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While the Canadian healthcare system struggles to address rising costs, an aging population, long wait times and substandard care, and, now, a constitutional challenge on access to private care, one doctor has found the cure.

 Dr. Stephen Pinney, a Canadian-trained orthopaedic surgeon and former clinical professor in the Dept. of Orthopaedics at the University of British Colombia has found the answer: hockey.

 In his new book, “How Hockey Can Save Healthcare,” Pinney pulls back the curtain and exposes the flaws of the current Canadian healthcare system.  He offers expert-sourced and principle-based ideas for reforming the fragmented, inefficient system. Pinney combines two sources of Canadian pride and passion: healthcare and hockey, to provide a tool for understanding the problems and outlining solutions so that the ideal of a high-quality, government-funded healthcare system for all Canadians can be realized.

 “Canadians are passionate and rightly proud of the ideals underpinning their healthcare system,” said Pinney. “Unfortunately, the existing system is organized around a historically-based framework, which is fundamentally flawed. Restructuring healthcare delivery is necessary to make this dream of the ideal healthcare system a reality.”

 Pinney utilizes his experience as a practicing physician, as well as his love of hockey, to explain the current structure and provides a roadmap for achieving the system Canadians deserve.

Read an excerpt below. 

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Introduction to How Hockey Can Save Healthcare

By Dr. Stephen Pinney

hockey-health-cover-image_512x768I had an office, but no fax or printer.

It’s funny how small things can have big impacts. There I was, on the first day of my new job as the head of the orthopaedic department at a large Canadian hospital, and I was stumped by a printer. Or lack thereof.

“No problem!” I thought. I will simply walk down the street to the office supply store and purchase one. “I am sorry, but you can’t do that!” my new assistant informed me. Apparently all hospital equipment, including faxes and printers, had to be purchased, installed, and maintained by the hospital’s information technology (IT) team. They placed an expedited order, and the waiting began.

I phoned the IT department daily for the first week. Each time, I spoke with a different person, each of whom was friendly but unable to help me. I phoned three times in the second week. By the fourth week, I gave up calling altogether. Sometime during the fifth week, two men arrived unannounced, installed my printer, and left. I finally had a printer.

What does obtaining a printer have to do with providing high quality, cost-effective health care? Nothing and everything! Nothing, because as a physician, I do not need a printer to assess, diagnose, and treat a patient. Everything, because good modern medical care is predicated on successfully integrating the entire series of events that comprise each patient’s episode of care (EOC). For example, the typical surgical EOC consists of all events from the decision to proceed with surgery until the patient’s recovery from that surgery—often months after the procedure itself. Each event within the patient’s EOC is interrelated, and problems with one segment of the EOC can (and often do) affect the patient’s outcome and/or the cost of providing care. A fax machine allowed me to receive referrals, x-ray reports, laboratory results, and a variety of other communications necessary for me to effectively do my job as a surgeon. The world of healthcare remains archaic in many ways, and as such, a fax may be the only way I will know that a patient on whom I operated has shown up at an outside emergency room with a problem. A functioning printer and fax machine are therefore two of the many essential elements needed to ensure a successful EOC.

If only this type of siloed, dysfunctional organization had been confined to the IT department, things might have been OK, but it was everywhere. Inefficiency and structural roadblocks were built into the fabric and culture of the Canadian healthcare system. The system has been designed, albeit unintentionally, to fail. What I witnessed during my two years working in the Canadian healthcare system stunned me and compelled me to write this book. It is written for those who are interested in an improved understanding of the existing system and what we as Canadians can do to realize the true potential of the system.  And it is written for taxpayers and patients who deserve better.

My premise in writing this book is that the Canadian healthcare system is prohibitively expensive yet struggles to deliver even mediocre care—not because bad people are running the system, but because of the system itself. All systems are perfectly organized to achieve the results they get, and the Canadian healthcare system is no different.  The “system” is a prisoner to its history. It coalesced almost fifty years ago as a means of funding a way of practicing medicine that no longer applies in today’s modern medical world.

I grew up in Kingston, Ontario, and did my medical school training at McGill University in Montreal. In 1991, I headed west to the University of British Columbia, where I completed my orthopaedic residency training. However, like many of my resident colleagues training during the 1990s (and today), the Canadian job market for orthopaedic surgeons was barren, and a move to the United States offered greater opportunities. After honing my clinical and surgical skills for a decade, I began to look for a greater challenge.

In 2009, after ten years of working as an academic orthopaedic surgeon in the United States, I was recruited to return to Canada. I accepted a leadership position as head of the orthopaedic department at one of the largest hospitals in British Columbia and started work in August of 2010. In addition to my administrative responsibilities, I also ran a full clinical practice in orthopaedics—seeing patients in clinic, performing surgeries, and taking emergency calls. I began my Canadian healthcare adventure with genuine excitement at the prospect of helping to harness two of the real strengths of the Canadian healthcare system: first, all patients have health insurance; second, central oversight of the healthcare system allows for the development of large-scale, efficiently coordinated care projects—at least in theory. Many Canadians take these elements of the Canadian healthcare system for granted. Having worked in other systems, I did not.

