Hebridean glitches

Today I was going to meet up with Carmen Morrison from the Western Isles branch of the Scottish Health Council. She was also planning to get to Barra for a meeting, and because of the Autumnal Gales, the meeting didn’t happen – the Sound of Barra is not very nice in a storm.

Carmen was involved in drafting the SHC’s report on Realistic Medicine and has a lot of experience when it comes to involving the public. I shall have to pick a day when it is not stormy for our next planned meeting.

Who was Warner Slack?

Subtitle: Why communication technology matters.

I read last week’s BMJ obituaries, as I often do. (read the article HERE) The main tribute reflected on the work of Dr Warner Slack, who believed that ‘the patient is the largest and least utilised resource in healthcare’.

As I read further, I was astonished at the foresight of his vision. In the 1970s, with others, he set up the Center for Clinical Computing at Harvard, and created one of the earliest hospital information systems. He wrote much about clinicians and information technology, but the area I wish to focus on today is his vision of patient-clinician partnership, enabled by Information Technology.

Dr Slack trusted the agency of patients to use automation for their benefit decades ahead of his time. His underlying inspiration was that computing and information technology would empower clinicians and patients. He wrote about online patient communities, now a reality, with websites such as Patients like me and Smart Patients empowering patients to find out from others about the experience of their conditions, and the reality of treatment choices.

He also believed that patients should have access to their digital records, and now we have the OPEN NOTES movement.

I believe that patients need time to understand what we have told them, have the right to consider what we have recorded in their notes, and to consider the implications of their condition and the treatments that they are choosing between. This access, alongside health literacy, means that patients are on the therapeutic team for their own care.

I’ve had a look at the Primary Care Digital Services analysis of what we are working towards, and patient access to their clinical notes has been classified as High Input, Low Impact, meaning that it will be low down on the list of projects being progressed. I know that this is already part of the English GP contract, so it can be done.  This week’s mission: to find out whether this access is coming across Scotland, across the Western Isles, and on Benbecula.

Also, to link the blog to the practice website and the practice patient participation facebook page. (Done)

I’m inspired by Dr Slack, whose ideas are so relevant to Realising Realistic Medicine.

An ode from Horace

Ode I. 11


Leucon, no one’s allowed to know his fate,
Not you, not me: don’t ask, don’t hunt for answers
In tea leaves or palms. Be patient with whatever comes.
This could be our last winter, it could be many
More, pounding the Tuscan Sea on these rocks:
Do what you must, be wise, cut your vines
And forget about hope. Time goes running, even
As we talk. Take the present, the future’s no one’s affair.

What is realistic medicine?

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.

how do we practice realistic medicine

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.