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What price do you pay?

Looking back it was the right decision for me. I decided to choose a different career the day I wiped mayonnaise off my tie. I didn’t want to have my meals on the run. The job wasn’t for me if the price was regularly having to eat out of a paper bag rushing around from place to place or sitting at my desk. Others felt differently. I had to make a choice that worked for me.

While 62 percent of doctors who were normal or underweight reported eating a healthy diet rich in fruits and vegetables, the survey revealed that 44 percent of heavier doctors eat a diet high in carbs, meat and fat, or “on the go” meals. Just 16 percent of doctors who were considered overweight or obese were on a diet meant to help them lose weight or restrict calories. Life

Picture by Chris Blakeley.

How do you contribute on the journey?

It is unlikely that you will be part of every encounter with the customer, client or patient whatever you do and wherever you work. A barista is not at the table with the customer is presented with their breakfast; a dressmaker isn’t at the checkout when the customer makes their purchase at a department store. Sooner or later you won’t be there in person. However it is likely that whatever you’ve contributed will have an impact. How do you define your role from this perspective in healthcare?

The participants—21 family physicians (fps), 15 surgeons, 12 medical oncologists, 6 radiation oncologists, and 4 general practitioners in oncology—were asked to describe both the role that fps currently play and the role that, in their opinion, fps should play in the future care of cancer patients across the cancer continuum. Participants identified 3 key roles: coordinating cancer care, managing comorbidities, and providing psychosocial care to patients and their families. However, fps and specialists discussed many challenges that prevent fps from fully performing those roles:

  • The fps described communication problems resulting from not being kept “in the loop” because they weren’t copied on patient reports and also the lack of clearly defined roles for all the various health care providers involved in providing care to cancer patients.

  • The specialists expressed concerns about a lack of patient access to fp care, leaving specialists to fill the care gaps. Easley et al

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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?

Picture by Paola Kizette Cimenti

How do you prepare for work?

I don’t know him personally but I don’t imagine that Michael Phelps dives into a pool when he isn’t ready to race. Similarly Usain Bolt might look like he jumped off the viewing stands and popped himself on the starting blocks but in truth his mind and his body are ready to make him the fastest man on dry land. However when we arrive at work we might still be thinking about the argument at home, the traffic jam or the news. We might arrive a bit disheveled, a bit breathless or a tad tired. We might not hear the first few things we are told or notice more than we can take in at a glance of our first customer client or patient. However to perform at our peak we might consider what might get us in the zone so that our performance is not in question.

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Are you ready yet?

What do you do before you interact with your next customer, client or patient?

Gaze and body orientation communicate levels of engagement with and disengagement from courses of action. As doctors and patients accomplish regular tasks preparatory to dealing with patients’ chief complaints, doctors use gaze and body orientation to communicate that they are preparing but are not yet ready to deal with those complaints. In response, patients wait for their doctors to solicit their chief complaint. These findings have implications for research on nonverbal communication, interactional asymmetry, and power.

JD Robinson

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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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The welcome rise of alternative providers

Two weeks ago an 80-year-old waited without food or drink for 14 hours in a Dublin city emergency department having fallen in her local supermarket. She was black and blue from head to toe a response to the call of gravity when she was launched off a faulty escalator. She was ‘triaged’ and seated next to drunken revelers who also managed to injure themselves on that fateful evening. She was seen for all of 10 minutes by a medical student and then briefly by a doctor who recorded that her visual acuity couldn’t be assessed because she didn’t have her glasses. With that, she was sent home with her granddaughter and asked to return a couple of days later when she again waited another 9 hours for a five-minute consultation presumably so that the doctor could make sure she hadn’t really injured herself and wasn’t going to sue the hospital as well as the supermarket.  I know this person and read the discharge summary even though her daughter and I live on the other side of the world. As far as we know the provider believes we should be thankful because they are very busy and at least ‘someone’ saw her.

What’s it like to be your patient?

  1. How long do your patients wait?
  2. How are they greeted on arrival and how do they feel about waiting?
  3. What do they do while they wait?
  4. How long do they see you on average?
  5. What do they expect from the visit?
  6. Why do you order tests? What difference do these tests make to the outcome?
  7. Why do you prescribe those drugs? How many people take them as prescribed?
  8. Why do you ask them to return for a review appointment?
  9. Why do your refer them to someone else?
  10. What do they tell their family about your service?

No business would survive without a handle on this information. Arguably some sectors of the business of healthcare only survive because of a monopoly.

