The future of healthcareLearn More

If your fix only works if people choose option A abandon it

There is an obsession with getting clinicians to ‘follow guidelines’. There are those in the world who appear to believe with an evangelical zeal that ‘if only’ people over there would do as we tell them everything would be fine. They rely on the questionable assumption that human behaviour is always rational.

If only doctors would refer those people or prescribe that drug in this instance. If only doctors ordered this or that test in these circumstances. If only this or that which relies upon someone making choices that solve somebody else’s problem.  And so as conference season approaches academics will share stories about experiments that all too predictably didn’t end well. Or pretend that they have finally solved a problem that no one in history could sort out. Except that neither have they.

Because access to specialists is limited by cost there is a belief that family doctors can ration care by referring urgently only those cases that ‘merit’ referral based on criteria determined by ‘experts’. Cancer is a case in point. Except that ‘cancer’ is not a single condition, its biology varies as do the complex responses of its victims. General Practitioners (GPs) know this. A patient can present with hardly any symptoms and die of metastatic cancer within 3 months or present with a plethora of complaints and be diagnosed with a very early and treatable malignancy.

The ‘solution’ to selecting people considered to be at high risk for referral to a specialist appeared to be an interactive referral tool that automatically deploys algorithms based on guidelines. This ‘solution’ relies on GPs recognising anyone who presents with ‘red flag’ symptoms, deploying the software and patients being prioritised once an urgent referral is received at the hospital. The solution is based on the assumption that if one person in the chain does X then the people in the other part of the system would do Y and the outcome would be Z. Maybe you can already see it wasn’t going to end well.

  1. GPs did not always recognise the symptom complexes that were touted as the hallmarks of risk.BMJ open
  2. GPs were reticent to deploy the software other than in the conditions of a simulation. BMC Family Practice
  3. Specialists did not prioritise those cases that guidelines identified as urgent. BJGP

There is also limited evidence that people referred with reference to such criteria are always going to have better outcomes.

Here’s the thing:

  1. Diseases like cancer have a different impact on everyone
  2. People with cancer don’t present the same way
  3. Doctors may not agree with the experts
  4. Doctors may choose not to deploy an innovation for reasons various
  5. The ‘system’ consists of many moving parts. Supposing there were seven such parts. If the ‘right thing’ was to occur 80% of the time at each step then only 21% of people would benefit from the ‘plan’. Glasziou and Haynes

In the innovation business solutions cannot rely on the ‘if only’ option. Effective innovations trigger people to do what they already want to do. The best innovators work on solutions that are easily and enthusiastically adopted by their target audience.

Picture by Jurgen Appelo

Deploy rituals and be present in practice

Your next patient or client will want you to:

  • Smile (23.2%);
  • Be friendly, personable, polite, respectful (19.2%);
  • Be attentive and calm, make the patient feel like a priority (16.4%);
  • and make eye contact (13.0%).

(An Evidence-Based Perspective on Greetings in Medical Encounters- Arch Intern Med)

Showing up this way for every patient has to be a habit. Essentially you need to be “present or “mindful”. The issue of mindful practice has also been the focus of academic interest:

In 2008, the authors conducted in-depth, semistructured interviews with primary care physicians .. mindfulness skills improved the participants’ ability to be attentive and listen deeply to patients’ concerns, respond to patients more effectively, and develop adaptive reserve. Academic Medicine.

To make a habit of showing up in this way it may be worth considering deploying a ritual.

Hurdler Michelle Jenneke has her famous warm-up dance, long-jumper Fabrice Lapierre competes with a gold chain in his mouth, Usain Bolt points to the sky before breaking yet another world record, while Michael Phelps blasts Eminem to fire him up before hitting the pool. My body+soul

Consider the distinction between a habit and a ritual:

Habit

An acquired behavior pattern regularly followed until it has become almost involuntary: the habit of looking both ways before crossing the street.

Ritual

An act or series of acts regularly repeated in a set precise manner.

Rituals support habit and focus. Rituals support you to repeat habits and create new behaviour patterns over time. Daily rituals can support you to make new habits stick. You can move from doing something that might take a lot of effort, to it becoming almost automatic or done unconsciously. Mary- Ann Webb

Establishing a ritual can be the prelude to a habit.

