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It is time for primary care to enter the triggering business

It has been suggested, some would say demonstrated that doctors know very little about their patients. If you are a doctor could you identify your patient’s partner from a line-up of strangers (other than people you see as a couple)?  Or could you tell without seeing the name on the document if this bank statement belonged to that patient? Or whether that utility bill was from where that person lives? Is this internet search history theirs? Do you know how much they spend on lottery tickets? Alcohol? Vegetables?

A few years ago our team then based in the UK was evaluating an intervention to increase access to general practitioners. If the intervention worked we would have to demonstrate improvement over the course of a whole year. Here’s the thing, we noted that year after year there was a pattern to the demand for same day (emergency) appointments- with definite peaks and troughs. So if the intervention worked it would have to be sustained during both the peaks and the troughs. It did. The data on out-of-hours services exhibited very similar patterns- with definite peaks and troughs and at unexpected times of the year. We could not explain the patterns but noted that when the meteorological office recorded  22 hours or more of sunshine in the week the demand for appointments dropped. Not the prevalence of viral or other community pathogens but sunshine of all things! Okay may it was some factor that we hadn’t modelled in the analysis but there was a definite pattern that we could not immediately explain on the basis of what seemed plausible at the time. We called it the Spring Cleaning Effect– we hypothesised that people in the UK were less likely to attend doctors in general practice when there was a run of sunny days on which to do outdoorsy things. We didn’t anticipate this- nor did clinic managers because the patterns of demand were not used to inform the scheduling of doctors’ on-call rosters. It was clear that they were blind to a phenomenon nobody understood fully.

More recently I reviewed some data on certification for low back pain and noted the pattern that as unemployment rates in a locality increased the rates of certification dropped and then plateaued.

Our team is now investigating similar data from a large employers’ records. We hypothesise that rates of submission of sickness certification will show a sharp drop when vacancy rates fall and other markers of economic health decline. People may be far less likely to take time off sick if they are fearful of upsetting their supervisor. With respect to primary care, it is unlikely that doctors will know everything that impacts on their patient’s choices. Time spent with the patient in discovering these things is unlikely to increase as it comes at a financial cost. Therefore doctors will never fully anticipate all the drivers to patient behaviour. Why does that obese person fail to take action on weight management? Why does this other person take ‘medication holidays’ when they need to take the treatment consistently to benefit? Why does the next person refuse to have an X-ray? Why is there a rush of people with relatively minor conditions demanding appointments this week and not last?

Some drivers lead people to behave in unexpected ways as I have commented here previously. Not only that but as Mullainathan and Shafir have postulated people are often unable or perhaps unwilling to follow doctor’s advice. In the end, the best we can hope is to trigger the relevant behaviour in people who are already motivated and seek teachable moments to inspire people to act for their benefit. Primary care may be more about recognising or fishing for opportunities and much less ‘educating’ for change. Such triggers need to fit within the final moments of a 15-minute consult. The work to develop and evaluate such triggers is only beginning. Counselling patients to stop smoking will yield 1:20 quits in a year, showing them a trigger (in less than 5 minutes) that appeals to their vanity results in 1:7 quits. A substantial number (1:5) of obese people will lose weight in 6 months if they are shown what difference that would make to their appearance without having to be extensively counselled on diet and exercise.

Picture by Aimee Rivers

Why when you are sick don’t you do what you can to help yourself?

At 68 Frank has been prescribed the usual mix of medications: three different drugs for blood pressure, a statin and two different pain killers. His problems, as he lists them are fatigue, snoring and back pain. From his doctor’s perspective, the problems are obesity, a dreadful diet, and sedentary lifestyle.

OK doc, but I think I need a referral for my snoring.

Two weeks ago he wanted a different pain killer and the week before that he wanted to be referred to a physiotherapist. The major challenge in helping people who are struggling with chronic disease is persuading them that they have the wherewithal to slow or possibly cease the march towards disability. It seems incredible that someone who cannot walk to the end of the street without stopping for breath several times cannot see any reason to stop eating junk food and sugary drinks while watching telly from 6 pm until two in the morning. Bad habits will drive choices even when people are aware of their growing disabilities. There may be many reasons for this but one that may be worth considering is boredom.

