Tag Archives: patient advocacy

Rehearse a plan for best care

It was a Saturday morning. Michael (43) popped in to get the results of his test as requested by the message left on his phone. He was told that the doctor who ordered the test wasn’t on duty that day so he asked to see whoever was available. That’s how I came to be involved.

From the records it wasn’t clear why the cortisol assay had been requested along with a battery of other tests all of which were normal. All the man could tell me is that he had asked for the test because:

It might explain a lot.

We had to start again. He was tired. He was stressed. He was working long hours at two jobs to pay a mortgage and service his debts. He had three young children and had been on antidepressants on and off for years. He wasn’t taking any tablets at the time. Didn’t smoke or drink. He was attending a counsellor.

There must be a reason I’m feeling so tired.

There was no obvious explanation for the borderline low result. Physical examination was entirely normal. No recent change in weight, normal blood pressure and no hint of major depression. No history of tuberculosis. No evidence of Addison’s disease.

I thought the ‘cortisol’ levels would be high I’m under a lot of stress.

We could now be on the way to more tests to determine what I suspected would be the final outcome that there would be no explanation. Life can cause people to feel this way with multiple physical symptoms including dysphoria, fatigue, insomnia, sexual dysfunction, weight changes and anxiety. Reasons may include poor choice of occupation, poor choice of partner, poor money management, poor time management, poor parenting. All of these can be associated with unfulfilling social interactions and or job dissatisfaction. Poor coping mechanisms then lead to physical sequela. People can be trapped in a spiral of increasing adverse consequences until lessons are learned and either alternative choices are forced upon them or circumstances conspire to offer the opportunity to start again.

People may not be ready to face their demons and that means they will ask to go searching for something more palatable than a need for a education,  honesty, economy or help.

As for doctors ordering tests could add to the complexity of the situation. Rare causes of fatigue are legion.  However typically people will ask if their fatigue is caused by some malfunction of their ‘hormones’ or if they are anaemic or diabetic.

In the case above there was no hint in the records what the patient had been told to expect after the test. His understanding of hormones was not recorded. He had read that cortisol is related to stress but not what the results might mean.

Because of the very low prevalence of pathology the Positive Predictive Value of ‘abnormal’ tests for middle aged patient without any positive history or examination findings is low for example:

Therefore the probability that one simple test will make the diagnosis is unlikely. People will need multiple tests and possibly a referral to a specialist once we embark on the hunt for the elusive physical cause. The likelihood of finding one when the patient doesn’t have any physical signs is vanishingly low. In sporting terms what’s needed is a set play. The question can be anticipated and the response to the initial request for tests needs to be crafted in advance. There is no better start then taking a full history and examining the patient before looking for the needle in the haystack.

Picture by Henti Smith

How can doctors remain the health practitioner of choice?


You work as a checkout assistant at a supermarket. It’s Thursday. You’ve got a sore throat. It started a few days ago. You’re sneezing, you’re tired, you’ve got a headache. You’ve taken paracetamol already today it didn’t take away all the discomfort you still feel dreadful. You have several problems.

You want to feel better. Secretly you may be concerned that this is more than just a cold. You want to reassure the people that you are going to be well again in a few days. You want people to understand and accept that you are not functioning at your best at the moment. You want it all now not next week when you might be better or worse.

You may want information but you probably also want to have your discomfort validated and acknowledged. You’ve got some choices to make. You can try and get a doctor’s appointment. You can Google the symptoms and treatment. You can go to the local pharmacy or to your favourite alternative health practitioner. You can also try the emergency department. What you choose will depend on your previous experience of a similar episode but also on what your friends and or family suggest.

Upper respiratory tract infections are among the commonest reasons that patients seek the services of a general practitioner in Australia. It’s a presenting problem in one in twenty consultations. In the majority of cases these infections are viral and don’t require a prescription from a registered medical practitioner.

On the other hand there may be a financial cost to attending a doctor. You will need to take some or all of the day off and you may be required to queue despite you physical discomfort and it is more than likely that the doctor will tell you what everyone has already suggested that you will probably feel better in a few days. Whether you consider it useful to attend the doctor will depend on whether your needs were met last time. How do you feel at the end of the consultation? Did you feel that your visit was welcomed and that you were treated sympathetically? Did the doctor listen to you? Did they examine you? How did they convey the news that there isn’t any curative treatment available? How did they make you feel about the decision to make an appointment at the practice?

