The rise and fall of the medical expert

Has the election of Donald Trump signalled a new era? Expert advice and scientific evidence seem to be taking a backseat while populism and an anti-elite ethos are gaining momentum. In Australia this may further fuel non-scientific opinions and scepticism towards medical expertise and science in general. Trumpism is, of course, not new. Australia has had its fair share of health policy based on little or no evidence.

Throughout history experts and scientific evidence have often been viewed with suspicion. The election of Donald Trump is a case in point. “Donald Trump’s lack of respect for science is alarming,” said the Scientific American.

Indeed, Trump is doing nobody a favour by, for example, spreading the incorrect and unproven message that vaccines cause autism. Apparently seventy percent of Trump voters believe this is true, despite the existence of extensive scientific safety data demystifying the dangerous misperception.

In Australia there are also signs that medical expertise is undervalued. The funding withdrawal for several primary care research initiatives are illustrative of the common perception about objective sources of information.

A classic case of dismissing medical expertise is the My Health Record (formerly PCEHR). The first big cracks in this government project started to appear in 2013, when the medical leads decided to resign en masse. More recently we have seen similar issues with the Medical Home project, which had full support from the profession until it was radically changed.

Then there are the changes to legislation around medical cannabis, which have created a perception of easy access for patients. Although there are plenty of anecdotal reports from people who have experienced symptomatic relief with cannabis for a range of conditions, doctors are still waiting for the research to provide information on indications, efficacy, safety and quality of cannabis products.

Science vs everything else

Vested interests

“Most people are happier with experts whose conclusions fit their own ideas,” write Clarke & Lawler in The Conversation. “But the Australian suspicion of authority extends to experts, and this public cynicism can be manipulated to shift the tone and direction of debates.”

When trying to inform government policy, experts are up against lobbyists who often represent large corporate commercial interests. An example is the campaign by some of the large corporate after hours home visit services which seem to be mainly concerned about their profitability.

I’ve received reports from these services (who mostly employ non-GPs) delivering repeat prescriptions after hours – which is of course inappropriate use of tax-funded health services and is concerning, especially as Medicare funds are scarce at the moment.

The facts are clear: since the bulk-billing National Home Doctor Service in the ACT arrived, home visits rose from 1588 in 2013-14 to 20,556 in the last financial year. This trend is happening at a national scale and there is no reasonable explanation for the explosion in urgent home visits.

What we need is an ethical and efficient after hours service that works seamlessly with day-time medical services.

Another example where profit comes first is Pathology Australia, representing several big corporates, who transformed their public ‘don’t kill bulk bill’ to a backdoor deal with the government to reduce the rent they pay to family practices for co-locating profitable pathology collection rooms.

Vested interest campaigns have eroded confidence in experts and scientific evidence for a long time – and not just in the health industry (see video below).

Replacing experts

Other trends seem to indicate that experts are regarded as expendable and should be replaced by others – because it is deemed cheaper or more efficient. Examples are physiotherapists prescribing opiates in emergency departments, radiographers reporting on scans and non-medical staff performing gastroscopies.

Who thinks I should fly this plane?

There are situations where tasks can be safely delegated within a supervised team environment. However, the evidence that task substitution leads to better health outcomes or lower costs is minimal. The reality is, as always, more complex – think about the Canberra nurse-led clinic that did not ease pressure on the hospital but instead increased emergency department presentations.

The retail pharmacy sector is lobbying intensively to get their non-scientific business proposals approved by governments across Australia. Their justification for taking over parts of general practice is to ‘relieve pressure on busy GPs’. Again, this is misleading, incorrect and not supported by medical organisations.

Research suggests that it’s all about the business of pharmacy and that the sector shows little interest in working cooperatively with GP teams: only one-fifth of pharmacies participating in a Victorian experiment had contacted the GPs of the patients involved.

This is disappointing as we’re desperately trying to reduce fragmentation and work better together in the interest of our patients. At the same time there are many ways in which pharmacists could add value.

Having more options as health consumer sounds appealing but doesn’t necessarily make us healthier or happier. Sometimes less is more. For example, the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners (RACGP) recommends against a range of popular screening tests because of lack of evidence and the potential of harm for patients, not to mention the added costs to the health system.

