Psychology of doctors

Checklist mentality


The case for checklists has been made so well – see this fantastic article by Atul Gawande – yet those responsible for embedding them struggle. They are an effort, an obstacle, an apparently petty imposition. I know it’s the right patient! I know they’re not on Warfarin! I know what equipment we need to do the procedure. It’s all so obvious. Yet, now and again, something goes wrong. Never events happen. (See the recent Health Safety Investigation Branch findings.) The wrong patient is operated on, the wrong tooth is removed, or an allergy is missed and a drug that is dangerous to them is injected. Checklists reduce these events, so what’s the problem?

My experience with checklists has been interesting. I am a proponent, a kind of champion, yet often I huff and puff as, on the brink of putting an endoscope down, the wretched piece of paper is waved at me. Grrrr!

The process of completing the particular checklist that we have developed takes a minute at most. It requires standing still (a problem when you’re in a hurry), focusing the team’s attention on the responses (for what is the point of the patient telling me they are allergic to something if no one else in the room is aware?) and communicating with the patient (a problem for some, especially when in a hurry).

Perhaps it’s this need to pause and be still that frustrates doctors and surgeons. We, they, like to keep moving, to flow through the tasks, to get to the nitty gritty (the technique, the findings, the pathology, the treatment) as soon as possible. It is this habit that is so difficult to break. It is a mind-set. And it reveals something about our approach our surgical lists. They are our lists. They have our names on them. Their character – relaxed, rushed, efficient, friendly, spikey, miserable – stems from our own behaviour and the clinical leads in the room. The checklist is an obstacle to our progress through the day and to a successful outcome. With this mind-set, the fact that it is the patient’s procedure can be forgotten; forgotten also the fact that around the surgeon buzzes a team of highly assistants without whom the procedure could not take place. The checklist is the best, probably only way to ensure that for a moment, everyone is focussed on that patient, and the last opportunity to identify possible harm is heeded.

Gradually, slowly, the checklist should become natural, and depending on your psychology, you feel that something is missing without it. We didn’t to clean our hands before and every patient contact; now, if I haven’t, I feel kind of tainted, as though there is something on my skin that hasn’t been taken off. They are clean of course, but the habit has become so ingrained my mind insists on the slap of antiseptic foam before moving on. In the same way, the checklist should become a door through which your mind insists on moving before embarking on the procedure.

I’m not sure I’m at that stage yet. If there are distractions, or if I am running very late, the checklist can be overlooked, until a colleague holds it up and pulls me back. I know that if harm does occur in relation to a surgical procedure, the absence of a checklist looks bad. Completed correctly, it serves to protect you, as the surgeon. It demonstrates that care was taken, and thought given to the patient as an individual, not as a ‘procedure’.

Most doctors and nurses are already converted. But the checklist mentality remains a change, and a challenge. As Gawande says, comparing the flair and fluidity with which surgeons like to move through their lists with the early astronauts from The Right Stuff,

‘…the prospect [of checklists] pushes against the traditional culture of medicine, with its central belief that in situations of high risk and complexity what you want is a kind of expert audacity—the right stuff, again. Checklists and standard operating procedures feel like exactly the opposite, and that’s what rankles many people.’

Expert audacity vs regimentation, again in Gawande’s words. This points to the same psychology I explored above. The audacity, the flair, the speed, all relate to the surgeon.

But it’s the patient’s procedure.



Dodging shadows: the mysterious art of detachment


I watched a patient die before Christmas. He was surrounded by the full crash team, which nowadays is a fairly large group. As the attempt was abandoned, and another consultant ‘called it’, I withdrew into the background. There was nothing I could do to help. I walked away to prepare my departure for the week-long break (lucky me, most doctors don’t get that), and couldn’t help but think about him. His death. I wondered how it would affect me as I arrived home. The family were looking forward to seeing me, my return would mark the beginning of the ‘real’ holiday. I wanted to enter the house with a light spirit and smile. Yet, the image barely fading on my retina, and still vivid in my visual memory, was of a dead man.

How to separate the intensity of that memory from life outside the hospital? Detachment. That is the word, the process. An ability to cut the lines of emotion that stretch from the wards though the sliding doors, along the train track or the A-Road or the cycle lane, thin but tenacious like the silk spun by a giant spider of Middle Earth. Pull as hard as you like, they don’t snap. Yet, to avoid darkening our homes, they do need to be cut.

Detachment. This process has received a bad press recently. The surgeon who burned his initials onto a living liver was defended by Henry Marsh, who used ‘detachment’ as a justification. Detachment can impede our ability to sympathise and to emphathise. In this example, it permitted transformation of a patient in an object to be signed. Any detachment we achieve on leaving the hospital or the surgery, has to be reversed when we re-enter the building.

