Alberta doctors screening for financial problems in health-care pilot project

A simple but powerful question helps doctors get to the bottom of their patients' health problems

Alberta doctors screening for financial problems in health-care pilot project

While top advisors may ask clients questions related to health as part of their holistic financial planning, a group of medical professionals in Alberta are flipping the script.

In 2019, doctors and nurses at Kalyna Country Primary Care Network, which serves a largely rural area east of Edmonton, began questioning individuals about their financial situation.

According to Brian Match, the network’s executive director, probing patients about their financial state allowed them to learn a lot in the process.

Consider a patient whose diabetes does not seem to be improving over time. "If you're only able to put food on the table one meal per day, that can really have an effect in regards to your diabetes," said Match.

When a doctor is aware that a patient is experiencing financial difficulties, he or she may propose community options that the patient may not be aware of.

Match noted that doctors may be less likely to prescribe a costly prescription and more understanding if a patient skips an appointment to work a shift.

"If you don't ask the question, then you don't really know what's going on," he said. 

Through a pilot project called Reducing the Impact of Financial Strain, doctors and nurses in Kalyna Country — as well as two other Alberta primary care networks — began to explore that question.

The concept was motivated in part by the efforts of national physician organizations, such as the College of Family Physicians of Canada, to advocate financial stress assessment and the prescription of tax returns.

Dr. Karla Gustafson, a medical officer of health for the Calgary Zone of Alberta Health Services (AHS), which worked on the pilot project alongside the Alberta Medical Association, said that tax returns are necessary to obtain various types of income support.

"It's really foundational to understand those circumstances that people are in, to understand their health and be able to improve it," said Gustafson.

Primary care professionals were able to take specific steps to analyze the impact of financial burden on individual patients as a result of the trial project, according to Gustafson. They also made links with community organizations that could help alleviate the stress.

Match added that screening for financial strain is now a constant component of how his care network operates in Kalyna Country.

"It's the way we do business," said Match.