better health by designLearn More

Do you use aids to help you explain?

If your job involves explaining complicated ideas- and let’s face it nothing is simple in medicine- do you use models or aids of any kind?

if not, why not? If you do what do you use and how do you know they work? How do you explain sciatica, heart disease, asthma, cancer?

Physicians cannot control all the reasons for patients pursuing legal atonement but they are able to determine the quality of their connection with them, by improving their communication skills and techniques. Law-suits for medical negligence can be lowered or prevented by taking steps to keep patients content, thus making them more compliant to the treatment, adhering to the medical policies and procedures. Tevanov et al 

Picture by MilitaryHealth

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

Picture by Army Medicine

 

What is said to people when drugs are prescribed for life?

Every day doctors suggest that one or other of their patients have to take medication for life. Hypertension, diabetes and certain deficiencies are among the many conditions that may benefit from taking medication longterm. On the other hand, many people reject this advice or take the prescribed drugs only sometimes. Ultimately the decision to accept treatment is for the person with the condition to decide. How can the advice be tailored so that the person is making an informed decision?

BACKGROUND: ‘Concordance’ has been proposed as a new approach towards sub-optimal medication use; however, it is not clear how this may be achieved in practice. AIM: To develop a strategy for understanding sub-optimal medication use and seek concordance during primary care consultations. DESIGN: A developmental qualitative study using a modified action research design. SETTING: Three Scottish general practices. METHOD: Patients using treatment sub-optimally and having poor clinical control were offered extended consultations to explore their situation. Their authority to make treatment decisions was made explicit throughout. Clinicians refined a consultation model during ten ‘Balint-style’ meetings that ran in parallel with the analysis. The analysis included all material from the consultations, meetings, and discussion with patients after the intervention. RESULTS: Three practitioners recorded 59 consultations with 24 adult patients. A six-stage process was developed, first to understand and then to discuss existing medication use. Understanding of medication use was best established using a structured exploration of patients’ beliefs about their illness and medication. Four problematic issues were identified: understanding, acceptance, level of personal control, and motivation. Pragmatic interventions were developed that were tailored to the issues identified. Of the 22 subjects usefully engaged in the process, 14 had improved clinical control or medication use three months after intervention ceased. CONCLUSIONS: A sensitive, structured exploration of patients’ beliefs can elucidate useful insights that explain medication use and expose barriers to change. Identifying and discussing these barriers improved management for some. A model to assist such concordant prescribing is presented. Dowell et al BJGP

I summarise the issue in this video:

https://youtu.be/xFQ2kVOMS64

Picture by Victor

What we eat at work may be very bad news

We spend so much time at work- what we eat there matters. What makes it worse is that we may be triggered to eat things that are very bad news for our waist line.

Expressed as terms of a percentage of your life, this 39.2 hours a week spent working is equivalent to

  • 14% of your total times over the course of a 76 year period (based on the average projected life expectancy of 76 for people born in the year 2000 according to the ONS’s National Life Tables for the United Kingdom.)
  • 23.3% of your total time during the course of a 50 year working-life period
  • 21% of your total waking hours over a 76 year lifespan, assuming 8 hours of sleep a night.
  • 35% of your total waking hours over a 50 year working-life period assuming 8 hours of sleep a night
  • 50% of your total waking hours during any given working day. ReviseSociology

I summarise in the video:

Picture by fredenslund

First I’ll ask what’s on your mind then I’ll shut up


Every doctor in general practice/family medicine learns about the ‘models‘ of the consultation. My favourite is the Pendleton model. The thinking behind a map of the medical consultation is summarised by  Pawlikowska and colleagues

A fundamental change in medical culture in this area has been the recognition and acceptance of the fact that the way in which health professionals communicate, on all levels, can be enhanced, irrespective of the innate and learned abilities they already possess.

In 2016  Michael Bungay Stanier published The Coaching Habit: Say Less, Ask More  & Change the Way you Lead Forever. This comes at a time when the relationship between doctors and the people who seek their help is changing. With each passing generation, people expect to be actively involved in making choices in healthcare.

Women, more educated, and healthier people were more likely to prefer an active role in decision making…..Preferences for an active role increased with age up to 45 years, but then declined. Livenson

Doctors and the people who consult them will frame themselves as a team. At the same time, the major challenges relate to non-communicable chronic disease. Specifically to encourage people to stop smoking, eat and drink less, exercise more, and to be screened for early detection of malignancies. And for those who succumb to actively manage their chronic illness.

