Archives mensuelles : décembre 2020

An essay by the Young Leaders Committee: Supporting the next generation of researchers and rethinking tomorrow’s research in the context of research “covidification”

This essay is part of a series of reflections on primary care during the pandemic presented by Réseau-1 Québec. The original essay published in French on May 25, 2020 is available here >>

[This essay was written by the Young Leaders Committee in Patient-Oriented Research (POR), a community of early career researchers and student-researchers supporting the scientific community and its members, whose mission is to promote the next generation of POR leaders by supporting POR capacity building, networking and mentorship, scientific production, and POR knowledge translation, as well as collaboration among its members.]

The “covidification” of research

The COVID-19 pandemic has shone the collective spotlight on health research. The media report daily on scientific advances supporting the fight against COVID-19: epidemiological data, clinical trials of treatments, vaccine development, etc. Many members of the scientific community in Quebec, Canada, and internationally have mobilized to address the emerging issues of this COVID-19 crisis, to such an extent that we are witnessing a rapid “covidification” of research: major investments in research on COVID-19 (e.g. pharmaceutical, basic science, specialized medicine), the creation of networks and platforms for sharing research on COVID-19, the suspension of several non-COVID-19 research activities, the cancellation or postponement of funding competitions for non-COVID-19 studies, and the reorientation of many research teams towards COVID-19.

This “covidification” of research reflects an intention to answer pressing questions in the fight against COVID-19, but it also poses certain risks. Of course, research on epidemiology, vaccines, and treatments for COVID-19 is essential. However, it is also crucial to address issues of health service organization, quality of care, health equity, and the social aspects of this crisis. We need to avoid an “over-covidification” of research; let’s not forget that the non-COVID issues still affect patients and many challenges in our health systems have been amplified by this health crisis. Moreover, neglected or postponed health care and the delays in management of patients’ health problems will bring new challenges.

The importance of patient-oriented research

In this context, patient-oriented research (POR) is once again critically important. The upheavals we are experiencing underscore the need to produce knowledge that addresses people’s concerns. POR can produce evidence on health care services and policies oriented towards improving the health and well-being of populations and health professionals. Yet POR, which involves a strong collaborative process, is on shaky ground. During the pandemic, we need to make sure patients, health professionals, and decision-makers can continue to participate safely, and significantly, in order to ensure the production of meaningful and relevant evidence. In our post-COVID society, it will be more important than ever to maintain strong links with patient-partners so that work currently on hold can resume and adapt to the emerging challenges facing patients and the health system.

What is POR?

Patient-oriented research (POR) mobilizes patients and multidisciplinary partners, focuses on priorities established by patients, and improves patient outcomes. POR aims to apply knowledge to improve health systems and health care.

Issues for the next generation of researchers

As early career researchers and student-researchers, this “covidification” of research has hit us head-on, and we are dealing with inevitable collateral effects (see our algorithm below). A loss of motivation and uncertainty about this situation have strained our capacity to be resilient and to adapt. Here are some examples of what we are experiencing: reduced job prospects and job insecurity in research; uncertain thesis defenses in formats that don’t do justice to the scope of the work and don’t allow for celebration commensurate with the effort; unreliable research funding due to the cancellation of various competitions; difficulties reconciling pro-COVID-19 research with our own research programs in a coherent manner; excessive project delays caused by the interruption of data collection; reduced ability to maintain links with patient-partners and other collaborators; the cancellation of networking events that are so valuable for our career advancement; a heavy workload generated by the move to online coursework; work–family balance issues related to working from home and the closure of schools and daycare centres; etc.

The next generation of researchers does not necessarily have the same resources and networks as experienced researchers to cope with these challenges. This situation contributes to a certain precariousness and can make research students and young researchers vulnerable.

Supporting the next generation of researchers

These upheavals contribute to weakening the next generation of researchers. Without additional support, there is a risk our generation of young researchers will crumble. Research supervisors, more experienced researchers, universities, research networks, and funding agencies all have a role to play in supporting the next generation of researchers, particularly in the current context.

It is crucial that student-researchers and early career researchers are afforded the support, flexibility, and understanding they need. Resources must be made available to us to carry out our work and plan our early career paths: more frequent follow-ups; formal and informal mentoring; support in reorienting our projects and data collection; setting priorities with regards to our objectives; flexibility in deadlines for grant and scholarship applications; consideration of work–family balance in scientific production; extension of grants and funding; etc. The creation of virtual spaces to facilitate collaboration, mutual aid, and networking can also strengthen a sense of belonging and reduce isolation. Innovative ways must be found to enable the next generation of researchers to attend training sessions, gain experience, demonstrate leadership, and engage in research. For example, the next generation can become involved in COVID-19 grant applications and projects if they are given opportunities by more experienced researchers or if their participation is encouraged by research networks and funding agencies. Granting agencies and universities could also be encouraged to show flexibility and support in maintaining and creating strategies to support the next generation of researchers in the short, medium, and long terms (e.g. competitions, funding, sponsorships, virtual events, mentoring, productivity support, career planning support).

An opportunity to rethink the research of tomorrow

As young POR researchers, we often experience discomfort and frustration with more traditional research structures and approaches that seem old-fashioned and partially out of step with the needs and realities of patients and health systems. We dream of research that is more agile, innovative, and interdisciplinary, conducted in collaboration with all holders of knowledge and experience (patients, clinicians, communities, managers, decision-makers, and researchers); research that is applied in real time to solve emerging problems, and where our performance as researchers is measured by the impact of our contributions and not just by the number of lines in our CVs. In short, “Research 3.0”, as Réseau-1 would describe it.

