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The hidden art of reassurance

I have been too quick to reassure and too slow to think about what it means.

For the last few months I have been listening in on the conversations that trainee GPs have with patients, and they have been listening to me. By listening to one-another and seeing how they respond, we have concluded;

The ‘catch-all’ phrase of ‘reassure the patient’, that is used in many medical text books in the management of medical and dental conditions should be edited out.

The Psychologist

 

“I know it’s nothing serious, they keep telling me that. So why can’t they tell me why I’m still in pain? They’re basically just trying to get rid of me, because to them it’s trivial, but to me it’s serious, it’s ruining my life. There are days when I can barely get out of the house, but I have to, I have to get the kids up and get them to school, but I’m in agony, I’m exhausted, I’ve barely slept. I’ve been crying half the night in pain, every time I move it wakes me up, so eventually I give up trying to sleep. I’ve been told, ‘there’s nothing broken’, ‘it’s not cancer’, ‘the scan doesn’t show anything’, ‘the blood tests are all normal,’ but nobody can explain why it hurts so much. I’ve even been told that I’m anxious, but I’m not anxious, I’ve never been anxious. I’m depressed, really miserable a lot of the time, most of the time probably – wouldn’t you be?”

Angie, 34, Low back pain

“I remember the nurse in A&E, I was terrified, my leg was in bits – bone sticking out of my ankle, gas and air on my face, needles stuck in my arms, people everywhere, and this one nurse in the middle of it who never left me. Told me to look at her when I was screaming, calmed me right down, squeezed my hand really tight – I remember that – so tight it took my mind off my foot while the others were manipulating it or something, she stared back at me, firm, calm … loving … can I say that? That’s how it felt, at the time not in a sexual way, but more like, maternal – because when you’re that scared – I thought they were going to have to amputate my foot –  it brings back all those flashbacks of when you were a kid and your mum, or dad for that matter, hugs you and tells you it’s going to be all right. And you believe them, because you’re so vulnerable and so afraid you’ve got no choice, you just let go and trust them completely and then, in that moment the fear melts away.”

Duncan, 26, Motorbike accident

“I never mentioned my heart, but that’s what they always say, “it’s not your heart, you’re not having a heart attack” Every time I go in they do the same things: heart tracing, blood tests, chest x-ray. And then they come round and say “everything’s OK”, and “isn’t that good” and then I say, “well, no, not really because I keep getting the pains and nobody knows what’s going on.”And then you can see, they look disappointed, actually a bit pissed off sometimes, because it’s like I’m supposed to be a bit more grateful, and that’s when they just say I have to go back to my GP.”

Trevor, 56, Chest pain

“My neurologist’s history-taking was so structured, so searching, so thorough, that I felt that, for the first time, my pain was being listened to. The consultation was, in itself, therapeutic”

Hilary Mantel, Migraine

“To be honest I can’t remember half of what the doctor said. There were so many things I had to look out for like the temperature being over something, and the breathing being fast – but how fast? And having a pee – I can’t remember how many times an hour or was it per day – no it can’t have been in a whole day because that’s far too long and anything might happen. But I remember she listed all these things why she wasn’t worried about my baby, but Kai was basically – from what I could see, no different from how he was before and I couldn’t sleep for worrying about what to do if anything changed which is why I’ve bought him back now.”

Kelly, mother of Kai, 9 months viral gastroenteritis.

‘Reassurance’ is not always reassuring.

One difference between young and old doctors is that young doctors’ clinical reasoning is based on a careful review of what they know about all the possible things that could explain their patient’s presenting symptoms. They employ structured principles and use diagnostic sieves considering in turn, infective, inflammatory, neoplastic, endocrine, etc. causes and try to figure out which is most or least likely. Often, none are particularly likely and they conclude that they don’t know what it is, therefore it’s nothing serious (or interesting) and therefore, ‘nothing to worry about’ – or rather, nothing that they themselves are worried about. By contrast, experienced doctors use case-based reasoning. Faced with a patient, they consider how much they are alike or differ from the hundreds or even thousands of similar patients they have seen before. Intuition and experience are as valuable as structured reasoning as this essay from BMJ quality and safety shows. Young doctors I watch often conclude a consultation by reassuring themselves aloud. By contrast, a more experienced doctor can say, in answer to the patients’ question about what to expect, that in their experience of many patients with the same symptoms or condition, this is what usually happens.

More often however, the thing that experience teaches us, is that reassurance is more subtle, more complex and less often warranted than we previously thought.

Reassurance may be cognitive or affective. In the example above, Duncan was given affective reassurance. The nurse recognised his fear and there was an empathic connection. Affective reassurance come from the way we behave; calm, assured, confident, kind and gentle. Eye contact, appropriate touch, a hug even. The way we dress – smart but not overly formal, and the way we move; at ease, but not slovenly, can be reassuring to patients. The way we arrange chairs in a room, even lighting, pictures on the walls, space on our desk, tissues to hand, but not too obvious. Buildings can put patients and clinicians at ease with clear signs and helpful receptionists, considered acoustics, quiet spaces and immediately accessible lavatories. Continuity of care is an important aspect of reassurance – a familiar clinician, receptionist or other member of staff, in a familiar place, especially in the context of a serious, ongoing illness makes a great difference.

Cognitive reassurance includes information – not only clinical details about the condition, treatments and prognosis, but also facts about waiting times and how to get help and support.

Knowing what kinds of reassurance are appropriate and what the patient needs to be reassured about is important. Trevor needed affective reassurance, and got it. Kelly needed cognitive reassurance, but did not.

 

The dark side of reassurance

Reassurance often concludes a consultation but it is also used to conclude a consultation. It is a way for the clinician to draw a conversation to a close and get the patient and their relatives out of the room. Even if this is not the intention, and it quite often is, then it may be perceived this way.

