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What factors trigger an urgent and appropriate medical consultation?


There are circumstances in which it is critical for a patient to consult a doctor sooner rather than later. Imagine someone with symptoms of a stroke or a myocardial infarction ( heart attack), or with a breast lump.

In these circumstances timely intervention may be life saving. These circumstances are often the subject of public health campaigns and perhaps one of the most popular attempts to improve health care outcomes or reduce costs. Predictably such attempts are not universally successful. That may be because the issues are rarely considered from the patients’ perspective, because a solution is imposed from what seems to help ‘some people’, possibly those who might have consulted a doctor anyway.

Our help seeking behaviours are subject to the same three factors that Fogg speaks of in his behaviour model. Motivation is contingent on the person’s understanding of his or her risk to adverse outcomes. Ability is the person’s perception of access to treatment that may be life saving and finally, and crucially, triggers are factors that compel the person to make the effort to consult a doctor when they have the most to gain.

Therefore there are four possible scenarios:

High motivation and high ability to access health care.

This is ideal. In these circumstances a ‘signal’ trigger will suffice. Think ‘red traffic light’ .  Therefore someone who is bleeding or  experiences crushing central chest pain or develops sudden onset weakness on one side of their body, will quickly act to do what is necessary. Alternatively they might do the needful, as in the picture, when they are prompted by a relative or friend. Unfortunately it cannot be assumed, as it often is, that everyone is in this boat.

A health promotion campaign might be considered successful if five percent of the target audience make long–term changes in overt health behaviour. Rogers and Storey

There are three other less ‘easily’ remedied situations.

High motivation but poor access.

For these people ‘red lights’ will do nothing but cause frustration. What is needed is well publicised improved access to skilled care providers. For many people in specific areas of many countries access to health care is poor and it is reflected in inequity of outcomes for what is, anywhere else in the country, a preventable cause of morbidity and premature mortality. There is real scope to innovate here, perhaps the most promising avenue is online  or telephone access to care providers or innovations that better integrate care providers at the point of presenting symptoms especially within primary care.

Low motivation and easy access.

On the face of it this might be easily fixed simply by ‘educating’ people. However the empirical evidence is that such campaigns have limited ( as opposed to ‘no’)  effectiveness. Often the causes of low motivation are  many and varied. What speaks to one community or individual may not resonate with others and the scope for frustration or patchy results are very high. If this were not the case our jails would not have quite so many inhabitants. Law breaking like poor health is a complex issue and no solution including the death penalty will promote the most desirable behaviour. People don’t always respond to dire warnings. One strategy is to make the alternative action ( i.e. non consulting) less desirable than consulting. However such solutions fly in the face of patient autonomy.

 Low motivation and poor access.

Bad news. These individuals are unlikely to respond to anything. Changing attitudes is unlikely to follow ‘educational’ campaigns unless and until the issue of access to health care is sorted out. There are many individuals who have poor access to health care. The reasons for this are far too diverse for any strategy to be universally successful. If there were a simple way to do both then any of the triggers in the other of these four quadrants  might suffice. Fortunately only a minority of people are in this category but there are enough here to ensure that the idea of universally good outcomes for everybody is a utopian dream. Innovation, however well meaning, is set to fail some individuals most of the time.

Picture by amy_kearns

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