Tag Archives: doctor patient relationship

Why don’t people take medical advice?

Significant proportions of people walk out of doctors’ clinics and disregard or fail to act on the opinion offered. The data reported in the literature does not make for encouraging reading. This behaviour has been observed in almost every clinical scenario and every speciality:

Paediatrics

Medication compliance in pediatric patients ranges from 11% to 93%. At least one third of all patients fail to complete relatively short-term treatment regimens.

Psychiatry

Of the 137 patients included in the study, 32% did not show up for their first appointment.

Hypertension

Similarly, although men receiving health education learned a lot about hypertension, they were not more likely to take their medicine.

Diabetes

We conclude that compliance with the once-daily regimen was best, but that compliance with a twice-daily regimen was very similar, and both were superior to dosing three times a day.

Primary care

Seven hundred and two patients (14.5%) did not redeem 1072 (5.2%) prescriptions during the study period, amounting to 11.5% of men and 16.3% of women.

Sexual health

Eighty percent of 223 patients enrolled completed the study by returning their bottles. The rate of strict compliance with prescription instruction was 25%. The rate of noncompliance was 24%. Fifty-one percent used some intermediate amount of medication. There was no statistical difference in compliance by gender, presence or absence of symptoms, or site of enrollment.

Physiotherapy

Ultimately, this study suggests that health professionals need to understand reasons for non-compliance if they are to provide supportive care and trialists should include qualitative research within trials whenever levels of compliance may have an impact on the effectiveness of the intervention.

The fact that this happens is important because it is a costly waste of resources. There are many explanations for this phenomenon but they are all summarised in the findings of one study:

Studies have shown, however, that between one third and one half of all patients are non-compliant, but different authors cite different reasons for this high level of non-compliance. In this paper, the concept of compliance is questioned. It is shown to be largely irrelevant to patients who carry out a ‘cost-benefit’ analysis of each treatment, weighing up the cost/risks of each treatment against the benefits as they perceive them. Their perceptions and the personal and social circumstances within which they live are shown to be crucial to their decision-making. Thus an apparently irrational act of non-compliance (from the doctor’s point of view) may be a very rational action when seen from the patient’s point of view. The solution to the waste of resources inherent in non-compliance lies not in attempting to increase patient compliance per se, but in the development of more open, co-operative doctor-patient relationships. Donovan and Blake

What practitioners can do without waiting for policy change is to review their communication style. As Bungay Stanier has suggested it can’t be assumed that the first thing the person mentions is what is uppermost in their mind. Bungay Stanier’s suggested questions will reduce the rush to action. A rush that fails to identify the issue that the patient may feel is a greater priority than hypertension or diabetes.

Picture by Sergio Patino

First I’ll ask what’s on your mind then I’ll shut up


Every doctor in general practice/family medicine learns about the ‘models‘ of the consultation. My favourite is the Pendleton model. The thinking behind a map of the medical consultation is summarised by  Pawlikowska and colleagues

A fundamental change in medical culture in this area has been the recognition and acceptance of the fact that the way in which health professionals communicate, on all levels, can be enhanced, irrespective of the innate and learned abilities they already possess.

In 2016  Michael Bungay Stanier published The Coaching Habit: Say Less, Ask More  & Change the Way you Lead Forever. This comes at a time when the relationship between doctors and the people who seek their help is changing. With each passing generation, people expect to be actively involved in making choices in healthcare.

Women, more educated, and healthier people were more likely to prefer an active role in decision making…..Preferences for an active role increased with age up to 45 years, but then declined. Livenson

Doctors and the people who consult them will frame themselves as a team. At the same time, the major challenges relate to non-communicable chronic disease. Specifically to encourage people to stop smoking, eat and drink less, exercise more, and to be screened for early detection of malignancies. And for those who succumb to actively manage their chronic illness.

Therefore the interaction between the person seeking advice and the ‘expert’ is more likely to be akin to coaching. Given that people present to primary care with undifferentiated conditions the agenda for the meeting is set by the person who made the appointment. That’s why Bungay Stanier’s practical approach is a significant contribution. If we accept that the doctor is to be the ‘coach’ the author sets the scene in the very first chapter:

Only 23% of people being coached thought that the coach had a significant impact on their performance or job satisfaction. Ten percent even suggested that the coaching they were getting was having a negative effect. ( Can you imagine what it would be like going into those business meetings? ” I look forward to being more confused and less motivated after my coaching sessions with you.”)

The book emphasises that ‘coaching’ is a habit. Something that needs to be valued for three reasons:

  1. To avoid the team members becoming overdependent on the coach.

Building a coaching habit will help your team be more self-sufficient by increasing their autonomy and sense of mastery by reducing your need to jump in, take over and become the bottleneck.

