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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 have worked the average consultation lasts fifteen minutes. In that time we address whatever symptoms or problems have been tabled. The list may be long. Occasionally it’s possible during the conversation to bring up a subject 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

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

Junk used to wallpaper doctors’ offices

Of all the things doctors can do in their practice they can certainly choose what to display on their walls. In 1994 a group of researchers reported:

To determine whether patients read and remembered health promotion messages displayed in waiting rooms, 600 patients in a UK general practice were given a self-complete questionnaire. Two notice-boards carried between 1 to 4 topics over four study periods. Three-hundred and twenty-seven (55%) of subjects responded. Twenty-two per cent recalled at least one topic. Increasing the number of topics did not in crease the overall impact of the notice-boards. The numbers of patients recalling a topic remained constant, but increasing the number of topics reduced the number remembering each individual topic. Patients aged over 60 years were less likely to recall topics, but waiting time, gender and health professional seen had no effect on results. Very few patients (<10%) read or took health promotion leaflets. Wicke et al

It would appear that the notices are basically used as wallpaper. They do not seem to serve any other useful purpose. Researchers suggest that the design of such ‘community communication channels’ requires further thought:

Our results highlight how they are used for content of local and contextual relevance, and how cultures of participation, personalization, location, the tangible character of architecture, access, control and flexibility might affect community members’ level of engagement with them. Fortin et al

Essentially the role of the notice board with its myriad of posters and leaflets is to ‘sell and inform’ not to decorate and distract. They sell ‘health’ or services related to health. Vaccinations, antenatal care, weight loss, smoking cessation, early diagnosis, screening, the list is endless. They might also inform about practice policy. The notice board, or as it often seems almost every available space on the walls is used in a vain attempt to ‘communicate’ with people. But this sort of communication is carefully choreographed in the retail and service industry:

Businesses like gas stations and banks regularly provide information about the availability and price of particular items, such as gas, convenience items, loans, and savings certificates. The display of this information plays a central role in these companies’ business strategies for increasing traffic and sales. Indeed, the value of a corner or other highly-visible location rests largely on the ability to use signs to inform passers-by about the availability of a business’ goods and services. University of Cincinnati Economics Center

The way these notices are displayed can have an impact on the bottom line of the business:

In conclusion, exterior electronic message boards offer business a lift in store sales performance and generate a relatively quick return on investment. While the overall 2.12 percent lift in sales is modest, in a high-volume store with low installation costs, the investment returns to using this technology can be significant. University of Cincinnati Economics Center

Your bank, department store, hairdresser does not stick everything they have on their walls and hope for the best. The walls in a doctors’ premises are high-value real estate, not a back street that can be pasted with whatever junk is sent by whoever wants to get attention until the material becomes dog-eared or torn. The key is to focus on ‘content of local and contextual relevance’. However, in the end, the wall space should prepare the patient for the consultation. It is in the consultation that the advice can be tailored to the patient and as Wicke and colleagues concluded in 1994:

More modern methods of communication such as electronic notice-boards or videos could be used. However, the waiting room might best function not as an area where a captive audience can be bombarded with health promotion messages, but rather as a place for relaxation before consulting a health professional, making patients more receptive to health advice in the consultation. Wicke at al.

Would it really do any harm to jettison this confetti altogether?

Picture by Bala Sivakumar

Some things in medicine need to be modernised

Many of our experiences in life have changed beyond recognition. Shopping for example- you can now choose whatever you want and have those goods delivered to your door. When you shop in person you can check out your own purchases and find out the nutritional value of the food you buy by scanning the barcodes on the packets using your phone. You need never visit a book shop or a library ever again and you can get all the music and films you might ever want delivered to your living room. You can even hear what other people think of these things before you buy.

You can hail a taxi, book a flight and find accommodation where ever you are going on holiday without getting off your couch.  You can draft a review of that taxi or accommodation as well as discover what others have thought of the same good or service. With minimum effort you can change the way these things flow into your life so radically that your grandma would hardly recognize it as ‘shopping’. You need never do to a post office again and you can even pay your taxes on line. While the way these things are brought into our lives have changed, we are still buying food, reading books, travelling and watching films as we did decades ago.

Similarly you make an appointment with a doctor from the comfort of your chair. You can even have a video consultation. In some places you can have the order for your medicines delivered to a pharmacist so that you pick it up on the way home or have it delivered to where ever you happen to be. For some conditions you can choose to see someone other than your doctor. Some supermarkets now stock some of the medicines that were only prescribed by doctors. However that experience is not the same as visiting a doctor face to face. That experience is a watered down version of what was available to your grandma. Your grandma’s doctor met her in person, he or she touched her and knew about her life. He might even have visited her at home. In many ways your grandma had it much better than you do even though she had to get herself across town to the clinic. It was even called the drug doctor and it was as potent as anything that has ever been distilled in a lab.

