Psychology of doctors

Keeping the options open

There are many reasons why hospital doctors can be slow to engage patients on the question of DNACPR. This is one of them.

A frail patient agrees that a DNACPR form should be put in her notes. Two weeks ago she was admitted with severe pneumonia, and survived a week in ICU on a ventilator. Although she beat the odds, it was made clear to the family that if her chest deteriorated again, she would not benefit from being taken back to ICU.

The DNACPR decision is made a few days after she arrives back on the general ward, once the receiving team have taken the measure of the situation. In the event of a cardiac arrest her pulse might well be regained several minutes into the ALS algorithm (many are, after the elephantine doses of adrenaline that are given), but she would be very unlikely survive to discharge. Indeed, based on the therapeutic ‘ceiling’ set on her discharge from ICU, the option of returning to those same life support machines that are required to bring someone out of a post-cardiac arrest situation has already been ruled out.

DNACPR is clearly appropriate. The form is written. Everyone agrees, including the patient.

Then she vomits up a bowlful of blood. It looks like it could be a stomach or duodenal ulcer. Her blood pressure drops, but improves with some rapidly infused fluid, then some packed red cells. But the blood keeps coming, and it is clear that she needs an endoscopy to confirm the diagnosis and, hopefully, treat it. She is too frail to be brought down to the endoscopy department; her breathing is shallow, her blood pressure is labile. She needs to be stabilised in ICU. A phone call is made. The ICU registrar attends the ward. She flicks through the notes,

“She’s clearly not an ICU candidate. It’s all over the notes.”

“That was written in case of a respiratory deterioration. This is different.”

“How?”

“It’s a bleed. It could be reversed. I accept that she shouldn’t receive multiple organ support, but she needs two or three days of close monitoring, perhaps a bit of vasopressor support* if her BP drops to keep the kidneys going. If the endoscopist can stop the bleeding she could be out of there in a day and back on the ward.”

“It rarely happens like that.”

“I’m not comfortable with the idea of her bleeding out here. Yes, she is frail, yes if she arrests, I accept it’s over. But there may well be a straightforward, treatable lesion there.”

The registrar withdraws to liase with her senior. He attends. He reads the notes, takes in the DNACPR form, heads in to look at the patient, and emerges from the curtained bay.

“I think we should honour the DNACPR… keep her comfortable…”

The medical consultant stares, trying hard to disguise his disgust.

’Honour the DNACPR’! The DNACPR has nothing to do with her treatment in this situation. It is not a symbol designed to ensure instant palliative care. This is precisely why we don’t do DNACPRs when perhaps we should, because of this sort of….”

And he goes on, building up steam, accessing his frustration. In the end a compromise is reached… but the point has been made, and it is worth considering in more detail.

The question to consider here is – Do DNACPR forms materially influence a patient’s chances of being treated aggressively in the event of an emergency? On the face of it, they should not. The DNACPR is there to make it clear to whoever happens to be on the ward at the time, that the crash team should not be summoned. Death should be allowed to occur naturally. It says nothing about endoscopies, monitoring on the ICU, short term vasopressors… Moreover, every version of the DNACPR form I have seen emphasises that it is not irrevocable, it can be rescinded if circumstances change.

Yet, surely, there must be a close correlation between DNACPR status and ‘not for ICU’. The chances of surviving an ICU admission are driven by the same physiological parameters as those that determine survival after cardiac arrest. Looking at the figure below**, you can see how CPR sits at the apex of medical interventions, just above ICU.

 

Although I cannot find the studies to confirm this, in my experience, most if not all patients who are not for CPR are also not for ICU. The two go hand in hand. Therefore, by filling out a DNACPR for my patients, I am also making a statement, that he or she should not be considered for admission to ICU. But what if that is not the message I wish to convey? I can make an explanatory note; I can use a better ‘form’ (eg. ReSPECT, recently promoted in the BMJ, yet to be used nationwide). But I cannot overturn the impression that a DNACPR form makes on many colleagues, that the death of the patient should not come as a surprise, and that efforts to reverse an unexpected but life-threatening problem should not be strenuous.

‘Honour the DNACPR.’ I have heard that phrase. It is because those six initials carry so much weight, and may exclude the possibility of life-extending measures, that I, and others, are sometimes slow to start the conversations around resuscitation.

The larger point I take away from this scenario is that forms, even subtle ones like ReSPECT or other treatment escalation processes, are ill-suited to the multitude of ways in which patients can change suddenly. Although they come with the caveat that they should not be used as blanket statements, they can be read as headline summaries about how to approach patients. Different doctors will read them in different ways. To keep the options open, many doctors will choose to delay allowing those headlines to enter the notes.

 

* a powerful drug infused to keep up the blood pressure

** Taken from Dahill et al, Improving documentation of treatment escalation decisions in acute care  BMJ Qual Improv Report 2013;2

[Fictional scenario]

 

For more on the reasons why DNACPR decisions can be delayed, explore this booklet…

Batteries are low: the work of engaging in DNACPR discussions

During a talk I gave to an audience of palliative care specialists two weeks ago (St Barnabas Hospice, Worthing, thank you for having me), I wondered how they found the energy to engage patients in discussions about dying all day, every day. The comment was undoubtedly naïve, because that’s not what they do, and the many positives that come from managing dying well must recharge the batteries. But for those like me who work in the acute hospital setting, and whose job it is to recognise the approach of dying, a form of exhaustion can occur. Sometimes this leads to missed opportunities.

Imagine a typical ward round in general medicine, or even within a narrow area like my own (liver disease): there might be three new patients with clinical features to suggest that rapid deterioration could occur at any time, which on a background of chronic disease or frailty indicates that resuscitation would be futile. It is my job to start a discussion about the place of CPR and escalation of care. Three conversations. Take a deep breath.

In the ideal world, where patients with chronic disease talk about their wishes well before admission to hospital, the door would already be ajar. Perhaps a documented plan (eg. ReSPECT, described in this week’s BMJ, UFTO, or UP*) would be produced from an overnight bag, or from a relative’s pocket. This paper, a symbol of prior reflection, would allow us to compare their goals with the facts of the situation.

It’s 9.15AM. The team is full of energy and caffeine. We have X patients to see, some of whom are on the road to recovery, some of whom have already been recognised as dying, some of whom have uncertain futures.

The trainees are attentive. They are learning how to do this (aren’t we all?). First patient. I complete my assessment, pause, then open the discussion. I won’t rehearse the words here – my version is not perfect, and it varies. If it does not vary then it shows I am just repeating some learned lines – an impression that it is important to avoid. (Interestingly, a patient involved in the BMJ’s article commented, in reference to a particular form of words, it was ‘as if this is what they had all been taught to say.’)