There is already such a concern about over-dependence in medicine. Read Naomi Hartree’s summary ( Helping Patients Avoid Doctor Dependency)

2. To avoid getting overwhelmed.

Building a coaching habit will help you regain focus so you and your team can do the work that has real impact and so you can direct your time, energy and resources to solving the challenges that make a difference.

Being overwhelmed is a recognised problem in medicine.  Read locumstory(Physician Workload)

3. To help people do more work that has impact and meaning.

Coaching can fuel courage to step out beyond the comfortable and familiar , can help people learn from their experiences and can literally and metaphorically increase and help fulfil a person’s potential.

Again this has strong resonance in healthcare specifically because of the limited predictive value of tests or the large number needed to treat. In addition, there is mounting concern about the variation in these outcomes across geographical areas. See John Newton.

The Coaching Habit emphasises seven questions in a specific order. The first question is arguably the most important. Bungay Stanier calls it the kickstart question: ” What’s on your mind?” He justifies it as follows:

Because it’s open, it invites people to get to to the heart of the matter and share what’s important to them. You’re not telling them or guiding them. You’re showing them trust and granting them autonomy to make choices for themselves. And yet the question is focused, too. It’s not an invitation to tell you anything or everything. It’s encouragement to go right away to what’s exciting, what’s provoking anxiety, what’s all-consuming, what’s waking them at 4 a.m., what’s got their hearts beating fast.

This question followed by the space to answer is one that creates the opportunity to find what is really bothering someone. It is not universally common in healthcare. There’s an eloquent summary of the data from Juliet Mavromatis

Why do physicians interrupt? In practical terms, throughout the course of a given day a physician may be tasked with listening to twenty to thirty patient derived histories and with solving difficult problems for each of these patients in a matter of ten to fifteen minutes. This is a tough, if not impossible job. Consequently, once a physician believes that the meat of the story is out there, he or she may respond and interrupt before hearing details that the patient (or colleague) feels are important. In more abstract terms interruption is a communication strategy that reinforces physician dominance in the hierarchy of the patient-physician relationship.

Picture by Allie Hill

The infographic bandwagon rolling in to your clinic

In the wake of her book launch I had the honour to interview Dr. Halee Fischer-Wright President and CEO of MGMA. In her book: ‘Back to  balance:The art, science and business of medicine’ the author asserts:

We have lost our focus on strengthening the one thing that has always produced healthier patients, happier doctors, and better results: namely, strong relationships between patients and physicians, informed by smart science and enabled by good business.

In a separate blog post Larry Alton, business consultant addressing the business community says:

In 2017, you’ll find it difficult – if not impossible – to be successful without strategizing around customer communications. Customers have become conditioned to expect interaction and service. Provide both and you’ll be delighted with the results.

Most people will interact only with primary care when they need healthcare. The average consultation in primary care is less than 15 minutes. Therefore efficient communication is a priority. Larry Alton goes on to advise:

Communication is at the heart of engaging and delighting customers. The problem is that, even with all of the new advancements in communication technology, very few businesses are taking this all-important responsibility seriously. This results in poor relationships and a bad brand image.

His four key action points are:

  1. Hire empathetic employees
  2. Leverage the right communication mediums
  3. Use analogies to explain technical concepts
  4. Become a good listener

One area that seems to receive scant attention in medical practice is explaining technical concepts. And yet technical concepts are integral to medical practice:

  1. What pathology brought me here today?
  2. Why has my physiology responded in this way?
  3. What is the prognosis?
  4. Why do need this therapy?
  5. What are the risks?

Ours is a technologically proficient but emotionally deficient and inconsistent medical system that is best at treating acute, not chronic, problems: for every instance of expert treatment, skilled surgery, or innovative problem-solving, there are countless cases of substandard care, overlooked diagnoses, bureaucratic bungling, and even outright antagonism between doctor and patient. For a system that invokes “patient-centered care” as a mantra, modern medicine is startlingly inattentive—at times actively indifferent—to patients’ needs. Meghan O’Rourke

When explaining complex ideas there is a checklist:

  1. Does the patient want all the information?
  2. What are the implications of the prognosis?
  3. How can you explain with reference to something they are already know?
  4. What details can you leave out that would only serve to distract from an understanding?
  5. How can the patient assimilate this information actively?

