Let’s not fool ourselves about the PIP QI

It looks like patient care and quality improvement have taken a backseat in the new Practice Incentive Program (PIP QI).

To be eligible to receive payments under the revamped quality improvement program, practice owners need to show Primary Health Networks (PHNs) that they are recording information such as smoking status or influenza immunisations, and hand over de-identified patient data to their local PHN.

It is important that practices record this kind of information but the requirements are set at a rookie-level – a bit like learning how to write, no, how to hold a pencil.

Not surprisingly, the new program is regarded by many practice owners and managers as ‘easy money’. I don’t blame them as the Medicare freeze has affected us all – but the Federal Department of Health is fully aware it is dangling a carrot in front of a profession in dire need of adequate funding.

It is unlikely that in its current form, PIP QI will improve the quality of patient care. The profession rightly has second thoughts: Is this the beginning of performance management? Is this part of the department’s general practice data extraction plan?

What’s next? As there is no transparent, long-term vision here, your guess is as good as mine. The department is playing its cards close to its chest and appears to be effectively applying salami-slice tactics.

Professional organisations should have been given more responsibility to execute an agreed quality improvement strategy, acceptable to all stakeholders, including custodianship of patient information and access to raw data.

This was however clearly not on the department’s agenda and professional bodies were not successful in reaching agreement on a profession-led solution (general practice needs a shared vision). As a result, the focus appears to have been on data extraction.

After having been postponed twice, the practice incentive program has now been launched, even though several best-practice data governance principles have not yet been met.

For example, practices have been given little insight into what patient data is exactly being extracted from their databases and what happens with it afterward.

Red flags about the scheme have been raised at grassroots level. When going live last week, there were, and still are, many unanswered questions.

The practice incentive program should be about improving patient care in an acceptable, sensible and meaningful way. I’m concerned the scheme will instead be remembered as a government data grab.

A great quality tool for health bloggers, podcasters and patients

A while back I came across a new tool for those who, like me, use Dr Google but are concerned about the quality of some of the available online health information.

The tool contains two checklists and has been designed for medical education resource producers, editors, end-users, and researchers. I’ll let the authors explain:

“Through a rigorous research process, a list of 151 quality indicators for blogs and podcasts was formed and subsequently refined to elicit the most important quality indicators. These indicators are presented as Quality Checklists to assist with quality appraisal of medical blogs and podcasts.”

The checklists have three domains: credibility, content and design, and cover topics such as avoiding bias and conflict of interest, providing clear information about the identity and qualifications of the author, and referring to sources. The checklists also focus on design and didactic value.

I believe they can be useful for patients to assess the quality of online health resources. For more information read about the 6 warning signs that will help you stay clear from quackery sites.

This tool has the potential to take many health blogs and podcasts to the next level. It is available at no cost and can be found here.

Quality checklist
A quality checklist for blogs. A separate checklist is available for podcasts. Source here.

Source: Colmers IN, Paterson QS, Lin M, Thoma B, Chan T. The Quality Checklists for Health Professions Blogs and Podcasts. The Winnower 2:e144720.08769 (2015).

UK-style revalidation in Australia would be a big mistake

Australian doctors are kept on a short leash. I recently renewed my registration with the Australian Health Practitioner Regulation Agency (AHPRA). This annual ritual is always interesting.

Like thousands of other doctors, I first had to fill out an online questionnaire. As usual, AHPRA wanted to know if I had a physical or mental impairment, disability, condition or disorder – including substance abuse or dependence – that would detrimentally affect my capacity to work as a doctor. I was reminded that I’m required by law to declare any impairments.

There were questions about criminal records, compliance with the law, continuous professional development, indemnity insurance, work history and immigration status. I was advised that if I did not give the required information, I could lose my registration.

Finally I dutifully transferred the required $724 into AHPRA’s bank account.

High professional standards

The yearly AHPRA registration procedure symbolises the way doctors are controlled in Australia. Contrary to common belief, doctors allowed little freedom.

Before doctors can prescribe certain medications, they have to call Medicare to get approval. Prescribing habits are monitored. Doctors are audited randomly to make sure billing practices are not out of line with peers. They may be prosecuted if there is a deviation from the average. In most states, doctors have to report colleagues who are not performing optimally.

At the same time, professional medical standards in Australia are high. Take the accreditation standards of the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners, or the CPD requirements. Both quality assurance programs have become more robust over the years and are continuously being reviewed and improved by the College.

QI&CPD programs recognise ongoing education to improve the quality of everyday clinical practice by promoting the development and maintenance of medical skills and lifelong learning.

Is there a problem?

Why is there still talk about revalidation of doctors? Is the public concerned about the quality of Australian doctors?