The job I was recruited into seemed like it would be a great fit.  I’d have numerous opportunities: return to Canada to help provide administrative leadership to an orthopaedic department, coordinate care for patients with musculoskeletal problems in my subspecialty (foot and ankle), and continue to pursue my academic interests (teaching and research). Like the vast majority of Canadians, I embrace the ideals of a well-run, publicly-funded healthcare system providing high-quality, universal healthcare coverage to all Canadians. However, after I arrived, it took less than six months for me to realize what I had walked into— ideals and reality are often two very different things. It took another twelve months to realize that a meaningful system change was not going to materialize from within the existing system. As one of my colleagues told me, “After eighteen months, you will understand the system, and then you just need to determine if you can tolerate it for the rest of your career.”

The doctors, nurses, and administrators I worked with were some of the nicest and most committed people I have met. However, they were trapped in a dysfunctional system and powerless to do anything about it. For me it was untenable. I could not face my patients—or myself— knowing I was not only part of the system, but purportedly someone who was helping to lead it. The experience has compelled me to push for meaningful healthcare reform in Canada. I hope the messages contained in this book will stimulate ideas, debate, and ultimately actions that will help usher in fundamental system reform.

To contextualize my discussions regarding the Canadian healthcare system, it is important that the reader understand my philosophy of healthcare provision. I believe that the primary goal of a healthcare system should be to provide high-value healthcare—care that is patient-centered, high quality, and cost-effective. Anyone looking at the Canadian healthcare system through a different lens may come to a different conclusion.

This book is divided into nine chapters. The first three chapters explore the existing Canadian healthcare system. Chapter 1 looks at the good…and the not so good, providing an overview of what is working, and what is not. Chapter 2 examines the finances of the healthcare system and argues that healthcare in Canada is not “free”, but rather prohibitively expensive. Chapter 3 addresses the quality of care the system delivers; despite the aforementioned strengths of the system, increasing evidence is showing that the system is struggling to even reach mediocrity.

Chapter 4 gives a history of medical care outlining the fundamental changes in the approach to how care is delivered that have occurred during the past two centuries –and in particular during the last two decades. Chapter 5 explores the history of healthcare delivery within the Canadian healthcare system. It is not possible to understand the present system without understanding the past and this chapter reviews how the structural organization of the present-day system was established a half-century ago during a time when the practice of medicine was very different than it is today.

Chapter 6 reviews the principles that serve as the foundation of a modern healthcare system. These accepted principles of modern healthcare delivery have been well delineated by healthcare scholars and have been battle-tested in different healthcare systems and other service industries, such as airlines and hotel chains. Chapter 7 outlines how a modern healthcare system needs to be structured—a single governing body; an emphasis on team-based, primary care delivery; coordinated teams to deliver high-value EOCs for more complex problems; and efficiently run healthcare facilities, such as hospitals, where care is actually delivered. In Chapter 8, the principles outlined in Chapter 6 are expanded and applied to the various activities and stakeholders within a healthcare system—the governing bodies (the Ministries of Health, Regional Health authorities, etc.), various healthcare teams, and individual actors within the system (physicians, administrators, etc.).

Chapter 9 presents potential strategies for reforming the Canadian healthcare system. I will argue that the key to reforming the Canadian healthcare system is to reorient the system to ensure it is fully aligned with the accepted principles of modern healthcare delivery that are outlined in Chapter 8. One potential means of achieving fundamental reform is outlined—disruptive innovation in the form of a second parallel public system—a “system within a system” designed from the ground up, based on modern healthcare principles.

Fundamental and meaningful healthcare reform will not be an easy task. The reality is that on many levels, the Canadian healthcare system works well for those working within the existing system; many doctors, nurses, healthcare workers, and administrators have carved out well-compensated niches that they protect ferociously. It also works for many Canadians with an idealized view of their healthcare system but no meaningful interaction with the system itself. However, increasing evidence reveals a system that is not working for those on the outside—taxpayers and patients. This final section of the book will explore strategies for reform that truly put the patients and the taxpayers first.

Most chapters have a similar structure. They begin with a hockey scenario—either real or imagined. Comparing the Canadian healthcare system to hockey may seem odd, but it is intended to serve two purposes.  First, it provides an analogy to help the reader understand the often opaque workings of what is actually happening within the Canadian healthcare system. Second, the principles and commitments required to successfully run a professional hockey team are similar to those required to run a successful healthcare system. The National Hockey League (NHL) head office is akin to the governing body of a healthcare system.  It looks out for the best interests of the league as a whole, and its goals trump those of individual teams. Teams attempt to win games and maintain success throughout the season and into the playoffs.

A successful professional hockey team demonstrates many of the attributes that one would expect to see in a high functioning healthcare team. Both teams set clear goals and select and utilize players to achieve the best outcomes, closely measure their results, and make changes—including personnel changes based on their overall performances. Individual hockey players realize they must be highly skilled and committed to excellence to play hockey professionally. Their individual goals must be subservient to the goals of the team.