Amongst ourselves, we sometimes question our career choice: will research enable us to make a significant contribution to improving the health system and the well-being of populations? If the major research upheavals of recent months have proven one thing to us, it is that research can change, adapt to emerging needs, and be agile. This gives us renewed hope in research and its mission. Let’s take advantage of this crisis to rethink research, to innovate, and to make lasting changes that will maintain this agility and renewed relevance of research. We, the next generation of patient-oriented researchers, are ready to take on this challenge. Let’s not forget: we are not alone. We are part of a strong research community that is more important now than ever!

Mélanie Ann Smithman, Doctoral candidate, Université de Sherbrooke; Co-director, Capacity strengthening, Réseau-1 Québec; Fellow, Québec SPOR Support Unit

Isabelle Dufour, Nurse, Doctoral candidate, Université de Sherbrooke; Fellow, Québec SPOR Support Unit

Virginie Blanchette, Podiatrist, PhD; early-career professor, Université du Québec à Trois-Rivières; POR trainee

Jean-Christophe Bélisle-Pipon, PhD, Visiting researcher, The Petrie-Flom Center for Health Law Policy, Biotechnology, and Bioethics, Harvard Law School; Fellow, Health Law Institute, Dalhousie University; Invited researcher, School of Public Health, Université de Montréal; Fellow, Québec SPOR Support Unit

Samuel Turcotte, Occupational therapist; Doctoral candidate in clinical and biomedical sciences (rehabilitation option), Université Laval; Fellow, CIHR SPOR (transition to leadership stream) and Québec SPOR Support Unit

Mohamed Ali Ag Ahmed, MD-MPH, PhD; Postdoctoral fellow with the Research Chair on Chronic Diseases in Primary Care, Université de Sherbrooke

Ruth Ndjaboue, Postdoctoral trainee, Université Laval; Fellow, Diabetes Action Canada – a national patient-oriented research network

On behalf of the Young Leaders Committee in POR

Mobilisation des médecins de famille en recherche

Le R1Q a demandé à la SPOR Evidence Alliance de produire une revue systématique sur la mobilisation et l’engagement des médecins de famille à la recherche en soins de première ligne afin d’informer les quatre réseaux de recherche axée sur les pratiques de première ligne (RRAPPL).

Voici le rapport final ainsi que le sommaire en français, et un sommaire en anglais. Cette revue a permis aux RRAPPL de valider certaines de leurs pratiques. Nous travaillerons de près avec eux pour intégrer quelques autres recommandations issues du rapport.

Home care: More funding needed, but especially under a new model

This essay is part of a series of reflections on primary care during the pandemic presented by Réseau-1 Québec. The original essay published in French on May 19, 2020 is available here >>

The Covid-19 crisis, with its fatal impacts on vulnerable seniors, impels us to rethink our model of services in support of functional disabilities. The Canadian health care system and the Canada Health Act have put hospitals at the heart of the health response. While this orientation was warranted in the last century to meet the needs of a younger population, it is much less valid today as an older population faces chronic conditions and disabilities. In this essay, I will explain why institutionalisation and group housing became the preferred models in Canada. I will then show that home care is the appropriate approach for addressing the current and future needs of older adults facing a loss of autonomy. Finally, I will propose an efficient and more appropriate method of financing home care: autonomy insurance.

In Canada and Quebec, the proportion of older adults living in residences that provide care services is higher than in other industrialized countries. Long-term care accommodation rates are 5.7% and 5.9% for people aged 65 and over in Canada and Quebec, respectively, compared to the OECD average of 4.7% [1]. But it is in seniors’ residences (SRs), where more than 100,000 seniors live (7%), that Quebec stands out. More than half of all spots in SRs in Canada are in Quebec. Nearly 20% of people over age 75 in Quebec have chosen to live this collective lifestyle, which means that seniors are concentrated in a certain autarky and in a self-exclusionary way from other social groups [2]. These seniors of the so-called “silent” generation are looking for security and access to services, as needed. Their children, from the baby boom generation, have also seen SRs as a practical solution to ensure their parents’ support and security. While residences were struggling to fulfill their mandate prior to the crisis, it is now clear that in light of the Covid-19 outbreaks and the widespread containment measures that were imposed in these settings, this mandate is no more than an illusion.

The popularity of collective housing stems from the inability of society and the health care system to provide the home care services needed in the event of functional decline. The absence of adequate home care has put increased pressure on long-term care institutions (CHSLD), and a lucrative market of non-licensed private CHSLDs and seniors’ residences has developed in an anarchistic manner, with no state control. But the seniors of today and tomorrow would prefer to continue living at home, provided they can have access to sufficient and good-quality services in the event of any functional decline. This requires a change in how we view autonomy support services: rather than moving people to residences that meet their needs, it would be better to adapt and develop home care services that allow them to live where they have chosen to age.

Home care represents only 14% of public funding for long-term care in Quebec and Canada. All other OECD countries devote a larger share of their long-term care public funding to home care, even reaching as high as 73% in Denmark [3]. The low investment in home care here can be explained by the logic of our funding model; the Canadian health care system essentially covers medical and hospital care. This means that accommodation provided in long-term care institutions is covered by the public health insurance plan, whereas home care is funded at the margin, at the discretion of each province. As such, it is understandable that the institutional solution would take precedence.

