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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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Do you advise or dictate?

What do you advise most people who seek your help? What will solve most of their problems? It was interesting to read an article this week suggesting that junk food may be associated with depression. In her commentary Megan Lee notes:

Depression has long been treated with medication and talking therapies – and they’re not going anywhere just yet. But we’re beginning to understand that increasing how much exercise we get and switching to a healthy diet can also play an important role in treating – and even preventing – depression.

For many of the most coveted outcomes in healthcare three things are paramount:

  1. Eat less
  2. Exercise more
  3. Don’t smoke

Simple focus. Not easily translated in practice because selling a healthy lifestyle is tricky:

Interviews with 130 mothers of lower social class provided the basis for studying their views on the desirability of general practitioner intervention in their lifestyle habits; the study used both quantitative (questionnaire) and qualitative (interview) techniques. The majority of women were in favour of counselling on specific topics by the general practitioner but the qualitative data also revealed that most respondents expected the issues to be relevant to their presenting problem. Moreover they were keen to assert their right to accept or reject the advice given. Stott and Pill

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Steep hill but nice view

On this beautiful earth it is not long before you have to climb a hill to enjoy the view. Where in your job is extra effort required to get to the end of the day? What makes it harder? Could it be the voice in your head telling you that this particular ‘hill’ was specifically designed to make life harder for you? Is it because you were not anticipating any ‘hills’. Are you on the wrong road? Do you need to get fitter? Is hill climbing not for you? Could it be that the view is not worth the effort?

Here’s a perspective from Jonathan Mead

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How do you sneak work home with you?

You might not bring a sheaf of paperwork home, you might turn of your mobile devices and never carry your customer, client or patient home in a bag. But you might covertly bring them home in your cranium.

So you never actually leave work. Those at home notice that you are ‘absent’. Yet you won’t actually achieve anything because the conversations you are having in your head aren’t real. The videos you are watching in your head are imagined. You are already back at the office even as you board that bus or pull out of the carpark. Your performance at work tomorrow will suffer as a result. It could be framed as irresponsible, unsustainable and not conducive to the best results tomorrow. It’s also your choice. Not your employer’s.

As part of creating this new, healthier environment, engage other people to help you. Ask your friends and family members to help you stay away from work. Give them permission to remind you to put your phone away (and don’t get annoyed with them when they do). Find activities you can do with them that prevent you from working and that distract you from work-related thoughts.

Step away from work — and watch disaster not strikeEven if you do create these plans and an environment conducive to seeing them through, you still need to be willing to disconnect from work for a period of time. That can be anxiety-provoking. After all, you might miss an important email; something could go wrong; important work might be done badly or not done at all. Art Markman

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What problem can’t you solve?

Armed with a hammer everything looks like a nail- except it isn’t. We need to be clear what healthcare is for. Doctors cannot ‘cure’:

  • Debt
  • Workplace bullying
  • Violence
  • Illiteracy
  • Homelessness

In addition there are many other problems that may be beyond curative intervention and a few others that require people to make different choices more than the doctor to prescribe something.

The unbridled enthusiasm for guidelines, and the unrealistic expectations about what they will accomplish, frequently betrays inexperience and unfamiliarity with their limitations and potential hazards. Naive consumers of guidelines accept official recommendations on face value, especially when they carry the imprimatur of prominent professional groups or government bodies.

Woolfe et al BMJ

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What do they know about you?

Whenever someone new visits your shop, cafe or clinic for the first time they make a decision to give you a chance. It’s worth asking what persuaded them to do that. What’s their perspective on your business? Which of your previous patrons do they know? What do they expect? Can you deliver? They are telling you something merely by their presence on site.

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How does your skill at communicating manifest in your interactions?

It is assumed that doctors have to be specialists in communication. People will tell doctors things they may not confide in anyone else- much less a total stranger. That is part of the equity in the business of doctoring. So if you are a doctor, how does that manifest in your interactions with the people who seek your help? Is it reflected in your greetings? In your body language? In your eye contact? In the way you phrase your questions? In the way you terminate your meetings?

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

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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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Designers will rescue the health sector

Much of what we do in healthcare is communicate ideas. That is far more common than ‘doing’. Executive control over decisions are the purview of the patient. It is a basic tenant of medicine that the patient has autonomy.

Often armed with little more than a stethoscope doctors must communicate to the patient that:

When communication about the evidence base is effective the patient, the practitioner and ultimately the economy benefit. How we communicate such ideas is where innovation has the brightest future. It gives us hope that we can improve outcomes in health without recourse to major policy change or curbing freedom of choice.

We communicate in words, pictures, video, audio and using models. Yet so much of how that is done in the doctor’s office hasn’t changed over the decades. ‘It’s just a virus’ doesn’t cut it any more.