There are times when reassurance may not be appropriate or even possible, especially when the prognosis is very poor, as in this wonderful essay by David Steensma about a young woman with metastatic cancer,

It’s not that I can’t understand the impulse. Medicine would be a chilling enterprise without the motivation to do whatever possible to make bad situations a little better. But a lie breathed through silver is still a lie. Careless or glib reassurances do harm. Worse than platitudes, they are a betrayal. In the face of this woman’s darkness, it seems to me that any reassurances must come from the sphere of the chaplain, not the honest physician.

 

It cannot be assumed that patients want reassurance. Attempts may be perceived by patients like Angie and Trevor (above) to be patronising, a dismissal of their underlying concerns or a cover for the fact that the clinician doesn’t actually know what’s going on.

The effects of reassurance can be intoxicating. The most addictive drugs: alcohol and benzodiazepines especially, are potently anxiety relieving and many patients who are addicted have a history of anxiety. When the drugs wear off, the rebound effect is a heightened and more intense anxiety than before. Reassurance can be addictive too. A clinician can, like their patients, be intoxicated by the short-term relief that comes from repeated reassurance, but they soon discover that over time, the effects are diminished and shorter lasting. There is a considerable literature on the harms of repeated reassurance in anxiety – with guidance on more appropriate behaviour, e.g. here and here.

The paper quoted at the beginning of this piece highlights how children may perceive reassurance as a prelude to something bad about to happen, like an injection. The oft repeated, ‘this won’t hurt a bit’ or ‘just a little scratch’ doesn’t help.

A silver lining

For many patients, an unspoken fear is that they won’t be taken seriously and they won’t be understood. They fear that they might not be able, or be given the opportunity to say what it’s really like for them. Philosopher Havi Carel, in her wonderful book, Illness, about her experiences as a patient, describes this experience as epistemic injustice. Too often doctors control the conversation by asking the questions whose answers they want to hear and do not allow patients the opportunity to say what they need to say. Very often, especially patients who struggle with words, or whose symptoms cannot easily be described, need to improvise with clinicians to create descriptions. Paul Haidet has compared this  with improvisation and jazz,

I find that I am at my best when I can give patients space to say what they want to say, using my communications to gently lead patients through a telling of the illness narrative from their perspective, rather than forcing the narrative to follow my biomedical perspective. In this space, patients often either tell their story, allowing me to understand the context around their symptoms, or ask the questions that allow me to tailor my explanations to their unique concerns. Unfortunately, in our culture, we are not generally comfortable with pauses or quiet. When the situation is compounded by the chaos of a busy clinic, it becomes difficult to remain focused and open to the directions that patients take us. For most practitioners, space does not come naturally; it takes practice and discipline to develop.

Not all illness warrants reassurance just as not all illness is accompanied by suffering. Recognising suffering may be far from straightforward. Barry Bub, in his wonderful long essay, The Patient’s Lament, writes,

in order to listen better, physicians need to know what to listen for; to understand the significance of what is being heard, and to know how to respond therapeutically.

For clinicians whose main job is listening, like GPs, – listening is a clinical skill that needs to be continually developed and practiced. It is analogous to a surgeon’s craft and cannot be taken for granted and can always be improved. As Atul Gawande has argued in his 2011 essay, ‘Personal Best’, it is extraordinary that while professional athletes can see the value of a coach when they are at the top of their game, medical professionals go it alone for almost their entire career once their training is over. Reassurance, for example is a skill that I’ve never been taught and after twenty years in practice, I’ve discovered it’s something I’ve barely considered. I am not alone, Professor Tamar Pincus concludes in a recent review of the literature,

The area [reassurance] is incredibly under-researched, and we are hampered by poor measurement of the complex interactions that take place during the consultation.

I am not entirely sure that ‘more research is needed’. This is a philosophical and pedagogical problem, as much if not more than an empirical one. What David Steensma recognised when faced with a young woman with a terrible prognosis was that there remained may things about which he could be reassuring, for example,

Reassurance that when all your hair is gone, and wasting or open sores have stolen your beauty, that we will choose our words carefully.

Reassurance that we will not be bound by rigid protocols and will use all of our creativity to try to solve your problems.

Reassurance that there are no foolish questions in the consultation room.

Reassurance that when you visit me in the clinic, I will let you finish your sentences and will not hint to you that you are overstaying your welcome.

I think that reassurance is a clinical skill that is as vital as any other. It begins with listening to patients and depends on empathy, which can be taught and learned. And this, for me, is just a start.

Anxiety and the medical profession

Keynote for the Everyday Ethical Dilemmas in Healthcare conference 2016

Thanks very much to the organizing committee and Julie Wintrup especially for inviting me today. The Everyday Ethics conference is wonderful. It is ethics for those of us who are physically, intellectually and emotionally involved in care. Too often medical ethics – and apologies to those enlightened ethicists present today – fails to speak to the concerns of health professionals and patients. Just as evidence based medicine has separated disease from the lived experience of patients with disease, so medical ethics has separated ethics from the lived experience of people who practice medicine. We are people who agonise over decisions every day, who lose sleep worrying about our patients, who fall out with our colleagues, who have lives and personal histories, personalities, values and virtues that impact on everything we think and do. We are expected to be objective, professional and detached. But we are also human. We can be both.

 

Today I want to show that we can be professional and human

Everything starts with context. On Saturday I crashed during a bike race and my shoulders are covered in grazes and my neck is pretty sore, so I haven’t been able to sleep much since then and I’m very, very tired. I’ve cycled here today … in the pouring rain. Being tired and sore makes me feel a little fuzzy and anxious … I also have a family history of anxiety and Asperger’s, so the roots of my anxiety lie probably in my genes, my childhood and a lifelong difficulty judging social cues. Like many people, I find online life provides a settling mediation for social interaction.

