The imperative voice in medical journal editorials

I’ve long wanted to do a little study – though in my experience no study is ever “little” – which is available to anyone in the entire world to do if they have the time and inclination (and resources)

Essentially I wished take a year or so of editorials from various medical journals and assess how much imperative language used. The seemingly endless “musts” and “shoulds” and “needs” that tend to be as inescapable a feature as the words “more research is needed.” I would like to assess exactly who “must” do this-or-that, and what the this-or-that tends to be. Often the subjects of this imperative language are those old standbys “stakeholders” or “policymakers”, adding to their holding of stakes and making of policy duties. Often it is rather specific bodies, often it is more generalised groups (“doctors”, “consultants”, “junior doctors”) It would be interesting to have the benefit of some kind of empirical study of this phenomenon.

For all the status of the medical profession, doctors do not seem to be a terribly happy bunch.   In the piece I just linked to I originally had a section in the opening paragraphs more explicitly exploring how much of this was contextual – related to working patterns, social attitudes, etc. – and how much was something inherent in the profession of medicine itself, either in the practitioners or in the practice. As I wrote in that review:

Lewis Terman’s classic study of “gifted” individuals, published in 1954, found that physicians tended to feel inferior relative to those of comparable attainment in other fields, and the Grant Study, George Vaillant’s epic survey of adult development, following the Harvard Class of 1944, identified self-doubt as the feature distinguishing physicians from control subjects.

In Myers and Gabbard’s highly readable The Physician as Patient we read of the physicians ultimate impotence in the face of death and much disease, and discussion of the defence mechanisms used to manage this. There is also a tendency to conscientiousness that can easily tip over into obsessionality.

Of course, there are non-conscientious doctors, and no doubt plenty of very happy doctors, and doctors who lack of the feelings of inferiority identified by Terman and Valliant (although Myers and Gabbard write that to a certain degree the oft-purported medical narcissism is a defence against the unknown and uncontrollable)

The essential point remains however. It has always struck me that – admirable as it is – the culture of audit and of quality improvement can all too easily tip into a kind of self-flagellation. There is no end to the potential improvements would could  make to one’s own practice. It can be difficult to separate out the individual from the role, especially the role of the individual within a system, and to over-personalise the findings of an audit.

I wonder too about the endless imperative language of editorials feeding into this tendency. With a certain amount of irony, a recent Lancet editorial “When the doctor is sick too” illustrates the style perfectly in its closing paragraph:

The Academy, the RCP, NHS England, NHS Employers, and Health Education England need to work together to provide solutions without stifling individual actions. Junior doctors need to lead on actions, supported by their organisations. But overall, family structures and small groups work better than huge multidisciplinary teams in supporting the health of junior doctors. Consultants and managers, please take note.

I am not disputing anything that is being said – indeed (perhaps more than most editorials) I would fully support what is being said, especially about the relative benefit of “family structures and small groups.” Yet it is more the tone of the imperative language used that struck me as typical of a certain kind of editorial.
It can be easy to spot the point in an editorial where the author switches from descriptive or evaluative language into something-must-be-done mode.

I find the issue most acute in papers with an educational bent. Surveys of the degree to which topic A is taught in medical schools will almost always find that topic A isn’t taught enough, or taught properly, or taught in a way that students feel emboldened to fill out a Likert scale self-assessing their competence with “Very Competent.” Topic A therefore needs to be, must be, or should be more integrated or even included in the curriculum. In papers on medical education published outside the specialist medical educational literature, rarely if ever is there much discussion beyond a few cursory words on that fact that curricula are already quite overloaded as it is, and while Topic A is no doubt wonderful if not life-saving, not all goods are reconcilable.

