A Message To Our Patients

Last week the Care Quality Commission (CQC) published data on every GP practice, placing each practice in one of 6 bands in order to prioritise them for inspection. The CQC has been very keen to point out that the way it has banded practices is not a judgement on them, as this can only come when the full inspection is completed. Despite this, the newspaper headlines described large numbers of ‘failing practices’ which will have inevitably worried patients; the fact that the CQC used the word ‘risk’ in its reports is a shame, as it has made it more likely that patients will be concerned.

At Binscombe we have been given a band 2 out of 6, which has been hard to take, not because we are worried about an early inspection – we are happy to be inspected at any time – but because the banding does feel like a judgement, and we believe that we give far better care than that. The banding may also have caused anxiety for our patients, and this too is a concern for us.

The CQC reports look at 38 individual pieces of data, from how often the patients at a practice attend A&E, to how our patients rate the practice in the annual GP survey, to how many patients with high blood pressure achieve a certain blood pressure target. There are many other pieces of data they could have chosen, and we had no idea until last week which they would choose, but these are the ones they have picked. Each indicator has an expected value the practice is meant to have achieved, and if the practice is significantly below that value then this will indicate a ‘risk’, with the number of ‘risks’ determining which band the practice ends up in.

There are several indicators that come from the GP annual survey on patient care where we have scored exceptionally well. For instance, when it comes to the percentage of patients who said that the GP they saw was ‘good or very good at treating them with care and concern’ we were expected to achieve 85%, when in fact 97% of our patients felt able to say this. We are incredibly proud of this. We don’t get it right every time, but we always try hard to listen to our patients, to share their concerns and involve them in all decisions about their care.

Where the practice has been criticised in the report mostly relates to indicators that are more about monitoring than listening. These are:

  • The number of patients with diabetes whose blood pressure has achieved a target of 140/80
  • The number of patients with diabetes who have had a routine foot examination in the previous 12 months
  • The number of patients with diabetes who have had their urine tested for protein in the previous 12 months
  • The number of patients with serious mental health problems who have a record in their notes of alcohol consumption in the previous 12 months

And one area to do with the layout of our practice waiting area:

  • The number of respondents in the GP survey who said they could not be overheard in the waiting area.

These are not unimportant, but there is always a tension in a GP consultation between addressing the concerns a patient wants to talk about and the requirements to monitor and treat things like blood pressure. In an ideal world we would always do both, but too much attention to the latter can make the patient feel like they are not being listened to and that the doctor’s agenda is more important than their own.

Last April, Jeremy Hunt said he wanted to end the ‘tick-box’ culture in medicine that too often distracted GPs from spending quality time with their patients, and this is something we have welcomed. While we will address the concerns of the CQC, we will never want the patient to take second stage.

The issue of being overheard in the waiting area is a difficult one. We would certainly like to have an area where patients could talk in the confidence that they cannot be overheard, and we take confidentiality very seriously, but we are constrained by the practical reality of our building and the waiting area. It is not easy to see how we could put up a screen between reception and the waiting area, but we will certainly be looking at any possible solutions to this problem.

We take the CQC report very seriously, and we will be working to address the issues raised within it. We know we are not perfect and we are always looking to improve the care we provide for our patients. When Chris Jagger was at the practice he always used to say that our patients are our greatest asset; this is as true now as it ever was, and we are very grateful for the support we receive from Binscombe patients.

Time to Put Infant Reflux Back In Its Box

In all walks of life there are times when you get to enjoy the liberating feeling of being told something you’ve always known to be true, but never quite had the knowledge you needed to confirm your inner convictions. This happens to GPs all the time, because we have convictions and feelings about most of the medicine we encounter on a daily basis, but too little time to research all the myriad quandaries we are left puzzling over. This is where specialists have their use – they are able to dedicate years of study to one or two of the dilemmas we are faced with, and help point us in the right direction.

