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What factors trigger an urgent and appropriate medical consultation?


There are circumstances in which it is critical for a patient to consult a doctor sooner rather than later. Imagine someone with symptoms of a stroke or a myocardial infarction ( heart attack), or with a breast lump.

In these circumstances timely intervention may be life saving. These circumstances are often the subject of public health campaigns and perhaps one of the most popular attempts to improve health care outcomes or reduce costs. Predictably such attempts are not universally successful. That may be because the issues are rarely considered from the patients’ perspective, because a solution is imposed from what seems to help ‘some people’, possibly those who might have consulted a doctor anyway.

Our help seeking behaviours are subject to the same three factors that Fogg speaks of in his behaviour model. Motivation is contingent on the person’s understanding of his or her risk to adverse outcomes. Ability is the person’s perception of access to treatment that may be life saving and finally, and crucially, triggers are factors that compel the person to make the effort to consult a doctor when they have the most to gain.

Therefore there are four possible scenarios:

High motivation and high ability to access health care.

This is ideal. In these circumstances a ‘signal’ trigger will suffice. Think ‘red traffic light’ .  Therefore someone who is bleeding or  experiences crushing central chest pain or develops sudden onset weakness on one side of their body, will quickly act to do what is necessary. Alternatively they might do the needful, as in the picture, when they are prompted by a relative or friend. Unfortunately it cannot be assumed, as it often is, that everyone is in this boat.

A health promotion campaign might be considered successful if five percent of the target audience make long–term changes in overt health behaviour. Rogers and Storey

There are three other less ‘easily’ remedied situations.

High motivation but poor access.

For these people ‘red lights’ will do nothing but cause frustration. What is needed is well publicised improved access to skilled care providers. For many people in specific areas of many countries access to health care is poor and it is reflected in inequity of outcomes for what is, anywhere else in the country, a preventable cause of morbidity and premature mortality. There is real scope to innovate here, perhaps the most promising avenue is online  or telephone access to care providers or innovations that better integrate care providers at the point of presenting symptoms especially within primary care.

Low motivation and easy access.

On the face of it this might be easily fixed simply by ‘educating’ people. However the empirical evidence is that such campaigns have limited ( as opposed to ‘no’)  effectiveness. Often the causes of low motivation are  many and varied. What speaks to one community or individual may not resonate with others and the scope for frustration or patchy results are very high. If this were not the case our jails would not have quite so many inhabitants. Law breaking like poor health is a complex issue and no solution including the death penalty will promote the most desirable behaviour. People don’t always respond to dire warnings. One strategy is to make the alternative action ( i.e. non consulting) less desirable than consulting. However such solutions fly in the face of patient autonomy.

 Low motivation and poor access.

Bad news. These individuals are unlikely to respond to anything. Changing attitudes is unlikely to follow ‘educational’ campaigns unless and until the issue of access to health care is sorted out. There are many individuals who have poor access to health care. The reasons for this are far too diverse for any strategy to be universally successful. If there were a simple way to do both then any of the triggers in the other of these four quadrants  might suffice. Fortunately only a minority of people are in this category but there are enough here to ensure that the idea of universally good outcomes for everybody is a utopian dream. Innovation, however well meaning, is set to fail some individuals most of the time.

Picture by amy_kearns

Innovate for quality first

Use of the term ‘quality‘ needs definition before it can be interpreted in any critique of the health service. I propose a definition of a quality as one which can be measured by the extent to which the person with the problem feels that s/he has been seen and heard by a healthcare professional with the requisite expertise. It has resonance with business where if the customer feels that she is not valued she takes her custom elsewhere. However as is sometimes illustrated by some aspiring healthcare providers they understand business but have no clue about medicine. There is a burgeoning of primary care providers, offering something akin to fast food outlets but these are likely to disappoint their clients.

Quality has four benchmarks:


There is no ‘quality’ if the patient has no prospect of consulting the person best placed to assist and especially when need is greatest. There are many examples of disastrous outcomes for people who have not been able to access the required expertise in time. In healthcare that may be a surgeon but it could also be a dentist, a physiotherapist, a pharmacist or an allied health practitioner. On that basis it is telling that in Australia access to general practice may be challenging in some communities but so is access to allied health practitioners. For this reason alone these communities have a diminished quality primary care service regardless of any other benchmark.

However ‘access’ alone is a poor proxy measure of quality although it often seems as if the public believes it is the only one that matters. It certainly makes very bold headlines when it fails. On the other hand there is little point in a very accessible service which is not effective. Once the access issue has been addressed the focus shifts to effectiveness. The Royal Australian College of General Practitioners offers a useful list of indicators that might guide a medical practice. Each discipline or organisation is likely to have its own list of ‘quality’ indicators for effective care.