Adapted from a post by Thorin Klosowski

Perhaps the neatest medium to communicate some aspects of a complex idea is the infographic. According to experts:

In the past 5 years, the term “infographic” has seen an impeccable rise in trend.In fact, the popularity of infographics is expected to see an increase of almost 5% by next year, meaning that anyone who isn’t yet riding the infographic bandwagon is bound to fall behind. The Daily Egg

Here are the data:

The Journal of Health Design has recently introduced the Infographic as a submission type. Communicating using this medium could reduce the time required to assimilate the information needed to make a decision.

Picture attribution

Designers will rescue the health sector

Much of what we do in healthcare is communicate ideas. That is far more common than ‘doing’. Executive control over decisions are the purview of the patient. It is a basic tenant of medicine that the patient has autonomy.

Often armed with little more than a stethoscope doctors must communicate to the patient that:

When communication about the evidence base is effective the patient, the practitioner and ultimately the economy benefit. How we communicate such ideas is where innovation has the brightest future. It gives us hope that we can improve outcomes in health without recourse to major policy change or curbing freedom of choice.

We communicate in words, pictures, video, audio and using models. Yet so much of how that is done in the doctor’s office hasn’t changed over the decades. ‘It’s just a virus’ doesn’t cut it any more.

We experience the power of effective communication everyday and in every other area of our lives. Look at your credit card statement this month- does it all make sense? What pressed your ‘purchase‘ button?

What if this extraordinary power deployed so effectively in commerce was unleashed in the clinic?

Picture by Dan Moyle

For best results engage the entire decision making apparatus

I’ve been sick for two days. I have a runny nose, headache, cough and I’m tired.

We agreed that it was very unpleasant having these symptoms when you are moving boxes around a warehouse all day. I examined him and found signs of an upper respiratory tract infection but nothing worse. Now comes the crucial part. If you are a doctor what do you say in the circumstances? You must have your speech ready because you will almost certainly consult someone like this every day, probably more than once a day. In an essay published in the BMJ Trisha Greenhalgh and colleagues wrote:

Evidence users include clinicians and patients of varying statistical literacy, many of whom have limited time or inclination for the small print. Different approaches such as brief, plain language summaries for the non-expert (as offered by NICE), visualisations, infographics, option grids, and other decision aids should be routinely offered and widely used. Yet currently, only a fraction of the available evidence is presented in usable form, and few clinicians are aware that such usable shared decision aids exist. BMJ 2014

What she appears to be hinting at is that words are not enough and may not efficiently convey what this man needs to make a decision for himself. He has already decided for whatever reason that he needs to see a doctor. He was probably able to ‘self-care’ by taking ‘over the counter’ symptomatic measures. Setting aside the notion that he might have presented to get a medical certificate to claim time off what else may be on his agenda? If we postulate that he might want prescribed medicines believing that they will hasten this recovery then there is the prospect of a disagreement with you as the ‘evidence’ suggests otherwise. He probably has a viral illness. But as David Spiegelhalter and colleagues wrote in Science:

Probabilities can be described fluidly with words, using language that appeals to people’s intuition and emotions. But the attractive ambiguity of language becomes a failing when we wish to convey precise information, because words such as “doubtful,” “probable,” and “likely” are inconsistently interpreted. Science 2011

What the person with the cold needs to know is that we cannot be sure what precise ‘bug’ has caused his symptoms. That the most likely cause is a virus but that his symptoms now do not predict the duration or severity of his illness. However most people get better within 10 days and he is probably suffering the most he will through this illness today. The worst symptoms are those he now describes. the cough may linger for a couple weeks.  Symptomatic treatment might help him feel better and that people who have been prescribed antibiotics do not get better any faster (that last bit is my team’s research which hasn’t yet seen the light of day in a peer-reviewed journal). However he may not factor all of this information into his thinking without pictures. We need to consider how he makes the decision to take your advice. Scientists have studied this and come up with some helpful advice recently. For a start the patient is unlikely to make a decision based on logic alone.

Behavioral economic studies involving limited numbers of choices have provided key insights into neural decision-making mechanisms. By contrast, animals’ foraging choices arise in the context of sequences of encounters with prey or food. On each encounter, the animal chooses whether to engage or, if the environment is sufficiently rich, to search elsewhere. Kolling et al

There are three treatment options; prescribe an antibiotic now, defer prescribing for a couple days or prescribe nothing. The latter is the appropriate course however a goal in this situation is to reach consensus with this person. To present the data to him in a way that engages his entire decision making apparatus. You are able to usher him out the door without anything only to find that he has lost faith in you. How he feels about the matter is critical:

A few years ago, neuroscientist Antonio Damasio made a groundbreaking discovery. He studied people with damage in the part of the brain where emotions are generated. He found that they seemed normal, except that they were not able to feel emotions. But they all had something peculiar in common: they couldn’t make decisions. The big think

