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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.

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Are you addressing the right problem or the one you think you can fix?


The act of consulting a doctor has been shown to be highly ritualized.

Ritual has long been thought to play an important role in the healing processes used by ancient and non-Western healers. In this paper, I suggest that practitioners of Western medicine also interact with patients in a highly ritualized manner. Medical rituals, like religious rituals, serve to alter the meaning of an experience by naming and circumscribing unknown elements of that experience and by enabling patients’ belief in a treatment and their expectancy of healing from that treatment. John Welch. Journal of religion and health

There are five elements to this ritual:

  1. The stage- office, clinic room, cubicle.
  2. The props- what can be seen and or felt.
  3. The actors- doctor, patient and sometimes nurse or therapist.
  4. The script- what is said.
  5. The action- what is done.

All have an impact on the outcome. The doctor’s ‘script’ is of particular importance as it is what the patient hears. The literature offers evidence of the impact of what is said and how it is said on outcomes for patients:

 The quality of communication both in the history-taking segment of the visit and during discussion of the management plan was found to influence patient health outcomes. The outcomes affected were, in descending order of frequency, emotional health, symptom resolution, function, physiologic measures (i.e., blood pressure and blood sugar level) and pain control. M.A Stewart CMAJ

One conclusion of the literature review published in CMAJ was that the process of sharing information includes a discussion about what the patient understands to be the problem and their options with regard to treatment:

These four studies taken together debunk the myth that the only alternative to the physician’s total control of power in the therapeutic relationship is his or her total abdication of power. They indicate that patients do not benefit from the physician’s abdication of power but, rather, from engagement in a process that leads to an agreed management plan.

This issue assumes great significance when it comes to difficult consultations in which it is perceived that the patient is seeking an option that is not in their best interests. Greenhalgh and Gill wrote the following commentary in the BMJ in 1997:

Two thirds of consultations with general practitioners end with the issuing of a prescription. The decision to prescribe is influenced by many factors, to do with the doctor, the patient, the doctor-patient interaction, and the wider social context, including the effects of advertising and the financial incentives and disincentives for all parties. Hardline advocates of rational drug use do not look kindly on variations in prescribing patterns that cannot be explained by purely clinical factors. The prescriber who allows the “Friday night penicillin” phenomenon to sway his or her clinical judgment tends to do so surreptitiously and with a guilty conscience.

The team go on to conclude that:

The act of issuing a prescription is the culmination of a complex chain of decisions. It is open to biomedical, historical, psychosocial and commercial influences, no aspect of which can be singled out as the ”cause” of non-rational prescribing. The search should continue for methods to measure the interplay of these disparate factors on the decision to prescribe.

Michael Bungay Stanier offers an approach to business coaching by focusing on what a person perceives to be their challenge, what they want and how that choice might be impacting on their other options. A similar approach can be taken in medicine. Two decades after Trish Greenhalgh’s editorial in the BMJ there are still many circumstances in which doctors find it challenging to negotiate options these include but are not limited to:

In this context our team surveyed nearly 9000 patients who had been prescribed antibiotics for Upper Respiratory Tract Infections during the latest flu season. We surveyed patients using a validated tool on the third day and the seventh day after a prescription was issued. We look forward to presenting the results at the forthcoming GP17 conference. We will be offering information on the following questions:

  1. What is the profile of patients who were offered a prescription?
  2. What was the symptom profile at these time points and how does this compare with data on patients who have been offered no treatment in other studies?
  3. What are the characteristics of the respondents to the survey?
  4. What proportion of respondents completed the course of treatment?
  5. What proportion of respondents also took regular symptomatic measures?
  6. What is the profile of patients with relatively severe symptoms at each time point?
  7. Are longer consultations or type of antibiotic predictive of compliance with treatment?
  8. Within the limitations of a study that offers only the patient perspective what might help people with Upper Respiratory Tract Infections?

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Road map to better health outcomes

  • Improvements in healthcare outcomes warrant small changes. [Previous post].
  • Those best placed to know where and how to make those adjustments will change the future.
  • The most effective changes will trigger behaviours that we are already motivated and easily able to assimilate in practice.
  • The best interventions are those in which all concerned are rewarded in some way.

Such interventions:
1. Build on something the target is already doing. Anything that adds to workload or requires practitioners or indeed patients to do something significantly different in the course of going about their business is a waste of effort [example].
2. Need very few people to adopt them.  Ideas that require an orchestrated change in patient and or their general practitioner and or the specialist will disappoint [example].
3. Must be anchored by something that already occurs in practice. Practitioners routinely reach the point where they must agree or disagree with the patient and then do something.  An intervention that is anchored at that point is more likely to be assimilated in practice [example].
4. Can be incorporated into the habits or rituals of the target. Doctors vaccinate patients and patients regularly use their phones. Ideas that combine such aspects are likely to succeed [example].
5. Provide something the target wants. Interventions that are at odds with the target’s ideas, concerns or expectations are unlikely to succeed [example]. Interventions that speak to the target’s desires can be highly effective [example].