The term ritual refers to a type of expressive, symbolic activity constructed of multiple behaviors that occur in a fixed, episodic sequence, and that tend to be repeated over time. Ritual behavior is dramatically scripted and acted out and is performed with formality, seriousness, and inner intensity. Rook, Dennis W. (1985), “The Ritual Dimension of Consumer Behavior,” Journal of Consumer Research, 12 (December), 251-264.

The pathway goes from behaviour, to ritual and then to habit. Charles Duhigg  spoke of the ‘habit loop’.This loop has three components:

  • The Cue: This is the trigger that tells your brain to go into automatic mode and which habit to use.
  • The Routine: This is the behaviour itself. This can be an emotional, mental or physical behaviour.
  • The Reward: This is the reason you’re motivated to do the behaviour and a way your brain can encode the behaviour in your neurology, if it’s a repeated behaviour.

All habitual cues fit into one of five categories: location, time, emotional state, other people, and immediately preceding action. An immediately preceding action is the most stable cue because it’s triggered by an existing habit. So to build a new habit match it with an old habitual cue.

B.J. Fogg, asks:

“What does this behaviour most naturally follow?”

To implement this technique, decide on an existing habit and complete the following sentence:

“After I [EXISTING HABIT] I will immediately [NEW HABIT]”.

Therefore to make a habit of being present for the next patient the “cue” is when you terminate the previous consultation.

The “routine” or ritual: At the end of one consult you might close the notes, tidy your desk and wash your hands. Metaphorically you also wash the previous consult out of your mind. This has physical and psychological components.

Then when you are happy that the previous consult no longer lingers in your thoughts proceed to the next consult, stand in a specific spot, call the patient, introduce yourself and smile. Shake the patient’s hand. Walk with them to the consulting room. Don’t start the consult until you make eye contact. How the patient responds to such a greeting is the “reward“.

Picture by Rob Bertholf

Can the patient relay what was done for them?

A perennial source of dissatisfaction in healthcare (as documented here and here) is the poor flow of information from one sector to another. ‘Joe’ (speaking here– video from BMJ open) couldn’t tell me, his doctor, anything helpful about what had been done while he had been in hospital. That means we have to schedule several appointments to try to unpack it all. He was an in-patient for two weeks and someone had decided one Thursday morning that it was time for him to go home. It wasn’t really clear to Joe or to me why that particular morning or what was to happen when he got home other than that he should contact his ‘local GP’. A letter would follow some time in the future. There may have been good or bad reasons for sending him home. We could only guess what was in the mind of the person who made the decision:

We needed the bed. Joe was fine. His observations were normal, he was ambulant his wife was happy to take him home.

But of course Joe comes home with lots of questions, which I now struggle to answer without making phone calls to track down the busy medical team. The problem is articulated by several ‘stakeholders’ members of the ‘multidisciplinary team’ on the ward none of whom feel they own the problem of telling this man what he needs to know. There is only one constant in this story- Joe. If Joe can collect the information we need during the course of his hospital stay we might begin to improve the outcome:

In addition to increasing the burden on GPs, it engenders a need for a subsequent GP appointment; it limits GP capacity to respond to patient concerns and queries, at least on one occasion; it may result in a re-referral to the specialist; and it increases GP dissatisfaction with the care provided to the patient by the hospital. BMJ

The problem is Joe often does not know what he needs to know by the end of his hospital stay. It isn’t impossible to work out how to trigger questions for Joe to ask throughout his hospitalisation. What is far more difficult is to motivate every hospital ward and every discipline in a team to address this challenge consistently. It is ‘easier’ to nudge one individual than enlist the cooperation of the dozens of health professionals who will come into contact with Joe. Making people active in healthcare processes has achieved results before:

Influence at Work, a training and consultancy company that Cialdini founded, worked with the United Kingdom’s National Health Service (NHS) in a set of studies aimed at reducing the number of patients who fail to show up for medical appointments. They did this by simply making patients more involved in the appointment-making process, such as asking the patient to write down the details of the appointment themselves rather than simply receiving an appointment card. Sleek

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Profiting from vanity- they may be targeting someone you love.

