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Are you sure they can help?

One of the key roles in healthcare is to refer people to other sources of help. The list of therapists, specialists and clinics is as long as any phone directory. However off loading someone elsewhere is hardly worthwhile if it’s a waste of time and money.

The goal should always be the initiation of a discussion about a patient’s needs and the beginning of a triaging process to address these, rather than problem identification being an end‐goal itself. Gemma Skaczkowski

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Are you persuasive?

If your job involves advising- are you a credible source of advice? How do you know?  What can you do to make yourself a more influential? Apart from giving credible advice is there something you can do to make your advice more likely to persuade?

There’s a critical insight in all this for those of us who want to learn to be more influential. The best persuaders become the best through pre-suasion – the process of arranging for recipients to be receptive to a message before they encounter it. To persuade optimally, then, it’s necessary to pre-suade optimally. But how?

In part, the answer involves an essential but poorly appreciated tenet of all communication: what we present first changes the way people experience what we present to them next.
Robert B. Cialdini, Pre-Suasion: A Revolutionary Way to Influence and Persuade

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How do you frame your solutions?

How do you frame a suggested solution to someone’s problem? Do you mention the possibility that your suggestion won’t help? If you are a doctor do you speak of the number need to treat? We know that not everyone is helped by a medicine or intervention — some benefit, some are harmed, and some are unaffected. One of the commonest reasons that patients consult doctors are for sore throat. How many people with a sore throat should be treated for one person to be free of the sore throat at day 3 of their illness? At day 7 of the illness?

Protecting individuals with sore throat against suppurative and non-suppurative complications in modern Western society can only be achieved by treating many with antibiotics, most of whom will derive no benefit. Cochrane Primary care

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What’s your vibe?

Do the people who seek your help sense that you are distinctive in some way? How? Is there anything remarkable about you? Your blue shirts? Your leather boots? Something that they immediately recognize as your ‘trademark’. According to Dana Lynch image consultant, your style matters for three reasons:

  1. People for impressions of you within a mere 3 seconds!

2. Your style makes you memorable.

3. Your style allows you to express who you are, which ultimately leads to an improved self-image and confidence.

If you are a doctor your patients will likely decide within seconds if they are going to take your advice.

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How do you end your meetings?

We know how to start a meeting- we stand up, shake hands, say hello, smile. But what’s the best way to end a meeting? It matters for one reason:

The peak–end rule is a psychological heuristic in which people judge an experience largely based on how they felt at its peak (i.e., its most intense point) and at its end, rather than based on the total sum or average of every moment of the experience. The effect occurs regardless of whether the experience is pleasant or unpleasant. Wikipedia

If you are a doctor this is all the more important because people generally don’t seek a meeting with you because all is well. They may be experiencing all sorts of unpleasant feelings. So how do you end that meeting? How do you know it’s working?

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Why the data suggests people don’t get the latest medicine

It sometimes seems ‘obvious’ why things go ‘wrong’ in practice. For example, the proportion of people with diabetes prescribed a cholesterol reducing drug is low…. because? You might have your favorite answer at the ready. Others certainly do and will climb their hobby horse with little or no encouragement. ‘Prescribers don’t accept the guidelines‘, ‘patients don’t take their medicines‘, ‘people can’t afford the drugs‘ or ‘doctors don’t monitor patients‘. The truth may encompass any or all of these.

Let’s do the maths with reference to Glasziou and Haynes.

Let’s assume 80% is true in each of the following points:

1. Doctors are aware of the guidelines.
2. Doctors accept the evidence underlying these guidelines.
3. Doctors remember to apply the guidelines when the relevant patients present.
4. It is possible to do something practical to comply with the guidelines.
5. Doctors act to prescribe the relevant treatment.
6. Doctors and patients agree on the need for that treatment.
7. Patients comply with the treatment.

If these statements are true 80% of the time then 21% of people with the relevant problem will be managed according to the guidelines (0.8x 0.8x 0.8x 0.8x 0.8x 0.8x 0.8= 0.21). Experience tells us that in many, if not most, conditions only 1 in 5 people will be managed as per research evidence.

A quick review of the literature confirms this.