Our culture’s obsession with external sources of entertainment—TV, movies, the Internet, video games—may also play a role in increasing boredom. “I think there is something about our modern experience of sensory overload where there is not the chance and ability to figure out what your interests, what your passions are,” says John Eastwood, a clinical psychologist at York University in Toronto. Anna Gosline.

What is challenging is that some people who have already developed a life-limiting illness cannot be ‘educated’ to make different choices while they don’t admit even to themselves how and why they are contributing to their own demise. If healthcare is to actively promote well-being we need to find ways to help people identify when they are bored and not just focus on the consequences including atheromatous vascular disease. The role of doctors needs to include tackling harmful habits and not limited to therapeutics.

Picture by Craig Sunter

Doctors need better tools to help people recognise danger

Doctors see it all the time. The fifty-year-old with a BMI of 28, the teenager who is developing a taste for cigarettes, the twenty-year-old who now binge drinks every weekend, the soon-to-be-mum who is ‘eating for two’. Small choices that may become habits and habits that lead to consequences. Where I work the average consultation is fifteen minutes. In that time we address whatever symptoms or problems have been tabled. The list may be long. Occasionally it’s possible to raise a topic that I’m worried about. The problem is the patient may not be worried about that issue.

Afterall doctor I don’t drink any more than my mates do or I don’t really eat that much.

What’s needed are tools that help frame the issue from the perspective of the patient, not the practitioner. Tools that help us address public health priorities that speak TO that person, not AT everyone. Before making any changes the person needs to agree that their choices might blight their hopes for the future. These are not inconsiderable challenges given the gloomy predictions for the future.

At the other end of the malnutrition scale, obesity is one of today’s most blatantly visible – yet most neglected – public health problems. Paradoxically coexisting with undernutrition, an escalating global epidemic of overweight and obesity – “globesity” – is taking over many parts of the world. If immediate action is not taken, millions will suffer from an array of serious health disorders. The World Health Organisation

Diabetes is likely to cement its place as the fastest growing epidemic in history. The Medical Journal of Australia

In addition, youthful drinking is associated with an increased likelihood of developing alcohol abuse or dependence later in life. Early intervention is essential to prevent the development of serious alcohol problems among youth between the ages of 12 and 20. NIH

Picture by Marcelo Nava

Are we are obstructing the doctor with gadgets?

Despite billions of dollars of investment in technology the results in healthcare are disappointing.

Information Technology (IT) surrounds us every day. IT products and services from smart phones and search engines to online banking and stock trading have been transformative. However, IT has made only modest and less than disruptive inroads into healthcare. Nicolas Terry (2013)

This was predicted in a prophetic article by Gregory Hackett (1990) when he concluded that:

The primary reason is that technology alone does not determine corporate performance and profitability. Employee skills and capabilities play a large role, as do the structures of day-to-day operations and the company’s policies and procedures. In addition the organisation must be flexible enough to respond to an increasingly dynamic environment. And products must meet customer requirements. Investment in Technology-The Service Sector Sinkhole? SMR Forum Service

However, there are still those who seem enamoured of machines:

Rapid growth of robotic industry is leading to novel applications in medical field. Evolution of new terminologies like tele-presence, tele-medicine, tele-consultation, tele-diagnosis, telerounding, tele-health centers, tele-doctors, tele-nurses are overwhelming and required to be readdressed.  Iftikhar

That way leads to a nightmarish world in which we push vulnerable people onto an assembly line and healthcare looks like this but also includes the dehumanising impact of machines:

….. hospitalists care for sick inpatients and are charged with rapid throughput by their administrative overlords; nocturnists do this job as well — but at night; intensivists take over when work in a critical care unit is required; transitionalists step in when the patient is ready to be moved on to rehabilitation (physiatrists) or into a skilled nursing facility (SNFists). Almost at the end of the line are the post-acutists in their long-term care facilities and the palliativists — tasked with keeping the patient home and comfortable — while ending the costly cycle of transfers back and forth to the hospital. Finally, as the physician-aid-in-dying movement continues to gain support, there will be suicidalists adept at handling the paperwork, negotiating the legal shoals and mixing the necessary ingredients when the time comes. Jerald Winakur- The Washington Post