Where I live you’d be forgiven for thinking that you will be reported for child abuse if your teenager has less than perfectly straight teeth. Kids are growing up believing they need to be physically perfect.  So when the first crop of zits appears there is a hasty and often expensive trip to the chemist. Treating acne is a $3 billion industry in the United States alone.

..but i just feel so ugly when i see pretty girls with perfect skin around me.. it just makes me feel terribly disgusting, honestly. like i’m less of a person. it’s not fair. at my age there’s so much pressure to look beautiful constantly. even though i know most people don’t care how good you look a lot of them are secretly judging inside… everyone does it, even me..Nyla

Those in the age group 15-24 account for 7.6%  of consultations in general practice. Significant or life limiting pathology is unlikely in this age group but for many these meetings with their doctor will set the tone for a life long relationship with their main healthcare provider. For young people acne and eczema are the reason for almost one in three consultations with a GP. Sadly it has been reported that some teenagers get a very poor deal when they pluck up the courage to see a doctor:

It’s not that he doesn’t listen … sometimes he doesn’t fully comprehend that he’s talking in a way you can’t understand … it would help if they talked to teenagers. ( As reported by Jacobson et al in the BJGP)

This could be a missed opportunity to forge a relationship with the patient. If you are a doctor it may be worthwhile rehearsing a lucid explanation of common problems presented to you, including and especially acne. There is a bewildering array of opinions on this problem. Indeed the conclusion of research on this topic was that the majority of young people are getting information from non physician sources and there may be a need to evaluate the resources they are using to make sure they are receiving appropriate, helpful information. That includes parents who would rather their teenager would learn to live with her spots and expect you to endorse that view.

For those who want a ‘cure’ the opportunity for to profit from their distress makes them vulnerable to the most unscrupulous practices. $3 billion USD represents a substantial market for lotions, potions and diets that don’t work.

Substantial numbers of those surveyed had ideas about cause, treatment, and prognosis that might adversely affect therapy. Rasmussen and Smith

The truth is acne is a manageable condition, it’s just a matter of finding a treatment that works for an individual. For most people, it may take few attempts at find something that works. For some, over-the-counter topical creams are fine, for others, oral antibiotics or hormonal treatments work better, and yet others only respond to drugs prescribed by a dermatologist, with multiple courses required in relatively rare circumstances. The goal of having clear (or at least totally acceptable) skin is not unreasonable. This is a teachable moment in the interaction with young people.

Picture by Caitlin Regan

Address the patient’s greatest fears ASAP

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I think my son has meningitis.

I glanced at the boy who was now walking across the room to look more closely at a poster on antenatal care.

I don’t think so was my first thought, followed by thank you for telling me exactly what you are worried about. It’s not always that easy. Often the ‘hidden agenda’ remains just that- hidden. The longer it remains unchallenged the greater its hold. Then it’s much less easily to address head on. Sometimes you get a sense of it from the smell of fear as it comes into the room. Occasionally it’s hidden in a request for curious tests:

Could you check my vitamin levels?

My favorite is those who come for ‘check ups’ and are seemingly asymptomatic. I recommend the paper by Sabina Hunziker and colleagues. They studied 66 cases of people who explicitly requested a ‘check up’. All consults were video recorded and analysed for information about spontaneously mentioned symptoms and reasons for the clinic consultation (“open agendas”) and for clues to hidden patient agendas using the Roter interaction analysis system (RIAS).In RIAS, a cue denotes an element in patient-provider communications that is not explicitly expressed verbally. It includes vague indications of emotions such as anxiety or embarrassment that patients might find difficult to express openly and that prevent the patient from being completely forthcoming about his or her reasons for requesting a consultation. All 66 patients initially declared to be asymptomatic but this was ultimately the case in only 7 out of 66 patients.

Back to the boy with ‘meningitis’. He had a fever and aches and pains. However according to Dr. Google, who mum consulted just before rushing to the surgery, if the child had ‘cold hands’ one of the possibilities is that the child has meningitis.