The integration of care providers is a sensitive marker of quality in health care. There are many healthcare issues where a team approach is of critical importance to timely diagnosis or rehabilitation especially when transitioning from another setting. Practitioners in different disciplines rarely work as an effective team not because they don’t wish to, but because team work is inhibited by funding and or organisational  structures. This may be the one area where collaboration could improve quality for modest investment.

Finally, and crucially, continuity of care is a vital component of quality. Simon illustrates the point well. He has been admitted to three different hospitals in the same town over the past three years. He usually finds his way there in an ambulance or via the emergency department. He has two different problems which have been diagnosed as ‘alcoholism and  neurosis’ or ‘epilepsy’ and ‘stroke’ or ‘migraine’. Simon has certainly enjoyed access and on every occasion he has consulted someone who is suitable trained but there has been no integration of providers and the only hope for a good outcome is continuity of care. By any standard, eight CT scans later, he is at risk of iatrogenesis.  After three years he has been told he is fit to drive and not drive in the same month by practitioners with the same specialist qualifications. He has been commenced on antiplatelet medication by one  and advised to discontinue all medications by another. The only hope is that he has the same general practitioner and that continuity of care might be the light in an otherwise dark and it seems radiated tunnel.

Innovating at the interface between service providers

At least one in a hundred patients seen in general practice are referred to hospital.

In many countries the referral process hasn’t changed in decades. It’s still done with pen and paper and even in 2013 in some developed countries it still involves a fax machine. What’s interesting about the process is that once the letter is received at the hospital, it is read and then triaged by someone to determine when the patient should be offered an appointment. The decision is made in less than a minute. Everything, perhaps even life or death situations. hinges on the impression created by the writer of that letter.

In a government subsidised system, where there is a need to ration appointments, a patient might be seen next week, next month or six months from now. The reality is that in some cases a patient might wait longer than is ideal and the outcome for them may be compromised, because of what was in the referral letter and how that was interpreted. Who then is to blame, the doctor who was consulted first, or the hospital that arranged a deferred appointment? How can innovation help in this situation?

I’ve been involved on teams that have studied this problem from many different angles culminating in a randomised trial of an innovation in 2012. We came to a number of conclusions. Firstly involving people in innovation when they don’t believe they have a problem is frustrating. Many doctors think their letters are just fine, or that the recipient hardly reads them. Its difficult to innovate in a busy clinic where doctors are working flat out, and the truth is that if the innovation doesn’t make life easier for the doctor as well as the patient then it’s going to be hard to implement.

Secondly colleagues are reticent to demand change from one another, especially when they work in different parts of the system. So, as a hospital specialist I might not feel I have any mandate to require that referral letters contain the details that I like to have. It’s even worse when the paymasters across the sectors are different. In Australia hospitals are funded by State governments, whereas primary care is funded by the Federal government. What’s more primary care providers work to a ‘pay for service’ model. Which effectively means that primary care survives on profits.

Thirdly, it is unsafe to assume that all colleagues apply the same criteria about what clinical scenarios should be allocated an urgent specialist opinion, even within the same specialty, in the same healthcare system, and with reference to nationally accepted guidelines. That was unexpected!

Some problems require a whole systems approach. A problem that has seemingly obvious roots, with a strong(ish) evidence base can be difficult to crack with a lean medicine approach. Where multiple individuals are involved across health sectors, it is absolutely necessary that innovations make everyone’s life easier. Requiring letters to be written a certain way, and demanding that the process is enforced by the recipients, when there isn’t local consensus on what is an urgent case, is not going to work without something else to make it worthwhile for all concerned. What this problem calls for is more innovation when it comes to making the decision to refer. Perhaps more sensitive near-patient tests, which are better able to predict who is most likely to benefit from limited national resources.

What are your ideas for improvement that don’t require people to donate time and effort for no personal gain? Pushing out innovation is not enough, if there isn’t a pull from those at the coalface to adopt those ideas. It isn’t safe, even in medicine, to assume that people will do it, use it or promote it simply because they recognise that patients will benefit.

Innovating in cancer diagnosis and treatment

The experience of someone with cancer is a litmus test of a country’s healthcare system. Let me explain:

Cancer Symptoms

The symptoms of many cancers are very like those of many more benign conditions. Take colorectal (bowel) cancer. People who develop this disease present with symptoms that many of us have had at some point in our lives—diarrhoea, rectal bleeding, abdominal pain and fatigue. You would imagine that the symptoms of bowel cancer are far worse than anything following a suspect meal. In some cases, yes, they are. In many cases those who develop widespread, incurable disease have quite minor and short lived symptoms.