Technology now impinges on every interaction- for better and for worse:

There were the many quiet voices who urged circumspection as long ago as 1990:

Diagnosis is a complex process more involved than producing a nosological label for a set of patient descriptors. Efficient and ethical diagnostic evaluation requires a broad knowledge of people and of disease states. The state of the art in computer-based medical diagnosis does not support the optimistic claim that people can now be replaced by more reliable diagnostic programs. Miller

One could not argue against technology as a tool but the art of medicine requires that technology helps the doctor. People are not disordered machines and the promise of better health is not forthcoming as we throw money at machines hoping for greater access, efficiency, and safety. However, there is now mounting evidence that the patient is not responding and it’s time to pause for thought, again.

It’s not that complicated. Healthcare works when the doctor and her patient are on the same page. So to what extent does a gadget or gizmo allow that? Does it help them to:

  1. Work out what’s wrong together?
  2. Make it easier for them to work together?
  3. Make it easier for them to achieve a goal together?

If it becomes a substitute for the doctor it will disappoint. People respond best to human doctors. No ifs or buts. Medical school 101. Doctors also have choices in how they deploy and interact with technology. Turning to face the computer, ordering a test and recommending an app aren’t always the way to the best outcome.

Picture by Guian Bolisay 

Doctors get to choose so much of what matters

You choose what you wear. They own the building, they chose the furniture, they employed the staff, they chose the wallpaper, they decided the policies, they set the opening hours. But whoever ‘they’ are there are only two people in the consultation. You and the patient.

You choose:

  • Your mood today
  • If you shake the patient’s hand
  • If you introduce yourself
  • Where you sit in the room
  • Where you look
  • When you stop talking
  • Whether you examine the patient
  • What you think
  • What you say and how you say it
  • What you do
  • How you terminate the consultation

And the patient chooses whether they like it.

Guess what? You get to choose so much of what matters to the patient. Choose well. You can make a difference. Create a better future for everyone.

Picture by Gilbert Rodriguez

Much of what’s wrong with healthcare is in the consulting room

It’s not that complicated. Not really. So where do you look for pathology? Inspection, palpation, percussion and auscultation. How does it look, how does it feel, how does it sound and what do you hear when you know where to listen closely. I’m talking about healthcare. Take a helicopter ride through your business.

Access

What is the route to your service? Where is the delay? How long do people wait in the waiting room? How do you know? What do you know about the people who use your service even before they are seated in your waiting room?

Greeting

What happens when people call or arrive in person? What message is conveyed?

Welcome we’ll do our best to help you today OR you are lucky we are ‘fitting you in’.

Just stand there- I’m dealing with someone on the phone.

We have no time- go complain to the manager/politician/ bureaucrat-consider yourself drafted to the cause.

Hold the line. We are dealing with something far more important but your call is really important to us so just listen to how good we are as conveyed by our prerecorded message.

Associated with that is what is perceived about your attitude that is not verbalised?

Look at ALL these posters and the many ways you can be helping yourself instead of wasting our time.

People vomit and pee while they wait so the seats have to be cleaned with detergent. Plastic is the best option.

If you want a drink go buy one at a cafe.

We rely on donations for our toys and magazines- we don’t have to provide anything OK? Now if you don’t like the stuff just watch Dr. Phil.

What do you mean you have been waiting a couple of hours? This isn’t McDonalds now take a ticket, sit down, shut up and wait. And turn off your phone so you can hear the old lady at the desk who has an embarrassing problem.

Communication

How long is the meeting with the provider? How does that meeting unfold? What is conveyed during the meeting?

Welcome- I’m so sorry you are not well. Tell me what happened? OR I haven’t got long what do you want exactly, spit it out be quick about it I need to get on with the next guy. Didn’t you see the queue out there?

I’m the important one around here- you are lucky I’ve chosen to be here today. Let me tell you about my holiday, my kids, my new car. It’s fascinating really!

