If your fix only works if people choose option A abandon it

There is an obsession with getting clinicians to ‘follow guidelines’. There are those in the world who appear to believe with an evangelical zeal that ‘if only’ people over there would do as we tell them everything would be fine. They rely on the questionable assumption that human behaviour is always rational.

If only doctors would refer those people or prescribe that drug in this instance. If only doctors ordered this or that test in these circumstances. If only this or that which relies upon someone making choices that solve somebody else’s problem.  And so as conference season approaches academics will share stories about experiments that all too predictably didn’t end well. Or pretend that they have finally solved a problem that no one in history could sort out. Except that neither have they.

Because access to specialists is limited by cost there is a belief that family doctors can ration care by referring urgently only those cases that ‘merit’ referral based on criteria determined by ‘experts’. Cancer is a case in point. Except that ‘cancer’ is not a single condition, its biology varies as do the complex responses of its victims. General Practitioners (GPs) know this. A patient can present with hardly any symptoms and die of metastatic cancer within 3 months or present with a plethora of complaints and be diagnosed with a very early and treatable malignancy.

The ‘solution’ to selecting people considered to be at high risk for referral to a specialist appeared to be an interactive referral tool that automatically deploys algorithms based on guidelines. This ‘solution’ relies on GPs recognising anyone who presents with ‘red flag’ symptoms, deploying the software and patients being prioritised once an urgent referral is received at the hospital. The solution is based on the assumption that if one person in the chain does X then the people in the other part of the system would do Y and the outcome would be Z. Maybe you can already see it wasn’t going to end well.

  1. GPs did not always recognise the symptom complexes that were touted as the hallmarks of risk.BMJ open
  2. GPs were reticent to deploy the software other than in the conditions of a simulation. BMC Family Practice
  3. Specialists did not prioritise those cases that guidelines identified as urgent. BJGP

There is also limited evidence that people referred with reference to such criteria are always going to have better outcomes.

Here’s the thing:

  1. Diseases like cancer have a different impact on everyone
  2. People with cancer don’t present the same way
  3. Doctors may not agree with the experts
  4. Doctors may choose not to deploy an innovation for reasons various
  5. The ‘system’ consists of many moving parts. Supposing there were seven such parts. If the ‘right thing’ was to occur 80% of the time at each step then only 21% of people would benefit from the ‘plan’. Glasziou and Haynes

In the innovation business solutions cannot rely on the ‘if only’ option. Effective innovations trigger people to do what they already want to do. The best innovators work on solutions that are easily and enthusiastically adopted by their target audience.

Picture by Jurgen Appelo

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