#OceanOptimism, powerlessness, hope, and change.

The current BBC Wildlife Magazine has a fascinating article by Elin Kelsey, of the Ocean Optimism Project, on how media-fuelled environmental despair and nihilism ends up demoralising people to the degree that positive action seems impossible. She cites much research on the “finite pool of worry” and the paralysing effect of despair, and the power optimism to reverse this trend. The article isn’t available online, but in the post below from my other blog I highlight relevant passages from a Kelsey piece in Smithsonian Magazine on similar themes.

This article is obviously focused on ecology, but is all too true of our healthcare systems. For similar reasons to those Kelsey ascribes to environmentalists who are wary of being overly focused on good news, frontline workers in the health service naturally tend to focus on what is wrong, what is proving impossible, what needs to change. This is necessary, but can become an overwhelming counsel of nihilism, fostering cynicism and very often helping to entrench negative practices.

This is very relevant to the various themes on valuesmorale, “blame culture”, and possibility of positive change within not only the HSE but any healthcare organisation.

Séamus Sweeney

The current issue of BBC Wildlife Magazinehas a fascinating cover story by Elin Kelseyon hope and optimism versus despair in how we think about they environment. Essentially, much media discourse on the environment tends to be gloomy, doom, and generally despairing. Kelsey cites a wide range of research on how this negativity effects how we think about the environment and our beliefs about what can be done – and therefore what is done – to improve things. The full article is not available online. This article from Smithsonian Magazine is briefer, but captures her idea:

Things are far more resilient than I ever imagined. Me, green sea turtles, coral reefs blown to bits by atomic bombs. In a twist of fate that even surprised scientists, Bikini Atoll, site of one of the world’s biggest nuclear explosions, is now a scuba diver’s paradise. Bikini Atoll located in the Pacific’s…

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Stephen Westaby, “community focus”, and medical education

Not so long ago, surgery and (internal) medicine were the pinnacles of medical school, the final subjects before graduation. Surgery in particular possessed a dark, elitist glamour, its notoriously long hours and intensity attracting rather than repelling many. Of course, being attracted by a perceived mystique is different from having a sustainable career (and life)

In recent years, medical curricula have been reshaped by many factors, including the realisation that most doctors will practice not as surgeons but as general practitioners, and that the bulk of healthcare need is perhaps more mundane than what goes on in the operating theatre. While there is justice to this “community orientation” of medical education, there is also a certain sense of taking the surgeons and physicians down a peg or twenty. Perhaps there is also a certain anti-intellectualism at work – focusing on the behavioural acts that a doctor performs, rather than the academic disciplines (which include clinical disciplines)

Recently I have been reading Simon Westaby’s memoir of his surgical career, Fragile Lives: A Heart Surgeon’s Stories of Life and Death on the Operating Table. Indeed, the above paragraphs are taken from a first draft of my review (both paragraphs cut for reasons of space and general narrative flow of the review). Westaby’s book is a good read (there, that’s the review bit out of the way) and full of exciting surgical action, described deftly but dramatically. It is also something of an elegy for a certain time of medical and surgical training – an era of overwork and monomaniacal dedication, but also one of intellectual and moral curiosity and rigour, often absent from a modern practice subservient to bureaucratic imperatives. I have already blogged about Westaby’s thoughts (and research) on the impact of league tables on surgical practice. I do wonder whether, for all its manifold faults, “traditional” medical education created a breed of doctor with an espirit de corps to whom a resistance to bureaucratic imperatives came easier?



Friendship and Work in Medicine and Healthcare

In 2001, Digby Anderson wrote a short book, Losing Friends, about what he described as the decline of friendship. This New York Times “At Lunch With” pieces ummarises his argument:

”All past civilizations have declined, and Western civilization is about due to go,” he said, gamely piling his plate with assorted meats and salads. ”The death of friendship is one symptom of that.”

He says he believes political extremism has rendered friends powerless to help one another. Liberals’ insistence on equal opportunity and impartiality, he said, has led to ”egalitarian bureaucracy,” a muddling of what had once been smooth-flowing business networks based on friendships. Years ago, he said, friends happily helped one another find jobs; today they shy away, lest they be accused of favoritism.

”Even though it makes sense to hire a friend, or even a friend’s friend, there’s this feeling that you have to give everyone an equal chance,” he said.

The blow from the right, he said, has been a constant emphasis on the family as the ”repository of all virtues” — and, thus, the only institution worthy of trust and time.

”The ancient Greeks had a better idea: they considered their friends to actually be their family,” Dr. Anderson said.

My recollection of the reasons he gives in the book why “it makes sense to hire a friend, or even a friend’s friend”, is because of the special knowledge which friendship gives us about someone’s true nature. A friend – a true friend – is also less likely to screw over their friend… or at least thats the theory. I wonder how strong the evidence is for the counter argument, that hiring friends is somehow bad?

