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How do you steer people away from trouble?

From time to time you will notice that your customer, client or patient is taking risks. How do you hope to steer them away from trouble? It’s more than what you say because information alone does not change minds.

It’s probably happened more than once: You spend a lot of time trying to convince someone that their opinion on a particular issue is wrong. You take pains to make sure your argument is air-tight. But instead of coming around to your point of view, your conversation partner pushes back, still convinced of her ultimate rightness. Elizabeth Svoboda 

In healthcare when people are overweight, smoking, drinking too much or have other risk factors for longterm illness it may be helpful to know who to try to advise. Not everyone is ready to change. In practice few practitioners give much thought to ‘who’ is ready.

In addition you might want to consider when to attempt to broach the subject:

Think about an event, an insight, an experience, a conversation that forever changed how you are or how you operate in the world. Although a small minority of people might mention something that happened in therapy, or a classroom, or formal learning experience, the vast majority of cases occurred after recovering from a challenging or even traumatic event—the death of a loved one, a major failure or disappointment, a crisis or catastrophe, a relationship or job ending, a threatening illness, or something similar. Jeffrey Kottler

You might want to ponder where people are most often open to review their ideas.

My favorite saying, obtained from Dr. Primack’s office, is “What you do today is important, because you are exchanging a day of your life for it”. So make it count, and learn how to be the best you that you can be. Swanson and Primack

Finally and perhaps most important- how you will attempt this most challenging of manoeuvres.

  • Many patients who smoke are sceptical about the power of doctors’ words to influence smoking since most know about the dangers, make their own evaluations, and feel that quitting is down to the individual
  • Opportunistic antismoking interventions should be sympathetic, not preaching, and centred on the patient as an individual
  • Repeated ritualistic intervention on the part of doctors may deter patients from seeking medical help when they need it
  • Smokers can be categorised as “contrary,” “matter of fact,” or “self blaming” in their reaction to antismoking advice
  • Doctors can tailor their approach according to the type of patient.

Butler et al BMJ

Whatever you do it does warrant some thought. In healthcare the stakes couldn’t be higher:

Current public health policy stresses the potential of cumulative, small changes in individual behaviour to produce significant advancements in population health. The Behavioural Insights Team or ‘Nudge Unit’ advocates for changes in health behaviour through manipulations of small environmental cues. The movement in the National Health Service (UK) to ‘make every contact count’ recognises the opportunity that practitioners have to improve public health through supporting behaviour change in the millions of people with whom they come into contact. It seems an appropriate moment to harness recent advances in behavioural science in the battle against the rising tide of Non Communicable Diseases threatening to engulf us. Kelly and Barker

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The green laces may not be a daft idea

Researchers from Harvard University have just published a study entitled The Red Sneakers Effect. They conclude that:

A series of studies demonstrates that people confer higher status and competence to non- conforming rather than conforming individuals. These positive inferences derived from signals of nonconformity are mediated by perceived autonomy and moderated by individual differences in need for uniqueness in the observers. An investigation of boundary conditions demonstrates that the positive inferences disappear when the observer is unfamiliar with the environment, when the nonconforming behavior is depicted as unintentional, and in the absence of expected norms and shared standards of formal conduct.

It is unlikely that sneakers and torn jeans will impress people when consulting a healthcare professional. However if that practitioner wears green shoe laces or eye catching socks it might not do his or her credibility any harm.

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What is your approach to the biggest health risk of our time?

Sixty to eighty percent of people are now overweight or obese. This is associated with considerable morbidity. Yet it is a very complex issue and the causes of the condition are many and varied.

…..the dramatic rise in the incidence of obesity in many countries appears to be due to the complex interaction of a variety of factors including genetic, physiologic, environmental, psychological, social, economic, and political. Wright and Aronne

The experience of overweight people with healthcare professionals is not universally good.

