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It’s time to consider what we want beyond access to general practitioners

Ever since Adam was a boy the thing that has driven policymakers into a frenzy is ‘access’ to a GP. That’s good because they recognise that the work done by a general practitioner is very important. However, it sometimes feels like ‘access’ is the only thing that really matters in healthcare policy. Politicians and bureaucrats can’t look beyond the quantum of people being seen because that’s how they think their performance will be judged by the voter/shareholder.

Of course, it is important that the public is able to access a doctor trained to deal appropriately, effectively and efficiently with all that can happen in life. However, an ‘open’ sign doesn’t mean people will get that beyond those portals. To get what we imagine lies beyond the door we need to consider how those doctors communicate because the formula is: thoughts -> feeling and feelings ->action. Action is what is needed when someone is overweight, smoking, abusing, bleeding or worrying. The person who needs to take action or consent to treatment is the person now striding through the door.

The ability to help means being able to put the needs of the other first. It doesn’t happen quite so well, or in any sustained way when the person trying to help is troubled, anxious, tired or working in a hovel. There are two parties in the mix- the one who is dealing with the crisis and the one who is trying to help. The needs of both will impact on the outcome.

An older couple I know walk miles and wait hours to see their doctor. This doctor has been looking after them for years. Her clinic is open for long hours and everyone gets seen ‘eventually’ and on the same day. I know these people well and I know they are not taking the statins, the NSAIDS, the antibiotics and list of other things that are prescribed and that the innumerable scans and X-rays ordered every year are futile. What they crave most is to be heard, for someone to acknowledge that things don’t work as they used to, or help prepare to visit their beloved daughter overseas. That takes time, it takes a willingness to see people in context but for longer than 10 minutes at a time. It takes planning for what people will think after their visit because thoughts determine feelings and feelings drive actions.  Good feelings are engendered only when the doctor can invest- not just in what happens when she is face to face with her patients but at every touch point with her practice. Then she can communicate that she cares and that she can be trusted when she says that that ache or pain isn’t something that needs yet more tests or another prescription. What the practice needs is not just another doctor to churn through the waiting list but for those doctors to work their magic. For now, she is open for business- the question is what business and who really benefits from her efforts?

In 1999 Mainous and colleagues published a paper in the American Journal of Public Health which reported data suggesting that access though necessary was not sufficient to make a real difference to patients in primary care:

OBJECTIVES: This study examined a private-sector, statewide program (Kentucky Physicians Care) of care for uninsured indigent persons regarding provision of preventive services. METHODS: A survey was conducted of a stratified random sample of 2509 Kentucky adults (811 with private insurance, 849 Medicaid recipients, 849 Kentucky Physicians Care recipients). RESULTS: The Kentucky Physicians Care group had significantly lower rates of receipt of preventive services. Of the individuals in this group, 52% cited cost as the primary reason for not receiving mammography, and 38% had not filled prescribed medicines in the previous year. CONCLUSIONS: Providing free access to physicians fills important needs but is not sufficient for many uninsured patients to receive necessary preventive services.

Picture by dmon_21

 

General practice can evolve- it just has!

 

It’s Thursday night- I don’t blog on a Thursday night. But this isn’t any ordinary Thursday. Today I believe I walked in on the future of general practice in bricks and mortar– designed and run by a couple whose combined age is not much more than mine. I’m not quite sure what I was expecting when I made the appointment to visit. I suspect I was just being nosy- could a practice really do business without a big reception counter? I was prepared to be disappointed. To see the waiting room damaged and tired after more than a year in business. To see little more in the way of big ideas than the loss of that big ugly barrier. What I wasn’t expecting was to meet a couple whose energy and passion for general practice could easily power a small city and to leave feeling overawed by what they have created.

I saw attention to detail in everything that makes for an extraordinary patient experience. From the music in the waiting room, sounds that could be controlled from smartphones with a different selection possible in each room. Removal of the desk in the consulting room, replaced by a tablet computer fully loaded with the latest clinical software. It is a place I want to be- as a doctor, as a patient, as a visitor or in any capacity they will have me. I can’t begin to describe the impact of each room with windows designed to maximise the natural light even deep in the heart of the building, the removal of clutter (no posters anywhere), the exquisite choice of everything on display with an emphasis on less rather than more. Even the treatment room stocked in a way that makes a Toyota factory the most efficient place on earth.

I heard patients being welcomed, smiling faces everywhere, staff who said they were never happier at work. Doctors who clearly enjoyed what they were doing and a sense of purposeful calm in all that was being done.

This is what can be achieved without relying on any external agent even in a so-called area of need. It has been created by people who care enough to work very hard and want nothing less than they expect for themselves. People who want to create an experience that makes it more likely that people will value what’s on offer. Today I believe I was given a rare glimpse into what it will be like in medicine when these ideas are universally adopted because nothing less than the feelings that this place engenders is good enough.

Picture by AmadeoDM

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

The first thing people see is an ugly great barrier

For effective engagement with their quarry, the service provider has to be open. When the first point of contact with that person is a tall desk it sends the wrong message. The reception counter says:

  • You are on that side, we are on this side.
  • We are hiding things from you back here.
  • You are here to ‘get something’ from us, we’re not sure we want you here just now.
  • We are very busy and your needs are one of many things we have to cope with today.