So I open the patient’s mind to the possibility of dying (be it suddenly or gradually). Perhaps their next of kin is present. They react in their own way. A faraway look is not uncommon. Sometimes a film develops over the eyes, glistening in the morning light of the nearby window. Poetry has no place here, but as a human, I am affected by the impact of my words. We reach an understanding – we agree – CPR is not the right thing to do. If the patient or a relative disagrees, we park it, and arrange to speak about it again, later. I walk away, unsure how to close the interaction. A hand on the arm, a swish of the curtain (‘or would you like me to keep it closed?’). There is no comfortable way, to be honest.

Outside the bay we complete the DNACPR form – put the bureaucratic stamp on it, for the benefit of others who might be called to see the patient in an emergency.

“Ok. Where to next?”

We see a couple more patients. Then the registrar says, “We probably need to discuss escalation with the next one, she’s —–.” We review the history, the data, and agree, yes, we need to anticipate the worst, even if, crossing fingers, it doesn’t happen during this admission.

I use subtly different words, but move in the same direction. This time there is a more overt reaction. And a longer discussion. The thought of dying has never crossed her mind. Nor her husband’s. Part of me brims with anger – she has an incurable, gradually worsening condition, she has been seen by her GP and in specialist clinics umpteen times over the last year; why has no-one brought this up? Why does it have to be me, now? I could just leave it. She might not deteriorate after all. Why not leave it until she does… but if that is at 3AM, and a foundation year doctor is asked to see her, and she refers to a registrar who has never met the patient, there will be hurried decision making, the patient will probably not be conscious enough to express their wishes, an ICU consultant will be asked to make a call based on scanty information…  bad medicine. It must be done now.

We finish. It took half an hour. Not long in the life of the patient, relative to the magnitude of the subject under discussion. But very long in the context of a ward round. Never mind. The time must be taken.

We see some more patients.

Then we come to the third.

I enter the bed space. The visit proceeds along routine lines while I make a general assessment. Then I reach a fork in the path. Now is the time to level with them. But I am not up to it. I have left two patients in mute distress (possibly; how could it be otherwise?). I have re-formulated the words to keep them fresh and sincere and specific to them. I have struck a balance between brutal realism (I’m not one for drawing a vivid picture of CPR, but the act has to be mentioned) and sensitivity. I have asked myself, as we continued our progress along the ward, ‘am I bring too pessimistic here? If the other doctors they saw didn’t bring up dying, perhaps I shouldn’t either…’) – and I make a decision. Not today. Another day. Let’s talk about it on Wednesday. I haven’t got the energy. Or I’ll ask to the registrar to do it, she’s good.

“So are they still for resus?” asks the nurse.

“Yes.”

“What if they deteriorate?”

“We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it. Sorry.”

And so we move on, hoping that the worst doesn’t happen before we find the time and the energy – a very specific form of energy – to broach the subject.

 

 

* ReSPECT = Recommended Summary Plan for Emergency Care & Treatment; UFTO = Universal Form of Treatment Options; UP = Unwell and Potentially Deteriorating Patient Plan. According to the BMJ this week, In Torbay, where Treatment Escalation Plans were introduced to replace DNACPR forms in 2006, ‘30% of elderly patients now arrive [at the hospital] with a TEP.’