Similarly, in healthcare, individual practitioners need to work as part of a team so the patient-centered goals of the team trump the personal agendas of doctors and other practitioners. Unfortunately, this is not how the vast majority of the Canadian healthcare system is organized.

There are some important differences in the analogy between hockey and healthcare. One of the most striking is that when a hockey organization functions poorly, their team fails to make the playoffs or is eliminated from the playoffs early, leaving their city and their fans saddened for a day or even a week. When a healthcare system performs poorly, patients suffer—often permanently.

Throughout each chapter, I present stories from the Canadian healthcare system. This represents the view from the healthcare playing field—the ground-level perspective. I experienced these stories firsthand, or in rare instances, had direct knowledge of the events. The names of patients, physicians, and administrators have been changed, and the circumstances altered to protect confidentiality. However, the essential elements of each story are true. An analysis of every story is performed to identify issues or principles.

After reviewing real-life scenarios, background information and facts pertaining to the system as a whole are presented. These discussions aim to provide a broader perspective—the bird’s-eye view. Each chapter ends with a return to the hockey analogy, including lessons or ideas we can learn from each analogy that can be applied to the Canadian healthcare system.

Was my experience within the Canadian healthcare system typical?  Perhaps the system is working perfectly elsewhere, and I simply witnessed dysfunction in an isolated area. Certainly there is a spectrum of organizations within the Canadian healthcare system. I have no doubt that there are pockets within the system where excellent care is delivered regularly and at a reasonable cost. I have highlighted a number of these examples throughout the book. However, I do believe my experience was representative of the norm. I worked at a hospital that had an excellent reputation and had done well on its accreditation reviews. Yet it was beholden to the same forces that dominate the entire Canadian healthcare system: the same general funding paradigm, the same organizational structure, and the same emphasis (or lack thereof) on the outcomes of care. The problem was the system, and the system was ubiquitous.

When people talk of reforming the Canadian healthcare system, the conversation often moves quickly to opening up a private system, bringing in an “American-style” healthcare system, or changing the source of healthcare funding. These debates are not what this book is about. This book is about how Canadians can make their publicly funded healthcare system run better—much better!

This book is not intended to push a private Canadian healthcare system, nor is it about importing “American-style” healthcare. It is true that I now practice in the United States and have learned much from their perspectives. However, there is not one style of healthcare delivery in the United States; rather, there are many, very different approaches.  The notion that we can describe “American healthcare” as one system is ludicrous. Nevertheless, Canadians can and should look to other health systems, including those in the United States, for aspects of care delivery that work.

How Canadians fund their healthcare system has been open to debate at times. Presently, there is a pseudo-insurance system, with the provincial governments acting as de facto insurance agents. They take in money from taxpayers and disperse this money to those running the health system: administrators and healthcare providers. Unlike insurance companies, they do not demand that users pay a deductible—a token fee prior to seeing a doctor, receiving surgery, or being admitted to hospital. Such a fee is designed to discourage excessive use of the insurance system, although in some instances it may serve to discourage low-income patients from seeking medical care in a timely manner.

There are definitely right-wing and left-wing views on whether the Canadian system should introduce these types of user fees. Like the private-public debate, such discussions are healthy for the country, regardless of the final decision. However, there is not a right-wing or left-wing way to practice good medical care; politics and national borders do not define the principles of good healthcare delivery. This book does not have a political orientation. It is about how the existing, public Canadian healthcare system can invoke accepted principles of 21st century medical care to dramatically improve the value and quality of the care provided.

It is my hope that this book will stimulate discussion about the problems endemic in the present Canadian healthcare system, and provide a general roadmap for instituting fundamental reform. I encourage the reader to analyze and debate the ideas presented. As Canadians, hockey and healthcare are two of our most prized national treasures. We need to be as passionate about demanding excellence and transparency in Canadian healthcare as we are for demanding quality and success of our favourite professional hockey team. As Canadians, with ingenuity, meaningful reform, hard work, and a focus on the team, we can win the healthcare game.


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About The Author

Stephen Pinney BA (Harvard), MD (McGill), MEd (UBC), FRCSC is a practicing orthopaedic surgeon with expertise in healthcare reform. He is Canadian-trained and a Fellow of the Royal College of Canada, board-certified by the American Board of Orthopaedic Surgery and was sub-specialty trained in foot and ankle surgery at Harborview Medical Center, University of Washington. He is a former clinical professor in the Department of Orthopaedics at the University of British Columbia and previously served as the head of the Department of Orthopaedics at St. Paul’s Hospital in Vancouver, British Columbia. He has authored over 30 peer-reviewed publications on topics related to orthopaedic research, healthcare system reform, the ethics of healthcare leadership, and quality and process improvement tools/strategies. He is a skilled educator, with a master’s degree in Adult Education. Pinney is a passionate advocate for patient education and a lifelong hockey fan.

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