But investing more in home care will not be enough to effect significant change. A longitudinal study looking at the services used by all Sherbrooke seniors from 2011 to 2015 showed a significant progressive decrease in home care services over this period: from 200,000 visits per year in 2011 to less than 60,000 in 2015. This decrease was particularly significant among people receiving a higher intensity of services. This phenomenon was all the more troubling given that the 2013–2014 budget included an additional investment of $110 million for home care, a 20% increase in the base budget. Clearly, this increase did not lead to improved services. Instead, institutions reallocated funds according to their priorities. At that time, CLSC home care services were managed under the same budget as hospital and residential services. So hospitals received these additional investments. It is easy to imagine that, with the 2015 reform in Quebec, which created large regional institutions including rehabilitation and youth services, the situation will not improve and that the recent investments in home care will not translate into additional services for home care users. For the management of the current superstructures, the temptation is too strong to reorganize revenue sharing to cover the rising costs of regular hospital care.

So, we need to move away from the current institution-based funding model. Rather, the new funding model for long-term care should be based on the needs of individuals. This is the principle of public long-term care insurance that has been implemented in many countries over the past 20 years, including in Japan, France, and most continental European countries [4]. In these insurance systems, the person’s needs are assessed using a disability measurement tool. An allocation is determined based on level of need. This allocation is used to pay for public or private services chosen by the person or their family in accordance with the intervention plan developed by a health professional, often a case manager. Some countries even allow a cheque to be issued directly to the person, who can then arrange for the needed services. Provider quality is ensured through a mechanism of accreditation, and service quality is evaluated by the case manager. These insurance plans are usually funded on a “pay-as-you-go” basis through employer–employee contributions, annuity tax, income tax, or other specific forms of revenue (such as electricity fees or the abolition of a statutory holiday).

This is what was proposed by the autonomy insurance plan in Quebec in 2013, when I was a minister in the government. In fact, Quebec has several elements already in place that would facilitate rapid implementation of this important reform: an assessment tool already widely used for all persons requiring home or residence-based services (the Multiclientele Assessment Tool [OEMC], which includes the Functional Autonomy Measurement System [SMAF]); a classification system consisting of 14 standard disability profiles (Profiles Iso-SMAF), used to translate needs into the necessary resources and allocations; case managers already deployed as part of the integration of services following the PRISMA project; computer tools to support the development of intervention plans and service allocation; and an efficient management body that is already keen on this type of funding model, the Régie de l’assurance-maladie du Québec [5].

Following the publication of a white paper [6] that was well received by all stakeholders, a bill was tabled in the National Assembly in December 2013. It was never adopted due to the hasty election call and the loss of power by the Marois government. The bill was not taken up by subsequent governments. The project may be dead, but the idea is not, and the elements that that would make it possible are still present. It is all the more relevant today in light of the Covid-19 crisis.

Our seniors deserve to age at home with the services they need. If the funding and organization of services is adapted to 21st century realities, Canadians and Quebecers will choose to age at home and will resist the siren calls of residences and other places of institutionalized social exclusion. 

Réjean Hébert, M.D., M.Phil., Professor, Department of Health Administration, Evaluation and Policy, École de santé publique de l’Université de Montréal (ESPUM)

An edited version of this text appeared in Options politiques de l’Institut de recherche en politiques publiques: //

References :

[1] OECD. Health at a Glance 2019: OECD Indicators.

[2] Hébert, R. 2006. Les vieux se cachent pour mourir. //

[3] Huber, M., Rodrigues, R., Hoffmann, F., Gasior, K., & Marin, B. 2009. Facts and Figures on Long-Term Care. Europe and North America. Vienna: European Centre for Social Welfare Policy and Research.

[4] Hébert, R. 2012. L’assurance autonomie: une innovation essentielle pour répondre aux défis du vieillissement. Revue canadienne sur le vieillissement, 31(1):1-11.

[5] Hébert, R., Gervais, P., Labrecque, S., & Bellefleur, R. 2016. L’assurance-autonomie au Québec : une réforme inachevée. Health Reform Observer – Observatoire des Réformes de santé, 4(1):Article 1. doi:[6] Hébert, R. 2013. L’autonomie pour tous: livre blanc sur la création d’une assurance autonomie. //

Confinement chronicle

This essay is part of a series of reflections on primary care during the pandemic presented by Réseau-1 Québec. The original essay published in French on December 3, 2020 is available here >>

For several years now, I’ve been a patient-partner for my own care. This has been important because, as someone living with cystic fibrosis, I’ve learned more about my disease and have been able to talk about it with my health care team. All my life, I’ve been sailing on this big cruise ship that is the health care system. I have experienced some important failures as well as great successes, including my successful bilateral lung transplant six years ago. I’ve always received the highest quality care in a system that is often out of breath and travelling at top speed. I’m very grateful to all health care staff.

I wanted to do something to express my thanks, but I didn’t know if there was anything I could do. For a long time I had been carrying around a large “backpack” where I had stashed my experiences of receiving care and living with a chronic condition, but I could never figure out if this backpack had a purpose to serve. I talked about it with one of my doctors and a door was kindly opened for me. That’s how I became a patient-partner.

For the past several years I’ve been collaborating with the SPOR Pan-Canadian Primary and Integrated Health Care Innovations Network (PIHCI Network), of which Réseau-1 is the Quebec member. As part of this network, I’m one of the Quebec representatives on the Pan-Canadian Patient Council. Every month, for a little over two years now, I’ve been meeting with about ten colleagues from every province in the country. We get together to talk about best practices in patient partnership across the country. We talk a lot. This networking is rewarding because it breaks down some barriers. It helps us to better understand the partnership realities of each province and, at the same time, to work collaboratively.