I am not sure how much I buy of Digby Anderson’s overall argument about hiring friends etc, but there is definitely something in his reflections on the decline of friendship.

The official blurb is also interesting:

“One loyal friend is worth 10,000 relatives”, said Euripides. Aristotle thought friendship the best thing in the world. Saint Augustine was devastated by the death of a friend, “All that we had done together was now a grim ordeal without him”. For men as different as Dr Johnson, Coleridge and Cardinal Newman friendship was a great, moral love. For Cicero it was a foundation of social order. For Burke “good men [must] cultivate friendships”. To try to lead a good life on one’s own is arrogant and dangerous. In past ages business thrived on the trust of friends; armies won battles on the loyalty of men to their comrades and people were attracted to and schooled in medicine, law and academe by friendship. This friendship of the past was high friendship, a friendship of pleasure but also of shared moral life.

LOSING FRIENDS contrasts this high friendship with the “pathetic affairs” which pass for friendship today. Friendship is in trouble. An institution once as important as the family, has been “diluted to mere recreation…passing an odd evening together…sharing the odd confidence”. It is being outsted from business through fear of cronyism and squeezed between the demands of work and the increasingly jealous family. Fathers neglect their obligations to their friends at the club or pub to bath their children. Many of us will have no friends in illness, in need or at our funerals. Bewildered letters to agony aunts ask how to make friends. Schools are absurdly introducing classes on how to do so. Our society has no public recognition of friendship and cannot even discuss it articulately. When it does it sentimentalizes it. Modern society is wealthy, healthy and long lived. Aristotle would ask what the point of such a life is if lived without friends.

I have (or had) a copy of the book somewhere. I read it in around 2004. The message did resonate, and since I have seen how social pressures that tend to squeeze out friendship intensity.

Healthcare in general, and medicine in particular, is on one level a fertile ground for friendship. One ends up spending a lot of time with other people engaged in what is  a highly intense, demanding role. It is natural enough for some strong bonds to form, as over the hurried coffees and lunches some small talk is exchanged. There has also been a boozy culture around medicine in the past at least, and while one could make many observations on the role of alcohol as a form of self-medication, there was a social side to all this.

And yet the structure of medical training in particular is not conducive to longer term friendships. One spends three, or six, or at most twelve months in a post as a trainee  doctor. The intense friendships of one rotation are suddenly severed. With the best will in the world, and my sense is the unreal interactions of social media have exacerbated rather than ameliorated this, it is hard to keep up. And when one completes training, the camaraderie of the res room is something that is closed to you.

The factors that Dr Anderson discusses – the suspicion of anything that might hint of favouritism, the dulling bureaucratic managerial discourse of healthcare management, a sort of idolatory of the family now as much a left as right wing feature – are present in medicine too.

How does friendship relate to the issues of morale and a healthy work culture I have blogged about before? The importance of “psychological safety” in team interactions is emphasised in Google’s Project Aristotle as key to successful team interactions. Fostering a sense that teams can communicate openly, without fear of recrimination or embarrassment, sounds to me very much like fostering friendship. Of course, perhaps this is falling into some kind of trap where friendship can be subservient to the interests of an organisation, and indeed denigrating friendship as something that needs to be justified in pragmatic, utilitarian terms.

Hickam’s Dictum

While researching the medical saying “When you hear hoofbeats, think of horses not zebras”, I came across Hickam’s dictum – “patients can have as many illnesses as they damn well please.”

It is described as a counter-saying to Occam’s Razor, which has always struck as a a heuristic saying which has been misused many times to suggest that the “simplest” explanation MUST be true. Occam’s Razor can be a valuable tool for cognitive discipline, but it is NOT a normative statement about The Way The World Is

Hickam’s Dictum was a new one on me, but has a reasonable presence in the medical literature. And it is very far from an abstract notion.

There is a whole world of medical sayings and proverbs (a lot of which are new ones on me) out there. On the one hand, they represent a sort of hidden curriculum of heuristic tools. On the other hand, how influential are they really? As I said, I have never come across Hickam’s dictum before – but I think I will end up quoting it quite a bit.

“Happy Organisations and Happy Workers” – blog post by Maria Quinlan

On the ARCH (Applied Research in Connected Health) website, research lead Dr Maria Quinlan  has a blog post entitled
“Happy Organisations and Happy Workers – a key factor in implementing digital health”

The whole is worth a read. Of course, having a happy organisation made up of happy workers is inherently important of itself, as well as from the point of view of implementing digital health. As Dr Quinlan writes in the first paragraph:

To paraphrase Tolstoy, “all happy organisations are alike; each unhappy organisation is unhappy in its own way.” The ability for healthcare organisations to innovate is a fundamental requirement for adopting and sustainably scaling digital health solutions.  If an organisation is unhappy, for example if it is failing to communicate openly and honestly, if staff feel overworked and that their opinion isn’t valued, it stands to reason that it will have trouble innovating and handling major complex transitions.