Engaging clinicians and the evidence for informatics innovations

A few weeks ago Richard Gibson from Gartner spoke to members of the CCIO group. It was a fascinating, wide-ranging talk – managing the time effectively was a challenge. Dr Gibson talked about the implications for acute care and long term care of technological innovations – as might be obvious from my previous post here, I have a concern that much of the focus on empowerment via wearables and consumer technology misses the point that the vast bulk of healthcare is acute care and long term care. As Dr Gibson pointed out, at the rate things are going healthcare will be the only economic, social, indeed human activity in years to go

One long term concern I have about connected health approaches is engaging the wide group of clinicians. Groups like the CCIO do a good job (in my experience!) of engaging the already interested, more than likely unabashedly enthusiastic. At the other extreme, there always going to be some resistance to innovation almost on principle. In between, there is a larger group interested but perhaps sceptical.

One occasional response from peers to what I will call “informatics innovations” (to emphasise that this not about ICT but also about care planning and various other approaches that do not depend on “tech” for implementation) is to ask “where is the evidence?” And often this is not a call for empirical studies as such, but for an impossible standard – RCTs!

Now, I advocate for empirical studies of any innovation, and a willingness to admit when things are going wrong based on actual experience rather than theoretical evidence. In education, I strongly support the concept of Best Evidence Medical Education and indeed in following public debates and media coverage about education I personally find it frustrating that there is a sense that educational practice is purely opinion-based.

With innovation, the demand for the kind of RCT based evidence is something of a category error. There is also a wider issue of how “evidence-based” has migrated from healthcare to politics. In Helen Pearson’s Life Project we read how birth cohorts went from ignored, chronically underfunded studies ran by a few eccentrics to celebrated, slightly less underfunded, flagship projects of British epidemiology and sociology. Since the 1990s, they have enjoyed a policy vogue in tandem with a political emphasis on “evidence-based policy.” My own thought on this is that it is one thing to have an evidence base for a specific therapy in medical practice, quite another for a specific intervention in society itself.

I am also reminded of a passage in the closing chapters of Donald Berwick’s Escape Fire (I don’t have a copy of the book to hand so bear with me) which essentially consists of a dialogue between a younger, reforming doctor and an older, traditionally focused doctor. Somewhat in the manner of the Socratic dialogues in which (despite the meaning ascribed now to “Socratic”) Socrates turns out to be correct and his interlocutors wrong, the younger doctor has ready counters for the grumpy arguments of the older one. That is until towards the very end, when in a heartfelt speech the older doctor reveals his concerns not only about the changes of practice but what they mean for their own patients. It is easy to get into a false dichotomy between doctors open to change and those closed to change; often what can be perceived by eager reformers as resistance to change is based on legitimate concern about patient care. There are also concerns about an impersonal approach to medicine. Perhaps ensuring that colleagues know, to as robust a level as innovation allows, that patient care will be improved, is one way through this impasse.

 

“Huge ($$), broken, and therefore easily fixed” : re-reading Neil Versel’s Feb 2013 column “Rewards for watching TV vs rewards for healthy behavior”

Ok, it may seem somewhat arbitrary to bring up a column on MobiHealthNews, a website which promises the latest in digital health news direct to your inbox. However this particular column, and also some of the responses which Versel provoked (collected here), struck a chord with me at the time and indeed largely inspired my presentation at this workshop at the 2013 eChallenges conference.

In 2012 I had beta tested a couple of apps in the general health field (I won’t go into any more specifics) – none of which seemed clinically useful. My interest in healthcare technology had flowed largely from my interest in technology in medical education. Versel’s column, and the comments attributed to “Cynical” in the follow up column by Brian Dolan, struck a chord. I also found they transcended the often labyrinthine structures of US Healthcare.

The key paragraph of Versel’s original column was this

What those projects all have in common is that they never figured out some of the basic realities of healthcare. Fitness and healthcare are distinct markets. The vast majority of healthcare spending comes not from workout freaks and the worried well, but from chronic diseases and acute care. Sure, you can prevent a lot of future ailments by promoting active lifestyles today, but you might not see a return on investment for decades.

..but an awful lot of it is worth quoting:

Pardon my skepticism, but hasn’t everyone peddling a DTC health tool focused on user engagement? Isn’t that the point of all the gamification apps, widgets and gizmos?

I never was able to find anything unique about Massive Health, other than its Massive Hype. It had a high-minded business name, a Silicon Valley rock star on board — namely former Mozilla Firefox creative lead Asa Raskin — and a lot of buzz. But no real breakthroughs or much in the way of actual products.