I examined the child thoroughly and found that he had a mild pyrexia and signs of an upper respiratory tract infection. He was awake, alert and clearly interested in his surroundings. He was persuaded to smile and had no signs of septicemia. As this is a common fear in anxious parents I am prepared with standard advice that might be helpful and outline the way meningitis presents. Something I have encountered in practice.

There are many other fears that are presented in an urgent consult. In 99.99% of cases, they are unfounded. However the opportunity to allay the patient’s fears is also an opportunity to forge a bond that may be of enormous assistance when those fears prove to be well-founded. It may be worth considering how you will respond to patient fears of the many monsters that appear in the dead of night; cancer, heart attack, Kawasaki’s disease and meningitis in particular. Bearing in mind these monsters do occasionally present in the most atypical fashion.

Picture by Pimthida

 

We have to be part of the solution because we are part of the problem

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She blinked at me expectantly. Her companion sat in the corner of the room, arms folded staring at the floor. She glanced at him side ways and then said in a loud whisper

We are here about that business last week. You know.

I didn’t know. So I frantically searched through the notes. The man in question had been seen here several times recently for various dressings. Nothing to say how he had been injured or the nature of the wound. At that point she lost it.

I don’t like talking about it in front of him! Because of his you know……well I told the doctor everything a couple of weeks ago. We need a report for the police and a referral for counselling.

I was mystified. The cryptic notes mentioned an injury to the arm and the application of various dressings but nothing about a bashing. She would have to see ‘the other doctor’ for the report. He was on holiday and not expected back for 10 days. Neither of us was satisfied. The next patient didn’t help matters. She had been pushed to the ground at the railway station and injured her wrist. She had been to the Emergency Department a couple of days ago and had been sent to the practice for an X-ray report. I assumed that someone had seen the X-rays and that she hadn’t been discharged with a bony injury. But there was no note from the Emergency doctor, hand written or otherwise and I now had to spend the next 20 minutes listening to musak while the ward clerk searched for a copy of the report and faxed it to me. In any other industry this waste of time would be tweeted as an example of bad service.

Meanwhile we are spending millions of dollars in search of electronic records that will somehow transform continuity of care. The assumption is that given such a record a doctor will document the circumstances in which she has come to reviewing a patient repeatedly or that the emergency department will reliably record why a patient was fit to be discharged. All of this is possible now if only doctors will plan for when the patient turns up when they are on a day off or choose to go to another provider. Hours can be saved each day, millions of dollars can be redeployed to make a system that already serves us well even better.

Assuming the technical challenge of a personal electronic record can be overcome the question is whether such a record will deliver its promise given that not all who work in healthcare are committed to treating the patient as they would wish to be treated themselves. There is no doubt that the free flow of information will help improve healthcare provision however the most valuable data that helps us serve people (history and examination) have to be documented by a human rather than a machine. Innovation should start with a change in the mindset of those who work in an industry. Are you confident that no one you served today would have to have their problems reassessed if you didn’t show up for work tomorrow? If so then we will be on the way to better outcomes overnight.

It’s also hoped the new system will reduce the high rate of medical errors (18%) that occur from inadequate patient information, reduce unnecessary hospital admissions, and save doctors from collecting a full medical history each time they see a new patient. The conversation

Picture by Ben Hussman

 

What do you want from your doctor?

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Finding a good doctor is like finding a good lover: there are lots of anecdotes but no data Richard Smith

Our family has moved to an new city and we are looking for a family doctor. What would you look for if you knew a little about evidence based medicine? Would you want your doctor to have read the latest medical journals and could quote research evidence for every decision they make? New premises? New furniture? Free wifi? Short waiting times? A coffee machine? Text messaging? Internet booking? A PhD?

How do you choose a new dentist? A new hairdresser? Do you just walk in to the nearest premises and hope for the best? Do you ask your neighbours for a recommendation? Do you google the names you see in the phone book? The chances are you spend more time choosing a restaurant then you do choosing your doctor. And yet there is far more at stake other than a good meal or a hair cut.

For us in selecting a doctor nothing matters as much as the doctor’s interest in our family. Our new doctor may not have read this week’s medical journal but he or she will be curious about our family because they will want to understand the context of any symptoms . That isn’t simply limited to our medical history, allergies or genetic predisposition. It also means the fact that we have moved interstate, we have new jobs, renting for the first time in years and experiencing a number of other life events. They will take into account any support we might be receiving from friends or family and our satisfaction or otherwise with our decision to relocate.

