Tag Archives: General practice

Managing demand for primary care

Why do people consult doctors? At first glance because they feel unwell. However research suggests that the reasons are far more complex than that. Innovators also know that the answer to this question is vital for those seeking an agile, intuitive, creative and cheap solution to the demand for their services. Theories predict the consultation habits of many patients. I especially like this summary:

The overall prevalence of symptoms in the community is not closely related to general practice consultation rates, and the consulting population is a selected population of those who are in need of medical care. The literature reviewed suggests that poor health status, social disadvantage poor social support and inadequate coping strategies are associated with higher consultation rates. Some populations subgroups may experience particular barriers to seeking care. Campbell and Roland

Innovators might also ask why are those patients sitting in my waiting room? I remember a hoary old tale of a doctor who was feeling especially grumpy one day and stormed through the waiting room announcing that anyone who thought they had a ‘real’ problem should stay everyone else should go home- half the waiting room emptied.

It seems quite a few people who go to doctors will have symptoms- however a proportion will be back there by invitation. How big a proportion and why have they been invited back? There are many reasons to schedule a repeat appointment. It conveys the notion that the patient will be harmed if they don’t see a doctor on a given day for one or more of these reasons:

1. Their response to treatment is unpredictable and the dose or drug may need to be revised

2. They have a condition that can’t be diagnosed or may progress or need additional measures by a specified date

However other reasons for requesting a review include:

1. The doctor isn’t confident that the diagnosis is correct and wants a chance to review the advice issued.

2. The patient is required by someone (e.g. an employer) to produce evidence of a visit to a doctor

3. A full waiting room ensures the doctor looks busy for whatever other reason.

4. The doctor needs to reinforce the impression that the condition has been taken seriously.

The time cost for doing everything that could possibly be recommended for patients with chronic conditions  has been shown to be untenable. Either the guidelines are wrong or a different solution needs to be found for at least some of these people. What is the evidence for asking a patient to return within a week or two with a specific new condition and within a month with a longstanding condition?

There is a need to be proactive in some cases. However is it possible that we encourage people to attend for review appointments when there is a low probability that they will benefit? Are there other reasons to fill the waiting room?

The most successful health innovation ever

What medical innovation is:

1. Available worldwide
2. More likely to yield a diagnosis than an X-ray
3. Cheaper than the cheapest stethoscope
4. Requires less training to operate than a tendon hammer?

Answer: A tongue depressor

Why? Because when deployed within the context of a medical consultation- when the practitioner gives the patient their undivided attention, the tongue depressor forges a relationship that may lead the patient to express their deepest concerns. In what other social context can you shove a piece of wood into someones open mouth and get them to say ahhh? A few years ago I consulted a fifty year old mother of five, working as a supermarket check out assistant complaining of a sore throat. We talked about how awful she felt and how she was struggling to cope with her job, how she gets frequent bouts of tonsillitis and how she was afraid her boss would sack her. She had a mildly red throat and I thought I could feel a couple of tender lymphnodes in her neck but her temperature was normal and I remember thinking I’d seen worse earlier that day. Then as I turned around to write a prescription she burst into tears and said-

‘There’s something else I need to tell you doctor. I’m now working as a prostitute because for the first time in ten years I haven’t been able to afford my kids school books.’

That was not what I expected to hear, or anything they told me at medical school could result from examining a throat. That consultation took a very different direction, she was screened for other infections and was fortunately negative. We then talked about her dilemma and she decided there may be better ways to furnish her kids with what they needed for school.

There is very little evidence that the appearance of the throat aids the diagnosis in most cases- even a viral sore throat can mimic a bacterial infection. In any case in developed economies penicillin does not help the patients recover much quicker. However, anyone with a sore throat who consults a doctor expects to be examined. Besides why do people seek medical advice about pharyngitis? It is common knowledge that in most cases a couple of paracetamol, fluids and rest is the only effective treatment. In many cases people are expressing concern about some other aspect of their life when they present with minor self limiting illness. What people say, if you are receptive is

‘I’m unhappy, I’m worried, I’m bored, I’m feeling guilty, I’m tired or I’m not coping and this discomfort is the last straw.’

That’s one of the myriad of reasons that general practice is the most challenging medical specialty, nothing is necessarily what it seems at first glance.

