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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.

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Are we allowing technology to hamper healing?

13866052723_2020820f89_zYou’ve heard it before

I’m at that age doctor when I should have a full body scan. Like it’s being offered here.

or at the very least

Can I have a scan doctor?

When offered radiological tests immediately the public is led to believe that such investigations are necessary. In Australia between 1996 and 2010, total CT scan numbers have increased almost 3 fold. (Medicare Australia, Group Statistics Reports 2010, Report No. 2. Available from here). The number of CT scans is reportedly growing at about 9% each year in Australia. In the USA there are estimated to be 62 million scans per year as compared with about 3 million in 1980 with growing concern about the wisdom of exposing people to increasing levels of radiation.

At the same time the value of most tests carried out is also in doubt. In a study of an academic medical department it was concluded that:

…almost 68% of the laboratory tests commonly ordered…. could have been avoided, without any adverse effect on patient management; this figure corresponds to 2.01 unnecessary tests ordered/patient during each day of their hospitalisation. Miyakis et al

In the context of hospital medicine inappropriate test ordering adds to the cost of healthcare. In primary care there is the additional concern that tests fail to achieve any useful outcome. The patient may experience considerable dissatisfaction with the failure of diagnostic tests to explain their pain and may feel they they are being labelled a malingerer.

Therefore one might pause to reflect before requesting yet another investigation. Physical examination, which arguably obviates the need for many tests has an enormous value to the patient even in the context of advanced cancer.

Most patients (83%) indicated that the overall experience of being examined was highly positive (median score, 4; interquartile range [IQR], 2-5; P ≤ .0001). Patients valued both the pragmatic aspects (median score, 5; IQR, 4-5) and symbolic aspects (median score, 4; IQR, 4-5) of the physical examination. Increasing age was independently associated with a more positive perception of the physical examination (odds ratio, 1.07 per year; 95% confidence interval, 1.02-1.12 per year; P = .01). Kadakia et al

According to Paul Little and colleagues reporting in the BMJ perceived pressure from patients is a strong independent predictor of whether doctors examine, prescribe, refer, or investigate in primary care. It seems, at least in part that we may be responding to such pressures to order necessary tests. On the other hand our perception of the value of examination may be blunted.  As Professor Little wrote:

The doctors thought, however, there was no or only slight medical need among a significant proportion of those examined (89/580, 15%), given a prescription (74/394, 19%), or referred (27/125, 22%) and among almost half of those investigated (99/216, 46%).

One could argue with the doctors’ impressions of the ‘need’ for medical examination. To some extent it is necessary in every case. We may be losing the sight of the therapeutic effect of the examination as part of effective communication in primary care. There is a need to revitalise our ability to heal. At a time of increasing costs in healthcare examining patients is a relatively low cost intervention with significant potential to improve outcomes.

Picture by COM SALUD

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

How can medicine compete against the new normal?

Joanna was exactly the person we are being urged to help. In her forties, overweight verging on obese. Hypertensive, asymptomatic but well on her way to chronic diseases. We discussed her diet.

I like salt. So my food tends to be salty. Also most people in my house are my size. I thought about reducing my portions but I like meat, lots of meat. I’m a member of a gym but I rarely go there.

We talked about her risk of heart disease and encouraged her to banish the salt cellar from the table, perhaps think again about reducing the portion size and making time to go to the gym. She looked at me pityingly her eyes said

Well that ain’t gonna happen

This was not a teachable moment. She was not ready to make an investment in changing her habits. She could not see that she was at risk. She was ‘normal’ as far as she could see. So she was not going to change her diet to deal with a problem that she did not perceive as real.

There are many things that are regarded as ‘normal’.

