Monday, February 1, 2010


I’ve been feeling guilty since my last post. I hadn’t shown you our 3rd NAA/wait time chart for many months, and if you’ve been following our adventures, you know that the 3rd NAA was the raison d’être of this project. When I finally posted the recent data, it was in anticipation of our upcoming backlog blitz that should drop the 3rd NAA to our target level of 2 weeks.

Our Advanced Access project has broadened to a Clinical Practice Redesign effort, and so has a wider range of goings-on to share in this blog. However, I’m aware that I’ve used that wealth of material as an excuse to avoid exposing our biggest failure: we have not beaten the backlog, and our patients continue to wait too long for their consultations.

I rationalized it beautifully in the last post, didn’t I? I pointed out that the number of FTE urologists in Saskatchewan had dropped over the last few years, and that we were lucky the wait times hadn’t soared as a result of the manpower situation. And, I sweetened the bitterness of showing a stagnant 3rd NAA trend by breaking the exciting news of the backlog blitz.

Why did I keep this under wraps for so long? Here are a few reasons:

As the project lead, I find it frustrating and embarrassing to admit that, while we’ve had success in other areas (there’s that rationalization again!), the main goal eludes us.

When I share our results at meetings and with colleagues, I feel it undermines my credibility as a “champion” for this type of quality improvement.

Other physicians may be reluctant to start similar projects if they see early adopters are struggling to achieve durable results.

Blog posts about an unchanging 3rd NAA would be pretty dry. (Lame reason, I admit.)

I have no malicious intent, and I have never knowingly posted misleading data. However, I recognize that withheld information can affect decisions, impressions and outcomes as much as incorrect information can.

In this case, our Clinical Practice Redesign project continues because we’re excited about the positive changes that we see coming from it. The 3rd NAA data is simply a way we measure our progress and consider other improvements that we can make. As such, apart from the reasons noted above, there’s little risk in sharing the data (flattering or not) with you.

But that’s the case in our group; what if the situation were different? What if we were part of a “pay-for-performance” compensation plan, where our remuneration was dependent on providing prompt consultation? Or, if there were another urology group in town, there would be competition for referrals, and a shorter wait time would be a potent marketing tool.

Most importantly, what does a lack of transparency mean for patients? If all else (demeanor, aptitude and location) were equal, people would likely choose the specialist with the shortest wait time. Perhaps wait time would be the prime criterion for some to make their choice. Controlling access to the information then takes on a new importance.

So who controls the access? Ontario and Alberta share some of their acute care wait times online. Information about wait times to see Saskatchewan surgeons is already collated in an online database and available to referring physicians. They could (and are intended to!) share this information with their patients, to assist in making an informed decision about a specialist referral. The information, therefore, is not considered a secret yet, at present, it is password-protected.

If a patient wished to obtain wait time information, she could do so without relying on a physician to grant her access to the database. The information is available, but not without doing a lot of work. She would call all the offices of that particular specialty and ask what the wait time would be for a new referral appointment. (This is essentially the same process used to fill the database, i.e. self-reported wait time.) If she required a sub-specialty consultation (such as a shoulder problem, rather than a knee problem), she would also ask if that surgeon dealt with that area – also information contained in the database.

So why would we make our patients jump through hoops to gain access to information that we already have, and that they can laboriously obtain of their own accord? (Could anyone make a case that they have a right to the information?) There are good reasons why we might restrict access. We want to be sure that the self-reported data is accurate. After all, if livelihoods may be affected by this information, even the most earnest professional may be tempted to fudge the figures slightly.

But, surely the information physician’s clinics would report to the database would be the same as they would give our to our fictional, diligent patient over the phone. If so, she’s no worse off. I suspect that information reported by physicians to the Department of Health would be at least as accurate as that given out ad hoc to curious patients, as physicians would realize that there would be some auditing/confirmation process applied eventually.

If I have been reluctant to share our wait time data for reasons that bear trivial consequences for me, how will people behave when the stakes are higher? What expectations and rights do patients have about access to information that is critical in their informed decision-making around their healthcare?

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