Department of Medicine
School of Medicine Queen's University
 
 

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Ontario’s Alternate Level of Care (ALC) Problem is Killing Acute Care Hospitals: Time to cut the Gordian knot.

We need a bold solution to a major health care problem: Almost 20% of the acute care beds in Kingston are unavailable for admission of new patients. How can this be? How could 20% of the beds in the SELHIN’s only tertiary care hospital have gone missing? Why have I not heard about it? Why is this not in the newspapers? What happened to these beds? Are they closed because of construction? Is there an epidemic? Has hospital funding been cut? The answer in each case is, “No”. In fact, these 93 beds exist; however they are occupied with a growing cohort of people who everyone agrees should not be in hospital-patients requiring an alternate level of care (ALC). Thinking of bold solutions the story of the Gordian knot comes to mind.

Cutting the Gordian Knot

Cutting Gordian Knot

In mythology, the Gordian knot was used to tie an ox cart to a post in Gordium, a city located in the kingdom of Phyrygia, located in Anatolia (now in Turkey). It was Midas, son of the King who created this intricate knot. The knot had no exposed ends and, although many tried, it could not be unraveled. However, in 333BC Alexander the Great came to town. When he found no ends to the knot, he sliced it in half with a stroke of his sword, producing the required ends (a bold solution to an intractable problem). Likewise, we need a bold solution to deal with a misuse of our acute care hospitals. A solution for the ALC crisis will require us to rise above sensitivities and superficial rhetoric. Any such solution must acknowledge both the unique role and the limited capacity of our acute care hospitals. Moreover, a solution will require recognition of the specialized role of certain academic hospitals, like KGH, that are uniquely research- and education-oriented. These hospitals are represented by the council of academic hospital organizations, CAHO. CAHO represents Ontario’s 24 research hospitals that play a unique and vital role in the province’s health care system. These hospitals (if allowed to serve their role) provide advanced patient care services, train the next generation of health care professionals, and conduct leading-edge research to discover tomorrow’s care today. They are key to creating a healthier, wealthier, smarter Ontario.

Let me provide some background for you. Kingston General Hospital (circa 1835) is Canada’s oldest public hospital and is the tertiary care hospital for the SELHIN, serving a population of ~600,000. KGH has ~440 beds. As of mid July 2016 93 of these beds are occupied by ALC patients. As an example of how slow ALC patient discharge is, none of the patients on IMU H has left KGH since April. They have not been discharged either because no long term care (LTC) facility will accept them or because they have not found the LTC of their choice.

Although ALC patients are as important as any others they do not (by definition) require the services of an acute care hospital. The Ministry of Health and Longterm Care (MOHLTC), which pays for health care in Ontario, defines a patient as requiring an alternative level of care when they no longer require the services of an acute care setting. They mandate that: “When a patient is occupying a bed in a hospital and does not require the intensity of resources/services provided in this care setting the patient must be designated ALC …by the physician or his/her delegate.” Although it is the patient’s care needs that mandates the ALC, the patients themselves are often referred to as ALC patients. Once designated “ALC”, patients are supposed to be cared for at home (with/without services/programs) or in Rehabilitation centers, complex continuing care facilities, transitional care beds, long term care homes, group homes, convalescent care beds, palliative care beds, retirement homes, shelters or other supportive housing. It is generally accepted by all that ALC care should not be provided in acute care hospitals like KGH. The loss of beds that results from housing ALC patients is the major cause for congested Emergency Departments, crowded wards, and delayed/cancelled procedures and surgeries.

ALC patients and their families often may feel the system is letting them down and pressuring them to leave; conversely physicians and hospitals recognize that the ALC patient occupies a scarce, expensive and high-managed acute care bed that is intended for a very different purpose. Because ALC patients are often trapped for months to years in hospital, a single ALC admission effectively prevents dozens of acute admissions.

To understand the patient perspective let’s consider a recent well-publicized case. In a June 2013 Toronto Star story by reporter Theresa Boyle, Howard Cohen, tells the story of the challenges in finding a suitable placement for his elderly mother. The case is made by the son that the hospital misled or pressured the family, implying that a choice for LTC had to be made between only 5 institutions and had to be done quickly. Mr. Cohen, “…was stunned to discover, he says, that he had been misinformed and given inadequate information about how to select a home by a hospital social worker and a case manager from one of the province’s 14 community-care access centres (CCACs), which control entry into LTC homes.”