So perhaps it’s not detachment that is required. Perhaps it is management, of bad or upsetting memories. By this I mean the ability to live with them. Compartmentalisation. Reduction. Or temporary blindness. A method by which negative emotion can be pushed to the margins of our minds, while the lives of others who have no knowledge of the patients, and therefore cannot truly ‘care’ except in an abstract sense, proceed uninterrupted. Silence is one option. Yet this requires the healthcare worker to conceal his or her thoughts and behave normally. This means acting, and the dissonance between inner reflections and external actions could, in time, be harmful. I have no reliable answer. My own method, as readers of this blog will know, is to turn a thing over, look at it from several angles, and process it through words. That doesn’t work for everyone (there would be far too many blogs!).

My final answer is this: doctors and nurses will always bring the memory of death into the home. To leave it on the street is unrealistic. To bury it is harmful. To talk about it incessantly is unfair on those we live with. The only other option, perhaps, is to develop a special facility – to carry the emotional load with as much sadness and respect as death deserves, while simultaneously accepting that the lives lost do not intersect with those who are close to us. The sadness is of a different quality, with a translucence and impermanence that alters us but cannot rob us of normal social reflexes, or the ability to enjoy ourselves.


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What explanation can there be for a surgeon to write his initials on a patient’s liver? It sounds bizarre and disrespectful. This almost surreal, alleged event is sub judice, and I know nothing of the people involved or any details beyond what was in the papers, but perhaps it exposes some interesting psychology.

In the medical specialties that require practical skill, especially surgery, you work hard to become expert. Over the years the movements of the hands and fingers become practised and slick. Operations that appear impossible to the lay-person or junior trainee become routine, yet each patient is different. Each procedure presents its own challenges, hiccups, sudden recalibrations and extempore solutions. At the end of a particularly difficult case, when the patient appears stable and safe, you might sigh with relief, but also experience a surge of pride on a job well done. Congratulations are hard to come by in medicine. The job well done should be the norm, after all. But looking down at the organ, structure, or vessel that now pulses healthily as a result of your dexterity, you might be forgiven for thinking – ‘I did that!’

To mark a job well done with your initials is appropriate in other walks of life – in art and sculpture, in literature, in architecture. The artist owns the piece. A part of them, their skill, their creativity, their experience, lives within its lines.

Can medical procedures be regarded as art? Yes, I would say. The long facial reconstruction, the painstakingly re-joined finger, the delicately implanted heart valve… in the fine skill and seamless results it is easy to identify the hallmarks of the inspired artisan, the committed artist. Perhaps it is understandable that a surgeon who comes to see the results of their skill as art feels the urge to sign it.

However, it is a living body that we are talking about here. What lies under the skin is sovereign to the patient. They will carry it around with them for the rest of their lives. They were born with it. It is wholly theirs. (In the case of a transplanted liver of course, it belonged to another. The act of altruism and donation makes it worthy of even greater respect.) Perhaps that is the line that may have been crossed here – the distinction between what a surgeon can claim to ‘own’, and what is and will forever be sacred to patient.

From the front


Victoria, a new consultant, pushed for the procedure. It was, as they say, a ‘multi-disciplinary decision’. A consensus had been reached and the views of all those involved was clearly documented, but it was Victoria who made it happen. She had seen that Mr S. would go nowhere until a decision was made. Due to the complexity of his situation (a chronic disease with a rare complication), touching several specialties, there seemed to be no leader in his management; no overall owner. So, Victoria, who had met Mr S. several times and felt that she knew him quite well, decided to ‘own’ this episode of care. Through emails, corridor chats and a couple of cameo appearances at specialty meetings, she brought Mr S. to the eve of the procedure.

It was performed rarely, in any hospital, and Victoria, being no surgeon, did not know exactly how it was done. Nevertheless, the surgeon who agreed to do it (reluctantly, she felt) was known to be an expert. There was risk; how could there not be, given the complexity, and the proximity of the pathology to the brain? But the surgeon would explain this while obtaining Mr S’s informed consent. Not that Mr S. had much choice. To do nothing would see him die of the complication at some point in the next 12 months.

Victoria went to see Mr S. on the morning of the procedure. She didn’t see it as her business to delve into the risks, and she knew that Mr S. had given his consent already. A porter was waiting by the nurses’ station with a piece of paper in his hand asking which bed Mr S. was in. It was time for him to go to theatre. So, with the porter circling the bed, Victoria wished Mr S. well and promised to see him in a couple of days. Not tomorrow; that might be a bit too soon. Mr S. nodded. His smile was not full. Victoria got the impression that he had more knowledge of the procedure than she did.