 

I am feeling really anxious, standing here. Trying to get the right balance between engaging with you, the audience and not losing my script. Last year stood in a similar situation, speaking in a debate without a script and I had a panic attack. I clammed up, my mouth went dry, I could barely speak, I couldn’t remember anything I wanted to say, I was sweating profusely, my stomach was making more noise than my fumbling speech. My heart was racing. I wanted to close my eyes and disappear and wake up to find that it was, in fact a nightmare.

The interesting thing was that afterwards, apparently, nobody in the audience had noticed. People who are anxious are usually very good at hiding it from others. We are afraid of being found out and being seen to be anxious and vulnerable. We don’t want to bring attention to ourselves. We don’t want to make you feel uncomfortable because of our anxiety.

 

Today I want to help make being anxious more acceptable

 

It would be strange if clinicians were not anxious. We are expected, everyday to make life or death decisions, and give potentially lethal drugs to patients who are already precipitously close to death. We make mistakes and sometimes patients are harmed. All this takes place in an increasingly vengeful culture.

Nevertheless, I suspect that most of you will be reassured to know that most doctors worry about their patients. If you’re not entirely reassured, then you will probably agree that there is a level of concern somewhere between reckless conviction and blind panic that combines just the right amount of confidence and vigilance.

 

Human physiology provides a similar service, maintaining everything from body temperature and blood pressure to hormones and electrolytes at levels neither too high nor too low to support life. If one parameter should go out of range, then unless it is quite quickly corrected, the effects cascade and the patient’s condition becomes critical.

 

Like hormones and blood pressure, anxiety is a part of the human condition that oscillates from day to day. Too much and the effects can be overwhelming. The amount that each of us has varies because to a fairly large extent we inherit it from our genes and formative childhood experiences. At this point, it is worth noting that usually when we find ourselves or our colleagues struck with anxiety, we tend not to look very far beyond the immediate anxiety provoking situation – the acutely sick patient, the medical error or the unassailable demands of the job. We overlook the personal narrative and wider context within which the anxious doctor finds herself.

 

Anxiety can be a physical and a psychological experience. It has philosophical, spiritual, cultural, and historical dimensions. According to some definitions anxiety differs from fear in that fear is directed to a specific object whereas anxiety exists without anything to be anxious about. When anxious patients present, we look for a spectrum of related symptoms and conditions including generalized anxiety, specific phobias, obsessive-compulsive traits and panic attacks. Many patients suffer from all of these, compounded by profound physical symptoms including irritable bowel syndrome, palpitations, dizziness and trembling. For most patients these symptoms are transient, but for others they are ever present. Drugs like alcohol, heroin and valium have profoundly anxiolytic (that is, anxiety relieving) effects, horrendous withdrawal symptoms in which the anxiety returns worse than before, and because of this are among the hardest to give up.

 

Doctors are no different from other people. A medical degree is no defense against anxiety. We suffer the same existential angst, come from the same human gene pool, and share the same physiology as our patients. We are more likely than our non-medical peers to have problems with addiction to anxiolytic drugs. But there are issues relating to anxiety that affect us as doctors that we need to consider, and now is an important time in medical history as we shall see.

 

 

 

 

Uncertainty is a cause of a lot of anxiety. Some kinds of uncertainty can be resolved and others cannot. Not knowing the difference is particularly anxiety provoking.

 

For younger doctors and medical students uncertainty is primarily around knowledge of objective facts, unbound from clinical contexts which they have yet to encounter. Aristotle called this kind of knowledge, ‘episteme’. In medicine this can include knowledge of anatomy, physiology and pharmacology, or a spot diagnosis. Most of us can recall the feelings of anxious dread when we are asked to identify the origin of muscle we’ve barely heard of or a part of the Krebs Cycle. To avoid this kind of uncertainty we have to go away and learn more, or at least know where to look or who to ask. But it is impossible to know everything, so one defense is to focus our expertise on as small an area as possible, so that in effect we know almost everything about almost nothing. You can then be pretty certain that if you don’t know, you don’t have to worry about it so you refer the patient back to their GP. GPs by contrast sometimes feel as though we know almost nothing about almost everything and we are left holding uncertainty.

 

Another kind of uncertainty relates to the Aristotelian term, ‘techne’. This refers to crafts, such as clinical skills or surgical procedures. This kind of uncertainty can be overcome by training, practice and familiarity. Looking back at the end of a distinguished career, neurosurgeon Henry Marsh reflected that he had no trouble with his craft, brain surgery was the easy bit. And yet, in his book, First Do No Harm he also said, “Few people outside medicine know that what troubles doctors most is uncertainty”. He wasn’t uncertain about the diagnosis or how to perform the operation. In many cases was uncertain about whether or not to operate at all. As a younger surgeon he recalled, if in doubt, it was much easier to operate. But as time went on he began to become more doubtful. He was talking about moral uncertainty. He recognised the important difference between knowing what can be done, and knowing what one ought to do.

 

Doctors experience other types of uncertainty that can contribute to anxiety

 

Uncertainty of status or role

 

For new doctors, it is often unclear what is expected of them in their new role. ‘What am I supposed to do in this job, with these people, in this hospital?’ Without a comprehensive induction, a supportive team and a mentor this can provoke considerable anxiety.

 

Procedural uncertainty

 

Not knowing how to get things done is unsettling, as what you might imagine to be standard NHS procedures are anything but. One example is standards of dress codes – I remember one surgical firm in which suits were expected and another in which they were frowned upon. Scans, blood tests, referrals and holidays are arranged in hundreds of different ways throughout the NHS. Time spent trying to figure this out makes us run late and makes us more anxious.

 

Hermeneutic uncertainty

 

This is uncertainty about interpretation and meaning, not only in relation to patients’ symptoms, narratives and the results of their investigations, but also in relationships with colleagues and management, especially with the loss of relational continuity that used to give us the opportunity to get to know one another. Sociologist and grand-master of medical narratives, Arthur Frank has described the loss of relational continuity as ‘a moral failing of modern healthcare’.