On the other hand the experience when you see a doctor in person is the same as it was decades ago. You still ‘take a ticket’ and wait with everyone else.  The receptionist still treats you like a number.  You still have a very short time with the doctor sitting in the big chair, in the same busy office surrounded by paperwork and dog eared posters. If anything the doctor might even just look at a computer screen throughout your visit. How could the experience be improved? What happens in every other service where you might still need to see someone in person? Your hairdresser, masseuse, your manicurist. How much do you value those experiences? How could seeing a doctor in person be modernized but retain its core value in our lives? How would we convey our gratitude if the experience met with our approval?

Picture by Francisco Osorlo

 

Perspective is crucial when considering changes in healthcare policy

It was summer of 2010 in Australia. I had been working hard in the garden one Sunday afternoon. Feeling the need for a little mindless entertainment I suggested to our then 14 year old that we might rent a sci-fi movie. It was around 7pm and  getting dark. My son jumped into the car beside me and we took off toward the video shop. That’s when I noticed that the car headlights were far too dim. I turned on full beam- but it didn’t help. I ranted for a good five minutes about how difficult it was going to be to get a mechanic to look at the car so close to Christmas. I was also a bit put out that our teenager was showing no concern for my predicament. At this point he quietly reached across and took my sunglasses off my face.

There. Problem solved dad.

I learned something that day not least what it would cost me if that story was not be retold to his brothers.

I love the work of Deana McDonagh and Joyce Thomas, especially their thinking on empathic design. Deana and Joyce begin their sessions on empathic design by inviting participants to try on their designer glasses- the ones that demonstrate what it must feel like to have tunnel vision. They’ve written about it in the Australasian Medical Journal. I keep those glasses in my office to remind myself and visitors of the valuable insights they offer but also as a treasured momento of a fun workshop generously organised by a brilliant team.

Their work came to mind later when we were investigating the attitude to self-management of a condition that is progressive and for which there is no cure. Patients and doctors in an Asian setting were interviewed. We recorded poignant stories about the impact of this condition on people’s lives- resulting in social isolation, self loathing and a need to feel supported by a health practitioner:

Both patients and doctors were against the adoption of self-management strategies. This is contrary to recommendations for the management of COPD by many studies and guidelines. However, another study has similarly shown that self-management skills were not rated as important by patients. Furthermore, the psychosocial impact of their disease such as fear limited their ability to manage their own symptoms. A lack of knowledge may also contribute to their dependence on doctors and health care providers.

We concluded:

In reality, patients have to conduct self-management daily and it is not feasible for physicians to provide all of the management needs that patients have during their day-to-day lives. Therefore, self-management remains an aspect of overall COPD care. However, it should not be the only focus and future interventions should also examine ways to improve access to health care.

On reflection we noted something similar with patients in Australia. Those who had an established medical condition were much more likely to ‘trust’ their doctor than those who were not currently unwell or those from higher socioeconomic groups. Innovating requires the ability to see people as heterogenous having very different perceptions on the need to be in charge of their own health, perceptions that are liable to change with circumstances. I also wonder if policy makers consider what it must be like to implement their big ideas from this perspective:

Picture by Redfishingboat

Why doctors say ‘it depends’.

She looked harassed. She flung herself into the chair.

I’ve just about had enough. This cold is driving me mad. I’m coughing all day. Nothing helps. I’m still working for that pig of a man and we are short staffed this winter. I’m not sleeping at night. The kids are all down with this bug and my husband is on night shift. I can’t go on like this.

She left with a prescription for amoxycillin and a seven-day course of hypnotics. She also agreed to come back the following week to report on her progress. The consultation included a conversation about the natural history of viral illnesses and advice to defer the antibiotics, a discussion about her job as a reluctant telemarketer who left school without any qualifications and how to promote restful sleep. The only part of the consult that could be easily audited were the prescription data. The ‘real’ issue was not a microbe it was the milieu.

It is possible to publish papers in prestigious journals demonstrating that clinicians deviate from the evidence base. The list of misdemeanours is not insubstantial:

If you were a clinician you might say:

I never do that.

In which case you might reasonably be asked to outline your goals for consultations. If we accept that it is to be celebrated that people are free to make choices good or bad then we must accept that people smoke, eat more than they need, work in occupations that make them miserable or under bosses who are tyrants. They may choose to remain in abusive relationships or be addicted to drugs, alcohol, pornography or gambling. They are free to make choices but they must also live with the consequences of those choices. Eventually in most cases people will consider alternatives. The role of the clinician is to try to make that sooner rather than later whilst keeping channels of communication open.

The clinician advocates for the patient. In which case the answer to the question ‘would you do this’ is more likely to be:

It depends on the circumstances

You aim ‘never’ to cause harm. To avoid that which will diminish the patient’s choices by engendering physical or psychological adverse outcomes. Technological medicine can and does harm. However what is seldom reported is how the practitioners of the art of medicine help people to cope with life, not just today or tomorrow but in the longer term. That precludes slavery to ‘evidence’ that was never indicated for the very specific circumstances in which a person presents on one occasion. Compassion is not weakness. There is a narrative behind decisions in practice and simply reporting data does not present the whole story.