 

~~~

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The unknown quantity

What determines if and when patients ‘turn the corner’? I have never understood.

In my world of acute-on-chronic disease, where patients suffer sudden and life threatening reverses, there are numerous stories of unexpected turnarounds. Our efforts to prognosticate accurately have led to many scoring systems, all of which have been ‘validated’, but when applied to individual patients who surprise you with twists and turns, their relevance appears diminished. However bad the numbers, we treat, we support, we try to save… unless the presentation comes at the end of a long and well recognised decline, and we (the patient, the family, the team) are thoroughly ‘signed up’ to palliation. That circumstance remains a rare one, despite the increasing value we give to conversations about death.

So we are guided by experience – that fickle teacher.

Last year a very sick patient came in. He struggled, we struggled; he responded to intensive care support, we felt satisfied that our decision to advocate for aggressive treatment was the right one. He deteriorated, we isolated the infection. We talked the family through it, and suggested that not give up yet. He fluctuated, weakening a little with each reverse, until… weeks later, he died. All that hope. All that work. The ‘numbers’, at one stage, had looked better. But that is the nature of the disease. Unexpected complications. Hidden infections. Sudden ruptures.

The grim picture joined the file of failures that I, and all doctors, compile in their memories from day 1. It is called experience. But the way such memories absorb the light colours our view of the present. That is the whole point of experience, of course; to change the way we approach similar circumstances in the future.

The shapes and lines of that patient’s clinical course remained etched in my mind when, months later, I recognised an almost identical scenario. Her liver function looked the same during the first week. Her slide into an intensive care bed occurred over similar interval. I was ‘guarded’ in my prognosis, but I knew what was going to happen here. I knew. The road home presented too many traps and potholes for her body to negotiate, given the advanced nature of her disease. Any and each of them could kill her in a few hours. As time passed, her clinical course described the usual sinusoidal curve. The downslopes were not catastrophic enough to justify withdrawal, and the upward gradients were not sufficiently sustained to launch a bid for convalescence.

We reacted to each complication with urgency. Our policy was unchanged – treat, support, save. But my heart was not really in it. I did not have hope. I know I communicated that to trainees. Those muttered opinions as we walked out of intensive care. But at no point did we hesitate or withhold. And time passed.

Until… she returned to the ward. She turned the corner. She had climbed far enough up the hill for the swirling, sucking mists of death to no longer have a hold on her. Then she went home.

A trainee asked, “You know _____? I thought you said the chances of her surviving were…” I stopped her there, and turned the case into a occasion to teach on the subject of uncertainty. 

Is it a ‘survival gene’? Poor science. Then what? We do not know. Probably, luck is involved. When such large unknowns are involved, when the rules that underlie our attempted predictions appear unfixed, pattern recognition can lead to erroneous conclusions. Sometimes it’s better just to treat, support, stand back, and try not to outthink the disease… hoping that they turn the corner.

 

See also, Patterns and pride: diary of a medical anecdote

 

 

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So superior… – making judgements on medical care

 

amberspyglass

The Amber Spyglass (or what a retrospectoscope might look like)

 

Patients may see many doctors during the assessment and treatment of a particular illness. In the transition from primary to secondary care, medical opinion becomes more specialised, and the knowledge of the doctor facing the patient deepens in that particular area. Doctors become more confident in their opinion, and in the light of information are able to judge the quality of the decisions taken earlier on. This means that the specialist must, either privately or openly, pass judgement on what has gone before. Usually there is no controversy, because nothing incorrect was done. But sometimes, looking back, it becomes apparent that clues were missed. Things may have been done ‘sub-optimally’… according to the specialist’s very particular expectations.

The decision then has to be made – do you, as the specialist, tell the patient what you are thinking, or not?

The answer to this would seem simple. If by omission or commission the patient has been harmed, there is a responsibility to be open about it. However, harm is difficult to define, and the grey zone between delay and harm is broad. An abnormal blood test performed fifteen months ago might, if interpreted correctly, have led to an earlier diagnosis – but who can measure by what degree the patient’s life has been affected?

For the patient, finding out that two years ago a scan showed some early signs of liver damage, or that an abnormal vitamin level went unnoticed and uncorrected (contributing to months of fatigue), the conclusion is bound to be that things were not done well. The question of blame arises. The patient may ask  – what do you think should have been done? What do you think about the quality of the care I received? Patients, in fact all people who receive a service from a professional, like to benchmark. It is natural.

It isn’t just at the transition between primary and secondary care that judgements on the quality of care may me made. On the wards, once a patient is established under the care of a specialist team, questions may be asked about the time it took to reach a diagnosis, or about the appropriateness of initial treatment. If the wrong diagnosis was reached (say, heart failure rather than chest infection), was the error acceptable? Was it just the way medicine works, with the correct diagnosis emerging over time, as pennies dropped and more experienced people made their assessment – or was it just bad medicine?

The temptation for doctors is to close ranks, and to present the hospital, or the health service as a whole, as a seamless unit where information comes in and decisions are made, by individuals yes, but by professionals who are part of a larger machine. Individuals shouldn’t be criticised; rather, blame the system.

I remember once, as a registrar, the family of a deteriorating patient asking me the name of the doctor they saw in casualty, who they felt did not diagnose the illness quickly enough. In the relatives’ room they pressed me hard, and demanded details. I felt that the presentation was complex, and that the quality of initial assessment had been satisfactory, if not genius. So I refused to give a name. I talked about the ‘team’. In my wisdom I felt that it could not help the situation to offer up an anxious SHO, and that the request reflected the family’s grief and uncertainty. The family needed a focus on which to direct their anger with the situation. Was I right or wrong?

On other occasions, in clinic, I have had to explain as best I can the decisions made by a doctor – often a GP – whom I have never met. I may end up saying things like, “Well, based on the information that was available eighteen months ago, it wasn’t unreasonable to monitor the situation…” Or, “Perhaps another doctor might have referred you six months earlier, if they had a special interest in this disease, but yet another might have waited a year. There is no right answer.” Or, if the patient asks me up-front whether I think their GP is any good, based on what has happened before, “It is not fair for me to pass judgement… I see patients with your problem nearly every day, and I come to this with a very specific expertise. Your GP has to decide when to refer… and it’s perfectly reasonable to monitor things for a while first.” I may say this even I think, privately, that they can’t have been that up to date with modern medical thinking on the topic in question. But who am I to criticise? What do I know about psychiatry or gynaecology?

So what drives this instinct to obfuscate? Is there a justification? Surely, in an era of transparency, the patient should know exactly what I am thinking.

It may be a desire to nip a potential complaint in the bud, even when I think a complaint (formal or informal) might be unjustified? If so, am I right to forestall what a more objective person might regard as a necessary corrective?

It may be loyalty to the larger medical community – an instinctive reflex to shield colleagues from criticism, just like in the relatives room on the ward all those years ago.

