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The first thing people see is an ugly great barrier

For effective engagement with their quarry, the service provider has to be open. When the first point of contact with that person is a tall desk it sends the wrong message. The reception counter says:

  • You are on that side, we are on this side.
  • We are hiding things from you back here.
  • You are here to ‘get something’ from us, we’re not sure we want you here just now.
  • We are very busy and your needs are one of many things we have to cope with today.

There are many aspects to designing the ‘ideal’ reception counter but first, consider the reason for having one in the first place:

What kind of impression should it make? Should it be warm and inviting, or bold and austere? What kind of reaction do you want to create in the visitor? Is it purely functional or a real ‘statement piece’ aimed at dominating the whole area? Jo Blood

For many practices, it seems that the counter is designed to process a queue much the same as the counter at an airport check-in or a vehicle licensing office. It speaks to what we think of our visitor:

Who will be using it from the visitor side? Will it be treated with respect by all who come into contact with it, or must it be able to withstand some abuse? Maybe a tough, metallic finish plinth would help to prolong the counter’s working life. Jo Blood

When you arrive you must:

  • Check in.
  • Prove that you are entitled to be there ( i.e. you have an appointment)
  • Prove that you can pay or that someone will pay or make a payment.
  • State your business clearly and briefly.

The counter hides PCs, printers, fax machines, security equipment. It’s there to keep people from abusing staff and to keep people out. To complete the ‘look’ the walls may be covered in mismatching posters and the counter stocked with leaflets dispenser full to the brim. Who reads this stuff? There is limited evidence that such communication has any impact. There are suggestions from the retail industry that less is more.

As for the counter, it is generally as tall as it can be.

An able-bodied visitor with a typical minimum height of 1540mm approaching a raised counter tall enough to hide a large monitor on a desktop height of 740mm, would clearly struggle to make eye contact with a seated receptionist. As a rough guide, a counter height of over 1200mm will create a potential ‘blind spot’ resulting in the visitor remaining almost unseen and making the counter simply too high to be practical for signing in.

But what if the reception counter were removed altogether? It’s not unthinkable if hotel chains are beginning to consider it:

Two bloggers walk into a hotel …No, that’s not the opening line to a joke. We’re talking about two travelers who picked the same hotel chain — Andaz, a boutique Hyatt property. One stayed at a Los Angeles Andaz, the other at a New York City Andaz. Neither lobby contained a front desk — a budding hospitality-industry trend that’s equal parts chic and shrewd. Bill Briggs

But of course, doctors clinics are not hotels or airport terminals. But that’s not to say that clinics should not be welcoming, comfortable and inspiring places to be. This issue received some attention in the medical literature last year- with the authors of the paper were cited as concluding:

96 percent of patient complaints are related to customer service, while only 4 percent are about the quality of clinical care or misdiagnoses. Kelly Gooch

There are umpteen ‘reasons’ why it is so. Primarily the process of dealing with payments. However such administrative tasks are also a part of many other industries and they are striving for better solutions rather than risk their customers take their business elsewhere.

The critique of the paper quoted above included an insightful comment from a ‘front of house’ staff member:

Our role has developed from “just scheduling staff” to a more complex, and crucial, role for any healthcare organization. We are the start and end of every patient visit and also the start of the revenue cycle. In order for “customer service” to improve, an organization first recognize the importance of their Patient Access department and understand that their processes are directly related to the culture of the organization. Kelly Gooch

Is it possible that people who perceive that their visits are welcomed are more likely to take the advice on offer? Isn’t that what healthcare is about? We have had evidence for this for decades. This quote from the literature says it all:

…the feeling in the practice when you arrive, busy…exhausted receptionists, people fed up, waiting , a feeling of delapidation and stress…You can hear people being put off on the phone and you can hear ‘no no I can’t put you through to the doctor now’, ‘no no you’ll have to call back’ and that makes you feel worse because you don’t want to call back at an inappropriate time. Gavin  J Andrews

The reception area engenders the circumstances in which the outcomes of care are compromised. There is a better way and at least one Australian practice has redesigned the experience.

Picture by Barnacles budget accommodation

Change your reactions to change your results

In 2017 you can expect to be challenged because it is unlikely that everything will go to plan. As in everything in life you have a choice how to react but you may find it difficult to exercise that choice because of your habits. You can bear witness to these habits in your interactions at work next week. According to the Karpman drama triangle you are likely to be your own worst enemy.