One thing is for sure, the atmosphere is definitely dynamic and there is no shortage of projects!

At the end of last winter, things were going along well, and then came March 23rd. Quebec was put on hold and a series of similar measures were deployed in all Canadian provinces. Despite all the turmoil created by the pandemic, we continued our activities. And it was my involvement as a patient-partner on the Pan-Canadian Patient Council that enabled me to get through the first wave without sinking. It was thanks to the strength of the group that we got through it.

Our March meeting, which had been scheduled for some time, went ahead as planned. However, as we went around the table at the beginning, several of us had to admit we weren’t doing well: anxiety, stress, trouble concentrating, things were not looking good. We had a thousand and one questions on our minds, and no answers. It was very scary! That day, when it was my turn to speak, I burst into tears and said, “I’m afraid of dying. I’m afraid I won’t be able to receive care.” I had become obsessed with the issue of “non-Covid” patients, an issue that still worries me just as much, I have to say.

As a group, despite our individual difficulties, we decided to continue our activities, if only to overcome our isolation, among other things. From this common decision, an interesting proposal arose: what if we saw each other more often? We accepted the idea with great enthusiasm.

While we each experience the pandemic in our own way, no one should have to spend every day coping with this kind of obstacle in fear, isolation, and without resources. We increased the pace of our meetings to twice a month. The meetings were more informal so we could support and encourage each other. These meetings became a beacon in the fog that had invaded my daily life since the start of the pandemic. They helped me to regain confidence in my abilities and to feel less alone with my “covidian” worries. Eventually, I was able to tap into my “backpack of experiential knowledge” where I found resilience and a great capacity to adapt, which have helped me to live better since then.

This summer, the patient-partners in that group participated in the PIHCI Network webinars, and we had the privilege of hosting one: « Making the invisible visible: the power of partnerships between patients and their communities ». We’re also planning to produce podcasts in the near future, where we will discuss patient partnership based on each individual’s experiences. Our meetings have gone back to a regular schedule, and we’re doing well despite the second wave now surging across the country.

Sometimes, when I’m asked what it’s like to live with illness, I like to use the image of a house of cards. Through the winds of adversity, I’ve had to deal with some really surprising things to be able to move on more effectively. I’ve rebuilt certain aspects of my life. I’ve gone through a lot of grief and major changes. It is a complex life that has become meaningful through happiness, resilience, and above all, tenacity. Always remember that when a patient-partner speaks to you in the context of a patient partnership, it’s done in a spirit of openness, generosity, and often because he or she considers it to be an important added value in the broader picture of the health care system.

Recently, I’ve had conversations with patient-partners who tell me they’ve had no news of the research teams they were involved with. Some even said they felt abandoned, as if their contribution didn’t really count. Times are hard for everyone; a short follow-up, a callback, a little “hello” can make a difference in a situation where many patient-partners have been isolated for several months and are going through difficult times.

Even though I present my own opinion in this essay, I’m speaking here as a patient-partner member of the Pan-Canadian Patient Council. Everything I’ve said above are purely my own thoughts. Don’t worry, I don’t pretend to speak for all patients. I want to make it clear that I’ll be here, once the pandemic is over, ready to help you, to collaborate in sharing my experiential knowledge, which I hope will continue to contribute to the enrichment of primary care. My wish for us all is that whatever we learn from this will be used to improve the quality of patient care.

Having said that, I can also tell you that, after eight months of confinement, I’m really looking forward to seeing you for “real”. There is a light at the end of this long tunnel—it’s called 2021.

Karina Prévost, Patient-partner, member of Réseau-1 Québec

Picking one’s battles: COVID-19 and I

This essay is part of a series of reflections on primary care during the pandemic presented by Réseau-1 Québec. The original essay published in French on November 3, 2020 is available here >>

Last March, the province was put on pause. Everything stopped. Everything, that is, except the health care system, which went into crisis management mode. The microscopic enemy triggered panic among the population and all involved in the health care system. We’ve never seen anything like it!

In primary care, practitioners were thrown into a state of chaos. Lots of questions and few answers. Mandatory reorganization: everyone in protection mode. Protecting others. Patients. The most vulnerable. Protecting ourselves from others, too, with our own vulnerabilities. We witnessed unprecedented situations: non-emergency surgeries cancelled, specialist physicians unable to practice, outpatient consultations stopped, activities jettisoned, massive reassignment of staff, most research activities halted. And all of this while the community was suffering through major turmoil with closures of businesses, schools, and regions.

In our health care organizations, everyone had to give thought to what they would do to redefine themselves. What role to play? Nothing was dictated. We had to build the plane and fly at the same time. As a researcher and family medicine clinician, I was faced with a choice: what part of the plane could I help build?

The colleagues in my family medicine group (FMG) were pioneers in applying the measures prescribed by the authorities. Champions. We banded together. Everything was reorganized. In this chaotic turmoil, as a researcher nearing the end of my career, I suddenly felt very useless. Protected by colleagues because of my age and hamstrung in my research, it was unthinkable to me that I would not contribute to the collective effort.

The call from public health was timely. Outbreaks were happening; professionals from all sectors had just been repatriated to public health. A medical team was needed to assist with epidemiological investigations. I jumped right in.