Long Term Health Care- A look inside the often baffling systemThe article comments that hospitals have threatened patients with daily bed fees to try and encourage them to move on to a LTC facility, even if it is not the one they prefer. How did this case end? 1.5 years after the acute admission the patient was still in hospital!

Since the article was written in 2013 things have gotten worse. The numbers of ALC patients in Ontario is increasing and their length of stay (LOS) in hospital is sky rocketing, with many spending more than a year in hospital (that costs $400,000). A colleague of mine is currently caring for a patient who has been resident in KGH since 2014! The patient is awaiting placement in a long-term care (LTC) facility of their preference and will not leave. They are not being charged for their stay at KGH, so why would they leave? To illustrate the opportunity cost of devoting a bed to ALC for a 2 years consider that the average length of stay for an inpatient on the Medicine service at KGH is ~6 days. In the two years that this ALC patient has been at KGH that bed could have supported the care of 120 other patients!

The ALC debate is not about the intrinsic value of this patient’s life and their right to make health care choices; rather it is about balancing this patient’s rights against the equal rights of the 120 patients whose care was delayed or denied. It is also about the fact that ALC can be provided in many venues; in contrast tertiary care (treatment for strokes, heart attacks, heart surgery, joint replacement, ICU care) can only be provided in Ontario’s tertiary care hospitals. Sadly, when it comes to acute care it is a zero sum game and more ALC care in acute care hospitals directly translates into less tertiary care provided. Since ALC patients stay in hospital so long housing large populations of such patients fragments the hospitals inpatient teams (making rounding by physicians very inefficient) and causes Emergency Room congestion. This is not opinion….this is fact. Canadian Institute for Health Information (CIHI) in 2009 noted that ALC patients accounted for 14% of hospital days in acute care hospitals and that 43% of ALC patients were discharged to a long-term care (LTC) facility.

Things have gotten much worse since 2009. The following publically available data from the SELHIN shows how many ALC patients we cared for in acute care settings in 2014-15, Note that at KGH we discharged 72 patients (average length of stay, LOS, 113 days) and had 41 patients still in hospital with a mean LOS of 127 days. LHIN-wide we had over 300 ALC patients discharged and 140+ remained in hospital in 2014-15. That’s the equivalent of devoting one large hospital doing no acute care-just ALC care!

ALC Volumes Across SE LHIN

Sad to say, things have worsened even since last year. As of July 2016 there are 92 ALC patients at KGH! This accounts for 20% of our total number of beds. It is not that the hospital, nurses and doctors and the entire team are not trying. Indeed, while ALC populations and ALC LOS have mushroomed, the LOS for all other patients has shrunk to below the provincial average and is now ~5 days. This improvement in LOS has occurred despite a dramatic rise in admission numbers. For example on the Medicine service at KGH our admissions have increased from ~3000/year in 2012 to over 5000/year in 2015.

MOHLTC policy gives patients choice in selecting their destinations. Since occupancy in our acute care hospitals is usually “free”, patients and families can make this choice to stay at no expense. The CCAC, which governs access to nursing homes, offers the following guidelines for patients:

The Community Care Access Centre (CCAC) manages waiting lists for all nursing homes in their region. Individuals with the highest health care needs and those in hospital are given first priority to a nursing home bed. If the homes that you choose have a waiting list, you will be asked to order them according to your first and last choice (you are allowed to choose 5 homes to place on your list). Should a bed become available, but it is not on your preferred list, you can decline the bed offer and maintain your position on the waiting list of the home of your choice. However, if you reject a bed offer from a home on your list, you will be removed from all waiting lists and you will be forced to wait 6 months to reapply for nursing home placement. If your health situation significantly changes within this time period, you are allowed to reapply. Once you are offered a bed, you have 24 hours to accept the offer, and you can usually move in the next day.

Patients may choose to stay in a convenient and safe acute care hospital rather than moving to a less desirable LTC. This choice may relate to financial disincentives (pay for LTC vs free stay in hospital), the relative scarcity of LTC facilities (especially desirable facilities) and geography (proximity to the family). The MOHLTC and CCAC do not mandate that the patient and their family pay for declining placement in the first available LTC facility (and in many cases families decline all offered LTC choices). Giving the patient who is in hospital the only choice in this situation has societal consequences.

