ethical manner, but on the other hand practitioners should be able to seek treatment without fear of being reported, penalised or losing their jobs. Has the Council of Australian Governments (COAG) found the right balance?

The National Law contains mandatory reporting obligations for registered health practitioners, employers and education providers to protect patients. However, if you’re for example a midwife, psychologist, pharmacist, doctor or student with a mental health condition, it can be a challenging decision to seek help. Many don’t out of fear that the treating practitioner may believe they have to notify authorities.

Concerns have been raised that practitioners and students don’t seek or delay treatment – and when they seek care, there may be a reluctance to be open and honest with the treating practitioner, leading to suboptimal treatment eventually putting the health and safety of the practitioner and the public at risk.

For years the AMA, RACGP and other professional bodies have argued that the regulation needs to change to ensure health practitioners can, just like others, seek help.

In October 2018 an Amendment Bill was introduced to the Queensland Parliament, which if passed will automatically be applicable to most other States and Territories. The Bill introduces a higher threshold for mandatory reporting in an attempt to give registered health practitioners greater confidence to seek treatment for health issues.

Western Australia exempts treating practitioners from mandatory reporting for all forms of notifiable conduct if their patient is a registered health practitioner. The WA model or similar has always been the preferred option of health providers. There is no evidence to suggest patient safety in WA is worse.

In addition to mandatory reporting requirements, practitioners have ethical and professional obligations to report other practitioners who may pose a risk to the public.

Brief history

On 13 April 2018, after the COAG Health Council meeting in Sydney, the federal, state and territory Health Ministers, issued a press release stating that the law regarding mandatory reporting of health professionals would be strengthened ‘to remove barriers for registered health professionals to seek appropriate treatment for impairments including mental health.’

The ministers further agreed to a nationally consistent approach to mandatory reporting which would propose exemptions from the reporting of notifiable conduct by treating practitioners, noting Western Australia’s current arrangements would be retained.

Explicitly mentioned in the COAG press release was the fact that in WA health practitioners in a treating relationship based on the reasonable belief can make a voluntary notification as part of their ethical obligations in relation to any type of misconduct.

Health Ministers agreed that the reforms should ensure that registered health practitioners can seek help when needed, but must also protect the public from harm. On 12 October 2018, COAG Health Council approved the reforms to mandatory reporting by treating practitioners in the Amendment Bill. The WA model was not adopted.

The Council concluded that the amendments would achieve the right balance between encouraging practitioners with an impairment to feel confident that they can seek treatment, while protecting the public from harm by requiring treating practitioners to make mandatory reports about other registered health practitioners that pose a substantial risk of harm to the public or are engaging in sexual misconduct in connection with the practice of their profession.

What’s good?

A treating practitioner will only be required to make a mandatory report if their practitioner-patient’s conduct involving impairment, intoxication or departure from professional standards meets a higher threshold of risk of placing the public at substantial risk of harm (this threshold does not apply to mandatory reporting of sexual misconduct).

Only serious impairments that are not being appropriately managed through treatment or mitigation strategies need to be reported if the safety of patients would be at risk.

The amendments also include guidance factors; in considering whether the public is at substantial risk of harm, a treating practitioner may consider the following matters relating to an impairment of the health practitioner or student:

  • the nature, extent and severity of the impairment;
  • the extent to which the health practitioner or student is taking, or is willing to take, steps to manage the impairment;
  • the extent to which the impairment can be managed with appropriate treatment;
  • any other matter the treating practitioner considers is relevant to the risk of harm the impairment poses to the public.

According to the explanatory note a treating practitioner may make an overall assessment about a practitioner-patient’s conduct relating to impairment, intoxication or departure from professional standards in deciding whether a mandatory report should be made. All three types of conduct are measured against the same threshold for reporting.

If an impairment issue is connected to, or a significant cause of, intoxication or departure from professional standards, a treating practitioner is able to take into account the effectiveness of treatment or engagement in treatment of an impairment by the practitioner-patient in deciding whether there is likely to be an ongoing risk of harm to the public.

“Also, in cases where an impairment may be impacting on, or causing, instances of intoxication at work or departure from professional standards, a treating practitioner may consider the guidance factors related to the impairment first, such as the extent to which treatment is likely to be successful and the practitioner-patient’s engagement with treatment. If the treating practitioner is satisfied the impairment issue is being managed appropriately and does not reach the threshold of ‘substantial risk of harm’, the treating practitioner would not be required to make a mandatory report for the impairment.

“The treating practitioner could then consider, in light of the impairment issue being managed, whether future instances of intoxication at work or departure from professional standards are likely to recur. If, given appropriate management of the impairment, they are not likely to recur, the mandatory reporting threshold of ‘substantial risk of harm’ would not be met. In this way, the current provisions provide adequate flexibility for a holistic assessment of risk.

“It would be possible for a practitioner to have a substance abuse or dependence disorder, but it may be something that only affects their personal life or only occurs while they are away from their workplace. This type of conduct should be considered as an ‘impairment’ for which it is appropriate to apply the guidance factors. However, the risks associated with a practitioner being intoxicated at work are considered significant, so that if a treating practitioner becomes aware that a person is practising while intoxicated, they should be subject to mandatory reporting if their conduct reaches the threshold.

Source: Health Practitioner Regulation National Law and Other Legislation Amendment Bill 2018 — Explanatory Note.

The explanatory note further states that the guidance factors included in the legislation send a clear signal to practitioners and students that, provided they are engaged in treatment and willing to take steps to address their impairment, a treating practitioner is not required to make a mandatory report, unless the safety of patients would be at risk.

Seeking treatment may indeed become easier as the explanatory note of bill explicitly states that the test of ‘substantial risk of harm’ is not intended to require reporting of low-level or trivial types of harm or mere inconvenience. Only serious impairments which are not being appropriately treated are intended to require reporting. This means that harm would need to be ‘material’ to reach the threshold of ‘substantial risk of harm’.

What’s not so good?

Some have argued that although the wording ‘substantial risk of harm’ may have increased the risk threshold, the harm threshold is low, and it appears that all levels of harm, including trivial harm and inconvenience, need to be reported even though the explanatory note states the opposite.

The explanation may be reassuring but the bill itself raises questions. The wording has the potential to create confusion around the interpretation of the legislation and, worse, may prevent health practitioners from seeking help or being open and honest with their treating practitioner.

Doctors and other health workers have the highest suicide rate in Australia’s white-collar workforce. Legislation is of course not the cause of mental illness and suicide and we need to continue to look at other factors, including our professional cultures and how we communicate and treat each other. This is a shared responsibility of the profession and policy makers.

It remains vital that health practitioners can seek help without fear of repercussion no matter where they live and work. The Health Practitioner Regulation National Law and Other Legislation Amendment Bill 2018 is a welcome step in the right direction, but there is room for improvement if the COAG Health Council wants to deliver on its promise to remove barriers for registered health professionals to seek appropriate treatment for impairments including mental health.

Doctors from overseas

“G’day doc, I’m right off me tucker and crook azadog. Yesterday arvo me neighbour said it’s just the collywobbles but crikey, he’s mad as a cut snake so I thought I’d better find out what the doc has to say. I know youse are flat out but waddaya reckon, she’ll be right? I feel weak as a wet whistle. Not droppin off the perch yet am I? Probably just old age. Howyagoin anyway, settlinin all right? Gotta love the top end mate, heaps better than the big smoke.”

When I arrived in Australia – in Cooktown of all places – one of my biggest challenges was understanding the accent and the slang. I also struggled with basic expressions. I remember being invited ‘for tea’ one night – so after dinner I went over expecting a cup of tea or coffee only; to my surprise our host had prepared a delicious roast. On another occasion I was asked ‘to bring a plate’; I took a few plates and, just to be sure, some cups and cutlery too.

I thought the communication was problematic because I come from a non-English speaking country. It turned out that most immigrants struggle with language, communication and the often slightly different meaning of common expressions, not to mention the bureaucratic jargon. For example, as doctor Jennifer May wrote in the Medical Journal of Australia, a term such as ‘reciprocal recognition of qualifications’ has a different meaning in different jurisdictions.

The first six months were a crash course in ‘Strine’. The patients were wonderful and seemed to strangely feel sorry for the new overseas doctor in town. They taught me all the basics; some gave me Australian slang dictionaries and Indigenous Australians told me stories about their culture. Still, it took a few years before I could fully understand most conversations.

The preparation

For most immigrants the challenges begin long before entry to Australia. The paperwork and background checks required by the Australian government and healthcare organisations – which can take one to two years to complete – are only a small part.

Croc drama: A crocodile dragged a fisherman from his tent on the riverbank and a woman jumped on its back in an attempt to stop the giant reptile. Source: Cooktown Local News

Even though the decision to emigrate is mostly a voluntary one, and it is a privilege to be welcomed to Australia, it doesn’t mean that there are no downsides. Emigrating doctors and their families have to give up their lives in the home country and say goodbye to loved-ones, familiar neighbourhoods, cultures, customs and careers.

It is not uncommon for overseas doctors and their family members to experience some adjustment problems. Many tears have been shed when settling in a remote Australian outback town or new suburb. It can be stressful when a spouse struggles or the children have problems at the local school.