….

Another problem is that Massive Health, Google Health, Revolution Health and Keas never came to grips with the fact that healthcare is unlike any other industry.

In the case of Google and every other “untethered” personal health record out there, it didn’t fit physician workflow. That’s why I was disheartened to learn this week that one of the first twodevelopment partners for Walgreens’ new API for prescription refills is a PHR startup called Healthspek. I hate to say it, but that is bound to fail unless Walgreens finds a way to populate Healthspek records with pharmacy and Take Care Health System clinic data.

Predictably enough, there was a strong response to Versel’s column. Here is Dr Betsy Bennet:

As a health psychologist with a lot of years in pharma and healthcare, I am continually frustrated with the hype that accompanies most “health apps”. Not everyone enjoys computer games, not everyone wants to “share” the issues they’re ashamed of with their “social network”, not everyone is interested in being a “quantified self”. This is not to say that digital health is futile or a bad idea. But if we took the time to understand why so many doctors hate EHRs and patients are not interested in paying to “manage their health information” (What does that mean, anyway?) we would come a long way towards finding digital interventions that people actually want to use.

 

The most trenchant (particularly point 1) comment was from “Cynical”

Well written. This is one of the few columns (or rants) that actually understands the reality of healthcare and digital health (attending any health care conference will also highlight this divide). What I am finding is two fold:

1. The vast majority of these DTC products are created by people who have had success in other areas of “digital” – and therefore they build what they know – consumer facing apps / websites that just happen to be focused in health. They think that healthcare is huge ($$), broken, and therefore easily fixed using the same principals applied to music, banking, or finding a movie. But they have zero understanding of the “business of healthcare”, and as a result have no ability to actually sell their products into the health care industry – one of the slowest moving, convoluted, and cumbersome industries in the world.

2. Almost none of these products have any clinical knowledge closely integrated — many have a doctor (entrepreneur) on the “advisory board”, but in most cases there are no actual practicing physicians involved (physician founders are often still in med school, only practiced for a limited time, or never at all). This results in two problems – one of which the author notes – no understanding of workflow; the other being no real clinical efficacy for the product — meaning, they do not actually improve health, improve efficiency, or lower cost. Any physician will be able to lament the issues of self-reported data…

Instead of hanging out at gyms or restaurants building apps for diets or food I would recommend digital health entrepreneurs hang out in any casino in America around 1pm any day of the week – that is your audience. And until your product tests well with that group, you have no real shot.

This perspective from Jim Bloedau is also worth quoting., given how much of the rhetoric on healthcare and technology is focused on the dysfunctionality of the current system:

Who likes consuming healthcare? Nobody. How many providers have you heard say they wish they could spend more time in the office? Never. Because of this, the industry’s growth has been predicated on the idea that somebody else will do it all for me – employers will provide insurance and pay for it, doctors will provide care. This is also the driver of the traditional business model for healthcare that many pundits label as a “dysfunctional healthcare system.” Actually, the business of healthcare has been optimized as it has been designed – as a volume based business and is working very well.

Coming up to four years on, and from my own point of viewing having had further immersion in the health IT world, how does it stack up? Well, for one thing I seem not to hear the word “gamification” quite that much. There seems to be a realisation that having “clinical knowledge closely integrated” is not a nice to have have but an absolute sine qua non. Within the CCIO group and from my experience of the CCIO Summer school, there certain isn’t a sense that healthcare is going to be “easily fixed” by technology. Bob Wachter’s book and report also seem to have tempered much hype.

Yet an awful lot of Versel’s original critique and the responses he provoked still rings true about the wider culture and discussion of healthcare and technology, not in CCIO circles in my experience but elsewhere. There is still often a rather  inchoate assumption that the likes of the FitBit will in some sense transform things. As Cynical states above, in the majority of cases self-reported data is something there are issues with, (there are exceptions such as mood and sleep diaries, and Early Warning Signals systems in bipolar disorder, but there too a simplicity and judiciousness is key)

Re-reading his blog post I am also struck by his  lede, which was that mobile tech has enabled what could be described as the Axis of Sedentary to a far greater degree than it has enable the forces of exercise and healthy eating. Versel graciously spent some time on the phone with me prior to the EuroChallenges workshop linked to above and provided me with very many further insights. I would be interested to know what he makes of the scene outlined in his column now.

