Complications: Atul Gawande

This weekend’s reading has included this book. In fact, I haven’t read anything else. The last two chapters in particular explore the relationship between doctors, their patients, between patient autonomy and taking clinical responsibility.

Atul Gawande is a surgeon and writer based in Boston, Massachusetts. He has written several very popular books about the praactice of medicine, as well as delivering four Reith lectures for the BBC in 2014.

This is his first book, published in the UK in 2002. There are fourteen essays, grouped into three sections. The first deals with fallibility and error, and the second looks at the mystery of medicine.

The final four essays discuss how we manage uncertainty in medicine, the interface between clinical evidence and human decisions. The penultimate essay is entitled ‘Whose body is it anyway’. In this essay, he discusses some of the core issues of realistic medicine, fourteen years before Catherine Calderwood coined the phrase. In truth, consent and patient autonomy are not new, but having a banner under which to explore these themes has been powerful.

He discusses the gap between what patients want and what they hope for. His writing is straightforward, and his arguments are illustrated by cases, the stories that hook clinicians into the debate. He describes how honest clinical discussions allow patients to understand what is happening, and take their share in the decisions.

In his own words: ‘Just as there is an art to being a doctor, there is an art to being a patient. You must choose wisely when to submit and when to assert yourself. Even when patients decide not to decide they should still question their physicians and insist on explanations… You do the best you can, taking the measure of your doctors and nurses and your own situation, trying to be neither too passive nor too pushy for your own good.’

‘Where many ethicists go wrong it is in promoting patient autonomy as a kind of ultimate value in medicines rather than recognising it as one value amongst others. Schneider (The Practice of Autonomy) found that what patients want most from doctors isn’t autonomy per se; it’s competence and kindness. Now kindness will often involve respecting patient autonomy, assuring that they have control over vital decisions. But it may also mean taking on burdensome decisions when patients don’t want to make them, or guiding patients when they do.’

‘Even when patients do want to make their own decisions there are times when the compassionate thing to do is to press hard: to steer them to accept an operation or treatment that they fear or forgo one that they pinned their hopes on. Many ethicists find this line of reasoning disturbing, and medicine will continue to struggle with how patients and doctors ought to make decisions. But, as the field grows ever more complex and technological the real task isn’t to banish paternalism; the real task is to preserve kindness.’

The eternal balance between clinical evidence, being clear about outcomes and chance, giving patients the chance to influence the chances that they have and the treatments that they receive.

 

 

WHEN PATIENTS INVENT TO HELP THEMSELVES

It has been a long time since I blogged, but not for lack of ideas, more a deluge of concepts and ideas, combined with the ever-present day job.

Today, I read an article in the BMJ, (click here to read it yourself) and it has lit a slow fuse. The article is about the ultimate patient engagement, where individuals with a condition create solutions that revolutionise care. 

Patients really understand what it is like to live with their condition, to come to terms with how it will affect their living and their dying. Patients who have been given the opportunity to understand what their condition is, and how it will progress, patients who have time to focus on their own solutions, these are the people who are coming up with the solutions that healthcare industry had never considered. 

This is the ultimate patient engagement, where patients have found what is on offer doesn’t meet their needs, where the risks are unacceptable, or the outcomes just not good enough. 

The inventions covered include a new type of surgical prosthesis for aortic root problems in Marfan’s disease, a smart ileostomy bag that tells you when it needs attention, an app to self-manage repeat prescriptions and medication compliance, another IT solution that uses CBT to improve sleep, an physiotheraby device for hand rehabilitation. 

The people behind these innovations are all persistent, have really understood the issues they are trying to solve, and have been steadfast in their pursuit of developing and sharing their ideas for the good of people like themselves. For several, they comment that it has been a long, frustrating process. Tal Goldsworthy, the inventor of the aortic root device, comments ‘If I had known it was going to be this hard, I really wouldn’t have bothered’ – but never the less, he has devised a safer alternative to aortic root replacement, and 200 patients have been fitted with his device. 

What these innovaters have found in their paths to success has been a willing clinical supporter. In general, one of the key hooks is being able to show that the innovation makes for better care without adding complexity. 

The message – ‘if you are a doctor who believes in the technology, then two words are key: be brave’. It is so much easier not to do something, but with courage you can help technology to really grow’. Patients have their own lives to enhance, and that is a powerful motivator, but we need to be there as clinicians to make new ideas work. 