 

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What’s the shortest route to where you want to go?

As the conference season begins we note that response rates in the order of 10-20% are not unusual in primary care research. Hardly generalisable. And yet we need sustainable and workable solutions that will promote health and well being in an ageing demography with increasing multimorbidity. Researchers take note the traditional gatekeeper in primary care, the general practitioner is occupied just keeping up with demand. There is no time to recruit, to seek informed consent or to deliver interventions that are being tested in a traditional randomised trial. At one time membership of networks with ‘committed’, well meaning practitioners were considered essential to successful research. In 2017 relying on anyone or any organisation that purports to guarantee recruitment rates or ‘collaboration’ seems at best naive and at worst risky.

Health requires people to make different choices. Eat better, drink less, take more exercise, jettison bad habits, consider when and where to seek medical advice. The traditional model of healthcare is evolving. The evolution is driven by technology that has fundamentally changed our experience of many if not all things. People consider themselves more time poor than they ever were.

The ability to satisfy desires instantly also breeds impatience, fuelled by a nagging sense that one could be doing so much else. People visit websites less often if they are more than 250 milliseconds slower than a close competitor, according to research from Google. More than a fifth of internet users will abandon an online video if it takes longer than five seconds to load. When experiences can be calculated according to the utility of a millisecond, all seconds are more anxiously judged for their utility. The Economist

The lesson for those hunting for better ways to reach people is to consider the least that can be done to get there. The answer may be waiting in all of our pockets.

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It is time for primary care to enter the triggering business

It has been suggested, some would say demonstrated that doctors know very little about their patients. If you are a doctor could you identify your patient’s partner from a line-up of strangers (other than people you see as a couple)?  Or could you tell without seeing the name on the document if this bank statement belonged to that patient? Or whether that utility bill was from where that person lives? Is this internet search history theirs? Do you know how much they spend on lottery tickets? Alcohol? Vegetables?

A few years ago our team then based in the UK was evaluating an intervention to increase access to general practitioners. If the intervention worked we would have to demonstrate improvement over the course of a whole year. Here’s the thing, we noted that year after year there was a pattern to the demand for same day (emergency) appointments- with definite peaks and troughs. So if the intervention worked it would have to be sustained during both the peaks and the troughs. It did. The data on out-of-hours services exhibited very similar patterns- with definite peaks and troughs and at unexpected times of the year. We could not explain the patterns but noted that when the meteorological office recorded  22 hours or more of sunshine in the week the demand for appointments dropped. Not the prevalence of viral or other community pathogens but sunshine of all things! Okay may it was some factor that we hadn’t modelled in the analysis but there was a definite pattern that we could not immediately explain on the basis of what seemed plausible at the time. We called it the Spring Cleaning Effect– we hypothesised that people in the UK were less likely to attend doctors in general practice when there was a run of sunny days on which to do outdoorsy things. We didn’t anticipate this- nor did clinic managers because the patterns of demand were not used to inform the scheduling of doctors’ on-call rosters. It was clear that they were blind to a phenomenon nobody understood fully.

More recently I reviewed some data on certification for low back pain and noted the pattern that as unemployment rates in a locality increased the rates of certification dropped and then plateaued.

Our team is now investigating similar data from a large employers’ records. We hypothesise that rates of submission of sickness certification will show a sharp drop when vacancy rates fall and other markers of economic health decline. People may be far less likely to take time off sick if they are fearful of upsetting their supervisor. With respect to primary care, it is unlikely that doctors will know everything that impacts on their patient’s choices. Time spent with the patient in discovering these things is unlikely to increase as it comes at a financial cost. Therefore doctors will never fully anticipate all the drivers to patient behaviour. Why does that obese person fail to take action on weight management? Why does this other person take ‘medication holidays’ when they need to take the treatment consistently to benefit? Why does the next person refuse to have an X-ray? Why is there a rush of people with relatively minor conditions demanding appointments this week and not last?

Some drivers lead people to behave in unexpected ways as I have commented here previously. Not only that but as Mullainathan and Shafir have postulated people are often unable or perhaps unwilling to follow doctor’s advice. In the end, the best we can hope is to trigger the relevant behaviour in people who are already motivated and seek teachable moments to inspire people to act for their benefit. Primary care may be more about recognising or fishing for opportunities and much less ‘educating’ for change. Such triggers need to fit within the final moments of a 15-minute consult. The work to develop and evaluate such triggers is only beginning. Counselling patients to stop smoking will yield 1:20 quits in a year, showing them a trigger (in less than 5 minutes) that appeals to their vanity results in 1:7 quits. A substantial number (1:5) of obese people will lose weight in 6 months if they are shown what difference that would make to their appearance without having to be extensively counselled on diet and exercise.

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