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Do you take the shortest route to add value?

Every thriving business adds value. If it didn’t it would not exist. Healthcare shares many points of difference with any other service but none is more remarkable than the  ability to forge connections via the physical examination. It meets our fundamental need when we are ill.

Treatment that uses direct touch can have a depth and potency that can have a great therapeutic impact, which provides some explanation for why so many people are seeking out their own “professional touchers” or are filling the waiting rooms of physicians, waiting for the doctor to find the cause of the pain and make them better. In the process, they are touched. When the patient is assured that the work of the professional toucher is free from infringement, that sexual contact is clearly out of bounds, and that the patient can say “no” to any intervention the body-work practitioner proposes, then the patient can have the experience of trust and physical touch in the context of a controlled respectful relationship. Sharon K Farber

If you are a healthcare professional in what proportion of cases don’t  you perform a physical exam? Why?

Picture by Army Medicine

Do your words strike a discordant chord?

Most upper respiratory tract infections are caused by viruses. However saying that to a parent with a sick child doesn’t always help:

Parent 2: They think they make you feel better saying it’s a virus…but they make you feel worse

Parent 7: When they say it’s a virus, I mean what kind of virus? Just where does it come from? Parent 1: You’re none the wiser how they got it, what you can do, how long it will go on…

Parent 5: You feel you’re no further forward…you just have to accept it if they don’t explain further, I would like to know…

Parent 2: It’s an unknown thing to a doctor, they can’t pinpoint it, they don’t know really…

Parent 1: I feel a bit annoyed really because you think they’ve studied for years to learn that and I haven’t studied at all, you feel dissatisfied as if you wanted to hear something more…you just wish that everything was clean cut

Parent 4: At least if you really knew what it was then it’s easier to cope with (Group 3) Joe Kai BMJ 1996

What do you say in these circumstances?

Picture by Massimo Variolo

Do you use stories?

Outcomes in healthcare can be assessed using measures, meters and monitors. The art of healthcare is to ‘sell’ health because most of what promotes health are the choices of autonomous individuals. Healthcare can choose to present facts and figures:

Your BMI is 27, your blood pressure is 150/95mmHg, your lipids are in the higher range, your K score ( measure of depression) is 26

So if this is you you’ll be advised to lose weight, exercise more, eat less and relax. Even as you hear these numbers you will glaze over. In other industries they use stories to avoid ‘push-back’. The typical story has a setting, a hero, a complication a turning point and a resolution. Story teller’s say:

He must enter the hearts of his listeners, where their emotions live, even as the information he seeks to convey rents space in their brains. Our minds are relatively open, but we guard our hearts with zeal, knowing their power to move us. So although the mind may be part of your target, the heart is the bull’s-eye. To reach it, the visionary manager crafting his story must first display his own open heart. Peter Guber

The story might be:

You know you remind me of another 45 year old chap I knew. He was a very successful and worked long hours. While he loved his job he also wanted to retire early so he didn’t pay much attention to his lifestyle. Then one night he went to the Emergency department because he had terrible chest pain. He was due to go to an important meeting in the morning but that evening he was sweating, vomiting and clutching his chest. He was lucky because it turned out he didn’t have any serious illness but he needed to change his habits. Two years later people didn’t recognize him, he put all of his skills to reinvent himself, lost weight, started exercising and having regular breaks. So although he, or should I say I, won’t retire soon I plan to live long enough to enjoy it when it does happen.

Bernadette Jiwa’s new book the Right Story might help.

Picture by MorkiRo

How do you prepare for disagreement?

Sometimes you might be asked for something that seems entirely pointless. In healthcare almost every speciality has examples of such challenging situations. In intensive care and oncology such issues are most poignant as patients may end up suffering before death:

In a retrospective review, we identified 100 patients of 331 bioethical consultations who had futile or medically inappropriate therapy. The average age of patients was 73.5 ± 32 years (mean ± 2 SD) with 57% being male. Fifty-seven percent of the patients were admitted to the hospital with a degenerative disorder, 21% with an inflammatory disorder, and 16% with a neoplastic disorder. The family was responsible for futile treatment in 62% of cases, the physician in 37% of cases, and a conservator in one case. Unreasonable expectation for improvement was the most common underlying factor. Family dissent was involved in 7 of 62 cases motivated by family, but never when physicians were primarily responsible. Liability issues motivated physicians in 12 of 37 cases where they were responsible but in only 1 of 62 cases when the family was (χ2 5 degrees of freedom = 26.7, p < 0.001).