The national AMA patient survey indicated that GPs are considered by the public to be trustworthy, knowledgeable and experienced. A large patient satisfaction survey endorsed by the RACGP found there was a very high level of satisfaction with General Practice in Australia.

Another study published in the MJA also showed that patients reported high levels of satisfaction with GP care, and for many years Australian doctors have been in the top three most trusted professions in the annual Roy Morgan research.

Based on numbers from Canada, AHPRA estimates that 1.5 per cent of Australian medical practitioners are performing ‘unsatisfactorily’. I’m not sure Canadian figures can be applied to Australia, but 1.5 per cent of unsatisfactory performers in any group is low. It appears that any potential problem lies with a significantly small minority of doctors.

Carpet-bombing the profession

There are many revalidation models – from strengthening CPD to targeting those at high risk of complaints, to the full- bore version rolled out in the UK. But if the AHPRA tries to identify substandard doctors, carpet-bombing the whole profession is problematic.

Dr Steve Wilson, Chair of the AMA (WA) Council of General Practice, questioned in Medicus magazine whether revalidation would address those who failed to practise to agreed levels. And if it did, he asked, would that be a sign of impairment or does it reflect personal style, or lack of time, training, experience or adequate remuneration?

Competency checks of doctors may sound appealing to the public. I’m sure some politicians will love the rhetoric. But simply copying the UK’s revalidation system would be a mistake.

About 5,000 doctors a year are considering leaving the UK, and many come to Australia. Bureaucracy is one reason they emigrate. The last thing we need in Australia is more regulation, red tape and stressed-out doctors.

Existing quality systems

In recent years, our healthcare system has seen several unsuccessful concepts not supported by evidence. Think for example about the super clinics program and  some of the accompanying cost blowouts, delays and disappointing results.

It will be easier and cheaper to build on existing quality assurance systems.

This article has previously been published in Medicus, the AMA(WA) magazine.

Can pharmacists and doctors work together? YES WE CAN!

As frequent readers of this blog may know, I am very unimpressed with the recent pharmacy agreement negotiated by the Pharmacy Guild of Australia. We need more teamwork and integration of health services, not fragmentation, and therefore it’s a real shame the Health Minister has signed off on this deal with the pharmacy owners union.

A better proposal has come from the Pharmaceutical Society of Australia (PSA) and the Australian Medical Association. For those who don’t know: The PSA represents Australia’s 28,000 pharmacists working in all sectors and across all locations. The new model encourages close collaboration between pharmacists and GPs.

The PSA and AMA recommend integration of non-dispensing pharmacists in general practice, to improve medication management. The idea is not new. Doctors and pharmacists have argued for this model in the past. There is enough evidence to support collaboration as a way to improve patient care.

Here are the aims of the cooperative model:

  • Medication management reviews conducted in the practice, an Aboriginal Health Service, the home or a Residential Aged Care Facility
  • Patient medication advice to facilitate increased medication compliance and medication optimisation
  • Supporting GP prescribing
  • Liaising with outreach services and hospitals when patients with complex medication regimes are discharged from hospital
  • Updating GPs on new drugs
  • Quality or medication safety audits
  • Developing and managing drug safety monitoring systems.

The evidence

Medication reviews by a pharmacists in the hospital do not appear to reduce mortality or hospital readmissions, although they seem to reduce emergency department contacts. Similarly, medication reviews for nursing home residents do not to reduce mortality or hospitalisation – which is disappointing.

However, in these studies pharmacists and doctors are not working closely together as suggested by the PSA and AMA. This matters because studies have shown that doctors are more likely to change their medication management when there is a close collaboration with a pharmacist. This is not surprising as the basic requirements for effective teams are mutual trust, good communication and shared ideas.

A systematic review of pharmacists working in collaboration with GPs showed significant improvements in blood pressure, diabetes control, cholesterol levels and cardiovascular risk. Another review suggested similar benefits as well as a positive impact on drug-related problems.

A recent trial confirmed that pharmacists working in primary health clinics are succesful in identifying and resolving medication related problems and improving medication adherance. The PINCER trial concluded that pharmacist feedback, educational outreach and dedicated support in a general practice setting was cost-effective and reduced medication errors.

Whether the pharmacist-doctor partnership reduces hospital admissions is less clear-cut. An independent analysis by Deloitte Access Economics (commissioned by the AMA) suggests that every $1 invested in the PSA-AMA model would generate $1.56 in savings to the health system, delivering a net saving of $544.8 million over four years.

The benefits

I spoke to Dr Steve Wilson, Chairman of the AMA (WA) Council of General Practice and senior Lecturer at the School of Medicine, University of Notre Dame.