When ‘bad things’ happen you may react in one of three ways initially:

Victim

‘Poor me!’

Icon made by Freepik from www.flaticon.com 

One that is acted on and usually adversely affected by a force or agent

(1):  one that is injured, destroyed, or sacrificed under any of various conditions

(2):  one that is subjected to oppression, hardship, or mistreatment. Merriam Webster 

From the victim’s perspective it’s their fault. ‘They’ did it to you. It’s the government, the company, the patients, the clients, your  boss. If not them it’s the weather, the traffic, your genes. There is nothing you can do but complain.

Rescuer

‘Let me help you’ (and thus keep you dependent on me).

Icon made by Freepik from www.flaticon.com

A person who pretends to suffer or who exaggerates suffering in order to get praise or sympathy. Merriam Webster

From the rescuer’s (martyr’s) perspective they are surrounded by people who make unreasonable demands. Nobody can get the job done without their help. It may mean cancelling holidays and working weekends but there is nothing for it.

Persecutor

‘It’s all your fault.’

Icon made by Freepik from www.flaticon.com

 The Persecutor is controlling, blaming, critical, oppressive, angry, authoritative, rigid, and superior. Wikipedia

From this perspective it’s time to put your foot down. ‘Enough is enough’. ‘They’need to be brought into line.

It has been suggested that we move in and out of these roles. However everyone has a default position and in most cases it is the ‘rescuer’. This may be because:

It keeps the Victim dependent and gives the Victim permission to fail. The rewards derived from this rescue role are that the focus is taken off of the rescuer. When he/she focuses their energy on someone else, it enables them to ignore their own anxiety and issues. This rescue role is also very pivotal because their actual primary interest is really an avoidance of their own problems disguised as concern for the victim’s needs. Karpman Drama Triangle.

At this time as we launch on another round of New Year’s resolutions. Our results may already be predicted.

  1. How many times over the past week, while you were allegedly on holiday,  have you responded to email or taken phone calls for work?
  2. How many times have you felt compelled to work even though you were on ‘holiday’?
  3. In how many conversations over dinner have you moaned about your job?
  4. What will be the first topic of conversation at work after the polite “How was your Christmas”?

The antithesis of a drama triangle lies in discovering how to deprive the actors of their payoff. Therefore if your default position is ‘rescuer’ you may want to consider whether, or perhaps which, of your own problems you are avoiding. Keep a close eye on your behaviour next week. That may be a better place to start making meaningful resolutions this year. For best results also consider reading: The Coaching Habit by Michael Bungay Stanier. You may also enjoy in praise of the quiet life.

Picture by Brandon Warren

There are no prizes for caring for people the day after you graduate

Hoards of young people in gowns and mortar boards are everywhere in the city this month. For some it will be a very special occasion as they step up to collect prizes bestowed in the name of some worthy luminary. For a few it will be a bumper crop with multiple awards. Others will have to content themselves in the knowledge that he or she who simply passes the final exams is still called ‘doctor’.

Some medical students will also recite the Hippocratic oath. Of which my favourite version appears below:

I swear to fulfill, to the best of my ability and judgment, this covenant:…

I will respect the hard-won scientific gains of those physicians in whose steps I walk, and gladly share such knowledge as is mine with those who are to follow.

I will apply, for the benefit of the sick, all measures which are required, avoiding those twin traps of overtreatment and therapeutic nihilism.

I will remember that there is art to medicine as well as science, and that warmth, sympathy, and understanding may outweigh the surgeon’s knife or the chemist’s drug.

I will not be ashamed to say “I know not,” nor will I fail to call in my colleagues when the skills of another are needed for a patient’s recovery.

I will respect the privacy of my patients, for their problems are not disclosed to me that the world may know. Most especially must I tread with care in matters of life and death. Above all, I must not play at God.

I will remember that I do not treat a fever chart, a cancerous growth, but a sick human being, whose illness may affect the person’s family and economic stability. My responsibility includes these related problems, if I am to care adequately for the sick.

I will prevent disease whenever I can, for prevention is preferable to cure.

I will remember that I remain a member of society, with special obligations to all my fellow human beings, those sound of mind and body as well as the infirm.

If I do not violate this oath, may I enjoy life and art, respected while I live and remembered with affection thereafter. May I always act so as to preserve the finest traditions of my calling and may I long experience the joy of healing those who seek my help.

Written in 1964 by Louis Lasagna, Academic Dean of the School of Medicine at Tufts University, and used in many medical schools today.

