Every day is a school day

Doctors have a strange sort of a career path.

There are few other industries where professionals who have passed long degrees, taken postgraduate exams, been working in their chosen field for up to 10 years, developed expertise, possibly gained PhDs and are still routinely referred to as ‘junior’

We work long hours (albeit reduced over the past few years by European legislation) and see hundreds, if not, thousands of patients in the time it takes to become a senior doctor.

These long hours have long been held up as an essential part of the training of a doctor – and hark back to the apprentice model of medical education which is where medical training has its roots.  In this model, by working alongside a master, one gains experience, tries out new techniques under supervision, and slowly becomes skilled enough to be considered an independent practitioner.

This model has been eroded somewhat in recent times by the move towards a competency based approach to curricula whereby one progresses, not through a slow acquisition of skills, but seemingly by hopping through the right hoops at the right time and getting the right box ticked on a bewildering number of forms  – all of which purport to confer – confirm – or convey competence in the procedure or process onto the trainee being appraised or assessed.

This competency based approach is lamented by those who feel that it has reduced medical education to a simple process of tick-boxes and has missed the essence of the apprenticeship model of learning.

But what is it that has changed?

I don’t think that juniors spend significantly less time being supervised any more – indeed the more senior members of the medical team are far more visible nowadays than they ever were in the past.  As I have progressed up the grades, it has become the norm to have registrars on-site, clerking patients, and twice daily Consultant ward rounds, even on the weekends.  So supervision has not necessarily gone – so why is the apprentice model no longer working?

I think that part of it is the acceptance by trainees that training can never be mixed with service, and that one cannot learn when doing a ‘menial task’ such as re-siting a cannula, or re-writing a drug chart on an on-call shift.

Indeed, this idea that learning can only take place in the lecture theatre, or when time has been set aside, or one is told “now here is an opportunity to learn” is, in my view, one of the most disabling attitudes, which prevents the aqcuisition of experience, dumbs down the privilege of providing a service to patients in need, and encourages trainees to resent time spent learning the trade which they are likely to follow for the rest of their lives.

In a discussion the other day I highlighted that I take the view that every day is a school day.  One should never go home without learning something.

This view has been backed up by the observations of a cohort of NHS graduate scheme participants who recently shadowed junior doctors.  Almost universally they were struck by the fact that junior doctors are being actively trained the whole time.  And when one takes a moment to think about it – every chance conversation about a clinical problem, every x-ray meeting, every checking of an idea with a senior is a moment of training.  That conversation may take place in the course of everyday service, but the information is gold-dust.

We have access to the experience, mistakes, triumphs, and disasters of our seniors, and if we only open our ears, we can take advantage of all of that.

Today was an example – a patient in clinic is proving to be a diagnostic challenge – are we to do this, do that, do nothing, or something else?  A brief conversation with my consultant, and I am now researching the cost to the NHS of medically unexplained breathlessness, and how this can be addressed, using a combination of medical reasoning, judicious use of ‘tests’, coaching techniques, and communication skills.

So – if you feel that you are stuck in a dead-end service job, that you learn nothing on a daily basis, and are longing for a conference where  you can return to the comfort of a didactic lecture – I think you might be missing out on a world of learning and knowledge every day.

Keep your eyes and ears open, and I am convinced that you will find that every day is a school day.

Advertisements

The Devil is in the detail

Recently I have had the unfortunate experience of having to take a member of my family to hospital – have them admitted, and stay there for about a week.

Luckily the system worked brilliantly at the front door and the treatment required was started promptly and appropriately, quite possibly preventing serious harm.

What followed after was a a mixed bag.  Some staff were excellent – going out of their way to explain what was going on, how things were progressing from their point of view, and allowing me to present my own ideas (along with those of friends with a specialist interest in the field) as to how things should be managed.  Others were less impressive – but probably for understandable reasons.  It was of interest to note that the more senior the doctors became – the harder it seemed for them to meet us at our level and have an equal conversation – resulting in some dissonance (Eric Berne has some answers for why this might have happened)

Doctors are a terrible bunch to have as patients – especially doctors with friends who can give advice with partial information, and thereby stick a spanner in the works for those in the team actually responsible for their care.