The RACGP has also published a list of tests, treatments and procedures doctors and consumers should question. This is not always easy to explain to patients, but at the end of the day it’s the right thing to do for all parties involved.

Expertise: a subjective thing?

Annabel Crabb said in the Sydney Morning Herald: “Expertise is now a subjective thing. You can discover much about people’s deep ideological beliefs or prejudices simply by observing what advice they accept without question, and what they take with a grain of salt. Sometimes there is little logic to the position.”

The best defence is a good offence and when medical experts object to proposals or policy based on opinion instead of science, they are usually accused of defending their territory or ‘turf’ – which distracts from the real message of course.

Expert opinions and scientific evidence are not a fix for all our problems. There are other factors that need to be taken into account. However, as populist movements like trumpism are gaining momentum, the anti-elite ethos may further fuel non-scientific opinions and scepticism towards medical expertise and science in general. This is a real health risk and we should look at why this is happening and what we can do to improve things.

Follow me on Twitter: @EdwinKruysDisclaimer and disclosure notice.

Video: Why aren’t people listening to science?

Pharmacy vax claims need a pinch of salt

The success of new health services in community pharmacies should be measured by the way they integrate and communicate with the rest of primary care including general practice.

A trial in WA reported earlier this month that more than 15,000 influenza vaccinations were administered last year with no adverse effects. The Curtin University researchers declared the program a success, saying there was scope to expand pharmacist vaccination services to other vaccines and younger children.

Recently we’ve heard about the ‘success’ of pharmacy trials in several states. However, the question arises: by what measure are the trials a success?

Many of my patients tell me they’ve been vaccinated at a pharmacy but have forgotten where, when and with what exactly – and communication from the pharmacy is usually missing.

One of my frail elderly patients who came to see me for something else declined a government-funded influenza vaccination by our practice nurse because she was booked in to have a private vaccination at the pharmacy the following week, and felt she couldn’t cancel that appointment.

This goes against the argument that pharmacy vaccinations are only targeting people who don’t have a GP, or people who fall outside the national immunisation program.

Walk-in convenience at pharmacies is often mentioned as a benefit of the scheme, but the preferred model seems to be an appointment during specific pharmacy trading hours.

Narrow vision of health

Public health arguments, such as increased vaccination rates, are intuitively compelling; to a public health advocate, it doesn’t matter where vaccinations are delivered.

Most of these stand-alone models have failed to look at the impact on primary care as a whole

However, most of these stand-alone pharmacy models have failed to look at the impact on primary care as a whole, including general practice teams, at a time when primary care is supposed to be moving towards more integration and collaboration.

Other issues that have often been overlooked are clinical benefit to the public, costs to the patient and health system, and conflicts of interest within the pharmacy industry.

Data reported from Queensland immunisation trials, for example, were superficial, selective and showed elements of observer bias. The trials did not reveal evidence about the impact on vaccine-preventable disease outbreaks. There was no comparison with alternatives, such as walk-in vaccination clinics in general practice.

The impact of missed opportunities for screening and other preventive care in general practice was not looked at, and neither did the trials focus on much-needed better integration of care delivery.

Yet, there is ample evidence that increasing general practice comprehensiveness of care is associated with decreasing costs and hospitalisations. Each time a task is given to other providers, the effectiveness and safety of our current proven GP-model is eroded, and this will ultimately have consequences for the care delivered to Australian communities.

Communication, upselling and out-of-pocket costs

The trials also failed to look at whether the standard elements of privacy, documentation or GP notification were met.

Furthermore, there has been no mention of whether commercial practices have been monitored, such as using vaccinations as a means to onsell other products. There is a well-known potential conflict of interest in pharmacists delivering health services including vaccinations.

Australians already pay more out-of-pocket costs than in many other countries

One of the strengths of medication prescribing in Australia is the high degree of separation between the prescriber and the medication dispenser. It enables more objective prescribing, free of pecuniary interests and leads to better allocation of resources. This is another strong argument against moving more health services into the pharmacy environment.

However, it seems that the goal posts are shifting.