So it was this week, that one such specialist empowered me with something of a eureka moment over a condition that has been troubling me recently – the increasingly medicalised language surrounding ‘sicky’ babies.

By ‘sicky’ I mean milk-spitting, vomiting, puking babies that leave permanent milky-white stains on the shoulders of all their parents’ best clothes, require investment in dozens of muslin squares and lead to the pulling up of carpets in favour of wipe-clean lino just before the baby miraculously grows out of it. Or to use a lovely, old-fashioned word that we need to keep hold of: possetting.

What I do not mean, is gastro-oesophageal reflux.

Reflux is a highly medicalised word. It is not normal; it implies acid spilling backwards from stomach to oesophagus and (as any pregnant woman knows) painful heartburn. True acid reflux can occur in babies, but it is rare; paediatric gastroenterologists at the conference I attended this week were queuing up to testify as to how unusual it is to have positive tests for acid reflux in possetting babies. This fits with the experience of having a possetting baby (and I have bought my fair share of muslin in my time) – babies are not usually distressed by pain when they posset, and the milk smells just like that – milk, and not acid.

Despite the fact that the entire feed of milk seems to find its way into the washing machine rather than the infant stomach, babies who possett thrive – they put on weight and develop without problem. They are irritable some times, but most babies have times when they are more irritable than their parents would like. If possetting is very common, and irritability is very common, then there will be many babies that experience both, but that doesn’t mean that the possett is the cause of their irritation – or, more  importantly, that treating ‘reflux’ will make any difference to one or either symptom.

Many advice websites give quite a balanced view on this issue, with sites like the BabyCentre and netmums giving lots of reassurance that it is usually normal and will settle on its own before mentioning any medical treatment for it – but they still call it reflux, because the word has entered popular use. Fascinatingly, what I also learned this week is that if parents are told their baby has reflux they are more likely to want medication for it than if the doctor gives the same explanation of the problem, but avoids using the medical label.

Medical labels matter, they create anxiety that your baby has a problem that you should be trying to solve, and can turn a normal, healthy baby into a patient before they have barely got going in life. We need to normalise this process and recapture the word possetting for the nursery and not the doctor’s surgery.

So what of the science behind treatments for ‘reflux’? Well the first thing to say is that true Gastro-Oesophageal Reflux Disease can occur, although it is rare. We need to be concerned about a baby that is failing to thrive (that is, is not growing properly and putting on weight in the normal way), or if the vomit contains blood, or is associated with significant breathing difficulties. These babies may well need to see a paediatrician.

For the vast majority of possetting babies, however, the point in question is this: will any treatments that are offered make any difference to how often my baby is sick, or to how irritable they are? The answer to these two questions is a resounding ‘no.’ Simple measures such as making sure you don’t overfeed, slowing down the feed and winding regularly are all common sense, but changing feed to an expensive ‘stay down’ milk, or low allergy formula strikes me as companies exploiting an artificial niche in the market and evidence of benefit is very limited.

Medications fare no better. Antacids such as Gaviscon are frequently used, as are medicines that stop the stomach making acid in the first place, such as ranitidine and omeprazole (although this is an unlicenced use). When these medicines have been subjected to proper clinical trials they show that they reduce the acidity – but make no difference to how much a baby possetts or how irritable they are.

What is more, there are significant downsides to neutralising the stomach acidity in infants, in the form of increased risk of both gastroenteritis and pneumonia – presumably we evolved to have stomach acid for a reason, and keeping germs at bay may well be part of its role.

So, we have a treatment that doesn’t work, for a condition that doesn’t really exist, and that might make your baby really quite unwell – any takers? Let’s instead try to put reflux back into its box, let healthy babies be healthy babies, and reclaim the word possetting – more of a laundry problem than a medical one!