Innovations don’t need to be high tech or expensive- a tongue depressor costs 13 cents. That doesn’t mean that in the right hands such simple equipment is not extraordinarily powerful. There are tools we seldom do without- a stethoscope is vital and not only because of what we can hear when we put it to the chest.

The secret to lean health innovation is harnessing the truth

In the later 1990s when I was practicing in a 7,000 patient practice in England we had a system of five minute appointments. Five minute appointments that were really ten minute appointments. In most cases a doctor can’t achieve anything useful during a five minute appointment. Some doctors would argue that ten or even fifteen minutes is scarcely enough. However this was how it had ‘always been done’ so the new doctors to the practice adopted the system that was in place. By the time you got to the last patient in every surgey you were running at least half an hour late. We were kidding ourselves—nobody ever finished by 11am. We were still consulting at midday and then rushing off to do home visits stuffing a sandwich in as we drove from patient to patient. We were back at the surgery by 2pm ready to start the whole thing again—intending to finish at 5, but in reality turning off the lights after everyone had gone at 6.30pm.

The data was right under our noses. Some doctors were known to ‘always run late’, others became adept at pushing patients in an out quickly with a prescription in their hand and instructions to return next week. Patients learned to choose the doctor they thought was best for them, whether that was one who would ‘get to the bottom of it’ or give you a prescription and a sick note but couldn’t be relied on to know when you had cancer.

Consulting style does impact a patient’s choice of doctor. and doctors and patients don’t always share the same view on their consultations.

Meanwhile back at the practice resentments festered because some doctors were having coffee in the staff room at 11 while their colleagues were still working through the list until nearly midday. There were suspicions that the early finishers were seeing fewer patients and never around when the emergency walk-in turned up at 11.45. Stressed doctors couldn’t see what was already evident to everyone else in the practice—we needed to redesign our appointment system and tackle issues engendered by our own delusions. In the end, as a practice, we needed to look at how each practitioner was consulting and how this was reflecting the practices’ values to its patients.

Something had to either change or give and we decided that if it wasn’t going to be us or the patients, then it had to be our system. We had to face the truth that the numbers of patient appointments we scheduled during the day was greater than our capacity to treat them properly in the time we allocated.

Our colleagues in other surgeries thought we were ‘brave’ to move to ten minute appointments. There were implications for radical changes to our appointment system. But the first thing we needed to recognise was that our schedule must treat our patients as if their time mattered at least as much as ours. It was, and is, unacceptable to keep patients waiting because we don’t want to accept reality. This denial leads to patients failing to keep their appointments, choosing to go elsewhere and it ultimately leads to doctors burning out.

We didn’t need a big R&D department to tell us what our staff and patients would say if we bothered to ask. I now work in Australia and still see the same patterns here. My friends tell me you can count on this doctor to prescribe antibiotics no matter what is wrong with you, and that one always gets to the bottom of things but prepare a packed lunch when you make an appointment with him.

Our time is not more important just because we are doctors. Innovation sometimes involves taking responsibility not investing in a new computer program or running a focus group.

Why the future of health lies in thinking small

General Practice in Australia is a private business. There are 7200 GP businesses in Australia, with a revenue of $10bn per annum. Each practitioner is estimated to earn $200,000 on average. 95% of the income for these businesses is derived from government rebates, mostly from 10 to 15 minute consultations. The concerns of the practitioners in this context are said to be:

1. Threat of litigation

2. Too much work to do in a limited time

3. Earning enough money

4. Patients who are difficult to manage

5. Paperwork

6. Intrusion of work on family life

7. The cost of practice overheads

8. Time pressure to see patients

9. Unrealistic community expectations

10. Negative media comments

Increases in the Medicare rebate have failed to keep pace with the rise in the costs of running a GP service with increased patient throughput often used to make up the shortfall. Where this and other barriers exist, it may not be feasible for patients to be offered additional advice or services beyond their original reason for presentation unless a strategy is negotiated and agreed between the relevant players.

We know that the healthcare needs of patients are set to change in three important ways:

1. The population is aging.

2. There are more effective, albeit ever more expensive treatments available.

3. Poor lifestyle choices, linked to obesity will generate greater demand for medical appointments.

We are therefore relying on private businesses to respond to growing need in the knowledge that they are already working to capacity.