Victoria walked away feeling pleased with herself, for steering her shared patient through the Byzantine processes that can seem to slow the progress of patients in the NHS. Mr S. was getting what he needed, at last.

Next day Victoria headed straight to clinic. She was too busy to think about Mr S. At lunchtime he crossed her mind. He would probably be in the ICU now, recovering; or, if everything had gone very smoothly, on the specialist surgical ward. Over lunch she looked him up on the computer. Yes, still in ICU.

On the way to her afternoon commitment she ran into the surgeon.

                “How did it go?” asked Victoria, brightly.

                “Didn’t you hear?”

                “No. What?”

                “He stroked out, massive embolus came off the aorta. The whole left cerebral hemisphere is swollen, the neurosurgeons had to do a craniotomy overnight.”

                “But he’s…”

                “Alive, yes, but there may not be much…” He tapped his temple.

                Victoria stepped back, and leaned against the wall.

                “Are you OK?” she asked of the surgeon.

                “Me? Yeah, fine. Tiger country, you know, that sort of operation.” He walked away, unflustered.

Victoria was distracted all afternoon. Her body language was automatic, her responses generic. She knew it would not be helpful to anyone for her to visit Mr S. He was being looked after well enough.

On the way home, through the blurred background and streaky lights visible from the train window, she saw Mr S’s future. It was nothing like she had imagined. It was not what she had promised him.

Now she regretted her assertive approach. It was due to her negotiating the blocks, driving the reviews, nudging the co-ordinators, that Mr S. had been listed for surgery. Her prints were all over this process. She felt responsible.

The residual weight of that responsibility, a leaden blanket, slowed her down as she walked home from the station. Her husband asked what was the matter, and she explained. He, a non-medic, saw it another way. There had been no wrong done here. The operation was indicated, all were agreed. It was bad luck… a final bit of bad luck compounding a life afflicted by bad luck. Victoria nodded and smiled. Yes, that was the rational approach.

Because Mr S’s clinical needs had changed, Victoria had no ongoing role in his management. Other patients displaced the acute concern she had developed for him. His name appeared in a morbidity and mortality meeting, but his ‘outcome’ generated no controversy.

Later, long after he had died, Victoria met other patients who needed strong advocacy from someone to take their management forward. Sensing that these patients were entering territory full of risk, Victoria did what was required of her, offered her opinions, and contributed to the consensus. Although the speed of decision-making was often slow – or deliberate, a better word – she was comfortable with that. She did not push things forward. Let management plans evolve at their own pace. Byzantine processes have developed for good reasons. Sure, there might be occasions where she needed to lead from the front and make things happen – in those areas where she was the acknowledged expert – but in other circumstances, from now on, she would go with the flow.

In my day

Reading about the situation at Derriford hospital, where two doctors found themselves responsible for over 400 people, I thought about my own training in the 1990s. Before you slap the computer shut or throw down the phone, I should say that although there is a fair amount of ‘in my day’ reflection here, it is not my intention to promote a ‘just get on with it’ attitude.

Back in the 90’s few if any junior doctors thought about challenging potentially dangerous staffing levels. If we turned up to the hospital on a Saturday morning to find that we were one doctor down, we steeled ourselves for a nightmare and hit the wards determined to fight the fires as they arose. If people died, we attributed their demise to disease, not to a paucity of doctors. Overnight, in the large hospital where I started work, two JHO’s and one SHO* managed all the medical wards and all medical admissions after seven o’clock. The Registrar went home at ten. The consultant was not seen until the 8AM post-take round. That was just how things were. It seemed hard, it felt threadbare, but we did not complain.

Our perspective was centred on our own experience, not that of the patients. As the sun rose to brighten the night-blackened windows after a non-stop night, and the nurses handed over to the early shift, we congratulated ourselves for having responded to the many calls, requests and emergencies that had arisen. The euphoria of finishing the shift counteracted any misgivings we may have had about sailing too close to the wind at times. We felt like heroes. In the pub, we spoke about working in ‘warzones’.  We weren’t happy with it, and the hours before a series of weekend on-call shifts could become heavy with foreboding, but we managed.

