Tag Archives: Disease

Create your own working conditions or deal with the headaches

It was Friday morning. S/he looked well so I was surprised when s/he said:

I woke up with a headache this morning. I’ve taken paracetamol. I feel a bit better but I couldn’t go to work this morning.

What do you do for a living? I asked. Insert into his /her response:

Teacher/nurse/social worker/call centre operator/forklift driver

Is it busy just now? I asked. Wondering how his/ her boss would take the news of this absence. The smile slipped.

It’s been terrible this year. Lots of demanding (patients/ clients/ kids/shifts).

Then- tears.

I’ve got to hold it together. I’m only six months away from ( holiday/ long service leave/ wedding/ boss leaving)

Is this sustainable? Really?

How much time do you spend on things that are either distractions (not-urgent or important) or someone else’s emergency (urgent /not important)? How much time do you spend on the most valuable quadrant not urgent and important? Why are you always fire fighting (urgent and important) ? Icon made by Ocha from www.flaticon.com

What are you doing during the most productive time of the day? What do you focus on first in the morning? When you are fresh and rested? What are you leaving till later when you should be heading home? Icon made by Freepik from www.flaticon.com


It’s your responsibility to set limits to your accessibility. If your boss wants you to do this then s/he doesn’t expect you to do the other.  Are you sure you clarified the situation? YOU have created these unreasonable expectations because the word ‘no’ isn’t in your vocabulary. Icon made by Freepik from www.flaticon.com


Finally how much energy, stamina, good will or creativity is left in the tank? There is a limit- even for you. Icon made by Freepik from www.flaticon.com

You are not exempt even if you are a doctor. If you don’t create the life you want then one will be created for you. And it might just give you a headache. You have some thinking to do while you nurse that headache.

Picture by Kulucphr

Rehearse a plan for best care

It was a Saturday morning. Michael (43) popped in to get the results of his test as requested by the message left on his phone. He was told that the doctor who ordered the test wasn’t on duty that day so he asked to see whoever was available. That’s how I came to be involved.

From the records it wasn’t clear why the cortisol assay had been requested along with a battery of other tests all of which were normal. All the man could tell me is that he had asked for the test because:

It might explain a lot.

We had to start again. He was tired. He was stressed. He was working long hours at two jobs to pay a mortgage and service his debts. He had three young children and had been on antidepressants on and off for years. He wasn’t taking any tablets at the time. Didn’t smoke or drink. He was attending a counsellor.

There must be a reason I’m feeling so tired.

There was no obvious explanation for the borderline low result. Physical examination was entirely normal. No recent change in weight, normal blood pressure and no hint of major depression. No history of tuberculosis. No evidence of Addison’s disease.

I thought the ‘cortisol’ levels would be high I’m under a lot of stress.

We could now be on the way to more tests to determine what I suspected would be the final outcome that there would be no explanation. Life can cause people to feel this way with multiple physical symptoms including dysphoria, fatigue, insomnia, sexual dysfunction, weight changes and anxiety. Reasons may include poor choice of occupation, poor choice of partner, poor money management, poor time management, poor parenting. All of these can be associated with unfulfilling social interactions and or job dissatisfaction. Poor coping mechanisms then lead to physical sequela. People can be trapped in a spiral of increasing adverse consequences until lessons are learned and either alternative choices are forced upon them or circumstances conspire to offer the opportunity to start again.

People may not be ready to face their demons and that means they will ask to go searching for something more palatable than a need for a education,  honesty, economy or help.

As for doctors ordering tests could add to the complexity of the situation. Rare causes of fatigue are legion.  However typically people will ask if their fatigue is caused by some malfunction of their ‘hormones’ or if they are anaemic or diabetic.

In the case above there was no hint in the records what the patient had been told to expect after the test. His understanding of hormones was not recorded. He had read that cortisol is related to stress but not what the results might mean.

Because of the very low prevalence of pathology the Positive Predictive Value of ‘abnormal’ tests for middle aged patient without any positive history or examination findings is low for example:

Therefore the probability that one simple test will make the diagnosis is unlikely. People will need multiple tests and possibly a referral to a specialist once we embark on the hunt for the elusive physical cause. The likelihood of finding one when the patient doesn’t have any physical signs is vanishingly low. In sporting terms what’s needed is a set play. The question can be anticipated and the response to the initial request for tests needs to be crafted in advance. There is no better start then taking a full history and examining the patient before looking for the needle in the haystack.

Picture by Henti Smith

Age, occupation and prognosis may filter what the patient hears


I’m booked in for a check up tomorrow with the doctor who looked after me and called the ambulance so I can thank her in person. My bike doesn’t seem to have a scratch! Tony and Wayne

The experience of an illness, accident or emergency can heighten the trust in a medical practitioner. Primary prevention is more problematic.  People who are asymptomatic and being urged to alter their lifestyle or take antihypertensives may be more dubious:

Well I mean would you trust them with your life? Or would you trust them you know, when you’ve got a bit of a cough? You know, there’s a bit of a difference. You can trust somebody to take a splinter out or whatever but ah, I mean, even if you’ve made some sensible comments, if you’re going to start playing around with anything serious, you know, brain or the heart or whatever, you’d like to know a bit more about it—you’d like to see him in action and…Meyer et al

Three factors appear to influence the attitude; age, socioeconomic status (SES) and prognosis. Our research was conducted with reference to cardiovascular disease. Generalisations in medicine are not safe however these data offered some helpful pointers.

