Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Come on in… The water’s fine!

Since we started encouraging pooled referrals, we’ve never looked back. If you’ve been following our Clinical Practice Redesign work, you know that we consider the pooled referral to be our default condition, that is, anyone referred to our group is automatically scheduled for the earliest appointment available with any urologist. (Caveats: If the problem requires subspecialty expertise, we look after triaging to the appropriate urologist. If the patient already has a relationship with one of our physicians, we try to maintain continuity of care by scheduling the appointment with the same physician. Most importantly, the patient or referring physician can specify which urologist they prefer, and we will schedule the appointment with that doc. The wait may be longer in that case.)

I like the analogy of an ice-cube tray to illustrate the advantages of a pooled referral system. When you pour water (referred patients/demand) into one compartment of an ice-cube tray (specialists/capacity), the water automatically spills over into the other compartments until they are all filled. The result will be even and efficient distribution of water. Unless overall demand exceeds the tray’s total capacity, all the water will be accommodated. Overflowing water represents excess wait times.

The alternate model is to cut up the tray into separate ice-cube compartments, and then fill the compartments individually. Not only does that require more effort (you have to move the water jug from one compartment to the next), but also there is more risk of overflow. In this model, if individual compartment capacity is exceeded, water will spill. Some compartments may be underfilled. This model is inefficient because the compartments don’t work as a system.

One day soon, you’ll be thanking me for providing this sweet analogy, because I think pooled referrals are soon going to be a topic of conversation in Saskatchewan. And, when someone mentions them at a party, you’ll be knocking socks off with the ice-cube tray story. You’re welcome.

Why the interest in pooled referrals? Because of the Saskatchewan Surgical Initiative! SSI says that by 2014, no one in Saskatchewan will wait more than 3 months for surgery. That’s bold. But, other health systems have achieved it. The methods they used are well-known, and applicable to Saskatchewan. One of the most powerful methods is pooled referrals. (Still don’t believe me? Check the 2-pager highlighting the SSI plan.)

So how will SSI get us from here to there? First, we need to know what “here” and “there” are.


Our current state is the 2nd ice-cube tray model (see above). Most specialists are “organized” in solo or small-group practices. Even when they are physically congregated as a larger group, the individual members of that group still behave as solo practitioners as far as distribution of referrals is concerned. Often, large specialty groups are just a device to share office expenses and on-call duties. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

Most Saskatchewan specialists have plenty of work to do, so there’s very little perceived incentive to share a common pool of referrals. They may even be worried that they will be “giving away work” if they participate in a pooled referral scheme.

GPs often have established referral patterns based on their experience with a certain specialist, and their judgment of that surgeon’s expertise. Or, they may be golf buddies. GPs who are new to the province, and are practicing in solo, rural practices, may not have developed a personal relationship with many specialists, and may be uncertain as to which one will best serve their patient’s needs effectively and promptly. There are recent efforts to make referral-to-consultation wait times available to GPs via a website, but the information is self-reported by specialists. Participation by specialists is not mandatory, nor is the information audited or verifiable.

Patients are even more in the dark. They rely on their GP’s advice, or talk to friends and family who may have been referred to a certain specialist. They have virtually no information on individual wait times. They may not receive confirmation of the appointment for several weeks.

The system is working great for us specialists, because we always have plenty of work, and it’s delivered straight to our front door. Everyone else… not so good.


The “ideal” state I’ve most often heard described goes something like this:

GPs submit referrals through a centralized online system. Artificial intelligence (AI) software asks for key clinical information to ascertain which specialty would deal with the patient’s condition. The system tracks all available specialists’ wait times and subspecialty interests. The patient is then assigned to the appropriate specialist with the shortest wait time, and receives the appointment date before leaving the GP’s office.

Whoa. Ease up on the 1984, Jackboots! This system would be maximally efficient, but very restrictive. There would be little choice given to patients, even though they would be assured of the shortest wait time possible.

If we imagine a system guided by patient-centredness, we may sacrifice some efficiency, yet improve overall satisfaction. Keep the centralized online system with AI. When GP and patient jointly submit clinical information, have the AI suggest alternatives to specialist referral (alternate provider, care pathways, patient education resources). If a specialist referral is appropriate, the system gives the patient all the information he/she needs to make a choice. Some patients may still prefer that their GP choose a specialist. Others may want to know wait time information, subspecialty interests, results of patient satisfaction surveys, and even condition- or procedure-specific outcome data. The choice remains up to the fully-informed patient.

Because concern over long wait times tends to trump all other considerations, we generally ignore the other factors that affect patient choice of a consultant. (During a famine, one overlooks a little mold on a loaf of bread.) Once wait times are better managed, and therefore shorter, patients will behave more like well-informed consumers. The balance will shift from a seller’s market (favoring specialists) to a buyer’s market (more choice for users). Patients will start to consider geographic convenience, surgeon experience and outcomes, other patient’s satisfaction with that specialist, in addition to the wait time.

The trip from here to there

How do we make our way through the wilderness to reach this utopia of patient-centredness? First, we could talk to people who’ve already made the journey.

While many specialists consider pooled referrals to be a radical change, they are actually more familiar with the concept than they may realize. Some specialties already use a pooled referral model. Radiology is a prime example. When I order an xray, I accept that the test will be interpreted by the radiologist on duty that day. Because of subspecialty interests, some work may be streamed toward a specific radiologist. I have the option to have the xray films reviewed by another radiologist if I choose.

In order to be confident in the pooled radiology system, I have to be satisfied that the quality of work is consistent among all the radiologists. This is a tricky subject to raise if we’re considering implementing a pooled referral system, yet it’s critical that we address it. All specialists are not created equal. Differences in knowledge, skills and attitude all affect performance. How will a pooled system function if some of the participants don’t perform to a common standard? This is an important consideration for patients using the pooled system, but also for the specialists in the pool.