 

Financial uncertainty and uncertainty about the NHS

 

A recent European poll found that nearly ¾ of British citizens asked, expected the NHS to decline in the next few years. As a result of the government’s commitment to austerity, NHS funding has fallen further below the rate of growth in demand for the longest period in its history. At the same time there has been a 12% real terms reduction in funding to adult social care. Many doctors and other health professionals wonder how long the NHS can survive. Alongside this fear is the turmoil caused by the massive re-disorganisation of NHS structures, increasing privatization and a growth of support for charging patients.

 

Uncertainty about contracts

 

Spreading a workforce that is presently stretched even more thinly is putting many junior doctors, medical students and would be medical students off a career in medicine. We are already close to having the lowest number of doctors per head of population in the rich world. Young doctors are emigrating or choosing to change career.

 

Existential uncertainty

 

This surely is no less than it has ever been. What does it mean to be a good doctor? What is the point of medicine? How much is too much or too little? These are good questions. For one thing we’ve done too much that doesn’t work for too long, and for another, what it means to be a good doctor in an age of patient-centered care is a subject close to the hearts of many of you here today. Above all perhaps, we are anxious about not being good enough. When we are engaged in therapeutic relationships, if our patients don’t get better, if feels like a personal failing, not just a failure of the medication. Working in an increasingly under-resourced healthcare system we are made anxious by the sense that we never have enough time for our patients, that we have rushed and cut corners in order to do everything that is expected of us.

 

Uncertainty may, as Henry Marsh suggests, be the thing that troubles doctors most. We may also happen to be living in an Age of Anxiety.

 

The Age of Anxiety

 

Many great thinkers have been plagued by anxiety including Sir Isaac Newton who had a nervous breakdown in 1638, and for the next five years barely left his room. Darwin was also largely housebound for decades on account of anxiety and Freud was severely anxious throughout the early years of his career. The Age of Anxiety was the title of a poem by WH Auden in 1947, I suspect that few people are familiar with it, phrase is familiar and has been a bumper-sticker for our times and a popular subtitle ever since. Last year, Scott Stossel, the editor of the Atlantic Magazine, published My Age of Anxiety: a cultural, historical, philosophical, scientific and deeply personal account of anxiety. For many thinkers the anxiety of the modern age can be blamed on Freud’s opressive super-ego being superseded by a permissive super-ego whose cheery imperative, ‘enjoy!’ is served with almost everything. According to Lacanian philosopher Slavoj Žižek,

 

“Psychoanalysis does not deal with the authoritarian father who prohibits enjoyment, but with the obscene father who enjoins it and thus renders you impotent or frigid.” By way of example he tells of the simply repressive father who tells his children to visit their grandmother, whether they like it or not. Žižek contrasts him with the post-modern father who says, ‘we’re going to visit your grandmother, it’s up to you whether or not you come with us, it’s your choice, but you know how much she’d love to see you and how upset she’d be if you didn’t come?’ How can the child say ‘no’? This way, not only do they have to visit grandma, but it has to be their choice and they have to enjoy it!

 

The Kantian imperative, ‘you can because you must’, has become inverted, ‘you must because you can’. In other words, ‘you must enjoy yourself because everything is permissible’.

 

Put another way, these days there is no need to be impotent, unhappy or unfulfilled, because we have Viagra, Prozax, human rights and freedom to choose. But because, somehow we’re still impotent, unhappy and unfulfilled, we feel anxious. This is the Age of Anxiety.

 

The NHS Act of 2012 was called ‘Liberating the NHS’ and ‘patient choice’ was its centrepiece. No irony was intended. I attended a debate before the act was passed and I was challenged for not ‘believing in patient choice’ by people who couldn’t fathom that choice, freedom and happiness are, by and large independent of one-another. Power begets choice, not the other way around. Power depends on having a bigger share of material resources.

 

The welfare state is being stripped away under the pretence that it is infantalising and fosters dependency, hence the withering moniker, ‘nanny state’. A positive conception is that a maternal state takes care of its citizens in times of vulnerability. The stripping away of the welfare state leaves vulnerable citizens – that is, NHS patients, anxious about how and where they will live. And they bring this anxiety with them into the consulting room.

 

Anxiety in the consultation

 

Anxiety about money, benefits, housing, employment, crime and so on makes you feel physically ill. The anxiety manifests with physical symptoms and sometimes overwhelming preoccupations with physical health. It takes a courageous clinician to attribute to anxiety, palpitations, stomachaches, breathlessness, and transient neurological symptoms in patients already suffering from multiple chronic conditions and taking several different medications.

 

Emotions are contagious, after a clinic full of depressed and anxious patients, a doctor with even the slightest degree of empathy will feel weighed down with similar emotions. People who are anxious are afraid of upsetting other people and tend to be on their guard, so that an ambiguous social cue from the doctor, for example a yawn or a casual gaze at the computer screen, is more likely to be interpreted negatively, triggering a defensive or even hostile response from the patient. Unless things are handled skillfully the consultation can become dysfunctional and more anxiety provoking.

 

 

So far, so much to make us anxious?

 

So how do we respond, and how should we respond?

 

In 1959 Isabel Menzies Lyth was asked to carry out an investigation into an NHS teaching hospital in crisis. Senior nurses felt the service was at the point of breakdown and one third of nursing students were giving up their studies. She noted,

 

Nurses face the reality of suffering and death as few lay people do. Their work involves carrying out tasks, which, by ordinary standards, are distasteful, disgusting and frightening. The work arouses strong and conflicting feelings: pity, compassion and love; guilt and anxiety; hatred and resentment of the patients who arouse these feelings; envy of the care they receive. The intensity and complexity of the nurse’s anxieties are to be attributed primarily to the peculiar capacity of the objective features of the work to stimulate afresh these early situations and their accompanying emotions.