If a patient deteriorates during a period of sub-optimal staffing, it is very hard to link their outcome with the number of doctors available. The sick get sick, that is why they are in hospital. Doctors are good at focusing their time and energy on those who need it most, so of those 400 and more patients in Derriford, perhaps twenty will have required urgent medical assessment and a new management decision over an eight or twelve-hour period. The stable majority were looked after by nurses, who could alert the doctors to any signs of deterioration if they developed. It is rare for two or three patients to get acutely ill simultaneously, such that a doctor cannot physically be with a patient during an emergency.

But what if that does happen? A doctor might have to run away from one patient before he or she has sorted them out, to see another one who was just deteriorated. If there are only two doctors, and six simultaneously sick patients, it would appear that a difficult choice has to be made, and the least deserving will go neglected. This is extremely rare. When the alarm goes up, other colleagues (anaesthetists, outreach teams, even orthopods) emerge from the ether. The system stretches. The need is met. So at the end of the day, nobody seems to suffer. There are no ‘serious incidents in which the root cause is felt to be under-staffing. And the patients… they would have had no idea the team was a doctor or two down. So what exactly is the problem?

Well, there was risk. There was probably delay in seeing patients, and perhaps some associated morbidity – but none that could be measured or proven. And the doctors, for all their coping ability, were strung out, and felt vulnerable. The price to pay for a system running at full stretch is the potential for disaster, stress, a poor learning environment, disillusionment and ultimately burnout. Yet many of us saw this during our training, and said nothing. We were in the problem so deeply, we didn’t see it as a problem. Or perhaps we didn’t have the ability a look up and gain a broader perspective.

Today junior doctors are more vociferous, and, in certain circumstances, more militant. The industrial action that took place last year was the clear example of this. Unsatisfactory staffing levels and training opportunities are now challenged. They do not regard those difficult shifts as a heroic challenge, but as failures of the system which they, the doctors, have a responsibility to highlight. This involves informing management and pressing for locum cover, providing feedback freely and without fear through GMC surveys and empowering their BMA representatives.

Why the change? I think junior doctors are more mature nowadays. Many have competed degrees before entering medicine, or have pursued different careers. They may be more independently minded. As a 24-year old in my first teaching hospital, I was grateful to have been selected for a ‘good’ post. I saw the challenges ahead in terms of my ability to meet them, to avoid failure however steep the learning curve… not to question the organisation itself, or the wider political environment. Therefore, during those years when I worked to the limits of my ability in understaffed areas, I did not complain. I did not seek to improve patient safety by making a fuss. I was, in a way, complicit.

Old attitudes don’t fall away easily. When I hear about an understaffed shift now I worry, and I sympathise, but a hard part of me thinks, ‘They’ll manage. They always manage…You know, back in the 90’s…” etc., etc,, yawn, yawn.

The future requires doctors like me, who appear to have grown older and perhaps a little cantankerous, to recognize that what was once acceptable is no more, and that without fuss, there is no change.

*JHO, junior house officer – first year post-qualificiation; SHO – senior house officer – 2nd or 3rd year post qualification


Omissions: reading the Kennedy report on Ian Paterson


This imagined reflection by a doctor who worked with Ian Paterson is, of course, ill-informed. I was not there. But I have read Sir Ian Kennedy’s brilliantly written report (2013), and think that the messages it contains should be seen by the wider medical community. The report is 166 pages long, but perhaps this ‘story’ will help introduce people to it.

In the excerpts from the reports that follow the reflection, I have removed the names of clinicians. However, it is all in the public domain. The Kennedy report focuses on Mr Paterson’s unacceptable surgical technique, and the NHS Trust’s slow recognition and response. It does not examine the unjustified operations and investigations in the private sector, for which he was recently convicted.

This article sits with two other posts, ‘Why Michael didn’t blow the whistle: pub scene’ and ‘The eyes and the ears: why Adam blew the whistle’. Like those, it explores a doctor’s internal battle of the conscience, insecurities and the concept of moral bravery in the workplace.




“I wasn’t directly involved, but I was in a position to observe. When he was suspended I wasn’t surprised; it was high time. The criminal stuff, that did come as a surprise. I had no idea he was doing operations unnecessarily. But this is less about him than us, as a group. About me.

“We knew he was no good. His reputation preceded him, and as time went on a few people discovered firm evidence that he was an outlier. So your question is valid – why didn’t we act sooner? Why didn’t I?

Ian Kennedy

“When the weight of complaint was sufficient, action was taken. But before that, for years, we did what Kennedy said we did in his report, we worked around him. That’s what you do with difficult personalities. A jagged rock in the stream, which will not be eroded. The water goes around it. Decisions were made without him. He was excluded from the panel when the second surgeon was appointed. They couldn’t risk having him anywhere near the process.