If we consider that such ‘trivial’ problems could be managed by another healthcare practitioner then we are asking for one in twenty encounters in practice to cease. How do we convey this message to our patients.

Colds are generally mild and shortlived, so there’s usually no need to see your GP if you think you have one. You should just rest at home and use painkillers and other remedies to relieve your symptoms until you’re feeling better. NHS Choices

The challenge is that most of what the patient is likely to present with as a new problem is similar: bronchiolitis, gastroenteritis, sprain/ strain, viral disease, contact dermatitis, back pain, bursitis, solar keratosis/ sunburn, tenosynovitis, tonsillitis, vaccination. These conditions or problems form a substantial chunk of the workload.

What can doctors add to these encounters that would make them a worthwhile experience for patients? Not just what might be ‘evidence based’ but also perceived as useful by the patient? Experiences that will retain the doctor and not a pharmacist, nurse, chiropractor, naturopath, homeopath, Dr. Google or ‘McDoctor-dial-a-doc’ as the healthcare practitioner of choice. In Australia doctors have typically 15 minutes. Here are some possible value adds:

  1. Offer advice on weight loss and exercise
  2. Advise on smoking cessation
  3. Review the patient’s medication
  4. Promote cancer screening
  5. Advise on vaccinations
  6. Examine the patient
  7. Document any possible risk factors for chronic illness
  8. All of the above

Back to the checkout assistant who is feeling dreadful, wants more than anything to go home after sitting in your waiting room, nursing a fever and a runny nose. It’s up to you of course but it I know which of the above I would want my doctor to do at that time. Patients tell it as they’ve experienced it and research has suggested what they are willing to pay for.

Picture by Tina Franklin

Practitioner income as a function of Freakonomics

According to headlines this year more than one in three GPs in Australia report feeling somewhat or very dissatisfied with their income. Two things determine health practitioner income:

  1. What is a (funder / government / insurer) willing to pay?
  2. What is a (patient / customer / client) willing to contribute?

What is beyond doubt is that when it comes to their pet’s healthcare the Australian public is very willing to pay. In fact Australians would alter their spending habits rather than compromise their pet’s quality of life.

Of the 2,500 Australians, aged between 18 and 65 that were surveyed in the 2015 Financial Health Barometer, only 14 per cent of pet owners would reduce spending on their pets if their income dropped Remarkably, almost half (48 per cent) of respondents would take steps to minimise their power usage. We’d be more likely to reduce spending on essentials (47 per cent), switch to using cheaper products (35 per cent) or look for additional work (16 per cent) rather than curb spending on our furry friends. Hayley Williams.

Similarly spending on beauty treatments is remarkable:

The online survey of close to 1300 Australian women was conducted by Galaxy Research and commissioned by at-home hair removal brand Veet.
And, while 10 per cent of the women surveyed spent $5000 on average and and almost 60 hours in the beauty salon annually, 40 per cent admitted to putting their beauty regimens ahead of sleeping, shopping and their social life, with 4 per cent of those women also choosing a salon visit over their sex lives.

In contrast national statistics document that a significant proportion of Australians are reticent to seek healthcare because of the perceived cost. It was not surprising that a proposed $7 co-payment proposal for general practitioner visits in Australia was dumped before it was enacted.  It is evident that some doctors get paid far more than others. Secondly some parts of the country attract more doctors but as a general rule where there is a scarcity, by dint of geography or specialisation, it is more likely that doctors will earn more.

What people are willing to pay for health care is a function of economics, or perhaps “Freaknonomics” (study of economics based on the principle of incentives.) From this perspective “incentives matter.” Consumers try to maximize total satisfaction, while providers try to maximize profits. Whenever there are a lot of people willing and able to perform a job, that job doesn’t pay well. In a capitalist society, intense competition will drive prices down. When a technological advance occurs, it results in a shift of the supply curve to the right. All other things equal, this will lower the equilibrium price of a good, which then increases demand. Both producers and consumers need to be fully informed regarding their consumption or production decisions for a market to be efficient.