Or perhaps it is based on my acceptance that the practise of medicine will always involve variation in knowledge and in quality. Not every biochemical clue will result in the same decision. Each doctor will have developed their own store of knowledge, a unique bank of experiences and memories on which to base their decisions. As long as the decision was not clearly negligent, or so stupid as to warrant immediate correction, we are bound to let borderline or ‘sub-optimal’ decisions go without making a song and dance. We might hint in a letter back to the GP, or in a comment to a trainee’s supervisor, that next time a different decision should be made, and perhaps in that way we reassure ourselves that we have tried to improve the quality of the system as a whole. But patients are excluded from this feedback loop. They may go home entirely ignorant of the fact that things could have been done better, and may not read between the lines of the letter that they are copied into.

In modern medicine patient involvement is key, and transparency is a central pillar. We have a duty of candour which applies to identifiable errors of a certain gravity, and no doctor will overlook a pattern of behaviour that clearly puts patients at risk.  But no such duty exists for reporting back on the grey cases where some educational improvement can be made. Is it reasonable not to inform patients in these circumstances? Would it help them? Or would it just cause confusion, and a loss of faith?

Over time I have become more honest about the non-scientific nature of medicine. Sometimes I begin a discussion with the patient with the papers spread out in front of me, or the blood results on the screen, and talk through what may or may not have been going on in their body over the last few years. If I think a spike in a liver enzyme might have been an early signal, which in retrospect was missed, I will tell them, but without loading it with an opinion. It’s just a fact. The ‘retrospectoscope’ can provide a false image of the circumstances that existed years before. Now you are here, let’s sort it out. There is no point in opining from the security of the specialist’s chair. Misdiagnoses are made there too.

In this way patients can begin to understand that the narrative of illness may follow numerous detours and diversions before the destination – a firm prognosis, a treatment plan – comes into view. Care is not homogenous, and variability, while sometimes permitting the occasional detour, is an inevitable result of human involvement.

 

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The Clean-Up operation

clean up

 

Julia had told the story of the heartless consultant many times. How he, a paternalistic but highly regarded specialist, broke the news to a patient that he had cancer in an overly matter of fact way before walking away from the bed, and, within earshot, saying, “Hopeless!” to the rest of the team.

Julia, very junior back then, thought the patient, Mr Field, had probably heard the comment, or at the very least seen the slow shake of the consultant’s head that accompanied it. The patient stared across the ward, and seemed to be analysing the half-caught words and the potent gestures, trying to calculate their significance for him. Julia attended the rest of the ward round diligently, but was distracted by the thought that Mr Field must be in some distress. She wanted to go back and check; what did he hear, what effect was it having on him…?

So at the end the ward round Julia rushed back to Mr Field’s ward and asked if she could speak with him. He agreed of course. Julia pulled the curtain round and asked, in the most open way she could, what Mr Field had taken away from the ward round. He knew he had cancer, and he knew what this meant – it had spread, it was incurable if not untreatable.

“And did Dr ________ say anything that worried you particularly?” asked Julia.

“No, not really, though I’ve got a lot more questions. He was quite brief.”

Thank God! Relief. He had not overheard the callous comment. Now Julia found herself in a tricky position. She had come back to ‘clean up’ the mess caused by her careless consultant, but in fact there was no mess to clean up. And to be honest Julia did not have the knowledge to answer all of Mr Field’s questions about treatment options and prognosis. She cursed herself for interfering, and cursed her consultant’s behaviour for driving her to come back and check.

Julia was used to coming back to patients – for the ‘clean-up’. Answering or mollifying patients and relatives after a consultant’s cameo performance, a mixture of information-avalanche from a great height, bedside teaching, and a communication style that did not meet the needs of the patients. She didn’t mind… the consultant couldn’t really be expected to deal with every query and anticipate every nuance of his patients’ particular psychological or social circumstances, especially in a limited time-frame. His phone was always going off, he was always late for some committee, he had high level responsibilities in the Trust that clearly occupied his mind when he was supposed to be focussing on individuals. He wasn’t that bad… just a bit thoughtless during the one-to-one sometimes.

Nevertheless, Julia walked away from Mr Field’s bedside and swore that when she was a consultant there would be no such faux-pas.

Some years later Julia became a consultant. She made sure that her ward rounds were protected from other business and worked hard to relate to the patients. At the same time she acquired other responsibilities and developed as a clinical researcher. One day, eighteen months after becoming a consultant, she was on a ward round. A 72 year-old woman with advanced lung disease had developed an ‘acute abdomen’, likely dead bowel. The surgeons weren’t keen to operate, but she would certainly die without it. Julia, a chest specialist, reckoned the risk of dying after surgery, from lung complications, was 40-50%. A classic ‘rock and a hard place’ situation. Julia went to see the patient, who was alert and understood everything. Just before entering the cubicle Julia’s phone rang – she answered. Another patient whom she hoped to enter into a research study had arrived downstairs for the final consent meeting. Julia had another important commitment, a one off, in half an hour. The morning was getting tight. She entered the cubicle and explained the situation. Certain death vs a 50% risk, if we can get an anaesthetist… so what do you think? Will you agree to surgery? The patient looked away, unsure, confused. Julia glanced at her watch – just a tiny tilt of the head.

“OK… Mrs Taylor… it’s a hard decision, we’ll leave it a little longer for you to think about it… perhaps wait for your family to arrive, discuss it with them.”

Julia left. Her team followed her, not sure what the next step was. Julia looked at her registrar,

“Can you come back in an hour and try to reach a conclusion, I’ve got to get going.” Then she walked away, her registrar by her side, and added,

“To be honest Diane, I don’t fancy her chances either way. Fifty percent may be optimistic. But the choice is… definitely die, or probably die. It’s a pretty hopeless situation.” As she said this a young man in everyday clothes passed them. He paused, then moved on.

Julia saw her research patient and attended her meeting. Then she walked back up to Mrs Taylor’s ward. There she found her registrar, SHO and a ward matron in with the patient, who was crying, and her son – the man who had walked passed her – bowed over the side of the bed holding his mother’s hands. Julia backed off and asked another nurse what was happening. The nurse replied,

“After your ward round we heard lots of crying… apparently one of the family overheard someone saying it was all hopeless… we had to get your team up to calm everything down, they’ve been here for an hour.”

Julia stood by the nurses’ station and looked into the bay. The clean-up operation was in full swing.

***

three covers

‘That’s not my area’

that's not my area

An account, written for the Guardian by an elderly patient’s daughter, described how nobody treated her as a complete person in hospital.

“Nobody will look at the whole of me,” my mum said on her third stay in hospital this year. “It’s like a department store. You go to a bit of it and they say, ‘Sorry we don’t do that here. We just look at this.’ Nobody is interested in my legs.” Her legs were massively swollen, dry and cracked and purple-black by this time.

It was a heartfelt cry for holistic care. And it touched a nerve in me, because I have heard and received similar accusations in my role as a hospital consultant. It got me thinking – What is expected? What is it that patients want?

