Simply Overwhelmed

Dr. Lynsey Bartlett made national news when she let 200 patients go last week.

She was charting until midnight, spending 1/3 of her day with complex mental health patients and could not afford to hire more staff to help out.

She was simply overwhelmed.

Many docs do what Bartlett did, but they go quietly. They trim office hours or join larger groups.

Patients wait longer for next-available appointments. But no one sees it in the news. Access changes like the tide, quiet and slow.

The tide has shifted, in Ontario. Ten years ago, doctors had hope. Federal Health Transfers filled provincial coffers. The economy roared, and healthcare funding rebounded, after 10 years of social contract cuts.

But hope has worn thin lately. The 2008 financial crisis hit government revenue. Doctors have been attacked on all fronts. Spending now goes mostly to unbeatable interests; austerity does not win elections.


Medicine is not what it used to be.

A UK study reports 2/3 of docs wouldn’t recommend a career in medicine to their children. American docs are burning out at alarming rates.

In Canada, some studies report up to 75% of trainees are burned out, and 50% of practicing physicians show signs of burnout. The Canadian Medical Association reported that 26% of doctors are dissatisfied with their work life balance.

On top of this, Canadian doctors commit suicide at a rate 2-3 times the general population.

Politicians, journalists and academics usually blame aging patients and burden of care:

Older Patients – The average Canadian was 25 years old when Medicare started. People hoped to live until 70.

Today, life expectancy for women is 84 and for men it’s 80. The average Canadian is over 40. As of 2017, Canada has more seniors than children.

Demography crushes clinical care. Old people need the most care, ergo, even a tiny change in the number of seniors creates a massive change in total care.

Sicker Patients – Medicine used to be about diagnosing with limited tools and treating with limited therapies.

Today, physicians sift through long lists of medications, trying to figure out whether symptoms represent disease or side effects.

Docs used to diagnose and treat. Today, they educate and motivate.

But older patients are fun. They give rich past medical histories and do not take themselves so seriously.  Sick patients define why doctors became doctors. Neither old nor sick patients fully explain why doctors are overwhelmed.

Insufficient Resources

Dr. Bartlett mentioned how hard it was to care for really sick patients without specialist backup. She was seeing some patients twice weekly until a specialist could take over.

I was not trained for this. I am doing my best, but there is just not enough resources in the system.

She extended office hours to keep up with demand, but it’s not enough.

It’s the same everywhere. Patients languish in hallways waiting for a hospital bed.  Families care for relatives at home for years after patients should have been in long-term care.

Too Much Regulation

Since 1970, health regulation has exploded in Ontario (see graph).

Regulation means doctors spend more time thinking about following rules than listening to patients.

Each law expands the size and power of government.

For example, Bill 160, a 200 page omnibus bill, amends or introduces 10 different pieces of healthcare legislation. It gives government broad powers but offers few details about scope or intent.

The bill introduces oversight to ‘healthcare facilities’ but does not define a facility. Without definition, every single doctor’s office might be considered a facility and be open to oversight by an external administrator.

This is just one problem in one bill.  Businesses in Ontario already face 380,000 regulations, and yet governments put more and more responsibility on doctors but give MDs less and less control.

Increasing Expectations

Patients expect more, and who can blame them? If a laptop doesn’t turn on in 2 seconds, we wonder if it’s broken.

Medicine, for the most part, has not kept pace. Doctors still rely on fax machines (!). We make people wait in waiting rooms.

Regulatory colleges demand long clinical notes that list all the symptoms a patient did NOT have just to prove that the doctor thought about all the scary things that did not exist.

As patients expect faster service, a sticky mass of bloated administrative duties threatens to smother doctors.

Not Enough Time

Today, doctors must run faster to pay for overhead and maintain a reasonable income.

Some people hate talk about fees and wish fees did not exist. They push salaries. But governments cannot afford to put all doctors on salary. Salaries have their own challenges, starting with misaligned incentives and lower productivity.

Fees have remained flat or declining for years (see graph).

Falling prices – fees in this case – cause businesses to act in predictable ways.

When prices fall and overhead increases, businesses must trim products and services. Bakeries bake shorter loaves of bread and mechanics spend less time chatting with owners.

Cuts force doctors to trim clinic visits as short as possible, and doctors get blamed for the experience.

Eroded Respect

Many doctors went into medicine to help people and earn respect for helping. Who could imagine a better career?

In single-payer healthcare, the only thing people talk about is money, and how there’s not enough for everyone who wants it.

Governments spend most of their healthcare dollars on hospitals and doctors’ fees. As money runs out, hospitals and doctors become targets. With less funding, hospitals leave patients in hallways and doctors change the way they practice.

If bakeries sold shorter loaves because government reduced the price of bread, bakers would get blamed. Few people think about the price-fixing and regulations that caused it.

Overall, nationalized services tend to create frustration at the point of service, not respect.

Overwhelmed but Grateful

Most doctors hold on to inspiring stories: the ones where patients benefit and doctors become better people.

I had a long talk with Dr. Bartlett. She has a passion for sick patients. She agonized over her decision. She made sure that her 200 patients were stable: none of them had major mental health or medical issues. Many lived in another city.

We talked about the media camped outside her office. She giggled about trying to wait until they left. Docs just want to care for patients. They aren’t trained to handle reporters.

We need more doctors like Dr. Bartlett. She welcomes the sickest. She stays late and cares deeply. She extends her office hours, but she also knows her limits. Trying to save the world is risky, not heroic.

Many doctors are overwhelmed. Our system needs a new approach. We cannot just talk about money and fees.

We need to talk about regulations and incentives. We need to unleash innovation and allow failed programs to die. We need to talk about society and politics, and try to figure out what voters want.

If we do not improve things soon, doctors who are simply overwhelmed will be forced to change or quit. It doesn’t need to be like this.

Photo credit: MetroNews

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