Tag Archives: General practice

Why medical tests can be misleading

If you have had to consult a healthcare practitioner there will almost certainly have been an occasion when you were advised to have a test or X-ray. But to what extent could you have been misled by the results of that test? Well it depends. The issue may seem complex but the science need not be inaccessible.

Purpose: To conduct a video vignette survey of medical students and doctors investigating test ordering for patients presenting with self-limiting or minor illness.

Methods: Participants were shown six video vignettes of common self-limiting illnesses and invited to devise investigation and management plans for the patients’ current presentation. The number of tests ordered was compared with those recommended by an expert panel. A Theory of Planned Behaviour Questionnaire explored participants’ beliefs and attitudes about ordering tests in the context of self-limiting illness.

Results: Participants (n=61) were recruited from across Australia. All participants ordered at least one test that was not recommended by the experts in most cases. Presentations that focused mainly on symptoms (eg, in cases with bowel habit disturbance and fatigue) resulted in more tests being ordered. A test not recommended by experts was ordered on 54.9% of occasions. With regard to attitudes to test ordering, junior doctors were strongly influenced by social norms. The number of questionable tests ordered in this survey of 366 consultations has a projected cost of $17 000.

Conclusions: This study suggests that there is some evidence of questionable test ordering by these participants with significant implications for costs to the health system. Further research is needed to explore the extent and reasons for test ordering by junior doctors across a range of clinical settings. D’Souza et al

I summarise the issue in this video:

Picture by Erich Ferdinand

The healthcare experience must change

The person who believes they have a problem must be fully involved in the options offered for treatment if healthcare is to result in the best outcomes. Research and experience suggests that may not always be the case:

OBJECTIVE: To evaluate hospitalized patients’ understanding of their plan of care.

PATIENTS AND METHODS: Interviews of a cross-sectional sample of hospitalized patients and their physicians were conducted from June 6 through June 26, 2008. Patients were asked whether they knew the name of the physician and nurse responsible for their care and specific questions about 6 aspects of the plan of care for the day (primary diagnosis, planned tests, planned procedures, medication changes, physician services consulted, and the expected length of stay). Physicians were interviewed and asked about the plan of care in the same fashion as for the patients. Two board-certified internists reviewed responses and rated patient-physician agreement on each aspect of the plan of care as none, partial, or complete agreement.

RESULTS: Of 250 eligible patients, 241 (96%) agreed to be interviewed. A total of 233 (97%) of 241 physicians completed the interview, although sample sizes vary because of missing data elements. Of 239 patients, 77 (32%) correctly named at least 1 of their hospital physicians, and 143 patients (60%) correctly named their nurses. For each aspect of care, patients and physicians lacked agreement on the plan of care in a large number of instances. Specifically, there was no agreement between patients and physicians on planned tests or procedures for the day in 87 (38%) of 229 instances and in 22 (10%) of 220 instances. Complete agreement on the anticipated length of stay occurred in only 85 (39%) of 218 instances.

CONCLUSION: A substantial portion of hospitalized patients do not understand their plan of care. Patients’ limited understanding of their plan of care may adversely affect their ability to provide informed consent for hospital treatments and to assume their own care after discharge. O’Leary et al

Here is my summary of this topic:

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The future arriving at an unprecedented speed

  •   As a general practitioner you must show a commitment to patient-centred medicine, displaying a non-judgmental attitude, promoting equality and valuing diversity
  •   Clear, sensitive and effective communication with your patient and their advocates is essential for a successful consultation
  •   The epidemiology of new illness presenting in general practice requires a normality-orientated approach, reducing medicalisation and promoting self-care
  •   Negotiating management plans with the patient involves balancing the patient’s values and preferences with the best available evidence and relevant ethical and legal principles
  •   As a general practitioner you must manage complexity, uncertainty and continuity of care within the time-restricted setting of a consultation
  •   The increasing availability of digital technology brings opportunities for easier sharing of information and different formats of consulting, as well as raising concerns around information security. RCGP

The summary suggests that the consultation will survive. However the rate of change in every other service is such that the notion of ‘negotiating’ seem quaint as more choices are made directly available to the consumer. Healthcare providers need to be part of the solution as was suggested in this research:

Communications technologies are variably utilised in healthcare. Policymakers globally have espoused the potential benefits of alternatives to face-to-face consultations, but research is in its infancy. The aim of this essay is to provide thinking tools for policymakers, practitioners and researchers who are involved in planning, implementing and evaluating alternative forms of consultation in primary care.

We draw on preparations for a focussed ethnographic study being conducted in eight general practice settings in the UK, knowledge of the literature, qualitative social science and Cochrane reviews. In this essay we consider different types of patients, and also reflect on how the work, practice and professional identities of different members of staff in primary care might be affected.

Elements of practice are inevitably lost when consultations are no longer face-to-face, and we know little about the impact on core aspects of the primary care relationship. Resistance to change is normal and concerns about the introduction of alternative methods of consultation are often expressed using proxy reasons; for example, concerns about patient safety. Any planning or research in the field of new technologies should be attuned to the potential for unintended consequences.

Implementation of alternatives to the face-to-face consultation is more likely to succeed if approached as co-designed initiatives that start with the least controversial and most promising changes for the practice. Researchers and evaluators should explore actual experiences of the different consultation types amongst patients and the primary care team rather than hypothetical perspectives.

Here is my perspective on the challenge:

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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.

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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

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