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Your words are potent medicine

A principle of medical ethics is beneficence:

A moral obligation to act for the benefit of others. Not all acts of beneficence are obligatory, but a principle of beneficence asserts an obligation to help others further their interests. Obligations to confer benefits, to prevent and remove harms, and to weigh and balance the possible goods against the costs and possible harms of an action are central to bioethics. Med Dictionary

In saying that the business of medicine is not so different from many other forms of commerce where someone might offer a solution to what appears to be a problem. What we have learned from studying human interactions is that what is said, how and when it is said has a crucial impact on what the person with the problem decides to do. In medical research the hopes of improving outcomes sometimes seem to focus on labs manned by people in white coats funded by a research grant. What is often overlooked is that it may be possible to change outcomes in healthcare (for better or for worse) by working on the dialogue in the consulting room. What in previous posts I have dubbed the ‘script’ in the ritual that is the consultation.

Beneficence dictates that we act to present the autonomous individual with options in a way that leads them to act in their best interests. That may include having the operation, taking the pills, accepting the referral or the test. But also steering away from  those options if they are not in their best interests. The art of communication received a boost in Robert Cialdini’s book Pre-Suasion. Cialdini catalogues the research on the subtle ways in which we are triggered to make choices from the options on offer. It is hard to summarise this extraordinary book but there are at least four essential lessons:

  1. There are ‘Privileged Moments’.  ‘Influence practitioners’ should target such moments before the interaction to greatly increase their effectiveness. It is possible to speculate what these might be for patients: pregnancy, diagnosis of a significant illness, receipt of worrying test results, significant birthday etc.
  2. During verbal exchanges leading questions try to get you to respond with certain answers and influence your later decisions. For example: “Given the recent cases of death from influenza, how dangerous do you perceive the threat of flu to be?” The way the question is posed is loaded with pre-suasion. By reminding you of these deaths the questioner draws attention to the recency of the topic, and thus the patient will evaluate the danger as high and be primed to accept the offer of vaccination.
  3. Whatever grabs our attention, we think is relevant. As Cialdini says:

All mental activity is composed of patterns of associations; and influence attempts , including pre-suasive ones , will be successful only to the extent that the associations they trigger are favourable to change.

In other words in any situation, people are dramatically more likely to pay attention to and be influenced by stimuli that fit the goal they have for that situation. In medicine being presented with information that suggests that someone might be ‘at risk’ of an illness might lead them to act to reduce the risk. However also in this context the heightened anxiety due to fear messages against for example smoking causes people to be delusional in order to dampen the anxiety effect. We also know that the public has a very poor understanding of numbers. In a study of laypersons published in Health Expectations it was concluded that:

Most participants thought of risk not as a neutral statistical concept, but as signifying danger and emotional threat, and viewed cancer risk in terms of concrete risk factors rather than mathematical probabilities. Participants had difficulty acknowledging uncertainty implicit to the concept of risk, and judging the numerical significance of individualized risk estimates. Han et al

Cialdini offers another insight:

The communicator who can fasten an audience’s focus onto the favourable elements of an argument raises the chance that the argument will go unchallenged by opposing points of view, which get locked out of the attentional environment as a consequence.

It isn’t just the facts but how the facts are presented. There are ways in which to engage if not by pass the logic. The three ‘commanders’ of attention that are highly effective are: the sexual, the threatening and the different. When an issue is presented in the context of these considerations their impact is boosted significantly.

    4. Our word choices matter a lot more than we think, because words get us to do things. The main function of language is not merely to  express or describe, but to influence. Something it does by channeling recipients to sectors of reality preloaded with a set of mental association favorable to the communicators view. Doctors may want to illuminate connections to negative associations and increase connections to positive associations. People also prefer things, people, products, and companies that have an association with themselves. This again emphasizes the vital importance of knowing what matters to the person whom you may wish to influence.

Finally and in medicine very significantly Cialdini draws our attention to the following:

Those that use the pre-suasive approach must decide what to present immediately before their message. But they must also have to make an even earlier decision: whether, on ethical grounds, to employ such an approach.

Every day patients consult doctors. Words are use. These words are designed to influence choices. In medicine the options presented may not take into account factors that the patient may not have disclosed and therefore the choice on offer may not be in their best interests. Nor do those choices take account of the practitioner’s own limitations in evaluating the choices offered. Therefore the first and most important aspect of communicating persuasively is to listen. As Cialdini suggests first determine identifiable points in time when an individual is particularly receptive to a communicator’s message.

Picture by Andreas Bloch

Are you addressing the right problem or the one you think you can fix?