The more challenging approach is to communicate respectfully, appropriately and effectively. Pictures can now assist as never before. Yet the habit of using pictures is neither taught nor practised consistently in clinics. Spiegelhalter again:

   The most suitable choice of visualization to illustrate uncertainty depends closely on the objectives of the presenter, the context of the communication, and the audience. Visschers et al. concluded that the “task at hand may determine which graph is most appropriate to present probability information” and it is “not possible to formulate recommendations about graph types and layouts.” Nonetheless, if we aim to encourage understanding rather than to just persuade, certain broad conclusions can be drawn, which hold regardless of the audience.

His team’s recommendations:

  • Use multiple formats, because no single representation suits all members of an audience.
    Illuminate graphics with words and numbers.
  • Design graphics to allow part-to-whole comparisons, and choose an appropriate scale, possibly with magnification for small probabilities.
  • To avoid framing bias, provide percentages or frequencies both with and without the outcome, using frequencies with a clearly defined denominator of constant size.
  • Helpful narrative labels are important. Compare magnitudes through tick marks, and clearly label comparators and differences.
  • Use narratives, images, and metaphors that are sufficiently vivid to gain and retain attention, but which do not arouse undue emotion. It is important to be aware of affective responses.
  • Assume low numeracy of a general public audience and adopt a less-is-more approach by reducing the need for inferences, making clear and explicit comparisons, and providing optional additional detail.
    Interactivity and animations provide opportunities for adapting graphics to user needs and capabilities.
  • Acknowledge the limitations of the information conveyed in its quality and relevance. The visualization may communicate only a restricted part of a whole picture.
  • Avoid chart junk, such as three-dimensional bar charts, and obvious manipulation through misleading use of area to represent magnitude.
  • Most important, assess the needs of the audience, experiment, and test and iterate toward a final design.

The last offers a call to arms for innovators.

Picture by Alan

Is your motto reflected in every interaction?

Every interaction with patients should reflect the motto of the healthcare organization serving their needs.

Motto: A sentence, phrase, or word expressing the spirit or purpose of a person, organization, city, etc., and often inscribed on a badge, banner, etc. Dictionary

I like the motto of the Royal College of General Practitioners, UK:

Cum Scientia Caritas

Compassion with knowledge. So here are a list of unacceptable explanations when someone interacts with a service provider and things deviate from whatever noble aim is adorned above the front door:

  1. I’m not paid to do that
  2. I don’t have the resources
  3. That’s not how things are done
  4. Where’s the evidence?
  5. It’s not my fault
  6. It’s not in the protocol
  7. Too idealistic
  8. It’s not me it’s them
  9. I didn’t know
  10. We didn’t negotiate that in the contract
  11. People expect too much
  12. We never promised that
  13. We might do that in the future
  14. We would never get through the day if we did that for everyone
  15. I don’t care
  16. I only work here
  17. Too busy
  18. Maybe next time
  19. What about me?
  20. It doesn’t matter

Every interaction should reflect what we say and what we believe the patient /customer/ colleague is entitled to from our service or our staff. The response when deviations are reported should also reflect the motto. Choose your motto with care.

Picture by Adrian Clark

 

Are you addressing the right problem or the one you think you can fix?


The act of consulting a doctor has been shown to be highly ritualized.

Ritual has long been thought to play an important role in the healing processes used by ancient and non-Western healers. In this paper, I suggest that practitioners of Western medicine also interact with patients in a highly ritualized manner. Medical rituals, like religious rituals, serve to alter the meaning of an experience by naming and circumscribing unknown elements of that experience and by enabling patients’ belief in a treatment and their expectancy of healing from that treatment. John Welch. Journal of religion and health

There are five elements to this ritual:

  1. The stage- office, clinic room, cubicle.
  2. The props- what can be seen and or felt.
  3. The actors- doctor, patient and sometimes nurse or therapist.
  4. The script- what is said.
  5. The action- what is done.

All have an impact on the outcome. The doctor’s ‘script’ is of particular importance as it is what the patient hears. The literature offers evidence of the impact of what is said and how it is said on outcomes for patients:

 The quality of communication both in the history-taking segment of the visit and during discussion of the management plan was found to influence patient health outcomes. The outcomes affected were, in descending order of frequency, emotional health, symptom resolution, function, physiologic measures (i.e., blood pressure and blood sugar level) and pain control. M.A Stewart CMAJ

One conclusion of the literature review published in CMAJ was that the process of sharing information includes a discussion about what the patient understands to be the problem and their options with regard to treatment:

These four studies taken together debunk the myth that the only alternative to the physician’s total control of power in the therapeutic relationship is his or her total abdication of power. They indicate that patients do not benefit from the physician’s abdication of power but, rather, from engagement in a process that leads to an agreed management plan.

