Canadian Medical Association

Cold and flu season might not be the only reason you’re finding it hard to see your family doctor, assuming you have one in the first place. It may be because your physician is bogged down with endless paperwork, dealing with cumbersome billing procedures or struggling with electronic medical records (EMRs) that can’t communicate with other EMRs. 

The Canadian Federation of Independent Business’s (CFIB’s) Patients before Paperwork report found that Canadian physicians spend 18.5 million hours each year on unnecessary administrative work, the equivalent of about 55 million patient visits. 

The administrative strain on health care providers, notably physicians, has reached an unsustainable level, jeopardizing their well-being and patient care in a health system that’s already stretched thin. More than six million Canadians do not have access to a regular primary care provider. We’re seeing significant surgical backlogs, and emergency departments are routinely operating beyond capacity, resulting in massive wait times. We need to find ways to simplify and streamline administrative tasks in our health system. 

From time-consuming, redundant paperwork like unnecessary sick notes to struggles with multiple, unconnected technologies, the administrative load on physicians has grown disproportionately, leaving them with less time and energy to devote to their patients or having to sacrifice personal and family time to try to keep up with their practice demands. Take for example the federal Disability Tax Credit form: not only is it more than 15 pages long and cannot be submitted by email, many physicians also find they’re not in a position to fill out much of the required information on behalf of patients. 

This excessive administrative burden not only hampers health care efficiency, but also contributes significantly to physician burnout. In the Canadian Medical Association’s latest National Physician Health Survey, 75 per cent of physicians said unnecessary administrative tasks negatively affect their job satisfaction and nearly 60 per cent said these issues contribute directly to their worsening mental health. 

While the physician administrative burden remains a critical challenge, the good news, highlighted in CFIB’s latest report released during its annual Red Tape Awareness Week, is that some governments are making progress in reducing paperwork. Nova Scotia is the first jurisdiction to measure physician burden and implement steps that have reportedly saved physicians an estimated 200,000 paperwork hours per year. Manitoba is not far behind, establishing a joint task force between the government, CFIB and Doctors Manitoba to create efficiencies and make recommendations to reduce physicians’ administrative workload. 

In fact, CFIB’s latest report shows that most jurisdictions in Canada have started to implement initiatives to measure and/or mitigate doctors’ paperwork, except for Saskatchewan, the Northwest Territories, Nunavut and the federal government. This is positive news, but we must not stop there. 

Federal, provincial and territorial governments have all promised to improve access to care. Setting a target to reduce just 10 per cent of the unnecessary administrative burden could save 1.9 million physician hours, reducing doctor fatigue and burnout, improving the quality of patient care, and saving time and money. 

Effective collaboration among stakeholders, policy-makers, administrators and patients is vital for implementing practical solutions. Streamlining bureaucratic processes, investing in technology to automate routine tasks and standardizing documents and forms can significantly ease the burden on physicians, allowing them to focus on what they do best and what we expect them to do – provide high-quality patient care. 

The time is ripe for governments across Canada to eliminate the administrative pressures on physicians. Measuring the burden, setting achievable targets and identifying key irritants can create more efficient health care. The health and well-being of physicians and patients hinge on our ability to untangle the bureaucratic web that currently constrains our health care system. Governments must act now to empower physicians to provide the care that Canadians deserve. 

Dr. Kathleen Ross is a family physician in Coquitlam and New Westminster, BC, and the president of the Canadian Medical Association. Dan Kelly is the president of the Canadian Federation of Independent Business.

This commentary was first published in The Hill Times on Feb. 2, 2024. 

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