Often well-established and respected at home, immigrant doctors start all over again. They are initially temporary residents with limited rights and no access to Medicare. Their medical registration is conditional, they have to work in places where many Australian trained health professionals don’t want to work, and their future is uncertain and dependent on passing health checks, police checks, language tests, assessments and exams.

My arrival in Cooktown reported in the local newspaper (2004). Full story below.

It can be difficult to negotiate employment conditions or discuss real or perceived injustices – as a conflict may lead to cancellation of sponsorship or visa. Financial challenges are common as starting over in a new country does not come cheap. There are all sorts of legal and tax problems, such as dual taxation. I had to give up my Dutch citizenship when I became an Australian citizen.

For the immigrant there is always ‘the other world’ of their home country. They often use the holidays to fly ‘home’ and visit family and friends for a few weeks, which is joyful but can be intense and emotional. Migrants may never feel one hundred percent part of the Australian society and at the same time they often don’t fit in anymore in the home country, which can affect their sense of belonging and create feelings of loneliness.

Rural medicine

For me another culture shock was rural medicine. The contrast with Amsterdam, where I trained as a doctor, could not have been greater. I quickly had to learn about tropical diseases, snake bites and Irukandji – just to name a few. Shortly after I arrived a 4.2 meter saltwater crocodile dragged a fisherman from his tent on the riverbank when a woman jumped on its back to stop the giant reptile; the story appeared in all the newspapers.

Although many of the medical textbooks back home were written in English, learning to speak the medical jargon in another language was yet another challenge. Names and doses of commonly used drugs differ between countries, not to mention the different guidelines.

I was able to do a few up skilling courses including trauma and emergency medicine and with assistance from helpful and skilled colleagues – sometimes over the phone – and a great nursing team, we were able to manage many problems locally. I am grateful for all those who have welcomed and taught me over the years – patients, staff, nurses, fellow doctors and others.

Not unique

For a long time I thought my ‘adventures’ were unique but over the years I learned about similar stories, not only from overseas doctors but also from Australian graduates, all struggling during their first placements in rural and regional hospitals and GP practices.

These stories are often tales of incredible resilience and courage and what always amazes me is to hear how valued health professionals are in their communities – even though we may often feel ill-prepared or have doubts about our skills and knowledge.

The demands on doctors in small towns can be high, not seldom 24 hours per day. Working towards another degree or fellowship is taxing for anyone, but for international medical graduates coming from a different background there are many extra challenges. The working hours and fatigue don’t go well with training and exam preparation.

The workload and the tyranny of distance can make supervision suboptimal; there is often limited support and the amount of bureaucracy can be perceived as overwhelming.

On the bright side, there are many people who warmly welcome and support the newcomers. Professional bodies and colleges offer introductory, support and exam preparation programs, but often the local and individual initiatives make the difference. An example is Dr Farooq Ahmad who, after passing his Australian fellowship exam, decided to support others and has helped hundreds of doctors pass their exams.

In the video below Kenyan born Dr Ken Wanguhu describes the importance of being welcomed by a community as well as the rewards of contributing and ‘giving back’.

Concerns

Although many areas of Australia are relying heavily on international medical graduates, not everyone is happy with the influx of doctors from overseas. Critics of the Australian skilled immigration policy have often mentioned the ‘brain drain effect’ on developing countries: the recruitment of healthcare professionals compromises the, often already struggling, healthcare systems in the developing world.

Concerns have publicly been expressed about doctors from non-Western training backgrounds and the uncertainty around standards and relevance of knowledge and skills to the Australian situation.

The regulation changed in the aftermath of the Dr Jayant Patel case. Dr Patel, nicknamed ‘Dr Death’, was permanently barred from practising medicine in Australia in 2015. Legislation introduced in 2009 now protects patients by ensuring that only health practitioners who are suitably trained and qualified to practise in a competent and ethical manner can be registered.

This example is not unique to Australia nor to international medical graduates. Many countries have similar stories, think for example about Dr Harold Shipman in the UK and Dr Christopher Duntsch in the US.

Although there is anecdotal evidence that patients sometimes avoid seeking treatment by international medical graduates, research indicates that there is no difference in patient satisfaction with, and acceptance of, care by Australian and international medical graduates.

Diversity

The ‘doctors from overseas’ bring diversity, expertise, experiences, cultures, innovation and stories to Australia. Cross-cultural experience appears to be valuable in many ways; some have argued that immigrants are more entrepreneurial, resilient and creative. Whether this is true or not, one thing is for sure, starting a new life in a different country takes courage and perseverance.

My wife Nancy and I have never looked back. Although we miss our family and friends in The Netherlands, we’re grateful for the opportunities Australia has given us. I can only hope I am able to give back what I have received.

Source: Cooktown Local News (2004).

Pharmacists and doctors: Let’s change the script

This week saw another low point in the communication and relationships between health groups in Australia. We must find a better way.

It began after the release of a report from the Queensland parliamentary inquiry into pharmacy, which recommends that pharmacists should be able to prescribe and dispense ‘low-risk emergency and repeat prescriptions’ and ‘low risk vaccinations’, subject to consultation with a ‘13HEALTH GP’ or checking ‘the patient’s medical record’ through MyHealthRecord.

Medical groups including the AMA and RACGP indicated they will not support the recommendations. This is hardly surprising as the results of the deliberations by the parliamentary committee led by Chair Aaron Harper MP are not based on mutually agreed principles or a collaborative care model.

Although the report repeatedly mentions a shared prescribing model, the recommendations, if implemented, will not result in effective collaboration. For example, checking the MyHealthRecord (which is not always available or complete) or calling a health-line can hardly be seen as supporting team care and collaboration with treating doctors. Cooperation between pharmacists and medical teams should be more than a box ticking exercise.

I believe we can do better than this.

Community pharmacists feel that their scope of practice is restricted and that they can contribute in a more meaningful way to patient care. Medical groups are concerned that more prescribers can lead to fragmentation of care and poor health outcomes, especially in the absence of meaningful collaboration.

Both arguments are valid and should be explored further. There is always a better way but this requires a willingness to work together and find mutually agreed solutions. Indeed, not an easy task, but we can’t leave this to a group of parliamentarians.

I’d also like to think we are able to move beyond strongly worded media releases, open letters, lobbying and political donations.

On a positive note, it was good to see that the Pharmaceutical Society of Australia (PSA) recently organised a low-key summit between medical and pharmacy groups to discuss patient safety. PSA president Shane Jackson said that the summit will seek to develop a set of principles to support respectful and collaborative practice between pharmacists and doctors.

Reaffirming these principles is a useful exercise and a good place to start. My colleague Dr Ashlea Broomfield and I spoke with Shane Jackson about collaborative models of care (listen to the BridgeBuilders podcast here). Although doctors and pharmacists may never agree on everything, which is absolutely fine, we must find a better way forward in the interest of our patients.

Has Australian general practice moved one step closer to the British NHS?

In 2019, the Department of Health, via its practice incentive scheme, will not only start setting the key performance indicators of general practice but also further tighten its grip on practice data. It is not unlikely that the Department’s strategy will create the same issues the National Health Service is currently encountering: loss of patient-centeredness of care, unreasonable KPIs and low doctor morale.

The redesign of the Practice Incentive Program (PIP) has been in the cards for a while. The introduction of a new quality improvement (QI) payment system was deferred for 12 months in May 2018 because of concerns that it was not fit for purpose.

Central role of PHNs

If it goes ahead in May 2019, the impact of the new scheme will be significant. The big change will likely be that Primary Health Networks (PHNs) become exclusive “QI providers” for general practice. This means that they will extract, analyse and store practice data and present GPs with benchmark reports. Many PHNs have already started collecting data in anticipation of the changes.

To be eligible for quality improvement incentive payments, practices will have to demonstrate to PHNs that their performance is on par with the Department’s KPIs. Although analysis and benchmarking of clinical data are becoming increasingly important to improve patient care, there are many issues with the proposed PIP overhaul.

Initially, there was talk about more organisations becoming QI providers, such as the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners (RACGP) and the Improvement Foundation, but, according to Medical Observer, it looks like there will be no profession-led alternative to the PHN model and, as a result, practices will not be given a choice of QI providers.

General practice is at risk of gradually losing control over its quality improvement processes, which will no doubt leave many grassroots GPs dismayed.

Professional buy-in?

The main issue with the scheme is related to professional buy-in. The Department of Health has gone through the usual process of consulting the profession, but it has always been clear that the PIP redesign was going to occur regardless of the opinion of GP groups.

The Department may claim in its communications that the KPIs are supported by the various professional bodies, but the level of engagement, trust and satisfaction with the new QI system will be low for various reasons.

First, this is an example of a top-down government solution, largely designed by the Department of Health. As we have seen with the My Health Record and Health Care Homes, this approach usually creates just as many problems as it is trying to fix.

Similarly, there has been a lack of engagement with the e-health PIP (ePIP) scheme, which requires practices to upload shared health summaries to the My Health Record to remain eligible for incentive payments or ePIP. This may have given the Department a countable number of uploads, but there is no evidence to suggest that it has improved meaningful use of the My Health Record or quality of care in general practice.