Under the central set of assumptions used in this study, total health and residential aged care expenditure is projected to increase by 189% in the period 2003 to 2033 from $85 billion to $246 billion—an increase of $161 billion….This is an increase from 9.3% of gross domestic product (GDP) in 2002–03 to 12.4% in 2032–33. Increases in volume of services per treated case are projected to account for half of this increase (50%). Projection of Australian health care expenditure by disease, 2003 to 2033

Another unique aspect of the business of medicine is that despite its technical and scientific basis, medicine is most effective when the human interaction between practitioner and patient is at its heart. Efforts to interfere in the process through the revision of payment schedules are only partially successful if not actually harmful.

The commercial reality is that without innovation, primary care as a business will not keep up with demand. To date evidence in practice is that researchers in primary care often fail to engage with clinical partners and innovation is stymied. Government investment in innovation in primary care is on the one hand conservative and limited. Ninety percent of government funded healthcare is delivered by small businesses and yet over 90% of government investment in research and innovation is targeted elsewhere. What little is funded is usually awarded to competing tertiary institutions whose performance is measured on academic outputs rather than impact on practice.

These are the foundations for a lean, agile, creative, approach to innovation  based on commercial reality and factoring in three key elements:

1. The most expensive component of innovation is establishing the problem and creating a value proposition that  factors in the perspective of end users.

2. Innovation only ever works when it is driven by a champion willing and able to re-engineer multiple prototypes to solve the problem.

3. There are opportunities for commercial partnerships if the key performance is reframed in the metrics of sales.

The conditions already exist for this approach to innovation in the business of primary care. Primary care in many countries, like Australia, is led by highly creative, intuitive problem solvers, many invest their insights and energy on small projects that have the scope for substantial commercial returns but more importantly to deal with the coming tsunami of health related problems. The final word is to Paul Graham:

People are bad at looking at seeds and guessing what size tree will grow out of them. The way you’ll get big ideas in, say, health care is by starting out with small ideas. If you try to do some big thing, you don’t just need it to be big; you need it to be good. And it’s really hard to do big and good simultaneously. So, what that means is you can either do something small and good and then gradually make it bigger, or do something big and bad and gradually make it better. And you know what? Empirically, starting big just does not work. That’s the way the government does things. They do something really big that’s really bad, and they think, Well, we’ll make it better, and then it never gets better.

The importance of touch in the medical consultation. There is no app for that

When people are scared or in trouble what they want most is to be touched. Information alone is never enough to satisfy the deepest human needs that bubble up when our bodies appear to malfunction. This was recognised generations ago and the role of doctor was socially ordained. Doctors are licensed to examine the body intimately. Any doctor who abuses this trust is severely punished. The examination provides the healer with the information required to make a diagnosis, but more importantly it comforts the sufferer through human contact.

When I was a ‘wet behind the ears’ GP trainee, my clinical mentor offered me two pieces of advice in relation to the medical consultation. He told me to always stand up to greet the patient as they walk into the room and to look for an opportunity to lay hands on the patient, even if only to take their pulse.

Innovators may be tempted to think that everything that takes place in the consultation can be distilled down to the exchange of information and advice. However the consultation is designed to promote healing by allowing people to express concern and empathy through verbal and nonverbal behaviour. The former requires excellent communication skills, the latter is conducted as a series of rituals: ‘inspection, palpation, percussion and auscultation‘. And even as the body is examined the patient needs to feel that the examiner is concerned and respectful. If this is done well, healing can begin, sometimes against the odds.

This has important implications for innovation in health care. It’s not possible to interrupt or diminish the direct association between the doctor and the patient with gadgets or gizmos. If we do we may lose more than we gain.

Seven trends influencing lean medical innovation

Innovators recognise that the their circle of influence is contingent on an awareness of their customers’ world view. Seven trends now impact on whether people are likely to welcome innovation into their lives.

Mobile communication

For many people mobile phones have replaced their wrist watch, camera and PDA. Phones are now used not only to keep in touch but also to access information with two taps. This is achieved on a ubiquitous device that is getting cheaper and more portable. An allied trend is for tablet computers that are little bigger than a phone to obviate the need for a laptop.


People now demand validity for professional advice that until recently was accepted as gospel because an authority figure proffered it as the truth. This means that you no longer trust me simply because I am a doctor. What’s more people want the results of medical tests in a format that makes sense to them regardless of their ability to digest complex information .