Room 5. Quickly. Never mind my name.

Test/ Referral and Prescription

What action is taken at the consult and are you confident that is the best possible action?

I don’t have time for talk- have this test and take another day off to see me next week.

I don’t have time for you to take off your umpteen layers- go have a scan.

The rep told me this works- I only have to write a script.

If you want to get better take my medicine/advice/ referral or get lost.

What medicine do you want? How do you spell that? Tell me slowly I’m writing it down on your script.

Outcome

What proportion of people takes your advice/medicine/test? How many people stopped smoking? How many were triggered to lose weight? How many are addicted to prescribed medicines? How many were prescribed treatment or tests that were not indicated? Where’s your data? What are your plans for dealing with this?

Team

To what extent can you say that when people transition to another healthcare professional either on site or elsewhere that the relevant information follows them? Is everyone on the same page with the same patient?

All of this matters. All of it. Some of you can fix tomorrow. No need to wait for another round of healthcare reform. No one said it was easy. And whatever their business the best don’t compromise.  A lot of what can be fixed in healthcare takes place behind the closed doors of the consulting room.

Picture by Daniele Oberti

The welcome rise of alternative providers

Two weeks ago an 80-year-old waited without food or drink for 14 hours in a Dublin city emergency department having fallen in her local supermarket. She was black and blue from head to toe a response to the call of gravity when she was launched off a faulty escalator. She was ‘triaged’ and seated next to drunken revelers who also managed to injure themselves on that fateful evening. She was seen for all of 10 minutes by a medical student and then briefly by a doctor who recorded that her visual acuity couldn’t be assessed because she didn’t have her glasses. With that, she was sent home with her granddaughter and asked to return a couple of days later when she again waited another 9 hours for a five-minute consultation presumably so that the doctor could make sure she hadn’t really injured herself and wasn’t going to sue the hospital as well as the supermarket.  I know this person and read the discharge summary even though her daughter and I live on the other side of the world. As far as we know the provider believes we should be thankful because they are very busy and at least ‘someone’ saw her.

What’s it like to be your patient?

  1. How long do your patients wait?
  2. How are they greeted on arrival and how do they feel about waiting?
  3. What do they do while they wait?
  4. How long do they see you on average?
  5. What do they expect from the visit?
  6. Why do you order tests? What difference do these tests make to the outcome?
  7. Why do you prescribe those drugs? How many people take them as prescribed?
  8. Why do you ask them to return for a review appointment?
  9. Why do your refer them to someone else?
  10. What do they tell their family about your service?

No business would survive without a handle on this information. Arguably some sectors of the business of healthcare only survive because of a monopoly.

A newer take on the organizational environment is the “Red Queen” theory, which highlights the relative nature of progress. The theory is borrowed from ecology’s Red Queen hypothesis that successful adaptation in one species is tantamount to a worsening environment for others, which must adapt in turn to cope with the new conditions. The theory’s name is inspired by the character in Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass who seems to be running but is staying on the same spot. In a 1996 paper, William Barnett describes Red Queen competition among organizations as a process of mutual learning. A company is forced by direct competition to improve its performance, in turn increasing the pressure on its rivals, thus creating a virtuous circle of learning and competition. Stanford Business

Certainly, the 80-year-old had no option but to go to a state hospital emergency department because there was a very real possibility that she had fractured something coming off that escalator. The hospital manager might say in her defense that they have no option but to offer the service as described, but where is the data to demonstrate that it is the lack of options rather than a lack of interest or talent in managing one of the most important services the state is charged by taxpayers to provide? The monopoly may be around a little longer when it comes to life-saving treatments but what about primary care? If this 80-year-old can wait 14 hours to be seen by a medical student there may be real scope for the service to be provided by someone who is qualified, will see her much sooner and offer her a cup of tea while she waits for the X-rays to be reported. What about the scope to provide better than what you offer?

Picture by Toms Baugis

No plan, no progress it’s a simple equation in healthcare

Every business manager can lay her hands on plans and policies and can probably recite the ‘vision statement’. I like the one for Lexmark printers because I think it works for healthcare clinics:

Customers for life. To earn our customers’ loyalty we must listen to them, anticipate their needs and act to create value in their eyes.