Nagging Never Works

During my time working in hospital I remember seeing a patient in the clinic who came for review after a spell as an in-patient. He had come in with his first episode of chest pain caused by heart disease and he had made a good recovery. What I remember most about him, however, was how emphatically he wanted me to pass on his thanks to the junior doctor who had admitted him:

‘She saved my life, doctor,’ he said. ‘She told me I’d die if I didn’t stop smoking. You know what I did? I handed over my packet of fags and haven’t touched one since; best thing that could’ve happened to me!’

I reassured him that I would certainly pass on his thanks to the doctor, and was glad for his success; what I did not tell him, however, was that my colleague had smoked every one of his cigarettes – ‘shame to waste them,’ she had told me.

What this incident illustrates is the fundamental difference between being in possession of medical knowledge and deciding to act upon it – or in the language of the cycle of change: moving from being pre-contemplative about change to actually contemplating doing something. My medical colleague undoubtedly knew more than most about the risks of smoking, yet she persisted despite the urgent advice she gave to her patient; the presence of crushing chest pain, however, was clearly capable of bringing the same advice into such sharp focus that it motivated radical change.

I often say to my patients that their two best opportunities to stop smoking are to get pregnant or to have a heart attack – a range of options which my male patients find disturbingly limiting. Timely advice from doctors can certainly increase the chance of success, but the studies included in the Cochrane review are of interventions when patients have made an appointment for other reasons. A different question entirely is whether or not we should screen for cardiovascular disease and then provide lifestyle interventions – and the answer to this has appeared in the BMJ recently, and appears to be a resounding ‘no’.

The Inter99 study is a significant piece of work – nearly 60 000 participants with interventions over 5 years and 10 year follow-up, and came to the overwhelming conclusion that screening for risk factors with regular lifestyle counselling had no impact on the incidence of ischaemic heart disease, stroke or mortality. We might be depressed at the poor return for such well-meant efforts, but we should not be surprised: despite the Government’s obsession with ‘making every contact count’, NHS health checks and annual demands in the GP contract to advise our patients again and again about smoking, nagging patients generally does not work.

We know nagging does not work because that is what patients say – receiving health advice when you are not ready for it simply creates resistance and can damage the doctor-patient relationship as this qualitative study in smokers makes clear; it is contrary to all the principles of Motivational Interviewing and against both our training and our experience in the consulting room. The question now is, will policy-makers listen? Will they be bold enough to follow the evidence and stop telling doctors to do things that don’t work, or will they just carry on regardless? Sadly, I think I might know the answer.

This post was first published in Pulse magazine (free subscription required)

The Greatest Taboo

Death and ageing are often described as the remaining taboos of our age – twin foes that we will do everything in our power to escape while knowing that they must surely come to us in the end. The current debate on assisted dying, however, leads me to believe there is an even greater taboo that troubles us in our modern, technological world – the question of suffering.

Suffering has defined much of human history, but it is only in the last hundred years that we have made significant inroads into finding ways to tackle it; with the advent of innovations such as vaccination; antibiotics; safe, anaesthetised surgery and effective pain relief, we have made great strides in the relief or prevention of suffering. In so reducing our regular encounters with this old enemy, however, I wonder if we are now less equipped to cope with it when we see it face to face.

Theologians, writers and poets all have a great deal to say about suffering. As Shelley put it:

Most wretched men
Are cradled into poetry by wrong:
They learn in suffering what they teach in song.

In her commentary on the assisted dying debate back in Iona Heath reminds us of the words of the French author Emmanuel Carrère who said:

As a rule…one must live lucidly, experiencing everything that happens, even suffering.

Not all are so romantic. Somerset Maugham, for instance laments:

It is not true that suffering ennobles the character; happiness does that sometimes, but suffering, for the most part, makes men petty and vindictive.

Whatever their conclusions, however, at least these writers have something to say about suffering – something that I fear we have lost the ability to do in modern healthcare. Everything we do in medicine is about the relief of suffering – and rightly so, we should be doing all we can to both prevent and relieve the suffering we encounter; but where we cannot achieve relief, we also seem to lack the narrative to help our patients come to terms with their situation. The inability to deal with the cause of suffering is seen as failure, often responded to with ever more desperate technological attempts to tackle the problem; another tablet that just might work, more chemotherapy, further surgery – the promise of relief preventing any real admission that medicine has run out of answers. As Heath puts it, medicine all too often offers ‘a technological solution to an existential problem.’