The answer might seem obvious: Doctors and nurses who do not focus on individual systems or organs. Teams who address their patients with respect, as people with a past, a social existence, a meaningful and self-determined life lived for many years before circumstances forced them through the door of the hospital. All lovely… but what specifically? Patients want their thoughts and ideas heeded, their opinions acknowledged and taken seriously while treatment plans are formed. They want medically ‘trivial’ complaints given as much time as major diseases, as it this these that can irritate or reduce quality of life just as much. They want clear feedback on the innumerable tests. They want to know the plan and comment on it. They want to know how long it will all take. These considerations do not seem revolutionary; they seem nothing more than… decent. Nevertheless, it seems that we often fail in delivering such unspectacular aspirations.

As a consultant I am always careful to explore the broader reality beyond the defined limits of the specific organ or bodily system that has broken down. Well I try to. This approach is not entirely consistent, because there are times when a rigid focus on the area of danger has to be maintained. Patients and families understand this, I am sure. If the patient is bleeding rapidly from an ulcer, or crashing with heart failure, I may fail to probe the subtleties of their understanding and defer the social enquiries. Later, when things have calmed down, there may be time to develop a more three-dimensional understanding of the whole person.

There are other reasons why medical interactions in hospital may not feel holistic. Hospitals work by bringing specialists to the bedside in order to answer specific questions. The frail and elderly patient who has fallen, and who has multiple symptoms related, say, to a failing heart, diseased lungs and arthritic knees, might be found to have a blocked kidney. The opinion of a urologist is sought. Only he or she can give an expert view on whether an intervention is required to unblock it. They arrive at the bedside. They are pleasant, they are caring, but they have one thing on their mind – to answer the question. They will take all the facts into account; the frailty, the risks of anaesthesia, the opinion of the patient, the opinion of the next of kin if they are present (and especially if there is dementia), but they will stay focused on the urological issue. And should the patient, at the end of the consultation, ask if anything can be done about her painful knees, the urologist may well say those fateful, unpopular words, “I’m sorry, that’s not my area.”

All specialists have said this. It is no good pretending to be able to give an answer to the question. One can express an interest, but it is little more than a politeness to do so. For the knees, if symptoms cannot be controlled with simple analgesics, you need a rheumatologist or an orthopaedic surgeon. Another specialist. Another visit. Another focused consultation. Another floor in ‘the department store’, as said in the Guardian article.

How to make these consultations happen without leaving the patient feeling like the chap in the picture above who has his organs picked out, examined and put back again? Perhaps it’s about presentation and coordination. What I would want is a lead physician who comes round and sums it all up for me. Who draws specialists in to the ward when required, who assesses the advice that is given and sifts it for common sense. And in addition, perhaps, an experienced nurse who can answer some of the questions I feel too inhibited or embarrassed to ask the doctor when they came round. Like, ‘What is a urologist anyway?’

That sounds like a fair model. It is a clear aspiration, as summarised in the Royal College of Physicians ‘Future Hospital’ commission report;

Patients will receive the best specialist care wherever they are in hospital. For patients with multiple and/or complex conditions, there will be input from a range of specialist teams according to clinical need, with a single named consultant responsible for coordinating care.

It seems we are not there yet. ‘Hospitalists’, general internists who take an overview and coordinate care, may be the answer. In the meantime, geriatricians will often assume the role, for it is patients under their care who typically have multiple problems.

So finally, in response to the Guardian article, while I recognise only too well the phenomenon of ‘that’s not my area’, and admit that much specialist work does occur ‘in siloes’, I do not accept that patients are routinely managed in a non-holistic way. It’s not what I see happening around me. Most hospital care, I would maintain, is delivered in context, and with an eye to the complete picture.

***

Instant E

instant E

 

After 13 hours of almost constant work I got home and fell asleep at 11.30PM. At 1.30AM the phone rang. I answered, to hear about a patient vomiting blood in resus. He was jaundiced. This was going to be a variceal bleed, and I had to go back in. The thick nausea that accompanies interruption of deep sleep, with the last, hastily eaten meal still heavy in my stomach, brought out the worst in me. I had plans for the following day; I would be useless now. The night was gone. It would take hours to get in, get to theatre, do the endoscopy and get away again. I hated the patient for doing this to me. I imagined him – an alcoholic, no doubt, who had binged and taken another self-induced hit to liver. Now he was now suffering the consequences. In the middle of the night.

As I sped down the almost empty motorway and let cold air in to blast away any residual mental fog, I anticipated my attitude. It was going to be business like. No way was I going to be touchy-feely – there was a job to be done: get the patient anaesthetised, look inside, seal the bleeding point, get out, get home. Then sleep. Sleep.

The white-light glare of the resus bay rekindled any neurons that had not been required to drive the car. I read the casualty card notes and glanced across from the doctors’ station to the relevant cubicle. The curtain was drawn.

I walked in boldly. He was awake, but groaning. There was blood on his chin and in the bowl that he grasped to his chest. He had all the signs of cirrhosis.

“Hi, I’m Dr _______. What happened?”

“It just started doctor.”

“Have you had liver problems before?”

“Not like this.”

“But you’ve been told there’s a liver problem.”

“Oh yes, years ago.”

“Due to alcohol?”

“Of course.”

“Any hepatitis infection, anything like that?”

“No.”

“And… the drinking, have you been drinking recently?”

“Yes. Every day…”

Really? – I thought to myself. You know your liver is scarred and shriveled yet you carry on. I just don’t get it.

“How much, recently?”

“Two, three bottles a day.”

“Wine? Cider?”

“Wine.”

“Right. Well, I’m sure you’re bleeding from a ruptured blood vessel in your gullet, we need to put you to sleep for a bit and do a camera test.”

“OK.”

I presented him with a consent form, and muttered about the risks and the benefits. He signed, an uncoordinated scrawl. I walked away, but he had more to say,

“I knew this was going to happen. They told me. Ever since I started drinking, after the accident…”

And then he told me why. Why he had taken to alcohol. The industrial injury, the chronic pain, the enforced retirement, the gap… the gap in his life. My tiredness melted away and the focus, on my own discomfort, was re-directed. Just a few words was all it took. Context. The story. The reasons.

I approached the bedside and spent a little more time telling him what would happen. The possibility that things could go wrong when I was trying to seal the bleeding point, that he might have to stay on ICU, might be transferred for a shunt up in London, might die. He nodded. It wasn’t news.

“Got any family?” I asked.

“Yes. But not here.”

*

In the car on the way home, as dawn nudged its way under the edge of night, I felt good. The job was done. The sense of satisfaction was high. But for that hour after I was woken I did hate him, in a way. I wished he didn’t exist. But that was when I didn’t know him. He was a name in a cubicle half way down the motorway. At that moment there was no context, and therefore no empathy, only a natural and not unusual reaction to being woken up. It was the situation I hated, not the man. Before I arrived there was no man, only a problem.

*

So who’s interested in the reactions of a grumpy forty-something old who’s getting tired of being on call? You’re paid for it! You get a 5% supplement for being available to come in for emergencies. Get over it!

Well, it is important to examine the reaction to fatigue and disturbed sleep, because it is at these times that patients see the worst of us. The veneer (is just a veneer?) of compassion is often tarnished in the early hours of the morning, or with the hangover of a recent sleepless night still lingering in the system. The trick at such times is to know how to access the human in ourselves. For me, nowadays, such interruptions are rare and anti-social hours are few. Back in the day when I roamed the wards in the early hours I frequently transformed into a ‘technical’ doctor, asking closed questions, focussing on defined tasks and having no spare resources with which to make human connections. It is a biological inevitability – we are less human when we are supposed to be in bed. Yet a third of our patients’ lives are lived between midnight and 8AM. We have to find a way to be nice at those times. How to do this? In the case I describe it was by imagining a life disrupted by external events, and the undeserved downward slide into addiction. What if that happened to me? A window into another person’s unlucky life, mixed with a dash of imagination – two elements that when mixed can produce instant empathy.

 