First, we had to learn the National Institute of Public Health’s interim recommendations (interim, as it turned out, was the key word) for community cases, for health care workers, for seniors’ residences, for CHSLDs. We also had to become familiar with the legal context: emergency measures, public safety, the powers of the public health department, quarantine law. Then juggling with risk management and its consequences. Quite a change for a clinician accustomed to treating patients individually, and for a researcher focused on patients with multiple chronic conditions! All this can be learned quickly when you accept that what’s true today may not apply tomorrow! After all, we’re building the plane!

From one day to the next, we found ourselves part of a relatively eclectic medical team: family doctors, emergency doctors, surgeons, specialists, professionals of all disciplines. All loaned to public health for different reasons and working for the same cause: the protection of patients and the community.

With the arrival of summer, we entered a lull. Activities were gradually resumed in a redefined way, that became, little by little, our new normal. In the clinic: teleconsultation, limited time allotted for face-to-face visits, distancing, protective equipment. In research, slow resumption of activities. Back to ethics committees with requests for modifications to protocols, consent, procedures. We had to adapt to a new reality in the field. COVID-19 was here, we couldn’t ignore it.

And the lull was short-lived. With the arrival of fall, Quebec deployed its system of color codes, no doubt inspired by the season, and regions that started out green transitioned to yellow, then orange, then red, at different rates. What does winter have in store for us?

Our governments have invested generously to help the population get through this. As have our research funding agencies. Several funding opportunities have been created to generate knowledge. We need to understand this virus, how it’s transmitted, what destroys it, what activates it, what reactions it causes in animals, in humans. We also need to understand the crisis we’re experiencing, its impact on the population, on children, on seniors, on the most vulnerable. In short, we have everything to learn. For many researchers whose work was on hold, this was an ideal opportunity to help answer these questions. Bravo, and thank you for putting your own research agenda aside and working for this cause that affects us all!

For my part, I made the choice to hold down the fort. I didn’t apply to any funding program. That wasn’t the call I felt. I stayed in the here and now, in crisis management. The crisis called out to me as a researcher, caregiver, and first responder, as well as to my fears; I needed to help make a difference by acting swiftly, I needed to attend to my own fears. Our surest defense at this time is to control spread, which involves rapid identification of cases and contacts, their stratification, and isolation. At first glance, this sounds simple, but implementation of these measures can be very demanding. Data collection is required, which has certain obvious constraints, and personalized analysis in real time. Each situation has to be assessed in its entirety. And you really have to play detective to identify the source, formulate hypotheses, and then try to validate them. In short, there are many elements that correspond to the skills required in research. So for me, it made sense. And finding in the public health team, however eclectic it may be, the same values that I expect from my research collaborators motivated me to come on board. Caring, vigilance, rigour, adaptability, resilience, these are all attributes that I have found in my colleagues—physicians, nurses, kinesiologists, nutritionists, dental hygienists, occupational therapists—all working with a single goal: to help curb the spread of the invisible enemy using a transdisciplinary approach; a concept I learned in research but that I’m truly experiencing in public health!

As of October 22, a PubMed search identified 66,496 articles on COVID-19. My contribution to this research was nil. As of October 22, the Saguenay Lac-St-Jean region had 891 cases of Covid-19, including 290 active cases, and 1,229 people were in isolation at the time of writing, or about 0.5% of the population. All our efforts are aimed at keeping these figures as low as possible. It may be that I’m disappointing my university by not participating in the research effort, but I’ve decided instead to fight for my community. In my dual role as researcher and clinician, choosing my battles comes down to a question of emotions, which reason alone cannot explain, but to which I’m happy to respond.

Martin Fortin, M.D., M.Sc., CMFC, Professor and researcher, Department of Family Medicine, Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences, Université de Sherbrooke, GMF-U de Chicoutimi, CIUSSS du Saguenay–Lac-Saint-Jean

COVID-19, telemedicine, and humanistic medicine: Back to the future?

This essay is part of a series of reflections on primary care during the pandemic presented by Réseau-1 Québec. The original essay published in French on September 24, 2020 is available here >>

It’s still too early to measure all the impacts of the unprecedented crisis we are experiencing. But one thing is certain, if we accept the reports coming from the front lines: clinical practice will no longer be the same. The transition to telemedicine, which took literally two weeks, will finally bring us, by all accounts, into the 21st century and make it possible to deploy connected health care and a variety of telediagnostic platforms. We are finally entering the modern era. We are also beginning to see the collateral damage of remote practice: missed diagnoses, segments of the population falling below the radar. Here I offer a few thoughts on what I know best—family medicine—but I believe they are applicable to primary care clinical practice in general.

Telemedicine and connected health, for what objectives and what types of decisions?

Clinicians paid on a contract or salary basis have long known that many small problems could, in fact, be solved remotely. It’s a bit ironic that people are only discovering this now. I used to end every consultation day with a half-hour of returning calls to manage minor problems for patients I knew well. But I would have gotten into a lot of trouble, even with patients I knew well, without all the information that an in-person visit provides—gait, gestures, facial expressions, moments of silence—from the greeting in the waiting room to the good-bye with the hand on the doorknob, and the “By the way, doctor, for a while now I’ve been having this chest pain when walking.” To explain the craze for telemedicine—which by the way is mostly audio (over the phone) rather than “tele-” (video)—we hear all sorts of things, such as this poorly understood quote that “80% of diagnoses are based on history,” invoked to assert that the phone is sufficient in the majority of cases. This is a mistaken understanding of the clinical process, so well described by Epstein 40 years ago. While it’s still true that 80% of the clinical process is based on history, most often it takes a physical examination and sometimes a few laboratory tests to capture the missing 20% in order to arrive at the right diagnosis. Of course, connected objects and tools derived from artificial intelligence will make us even more efficient at a distance. But the intellectual task required for the clinical process is excessively demanding and complex. It calls for acquiring several types of information and “processing” them—in the computing sense of the term—and then linking this information with scientific knowledge obtained from research to decide on the most probable diagnosis or prognosis and the treatment most likely to be effective. This involves not only identifying symptoms but also understanding the person and their context. Symptoms are more of a narrative than a precise set of data.