Weak evidence

In the PIP redesign process, only payments to practices have survived. For example, the aged care incentive payment to GPs providing care to patients in residential aged care facilities will be scrapped. This incentive is worth $3000–$5000 per doctor. Many have argued that it is incomprehensible that funding benefitting aged care is removed at a time when residential aged care facilities need more support to provide the medical care required.

By stopping these service payments to individual doctors, the incentives will be one step further removed from those who are responsible for the actual quality improvement activities. Again, this does not inspire confidence in the Department’s new QI system.

Measuring performance against KPIs in combination with performance payments will almost certainly create new problems. Quality indicators used by governments around the world are often easy to measure isolated parameters that have limited valuefor complex systems such as general practice.

The evidence to support financial incentives is weak, and the British Quality and Outcomes Framework (QOF) pay-for-performance system has illustrated what can go wrong: QOF has not improved care but did result in the loss of the patient-centredness of care and has created a significant decrease in doctor morale.

No funding priority

The new QI PIP will be subsidised by a shift of funding from other PIP and SIP incentives — which has been labeled as “robbing Peter to pay Paul” by the Australian Medical Association. In 2016, $21 million were removed from the PIP budget to partially fund the Health Care Home trials. The last budget announcements made it clear that there will be no increase in PIP funding in the near future. The PIP scheme, introduced in the 1990s, has never been indexed.

The Department of Health has not yet provided clarity on what the PIP scheme will look like beyond May 2019. This lack of transparency about long term planning creates uncertainty for practices. Although the expectations will start off low, it is to be expected that the Department will adjust the KPIs upwards over time, wanting more for less.

One of the PIP eligibility criteria for practices is accreditation against the RACGP’s Standards for general practices, and it will be interesting to see if upcoming changes to the PIP scheme will affect the percentage of practices that take the effort to go through the accreditation process.

Data extraction

Finally, general practice is not only facing loss of control of quality improvement but is also about to miss out on an opportunity to become custodians of its clinical data. Although the QI PIP data will be extracted from GP practices, it will likely be managed and controlled by PHNs and other government agencies, such as the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare.

When the government defunded the Bettering the Evaluation and Care of Health (BEACH) study in 2016, general practice lost its most important longitudinal source of data. It doesn’t take much imagination to figure out what will happen with the QI PIP data when, in a future reform cycle, PHNs or other government agencies involved are subject to funding cuts or cease to exist altogether.

The Department of Health’s underlying thinking seems to be that the responsibility for quality and data should be taken away from the profession, even though the government’s own data governance practices don’t always inspire confidence.

Professional response

The department should have given professional organisations the responsibility to execute a mutually agreed strategy, acceptable to all parties, including custodianship of data for quality improvement purposes.

Our peak bodies are working hard behind the scenes to negotiate the best possible outcome. It is more important than ever for the profession to work through any differences and present a united front. The question remains, can we stem the tide of increasing departmental control or has general practice definitely moved one step closer to the NHS?

This article was originally published in MJA Insight.

5 ingredients for effective collaboration

Collaboration can be very rewarding. It is often talked about but not easy to achieve, and it doesn’t always make the top of the priority list.

Although it’s not the solution to everything, effective collaboration can be a source of satisfaction and has the potential to make work, and life, more fun. Of course, collaboration does not mean that we have to agree on everything.

I’d like to share some thoughts on the ‘ingredients’ of successful collaboration:

#1: Letting go of control

No one is as smart as all of us, said Ken Blanchard. It’s ok to not have all the answers. In collaborative cultures outcomes are largely dependent on organic group processes. It is important to empower others and trust in the wisdom of the group and diversity of thought.

#2: Celebrating diversity

Interesting things happen when people bring different backgrounds, disciplines, skills and ideas to the table. We need to be open to a dialogue that celebrates differences. This is not always easy as our tendency is to engage with like-minded people.

Diversity improves decision-making as it stimulates critical evaluation and prevents groupthink. Diversity also means accepting that we can have differences of opinion.

#3: Aiming for mutual benefit

In collaborative cultures mutually beneficial solutions become more important than winning and personal gain. We need to attend to the needs of all parties and not just our own.

Consensus improves the quality of decision-making through genuinly addressing individual concerns. Asking questions and finding out what outcome the other party needs is key to finding common ground for agreement.

#4: Formulating shared values or goals

Often we want to jump to the ‘how’ without having explored the ‘why’. Universal values are motivating! They answer the why question and are the reason we get out of bed in the morning. Providing excellent care to our patients is an example of a universal value/goal most of us share.

#5: Building relationships

If we focus on outcomes without investing in relationships, there is a good chance that we will fail. Building trust and relationships are key components of effective collaboration. This is never a once-off tick-box exercise but should be an ongoing activity.

This post was originally published on BridgeBuilders.

It is time to leave the Machiavellian era of Australian healthcare behind

Community pharmacy groups are lobbying for pharmacy prescribing, a topic that has been on the wish list for a long time. Medical groups are concerned about patient safety and fragmentation and are pushing back. Is this Australian conflict model what we want or is there a better way forward?

Some pharmacists want to be able to write prescriptions as they believe it is in the scope of practice of a pharmacist and more convenient for patients.

Examples from abroad are used as an argument why Australia must follow suit. A ‘collaborative prescribing pilot’ is underway and the pharmacy sector is looking forward to the soon-to-be released results.

Pharmacists expect that their proposal will be cost-saving as people will not need to see the family doctor for prescriptions.

Pushback

Not surprisingly, medical groups are upset and believe the proposal is not helpful and not in the best interest of patients.

Doctors are concerned that soon the head doesn’t know what the tail is doing or, in other words, that more prescribers will lead to more fragmentation and adverse health outcomes.

Concerns have been raised that warning signs or significant (mental) health conditions will be missed and screening opportunities lost. Some have also argued that pharmacists prescribing and selling medications at the same time creates commercial conflicts of interest.

As a result there will likely be pushback from medical groups. It is to be expected that when the debate heats up some unpleasant words will be said in the media before the Health Minister of the day makes a decision based on evidence, opinion or political expedience.

Then there will be a loser (usually not the Health Minister) and a winner, and the relationship between pharmacists and doctors remains sour at the expense of patient care.

A better way

This series of events has become a familiar scenario in Australian healthcare. What’s missing is of course a joint strategy or a solution that would benefit both parties as well as our patients (a win-win-win solution).

Community pharmacists play an essential role within primary care teams. The pharmacy sector is under pressure and is attempting to implement strategies to remain viable into the future, such as introducing services currently provided by doctors, nurses and others.

An obvious way forward would be for pharmacists and doctors to explore models that are not competitive but complement each other. This is a joint process that requires broad support from both parties.

We desperately need genuine collaborative models of care, such as pharmacists working in general practice, but there may be other models too.

This is of course easier said than done. It is, however, time to leave the Machiavellian era of Australian healthcare behind. Who’s going to take the first step?

Allegations not proven – but still published?

Would you visit a doctor who has, next to his or her name in the public register, a mention of a court proceeding or tribunal hearing?

Or would you prefer to see another doctor, even if the small print on the register stated ‘allegations not proven’?

I often find the legalese speak on AHPRA’s website difficult to understand. A recent report recommended that the register should include web links to published disciplinary decisions and court rulings – which AHPRA has been implementing.

However, and this is not immediately clear from the explanation on the website, apparently proceedings will also be published when a doctor or other health practitioner was found not guilty.

Complaints that have been dismissed in a tribunal as without merit will still be listed with a link to the relevant court or tribunal ruling, according to this article on DoctorPortal. The issue was also flagged at the national AMA Conference last month.

This measure is meant to ‘build trust between doctors and patients’. I’m not sure it is protecting the public but I can imagine that publishing complaints that have been dismissed is confusing for the public – and can also be misinterpreted.

It has the potential to not only affect the reputation of health professionals unfairly, but also their mental health and general wellbeing.

We need to have another long hard look at this.

Amendment 27-07-2018:

“The Medical Board of Australia (the Board) has decided to publish links to serious disciplinary decisions by courts and tribunals on the public register of practitioners only when there has been an adverse finding against the doctor.

The Board will not publish links from an individual doctor’s entry on the register to public court and tribunal decisions when no adverse finding against the doctor has been made.

The Board has removed links to tribunal decisions in which there was no adverse finding about the doctor that had been published on the register since March 2018.”

http://www.medicalboard.gov.au/News/2018-07-27-board-refines-policy-publishes-disciplinary-links-only-with-adverse-outcomes.aspx

How to upgrade an organisation’s tribal culture

Immature tribal cultures create silos and distrust, and sustain undesired behaviours. How can we change a dominant culture and become more effective?

My mother spent years of her childhood in Tjideng, a Japanese internment camp for women and children run by the cruel Captain Kenichi Sone.

She was born in the former Dutch East Indies, now Indonesia. The Dutch occupied and exploited the country for over four hundred years, but in 1942 things changed dramatically as a result of the Invasion by the Japanese imperial army.

The women in the Japanese internment camps are sometimes called the ‘forgotten women’ of the war in the East. These camps, as well as Dutch colonialism, are some of the worst examples of tribalism.

