Tag Archives: General practice

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

Be careful when you break eye contact


The duration of consults in medicine has been a bone of contention for years. Nowhere has the issue received more attention than in the UK where the issue of access to general practice has been the subject of debate and discussion since at least since the late nineties. The following graph depicts the duration of consults in one data set:

The accompanying commentary summaries the position well:

The shape of the curve highlights the extent of variation, though the mean is just under 12 minutes … In the GP contract 2014 the requirement for a 10 minute consultation has sensibly been dropped.  Some clamour for 15 minutes – and they are right, but for only a small minority of patients.  Many more need under 10 minutes, also right. What is inefficient is allocating the wrong time – too short, and rework results.  Too long, throughput falls and waits rise.

Therefore the issue is not merely the ‘duration’ of consults but what actually transpires in those meetings. Decades of research have identified the tasks for both parties in the consult (the paper below may not have been written by someone whose first language was English but they make their point):

For example: patients face the issues of how to put their concerns on the floor (Robinson and Heritage 2005); how to show themselves to be properly oriented to their bodies (Halkowski 2006, Heritage and Robinson 2006, Heath 2002); how to direct the doctor’s attention toward and away from certain diagnostic possibilities (Gill and Maynard 2006, Gill et al. forthcoming, Stivers 2002b); and how to deal with diagnoses and treatment recommendations that may or may not correspond to their own views and preferences (Heath 1992, Stivers 2002a, 2006, Peräkylä 2002).
From the point of view of doctors, issues include eliciting all of a patient’s concerns (Heritage et al. 2007, Robinson 2001) and designing solicitations that are fitted to the concerns that patients are likely to have (Heath 1981, Robinson 2006); preparing patients for no-problem diagnoses (Heritage and Stivers 1999) as well as difficult diagnostic news (Maynard 2003, Maynard and Frankel 2006); and securing patient agreement in regard to diagnoses (Peräkylä 2006) and treatment recommendations (Stivers 2006, Roberts 1999). Pilnick et al

We know that the doctor will be taking notes or referring to the patients records during the consultation.

Conversation analytic studies have shown that participants of a conversation constantly monitor each other
and the unfolding speech in order to be able to perform the relevant next action when the present speaker has finished his turn of talk (Sacks, Schegloff & Jefferson, 1974). The direction of gaze is of utmost importance here, as gazing at the speaker constitutes a display of attention by the recipient (Goodwin, 1980, 1981; Heath, 1986; Robinson, 1998).

In addition to direction of gaze, the engagement framework may be created and maintained by shifting one’s posture (Kendon, 1990; Schegloff, 1991; Robinson, 1998), or gesturing in the visible field of the intended recipient (Goodwin, 1986; Heath, 1986). Shifts in posture that may be treated as displays of attention or disattention can be analyzed as shifts of ‘home position’ of the body (Schegloff, 1991)

As in everyday conversation, in doctor– patient interaction the participants constantly monitor each other’s movements and direction of gaze (Heath, 1986; Robinson, 1998)

Johanna Ruusuvuor’s research, quoted above also suggests that there are four circumstances in which the consultation becomes dysfunctional insofar as the patient’s narrative is inhibited.

  1. Disengagement with home position away from the patient:

The doctor is seated facing the a desk away from the patient and does not make eye contact with the patient as they start to disclose the reason for the consultation.

2.  Disengagement with manifest shift in orientation:

The home position of the doctor is towards the desk with his head in torque towards the patient. He releases his torque simultaneously as he withdraws his gaze from the patient.

3. Disengagement at critical point of description:

Turning away at a moment when maintaining mutual involvement in a common focus of interest has been made specifically relevant, and when the utterance is still incomplete with only the very core of the complaint pending, seems to be interpreted by the speaker as a disengagement from the role of the recipient.

In the last two examples the postural orientation of the doctors, and the way in which the doctors turned away from the patient to the records within the patients’ turns were enough to convey a disengagement from interaction with the patient

4. Disengagement at critical point of story-telling:

 The doctor’s home position is towards the patient. From time to time he turns his upper body to torque towards the desk, making notes. The doctor disengages when the patient is about to reach the completion of her/his turn.

There are specific moments in which disengaging from interaction with the patients hampers a good outcome because it interrupts the narrative and the conversation becomes disjointed. Therefore it may pay great dividends to note where you are looking and how you are positioned during the consultation.