That there are calls for assisted dying to be legalised is certainly evidence that the fear of death can be outweighed by the greater fear of suffering. Some argue that palliative medicine is so developed that all suffering in terminal care can be relieved, but while such care can indeed be excellent, this seems arrogant and insulting to those who continue to suffer despite doctors’ best efforts. Not all suffering is related to bodily symptoms – mental anguish and fear can be just as hard to bear, and medicine rarely has the answers to the less physiological burdens we have to carry.

As doctors we have a rich language to call on for the relief of suffering: diagnose; treat; control; palliate; cure and so on, but where is our vocabulary for the suffering which we cannot resolve? Words like endure and persevere are not medical words, and you will rarely hear doctors use them – to tell someone they must simply put up with their distress seems uncaring, and leaves the doctor’s inadequacies too exposed; we would rather skirt around the issue and talk about more treatment. Is it any wonder, then, that some people ask for the ultimate treatment for the relief of suffering – assisted dying?

To hear the plight of someone who wants to choose assisted dying and not to be moved is to have a heart of stone; it is entirely understandable. Yet I have also seen the very best of what it means to be human arise directly from the pit of suffering: remarkable courage; relationships restored as years of unresolved bitterness are finally forced to a head, leading to resolution and forgiveness; great acts of love, sacrifice and kindness. Not all is rosy, of course, and at times illness will only unearth the mire hidden just below the surface, but this is the stuff of life with both its joys and its messiness.

I would like to help my patient’s journey through the suffering they have to endure rather than give them drugs to find a permanent way of escaping it. Do I have the right to tell my patients how much they should suffer? Of course not. Have I suffered enough in my own life to even know what I am talking about? No, I have witnessed a great deal of suffering, but personally only been subject to it in small measures thus far, if someone says therefore I have not earned the right to talk about this then I will not quarrel with them. Do I think suffering is ever justifiable on the grounds that good will come out of it? Certainly not, and I will continue to spend my days trying to relieve it. But I am constantly surprised by the great beauty that can arise from suffering, and I can’t help thinking that if assisted dying becomes legal and routine in this country then we will lose some of our humanity in the process.

I Lost my Mother Years Ago

‘I lost my mother years ago.’ It’s an odd thing to say about someone who is still living and breathing, but when faced with the advanced stages of dementia it can be the reality people have to live with. There is a point in the journey when communication becomes nearly impossible, the affected person stops recognising even their closest family and those who care about them really feel that the person they have loved is no longer there. Such a conclusion is understandable, but it raises all sorts of questions about the meaning of personhood in the 21st century.

The feeling of having lost someone is certainly not an uncommon experience. Ian Botham was so overwhelmed by it that he took the difficult decision to avoid visiting his father in the last 6 months of his father’s illness with dementia – fearing that his positive memories would be distorted by seeing his Dad in his final days. I can’t possibly judge Sir Ian for this decision, but I am deeply sad for him and can’t help wondering if his memories won’t be distorted anyway; our imagination has a disturbing habit of filling in the gaps in our experience.

It is interesting to me that we rarely hear someone talk of losing a relative to cancer until after their actual death. While cancer is an equally devastating illness, there is somehow something more acceptable about dying from cancer than dying from dementia – we still see the person inside the body no matter how ravaged it may be, as long as the mind is still working; in fact, even when the mind finally succumbs to cancer we seem less affected by this because it started in the body. The way Western culture places the intellect above all else must have a significant part to play here – I’m not sure the same would be true for all cultures and it would be interesting to know how dementia is treated in cultures that differ significantly in this area. Maybe stigma and fear have a large part to play also – I know that there was a time when dying from cancer was far from acceptable, when talking about cancer was taboo and a diagnosis somehow a cause of shame; this was before my time as a doctor and is so far from my experience that I can hardly imagine it, but there are echoes of the same in dementia, and I suspect these barriers will prove even harder to break down.