Note: I have changed details in the patient’s personal history

*

New website: http://www.philberrycreative.wordpress.com

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The corrections

 

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I can number on the fingers of one hand the times I have been explicitly corrected during my medical career. There was the time I treated a patient all night for septic shock when in fact he had cardiogenic shock – the fluid nearly drowned him. There was the time I performed a lumbar puncture on an obese patient, and put the needle three inches away from the correct inter-spinous space. There was the time I failed to check a gentamicin level before the weekend, and came back on Monday to find the patient in renal failure. And during higher training, the course where my endoscopic technique was picked apart against a list of errors that the assessor held in his hand; he described three issues, but I glimpsed the piece of paper and the list was at least ten items long. There are others, some of which are littered across this blog.

Each time I felt embarrassed and defensive. I reacted by rationalizing. The reasons, or excuses, were various, and included the way I had been trained, the pressure of time, the load of patients, the need to balance speed and vigilance, and plain bad luck. But each time the fact that I had been criticised ate away at me. I was not used to it. Few of us are.

Medical students tend to come from the highest strata of achievement in secondary education, where their performance requires very little correction. Most float through training in the middle of the pack, periodically struggling to stay above the flood of knowledge, neither excelling nor failing. They require little in the way of feedback, just the odd nudge back on track. They become competent in the early years on the job and deliver medicine safely. Errors occur, many due to weaknesses in the system rather than personal fallibility. Corrections happen, but they are infrequent. And then, before you know it… they are practising more or less independently. They are part of a team, but they are essentially ‘complete’. They habituate to many forms of stress, but one that they are not accustomed to is ‘constructive’ feedback. When it comes, if it comes, it hurts.

How else do we improve once we have arrived at our natural ceiling of seniority? Continuing professional education is mandatory, we do it, and our knowledge is augmented, but weaknesses are not identified by passive absorption. Appraisal? Somewhat routine, and focused more on our perception of ourselves than feedback. Revalidation – mmmm… we’ll see. So how do our weaknesses get identified? The answer is, by our peers – those whom we work with day in and day out. The difficulty with this is that they are the last people who wish to engage us on our deficiencies. They are colleagues and friends.

Most error is self detected and self corrected. Although I listed only a handful of occasions where mistakes were fed back to me, there are hundreds (well, let’s say ‘tens’) of similarly significant mistakes which I identified myself, and reflected on. Nobody came to tell me that such and such happened because I missed a clinical clue or performed a procedure incorrectly – there is no ubiquitous or all-seeing observer to perform this function. The continuous feedback loop of self-improvement requires attention to consequence, and the ability to accept that something bad has happened because of what you did or omitted to do. Without a willingness to seek the consequences of our decisions we will blunder on regardless. However, a safe culture cannot be expected to rely solely on such of subjective system.

Receiving  feedback as a junior doctor in training is hard enough, but it is standard and expected. You rely on it. The discomfort that comes with receiving negative feedback from a colleague of equal seniority, at consultant or GP level, is even more acute. The same rationalisations occur, recourse to the same ‘excuses’ – the pressures, the pace, the reaction to diffuse responsibility that appears to have unjustly landed on your head just because your name was over the patient’s bed. So much for receiving; how about giving? It’s even worse. But becoming comfortable with discomfort seems an absolute requirement for a safe medical culture. It is easily described, but not so easily undertaken.

Soon after becoming a consultant I took on the task of reviewing the notes of patients who had suffered ‘hospital acquired’ venous thromboembolism (ie. DVT or PE). It sounded easy, and quite interesting. I flicked through the charts, identified possible lapses in prescriptions of anti-coagulant, and marked them as avoidable or unavoidable. The catch was… I had to interview the consultant in charge of patients deemed to have suffered avoidable events. I sent out emails, arranged convenient times to meet, and found myself addressing equally experienced or more established consultants. It was not easy. The key to converting it from a repeatedly painful and nerve-wracking exercise was this – I too had been called up to justify a similar lapse, months earlier. The discomfort, the access of humility, the acceptance that yes, it could have been done better, we (I) should have been more vigilant, served as a brief lesson in correction. That was the angle when it came to phrasing my own feedback:

‘It happens to all of us at some point, it’s bound to. Happened to me last year. And it worked. If I hadn’t been asked to attend the meeting I wouldn’t have known that so and so had a big PE three weeks after they went home from my ward. It worked. It made be think twice about checking it on ward rounds, brought it home. It’s not about criticism, it’s about focusing minds on the things that are easy to let slip through your fingers…’

You get the gist. Correction shouldn’t be exceptional; it’s inevitable.

If hospitals and surgeries are to witness more of those ‘difficult conversations’ we keep hearing about, in order to promote a safe culture, each of us has to find a way to get comfortable with starting those conversations. The best way – in my limited experience – is to bracket them in the context of our own fallibility, for none of us are perfect, and we are all bouncing from error to error as we move forward in our careers. That’s medicine.

___

There do not seem to be many articles on how to deal with the discomfort of giving negative feedback, but I did find these two in the BMJ and the Hospitalist (US).

 

New booklet, click picture to explore…

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The place of blame

The importance of a ‘no blame’ culture in the NHS has become axiomatic. It is accepted that the chain of learning that connects adverse healthcare events to improvements in safety is fatally interrupted when incidents are not reported. If people fear blame and censure, they will not report. Berwick focussed on this in his 2013 post-Francis report, ‘A promise to learn – a commitment to act Improving the Safety of Patients in England’. It says,

Patient safety problems exist throughout the NHS as with every other health care system in the world.

NHS staff are not to blame – in the vast majority of cases it is the systems, procedures, conditions, environment and constraints they face that lead to patient safety problems.

Fear is toxic to both safety and improvement.

 and recommends,

To address these issues the system must: 

– Recognise with clarity and courage the need for wide systemic change.

– Abandon blame as a tool and trust the goodwill and good intentions of the staff.

 blameberwreportfront

 

As a doctor who is involved in mortality and morbidity meetings, I often think about the role of blame in learning lessons. At my level medicine consists of numerous interactions between just two or three kinds of people; patients and doctors/nurses. If a mistake is reported an assessment is undertaken as to whether that mistake was due to a fault in the system (eg. poor process, unclear guidelines, bad IT, poor labelling) or a restricted error on behalf of the health care worker. The latter might include mistakes due to a lack of knowledge, or due to a lack of concentration.  But what if the lack of concentration is the result of unintelligent rota design, or distraction due to an over-burdened system? The spectrum of potential accountability is wide, but whenever an error is identified it is necessary to see at what point on that spectrum the underlying cause lies. Or the blame.