Older patients, lower SES patients and patients with established pathology are more likely to trust, and are less likely to question medical advice. Meyer et al

Our research also suggests that:

Participants who perceived themselves at risk of a poor or uncertain outcome were unlikely to express doubts about medical advice. Meyer et al

Therefore, context is critical when crafting an approach to the patient. Does the patient wish to be involved in decision making or would your presentation of multiple options with the relevant probabilities for each outcome make a bad situation worse? At a time when there is a push towards ‘patient self-management,’ the data suggests that some patients prefer a traditional approach with the doctor recommending a treatment modality. Older people in deprived areas top the list, the demographic that is at highest risk of chronic and complex health conditions. Unfortunately getting this wrong when the patient wants to be more involved may destroy the relationship between patient and clinician.

…he’s always explained—look whatever I’ve gone to see him for he’s explained, he’s gone into details. He, he doesn’t write anything off without doing tests for, for further examinations—whatever. And through the process of elimination as opposed to my previous GP who had the approach of, ‘ah it’s nothing—you’ll be alright’. Meyer et al

We need to understand the business of doctoring as an integral part of designing solutions aiming to optimise patient experience. We need doctors to step up as codesigners. Treatment is often determined locally within the appropriate context rather than a one-size-fits-all. The solution to healthcare challenges starts with having a good General Practitioner whose work is supported by good research in primary care.

Picture by Tony and Wayne

The case for shared care

People are uncomfortable, if not alarmed, when the behaviour of someone they live with suddenly becomes ‘deviant’, ‘offensive’ or embarrassing; Grandfather becomes disinhibited, son becomes violent, wife starts shoplifting, daughter steals money from home. The unfamiliar moves us out of our comfort zone and we start to question the future, often catastrophising. Many chronic medical conditions result in behavioural changes. People hope that there is something that can be done to remedy the situation quickly so one of the first steps is to seek medical advice. It may be that the person has one of a host of acute or chronic conditions including life limiting pathology; Depression,  psychosis, dementia, substance abuse or cancer. The reaction to the behaviour may also result from misinterpretation or the complainant may be the one with the problem or feel stigmatised by the experience. Once an explanation is found it is often the case that medicine could make things worse- prescriptions, hospitalisation and tests may be harmful. There is also a risk of medicalising the problem as noted by Dworkin.

In the past, medical science cared for the mentally ill, while everyday unhappiness was left to the religious spiritual or other cultural guides. Now, medical science is moving beyond its traditional border to help people who are bored, sad or experiencing low self esteem- in other words people who are suffering from nothing more than life.

Nonetheless people seek help from doctors and there is great scope to assist by sharing care with others who may be able to help with a problem for which there is no pill and people have to revise their ideas, concerns and expectations. It may be that doctors are reluctant to engage people in these circumstances because they do not perceive that they have the resources or expertise to assist with what they consider outside their sphere of influence. Nonetheless people will continue to expect assistance. Epidemiology records that the rates of chronic and complex conditions are set to rise almost exponentially as the population ages and suffers the pathological consequences of poor life style choices. At the same time the cost of healthcare is increasing to the extent that services may be rationed. Already in Australia, even with a relatively healthy economy, the government is proposing cuts to healthcare expenditure. Meanwhile the number of people living with a family member who has a condition where behavioural changes are possible, if not likely, will increase. For instance the prevalence of dementia in Australia will increase from 332,00 to just under a million by 2050. The proportion of people with behavioural changes in the context of  this diagnosis is the majority of patients with an average duration of about 8 months during the illness. Such behaviours may have a profound impact on the emotional well being of the caregiver. It is  acknowledged that some caregivers do not easily adapt to the stresses of caregiving and are at risk in terms of their ability to continue in their role. A failure to maintain this unpaid caring role would have a significant impact on the cost of caring for the patient who may have to be institutionalised sooner rather than later. The conclusion of a study from Sweden was that:

Informal care, measured as hours spent caring, was about 8.5 times greater than formal services (299 and 35 h per month, respectively). Approximately 50% of the total informal care consisted of time spent on surveillance (day and night).

Therefore innovations that allow the medical practitioner to quickly incorporate assistance from organisations that specialise in supporting caregivers will enhance the prospects of sustaining an effective health service for all. The services of organsiations such as Alzheimers’ Australia may be underutilised because of a failure to respond to calls of help from stressed carers. Similar observations can be made about other chronic illnesses including substance abuse, cancer and palliative care where changes in behaviour may be common and medication has a limited role.


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.