This issue assumes great significance when it comes to difficult consultations in which it is perceived that the patient is seeking an option that is not in their best interests. Greenhalgh and Gill wrote the following commentary in the BMJ in 1997:

Two thirds of consultations with general practitioners end with the issuing of a prescription. The decision to prescribe is influenced by many factors, to do with the doctor, the patient, the doctor-patient interaction, and the wider social context, including the effects of advertising and the financial incentives and disincentives for all parties. Hardline advocates of rational drug use do not look kindly on variations in prescribing patterns that cannot be explained by purely clinical factors. The prescriber who allows the “Friday night penicillin” phenomenon to sway his or her clinical judgment tends to do so surreptitiously and with a guilty conscience.

The team go on to conclude that:

The act of issuing a prescription is the culmination of a complex chain of decisions. It is open to biomedical, historical, psychosocial and commercial influences, no aspect of which can be singled out as the ”cause” of non-rational prescribing. The search should continue for methods to measure the interplay of these disparate factors on the decision to prescribe.

Michael Bungay Stanier offers an approach to business coaching by focusing on what a person perceives to be their challenge, what they want and how that choice might be impacting on their other options. A similar approach can be taken in medicine. Two decades after Trish Greenhalgh’s editorial in the BMJ there are still many circumstances in which doctors find it challenging to negotiate options these include but are not limited to:

In this context our team surveyed nearly 9000 patients who had been prescribed antibiotics for Upper Respiratory Tract Infections during the latest flu season. We surveyed patients using a validated tool on the third day and the seventh day after a prescription was issued. We look forward to presenting the results at the forthcoming GP17 conference. We will be offering information on the following questions:

  1. What is the profile of patients who were offered a prescription?
  2. What was the symptom profile at these time points and how does this compare with data on patients who have been offered no treatment in other studies?
  3. What are the characteristics of the respondents to the survey?
  4. What proportion of respondents completed the course of treatment?
  5. What proportion of respondents also took regular symptomatic measures?
  6. What is the profile of patients with relatively severe symptoms at each time point?
  7. Are longer consultations or type of antibiotic predictive of compliance with treatment?
  8. Within the limitations of a study that offers only the patient perspective what might help people with Upper Respiratory Tract Infections?

Picture by US Army Garrison Red

For a medical test to be of value the patient needs to see a doctor

Among the commonest tests ordered by doctors is a full blood count. The test presents signs of iron deficiency anaemia. The prevalence of that condition is reported as follows:

In Australia in 2011–12, around 760,000 people aged 18 years and over (4.5%) were at risk of anaemia, with women more likely to be at risk than men (6.4% compared with 2.5%). The risk of anaemia was highest among older Australians, with rates rapidly increasing after the age of 65 years. People aged 75 years and older were more likely to be at risk of anaemia than all other Australians, with 16.0% in the at risk range compared with 3.6% of Australians aged less than 75 years. Australian Health Survey

With regard to this blood test (AACC):

  • Haemoglobin (Hb)—may be normal early in the disease but will decrease as anaemia worsens
  • Red blood cell indices—early on, the RBCs may be a normal size and colour (normocytic, normochromic) but as the anaemia progresses, the RBCs become smaller (microcytic) and paler (hypochromic) than normal.
    • Average size of RBCs (mean corpuscular volume, MCV)—decreased
    • Average amount of haemoglobin in RBCs (mean corpuscular haemoglobin, MCH)—decreased
    • Haemoglobin concentration (mean corpuscular haemoglobin concentration, MCHC)—decreased
    • Increased variation in the size of RBCs (red cell distribution width, RDW)
    • A guide to interpreting the test is here

Therefore among the pathognomonic features of established iron deficiency anaemia (IDA) is a low Mean Corpuscular Volume (MCV). The sensitivity and specificity of a low MCV for a diagnosis of iron deficiency anaemia are quoted as  42% and 93%. Assuming a prevalence of 3.6% in the under 75 year old age group this means that if 100 adults in Australia had a full blood count then 3-4 will have iron deficiency anaemia. Screening these people for IDA with this test 8.3% of people will be told they have an abnormal test i.e. 8 people. Of these only 1-2 will be a true positive for IDA. On the other hand 6-7 may be misled into thinking they might have iron deficiency. 91 will be told they have a normal test in this case 2 may be incorrectly reassured. Of course there are other significant conditions which present with a microcytosis ( low MCV) although ‘treatment’ is not necessary in many such cases and also screening for IDA involves other and more sensitive tests.