When have we ever heard the parents of a highly disabled child talk about losing their child while they are still alive? Through the link our practice has with a children’s hospice I talk frequently with parents whose children are no more able to communicate with their family than would a person in the late stages of dementia. There is grief and sorrow and pain for sure, but never a sense that their child is no longer a person or that only an empty shell of a body has been left alive. Of course, children are innately easy to love, but I don’t think it is a lack of love for the elderly that is at work here, or simple ageism; there seems to be something uniquely challenging about losing what we once had when it comes to our intellect.

The issue raises important questions: who am I, when I have forgotten who I am? In what way can I still be a father if I have forgotten that I have children? The cartoonist Tony Husband had to face all these questions as he watched his father die from dementia, an episode of his life that he recorded in cartoon form and which was published in full by The Daily mail. The cartoons are poignant, but not sentimental, and although the headline writers talk about dementia ‘stealing away his father’, Husband himself never describes things in this way. He simply tells the story of what happened, with both gentle humour and deep sorrow, leading to one moment right at the end of his father’s life, after any sense of meaningful communication with his Dad appeared to have gone forever, when out of the blue and in a rare moment of wakefulness, his Dad said to him: ‘Take care, son.’

Perhaps a mother can still be a mother simply because her son knows that he is her son. If our personhood is defined by whom we have loved in our lives (and there are far worse ways to ascribe meaning to our existence), then maybe it is sufficient that we are defined by those who love us, even when we have lost the capacity to show love in return. This love might even find new ways of expression: a father with dementia might be willing to hold his daughter’s hand, having previously been too inhibited to do so; a mother might come alive when the piano starts playing and sing with her children for the first time in many years; bitter memories of past wrongs may be lost alongside those memories we would rather keep, allowing the restoration of relationships as barriers are removed.

In a society that defines its members primarily on the basis of what work they do, how successful they are and how much money they earn, we should not be surprised that we lack the cultural aptitude to cope with dementia. However, if we can redefine what we mean by personhood in a way that is fully inclusive of a person with dementia, we may be more equipped to deal with this illness and perhaps all find a better way to live along the way.

The Saatchi Bill – Innovation or Obscuration?

What’s the difference between a quack and a pioneer? And how do we allow the next William Harvey or Edward Jenner to flourish, whilst protecting the public?

These are the questions at the heart of the Medical Innovations Bill, the basis of which is the belief that true innovation is being stifled by the fear doctors have of being sued, and that legislation is required to remove this barrier.

I found myself trying to answer these questions in the consulting room the other day when a patient asked me directly if she could have a syndrome I had never heard of before. She has a multitude of symptoms that I have been unable to explain, and her internet search had led her to the syndrome as a possible explanation for her situation. She was kind enough to give me time to do my own research, and we agreed to meet again to discuss it.

The syndrome in question (which I won’t name for fear of saying anything that could be misconstrued as libel) was unorthodox, but not implausible. It suggested that there could be a hormonal imbalance at tissue-level which was not reflected in abnormal blood tests, and high-level hormone supplementation was required.

But tissue-level biochemistry is still poorly understood. If bacteria in your gut can cause ulcers and crystals in your ear lead to vertigo, then I don’t see why some hereto unknown enzyme problem couldn’t lead to a hormone imbalance – unlikely, but not impossible.

Here, however, is where the theory started to break down into quackery: the proponent of the syndrome did not engage in the process of scientific enquiry, but named the condition after himself, set up a lucrative clinic offering untested (potentially harmful) therapy to patients outside the bounds of a clinical trial, and continues to offer such treatment despite being disciplined by his professional body.

When I made my conclusions about my patient’s diagnosis, explaining the background, thankfully she agreed with me.