1. Only 17% of patients with diabetes were screened for sexual dysfunction despite it being a common complication of this condition.

2. A primary care study has shown that despite an active education program over two years the proportion of treated patients whose blood pressure was controlled to < 160/90 mm Hg remained at only 33%.

3. When examining the referral origin of all Colorectal cancer patients diagnosed in one study only 24% had been referred on a pathway that was consistent with national guidelines.

A video summary appears here:


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The future arriving at an unprecedented speed

  •   As a general practitioner you must show a commitment to patient-centred medicine, displaying a non-judgmental attitude, promoting equality and valuing diversity
  •   Clear, sensitive and effective communication with your patient and their advocates is essential for a successful consultation
  •   The epidemiology of new illness presenting in general practice requires a normality-orientated approach, reducing medicalisation and promoting self-care
  •   Negotiating management plans with the patient involves balancing the patient’s values and preferences with the best available evidence and relevant ethical and legal principles
  •   As a general practitioner you must manage complexity, uncertainty and continuity of care within the time-restricted setting of a consultation
  •   The increasing availability of digital technology brings opportunities for easier sharing of information and different formats of consulting, as well as raising concerns around information security. RCGP

The summary suggests that the consultation will survive. However the rate of change in every other service is such that the notion of ‘negotiating’ seem quaint as more choices are made directly available to the consumer. Healthcare providers need to be part of the solution as was suggested in this research:

Communications technologies are variably utilised in healthcare. Policymakers globally have espoused the potential benefits of alternatives to face-to-face consultations, but research is in its infancy. The aim of this essay is to provide thinking tools for policymakers, practitioners and researchers who are involved in planning, implementing and evaluating alternative forms of consultation in primary care.

We draw on preparations for a focussed ethnographic study being conducted in eight general practice settings in the UK, knowledge of the literature, qualitative social science and Cochrane reviews. In this essay we consider different types of patients, and also reflect on how the work, practice and professional identities of different members of staff in primary care might be affected.

Elements of practice are inevitably lost when consultations are no longer face-to-face, and we know little about the impact on core aspects of the primary care relationship. Resistance to change is normal and concerns about the introduction of alternative methods of consultation are often expressed using proxy reasons; for example, concerns about patient safety. Any planning or research in the field of new technologies should be attuned to the potential for unintended consequences.

Implementation of alternatives to the face-to-face consultation is more likely to succeed if approached as co-designed initiatives that start with the least controversial and most promising changes for the practice. Researchers and evaluators should explore actual experiences of the different consultation types amongst patients and the primary care team rather than hypothetical perspectives.

Here is my perspective on the challenge:

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It’s not the gizmo it’s the operator who matters

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More can be done to help people who consult doctors

In general practice patients generally present with undifferentiated conditions. People come for help with a cough and not ‘pneumonia’, back pain and not ‘metastatic prostatic cancer’, fatigue and ‘not diabetes’. In a study published in 2015 it was reported that a diagnosis is not established in 36% of patients with health problems. According to the research team half of the symptoms were expected to resolve or persist as ‘medically unexplained’. In their summary the team concludes that:

The study highlights the need for a professional and scientific approach to symptoms as a phenomenon in its own right. Rosendal et al

We also know that the commonest symptoms relate to the musculoskeletal system, respiratory system and the digestive tract. As long ago as 1984 Gordon Waddell and colleagues made a similar point in the BMJ :

The amount of treatment received by 380 patients with backache was found to have been influenced more by their distress and illness behaviour than by the actual physical disease. Patients showing a large amount of inappropriate illness behaviour had received significantly more treatment (p <0 001).

They concluded:

We know that a standard medical history and examination provide a wealth of information not only about the disease from which the patient is suffering but also about how that particular person is reacting to and coping with his or her illness. What is necessary now is to devote as much time and effort to the study and understanding of illness behaviour as we do at present to the investigation of physical disease. Only thus can we put the art of medicine on to a sound scientific basis.

