In a recent Guardian article a photograph of the audience at an Oasis gig in 1996 is remarkably dated because everyone in the crowd is watching the band instead of staring at their mobile phone while they record the action on stage. The author of the piece has written a lament to a time when people could be fully present and immersed in an event as it takes place.
No moments are too sacred to be recorded these days and that includes doctor-patient consultations.
Two facts need to be set out from the start. Firstly, as a recent article in GP magazine, Pulse explains, patients are fully within their rights to record a consultation. Secondly, where patients suspect that doctors will refuse or object, rather than arguing for their legal rights they may be covertly recording consultations.
Recording consultations, overtly or covertly may not be very prevalent, but one way or another there is nothing we can do to stop it. Like chronic pain or diabetes we have to find ways to live with it.
A study by Glyn Elwyn et al. surveyed views from 130 respondents following an interview about the subject on BBC Radio 4. A majority 98 (77%) said that they would like their GP to allow them to record consultations. The primary motivations for recording were to help recall and understanding and to share the recording with others, especially when the issues were complex. They sometimes recorded consultations to share with someone who could not attend the appointment. In cases like this, patients, professionals and others benefit. Like doctors, but more so, patients struggle to remember what is said in a consultation. It is especially hard when they are anxious, less literate and older.
Cyril is 81 years old and in remarkably good health considering his diabetes, peripheral vascular disease and ischaemic heart disease. He also has worsening breathlessness and mild dementia. He asks if he could record the consultation. Ideally he would like his son to come with him, but his son lives and works in Devon. Cyril thinks it would be useful to have a recording because he easily forgets what we have been talking about by the time he gets home. He appreciates the written information I supply him with, but says he likes the way I explain things. Recording the consultation seems like a good idea.
In Elwyn’s study patients wishing to record covertly had already experienced poor care or were afraid that a request to record a consultation would be refused, but most patients felt that asking permission would improve relationships with their doctor. As one interviewee said, acting covertly would lead to ‘only getting half the benefit out of the recording’. Elwyn’s study concurred with a 2014 review that concluded that patients value and benefit from recording consultations. Elwyn’s patients’ proposed solution was for recording consultations to be normalised, encouraged and facilitated by professionals.
In some cases patients have previously experienced, or fear poor quality care and wish to hold the professional to account, or have a record. One patient with mental health difficulties was told by her GP to kill herself. Unknown to the doctor, she was covertly recording the consultation and he was later struck off the medical register for three months. The doctor’s behaviour was clearly reprehensible, and it seems likely that without the recording the patient’s complaint would not have got very far.
Once or twice in a day of 40 or more consultations I think, ‘that was a great consultation!’ Most of the time they are OK, and sometimes they are really not very good at all. According to my patient feedback around 90% of patients are satisfied with their consultations, which suggests that about 10 consultations a week are unsatisfactory, any of which could be recorded and replayed by a patient. I have, like most doctors, been subject to complaints from patients, including one that recently concluded unsatisfactorily for both parties after nearly two years of dispute. I’m pretty confident that recordings of the consultations would not have helped and might very well have made things worse. An inexperienced, stressed GP seeing upwards of 150 patients a week has a lot more to fear than a confident professor of General Practice seeing barely 20 patients a week.
A consultation is not a TED talk. It is not a carefully rehearsed performance or a public lecture. Haidet’s seminal paper, Jazz and the Art of Medicine compares a consultation to jazz improvisation. He quotes trumpeter Wynton Marsalis,
The real power and innovation of jazz is that a group of people can come together and create art—improvised art—and can negotiate their agendas with each other. And that negotiation is the art.
My ‘great consultations’ are like this. They are psychodynamic, creative acts, performed in partnership, developing trust and understanding together. Like all improvisations we take turns to change the tempo, the tune and the allow for quiet spaces between the notes. There are moments of harmony and bum notes too, which in the context of the consultation are understandable, but on record may take on a different significance.
Emanuel and Emanuel’s classic paper describes four models of the doctor patient relationship: Paternalistic, Informative, Interpretive and Deliberative. The good doctor evolves their consulting style from primitive paternalism to an enlightened deliberative model. The premise underlying the enthusiasm for recording consultations appears to assume that the doctor has not progressed beyond the rather basic, Dr Informative stage of development. Different consultations call for differences in emphasis, with some involving more information delivery than others. As I get more experienced and confident I talk less, listen more and spend less time in the consultation delivering information that will probably be forgotten and will often be better on-line or elsewhere. Records of my consultations may not reveal all that much useful information.
Doctors recording consultations
Many GP consultations are already recorded. GPs in training video consultations with patients and watch them again with their trainers and other trainees. The RCGP guide to assessing consultations reflects the rather jazzy nature of consulting with criteria for, ‘encouraging patient contributions’, ‘responding to patient’s cues’, ‘putting information into the social context’, ‘seeking to confirm the patient’s understanding’ and so on.
At our practice and at our out of hours organisation, all phone calls are recorded in case of any mistakes or complaints. About six months ago, I took a call from a nurse at a nursing home who was worried about a breathless patient. I listened to the breathing (the patient couldn’t talk) and sent a doctor round to see them. Unfortunately the patient died shortly after the doctor arrived. It was not clear after I had listened again to the call with the director of the service and the clinical governance lead, whether, based on the phone call, I should have arranged an ambulance, so we played the recording to an educational meeting of about a dozen of the regular out of hours doctors. It was a difficult case that led to a really valuable discussion and was a powerful learning event. Doctors (like most of us) cringe at hearing our own voices, the words and phrases we come out with and so on, no matter how much we practice. Worrying a lot, and feeling guilty about the patient’s death I had also imagined that I had been less thorough in my assessment than I was. It was a relief to listen to the call again with a group of other experienced GPs. I offered to share my own case first, in part to demonstrate the importance of sharing our fallibility.
Power, professionalism and trust
It is claimed, rather uncritically by Elwyn, that allowing patients to record consultations is empowering. Firstly it is important to remember that serious illness and the associated anxiety, fear and uncertainty is dis-empowering and secondly that social deprivation, lack of education, and insecurity of housing and employment are profoundly dis-empowering. A great deal of what doctors do such as treating disease, relieving suffering and anxiety, giving confidence and reassurance, advocating and supporting patients with housing, benefits and employment, etc. empowers patients. Patients may be empowered by recording their consultations, but in the larger scheme of things, it’s pretty small fry.
One of the biggest fears that doctors have of patients recording consultations, especially if they do so covertly, is that it represents a loss of trust on which their symbolic healing power depends. This implicit trust based on social difference, professional expertise and symbolic mysticism is important and used responsibly is a potent power for good.
But implicit trust is not enough. It must be also be explicit and earned through actions that demonstrate openness and humility, a willingness to take risks with patients and manage the consequences.
We may feel very uncomfortable with our consultations being recording (myself included) but we will have to find ways to live with it, rather than fight against it.