Tag Archives: connection

Minor illness a cash cow?

179335018_d96941d1af_oThis week the New York Times reported that Walmart intends to set up primary care clinics in their stores. According to the closing paragraph of the article:

“To make it profitable, you need to make it have more than just a clinical encounter,” said Dr. Glenn Hammack, the founding president and chief executive of NuPhysicia, which closed the six clinics it briefly ran in Walmart stores. “You also need to sell them prescriptions, a bag of chips, maybe a magazine while they’re waiting.”

The news was met with concern on this side of the world. Australians are all too aware that what starts in the US is a sign of things to come. There was talk of:

Dumbing down of general practice

Others thought that:

This change is coming. Patients want it. Government want it. Patients vote.

While the debate continues I was reminded of Joanne (not real name, nor actual details) who presented with her three little boys a few years ago. She looked exhausted and said she needed something to help her sleep. Before long I had to rescue one of the boys who had lodged himself under my desk. Meanwhile his brother, with Down’s syndrome, was climbing onto my desk to get at my key board and the youngest had crawled into the bin. Joanne was weary. I noted that she had been seen three times already in the last month and had been started on an antidepressant. There followed a long discussion about her migraine headaches. Her love of chocolate, her recent pregnancy, her need for better contraception given that she could no longer take the oral contraceptive. Then a discussion about life as a single mum. In time she become a bit more comfortable that I hadn’t yet reached for my prescription pad or interrupted her. She said something that didn’t fit the story of a single, stressed struggling mother- she told me:

And I get breathless on the slightest exertion and have lost quite a bit of weight.

Something wasn’t right. This did not fit the story. Anyone could see how she might be worn out by her situation, but this was something else. Her resting pulse was 120. She had lost several kilograms in the past few months and was not dieting. Despite the cold she was wearing a loosely fitting dress and sweating. A couple of urgent blood tests later we established the diagnosis. She saw an endocrinologist and when we met again she was feeling a bit better- except that she continued as the mother of three demanding young boys.

Joanne, and the many other Joannes, that attend general practitioners every day have no idea what’s wrong- only that there is something wrong. They want the time and space to tell their story to someone they trust. This isn’t going to happen at a supermarket fast-diagnosis clinic where the goal is to issue a prescription and making a sale. There is no such thing as a ‘quick consultation’ in the context of ‘minor illness’. Joanne would have left the surgery with a script for a hypnotic- she needs to sleep but what she needed more than that is to be seen and heard. The crunch often comes- as it did in this case when the patient is about to leave the room- the  ‘while I’m here doctor’ moment.  Perhaps someone with asthma might know they need an inhaler- but can we assume that someone with relatively minor symptoms would recognise that their tolerance to those symptoms was reduced by some other physical or psychological problem (pneumonia, exam stress, divorce, bullying) that warrants more than a quick trip to the pharmacy? It is assumed by some policy makers that doctors respond to disordered machines (mechanics), rather than to distress. It has long been established that:

 The overall prevalence of symptoms in the community is not closely related to general practice consultation rates, and the consulting population is a selected population of those who are in need of medical care. The literature review suggests that poor health status, social disadvantage, poor social support and inadequate coping strategies are associated with higher consultation rates. Some population sub groups may experience particular barriers to seeking care Campbell and Roland.

Does Australia have anything to fear from commercial organisations seeking to cash in on minor illness? Is it likely that it will reduce the demand for traditional GP appointments? I suspect not, if only because of Joanne. What we have learned about why people make appointments to see doctors is that they are far more discerning than we give them credit for. What for-profits will achieve is to rekindle the debate about whether people would be sufficiently enamored with a watered down version of a consultation with a general practitioner to walk away from the queue. Experiments in offering people alternatives to general practice in the UK were not successful. Renewed attempts to test the ‘market’ again will only delay a commitment to the only service that keeps the cost of health care under some sort of control- general practice.

Picture by Anne.