Tribalism comes of course in many shapes and forms including, as we all know, in the medical world.

Tribes & organisations

Most leaders know that tribal cultures are a key factor in the performance of organisations. Some leaders are experts at creating close-knit cultures, but only a few can change a culture that doesn’t perform optimally.

Tribalism is the natural way we organise ourselves into social groups. Our ‘tribes’ are part of who we are. They offer support, security and a sense of belonging an there’s nothing wrong with that.

However, tribalism can also refer to a false sense of superiority, sometimes leading to exclusion, bullying and discrimination.

We can change a dominant tribal culture and upgrade our organisations to more collaborative, healthy stages. History shows that goal-oriented groups and organisations that work well with others are more successful.

5 tribal cultures

In the book ‘Tribal leadership’, Professor David Logan et al describe five stages of tribal culture. As he points out, the medical profession is only half way, at stage three of five.

Five tribal cultures
The five tribal cultures. Source: Tribal leadership. David Logan, John King, Halee Fischer-Wright 2011

Logan’s tribal stage one is the mindset of gangs and war criminals – people who come to work with weapons. There is hostility and violence and no cohesion.

People working in a stage two culture may have coffee mugs with slogans like: “I hate work,” or “I wish it was Friday”.

There is often a high suspicion of management and authority in general, and team-building efforts are not effective in this culture.

Stage three is the dominant culture in almost half of all organisations, including many professional workplaces. Quite often doctors fall into this category. In stage three it is all about personal success and being the smartest. Stages four and five are the collaborative cultures.

Let’s have a closer look at the most common culture, stage three.

I’m great (and you’re not)

The mantra of stage three is ‘I’m great’, often followed by the unspoken words ‘and you’re not’. There’s a long history in medicine of stage three cultures with a strong focus on individual expertise and success.

Anatomy lesson
The Anatomy Lesson of Dr Nicolaes Tulp, by Rembrandt. Source: Rembrandt Huis.

One of the earliest examples I could find is this well known Rembrandt painting titled, ‘The anatomy lesson of Dr Nicolaes Tulp.’

Dr Tulp was a highly respected surgeon in Amsterdam in the seventeenth century; he is clearly the central figure in this painting. He’s the only one wearing a hat. Sadly but not surprisingly there are no women present.

You could argue that this scene demonstrates the dominant culture of the exclusive Amsterdam Guild of Surgeons. These days, almost four hundred years later, the dominant culture in medicine hasn’t changed all that much.

Professionals working in a stage three culture are often very good at what they do as individuals but what they don’t do is bringing people together.

They may think they are. Interestingly people in stage three often think that they are at one of the collaborative stages. They may talk about collaboration and teamwork – hallmarks of stage four and five – but their actions firmly put them in stage three.

The issue with a stage three culture is that it cannot be fixed – it can only be abandoned. The solution is to move your tribe to the next stage, stage four.

How to upgrade

People working in a stage four culture don’t talk about themselves. They first start listening. It’s no longer about being the smartest or about personal success.

There’s a move from ‘expert’ to ‘partner’. The language used is not “I’m great” but “We’re great”. There’s tribal pride.

Eventually, later in stage four, organisational boundaries become less important and cross-pollination between organisations may occur.

So how do we upgrade our culture from stage three to the more collaborative stage four? Logan describes several principles, including:

  • Focus your team on tribal success instead of personal success
  • Point out the superior results of stage four tribal cultures
  • Describe role models in the organisation that show stage four behaviour, for example people who are talking about ‘we’ instead of ‘me’
  • Encourage transparency and sharing of knowledge & information as much as possible.

There’s one main problem with stage four, reflected in the unspoken sentence that often follows “We’re great,” and that is: “… and you’re not,” referring to other groups or organisations. That’s where stage five comes in.

Stage five is the dominant culture in two percent of work places. In this stage there is no ‘they’.

‘Them & us’ thinking has gone out of the window and there is a focus on inspiring purposes. These are often universal values, taking away the need to compete.

People working in stage five cultures can work with any group that has a commitment to universal core values – even if these values are different from their own.

Effective followership

More collaboration in medicine has many benefits, including for direct patient care, mental health of doctors and healthcare reform.

We always talk about leadership but effective followership is just as important.

Effective followers don’t blame their leaders when things don’t go as planned; instead they offer support and gently, but persistently, steer their leaders in the right direction to help them achieve the organisational goals.

What the medical profession needs is people who build bridges.

I’d encourage you to review your own organisation(s) and look for opportunities to collaborate. Don’t accept non-collaborative cultures.

Find role models and like-minded people, people who talk about ‘we’ instead of ‘me’, and together take your dominant culture to the next level.

This is an adaptation of a presentation given at GPDU18.

Is community pharmacy on a road to nowhere?

If the community pharmacy sector wants to work better with other healthcare providers, something has to change.

Health Minister Greg Hunt recently announced that the Federal Government rejected many of the proposals in the King review of the community pharmacy sector.

This means for example that pharmacies will not be required to separate alternative remedies, including homeopathic products, from evidence-based medicines.

Community pharmacy owners want to be taken seriously as healthcare providers yet, at the same time, they continue to behave like a commercial interest group.

Recent actions of the sector, such as the pro-codeine lobby, raised many eyebrows. Political donations and backdoor lobbying are still the norm in this industry.

Chemist shop model

“The Guild looks forward to continuing our close dialogue with the Government on all matters to do with the sector and community pharmacy’s role,” said Pharmacy Guild President George Tambassis in response to the announcement by Minister Hunt.

And the Guild’s David Quilty stated: “When it comes to pharmacy, the Federal Government has taken the very reasonable approach that when something works very well, why tinker unnecessarily with it?”

These responses speak for themselves.

The question is, does the chemist shop model work ‘very well’, or is it relying on lotions and potions, anti-competitive regulation and protection, lobbying and political donations to stay afloat?

In the Financial Review Stephen Duckett commented, “Once again, the power of sectoral interest groups in Australian health policy is exposed.” And, “Once again, the public interest has lost out.”

I couldn’t agree more.

I’m looking forward to the day the community pharmacy sector shakes its retail sales focus – we need more team players and collaboration.

You can’t have your cake and eat it too

The Practice Incentive Program is shrinking but the government expects new quality improvement systems and general practice data.

Most GPs were underwhelmed, to say the least, when they heard about the changes (read: cuts) to the Practice Incentive Program (PIP). Cutting the funding for nursing home visits is a hard sell for the Department of Health and the Federal Health Minister.

This is the wrong message at a time when there are more elderly people with complex chronic health problems in need of appropriate medical care, preferably in the community.

I have heard about various ‘fixes’, including improvements to the Medicare Benefits Schedule (MBS) schedule (good idea) and introducing nurse practitioners (not necessarily a good idea) – but nothing has been confirmed and it all sounds a bit like policy on the run, not a planned and coordinated strategy.

Quality improvement

The scrapped incentives, including the aged care service incentive payment (SIP), will be used to set up a quality incentive payment system (QI–PIP) in GP practices. There are certainly arguments for supporting an enhanced quality improvement system in general practice, but was it the right decision to sacrifice the aged care payments?

We need practice data to review and improve patient care. I agree with the RACGP position that the development of a QI–PIP should assist general practices to undertake quality improvement activities.

However, the RACGP has also indicated that it will not support measuring performance against key performance indicators (KPIs) or so-called ‘quality indicators’ in combination with performance payments. There is just not enough evidence that this will significantly improve care in the long-run, but there is evidence of harm, including detrimental effects on the doctor–patient relationship and practitioner burnout.

Although we have had verbal assurance from the Department of Health that the new QI–PIP – to be introduced in May next year – will not be a pay-for-performance system, the longer-term plans are unclear. This has raised many concerns and it will hinder business planning for general practices.

Data deal

In return for the quality improvement payments, practices will be required to hand over their patient data to Primary Health Networks (PHNs) under the current proposal. From there, the data will flow to other agencies but – just like the My Health Record data – we have not yet heard for what purposes it will be used, and what the implications will be for individual GPs within practices. Many GPs have indicated that they are not prepared to hand over data to their PHN or the Government.

Another big issue is the eHealth Practice Incentive Payment (ePIP), which was originally introduced to strengthen practice IT systems, but is now used to make practices – often practice nurses – upload shared health summaries to the My Health Record. As we are moving to a My Health Record opt-out system later this year, the time may have come to review the ePIP and make it more meaningful for general practice.

Lastly, the practice incentive funding was introduced in the 1990s and has never been indexed. In 2016, $21 million was earmarked for removal and used to partially fund the Health Care Home trials.

It all sounds like another example of the Government wanting more for less. You can’t have your cake and eat it, too.

This article was originally published on newsGP.

Is value based healthcare devaluing care?

There’s a lot to say for high value care. High value care is healthcare that generates a large amount of benefit for patients and the community compared to the resources invested. But there are also concerns.

Value based healthcare links outcomes with costs: ‘Value’ is derived from measuring health outcomes against the cost of delivering these outcomes. Although it makes sense to fund care that gives us the greatest health benefits, some argue that ‘value’ is more than outcomes.

