Category Archives: Lean Medicine

Instruments of measurement vs. instruments of connection

9597562683_0f1bb9156a_zMany health innovators argue that future advances in health care will come from technological solutions. Things we can measure and quantify. Governments and health care providers are holding their breaths for a magic bullet that can easily, measure and thus fix everything.

People who advocate for technological health solutions think that it’s possible for doctors to routinely consult patients without touching them, or even looking them in the eye.

Stakeholders imagine that that health practitioners spend time with their patients simply to gather and process data. We imagine a future when a patient’s wearable device will be handed over to the doctor, who will have everything he needs to know and more, in order to treat any ill.

That is not to say that we should not innovate, or that technology will not enhance the encounter between patient and healer. However we do need to think about how those innovations will become part of that powerful ritual known as the medical consultation. Technology, high tech or low tech, needs to be incorporated in a way that responds to the person in distress. It should be seen as a means to an end, and not an end in itself. If information was all that was required to get people to adopt healthy choices then why do we make so many decisions that defy logic?

Science has identified that people act on impulse, are moved by emotion, or commit themselves to decisions because it makes them feel good even if they know it’s doing them harm.

The reality is that not everything that matters can be measured. Patients don’t just come to doctors to be fixed. As health care practitioners we mustn’t lose sight of the fact that what patients need as much, (if not more) than, instruments of measurement are instruments of connection.

Picture by Alberto Varela

The importance of touch in the medical consultation. There is no app for that

When people are scared or in trouble what they want most is to be touched. Information alone is never enough to satisfy the deepest human needs that bubble up when our bodies appear to malfunction. This was recognised generations ago and the role of doctor was socially ordained. Doctors are licensed to examine the body intimately. Any doctor who abuses this trust is severely punished. The examination provides the healer with the information required to make a diagnosis, but more importantly it comforts the sufferer through human contact.

When I was a ‘wet behind the ears’ GP trainee, my clinical mentor offered me two pieces of advice in relation to the medical consultation. He told me to always stand up to greet the patient as they walk into the room and to look for an opportunity to lay hands on the patient, even if only to take their pulse.

Innovators may be tempted to think that everything that takes place in the consultation can be distilled down to the exchange of information and advice. However the consultation is designed to promote healing by allowing people to express concern and empathy through verbal and nonverbal behaviour. The former requires excellent communication skills, the latter is conducted as a series of rituals: ‘inspection, palpation, percussion and auscultation‘. And even as the body is examined the patient needs to feel that the examiner is concerned and respectful. If this is done well, healing can begin, sometimes against the odds.

This has important implications for innovation in health care. It’s not possible to interrupt or diminish the direct association between the doctor and the patient with gadgets or gizmos. If we do we may lose more than we gain.

Why aren’t healthcare providers doing more to tackle the biggest health problem?

Obesity is the single biggest health problem facing our generation and the generations to come. It’s already killing, disabling, disfiguring and demoralising more than half of the population in most developed countries. By 2025 the majority in the developed world, and a growing proportion in the developing world will be overweight or obese. We have seen it coming, the warnings have been around for decades and yet we have done very little to combat it. Now it’s reported that doctors can’t see what they can do about it.

Until more effective interventions have been developed GPs may remain unconvinced that obesity is a problem requiring their clinical expertise and may continue to resist any government pressure to accept obesity as part of their workload.

—Laura Epstein and Jane Ogden

The reality about the problem of obesity is:

1. We are all aware that being overweight is harmful and yet we are legally bombarded with subliminal messages that promote unhelpful lifestyle choices .

2. It may be counter productive to raise the issue with someone who already feels a sense of shame and guilt.

3. Simply being offered dietary advice by a health practitioner isn’t making a difference to most people. We already know what we shouldn’t put in our mouths, that an apple is better for us than a chocolate bar.

4. People find it hard to do what needs to be done to tackle the issue—eat less and exercise more. It’s hard to sustain the effort over a period of time and to make permanent lifestyle changes.

5. Our current healthcare interventions and innovations with regard to obesity are not working.

6. In Australia the cost of dealing with the effects of obesity has reached $120 billion. We are not doing enough to tackle the root cause.

7. We must find a sustainable solution to this problem. Handing out diet sheets and making referrals to dieticians is not enough.

The challenge, for the practitioner is to present information that’s hard to hear in a way that it is likely to be taken on board and acted on. To appeal to how people feel about making changes, not just what they know. To provide information that is motivating and affirming. To reduce the time burden on health practitioners to deliver that advice efficiently. To put the tools into the hands of the person who may have to change life long habits. We just need the collective will to make it happen.

Rethinking The Benefits Of Expensive Medical Research

In the developed world the really scary diagnoses are very uncommon. More often than not a patient’s symptoms can be safely interpreted as benign. This has engendered a false sense of security because there is evidence that doctors fail to recognise presentations of some nasty diseases.