Sharing information with patients

Worldwide the incidence and prevalence of chronic and complex health conditions (diabetes, heart disease, cancer, dementia) are rising. Therefore more conversations between doctors and patients will focus on the need for long term medication. Anyone who has been practicing medicine for two decades or longer has noticed a change in patient expectations. Here’s someone who suffered a myocardial infarction(heart attack) five years ago:

I just don’t want to take statins at this dose for ever. The cardiologist isn’t happy. My cholesterol is 3.6mmol/l and he thinks it should be less than 2. He has prescribed the maximum dose of a statin and insists that if it damages my liver there are drugs they can give me to counteract that. Are you prepared to guarantee that I won’t suffer another heart attack? And what is the risk that I will suffer side effects from these drugs? Why don’t you give me the numbers and let me decide? It’s my body!

On the one hand:

5 years of [name] statin would prevent about 70-100 people per 1000 from suffering at least one of major vascular events (and longer treatment should produce further benefit). The size of the 5-year benefit depends chiefly on such individuals’ overall risk of major vascular events, rather than on their blood lipid concentrations alone. Heart Protection Study Collaborative Group.

The Number Needed to Treat (NNT) with any statin to prevent one case of cardiovascular disease over 5 years was 37 (95% CI 27 to 64) for women and and  33 (24 to 57)  for men. Joanne Foody

On the other hand:

Treatment of 255 patients with statins for 4 years resulted in one extra case of diabetes. Sattar et al.

In women, the Number Needed to Harm (NNH) for an additional case of acute renal failure over 5 years was 434 (284 to 783), of moderate or severe myopathy was 259 (186 to 375), of moderate or severe liver dysfunction was 136 (109 to 175) and of cataract was 33 (28 to 38). Overall, the NNHs and NNTs for men were similar to those for women except for myopathy where the NNH was 91 (74 to 112). Joanne Foody

The world it not black and white, drug treatment may be beneficial but not risk free. The patient reporting to me was unhappy that his cardiologist had dismissed his concerns as trivial. Of every 100 people at high risk of cardiovascular disease treated with statins over five years 2-3 might benefit, 97 may not and 2-3 will suffer harm. At the time of prescribing it is not possible (yet) to identify who will experience adverse effects. All that can be said is that the bigger the dose, the longer the duration the greater the risk of harm. For my patient the impact of a second myocardial infarction may be catastrophic, the side effects of statins are mostly reversible. As an alternative to drugs he could have considered lifestyle modification. He may benefit although he may also be aware that there is only equivocal evidence for modest reduction in risk of a subsequent myocardial infarction. Incidentally effectively promoting lifestyle change brings into play a host of other considerations:

Support from family and friends, transport and other costs, and beliefs about the causes of illness and lifestyle change. Depression and anxiety also appear to influence uptake as well as completion. Murray et al 

As health professionals we are obliged to find ways to relay information in digestible format and support people whatever they choose. In most cases the choices also have a downside. Much of what we can achieve to improve health is predicated on our ability to communicate effectively. That is not possible if we do not address the perspective of the person who has sought our advice. After all it is they who must pay for the drugs or it is they who have to change their eating habits. Meanwhile the next patient I saw was a young man with moderate acne. He had been started on oral Minocycline by another GP. He opened with:

I don’t like the idea of taking these drugs for months.

Denying people the feeling that someone cares

The conversation I overheard in my practice many years ago went something like this:

Jean, I’m sorry there are no appointments available until Friday. Has he got a fever? Try him with some paracetamol today and I’ll book him in for Friday afternoon. There’s a lot of this flu like thing going around school. Ok, see you Friday.

A receptionist was triaging my patients! Medical qualifications = nil. She looked up with a pained expression, she was carrying more responsibility than I paid her for. And yet it has long been recognised that:

Little difference was observed between the symptoms reported by patients to the physicians as compared to those received by the receptionist staff. Physicians are more likely to use the telephone contact to treat the patient’s complaint with home care advice or a prescription. Receptionists are more likely to use the telephone contact for scheduling an office visit. Fischer and Smith.

