Health System Reform Must Include Physicians

August 12/2019

Ontario has embarked on a bold experiment to transform care with a large focus on Ontario Health Teams or OHTs. At maturity, OHTs will be responsible for the full continuum of care within a community. As the Premier’s Council’s latest report suggests, OHTs should be able to provide an integrated experience for patients, an experience that takes advantage of the latest digital technologies to deliver care where and when patients need it, and that relentlessly improves against the quadruple aim goals of better population health, better cost, better patient experience and better provider experience.

This is a laudable vision and one that is long overdue in Ontario. Several health systems have already begun experimentation, implementation and even evaluation of these sorts of integrated models of care. And while no model of care is a panacea, there are some limited but encouraging signs from these other systems. The history of health system reform, however, in Ontario is one of largely excluding physicians from leadership. So, an important question for physicians in Ontario is how to respond to the OHT reforms. In this blog we consider this question and make some suggestions around the hows and whys of physician engagement in these reforms.

First off, it is important to state the obvious; Health system reform must include physicians. Physicians remain responsible, with their patients, for most decisions around care. It is hard to expect a system of care to change unless that reform engages and works with the physicians. Moreover, the importance of physician (and all clinicians) in reform is clear. One of us has argued previously that clinician engagement and leadership is one of the three must-haves for any health system undergoing reform and is more important than the typical Canadian paths to health system reform like regionalization, electronic medical record implementation, or compensation structures.

In this blog we consider this question and make some suggestions around the hows and whys of physician engagement in these reforms.

Perhaps as importantly, early evidence from the US and the Accountable Care Organization (ACO) experiment where communities of providers come together to take care of defined populations suggests physician leadership is key  to success. Those ACOs that had physician leadership (and particularly primary care leadership) tended to do better. A recent supplement to the New England Journal of Medicine focussed on how to build strong physician leadership in ACO type models.

The ACO experience is important because it is based on a model of risk or gain-sharing where ACOs become responsible for the care and the costs of that care. As care improves, prevention increases and patients are able to stay at home or in the community, ACOs share in these savings. In some models, they can also share in the losses. How should physicians engage with these sorts of models? With this question, it is important to parse carefully the evidence and the OHT model. The first conclusion is that individual physicians should not face risk or gain-sharing on their own patient populations. Although OHTs will manage hundreds of thousands of patients, individual practices will not be large enough to manage risk. One very ill patient could change the cost profile of an individual physician’s practice and we do not want to encourage reforms where physicians are punished for taking on the sickest and most vulnerable patients. Experience with other reform efforts suggests that these sorts of approaches can leave patients without necessary care.

If not risk or gain-sharing on their own patient populations, then should physicians face a pay-for-performance type system where they are encouraged to provide certain types of care or discouraged from other types of care? Again, the conclusion is no. Repeated Cochrane Collaboration reviews have showed a lack of evidence to support pay-for-performance. Although a number of Canadian provinces have implemented pay-for-performance schemes, these have tended to buy small amounts of change in process without impacting outcomes or larger goals like sustainability or equity. In addition, P4P shifts the activity from improving integration to one of compensation. Finally, P4P also inevitably focuses on the metrics rather than the goals of the reforms. Instead of focusing on improvements in the system, P4P often leads to arguing against the metrics.

So, if physicians should be engaged and should be part of OHTs, but should not face risk-sharing or pay-for-performance at an individual level, then how should they participate in OHTs? It is important to remember that OHTs are a new form of organization in Canadian healthcare. Physicians can and should be part of and help lead these organizations. But any incentives they face and any thoughts about risk and gain-sharing should reflect the success of the organization, not of an individual within that organization.

The alternative to gain/risk sharing is to view the improvement in the health of populations, improved quality of care and enhanced integration are incentive enough to encourage doctors to participate in OHTs and change their practice. Doctors want to do the right thing for their patients. Furthermore, enhanced integration will relieve the administrative burden for doctors, should improve their productivity, and most importantly, allow them to spend more time directly caring for patients. Any financial gains of OHTs instead of accruing to doctors could instead be invested in patient care, such as enhanced IT systems or patient navigators and spread out over necessary improvements (and increases in care).

This means that performance measurement and reporting is key. Performance indicators of what we want to achieve in this reform, grounded in the quadruple aim, will be critical. This will also help physicians see and stay focused on improvement. It also means that stronger financial management is key. Without such management, individual OHTs will not be able to prioritize investments in better care. Finally, it re-enforces the importance of physician engagement and leadership. Without it, we risk losing the connection between better system management (and improvement) and the decisions made at the front lines of care.

Although not all will agree, for doctors, health care reform should be all about improved care and integration for all and not about financial gain (and loss) for some.

James Wright is Chief, Economics, Policy & Research at the Ontario Medical Association

Adalsteinn Brown is Dean and Professor at the Dalla Lana School of Public Health, University of Toronto.

The opinions expressed here are the opinions of the authors and not the OMA, the University or any other organization.