Innovators in medicine have been focused on this problem for some time. For example a research team reported in 2009 that skin cancer was much easier to diagnose with the aid of a handheld device that draws attention to cancerous changes. The problem however is that doctors need to attend a course on dermatology and take an exam before it is safe to let them lose on people with the instrument. The published report was upbeat despite the fact that one in three doctors didn’t complete the required training. The outcome of this research (and many other research programs funded using millions in taxpayer dollars), was an academic paper that will never impact on the early diagnosis of the disease.

Less than five years later some of the same team were back to test a simpler device but with a similar requirement for education of doctors before successful deployment. The negative results were hardly surprising. The team concluded that cancer was more likely to be diagnosed early if doctors followed guidelines.

History has taught us that just because an intervention may be of benefit to patients, that doesn’t mean it is likely to be embraced by overburdened care providers trying to earn a living. The most successful innovators understand the need to tailor interventions to meet the needs of both the health professional and her patient. They realise that tools that are inconvenient or cumbersome are doomed to novelty status.

Committees that determine which ideas are worthy often deny the lessons of agile, intuitive, creative and effective innovations. These are more likely to be reliable, developed relatively cheaply and don’t need an instruction manual.
How hard is it to adopt your innovative ideas in practice?

Seven trends influencing lean medical innovation

Innovators recognise that the their circle of influence is contingent on an awareness of their customers’ world view. Seven trends now impact on whether people are likely to welcome innovation into their lives.

Mobile communication

For many people mobile phones have replaced their wrist watch, camera and PDA. Phones are now used not only to keep in touch but also to access information with two taps. This is achieved on a ubiquitous device that is getting cheaper and more portable. An allied trend is for tablet computers that are little bigger than a phone to obviate the need for a laptop.

Testophilia

People now demand validity for professional advice that until recently was accepted as gospel because an authority figure proffered it as the truth. This means that you no longer trust me simply because I am a doctor. What’s more people want the results of medical tests in a format that makes sense to them regardless of their ability to digest complex information .

Quantified self

There is an increasing desire to measure and record whatever can be measured as if that in itself will be enough to influence our behaviour. Everything from blood pressure to how much we sleep. Quite what people are doing with all this information is a matter of debate but people are seeking ways to access this information.

Information overload

Because of the almost unlimited source of information at their fingertips people are actively filtering data. A quick Google search for ‘best diet’ revealed 625 million results with page upon page of conflicting and confusing advice. On the one hand you could opt for intermittent dieting or you could take the advice to ditch the diet altogether. As I hold the view that it has to be proved scientifically before it can be deemed true I more or less ignored (i.e. didn’t read) anything that didn’t appear to conform to my own worldview for valid and reliable advice.

Dr. Google.

Concerned people want relief from the outpouring of adrenalin with its unpleasant physical effects. In a Googlised world iving with uncertainty is regarded as unnecessary. This means as a clinician you have to assume people will have done some homework before they speak with you. Either what you say will resonate with their ‘ informed opinion’ or your advice will be rejected unless you are able to say or do something that changes how they feel about their problem and or the treatment.

Commercialisation

The cost of staying healthy increases every year . In Australia the cost of attending a doctor have fast outstripped the rate of inflation. As we age and need more maintenance we will either spend a greater proportion of our income on medicines or look for cheaper alternatives. There is now a compelling business case for marketing cheaper and more effective ways to deal with health problems that until recently required doctors’ appointments.

Want it now

Anyone living with a teenager knows that they no longer accept the wait for Christmas. If you want it, there must be a quick, cheap and immediate way to get it, preferably delivered to your door with a money back guarantee. Therefore speed of delivery is necessary, but not sufficient for success. Innovations that do what they say on the tin, at a reasonable price and come with excellent after sales service are almost guaranteed a bright future.

Lean medicine is about working in a world that has an insatiable appetite for quick, convenient, cheap solutions. The seven trends outlined here have a significant impact on the diffusion of innovation in healthcare. How have they impacted on the success of your ideas?

The anatomy of research funding

Agile, intuitive, creative and cost effective solutions must also be tested to objectively demonstrate that they work. However seasoned medical innovators recognise that most research grant applications will fail. It has also been demonstrated that many funded medical research projects fail to deliver anything of real value or to solve the problem they set out to address. While no reasonable person would expect every attempt at problem solving to succeed, it’s clear that winning a grant is no guarantee that you’ve got a winning idea on your hands. Far from it.

The anatomy of a grant application is a pyramidal structure. At the base is months of preparation, team building, strategising and review of what has already been done in that field. Conservatively grant writing takes twelve to eighteen months. Applicants consider who might be reviewing the application. Not only what organisation, but what individuals might be involved. Their likes, dislikes and prejudices. This is no different from any commercial business venture, the pitch has to take account of the competition and the people who make decisions about the future of the idea in order to have the best chance of succeeding.

What is thought to be appropriate might be based on what the grant committee is familiar with. No point proposing to demonstrate that stomach ulcers are caused by bacteria when a committee knows that they are caused by stress. When distributing limited resources risk must be reduced. In these circumstances it feels safer not to encourage innovation. Paradoxically a system that should foster innovation often ends up backing what’s already established.