 

She discovered that in order to protect the students from anxiety, a wide range of Social Defences Against Anxiety were employed, many of which will be familiar to those of us working in the NHS today.

 

  1. Splitting up the nurse/ patient relationship. Nurses were prevented from providing holistic, continuity of care, because of the potentially anxiety-provoking emotional attachment this might lead to. Unfortunately this lead to depersonalisation, categorization and denial of the significance of individual patients.
  2. Detachment and denial of feelings e.g. senior nurses understood juniors’ anxiety and distress, but lacked confidence in their ability to handle it except by reprimand.
  3. Attempts to eliminate complex clinical decisions by ritual task performance. For example, one nurse for observations, another for medications, another for dressings and so on. The same thing has happened to doctors with protocols and pathways enforced by financial incentives.
  4. Reducing the weight of responsibility in decision-making by checks and counterchecks. Unfortunately this leads to so much time being spent on documentation that there is little left to be spent with patients.
  5. The reduction of the impact of responsibility by delegation to superiors. Students and junior nurses were not allowed to made decisions or take responsibility even for tasks they were capable of.
  6. Collusive social redistribution of responsibility and irresponsibility, i.e. rather than admit that everyone was feeling anxious, a collusive system of denial, splitting and projectionmeant that everyone was blaming someone else. Anxiety became a problem of anxious individuals, not an anxiety provoking organisation.
  7. Purposeful obscurity in the formal distribution of responsibility
  8. Avoidance of change …

Menzies Lyth was writing in the late 1950s when professional knowledge was shrouded in secrecy, paternalism was unquestioned and external scrutiny frowned upon. Don Berwick, with whom many of you will be familiar with for his work on quality and patient safety, describes this as Era 1. According to Berwick, we have responded to Era 1 with Era 2, “a massive, ravenous investment in tools of scrutiny and inspection and control, massive investment in contingency, and massive under-investment in change and learning and innovation.”

 

The experience of Era 2, for the majority of NHS clinicians is that we are suffocated by the Sisyphean task of trying to measure, regulate and inspect everything that could conceivably count for quality or safety. The government is mistaken in the belief that this reassures patients or motivates professionals.

 

As Berwick says,

 

“Inspection does not achieve continual, pervasive, never- ending improvement. It doesn’t foster creativity or learning or pride, it poisons them, because the main harvest of inspection isn’t learning, its fear.”

 

There is no point telling the vast majority of health professionals, who are committed and conscientious, that they have nothing to fear from inspections. Like my 4 and 6 year-old children who are facing exams at primary school, fear is a reflection of our underlying anxiety and bears no relation to the quality of our work.

 

Containing anxiety

Good organisations foster creativity, learning and pride and contain anxiety. Containment of anxiety is a concept that has been developed since at least Menzies Lyth’s time. Originally conceived to help understand maternal-child relations containment has been applied to organizational psychology. It is a process of being receptive and accepting of emotions with attempts to understand and make sense of them. It entails looking at all the contributory factors, including the parents’ behaviour. If a child learns that anxiety is unacceptable they will try to hide it. Real feelings are replaced by defences against them and in time the child becomes alienated from their own true feelings and from other people.

  • pause …

In medicine, for most of us, most of the time, it is simply not acceptable to be anxious. The anxious doctor is too slow, asks too many questions, requests too many tests, makes too many referrals. We may very well suspect that a colleague who works like this is anxious and in need of help. Quite possibly they are employing defenses against uncertainty and anxiety. But according to a recent editorial in the British Journal of General Practice, uncertainty should no longer be tolerated. Roger Jones, the editor, said,

Diagnostic decision making in general practice has floundered among unhelpful phrases such as ‘tolerating uncertainty’, ‘using time as a diagnostic tool’ and ‘letting the diagnosis emerge’, which have sadly passed into our lexicon. At worst, this approach to diagnosis is sloppy and idle…”

 

This is surely mistaken. Studies have shown that a third to a half of symptoms that GPs are presented with do not fit a diagnosis. As Iona Heath, the great philosopher of General Practice has observed, we are gatekeepers between illness and disease, where Illness is what the patient feels when (s)he goes to the doctor and disease is the diagnostic label we apply. Making a diagnosis when we are unsure what the symptoms represent is a way of closing the doors to the possibility of other explanations. Curiosity is cut short and empathy curtailed. Empathy, according to Leslie Jamieson, author of the wonderful, Empathy Exams, is asking questions whose answers need to be told’. In 90% of cases of back pain, chest pain, dizziness, fatigue and in children with abdominal pain, I cannot make a diagnosis. It is especially hard to act with compassion – literally, ‘with suffering’ – in conditions like chronic pain, where our diagnostic labels and therapeutic interventions offer so little.

 

And yet, all the time we are teaching our trainees and students that uncertainty can be overcome. I was recently working an out of hours shift with an anxious trainee. He had referred a child to the paediatricians because the child had had a fever for 6 days and he couldn’t find a cause for it. “I was taught that you couldn’t send a feverish child home without finding a source for their fever”, he explained – as justification for the referral. I asked what the paediatric registrar had said after reviewing the child. “He said that it was tonsillitis”. “And what did you think?” I asked, “Well his tonsils looked fine, his cervical nodes weren’t enlarged. He didn’t even look that sick, but his temperature was 40.5 and it was the 6th day of fever”. In my experience it is very common for children to have a fever with no identifiable source of infection, just as it is very common for doctors to say to parents, “It’s tonsillitis” by way of explanation. What parents and trainee doctors learn is that the difference between GPs and specialists or between novices and experienced doctors is diagnostic certainty. Our trainees expect to reach a point where they don’t experience uncertainty any more. The truth is that it may be too hard to bear.

 

We need the wit to resolve uncertainty that can be resolved, the humility to accept that which cannot and the wisdom to know the difference. And the confidence to admit we don’t know.