The act of consulting a doctor has been shown to be highly ritualized.

Ritual has long been thought to play an important role in the healing processes used by ancient and non-Western healers. In this paper, I suggest that practitioners of Western medicine also interact with patients in a highly ritualized manner. Medical rituals, like religious rituals, serve to alter the meaning of an experience by naming and circumscribing unknown elements of that experience and by enabling patients’ belief in a treatment and their expectancy of healing from that treatment. John Welch. Journal of religion and health

There are five elements to this ritual:

  1. The stage- office, clinic room, cubicle.
  2. The props- what can be seen and or felt.
  3. The actors- doctor, patient and sometimes nurse or therapist.
  4. The script- what is said.
  5. The action- what is done.

All have an impact on the outcome. The doctor’s ‘script’ is of particular importance as it is what the patient hears. The literature offers evidence of the impact of what is said and how it is said on outcomes for patients:

 The quality of communication both in the history-taking segment of the visit and during discussion of the management plan was found to influence patient health outcomes. The outcomes affected were, in descending order of frequency, emotional health, symptom resolution, function, physiologic measures (i.e., blood pressure and blood sugar level) and pain control. M.A Stewart CMAJ

One conclusion of the literature review published in CMAJ was that the process of sharing information includes a discussion about what the patient understands to be the problem and their options with regard to treatment:

These four studies taken together debunk the myth that the only alternative to the physician’s total control of power in the therapeutic relationship is his or her total abdication of power. They indicate that patients do not benefit from the physician’s abdication of power but, rather, from engagement in a process that leads to an agreed management plan.

This issue assumes great significance when it comes to difficult consultations in which it is perceived that the patient is seeking an option that is not in their best interests. Greenhalgh and Gill wrote the following commentary in the BMJ in 1997:

Two thirds of consultations with general practitioners end with the issuing of a prescription. The decision to prescribe is influenced by many factors, to do with the doctor, the patient, the doctor-patient interaction, and the wider social context, including the effects of advertising and the financial incentives and disincentives for all parties. Hardline advocates of rational drug use do not look kindly on variations in prescribing patterns that cannot be explained by purely clinical factors. The prescriber who allows the “Friday night penicillin” phenomenon to sway his or her clinical judgment tends to do so surreptitiously and with a guilty conscience.

The team go on to conclude that:

The act of issuing a prescription is the culmination of a complex chain of decisions. It is open to biomedical, historical, psychosocial and commercial influences, no aspect of which can be singled out as the ”cause” of non-rational prescribing. The search should continue for methods to measure the interplay of these disparate factors on the decision to prescribe.

Michael Bungay Stanier offers an approach to business coaching by focusing on what a person perceives to be their challenge, what they want and how that choice might be impacting on their other options. A similar approach can be taken in medicine. Two decades after Trish Greenhalgh’s editorial in the BMJ there are still many circumstances in which doctors find it challenging to negotiate options these include but are not limited to:

In this context our team surveyed nearly 9000 patients who had been prescribed antibiotics for Upper Respiratory Tract Infections during the latest flu season. We surveyed patients using a validated tool on the third day and the seventh day after a prescription was issued. We look forward to presenting the results at the forthcoming GP17 conference. We will be offering information on the following questions:

  1. What is the profile of patients who were offered a prescription?
  2. What was the symptom profile at these time points and how does this compare with data on patients who have been offered no treatment in other studies?
  3. What are the characteristics of the respondents to the survey?
  4. What proportion of respondents completed the course of treatment?
  5. What proportion of respondents also took regular symptomatic measures?
  6. What is the profile of patients with relatively severe symptoms at each time point?
  7. Are longer consultations or type of antibiotic predictive of compliance with treatment?
  8. Within the limitations of a study that offers only the patient perspective what might help people with Upper Respiratory Tract Infections?

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Road map to better health outcomes

  • Improvements in healthcare outcomes warrant small changes. [Previous post].
  • Those best placed to know where and how to make those adjustments will change the future.
  • The most effective changes will trigger behaviours that we are already motivated and easily able to assimilate in practice.
  • The best interventions are those in which all concerned are rewarded in some way.

Such interventions:
1. Build on something the target is already doing. Anything that adds to workload or requires practitioners or indeed patients to do something significantly different in the course of going about their business is a waste of effort [example].
2. Need very few people to adopt them.  Ideas that require an orchestrated change in patient and or their general practitioner and or the specialist will disappoint [example].
3. Must be anchored by something that already occurs in practice. Practitioners routinely reach the point where they must agree or disagree with the patient and then do something.  An intervention that is anchored at that point is more likely to be assimilated in practice [example].
4. Can be incorporated into the habits or rituals of the target. Doctors vaccinate patients and patients regularly use their phones. Ideas that combine such aspects are likely to succeed [example].
5. Provide something the target wants. Interventions that are at odds with the target’s ideas, concerns or expectations are unlikely to succeed [example]. Interventions that speak to the target’s desires can be highly effective [example].