Risk and innovation: reflections post #IrishMed tweetchat on Innovation in Health Care:

Risk and innovation: reflections post #IrishMed tweetchat on Innovation in Health Care:

riskgame

Last night there was an #Irishmed  tweetchat on Innovation and Healthcare . For those unfamiliar with this format, for an hour (from 10 pm Irish time) there is a co-ordinated tweet chat curated by Dr Liam Farrell and various guest. Every ten minutes or so a new theme/topic is introduced. There’s a little background here to last night’s chat. The themes were:

 

T1 – What does the term ‘Innovation in healthcare’ mean to you?

T2- What are the main challenges faced by healthcare organisations to be innovative and how do we overcome them?

T3 -What role does IT play in the innovation process?

T4 – How can innovations in health technology empower patients to own manage their own care?

T5 – How can we encourage collaboration to ensure innovation across specialties & care settings?

I’ve blogged before about some of my social media ambivalence, especially discussing complex issue. However I was favourably impressed – again – by the quality of discussion and a willingness to recognise nuance and complexity. The themes which tended to emerge were the importance of prioritising the person at the heart of healthcare, and  that innovation in healthcare should not be for its own sake but for improving outcomes and quality of care.

One aspect I ended up tweeting about myself was the issue of risk. In the innovation world, “risk-averse” is an insult. We can see this in the wider culture, with terms like “disruptive” becoming almost entirely positive, and a change in the public rhetoric around failure (whether this is actually leading to a deeper culture change is another question). In healthcare, for understandable reasons, risk is not something one simply tolerates blithely. It seems to me rather easy to decry this as an organisational failing – would you go to a hospital that wasn’t “risk-averse?” The other side of this is that pretending an organisation is innovative if it has very little risk tolerance is absurd. Innovation involves the unknown and the unknown inherently involves risk and unintended consequences . You can’t have innovation in a rigorously planned, predictable way, in healthcare or anywhere else.

I don’t have time to write about this in much detail, but it does strike me that this issue of risk and risk tolerance is key to this issue. It is easy to talk broadly about “culture” but in the end we are dealing not only with systems, but with individuals within that system with different views and experiences of risk. I have in the past found the writings of John Adams and the Douglas-Wildavsky  model of risk helpful in this regard (disclaimer: I am not endorsing all of the above authors views) and perhaps will return to this topic over the coming weeks. Find below an image of a “risk thermostat”: one of Adams’ ideas is that individuals and systems have a certain level of risk tolerance and reducing risk exposure in one area may lead to more risky behaviour in another (his example is drivers driving carefully by speed traps/black spot signs and more recklessly elsewhere)

risktherm.

The individual, “characters” and social roles

Recently I read Alasdair MacIntyre’s “After Virtue.” On my other blog I have posted a range of quotes from that I found stimulating and provocative. One chapter, “Emotivism: Social Content and Social Context”, draws heavily on the work of Erving Goffman and also Philip Rieff’s work on therapeutic culture. In this chapter, which I found possibly the least convincing of the book (though perhaps for my own reason), MacIntyre discusses the notion of moral “characters” – the Therapist, the Rich Aesthete, the Manager. Most of his argument is around the Manager as character, in what is an assault on the idea of managerial culture and expertise.  Characters are not the same as social roles:

Characters specified thus must not be confused with social roles in general. For they are a very special type of social role which places a certain kind of moral constraint on the personality of those who inhabit them in a way in which many other social roles do not. I choose the word ‘character’ for them precisely because of the way it links dramatic and moral associations. Many modern occupational roles – that of a dentist or a garbage collector, for example – are not characters in the way that a modern bureaucratic manager is.

aftervirtue

For MacIntyre, the Therapist is one of those characters with dramatic and moral associations, although with a caveat you don’t always find in this kind of discourse:

It is of course important that in our culture the concept of the therapeutic has been given application far beyond the sphere of psychological medicine in which it obviously has its legitimate place… Philip Rieff has documented with devastating effect a number of the ways in which truth has been displaced as a value and replaced by psychological effectiveness.