On reflection though – the difficulties did not come as a result of gross deficiencies in care, but in the details – single words here and there which made all the difference.  As you can imagine, parents of sick children pay attention to what doctors say.  If they have any kind of inkling as to what the doctors are saying implies then their hearing will be all that more acute.

Some of the disappointments during our stay came as a result of minor details – and I am sure that it was because we, as parents of the patient, were paying more attention to each and every word that was being said than perhaps the doctors were.

Other problems came later when we discovered that some things which had been told to us were simply untrue or inaccurate. This was especially hurtful – again, they did not amount to any negligence or deficiency in care – but they did waste time, effort and tears.

Having transferred to a different centre (for geographical practicality more than anything else) we were met by a team which seemed to work that little bit better.  Was this because hierarchies were obviously flatter – and communication between the senior staff and junior workers was more free? or simply that the confusion which exists at handover periods in the acute phase of an admission wasn’t present?

However, the details which made the difference continued – one team member very deftly avoided explaining the brutal truth of a possible course of treatment (one that was not necessary in the end) – and we are especially grateful for not having to confront that possiblility which ultimately never came to pass.

Well, whatever the reasons – we will continue to have mixed feelings about the first hospital, and have a better impression of the second – but for my own practice, I have now some experience on which to draw when dealing with my own patients – be they medics, nurses, plumbers or forestry workers (anyone really.)

And the lesson I have taken is that truly effective communication is a huge factor in the experience any patient has when receiving care – particularly as an inpatient.

And that communication must be consistent, accurate, and honest.

If not, you will lose the trust your patients have in you, and that can really damage the teamwork that is required between doctor and patient to tackle the mutual challenge of dealing with an illness and treating it effectively.

It’s how you tell ’em

I recently heard two stories which made me think again about communication skills.

In each case, the information delivered to the patient (in both cases friends of mine) was entirely correct.  The problem was not in the decision making, the outcome, the skill, accuracy or dedication of the professional discussing their case, but in the way it was discussed.

In one, a friend who had been seeing a specialist for really very regular follow up saw a new doctor.  The new doctor had read the notes, seen the progress, and – it felt to my friend – made a decision on how the consultation was going to go, and ended up discharging him.  This was all despite having never met the patient, not heard the background, having no idea of the context of the illness – but the numbers looked good, the progress was clear and therefore the decision was an easy one.

The second was a friend who, on remarking how lucky they had been was told in no incertain terms that acutally they weren’t lucky that the illness had not had such severe effects on them, but really that they had been lucky this particular doctor had been around to help them – as it was really their intervention which turned a dire situation into one which has become far more stable and manageable.  Again, this may well be true, but the experience left the friend feeling somewhat bruised by the encounter – especially as all of the previous consultations had been painted in a positive light, and that the disease was always manageable.

So what am I to learn from these?

Well, firstly that context matters – whenever you are going to deliver information to someone – especially when that someone is vulnerable, then tact is still required to determine what level of knowledge is appropriate, and how explicit it is possible to be without overloading someone.  This may sound paternalistic, but part of communicating a message is making it understandable.  All at once is fine for some people, but with many, realisation and recognition of a serious illness or problem is a stepwise process.

The other thing is that communication skills matter.  Paying attention to the participants in a consultation – appreciating where they are coming from, and what experiences they have been having are hugely important.  As we move more and more to efficient models of care, we have to ensure that we, as doctors, and other heatlhcare professionals do not allow ourselves to be caught up entirely in the “production line” and that we retain the important one-on-one relationships that are so important in medicine.

Both of my friends were really quite happy with their care – and the decisions about them and the information they received were absolutely correct.  The problem lay in how they were told – without real care or compassion.

Your decision might be the correct one, the outcome may have been perfect, but patients are humans, not statistics – and humans have feelings – we sometimes need to remember to tread lightly, no matter how bad a day we are having.

 

Networking in Medicine – an essential clinical skill

Networking has some nasty connotations – and often conjures up the image of a smarmy second hand car salesman, or slippery politician ‘working a room.’

But is networking as a doctor so bad?

Junior doctors have a  number of roles.

They meet patients in their hour of greatest need, perform invasive procedures, make life and death decisions, analyse each others performance in audit, take part in research, prescribe medications, request investigations, discharge patients from hospital, explain procedures, explain illnesses progress to patients and relatives, and work in huge organisations – all whilst learning how to become more senior in their chosen profession and advance their careers.