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What’s the shortest route to where you want to go?

As the conference season begins we note that response rates in the order of 10-20% are not unusual in primary care research. Hardly generalisable. And yet we need sustainable and workable solutions that will promote health and well being in an ageing demography with increasing multimorbidity. Researchers take note the traditional gatekeeper in primary care, the general practitioner is occupied just keeping up with demand. There is no time to recruit, to seek informed consent or to deliver interventions that are being tested in a traditional randomised trial. At one time membership of networks with ‘committed’, well meaning practitioners were considered essential to successful research. In 2017 relying on anyone or any organisation that purports to guarantee recruitment rates or ‘collaboration’ seems at best naive and at worst risky.

Health requires people to make different choices. Eat better, drink less, take more exercise, jettison bad habits, consider when and where to seek medical advice. The traditional model of healthcare is evolving. The evolution is driven by technology that has fundamentally changed our experience of many if not all things. People consider themselves more time poor than they ever were.

The ability to satisfy desires instantly also breeds impatience, fuelled by a nagging sense that one could be doing so much else. People visit websites less often if they are more than 250 milliseconds slower than a close competitor, according to research from Google. More than a fifth of internet users will abandon an online video if it takes longer than five seconds to load. When experiences can be calculated according to the utility of a millisecond, all seconds are more anxiously judged for their utility. The Economist

The lesson for those hunting for better ways to reach people is to consider the least that can be done to get there. The answer may be waiting in all of our pockets.

Picture by Toshihiro Gamo

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

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.


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?


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.


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.


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?


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

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


Aren’t general practitioners already working hard enough Mrs May?

Right on cue in 2017 one government has made public pronouncements that the healthcare service is failing people because doctors, and specifically general practitioners, are not working hard enough. And their prime minister is prepared to penalise them:

Mrs May wants GPs to provide services 8-8pm, seven days a week, unless they can prove there’s no demand.

Her three point plan would see extra funding for docs slashed unless they provide weekend and evening appointments when patients need them– not when they offer them.

Practices getting extra cash for opening outwith core 8-6.30pm hours during the week will also be asked to expand online services. Lynn Davidson

It is as if the health of the nation can only be managed in one way- increase the number of people who consult a GP. It implies that the quality of those consultations couldn’t possibly suffer because tired doctors are forced to work longer hours. The government appears to be armed with a hammer and to them, everything looks like a nail. If these are the public pronouncements of the UK government, and there is a GP shortage how are they making a career in general practice an attractive option? Five experts presented their views on the subject of the current crisis in another article in a different national newspaper:

Nursing: Poor strategic decisions and budget cuts to care services have exacerbated pressures on emergency care.

Think Tank: More people attending hospitals and more of them are older and sicker. In many hospitals, beds are fully occupied, making it difficult to admit patients and causing waiting times in A&E to lengthen

Medical association: Demand is so great that hospitals are now full all year around, meaning there is no spare capacity to deal with a seasonal spike in demand

General practice: Cold weather inevitably brings more illness. But while we hear a lot about the crisis in our A&E departments, the explosion in demand for GPs is being overlooked or ignored.

Emergency medicine: It is not inappropriate patient attendances that are causing this; it is simply the volume of ill, elderly people made more complex with the wide range of existing medical conditions many suffer from.

The answer according to each expert is to ask for more money. But there are hints of an understanding that there is a more fundamental problem:

More money on its own will not help when the current system is fundamentally flawed and needs to be redesigned from scratch. Admissions should be prevented through early intervention and supporting people in their homes by anticipating their needs before they experience a crisis. Chris Ham

If that is so what does a ‘redesigned from scratch’ health service look like? In the UK there has been reform of the National Health Service by every government in the past thirty years. We have known about the coming tsunami of chronic and complex conditions for decades. How then is it that at least one developed country has woken up to this nightmare seemingly unprepared?  What happens in the interaction that matters the most- the one involving only two people- the health practitioner and the patient? What is needed to prevent a crisis in the patient’s life? In a society where autonomy is a fundamental right who makes the choices that lead to the need for medical intervention? How can we redesign the system so that we are turbo-charging the very interaction that has the most potential to prevent the crisis? It surely isn’t to ask doctors to work hours that are unsustainable.

Picture by Damian Gadal

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:

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