 

The five questions: what are they, and do they matter?

capture

In the most recent annual report from the Chief Medical Officer for Scotland, Dr Calderwood discusses the need to move towards a shared approach to clinical decision-making. Are we not already doing this? The evidence says not.

NHS surveys tell us that patients value highly the opportunities to discuss their care, the options open to them, and being involved in the decisions that shape their management. A survey undertaken by the Citizens’ Panel showed that while 92% of patients felt comfortable about asking their doctor about treatment, only 67% did so. Similar percentages were recorded for discussing risks and benefits. Why is there a gap? Patients report that the willingness of doctors, of how busy they appear to be, inhibit these discussions.

three talk

If we are to change our culture further (and it has already changed over the last fifty years) then we need to focus on how we enable these conversations. How often do we interrupt patients when they are talking? As well as restricting their narrative, it limits their expression of what is of concern. It emphasisis the agenda of the clinician and the pressures on their time. This needs to be more than tokenism, we need to really dig deep and learn better ways to do this. Having a good framework in which to conceptualise these conversations is important. One such structure is the three talk model. 

I also think that, as well as listening, and leaving space for debate and questions about management, we can coach patients to ask for better information. Some of this confidence comes from health literacy. Some comes from having the right words, the right questions to ask of clinicians as they leave our primary care consulting rooms and are passed on to secondary care colleagues, to other clinical teams.

This is where the five questions come in. The five questions were drafted by Choosing Wisely UK, which is part of global initiative to improve conversations between patients and their clinicians.  Five boards piloted the use of the five questions, encouraging people to ask clinicians about their management plans. Having the questions written down enables patients to take first steps in these discussions. The questions aren’t going to change the world, but they can empower patients to start these important conversations.

I have displayed these questions in practice leaflets, on the noticeboard in the waiting room, on lanyard cards, on signposting cards and on the practice website. I don’t know how well I would do with answering all of the questions all of the time. However, as well as providing concrete examples for patients, this produces an environment, a culture where patients are expected to discuss their care. This message is as powerful for my colleagiues as it is for patients.

A wise friend of mine, Dr Maria Duffy, commented that these questions appear very clinically orientated. They do not explicitly promote discussions around the social determinants of health. She works in Pollok and is a GP trainer as well as a GP partner. She is part of the Deep End group, practices who look after patients in more deprived areas, where there are higher proportions of patients whose social and economic background has a big influence on their health.

She would add:

  • Is going to the doctor the best way to address my problems?
  • What is there that I might change myself that would help?
  • How much do I expect to achieve by seeking a clinical solution?

While these questions do not focus on a shared approach to clinical decision-making, they encourage patients and clinicians to think outside the clinical box, to imagine other ways of tackling life’s problems.

However, it is not enough to parachute in to our surgery with the cards and the posters. The most important next step for me is to ensure that my colleagues understand the scope of what I am doing, that patients are engaged in the project, and that any practical top tips are spread to other clinical areas.

Letters to patients

As well as being a GP, I have been working in secondary care as a GP with a special interest in Dermatology. Around five years ago, I was feeling very annoyed with one of the practices that refers to the dermatology clinic. Patients were attending for review without having tried the treatment that I had suggested.

The dermatology clinic is usually rammed, and these appointments were adding unnecessary pressure on the clinic, wasting patients time, as well as adding a longer burden of ill-health due to skin disease. Nobody was happy.

I could have written to the practice and had a strop, but the practice involved was struggling to recruit partners or salaried GPs. They were relying on locum cover, and there didn’t seem to be an end in sight. In addition, other patients in other practices didn’t always seem to understand their treatment plans.

An aside here: most patients with chronic dermatological conditions have complex treatment regimens. This could include a pre-washing emollient, a soap substitute, a moisturiser, then a topical treatment, to be titrated up or down, and tapering to other treatments. Very few patients and GPs manage to get this all down at the first attempt.

I started writing my clinic letters direct to the patient with a copy to the GP, with consent. Nobody turned me down. The best responses were from relatives of patients with dementia, where a written care plan was useful for the team of carers. At the clinic, patients were advised to check with their practice for their prescription when they received their copy letter.