Decades later these words are prophetic and we find that the thrust of research is on the diagnosis and treatment of specific pathology rather than on how to help people to cope with persistent back pain, acute cough or ill defined abdominal pain. This continues to be a bone of contention between doctors and patients as was illustrated in a classic paper by Joe Kai writing about the management of illness in preschool children in general practice:

Parents expressed a need for more information about children’s illness. Advice about the management of common symptoms was insufficient. They sought explanation and detail that was specific and practical to help them make decisions about the likely cause of an illness, how to assess severity, and when to seek professional advice. They wanted to know of any implications of the illness or its treatment and the potential for prevention in the future. Most thought that being more informed would reduce rather than increase their anxiety.

In a literature review published in 2002 in the BJGP Hay and Wilson charted the progress of children under 4 who develop an acute cough:

At one week, 75% of children may have improved but 50% may be still coughing and/or have a nasal discharge. At two weeks up to 24% of children may be no better. Within two weeks of presentation, 12% of children may experience one or more complication, such as rash, painful ears, diarrhoea, vomiting, or progression to bronchitis/pneumonia.

The authors conclude that:

Illness duration may be longer and complications higher than many parents and clinicians expect. This may help to set more realistic expectations of the illness and help parents to decide when and if to reconsult.

By implication, as well as knowing when and how to investigate symptoms, it would help patients if doctors also routinely communicated the natural history of the commonest symptoms including and especially:

  • Acute cough
  • Acute low back pain
  • Rash
  • Depression
  • Sprain /strain

For example it has been demonstrated that the experience of individual doctors on this issue is unreliable. Writing on acute low back pain researchers from New Zealand suggests that 91% of patients stop consulting their doctor at 3 months after the pain starts and long before their symptoms have resolved. Also that only 1:5 patients are free of pain or disability one year after an acute episode of low back pain.

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What are the limitations of the physical examination in practice?


The ideal innovation is inexpensive, readily incorporated into practice and has substantial patient benefits. In this context the humble physical examination is a strong candidate. However it is reported that in practice laboratory and or radiological tests are requested more often than not. Here is a quote from an editorial in the British Medical Journal (2009):

In the first camp are those who pine for the old days, bemoan the loss of clinical bedside diagnostic skills, and complain that no one knows Traube’s space or Kronig’s isthmus. In the second camp are those who say good riddance and point out that evidence based studies show that many physical signs are useless; some might even argue that examining the patient is just a waste of time. Verghese and Horwitz

Research suggests that most diagnoses are based on the history and examination:

In this prospective study of 80 medical outpatients ….in 61 patients (76%), the history led to the final diagnosis. The physical examination led to the diagnosis in 10 patients (12%), and the laboratory investigation led to the diagnosis in 9 patients (11%). The internists’ confidence in the correct diagnosis increased from 7.1 on a scale of 1 to 10 after the history to 8.2 after the physical examination and 9.3 after the laboratory investigation. These data support the concept that most diagnoses are made from the medical history. The results of physical examination and the laboratory investigation led to fewer diagnoses, but they were instrumental in excluding certain diagnostic possibilities and in increasing the physicians’ confidence in their diagnoses. Peterson et al

In only one of six patients in whom the physician was unable to make any diagnosis after taking the history and examining the patient did laboratory investigations lead to a positive diagnosis. BMJ 1975

Also the value of tests is contested in some cases:

Information from the history, physical examination, and routine procedures should be used in assessing the yield of a new test. As an example, the method is applied to the use of the treadmill exercise test in evaluating the prognosis of patients with suspected coronary artery disease. The treadmill test is shown to provide surprisingly little prognostic information beyond that obtained from basic clinical measurements. The JAMA network

A considerable number of plain abdominal films taken for patients with acute abdominal pain could be avoided by focusing on clinical variables relevant to the diagnosis of bowel obstruction. European Journal of Surgery

However the predictive value of the physical examination appears to depend on the clinical scenario. If the patient appears ill it is far more likely that they will have clinical signs:

In order to study the occurrence and positive predictive value of history and physical examination findings suggestive of serious illness in ill-appearing and well-appearing febrile children, 103 consecutive children aged ≤24 months with fever ≥38.3°C were evaluated from July 1, 1982 to Nov 24, 1982….The positive predictive values of abnormal physical examination findings for serious illness in ill-appearing (11 of 14, 79%) and well-appearing children (3 of 12, 25%) were significantly different (P = .02 by Fisher’s exact test). The trends for abnormal history findings in ill-appearing and well-appearing children were similar to those for abnormal physical examination findings but did not achieve statistical significance. The results, indicating an important interaction between a febrile child’s appearance and physical examination findings, are discussed in terms of probability reasoning in clinical decision making. McCarthy et al