Dr Jan Kremer is a Dutch Professor in patient-centred innovation and has a passion for patient-focused quality and innovation. In a recent blog post he questioned value based healthcare, stating that value has a different meaning to different people – ranging from efficiency to solidarity, equity and quality of life.

The right things

In healthcare, he said, it is not just about doing things right, but also about doing the right things. The former can be measured, the latter is about decision-making which can’t always be quantified. After all, we can achieve the desired outcomes by doing the wrong thing.

Indeed, a focus on outcomes only tells part of the story. Care may have value for people even when the outcomes are not good.

It is impossible to capture the complexity of healthcare through linear mechanical quality systems, like measuring isolated single-disease parameters. As Goodhart’s law says: ‘When a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure’.

Models that focus on outcomes often result in only modest improvements, usually not long-lasting and sometimes reducing quality of care for health conditions that are not targeted.

These models can negatively affect the patient-doctor relationship and take away the passion and enthusiasm of care providers.

Learning together

Everyone wants value in healthcare. Professor Kremer said we must be careful with anglo-saxon models that measure everything. But there are alternatives.

In the Netherlands, learning together based on shared values, and measuring less, has resulted in important successes. According to Professor Kremer outcome data has been helpful in the development of Dutch high value care models, but it never controlled the process.

Can we deliver high value care with one eye on the clock and the other on the screen?

Given longer consultations are associated with better health outcomes, the Medicare Benefits Schedule should be restructured to incentivise appropriate consultation time in general practice.

It is estimated that doctors are making an incorrect diagnosis in up to 20% of cases, and up to 30% of investigations may be unnecessary. It is often thought that medical knowledge and skills are the culprit, but there is another reason for the majority of medial mistakes.

Doctors need time to listen and think. General practice’s inherent time pressures, interruptions and the need to record information on computers can be distracting and cause cognitive errors. Our thinking process is also influenced by our emotions; for example, as a result of work stress or running late.

This is not rocket science and has been well documented. For example, in his New York Times bestseller, How doctors think, Harvard professor Jerome Groopman described how snap judgments and other cognitive errors by doctors can lead to medical mistakes.

In a television interview, Professor Groopman explained how over the years the consultation time gradually had to drop from 30 minutes to about 12 minutes. A doctor can’t think, he said, with one eye on the clock and the other eye on the computer screen.

Increasing complexity

In Australia and New Zealand, chronic conditions account for 85% of the total burden of disease, and a chronic disease is a contributing factor in nine out of 10 deaths. The increasing multimorbidity and complexity of care requires that doctors spend more time with their patients. Managing several medical and psychosocial problems in a 15-minute consultation is increasingly challenging for doctors and many patients.

It is not surprising that longer consultations seem to be associated with better patient outcomes. The benefits of extended consultations of 20 minutes or more for certain patient groups have also been explored overseas. More time with patients may lead to higher patient satisfaction, fewer errors and a lower volume of prescriptions, investigations, referrals and hospital presentations.

It is time to slow down. At the moment, the Medicare Benefits Schedule (MBS) fails to recognise this growing problem as it encourages throughput. For example, seeing patients in blocks of four 15-minute appointments per hour is valued at $148.20, but two 30-minute consultations per hour is worth a total of $143.40.

Health Care Homes

Is block funding such as proposed in the Federal Government’s Health Care Homes model encouraging more time with patients? Probably not. In fact, one could argue that it incentivises less face-to-face time with the GP and more contact with nursing staff and other team members.

Our patients deserve our time. The MBS schedule could support our patients with chronic and complex health conditions by better rewarding longer GP consultations.

This article was originally published in newsGP.

Thank God, Australia is now licensed to ‘moisten intestines’ and ‘replenish the gates of vitality’

A while back I spoke with a politician who was very cross about the decision by the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) to make codeine products no longer available without prescription. When I asked why, the answer was, “Codeine is great for jet lag, especially with a Scotch.”

Clearly there was some confusion here about the indication of (the painkiller) codeine, which can cause serious side effects, especially in combination with other drugs and alcohol.

An ‘indication’ is defined in the law as ‘the specific therapeutic use(s) of the goods.’ Confusion about indications of medications is common. For example, people often mistakenly believe that green snot is an indication for antibiotics or that back pain is an indication for diazepam (Valium).

And, just to be clear, codeine is not indicated for jet lag.

Dryness in the triple burner

Unfortunately the Australian Government has just muddled the water by passing two bills in the Senate that allow manufacturers of vitamins, supplements and herbal complementary medicines to use a range of odd claims, such as ‘expel damp-heat in the bladder’, ‘moisten intestines’ and ‘cool blood heat’.

It appears the TGA’s new list of permitted indications is not based on scientific evidence.

RACGP President Bastian Seidel expressed concern about many of the indications. He said: “(…) phrases such as ‘moistens dryness in the triple burner’, ‘replenishes gate of vitality’ and ‘softens hardness’ have no place in any genuine healthcare situation. These types of claims are extremely misleading and could lead to significant harm for patients.”

Profitable industry

The new process has been warmly welcomed by Complementary Medicines Australia (CMA), representing stakeholders in the complementary healthcare industry and the Australian Self Medication Industry (ASMI), the peak body for the non-prescription medicine industry.

The Australian complementary medicines sector has grown rapidly in recent years – and manufacturers have just received a pat on the back from the Senate. Unfortunately, many Australian health consumers will be just as confused as doctors about these claims.

Tribes, tribulation and the elephant in the room

If we want to change bullying and abuse within the profession we have to move our tribal cultures to the next level.

The medical profession has come a long way in the past 25 years, but sadly seems to have difficulties eradicating issues of humiliation and abuse of colleagues and medical students.

One option to fix the problem is to make junior doctors and students more resilient, which seems like a good principle that is currently being applied by other organisations in other areas. Fore example, Beyond Blue has released a practice guide for professionals to help children deal with the adversities they experience early on to prevent mental health conditions later in life.

But teaching resilience alone is not enough.

Another option is to increase awareness and understanding among senior doctors and educate them about bullying, discrimination and sexual harassment. A good example is the mandatory education module, ‘operating with respect’, from the Royal Australian College of Surgeons (RACS).

Elephant in the room

The elephant in the room, however, is our culture – or at least certain aspects of it.

David Logan, a professor at the University of Southern California, said it a few years ago in his New York Times bestseller ‘Tribal leadership’: on the tribal culture scale of 1-5, most professionals around the world score a meagre three. This includes lawyers, doctors and professors.

According to Professor Logan and fellow authors John King and Halee Fischer-Wright, a stage-three culture or tribe is built around knowledge, personal accomplishments and individual expertise. The emphasis is often on winning. Although there may be talk of teamwork, the group interactions usually resemble those of a master-servant relationship.

The mantra of a stage-three culture is, ‘I’m great’. The language used is often along the lines of, “I’m good at my job,” “I try harder than most,” “Most people can’t match my work ethic,” and key pronouns used are ‘I,’ ‘me,’ and ‘my’.

This creates several problems. Professionals operating in this type of culture often feel unsupported, undervalued and frustrated, and those around them feel like a support cast.

Stage-three cultures cannot be fixed, but they can be abandoned. The answer is to upgrade the culture and move away from the ‘I’m great’ mantra to ‘We’re great.’

The next level

Instead of relying on personal achievements and expertise, at stage-four it becomes all about the accomplishments of the group. Partnerships, communication and transparency are recognised as essential ingredients for success. This is a healthier environment, in which people feel more valued and supported.

Professor Logan’s top level is stage-five. Highly functioning teams focus on maximising achievement – not in competition with other groups or tribes but with what’s possible. Stage-five teams can work with anyone.

Australian research has shown that hierarchical and stereotype behaviours largely dissolve when health professionals are working in a more collaborative, multidisciplinary environment.

Resilience training and anti-bullying education are essential, but if we really want to make a difference we have to move our tribal cultures to the next level.

This article was originally published in newsGP.

New skills, fewer scripts and less screen time: 3 resolutions for the new year

Richard Branson said we should put our resolutions in black and white, because that helps us stick to it. Just in case he is right, I wrote down 3 professional & personal resolutions for the new year.

1. Learn a new skill

Rightly or wrongly, one of my fears is deskilling – at a personal level, but also at a macro level as a profession. As Dr Margaret McCartney wrote in the BMJ, the enterprise to streamline medicine by outsourcing certain tasks to protocol-driven non-doctors, runs the risk of deskilling generalist doctors.

There are probably other reasons for losing our skills, such as policy changes and the costs of consumables and maintaining skills. But we can’t always blame others for everything, so I have decided to learn at least one new skill every year.

2. Change prescribing habits

I have made a conscious effort over the years to reduce unnecessary antibiotic prescriptions. I am doing the same with opioid analgesics for chronic non-cancer pain, in line with new RACGP guidelines.

In the case of antibiotic prescribing I had to overcome a few hurdles, such as the fear of not meeting my patients’ expectations or leaving a serious infection untreated.

Talking to colleagues was helpful and I found that – after a careful history, examination and explanation – most patients accept a ‘watch & wait’ approach, with appropriate safety netting.

I feel better for practising less defensive, ‘play it safe’ medicine, which in the end may not be as safe as we’d like to think.

