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It is time for primary care to enter the triggering business

It has been suggested, some would say demonstrated that doctors know very little about their patients. If you are a doctor could you identify your patient’s partner from a line-up of strangers (other than people you see as a couple)?  Or could you tell without seeing the name on the document if this bank statement belonged to that patient? Or whether that utility bill was from where that person lives? Is this internet search history theirs? Do you know how much they spend on lottery tickets? Alcohol? Vegetables?

A few years ago our team then based in the UK was evaluating an intervention to increase access to general practitioners. If the intervention worked we would have to demonstrate improvement over the course of a whole year. Here’s the thing, we noted that year after year there was a pattern to the demand for same day (emergency) appointments- with definite peaks and troughs. So if the intervention worked it would have to be sustained during both the peaks and the troughs. It did. The data on out-of-hours services exhibited very similar patterns- with definite peaks and troughs and at unexpected times of the year. We could not explain the patterns but noted that when the meteorological office recorded  22 hours or more of sunshine in the week the demand for appointments dropped. Not the prevalence of viral or other community pathogens but sunshine of all things! Okay may it was some factor that we hadn’t modelled in the analysis but there was a definite pattern that we could not immediately explain on the basis of what seemed plausible at the time. We called it the Spring Cleaning Effect– we hypothesised that people in the UK were less likely to attend doctors in general practice when there was a run of sunny days on which to do outdoorsy things. We didn’t anticipate this- nor did clinic managers because the patterns of demand were not used to inform the scheduling of doctors’ on-call rosters. It was clear that they were blind to a phenomenon nobody understood fully.

More recently I reviewed some data on certification for low back pain and noted the pattern that as unemployment rates in a locality increased the rates of certification dropped and then plateaued.

Our team is now investigating similar data from a large employers’ records. We hypothesise that rates of submission of sickness certification will show a sharp drop when vacancy rates fall and other markers of economic health decline. People may be far less likely to take time off sick if they are fearful of upsetting their supervisor. With respect to primary care, it is unlikely that doctors will know everything that impacts on their patient’s choices. Time spent with the patient in discovering these things is unlikely to increase as it comes at a financial cost. Therefore doctors will never fully anticipate all the drivers to patient behaviour. Why does that obese person fail to take action on weight management? Why does this other person take ‘medication holidays’ when they need to take the treatment consistently to benefit? Why does the next person refuse to have an X-ray? Why is there a rush of people with relatively minor conditions demanding appointments this week and not last?

Some drivers lead people to behave in unexpected ways as I have commented here previously. Not only that but as Mullainathan and Shafir have postulated people are often unable or perhaps unwilling to follow doctor’s advice. In the end, the best we can hope is to trigger the relevant behaviour in people who are already motivated and seek teachable moments to inspire people to act for their benefit. Primary care may be more about recognising or fishing for opportunities and much less ‘educating’ for change. Such triggers need to fit within the final moments of a 15-minute consult. The work to develop and evaluate such triggers is only beginning. Counselling patients to stop smoking will yield 1:20 quits in a year, showing them a trigger (in less than 5 minutes) that appeals to their vanity results in 1:7 quits. A substantial number (1:5) of obese people will lose weight in 6 months if they are shown what difference that would make to their appearance without having to be extensively counselled on diet and exercise.

Picture by Aimee Rivers

Does encyclopaedic technical knowledge make a doctor?

Life as a clinician is challenging.  Hours are long and resources limited. People may not be helpful, not even the ones who are supposed to be working with you or even for you. There maybe joy but there will also be sadness and even anger. You can expect to feel tired. You may be concerned and even confused. Occasionally you will be very intuitive but just as often you can expect to be wrong. However, you cannot let any of that have an impact on the care provided to patients. And yet each day clinicians respond as if none of this is ‘fair’ and should not be so.

The practice of medicine is more than a technical science. Medicine requires a great sense of personal mastery. An uncommon mastery in which the doctor is resilient and resourceful. Do we prepare young people for such a life?