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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


More can be done to help people who consult doctors

In general practice patients generally present with undifferentiated conditions. People come for help with a cough and not ‘pneumonia’, back pain and not ‘metastatic prostatic cancer’, fatigue and ‘not diabetes’. In a study published in 2015 it was reported that a diagnosis is not established in 36% of patients with health problems. According to the research team half of the symptoms were expected to resolve or persist as ‘medically unexplained’. In their summary the team concludes that:

The study highlights the need for a professional and scientific approach to symptoms as a phenomenon in its own right. Rosendal et al

We also know that the commonest symptoms relate to the musculoskeletal system, respiratory system and the digestive tract. As long ago as 1984 Gordon Waddell and colleagues made a similar point in the BMJ :

The amount of treatment received by 380 patients with backache was found to have been influenced more by their distress and illness behaviour than by the actual physical disease. Patients showing a large amount of inappropriate illness behaviour had received significantly more treatment (p <0 001).

They concluded:

We know that a standard medical history and examination provide a wealth of information not only about the disease from which the patient is suffering but also about how that particular person is reacting to and coping with his or her illness. What is necessary now is to devote as much time and effort to the study and understanding of illness behaviour as we do at present to the investigation of physical disease. Only thus can we put the art of medicine on to a sound scientific basis.

Decades later these words are prophetic and we find that the thrust of research is on the diagnosis and treatment of specific pathology rather than on how to help people to cope with persistent back pain, acute cough or ill defined abdominal pain. This continues to be a bone of contention between doctors and patients as was illustrated in a classic paper by Joe Kai writing about the management of illness in preschool children in general practice:

Parents expressed a need for more information about children’s illness. Advice about the management of common symptoms was insufficient. They sought explanation and detail that was specific and practical to help them make decisions about the likely cause of an illness, how to assess severity, and when to seek professional advice. They wanted to know of any implications of the illness or its treatment and the potential for prevention in the future. Most thought that being more informed would reduce rather than increase their anxiety.

In a literature review published in 2002 in the BJGP Hay and Wilson charted the progress of children under 4 who develop an acute cough:

At one week, 75% of children may have improved but 50% may be still coughing and/or have a nasal discharge. At two weeks up to 24% of children may be no better. Within two weeks of presentation, 12% of children may experience one or more complication, such as rash, painful ears, diarrhoea, vomiting, or progression to bronchitis/pneumonia.

The authors conclude that:

Illness duration may be longer and complications higher than many parents and clinicians expect. This may help to set more realistic expectations of the illness and help parents to decide when and if to reconsult.

By implication, as well as knowing when and how to investigate symptoms, it would help patients if doctors also routinely communicated the natural history of the commonest symptoms including and especially:

  • Acute cough
  • Acute low back pain
  • Rash
  • Depression
  • Sprain /strain

For example it has been demonstrated that the experience of individual doctors on this issue is unreliable. Writing on acute low back pain researchers from New Zealand suggests that 91% of patients stop consulting their doctor at 3 months after the pain starts and long before their symptoms have resolved. Also that only 1:5 patients are free of pain or disability one year after an acute episode of low back pain.

Picture by Tina Franklin

Am I going to be like this forever doctor?

There is an opportunity in nearly every medical interaction to make a substantial difference to the outcome by reassuring. What nearly every patient wants to know is:

How long will this horrible feeling last?

We can be reassuring in the various ways in which we conduct ourselves in healthcare. On the stage, with the props, in the persona we adopt, in the dialogue and in the action. All of it matters. Much of what appears on this blog speaks to these aspects of the consult.

People attend doctors for one main reason. They are worried. It doesn’t matter whether the cause is a minor self-limiting illness or a life-limiting cancer. Symptoms ultimately drive us to the medicine man. Here are the results of a study entitled ‘Why Patients Visit Their Doctors’:

We included a total of 142,377 patients, 75,512 (53%) of whom were female. Skin disorders (42.7%), osteoarthritis and joint disorders (33.6%), back problems (23.9%), disorders of lipid metabolism (22.4%), and upper respiratory tract disease (22.1%, excluding asthma) were the most prevalent disease groups in this population. Ten of the 15 most prevalent disease groups were more common in women in almost all age groups, whereas disorders of lipid metabolism, hypertension, and diabetes were more common in men. Additionally, the prevalence of 7 of the 10 most common groups increased with advancing age. Prevalence also varied across ethnic groups (whites, blacks, and Asians). St. Sauver et al

For each of these conditions it is possible to prepare a response that will reassure the person that things will improve.  It is interesting to read the lay commentary on the data:

What’s funny is that while skin disease is the most common reason for doctor visits in America, it’s usually the least detrimental to overall health……Pretty much everybody (and I mean everybody) has experienced a cold before. You know the symptoms; runny nose; coughing; sore throat; congestion. Due to the high volume of people who get colds every year (most people get multiple colds per year), it’s no surprise that some of those people will see the doctor about it. Therichest

And the implications of this commentary is that the response to patient is a ‘set-play’. Doctors and healthcare organisations can prepare to host a visit from most people who present for help. If you are a doctor what is your interaction like with someone with acne or eczema? How do you respond when this is the reason for attendance is a cold? What do you do? What do you say? Is that reassuring? How do you know? For most if not all these problems much of the treatment includes prescribing ‘tincture of time’ essentially that means reassuring the patient that they will not suffer forever.