I didn’t do this as a proper improvement project, I didn’t measure follow-up outcomes, patient satisfaction, and I didn’t have a ‘spread’ plan. However, the feedback was immediate, and positive. GPs were in favour: they no longer have to contact patients to check up on new prescriptions. Patients were in favour, finding it helpful to have the treatment plan written down in the letter. Relatives were in favour, having a documented plan to follow. The secretary confirms that there is no additional work in doing the letters this way.

After 3 years of doing letters this way, I’m beginning to see other clinicians trying this out. Patients bring their letters to GP consultations, ready to discuss their treatment as more equal partners. I have been asked to advise other clinicians about how to structure their letters.

The biggest and best outcome is patients as equal participants in their treatment, and communication about their health. It is a culture shift, and it is gradual, and I am part of it.

Indication prescribing

I have come across something so simple, so easy to do, and so intuitive, that I can’t believe that I haven’t always done it. It helps patients understand their medication, and enables better conversations about concordance between patient and prescriber.

It is indication prescribing. I have always done this for PRN medications, without even thinking. For example, if I prescribe paracetamol, the prescription says ‘take two tablets four times a day for pain’.

Now, when I add a repeat prescription, I am adding ‘take one daily to treat high blood pressure’ or ‘take one tablet before meals to ease symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome’. So far, it has had good feed-back, it costs nothing, and it moves the responsibility for compliance, concordance, for treatment towards a more patient-centred model.

There will always be the patients who state that they only take four white tablets at breakfast, or one of my more memorable old ladies who used to keep her many medications in a bowl like pan-drops and helped herself to a few each day.

I hope, by making Indication Prescribing the norm in our practice, that these patients will become the outliers. For each medication review by prescribers and the practice pharmacist, an opportunity to make this become the way things are done around here.

A Primary Care Christmas Carol: Stave 5

By Dr Pete Aird, written for Resilient GP

Stave Five – in which we are given cause for hope

It was early morning when Scrooge woke. He sat up in bed and looked around the room. Everything appeared as normal and yet, within himself, he felt changed. Perhaps he was being naive but he felt a sense of optimism that he hadn’t known for years, daring to hope that things could get better.

It was then he remembered it was Christmas Day. ‘At least I think it is,’ he said to himself excitedly, ‘assuming that all three Spirits did indeed visit me last night and that I haven’t missed the great day completely’. He ran to the window and looked out. A light layer of snow coated the ground which heightened his excitement still further. And yes, a young lad was trying out a brand new bicycle, no doubt a freshly unwrapped Christmas present. Add to that the fact that one or two folk were making their way towards a church whose bells were ringing joyfully in the distance, it was, with the utmost certainty, Christmas morning.

But there was no time to lose. He had to check on Bob Cratchit. He dressed hurriedly and ran down the stairs and out into the crisp morning sunlight which reflected off the snow-covered ground. Scrooge got into his car and within a few minutes he was outside the house of his trainee. He knocked loudly on the door but there was no answer. He knocked again and, when there was no response, shouted through the letter box. Still there was only silence. Scrooge moved round to the side of the house and looked through the same window he had the previous evening, its curtains still only partly drawn. Cratchit was sat there, just as he had been when Scrooge and the Ghost of Christmas Present had left him earlier. Scrooge hammered on the window until, at last, he saw movement and a wave of relief surged through him. Slowly Cratchit stood up.

‘Open up Bob. Open up this instant. Do you hear?’ Scrooge shouted at him though the glass. ‘Open up. It’s Christmas Day!’

Cratchit, clearly half asleep and still the worse for the half bottle of whisky he’d drunk the night before, gradually stood up and made his way to the front door. Scrooge had never been one for outward displays of affection, but now, as Cratchit opened the door, Scrooge greeted him with a hug that was as welcome as it was unexpected.

‘How are you Bob? Are you alright?’

‘I’ve a bit of a headache if I’m honest. And not one that’s improved any by all your hollering. But why are you here? Has something happened? Have I done something wrong?’

‘On the contrary. If anyone is at fault it’s me, for not appreciating you more. And to show you that I mean it, what do you say to a partnership come August when you’ve completed your training? I’d be proud to call you my partner’

‘You must be desperate!’

‘Desperate? Of course I’m desperate! Have you seen the state of the health service? But that’s not the reason for my offering you a partnership. I would like you to help me change the way we do General Practice. It’s a conditional offer of course – conditional that is on you seeing some change. There’s no way I’d want you to commit to a lifetime of working the way we have of late.’

‘Well I guess I’ll have to think about it. But thank you. I didn’t realise that you thought I was up to the job’.