Telemedicine, connected objects, and diagnostic applications derived from artificial intelligence (AI) will be particularly useful for facilitating the monitoring of known problems, reducing diagnostic and therapeutic uncertainty, and bringing certain medical advances to more remote areas. But these advances will not relegate the medical visit to the back burner anytime soon. In fact, according to Eric Topol in his essay “Deep Medicine,” the main benefit of these advances should be to make healthcare more humane than ever by freeing up healthcare professionals to focus on what is essential to the practice of “good medicine”: listening, understanding the whole person, and being compassionate.

Reducing inequalities: access to primary care services as a factor in equity

COVID-19 also exposed the weak links in our health care system. One of these was the inability to lessen the impact of health inequalities. More than ever, COVID revealed and deepened inequalities. Inequalities in disease severity accentuated by the dangerous mix of co-morbidity, poverty, and precarious living conditions. Inequalities in access to non-COVID related care and the resurgence of diseases responsive to prevention and early treatment. Access to primary care services is a protective factor against health inequalities. Unfortunately, in Canada and in Quebec, there is strong evidence that less advantaged people have more difficulty accessing a family physician and that lower socio-economic status, older age, ethnic origin, and being female are more frequently associated with poorer quality preventive and curative services. As it is, many clienteles are unable to breach the fortresses that medical offices and health care institutions have sadly become. While the use of telemedicine will certainly help reduce certain geographic inequalities in access, there is a danger that this mode of practice will deepen inequalities by reducing access, already difficult, for the homeless, persons with mental health and addiction problems, the elderly, the less educated, and recent immigrants. It will take creative thinking to reach out to these people where they live, on the street, in their homes, and to find ways to make our practice environments welcoming to them. COVID-19 has already shown how courageous and inventive front-line practitioners can be. Some striking examples of this are projects supported by Réseau-1 ( and the Foundation for the Advancement of Family Medicine (

Learning by doing: The importance of research in primary care

Paradoxically, the technological advances promoted by COVID-19 could have a deleterious impact if not used wisely, both clinically and in terms of problems they could create of unequal access to front-line services. So we need to learn from these practice transformations, in order to identify those that really add value and those that cause us to backslide. When I completed my master’s degree in epidemiology, my research director, Ms. Jacqueline Fabia, a great epidemiologist, gave me this advice, the importance of which I was slow to realize: “Keep good records. Important discoveries come from careful observation of practice. Your records are a mine of information.” Careful observation is also about measuring the impact of COVID and our new clinical and organizational practices from the patients’ perspective.

No, clinical practice should not continue as it was, and there must be no going back once the pandemic is over. But to truly move forward and take advantage of this unprecedented crisis, we need to return to the art of clinical practice and the value of research rooted in practice. This is the only way to learn “while building the plane.” Back to the Future.

Marie-Dominique Beaulieu, C.Q., M.D.,CMFC, M.Sc., FCMF, Professor Emeritus, Department of Family Medicine and Emergency Medicine, Université de Montréal

COVID-19—A pivotal moment in community care

This essay is part of a series of reflections on primary care during the pandemic presented by Réseau-1 Québec. The original essay was published in The BMJ Opinion on April 7, 2020. A French translation is available here >>

As primary care physicians and community practitioners, we are first hand witnesses of the covid crisis and its impact on our communities. The pandemic wave is just hitting Canada and we have benefited from the experience of other countries to implement early measures of containment, preparation, and care management. As elsewhere, we are uncertain about the outcomes for our patients, our communities, our colleagues, our families, and ourselves. But as we navigate the changing landscape of community care in downtown Montreal, we are observing the most rapid and profound healthcare transformation of our entire careers. This crisis is changing our teams, our relationships, and ourselves. 

Teams are changing

Our spirit has switched from “me, myself and my patients”, to “we’re all in this together.” Within a week, primary care practice has changed from exclusive face-to-face meetings to about 95% phone consultations. Accessibility—an intractable problem of Canadian primary care reforms over the past 20 years—has markedly increased within a few days. The “bureaucratically frozen public health system” we thought we inhabited has unfrozen and massive improvement has been achieved without adding a single professional. Hierarchies have been shaken and we have mobilized the intelligence and creativity of our full team in transforming the way we work together. A team which includes receptionists, cleaning staff, equipment suppliers, and managers as well as hands on health professionals.

We have rapidly adopted “new” technologies (ie. phone, emails, and internet) for prescriptions, document exchange and video-conferences. We are questioning the value of every diagnostic test, referral, and treatment, asking ourselves if our interventions do more harm than good (ex. balancing the risk of in-hospital investigation for chest pain in people at high-risk of covid complications, given local epidemic data of the day). We are also increasing capacity by postponing a number of screening tests and chronic care follow-up, all of which needs to be carefully balanced in order to minimize indirect pandemic impacts on other major health conditions. And we are sharing uncertainty collectively rather than individually. As one of our colleagues said: “We don’t always know where we are going, but we are going together.”