Therefore the interaction between the person seeking advice and the ‘expert’ is more likely to be akin to coaching. Given that people present to primary care with undifferentiated conditions the agenda for the meeting is set by the person who made the appointment. That’s why Bungay Stanier’s practical approach is a significant contribution. If we accept that the doctor is to be the ‘coach’ the author sets the scene in the very first chapter:

Only 23% of people being coached thought that the coach had a significant impact on their performance or job satisfaction. Ten percent even suggested that the coaching they were getting was having a negative effect. ( Can you imagine what it would be like going into those business meetings? ” I look forward to being more confused and less motivated after my coaching sessions with you.”)

The book emphasises that ‘coaching’ is a habit. Something that needs to be valued for three reasons:

  1. To avoid the team members becoming overdependent on the coach.

Building a coaching habit will help your team be more self-sufficient by increasing their autonomy and sense of mastery by reducing your need to jump in, take over and become the bottleneck.

There is already such a concern about over-dependence in medicine. Read Naomi Hartree’s summary ( Helping Patients Avoid Doctor Dependency)

2. To avoid getting overwhelmed.

Building a coaching habit will help you regain focus so you and your team can do the work that has real impact and so you can direct your time, energy and resources to solving the challenges that make a difference.

Being overwhelmed is a recognised problem in medicine.  Read locumstory(Physician Workload)

3. To help people do more work that has impact and meaning.

Coaching can fuel courage to step out beyond the comfortable and familiar , can help people learn from their experiences and can literally and metaphorically increase and help fulfil a person’s potential.

Again this has strong resonance in healthcare specifically because of the limited predictive value of tests or the large number needed to treat. In addition, there is mounting concern about the variation in these outcomes across geographical areas. See John Newton.

The Coaching Habit emphasises seven questions in a specific order. The first question is arguably the most important. Bungay Stanier calls it the kickstart question: ” What’s on your mind?” He justifies it as follows:

Because it’s open, it invites people to get to to the heart of the matter and share what’s important to them. You’re not telling them or guiding them. You’re showing them trust and granting them autonomy to make choices for themselves. And yet the question is focused, too. It’s not an invitation to tell you anything or everything. It’s encouragement to go right away to what’s exciting, what’s provoking anxiety, what’s all-consuming, what’s waking them at 4 a.m., what’s got their hearts beating fast.

This question followed by the space to answer is one that creates the opportunity to find what is really bothering someone. It is not universally common in healthcare. There’s an eloquent summary of the data from Juliet Mavromatis

Why do physicians interrupt? In practical terms, throughout the course of a given day a physician may be tasked with listening to twenty to thirty patient derived histories and with solving difficult problems for each of these patients in a matter of ten to fifteen minutes. This is a tough, if not impossible job. Consequently, once a physician believes that the meat of the story is out there, he or she may respond and interrupt before hearing details that the patient (or colleague) feels are important. In more abstract terms interruption is a communication strategy that reinforces physician dominance in the hierarchy of the patient-physician relationship.

Picture by Allie Hill

The encounter could end well if you give it a chance

There is a moment in any consultation when someone could take an unhelpful perspective. That perspective could severely undermine the subsequent exchanges between those concerned.

In social categorization, we place people into categories. People also reflexively distinguish members of in-groups (groups of which the subject is a member) from members of out-groups. Furthermore, people tend to evaluate out-groups more negatively than in-groups. In this way, social categories easily lend themselves to stereotypes in general and to negative stereotypes in particular. Cohen

The problem with such categorization is that we then rate aspects as positive and negative disregarding evidence to the contrary. In a series of classic studies researchers recruited a group of 12 year old boys to attend a summer camp. The boys were divided into two teams which were then pitted against each other in competitive games. Following these games, the boys very clearly displayed in-group chauvinism. They consistently rated their own team’s performance as superior to the other team’s. Furthermore 90% of the boys identified their best friends from within their own group even though, prior to group assignment, many had best friends in the other group. M&C Sherif

Healthcare professionals can also be prone to social categorisation:

It is equally important to recognize that physicians and other health care workers are not mere empty vessels into which new cultural knowledge and attitudes need to be poured. They are already participants in 2 cultures: that of the mainstream society, in which some degree of bias is always a component, and the culture of medicine itself, which has its own values, assumptions and understandings of what should be done and how it should be done. Reducing racially or culturally based inequity in medical care is a moral imperative. As is the case for most tasks of this nature, the first steps, at both the individual and societal levels, are honest self-examination and the acknowledgement of need. Geiger

The patient opened the consultation saying ‘I don’t sleep well’. He wore a raggy teeshirt, torn jeans and old trainers. A baseball cap was perched atop an untidy mop of greasy hair. He was overweight verging on obese and had two days of growth on an unshaven face. He worked in a warehouse. Thirty seconds into the encounter I caught myself thinking ‘he wants a prescription for a hypnotic’ but stopped myself launching into a prepared speech on the addictive dangers of hypnotics. It turned out that he had worked to lose 15kgs, studied and practiced sleep hygiene and was keen to explore any option other than drugs. He was far from interested in a script for Temazepam. It turned out that he was keen to hear if I approved of his low carb diet and wondered if yoga and meditation might help. The next seventeen minutes were a mutually satisfying consultation which ended with a handshake. A sure sign that it had gone well.