In some common clinical scenarios it is difficult to find objective evidence in support of a diagnosis and tests are necessary. There are many examples including:

Irritable bowel syndrome

Individual symptoms have limited accuracy for diagnosing IBS in patients referred with lower gastrointestinal tract symptoms. The accuracy of the Manning criteria and Kruis scoring system were only modest. Despite strong advocacy for use of the Rome criteria, only the Rome I classification has been validated. Future research should concentrate on validating existing diagnostic criteria or developing more accurate ways of predicting a diagnosis of IBS without the need for investigation of the lower gastrointestinal tract. Ford et al

Heart Failure

Differences in clinical parameters in heart failure patients with decreased versus normal systolic function cannot predict systolic function in these patients, supporting recommendations that heart failure patients should undergo specialized testing to measure ventricular function. Thomas et al

Painful shoulder

Thirty one consecutive patients with a first flare of shoulder pain were prospectively included in the study. All had a physical examination performed by two blinded rheumatologists. Ultrasonographic examination was carried out within one week of the physical examination by a third rheumatologist experienced in this technique who had no knowledge of the clinical findings. Ultrasonography was considered the optimal diagnostic technique. Naredo et al

Also relevant are the physician’s skill in eliciting and interpreting signs:

Agreement between 24 physicians on the presence or absence of respiratory signs was investigated. The physicians were divided into six sets of 4; each set examined 4 patients with well-defined chest signs. There was generally poor agreement about particular signs. Overall, the 4 physicians in a set were in complete agreement only 55% of the time. Some signs such as wheezing seemed to be more reliably elicited than others such as whispering pectoriloquy. Comparison of diagnoses based on the clinical findings with the correct diagnoses supported by investigations showed that 28% of physicians’ diagnoses were incorrect. The more often the examiners differed from the majority on the presence or absence of a sign, the more likely they were to make an incorrect diagnosis.  The Lancet

In some cases physical signs are unreliable:

A review of published studies of patients suspected of having pneumonia reveals that there are no individual clinical findings, or combinations of findings, that can rule in the diagnosis of pneumonia for a patient suspected of having this illness. However, some studies have shown that the absence of any vital sign abnormalities or any abnormalities on chest auscultation substantially reduces the likelihood of pneumonia to a point where further diagnostic evaluation may be unnecessary. JAMA

Therefore always relying on physical signs without conducting tests is unsafe. However the value of the clinical examination as an integral part of the patient experience was eloquently articulated in the BMJ editorial:

A third view of the bedside examination, and one that we advocate, is that it is not just a means of data gathering and hypothesis generation and testing, but is a vital ritual, perhaps the ritual that defines the internist. Rituals are all about transformation. The elaborate rituals of weddings, funerals, or inaugurations of presidents are associated with visible transformation. When viewed in that fashion, the ritual of the bedside examination involves two people meeting in a special place (the hospital or clinic), wearing ritualised garments (patient gowns and white coats for the doctors) and with ritualised instruments, and most importantly, the patient undresses and allows the doctor to touch them. Disrobing and touching in any other context would be assault, but not as part of this ritual, which dates back to antiquity. Verghese and Horwitz

Common sense dictates that where the patient appears unwell the physical examination will have a higher yield. In those circumstances clinical examination is crucial:

Misdiagnosis of acute appendicitis is more likely to occur with patients who present atypically, are not thoroughly examined (as indexed by documentation of a rectal examination), are given IM narcotic pain medication and then discharged from the ED, are diagnosed as having gastroenteritis (despite the absence of the typical diagnostic criteria), and with patients who do not receive appropriate discharge or follow-up instructions. Rusnak et al

Therefore the physical examination has an incalculable value not necessarily obviating the need for tests but increasing patient satisfaction and reducing the risk of litigation. Click the link for an excellent video on examination.


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