The manager’s shelves might house annual accounts, a policy for Human Resources,  a policy for health and safety, a policy for recruitment. The practice may have a chartered accountant, a registered financial advisor, a recruiter and an HR manager. Rarely if ever does a clinic have an appropriately qualified research consultant or a five year R&D plan or policy.

Therefore the manager relies on anecdotes and other people’s data to decide if the practice is delivering accessible and effective services. The practice relies on others to advocate for them and to defend the charges that are levied on their behalf. It’s all left to persons unknown in a far away bureaucracy.

The consumer relationship starts with the brand. Before you even meet the consumer, you must fully understand your brand. If you don’t know who you are as a brand, and what makes you different, better, and special, how do you expect a consumer to? You must clearly define a brand’s product benefits to set up more intimate, emotional bonds. It is these emotional bonds that will form the basis of a lasting consumer relationship. HBR

If you are a clinician in a practice what aspects of the practices’ vision are non-negotiable and how will you know if something is undermining that vision? How reliable and valid is your understanding of the following:

  1. What is the context in which the practice is located? What drives morbidity locally?
  2. How are people greeted at the practice? What do they notice about your premises?
  3. What is the commonest reason for attendance?
  4. How long is the average consultation?
  5. What is the outcome?
  6. How many people receive less than evidence based care? Why? What are the consequences?
  7. How many people take your advice? How many go elsewhere after coming to you?
  8. Which innovation is going to be introduced and tested in your practice in the next five years?
  9. What information will guide investment decisions in the practice?
  10. Are you participating in externally funded research? Why those projects and not others?

These questions are of great interest to the better companies. Companies that are ‘lovemarks’:

Lovemarks reach your heart as well as your mind, creating an intimate, emotional connection that you just can’t live without. Ever. Lovemarks

Never let innovation for a brand be something that happens randomly. It should fit strategically under the brand. At Beloved Brands, we believe the best brands build everything that touches the brand around a Big Idea, that guides the 5 magic moments to create a beloved brand, including the brand promise, brand story, innovation, purchase moment and the brand experience. beloved brands

If these issues are of interest to you I invite you to contact me to develop a plan for your practice.

Picture by UCL Mathematical and Physical Sciences

The country needs general practice to be the provider of choice

Ever since I came to Australia as a foreign graduate I have been obliged to work in a so-called ‘area of need’. Directly opposite one practice in such a location, there is a large shopping centre. I sometimes go across the road to get my lunch. I noticed several very busy outlets full to the brim with customers. Here is a price list of some of what they offer:

  1. Reflexology Foot care (20 mins) $40
  2. Deep tissue and relaxation oil massage 30 mins: $50
  3. Headache treatment (30 mins) $30
  4. Sciatica relief $45

The practice across the road is a ‘bulk billing practice’ (i.e. they do not charge more than the government subsidy). The practice feels that people ‘can’t afford to pay’. I often see the same people queueing up for the treatments mentioned above. Today ( Sunday 26th February) there is a full page add in local newspaper headed:

Hope has arrived for men over 40 with low testosterone. Now, as part of our national health drive , a limited number of Australian Men can get free assessment before 5/03/17.

A box on the page asks:

Do these symptoms sound familiar?

  • Sleep problems
  • Increased need for sleep/ feeling tired
  • Physical exhaustion /lacking vitality
  • Deceased muscular strength
  • Irritability
  • Nervousness
  • Depressive symptoms
  • Raised cholesterol
  • Erectile dysfunction
  • Lowered libido
  • Prostate symptoms

The advertisement claimed that:

Studies show that only 10% of men are receiving treatment for low testosterone.