Living by this oath does not earn the annual Hippocratic Award for Excellence. If only all graduates could hear Simon Sinek deliver a commencement speech. This is what they might hear. Prize winners might reflect on what it will feel like to inhabit a world where being excellent at your job doesn’t mean you get to wear a gown and hear applause. If you have the good fortune to call yourself doctor then innovation in healthcare is detailed in the oath and begins with yourself.

Picture by klbradt

It is time to redesign the consulting room

Those who talk about the future of healthcare often describe the world as if the patient were a robot. They speak of devices and computers that will tell us what nature has already equipped us to know:

I haven’t slept well, I didn’t do much exercise today, I ate too much and I drank too much.

Many futurists appear to believe that providing information on a small screen will be enough to make all the difference to our behaviour. Doctors know this is a fantasy driven by commercial interests because they also know by virtue of their experience that so much of what we choose is contingent on more than just information. Some of these ‘innovations’ are losing market share faster than the receding snow cap of Kilimanjaro.

The overwhelming evidence is that if I decide to stop smoking it isn’t just because of the information that tobacco causes cancer. If  I commit to jogging four days a week it isn’t only because of information on how little I’ve moved today. These decisions are driven by much deeper psychological factors. We are ready to act on this ‘information’ only when the compulsion to make new commitments is greater than the urge to maintain the status quo. This happens in teachable moments. These are unique to each of us. When there is motivation and ability but we are also triggered to act then as BJ Fogg proposes we will do something different. Noting that we will sustain the effort only as long as it is a new habit. Therefore the task in the consultation is to gauge the motivation, enhance the ability, trigger the action and help to generate the habit.

The future of healthcare isn’t simply about access to information, whether on a wrist band or on a video screen. It isn’t only about access to the doctor or some pale imitation of the real thing.  The world of healthcare cannot exclude the physical presence of the practitioner as the one who can address all four aspects noted above by engaging people at the deepest human level. However as a starting point to designing the future we note that doctors are often at odds with the patient in the consultation:

There is evidence of a discrepancy between the numbers of problems noted by the patients and their doctors. It is possible that this is because doctors give priorities to certain diagnoses while ignoring others. Doctors may also focus on a known pre-existing condition of a particular patient rather than attending to the actual reason for the encounter. Thorsen et al

The authors further conclude:

The vast body of literature covering consultation patterns focuses on patients’ reasons for deciding to consult. Little research has focused on what patients have on their minds while in the waiting room regarding the forthcoming consultation.

Policy change that aims to turn back the clock so that people are forced to visit the same doctor who will do the same old thing….sound uninspired. If we consider the consultation as theatre then there are aspects that cannot be changed. Neither the actors nor the the plot (healthcare) can be changed. Patients will attend doctors who are trained to take a history, examine the patient and prescribe treatment. However the props and the script can be used to greater effect. These components impact on what the patient can see, smell, taste, hear and feel. The impact of these on the outcome of the consultation is the same as the impact on the person’s decision to buy anything.

whats-it-about

The economic reality is that people will be reticent to pay for something that is cheaper or readily available free elsewhere. However they are willing to pay for services that offer an experience. What is becoming a driver for innovation in primary care is the need to offer patients not only what they need but also what they want in terms of engagement with the practitioner. It is about changing how people feel in that space that we call an ‘office’ but could be redesigned as a ‘health pod’ in which the choreography aims to make it easier to identify teachable moments and trigger better outcomes.  An office is for bureaucrats, accountants and lawyers. We need to create a new environment that is conducive to selling health and healthy living.

If you are a doctor try this you might be surprised by the result:

seatHow else can you make the patient feel more valued in the encounter?

Picture by Jeff Warren

Will patients ever benefit from dubious surveys published in academic journals?

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The headline in the newspaper was provocative:

One in 10 parents do not trust GPs with their child’s healthcare: survey

Three questions arise:

  • Is it new?
  • Is it true?
  • So what?

It didn’t resonate. Children under the age of fifteen constitute at least one in ten encounters with General Practitioners (Family Physicians). That means there are at least 12 million consultations with children in Australia every year. The notion that parents don’t trust their GPs is questionable. Even in the study reported by the newspaper most parents (91%) had a regular GP and more than one in three children had visited a GP at least five times a year. The conclusions reported by the journalist were based on a study in which 666 parents were approached in a paediatric outpatient clinic to participate in a survey by a ‘trained research assistant’ and offered $10 for participating.  The context is important given that the conclusions as reported in the newspaper headlines were about people’s views on GPs.

