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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

The failure to communicate is costing us billions

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The Weekend Australian headline today, Sunday 24th April 2016 declared that

Healthcare waste costs $20bn a year

According to the graph on the first page of the paper there were 105-110 General Practitioners (GPs) or specialists in 2004. Although the number of GPs per 100,000 population has remained static there are now more than 130 specialists per 100,000 people . Therefore the rising cost of waste in healthcare runs parallel to the increase in specialists in the population. The source is quoted as the Australian Commission on Safety and Quality in Health Care.

But there is nothing new about this story. This trend was demonstrated in previous decades. More primary care equals lower costs the formula isn’t complex. Reading the papers today we recall the late Barbara Starfield’s words:

Six mechanisms, alone and in combination, may account for the beneficial impact of primary care on population health. They are (1) greater access to needed services, (2) better quality of care, (3) a greater focus on prevention, (4) early management of health problems, (5) the cumulative effect of the main primary care delivery characteristics, and (6) the role of primary care in reducing unnecessary and potentially harmful specialist care.

The disappointing thing about the accompanying newspaper commentary was the suggestion that the solution is political. The journalistic analysis is that powerful lobby groups have managed to influence policy to the point where there is subsidised over servicing of the population. Specifically prostatectomies, colonoscopies, arthroscopies, cataract surgery, hysterectomies and CT scans.

In a country where general practice remains the gatekeeper to specialist services we need to figure out how we might be able to tackle the problem for the sake of the economy. The solution is to remain circumspect about another quick fix because we have learned that politics and the need to be popular with the electorate rarely delivers anything like a lasting solution.

In medicine people are referred or persuaded to have treatment or investigations and under the ‘big data’ is the story of ineffective consultations. One where either the patient is not examined or an adequate history taken, or where the risk and benefits are not explained to the patient in a way that informs the decision. After all if that were not the case which patient at very low risk would chose to have a colonoscopy?

What is the difference between managing a request for an antibiotic for a cold and managing a request for a CT scan for mechanical back pain? To those who are cynical about the chances of getting the message heard we might say wait. When there is sufficient pain the bureaucrats will beat a path to your door. There is no solution as effective as improving how we communicate with patients, anything else will paper over the hole, no the chasm, in the budget.

Picture by Christopher Blizzard.

Quantified self – the downside

The manufacturers of wearable health tech devices are set to make millions if not billions. Wearables are relatively cheap adjuncts to existing technology. But what difference will they make to the health and well being of the average user?  We have been offered a preview of what these devices can do- monitor your heart rate, blood pressure and blood glucose. Keep track of your respiratory rate, calorie expenditure and sleep patterns. Detect cardiac arrythmias and abnormal brain electrical activity. It sounds good, but so what? If you experience a significant drop or severe rise in blood pressure you are going to notice even before you check the readings- you will feel very unwell. Similarly low blood sugar and dysfunction of the respiratory or cardiac system. Do we really need our smartphone to tell us we aren’t taking enough exercise and eating too much? Or that it’s time to see a doctor urgently? I agree with Jay Parkinson:

The exclusive-to-human part of our brain evolved so we can be creative and manipulate the world around us so we can invent things like the iPhone. And now, the creators of the iPhone want to give us the tools we need to badly do what evolution solved for us hundreds of millions of years ago.

Here’s the problem with this technology in practice:

About 10 percent are “quantified selfers” with an affinity for this kind of feedback; just by looking at the numbers, they are motivated to be more active. An additional 20 percent to 30 percent need some encouragement in addition to tracker data to effectively change their behavior. Kamal Jethwani

Therefore the vast majority of people who buy a wearable device right now will not benefit from that purchase. Those who do, might be amenable to other interventions. Unfortunately much of the data is meaningless or has no impact on long term decisions about health and well being. Sure, a trend in high blood pressure over a few weeks might indicate a need for treatment but a single high reading might be an anomaly or simply confirm that you are excited. Worrying about every little bleep on the chart is not going to add to your quality of life but will detract from it. For a sustained and beneficial change in life style people need more than data. They need motivation and help to workout the benefits of making different choices. They need the undivided attention of a practitioner who understands their needs and assists with a bespoke plan.

Information that we need right now, which our built in human senses may not already have alerted us to is another issue; microscopic haematuria (blood in the urine) proteinuria (protein in the urine), faecal occult bleeding (blood in the faeces), raised intraoccular pressure (high pressure in the eye ball) and changes in moles, breast or testicles will prompt doctors to investigate for sinister causes. Investigations that might lead to the early diagnosis of some costly and treatable or life limiting condition. Acquiring this information doesn’t require you to wear a device continually for a year. The business case for manufacturing devices to do that isn’t as compelling because of a limited market. Enthusiasts for wearables argue that:

Studies are beginning that examine the data from wearables, which is much more granular data about human activity than scientists have been able to access previously. This will answer questions like: how much of an increase in activity, of what type (moderate or cardio-challenging) leads to what degree of health benefit? Todd Hixon

What we may also discover is that there are probably side effects associated with wearable devices. Psychological harm may be associated with prolonged and heightened anxiety and obsession with self. What we won’t discover (and this is a guess) is that there is a short cut to losing weight that doesn’t require any significant effort. We might also discover that there are limited indications for wearable devices and that the market for them is much smaller than we envisage. Parallels exist with some parts of the pharmaceutical industry which has begun to promote ‘illnesses’ that would benefit from it’s offerings. So called disease mongering. We may well find ourselves being circumspect about wearables in the way that we have misgivings about drugs:

…drugs approved for devastating illness, such as clinical depression, are indicated for milder conditions, such as shyness, which is now dubbed ‘social phobia’. Howard Wolinsky

Data is no more the answer to all problems than are drugs. The indications for collecting data have parallels with the indications for prescribing drugs and how and why that data is collected merits thought. Those who promote the use of wearables need to question a trend which isn’t without a downside.

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.

Instruments of measurement vs. instruments of connection

9597562683_0f1bb9156a_zMany health innovators argue that future advances in health care will come from technological solutions. Things we can measure and quantify. Governments and health care providers are holding their breaths for a magic bullet that can easily, measure and thus fix everything.

People who advocate for technological health solutions think that it’s possible for doctors to routinely consult patients without touching them, or even looking them in the eye.

Stakeholders imagine that that health practitioners spend time with their patients simply to gather and process data. We imagine a future when a patient’s wearable device will be handed over to the doctor, who will have everything he needs to know and more, in order to treat any ill.

That is not to say that we should not innovate, or that technology will not enhance the encounter between patient and healer. However we do need to think about how those innovations will become part of that powerful ritual known as the medical consultation. Technology, high tech or low tech, needs to be incorporated in a way that responds to the person in distress. It should be seen as a means to an end, and not an end in itself. If information was all that was required to get people to adopt healthy choices then why do we make so many decisions that defy logic?

Science has identified that people act on impulse, are moved by emotion, or commit themselves to decisions because it makes them feel good even if they know it’s doing them harm.

The reality is that not everything that matters can be measured. Patients don’t just come to doctors to be fixed. As health care practitioners we mustn’t lose sight of the fact that what patients need as much, (if not more) than, instruments of measurement are instruments of connection.

Picture by Alberto Varela