In a typical day at work, junior doctors will be in touch with a number of different departments, and teams – predominantly to make requests – ask something of someone else and get that result yesterday.  This is hard work.

To keep a good working relationship with a wide range of fellow professionals, when all you seem to do is demand things of them takes not just communication skills, but a good understanding of how to network, foster mutually beneficial relationships, negotiate, comprimise, and understand power structures outside of the normal beauracratic hierarchies we work in.

The best juniors tend to know that Steve in ultrasound will be able to help out on a Friday afternoon with that urgent scan, that Marian, the Sister on ward X is great at putting in cannulas, and will probably know that Steve is a keen cyclist, and Marian loves to go line dancing at the weekend.

In fact, to get on in medicine it is almost essential that doctors can network.  Indeed, the power of networks is being recognised more and more – and this recent article from the Harvard Business Review highlights the power that Networks can bring over the more limited scope of smaller teams.

I guess what I want to point out is that networking is an essential clinical skill.

As I see it, networking in hospital is not about making the next sale (although this paper on Selling Patients might give lie to that sentiment) or brown-nosing your way to the top.  It is more about maintaining relationships which are beneficial to patients in times of need.

On a larger scale, networking is important for the dissemination of ideas, exchange of opinions and for widening ones horizons – so make use of the tools which are out there – Twitter is a personal favourite of mine – and so is The Network ( a particularly fine place to start if you are interested in improving the care of patients in the NHS before you are a fully-grown healthcare professional)

Institutional Memory

Junior doctors are great at seeing problems, but often struggle with implementing solutions.

They move jobs every few months, and see new problems, inefficiencies, and defects in systems – and either quietly get on and reform things, or, if the problems are out of their power or scope to change, make suggestions, and then, before they can get up momentum – move on.

The peripatetic nature of our junior medical workforce is one of the major reasons why juniors sometimes seem to be seen as a problem to be dealt with, rather than valuable members of a highly qualified workforce.

Institutional memory is something which is built up over time, and is often held within the memories of the longer-standing members of the workforce, rather than written down and archived for future reference.  When key members of staff move on, or retire – that valuable resource is often lost.

In the case of junior doctors, it is more the handy hints which a shadowing period can help to transfer to the new crew which get lost in the transition – who to ask for for an urgent ultrasound, which secretary is best at passing messages to the boss when he is on study leave, which ward is most likely to look after certain types of patient better than others.

At a recent learning event, we had a discussion about how to combat this loss of ‘institutional memory’ within the junior doctor grades.

I’m not entirely convinced of the full answer – but for a start, wouldn’t it be great if those juniors who are due to move on after only a few weeks could write down their observations, maybe even with a little bit of data – and then next bunch could pick them up – analyse the problems, and implement the solutions.

A team file of ideas, trials of solutions and successful innovations could hold the history of improvement efforts of the team – and who knows – that part of the organisation may truly become a ‘learning team’

So – before I leave my current post – it seems I have just given myself a task – to record the handy hints and attempted improvements which were made throughout my year there, and I’ll pass it on to whoever comes next.  Hopefully they will see through some of my ideas and develop them to improve things further – and if they pass the baton on, who knows, in time things might just improve.

 

Life after death

There is life after death.

Now, I know that sounds like a very rash statement, and one which has kept philosophers, scholars, sceptics, clerics and a fair few others busy for some few millennia.

However, as doctors, and healthcare professionals, we often seem to forget that there truly is life going on after death, or, perhaps more accurately, we get very easily distracted into concentrating on the life that has just come to occupy our attentions rather more than the one which has just ended within our sphere of influence.

Now, that may be entirely right and proper, modern medicine tends to have more to offer the living than the dead, but I there is an opportunity to practice medicine which all too often passes us by. It is not a cutting edge therapy, a new model of care or anything special, but it does take time, and effort.

On a couple of occasions recently I have encountered this life after death, and the outcomes of those meetings have changed the way I look at where our duty as physicians ends.

The two patients who have promoted this thinking passed away under the care of my team, and instead of the usual scurrying off of the house officer to fill in the death certificate +/- cremation form, we made appointments to meet with the relatives of the deceased as they came to collect the paperwork.