So I am left with a simple distinction between true innovators and quacks. The former will be motivated by a desire to discover truth through rigorous scientific enquiry and external peer scrutiny, while the latter will come up with plausible, attractive theories and hurry on with treatments without stopping to examine the effects in an unbiased way

This is why we do not need Saatchi’s Bill, and we should strongly oppose it. A true innovator will not want to implement the Bill, while a maverick doctor may seek to exploit it. Their motivations for doing so may be benign – a desire to offer hope to the patient in front of them, perhaps, or an inability to admit the truth that really nothing more can be done – but the outcome will be the same.

The Bill is meant to encourage innovation where there is a dearth of clinical trials, but in such circumstances a true innovator will not complain about the lack of trials, they will create one.

The Bill seeks to provide safeguards so that proposed treatments are brought before fellow clinicians before being used. A true innovator knows the value of proper scrutiny as afforded by an ethics committee.

The Bill seeks to encourage treatments for patients who have no time to wait for clinical trials, but a true innovator will see the long line of future patients, and not allow decisions to be dominated by the suffering of those immediately before them.

Maybe our Health Secretary and Lord Saatchi should talk to someone like Barry Marshall, who jointly won the 2005 Nobel Prize for Physiology with Robin Warren for establishing the link between H pylori and peptic ulcer disease, and was so obsessed with finding the truth that he infected himself with the bacterium to study its effects – now that was true innovation. I wonder what he would think about the Bill?

The post was originally published by Pulse (free registration required)

On the Rebound

My Twitter feed has recently been subject to a series of promoted tweets from a company that sells decongestant nasal sprays. The brand behind these advertisements shall remain nameless (other decongestant nasal sprays are available), but I have been compelled to take to the keyboard because the spray is being recommended for the relief of symptoms of hay fever – which is just bad medicine.

I must make it clear that the company is doing nothing wrong – the spray is licensed for the treatment of hay fever and it is available without prescription, so they are well within their rights to advertise it in this way. That doesn’t mean I have to agree with them, though.

 

On the face of it, it seems reasonable to use a decongestant for hay fever – one of the symptoms is nasal congestion, after all. The problem lies in the issue of rebound congestion – sometimes known as rhinitis medicamentosa (medical speak for your medicines made your nose run). The decongestants might make you feel dramatically better in the short-term – as they reduce the blood flow, and hence the swelling, in your nasal passages within minutes – but they don’t do anything about the underlying cause. Worse than that, within a few days your nose can start getting ‘addicted’ to these sprays so that the congestion returns with a vengeance, requiring more of the spray to relieve the symptoms, leading to further rebound congestion and so on.

For this reason all decongestants have strict warnings on them that they are not to be used for more than 7 days. They are mostly used for treating colds, and since these last only a week or so that is not too problematic. For treating acute sinus pain, or relieving earache on a flight, they are fantastic, since these are short-term problems. Hay fever, on the other hand, will last as long as the pollen you are allergic to – April and March for tree pollens, May, June and half of July for grasses. So the adverts promote something that should never be used for more than a week, to treat a condition that will usually last at least 2 months. Even for those patients who have only very intermittent symptoms on high pollen days there are more effective treatments out there, in the form of antihistamines and steroid nasal sprays.

While the ‘S’ word can cause people concern, I sometimes describe steroid nasal sprays as being the polar opposite of decongestants. The latter make you feel better straight away, but do nothing for the underlying condition and will make it worse in the long-term, while steroid sprays do absolutely nothing straight away, but treat the underlying inflammation that is the problem in hay fever and will usually solve the problem in the longer term. The steroid dose is extremely low so that there are no side effects due to absorption into the blood stream. It’s better not to use them all year round if you can help it, due to thinning of the lining of the nose and nose bleeds, but then hay fever is seasonal so most people can have prolonged breaks from treatment.

