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The Canadian Federation of Independent Business report says if governments across the country were to reduce administrative burden on doctors by 10 per cent, it would translate to the equivalent of 5.5 million more patient visits per year.CHAD HIPOLITO/GM

Canadian doctors are spending millions of hours a year on unnecessary paperwork and administrative tasks, according to a new study that says cutting that red tape could help them see more patients, reduce burnout and fatigue, and improve patient care.

The Canadian Federation of Independent Business report, released Monday, estimated doctors spend 18.5 million hours a year nationally on needless administrative activity – the equivalent of 55.6 million patient visits. And if governments across the country were to reduce that burden by 10 per cent, it would translate to the equivalent of 5.5 million more patient visits per year, it said.

“This isn’t some radical policy idea. This is common sense that really could benefit patients and doctors,” said Laura Jones, executive vice-president of CFIB and co-author of the report.

The estimates extrapolated data from Nova Scotia, where the government’s Office of Regulatory Affairs and Service Effectiveness has been working with the physicians’ association in that province since 2019 to measure and reduce doctors’ administrative burden. Those efforts have found that each doctor in Nova Scotia spent an average of 10.6 hours, or more than a full work day, per week on administrative tasks, 38 per cent of which was unnecessary – work that could have either been completed by someone else or eliminated completely. The CFIB used the provincial figures and applied them nationally.

The group, which represents businesses across Canada, was interested in analyzing the issue of physician red tape in part because a recent survey of its members found health care was the second-highest issue they were concerned about after inflation, Ms. Jones said. Moreover, many doctors are small-business owners running their own practices, she added.

While the CFIB’s calculations assumed the same conditions in Nova Scotia apply to physicians across the country, there could be some variation from province to province, she said. Still, she said their estimates are fairly conservative, and provide a ballpark projection of the possible savings that could be gained.

The report recommended that provincial and territorial governments work with their doctors’ associations to quantify the unnecessary administrative burden on their physicians and set a target to reduce it.

“That target might not be 10 per cent. It might be 5 per cent. It might be 15 per cent,” Ms. Jones said. “What we’re saying here is we’re pretty confident that there’s a win-win opportunity to reduce red tape and free up doctors’ time for patient business, and that’s something that we shouldn’t overlook.”

Leisha Hawker, a family doctor in Halifax and president of the physicians’ association Doctors Nova Scotia, said the amount of progress made in her province to cut red tape hasn’t been as much as initially hoped, since those efforts were interrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic. However, the government has set a goal of reducing 50,000 hours of unnecessary administrative work a year, which she expects will be a significant improvement.

Not only will this increase efficiency in the health care system, Dr. Hawker said, but it will also help with physician recruitment and retention, and improve their work-life balance. She explained that many physicians often leave their paperwork until the end of the day or during their lunch breaks to avoid falling further behind schedule when seeing patients.

Already, she has experienced some reduction in her own unnecessary administrative work, owing to measures such as changes to a multi-page document known as “the blue form,” which is required for Nova Scotians on income assistance. Since she fills out the form frequently for her patients, this paperwork used to take up a considerable amount of her time, she said. But now, it only requires her to fill in relevant sections instead of completing the entire form, and it requires her to check off boxes instead of having to fill in the blanks.

The time saved on each form isn’t huge, Dr. Hawker said, “but over the course of a month or a year when you’re doing so many forms, it does make a significant impact.”

The CFIB report said testing conducted by the Office of Regulatory Affairs suggests this form is now 10- to 30-per-cent faster to complete. A rate of 10-per-cent faster translates to an estimated time savings of about 6,000 hours a year, or the equivalent of roughly 18,000 patient visits, it said.