What we also don’t acknowledge is that receptionists take calls from their friends, neighbours and relatives. The callers may be worried, unwell, confused, frustrated, angry, grieving, embarrassed, lonely, sad, suicidal, dying or just simply unable to cope. We place them in a front line role in a system that is often over subscribed, under staffed and the first port of call for anyone who thinks they need medical attention. Sometimes receptionists undertake tasks that should be the preserve of someone with other qualifications! We expect the receptionist to be polite, courteous, discrete, sensitive, thoughtful, obliging and intuitive. If she, and it’s usually a she, gets it wrong the practice faces complaint or litigation and a very bad press. Employers have recognised the challenge inherent in the role, but in many parts of the world those who under take this work have no formal qualifications or appropriate training. This issue has received research attention but there are challenges to developing innovations to help reception staff to prioritise patients.

Where contamination of the study population is an early complication, no current gold standard exists to define safe triaging, contextual differences between practices lead to inter-practice variation, and proxy outcomes (improvement in receptionist response to written scenarios of varying urgency) are used. Hall et al
Can we really guide someone who isn’t a doctor, or have any medical qualification, to make appropriate decisions based on a telephone conversation about potential medical emergencies?  There was a recent report of a disastrous failure to appropriately sign post the parents of a very sick child which involved ‘suitably qualified’ people working to nationally accredited algorithms. The issue at heart is that there is a greater demand for access to medical practitioners than supply. In response to demand policy makers have promoted ways to limit or control access to that expertise. The temptation is to innovate for alternatives that don’t involve the doctor. Those who advocate for this approach may be failing to recognise that people in distress aren’t simply disordered machinery in need of a technical fix. They can’t be rescheduled like a car service. That doesn’t mean they need to see the doctor straight away but they do need to feel they have had that experience sooner rather later. People are hard wired to feel better after contact with a doctor- it’s fundamental to how medicine works. That was what we decided back then so we relieved our reception staff from having to determine who was ‘not urgent for today’ when our schedules were full- instead we, the doctors, spoke to the patient by telephone and if we were not absolutely sure we had enough information we saw the patient and we still reduced our workload by 40%. Innovating to ration access to the healer is a bad idea if only because we are deny people the feeling that someone cares. The cost of that loss of connection is a failure to fulfill our purpose in people’s lives.

 

Quantified self – the downside

The manufacturers of wearable health tech devices are set to make millions if not billions. Wearables are relatively cheap adjuncts to existing technology. But what difference will they make to the health and well being of the average user?  We have been offered a preview of what these devices can do- monitor your heart rate, blood pressure and blood glucose. Keep track of your respiratory rate, calorie expenditure and sleep patterns. Detect cardiac arrythmias and abnormal brain electrical activity. It sounds good, but so what? If you experience a significant drop or severe rise in blood pressure you are going to notice even before you check the readings- you will feel very unwell. Similarly low blood sugar and dysfunction of the respiratory or cardiac system. Do we really need our smartphone to tell us we aren’t taking enough exercise and eating too much? Or that it’s time to see a doctor urgently? I agree with Jay Parkinson:

The exclusive-to-human part of our brain evolved so we can be creative and manipulate the world around us so we can invent things like the iPhone. And now, the creators of the iPhone want to give us the tools we need to badly do what evolution solved for us hundreds of millions of years ago.

Here’s the problem with this technology in practice:

About 10 percent are “quantified selfers” with an affinity for this kind of feedback; just by looking at the numbers, they are motivated to be more active. An additional 20 percent to 30 percent need some encouragement in addition to tracker data to effectively change their behavior. Kamal Jethwani

Therefore the vast majority of people who buy a wearable device right now will not benefit from that purchase. Those who do, might be amenable to other interventions. Unfortunately much of the data is meaningless or has no impact on long term decisions about health and well being. Sure, a trend in high blood pressure over a few weeks might indicate a need for treatment but a single high reading might be an anomaly or simply confirm that you are excited. Worrying about every little bleep on the chart is not going to add to your quality of life but will detract from it. For a sustained and beneficial change in life style people need more than data. They need motivation and help to workout the benefits of making different choices. They need the undivided attention of a practitioner who understands their needs and assists with a bespoke plan.