“I watched him in the MDTs. He led from the front, made decisions quickly, and helped to ensure that the huge list of patients was dealt with. Snappy assessments and decisions were necessary. The referrals never let up. From time to time the oncologists pushed back, about the type of surgery, the need for revisions when you’d have expected a cure… but their searching tones changed to resignation after a while. They had done an audit on the resection margins, had proven he was an outlier, but nothing changed. What could they do? And anyway, they, the ones who were at the receiving end, who knew the outcomes were not right, didn’t actually work in the same Trust. You could see their faces, a bit fuzzy on the video link during the MDT… and they just looked neutral.

“The signal had been raised, the data had been forwarded… they say we are all managers, but we aren’t.  We are clinicians who rely on senior managers to tackle the problems while we get on with our jobs, which is seeing patients. That’s what they are for, to review the whole picture and make a judgment call.

“Okay, you say, what about your responsibility as a doctor to keep the pressure on, in the face of managerial inertia and an ongoing threat to patient safety. Well look at it… there was an external peer review around this time, and it concluded that apart from needing a few tweaks, the service was sound. In fact it was congratulatory. Once I heard that, I began to wonder if we, the doubters,  were the ones who had got it wrong.

“To keep the pressure on in this kind of situation you need to have absolute confidence in yourself. It’s got to be more than a suspicion or a sense of unease. So, if you hear that a review or an audit has been conducted, and that the people upstairs see no indication for urgent or fundamental change, you back off.

“Yes, even if you know, in your heart of hearts, that he’s probably doing harm. Because the risk in keeping your head above the parapet is substantial – not that it will be blown away, the NHS is not like that nowadays – but that your everyday professional life will become deeply unpleasant. There is enough sadness in cancer medicine, in the illness and grief we meet daily. If your interpersonal relationships breakdown, if you can’t look at your colleague in the eye or have a conversation, then coming to work becomes miserable. You might say that a little bit of discomfiture is nothing compared to protecting patients, but it’s all a balance. We go through our careers observing colleagues who may well under average, but we can’t act to remove all of them. Half of us are below average by definition, aren’t we? Quality lies on a spectrum. Who am I to say, not bring a surgeon, where one should lie on that spectrum?

“I did think about raising hell, once. This was when I met a patient who had a recurrence in breast tissue that should have been removed first time. She was living proof that his surgical method was wrong. There in front of me was the embodiment of disappointment and suffering, and also of dishonesty… because when she consented to her mastectomy she did not know that his particular method, to leave some fatty tissue behind, put her at a greater risk of recurrence. She, and her husband, assumed that the person in front of them knew best, that the expert was an expert, and would only suggest a treatment that was effective.

“When I saw the situation from the perspective of the patient, I shook myself out of my comfort zone, and I went to speak to someone. I won’t say who. And that conversation cooled my anger. Another perspective was provided. It was explained to me… that he carried the service, that he was industrious, not lazy… which you can’t say for everyone… that the patients trusted him and that didn’t happen accidentally, that there was actually an infrastructure in place for monitoring people like him, called appraisal, which he flew through each year. I walked away from the meeting with a new understanding. I didn’t have to sacrifice my professional quality of life, I didn’t have to go on a mission to get this guy out. Others were aware of the ‘problems’, and they were generally happy that although he was an outlier, he did not lie far enough outside the norm to be stopped.

“And of course, they were wrong. Perhaps they were all looking at each other, talking to each other, and hearing the same thing. Echo chamber. There is no real problem here… so many patients treated… targets met. Targets met… the echo.

“When, as a non-surgeon, you look at a surgeon, there is a certain awe. It sounds childish perhaps, and I’m no worshipper, but I know – we all know – that the job they do, cutting into others, is different. It takes confidence and skill to get through the training. There are technical factors that the non-surgeon cannot hope to understand. The interaction between tissue and metal is a mystery to people like me, I can’t judge it with confidence. The outcomes yes, but not the technique. That requires others to come in a make a judgement. The Trust did that… and we did not see the conclusions, not for years.

“These are not excuses. I am not proud of my inaction. I accept I played a part in the acquiescence. If I had made more of a fuss, perhaps fewer patients would have undergone bad operations. But for all of us to watch for 8 whole years between 2003, when the first concerns arose, and his exclusion from the Trust in 2011, it must have been something more than individual weakness… it must have been a permissive environment that prioritised surface efficiency over quality. Kennedy’s report focuses on the role of the non-executive directors, who incuriously accepted what they were fed by the executive, who had a rose-tinted view… on the secrecy of HR processes, on reports and audits being unsupported… organisational. Cultural. He does not put the blame on individuals like me, even though we were the ones of knew…

“And next time? That’s the problem you see. Although I can recognise my omissions in this case, I’m not sure I’ll act differently next time. Because you don’t know, until you’ve seen the proof, that the doctor you are worried about is a doing real harm, or is actually malign. You might have your suspicions, but the proof – which in this field is, ultimately, death – does not present itself.