Quantified self

There is an increasing desire to measure and record whatever can be measured as if that in itself will be enough to influence our behaviour. Everything from blood pressure to how much we sleep. Quite what people are doing with all this information is a matter of debate but people are seeking ways to access this information.

Information overload

Because of the almost unlimited source of information at their fingertips people are actively filtering data. A quick Google search for ‘best diet’ revealed 625 million results with page upon page of conflicting and confusing advice. On the one hand you could opt for intermittent dieting or you could take the advice to ditch the diet altogether. As I hold the view that it has to be proved scientifically before it can be deemed true I more or less ignored (i.e. didn’t read) anything that didn’t appear to conform to my own worldview for valid and reliable advice.

Dr. Google.

Concerned people want relief from the outpouring of adrenalin with its unpleasant physical effects. In a Googlised world iving with uncertainty is regarded as unnecessary. This means as a clinician you have to assume people will have done some homework before they speak with you. Either what you say will resonate with their ‘ informed opinion’ or your advice will be rejected unless you are able to say or do something that changes how they feel about their problem and or the treatment.


The cost of staying healthy increases every year . In Australia the cost of attending a doctor have fast outstripped the rate of inflation. As we age and need more maintenance we will either spend a greater proportion of our income on medicines or look for cheaper alternatives. There is now a compelling business case for marketing cheaper and more effective ways to deal with health problems that until recently required doctors’ appointments.

Want it now

Anyone living with a teenager knows that they no longer accept the wait for Christmas. If you want it, there must be a quick, cheap and immediate way to get it, preferably delivered to your door with a money back guarantee. Therefore speed of delivery is necessary, but not sufficient for success. Innovations that do what they say on the tin, at a reasonable price and come with excellent after sales service are almost guaranteed a bright future.

Lean medicine is about working in a world that has an insatiable appetite for quick, convenient, cheap solutions. The seven trends outlined here have a significant impact on the diffusion of innovation in healthcare. How have they impacted on the success of your ideas?

Innovating at the interface between service providers

At least one in a hundred patients seen in general practice are referred to hospital.

In many countries the referral process hasn’t changed in decades. It’s still done with pen and paper and even in 2013 in some developed countries it still involves a fax machine. What’s interesting about the process is that once the letter is received at the hospital, it is read and then triaged by someone to determine when the patient should be offered an appointment. The decision is made in less than a minute. Everything, perhaps even life or death situations. hinges on the impression created by the writer of that letter.

In a government subsidised system, where there is a need to ration appointments, a patient might be seen next week, next month or six months from now. The reality is that in some cases a patient might wait longer than is ideal and the outcome for them may be compromised, because of what was in the referral letter and how that was interpreted. Who then is to blame, the doctor who was consulted first, or the hospital that arranged a deferred appointment? How can innovation help in this situation?

I’ve been involved on teams that have studied this problem from many different angles culminating in a randomised trial of an innovation in 2012. We came to a number of conclusions. Firstly involving people in innovation when they don’t believe they have a problem is frustrating. Many doctors think their letters are just fine, or that the recipient hardly reads them. Its difficult to innovate in a busy clinic where doctors are working flat out, and the truth is that if the innovation doesn’t make life easier for the doctor as well as the patient then it’s going to be hard to implement.

Secondly colleagues are reticent to demand change from one another, especially when they work in different parts of the system. So, as a hospital specialist I might not feel I have any mandate to require that referral letters contain the details that I like to have. It’s even worse when the paymasters across the sectors are different. In Australia hospitals are funded by State governments, whereas primary care is funded by the Federal government. What’s more primary care providers work to a ‘pay for service’ model. Which effectively means that primary care survives on profits.

Thirdly, it is unsafe to assume that all colleagues apply the same criteria about what clinical scenarios should be allocated an urgent specialist opinion, even within the same specialty, in the same healthcare system, and with reference to nationally accepted guidelines. That was unexpected!

Some problems require a whole systems approach. A problem that has seemingly obvious roots, with a strong(ish) evidence base can be difficult to crack with a lean medicine approach. Where multiple individuals are involved across health sectors, it is absolutely necessary that innovations make everyone’s life easier. Requiring letters to be written a certain way, and demanding that the process is enforced by the recipients, when there isn’t local consensus on what is an urgent case, is not going to work without something else to make it worthwhile for all concerned. What this problem calls for is more innovation when it comes to making the decision to refer. Perhaps more sensitive near-patient tests, which are better able to predict who is most likely to benefit from limited national resources.

