Tara Kiran is a family physician at the St. Michael’s Hospital Academic Family Health Team and the Fidani Chair of Improvement and Innovation at the University of Toronto.
As the number of new cases of COVID-19 decreases in most provinces, government and professional associations are providing guidance on the reopening of clinical services to a “new normal”. Much of the specific advice is focused on restarting surgeries and procedures. There has been little guidance for family practices, typically the first point of contact in our healthcare system.
Over the last two months, family practices have dramatically changed how we deliver care. Our volumes have dropped by about 30-50% and more than 80% of the “visits” we are now doing are virtual. Many of us are assessing rashes and foot ulcers using video or photos. We are more likely to prescribe an antibiotic for a sore throat or ear without an in-person exam. Non-essential visits have been postponed including routine visits for chronic diseases or cancer screening. We are renewing blood pressure and diabetes medications without the usual office assessments, relying on home measurements when available. We are supporting an increasing number of people with mental health concerns, a challenge on the phone and video is not always possible.
Many of us are worried about the consequences of these changes in care – especially if they are prolonged. We are eager to ramp up office visits so we can start assessing more patients in-person again.
But, unlike my own practice, most family practices are not connected to a hospital and have been on their own when it comes to sourcing personal protective equipment (PPE), an ongoing challenge. And in-person visits have the potential to put patients at risk, particularly those with increased age or co-morbidities. At the same time, many assessments can be done virtually and may be more convenient for patients.
How do we balance these benefits and risks? How can we assess the impact of decisions to ramp up in-person care so we know whether we need to ramp down again?
We will need to get to a new normal for primary care practice while COVID-19 is with us for the next 1-2 years – one that balances the benefits and risks of virtual and in-person care for patients and providers.
The National Academy of Medicine’s six domains of quality offer one potential framework to systematically consider benefits and risks and get us to the new normal. We need to prevent harm to patients and staff and consider both the risks of acquiring SARS-CoV-2 itself but also the risks of deferring in-person assessments (safety). We should consider the evidence of how much an in-person intervention improves health outcomes and whether the same outcomes could be achieved virtually (effectiveness). When in-patient visits do occur, we should minimize waste of time, opportunity, and PPE (efficiency). Care should be timely no matter which mode we choose (access), meet the specific needs and values of patients (patient-centred), and enable everyone to achieve the same outcomes regardless of background (equity).
For each domain of quality, we can consider what data to collect to help us understand whether we are achieving the right balance of in-person and virtual care. Data can be collected on small samples to keep things practical and timely. Iterative cycles of planned change, data collection, and reflection can guide the process for ramping in-person care up or down or keeping things steady. The 2-part table below provides some examples of how the framework can be used by primary care practices to weigh competing issues as we strive for a new normal during COVID-19.
Our public health measures have not yet quelled COVID-19 in Canada. And it will likely be more than a year until we have an effective vaccine. In the meantime, primary care practices can use a quality improvement approach to balance benefits and risks of providing care in the office and iteratively adjust plans.
The table below (also available in PDF) provides some examples of how the framework can be used by primary care practices to weigh competing issues as we strive for a new normal during COVID-19.