Seventy‐six individuals (aged 16–72) were interviewed. Most had struggled with their weight for most of their lives (n = 45). Almost all had experienced stigma and discrimination in childhood (n = 36), as adolescents (n = 41) or as adults (n = 72). About half stated that they had been humiliated by health professionals because of their weight. Thomas et al

Over my whole 40 year dieting history I found two doctors who have said ‘well, come back once a week or once a fortnight and I will weigh you’. I found that very helpful and useful, because you feel like somebody is on your side. (65 year old female)

 They have helped because they guided me and pointed things out and they were there for me. If I’ve got questions they are helpful. (28 year old female)

 Oh well, I have spoken to my doctor about it and he just says get more exercise. I did mention it to one other doctor and he said there is only one way to lose weight and that’s meal replacement drinks or tablets. So I never went back to him because I don’t agree with that. (49 year old male)

 My doctor keeps saying, you need to lose weight. And I say, yes, I know that and I want to and I try to watch what I am eating, but it is just getting harder and harder. (59 year old female)

If you are a healthcare professional it is very likely that you will see several people today who are overweight or obese. How will you raise the topic with them? How will you know they want to address the issue? What help will your offer? How do you know you have been helpful to others in these circumstances?

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Do you mind if I don’t take your advice?

Your customers, clients or patients are free to choose. Despite your most earnest desire to save them from themselves they may choose to pass on your advice today. Is that alright? They may decide never to give up on the donuts, to stop smoking or head to the gym. As a consequence they may continue on the way to chronic illness. Do people have responsibilities from the ethics point of view?

Autonomous patients do have duties most of which are left out of mainstream medical ethics. Some of these duties flow from the obligations all persons have to each other; others are the
responsibilities citizens have in a welfare state. More specifically, patients have duties corresponding to those that render doctors captive helpers. Patients have to- morally have to do their best to ensure that they minimise this captivity and enable doctors to be willing helpers. Although doctors remain captive in the face of acute or life-threatening illness, it is not unethical for doctors to free themselves from this captivity in cases that fall short of life or death. Draper and Sorell

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Your fists stop swinging where my nose starts

You complain when people are rude, late, unreasonable, inconsiderate or selfish. However to what extent does this reflect your messages to them? Might you be suggesting:

It’s Okay. I’m easy. My feelings don’t matter. I can cope. I’ve got broad shoulders. I don’t really expect much. It’s okay to vent.

But could it be that you are actually saying:

Please like me. You can hurt me. I’m scared of you. I need you to be nice to me. I’m weak. I have no confidence. I am disposable.

What Amy Morin suggests writing in Forbes magazine makes sense:

Encourage employees to speak up when they’re frustrated, confused, or nervous. Invite them to share their opinions through the correct forums, however. Airing their grievances to any co-worker who is willing to lend an ear does more harm than good.

Address rude behavior when you see it. Ignoring sarcasm in an email or allowing disrespectful comments to be exchanged in an email chain sends the wrong message. Make it clear that you value direct communication.

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Are drugs always needed?

There is some evidence that housework helps anxiety and depression.

So if you are a healthcare professional would you suggest that doing simple chores at home might help more than drugs? How do you bring that up in the conversation?

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What impression do you want to create?

What’s it like being in your office/clinic? What do people who visit you see, hear, smell, feel or taste? What could you do to make it a better experience?

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How do we stop the war over antibiotics next winter?

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She was quite insistent and becoming irate:

Look I am a busy woman. Every time I get these symptoms I come in and get antibiotics and it gets better. Whenever I wait it just gets worse. I don’t have time to mess about so can you just look at the previous notes and prescribe what I usually get?

She had an upper respiratory tract infection. Her throat was mildly inflamed and she had a runny nose. No pyrexia. She sat bolt upright and ready for an argument.

It doesn’t happen that way every time. The patient is usually prepared to allow her doctor to make the call but occasionally it’s not that easy. According to the literature, a third of the public still believe that antibiotics work against coughs and colds. We have seen quite clearly that offering a prescription with the advice to take the antibiotics if the symptoms don’t improve rapidly may help reduce the numbers who take antimicrobials unnecessarily. We know that in at least one study 38% of people may be prescribed an antibiotic this year.  More than one in ten will not complete the course.