100 parents in each of five specialties and 50 parents in each of the subspecialties was the ‘target number’- but we are given no justification for that number. The validity of the survey depends, in part, on the sample size which is governed by what was anticipated to be the likely response.

The questionnaire was ‘developed’ by the research team and pilot tested with 39 parents across both hospitals. We are not told how the questionnaire was developed and refined or how the validity and reliability of the responses were tested. Nor are we told why piloting ceased at 39. No scientific framework is cited. Without this information the interpretation of the findings is speculative.

It is reported that only half of the new patients seen in the paediatric speciality clinics were referred by a GP. The remainder were referred by other doctors. Therefore these participants were receiving their care from specialists and hospital doctors and it is reasonable to assume that their views were influenced by this experience.

If we are to read on notwithstanding the limitations evident early in the paper we note that only 45% of respondents were ‘completely confident’ that ‘a GP’ can provide general care to their child. From the way the question is posed we don’t know why the respondents were not ‘completely confident’. It could be because they think:

  • A GP doesn’t have access to the resources their child might need
  • Their child has had an illness that requires specialist to monitor their care
  • A GP doesn’t offer appointments when it suits them
  • A GP doesn’t do blood tests, X-rays, scans or prescribe the drugs they think their child needs
  • A GP isn’t qualified to look after their child
  • Someone they trust told them their child should see ‘specialists’ every time

Our understanding of this paper depends on which of these was meant by the respondent but the question was never posed in a meaningful way. The paper does not report the perspective of either the referring doctor or the specialist about the need for that specific referral. Without that information we can only draw conclusions based on our perspective on the issues. We certainly cannot conclude that GPs need more training in paediatrics unless we were looking for an excuse to come to that conclusion. Why publish a survey that cannot be interpreted meaningfully?  The concept explored is not new, the data can’t be safely interpreted and the only question is so what? Who benefitted from this ‘research’?

Picture by KristyFaith

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

Practitioner income as a function of Freakonomics

According to headlines this year more than one in three GPs in Australia report feeling somewhat or very dissatisfied with their income. Two things determine health practitioner income:

  1. What is a (funder / government / insurer) willing to pay?
  2. What is a (patient / customer / client) willing to contribute?

What is beyond doubt is that when it comes to their pet’s healthcare the Australian public is very willing to pay. In fact Australians would alter their spending habits rather than compromise their pet’s quality of life.

Of the 2,500 Australians, aged between 18 and 65 that were surveyed in the 2015 Financial Health Barometer, only 14 per cent of pet owners would reduce spending on their pets if their income dropped Remarkably, almost half (48 per cent) of respondents would take steps to minimise their power usage. We’d be more likely to reduce spending on essentials (47 per cent), switch to using cheaper products (35 per cent) or look for additional work (16 per cent) rather than curb spending on our furry friends. Hayley Williams.

Similarly spending on beauty treatments is remarkable:

The online survey of close to 1300 Australian women was conducted by Galaxy Research and commissioned by at-home hair removal brand Veet.
And, while 10 per cent of the women surveyed spent $5000 on average and and almost 60 hours in the beauty salon annually, 40 per cent admitted to putting their beauty regimens ahead of sleeping, shopping and their social life, with 4 per cent of those women also choosing a salon visit over their sex lives.

In contrast national statistics document that a significant proportion of Australians are reticent to seek healthcare because of the perceived cost. It was not surprising that a proposed $7 co-payment proposal for general practitioner visits in Australia was dumped before it was enacted.  It is evident that some doctors get paid far more than others. Secondly some parts of the country attract more doctors but as a general rule where there is a scarcity, by dint of geography or specialisation, it is more likely that doctors will earn more.

What people are willing to pay for health care is a function of economics, or perhaps “Freaknonomics” (study of economics based on the principle of incentives.) From this perspective “incentives matter.” Consumers try to maximize total satisfaction, while providers try to maximize profits. Whenever there are a lot of people willing and able to perform a job, that job doesn’t pay well. In a capitalist society, intense competition will drive prices down. When a technological advance occurs, it results in a shift of the supply curve to the right. All other things equal, this will lower the equilibrium price of a good, which then increases demand. Both producers and consumers need to be fully informed regarding their consumption or production decisions for a market to be efficient.

So how might this apply to primary care? 