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Example: a junior doctor gives a patient an antibiotic that she is allergic to, the doctor having failed to recognise that the trade name (let’s say Tazocin) disguises the fact that it contains penicillin. The patient has an anaphylactic reaction and spends a week on intensive care.

The focus of accountability could reasonably fall on one of several points. It could be the doctor not being aware that the antibiotic contained penicillin, or for not checking that the patient was allergic. For not bloody thinking, his exasperated supervising consultant might say to herself, immediately succumbing to the emotional retort that is ‘blame’.  Or, could it be the doctor’s educators who have not emphasised that fact in his training? Or the drug firm for releasing a medication which does not make its crucial ingredient plain? Or the Trust for not being responsive to the fact that this doctor is routinely over-pressurised at night, and making decisions in a hurried way. Or the Department of Health for capping central funding, or David Cameron for supporting a policy of austerity…  or mortgage lenders in America for contributing to the 2007 financial crisis.

This begins to sound sounds absurd, but the point I’m trying to make is that the chain of blame could be a long one. And when you make a mistake, it is natural to look up and around for mitigating circumstances.

Now imagine that the junior doctor is brought into his educational supervisor’s office. It is explained that the patient came to harm because the doctor prescribed the drug to which the patient was known to be allergic. It’s my fault, is how the doctor will feel. But the educational supervisor will be quick to soften the criticism by explaining that there will be a review of systems, more nurse education so that injections are not actually  given if it says penicillin allergy on a drug chart, and the Trust will arrange some extra pharmacology teaching for House Officers. Use of the misleading trade name will be banned. The system has learned. It’s not your fault.

Immediately the sense of blame rises from the shoulders of the junior doctor and it becomes clear to him that it is not just his problem. Should that doctor walk out of the room with no sense to blame? Well, I can recall most of the mistakes that I have made in my career, and the intense sense of blame and guilt that accompanied them. Whether it was mismanaging Gentamicin and causing renal failure, missing a cord compression or making a late diagnosis on data that I should have interpreted correctly. It is blame, the sense of personal responsibility, that nagged at my mind and made sure I never made the same mistake again. For this reason I think individual blame does have a role. And I am not alone. A National Patient Safety Agency presentation from 2004 includes these slides:

blamejustculture

blamegraph1

 

At least 90% of error can be attributed to system problems or ‘honest’ errors, while only a small percentage are deemed ‘culpable’. This data is largely derived from the aviation industry, where many parallels with healthcare have been identified. But even this presents problems. The ‘honest error’ is still an error. Just because it is honest (ie. not intentional or negligent, an error that quite would probably have been committed by a peer in the same combination of circumstances) there is still something to be learned by the individual.

The psychologist James Reason describes person and system approaches. The former attributes unsafe acts to,

aberrant mental processes such as forgetfulness, inattention, poor motivation, carelessness, negligence, and recklessness.

 Whereas a system approach accepts that,

 humans are fallible and errors are to be expected, even in the best organisations. Errors are seen as consequences rather than causes, having their origins not so much in the perversity of human nature as in “upstream” systemic factors.

 

For those of us dealing with error on a day to day basis, an approach that tackles individual blame while paying heed to system-wide lessons must be taken. For reporting to be encouraged, blame must not apportioned in public… for that is where shame develops, and its lethal consequence – inhibition. But in private, as we look at near misses and significant errors, we will sometimes accept that it really was a silly thing to do. And we will not hide our concern, nor conceal our disappointment if the error appears to indicate a worrying gap in knowledge, method or attitude. If this is the case a way must be found to lighten the sense of personal blame by looking up at systemic factors (if present), but without allaying personal discomfort entirely. In this way we (for it will happen to all of us at some point) will remain alert, and perhaps even a little paranoid, when we enter a similar clinical scenario in the future.

 

oOo

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Sick enough? Doctors, illness and the scaffold

Some time ago, during a weekend on call, a young doctor called me to say that she was ill and probably needed to go home. When I went up to see her she was leaving the sluice, having just vomited. She had felt awful since waking up in the middle of the night. There was of course no question – “Go!” I said. She left, but reluctantly. There were tears in her eyes. She was embarrassed and ashamed. For being ill!

“But what about the jobs?” she asked. The list of tasks and patient reviews that she had picked up in the morning was enormous.

“Don’t worry, we’ll deal with it.” I said. But I knew we wouldn’t deal with it very well. There is rarely enough slack in a hospital, especially at the weekend, to easily accommodate the transfer of one person’s entire workload. As I watched her leave, encouraging her when she hesitated at the door, I thought oh dear, this is going to be a bad day. And it was, for everybody. There is no doubt that patients on the ward waited longer for the medical care that they needed that day, although I am equally sure that no-one came to harm.

I wondered what went through her mind when she woke up that morning? Perhaps…

‘I’ll manage…’

‘However bad I feel, the only thing that will really stop me is if I’m actually vomiting…’

‘Because I can’t not go in… I saw the handover list last night, there are 30 patients to see…’

‘… and they are worse off than me…’

‘You don’t call in, nobody does’

‘But what if I’m contagious – only if I’m vomiting… and I’ll be careful…’

‘They say we shouldn’t go in if we’re unwell, but they want us to, really…’

‘…because the work has to be done…the policy doesn’t account for that!’

‘I know how annoyed I feel when a colleague calls in sick… some just do it…’

‘I’m going in… I’ll see how it goes…’

 

In this post I am going to explore the decision to call in sick. Much has been written about the rather profound insights that doctors’ behaviour when ill provides, and I would strongly recommend Jonathon Tomlinson’s January 2014 blog post ‘When doctors become patients’ on the subject (of which a little more later). Here though, I wish to examine the milder end of the sickness spectrum, and specifically the apparent rise in short term junior doctor sickness.

 

Paradox

Why was it that the thought of going home made that doctor distressed? It is not usual for people in other walks of life to feel so upset when they have to take time off. Was it the thought of letting her patients down? I don’t think so. More likely it was a lack of confidence that the hospital would easily adjust to her absence, and a concern that chaos would ensue. Patients were at the centre of her thoughts, not as people, but as incomplete tasks that would create stress for her colleagues. Whatever the reasons, sickness was something that this doctor had clearly tried to stave off, until the inevitable viral emesis overtook her. Typical doctor!

Or perhaps I have got this all wrong – this doctor was actually atypical, because there is evidence to show that doctors are now taking more time off. According to a study performed in a single NHS Trust before and after the introduction of a 48 hour working week,

 

Taking into account the increase in trainee numbers, the proportion of junior doctors taking sick leave increased by 90% (p = 0.001), and the total episodes taken by 170% in the year following the implementation of EWTD-compliant rotas

During the study period, episodes of sick leave among junior doctors more than doubled with just over 1 in 3 taking leave in the year to August 2007 and nearly 3 in 4 the following year. The number of days taken and the number of repeated episodes of leave increased.

 

There appears to be a paradox here. On the one hand we know that doctors find it hard ‘be ill’ – Jonathon Tomlinson’s illuminating post (regarding chronic or more serious illness, including mental illness) describes internal blocks to accepting illness such as dissolution of the medical identity as healer, stigmatisation and shame. In the case of life changing illness there are even more subtle psychological factors at play, including loneliness and the insiders fear of modern medicine’s fallibility. Some of these probably apply to minor illness, albeit disruptive ailments that impair young doctors for 1 -3 days, but there is no denying that the threshold has dropped. Trainees are, in general, more comfortable picking up the phone to call in sick. What is the answer?

 

