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You are a prop too

In any theatre where people interact- including your office- you are also a prop. Anyone who enters that room will react to you as much as they might respond to anything else in there. Your look, smell and sound will draw a reaction. You may not be able to change many of your attributes- but you can’t afford to be unaware of them.  How do you take this into account when you plan that interaction?

Picture by Circle X

What do people see on your desk?

Okay so you might not have chosen the wall paper, the carpet or the size of your office but what’s on display on your desk? What impression is created at a glance? Do you look organised? Do you look like you’ve got the time to give your visitors some attention?

There are six reasons to clean off your desk and as Catherine Conlan suggests:

Remember, your workspace speaks for you even when you’re not there.

Picture by Andrew Tarvin

How many senses do you engage?

How many of the five senses are engaged in your office? Sure people see things, hear things and touch things but are their other senses stimulated?  Do they associate your office with a smell or a taste? What is it? If you are  a doctor it’s not likely to be something pleasant. But if you are and have done something about it then Elizabeth Ely sounds like she would approve:

Just what is it about medical disinfectant? It just smells so, well, medical. So like it’s covering up sick, and bringing you along with it, pulling you under its odourous spell.

Picture by Your Best Digs

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

For sustained behaviour change: show don’t tell

This randomised controlled study evaluated a computer-generated future self-image as a personalised, visual motivational tool for weight loss in adults.
One hundred and forty-five people (age 18-79 years) with a Body Mass Index (BMI) of at least 25 kg/m2 were randomised to receive a hard copy future self-image at recruitment (early image) or after 8 weeks (delayed image). Participants received general healthy lifestyle information at recruitment and were weighed at 4-weekly intervals for 24 weeks. The image was created using an iPad app called ‘Future Me’. A second randomisation at 16 weeks allocated either an additional future self-image or no additional image.
Seventy-four participants were allocated to receive their image at commencement, and 71 to the delayed-image group. Regarding to weight loss, the delayed-image group did consistently better in all analyses. Twenty-four recruits were deemed non-starters, comprising 15 (21%) in the delayed-image group and 9 (12%) in the early-image group (χ2(1) = 2.1, p = 0.15). At 24 weeks there was a significant change in weight overall (p < 0.0001), and a difference in rate of change between groups (delayed-image group: -0.60 kg, early-image group: -0.42 kg, p = 0.01). Men lost weight faster than women. The group into which participants were allocated at week 16 (second image or not) appeared not to influence the outcome (p = 0.31). Analysis of all completers and withdrawals showed a strong trend over time (p < 0.0001), and a difference in rate of change between groups (delayed-image: -0.50 kg, early-image: -0.27 kg, p = 0.0008).
One in five participants in the delayed-image group completing the 24-week intervention achieved a clinically significant weight loss, having received only future self-images and general lifestyle advice. Timing the provision of future self-images appears to be significant, and promising for future research to clarify their efficacy.

Trials. 2017 Apr 18;18(1):180. doi: 10.1186/s13063-017-1907-6.

Picture by Rene Passet

The long-term impact of overeating during the holiday season

We do not gain weight steadily through the year. In fact, it is primarily from the end of November to mid-January that we find ourselves tempted and triggered to eat more than we need. With a seemingly endless round of invitations to partake in sugary treats most people succumb and add up to one kilo to their already growing girth.

The average BMI of males in their 40s in the West is 25.6 to 28.4. The numbers are similar for women.  In other words, most are overweight. Researchers document that during this holiday season adults consistently gain weight during this period (0.4 to 0.9 kg).

Participants seeking to lose weight appeared to increase weight although this was not consistently significant and motivated self-monitoring people also appeared to increase weight. These results must be considered for registered dietitian nutritionists, other health providers, and policy makers to prevent weight gain in their patients and communities during this critical period.

Obesity is an epidemic with a rising tide of chronic and life-limiting illnesses in its wake. As healthcare professionals,
we need to be confident about raising the issue of overindulgence without putting a damper on the festivities.

Picture by jrchapoy

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?

Picture by Dan Moyle

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

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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If your fix only works if people choose option A abandon it

There is an obsession with getting clinicians to ‘follow guidelines’. There are those in the world who appear to believe with an evangelical zeal that ‘if only’ people over there would do as we tell them everything would be fine. They rely on the questionable assumption that human behaviour is always rational.

If only doctors would refer those people or prescribe that drug in this instance. If only doctors ordered this or that test in these circumstances. If only this or that which relies upon someone making choices that solve somebody else’s problem.  And so as conference season approaches academics will share stories about experiments that all too predictably didn’t end well. Or pretend that they have finally solved a problem that no one in history could sort out. Except that neither have they.

Because access to specialists is limited by cost there is a belief that family doctors can ration care by referring urgently only those cases that ‘merit’ referral based on criteria determined by ‘experts’. Cancer is a case in point. Except that ‘cancer’ is not a single condition, its biology varies as do the complex responses of its victims. General Practitioners (GPs) know this. A patient can present with hardly any symptoms and die of metastatic cancer within 3 months or present with a plethora of complaints and be diagnosed with a very early and treatable malignancy.

The ‘solution’ to selecting people considered to be at high risk for referral to a specialist appeared to be an interactive referral tool that automatically deploys algorithms based on guidelines. This ‘solution’ relies on GPs recognising anyone who presents with ‘red flag’ symptoms, deploying the software and patients being prioritised once an urgent referral is received at the hospital. The solution is based on the assumption that if one person in the chain does X then the people in the other part of the system would do Y and the outcome would be Z. Maybe you can already see it wasn’t going to end well.

  1. GPs did not always recognise the symptom complexes that were touted as the hallmarks of risk.BMJ open
  2. GPs were reticent to deploy the software other than in the conditions of a simulation. BMC Family Practice
  3. Specialists did not prioritise those cases that guidelines identified as urgent. BJGP

There is also limited evidence that people referred with reference to such criteria are always going to have better outcomes.

Here’s the thing:

  1. Diseases like cancer have a different impact on everyone
  2. People with cancer don’t present the same way
  3. Doctors may not agree with the experts
  4. Doctors may choose not to deploy an innovation for reasons various
  5. The ‘system’ consists of many moving parts. Supposing there were seven such parts. If the ‘right thing’ was to occur 80% of the time at each step then only 21% of people would benefit from the ‘plan’. Glasziou and Haynes

In the innovation business solutions cannot rely on the ‘if only’ option. Effective innovations trigger people to do what they already want to do. The best innovators work on solutions that are easily and enthusiastically adopted by their target audience.

Picture by Jurgen Appelo