Once funded, the project must be completed. Most timelines from funding to completion are between eighteen months and three years. Often at this stage the team is smaller to comply with the budget constraints from the funder. The team will produce a report and draft papers for publication in peer reviewed journals.

The publication process involves negotiating another committee. The goal is to enlighten and inform people who may think they already know the answer to the question you are addressing. What’s more, there is a significant risk that if you say things that are unfamiliar, or propose an idea that goes against the conventional wisdom you may be asked to tone it down, or discover that the journal ‘receives far more papers than they are able to publish’. Successful publication can take a year or even longer.

The grant based research model is not designed to produce agile, intuitive, creative and cost effective solutions. I’m sure that this isn’t unique to medicine.

How do you generate and then demonstrate the validity of solutions in your field?

Which ideas would never have seen the light of day if innovators were not tenacious and inspired leaders?

What problems have you identified and how have you negotiated with people who think they already know the solution, or those who feel they might somehow lose from your ideas?

Is it possible to be innovative in a world where convention and process trumps problem solving and agility?

And in a world of shrinking budgets isn’t it time that we reviewed the opportunity cost of this process?

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?

You don’t need permission to begin innovating

imageLast weekend I spent four hours in the air sitting bolt upright crammed next to a fidget on a budget airline. The plane was full of sunburnt youngsters flying back from Bali. Years from now they’ll turn up at the doctors convinced that a mole has changed. Sadly malignant melanoma is the commonest malignancy in this part of the world.

Maybe much sooner they’ll be worried that the insect bite on their shoulders is infected. Spots, sores, moles if I had a cent every time someone wanted reassurance about one of those I’d be doing well. I’m sure many of my colleagues would agree that it would be great to have a reliable way to keep an eye on skin lesions that change when the doctor isn’t there to inspect them. It’s also hard to look between your shoulder blades. On the other hand the doctor in me wouldn’t want you to use your phone to make a diagnosis, it has been shown that technology can’t do better than a doctor with a good eye. Nonetheless we need something to track changes in our skin, to alert us if things aren’t looking the same. It would also we helpful to have a record of lesion changes to show when we turn up at the clinic.

Taking photos on a smart phone might help but tracking symptoms and measuring changes in the appearance of something that might need to be removed is a good idea. iMockApp is a free app that enables anyone to create wireframes. I used it on my iPad mini (on that flight from Bali) to develop the idea for an app that could monitor skin lesions. Of course it would need a lot more work before it was made available to the public, but it was a start and spending time on the idea stopped me reaching across to strangle my fellow passenger who had just managed to punch me, accidentally I think, in the side.

The point is that as an innovator you are rarely without the tools to create—diaries, iPads, laptops, note books, napkins, pens, pencils, whatever. You don’t need a whiteboard, a ‘team’, a budget, grant or a mandate from the ‘boss’ to create something new. The world appears divided into two simple typologies- creators and consumers. Will you wait for someone to give you the permission to innovate, or have you taken out pen and paper and begun sketching your design already?

Symptom or disease? The four circle rule.

Four Circles for innovators in Lean Medicine
Four Circles for innovators in Lean Medicine
Most people with symptoms don’t seek medical advice. Those who choose to make an appointment with a doctor are more likely to have a disease and those who are referred to a hospital specialist are even more likely to have pathology. Lean medicine takes account of Bayes’ theorem that demonstrates this simple truth mathematically.

I like to think of it as ‘the four circles rule’.
This schematic tells us that many people with pathology do not seek medical advice and some don’t even have symptoms. It also tells us that doctors have to find those with pathology from among the many who do seek their advice. Often patients present with a host of problems, so that the four circles become 8, 12, 16 or even 20 different circles, one set for each condition.

My team have applied this principle to study people with bowel symptoms. It is a fact that most people with bowel symptoms do not have pathology, or at least not cancer. Epidemiologists have identified groups of symptoms which when they occur together are most likely to signify pathology. This isn’t always reliable and there are lots of false positives, leading to anxiety among the worried well. On the other hand it is also true that people with pathology may or may not seek medical advice. The latter is especially true of men who find discussing their bowels embarrassing. Sometimes so much so that they don’t mention the diarrhoea or rectal bleeding to anyone, least of all their doctor. The consequences are that in some cases they delay seeking help for potentially life limiting disease until it is too late for curative treatment.

We also know that colorectal cancer is diagnosed in most cases only after the patient has developed symptoms and sought medical advice. Only a minority of cases are diagnosed from among those with no symptoms who have been screened for the disease. Whatever the case the sooner a diagnosis is made the better the chances of successful treatment. Because the symptoms can be so embarrassing and to some extent because some men procrastinate with seeking advice colorectal cancer has a worse prognosis in men.

It’s in situations like these that innovations which are low cost, personalised and offer creative solutions to healthcare problems come into their own. The focus could be to provide opportunities for as many people as possible to get convenient, reliable, personalised information in privacy without necessarily going to a doctor. What’s more such an innovation needs to make life easier for the practitioner and the patient.