So how might this apply to primary care? 

  1. There are more doctors per head of population than ever before- in other words more people willing and able to perform the job- especially in primary care.
  2. There is a global trend in developed economies for “alternative providers” for primary care services- including vaccination, cancer screening and treatment of ‘minor’ illnesses.
  3. Technology offers new ways to ‘consult’ a practitioner other than by having practitioner and patient in the same room.
  4. Because of the internet doctors no longer hold the monopoly on information.

So doctors’ incomes in primary care experience downward pressure because suppliers of the services are increasing. We might therefore consider what people would consider paying for a consultation at a doctors’ clinic. Research published in 2008 (Annals of Fam Med) offers one perspective:

  • Overall, patients were willing to pay the most for a thorough physical examination ($40.87).
  • The next most valued attributes of care were seeing a physician who knew them well ($12.18),
  • Seeing a physician with a friendly manner ($8.50),
  • Having a reduction in waiting time of 1 day ($7.22), and
  • Having flexibility of appointment times ($6.71).
  • Patients placed similar value on the different aspects of patient-centered care ($12.06–$14.82).

It seems that two sectors (Pets and Beauty) appear to have no difficulty with their income. What might they have to offer by way of advice?

  1. The art of creating added value starts with the ability to see your business through the eyes of your customers.
  2. Although the debate over whether the customer is always right (or not!) continues, lack of customer satisfaction is a sure-fire way to keep people from coming back.
  3. Implement marketing models into your strategy.
  4. Most importantly, memorable customer experience models aim to deliver unexpected intangible value that cannot be packaged or sold. This includes personalized service, attention to detail, and showing a sense of urgency to address concerns as they arise.
  5. Whether it’s a free guide, a printable PDF, or a company branded calendar, free resources are a great way to create added value and showcase your brand’s ability to offer ‘a little something extra’ to customers.

In the case of healthcare the ‘customer’ is not just the patient but also the pay master. These ideas may need to be translated for this sector. In many cases it probably already has been. However for others there is something to learn from how successful businesses add value that translate into better rewards.

Picture by Pexels

Clinicians can make a bad situation worse

He looked unremarkable.

I’m tired all the time. Otherwise I’m well he said smiling. No symptoms. Could eat more healthily I suppose. Don’t like alcohol and don’t smoke. Not losing weight. Can fall asleep on the couch at 11 in the morning. Not been anywhere abroad. Like going to the footy but don’t do much exercise.  Am not interested in sex. I want to rule out a physical cause.

His notes were scant. He’d consulted a few times over the years. Mostly self limiting conditions. A previous normal blood pressure was recorded. He wasn’t overweight. No psychiatric illness. No medications. We quickly went through every system recording a lack of any specific symptoms. Then paused.

Me: Are you married?

Him: Yes

More conversation about his children and his job as a retailer. His lack of exercise and his junk food diet.

Then we started talking about the elephant in the room.

Me: When did you start to lose interest in sex?

Him: It’s going on for a while. I’ve tried Viagra and that didn’t work. I’m moving out of the house tomorrow, we are trying a separation. We have been attending a counsellor and I just want to rule out a physical cause.

I was thinking.

So you don’t think that this might be contributing to your tiredness?

I bit my tongue. We went on to establish that he did not have ‘erectile’ dysfunction. From the history he had no difficulty achieving and maintaining an erection when he was on his own. His poor performance in the marital bed was not related to a physical cause. However the counsellor had sent him along just in case it might help the situation to be able to disclose that the relationship was suffering from some readily identified and treatable physical problem.

The consultation could have gone in another direction. I had a range of tests at my disposal that could have led us down any number of dead ends. We might even have discovered an incidentaloma to add to the confusion.

Sexual dysfunction is thought be to present in thirty five percent of male patients. It takes a bit of proactive questioning to get disclosure.