Choosing to stay in an acute care hospital when one should be in a long-term care facility, or at home, may be easier for the patient and their family but it doesn’t make sense for the system (and ultimately pits the rights of the ALC patient in an acute care hospital against the rights of others trying to access these congested facilities). According to CCAC it costs an average of $1100/day for a patient to stay in an acute care bed. Even chronic care beds are expensive (see table below).

Average Per Diem Cost

The MOHLTC and CCAC are well aware of the cost of an acute care bed, which is why the goal of their Home First policy is to return patients to their home and provide them with the necessary home care support. If an ALC patient can make it home CCAC reports that 92% of such patients were satisfied with their care in 2013-14. However, with smaller nuclear families, poverty and increasingly complex illnesses in a rapidly expanding geriatric population, home is not always a feasible destination.

It is not just the cost that is relevant to our choice of how to handle ALC. The fact is that hospital beds in Ontario are a scarce resource. In 2013 Ontario had the lowest number of beds/capita in Canada (2.4 hospital beds for every 1,000 residents). This is also low by international standards. This may be acceptable; however, only if we can properly manage this resource.

LTC facilities are themselves struggling to handle more complex residents. According to a recent report from Health Quality Ontario “The most frequent challenge cited by homes was managing the increasing acuity and complexity of residents (53% of homes), with many homes identifying challenges in managing aggression and other behaviours (26% of homes).” The table below shows the current status of our LTC facilities in the SELHIN…almost 1300 people waiting for LTC care.

Waiting for LTC placement in the SELHIN

Waiting for LTC placementThe circular problem of ALC patient disposition and choice and hospital gridlock is a tough knot to undo. Despite congestion of hospitals, individuals believe they have the right to choose the long-term care (LTC) facility they desire. In an era where the Patient’s First philosophy is promoted by the MOHLTC its hard to argue against choice. However, all choices have consequences. Allowing ALC patients to remain in acute care hospitals and failing to spend public funds to build adequate numbers of competently run LTC facilities has adverse consequences in an aging society with a burgeoning population of elderly people afflicted with complex illnesses. Those consequences include congested Emergency Departments with long wait times before admission, delayed procedures and delayed/cancelled interventions and surgeries.

Andre Picard touched on the issue of choice in a recent Globe and Mail editorial entitled “Taking patient-centred health care from rhetoric to reality” noting essentially that patient-centred care does not and cannot mean simply giving the patient everything they want. Shared decision-making is more than about agreeing to disagree: It’s a lot dirtier and messier than that. It’s about finding a compromise that respects medical responsibility and patient autonomy.”

The proliferation of ALC patients who are trapped in acute care hospitals threatens to destabilize our ability to provide the timely acute care medicine the public expects. This blog is a call for courageous decisions to cut the Gordian knot and restore access to our acute care beds and allow Ontarians to benefit from modern advances in health care. To move forward we will have to make tough choices and speak clearly, though civilly. We need to recognize a concession to an ALC patient who refuses access to a LTC bed means an imposition on someone else-the patient who is not yet under care! Ontario’s acute care hospitals are increasingly becoming log-jammed with patients destined for LTC facilities but who are either empowered by the Province to stay put and exercise their choice or trapped by the lack of LTC facilities appropriate to their situation and convenient to their family. If the knot remains tied, everyone suffers. ERs will remain congested, procedures will be delayed or cancelled, and wards will remain choc a bloc with patients. This all occurs despite decreasing length of stay and rising health care costs. It is time to cut the Gordian Knot and allow out acute care hospitals to function.

How do we cut the Gordian knot?

