I think I have been putting off writing this particular post: I know what realistic medicine means to me, but it is a protean concept. I can add all sorts of bright ideas into the mix, or understand it differently depending on my perspective. Putting it down on paper feels like pinning down a butterfly. The infographic below sums up some of the key concepts. First off, I should tell you my back-ground.
Most of my recent career as a General Practitioner has been about practicing evidence-based medicine. This is medicine based on what research tells us works best for particular conditions. The 2004 GP contract was heavily invested in ensuring that primary care was based on evidence; GPs were awarded points for meeting targets of good quality, and points became financial prizes. For many long-term conditions, a recipe of pills, a suite of targets were created, and like the bright, competitive people we are, we raced to be the best. For some of our patients, this will have improved their health.
But people are individuals, and not everyone benefits from every intervention. We’ve all had that patient who has struggled, brought low by the burden of their ill-health, and their worries about our targets. Each one of us will be able to bring to mind the cancer patient who has gone for the fourth-line treatment, when in our hearts, we want them to understand that comfort, dignity, and spending time with family, may be more realistic than potentially harmful, wasteful treatment, chasing false hope.
And there is that word: realistic. This is not about disregarding the guidelines. It is about remembering that we are treating people, trying to achieve the best outcome for individuals.
So, is realistic medicine about what is achievable? Or must it include what is desirable for the individual? Who decides where the balance is? To be able to provide the best support to a patient who is deciding between many options, we need to create a bond of trust, where all the relevant facts are known, the variables balanced, the good and not so good possible outcomes evaluated, the risks evaluated in a way that is relevant to the patient. The decisions are a joint responsibility, and we need to be clear, to be realistic about what treatments can achieve. Realistic Medicine aims to be holistic, to put the patient at the heart of decision-making about their care.
Tied up in our ideas of realistic medicine is the concept of unrealistic expectations of what can be achieved. What is unrealistic? And where is the harm? There is harm in over-treating diabetes in older type 2 diabetics, quite clear-cut. There is harm in over-treatment when unrealistic hope for a cure is not openly discussed. There is harm in wasting resources on treatments that have little value to the patient, or undertaking unnecessary tests that produce anxiety about results.
Growing with the concept of Realistic Medicine is the concept of value. Value brings with it the sound of money. This is not about cutting costs, though. This is about avoiding waste, about providing the best we can with the resources we have. In many cases, redesigning services releases capacity for much more appropriate care. In others, the care that is given is more valued for being personalised and appropriate.This can be a realistic approach to the use of our resources, our time, our clinicians.
Values are also about what we hold dear ourselves, about what we aspire to be as clinicians; honest and trustworthy, kind and compassionate, bold and courageous. We can advocate for a fairer health-care system that delivers care that meets the needs of the population, that adds value through better processes. We can seek innovation and improvement, better leadership, a supportive and empathic workforce culture.
While I was thinking of all of this, I had an epiphany, that this is not just about clinicians, about the clinical workforce and the NHS. This is about everyone. To have these expectations about how we work, we need a common language and understanding, not just between colleagues, but in all our conversations. Patients move through the NHS, spreading their expectations across departments, wards, and amongst their families and society. They can spread ideas through networks, infiltrate clinics and inspire new ways of working, if we empower them. That is a big ask – data shows that while over 90% of people say they are comfortable about asking clinicians about their treatment, only a half to two thirds have actually done this at all.
Nothing ventured, nothing gained. If I can bring the values of realistic medicine to a small practice population, empower people before they become patients, and coach them into getting the best out of their clinical encounters, we can contribute to this cultural shift to Realistic Medicine.
Next up – the Scottish Health Council – working with the general public.