‘Of courses you’re up to the job. We all worry sometimes that we’re not though, so don’t be surprised if you find yourself questioning the fact – that’s normal! The trouble is that we’re all so anxious imaging that we have to be perfect. We’re not God you know – even though both the government and our patients sometimes expect us to act as though we were.’

‘Well I guess you’re right there’

‘Of course I’m right, I’m your trainer! Now, what’s with the whisky and the packet of antidepressants?’

Cratchit looked down at the ground. ‘I didn’t take any, just thought about it. I guess I was just feeling a little overwhelmed. I was being stupid”

‘It’s not stupid to feel overwhelmed. There’s no shame in being asked to do more than you can cope with. The only foolish thing is to not realise you need to say ‘No’ sometimes – that sometimes you need help and have to ask for it. I’ll try and make that easier for you from now on. Promise me though that you’ll not let your thoughts travel in such a dark direction again without letting me know.’

‘I’ll try not to – I promise.’

‘Excellent. Remember, we’re in this together.

Cratchit couldn’t quite believe what he was hearing and couldn’t stop himself voicing the question that was on his mind.’

‘Dr Scrooge,’ Cratchit began

‘It’s Ebenezer. Call me Ebenezer’.

Cratchit hesitated and then tried again. ‘Ebenezer.’ It seemed strange to hear the name spoken aloud, ‘I hope you don’t mind me saying this, but something seems different about you today. Has something happened?’

‘I rather think it has,’ said Scrooge. ‘As a profession we’re convinced everything’s wrong. A lot is of course, but I see now that if we can see what the problems are, then surely we stand a chance of making changes.’

‘But how?’

‘To be honest, I’m not quite sure. One thing would be our need to challenge the idea that medicine has all the answers. We need to say ‘No’ to the over medicalisation of life and be honest with both ourselves and our patients as to what we can and can’t do. Another thing would be that we have to be allowed to behave as the professionals we were trained to be. Once we were seen as people who could be trusted to make judgments in the best interests of patients. Now it seems we are seen as mere service providers, required to unquestionably follow guidelines regardless of how appropriate or otherwise that might be. It’s as if we’re not considered competent to try to decide what is best for our own individual patients. But one size doesn’t fit all. And so we need to fight to retain the doctor patient relationship that underpins good general practice and not allow it to be lost in the rush to conveyer belt medicine. We have to take back control over our work, make our own decisions as to how to apply medical knowledge to each individual situation and have the courage to resist the inappropriate demand to behave in ways that are imposed on us by government, pharmaceutical companies and society as a whole. That would mean better health for our patients and happier working lives for ourselves. That’s something I can aspire too, and knowing what it is I’m aiming for might just give me a chance of fathoming out how I might go about working towards it. At least, that’s my hope.”

Scrooge, in his excitement, had been pacing around the room. Now, pausing for breath, he sat down.

‘But that’s enough of all that for now. We can get together tomorrow and plan then just how exactly we’re going to do things differently. We’ll call it a practice away day. Just think of all the CPD hours we can claim! So, what are your plans for today?’

‘Well I had planned on a spot of revising for the CSA.’

‘Revising for the CSA. What nonsense – you’d pass that tomorrow with your eyes closed. Like it or not, you’re spending the day with me! We’ll have dinner at my house. I ordered a lorry load of food from Waitrose last week and there’s no way I can manage it all on my own. In fact there’s more than enough for two. Quick, go and get yourself sorted out. I’ve got an idea – one that might, for the first time in my career, satisfy my appraiser that my reflections have altered my practice!”

It wasn’t long before Cratchit was sat in the passenger seat of Scrooge’s car wondering where Scrooge might be taking him. A few minutes later they pulled up outside a block of flats and Scrooge led the way up the steps to the second floor. He knocked on a door.

“Who lives here?” asked Cratchit.

“Mrs Gray. She’s lived here alone since her husband, Timothy, died a few years ago. He was a short man. He had some kind of growth hormone deficiency I believe.’

Eventually, the door opened, and Mrs Gray stood there, evidently astonished to see her GP.

‘Good morning Mrs Gray. And a very merry Christmas to you.’

‘Well a very merry Christmas to you too Dr Scrooge. But what brings you here? Is it about the chocolates?’