This week after 30 years I stepped into one of the rooms now decommissioned but where I once spent my teens learning anatomy. It was a core part of that school’s curriculum, the only subject in clinical medicine that was introduced within the first year of a six-year course. The author of one of the seminal texts taught there. His dissections were legendary and the specimens are still preserved to perfection. I reflected on whether the experience of being taught by his protege prepared me in any way for the subsequent years in practice. Did my encyclopaedic knowledge of how the body is constructed allow me to better handle the following years in clinical practice?  By comparison, we learned relatively little about what drives people to make decisions that make no sense. And yet over the 30 years, I have practised medicine it has been more often problematic knowing how to handle someone whose choices will lead to self-destruction than working out exactly which nerve is responsible for the numbness of a portion of his thigh.

Picture by Rosebud23

Deploy rituals and be present in practice

Your next patient or client will want you to:

  • Smile (23.2%);
  • Be friendly, personable, polite, respectful (19.2%);
  • Be attentive and calm, make the patient feel like a priority (16.4%);
  • and make eye contact (13.0%).

(An Evidence-Based Perspective on Greetings in Medical Encounters- Arch Intern Med)

Showing up this way for every patient has to be a habit. Essentially you need to be “present or “mindful”. The issue of mindful practice has also been the focus of academic interest:

In 2008, the authors conducted in-depth, semistructured interviews with primary care physicians .. mindfulness skills improved the participants’ ability to be attentive and listen deeply to patients’ concerns, respond to patients more effectively, and develop adaptive reserve. Academic Medicine.

To make a habit of showing up in this way it may be worth considering deploying a ritual.

Hurdler Michelle Jenneke has her famous warm-up dance, long-jumper Fabrice Lapierre competes with a gold chain in his mouth, Usain Bolt points to the sky before breaking yet another world record, while Michael Phelps blasts Eminem to fire him up before hitting the pool. My body+soul

Consider the distinction between a habit and a ritual:

Habit

An acquired behavior pattern regularly followed until it has become almost involuntary: the habit of looking both ways before crossing the street.

Ritual

An act or series of acts regularly repeated in a set precise manner.

Rituals support habit and focus. Rituals support you to repeat habits and create new behaviour patterns over time. Daily rituals can support you to make new habits stick. You can move from doing something that might take a lot of effort, to it becoming almost automatic or done unconsciously. Mary- Ann Webb

Establishing a ritual can be the prelude to a habit.

The term ritual refers to a type of expressive, symbolic activity constructed of multiple behaviors that occur in a fixed, episodic sequence, and that tend to be repeated over time. Ritual behavior is dramatically scripted and acted out and is performed with formality, seriousness, and inner intensity. Rook, Dennis W. (1985), “The Ritual Dimension of Consumer Behavior,” Journal of Consumer Research, 12 (December), 251-264.

The pathway goes from behaviour, to ritual and then to habit. Charles Duhigg  spoke of the ‘habit loop’.This loop has three components:

  • The Cue: This is the trigger that tells your brain to go into automatic mode and which habit to use.
  • The Routine: This is the behaviour itself. This can be an emotional, mental or physical behaviour.
  • The Reward: This is the reason you’re motivated to do the behaviour and a way your brain can encode the behaviour in your neurology, if it’s a repeated behaviour.

All habitual cues fit into one of five categories: location, time, emotional state, other people, and immediately preceding action. An immediately preceding action is the most stable cue because it’s triggered by an existing habit. So to build a new habit match it with an old habitual cue.

B.J. Fogg, asks:

“What does this behaviour most naturally follow?”

To implement this technique, decide on an existing habit and complete the following sentence:

“After I [EXISTING HABIT] I will immediately [NEW HABIT]”.

Therefore to make a habit of being present for the next patient the “cue” is when you terminate the previous consultation.

The “routine” or ritual: At the end of one consult you might close the notes, tidy your desk and wash your hands. Metaphorically you also wash the previous consult out of your mind. This has physical and psychological components.