Information that we need right now, which our built in human senses may not already have alerted us to is another issue; microscopic haematuria (blood in the urine) proteinuria (protein in the urine), faecal occult bleeding (blood in the faeces), raised intraoccular pressure (high pressure in the eye ball) and changes in moles, breast or testicles will prompt doctors to investigate for sinister causes. Investigations that might lead to the early diagnosis of some costly and treatable or life limiting condition. Acquiring this information doesn’t require you to wear a device continually for a year. The business case for manufacturing devices to do that isn’t as compelling because of a limited market. Enthusiasts for wearables argue that:

Studies are beginning that examine the data from wearables, which is much more granular data about human activity than scientists have been able to access previously. This will answer questions like: how much of an increase in activity, of what type (moderate or cardio-challenging) leads to what degree of health benefit? Todd Hixon

What we may also discover is that there are probably side effects associated with wearable devices. Psychological harm may be associated with prolonged and heightened anxiety and obsession with self. What we won’t discover (and this is a guess) is that there is a short cut to losing weight that doesn’t require any significant effort. We might also discover that there are limited indications for wearable devices and that the market for them is much smaller than we envisage. Parallels exist with some parts of the pharmaceutical industry which has begun to promote ‘illnesses’ that would benefit from it’s offerings. So called disease mongering. We may well find ourselves being circumspect about wearables in the way that we have misgivings about drugs:

…drugs approved for devastating illness, such as clinical depression, are indicated for milder conditions, such as shyness, which is now dubbed ‘social phobia’. Howard Wolinsky

Data is no more the answer to all problems than are drugs. The indications for collecting data have parallels with the indications for prescribing drugs and how and why that data is collected merits thought. Those who promote the use of wearables need to question a trend which isn’t without a downside.

Innovating locally

The foreign-looking chap in the baseball cap, the one wearing a pair of torn jeans and a singlet, the one on the mobile phone, sporting a dragon tatoo on this forearm might be a famous musician and the only son of a bedridden widow. But you’ve decided he is  probably a drug addict and treat him with suspicion and hostility. On the other hand the smartly dressed, attractive white woman carrying the brief case might be a drug dealer and you greet her with a welcoming smile. I was born of an ethnicity that wherever I have lived or worked people I meet for the first time assume things about me that are false, even laughable. Before I open my mouth, my students are invited to guess the nationality on my passport, the city where I was born and my first language. They mostly get it wrong. Therefore I do people the courtesy of not making assumptions. Often in medicine the doctor is the only person who will treat some people with respect in a day when they have to contend with lots of challenging behaviours, whether because of their appearance, their accent, their culture, the clothes they wear, their disability or their needs.

I should not have been surprised by research that suggests that doctors know very little about their patients. And least surprising was the finding:

Physicians were poorer judges of patients’ beliefs when patients were African-American (desire for partnership) (p=0.013), Hispanic (meaning) (p=0.075), or of a different race (sense of control) (p=0.024).

Street and Haidet

Could a doctor pick out a patient’s partner, whom they have never met from a police line up? Would they know what car that person drove? Would they have any idea what their patient had for breakfast? Where that person is planning to go on holiday ? What they wanted to be when they grew up? In many cases it doesn’t matter but as innovators we feel we are able to develop interventions that will make it more likely that those very people will comply with our prescriptions, give up smoking, eat more vegetables, wear a condom and monitor their chronic condition. Not all at once of course!

Technology now allows us to take a bird’s eye view of our practices. We record key parameters for people who attend our clinics- for example blood pressure, cholesterol and glycosylated haemoglobin and can link that to geographical data- demonstrating where our poorly controlled diabetics live. We might like to guess before we are presented with the data- I bet we would be way off the mark.