  • Better manage LTC facilities to ensure they retain residents and do not refuse to repatriate them from acute care hospitals. There is increasingly a problem with these facilities. When patients, out of confusion or mental illness, are verbally or physically disruptive they are promptly exported to acute care hospitals where they often languish (for days) in Emergency Rooms. The LTCs then want assurance that the patient is “cured” and are slow to repatriate them. In many cases, such as dementia, the behaviors are not curable; however they can be managed and should be managed in an LTC, not an acute care hospital.
  • Properly staff retirement homes and other LTC facilities to deal with the types of patients who they must serve. These facilities, many of which are profit oriented, are relatively understaffed or staffed with people who lack the expertise to deal with chronically ill patients. Case management is especially challenging in the case of patients with dementia.
  • Build more LTC facilities. The demographics are clear. We are getting older. Society needs more high quality, subsidized retirement homes and other LTC facilities so patients can get graded support as their health care needs increase without relying on our small and expensive acute care hospital system
  • Designate hospitals to ensure that academic hospitals, which lead medical education, research and perform tertiary care are not receiving or maintaining significant ALC patients. The SELHIN is in the process of envisioning Health Care Tomorrow. Part of this process will hopefully be a differentiation of our 7 hospitals and some acknowledgement that while all serve patients they each have different roles. Since there will always be some ALC patients in acute settings, in the course of their journey home to LTC facilities, perhaps we need to decide at which centres these patients should reside. Failure to designate hospitals by function means that the few sites we have for Critical Care, advanced surgery, pediatrics and Ob-Gyn and advanced intervention (as well as medical research and education) become congested and dysfunctional.
  • Limit the time allowed for patients to await the placement of choice and limit their degree of choice. Once a patient in acute care facilities has been offered a reasonable LTC placement solution they should either be obligated to accept it or the hospital should levy a cost recovery fee to recoup the actual cost of holding that bed. Otherwise the unacknowledged subsidy makes it cheaper to stay in an acute care hospital than to move to the retirement home. If asking for payment for using our publically-funded, acute care beds for hoteling purposes sounds harsh, ask the person awaiting admission to have their hip replaced or their atrial fibrillation ablated or the patient awaiting admission to the wards who is writhing on an uncomfortable ER stretcher. Patient centered care does not mean we are freed from making the tough management decisions about the optimal use of the scarce resources entrusted to us by the MOHLTC.

I welcome your feedback.

13 Responses to Ontario’s Alternate Level of Care (ALC) Problem is Killing Acute Care Hospitals: Time to cut the Gordian knot.

  1. Laura Marcotte says:

    Well said and so true. I worry that there will never be the political will to take this issue up at the legislative level, which is where changes to LTC legislation and policy are what is needed….

  2. Sudeep Gill says:

    Dear Stephen,

    This is a compelling blog post. I’m one of several department members who practices largely outside of KGH (at St. Mary’s of the Lake Hospital, which will move to the Providence Care Hospital in 2017). However, many of our patients come directly from KGH to either the inpatient geriatric rehabilitation unit or the outpatient Seniors’ Day Rehabilitation program (SDR; formerly “Day Hospital”). Other specialized streams are managed by our colleagues in Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation (e.g. rehabilitation for individuals following stroke, orthopedic surgery, spinal cord injury, or acquired brain injury). These programs have an important role to play in helping to improve outcomes for older individuals, and we hope their involvement here helps in some way to address the vexing and complex ALC issue. For example, a meta-analysis of randomized trials of inpatient geriatric rehabilitation shows it improves function, lowers LTC admissions, and reduces mortality (Bachmann S, Finger C, Huss A, Egger M, Stuck AE, Clough-Gorr KM. Inpatient rehabilitation specifically designed for geriatric patients: systematic review and meta-analysis of randomised controlled trials. BMJ 2010;340:c1718, http://www.bmj.com/content/340/bmj.c1718). Similar to the “opportunity cost” argument made in the blog post about use of acute care beds, a significant part of our role on the geriatrics consult service is trying to select individuals with the greatest potential to benefit from rehabilitation services (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/9106937?dopt=Abstract). The “opportunity cost” exists at SMOL as well because ALC is not only an issue at KGH but also at SMOL (and MHS too).

    We wanted to highlight a few points related to the blog post:

    First, ALC relates in part to an aging population. However, the blog post rightly touches on other important contributors including poverty. Patient and family income likely influences many of the challenging dilemmas we all face. There are very few individuals who could afford the full $1100 daily cost for a patient to stay in an acute care bed. Many individuals cannot even afford the costs of a retirement home (which often run $3000 per month or more, and do not usually include any assistance with basic daily tasks such as dressing, bathing, etc). Nursing home (AKA LTC) beds are subsidized in Ontario, so often cost less than retirement home beds. However, the LTC application process takes time, LTC eligibility is determined by CCAC, and LTC beds are in limited supply in our LHIN as highlighted in the post.