Australians already pay more out-of-pocket costs than in many other countries. It is likely that health services delivered in the commercial pharmacy environment will further increase costs to patients. For example, administration of the quadrivalent influenza vaccine by WA pharmacists came at a cost of $30-$40.

Not surprisingly, the recent Review of Pharmacy Remuneration and Regulation posed 140 thought-provoking questions about the current community pharmacy model. It is hoped that some of the issues will be resolved as a result of the review.

It is clear to me that the claimed success of pharmacy vaccinations has to be taken with a pinch of salt.

If community pharmacy is able to better integrate their services with the rest of primary care, including general practice, the resulting model has the potential to become truly successful.

This article was originally published in Australian Doctor magazine (edited).

Here’s a challenge for the Pharmacy Guild

One of the big questions in primary care is: will the community pharmacy sector and general practice be able to work together without fragmenting care or duplicating services? If we don’t solve the issues and start to work as team, patient care will suffer.

For that reason, I’d like to take the Pharmacy Guild up on their suggestion to collaborate.

The relationship between doctors and community pharmacists is an interesting one: the two professions rely heavily on each other. For example, I find the advice and support from pharmacists invaluable when trying to solve difficult medication problems with my patients. Pharmacists also act as a ‘second pair of eyes’ checking my prescriptions.

Both doctors and pharmacists are highly valued by consumers and are, with nurses, in the top three most trusted professions.

On another level doctors and community pharmacists are often at loggerheads. Issues that come up time and time again are differences of opinion about the commercial aspects of healthcare, conflicts of interest with regards to prescribing and dispensing, and who does what.

In the eyes of many doctors, community pharmacy has gone off track with little connection at policy level with other primary care providers. Pharmacist will tell a different story. For example, some pharmacists – not all – seem to think that the main agenda of doctors is to protect their ‘turf’ – but there’s much more to it as I’ll explain below.

Unintended consequences 

A while back I published an article on behalf of RACGP Queensland, drafted with input from a diverse group of academic and non-academic GPs. I outlined various issues with the Queensland immunisation trials, which have led to a change in Queensland’s legislation allowing community pharmacists to administer certain private vaccinations to adults.

The idea behind pharmacy vaccinations is to improve vaccination rates in people who don’t receive care through GP services. This sounds appealing from a public health point of view, but the impact on existing services has not been reviewed or taken into account during the trials.

Unfortunately the change impacts on the care delivered by family doctors and their teams. For example, my patients now regularly tell me that they’ve been vaccinated at a community pharmacy but have forgotten where, when and what exactly – and communication from the pharmacy is usually missing.

One of my frail elderly patients who came to see me for something else declined a government-funded influenza vaccination by our practice nurse because she was booked in to have a private vaccination at the pharmacy the following week, and felt she couldn’t cancel that appointment.

This goes against the argument that pharmacy vaccinations are only targeting people who don’t have a GP or people who fall outside the national immunisation program.

Moving services away from general practice also has an impact on opportunistic screening and prevention of health conditions by GP teams. So far this season I have been able to pick up several health problems in people who came in for vaccinations, including an aortic stenosis, pneumonia and two melanomas.

We are all connected

The Pharmacy Guild’s Strategic Direction for Community Pharmacy. Source: Pharmacy Guild
The Pharmacy Guild’s strategic direction for community pharmacy. Source: Pharmacy Guild

The main message here is that a change in one part of the health sector always affects the other parts. We’re all connected – this has nothing to do with money or turf but is all about providing high value, coordinated care.

It would have been nice if RACGP Queensland had been involved in the recent Queensland immunisation trials; we could have flagged and perhaps solved some of the many issues at an earlier stage.

Will the My Health Record fix these problems? Not entirely, because uploading data to an electronic health record on its own will not replace the need for good communication and collaboration.

In the article we also warned against introducing further changes to care delivery in community pharmacies (see image) that may result in poorly coordinated, duplicated or fragmented health services.

How to move forward?

After voicing our concerns in the article various debates occurred on this blog and in the pharmacy press, for example here and here.