As a doctor I feel especially powerless to stop people becoming dependent on decongestant nasal sprays; and some do become truly hooked – I have had some patients rely on them for decades. I know that my pharmacy colleagues are very good at warning patients not to take them for more than 7 days, and I can’t imagine any pharmacist recommending them for hay fever, but patients don’t have to speak to any health care professional to buy these products. They are categorised under General Sales Licence, which means that you can just drop them in your basket from the shelves of a supermarket and take them to the checkout – no-one will notice that you buy them every week, or advise you that it might be causing you such a problem.

How such a product was ever made so readily available, or achieved a licence for hay fever, I shall never know. There is no prospect of changing this, but perhaps by writing about it I can steer one or two people away from turning their seasonal allergy into a year-round problem of rebound congestion.

Raising Awareness – Do We Know What We Are Doing?

There was an interesting discussion on Radio 5 Live recently between Glasgow GP Dr Margaret McCartney and Kris Hallenga, the founder of the CoppaFeel breast cancer awareness charity. The interview was arranged in relation to an article Dr McCartney wrote for the BMJ in the first of her new weekly column for the journal, which criticised The Sun newspaper’s rather hypocritical Page 3 campaign to encourage young women to regularly check their breasts for lumps. Whatever you might think of the piece, you have to admire Dr McCartney’s boldness for taking on both a national daily newspaper and the emotive power of the Pink Ribbon for her induction to the column!

The interview exposes how screening for disease and responding to symptoms are so often blurred in the media and by health campaigners – whether this is due to simple ignorance or a deliberate ploy to increase the power of the campaigns is uncertain, but that it is helpful is without doubt. The Sun’s campaign calls for the screening of asymptomatic women through regular breast self-examination, and Dr McCartney’s assertion is that the benefits and harms of this strategy are not sufficiently understood to be able to promote such advice, and what evidence we do have suggests it may do more harm than good. Ms Hallenga, on the other hand says that she ‘ignored her symptoms for so long’; ignoring the symptoms is not the same as failing to remember to check yourself when you don’t have symptoms – there is something more going on here, which brings me to a fundamental problem with ‘awareness raising’ health campaigns.

The logic of raising awareness goes like this: people aren’t seeing their doctor quickly enough about a certain disease – this must be due to a lack of knowledge, understanding and awareness of the condition – there should be a campaign to raise awareness – people will be better informed and see their doctor more quickly – lives and money will be saved. If we were all computer programmes and responded in a predictable way to data input this would work a treat, but people are far more complicated than that.

There are many reasons why someone may choose not to see their doctor when they have significant symptoms. Ignorance may be one of them, but in this day and age of instant health information courtesy of Google, it is surely less of a factor than it used to be – the danger is now the converse, that too much information may be having a detrimental effect. If a woman finds a breast lump – whether by chance or through a belief that she should check herself – she is unlikely to be unaware that breast cancer is a possibility, and yet some will delay seeing their GP despite this knowledge. Other factors must play a part: fear of what might happen next; complex self-denial as we convince ourselves that ‘this can’t be true’; embarrassment; business and the attitude that ‘I haven’t got time to be ill’ are all reasons why someone may not see a doctor – attitudes that might be improved by an awareness-raising health campaign, or might just be hardened by it.

Awareness raising is usually championed by politicians whose motive is to improve a statistic or – for understandable reasons – by those with an emotional connection with the disease in question. The problem with this is that the focus is heavily biased towards those with the disease, with little consideration given to the potential harm to others who may be caught up in the campaign. The justification for this is often that it brings reassurance to those who are checked out and found to be ok – but we should question the merit of a campaign which brings peace of mind to those who have been made anxious by the very same campaign in the first place.

The ‘cough for three weeks could be cancer’ strategy is a good case in point. As with all GPs I have seen more patients with a cough since the adverts appeared – usually non-smokers who are very conscious of their health and would never ignore symptoms for very long – while I am aware of smokers who have been put off seeing their GP by this very campaign because they don’t want to be given bad news. There is rarely any attempt to see how people will respond to these health messages – little consideration given to the fact that the same message might harden the resistance of those who should seek advice while unhelpfully altering the health-seeking behaviour of those who should not. We need to be bolder in challenging this, even if, like Dr McCartney, we end up being accused of acting ‘dangerously’.