If the prevalence of the condition was 20%, then even the modest sensitivity and specificity of this test would identify more people at risk of IDA even though it will also miss people with the condition.

  • Number of people with positive test: 14, correctly identified: 8
  • Number of people with negative result: 86, incorrectly reassured: 11

In practice the sensitivity and specificity of tests may be assumed closer to 90% in each case. Given these figures the numbers of people from 100 people test and correctly identified, incorrectly reassured or told they are ill depends on the prevalence. The prevalence of most pathology in the community is low often well below 1%. The figures are presented in the infographic below.

Prevalence 0.005% ( 5 per 1000 people, e.g. hypothyroidism )  2% ( e.g. diabetes)  20% (e.g. common and plantar warts).

From these figures it can be seen that testing is more fruitful in circumstances in which the prevalence is high. The prevalence is higher in those who have signs and symptoms of a condition. One could argue therefore that the ‘prevalence’ is much higher in those who choose to consult a doctor as opposed to the ‘prevalence’ in the community.  For iron deficiency anaemia these circumstances are well known. Which means an effective consultation in which the patient is heard and examined is crucial to interpreting test results. As can be seen from the calculations there is a substantial risk of labelling people as ill, or requiring yet more tests given the modest prevalence of most conditions in the community and where there might be an indiscriminate use of tests.

It is hard to disagree with Campbell and colleagues who considered this issue and noted that:

1) Diagnosis is based on a combination of tests and clinical examination and there is little research based on the sensitivity and specificity of the combination of different examinations as opposed to a one-off test, which is why GPs are unlikely to know the values.

2) It is unclear what is meant by the prevalence of asthma or diabetes for these GPs. It is not the proportion of people in the population with the disease, but rather the proportion of people who come to consult who have the disease (perhaps with similar age and clinical history). This proportion is likely to be quite high and so the issue of overestimating the positive predictive value is less important.

3) The prevalence of the disease will also depend on the severity of the disease being tested for and so this also muddles the calculations.

We might however equally reasonably expect doctors to have an understanding of the issue if only because the practice of medicine involves the most crucial of ‘tests’ the history and the examination and this issue highlights the importance of that activity. Tests that are not appropriately interpreted can be harmful if only because they become a source of anxiety.

Picture by Aplonid

What are the limitations of the physical examination in practice?

 

The ideal innovation is inexpensive, readily incorporated into practice and has substantial patient benefits. In this context the humble physical examination is a strong candidate. However it is reported that in practice laboratory and or radiological tests are requested more often than not. Here is a quote from an editorial in the British Medical Journal (2009):

In the first camp are those who pine for the old days, bemoan the loss of clinical bedside diagnostic skills, and complain that no one knows Traube’s space or Kronig’s isthmus. In the second camp are those who say good riddance and point out that evidence based studies show that many physical signs are useless; some might even argue that examining the patient is just a waste of time. Verghese and Horwitz

Research suggests that most diagnoses are based on the history and examination:

In this prospective study of 80 medical outpatients ….in 61 patients (76%), the history led to the final diagnosis. The physical examination led to the diagnosis in 10 patients (12%), and the laboratory investigation led to the diagnosis in 9 patients (11%). The internists’ confidence in the correct diagnosis increased from 7.1 on a scale of 1 to 10 after the history to 8.2 after the physical examination and 9.3 after the laboratory investigation. These data support the concept that most diagnoses are made from the medical history. The results of physical examination and the laboratory investigation led to fewer diagnoses, but they were instrumental in excluding certain diagnostic possibilities and in increasing the physicians’ confidence in their diagnoses. Peterson et al

In only one of six patients in whom the physician was unable to make any diagnosis after taking the history and examining the patient did laboratory investigations lead to a positive diagnosis. BMJ 1975

Also the value of tests is contested in some cases:

Information from the history, physical examination, and routine procedures should be used in assessing the yield of a new test. As an example, the method is applied to the use of the treadmill exercise test in evaluating the prognosis of patients with suspected coronary artery disease. The treadmill test is shown to provide surprisingly little prognostic information beyond that obtained from basic clinical measurements. The JAMA network

A considerable number of plain abdominal films taken for patients with acute abdominal pain could be avoided by focusing on clinical variables relevant to the diagnosis of bowel obstruction. European Journal of Surgery

However the predictive value of the physical examination appears to depend on the clinical scenario. If the patient appears ill it is far more likely that they will have clinical signs:

In order to study the occurrence and positive predictive value of history and physical examination findings suggestive of serious illness in ill-appearing and well-appearing febrile children, 103 consecutive children aged ≤24 months with fever ≥38.3°C were evaluated from July 1, 1982 to Nov 24, 1982….The positive predictive values of abnormal physical examination findings for serious illness in ill-appearing (11 of 14, 79%) and well-appearing children (3 of 12, 25%) were significantly different (P = .02 by Fisher’s exact test). The trends for abnormal history findings in ill-appearing and well-appearing children were similar to those for abnormal physical examination findings but did not achieve statistical significance. The results, indicating an important interaction between a febrile child’s appearance and physical examination findings, are discussed in terms of probability reasoning in clinical decision making. McCarthy et al

In some common clinical scenarios it is difficult to find objective evidence in support of a diagnosis and tests are necessary. There are many examples including:

Irritable bowel syndrome

Individual symptoms have limited accuracy for diagnosing IBS in patients referred with lower gastrointestinal tract symptoms. The accuracy of the Manning criteria and Kruis scoring system were only modest. Despite strong advocacy for use of the Rome criteria, only the Rome I classification has been validated. Future research should concentrate on validating existing diagnostic criteria or developing more accurate ways of predicting a diagnosis of IBS without the need for investigation of the lower gastrointestinal tract. Ford et al

Heart Failure

Differences in clinical parameters in heart failure patients with decreased versus normal systolic function cannot predict systolic function in these patients, supporting recommendations that heart failure patients should undergo specialized testing to measure ventricular function. Thomas et al

Painful shoulder

Thirty one consecutive patients with a first flare of shoulder pain were prospectively included in the study. All had a physical examination performed by two blinded rheumatologists. Ultrasonographic examination was carried out within one week of the physical examination by a third rheumatologist experienced in this technique who had no knowledge of the clinical findings. Ultrasonography was considered the optimal diagnostic technique. Naredo et al

Also relevant are the physician’s skill in eliciting and interpreting signs:

Agreement between 24 physicians on the presence or absence of respiratory signs was investigated. The physicians were divided into six sets of 4; each set examined 4 patients with well-defined chest signs. There was generally poor agreement about particular signs. Overall, the 4 physicians in a set were in complete agreement only 55% of the time. Some signs such as wheezing seemed to be more reliably elicited than others such as whispering pectoriloquy. Comparison of diagnoses based on the clinical findings with the correct diagnoses supported by investigations showed that 28% of physicians’ diagnoses were incorrect. The more often the examiners differed from the majority on the presence or absence of a sign, the more likely they were to make an incorrect diagnosis.  The Lancet

In some cases physical signs are unreliable:

A review of published studies of patients suspected of having pneumonia reveals that there are no individual clinical findings, or combinations of findings, that can rule in the diagnosis of pneumonia for a patient suspected of having this illness. However, some studies have shown that the absence of any vital sign abnormalities or any abnormalities on chest auscultation substantially reduces the likelihood of pneumonia to a point where further diagnostic evaluation may be unnecessary. JAMA

Therefore always relying on physical signs without conducting tests is unsafe. However the value of the clinical examination as an integral part of the patient experience was eloquently articulated in the BMJ editorial:

A third view of the bedside examination, and one that we advocate, is that it is not just a means of data gathering and hypothesis generation and testing, but is a vital ritual, perhaps the ritual that defines the internist. Rituals are all about transformation. The elaborate rituals of weddings, funerals, or inaugurations of presidents are associated with visible transformation. When viewed in that fashion, the ritual of the bedside examination involves two people meeting in a special place (the hospital or clinic), wearing ritualised garments (patient gowns and white coats for the doctors) and with ritualised instruments, and most importantly, the patient undresses and allows the doctor to touch them. Disrobing and touching in any other context would be assault, but not as part of this ritual, which dates back to antiquity. Verghese and Horwitz

Common sense dictates that where the patient appears unwell the physical examination will have a higher yield. In those circumstances clinical examination is crucial:

Misdiagnosis of acute appendicitis is more likely to occur with patients who present atypically, are not thoroughly examined (as indexed by documentation of a rectal examination), are given IM narcotic pain medication and then discharged from the ED, are diagnosed as having gastroenteritis (despite the absence of the typical diagnostic criteria), and with patients who do not receive appropriate discharge or follow-up instructions. Rusnak et al

Therefore the physical examination has an incalculable value not necessarily obviating the need for tests but increasing patient satisfaction and reducing the risk of litigation. Click the link for an excellent video on examination.