Despite this, sexual problems were recorded in only 2 per cent of the GP notes. Read et al

We were not going to solve the mystery on that occasion. I did a physical examination. It was normal. The hammers in my tool kit were put away, this wasn’t a nail. When it comes to sex, humans are complicated:

Research findings have implicated 5 factors that seem to differentiate sexually functional Ss from sexually dysfunctional Ss suffering from inhibited sexual excitement. These factors include differences in affect during sexual stimulation, differences in self-reports of sexual arousal and perception of control over arousal, distractibility during sexual stimulation, and differential sexual responding while anxious. David Barlow

I couldn’t establish what went on behind closed doors or in his mind at that time. We wouldn’t be talking about that but it was of critical importance to this man’s well being. This couple would get the help they deserved but it would take a recognition of the limitations rather than the expertise at my disposal that would assist them.

Picture by David Goehring

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

Cases too complex for a specialism other than general practice

It was a Friday evening. It’s almost always a Friday when this sort of case presents. She was in most ways unremarkable. She smiled readily, wasn’t evidently confused and worked in a senior administrative role. She came after work. This was the story:

I have a pain in my shoulder that becomes intense in my left arm pit. I can hardly bear to touch my arm pit. My hand becomes numb and cold. Today it’s so bad I’m finding it hard to turn the steering wheel.

I had 15 mins to sort this out, no scans, no blood tests, no discussion with a ‘team’ of young doctors working to pass their exams. She was describing symptoms that may have indicated a neurological emergency. And yet none of it made sense. She hadn’t fallen or been involved in any other trauma. There was no rash, no swelling. She swung her left arm over her head without any difficulty. I could not detect neurological signs, reflexes were normal. No Horner’s syndrome. No breast lesion. No obvious sensory loss. Twenty minutes later I could find nothing in her records or in her presentation that gave me any clue to the cause of these symptoms. And yet she was clearly worried. Regardless of the outcome I had to achieve one thing- this person like every other person who seeks help from a general practitioner needed to know that she had been taken seriously. Not for us the option of sending her back to whence she came with a note:

No organic pathology. Refer elsewhere.

A number of possibilities came to mind. Top of the list was ‘brachial plexus neuropathy‘ or Thoracic Outlet Syndrome. There were no objective signs at the time of presentation and I had never seen this before albeit that I had read about it sometime while at medical school. But then that’s primary care. We are the first port of call for anyone entering the healthcare system and often they present too early for anything to have manifested objectively. Not for us the text book presentation. About this diagnosis we know that:

Damage to the brachial plexus usually results from direct injury. Other common causes of damage to the brachial plexus include:

  • Birth trauma.
  • Injury from stretching.
  • Pressure from tumours.
  • Damage from radiation therapy.

Brachial plexus neuropathy may also be associated with:

  • Birth defects.
  • Exposure to toxins.
  • Inflammatory conditions.
  • Immune system issues.

There are also numerous cases in which no direct cause can be identified.

We also know that:

Signs and symptoms of thoracic outlet syndrome vary from patient to patient due to the location of nerve and/or vessel involvement. Symptoms range from mild pain and sensory changes to limb threatening complications in severe cases. Physiopedia

Diagnosis is difficult, tests and examination can be normalprognosis is variable. By the time a diagnosis was made weeks later and she presented to a specialist everything was obvious. But on that Friday evening with a surgery full of patients I was on my own. My patient trusted that I would not let her walk out of there only to lose a limb. Assuming a benign cause she would be back and need more. This was the start of a longterm relationship and how I managed this episode would set the tone for the duration.

While improvement may begin in one to two months, complete functional recovery may not be achieved for up to three years or longer in some cases. Tsairis et al

Picture by Mahree Modesto

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

Continuity of care is a good thing right?

There’s a wonderful video that illustrates the point I’m making this week. You can see it here.

It is assumed that continuity of care is a good thing. That if you consult the same doctor every time then you will benefit with better health. We all have relatives who insist on seeing the same doctor every time. No one but Dr. X will do. Yet doctor X has all sorts of interesting approaches to their problems and despite knowing Aunt Mildred for years hasn’t twigged that her latest symptoms may be a manifestations of some family drama. She might suddenly be more bothered about her aching hip because Uncle John is making her miserable or making her carry the shopping on their visits to the supermarket.