Relationships and collaborations are changing

We are realizing that patients, citizens and community members can be trusted as caregivers. Mothers and fathers have become our eyes and ears when assessing a child’s illness over the phone. The majority of our patients with COVID (and other conditions) are caring for themselves, by themselves, at home, with help from neighbours, family and friends. We have been impressed by how resilient many of our patients are. They are embracing change, offering constructive suggestions, mobilizing their knowledge and inner resources to adapt to the crisis, showing appreciation of the and reassurance of being remaining connected with a trusted team of health professionals who know them. Experienced patient partners working closely with our primary care team coach and support other patients to help them find practical solutions to their new life. 

Collaborators on paper have become real partners, as community organizations and health professionals seek joint solutions to common practical challenges. We see narrow professional roles and silos suddenly giving way and new ways of working adopted. Volunteers from all ages (kids, teenagers, adults and seniors) are reducing the health impacts of social isolation by maintaining contact with people confined at home. Community organizations, peer-support workers, social care and volunteers are acknowledged as key players to address the huge needs for psychosocial, material, food and economic support. Local initiatives with the health care system and municipalities are being invented to respond to the needs of the most vulnerable individuals in our communities (eg. turning old buildings into individual rooms for home isolation of homeless people). Professional turf wars have been abandoned, as we realize our inter-dependence with colleagues working in the intensive care units, hospitals, emergency rooms, other primary care clinics, home care, long-term care, palliative care, public health, not-for-profit community organizations and informal social support networks. 

Changing ourselves

Society is no more divided into healthcare workers and others. We suddenly realize the common vulnerability. We are all at risk of illness and death. We are deeply reminded of our own interdependence and personal need for support. We are deeply shaken in our professional limits, facing a disease for which no specific treatment yet exists. We have reintegrated within the community we serve; reciprocally acting as care-givers and care-receivers. We are grateful to the teenagers delivering food to our parents, the neighbours giving us lasagna and a smile after a long day of work, the child care workers helping with our kids. 

And we are more intensely aware of our privileges. We are all in the same boat, but not all of us have access to lifeboats. “Health inequalities” and “social determinants of health” have turned from abstract concepts to real patients, friends and community members who have fallen ill, have lost their jobs, are unable to pay for rent or groceries, are living alone, or cannot implement “home isolation” because they have no home, living in crowded shelters or in the streets. 

These lived experiences mobilize the health professional in us, caring for one patient at time, but also the human beings in us, caring about each other in connection with our communities. Communities that have always been there, sometimes without our awareness, but that we see and value more clearly now

Witnesses and actors of a history in writing 

This is not a movie we are watching on TV but a history we are writing together. We are at a crossroad that could tear us apart or make us stronger as teams, health systems, and communities. What we are witnessing at the moment is being written, imprinted, in our experience and memory. Who knows which turn we will take next, and which of these changes will last. But these choices are likely to shape our individual and collective future.

Antoine Boivin​, Family Physician and Canada Research Chair in Patient and Public Partnership, Centre intégré universitaire de santé et de services sociaux du Centre-Sud-de-l’Île-de-Montréal.
Manuel Penafiel​, Community organizer, Centre intégré universitaire de santé et de services sociaux du Centre-Sud-de-l’Île-de-Montréal.
Ghislaine Rouly​, Patient-partner and co-lead of the Caring Community research-action project, Montreal.
Valérie Lahaie​, Public Health and Partnership Coordinator, Centre intégré universitaire de santé et de services sociaux du Centre-Ouest de l’île de Montréal.
Marie-Pierre Codsi​, MD, home care services, Notre-Dame Family Medicine Group, Montreal.
Mathieu Isabel​, Medical Director of homeless services, Faubourgs Community Health Center, Centre intégré universitaire de santé et de services sociaux du Centre-Sud-de-l’Île-de- Montréal.
Brian White-Guay​, Medical Coordinator of the Notre-Dame Family Medicine Group COVID response team, Centre intégré universitaire de santé et de services sociaux du Centre-Sud-de-l’Île-de-Montréal.

Original text published in The BMJ Opinion, April 7, 2020.

Primary care, a public priority even in a time of crisis

This essay is part of a series of reflections on primary care during the pandemic presented by Réseau-1 Québec. The original essay published in French on April 27, 2020 is available here. The essay was also reproduced in l’Actualité on May 29, 2020.

The COVID-19 crisis has reminded the general public of the relevance of public health and shown that, from the government’s perspective, the hospital remains the central institution of the health and social services system. The focus on hospitals and intensive care services at the beginning of the pandemic has unfortunately delayed preparedness in other sectors, which partly explains the profound crisis currently ravaging long-term care hospitals (CHSLDs) and, to a lesser extent for now, home care services. What does this portend for primary care services in the aftermath of the pandemic?

A strong primary care system (medical clinics, community groups, emergency departments, Info-santé, etc.) has and will continue to respond quickly to the ongoing needs of the population before, during, and after the pandemic, just as it is responding to the ongoing needs of the majority of people affected by COVID-19.