Picture by Vishweshwar Saran Singh

An illness is never minor when you’re ill

After 20 years in practice I’d never seen one of these in my career. Until that day. It’s called a quinsy. Essentially an abscess deep in the throat. Not really surprising because according to a recent review:

Most patients with quinsy develop the condition rapidly, and many do not present with a respiratory tract infection to their GP first. BJGP

The incidence is estimated to range from 10-41 cases per 100,000 per year. It’s unusual to see a case in practice. Given Australia’s 23 million people you’d expect an incidence of about 2,300 cases per year nationwide. Similarly I consulted a young child with nephrotic syndrome, similar incidence (3.6 per 100,000). Both cases were referred to hospital as emergencies. The odds of seeing one of these is in the same order of magnitude as being struck by lightening in your lifetime.

On the other hand in the same week I saw several people with:

I also saw a victim of domestic violence:

Just under half a million Australian women reported that they had experienced physical or sexual violence or sexual assault in the past 12 months. Domestic violence prevention centre.

And a drug seeker:

Australian GPs write more than 15 million prescriptions per year for drugs known to be misused, with the main prescription drugs misused currently being narcotic analgesics and benzodiazepines, as well as stimulants, barbiturates and other sedative–hypnotic agents. Martyres et al

So apart from quinsy and nephrotic syndrome (both of which I recognised) I spent most of my week managing conditions that didn’t need to be referred to specialists.  And yet the people who were offered reassurance or simple and effective treatment for their ailments were immensely grateful. Every day general practitioners provide this service to the community. They save lives by identifying people who need urgent care but much more than that they make the lives of the community so much more tolerable. There is no such thing as ‘minor illness’.

The last word has to be on pityriasis rosea:

I finally found out what the rashes on my back, arms, torso, and now my foot are. I have herolds patch too. I hate it! I can’t stop scratching. It took 1 hospital visit and a trip to my doctor to find out what this thing was. The doctor at the hospital thought the big round patch was a ringworm and he thought all the other small rashes that had just appeared was scabies. I was terrified..did some research on scabies and tried to treat that myself. Then I decided to just go to my doctor and he told me it wasn’t scabies…and showed me a picture of hereld’s patch. He knew what it was right off the bat. I guess there is no cure for it and it just goes away by itself. I just wish I could take something so I can stop scratching. SkinCell forum

Picture by Col.Sanders

Why general practitioners are crucial to the economy

The odds of experiencing an event that will descend you briefly into your own private hell are significant.

These odds are much greater than the odds of getting something that requires heroic intervention:

Good news = You are more likely to catch a cold, sprain an ankle or have a runny nose than suffer anything more serious.

Bad news = What happens if you get one of the aforementioned ‘minor illnesses’.  I am living with fractured ribs this week. This is what happens:

  • You are told there is no treatment and no definite recovery period.
  • You can’t tie your own shoe laces, take off your socks or dry your back after a shower.
  • You can’t push open doors.
  • You can’t get out of, our turn over, in bed.
  • You dare not sneeze or pick anything off the ground.
  • You get persistent headaches because of paravertebral muscle strain.

The pain will get worse before it gets better. So at first you might go to the emergency department (ED) because your family will insist. At the ED you will be X-rayed. You will be prescribed analgesia and advised to take time off.  A day or two later in increasing pain you will toy with the idea of going back to hospital just in case they’ve missed something.  The codeine will cause constipation making things worse. Some doctors will advise you to take tramol others will advise against it. A specialist might recommend intercostal nerve blocks (anything looks like a nail when you are armed with a hammer). The cost of getting medical attention will mount. What you will need the most is symptom relief and a greater sense of control. Your only hope is a good GP.

In desperation you might consult YouTube for any useful hints on how to recover. This person has clearly never experienced rib fractures. I hope no medical student thinks this is how to approach the examination of anyone with this condition. On the other hand this person clearly has.

Health economists tell us that the increased costs in the healthcare system are due to unnecessary tests and treatments.

On average, a 50-year-old now is seeing doctors more often, having more tests and operations, and taking more prescription drugs, than a 50-year-old did ten years ago

You are at greater risk of ‘minor illness’ than any other illness. Yet we know that is when we are likely to request tests and treatments in the vain hope it will hasten the recovery. Good GPs  reduce this morbidity as well as the cost of caring for people when time is the only treatment.

This week we launched the Journal of Health Design. The scope of our journal is to support researchers who are developing innovations inspired by the patient experience of healthcare. This was also the week that the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners supported our team to conduct research that aims at supporting GPs in consultations with people with viral infections when antibiotics are not indicated.

Picture by Matt Pelletier