“We recognised the need for, and the advantage of, having pharmacists within the practice team,” says Wilson. “We have looked at both sides of the coin, the good and the bad, advantages and risks. We have explored the various financial models, for example whether pharmacists should be employed directly, or contracted, and whether to follow the Practice Nurse incentive Payment model or the Mental Health Nurse model.”

Dr Wilson said the strengths of the proposal are:

  • Quality use of medications as over-arching principle
  • In-house reviews as opposed to out-of-house
  • Medication interaction checking
  • Reviewing the currency of medications, for example deleting old antibiotics still on the list
  • Screening for adverse medication events or omissions such as whether medications can be reduced or stopped, or whether certain checks have been performed
  • Checking currency of tests, for example renal function for those on diuretics
  • Explaining medications to people, for example what side effects to look for
  • Working with those from culturally and linguistically diverse people or a non-English speaking background, people more than five medications, people with early cognitive impairment etc
  • Quality Use of Medications meetings within the practice, attracting CPD points

The Pharmacist in General Practice Incentive (PIGPI) system would be structured in the same way as the existing incentive payments provided for nurses working in general practice.

Dr Wilson: “The risk of the program is low, it’s voluntary, doctors and patients don’t have to participate. It’s up to the GP practice to make it work and customise it to their circumstances. There are financial incentives for rural practices. Also practices can share a pharmacist, particularly when closely located to one another.”

“The evidence will build over time. The evaluation component will require input from hospitals and there may be a role for the Primary Health Networks and Local Hospital Networks.”

The proposal has been welcomed by the Consumers Health Forum (they’re requesting feedback here). Although there are clear benefits for patients, evidence-based medicine purists may argue that the evidence for cost-savings through a cooperative model is thin. However, the alternative may be no change at all.

Revalidation of doctors, or how to spot the bad apples

Wouldn’t it be great if we could spot the bad apples before we consume them? Or even better: before they become bad? In recent years medical regulators around the world have been exploring ways to identify doctors who are performing poorly.

In the UK all apples are tested once a year via a process called revalidation. But some have said it will not detect poor doctors; its main purpose is to gain patients’ trust. Others say it is meant to demonstrate what good apples look like. But one thing is for sure: Revalidation is labour-intensive and expensive.

“There is indeed an additional time cost,” said GP Dr Paresh Dawda in Australian Family Physican. “The appraisal meeting was usually 3 hours in length, and on average it took another 5 or 6 hours to collate the evidence and complete the forms, which is in keeping with an average of 9 hours found in the revalidation pilots.”

Then there are the training, time and wages of the appraisers, usually doctors too, the administrative staff, extra regulation, log books, documents, IT… Revalidation has become an enormous enterprise, costing £97M ($186M) a year, mainly because of added pressures on doctors’ time.

It seems logical that, before a country embarks on an operation like this, the problem it is trying to solve has been defined and the solution is effective.

So what’s the problem?

According to the Medical Board of Australia, evidence from Canada shows that 1.5% of doctors are not good enough. The Board has translated this figure to Australia, and thinks that over 1,350 doctors could be performing unsatisfactorily. Other research indicates that just 3% of doctors are the source of 49% of complaints.

“Where is the evidence that further regulation is needed?

Several safety mechanisms are already in place: At the moment Australian doctors must meet the Medical Board’s mandatory registration standards, including for recency of practice and continuing professional development. Doctors can be subjected to random compliance audits.

Although a majority of Australian doctors seems to support competence checks, there are serious questions about the UK-style revalidation process.

Revalidation screenshot
Screenshot: Example of questions UK doctors have to answer during the revalidation process.

AMA(WA)’s GP Dr Steve Wilson in this blog post: “Where is the evidence that further regulation is needed, which will be preventative and ultimately beneficial to the profession and the community?”

“Will it address those who fail to practise to agreed levels, and is that a sign of ‘impairment’ or more about personal style, lack of time, adequate remuneration, or lack of care, training, experience, sheer demand and workforce numbers?”

At a conference in 2013 Medical Board of Australia Chair, Dr Flynn admitted that ‘the problem that a revalidation-style system would help solve was not yet defined’.

But Dr Flynn questioned the current continuous professional education system: “Can you assure me that everyone who has done your CPD program is actually competent and practising at a reasonable standard? (…) My sense is that, for most CPD programs, they don’t do that, or at least, not to a high enough level of certainty.”

After meeting Dr Flynn in 2013, the RACGP stated in Australian Doctor magazine: “The meeting provided an opportunity for the college to discuss the strength of our current QI & CPD program, and the necessity of adding yet another mechanism to identify underperforming doctors, when processes are already in place – such as the medical boards, health quality and complaints boards and indemnity insurers.”