A newer take on the organizational environment is the “Red Queen” theory, which highlights the relative nature of progress. The theory is borrowed from ecology’s Red Queen hypothesis that successful adaptation in one species is tantamount to a worsening environment for others, which must adapt in turn to cope with the new conditions. The theory’s name is inspired by the character in Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass who seems to be running but is staying on the same spot. In a 1996 paper, William Barnett describes Red Queen competition among organizations as a process of mutual learning. A company is forced by direct competition to improve its performance, in turn increasing the pressure on its rivals, thus creating a virtuous circle of learning and competition. Stanford Business

Certainly, the 80-year-old had no option but to go to a state hospital emergency department because there was a very real possibility that she had fractured something coming off that escalator. The hospital manager might say in her defense that they have no option but to offer the service as described, but where is the data to demonstrate that it is the lack of options rather than a lack of interest or talent in managing one of the most important services the state is charged by taxpayers to provide? The monopoly may be around a little longer when it comes to life-saving treatments but what about primary care? If this 80-year-old can wait 14 hours to be seen by a medical student there may be real scope for the service to be provided by someone who is qualified, will see her much sooner and offer her a cup of tea while she waits for the X-rays to be reported. What about the scope to provide better than what you offer?

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Cases too complex for a specialism other than general practice

It was a Friday evening. It’s almost always a Friday when this sort of case presents. She was in most ways unremarkable. She smiled readily, wasn’t evidently confused and worked in a senior administrative role. She came after work. This was the story:

I have a pain in my shoulder that becomes intense in my left arm pit. I can hardly bear to touch my arm pit. My hand becomes numb and cold. Today it’s so bad I’m finding it hard to turn the steering wheel.

I had 15 mins to sort this out, no scans, no blood tests, no discussion with a ‘team’ of young doctors working to pass their exams. She was describing symptoms that may have indicated a neurological emergency. And yet none of it made sense. She hadn’t fallen or been involved in any other trauma. There was no rash, no swelling. She swung her left arm over her head without any difficulty. I could not detect neurological signs, reflexes were normal. No Horner’s syndrome. No breast lesion. No obvious sensory loss. Twenty minutes later I could find nothing in her records or in her presentation that gave me any clue to the cause of these symptoms. And yet she was clearly worried. Regardless of the outcome I had to achieve one thing- this person like every other person who seeks help from a general practitioner needed to know that she had been taken seriously. Not for us the option of sending her back to whence she came with a note:

No organic pathology. Refer elsewhere.

A number of possibilities came to mind. Top of the list was ‘brachial plexus neuropathy‘ or Thoracic Outlet Syndrome. There were no objective signs at the time of presentation and I had never seen this before albeit that I had read about it sometime while at medical school. But then that’s primary care. We are the first port of call for anyone entering the healthcare system and often they present too early for anything to have manifested objectively. Not for us the text book presentation. About this diagnosis we know that:

Damage to the brachial plexus usually results from direct injury. Other common causes of damage to the brachial plexus include:

  • Birth trauma.
  • Injury from stretching.
  • Pressure from tumours.
  • Damage from radiation therapy.

Brachial plexus neuropathy may also be associated with:

  • Birth defects.
  • Exposure to toxins.
  • Inflammatory conditions.
  • Immune system issues.

There are also numerous cases in which no direct cause can be identified.

We also know that:

Signs and symptoms of thoracic outlet syndrome vary from patient to patient due to the location of nerve and/or vessel involvement. Symptoms range from mild pain and sensory changes to limb threatening complications in severe cases. Physiopedia

Diagnosis is difficult, tests and examination can be normalprognosis is variable. By the time a diagnosis was made weeks later and she presented to a specialist everything was obvious. But on that Friday evening with a surgery full of patients I was on my own. My patient trusted that I would not let her walk out of there only to lose a limb. Assuming a benign cause she would be back and need more. This was the start of a longterm relationship and how I managed this episode would set the tone for the duration.

While improvement may begin in one to two months, complete functional recovery may not be achieved for up to three years or longer in some cases. Tsairis et al

Picture by Mahree Modesto

Why healthcare outcomes are resistant to policy change

13799802965_b07db37bf2_zAfter every match, the cricket coach gives feedback about how the match was won or lost. Whenever the team wins it’s usually because of high scoring batting, or a great performance by the bowlers. However, when they lose there’s almost always one reason—poor fielding, dropped catches, easily conceded single runs and inaccurate throws.

In medicine surgeons are the batsmen, in most games they are seldom in play for very long. When the surgeon gets involved the crowd holds its breath for something magical to happen and when it does they celebrate with ‘Mexican wave’. Physicians are akin to bowlers, trying different deliveries, aiming to make it difficult to concede runs, patiently waiting for an unforced error. Occasionally screaming at the umpire for a decision in their favour. In the limelight an over at a time.