  1. There are more doctors per head of population than ever before- in other words more people willing and able to perform the job- especially in primary care.
  2. There is a global trend in developed economies for “alternative providers” for primary care services- including vaccination, cancer screening and treatment of ‘minor’ illnesses.
  3. Technology offers new ways to ‘consult’ a practitioner other than by having practitioner and patient in the same room.
  4. Because of the internet doctors no longer hold the monopoly on information.

So doctors’ incomes in primary care experience downward pressure because suppliers of the services are increasing. We might therefore consider what people would consider paying for a consultation at a doctors’ clinic. Research published in 2008 (Annals of Fam Med) offers one perspective:

  • Overall, patients were willing to pay the most for a thorough physical examination ($40.87).
  • The next most valued attributes of care were seeing a physician who knew them well ($12.18),
  • Seeing a physician with a friendly manner ($8.50),
  • Having a reduction in waiting time of 1 day ($7.22), and
  • Having flexibility of appointment times ($6.71).
  • Patients placed similar value on the different aspects of patient-centered care ($12.06–$14.82).

It seems that two sectors (Pets and Beauty) appear to have no difficulty with their income. What might they have to offer by way of advice?

  1. The art of creating added value starts with the ability to see your business through the eyes of your customers.
  2. Although the debate over whether the customer is always right (or not!) continues, lack of customer satisfaction is a sure-fire way to keep people from coming back.
  3. Implement marketing models into your strategy.
  4. Most importantly, memorable customer experience models aim to deliver unexpected intangible value that cannot be packaged or sold. This includes personalized service, attention to detail, and showing a sense of urgency to address concerns as they arise.
  5. Whether it’s a free guide, a printable PDF, or a company branded calendar, free resources are a great way to create added value and showcase your brand’s ability to offer ‘a little something extra’ to customers.

In the case of healthcare the ‘customer’ is not just the patient but also the pay master. These ideas may need to be translated for this sector. In many cases it probably already has been. However for others there is something to learn from how successful businesses add value that translate into better rewards.

Picture by Pexels

An illness is never minor when you’re ill

After 20 years in practice I’d never seen one of these in my career. Until that day. It’s called a quinsy. Essentially an abscess deep in the throat. Not really surprising because according to a recent review:

Most patients with quinsy develop the condition rapidly, and many do not present with a respiratory tract infection to their GP first. BJGP

The incidence is estimated to range from 10-41 cases per 100,000 per year. It’s unusual to see a case in practice. Given Australia’s 23 million people you’d expect an incidence of about 2,300 cases per year nationwide. Similarly I consulted a young child with nephrotic syndrome, similar incidence (3.6 per 100,000). Both cases were referred to hospital as emergencies. The odds of seeing one of these is in the same order of magnitude as being struck by lightening in your lifetime.

On the other hand in the same week I saw several people with:

I also saw a victim of domestic violence:

Just under half a million Australian women reported that they had experienced physical or sexual violence or sexual assault in the past 12 months. Domestic violence prevention centre.

And a drug seeker:

Australian GPs write more than 15 million prescriptions per year for drugs known to be misused, with the main prescription drugs misused currently being narcotic analgesics and benzodiazepines, as well as stimulants, barbiturates and other sedative–hypnotic agents. Martyres et al

So apart from quinsy and nephrotic syndrome (both of which I recognised) I spent most of my week managing conditions that didn’t need to be referred to specialists.  And yet the people who were offered reassurance or simple and effective treatment for their ailments were immensely grateful. Every day general practitioners provide this service to the community. They save lives by identifying people who need urgent care but much more than that they make the lives of the community so much more tolerable. There is no such thing as ‘minor illness’.

The last word has to be on pityriasis rosea:

I finally found out what the rashes on my back, arms, torso, and now my foot are. I have herolds patch too. I hate it! I can’t stop scratching. It took 1 hospital visit and a trip to my doctor to find out what this thing was. The doctor at the hospital thought the big round patch was a ringworm and he thought all the other small rashes that had just appeared was scabies. I was terrified..did some research on scabies and tried to treat that myself. Then I decided to just go to my doctor and he told me it wasn’t scabies…and showed me a picture of hereld’s patch. He knew what it was right off the bat. I guess there is no cure for it and it just goes away by itself. I just wish I could take something so I can stop scratching. SkinCell forum

Picture by Col.Sanders

Continuity of care is a good thing right?

There’s a wonderful video that illustrates the point I’m making this week. You can see it here.