So, is there strong evidence that people who consult the same doctor at every visit are:

  1. Less likely to be prescribed inappropriate drugs or have unnecessary tests?- Maybe.
  2. More likely to have symptoms of life limiting illness recognised early?- Not really.
  3. More likely to be counselled about poor lifestyle choices addressed?- Maybe.
  4. More likely to be screened for chronic illness? – Maybe
  5. More likely to be immunised?- Maybe.
  6. More likely to have better outcomes from chronic illness?- Maybe

The evidence is equivocal at best. Even the most ardent supporters of continuity conclude that there is ‘lots more research needed’.

So what does that tell us?

Perhaps it suggests that simply because people choose to see different doctors does not necessarily mean they are opting for, or receiving, inferior care.

When it comes to test ordering ‘walk-in’ patients are not necessarily after tests and there is some evidence that those doctors who order tests in the hope of ‘satisfying’ the patient are misguided.

There is lots of evidence that ‘continuity of care’ increases trust in a doctor. As per the example of Aunt Mildred. But there is no evidence that Aunt Mildred will be better off trusting her doctor because ‘trust’ ( which isn’t consistently defined) does not guarantee better outcomes. If Aunt Mildred attends here GP presenting with symptoms of bony metastases and is referred for urgent investigation because her GP recognises the clinical signs then she will have been well served regardless of whether she attends Dr. X, Dr. Y or someone at another practice. The point is one of them should spot the moonwalking bear.

Picture by torbakhopper

Common sense vs. miracle cures

I’ve seen this person, or someone like her many times before. On that occasion it was a demand for phentermine but it could have been antibiotics, ‘blood tests’, a ‘whole body scan’, benzodiazepines or opiates .

My doctor has prescribed it before. I need it again. So I just need a repeat script.

At a guess she had a BMI just shy of 30 and I noted that she had been prescribed this drug intermittently for a couple of years. She made it clear there was no room for discussion or argument. She had taken the day off work and wanted to get her diet underway. She wasn’t really interested in my opinion. If I’d prescribe it she’d leave. I explained politely that I don’t prescribe this drug (even though I could). I don’t believe it works and could actually harm her. But she persisted:

My professor prescribes it for me

In other words

What do you know about it? You’re ‘only’ a doctor.

I could explain lots of reasons why she shouldn’t be taking this drug. Phentermine is an amphetamine derivative that is used as an anti obesity agent it was approved by the US FDA in 1959 for short term treatment of obesity. It is the most commonly used anti-obesity drug on the US market and many US bariatric physicians use phentermine long term, ignoring the FDA guidelines that it be used for three months or less.

In a trial published in the British Medical Journal in 1968 it was concluded that phentermine has an anorectic effect ‘compared to placebo’. However according to a systematic review published in 2014:

No obesity medication has been shown to reduce cardiovascular morbidity or mortality. Additional studies are needed to determine the long-term health effects of obesity medications in large and diverse patient populations. JAMA

Like so many miracle cures discovered or unveiled decades ago we now know a bit more. Phentermine has been associated with psychosis. But there is precious little else to indicate major problems in the literature and the drug is still listed as available to prescribe. However patient experience is another matter:

I lost about 20 kg’s on [Phentermine] over about 6 months. I didn’t have any of the shaky or jittery, but these are common side effects. Even though my appetite was much less then it normally would be, I made a conscious effort to eat three small meals a day and a few snacks. I Used it in conjunction with a calorie tracker plus exercised. It can make the weight drop off quickly but if you don’t make the steps to eat correctly and exercise you can pick it up weight plus some again when you stop taking the tablets. Glowworm80

And another:

However, there are side effects. Lots of people say it makes their heart feel “racy”. This has not happened to me, but I suffered terrible insomnia. I wasn’t able to sleep before 3am in the morning, just lying in bed with thoughts racing around a million miles an hour. But then when you get up and take the next day’s pill, you get energised and you don’t feel like you’ve only had three hours sleep.

You can see how ridiculous this all is … eating next to nothing, sleeping only three hours a night but feeling no hunger and having boudless energy. It is not something that your body will thank you for in the long run. peckingbird

And this one:

I am sorry to say but I think any doctor who prescribes [Phentermine] as a first choice treatment for weight issues is being negligent. I really do understand the attraction when weight is needed to be lost quickly BUT..