    Second, another important contributor to ALC rates that may be uncomfortable to recognize is improvements in medical technology. Improved care for patients with critical illnesses, e.g. acute coronary syndrome, severe aortic stenosis (TAVR), acute stroke (rapid endovascular intervention), etc, have led to uncomfortable situations in which patients who would have once died now survive but are left with physical and/or cognitive deficits. The ability to manage (and pay for) the impact of these deficits on day-to-day life in the long-term has not kept pace with management of acute issues in many cases. Many of the affected individuals will require long-term assisted living, and some become “hospital dependent” (Reuben DB, Tinetti ME. The hospital-dependent patient. N Engl J Med 2014; 370:694-697, DOI: 10.1056/NEJMp1315568, http://www.nejm.org/doi/full/10.1056/NEJMp1315568#ref1: ” Usually, hospital-dependent patients are not recognizable as such at the time of the first admission. During almost all index admissions, the patient, family members, and clinicians assume that the patient will be restored to usual health. This optimism is generally justified, since none of the many prognostic indicators are accurate enough to predict the trajectory of an individual patient. Hospital-dependent patients are readmitted not because of inadequate hospital discharge, care transitions, or post-hospital care, but because their medical problems cannot be managed outside the hospital. The amount of medical and instrumental support that can be mounted is simply not enough. It is tempting to conclude that these patients are discharged to the wrong location and that they should be sent to skilled nursing facilities (SNFs), but most SNFs cannot or do not provide the needed level of treatment and support for them, and the readmission rates from SNFs are similar to those from home. These patients are often relieved to be back in the hospital because they feel more secure than they do at home or in nursing facilities. Many have established relationships with hospital staff and clinicians who remember them from prior admissions, and these familiar faces provide reassurance. “)

    Third, the focus of the post is on acute care hospitals. It is worth pointing out that ALC is also an issue in rehabilitation hospitals and mental health care facilities (e.g. SMOL and MHS, soon to be at one site in the new Providence Care Hospital).

    Fourth, the post highlights the increasing pressures at KGH to get patients admitted and discharged as quickly and efficiently as possible, with reduced LOS at KGH (“Indeed, while ALC populations and ALC LOS have mushroomed, the LOS for all other patients has shrunk to below the provincial average and is now ~5 days. This improvement in LOS has occurred despite a dramatic rise in admission numbers. For example on the Medicine service at KGH our admissions have increased from ~3000/year in 2012 to over 5000/year in 2015.”). Unfortunately, one potential contributor to the ballooning number of admissions (beyond population growth and aging) is the readmission rate. The 30-day readmission rate in many jurisdictions is 20%, and this number is likely climbing as the population of frail elderly individuals increases. Like ALC itself, it has been difficult to identify effective strategies to reduce readmission rates. One strategy that might help reduce preventable readmissions is more robust and responsive home care, which has been a clear focus for the MOHLTC .

    Finally, becoming designated an “ALC patient” can lead to frustration for everyone involved including patients and their families, physicians and nurses and our allied health colleagues, and hospital administrators. Sometimes this frustration can boil over into inadvertent ageism directed toward physically frail and cognitive impaired older individuals. This pattern has echoes in the past, such as the troubling term GOMER from Samuel Shem’s House of God (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/GOMER). If you google the term gomer, one of several unflattering definitions is: “(used mainly by doctors) a troublesome patient, especially an elderly or homeless one”. It is important not to fall into this ageist trap, and to remember the individual behind every ALC case who you can help.

    Thank you for highlighting this very important issue,
    Sudeep

    • Stephen Archer says:

      Dear Sudeep: Thank you for a very thoughtful response. I agree with each of your points. The readmission issue is very complex (worthy of its own blog). We are hoping to enhance rapid response clinics to see recently discharged complex patients in a timely manner to reduce readmission. However, t timely access to CCAC resources and family medicine is also crucial to prevent readmission. In theory Health Links should have helped with this…Im not sure it is having the intended impact. I also appreciate your point that ALC issues are not unique to KGH-they apply elsewhere, like PC. You remind us that its hard to apply a medical model to a sociological problem. As a society we need to commit resources to help older Canadians live well as they age.