Despite the wide availability of screening tests, the majority of bowel cancer diagnoses in the developed world happens after presenting to a doctor with symptoms. Those who are ‘lucky’ present with lots of symptoms, but have a curable cancer. Many patients present with late and incurable disease, sometimes with relatively minor symptoms. Studies of people who turn up with symptoms, suggests that there are patterns that describe cases more likely to have the condition. However these patterns are not reliable and in many cases the chance of being diagnosed with cancer, despite the ‘data’ is, thankfully, relatively small. That means that of all those who present with symptoms for the first time, it is the communication skills of the doctor they consult that determines if that person is identified as someone who would benefit from a colonoscopy. But also , crucially, whether the person who is at no risk at all is subjected to a colonoscopy.

The reality seems to be that more people have a colonoscopy, than benefit from the experience. The greatest gripe in many health care systems is that people are left to languish on waiting lists. The finger is pointed either at primary care for selecting too many patients for referral, or at hospitals for not providing enough clinics. In my view the truth is that neither is to blame. Humans vary in their ability to seek help, they vary in their ability to apportion limited resources and in the end the system depends on people. Our human frailty is the weak link.

Cancer Treatment

Once ‘in the system’ the patient is subjected to all that can be offered by the King’s horses and men. Large sections of their anatomy may be removed. Chemicals and radiation may be administered, and weeks if not months of their lives may be spent in an alien, clinical environment. Here they have to adjust to life without the familiar and predictable. Many make a full recovery, which is testimony to the resilience of human beings. Some don’t make it and the rest never fully recover, if not from the cancer, then from the effects of the efforts to save their lives. While being treated they are segregated from their families, their support structures, including their family doctor, who will be consulted in the future, about the diarrhoea, the fatigue, the urinary and sexual dysfunction and the fear of recurrence that may be a feature of life after bowel cancer.

Cancer Support

What happens after this ordeal is that people either recover fully and rarely need to think about it again, or continue to suffer debilitating side effects related to the assault on their physical, psychological and social self. In these circumstances the health care system is either supportive and offers all manner of ‘interventions’, or barely supports people who have been ‘cured’ of cancer and now need to get their lives back on track. When the health sectors are divided along funding lines, as is the case in Australia, the scope for it to be someone else’s job are greatly increased. In these circumstances we can detect so-called ‘unmet need’.

Innovation In Cancer Care

Academic careers are being made of documenting all of this. It sounds like chronicling what common sense already tells us. It’s about lack of knowledge, unhelpful attitudes and questionable beliefs. But as a proponent of ‘lean medicine’, I wonder if those who refer people for life saving treatment and then pick up the pieces have something to offer? Can we generate solutions, rather than apply for yet more tax payer’s money to explore what our patients and colleagues are already telling us? The challenge is that we already have a growing demand in primary care, based on the rising incidence of chronic and complex conditions, consequent to an aging population and poor life style choices. How can the care of these patients be improved without relying on people recognising it as simply ‘the right thing to do’? How can we generate a solution that makes life better for everyone. Failure to do so has brought us to the current impasse, and the aforementioned ‘unmet need’. A lean medical solution will allow people to access, and assimilate more information about their symptoms, their treatment and life after treatment. Perhaps it will empower practitioners to be more proactive, without having to increase an already overburdened health work force?

What are your ideas to improve things for the one in four people who will develop cancer in the course of their lives?

The context is often private and confidential

7257592240_6759efd5a5_zThe consultation between a doctor and patient is private. Innovators hoping to improve outcomes in that context can’t observe the exchange directly because some presentations are very uncommon and because neither the doctor nor the patient welcomes the intrusion. There are many outcomes of the encounter between patient and doctor that we still don’t fully understand. Why are some patients’ cancer symptoms not recognised as early warnings? Why do carers of patients with a life-limiting illness fail to have their own medical problems addressed? Why do people living with some chronic conditions continue to have problems with intimacy?

People deploy verbal and non-verbal cues to communicate. They choose when and how to disclose their ideas, concerns and expectations. However in an average consultation in my country, the patient has fifteen minutes to ‘spit it out’. Similarly, clinicians vary in their ability to pick up cues or to probe with the right question, assuming they get the right answer. Hence errors of omission and or commission.

Lean medicine is about being intuitive, creative and agile. Lean innovators, clinicians, are already on site. Therefore, they can reproduce the context in a way that can be observed and where they can be tested with other clinicians. Video technology and a fusion of skills across disciplines allow the depiction of those encounters in such a way as to present the critical decision point for close examination. Do you prescribe, refer or investigate in these circumstances? What do you say to the patient?

How do you explore hard to reach elements in your practice or business? How can you hope to innovate for encounters that are strictly private and confidential but where mistakes or misunderstanding can be very bad for business. Who has the insight to show you? How can you generate valid hypotheses? How do you test ideas without a real risk of casualties?

Picture by Urbanbohemian