We experience the power of effective communication everyday and in every other area of our lives. Look at your credit card statement this month- does it all make sense? What pressed your ‘purchase‘ button?

What if this extraordinary power deployed so effectively in commerce was unleashed in the clinic?

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Your words are potent medicine


A principle of medical ethics is beneficence:

A moral obligation to act for the benefit of others. Not all acts of beneficence are obligatory, but a principle of beneficence asserts an obligation to help others further their interests. Obligations to confer benefits, to prevent and remove harms, and to weigh and balance the possible goods against the costs and possible harms of an action are central to bioethics. Med Dictionary

In saying that the business of medicine is not so different from many other forms of commerce where someone might offer a solution to what appears to be a problem. What we have learned from studying human interactions is that what is said, how and when it is said has a crucial impact on what the person with the problem decides to do. In medical research the hopes of improving outcomes sometimes seem to focus on labs manned by people in white coats funded by a research grant. What is often overlooked is that it may be possible to change outcomes in healthcare (for better or for worse) by working on the dialogue in the consulting room. What in previous posts I have dubbed the ‘script’ in the ritual that is the consultation.

Beneficence dictates that we act to present the autonomous individual with options in a way that leads them to act in their best interests. That may include having the operation, taking the pills, accepting the referral or the test. But also steering away from  those options if they are not in their best interests. The art of communication received a boost in Robert Cialdini’s book Pre-Suasion. Cialdini catalogues the research on the subtle ways in which we are triggered to make choices from the options on offer. It is hard to summarise this extraordinary book but there are at least four essential lessons:

  1. There are ‘Privileged Moments’.  ‘Influence practitioners’ should target such moments before the interaction to greatly increase their effectiveness. It is possible to speculate what these might be for patients: pregnancy, diagnosis of a significant illness, receipt of worrying test results, significant birthday etc.
  2. During verbal exchanges leading questions try to get you to respond with certain answers and influence your later decisions. For example: “Given the recent cases of death from influenza, how dangerous do you perceive the threat of flu to be?” The way the question is posed is loaded with pre-suasion. By reminding you of these deaths the questioner draws attention to the recency of the topic, and thus the patient will evaluate the danger as high and be primed to accept the offer of vaccination.
  3. Whatever grabs our attention, we think is relevant. As Cialdini says:

All mental activity is composed of patterns of associations; and influence attempts , including pre-suasive ones , will be successful only to the extent that the associations they trigger are favourable to change.

In other words in any situation, people are dramatically more likely to pay attention to and be influenced by stimuli that fit the goal they have for that situation. In medicine being presented with information that suggests that someone might be ‘at risk’ of an illness might lead them to act to reduce the risk. However also in this context the heightened anxiety due to fear messages against for example smoking causes people to be delusional in order to dampen the anxiety effect. We also know that the public has a very poor understanding of numbers. In a study of laypersons published in Health Expectations it was concluded that:

Most participants thought of risk not as a neutral statistical concept, but as signifying danger and emotional threat, and viewed cancer risk in terms of concrete risk factors rather than mathematical probabilities. Participants had difficulty acknowledging uncertainty implicit to the concept of risk, and judging the numerical significance of individualized risk estimates. Han et al

Cialdini offers another insight:

The communicator who can fasten an audience’s focus onto the favourable elements of an argument raises the chance that the argument will go unchallenged by opposing points of view, which get locked out of the attentional environment as a consequence.

It isn’t just the facts but how the facts are presented. There are ways in which to engage if not by pass the logic. The three ‘commanders’ of attention that are highly effective are: the sexual, the threatening and the different. When an issue is presented in the context of these considerations their impact is boosted significantly.

    4. Our word choices matter a lot more than we think, because words get us to do things. The main function of language is not merely to  express or describe, but to influence. Something it does by channeling recipients to sectors of reality preloaded with a set of mental association favorable to the communicators view. Doctors may want to illuminate connections to negative associations and increase connections to positive associations. People also prefer things, people, products, and companies that have an association with themselves. This again emphasizes the vital importance of knowing what matters to the person whom you may wish to influence.

Finally and in medicine very significantly Cialdini draws our attention to the following:

Those that use the pre-suasive approach must decide what to present immediately before their message. But they must also have to make an even earlier decision: whether, on ethical grounds, to employ such an approach.

Every day patients consult doctors. Words are use. These words are designed to influence choices. In medicine the options presented may not take into account factors that the patient may not have disclosed and therefore the choice on offer may not be in their best interests. Nor do those choices take account of the practitioner’s own limitations in evaluating the choices offered. Therefore the first and most important aspect of communicating persuasively is to listen. As Cialdini suggests first determine identifiable points in time when an individual is particularly receptive to a communicator’s message.

Picture by Andreas Bloch