What’s the Medical Board up to?

“We started a conversation about revalidation in Australia in 2012,” said Dr Joanna Flynn in last week’s media release, “as part of our commitment to making sure doctors in Australia maintain the skills to provide safe and ethical care to patients throughout their working lives.”

The board has asked the University of Plymouth to answer some questions on revalidation. At first glance this seems a sensible approach.

Dr Flynn: “We have commissioned this research to find out what is working well internationally, what is in place in comparable health care systems, and what principles the Board should consider in developing revalidation in Australia. (…) this research will help make sure that the decisions the Board makes in future about revalidation are effective, evidence-based and practical.”

The aim of the project is to:

  • establish the existing evidence base for the validity of revalidation or similar in countries comparable to Australia
  • identify best practice and any gaps in knowledge for revalidation processes
  • establish the validity evidence for revalidation’s effectiveness in supporting safe practice
  • develop a range of models for the Australian context for the Board to consider.

It seems to me the research questions are broad and several steps are taken at once. For example: ‘Establishing the evidence for revalidation’ and ‘developing a range of revalidation models’ are entirely separate processes.

It appears the Medical Board has already made up its mind. The research findings will be considered by the Board in the second half of 2015. I am certainly looking forward to the results and conclusions, as well details about cost and setup of the study.

The Camera revalidation research website of the University of Plymouth doesn’t give any answers away: “The research team is currently undertaking an ambitious programme of research involving three interlinking studies to explore and understand revalidation in all its complexity.”

Putting the cart before the horse

The question is of course: Is revalidation the right solution? Are there other options? One could argue that this should have been considered before spending tax dollars on an overseas research project.

Professor Breen, from the Department of Forensic Medicine at the Monash University in Melbourne, said in the Medical Journal of Australia: “There is little to support the idea of simply transposing the UK system to Australia. Despite some local failures of medical regulation and hospital governance, there has been no widespread loss of faith of the community either in its doctors or in the regulatory system.”

“Is there a problem with medical registration in Australia that needs attention, and, if so, what should be done to fix the problem?

“The Medical Board of Australia would be wiser to start afresh by asking and answering two questions — namely, is there a problem with medical registration in Australia that needs attention, and, if so, what should be done to fix the problem?

“The medical profession in the UK appears to have accepted revalidation, albeit reluctantly, as representing the price to be paid for maintaining the existence of the GMC and for regaining public trust after a series of regulatory failures.”

“It has been claimed that revalidation will not reliably detect poorly performing doctors, and many commentators have pointed out that revalidation would not have identified Dr Harold Shipman.”

Immediate past president of the AMA, GP Dr Steve Hambleton had second thoughts too. In MJA Insight he said: “We need to make sure we maintain our currency and continue to improve health outcomes, but in terms of value for money, making everybody go through a 5-yearly process of 360-degree evaluation is not needed in the Australian health system.”

Both Professor Breen and Dr Hambleton suggested there are better ways to deal with the bad apples. Database analysis could be one solution. Other options are targeted revalidation and a revamp of the existing CPD program and accreditation. Some have argued that the focus should be on the workplace, not just on health professionals.

Journalist Paul Smith from Australian Doctor magazine was, as usual, spot on when he wrote: “(Doctors) may argue that targeted revalidation has greater merit than what they may see as carpet-bombing the entire profession.”

Red-tape stress

“Recently I cried at work,” posted Dr Adrienne Garner on the BMA blog. “Why? Because the evening before I’d been notified that my appraisal, submitted after hours of work, had been unsubmitted by my appraiser as it was ‘not sufficient for revalidation.”

“I was gutted. My mind churned with a mixture of thoughts ranging from anger to fear, through frustration and disappointment. Sleep had been impossible.”

“Under revalidation appraisals became a form of policing the profession.

Many studies show that doctors are more likely to experience psychological distress and suicidal thoughts than the general community, and there is a high rate of burnout. Pastoral care and self-reflection are important. But when they are part of a policed regulatory framework, they become a stressor in itself – which defeats the purpose.

Former Coventry GP Dr Gaurev Tewary, now working in Australia, posted on a social media platform: “I was an appraiser in the UK. My overall impression is this: Appraisals used to be fun and interesting and mainly pastoral. You did them to help people and I enjoyed supporting the profession. Under revalidation it became a form of policing the profession.”

About 5,000 doctors a year are considering to leave the UK, and many come to Australia. Bureaucracy is one of the reasons they emigrate. We must become better at dealing with bad apples, but healthcare is already a highly regulated industry and the last thing we need here in Australia is more regulation, red tape and stressed-out doctors.

I hope the Medical Board will work with the colleges and the AMA to explore better options.

Revalidation