The discussions, questions and conversations which these meetings involved were, I hope useful for the relatives of the deceased, and certainly seemed to play a role in clearing up any misunderstandings, and allowed a chance to discuss events with less urgency than when their loved one remained alive but very ill.

I think the main thing these experiences bought home for me was the feeling that it is possible to continue to serve, care and help the healing process, even after death.

So when I say that there is life after death, I mean that we should remember those left behind by a death, and remember that we have some duty of care to them to.

I know that meeting with relatives after every death is unlikely to be practical, and that my colleagues in primary are probably better placed to help pick up the pieces than me, but I’ll do my utmost to be available, open and honest, and that way I hope to be able to assist a healing process, where clearly I wasn’t able to effect a cure for another.

Procrustes

I am guilty, guilty as sin.

I think I commit this particular crime on a fairly regular basis, but I am trying to get better.

No, not speeding, not gluttony (although some might disagree), certainly not anything as serious as murder, but still, this crime has the potential to cause harm, and long-lasting harm at that.

So what crime is it, some sort of fraud?  I guess so… it is:

The Crime of Procrustes.

Procrustes was a robber (and wayward son of Posiedon) who lived in Attica and had a particularly nasty way of ‘helping’ his victims.  He would invite travellers on the road to Athens (or Eleusis) to come in and stay the night in his fort, promising them a comfy bed which had amazin properties – namely that it was a perfect fit for everyone.

The slight issue was how this bed managed such a seemingly impossible task.

Well, if you happened to be too long for Procrustes bed, you would be cut down to size, and if you happened to be a bit short, then there were handy winches at each end of the bed to ensure that you would fit just right (after a bit of stretching.) To catch out those lucky ones who fitted the bed without adjustment – he had two beds!

So, a nasty chap – and not an invitation you would want to accept – and thankfully, Theseus put an end to this practice by getting Procrustes to ‘fit’ his own bed when he stayed the night on his way to Athens.

So – what manner of torture chamber do you imagine I keep at home? Thankfully not – only a toddler bed which feels like torture if you are ever unfortunate enough to have to kip on it.

And what does this have to do with me?

The crime I am guilty of is of fitting information to the case I wish to make, rather than using it without prejudice to form an accurate picture of what is going on.

This is an easy trap to fall into, and causes real problems. The trap is often set unwittingly by those who are taking the initial details from the patient – be that the GP, the ambulance crew, or the A+E staff.  The initial phase of a patients admission is often a confused/confusing time, and the diagnosis is often attempted on incomplete information, or without the benefit of the increasing volume of data we generate about patients from the time they arrive in the hospital.

There is a desire amongst the medical profession to be right (it is, after all what we are drilled to do for 5 years or more at medical school) and there is a particular satisfaction in being able to tell a patient what is wrong with them.

Once enough information is gathered to have a reasonably firm diagnosis, it is usually written at the top of a differential – and becomes the working diagnosis.

The difficulty is that this suggestion, when a new pair of eyes comes to pick up the thread of the story, influences their thinking and sets them in the ways of Procrustes.  Further information as it is gained seems to reinforce the original diagnosis, and thereafter it is incredibly difficult to challenge it.

Now, there are a few caveats – the initial diagnosis has to hold some weight for this process to play out.  The medical tribes and hierarchies which exist mean that if the working diagnosis was made by someone that you consider to be less good than you, you will have little difficulty overturning it.  However, if someone of stature makes the initial diagnosis and plan – then it is increasingly difficult to turn the thinking around – and it somehow seems easier to fit the information to what we want to believe.

The key to avoiding this is being aware of the influences on you when you approach a case – especially if you are junior.

The data will be what it is, no matter what spin one tries to put on it. If things are not adding up, or there are inconsistencies in what is going on – go back to the beginning, and re-examine.  It has never ceased to amaze me how many diagnoses are challenged by the juniors on ward cover at night – and I am certain that it is because there is less distraction, more time to focus, and less fear of looking stupid if one questions the status quo.

So please, next time you are faced by a slightly ropey diagnosis, or are trying to explain away anomalies in what you are seeing – think again and try to avoid being guilty.