General practitioners are the fielders, rarely flamboyant and hard to tell apart. Constantly moving across the field, often to simply return the ball back into play. Standing for hours in the hot sun, occasionally chasing a ball to the boundary. Always trying to limit the damage. No matter how good the batting or the bowling is, if those in the field are not fully engaged, or solving problems creatively, if they are not intuitive, or working for the common good, without waiting for instruction after every ball is delivered then the game is lost.

As a primary care practitioner I am aware that most of the patients I see won’t have life-threatening pathology, but occasionally I’ll get a chance to make a game-changing difference, and on other days, my patients feel safer knowing that I am there. I don’t need to make any fancy moves, most of the time what I do is simply ensure that I nip things in the bud.

In medicine, most people consult a general practitioner and not a surgeon. That’s where innovation has the scope to make a difference to most people. Without reference to the practitioners who work at the coalface no amount of policy change is likely to make a difference to outcomes. That’s because fielders can’t do their job with one hand tied behind their back or by ignoring the evidence of their own eyes, or by focusing other than on the ball. According to the experts good fielders:

  1. Don’t move. When the captain puts them somewhere they stay there until they are moved again.
  2.  Show confidence. Looking confident in the field can save many runs.
  3.  Will throw at the stumps whenever there is a chance.
  4. Back up.
  5. Want to get every ball.
  6. Are close enough. If they are on the boundary their job is to save fours so they stay as deep as possible without giving away two runs if they can.
  7. Know themselves. If they have a setback in the field, they are aware of how they will react to it.

These simple rules tell us that it is imperative to work with the fielders if the team is to win the match. Failing to do so, like failing to work with the doctors most likely to come into contact with patients leads to frustration. The emotion that most funders experience perhaps because they do not understand the business of doctoring. We need to reframe problems in healthcare as a failure to engage with front line staff.

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How improving the experience of hospital death can help redesign healthcare

 

The residents always approached my father as if he was a person and there weren’t any divisions between them. They didn’t come in and say, “I’m Doctor so and so.” There wasn’t any kind of separation or aloofness. They would sit right on his bed, hold his hand, talk about their families, his family, golf, and sports. From Steinhauser et al.

The chances are when the times comes you will die in hospital. It may be sudden or it may be expected and either you will die a good death or the experience for you and those who are left to grieve will make a bad situation worse. Charles Garfield put it like this:

A good death is no oxymoron. It’s within everyone’s realm of possibility. We need only realize its potential and prepare ourselves to meet it mindfully, with compassion and courage

John Costello concluded his research on patient experiences of death as follows:

The findings also challenge practitioners to focus attention on death as a process, and to prioritize patients’ needs above those of the organization. Moreover, there is the need for guidelines to be developed enabling patients to have a role in shaping events at the end of their lives. John Costello

Therefore, the needs of the ‘organisation’ may impact adversely on the experience of death. These might include the need to adhere to routines such as ward rounds, meal and medication time on open wards which may make it difficult to cater to the needs of the family when the patient dies.

A good place to start with innovation is to consider what, how and when things go wrong. Costello’s interviews with nurses identified several determinants of a bad death:

  • Sudden, unexpected or traumatic deaths especially soon after admission
  • Death other than on the ward
  • Family not aware of impending death or family conflict a major feature
  • Lack of dignity or respect
  • Diagnosis uncertain

Therefore, the key features are the circumstances surrounding the death. The consequences are far from trivial:

Dying patients with unresolved physical and psychological problems, such as pain, nausea, vomiting or spiritual distress, and who were unresponsive to treatment or nursing care, were invariably regarded as experiencing bad death. John Costello

This begs the question why not prepare for death in every hospital admission especially where death is a less than distant possibility. The majority of hospital deaths occur in those over 75 years of age. How is the team prepared if there is a death on the ward expected or otherwise, whether it’s convenient to the routines or not?

Achieving seven goals appear to mark a ‘good’ death:

  1. The patient should be physically, psycho-socially, and spiritually pain-free
  2. Recognize and resolve interpersonal conflicts.
  3. Satisfy any remaining wishes that are consistent with their present condition.
  4. Review their life to find meaning.
  5. Hand over control to a trusted person, someone committed to helping them have the kind of death they desire.
  6. Be protected from needless procedures that serve to only dehumanize and demean without much or any benefit.
  7. Decide how social and how alert they want to be.

Many of these goals are in the purview of the doctor and her prescription pad, others require all those involved to help prepare for an event that will impact on everyone associated with the patient. Healthcare is now a team effort and nowhere more than at the end of life.

When physical symptoms are properly palliated, patients and families may have the opportunity to address the critical psychosocial and spiritual issues they face at the end of life. Steinhauser et al

The point is if we prepare every hospitalised patient who may conceivably deteriorate and die as if we were preparing them and our units for that experience we will treat all patients with greater dignity. That’s the foundation of good outcomes for healthcare staff and the dying.

Picture by Alyssa L. Miller