This article originally appeared in the September/October 2020 issue of the Ontario Medical Review magazine.
by Julia Costanzo
OMA Member Relations, Advocacy & Communications
In-person connection used to be the most effective way Dr. Rebecca Stoller interested primary care physicians in joining the North York Toronto Health Partners Ontario Health Team (NYTHP OHT). Throughout late 2019 and early 2020, Dr. Stoller – who is the OHT’s Primary Care Engagement Lead and Co-Chair of the Primary Care Working Group – met with her primary care colleagues during lunch, after rounds, or at engagement events to answer questions and explain the benefits of joining the OHT. She took advantage of every opportunity to talk about the integrated care model she was eager to help build. Then COVID-19 hit, changing everything.
Dr. Stoller and her colleagues immediately shifted their focus from physician outreach to responding to the crisis. As it turned out, in addition to helping to manage the crisis, their pandemic response also led to significant progress in the development of the OHT.
The urgency and severity of COVID-19 prompted the OHT to launch initiatives that would have been thought impossible only months before. “Overall, the COVID pandemic has propelled our work forward and accelerated many things,” said Dr. Stoller.
From the outset, education and sense-making were key priorities for the OHT. Information was evolving quickly and the team wanted to make sure everyone felt informed. The primary care leadership developed regular communication and guidance documents for family physicians working in the community. They collaborated with partner organizations to prepare informative webinars on such topics as physician wellness, virtual care and COVID-19 clinical guidance. In addition to the webinars for providers, they supported the broader North York community through virtual seminars for patients and families. One particularly effective seminar provided families of long-term care residents with guidance on how to support their loved ones while long-term care homes were closed to visitors.
Dr. Rebecca Stoller
The OHT also implemented new initiatives to support the region’s pandemic response. The North York COVID-19 assessment centre, a partnership between the North York General Hospital, the ER and primary care community, has swabbed more than 65,000 patients. The NYTHP OHT also established a virtual family health team, facilitated personal protective equipment delivery, created a community support telephone line and matched primary care patients who needed in-person care with providers.
“We were able to demonstrate the power of an OHT to our primary care community – different agencies and organizations coming together and creating access for the patients,” said Dr. Stoller. “We were able to demonstrate some very practical benefits and tools.”
Dr. Stoller described the support housed at North York General Hospital as the “backbone” of the OHT. Throughout the pandemic, the hospital provided administrative and strategy support to the NYTHP core team. Primary care leadership worked together, including the Department of Family Medicine Chief, the North York Family Health Team Medical Director and her Primary Care Engagement co-lead. North York General has always supported the primary care community and Dr. Stoller said its support throughout the pandemic has further strengthened their partnership.
The NYTHP OHT’s initiatives during the pandemic advanced Dr. Stoller’s OHT physician engagement and outreach in three key areas: establishing connections, demonstrating tangible outcomes, and building trust.
Even though she couldn’t meet with her colleagues in person, they connected regularly and effectively through virtual meetings and webinars. “I think people were looking to connect at that time,” she explained. “There was an opportunity to see leadership on the screen. I think that was important.”
These connections led to tangible initiatives, supports, tools and teams that demonstrated the value of an integrated care system for providers and for patients.
Dr. Stoller said that before the pandemic, physicians often expressed skepticism and uncertainty about joining the OHT. However, the OHT’s delivery of numerous tangible benefits during the crisis has reduced some of the skepticism and built trust within the physician community.
Overall, Dr. Stoller believes the OHT’s work throughout the pandemic has been transformative. “I think that COVID-19 was a catalyst to break down a lot of barriers and walls.
It has demonstrated the power of integrated care.”
As COVID-19 case counts rise again and flu season approaches, Dr. Stoller’s sights are set primarily on supporting her community through the upcoming uncertain months. Her longer-term goals build on the foundational work the OHT has done to date, as she hopes to continue expanding primary care outreach and supporting the creation of a primary care OHT governance structure.
Despite the OHT being years away from maturity, the success of the past six months has made Dr. Stoller excited about the future.
When she reflects on her work so far with the North York OHT, Dr. Stoller is reminded of a symposium she attended in February, where her colleagues shared their vision for a “compassionate North York.” At the time, she had trouble imagining what that would look like. The pandemic changed her view.
“I saw what a compassionate community could look like and accomplish and that really makes me excited for what we can do as a community going forward.”