There are many aspects to designing the ‘ideal’ reception counter but first, consider the reason for having one in the first place:

What kind of impression should it make? Should it be warm and inviting, or bold and austere? What kind of reaction do you want to create in the visitor? Is it purely functional or a real ‘statement piece’ aimed at dominating the whole area? Jo Blood

For many practices, it seems that the counter is designed to process a queue much the same as the counter at an airport check-in or a vehicle licensing office. It speaks to what we think of our visitor:

Who will be using it from the visitor side? Will it be treated with respect by all who come into contact with it, or must it be able to withstand some abuse? Maybe a tough, metallic finish plinth would help to prolong the counter’s working life. Jo Blood

When you arrive you must:

  • Check in.
  • Prove that you are entitled to be there ( i.e. you have an appointment)
  • Prove that you can pay or that someone will pay or make a payment.
  • State your business clearly and briefly.

The counter hides PCs, printers, fax machines, security equipment. It’s there to keep people from abusing staff and to keep people out. To complete the ‘look’ the walls may be covered in mismatching posters and the counter stocked with leaflets dispenser full to the brim. Who reads this stuff? There is limited evidence that such communication has any impact. There are suggestions from the retail industry that less is more.

As for the counter, it is generally as tall as it can be.

An able-bodied visitor with a typical minimum height of 1540mm approaching a raised counter tall enough to hide a large monitor on a desktop height of 740mm, would clearly struggle to make eye contact with a seated receptionist. As a rough guide, a counter height of over 1200mm will create a potential ‘blind spot’ resulting in the visitor remaining almost unseen and making the counter simply too high to be practical for signing in.

But what if the reception counter were removed altogether? It’s not unthinkable if hotel chains are beginning to consider it:

Two bloggers walk into a hotel …No, that’s not the opening line to a joke. We’re talking about two travelers who picked the same hotel chain — Andaz, a boutique Hyatt property. One stayed at a Los Angeles Andaz, the other at a New York City Andaz. Neither lobby contained a front desk — a budding hospitality-industry trend that’s equal parts chic and shrewd. Bill Briggs

But of course, doctors clinics are not hotels or airport terminals. But that’s not to say that clinics should not be welcoming, comfortable and inspiring places to be. This issue received some attention in the medical literature last year- with the authors of the paper were cited as concluding:

96 percent of patient complaints are related to customer service, while only 4 percent are about the quality of clinical care or misdiagnoses. Kelly Gooch

There are umpteen ‘reasons’ why it is so. Primarily the process of dealing with payments. However such administrative tasks are also a part of many other industries and they are striving for better solutions rather than risk their customers take their business elsewhere.

The critique of the paper quoted above included an insightful comment from a ‘front of house’ staff member:

Our role has developed from “just scheduling staff” to a more complex, and crucial, role for any healthcare organization. We are the start and end of every patient visit and also the start of the revenue cycle. In order for “customer service” to improve, an organization first recognize the importance of their Patient Access department and understand that their processes are directly related to the culture of the organization. Kelly Gooch

Is it possible that people who perceive that their visits are welcomed are more likely to take the advice on offer? Isn’t that what healthcare is about? We have had evidence for this for decades. This quote from the literature says it all:

…the feeling in the practice when you arrive, busy…exhausted receptionists, people fed up, waiting , a feeling of delapidation and stress…You can hear people being put off on the phone and you can hear ‘no no I can’t put you through to the doctor now’, ‘no no you’ll have to call back’ and that makes you feel worse because you don’t want to call back at an inappropriate time. Gavin  J Andrews

The reception area engenders the circumstances in which the outcomes of care are compromised. There is a better way and at least one Australian practice has redesigned the experience.

Picture by Barnacles budget accommodation

Healthy living is a hard sell- time to redesign the shop


Doctors set difficult challenges:

  • Eat a lot less
  • Exercise a lot more
  • Stop smoking
  • Drink less
  • Take tablets twice a day
  • Reduce salt

This takes effort and the reason you need to do any of it is because your bad habits have consequences. What is worse is that you may not recognise that you have a problem. You might say to yourself:

It’s not THAT bad.

Everyone in my family /neighbourhood looks like this.

I drink less than my mates.

I like salt, it makes my food taste better.

I won’t remember to take the tablets every day

It’s not like retail- you see something, you like it, the assistant treats you like royalty in a very pleasant environment,  you take out your credit card- that’s it. And there’s also the pay nothing-till- February deal. To please the doctor your habits must change. These habits are reinforced by cued-up behaviour on happy-making dopaminergic pathways. Research has repeatedly reproduced these results:

A sample of Norwegian adults (N=1579) responded to a self-administered questionnaire about seafood consumption habits, past frequency of seafood consumption, and attitude towards and intention to eat seafood. Structural equation modelling revealed that past behaviour and habit, rather than attitudes, were found to explain differences in intention, indicating that forming intention does not necessarily have to be reasoned. The results also indicated that when a strong habit is present, the expression of an intention might be guided by the salience of past behaviour rather than by attitudes. Honkanen et al

You might not see that doctor any time soon. The triggers to the behaviours that you need to change act when you least want them. What’s worse is that some of these triggers may not be obvious to you. You might find yourself chomping on sweets while you watch television. You might crave biscuits with your hourly cup of tea. You might watch television or stop for cups of tea because you are bored or stressed. The problem may not be the sugary snack but the boredom or the way you perceive your current life situation. Recognising that and dealing with is the real challenge. The boredom may be related to the mind numbing job that pays the bills in these ‘hard times’.