This specific point is not one I am going to discuss at length now. The passage from MacIntyre I have found most helpful in this chapter – and one which perhaps offers a resolution of the somewhat uncomfortable air of “being a Character” is the following:

Contrast the quite different way in which a certain type of social role may embody beliefs so that the ideas, theories and doctrines expressed in and presupposed by the role may at least on some occasions be quite other than the ideas, theories and doctrines believed by the individual who inhabits the role. A Catholic priest in virtue of his role officiates at the mass, performs other rites and ceremonies and takes part in a variety of activities which embody or presuppose, implicitly or explictly, the beliefs of Catholic Christianity. Yet a particular ordained individual who does all these things may have lost his faith and his own beliefs may be quite other than and at variance with those expressed in the actions presented by his role. The same type of distinction between role and individual can be drawn in many other cases. [MacIntyre describes a trade union official who in his role acts in a way that “generally and characteristically presupposes that trade union goals … are legitimate goals” but who “may believe that trade unions are merely instruments for domesticating and corrupting the working class by diverting them from any interest in revolution.

As a psychiatrist, one is very often confronted with a certain response; in practice, in daily life, even in literature and the media. recently I read Patrick Leigh Fermor’s book on monasticism, A Time to Keep Silence.

timetokeepsilenceIn it he suddenly imagines a discourse between “a psychiatrist” and the monks, in which the psychiatrist seems keen to dismiss their lives as an expression of various neuroses etc. I can’t imagine, as a psychiatrist, ever doing such a thing; partly Leigh Fermor is reflecting the norms of his time (the 1950s). I have found it helpful, since reading MacIntyre’s passage, to reflect on the distinction between myself as the individual people encounter, and the social role and character they expect to encounter.

The perils of trying to do too much: data, the Life Study, and Mission Overload

One interesting moment at the CCIO Network Summer School came in a panel discussion. A speaker was talking about the vast amount of data that can be collected and how impractical this can be. He gave the example of – while acknowledging that he completely understood why this particular data might be interesting – the postcode of  the patients most frequent visitor. As someone pointed out from the audience, the person in the best position to collect this data is probably the patient themselves.

When I heard this discussion, the part of my that still harbours research ambitions thought “that is a very interesting data point.” And working in a mixed urban/rural catchment area, in a service which has experienced unit closures and admission bed centralisation, I thought of how illustrative that would be of the personal experience behind these decisions.

However, the principle that was being stated – that clinical data is that which is generated in clinical activity – seems to be one of the only ways of keeping the potential vast amount of data that could go into an EHR manageable. Recently I have been reading Helen Pearson’s “The Life Project” , a review of which will shortly enough appear. Pearson tells the story of the UK Birth Cohort Studies. Most of this story is an account of these studies surviving against the institutional odds and becoming key cornerstones of British research. Pearson explicitly tries to create a sense of civic pride about these studies, akin to that felt about the NHS and BBC. However, in late 2015 the most recent birth cohort study, the Life Study, was cancelled for sheer lack of volunteers. The reasons for this are complex, and to my mind suggest something changing in British society in general (in the 1946 study it was assumed that mothers would simply comply with the request to participate as a sort of extension of wartime duty) – but one factor was surely the amount of questions to be answered and samples to be given:

But the Life Study aims to distinguish itself, in particular by collecting detailed information on pregnancy and the first year of the children’s lives — a period that is considered crucial in shaping later development.

The scientists plan to squirrel away freezer-fulls of tissue samples, including urine, blood, faeces and pieces of placenta, as well as reams of data, ranging from parents’ income to records of their mobile-phone use and videos of the babies interacting with their parents. (from Feb 2015 article in Nature by Pearson)

All very worthy, but it seems to me that the birth cohort studies were victims of their own success. Pearson describes that, almost from the start, they were torn between a more medical outlook and a more sociological outlook. Often this tension was fruitful, but in the case of Life Study it seems to have led to a Mission Overload.