There are parallels when it comes to prescribing opiates. After the GP17 Conference in Sydney I took the RACGP’s 12-point challenge to GPs (see image) and found that I am now spending more time talking with patients about the pros and cons of opioids.

Yes, it is easy to slip up, especially under time pressure and just before lunch or closing time. However, by perseverance the snail reached the ark. I find every small successful dose reduction or non-pharmacological intervention satisfactory. I hope this will be a drive to continue the conversations with patients.

12 point challenge
Image: The 12 Point Challenge to GPs. Source: RACGP

3. Spend less time behind screens

Excessive screen time for children may be linked to several adverse health outcomes, so at home we use an app to limit the recreational time our children spend on their devices – making sure they have opportunities to learn, create and connect in the digital space. This sounds great but in reality it is a never-ending balancing act. It also made me realise that I may not be the best role model here.

It turns out most adults spend more time on their digital devices than they think, which was certainly true in my case. Some of the time behind screens, such as in the consulting room, is difficult to cut back but not all screen time is essential.

I took a social media ‘holiday’ during the month of December and it felt good. So this year I will unplug more often from the social media fire hose. I may even read a book.

This article was originally published in newsGP.

Less is more

I was asked to address the Committee for Economic Development of Australia (CEDA) about how to place health consumers at the centre of future healthcare reform and the delivery of health services. ‘Less is more’ is the presentation I gave on 2 November in Brisbane.

I would like to take you with me this morning to my practice in the Sunshine Coast hinterlands and introduce two of my patients. For privacy reasons their names and details have been altered.

To refer or not to refer?

My first patient is Susan, age 24. Susan requests a referral letter to a plastic surgeon. When asked she explains that she thinks her breasts are too small, and that she wants a breast enlargement.

What would you do if you were in my shoes? Can I please see a show of hands: who would refer Susan? Who wouldn’t?

This is of course about shared decision-making. I noticed Susan was slightly uneasy, she clearly felt uncomfortable about something, so I decided to explore her request a bit further. During our conversation Susan broke down in tears and told me that it was actually her boyfriend who thought her breasts weren’t the right size.

Our conversation about relationships and body image went on for over 20 minutes. Susan decided she needed some time to think things over and talk to good friends, and that she would come back if she needed further assistance.

Susan could also have gone online to an automated referral website.

Issues with online referral services

This is a screenshot from a real Australian online referral service. Here, Susan would have had to fill out a brief online questionnaire, pay with her credit card and she would have received a referral instantly via email.

But Susan decided to make an appointment with me instead and left without a referral. She could have ended up with implants she didn’t really want or need – and a large bill.

Never just about a script

My next patient this morning is John. He comes for a repeat prescription for blood pressure pills. When he sits down the first thing he says is: “Doc, I can do my banking online, why can’t I just send an email to request my scripts?”

John has a blood pressure machine but hasn’t been able to use it recently as he has been overseas.

I take his blood pressure which is very high. I notice John has gained weight since his last visit. He tells me he has a new job and works overseas as a plant operator for a mining project– and hasn’t had much physical exercise. He suddenly also remembers that he needs boosters for his travel vaccinations. As I check the records I notice his blood tests are overdue.

Although John came in for a script it looks like there are several health issues he may want some help with. Email contact would have been more convenient for John – but some problems would have gone unnoticed if he hadn’t come in.

In my job it’s never just about a script or a referral. Opportunistic screening and preventive care are key elements that make general practice effective.

At the same time we must ofcourse find ways to increase the uptake of digital health solutions. Telehealth, video consultations and asynchronous consultations with the usual GP practice have many advantages including potentially reducing travel and waiting times for our patients.

Unfortunately, one of the main reasons for the low uptake is that Medicare currently subsidises face-to-face GP care only.

High value care

Good doctors know when not to ask for a test, when not to prescribe antibiotics or opiates, when not to refer and when not to operate.

There are some great initiatives appearing that promote ‘less is more’ healthcare such as ‘Choosing Wisely Australia’. This initiative brings consumers and health providers together to improve the quality of healthcare through reducing tests, treatments and procedures that provide no benefit or, in some cases, lead to harm.

On the other hand we are seeing more disruptive, commercial, mainly profit-driven healthcare: Competitive markets built around growth, turnover and profits, and as we all know corporate medicine can drive resources away from patient care to meet market priorities.

After Hours presentations
Source: Department of Health and Australian Institute of Health and Welfare

This chart shows what happened after the rapid expansion of after hours home visiting services operating outside the more traditional medical deputising approach.

The two bottom lines show the explosion of visits by after hours home visiting doctors, funded by Medicare, with no meaningful reduction of emergency department visits – the top line.

Although the service is convenient for patients, the question has rightly been asked: does it represent high value care?

Health Care Homes

A solution suggested a few years ago by the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners (RACGP) was the patient-centred medical home, which concentrates care and funding for a patient in one preferred general practice.

The model was meant to enhance patient-centered, holistic care. It included for example:

  • Support for coordination of care, to improve the patient-journey through the various parts of the healthcare system;
  • Support for practices providing a comprehensive range of services locally;
  • A complexity loading which would support practices to respond to socioeconomic and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander status, rural status and the age profile of their local community, and reduce health inequalities.

This concept was reviewed, adjusted, modified, tweaked and tuned but what the Department of Health eventually came up with was a very different model; a model that simply pays practices a capitated lump sum for patients with chronic health conditions, and removes the fee-for-service system for chronic care – without significant extra investment to keep Australians well and in the community.

The department’s version of the ‘healthcare home model,’ which doesn’t necessarily solve our main problems such as poorly integrated care, is being trialled but the profession is lukewarm at most.

Pay-for-performance

What about performance indicators, targets and pay-for-performance? This seems to be a hot topic in Australia. It is tempting to pay doctors when their patient loses weight, has a lower blood pressure or improves sugar levels.

Pay-for-performance schemes have been tried elsewhere in the world but the results are disappointing.

For example, performance management has gone wrong in the British Quality and Outcome Framework pay-for-performance system and has resulted in:

  • only modest improvements in quality, often not long-lasting
  • decreased quality of care for conditions not prioritised by the pay-for-performance system
  • no reduction of premature mortality
  • loss of the patient-centeredness of care
  • reduced trust in the doctor-patient relationship
  • reduced access to GPs
  • decreased doctor morale, and
  • billions of pounds implementation costs

As Goodhart’s law says: “When a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure.”

Primary care is a complex system. Quality improvement processes that are traditionally applied to linear mechanical systems like isolated single-disease care, are not very useful for complex systems.

Slow down

We know that countries with a strong primary care system have better health outcomes and more efficient health systems. An important ingredient is continuity of care by the same general practice team.

It involves empowering patients to drive their own care as well as improvements in the healthcare system. We need to listen to our patients. This may also mean that we need to slow down. Less is more.

The RACGP believes that when GPs can spend more time with their patients, this enhances continuity and quality of care and will result in less prescribing, less pathology tests, less referrals and, importantly, less hospital presentations.

Government health spending
Source: AIHW

This chart, based on data from the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, shows that General Practice services represent less than 9% of total government recurrent expenditure on health. Less than 9%…

In comparison, expenditure for hospitals represent 46%. Are we really doing everything we can to keep people well, in the community and out of hospital?

4 take-home messages

I have four take-home messages for you today:

#1: Take the good, leave the bad

We need to test new models of care in the Australian context, but we must avoid making the mistakes others have made before us, such as the UK performance payment schemes.

#2: Slow down

Let’s slow down. Allow patients & doctors to spend time together when needed. High turnover or profit-driven healthcare is not healthy for patients, doctors and our health budget.

#3: Convenience ≠ high value

We have to find a balance between convenience and value. Convenience is important, but it is never just about getting a referral letter or a script.

#4: Keep people well in the community

If we want to make a difference we must strengthen healthcare in the community, when people are relatively well, not just in hospitals when they’re terribly unwell. Rechanneling funding from hospital to primary care would achieve this.

Take home messages

Spin and misrepresentation: the toxic mix of academia and media

A good example of the toxic interaction between academia and the media is the coverage of a recent study that claimed parents did not trust their GP. The research data clearly showed Australian parents have confidence in the family doctor – but that didn’t seem to matter.

The study and the uncritical, sensationalised media reports about its bizarre conclusions received a dishonourable mention in ABC’s Media Watch. In this blog post Professor Moyez Jiwa and I examine a worrisome trend in the reporting of academic research.

With an ageing and increasingly morbid demography, health care costs are rising exponentially and, therefore, health policy is under constant scrutiny. Each previous reform is considered and, in many cases, reversed by every new government. In this context, reports that suggest any cause for public concern about the performance of health practitioners or hospitals are seized upon by the media to promote stories that will draw an audience.

In the new era of plain speaking, it is now possible to level outrageous claims against the beleaguered health industry. It is open season on doctors and their employers who may be perceived as a weakened, divided and defensive target. With each claim and counter claim the media chant “fight” and the protagonists oblige.

At the same time, the tertiary education sector is under similar pressure, having long participated in the competition for “most cited research”. The key performance indicators for academics are to grow academic outputs in peer reviewed journals. More than ever, it is a case of publish or perish, and sometimes this comes at the expense of quality.