How many take the drug as prescribed, e.g. three times a day? And why is it that younger people are less likely to complete the course all the while acknowledging that they understand the importance of taking the medicine as prescribedThe context in which people seek antibiotics may help to inform how doctors manage the call for antibiotics. The answer to the challenge thus far is to mount a public health campaign:

We could focus a ‘Do not recycle antibiotics’ message towards the higher educated, young women who are more likely to store and take antibiotics without advice. McNulty et al

An upper respiratory tract infection is an unpleasant experience. Having a ‘cold’ that lasts a few days may seem trivial to some healthcare practitioners or policy makers but to the patient, it is very far from trivial. In a brilliant paper describing work with 719 people, Longmier demonstrated that neither doctors nor patients can accurately predict how long an upper respiratory tract infection would last or how severe the symptoms are going to be. In an intriguing conclusion to their study they said:

Clinicians should not use their predictive assessments or their patients’ predictions when advising patients on the expected course of a URI (Upper Respiratory infection).

The average duration of symptoms  for URI is 7–10 days, with a minority of patients experiencing symptoms for more than 3 weeks. Antibiotics will do nothing to improve symptoms. Therefore, the problem can be framed quite differently. How you feel on the day you consult your GP is not a good predictor of how long you are going to be miserable with this ‘virus’. Your GP might tell you it’ll all be better in a week and that might sound okay alternatively she might say this will go on for two weeks or more and that might sound disastrous. In any case, she is not likely to be right.  So we go back to the scientists who suggest:

As we cannot accurately predict when the URI will end or how bad it will be, our best clinical tools for patients with URIs are empathy, reassurance and education on the self-limited, short-duration nature of viral upper respiratory tract infections. Longmier et al

To my patient my sympathetic demeanour and rehearsed speech about viruses was not satisfactory. What this patient wanted more than anything else was to be free from her symptoms. I was curious as to why but she was not in a mood to talk about it.  It seems that regular paracetamol in combination with chlorphenamine and phenylephrine may be helpful as are nasal decongestants.  Over the counter cough medicines are not. No doubt there is more literature on the topic of effective symptom relief however, no papers suggest that any treatment entirely rids the patient of symptoms immediately. The key question still remains- why do people insist on and or stop antibiotics before completing the course? If we could demonstrate that people stop antibiotics because their symptoms improve after regular use of effective symptom relief then such evidence may be helpful in any discussion with patients about antibiotics. We then reframe consultations on URIs to offering advice on symptom relief. We offer a solution more aligned to the context in which the patient is presenting. Let’s acknowledge that a cold is an unpleasant experience and not as seems to be suggested to the public a minor nuisance not worthy of our attention.

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The context is often private and confidential

7257592240_6759efd5a5_zThe consultation between a doctor and patient is private. Innovators hoping to improve outcomes in that context can’t observe the exchange directly because some presentations are very uncommon and because neither the doctor nor the patient welcomes the intrusion. There are many outcomes of the encounter between patient and doctor that we still don’t fully understand. Why are some patients’ cancer symptoms not recognised as early warnings? Why do carers of patients with a life-limiting illness fail to have their own medical problems addressed? Why do people living with some chronic conditions continue to have problems with intimacy?

People deploy verbal and non-verbal cues to communicate. They choose when and how to disclose their ideas, concerns and expectations. However in an average consultation in my country, the patient has fifteen minutes to ‘spit it out’. Similarly, clinicians vary in their ability to pick up cues or to probe with the right question, assuming they get the right answer. Hence errors of omission and or commission.

Lean medicine is about being intuitive, creative and agile. Lean innovators, clinicians, are already on site. Therefore, they can reproduce the context in a way that can be observed and where they can be tested with other clinicians. Video technology and a fusion of skills across disciplines allow the depiction of those encounters in such a way as to present the critical decision point for close examination. Do you prescribe, refer or investigate in these circumstances? What do you say to the patient?

How do you explore hard to reach elements in your practice or business? How can you hope to innovate for encounters that are strictly private and confidential but where mistakes or misunderstanding can be very bad for business. Who has the insight to show you? How can you generate valid hypotheses? How do you test ideas without a real risk of casualties?

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