Seth et al

This scenario may be avoided if it is anticipated as a ‘set play‘. List all the ways you may be adding to the person’s problems and consider how you might avoid contributing to a bad situation.

Picture by Isabelle

How do you know your solution is the best?

Healthcare professionals offer solutions to problems. Doctors at community healthcare offer a solution to another problem every 10-15 minutes. Meanwhile the people seen there are making choices that seem entirely unrelated.

I’ll eat this, I’ll drink that, I’ll spend my money on this. I’ll work here. I’ll interact with these people. I’ll frame my problem like this…..

Some seemingly unrelated choices impact on the solutions offered by their health practitioner. It may be that people carry on making choices that undo all the benefits offered in prescribed, neatly packaged and costly labelled boxes.

If you are in healthcare how do you know the solutions you are offering are effective or even the best available? Could you do better?

Picture by World Bank Photo Collection

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

Are you sure you will focus on the right problem?

In any business where you are paid to solve problems you need to be clear that you are indeed solving the right problem. Doctors can frame the problem in many ways- if their patient has been brought in after a car accident then ‘the problem’ is  clearly the broken leg or the bleeding wound. What’s much less obvious is the problem that needs to be solved in all other circumstances.

In the moment you are sitting in front of the doctor the problem isn’t the runny nose, the headache, the sore throat or the anxiety. Being told it’s just a virus won’t help. You need that  doctor to give you their undivided attention and to see the context in which you are experiencing that discomfort. To acknowledge your distress. There is ‘no cure’ for a viral upper respiratory tract infection and you knew that before you walked into that office. Right?

Pcture by Luis Sarabia

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?

Picture by Peter Lee

Why medical tests can be misleading

If you have had to consult a healthcare practitioner there will almost certainly have been an occasion when you were advised to have a test or X-ray. But to what extent could you have been misled by the results of that test? Well it depends. The issue may seem complex but the science need not be inaccessible.

Purpose: To conduct a video vignette survey of medical students and doctors investigating test ordering for patients presenting with self-limiting or minor illness.

Methods: Participants were shown six video vignettes of common self-limiting illnesses and invited to devise investigation and management plans for the patients’ current presentation. The number of tests ordered was compared with those recommended by an expert panel. A Theory of Planned Behaviour Questionnaire explored participants’ beliefs and attitudes about ordering tests in the context of self-limiting illness.

Results: Participants (n=61) were recruited from across Australia. All participants ordered at least one test that was not recommended by the experts in most cases. Presentations that focused mainly on symptoms (eg, in cases with bowel habit disturbance and fatigue) resulted in more tests being ordered. A test not recommended by experts was ordered on 54.9% of occasions. With regard to attitudes to test ordering, junior doctors were strongly influenced by social norms. The number of questionable tests ordered in this survey of 366 consultations has a projected cost of $17 000.

Conclusions: This study suggests that there is some evidence of questionable test ordering by these participants with significant implications for costs to the health system. Further research is needed to explore the extent and reasons for test ordering by junior doctors across a range of clinical settings. D’Souza et al

I summarise the issue in this video:

Picture by Erich Ferdinand

For best results engage the entire decision making apparatus

I’ve been sick for two days. I have a runny nose, headache, cough and I’m tired.

We agreed that it was very unpleasant having these symptoms when you are moving boxes around a warehouse all day. I examined him and found signs of an upper respiratory tract infection but nothing worse. Now comes the crucial part. If you are a doctor what do you say in the circumstances? You must have your speech ready because you will almost certainly consult someone like this every day, probably more than once a day. In an essay published in the BMJ Trisha Greenhalgh and colleagues wrote:

Evidence users include clinicians and patients of varying statistical literacy, many of whom have limited time or inclination for the small print. Different approaches such as brief, plain language summaries for the non-expert (as offered by NICE), visualisations, infographics, option grids, and other decision aids should be routinely offered and widely used. Yet currently, only a fraction of the available evidence is presented in usable form, and few clinicians are aware that such usable shared decision aids exist. BMJ 2014