  3. Chris Frank says:

    Thanks for this comprehensive review of the situation at KGH. Unfortunately, the ALC challenges for patients and “the system” hold true in the sub-acute/rehab sector as well. At St Mary’s of the Lake, there are also people who have been waiting for over 2 years to move to a long-term care bed. This means that we must continue to try to work with KGH to identify and transfer people for rehab who have the most likelihood of being able to leave hospital (with or without Home First). Our ability to work with KGH to help patients recover from acute illness will be significantly limited if our ALC rate goes up beyond what it is currently- which is close to that of KGH. Although it would be great to give everyone a “try” at rehab, the reality is that we must try to identify those with the greatest likelihood of being able to make gains to be able to return to the community.

    Clearly, we need to continue to work together to come up with ideas to help the individual and contribute to system change too.

    • stephen Archer says:

      Dear Chris: I agree. Indeed I view all 7 hospitals in the SELHIN as inappropriate sites for ALC patients (apart from a brief period during which they are in transition to LTC facilities). I recognize and support the importance of ensuring that rehab and restorative facilities can focus on their important mission…and much like the acute care hospital this mission will be compromised if the facility becomes congested with people who should be at home or in nursing homes and retirement homes. Thanks for your perspective.

  4. Chris Smith says:

    Stephen – thank you for so eloquently describing the current situation affecting acute care hospitals (and, from other posts here, our related inpatient facilities), regarding the growing ALC population.

    The biggest challenge is realizing that the Hospitals and various Departments cannot manage this problem alone.The Province has to make some changes going forward or things truly will grind to a halt. Educating the public about this issue is crucial but poverty is a huge barrier for many patients. Caring for the frail elderly is an expensive business. One of my residents today told me of a newspaper story he’d read where a patient figured out it was cheaper to stay on permanent cruises (with private accommodation/meals/entertainment/access to a physician&nurse) rather than pay for a retirement home!

    I believe the public in general does not fully understand the complexities and consequences you described above. Those of us working on the front lines know what is coming but we need to make the public in general aware so they can help pressure the politicians to develop a realistic health strategy going forward that has to include better plans for looking after dependent medically complex frail patients. Open discussion and publicizing the problem is a start.

    • stephen Archer says:

      Dear Chris
      That would be an interesting cruise ship to be on! Thanks for your leadership of our IMUs. You and your committed and talented team of IMU attending and residents have managed to keep the boat afloat through stormy weather.

  5. Jim Flett says:

    Thanks Steven a very well written blog, and some day soon we do need to find a way to unravel this knot. A lot of the health system problems are further agrevated by the ALC conditions at present as you and the other responders highlight.

    • Stephen Archer says:

      Thanks Jim: I would suggest that SECHEF and the Health Care Tomorrow Team take on ALC as the first step in the planned meetings to create a new, more integrated Clinical Care roadmap for the SELHIN. Arguably, if ALC is not fixed any plan we develop for distribution of care around the LHIN will run aground on the shoals of ALC-induced congestion….just a thought!

  6. Rasika Wijeratne says:

    I can’t thank enough Dr.Archer for opening this topic for discussion. There’s no need to add any more about how ALC issue hinder assigned function of different hospitals. I do want to add that it is heart breaking to watch these patients wait, wait and wait..and eventually die in the hospital. They never get a chance to enjoy a variety of food, breathe fresh air, have a quiet sleep and receive care from consistent staff that knows them or live in a place they can call ‘home’ before they die.
    Thank you for sharing MOHLTC guidelines about placing patients that indicate ‘ Individuals with the highest health care needs and those in hospital are given first priority to a nursing home bed’ because I have seen just the opposite, ‘patients in the hospitals are considered “cared for” therefore they become lower priority’. Guideline also indicate ‘However, if you reject a bed offer from a home on your list, you will be removed from all waiting lists and you will be forced to wait 6 months to reapply for nursing home placement’ this warning was given to one patient who was considering rejecting a bed of his choice list in 2012, but few patients who rejected beds on their lists thereafter faced no consequences. I wonder where/when did these rules change? It has become increasingly difficult to find any specific information regarding this placement process; the system has become fragmented and unaccountable.
    Your data clearly show that this LHIN needs more LTC beds. But, to my surprise, every discussion/ town hall with the representatives from the LHIN starts with the line ‘more nursing homes is not the solution’, then it goes on to mean ‘it is the hospital’s problem’. Hospitals need to unite and advocate with force; this blog is a good start.
    I would like to add 2 more tools to your toolset to cut the ALC Gordian knot;
    1. Subsidised retirement homes/assisted living units: I see a significant number of ALC patients with relatively simple medical conditions who can be cared for in a supervised environment with provision of meals, showers and medication administration. But they instead wait for LTC simply because they can’t afford a retirement home. I understand the current strained financial climate, but subsidizing a retirement home access might be more economical than letting them occupy an acute care bed.
    2. Better planning for patients on Hemodialysis: Patients transferred from peripheral hospitals for critical illness needing urgent Hemodialysis later become ALC at KGH and remain at KGH. They are either unfit to receive HD at a satellite unit or go on a waiting list when fit enough for satellite units. Discharge planning for them is extremely challenging because the additional need of transportation to KGH for HD. Some LTC homes claim they can only take a limited number of HD patients again due to transportation costs. Our Nephrology colleagues would have a better understanding of the situation.
    Lastly, I agree we have to raise public awareness because they have politicians’ ear. We should also engage in more Goals of Care discussions and help patients to Choose Wisely.