‘Certainly not. We, that’s Dr Cratchit and I, have come to pick you up and take you off to my house for Christmas Day. What do you say? Will you come?’ Mrs Gray hesitated, uncertain if she should.
‘Please come, Mrs Gray. It would mean a lot to me’

‘But I’ve nothing to bring’.

Scrooge looked over her shoulder and saw the box of chocolates on the kitchen table. ‘What about those?’ Scrooge asked, ‘You don’t have to bring anything, but if you’d like to make a contribution…’

‘But I’m pre diabetic Dr Scrooge, I need to be careful what I eat’

‘Who told you that?’ said Scrooge, a broad grin forming on his face. ‘Not a doctor I hope. Believe me Mrs Gray, you shouldn’t believe everything we doctors tell you!’

With that, Mrs Gray tottered to the kitchen, picked up the chocolates and made her way back to the front door. Then, together with Scrooge and Cratchit, she made her way slowly down the stairs. Half way down, Scrooge stopped.

‘You go on Bob, I’ll catch you up in a moment. It’s just that I have a feeling that, as a GP, I am, for once, ideally positioned to reduce hospital admissions’

He ran back up the stairs and knocked on the door of the flat opposite that of Mrs Gray. A man opened the door.

‘I don’t want to appear interfering,’ Scrooge began, ‘but your son will develop a rash later this morning. When he does, try wiping it off with a damp cloth. Trust me, I’m a doctor!’

With that Scrooge turned and headed off back down the stairs leaving the man speechless behind him.

…………………………………

A couple of hours later, the two doctors and their elderly patient sat around a dining table enjoying Waitrose’s finest. As the meal drew to a close, Cratchit turned to Scrooge

‘I think I’ve made my decision’ he said.

‘What decision is that?’

‘I’d like to accept your offer of a partnership, if I pass the CSA that is’

‘That’s wonderful Bob, simply wonderful!’ Scrooge stood up and shook Crachit warmly by the hand and then, for the second time in the day, embraced him warmly. ‘This is excellent news – for me and for the practice. We should organise a party!’

Scrooge dashed out of the room and returned with a sheet of paper on which were listed all the practice staff, their names and telephone numbers.

‘And a party we shall have,’ declared Scrooge handing the list to Cratchit. ‘Start ringing round and invite anyone who’s free to join us here this evening. Perhaps someone will bring some of those Prosecco and pink peppercorn Pringles – are they really a thing? Only don’t let me drink too much. The last time I did that there was an incident at a local supermarket, the details of which you don’t want to know!’

‘Can I say something Dr Scrooge?’ Scrooge turned around and saw that Mrs Gray had got to her feet. With one hand she steadied herself by holding onto the table and with the other she was holding a glass of wine. ‘I’ve had a lovely time today and I want to thank you for all your kindness. I’d like to propose a toast, to both of you, the practice, and the NHS as a whole. It’s something my late husband used to say.’ She raised her glass higher. ‘God bless us, every one’, she said.

‘God bless us, every one’, repeated Scrooge and Cratchit, smiling as they raised and carefully tapped their glasses together.

…………………………………

In time, Cratchit passed his CSA and joined Scrooge in partnership and when Scrooge came to retirement he did so reluctantly. He considered himself to have been a fortunate man to have had the career he did. Cratchit continued on, the practice grew and new partners were appointed. Though their processes and procedures didn’t always meet with the full approval of the CQC, the partners always enjoyed strong support from their practice population. Scrooge’s experiences that night may not have changed the state of the NHS as a whole, but they did change how the NHS was manifested in one small corner of that great organisation. Scrooge never had any further encounters with spirits – he had no need of them. Afterwards it was always said of him that he was a doctor who cared for his patients more than he cared how he was thought of by people in power and that he knew how to support others and how he needed the support of others himself. May that be truly said of us all.

And so, as Mr Gray observed, ‘God bless us, Every One!’

A Primary Care Christmas Carol: Stave 4

By Dr Pete Aird, written for Resilient GP

Stave Four – in which the future appears far from bright.

Alone again, Scrooge, out of force of habit, checked his phone for notifications. No red circle had appeared in the corner of the Facebook icon to indicate that someone, somewhere cared about what was on his mind. This was not unexpected as it had been a long time since anyone had ‘liked’ him – still longer since he’d been loved. It was a surprise to him, therefore, when the phone vibrated alerting him to the arrival of a text message.