Sensational stories

The temptation to frame the performance of health practitioners in less than flattering terms may be hard for the media to resist, and poorly designed academic research provides opportunities for them to harvest dubious results. Data to draft sensational stories are ever more readily available, as algorithms capture everything that can be measured and very little of what really matters.

As Lohr and Singer (The New York Times) state:

“… data science is a technology advance with trade-offs. It can see things as never before, but also can be a blunt instrument, missing context and nuance.

Editors of the burgeoning academic journals now vying for higher citations are also tempted to publish articles that can create a media storm and draw attention to their offering among the plethora of me-too rags, many of which derive income from advertisements targeting health practitioners.

Misrepresentation & spin

Exaggerations, simplifications and misrepresentations of research findings are often fuelled by the wording of abstracts and the use of spin in press releases from universities. This self-sustaining race to the bottom can damage health systems as well as grassroots health practitioners working in it and, worse, it may affect health outcomes.

It is time to pause for reflection. There are several elements in the eye of this perfect storm:

  • a sensitised and dissatisfied public;
  • electronic data that are ever more readily available;
  • a government with an eye on its dwindling coffers;
  • a squeezed and competitive tertiary education sector competing for ‘best’ university status based on research outputs rather than teaching excellence;
  • an academic culture encouraging quantity instead of quality of research;
  • media hungry for market share and advertising income;
  • a tolerance for sensational statements because of the trend to behave as if we all live on the set of a soap opera.

Doctors sometimes get things wrong. However, it is also very hard to draw conclusions from “data” without a great deal of the context in which the information was gathered. Data can be manipulated; it can be misleading, if not aberrant. Scientific methods can be flawed and the peer review process can be, and often is, faulty.

Journals publish what sells and the media report bad news because that’s what the public seems to buy. Finally, sound bites and 140-character sentences are now accepted as the way to communicate about complex issues. That includes issues that defy simple explanation.

Stop the rot

What is at stake, however, is our health. Every outrageous comment from an academic with a barrow to push and job to protect heaps more pressure on the very professionals who must prevent, diagnose and manage our illnesses. The results of poor research — badly designed, widely publicised, seemingly endorsed by peer review and poorly understood by a manipulated public — reduce trust.

Many academic institutions, researchers, journals and journalists work to high and ethical standards. However, our hope against the tsunami of chronic and complex conditions is the men and women who commit to the care of people, and we need to stop the rot before it sets in. The responsibility for reversing this state of affairs rests on many, but especially on the shoulders of the tertiary care sector, which needs to call out bad behaviour.

Professor Moyez Jiwa is Associate Dean of the Melbourne Clinical School at the University of Notre Dame. Dr Edwin Kruys is vice-president of the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners. This article originally appeared in MJA Insight.

About addictive painkillers and dirty backdoor deals

It is concerning that those who have been given responsibility to look after the health of Australians take decisions influenced by commercial interests instead of sound evidence and common sense.

As I have said before we have an opiate problem in Australia and it is the responsibility of doctors, pharmacists, consumers and governments to solve it.

One of the opiates that are harmful is codeine. Codeine is closely related to morphine and can cause dependence, addiction, poisoning and, in high doses or in combination with other drugs, death. That’s why in many countries this painkiller, like other opiates, is only available via a doctor’s prescription.

The independent Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) has decided to do the same in Australia after extensive consultations with stakeholders including doctors, pharmacy groups and state health departments.

From 1 February 2018, medicines containing codeine will no longer be available without prescription in pharmacies. There will still be safe and equally effective alternatives available through the pharmacy without a script.

Unfortunately some of the stakeholders are undermining this process, putting patients at risk.

Wheeling and dealing

Publicly the Pharmacy Guild of Australia states that it is not seeking to overturn the decision by the TGA. It has, in fact cashed in a large sum of money from the federal government to develop and deliver education, information and communications for community pharmacies and patients to enable a smooth transition to the upscheduling of codeine.

However, behind the scenes it seems other things are happening.

Pharmacy Guild lobby
Shortly after Pharmacy Guild representatives spoke to NSW Deputy Premier John Barilaro he called for a reversal of the TGA decision. Image: Pharmacy Guild

For example, shortly after Pharmacy Guild representatives spoke to NSW Deputy Premier John Barilaro, he made the following statement: “(…) the Nationals are calling on the Federal Government to reverse their decision in relation to the way customers can access codeine products over the counter.”

The Guild’s approach was clever: They picked a pharmacy in a town with no doctor, invited Barilaro, took a picture with him and issued a press release thanking the Deputy Premier for his support of the Guild’s ‘common sense’ proposal to allow pharmacists to continue to supply codeine, stating: “What are patients with headache, toothache or period pain meant to do in Harden when there is no doctor within a hundred kilometres for a week at a time? The AMA has no answer.”

The AMA reiterated the concerns around codeine, including that 75 per cent of recent painkiller or opioid misusers reported misusing an over the counter codeine product in the previous 12 months and that these products were even more likely to be misused by teenagers.

The AMA also expressed concern about the Guild’s lobbying of State and Territory Governments to undermine the independent TGA ruling.

The Guild immediately responded on social media saying this was ‘overblown self-serving nonsense from the AMA’.

President of the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners (RACGP) Dr Bastian Seidel reminded Guild representatives that opiate painkillers including codeine are not normally recommended for tension-type headaches.

A good explanation of some of the problems with codeine can be found in this article written by a pain specialist from Deakan University: Over the counter codeine gives as many headaches as it fixes.

Substandard rural solutions 

Sales of codeine-containing medications without script represent a revenue of $150 million per year for pharmacies.

The Guild has been busy lobbying State Health Ministers – successfully, it seems.

This weekend the Australian newspaper reported that all State Health Ministers, except for South Australia, have written to Federal Health Minister Greg Hunt “relaying unnamed stakeholder concerns about the unintended consequences of requiring a script” for codeine. NSW Health Minister Brad Hazzard was one of the signatories on the letter according to the Australian.

Here’s a screenshot of (part of) the letter to Minister Hunt in which the State Health Ministers explain why they are worried about the upscheduling of codeine:

Letter from state health ministers

If it is true that people in regional areas are indeed “managing chronic conditions with codeine medications” bought from a pharmacy than that is of course a concern as codeine should not be used for this purpose.

Pharmacy Guild lobby
Pharmacy Guild lobbies NSW Health Minister Brad Hazard about codeine. Image: Pharmacy Daily

The State Health Ministers seem to implicate in the letter that it is preferable to treat chronic conditions by self medicating with over the counter codeine purchased from pharmacies instead of going to a doctor to get appropriate treatment.

This would indicate a lower standard of care for people in rural and regional areas. The upscheduling decision by the TGA could actually help regional patients receive more appropriate treatment via a doctor and cut out-of-pocket medicine costs.

Cash for access unethical

The Australian also revealed that Queensland Health Minister Cameron Dick, who also signed the letter, failed to disclose seven cash-for-access meetings with Labor donors. One of the donors was the Pharmacy Guild of Australia.

Queensland’s Premier Ms Annastacia Palaszczuk had earlier announced she had a moral responsibility to ban certain donations.

The Guild gets high level access to politicians in all states via significant donations. Their political donations are on the rise (see graph). Concerns have been raised for a while now that the Pharmacy Guild is able to influence healthcare decisions based on commercial principles instead of sound evidence.

The Guild regularly negotiates a massive agreement with the Australian Government to the value of $19 billion for dispensing PBS medicines. This begs the question how ethical it is that the Guild, at the same time, transfers money into the bank accounts of the political parties it is negotiating with.

Pharmacy Guild donations
Political donations (Australian dollars) by the Pharmacy Guild Australia 2012-2016. Source: AEC.

The Guild’s solution is weak

The Pharmacy Guild said on their website: “When we put our solution to the politicians they think it makes sense, particularly when we explain how up-scheduling alone will mean a loss of convenience and higher costs for patients, as well as the clogging up of GP practices.”

Although the medical profession and health consumer organisations can see through this rhetoric, it appears some politicians have more difficulties and I don’t blame them – at first glance the arguments by the Guild sound convincing.

The recent Health of the Nation report showed that most Australians can see their GP when they need to and are able to get an appointment for urgent medical care within four hours. The argument of ‘clogging up GP practices’ as a reason for over the counter opiates is deceptive and it is probably not the Guild’s place to comment on this.

So let’s look at the Pharmacy Guild’s preferred solution. They believe that pharmacists should continue to sell codeine without a script for acute pain and state pharmacies would monitor misuse via their real-time monitoring software called ‘MedsASSIST’. The Guild continues to remind everyone that they are the only one with this pharmacy software package.

The problem here is first of all that medications issued without a script in a pharmacy must be substantially safe and without risk of misuse.

Clearly codeine is not safe and there is unambiguous international evidence of harm and misuse. So it makes no sense for codeine to be freely available in the pharmacy on the one hand but on the other be subject to real-time monitoring.

There are also serious problems with MedsASSIST. It is not an independent tool but owned by the Guild. Not all pharmacies use it so it is easy to get around for those who use codeine for the wrong purposes.