Then when you are happy that the previous consult no longer lingers in your thoughts proceed to the next consult, stand in a specific spot, call the patient, introduce yourself and smile. Shake the patient’s hand. Walk with them to the consulting room. Don’t start the consult until you make eye contact. How the patient responds to such a greeting is the “reward“.

Picture by Rob Bertholf

Doctors need better tools to help people recognise danger

Doctors see it all the time. The fifty-year-old with a BMI of 28, the teenager who is developing a taste for cigarettes, the twenty-year-old who now binge drinks every weekend, the soon-to-be-mum who is ‘eating for two’. Small choices that may become habits and habits that lead to consequences. Where I work the average consultation is fifteen minutes. In that time we address whatever symptoms or problems have been tabled. The list may be long. Occasionally it’s possible to raise a topic that I’m worried about. The problem is the patient may not be worried about that issue.

Afterall doctor I don’t drink any more than my mates do or I don’t really eat that much.

What’s needed are tools that help frame the issue from the perspective of the patient, not the practitioner. Tools that help us address public health priorities that speak TO that person, not AT everyone. Before making any changes the person needs to agree that their choices might blight their hopes for the future. These are not inconsiderable challenges given the gloomy predictions for the future.

At the other end of the malnutrition scale, obesity is one of today’s most blatantly visible – yet most neglected – public health problems. Paradoxically coexisting with undernutrition, an escalating global epidemic of overweight and obesity – “globesity” – is taking over many parts of the world. If immediate action is not taken, millions will suffer from an array of serious health disorders. The World Health Organisation

Diabetes is likely to cement its place as the fastest growing epidemic in history. The Medical Journal of Australia

In addition, youthful drinking is associated with an increased likelihood of developing alcohol abuse or dependence later in life. Early intervention is essential to prevent the development of serious alcohol problems among youth between the ages of 12 and 20. NIH

Picture by Marcelo Nava

A small act that never goes unnoticed

Much can be said about the way we greet people. However nothing is more telling than the memory of the last time we were greeted when we were in need. Those who have travelled overseas know exactly what it’s like to be in an alien environment, where things are unfamiliar and a little threatening. Like pulling up at an immigration check point, passport in one hand and tired kids at your feet.

The one that sticks in mind was the experience at Italian passport control decades ago when we arrived in Rome with our then very young brood. The smartly dressed official eyed us all in turn from behind the tall counter, then made to count our children, smiled broadly at the parents, nodding as if in approval of the size of the family and waved us through. A charming start to the holiday. That was fifteen years ago and we still  talk about it.

Last week in Bali the receptionists stood up every time a guest passed the desk, bowed with hands clasped to heart smiling brightly. It set the tone for the whole day.

My favourite greeting is Malay.

“The traditional Malay handshake, known as ‘salam’, involves both parties extending their arms and clasping each other’s hand in a brief but firm grip,” advised Lew Wai Gin, the guest liaison manager at Tanjong Jara Resort. “The man can then offer either one or both hands, grasp his friend’s hands, and then bring a hand back to his chest, which means: ‘I greet you from my heart’.” Grantourismo

Having experienced the impact it has when I travel for work in that country it persuaded me that how we greet each other matters more than we might realise. It’s a small choice which costs nothing. In medicine the provider has the opportunity to set the tone for what follows which can be to agree or disagree, to give good or bad news. Whatever follows people remember the way they were made to feel when they were most vulnerable. They might even write about it decades later!

Picture by Ben Smith

Doctors get to choose so much of what matters

You choose what you wear. They own the building, they chose the furniture, they employed the staff, they chose the wallpaper, they decided the policies, they set the opening hours. But whoever ‘they’ are there are only two people in the consultation. You and the patient.