Citing as evidence one academic paper. The other citations are to reports on a news channel. The conclusions of the academic paper are based on a survey of 2165 men attending a primary care clinic in the United States regardless of the reason for attendance. Hypogonadism was defined as follows:

Given the lack of a widely accepted single threshold value of TT to define hypogonadism, <300 ng/dl, which has been used in clinical studies of hypogonadal men, seemed a reasonable choice. (Mulligan et al)

On this basis man with testosterone, levels below 300ng/dl were classified as hypogonadal and their symptoms were attributed to that condition. The team concluded:

The difference in the occurrence of four of the six common symptoms of hypogonadism (decrease in ability to perform sexually, decrease in sexual desire or libido, physical exhaustion or lacking vitality, and decline in general feeling of well-being) was greater in hypogonadal vs. eugonadal patients (p < 0.05).

None of the men were examined for other causes of their symptoms or problems. And on the basis of this research, a clinic operating in Australia is marketing therapy that:

….stimulates natural testosterone production

There is no mention of the cost of this treatment anywhere on the advertisement. The only protection that we offer people in the face of this very questionable marketing are the services of a trained general practitioner able to help people navigate this minefield of nonsense designed to part people from their hard-earned money. However, we need to create an experience that competes effectively with the powerful commercial offerings that are triggering people to spend their money so that they are then considered ‘unable to afford to pay’ for better advice.

Picture by Angie Muldowney

It’s time to consider what we want beyond access to general practitioners

Ever since Adam was a boy the thing that has driven policymakers into a frenzy is ‘access’ to a GP. That’s good because they recognise that the work done by a general practitioner is very important. However, it sometimes feels like ‘access’ is the only thing that really matters in healthcare policy. Politicians and bureaucrats can’t look beyond the quantum of people being seen because that’s how they think their performance will be judged by the voter/shareholder.

Of course, it is important that the public is able to access a doctor trained to deal appropriately, effectively and efficiently with all that can happen in life. However, an ‘open’ sign doesn’t mean people will get that beyond those portals. To get what we imagine lies beyond the door we need to consider how those doctors communicate because the formula is: thoughts -> feeling and feelings ->action. Action is what is needed when someone is overweight, smoking, abusing, bleeding or worrying. The person who needs to take action or consent to treatment is the person now striding through the door.

The ability to help means being able to put the needs of the other first. It doesn’t happen quite so well, or in any sustained way when the person trying to help is troubled, anxious, tired or working in a hovel. There are two parties in the mix- the one who is dealing with the crisis and the one who is trying to help. The needs of both will impact on the outcome.

An older couple I know walk miles and wait hours to see their doctor. This doctor has been looking after them for years. Her clinic is open for long hours and everyone gets seen ‘eventually’ and on the same day. I know these people well and I know they are not taking the statins, the NSAIDS, the antibiotics and list of other things that are prescribed and that the innumerable scans and X-rays ordered every year are futile. What they crave most is to be heard, for someone to acknowledge that things don’t work as they used to, or help prepare to visit their beloved daughter overseas. That takes time, it takes a willingness to see people in context but for longer than 10 minutes at a time. It takes planning for what people will think after their visit because thoughts determine feelings and feelings drive actions.  Good feelings are engendered only when the doctor can invest- not just in what happens when she is face to face with her patients but at every touch point with her practice. Then she can communicate that she cares and that she can be trusted when she says that that ache or pain isn’t something that needs yet more tests or another prescription. What the practice needs is not just another doctor to churn through the waiting list but for those doctors to work their magic. For now, she is open for business- the question is what business and who really benefits from her efforts?

In 1999 Mainous and colleagues published a paper in the American Journal of Public Health which reported data suggesting that access though necessary was not sufficient to make a real difference to patients in primary care:

OBJECTIVES: This study examined a private-sector, statewide program (Kentucky Physicians Care) of care for uninsured indigent persons regarding provision of preventive services. METHODS: A survey was conducted of a stratified random sample of 2509 Kentucky adults (811 with private insurance, 849 Medicaid recipients, 849 Kentucky Physicians Care recipients). RESULTS: The Kentucky Physicians Care group had significantly lower rates of receipt of preventive services. Of the individuals in this group, 52% cited cost as the primary reason for not receiving mammography, and 38% had not filled prescribed medicines in the previous year. CONCLUSIONS: Providing free access to physicians fills important needs but is not sufficient for many uninsured patients to receive necessary preventive services.

Picture by dmon_21