Sometimes, though, if you can’t beat them you have to join them, and so I would like to launch my own awareness raising campaign. It’s very simple and it goes like this: ‘Health Awareness Campaigns can do more harm than good – use with caution, apply common sense, and trust your instincts’.

This post was originally posted in Pulse magazine (free subscription required)

The Doctor Will Not Examine You Now

I’m acutely aware of how easy it is to be hypocritical as a doctor – and no more so than when I give advice during a consultation, because sometimes I contradict my advice by my actions only a moment later.

The scenario often arises with simple childhood problems, like earache or a cough. Take earache, for instance; it is not unusual for a parent to bring their child to me within a few hours of an earache developing, hoping to ‘nip it in the bud’. I understand the logic of this, but also know that earache doesn’t work like that – most short-lived earache is due to middle ear pressure and not infection, will resolve on its own within 48 hours and antibiotics are best avoided. I don’t mind seeing children for this, but would like to save their parents the bother of having to take time out of their busy day – already stressed by having an unwell child – in order to see a doctor; I would like to empower patients to know when to self-care and when to seek medical advice.

To this aim, therefore, I like to advise parents on when they should bring their child’s unhappy ear for me to have a look at, and when they can safely manage things at home. ‘Unless your child is really poorly,’ I say, ‘there’s no need to see a doctor until there is persistent earache or fever lasting longer than 48 hours.’ So far, so good. This information is usually politely received and I feel better for having passed it on. What I then do is to undermine everything I have said.

I EXAMINE THE CHILD.

 

The child is clearly not seriously unwell, just from the way they are playing happily with the toys in my room, the earache is not yet 6 hours old and there is no fever. This is exactly the child I have just said does not need to be here – yet I proceed to do something which very few parents can do themselves at home, which is to pick up my magic auroscope and look in the child’s ear. If I have just said the child does not need to see a doctor, why am I doing something that only a doctor can do? How does this help to reassure the parent in front of me the next time their child is in the same situation that they can safely manage this at home?

Of course, the reason why I examine the child is because that is what doctors do – after the history is taken, you examine the patient. It is ingrained in us, expected of us, and seems neglectful to do otherwise. A failure to examine properly is often cited in medical negligence cases, and it is unnerving to consider not doing it – but perhaps we should be bolder and consider changing our practice.

I remember hearing a story about some office workers who were being shown round their new premises, situated several floors up in a brand new sky-scraper. The floor-to-ceiling glass walls and the unnatural view of the ground 100 feet below created such anxiety among the staff that the manager had to call the engineer who designed the windows to reassure them that they would be safe working there. All the engineer’s attempts to explain the physical properties of reinforced glass, and how it was stronger than any brick wall, was to no avail. The staff hardened their resolve, and it looked like they would refuse to move in. Finally, the engineer realised what he had to do. Standing in the middle of the room, he started to run as fast as he could; without hesitating for a moment he hit the window with such a force that the whole office shook – while he bounced harmlessly back off the glass with only a bruised shoulder to show for his trouble. The staff moved in the next day.

Perhaps, if we are to really get our health messages across, we have to show in our actions that we actually believe in them. This is what one of my partners has started to do in recent weeks: when it is appropriate he discusses the idea of not examining the child in any way that would not also be possible by the parents. He negotiates this, and does not insist on it, but so far the idea has been well-received. He does what the parents could do – has a general look at the child, takes note of what they are doing and perhaps measures their temperature, but leaves the doctor-only tools of the auroscope and the stethoscope firmly on the desk.

I have not heard of other doctors negotiating this idea of not examining the patient, nor am I aware of any research into this area. It seems radical, and I am yet to try it myself – but it also seems far more honest that the traditional approach. I would love to hear your views.