What she appears to be hinting at is that words are not enough and may not efficiently convey what this man needs to make a decision for himself. He has already decided for whatever reason that he needs to see a doctor. He was probably able to ‘self-care’ by taking ‘over the counter’ symptomatic measures. Setting aside the notion that he might have presented to get a medical certificate to claim time off what else may be on his agenda? If we postulate that he might want prescribed medicines believing that they will hasten this recovery then there is the prospect of a disagreement with you as the ‘evidence’ suggests otherwise. He probably has a viral illness. But as David Spiegelhalter and colleagues wrote in Science:

Probabilities can be described fluidly with words, using language that appeals to people’s intuition and emotions. But the attractive ambiguity of language becomes a failing when we wish to convey precise information, because words such as “doubtful,” “probable,” and “likely” are inconsistently interpreted. Science 2011

What the person with the cold needs to know is that we cannot be sure what precise ‘bug’ has caused his symptoms. That the most likely cause is a virus but that his symptoms now do not predict the duration or severity of his illness. However most people get better within 10 days and he is probably suffering the most he will through this illness today. The worst symptoms are those he now describes. the cough may linger for a couple weeks.  Symptomatic treatment might help him feel better and that people who have been prescribed antibiotics do not get better any faster (that last bit is my team’s research which hasn’t yet seen the light of day in a peer-reviewed journal). However he may not factor all of this information into his thinking without pictures. We need to consider how he makes the decision to take your advice. Scientists have studied this and come up with some helpful advice recently. For a start the patient is unlikely to make a decision based on logic alone.

Behavioral economic studies involving limited numbers of choices have provided key insights into neural decision-making mechanisms. By contrast, animals’ foraging choices arise in the context of sequences of encounters with prey or food. On each encounter, the animal chooses whether to engage or, if the environment is sufficiently rich, to search elsewhere. Kolling et al

There are three treatment options; prescribe an antibiotic now, defer prescribing for a couple days or prescribe nothing. The latter is the appropriate course however a goal in this situation is to reach consensus with this person. To present the data to him in a way that engages his entire decision making apparatus. You are able to usher him out the door without anything only to find that he has lost faith in you. How he feels about the matter is critical:

A few years ago, neuroscientist Antonio Damasio made a groundbreaking discovery. He studied people with damage in the part of the brain where emotions are generated. He found that they seemed normal, except that they were not able to feel emotions. But they all had something peculiar in common: they couldn’t make decisions. The big think

The more challenging approach is to communicate respectfully, appropriately and effectively. Pictures can now assist as never before. Yet the habit of using pictures is neither taught nor practised consistently in clinics. Spiegelhalter again:

   The most suitable choice of visualization to illustrate uncertainty depends closely on the objectives of the presenter, the context of the communication, and the audience. Visschers et al. concluded that the “task at hand may determine which graph is most appropriate to present probability information” and it is “not possible to formulate recommendations about graph types and layouts.” Nonetheless, if we aim to encourage understanding rather than to just persuade, certain broad conclusions can be drawn, which hold regardless of the audience.

His team’s recommendations:

  • Use multiple formats, because no single representation suits all members of an audience.
    Illuminate graphics with words and numbers.
  • Design graphics to allow part-to-whole comparisons, and choose an appropriate scale, possibly with magnification for small probabilities.
  • To avoid framing bias, provide percentages or frequencies both with and without the outcome, using frequencies with a clearly defined denominator of constant size.
  • Helpful narrative labels are important. Compare magnitudes through tick marks, and clearly label comparators and differences.
  • Use narratives, images, and metaphors that are sufficiently vivid to gain and retain attention, but which do not arouse undue emotion. It is important to be aware of affective responses.
  • Assume low numeracy of a general public audience and adopt a less-is-more approach by reducing the need for inferences, making clear and explicit comparisons, and providing optional additional detail.
    Interactivity and animations provide opportunities for adapting graphics to user needs and capabilities.
  • Acknowledge the limitations of the information conveyed in its quality and relevance. The visualization may communicate only a restricted part of a whole picture.
  • Avoid chart junk, such as three-dimensional bar charts, and obvious manipulation through misleading use of area to represent magnitude.
  • Most important, assess the needs of the audience, experiment, and test and iterate toward a final design.

The last offers a call to arms for innovators.

Picture by Alan