 

Containing anxiety means accepting that anxiety is nothing to be ashamed of and that uncertainty is, to a great extent inevitable because medicine is not a science, but a moral practice informed by history, rituals, narratives, social relations, power and politics, the arts and more besides science.

 

The benefits of anxiety

 

Anxiety does not stand alone, separate from other virtues. It is intimately associated with vigilance, emotional intelligence and empathy – all of which are vital for safe, compassionate care. An anxious colleague should give us pause to think about whether our organisation is containing, caring and a healthy place to work.

 

To conclude:

  1. Be on the look out for defences against anxiety. They are a sign that anxiety is not being contained. Defences can be counterproductive, merely displacing anxious feelings and alienating staff, getting in the way of safe, quality, compassionate care.
  2. Organisations that contain anxiety do not mount defences but are receptive and accepting and try to make sense of anxiety with, solidarity, support and educational supervision. They understand that anxiety is part and parcel of human nature in general and healthcare in particular. Their emphasis is on learning and improvement more so than measurement and control.
  3. Understand that anxiety is a virtue, in the Aristotelian sense – we all have it, we can have too little or too much, and it brings with it conscientiousness, emotional intelligence and empathy which patients need.
  4. Appreciate the relationships between uncertainty and humility. Awareness that in medicine there is very often  uncertainty about diagnosis, prognosis and the best treatment should lead us to conceive of humility on as equal a footing as any of the other pillars of medical ethics, beneficence, non-malevolence, justice and autonomy.

In all animals anxiety drives the fight or flight response, but humans uniquely can choose to do neither. Philosopher Søren Kierkegaard wrote in 1844, “If man were a beast or an angel, he would not be able to be in anxiety. Since he is both beast and angel, he can be in anxiety, and the greater the anxiety the greater the man. He who has learned rightly to be in anxiety has learned the most important thing.”

 

I hope that after today we can be better in anxiety,

 

Thank you.

 

Further reading

Scott Stossell: My Age of Anxiety: Fear, Hope Dread and the Search for Peace of Mind

Isabel Menzies Lyth: Social Systems as Defences against Anxiety 

Slavoj Žižek: ‘You may!’ 

Clinical Uncertainty in Primary care: The Challenge of Collaborative Engagement. 

 

What is a 7 day NHS and what will it cost?

There is an excellent analysis on the BBC here http://bbc.in/21a1u9n

The basic points are as follows.

The government want a 7 day NHS but will not increase spending even to cover the increasing demands on a 5 day service.

http://www.kingsfund.org.uk/blog/2016/01/how-does-nhs-spending-compare-health-spending-internationally

The costs of a 7 day NHS for each year of healthy life expectancy gained by patients are enormous and more could be achieved by spending the money in other ways, according to an economic analysis by Manchester university.

http://www.manchester.ac.uk/discover/news/resources-needed-for-the-seven-day-nhs-services-may-be-better-spent

The reasons why patients admitted to hospital at the weekend are more likely to die than those admitted in the week have not been investigated. In spite of this, Jeremy Hunt has repeatedly told parliament and the press that the junior doctor’s contract is the answer.

When asked to comment by the producers of the programme, he refused.

From my perspective (I haven’t been a junior doctor for over 15 years) no matter what the terms and conditions of the new contract stipulate, the abject failure of the government to provide an honest justification makes it impossible for the BMA to accept it.

BMJ The 6000 deaths and the 7 day NHS

Update 06/05/2015 New study shows weekend staffing doesn’t affect mortality http://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/health-and-families/health-news/seven-day-nhs-jeremy-hunt-staffing-hospitals-weekends-junior-doctors-strike-a7016286.html

 

 

 

 

Simple Isn’t Easy – changing the way the NHS communicates with patients

This is a fantastic blog from David Gilbert – has made me very aware of how much better my own practice’s communications should be. I’ll post our new letters and guides to how we can make better use of GP appointments next.
It’s worth noting that I have a lot of nonsensical letters from private companies, e.g. about insurance, so I don’t think healthcare is uniquely bad at this!

Future Patient - musings on patient-led healthcare

All the letters I get from businesses are clear, concise and useful. I just got a letter confirming a hotel booking. It was all these things. I feel confident that when I arrive I will be welcomed and cared for. The letter told me implicitly and explicitly that I was important.

For patients, the communications they receive are practically and symbolically important. An appointment letter may be the first time they come into contact with the health service. Unlike hotel customers, they may need reassurance. Being in pain, vulnerable and uncertain, the NHS must send a letter that is extra careful with content, structure and language.

I recently got an almost incomprehensible hospital appointment letter that barked: ‘make sure you attend’ in bold letters surrounded by a red-outlined box. There was no map, no mention of how to prepare (was I going to have to undress? What sort of questions…

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Empathy and shame.

Shame – discussed in detail in a blog last year, is frequently a feature when patients consult.

How we respond to patients who are feeling, or at risk of feeling shame can make or break a therapeutic relationship. This is about how I try to respond.

Shame is a negative moral judgement about oneself. Unlike guilt or embarrassment where someone thinks that fundamentally they are a reasonable person who has done a bad thing, someone who feels shame thinks that they have done a bad thing because fundamentally, they are a bad person.

Guilt is when, for example, you feel bad that you forgot to call your mum on her birthday, but you might reasonably conclude that this doesn’t make you a bad person and so you decide to make up for it and call her the next day. Shame is when you conclude that you are (and have quite likely always been) a hopeless son or daughter who is always forgetting the important things in life and feel too despondent even to call the next day.

We should suspect shame in the following situations. A patient misses an appointment because they are afraid of being judged on the basis of their blood tests . Another fails to attend a follow-up appointment after having disclosed a history of child sexual abuse. The mother who took her child to an A&E department takes them to a different department the next day with the same feverish symptoms in order to avoid the clinician who said they were time-wasting the day before.