An objection sometimes voiced by specialists, regarding pooled referrals, is that they don’t want to work with Dr. X because they don’t respect his/her abilities. (Note: This is rarely stated at the meeting, and sometimes requires administration of a few drinks after the meeting. In vino, veritas.) Whether this objection is based on actual clinical shortcomings, or just personality conflicts, it’s still important to acknowledge it as a barrier to implementing pooled referrals.

Next, we need to think of a way to get everyone into the car, i.e. incentives. For patients, we should offer something beyond just the shortest wait time possible. The referral system should direct the patient toward appropriate care (which may not be referral to a specialist) within a reasonable time frame, with the provider of their choice.

For GPs, our system should reduce their paperwork burden, and increase job satisfaction. An electronic referral system that lists all specialists’ interests and wait times, as well as the information specialists want to accompany the referral request, would simplify the GPs job. If the electronic referral system also included expert information on how to manage common clinical problems before considering referral, GPs could provide more service to their patients in their own practice.

Incentives for specialists are a little trickier. We already have plenty of work to do. We are, for the most part, well paid. We value our autonomy, i.e. I choose my own practice group.

Honestly, I don’t know how to motivate specialists to participate in a province-wide, pooled referral system. And that’s why I think we should let patients and GPs drive this initiative. They are the ones with the most to gain.

First steps

Start by collecting reliable information that patients and GPs want. Of course, we first need to ask them what they want, but I have a few suggestions. Collect information from all surgeons regarding their specialty and subspecialty. Develop a method to measure and verify wait times from referral to consultation. Post all this information on an open-access website. Publicize the website. Eventually, the site could include patient satisfaction survey results, and outcome data.

Next, implement an electronic referral system. Other provinces have a headstart on these systems, so we should beg, borrow or steal. Or offer to collaborate. Pay a premium to GPs and specialists who use this system, but make sure the system is useful and user-friendly enough that they want to use it even without being paid extra.

Finally, don’t try to push specialists into a pooled referral system. Instead, set clear and realistic expectations for wait times and offer specific incentives to achieve those goals. Provide support and training for specialists who wish to implement changes (including, but not limited to, pooled referrals) in their practices. Acknowledge and address real barriers (personal and professional) to adopting pooled referrals. Do not expect busy clinicians to implement these changes on their own. Praise – publicly and frequently - the practices that achieve the goals.

Establish a new level of expectation in Saskatchewan: Patients are entitled to the information necessary to make a decision about which specialist they wish to see.

Turn up the heat until everyone wants to jump into the pool.


  1. Good post, we BTW use patientsurvey.com for keeping a tab on patient feedback. Works out well. Makes the staff also think twice about how they treat patients. Plus, all staff wears a name tag just to make sure they know patients can see who the person is.

    Also, this is helping out to let go staff who are not doing a great job. What better way to document something that is provided to you by patients themselves.

    Keep up the good work and improving patient satisfaction.


  2. Hi all,

    The above comment has nothing to do with the post, and is likely self-promotional, but the patient survey looked interesting, so I've let the comment stand.

  3. Another great message Kishore. I love the analogy of the ice-cube tray and will definitely borrow it! I think the reference to how referrals to radiologists are handled is also helpful. Using the language and ideas that Tom Nolan (from IHI) shared with some of us last week, you and your urology colleagues are Pioneers in our Saskatchewan health system. We need more Pioneers who will forge the path for others to follow.

    Maura Davies, Saskatoon Health Region

  4. This blog needs to be syndicated and published in daily newspapers.
    Kishore, running through this instalment, but not yet addressed in your chronicle, is the theme of performance: as you note, some doctors don't respect each other, there are real differences in performance, ergo some degree of choice is essential. As things now are, that's good logic. But this problem can and should be resolved by filling in the great gap in the system: publicly available, honest, real-time, relevant, and in some cases practitioner-specific performance data.
    This, of course, makes many practitioners cringe. They worry about unreliable data, incentives to pick easier cases with guaranteed good outcomes, and loss of clinical autonomy. The first two issues have been dealt with in systems with a long track record of measurement and reporting. The latter is in essence a philosophical issue; I would argue that we need to redefine clinical autonomy. It is not doing whatever you want, regardless of prevailing standards, peer review assessments, and scientific evidence. In its best form, it is exercising good judgment based on careful attention to patients' needs, awareness of where science does and does not indicate what to do, and acceptance of the principle that giving reasons for what you do and being accountable to the public, the system, and your peers is the foundation for both excellence and fairness.
    Regardless of what practitioners think about these matters, it is not whether, but when this kind of performance measurement and reporting takes place. Hence the only questions are a) who will design the performance measurement system (i.e., select the indicators, measures, scales, reporting methods, unit of analysis, etc.); and what will be put in place to improve the performance of outliers. Ideally, peers - acting in the context of overall system design - would develop the system and define what is meaningful to them as performance indicators, with the real engagement of patients, since it is they who bear the consequences.
    A well-functioning system would solve a number of problems, including practitioners who have false-positive and false-negative perceptions of each other's performance, and the dilemma patients face in choosing providers (we are in the dark, and our choices are based on highly unreliable, anecdotal or experiential data). It would also help sort out the division of labour among specialists; those found to be good in some areas and not so good in others should either upgrade in the deficient areas or concentrate on the areas where they perform well. Choice in the absence of good data does little to improve patient well-being; choice based on valid performance data helps everybody, including practitioners who want to do a better job. And good data will make a pooled referral system work even better.