The response from the Pharmacy Guild in Cirrus Media’s Pharmacy News however contained incorrect information:

Response from the Pharmacy Guild

This statement is wrong for several reasons: part of my work as a family doctor involves giving advice to travellers but I am not a proprietor of a travel clinic and I don’t profit from the sale of vaccines or other products.

So how to move forward from here? I thought this response from Tim Logan was more encouraging:

“(…) it profits society more for GPs to work with pharmacists, citing a presentation at the Australian Pharmacy Professional conference earlier this year by US expert Dr Paul Grundy, who demonstrated the benefits provided by a model which encouraged GPs to do so.”

I’d like to take Tim up on his suggestion to work more closely together and invite the Pharmacy Guild to meet with RACGP Queensland. I acknowledge that there are always two sides to every story. Let’s see if there is common ground and room for agreement on how our professions can work better together at policy level, without duplicating services or creating more fragmentation of care.

As said before, the RACGP remains committed to working collaboratively with other primary care providers and government to develop innovative and effective models of care such as the patient-centered medical home, and we strongly advocate for solutions that support genuine integration of care, not more fragmentation.

At the time of writing Dr Edwin Kruys was Chair of RACGP Queensland.

Pharmacy vaccinations in Queensland and the slippery slope of health services in community pharmacies

New legislation in Queensland supports pharmacy-based health care services on the basis of pilots of feasibility, embellished as evidence of effectiveness. Family doctors are concerned and disappointed that, despite lack of independent analysis, these pilots have resulted in new legislation with little consideration given to the broader health impacts.

The move is paving the way for an expansion into other pharmacy-based health services, which have been successfully delivered in general practice for decades. It is also threatening the medical home model, which the federal government ostensibly supports.

When doctors speak about concerns with pharmacy vaccination programs, they talk about evidence, quality, patient safety and fragmentation of care. However, these messages are heard as ‘self interest’.

Pharmacists on the other hand talk about better access, availability, and gaps in healthcare delivery due to excessive GP waiting times. Pharmacists are not heard as being self-interested, rather as providing a beneficial service for the community. Public health arguments are also intuitively compelling; to a public health advocate it doesn’t matter where vaccinations are delivered.

However, these arguments need to be examined further. We have to look at the bigger picture and take into account adverse effects on our proven Australian general practice model, costs to the consumer, conflicts of interest of the pharmacy industry and issues with the Queensland vaccination trials.

Proven general practice model

Australia’s large network of general practitioners and their teams have been very successful in keeping Australians healthy at a low cost, compared to international standards.

National surveillance data on vaccine-preventable diseases in Australia documents a remarkable success story for vaccinations delivered by general practice, which have caused extraordinary declines in child and adult morbidity, mortality and hospitalisations over the years.

“Vaccinations delivered by general practice have caused extraordinary declines in morbidity, mortality and hospitalisations

Major changes to our primary care model must be based on evidence and not just sound like ‘a good idea’. There is little evidence that delivering vaccinations and other health services via pharmacists will improve efficiency, safety or quality of care for patients. Although there is a convenience factor, people need to ask how commercial interests have been allowed to be placed before health benefits to the Queensland population.

Issues with the trials

In 2014 the Queensland Department of Health approved an application by the Queensland branches of the Pharmacy Guild Australia and the Pharmaceutical Society of Australia, which led to the start of two trials to vaccinate adults over the age of 18 at community pharmacies against influenza, dTPa (diphtheria, tetanus and whooping cough) and MMR (measles, mumps, rubella).

Interestingly, no independent analysis of the trials seems to have been performed. The data that has been reported is superficial, selective and shows elements of observer bias. No analysis was undertaken to establish the clinical need for the vaccinations. No analysis was undertaken to determine what proportion of these vaccinations were high risk.

The trials did not reveal evidence about the impact on vaccine-preventable disease outbreaks. There was no comparison with alternatives such as walk-in vaccination clinics in general practice. General practitioners frequently conduct opportunistic screening and preventive healthcare during consultations for vaccinations, but the impact of missed opportunities for screening and other preventative care in general practice was not looked at, and neither did the trials focus on much-needed better integration of care delivery.