It is assumed that continuity of care is a good thing. That if you consult the same doctor every time then you will benefit with better health. We all have relatives who insist on seeing the same doctor every time. No one but Dr. X will do. Yet doctor X has all sorts of interesting approaches to their problems and despite knowing Aunt Mildred for years hasn’t twigged that her latest symptoms may be a manifestations of some family drama. She might suddenly be more bothered about her aching hip because Uncle John is making her miserable or making her carry the shopping on their visits to the supermarket.

So, is there strong evidence that people who consult the same doctor at every visit are:

  1. Less likely to be prescribed inappropriate drugs or have unnecessary tests?- Maybe.
  2. More likely to have symptoms of life limiting illness recognised early?- Not really.
  3. More likely to be counselled about poor lifestyle choices addressed?- Maybe.
  4. More likely to be screened for chronic illness? – Maybe
  5. More likely to be immunised?- Maybe.
  6. More likely to have better outcomes from chronic illness?- Maybe

The evidence is equivocal at best. Even the most ardent supporters of continuity conclude that there is ‘lots more research needed’.

So what does that tell us?

Perhaps it suggests that simply because people choose to see different doctors does not necessarily mean they are opting for, or receiving, inferior care.

When it comes to test ordering ‘walk-in’ patients are not necessarily after tests and there is some evidence that those doctors who order tests in the hope of ‘satisfying’ the patient are misguided.

There is lots of evidence that ‘continuity of care’ increases trust in a doctor. As per the example of Aunt Mildred. But there is no evidence that Aunt Mildred will be better off trusting her doctor because ‘trust’ ( which isn’t consistently defined) does not guarantee better outcomes. If Aunt Mildred attends here GP presenting with symptoms of bony metastases and is referred for urgent investigation because her GP recognises the clinical signs then she will have been well served regardless of whether she attends Dr. X, Dr. Y or someone at another practice. The point is one of them should spot the moonwalking bear.

Picture by torbakhopper

Who are you and what do you do for a living?

It was a dangerous time to be a forklift driver. One day I saw four of them each reported gastroenteritis. Now recovering but not fit to go to work. Or so they said. They were not related in any way, not even working in the same place and each had been poisoned by their spouse with something different: pizza, meat pies or lasagne. So either the partners of forklift drivers were terrible cooks or there was something else going on.

In April Wynne-Jones and Dunn reported data on sickness certification in the UK in the BMJ open. Their conclusion caught my eye:

Rates of sickness certification for back pain demonstrated a downward trend between 2000 and 2010. While the reasons for this are not transparent, it may be related to changing beliefs around working with back pain.

They try to explain their findings but then point out the main deficiency of their research:

This data set is based in one area of the UK, North Staffordshire, and it could be argued that it is not generalisable to the rest of the population. Previous work with this data set has demonstrated that crude rates of certification change very little when the data are standardised to the age and gender of the population as a whole, and there is no indication that this should be any different for this study

I scoured the paper for what might explain the findings because I couldn’t accept their thesis. I didn’t find what I was looking for. So I searched the unemployment statistics for the West Midlands in the UK dataset. As it happens the unemployment rate in that part of the UK, which includes Staffordshire varies quite significantly from the rest of the UK. When you plot the unemployment rates versus sick certification for low back pain the picture tells a different story:

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As unemployment rates climb from 2007 and peak during the Global Financial Crisis in 2009 the sickness certification for low back pain drops and plateaus. From the perspective of the General Practitioner patients are less likely to request sick certification when jobs are scarce. I was more inclined to accept the results of research by Michelle Foley and colleagues writing in the European Journal of General Practice in 2012 having interviewed GPs in Ireland:

GPs can find their role as certifier problematic, and a source of conflict during the consultation process with patients. GPs were concerned with breaching patient confidentiality and in particular disclosing illness to employers. They reported feeling inadequate in dealing with some cases requesting sickness leave, including certification for adverse social circumstances. Sickness certification was often given in response to patient demand. GPs felt a need for better communication between themselves, employers and relevant government departments

A few things struck me at the end of these visits to the library:

  1. Often the research that is most likely to impact on general practice is published in  so-called low impact journals. Often these are not randomised control trials or reviews of large databases.
  2. When interpreting ‘data’ we really need those who have regular contact with patients in the field to draw conclusions based on experience.
  3. The first question to ask a patient isn’t ‘tell me about your symptoms?’ but who are you and what do you do for a living?

For some people forklift driving is not a preferred way to earn a living but while there are options for alternative jobs ‘sick days’ may offer some respite.

Picture by bighornplateau1