Presenteeism and indispensability

An Audit Commission report into medical staff sickness (2010) stated,

Another cost, closely associated with sickness absence but much harder to quantify, is ‘presenteeism’.

Presenteeism is the loss in productivity that occurs when employees come to work but function at less than full capacity because of ill-health. The cost of presenteeism could be as high as one and a half times that of sickness absence. This cost increases when the cost of staff turnover due to ill-health is considered.

The Boorman review interim report found that ’presenteeism is greater in those who work long hours and experience managerial pressure to return to work’. There is little available data on presenteeism but Boorman found that 71 per cent of qualified nurses and midwives in the 21-30 age group report presenteeism compared with 45 per cent of staff in the same age group in corporate services.

 

In my experience presenteeism (which I have interpreted as the tendency to come to work when ill, rather than the ‘cost’ of such behaviour) is driven not by external pressure, but by an internal sense of indispensability. Because healthcare workers are always busy and pressurised, this perception seems unavoidable. How can we not regard our presence as absolutely vital to the service?

Another illustration: although I minimised the concern for the experience of individual patients earlier, there are times when this does play on one’s mind. These are when the clinical commitment is a ‘one man/woman show’ with no prospect of internal cover. I remember arriving back from holiday a couple of years ago with a resolving, though still rather scary looking dose of conjunctivitis (picked up from a dodgy hotel swimming pool I think). The chance of getting a replacement at such short notice was zero, but the impact, of sending 16 or 17 patients away, was going to be huge. I visualised their expressions, and the difficulties they would face in rebooking within an over-pressed system. I decided, on their behalf, that they would rather have a hands-free consultation than be cancelled on the day. This was a classic case of perceived indispensability, in the context of a contagious illness for which occupational health would have had me quarantined!

If indispensability does feed presenteeism, could it be that trainees feel less indispensible now than before? I’m not convinced. Although shifts are shorter, they are probably busier. There is more to do on the ward, there are more frail and deteriorating patients, and the expectations of both patients and relatives are higher. Each team member is just a vital as before. This argument does not scan very well… but it does bring us to the idea of the ‘team’?

 

Team cohesiveness

The pre/post European Working Time Directive study comments,

Both shift work and reduced working hours may contribute to a loss of the ‘group cohesiveness’ provided by the traditional medical team.

This is conjecture, but it does chime with people’s general feelings. A vivid memory, for me, is the sense of team working that pertained during the early years of my training. At the end of attachments I pledged to stay in touch with various colleagues, strong bonds having been formed over several months in the forge of long hours, silly levels of fatigue and vital inter-dependency. Life has moved too fast to maintain all those relationships, of course, but the sense of fellowship at the time was real. Indeed, when I was a junior house officer my registrar said one day, ‘Take tomorrow off – we’re on top of things here. Take a Mental Health Day’. And how I enjoyed it! I would love to offer the same to my present day juniors now and again, but the idea of being ‘on top of things’ is laughable. Back then the team was fast… however, I’m not sure if this made me more or less likely to call in sick. If you know colleagues well, and they trust you in return, you may be more comfortable picking up the phone and excusing yourself. If you are part of a larger but more ephemeral team – brought together just for the weekend for instance – there may be less of an expectation that colleagues with whom you have an easy relationship will cross-cover without question or reproach. The ‘team’ in this case indicates a collection of individuals whom a rota has thrown together, not a group of mutually supportive colleagues. The leader of that team, the consultant, may not know who is on the team, so dispersed are modern shifts and responsibilities. Yes, there is less cohesion, but the link between that and a greater willingness to call in sick is not clear in my mind.

 

The scaffold

So far I have presented the internal debate that precedes the decision to call in sick as a battle of pro’s and con’s, but this neglects the person’s general state of mind. No enquiry into the subject of medical staff sickness can ignore mental wellbeing, and it is this (largely unspoken) issue that may provide the link. The rising problem of anxiety and depression among junior doctors has been described recently (in the BMJ)-

 

Head of the Practitioner Health Programme in London Clare Gerada has found that since the service began, an increasing number of doctors have presented with mental health problems — 195 in 2008/09, compared to 242 in 2012/13.

Significantly, Dr Gerada found that more than half — 55 per cent — of the patients presenting to the service in 2012 and 2013 were 25- to 35-years-old, while only 22 per cent were 46 or over.

‘It may be that job stress, rather than personality, pre-existing mental health problems or factors at medical school, are behind the mental health problems seen in newly qualified doctors.’

 

These small numbers represent a tiny proportion of the workforce, and do not explain sickness behaviour overall. But if it can be safely assumed that beneath those with manifest, admitted mental health symptoms there are hundreds and thousands more with sub-clinical or contained anxiety or depression, we can begin to understand how an individual’s threshold for calling in sick might fall.

A survey by the BMA (the 7th report of the ongoing cohort study) in 2013 found that 44% of 368 doctors thought that stress levels were ‘worse or much worse’ than they had been a year before, and one in five reported ‘unacceptable’ levels. 40% said that morale had worsened. The BMA said in response that working patterns had resulted in a ‘trial of endurance’. The stress that surveys like this elicit is hard to define. It is not necessarily a pathological thing, more an overtone, an absence of well-being, a reaction to never-met demand, or bewilderment at the Sisyphean nature of the task.

When you are sick, physically, the inclination to work depends on a more general sense of positivity towards the workplace, and a feeling that one’s efforts will be appreciated. If the individual feels unsupported, rarely acknowledged, an isolated cog in a huge automated machine, the likelihood of fighting what might be quite trivial or transient physical symptoms, and pushing them to one side, is likely to be smaller. If the supporting mental and emotional scaffold is weakened, the fortitude required to ‘push on through’ cannot be mustered. Perhaps this is the link between ‘team cohesiveness’ and the observed increase in sickness absence. There is mental disquiet, but it is rarely described in words – only absence.

 

Empowerment

Or, there is a more prosaic explanation… younger doctors have got over the traditional, undesirable trait of ‘illness-martyrdom’, of equating the acceptance of illness to moral weakness, and have instead been empowered to develop a more mature and assertive approach – I am ill, therefore I do not work. This suggestion is not backed up with evidence, but may be part and parcel of the generally welcome changes in medical culture that have flattened the hierarchy (a little), and made it easier for trainees to speak up and challenge their seniors. Training needs are vocalised. There is less awe and fear on the wards. Perhaps the thoughts of that (atypical?) young doctor should have been…

‘Face it, I’m ill… we all get ill.’

‘And if I don’t go in today, what will happen? Will anybody die? No.’

‘I’ve covered others, they will have to cover me – that’s life.’

‘I will feel guilty… perhaps that is just another part of being ill. It will pass.’

‘They know me. They know I wouldn’t do this if I didn’t feel absolutely awful…’

‘And if something happens, if the work is not done, and someone complains, then I’m sorry…perhaps it’s needed to demonstrate that we need more people, rather than working at maximum intensity all the time…’

‘You know I’m over-thinking this… where’s my mobile…’

‘Hello, Sam, sorry, it’s me Esther…I can’t come in today, I’m ill…’