You choose:

  • Your mood today
  • If you shake the patient’s hand
  • If you introduce yourself
  • Where you sit in the room
  • Where you look
  • When you stop talking
  • Whether you examine the patient
  • What you think
  • What you say and how you say it
  • What you do
  • How you terminate the consultation

And the patient chooses whether they like it.

Guess what? You get to choose so much of what matters to the patient. Choose well. You can make a difference. Create a better future for everyone.

Picture by Gilbert Rodriguez

Much of what’s wrong with healthcare is in the consulting room

It’s not that complicated. Not really. So where do you look for pathology? Inspection, palpation, percussion and auscultation. How does it look, how does it feel, how does it sound and what do you hear when you know where to listen closely. I’m talking about healthcare. Take a helicopter ride through your business.

Access

What is the route to your service? Where is the delay? How long do people wait in the waiting room? How do you know? What do you know about the people who use your service even before they are seated in your waiting room?

Greeting

What happens when people call or arrive in person? What message is conveyed?

Welcome we’ll do our best to help you today OR you are lucky we are ‘fitting you in’.

Just stand there- I’m dealing with someone on the phone.

We have no time- go complain to the manager/politician/ bureaucrat-consider yourself drafted to the cause.

Hold the line. We are dealing with something far more important but your call is really important to us so just listen to how good we are as conveyed by our prerecorded message.

Associated with that is what is perceived about your attitude that is not verbalised?

Look at ALL these posters and the many ways you can be helping yourself instead of wasting our time.

People vomit and pee while they wait so the seats have to be cleaned with detergent. Plastic is the best option.

If you want a drink go buy one at a cafe.

We rely on donations for our toys and magazines- we don’t have to provide anything OK? Now if you don’t like the stuff just watch Dr. Phil.

What do you mean you have been waiting a couple of hours? This isn’t McDonalds now take a ticket, sit down, shut up and wait. And turn off your phone so you can hear the old lady at the desk who has an embarrassing problem.

Communication

How long is the meeting with the provider? How does that meeting unfold? What is conveyed during the meeting?

Welcome- I’m so sorry you are not well. Tell me what happened? OR I haven’t got long what do you want exactly, spit it out be quick about it I need to get on with the next guy. Didn’t you see the queue out there?

I’m the important one around here- you are lucky I’ve chosen to be here today. Let me tell you about my holiday, my kids, my new car. It’s fascinating really!

Room 5. Quickly. Never mind my name.

Test/ Referral and Prescription

What action is taken at the consult and are you confident that is the best possible action?

I don’t have time for talk- have this test and take another day off to see me next week.

I don’t have time for you to take off your umpteen layers- go have a scan.

The rep told me this works- I only have to write a script.

If you want to get better take my medicine/advice/ referral or get lost.

What medicine do you want? How do you spell that? Tell me slowly I’m writing it down on your script.

Outcome

What proportion of people takes your advice/medicine/test? How many people stopped smoking? How many were triggered to lose weight? How many are addicted to prescribed medicines? How many were prescribed treatment or tests that were not indicated? Where’s your data? What are your plans for dealing with this?

Team

To what extent can you say that when people transition to another healthcare professional either on site or elsewhere that the relevant information follows them? Is everyone on the same page with the same patient?

All of this matters. All of it. Some of you can fix tomorrow. No need to wait for another round of healthcare reform. No one said it was easy. And whatever their business the best don’t compromise.  A lot of what can be fixed in healthcare takes place behind the closed doors of the consulting room.

Picture by Daniele Oberti

We don’t have to agree but it doesn’t have to end in tears

I told him NO. You don’t need antibiotics you have a virus. Now leave.