The Therapeutic Goods Administration has considered the evidence around MedsASSIST and found that it did not lead to a significant number of people being denied codeine medications in the pharmacy.

The TGA mentioned an example where an individual was able to receive 660 codeine tablets in one month despite their purchasing behaviour being tracked by the software. This raises questions about the efficacy and safety of the Guild’s preferred solution. Is it just smoke and mirrors?

The Guild continues to accuse others that they have done nothing to monitor the use of  drugs of dependence. This is also incorrect as many groups, including the AMA, RACGP and coroners have repeatedly asked for an effective national real-time prescription monitoring system, accessible by doctors and pharmacists.

What do consumers say?

The Consumers Health Forum has raised concerns about the Guild’s solution and said in their press release: “We do not support the proposal from the Pharmacy Guild of Australia and the Pharmaceutical Society of Australia to allow pharmacists to dispense codeine products without a prescription for people with one-off acute pain under certain conditions.”

“CHF supports the role of TGA as the regulator; we believe overall it does an excellent job of ensuring Australians have access to safety and high-quality medicines. We also note that this decision brings Australia into line with most other developed countries. As recently as July 2017 France has moved to make codeine products prescription only. The evidence for harm from codeine and other opioids is growing and their efficacy in assisting with pain management is coming under more and more scrutiny.”

Other groups also expressed concerns about the Guild’s undermining of the TGA. Pain Australia, the RACGP and the RACP have issued a joint press release. Painaustralia CEO Carol Bennett said:

“Chronic pain is a major health issue in Australia – we need to do much better than offering medications that are often both ineffective and potentially harmful in responding to chronic pain. Providing appropriate pain management should be a much higher priority, particularly in rural locations where reliance on opioids is a significant issue.”

“Painaustralia supports a co-ordinated, whole of sector strategy to address the issue of access to optimal pain management, including public and clinical education programs, linkages between rural health care clinicians via Telehealth with specialist city based services.”

And addiction specialists?

Last month, addiction specialists from the Royal Australasian College of Physicians (RACP) reaffirmed their support to make codeine-based medications available only with a prescription because of the many reports about misuse, addiction, and secondary harm.

The RACP said in a press release: “Addiction is a serious medical condition which should be avoided at all costs. (…) Addiction alters life choices, life chances and life trajectory. Addiction specialists have seen the number of patients with addiction to over the counter codeine grow at an alarming rate.”

“People with persistent pain should talk to their doctor to develop an appropriate treatment plan. This may include a referral to see a pain specialist or pain management clinic to manage their condition on an ongoing basis.”

The response from the Pharmacy Guild: “doctors are missing the point on codeine.”

Conclusion

Protection of the Pharmacy Guild’s significant commercial interests seems to drive behaviour that is not always in the interest of the health of Australians. Sadly, feedback or criticism is met with aggressive counter punches. Working with the community pharmacy sector is becoming difficult for other health groups.

It is sad to see because the Guild represents a respectable profession. It appears that the Australian healthcare system, which makes pharmacies dependent on commercial activities, is partly to blame for this situation. I am not accusing anyone of backdoor deals but this whole codeine saga is not a good look. Political donations and cash-for-access programs also seem highly inappropriate, especially in the healthcare sector. We desperately need more collaboration.

Mandatory reporting of health professionals: 4 options

If you are an Australian health professional and you have a health problem, there is a risk that your job is on the line if you seek medical assistance. But help is on its way…

As a result of mandatory reporting obligations under the National Law doctors and other health professionals may avoid seeking help or treatment for fear of being reported to the Australian Health Practitioners Regulation Agency (AHPRA) by their treating practitioner.

The reporting requirements were originally developed to protect the public against practitioners who have e.g. a health problem, an impairment or engage in serious misconduct.

Concerns have been raised repeatedly that health professionals are not seeking help and this has been flagged as a risk to the public in itself. Practitioners have also argued that their treatment should be kept confidential, just like every other Australian who seeks care.

Western Australia is the only state where these mandatory reporting guidelines are not applicable. Sadly, there is anecdotal evidence that this has created interstate traffic by practitioners in need of medical assistance.

Four options

The good news is that health ministers have reviewed this issue last month. The discussion paper ‘Mandatory reporting under the Health Practitioner Regulation National Law’ by the Australian Health Ministers’ Advisory Council (COAG) provides 4 options – of which 3 are new ones.

Option #1

This is the least favourable option as it would mean no change. This option would treat impairment matters and other notifiable conduct identically, requiring treating practitioners to report any notifiable conduct as is currently the case.

Option #2

This is likely the most favourable option from the perspective of health practitioners as it provides a complete exemption for treating practitioners from the requirement to report notifiable conduct in respect of their practitioner patients – similar to the Western Australian model.

Practitioners would have the same rights as any other Australian to seek care, without fear of being reported by their treating practitioner and recognising the importance of confidentiality.

This option would entrust the treating practitioner to make a voluntary notification in accordance with their professional and ethical obligations to protect the health and safety of the public.

When a patient poses a serious risk to the public, professional and ethical obligations require treating practitioners to report (even in the absence of a requirement to do so) and to encourage the practitioner that they are treating to self-report.

Other practitioners including colleagues and employers remain under a mandatory obligation to report impairment and other forms of notifiable conduct.

Option #3

This option would only exempt treating practitioners from the requirement to report an impairment matter if it will not place the public at substantial risk of harm.

All other types of notifiable conduct, current or past, must be reported by a treating practitioner. This means that practitioners with for example a mental health or addiction problem may not disclose issues to their treating practitioner, or may avoid seeking help.

Option #4

This option would exempt treating practitioners from reporting impairment matters and to only require reporting of other forms of notifiable conduct where there is a current or future assessment that the notifiable conduct is likely to occur.

This option creates problems with regards to for example risk assessment which is often based on past conduct. Health practitioners may not fully disclose health matters and avoid seeking help under this option.

The WA model

I expect that most practitioners will prefer option 2. This option allows full disclosure of health issues, facilitating diagnosis and treatment. It respects the confidentiality of the patient-doctor relationship which is the basis of a successful road to recovery.

The COAG discussion paper reports that an independent review found no evidence that the WA model impacted on notification rates, further supporting option 2 as the preferred nationwide solution.

RECOMMENDED FURTHER READING: Mandatory reporting of health professionals: has COAG delivered on its promise?

Health of the Nation: good and bad news according to Australia’s GPs 

Australia’s GPs believe that mental health is the number one emerging health concern, often related to co-existing chronic health conditions – but more is needed to keep Australians well.

This is one of the conclusions presented in the benchmark report General Practice: Health of the Nation 2017 which gives a unique overview of the general practice sector.

The report is based on various sources, including research commissioned by the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners (RACGP) and the MABEL (Medicine in Australia: Balancing Employment and Life) Survey.

Some of the key messages from the report:

  1. Mental health is today’s biggest health problem and will continue to be an issue in the future
  2. The GP is the most accessible health professional and should be utilised to keep Australia well
  3. Patient out-of-pocket expenses in general practice are increasing and present a barrier to patients accessing the required care

The bad news

GPs report that psychological issues such as depression, mood disorders and anxiety are the most common health issues they manage. Mental health was flagged by RACGP members as the health issue causing most concern for the future, followed by the often related problems of obesity and diabetes.

GPs believe that mental health and obesity are two key health policy issues the Federal Government should prioritise for action.

From the benchmark report: “This is a clear warning of both the current frequency and future potential impact of psychological ailments on individuals, the community and the broader health sector. It is also a stark reminder that the personal and financial health costs associated with obesity and diabetes are expected to escalate.”

However, the number one health policy issue flagged by GPs is the problem of the low patient Medicare rebates. GPs have indicated this requires immediate Federal Government action to make sure that access to high quality healthcare is maintained.

As the cost of providing high-quality health services and running general practices continues to rise, GPs are finding it more difficult to bulk bill patients. Between 2013-14 and 2016-17 the growth of the bilk billing rate has slowed down.

Patient out-of-pocket contributions continue to increase each year as Medicare rebates fall further behind the real cost of providing general practice services.

The good news

Most Australians can see their GP when they need to. Nearly all patients (99.3%) report that they are able to see a GP when they need to and most people are able to get an appointment for urgent medical care within four hours.

Australians access GPs more than any other part of the health system. They report that they visit their GP more than they receive prescriptions, have pathology or imaging tests, and see non-GP specialists.

Eighty-three per cent of patients report that they visit their GP multiple times a year, including 11% who report seeing their GP 12 times or more. The availability of GP services has further increased with extended opening hours.

GPs coordinate care within multidisciplinary teams and Australians report positive experiences with their GP.

More time with patients

The RACGP is arguing for Medicare changes that will incentivise doctors to spend more time with patients – by increasing the patient rebate for longer consultations.

RACGP President Dr Bastian Seidel said: “We believe when GPs are spending more time with their patients, that leads to less prescribing, less pathology, less referrals, enhanced continuity of care, and that would, of course, mean less hospital presentations as well.”

General practice accounts for less than 9% of total government recurrent expenditure. The RACGP, AMA and other groups believe this is inappropriate as more health benefits for Australians can be gained by investing in primary care.

 

Download the report here.