Then we can see if there is public transport to bring those people to the clinic. Where they buy their food. Whether there are open spaces and leisure centres within reach.  Could those people easily attend an optician or a podiatrist? Only then should we contemplate something locally that will make it more likely to improve outcomes. But only after we check our assumptions with the people for whom the innovation would be designed. This work has a local flavour- ineffective innovations are designed on a ‘one-size fits all’ model as if everyone lives in an affluent middle class neighbourhood and seek care at the convenience of the healthcare provider. To quote Idris Moottee:

The customer is King, Queen and Jack. Any innovation efforts will fail eventually if the end user is not driven to use your new product or service. Most consumers are intelligent and can contribute so much to the process. It is true that people can not always voice their needs and desires in a way that makes sense, but our job is find creative ways to understand their attitudes, values and behaviors and figure out how to include them in your innovation process.

Meanwhile my friend Alan Leeb noticed that people are wedded to their mobile phones and are likely to respond to an SMS from his practice. So now each time his nurse administers a vaccine, the practice sends them an SMS asking if they had any sort of adverse reaction. The practice is now able to monitor reactions to vaccines in real time, that means if there are severe reactions his practice will know within 24-48 hours, probably faster than any other agency. This information might just help to save lives in his practice but perhaps in yours too.

Innovating to save precious time

When I was at medical school Pendleton’s book on the consultation was required reading. Pendleton maintained that one of the tasks in the consultation was to consider ‘at-risk factors’. It’s one item on an otherwise long list of tasks to be completed. Today it is often the case  that a discussion of  those ‘at-risk factors’ take over the focus of the consultation. Doctors are urged, even rewarded for moving the agenda to- diet and exercise, responsible drinking, colorectal, breast and cervical screening, hypertension, safe sex….the list is endless. The impact of having the doctor’s agenda up front and central in the consult is what has been described as

High controlling behaviours.

Ong et al.

The resultant style of consultation is described thus:

It involves… asking many questions and interrupting frequently. This way the doctor keeps tight control over the interaction and does not let the patient speak at any length.

Recently medicolegal defense organisations have taken to issuing advice against this pointing out that when the patient does not feel they have been heard they are more likely to complain. Research has shown that patients don’t ask for much. They won’t take long to spit out the reason for their visit. In one study:

Mean spontaneous talking time was 92 seconds (SD 105 seconds; median 59 seconds;), and 78% (258) of patients had finished their initial statement in two minutes.

Langewitz et al.

Allowing the patient to speak first is a good start. Then how do we support practitioners to earn a living by also attending to those topics for which they must tick a funder’s check box? Tasks introduced by policy makers as if the primary care consultation was replete with redundant time. In some ways it’s like what happens when you buy a new television, it’s not long before the sales assistant wants to sell you insurance and other products- ‘just in case’ but really because their commission depends on it. What we need in medicine is to stop eating into the time it takes to explore a patient’s ideas, concerns and expectations, time needed to examine the patient and express empathy. We need cheap, agile, intuitive and creative solutions that will quickly offer the patient an indication of their risk from whatever the latest public health issue happens to be- smoking, influenza, prostate cancer…but also the benefits and why they might want to consider ‘taking the test’, accepting ‘the jab’, or changing the habit.  My colleague Oksana Burford invested three years testing one such innovation. What Oksana realised is that in the end it’s the patients choice and the key is to introduce the idea of change in a way that speaks to her but only when she is ready to hear the message.

The reasons why primary care is selected to relay public health messages is that people trust their health care provider and are more likely to comply if that practitioner recommends it. However that does not mean that we should assume the patient can only get the necessary information from one source. What the practitioner can do is sign post where that information can be found and effectively convey why the choice being recommended is better than the status quo. I recommend the food swap app– its downloaded free and saves a lot of time which can then be used to deal with the reason the person had come to see me in the first place. There is lots of room for innovation but it should meet the needs of the patient and the practitioner.

Managing demand for primary care

Why do people consult doctors? At first glance because they feel unwell. However research suggests that the reasons are far more complex than that. Innovators also know that the answer to this question is vital for those seeking an agile, intuitive, creative and cheap solution to the demand for their services. Theories predict the consultation habits of many patients. I especially like this summary:

The overall prevalence of symptoms in the community is not closely related to general practice consultation rates, and the consulting population is a selected population of those who are in need of medical care. The literature reviewed suggests that poor health status, social disadvantage poor social support and inadequate coping strategies are associated with higher consultation rates. Some populations subgroups may experience particular barriers to seeking care. Campbell and Roland

Innovators might also ask why are those patients sitting in my waiting room? I remember a hoary old tale of a doctor who was feeling especially grumpy one day and stormed through the waiting room announcing that anyone who thought they had a ‘real’ problem should stay everyone else should go home- half the waiting room emptied.

