TORONTO — Newly released data suggests polling has played a major role in the Ontario government's efforts to sway public opinion in the ongoing battle with the province's doctors, who have been without a physician services agreement for three years.
After the Liberal government imposed some fee cuts in 2015, doctors waged a social media and advertising campaign — the effects of which were closely monitored by the Ministry of Health and Long-Term Care. Negotiations began anew Tuesday night.
A series of 10 polls commissioned by the ministry found that while public support flipped between the doctors and the government at various points in the polling, people who were paying the most attention sided with the Ontario Medical Association by about two to one.
In January 2016, messages about "cuts to doctors' compensation and the resulting impact on morale/quality of care" were "breaking through," the Strategic Counsel research found.
"Continued monitoring of the impact of OMA advertising and communications is advisable given the fluidity and generally unsettled nature of public opinion on issues related to doctors' compensation," the polling said.
"There may be opportunities to counter and clarify OMA messaging, which is linking the compensation issue with 'cuts' to the system, especially given that the balance of public opinion leans toward (the ministry), over the OMA, as the party most motivated to ensure long-term sustainability and improved system performance."
The next month, the polling found the OMA campaign was having a considerable impact on public opinion.
"Fully 71 per cent of those who recall something or a lot about the negotiations/cutbacks feel sympathetic to the doctors — up from 50 per cent last wave," the research said.
But polling also found that more than three-quarters of respondents agreed it was fair to hold physician compensation steady so investments could be made in home and community care, and 82 per cent supported ministry efforts to tackle high-billing doctors.
Just a few weeks later, Health Minister Eric Hoskins held a news conference to complain that some doctors' "out of control" billings were taking hundreds of millions of dollars away from home care and other services.
Then he revealed that more than 500 Ontario doctors each billed the province over $1 million the previous year, with one ophthalmologist billing $6.6 million.
The focus on the million and multi-million-dollar billers apparently worked.
"The overbilling message is starting to break through," the next survey in May 2016 found. Public support had shifted in favour of the ministry, putting it about even with the OMA.
That was the eighth survey conducted out of 10, but the last one that is publicly available.
Hoskins said the ministry conducts a lot of polling to determine the public's priorities.
"I think Ontarians would agree that it's wholly appropriate that if we're negotiating a contract, which in totality is over 20 per cent of the health-care budget, that it's good and important to get advice from Ontarians in terms of how those funds should be spent," he said.
OMA spokeswoman Dr. Rachel Forman said the association's own polling has also found that the majority of the public supports the doctors.
"Patients understand a key component of a well-functioning health-care system is the collaboration between doctors and government," she said in a statement.
A new round of negotiations began Tuesday night with the first order of business being to determine "a process and an agreement for binding interest arbitration," Hoskins said Wednesday.
Allison Jones, The Canadian Press