It is now normal:

  1. To have to wear extra large clothes.
  2. To be offered larger portion sizes when we dine out
  3. For more than one in three Australians aged 14 years and over to consume alcohol on a weekly basis
  4. For friends or acquaintances to be the most likely sources of alcohol for 12–17 year olds (45.4%), with parents being the second most likely source (29.3%)
  5. For more than one in three Australians aged 14 years and over to have used cannabis one or more times in their life
  6. For more one in ten people to drink and drive
  7. For one in three people to lose their virginity before the age of 16 ( i.e. before the age of consent) and also to have multiple partners
  8. For 66 percent of all men and 41 percent of women to view pornography at least once a month, and that an estimated 50 percent of internet traffic is sex-related.
  9. For most people who join a gym to never use it

These and many other trends dictate what is ‘normal’ to the average person. It’s OK to eat and drink far too much because everyone else does. It’s OK to be promiscuous, watch pornography and take risks because that’s what people see happening all around them.

Against these trends the challenge is to seek opportunities when ‘normal’ is seen as risky and hopefully before that risk has manifested as pathology.

Picture by Mario Antonio Pean Zapat

Tailoring lifestyle advice as per patient experience design

16821469876_8d062d433d_zLots of people stop smoking every time the tax on cigarettes is raised. It has been said that:

‘A 10% increase in the price of cigarettes in developed countries will result in a 3 to 5% reduction in overall cigarette consumption.’

And in one study only 6% of people were confirmed as non-smokers one year after receiving advice in general practice.

So if we can dissuade enough people from compromising their health with financial disincentives what is the role of the doctor and primary care? What can a health professional do to help when a smoker with a nasty cough seeks advice, and or treatment? It could be argued that the person is aware that their habit has a bearing on the symptoms. Or that by drawing attention to the link with cigarette smoking that the doctor is heightening a sense of shame, self-loathing and guilt.

So what is the role of general practice or primary care in tackling the big issues —smoking, obesity and alcohol abuse? Are brief interventions delivered in this setting more harmful than necessary? What if innovations delivered by practitioners were even more effective than the modest 6% recorded in the past?

An innovation that I was involved in evaluating led to one in seven smokers quitting. An innovation we subsequently developed as an adjunct to the treatment of obesity may well be more effective than diet and exercise regimens used alone. However if these innovations are delivered in a primary care setting then there is a risk that some patients who access them might feel challenged by the having it drawn to their attention that their results are a reflection of their own efforts. Those who fail to achieve the desired results may become disheartened.

It takes an effort to give up a harmful habit and it is now possible to predict and demonstrate the results of our lifestyle choices in ways that appear to matter to us the most. The key for innovators in the’ patient experience design’ space is to ensure that we minimise the harm that could be done by ensuring that such innovations do what they say on the tin and that they are designed with safeguards. What is beyond dispute is that the prevalence of obesity is increasing at an unprecedented rate and every health care professional has a role in combating this issue, not just those with a public health perspective. Some people respond best to health messages that are tailored to their personal circumstances, and as healthcare practitioners, we have a duty to make those options available to them. If you are interested in staying abreast of innovations developed along these lines click here.

Picture by GotCedit

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

 

There is no curriculum for kindness

For months, my wife had been worried about the mole. I couldn’t see anything wrong with it but then it was on my back and I was peering at it through a mirror. In the end, she put the job of getting it examined by a doctor into my diary and it became ‘urgent and important’.

I decided I’d ask my colleague in the office next door if he could recommend a dermatologist.

Do you want me to take a look?

I hated to impose, it seemed hardly worth wasting a surgeon’s time looking at something I was convinced was benign.

Without a second thought, he bounced out of his chair and headed to his car appearing a moment later with a head-mounted magnifier.

It looks benign. However I have three rules with these things. We remove it if your wife is worried about it, if you are worried about it or if I’m worried about it. It’s a five-minute job. We can’t be sure until it’s sent to the lab. But you know that.

He smiled kindly. It was a small courtesy to a colleague,  but a telling example of how a man you had been a surgeon all his life could still be spontaneously kind. His rule made excellent sense. This behaviour is not in any medical textbook. It’s not recognised as an ‘innovation’ that can improve outcomes. It’s just plain old-fashioned, good-natured thoughtfulness. It doesn’t require a grant or a special piece of equipment or anyone’s approval. It makes all the difference to all of us every day. It’s the sort of thing that speaks of vocation. I’m grateful that my colleague works with me, he is a wonderful communicator and that matters when you are training future doctors.

Picture by British Red Cross