I have often felt that there is a commonality of interest between the Health IT community, the research methodology community, and the medical education community and the potential of EHRs for epidemiology research, dissemination of best evidence at point of care  and realistic “virtual patient” construction is vast. I will come back to these areas of commonality again. However, there is also a need to remember the different ways a clinician, an IT professional, an epidemiologist, an administrator, and an educationalist might look at data. The Life Study perhaps serves as a warning.

Unintended consequences and Health IT

Last week along with other members of the Irish CCIO group I attended the UK CCIO Network Summer School. Among many thought provoking presentations and a wonderful sense of collegiality (and the scale of the challenges ahead), one which stood out was actually a video presentation by Dr Robert Wachter, whose review into IT in the NHS (in England) is due in the coming weeks and who is also the author of “The Digital Doctor: Hype, Hope and Harm at the Dawn of Medicine’s Computer Age”

digitaldoctor

Amongst many other things, Dr Wachter discussed the unintended consequences of Health IT. He discussed how, pretty much overnight, radiology imaging systems destroyed “radiology rounds” and a certain kind of discussion of cases. He discussed how hospital doctors using eHealth systems sit in computer suites with other doctors, rather than being on the wards. Perhaps most strikingly, he showed a child’s picture of her visit to the doctor. in which the doctor is turned away from the patient and her mother, hunched over a keyboard:

childspic.png

This reminded me a little of Cecil Helman’s vision of the emergence of a “technodoctor”, which I suspected was something of a straw man:

Like may other doctors of his generation – though fortunately still only a minority – Dr A prefers to see people and their diseases mainly as digital data, which can be stored, analysed, and then, if necessary, transmitted – whether by internet, telephone or radio – from one computer to another. He is one of those helping to create a new type of patient, and a new type of patient’s body – one much less human and tangible than those cared for by his medical predecessors. It is one stage further than reducing the body down to a damaged heart valve, an enlarged spleen or a diseased pair of lungs. For this ‘post-human’ body is one that exists mainly in an abstract, immaterial form. It is a body that has become pure information.

I still suspect this is overall a straw man, and Helman admits this “technodoctor” is “still only [part of] a minority” – but perhaps the picture above shows this is less of a straw man than we might be comfortable with.

Is there a way out of the trap of unintended consequences? On my other blog I have posted on Evgeny Morozov’s “To Solve Everything, Click Here.”  a book which, while I had many issue with Morozov’s style and approach (the post ended up being over 2000 words which is another unintended consequence), is extremely thought-provoking. Morozov positions himself against “epochalism” – the belief that because of technology (or other factors) we live in a unique era. He also decries “solutionism”, a more complex phenomenon, of which he writes:

I call the ideology that legitimizes and sanctions such aspirations “solutionism.” I borrow this unabashedly pejorative term from the world of architecture and urban planning – where it has come to refer to an unhealthy preoccupation with sexy, monumental and narrow-minded solutions – the kind of stuff that wows audiences at TED Conferences – to problems that are extremely complex, fluid and contentious. These are the kind of problems that, on careful examination, do not have to be defined in the singular and all-encompassing ways that “solutionists” have defined them; what’s contentious then, is not their proposed solution but their very definition of the problem itself. Design theorist Michael Dobbins has it right: solutionism presumes rather than investigates the problems that it is trying to solve, reaching “for the answer before the questions have been fully asked.” How problems are composed matters every bit as much as how problems are resolved.

As will be very clear from my other article, I don’t quite buy everything Morozov is selling (and definitely not the way he sells it!) , but in this passage I believe we are close to something that can help us avoid some of the traps that lead to unintended consequences. Of courses, these are by definition unintended, and so perhaps not that predictable, but by investigating rather than presuming the problems we are trying to solve, and not reaching for the answer before the questions have been fully asked, perhaps future children’s pictures of their trip to the hospital won’t feature a doctor turning their back on them to commune with the computer.