 

Image attribution

More talking less testing in medicine

According to Mark Schlesinger and Rachel Grob writing in Milbank Quarterly in 2017:

As much as 30% of US health care spending may be unnecessary… Most Americans who anticipate benefits hope that less testing and treatment will be replaced by more interactive and personalized care. Even without media priming, many Americans would avoid common forms of low-value care like unnecessary antibiotics or excess imaging for lower back pain, but few favor clinicians who avoid these practices.

This suggest that if people leave the doctor’s clinic without a script or a blood test they are dissatisfied. The question is whether a test or treatment is expected or as seems equally likely that patients are not making an informed decision. There are websites that indicate what test might be done:

Lab Test Online

So for example for Fibromyalgia the site advises:

Although rarely talked about, fibromyalgia is a relatively common disorder that affects about 3.4% of all women and 0.5% of all men, primarily those of early middle age. It has been estimated that on a typical day, about 5% of the people in a doctor’s waiting room are affected by fibromyalgia. For most rheumatologists, doctors who specialise in rheumatic diseases, it is the second or third most common condition diagnosed.

There are many variable symptoms associated with fibromyalgia, but the condition almost always starts with chronic widespread pain and pain upon palpation in particular areas called “tender points.” Most people with fibromyalgia also have some degree of chronic fatigue and interrupted sleep.

But at the same time the site recommends:

Therefore a 30 year old female presenting with the typical symptoms might expect a blood test.

On the other hand hypothyroidism usually presents with more features than simply muscles aches and pains. It also presents with lethargy, sensitivity to cold, weight gain, mental dullness, bradycardia or a combination of these symptoms. [ . 1970 Jan; 29(1): 10–14.] Such signs and symptoms can be elicited from the history and examination.

With respect to screening for thyroid dysfunction in fibromyalgia (FM):

 A cross-sectional descriptive study was performed in 400 consecutive female outpatients with suspected FM and in 384 controls from January 2001 to October 2004. TSH measurement was used as the first line test to detect Thyroid Disorder (TD). RESULTS: The prevalence of TD in patients with suspected FM (40/400; 10%; 95% CI: 7-13%) and controls was similar (46/384; 12%; 95% CI: 9-15%). No differences were found in the types and grades of TD. The prevalence of TD was higher in patients with suspected FM and connective tissue diseases (12%) than in those without these diseases (5%). The most frequent TD was subclinical hypothyroidism (5.5% in suspected FM and 6.7% in controls), and in 93% of these cases TSH concentrations were <10 mIU/L. FM persisted in all women with hypothyroidism even after euthyroidism was achieved with levothyroxine. A total of 870 TSH determinations were performed in 360 euthyroid patients with suspected FM. CONCLUSIONS: The prevalence of TD in women with suspected FM does not differ from that in the general population. Screening for TD does not appear to be justified in women without diseases that increase their risk. In many cases the request for thyroid function tests is excessive. Treatment for hypothyroidism does not affect FM. Reumatologia Clinica 

A study of 50 patients with Fibromyalgia concluded that:

Patients were usually seen by many physicians who failed to provide a definite diagnosis despite frequent unnecessary investigations…. Management is usually gratifying in these frustrated patients. The most important aspects are a definite diagnosis, explanation of the various possible mechanisms responsible for the symptoms, and reassurance regarding the benign nature of this condition. A combination of reassurance, nonsteroidal antiinflammatory drugs, good sleep, local tender point injections, and various modes of physical therapy is successful in most cases. Yunus et al

A previous study noted a similar challenge with laboratory testing for patients presenting with ‘unexplained fatigue’. The authors recommend not testing patients for 4 weeks after the initial presentation. The advise was based on these data form patients presenting with unexplained fatigue in general practice:

325 patients were analysed (71% women; mean age 41 years). Eight per cent of patients had a somatic illness that was detectable by blood-test ordering. The number of false-positive test results increased in particular in the expanded test set. Patients rarely re-consulted after 4 weeks. Test postponement did not affect the distribution of patients over the two-by-two tables. No independent consultation-related determinants of abnormal test results were found. Koch et al

In a previous post I explained why  tests can be harmful with respect to the limited positive predictive value of tests in general practice. We need simple and effective interventions that reduce the prospect of patients being tested but which are designed in the context of general practice. I suggested a road map.

Therefore we might agree with Mark Schlesinger and Rachel Grob when they concluded:

Long-term robust public support for addressing low-value care may require shifting the focus from particular tests and treatments to emphasize, instead, the potential for better communication and more personalized attention if clinicians spend more time talking and less time testing.

If you are a clinician it might help to start by making a list of circumstances in which you order a test.

Picture by Lori Greig