What are your ideas for improvement that don’t require people to donate time and effort for no personal gain? Pushing out innovation is not enough, if there isn’t a pull from those at the coalface to adopt those ideas. It isn’t safe, even in medicine, to assume that people will do it, use it or promote it simply because they recognise that patients will benefit.

See demand in context and respond creatively

9645066390_babd98c3f1_zHello Jill, Oh, I’m sorry I have no appointments to offer you today. the doctors are all fully booked. If your son has a fever try him with some paracetamol and call back on Friday when I might be able to squeeze him in with Dr. Jones. Ok, bye.

Many years ago I overheard this conversation in my reception. Our receptionist giving medical advice without any qualifications. The surgery was over booked. She was harassed, doctors were grumpy and the patients were being turned away without being assessed by anyone.

We noticed that there was a seasonal pattern to this demand for appointments. Most doctors were aware of this trend because there were specific weeks of the year when they avoided taking holidays. Our reception staff kept meticulous colour coded records of such ‘same day’ appointments. When we entered this data on a statistical database there could be no doubt of a seasonal pattern with definite peaks and troughs. What’s more, we could predict the demand for ‘same day urgent appointments’ with reasonable confidence. At this point, it may be important to stress that doctors in the UK are paid a ‘capitation fee’ for serving patients. That means they are paid an annual fee no matter how many times they see the patient.

Understanding that people have a fundamental desire to talk to the decision maker, we settled on the notion of putting the doctor in charge of making the appointment. Patients who requested a ‘same day’ appointment were offered a telephone consultation with a general practitioner initially. Not with a nurse, as happened in some practices, but with their doctor. We believed patients wanted to speak with a medical practitioner, not because the advice they received was necessarily better than that given by another member of the team, but because people in distress want a doctor. Whatever the reason it worked. Important policy makers noticed. Doctors could deal with most requests within a couple of minutes, offer a ‘same day’ slot or something else without the need for a face-to-face appointment. We calculated a 40% reduction in demand for such appointments. Patients loved it, reception staff loved it too (no more arguments about lack of appointments with irate patients) and doctors found themselves in control of their workload. What’s more, we could prove that this simple intervention worked from the impact on longitudinal seasonal trend.

By allowing patients to speak to their doctor when they felt they couldn’t wait our practice chose to treat this small minority of patients differently to those who were happy to make a routine appointment. We acknowledged that these patients had a need that warranted a creative solution. Perhaps you have a group of patients who would benefit from being treated differently too? What is the context in which they seek help? The tired mother with a fevered child does not have the same needs as the young professional who requires a convenient appointment to obtain a prescription for the contraceptive pill. Both might seek an urgent appointment.

Picture by Marjan Lazerveski

The context is often private and confidential

7257592240_6759efd5a5_zThe consultation between a doctor and patient is private. Innovators hoping to improve outcomes in that context can’t observe the exchange directly because some presentations are very uncommon and because neither the doctor nor the patient welcomes the intrusion. There are many outcomes of the encounter between patient and doctor that we still don’t fully understand. Why are some patients’ cancer symptoms not recognised as early warnings? Why do carers of patients with a life-limiting illness fail to have their own medical problems addressed? Why do people living with some chronic conditions continue to have problems with intimacy?

People deploy verbal and non-verbal cues to communicate. They choose when and how to disclose their ideas, concerns and expectations. However in an average consultation in my country, the patient has fifteen minutes to ‘spit it out’. Similarly, clinicians vary in their ability to pick up cues or to probe with the right question, assuming they get the right answer. Hence errors of omission and or commission.

Lean medicine is about being intuitive, creative and agile. Lean innovators, clinicians, are already on site. Therefore, they can reproduce the context in a way that can be observed and where they can be tested with other clinicians. Video technology and a fusion of skills across disciplines allow the depiction of those encounters in such a way as to present the critical decision point for close examination. Do you prescribe, refer or investigate in these circumstances? What do you say to the patient?

How do you explore hard to reach elements in your practice or business? How can you hope to innovate for encounters that are strictly private and confidential but where mistakes or misunderstanding can be very bad for business. Who has the insight to show you? How can you generate valid hypotheses? How do you test ideas without a real risk of casualties?

Picture by Urbanbohemian