“Unless we all agree that a certain degree of suspicion, a certain number of reports or complaints should result in suspension, we are not going to put these people on gardening leave just in case. Our clinical services could sustain it. There isn’t enough slack in the system. There wasn’t enough slack to give the two guys who were asked to write reports the time off from clinical duties to produce something quickly. It one of them took three months. We need the time and the space to work on these issues. We need to act on risk, not proven harm. In doing that, we might have to suspend five surgeons to confirm one case of unacceptable practise. ‘NNS, the number needed to suspend’ – do we buy into that? Perhaps we should, because when that risk is proven to be real, the time elapsed will have seen more patients come to harm while we vacillated.”




Excerpts from the Kennedy report on which this fictional reflection is based:


‘He came with something of a reputation as being a difficult person to work with. When he applied for the appointment, Dr _______, a senior manager at Good Hope Hospital, telephoned one of the Medical Directors at the Trust, Dr _______, to alert him to the fact that Mr Paterson had been the subject of an investigation and suspended in 1996 following an incident in which an operation on a patient had exposed the patient to a significant risk of harm. A review had been commissioned by the Royal College of Surgeons.’


‘That said, there was a level of informal knowledge. As one of the senior radiologists, told me, “To be honest, when we heard he was coming … it was, you know, ‘What’s gone on then?’ His reputation was well-known as being difficult and having open rows with a colleague at Good Hope. … it’s always a surprise to us why they took him on when they knew he was trouble”.’


‘Mr Paterson was described as high-handed to the point of being dismissive of colleagues. Forewarnings of this pattern of behaviour were already evident when Mr Paterson worked in the vascular unit. This unit was run in a very collaborative way, but Mr Paterson did not participate and rarely attended the MDT. When Mr Paterson moved to breast surgery, he behaved in a similarly challenging way. The hope was, it appears, that the managerial and governance arrangements in place would deal with whatever had to be dealt with. It was a forlorn hope.’


‘He had been the subject of an investigation and suspension two years previously by his then employer, Good Hope Hospital and had been required to undergo a period of supervised practice before recommencing laparoscopic surgery. The Trust was advised of this prior to his appointment.’


‘He is described as charismatic and charming and was much-liked by his patients. He was not, however, a team-player in an area of care which is absolutely dependent on clinicians working efficiently and effectively as a team.’


‘They [his colleagues] were faced by an awful ethical dilemma: what to do about the patients whom they were seeing who were supposed to have had a mastectomy but had not, in fact, had one…’


‘The Report overlooked a crucial issue: the issue of consent. Women were giving their consent to a mastectomy. But, on occasions, a variation of a mastectomy was being carried out; what became known later as a “cleavage sparing mastectomy”. This was not a recognised procedure. Women did not consent to it in any properly informed way.’


‘Senior managers saw Mr Paterson at the time as a highly effective surgeon performing efficiently, enabling the Trust to meet its targets.’


‘The concerns over Mr Paterson’s clinical competence went unaddressed. Mr Paterson continued to operate as before for nearly four years. The oncologists who were based in another Trust felt ignored. They had expressed their concerns and supplied evidence. They felt that no-one at Mr Paterson’s Trust was listening.’


‘They were told the good news from the Report of the Peer Review in 2005. They were not told of Mr _____’s Report, nor the less favourable views expressed by the initial and follow-up QA Visits in 2004, and the recommendations which followed. Good news was preferred to true news.’


“…we did raise that we had some concerns and we were told not to worry about it, so for the next few years we didn’t say anything”


‘They took the view that because they were not surgeons, they were defined out of competence. As Dr _______ put it, “I had taken the trouble to go through 100 cases, two thirds of my case-load for a year basically, and anything other than the most rudimentary examination of that would have shown substantial problems and the Trust took not a blind bit of notice of it and, not only that, they swept it … under the carpet”.’


‘When the Trust decided to make a new appointment in 2007, Mr Paterson was excluded from the process of selection, despite his being the leading surgeon, for fear that he would again put off any applicant. This is just one example of how senior managers behaved, towards Mr Paterson. Rather than confront him, they preferred to work around him.’