It seems quite a few people who go to doctors will have symptoms- however a proportion will be back there by invitation. How big a proportion and why have they been invited back? There are many reasons to schedule a repeat appointment. It conveys the notion that the patient will be harmed if they don’t see a doctor on a given day for one or more of these reasons:

1. Their response to treatment is unpredictable and the dose or drug may need to be revised

2. They have a condition that can’t be diagnosed or may progress or need additional measures by a specified date

However other reasons for requesting a review include:

1. The doctor isn’t confident that the diagnosis is correct and wants a chance to review the advice issued.

2. The patient is required by someone (e.g. an employer) to produce evidence of a visit to a doctor

3. A full waiting room ensures the doctor looks busy for whatever other reason.

4. The doctor needs to reinforce the impression that the condition has been taken seriously.

The time cost for doing everything that could possibly be recommended for patients with chronic conditions  has been shown to be untenable. Either the guidelines are wrong or a different solution needs to be found for at least some of these people. What is the evidence for asking a patient to return within a week or two with a specific new condition and within a month with a longstanding condition?

There is a need to be proactive in some cases. However is it possible that we encourage people to attend for review appointments when there is a low probability that they will benefit? Are there other reasons to fill the waiting room?

The most successful health innovation ever

What medical innovation is:

1. Available worldwide
2. More likely to yield a diagnosis than an X-ray
3. Cheaper than the cheapest stethoscope
4. Requires less training to operate than a tendon hammer?

Answer: A tongue depressor

Why? Because when deployed within the context of a medical consultation- when the practitioner gives the patient their undivided attention, the tongue depressor forges a relationship that may lead the patient to express their deepest concerns. In what other social context can you shove a piece of wood into someones open mouth and get them to say ahhh? A few years ago I consulted a fifty year old mother of five, working as a supermarket check out assistant complaining of a sore throat. We talked about how awful she felt and how she was struggling to cope with her job, how she gets frequent bouts of tonsillitis and how she was afraid her boss would sack her. She had a mildly red throat and I thought I could feel a couple of tender lymphnodes in her neck but her temperature was normal and I remember thinking I’d seen worse earlier that day. Then as I turned around to write a prescription she burst into tears and said-

‘There’s something else I need to tell you doctor. I’m now working as a prostitute because for the first time in ten years I haven’t been able to afford my kids school books.’

That was not what I expected to hear, or anything they told me at medical school could result from examining a throat. That consultation took a very different direction, she was screened for other infections and was fortunately negative. We then talked about her dilemma and she decided there may be better ways to furnish her kids with what they needed for school.

There is very little evidence that the appearance of the throat aids the diagnosis in most cases- even a viral sore throat can mimic a bacterial infection. In any case in developed economies penicillin does not help the patients recover much quicker. However, anyone with a sore throat who consults a doctor expects to be examined. Besides why do people seek medical advice about pharyngitis? It is common knowledge that in most cases a couple of paracetamol, fluids and rest is the only effective treatment. In many cases people are expressing concern about some other aspect of their life when they present with minor self limiting illness. What people say, if you are receptive is

‘I’m unhappy, I’m worried, I’m bored, I’m feeling guilty, I’m tired or I’m not coping and this discomfort is the last straw.’

That’s one of the myriad of reasons that general practice is the most challenging medical specialty, nothing is necessarily what it seems at first glance.

Innovations don’t need to be high tech or expensive- a tongue depressor costs 13 cents. That doesn’t mean that in the right hands such simple equipment is not extraordinarily powerful. There are tools we seldom do without- a stethoscope is vital and not only because of what we can hear when we put it to the chest.

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