This small study suggests that most handshakes offered by patients towards the end of consultations reflect patient satisfaction — ‘the happy handshake’. Indeed, many reasons were recorded using superlatives such as ‘very’ and ‘much’ representing a high level of patient satisfaction — ‘the very happy handshake’ BJGP

Therefore there is a point in the consultation when the healthcare professional needs to scan their impressions for evidence of  stereotyping.

Picture by David Baxendale

You are one of us doctor you’ll understand

The door opened a crack and I could just make out a face in the half light.

The doctor I spoke to was Irish, who are you?

I assured the patient that I was indeed the person they spoke with when they requested a home visit. Reluctantly, they let me in. It must have been evident from my reply that in contrast to my brown face I had an Irish accent. Roll forwards a few years and I was in a consulting room in England. The healthy middle eastern man spoke with me earnestly.

You are one of us. You will understand. It is our culture. My son is disabled. I am a father and I need to look after him as our family requires. The social security people say I must work. Please just sign me off for a few months to stop them harassing me.

A few years later I stood in the dinning room of a large conference centre in Sydney scanning the room looking for a friend. One of the delegates queuing for breakfast tapped me on the shoulder:

Excuse me sir, there aren’t enough spoons at the table.

I sorted the matter of the spoons as I hope a gentleman and not just a waiter would. The consultation consists of the stage (consulting room), the props ( the equipment), the script and the action and of course the actors (doctor and patient). We are occasionally reminded that the actor’s appearance has a significant impact on how they are perceived by the other in the ritual that is the consultation. If we come to this unprepared then we may be wrong footed even in the opening exchanges. My experience has taught me what it is like to have people make assumptions about you even before you open your mouth. I believe that has made me a better doctor and personally aware of the issues.

Picture by elysianfields

She’s furious but what does your reaction say about you?

Where there is anger there is fear. Health issues are frightening. They pose a real and sometimes imminent threat to our basic needs. Sometimes even a threat to life itself.

There is a strong relationship between anger and fear. Anger is the fight part of the age-old fight-or-flight response to threat. Most animals respond to threat by either fighting or fleeing. But, we don’t always have the option to fight what threatens us. Instead, we have anger. Psychology 

Anger is an emotion that doctors encounter often. Unfortunately they may also find themselves getting annoyed at that angry patient who has been kept waiting, that angry mother who thinks her child’s test results should be available today, that angry young man who says he will be fired unless he gets a backdated certificate, that angry Boomer who is convinced her cancer can be cured if only this doctor arranges an appointment for coffee enemas.

Doctors can choose how to respond. How to interpret that emotion. Doctors too can be angry. Angry about having to work in a healthcare system where one sector doesn’t coordinate with another, a payment schedule that doesn’t reward for time spent waiting on the phone, a system where people come with undifferentiated problems and can’t give a clear history of their symptoms. They can choose whether or not to express this emotion during a heated conversation.

At the end of the day, doctors can go home- for the mother of the child with cystic fibrosis, the young man with the heartless employer, the old lady with bowel cancer there is no such escape. A response that may help is to acknowledge the anger but address the fear. It may even reduce the frequency with which people might see the doctor standing in the way of something they think will immediately reduce the threat. It may also help when doctors are angry that those who are the target of that anger confront the issues rather engage in recrimination.

Picture by Petras Gaglias 

Can the patient relay what was done for them?

A perennial source of dissatisfaction in healthcare (as documented here and here) is the poor flow of information from one sector to another. ‘Joe’ (speaking here– video from BMJ open) couldn’t tell me, his doctor, anything helpful about what had been done while he had been in hospital. That means we have to schedule several appointments to try to unpack it all. He was an in-patient for two weeks and someone had decided one Thursday morning that it was time for him to go home. It wasn’t really clear to Joe or to me why that particular morning or what was to happen when he got home other than that he should contact his ‘local GP’. A letter would follow some time in the future. There may have been good or bad reasons for sending him home. We could only guess what was in the mind of the person who made the decision:

We needed the bed. Joe was fine. His observations were normal, he was ambulant his wife was happy to take him home.