The smoke and mirrors of media reports exposed the confusion in public opinion regarding primary care or front-line services. Microbiologists and other respirologists have been called the front line, while the actual front line has not received as much attention, except for public information lines (811), ad hoc screening clinics, and emergency departments. It goes without saying that hospitals, specialists, and emergency physicians are among the most vital players in such a context. There is no question of minimizing their importance. It is equally obvious that the primary care system is not set up to receive a mass of contagious or potentially contagious people. Still, to be effective, public health, the 811 service, screening clinics, and emergency departments depend on primary care, primary medical care in particular, which plays a crucial role. The overall effectiveness of the health and social services system in general, and the fight against COVID in particular, depends on it. Thus, the imperative of adapting and enhancing the front line’s capacity to meet the challenges of the next phase of endemicity is key to a sustainable strategy against COVID-19.

Public policies relating to emergency or pandemic measures should be reviewed to better foresee what conditions will ensure that primary care remains central, so it can continue to play an indispensable role in caring for the most vulnerable clienteles, in terms of not only physical and mental health, but also social issues. A number of conditions are required for primary care to play this role fully.

In a pandemic, and then an endemic context, i.e., after a gradual return to normal life but with SARS-COV-2 still present, these include:

  • Making protective equipment and other resources needed for primary care management of the illness available in sufficient quantities, at all stages of the pandemic.
  • Continuing to act on both the chronic conditions that were present prior to COVID-19 and their psychosocial effects on patients.
  • Maintaining continuity of care for the entire population.
  • Anticipating and managing the significant reverberations that will affect, over a long period of time, those clienteles whose follow-up has been delayed or altered.
  • Ensuring that decision-making units during the crisis include expert primary care and chronic disease counsellors at all levels.
  • Providing specialist and managerial support for front-line clinicians’ decisions when necessary.
  • Developing and supporting a good-quality, sustainable teleconsultation strategy.
  • Planning the contributions of all community resources.

To support the hospital’s essential, acute care role in the context of a pandemic, it is imperative to continue developing a health and social services system in which primary care ensures access to and continuity of services for the most vulnerable people in times of crisis, whether in the community, at home, or in medical clinics. Primary care must remain a public priority; even more so in these difficult pandemic times.

Yves Couturier, Scientific Director, Réseau-1 Québec

Catherine Hudon, Associate Scientific Director, Réseau-1 Québec

Reflections of a patient-partner on her experience in this time of pandemic

This essay is part of a series of reflections on primary care during the pandemic presented by Réseau-1 Québec. The original essay published in French on March 26, 2020 is available here >>

Right now, because of my relatively weak immune system I’ve had to stay at home since March 12th!

I could easily cut myself off from everything that’s happening. If I didn’t read the newspaper or listen to the news, I would be in my own little cocoon. But no, I can’t do that, I’m worried about the people around me….

I’m a patient-partner on several committees in my CIUSSS, including the one on infection prevention and control. So I stand with these teams of caregivers and managers, who have been thinking for several years about the possibility of what is now happening to us, hoping all the while that it would never happen. I’m thinking of all the maintenance and disinfection teams who work tirelessly to keep hospitals and CHSLDs in impeccable condition. Their task was already heavy, and they’re being asked to do even more, these people who are our first line of defense against COVID-19.

I’m also the patient co-lead of a research project that, of course, is now on hold. I’ve been able to be a part of teams of nurses and social workers and to see their work up close. I’ve witnessed their dedication, their professionalism, and especially their immense workload. For the past two weeks, they’ve been asked to do even more, to forget themselves and devote all of their attention to a population at risk. They, too, have family, relatives, friends… and the fear of transmitting this virus is surely always on their minds. In spite of everything, they are here for us.

I’m involved in a community organization and see the anxiety of all those who feel isolated, not only physically but psychologically. For many, the health care system helped to overcome this isolation, but now I believe it is our collective responsibility to take care of this vulnerable population.

I also have a family. My spouse works and is in contact with a lot of people. He, too, could get COVID. My child no longer goes to school, no longer works, no longer has a social life; it’s difficult. At 20 years old you’re full of life, you have lots of dreams, but now everything is on hold…. My parents stay at home, they do their duty as good citizens, but if it lasts a long time, it will become difficult for them, as it will be for all these people who feel like hostages in their own homes.

Then there are also all those who show up for all of us. They work in grocery stores, pharmacies, shops, and the food industry. They are police officers, paramedics, daycare workers. They also work in both levels of government. We have a responsibility to protect them. They are essential to our survival.

I’ve decided to do my duty as a human being. Of course, I support all these people who are important to me, but I also act, to the extent that I can.

I’m staying in contact with my parents, my family, my friends. Long live the telephone and the Internet! I’ve taken on a commitment to contact people I don’t know who need to talk, even with someone they don’t know! I take care of my husband, who takes such good care of me!

But most of all, I stay away from other people to protect myself… but especially to protect us all!

I’d like to close with a word of thanks to everyone on the front line:

I want to thank you all for everything you’re doing for us, users of the health care system. It’s a difficult situation for you. You’re being asked to devote yourselves to us… Please keep some time and energy for yourselves and your families. That’s important, too! Take care of yourselves, not just of us. See you soon, I hope!

Marie-Dominique Poirier, Patient-partner, member of Réseau-1 Québec

Comité organisateur de la Journée annuelle 2021 du R1Q

Le Réseau-1 Québec vous présente les membres du comité qui travaillent activement à l’organisation de la Journée annuelle du R1Q qui aura lieu le 18 juin 2021 en mode virtuel  :

Merci à toutes et à tous pour votre implication et votre enthousiasme, particulièrement au RRAPPL de l’Université de Sherbrooke, co-hôte de l’événement !