‘This is to remind you that your appointment with the Ghost of General Practice Yet To Come is scheduled for now. Please access your Babylon Wealth account and prepare to speak to somebody with no soul’

Scrooge noticed a new app had appeared on his phone’s home screen. It glowed menacingly, demanding to be tapped. Scrooge couldn’t help thinking that ‘Babylon’ was a curious name for a company to chose to call itself, recalling, as he did from his days in Sunday School, how Babylon represented all that was evil, ‘the mother of earth’s abominations’ and a ‘dwelling place for demons’. Perhaps, he concluded, it was strangely fitting after all.

Against his better judgement, Scrooge opened the application and was greeted by a disclaimer making it clear that any advice given was only valid for minor, self limiting medical conditions and any harm that resulted from Babylon clinicians failing to appreciate a more serious underlying problem was not their responsibility. Those experiencing more complex health concerns were directed to approach less forward thinking health providers. Scrooge was requested to indicate his acceptance of these conditions and, having complied, the screen gave out a burst of light and there then appeared what looked for all the world to be a businessman dressed in an executive suit.

‘Welcome to Babylon Wealth,’ the man announced. ‘where your health needs are our business opportunity’. He smiled a self-satisfied smile, which Scrooge did not find reassuring.

‘Are you the Spirit of General Practice Yet To Come?’ Scrooge enquired.

The spirit’s smile wavered a little. ‘Is that what The Ghost of Christmas Present called me? She is so yesterday. I’ve been rebranded and, from now on, I am to be known simply as ‘The Future’. Exciting isn’t it? Now, how can I profit from you?’

‘I believe you’re supposed to show me my future’

‘Yes of course, but I don’t have time to talk to you about that in any depth. So, in the interests of efficiency, I’d like to request that you utilise this corporate video feed. If you’ve any further questions you’ll be required to make a further appointment. You will receive an invoice for the services I have provided today and your account will be automatically debited the requisite amount. Thank you for using Babylon Wealth. Have a nice day.’

Lost for words, Scrooge tapped the link that had appeared on his phone and continued to gaze at the screen at what seemed to be, if such a thing was possible, a broadcast from the future. It began with an aerial view of a huge featureless building over which an audio commentary played. “Welcome to the world’s first fast health outlet. – Where health is cheap and time is short”. A notice board at the entrance of the building came into focus revealing that ‘The National Wellbeing Centre’ was open 24 hours a day, 365 days of the year. Two enormous panels straddled the entrance bearing images of the Secretary of State for Health and the President of the National Pharmaceutical Board. They were pictured smiling benignly down upon the multitude who were milling around a large reception area.

As the camera roamed around, the audio commentary explained how no appointment was necessary but that, on arrival, patients were required to utilise electronic panels positioned in the foyer to answer a series of questions by way of ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ answers only. As a result of the responses that were given, each individual would then be assigned to a wellbeing advisor. If, and only if, it was deemed necessary that face to face contact should ensue, they would then wait outside one of the 666 consulting rooms housed within the complex until their allocated interaction was scheduled. Patients were advised that only objective quantifiable, symptoms could be dealt with and that treatment options would be determined solely on the basis of the medico-economic considerations pertinent to each individual case. Reassurances were offered that a number of payment options were available.

Around the foyer, electronic panels displayed information for consumers alongside a number of company disclaimers:

“Due to many drugs now being of limited availability, if medication is advised, the sourcing of that medication is entirely the responsibility of the customer.”

“Please be assured that we respect your anonymity and consider it of paramount importance to maintain the highest levels of confidentiality. In order to guarantee this, no wellbeing advisor will consult with the same client on more than one occasion and no personal communication is permitted between clinicians. A mask can be worn over the face if desired.”

“The National Wellbeing Centre cannot accept responsibility”

“Strict quality control measures are in place to guarantee the optimal outcome of each clinical interaction. Each consultation is electronically monitored and any deviation from company protocols will result in disciplinary action being taken against the clinician concerned.”

The announcements seemed endless, each, it appeared to Scrooge, alienating the individual in need still further from the connection they craved with somebody who just might care enough to show a little concern. Patients were managed without any warmth or compassion – processed by a system that existed solely for the benefit the state that had created it.

As Scrooge continued to watch, the announcements kept flashing across the screens, hypnotising those whose eyes were drawn lifelessly to their incessant messages. Dehumanised, everyone became the same – And that same was nothing more than a reservoir of data.

