Tag Archives: future of health care

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.  What practitioners can do to help 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 bothering them the most. 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.

I summarise the issue in this video:


Picture by Sergio Patino

What is said to people when drugs are prescribed for life?

Every day doctors suggest that one or other of their patients have to take medication for life. Hypertension, diabetes and certain deficiencies are among the many conditions that may benefit from taking medication longterm. On the other hand, many people reject this advice or take the prescribed drugs only sometimes. Ultimately the decision to accept treatment is for the person with the condition to decide. How can the advice be tailored so that the person is making an informed decision?

BACKGROUND: ‘Concordance’ has been proposed as a new approach towards sub-optimal medication use; however, it is not clear how this may be achieved in practice. AIM: To develop a strategy for understanding sub-optimal medication use and seek concordance during primary care consultations. DESIGN: A developmental qualitative study using a modified action research design. SETTING: Three Scottish general practices. METHOD: Patients using treatment sub-optimally and having poor clinical control were offered extended consultations to explore their situation. Their authority to make treatment decisions was made explicit throughout. Clinicians refined a consultation model during ten ‘Balint-style’ meetings that ran in parallel with the analysis. The analysis included all material from the consultations, meetings, and discussion with patients after the intervention. RESULTS: Three practitioners recorded 59 consultations with 24 adult patients. A six-stage process was developed, first to understand and then to discuss existing medication use. Understanding of medication use was best established using a structured exploration of patients’ beliefs about their illness and medication. Four problematic issues were identified: understanding, acceptance, level of personal control, and motivation. Pragmatic interventions were developed that were tailored to the issues identified. Of the 22 subjects usefully engaged in the process, 14 had improved clinical control or medication use three months after intervention ceased. CONCLUSIONS: A sensitive, structured exploration of patients’ beliefs can elucidate useful insights that explain medication use and expose barriers to change. Identifying and discussing these barriers improved management for some. A model to assist such concordant prescribing is presented. Dowell et al BJGP

I summarise the issue in this video:


Picture by Victor

It’s not the infrastructure it’s you that makes the difference.

Communication education has become integral to pre- and post-qualification clinical curricula, but it is not informed by research into how practitioners think that good communication arises.
This study was conducted to explore how surgeons conceptualise their communication with patients with breast cancer in order to inform the design and delivery of communication curricula.
We carried out 19 interviews with eight breast surgeons. Each interview centred on a specific consultation with a different patient. We analysed the transcripts of the surgeons’ interviews qualitatively using a constant comparative approach.
All of the surgeons described communication as central to their role. Communication could be learned to some extent, not from formal training, but by selectively incorporating practices they observed in other practitioners and by being mindful in consultations. Surgeons explained that their own values and character shaped how they communicated and what they wanted to achieve, and constrained what could be learned.
These surgeons’ understanding of communication is consistent with recent suggestions that communication education: (i) should place practitioners’ goals at its centre, and (ii) might be enhanced by approaches that support ‘mindful’ practice. By contrast, surgeons’ understanding diverged markedly from the current emphasis on ‘communication skills’. Research that explores practitioners’ perspectives might help educators to design communication curricula that engage practitioners by seeking to enhance their own ways of learning about communication.

Mendick et al

Picture by ReSurge International

Improve patient experience to deliver better results

Joe and Brenda are now in their 60s they have a number of chronic healthcare problems some of which will put them at risk of life limiting pathology (hypertension) and others detract from their quality of life (low back pain). Everyone involved in providing healthcare to this couple wants the best for them. Best case scenario Joe and Brenda are satisfied every time they consult their doctor and improve from whatever ails them.  It is also better if their use of the healthcare resources is minimised. But what predicts that outcome?

In 2001 the BMJ considered the issues. Paul Little and his colleagues approached three local practices that served 24 100 patients. They invited consecutive patients attending the surgery to participate. All patients able to complete the questionnaire were eligible. 661 participants completed a questionnaire before their consultation in which they were asked to agree or disagree with statements about what they wanted the doctor to do. A questionnaire after the consultation asked patients about their perception of the doctor’s approach. Both questionnaires were based on the five main domains of the patient centred model: exploring the disease and illness experience, understanding the whole person, finding common ground, health promotion, and enhancing the doctor-patient relationship

The post-consultation questionnaire included items about the reason for consultation and a positive and definite approach of the doctor to diagnosis and prognosis as well as sociodemographic details, the short state anxiety questionnaire, number of medical problems, and current treatment. The team also included questions relating to important patient related outcomes from the consultation: enablement (six questions about being enabled to cope with the problem and with life), satisfaction (medical interview satisfaction scale), and symptom burden (measure yourself medical outcome profile, which measures the severity of symptoms, feeling unwell, and daily restriction of activity). Patients were followed up after one month with the measure yourself medical outcome profile, and the team reviewed the medical records after two months for reattendance, investigation, and referral.The outcome measures of interest were patients’ enablement, satisfaction, and burden of symptoms. Factor analysis identified five components:

  1. Communication and partnership (a sympathetic doctor interested in patients’ worries and expectations and who discusses and agrees the problem and treatment);
  2. Personal relationship (a doctor who knows the patient and their emotional needs);
  3. Health promotion;
  4. Positive approach (being definite about the problem and when it would settle); and
  5. Interest in effect on patient’s life.
  • Satisfaction was related to communication and partnership and a positive approach.atisfaction was reduced if expectations were not met for communication and partnership, a positive approach, and an examination but were not affected by expectations of a prescription.
  • Enablement was greater with interest in the effect on life, health promotion, and a positive approach. Enablement was also less if expectations were not met for an examination, health promotion, and a positive approach.
  • A positive approach was also associated with reduced symptom burden at one month. Symptom burden at one month was worse if expectations of a positive approach were not met.
  • Referrals were fewer if patients felt they had a personal relationship with their doctor.If expectations of a personal relationship were not met, referrals were more likely.

From these data and similar results published before and since we can conclude that Joe and Brenda expect the following:

  1. To have their perspective considered by someone who clearly cares
  2. To be examined
  3. To have the impact of the illness on their lives taken into consideration
  4. To be advised when they are likely to feel better and
  5. To receive advice on how to avoid problems in the future

In return they will use healthcare resources less and their symptom burden will reduce. All this might be achieved without major policy reform and can be implemented locally to improve the patient experience and by corollary reduce the strain on healthcare resources.

Picture by Jenny Mealing

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


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.


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Road map to better health outcomes

  • Improvements in healthcare outcomes warrant small changes. [Previous post].
  • Those best placed to know where and how to make those adjustments will change the future.
  • The most effective changes will trigger behaviours that we are already motivated and easily able to assimilate in practice.
  • The best interventions are those in which all concerned are rewarded in some way.

Such interventions:
1. Build on something the target is already doing. Anything that adds to workload or requires practitioners or indeed patients to do something significantly different in the course of going about their business is a waste of effort [example].
2. Need very few people to adopt them.  Ideas that require an orchestrated change in patient and or their general practitioner and or the specialist will disappoint [example].
3. Must be anchored by something that already occurs in practice. Practitioners routinely reach the point where they must agree or disagree with the patient and then do something.  An intervention that is anchored at that point is more likely to be assimilated in practice [example].
4. Can be incorporated into the habits or rituals of the target. Doctors vaccinate patients and patients regularly use their phones. Ideas that combine such aspects are likely to succeed [example].
5. Provide something the target wants. Interventions that are at odds with the target’s ideas, concerns or expectations are unlikely to succeed [example]. Interventions that speak to the target’s desires can be highly effective [example].


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Small changes big impact in healthcare

According to the Royal College of General Practitioners, UK:

The consultation is at the heart of general practice… As a general practitioner, if you lack a clear understanding of what the consultation is, and how the successful consultation is achieved, you will fail your patients. RCGP

The impact of the consultation varies because of the different perspectives between doctors and their patients:

…. in the consultation the patient is most commonly construed as a purely “biomedical” entity—that is, a person with disconnected bodily symptoms, wanting a label for what is wrong and a prescription to put it right. Even under this guise the patient still sometimes fails to report their full biomedical agenda. Not all symptoms were reported and not all desires for a prescription were voiced. Barry et al BMJ

Much of what transpires in the consult is a ritual. Over the course of a professional lifetime most doctors will greet the patient in the same way, say the same sort of thing, prescribe similar drugs and order the same sorts of tests.  This occurs for a variety of reasons perhaps because a doctor learns to present herself and behave in a specific way but also because the doctor’s training and experience has a significant impact on their clinical practice. There is ample evidence that how doctors interact with their patients is crucial to the outcome of the consultation and ultimately to outcomes in healthcare:

An increasing body of work over the last 20 years has demonstrated the relationship between doctors’ non-verbal communication (in the form of eye-contact, head nods and gestures, position and tone of voice) with the following outcomes: patient satisfaction, patient understanding, physician detection of emotional distress, and physician malpractice claim history. Although more work needs to be done, there is now significant evidence that doctors need to pay considerable attention to their own non-verbal behavior. Silverman BJGP 2010

With this in mind, if you are a doctor you may want to consider seven components of your interaction with patients that warrant occasional re-evaluation:

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