‘The new surgeon appointed in 2007 soon began to raise concerns about Mr Paterson’s surgery after seeing some of Mr Paterson’s patients, under the newly introduced system of cross-cover. The senior managers decided to launch an investigation.’


‘… if the issue of consent had been identified, as it should have been, a reason to require Mr Paterson to cease operating had existed for several years earlier.’


‘He [a colleague] talked of “raising his head above the parapet”. This speaks volumes about the perception of the way that the Trust then worked: that raising concerns was to be characterised as putting your head above a parapet, with the implication that the head would be shot at rather than welcomed and invited over the battlements to talk further.’


‘He realised that what he lacked was proof that women were being put at risk. The only way that he would obtain that proof was if women presented with recurrences of their cancer. And given that it might be several years before recurrences occurred, there was nothing he could do in the meantime.’


‘Evidence of actual harm, except in the most obvious cases, is usually hard to come by. It takes careful documentation, proper sampling and statistical analysis. Without all these, the concerns will be at risk of being dismissed. Dr ______ provided evidence but it did not show harm. It showed a deviation from accepted practice and a risk of harm.’


‘They told me that by the time their own concerns were coming to the fore, “everybody was aware of this”. One replied, “… it’s like stating the bleedin’ obvious, they already knew. … the senior management had been informed by the rest of the team, the consultants, and I can see that us adding our voice to that may have had – well, I don’t believe it would have had any effect but I can see that there is an argument that you could say, well, you know, you didn’t raise concerns as well but they’d already been raised…”.


‘…once the HR procedures were invoked, everything was covered by a blanket of confidentiality. Like others, they were kept in the dark.’


‘Organisations can tend to become closed, to exclude others and become disinclined to listen to the voice of “outsiders”. This is usually a bad sign in terms of the performance of the organisation… The “outsider” may see himself in such terms, feel he has done his bit and retreat to familiar territory.’


‘It is impossible to overstate the emotional burden that he and others shouldered for years. As Mr _______, who carried out an investigation in 2007, put it to me, while he did not want to emphasise the element of emotion in what he heard as he gathered evidence for his Report, “to see someone virtually in tears was an eye opener”.’


‘He realised that what he lacked was proof that women were being put at risk. The only way that he would obtain that proof was if women presented with recurrences of their cancer. And given that it might be several years before recurrences occurred, there was nothing he could do in the meantime.’


‘A concern about the practice of a clinician is raised. It is perceived as a criticism of the clinician rather than a concern about patients. The perspective is that of the clinician. The response of managers to the person expressing concerns is to demand evidence: to “put up or shut up”’.


‘The call for proof, in a situation such as the one under review, was based on two flaws. First, it proceeded on the basis that the issues at stake were scientific and technical and could and should only be addressed scientifically and technically. This is the way that clinicians tend to think. It is their comfort zone. And, it allows arguments about data and its interpretation to go on for years. The flaw is that, while there may be technical issues to address, the primary issue is that concerns are being expressed about the care of patients [   ] the proper response is to stop and look.’


‘Peer Review Visits do not have sufficient rigour to be regarded as a reliable guide to performance. They should either acquire the necessary rigour or be regarded as a useful exercise in bringing people together but not a serious examination. Currently, organisations may present the results of a Peer Review Visit in self-congratulatory terms, even though, on occasions, self-congratulation, on a more careful analysis, may be unwarranted. Patients and the public, therefore, should be alert to this when forming a view on the performance of a service or unit.’


‘Further light is cast on the failure to grasp the importance of consent by the practice, which I still encountered in 2013, of clinicians talking of “consenting” patients. The objections to this awful phrase are not merely linguistic. They go to the heart of a proper understanding of the relationship between patients and clinicians.’


Smoker and doctor

The approach to many hospitals is blighted by an oncogenic miasma of second-hand smoke. It’s less of a problem than it used to be, but even now I pass wheelchair bound patients coughing over a fag at eight in the morning. Depending on which entrance I use, there may be a sign above their heads saying ‘STRICTLY NO SMOKING’. My reluctance to tell them to stop, or to move beyond the hospital’s boundary, says something about my identity at work.

If this was a restaurant, a train or a shop I would be the first to face them and ask politely that they stop. If there was no response, my natural reticence would do battle with my genuine annoyance/anger, and between them would work out whether I remonstrated or turned away – the older I get the more likely I am to escalate. But not with the smoking patient. Why?