This is the rather macho way in which the story of how a patient’s ‘unreasonable’ request was rejected is sometimes recounted. In some cases the law was changed to allow people to access some items much more readily:

In some countries, potent drugs are now losing their efficacy because of unregulated access. The stage is set for disagreement and inevitably it comes when the provider does not have a plan for how to tackle the request that is not in the patient’s best interest or does not address associated risks that patient is taking. Arguments might be even more common were it not for the evidence that healthcare providers sometimes act without assessing the requests fully. This makes matters worse because it raises unreasonable expectations. In one recent study it was reported:

In spite of the requirement that pharmacists sell restricted medicines, shoppers often found it difficult to distinguish pharmacists from other pharmacy staff. Shoppers were able to confirm that a pharmacist was definitely involved in only 46% of visits. In 8.8% of the diclofenac visits, and 10.8% of the visits for vaginal anti-fungals, no counselling was provided. The vaginal anti-fungal visits tended to be more product-focussed than the diclofenac visits. When they purchased diclofenac, most pharmacists asked shoppers if they had, or had had, stomach problems (74.6%) or asthma (65.4%). A minority asked about the symptoms of the vaginal fungal infection which the female shoppers presented with. While most pharmacies recorded patient names, many did so in a way which compromised patient confidentiality. Pharmacy World and Science

Similarly, it has been shown that performance varies in general practice:

In more than one-in-eight cases, the patient was not investigated or referred. Patient management varied significantly by cancer type (p<0.001). For two key reasons, colorectal cancer was the chosen referent category. First, it represents a prevalent type of cancer. Second, in this study, colorectal cancer symptoms were managed in a similar proportion of options—that is, prescription, referral or investigation. Compared with vignettes featuring colorectal cancer participants were less likely to manage breast, bladder, endometrial, and lung cancers with a ‘prescription only’ or ‘referral only’ option. They were less likely to manage prostate cancer with a ‘prescription only’, yet more likely to manage it with a ‘referral with investigation’. With regard to pancreatic and cervical cancers, participants were more likely to manage these with a ‘referral only’ or a ‘referral with investigation’. BMJ open

In summary:

  1. People often present with ideas that are at odds with those of the provider.
  2. The law sometimes enshrines the right to over the counter treatments that may not be indicated or may actually harm people.
  3. Patients are not appropriately assessed in all cases which mean they either acquire things that are not appropriate or denied things that are.

Once the decision is made to say no it isn’t always handled well. This has also been demonstrated in the literature. What has been published suggests that one of the most potent tools in the armory are good consultation skills. The more worrying issue is how this comes as news to some in a profession that pride itself on members’ ability to communicate. The bottom line is that any business that loses the relationship with its clients is heading for the rocks. Every business knows that there are polite ways to reject a customer. Therefore the answer to the question of whether and what to prescribe is a function of the consultation skills taught to every medical graduate. The issue at stake when things go wrong is how well those skills are being exercised. The quote at the top of this post suggests that some doctors need a refresher.

Picture by Jens Karlsson

The welcome rise of alternative providers

Two weeks ago an 80-year-old waited without food or drink for 14 hours in a Dublin city emergency department having fallen in her local supermarket. She was black and blue from head to toe a response to the call of gravity when she was launched off a faulty escalator. She was ‘triaged’ and seated next to drunken revelers who also managed to injure themselves on that fateful evening. She was seen for all of 10 minutes by a medical student and then briefly by a doctor who recorded that her visual acuity couldn’t be assessed because she didn’t have her glasses. With that, she was sent home with her granddaughter and asked to return a couple of days later when she again waited another 9 hours for a five-minute consultation presumably so that the doctor could make sure she hadn’t really injured herself and wasn’t going to sue the hospital as well as the supermarket.  I know this person and read the discharge summary even though her daughter and I live on the other side of the world. As far as we know the provider believes we should be thankful because they are very busy and at least ‘someone’ saw her.

What’s it like to be your patient?

  1. How long do your patients wait?
  2. How are they greeted on arrival and how do they feel about waiting?
  3. What do they do while they wait?
  4. How long do they see you on average?
  5. What do they expect from the visit?
  6. Why do you order tests? What difference do these tests make to the outcome?
  7. Why do you prescribe those drugs? How many people take them as prescribed?
  8. Why do you ask them to return for a review appointment?
  9. Why do your refer them to someone else?
  10. What do they tell their family about your service?