But of course Joe comes home with lots of questions, which I now struggle to answer without making phone calls to track down the busy medical team. The problem is articulated by several ‘stakeholders’ members of the ‘multidisciplinary team’ on the ward none of whom feel they own the problem of telling this man what he needs to know. There is only one constant in this story- Joe. If Joe can collect the information we need during the course of his hospital stay we might begin to improve the outcome:

In addition to increasing the burden on GPs, it engenders a need for a subsequent GP appointment; it limits GP capacity to respond to patient concerns and queries, at least on one occasion; it may result in a re-referral to the specialist; and it increases GP dissatisfaction with the care provided to the patient by the hospital. BMJ

The problem is Joe often does not know what he needs to know by the end of his hospital stay. It isn’t impossible to work out how to trigger questions for Joe to ask throughout his hospitalisation. What is far more difficult is to motivate every hospital ward and every discipline in a team to address this challenge consistently. It is ‘easier’ to nudge one individual than enlist the cooperation of the dozens of health professionals who will come into contact with Joe. Making people active in healthcare processes has achieved results before:

Influence at Work, a training and consultancy company that Cialdini founded, worked with the United Kingdom’s National Health Service (NHS) in a set of studies aimed at reducing the number of patients who fail to show up for medical appointments. They did this by simply making patients more involved in the appointment-making process, such as asking the patient to write down the details of the appointment themselves rather than simply receiving an appointment card. Sleek

Picture by Michael Coghlan

We don’t have to agree but it doesn’t have to end in tears

I told him NO. You don’t need antibiotics you have a virus. Now leave.

This is the rather macho way in which the story of how a patient’s ‘unreasonable’ request was rejected is sometimes recounted. In some cases the law was changed to allow people to access some items much more readily:

In some countries, potent drugs are now losing their efficacy because of unregulated access. The stage is set for disagreement and inevitably it comes when the provider does not have a plan for how to tackle the request that is not in the patient’s best interest or does not address associated risks that patient is taking. Arguments might be even more common were it not for the evidence that healthcare providers sometimes act without assessing the requests fully. This makes matters worse because it raises unreasonable expectations. In one recent study it was reported:

In spite of the requirement that pharmacists sell restricted medicines, shoppers often found it difficult to distinguish pharmacists from other pharmacy staff. Shoppers were able to confirm that a pharmacist was definitely involved in only 46% of visits. In 8.8% of the diclofenac visits, and 10.8% of the visits for vaginal anti-fungals, no counselling was provided. The vaginal anti-fungal visits tended to be more product-focussed than the diclofenac visits. When they purchased diclofenac, most pharmacists asked shoppers if they had, or had had, stomach problems (74.6%) or asthma (65.4%). A minority asked about the symptoms of the vaginal fungal infection which the female shoppers presented with. While most pharmacies recorded patient names, many did so in a way which compromised patient confidentiality. Pharmacy World and Science

Similarly, it has been shown that performance varies in general practice:

In more than one-in-eight cases, the patient was not investigated or referred. Patient management varied significantly by cancer type (p<0.001). For two key reasons, colorectal cancer was the chosen referent category. First, it represents a prevalent type of cancer. Second, in this study, colorectal cancer symptoms were managed in a similar proportion of options—that is, prescription, referral or investigation. Compared with vignettes featuring colorectal cancer participants were less likely to manage breast, bladder, endometrial, and lung cancers with a ‘prescription only’ or ‘referral only’ option. They were less likely to manage prostate cancer with a ‘prescription only’, yet more likely to manage it with a ‘referral with investigation’. With regard to pancreatic and cervical cancers, participants were more likely to manage these with a ‘referral only’ or a ‘referral with investigation’. BMJ open

In summary:

  1. People often present with ideas that are at odds with those of the provider.
  2. The law sometimes enshrines the right to over the counter treatments that may not be indicated or may actually harm people.
  3. Patients are not appropriately assessed in all cases which mean they either acquire things that are not appropriate or denied things that are.

Once the decision is made to say no it isn’t always handled well. This has also been demonstrated in the literature. What has been published suggests that one of the most potent tools in the armory are good consultation skills. The more worrying issue is how this comes as news to some in a profession that pride itself on members’ ability to communicate. The bottom line is that any business that loses the relationship with its clients is heading for the rocks. Every business knows that there are polite ways to reject a customer. Therefore the answer to the question of whether and what to prescribe is a function of the consultation skills taught to every medical graduate. The issue at stake when things go wrong is how well those skills are being exercised. The quote at the top of this post suggests that some doctors need a refresher.

Picture by Jens Karlsson