It is because they are patients. What I want to say is, ‘Put that cigarette out. You know you’re not supposed to smoke here. Why shouldn’t you obey the rules? And don’t tell me you can’t go out because you’re in a wheelchair… one of the others here could take you.’ If no response, a part of me would want to continue, ‘You make this end of the hospital look horrible, why should all these people coming to work have to meet a cloud of smoke first thing in the morning… and look at all the butts on the ground, smoking doesn’t automatically give you the right to litter…’ And then, the transgression – a moral judgement, ‘Anyway, you wouldn’t be in here with this [amputation/heart problem/lung problem] if you didn’t smoke.’ This being said entirely without evidence, but as a manifestation of my frustration.

Yet even to ask them to stop or move is uncomfortable, because in doing so I am breaking out of the role of doctor, who strives to understand patients and shies away from criticism. Addiction is to be met with sympathy, allied to an agreed and constructive strategy to reduce it. When an alcoholic patient of mine returns to the ward carrying the smell of vodka, I am exasperated, but I do not criticise. That will do no good. Behaviour is challenged if clearly anti-social, but not overtly vilified. Doctors don’t come to work to tell people off.

So the doctor looks at the smoker, tuts, and moves on, leaving any correction to the security patrol who will surely pass by in half an hour or so. They, I hope, will not be inhibited by the instinct, magnified by training, to empathise and understand.


Anger management

The four humours


Riding into work, I watched the cyclist in front try to weave through the gap between a bus and the curb. The bus was in the cyclist’s lane, having failed to move out into the road properly after leaving the last stop. The cyclist couldn’t quite fit through the gap, and he smacked the side window with his hand. Then he shouted something unpleasant. The driver moved the bus out, the cyclist hurried on, and following through I glanced at the driver’s profile. He had the inscrutable, hardened expression of one who spends his days in the firing line, bearing the brunt. The cyclist’s abuse did not seem to register. The driver had acquired the ability to absorb negative energy without displaying any sign of impact.

I wondered… do we do this, in medicine?

Meeting anger (or its junior relations, impatience, frustration, exasperation) is inevitable when you work in the public sector. Customers, clients, or in this instance, patients, interact daily with systems that are both leviathan and byzantine. They come in fear for their own health or the health of a relative. Even when things go smoothly, from an organisational point of view, disease can lead to sudden changes, it can engender disbelief that nature can be so cruel, and cause unexpected grief… with the result that people feel angry. How could it be otherwise?

During an advanced communication skills training course, I learnt (if I did not know it already) that anger is not a primary emotion, but a sign of something else, usually fear of the unknown, or uncertainty. Sitting opposite an actor who recreated the tenor of previous real-life interactions with terrifying accuracy, I let anger unfurl itself, allowed it to fill carefully measured pauses, and drew out the underlying driver. To do this required active listening and genuine empathy, but also a little of the bus driver’s placidity.

The natural reaction, when accused, say, of disgraceful inefficiency, of trying to save beds, of ‘writing someone off’, is to defend oneself. It is tempting to tackle the issues forensically, and explain in detail exactly why a certain management strategy is being recommended. As the doctor, you have the details at your fingertips, you know your subject. You can easily out-argue an angry patient or relative with hard logic.

But to win the argument is not the aim. That will not win them over. The desired outcome is to let the person express their underlying concern, perhaps one they haven’t yet acknowledged even to themselves, and to help them resolve it. The route may not be pleasant, if bad news has to be given and its implications explored. The result may be quiet acceptance that this is life’s lot, and there is little more that can be done. Thus goes the narrative in which we calmly defuse a hot situation.

But there are times when the anger displayed is disproportionate to the situation. The underlying problem may not be fear, but an unrealistic expectation of how the clinical service runs. Or the hyperbolic reaction of an individual who is hard-wired to access fury at a low threshold. Doctors and nurses who work in Emergency Departments will know this.

In these situations, it is not always appropriate to absorb and to adapt. Sometimes it is necessary to respond, and to tell it how it is… if that can be done safely. On these occasions, the authority that resides in medical staff comes into play. ‘Sorry, that’s just not possible,’ or, ‘I’m afraid we’re not getting anywhere, I’m going to have to ask you to come back when you’re feeling calmer…’  Doctors are allowed to call out unreasonable behaviour. It is reasonable to display personality, and to demonstrate normal human reactions to challenging behaviour. In my experience this encourages the angry patient or relative to recognise that the person they are talking to is not a faceless representative of the larger organisation. They are probably doing their best. They can be injured by words. The situation is difficult for all involved, doctor or nurse, and patient. Let’s work it out together.

Perhaps, if the bus-driver he had been able to do so safely, he should have braked, stepped out of his cabin onto the road, and asked the cyclist to be reasonable. Or perhaps not; you never know what’s going to happen on the roads nowadays.


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.”


“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.


“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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