If you feel the same way then you might agree that doctors, especially family physicians aka general practitioners, provide a relationship and not just a service. This is what we seek when we consult a doctor:

Their willingness to make eye contact, to listen actively, to pick up verbal and non-verbal cues, to be respectful  and unwavering in the opinion that our perspective on our bodies and its functioning is what matters the most. To our new doctor we will be free to make choices. They will see their role as adviser and advocate rather than enforcer of what’s best for us as determined by somebody else. The best doctors understand that they may not have all the information on which we make decisions but faithfully realise that we also want what they want i.e. what’s in our best interests.

I love this quote from Anatole Broyard:

What do I want in a doctor? I would say that I want one who is a close reader of illness and a good critic of medicine…I see no reason or need for my doctor to love me, nor would I expect him to suffer with me. I wouldn’t demand a lot of my doctor’s time, I just wish he would brood on my situation for perhaps five minutes, that he would give me his whole mind just once, be bonded with me for a brief space, survey my soul as well as my flesh, to get at my illness, for each man is ill in his own way.

We will choose our next doctor based on how we feel not what we think. Is that a good thing? It’s not logical, but it’s the only basis on which humans make the most important decisions in life.

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The case for innovation up close and personal

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In the same week that my colleague drew my attention to the new book ‘ The patient will see you now‘, I became part of John’s story. I quote from the book:

Doctors are still labeling patients as difficult. Patients are typically unable to see, let alone keep or contribute to their office visit notes about their condition and their body that they paid for, Frequently they have to consult multiple doctors for the same condition. It may take weeks to get an appointment. The time with the doctor is quite limited, typically less than ten minutes, and much of that is without eye contact because the doctor is pecking away at a keyboard.

John (75) was born and lives in Dublin. He has the generosity of spirit that made Ireland what it is. A working man all of his life he lives to walk to the shops on Saturday morning. Two years ago he had a bilateral knee replacement. In the past six months he has become severely disabled with back and hip pain. He now walks with crutches and spends most of the day in a chair. His aging wife has to help him put on his socks, a friend ferries them to the shops in his taxi once a week. He is in constant and relentless pain. He attends a pain clinic and visits his general practitioner on foot, a hour long walk on his crutches every week. His aging prostate requires him to be within a short dash of a toilet. He finds life a struggle each and every day. He needs a hip replacement.

He was offered a review appointment at a Dublin teaching hospital. The appointment last Thursday was for 2.30pm. Not wanting to keep the doctor waiting he turned up on time and patiently waited in a chair until 6pm when he was finally called in. The senior house officer who saw him was ‘multitasking’, fielding calls from the wards. The patient’s records were strewn on the floor at his feet.

After a cursory examination he advised John that he would have to be ‘worse’ before they could do anything. John politely thanked him for his concern but asked to see the consultant. The consultant offered to refer him to a pain clinic but added that it would take months to get an appointment. John pointed out that, as their records would show, he was already attending a pain clinic and the specialist there told him nothing more could be done and that he needed a new hip. The consultant was unfazed by this news and said he would ‘write to the pain clinic’. They watched him struggle out of the chair and leave the room.

Not one to make a fuss, ever, John took a taxi home. By the time he got home he needed to ‘go straight to bed.

John’s story is typical of the many Irish people who daily endure a third world healthcare system. Ireland’s tax payers, men and women like John forked out for the training of tens of  thousands of doctors who form the backbone of healthcare organisations the world over. But John gave me more. He is grandfather in our family. It pains us deeply to hear that healthcare in that country is now for those with private insurance or those who are prepared to voice their displeasure. Surely it can’t be beyond the pale to organise an outpatient clinic where people are treated with dignity even if, it seems, nothing can be done for them? How do specialists determine who merits the rationed healthcare resources now on offer? John was advised to be very polite to secretaries who have power and influence over their boss’s schedules . The need for reform is compelling. It may not be obvious in ‘official’ data because the whole unpalatable truth is only apparent to those who have not. It doesn’t require research to know that something is very wrong, it simply requires an interest in the experience of those who need healthcare the most.