Situations where patients blame themselves for their perceived failure to take responsibility either for themselves or their dependents can arouse shame. Healthcare professionals have, in addition to their clinical authority, a moral authority and consciously (or more often not) and intentionally (or not) pass moral judgement on their patients’ behaviour if they do not respond sensitively to shame and self-blame.

There are things we can do to avoid unconsciously or unintentionally fanning the flames of shame.

Empathy

When someone gets sick, it is only natural for them to ask, “Why me? What did [I do to] cause this?” and then find something, perhaps something they did, on which they can pin the blame. This search for an explanation is not just about biology but is also a search for meaning. The study of meaning and interpretation is called ‘hermeneutics’ and for philosopher Havi Carel, who has a severe lung disease and has written about her experience of healthcare in her book, Illness, ‘hermeneutic justice’ happens when healthcare professionals give as serious consideration to their patients’ interpretations as they do to their own. Hermeneutic justice is an important aspect of empathy.

Empathy, according to Leslie Jamieson who wrote, The Empathy Exams, requires curiosity – we need to “ask the questions whose answers need to be told”. It is not enough to simply sit back and bear witness, we need to be active listeners. Empathy matters because if we recognise potential shame, and are aware of our moral significance we can say, ‘I understand how you feel, and you’re not alone in feeling like that, and it doesn’t mean you are a bad person’.  We can separate the morality of the deed from the moral character of the person. Good people do things they regret and bad things happen to good people too. Illness is indifferent to moral character.

Empathy involves connecting with something similar in yourself – recognising what it feels like when you’ve done something you regret or the need to find something to explain a tragedy.

Empathy, according to Brene Brown, “drives connection with others”, because with gentle curiosity we prove that we want to understand what they are going through. Sympathy, by contrast, may be a kind gesture, but doesn’t require understanding in the way empathy does. We might say, sincerely and sympathetically, “oh that must have been awful”, but empathy demands that we try at least to figure out just how awful it must have been and why.

 

As Brene Brown says, “Rarely can a response make something better, because what makes something better is connection”, and connection comes with understanding.

Empathy also requires staying out of judgement. We may not like patients who are ashamed, for example, because  they abused their children, or stole to fund their addiction. Empathy does require us to try to understand them, what they did, and why, but does not demand that we like them. Likewise although empathy requires hermeneutic justice, it does not demand that we agree with our patients’ interpretations. We can, for example, travel a long way towards understanding the lived-experience of illness without sharing our patients’ belief that it is a punishment from God. But our understanding of their experience of illness would be incomplete without also knowing something of their explanations.

After 2 years in an academic post, I have little material (publications) to show for my time, but I have managed to nurture a curiosity about my patients and the nature of suffering that is transforming my practice on a daily basis. And for that much I am very grateful.

 

 

Critical Reflection

There are strong currents of suspicion, scepticism and downright cynicism about reflection in medical practice and medical education. In part this is because we are pressured for time and also evidence/ outcomes oriented and so naturally ask – ‘what difference is this going to make?’ Without a clear and compelling answer, many people conclude that it is not worth the time and effort.

There is another common reason for resistance to reflective practices, whether they take the form of Schwartz rounds, Balint groups, supervision sessions or reflective writing.

Emotions.

When people enthuse about reflective practices, they typically recall a case that was really emotional. People involved were moved to tears, the story was really powerful, shocking and so on. Stories about being distressed by the death of a child or a terrible mistake, a vexatious complaint or some other traumatic experience are shared – often to great empathic effect with others responding, ‘yes, I too know how you feel’.

There are risks with this. One of competitive trauma, where people bring increasingly distressing cases, which exclude or alienate people whose experiences are, by comparison mundane. Another risk is that people who are less emotionally bruised by their work, feel excluded because they have so little in common or because their issues are not emotionally charged.

More likely though is that quite simply, even for healthcare professionals, talking about or admitting that our work affects us, or even hearing about how it affects our colleagues, makes us feel very uncomfortable. We feel safer in the belief that we are clinically engaged, but emotionally detached.

People who feel like this need to be reassured that reflective practices do not have to involve emotions.

Steven Brookfield – who has written a great deal about reflection in education thinks that most importantly, reflection should be critical.

 

Reflection is not, by definition critical. And if it happens that it is not critical, it doesn’t mean that it’s not important. Put briefly, reflection becomes critical when it has two distinctive purposes. The first is to understand how considerations of power undergird, frame and distort so many educational processes and interactions. The second is to question assumptions and practices that seem to make our teaching lives easier but that actually end up working against our own best long term interests – in other words, those that are hegemonic.

 

Power

 

In my experience of Schwartz rounds, for example, hierarchies are replicated as more senior and more confident people speak out in large groups. Brookfield would have us reflect critically on whether the physical structure (large room with a panel and an audience) reinforces hierarchies. Power is ever present and a force for good as well as harm as I have tried to illustrate in two previous blogs –Medical Power and Power in the Consultation. Critical reflection should pay attention to the way power is used by clinicians, managers, politicians, patients, organisations etc.

 

We should reflect on statements like,

 

We are empowering our patients

Giving patients more responsibility is empowering

Patients should take more responsibility

Doctors are powerless these days

Managers have too much power

Nurses have too little power

I feel powerless/ afraid/ intimidated/ bullied

 

Questioning assumptions

 

Brookfield says we should question different types of assumptions, first and foremost, ‘paradigmatic assumption’. These are the facts that we take for granted about what we do. Examples include,

 

We practice evidence-based medicine

Medicine is a science

Medicine is a vocation

Doctors should be objective

Empathy cannot be taught

It is better to be clinically excellent than a good communicator

Patients’ needs are what matters, not what they want

I know what my patients want and need

Patient-centered care means giving them what they want

Surgeons don’t do compassion/ shared-decision making

Palliative care doctors are lovely

Patient-feedback improves the quality of care

 

Brookfield concludes with six reasons why critical reflection is important,

 

  1. It helps us take informed actions
  2. It helps us develop a rationale for practice
  3. It helps us avoid self-laceration
  4. It grounds us emotionally
  5. It enlivens our classrooms
  6. It increases democratic trust

 

It may not be obvious that these follow from analyses of power and assumptions, but when I read his work the conclusions make a lot of sense.