I know many people who’ve taken it ( it was very readily available back in the 90s ) they have lost varying amounts of weight and have had varying side effects…some really dangerous and not one of them has maintained their weight loss beyond a couple of months after ceasing the drug. Soontobegran

This has also been my experience when I’ve prescribed it for patients in the past so I won’t prescribe it now. We need to exercise our right to refuse to prescribe treatments that promise more than they can deliver because they rarely do. We don’t need to wait for research evidence to catch up with common sense.

With regard to ‘diet pills’ I agree with this:

The allure of a pill – whether pharmaceutical or nutraceutical – that allows one to lose weight without requiring behavioural changes at the dinner table or in the gym is irresistible. a burgeoning market for both prescription and over-the-counter diet pills exists. Unfortunately to date, the dream of a thin-pill has largely failed to materialise due to unrealised efficacy, safety or both. Mark K Huntington & Roger A Shewmake

Picture by Baker County Tourism

Simply correcting myths may be counterproductive- context is everything


The spritely 80 year old man who sat in my consulting room was adamant.

No thanks doctor every time I get a flu jab I get the flu. So not this year. Thank you.

That was the third time that day that I had heard this argument against the flu vaccine. It troubled me. The individuals most likely to benefit were refusing vaccination and some of them say the same thing every year. And yet authoritative advice is that:

In randomized, blinded studies, where some people get inactivated flu shots and others get salt-water shots, the only differences in symptoms was increased soreness in the arm and redness at the injection site among people who got the flu shot. There were no differences in terms of body aches, fever, cough, runny nose or sore throat. CDC

Nonetheless 43% of the American public believes that flu vaccine can give you the flu. In the same study it was found that:

Corrective information adapted from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) website significantly reduced belief in the myth that the flu vaccine can give you the flu as well as concerns about its safety. However, the correction also significantly reduced intent to vaccinate among respondents with high levels of concern about vaccine side effects–a response that was not observed among those with low levels of concern. This result, which is consistent with previous research on misperceptions about the MMR vaccine, suggests that correcting myths about vaccines may not be an effective approach to promoting immunization. Nyhan and Reifler

So it seems that providing information, no matter how authoritative,  is not enough to get people who are already opposed to being vaccinated to change their minds, in fact it may do the opposite! According to the theory of planned behaviour human actions are guided by three kinds of considerations:

  1. Behavioural beliefs ( beliefs about the likely consequences of their behaviour)
  2. Normative beliefs ( beliefs about the normative expectations of others)
  3. Control beliefs ( beliefs about the presence of factors that may facilitate or impede performance of the behaviour)

Therefore interventions that are aimed at providing information only do not work. We need to address attitudes, perceived norms and control if we are to see increased rates of immunisation. When this theory was applied to understanding how to improve flu vaccination rates it was concluded that:

Future studies could use social cognition models to identify predictors of actual vaccine uptake, and potentially compare these findings to predictors of people’s intentions to be vaccinated. Once identified, these factors could be used to craft targeted interventions aimed at increasing vaccine uptake. Myers and Goodwin

It seems that the intervention needs to be targeted and that there are several factors that identify people who intend to be immunised:

  • The employed,
  • Older people
  • Having a positive attitude to flu vaccination,
  • Scoring high on subjective norm, perceived control, and anticipated regret,
  • Intending to have a seasonal flu vaccination this year,
  • Scoring low on not being bothered to have a vaccination and
  • Believing that flu vaccination decreases the likelihood of getting flu or its complications and would result in a decrease in the frequency of consulting their doctor.

Those less keen on  vaccination may be from specific ethnic groups. The authors advise that

These racial disparities emphasise the need to involve stakeholders in the community and to reassure the community and address their concerns and resistance attitudes and beliefs.

Also people may also be more influenced by information obtained from peers and news media than information distributed by the government in print. Such “external” influences also need to be addressed in order to facilitate vaccination uptake. And so back to my patient, it seems that information alone would not change his mind- which was indeed my experience. In order change his mind we will need to target him in the context of his community, his family and his concerns. The battle for hearts and minds includes both hearts and minds. As always context is everything.

Picture by NHS Employers