No business would survive without a handle on this information. Arguably some sectors of the business of healthcare only survive because of a monopoly.

A newer take on the organizational environment is the “Red Queen” theory, which highlights the relative nature of progress. The theory is borrowed from ecology’s Red Queen hypothesis that successful adaptation in one species is tantamount to a worsening environment for others, which must adapt in turn to cope with the new conditions. The theory’s name is inspired by the character in Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass who seems to be running but is staying on the same spot. In a 1996 paper, William Barnett describes Red Queen competition among organizations as a process of mutual learning. A company is forced by direct competition to improve its performance, in turn increasing the pressure on its rivals, thus creating a virtuous circle of learning and competition. Stanford Business

Certainly, the 80-year-old had no option but to go to a state hospital emergency department because there was a very real possibility that she had fractured something coming off that escalator. The hospital manager might say in her defense that they have no option but to offer the service as described, but where is the data to demonstrate that it is the lack of options rather than a lack of interest or talent in managing one of the most important services the state is charged by taxpayers to provide? The monopoly may be around a little longer when it comes to life-saving treatments but what about primary care? If this 80-year-old can wait 14 hours to be seen by a medical student there may be real scope for the service to be provided by someone who is qualified, will see her much sooner and offer her a cup of tea while she waits for the X-rays to be reported. What about the scope to provide better than what you offer?

Picture by Toms Baugis

No plan, no progress it’s a simple equation in healthcare

Every business manager can lay her hands on plans and policies and can probably recite the ‘vision statement’. I like the one for Lexmark printers because I think it works for healthcare clinics:

Customers for life. To earn our customers’ loyalty we must listen to them, anticipate their needs and act to create value in their eyes.

The manager’s shelves might house annual accounts, a policy for Human Resources,  a policy for health and safety, a policy for recruitment. The practice may have a chartered accountant, a registered financial advisor, a recruiter and an HR manager. Rarely if ever does a clinic have an appropriately qualified research consultant or a five year R&D plan or policy.

Therefore the manager relies on anecdotes and other people’s data to decide if the practice is delivering accessible and effective services. The practice relies on others to advocate for them and to defend the charges that are levied on their behalf. It’s all left to persons unknown in a far away bureaucracy.

The consumer relationship starts with the brand. Before you even meet the consumer, you must fully understand your brand. If you don’t know who you are as a brand, and what makes you different, better, and special, how do you expect a consumer to? You must clearly define a brand’s product benefits to set up more intimate, emotional bonds. It is these emotional bonds that will form the basis of a lasting consumer relationship. HBR

If you are a clinician in a practice what aspects of the practices’ vision are non-negotiable and how will you know if something is undermining that vision? How reliable and valid is your understanding of the following:

  1. What is the context in which the practice is located? What drives morbidity locally?
  2. How are people greeted at the practice? What do they notice about your premises?
  3. What is the commonest reason for attendance?
  4. How long is the average consultation?
  5. What is the outcome?
  6. How many people receive less than evidence based care? Why? What are the consequences?
  7. How many people take your advice? How many go elsewhere after coming to you?
  8. Which innovation is going to be introduced and tested in your practice in the next five years?
  9. What information will guide investment decisions in the practice?
  10. Are you participating in externally funded research? Why those projects and not others?

These questions are of great interest to the better companies. Companies that are ‘lovemarks’:

Lovemarks reach your heart as well as your mind, creating an intimate, emotional connection that you just can’t live without. Ever. Lovemarks

Never let innovation for a brand be something that happens randomly. It should fit strategically under the brand. At Beloved Brands, we believe the best brands build everything that touches the brand around a Big Idea, that guides the 5 magic moments to create a beloved brand, including the brand promise, brand story, innovation, purchase moment and the brand experience. beloved brands

If these issues are of interest to you I invite you to contact me to develop a plan for your practice.

Picture by UCL Mathematical and Physical Sciences