There is evidence that such an attitude reduces the impact of the illness:

Clinician empathy, as perceived by patients with the common cold, significantly predicts subsequent duration and severity of illness and is associated with immune system changes. Rakel et al

Picture by Christophe Laurent

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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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

To stem healthcare costs offer more time in the consulting room

It is evident that healthcare costs are outstripping inflation. The drivers are increasing utilisation of services and exponential cost of treatment.

As healthcare continues to take up a larger part of the overall economy, structural changes-such as the push toward paying for value, greater emphasis on care management and increased cost sharing with consumers-are taking a stronger hold, pulling back against rapid healthcare spending growth. Still, with medical cost trend hovering between 6 and 7 percent for several years, health spending continues to outpace the economy. Even the “new normal” is not sustainable. PWC

New or increased use of medical technology contributes 40–50% to annual cost increases, and controlling this technology is the most important factor in reducing them. The Hastings centre

What has been shown to reduce costs is General Practice.

Despite contentious debate over the new national health care reform law, there is an emerging consensus that strengthening primary care will improve health outcomes and restrain the growth of health care spending. HealthAffairs

There are several ways in which doctors in this sector can save the day:

  1. Reduce test ordering.
  2. Prescribe generic drugs where appropriate and avoiding prescribing drugs that have not been proven to be effective.
  3. Stop polypharmacy especially for older people.
  4. Help patients to determine what has marginal value and what is essential if not life saving.

These goals are easier to achieve when:

  1. Doctors have time with patients
  2. Doctors are able to communicate with patients
  3. Doctors clinics/ office are designed to engage patients.

Primary care is also being perceived as ripe for disruption by technological innovation. However not everyone agrees that technology is likely to help:

1. Telehealth.

Direct-to-consumer telehealth may increase access by making care more convenient for certain patients, but it may also increase utilization and health care spending. Ashwood et al

Using a panel dataset from a large healthcare system in the United States, we find that e-visits trigger about 6% additional office visits, with mixed results on phone visits and patient health. These additional visits come at the sacrifice of new patients: physicians accept 15% fewer new patients each month following e-visit adoption. Bavafa et al

2. Wearable technologies.

35% will stop wearing their devices after six months. It is not known what proportion of people with smartwatches actually use the fitness tracking capabilities of these watches on an ongoing basis. There is little information about the demographics of people who purchase fitness trackers and smartwatches; however, given the cost, consumers are likely to be the “wealthy well”. People suffering from chronic disease on the other hand are more likely to come from the less educated and lower income population. And then there is the issue of what data these devices collect and what we can actually do with that data.  The Conversation

3. Genetic testing.

Cost is also a factor. Estimates of national spending on genetic and molecular testing vary, partly because there are so many different types of tests for different conditions. A 2012 analysis by UnitedHealth Group of national trends estimated the U.S. could see overall spending on genetic tests reach between $15 billion and $25 billion by 2021, up from $5 billion in 2010. Despite the uncertainties, Independence CEO Daniel J. Hilferty said the insurer felt it was important to try to help some members learn more about their disease. He declined to say how much the program would cost but said the expected number of patients would be small, perhaps in the hundreds. Medpage today

4. Electronic medical records.

Electronic health record (EHR) advocates argue that EHRs lead to reduced errors and reduced costs. Many reports suggest otherwise. The EHR often leads to higher billings and declines in provider productivity with no change in provider-to-patient ratios. Error reduction is inconsistent and has yet to be linked to savings or malpractice premiums. As interest in patient-centeredness, shared decision making, teaming, group visits, open access, and accountability grows, the EHR is better viewed as an insufficient yet necessary ingredient. Absent other fundamental interventions that alter medical practice, it is unlikely that the U.S. health care bill will decline as a result of the EHR alone. Health Affairs

On the other hand there are simple things that doctors can already do when consulting patients to reduce the cost of healthcare. Here are three which have been featured in leanmedicine as well as in the Wall Street Journal before:

a. Slow down

b. Active communication

c.  Minimise competing agendas

In short: ” If you want doctors to improve communication skills with patients, then pay them for their time to do it”

Image by Roswell Park