It seems no independent analysis was undertaken to determine whether the standard elements of privacy, documentation or GP notification were met. Further, no mention of commercial add-on practices was monitored, for example, using vaccinations as a means to on-sell other products. As we know the pharmacy business model relies heavily on upselling products to consumers.

The argument seems to be to improve vaccination coverage with claims of managing people ‘who have not been vaccinated’ – these claims are neither verified, nor explained; for example, are these new patients or inappropriate patients? It is a reasonable question as to why these claims have not been subject to closer scrutiny.

The stakeholders’ evaluation contained leading questions, such as: “The results of the trials show that there is increased uptake of influenza vaccination among adults who have never previously been vaccinated or who were not regularly vaccinated. Do you consider this an important public health function?” This raises questions about the objectivity of the process.

Conflicts of interest

There is an inherent conflict of interest in pharmacists delivering general practice services including vaccinations. One of the great strengths of medication prescribing in Australia is the high degree of separation between the prescriber and the medication dispenser. This enables more objective prescribing, free of pecuniary interests and leads to better allocation of resources. This is a strong argument against moving more health services into the pharmacy environment.

“One of the great strengths of medication prescribing in Australia is the separation between prescriber and medication dispenser

The core role of pharmacy is to dispense medication safely and effectively, but the financial viability of pharmacies depends on operating successfully as small retail businesses. Concerns have been raised regarding the environment of pharmacy being more conducive to medication sales than primary care services. The pharmacy sector is seeking new ways to broaden its health services to provide new income streams, sometimes in conjunction with pharmaceutical companies with the prime purpose of profit.

Commercialisation of pharmacy vaccinations has occurred overseas and here in Australia. For example, a pharmaceutical company which produced vaccines involved in the trials, provided financial support to a pharmacy chain for their vaccination training. This illustrates the problem with delivering health services in pharmacies – but this was not reported in the evaluation of the trials.

If it ain’t broke…

There is ample evidence that increasing general practice comprehensiveness of care is associated with decreasing costs and hospitalisations. However, each time a task is given to other providers, the effectiveness and safety of our current proven GP-model is eroded and this will ultimately have consequences for the care delivered to Australian communities.

Despite concerns from doctors’ groups, the Queensland government announced in April 2016 that an amendment to the legislation now allows registered pharmacists to administer influenza vaccinations, diphtheria-tetanus-acellular pertussis vaccinations, measles-mumps-rubella vaccinations to adults.

“We should avoid a trade-off between our values and creating monetary value

Pharmacists are ready to roll out more ‘enhanced pharmacy support services’ in the near future. The impact of patients presenting to pharmacies instead of general practice will result in more fragmentation of care, missed opportunities for screening and preventive health care, unnecessary and non-evidence based care, and possibly increased risk and wasted health resources. It also clashes with the innovative national medical home model.

We should avoid a trade-off between our values and creating monetary value; recommendations for treatment and prescribing must only be evidence-based and should not be influenced by commercial factors.

Medical groups should continue to monitor these developments, highlighting the risks to policy makers and reinforce the message that we need evidence-based decision making in healthcare. It is dangerous to rely on short-term financial benefits at the expense of long-term, whole-of-system considerations. In the interest of all Queenslanders, decision makers should focus on strengthening general practice, not dismantling it.

The RACGP remains committed to working collaboratively with both state and federal governments to develop innovative and effective models of care, and strongly advocates for solutions that support integration, not fragmentation.

This article was originally published in AMA QLD’s Doctor Q. At the time of writing Dr Edwin Kruys was Chair of RACGP Queensland and member of the AMA Queensland Council of General Practice.

Why we vaccinate: amazing figures from Australia

These graphs show what happens to the number of deaths when we start vaccinating.

The red arrow indicates when vaccines were introduced in Australia. The take-home message: vaccines save lives.

Why we vaccinate
Image (click to enlarge): Number of deaths in Australia from diseases now vaccinated against, by decade (1926–2005). Red arrow indicates when vaccine was introduced. Source: The Science of Immunisation: Questions and Answers, Australian Academy of Science.

For more information have a look at the website from the Australian Academy of Science which provides easy-to-understand information that explains the science of immunisation.