Reflective practice must be founded on trust which is supported by confidentiality, respect, curiosity and non-judgement. It is a skill that like playing an instrument, improves with practice and fades with neglect and sounds better with company.

Brookfield concludes,

Critical reflection is inherently ideological. It is also morally grounded. It springs from a concern to create the conditions under which people can learn to love one another, and it alerts them to the forces that prevent this. Being anchored in values of justice, fairness and compassion, critical reflection finds its political representation in the democratic process. Since it is difficult to show love to others when we are divided, suspicious and scrambling for advantage, critical reflection urges us to create conditions under which each person is respected, valued and heard. In pedagogic terms this means the creation of democratic classrooms. In terms of professional development it means an engagement in critical conversation.

By highlighting that reflective practice need not be all about emotions, but is also an intellectual challenge that has potential to improve professional relationships and patient care, I hope that some sceptical colleagues may be tempted back.

Related post: “Don’t judge me!” Reflections on reflection

 

Guideline centred care

Doreen, Ahmed and Henry have recently had their medication changed in response to a new guideline for prescribing Statins, cholesterol-lowering drugs.

None of them came to ask for a change in their medication. In each case the change was recommended by a clinician in response to a new guideline against which our practice will be judged and financially rewarded or penalised.

Here are the NICE guidelines 2015:

The NICE guideline on lipid modification recommends that the decision whether to start statin therapy should be made after an informed discussion between the clinician and the person about the risks and benefits of statin treatment, taking into account additional factors such as potential benefits from lifestyle modifications, informed patient preference, comorbidities, polypharmacy, general frailty and life expectancy.

and

NICE recommends that statin treatment for people with CVD [Cardio–vascular disease] (secondary prevention) should usually start with atorvastatin 80 mg daily.

It is very easy to judge whether or not people with CVD are on Atorvastatin 80mg, but almost impossible to judge whether the decision to start therapy has been made as a result of thoughtful deliberation between the patient and the clinician. Thoughtful deliberation is at the heart of patient-centred care (not doing whatever the patient wants, as is often confusingly assumed).

Increasingly, financial incentives are being used to ‘improve quality’ in healthcare, which usually means that payment depends on the proportion of patients with condition ‘a’, receiving treatment ‘z’.

The assumption is that good quality medicine is about drugs like ‘z’ treating conditions like ‘a’. It says very little about Doreen, Ahmed or Henry.

Doreen is 67 and has CVD, chronic pain, depression, COPD, and recurrent vertigo. She lives alone, is socially anxious and isolated, frequently misses appointments, hates going to hospital, forgets to take her medication less often than she chooses not to take it – which is very often. She smokes about 30 roll-ups a day and has never exercised, and is very thin.

Ahmed is 47, has had two heart attacks, has type 2 diabetes with complications affecting his eyesight and his kidneys, he is overweight and cannot exercise because of chronic gouty arthritis. He has high blood pressure and cares for his wife who has schizophrenia, doesn’t speak any English and is frequently admitted to hospital.

Henry is 91, he has had a series of strokes and moderately severe Dementia – a mix of Alzheimer’s disease and stroke disease. He has metastatic prostate cancer and pain in his back from where the cancer has spread. He cannot speak and needs nursing assistance for all his needs.

Doreen, Ahmed and Henry are not the kinds of patients who are going to object when the doctor they know and trust, or even the expert they have never met before, changes their medication to include Atorvastatin 80mg. Dozens of people like them are my patients. I have no desire to impose an unnecessary burden of treatment upon them. I have every desire to practice with wisdom and compassion, to understand what matters most to them, what they want to get out of their treatment, to know how much is enough and how much is too much, to know which risks are worth taking and which are not. I want to know, in the context of their lives and their complex multiple conditions how much, and in what ways they are likely to benefit from changing their medication to include Atorvastatin 80mg. It is almost impossible to answer these questions without time. Guidelines do not, and cannot possibly take into account the characteristics of every patient. They generalise and we attempt to contextualise. Guidelines are rarely ever put together with or even for, patients. They rarely ever have any shared-decision making support and are not written in a way that is easily accessible to patients. Guidelines recommend that we are patient-centred, but they are not.

I am not sure that shared-decision making tools aren’t heading down a blind alley. They assume that people making decisions are rational and interested in abstractions like statistical tools and flow-charts, when the way my patients usually talk about healthcare is in personal narratives with significant events, characters, aspirations and moral negotiations. Compare Richard Lehman’s description of a shared decision making process or Paul Haidet’s description of a consultation with the NHS shared decision making website.

There is another, perhaps more important issue that this case highlights. GP appointments are a valuable and scarce resource. If the agenda for discussion is to be determined by neither the patient nor the doctor, but by the guideline, then there is less time to discuss other issues that may be of far greater importance and potential benefit. One important question to ask before administering any guideline is, “are there more important issues or interventions to discuss with your patient?”

Thousands of doctors and nurses struggle all day, every day to share difficult decisions with their patients. Making the right decision in the face of the natural complexity of medical practice and our patients’ lives, requires ‘phronesis’ or practical wisdom, informed by guidelines, but not led by them. Thousands more clinicians, caught in a trap with too little time and too much pressure to prescribe will skip the deliberation and simply default to the bit of the guideline that tells them what to prescribe.

When our patients look at the league tables and the accountants look at our books, will they be able to tell us apart?