Picture by Julie Keryesz

No budget required to make a difference

3386629036_0b929ebb7f_zI said good bye to my patients and colleagues this week. Next week I move to a new job in a new city. It is always surprising what people say to you when they think they might not see you again for a long while.

They don’t recall the grand gestures or the major projects. Instead they talk about the little things that made an impression. Things that made them smile sometimes at your expense. Things that made you human in their eyes.

But perhaps that’s a lesson I should have learned on the 26th Jan 1986. It was a bitterly cold Australia day in Dublin. I was invited to celebrate with my Australian flat mates. As I stood there mouthing the words to Waltzing Matilda on a stage in St. Stephens Green I caught the eye of this gorgeous creature who seemed to be thinking the same thing. These people are mad! And if this is what Australians are like- then that’s where we want to be.

As we left the Green and headed home I unwittingly did something that became the defining moment in our relationship- I offered the girl my gloves. The rest as they say is history and frankly I had no chance once she made up her mind I was the man for her. And now almost 30 years later we are proud to call Australia home.

As you consider how to make a difference – perhaps it’s the little things that you can do that will have the greatest impact. The things that people will recall when their association with you, your team, your organisation or your business ends. Practice random acts of kindness, you don’t need permission, a budget or a committee to do that.

Picture by Ed Yourdon

Staff needs should drive improvements

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I sometimes go to the bank on a Saturday. It’s the only day when I can afford to take the time to pack a picnic and wait in the long queue with everyone else who can’t make it there during the week. This week I sold some unwanted furniture and decided I didn’t want to leave the money in cash. So I made my way to the shopping centre and then to the back of the queue and waited with parents who were trying, feebly I thought, to keep their bored kids taking all the leaflets out of their holders. The attraction I’m sure wasn’t the apparently lowest ever interest rates.

Then, and I could have sworn she simply apparated Harry Potter style, a teller sidled up and asked what business I had at the bank. I explained my need to deposit money so she led me quietly outside to the ATM. As if talking to someone very old and deaf she explained that I did not need to queue to deposit money. It can all be done via an ATM. She talked me through the process, waited till I collected my receipt and then smiling kindly waived me off to my next destination. This got me wondering how many patients feel the same way about taking the time to visit a clinic. Waiting in line even when their need is not urgent and when it may be possible for them to get what they need without the inconvenience of attending in person.

The secret to dealing with the problem is to reframe it as staff’s problem. I hope the bank teller is rewarded for assisting me, for taking the time to make some Saturday excursions to the bank unnecessary, perhaps even getting a high-five from her manager. She certainly needs to make a habit of what she just did. I bet even bank tellers prefer to have their exploits celebrated by bloggers than deal with grumpy people who have waited an hour on a hot Saturday morning.

The issue of improving customer service can be reframed as something to be tackled in response to staff needs. Only then will it be a sufficient priority for front line staff to act in response to a trigger- such as ‘there are now more than five people queuing at the counter’. It’s time for someone to see if we can send some people on their way sooner rather than later.

That was quite different from my experience with Rain man’s favorite airline. My flight to Sydney was diverted to Melbourne three months ago. The ground staff gave me a note to send to their customer service people to refund me for the flight to Sydney early the next morning. Three months later and despite following instructions the money wasn’t credited to my account. Eventually I found the number for customer service and after waiting what seemed a very long time spoke to a human being. She assured me I was given the wrong information.

You must claim the money from your insurer.

Nope. No can do. Your staff told me to send you the invoice and I will call you every hour until you credit my account. What your staff are telling your customers in these circumstances is not my issue.

That’s all it took. I got the money refunded before the second call. No good will generated despite, eventually, doing the right thing. It was much easier to hide behind the anonymity at a call centre. Little motivation, despite the ability, so not triggered to act to when the customer calls. How often does this happen in medicine? How often are front line staff put in the position of fending off demands from the customers even when the customer is acting in accordance with information received? This does untold damage to the brand. Our time is at least as important as those who provide services. We scarcely put up with shoddy service in other aspects of life. Why should medicine be a special case?

Picture by A. Currell