“Please be aware that displays of emotion are not encouraged in consultations and tissues are therefore not provided in the consultation rooms.”

“Customers will not be permitted to leave the centre until the requisite post interaction forms are completed. Not only does the filling of these forms provide the essential feedback necessary to identify suboptimal clinician performance, the personal data requested allows us to identify those agencies from whom we will profit most by our facilitating their communication with you.”

“Everybody here at the National Welfare Centre wishes you, and your purchases, a very merry Consumertide.”

And then, finally, before the cycle of messages started once more, one last announcement:

“Turmeric is available from the kiosk in the foyer”

The camera returned to a view of the outside of the building and Scrooge caught a glimpse of a small panel attached to the wall next to the main entrance. He paused the video and expanded the image to take a closer look. He could just make out the words that were inscribed on the ill maintained copper plate.

‘This facility was erected on the derelict site of what was once known as a GP medical centre. Drs J. Marley and E. Scrooge worked here for many years providing a form of medical provision which today is only of historical interest. The medical centre operated with the quaint intent to provide medical care that was responsive to patient needs. Dr Marley’s untimely death left Dr Scrooge struggling as he found it impossible to replace his former partner. He continued for a time supported by a series of doctors in training, but, after a personal tragedy struck the medical centre, it was no longer considered fit to remain a training practice. Dr Scrooge continued alone for a brief time, but the pressure of working in such an inefficient manner soon proved too much and he himself succumbed to a stress related illness. Happily, his demise proved the catalyst for the development of the progressive wellbeing centre that we benefit from today.’

Scrooge could not believe what he had witnessed. It struck him that there had at no point been any mention of there being any doctors present in the running of the well-being centre. It was almost as if there was now nobody providing a professional opinion, nobody making a judgement, nobody applying a bit of wisdom and that clinical algorithms were being used to make each and every decision. Were there, he wondered, any doctors still in existence at all? Perhaps, in the future, nobody wanted to be one. The questions kept coming. Was this really the future of the health service that once, years previously, he had been so proud to be a part? What about Cratchit? What did the ‘personal tragedy’ refer to? And what of his own future? Could any of this be changed?

Scrooge tapped frantically on his phone seeking a further appointment with the Ghost of General Practice Yet To Come. Fortunately, for all the faults of Babylon Wealth, having made the appropriate additional payment, an appointment was easy to come by, and soon, the business-like figure of the spectre, who had been so brusque with him earlier, appeared on the screen once more.

‘Good Spirit’ Scrooge implored, ‘Assure me that I may yet change these shadows you have shown me by an altered life’

The spirit laughed. ‘It’ll take more than one doctor changing to alter the future of the health service. That’s the trouble with you people. Too often you think it’s all down to you’. The spirit made a poor attempt at a Clint Eastwood impersonation, ‘A doctor’s got to know his limitations.’

‘And besides, what’s your problem? What we’re doing merely reflects the ideology of the nation – that everything comes down to money. We measure and record data because data sells. What we understand at Babylon Wealth is that people are commodities. For example, we record an elevated cholesterol solely because we know there is somebody out there who is selling a product to reduce lipid levels and is willing to pay for the information we collect. We don’t care about people, only the wealth that they generate for us.’

‘But it’s not all about money’, Scrooge insisted.

‘Isn’t it?’ countered the spirit. ‘It seems to me that everyone has a price Dr Scrooge. Are you really the exception?’

‘Well maybe I do have a price, but if I have, it’s at least partly because, in recent years, with so much of the joy having been sucked out of the job, the only way that I’ve been in any way rewarded for my efforts is financially. There’s no appreciation from those who call the tune, no recognition of how difficult the job has become and nothing but constant demands that I must do better. Take appraisal – if a requirement to show year on year improvement doesn’t amount to saying that we’re not good enough as we are, I don’t know what is. Something has to change’.

‘Well good luck to you with that, Scrooge. I concede that, as a profession, challenging the status quo rather than capitulating to the spirit of the age whilst all the while laudably endeavouring to deliver its impossible demands would be a step in the right direction. But I can’t see it ever happening – you’re all too busy just trying to keep your head above water to organise a concerted campaign for change.’

‘But let me try, spirit. Let us try. I have learned my lesson well this night. Perhaps things need not turn out the way you have shown me”.

And with that, Scrooge deleted the Babylon Wealth app from his phone, never to be installed again. He got back into bed. He’d seen and heard quite enough.