Doctors cannot possibly achieve behaviour change simply by pointing out that we are fat or drink too much.

If we conceive of a significant value of  primary care as something that promotes health doctors need to be able to sell the benefits of healthy living so that the patient considers them a priority. Something they wish to do even though it may hurt. It means creating an experience that will impact on the patient’s deepest psychological self. Can we do it from the current base?

  • An office style centre with boring notices and last year’s magazines.
  • Short consultations (ultra short in areas of greatest need).
  • Ineffective communication in uninspiring surroundings.

What can doctors do to change this experience so that the patient is tempted to act? Can what they promote, not to say sell, be made more appealing? According to psychologist we ‘buy’ things because:

  • We think it will make us secure
  • We think it will make us happy
  • We are more susceptible to advertising than we believe
  • We are hoping to impress other people
  • We are jealous of people who own more
  • We are trying to compensate for our deficiencies
  • We are more selfish than we like to admit

Therefore how can health promotion be designed with such an audience in mind? We need to consider every aspect of the experience doctors now provide. It’s not like selling gym membership or  widescreen television. It is about persuading people to make a persistent effort, to forge new habits and to invest in all sort of ways for a future they can’t immediately experience. We know from retailing that:

The …emotional responses induced by the store environment can affect the time and money that consumers spend in the store. Donovan et al

People can be triggered to make instant decisions. But what about decisions that involve a real commitment to change? Small change perhaps but change nonetheless which may lead to smoking cessation. If we look to the future of health innovation then we might learn from experts who have already managed to change our response to the world we inhabit by working out the art and science of triggering.

Picture by Gerard Stolk

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

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

An illness is never minor when you’re ill

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

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

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

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

I also saw a victim of domestic violence:

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

And a drug seeker:

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

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

The last word has to be on pityriasis rosea:

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

Picture by Col.Sanders

Who are you and what do you do for a living?

It was a dangerous time to be a forklift driver. One day I saw four of them each reported gastroenteritis. Now recovering but not fit to go to work. Or so they said. They were not related in any way, not even working in the same place and each had been poisoned by their spouse with something different: pizza, meat pies or lasagne. So either the partners of forklift drivers were terrible cooks or there was something else going on.

In April Wynne-Jones and Dunn reported data on sickness certification in the UK in the BMJ open. Their conclusion caught my eye:

Rates of sickness certification for back pain demonstrated a downward trend between 2000 and 2010. While the reasons for this are not transparent, it may be related to changing beliefs around working with back pain.

They try to explain their findings but then point out the main deficiency of their research:

This data set is based in one area of the UK, North Staffordshire, and it could be argued that it is not generalisable to the rest of the population. Previous work with this data set has demonstrated that crude rates of certification change very little when the data are standardised to the age and gender of the population as a whole, and there is no indication that this should be any different for this study

I scoured the paper for what might explain the findings because I couldn’t accept their thesis. I didn’t find what I was looking for. So I searched the unemployment statistics for the West Midlands in the UK dataset. As it happens the unemployment rate in that part of the UK, which includes Staffordshire varies quite significantly from the rest of the UK. When you plot the unemployment rates versus sick certification for low back pain the picture tells a different story:

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As unemployment rates climb from 2007 and peak during the Global Financial Crisis in 2009 the sickness certification for low back pain drops and plateaus. From the perspective of the General Practitioner patients are less likely to request sick certification when jobs are scarce. I was more inclined to accept the results of research by Michelle Foley and colleagues writing in the European Journal of General Practice in 2012 having interviewed GPs in Ireland:

GPs can find their role as certifier problematic, and a source of conflict during the consultation process with patients. GPs were concerned with breaching patient confidentiality and in particular disclosing illness to employers. They reported feeling inadequate in dealing with some cases requesting sickness leave, including certification for adverse social circumstances. Sickness certification was often given in response to patient demand. GPs felt a need for better communication between themselves, employers and relevant government departments

A few things struck me at the end of these visits to the library:

  1. Often the research that is most likely to impact on general practice is published in  so-called low impact journals. Often these are not randomised control trials or reviews of large databases.
  2. When interpreting ‘data’ we really need those who have regular contact with patients in the field to draw conclusions based on experience.
  3. The first question to ask a patient isn’t ‘tell me about your symptoms?’ but who are you and what do you do for a living?

For some people forklift driving is not a preferred way to earn a living but while there are options for alternative jobs ‘sick days’ may offer some respite.

Picture by bighornplateau1