    • Stephen Archer says:

      Dear Rasika

      Thanks for the great care you provide the IMU H and its ALC patient population. I particularly like the idea of financial subsidies to accelerate placement of patients in appropriate retirement homes and other LTC facilities. In the end, it is cheaper to subsidize the person, allowing them to move in a timely manner, then to have them stay in an expensive acute care bed. There are many examples I have heard of where a small subsidy might help. For example, sometimes patients accept the PTC site but are only offered a private room (which sounds great but is more expensive)….we may well need to subsidize these individuals. In my view such subsidies should come form CCAC NOT the acute care hospitals.

      You are also right-acute care hospitals are not a good place to spend the last months/years of one’s life. The high cost does not translate into a pleasurable living environment….another metric by which the money is being poorly spent.

  7. Simon Jackson says:

    Stephen,

    Your tale of congestion rings loud and clear in Nova Scotia. Our inpatient medical services are experiencing a similar congestion. Over the past 5 years our MTU admissions have grown, our LOS for typical patients has reached the expected data, our “bed turns” increased, yet our ED continues on “code census” as we struggle to find inpatient capacity for newly admitted “medicine” patients. ALC, and “ALC like” or ALC destined” patients comprise about 20% of our census, yet compromise almost all of our excess LOS.

    These patients (if they are still patients?) need care. They do not need an acute medical service. We are wasting limited health care dollars providing suboptimal long term housing which does not meet the persons needs. I have often wondered about a trial randomizing immediate LTC placement to “usual” placement, and would hypothesize that in addition to being more expensive, residing in a hospital is inherently more dangerous (infection, medication error, falls secondary to suboptimal physical environments) than a LTC facility! It is highly probable that the ongoing hospitalization is both more expensive and worse, yet we do no have a systemic plan of attack.

    We have made some inroads. House-staff are forbidden to mention of placement on admission, home first, home again, an increased willingness to expand services to “keep people home” while waiting for care and a team change to tolerate increased risk. We have dedicated services for the rehabilitation of post surgical and post medical admissions for patients in needed of reconditioning, who work diligently to ensure return to home if at all possible. We don’t admit “can’t go homes”, instead push for urgent placement from the ED, or expanded supports to allow discharge from the ED. We have made some progress. It has come at a cost, with a doubling or our readmission rate from 4-5% to 8%, but this still exceeds CIHI predictions. We are working to try and develop a region wide integrated frailty strategy, to better support patients and families and prevent institutionalization that we unfortunately create with aggressive medical procedures in patients with limited opportunity for improvement.

    It is the lace of a long term solution that is worrisome. We are at the start of a population bubble that will cripple our hospitals and LTC facilities unless system wide changes in hospital and social policy are implemented. Talking about this is a start, but it is true action that is needed.

    Simon Jackson, Interim Head, Department of Medicine, Dalhousie

  8. Stephen Archer says:

    Dear Simon: Thanks for the external validation; its nice to know we are not alone in this challenge. I would emphasize the truth in your final statement-the ALC issue is the first sign of the consequences of a population “bubble”. This should reminds us all that health care systems and facilities designed for acute illness are not appropriate for the new epidemic-agedness. As a society we had better develop an effective and sustainable approach to the care of aging people, at home and in LTC facilities,so that we can continue to offer all Canadians a functioning health care system. Good luck-and keep me posted on the progress on NS.

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Dr. Archer, Dept. Head
Dr. Archer, Dept. Head