Reading this, I am struck by how important it is to make time in a day with an accumulation of pressing demands for reflection:


What these factors combine to achieve is happy, engaged workers – and happy workers are more effective, compassionate, and less likely to suffer burnout [2]. Clear objectives, praise, a sense that your voice matters – these can seem like fluffy ‘soft’ concepts and yet they are found over and over to be central to providing the right context within which new digital health innovations can flourish. Classic ‘high involvement’ management techniques – for example empowering team members to make decisions and not punishing them for every misstep are found to be key [1].  As Don Berwick of the Institute of Healthcare Improvement (IHI) says, people who feel joy in work are “not scared of data”, rather “joy is a resource for excellence” [3]

Managing what Sigal Barsade, Professor of Management at Wharton calls the ‘emotional’ culture of an organisation is a very important concept – especially in the healthcare environment which expects so much of staff [4]. Healthcare workers face pressures which many of us working in other fields can’t really comprehend, a recent systematic review found that clinicians have higher rates of suicidal ideation than the general population, with a high prevalence of burnout, psychiatric morbidity and depression linked to excessive workload [5].  Attempting to introduce innovative new ways of working within such constrained environments can be challenging to say the least. Exhausted workers, those with little time in their day for reflection, or those who work in organisations which fear failure are less likely to innovate [6].

Much of the rhetoric around healthcare innovation tends to be messianic in tone. A gap between this rhetoric and the messy, pressured reality of healthcare can diminish the credibility of innovators.

The concept of “adaptive reserve” is an important one, especially in the context of reforms and innovations being introduced into already pressured environments:

Drawing from their work researching healthcare organisations ability to handle complex transitions in the US, Jaen et al (2010) developed a 23-item scale measure for what they term ‘adaptive reserve’. Adaptive reserve is an internal capability for change which includes being agile; capable of continuous learning; and being adept at self-assessment, reflection and improvisation. The Adaptive Reserve questionnaire asks staff to rate their organisation according to a variety of statements which include statements such as; ‘we regularly take time to consider ways to improve how we do things’ and ‘this organisation is a place of joy and hope’.

Overall, this a fascinating blog post on an issue which is close to my heart. I intend to post some more on this topic over the next while.


Why are doctors so unhappy?

From the UK junior doctor’s strike to survey after survey , there seems to be growing evidence that a doctor’s lot is not a happy one. Or is it not so much a “doctor’s lot” as a “doctor’s nature?”

I’ve been interested in this question (quite apart from the personal relevance!) ever since working on this review for the TLS of various medical biographies. As I wrote:

In the Western world, at least, the medical profession generally enjoys high status. For sociologists, doctors incarnate various forms of power disparities. Medical science and medical technology have made spectacular progress since the Second World War; procedures such as LASIK laser eye surgery, to give just one example, that once would have seemed magical, are now near-routine.

And yet an air of discontent is evident in much of the discourse of modern medicine. Like many others, the medical profession is under question, if not attack, on a range of fronts. Complementary remedies are increasingly popular, often with practitioners as well as patients, despite the advent of evidence-based medicine and numerous books that have discredited their claims to efficacy. A succession of scandals in Britain and elsewhere has undermined public trust in doctors and nurses. 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.

There was somewhat more I wrote originally, but for reasons of space, had to be cut


. Much was based on my reading of Myers and Gabbard’s wonderful The Physician as Patient – a book I reviewed some years ago . As I wrote then, Myers and Gabbard illustrate the power of the case vignette, a somewhat neglected form nowadays, and I also wondered about the  self flagellation possibilities of audit (linked I guess to the Imperative Voice one gets so much of in medical journals)

I didn’t write in my 2008 review of one of the points Myers and Gabbard make – based on psychoanalytic literature – about the much-vaunted grandiosity and pomposity of doctors – the “god complex.” In their reading, this (when it occurs) is a defence mechanism against the ultimate power of death against all our efforts. Personally, there are only a handful of doctors I have come across – and at this point I must have come across hundreds in various contexts – who in any way lived up to the “god complex” stereotype.

Are doctors less happy than other citizens? Surveys and so forth can no doubt be adduced to prove the point (though I must admit after the US Presidential Election having an even greater scepticism about ANY survey or poll being used as “evidence”)  and the lived experience of doctors is increasingly one of a beleaguered profession overwhelmed by competing and constant demands. Is this because of specific issues – funding, resources, de-professionalisation – of the contemporary world?  Is it because of a cultural shift from doctor-knows-best to consumerist healthcare? Or is it something deeper and perhaps near-inherent to the kind of person who is drawn to the practice of medicine? Or something deeper and perhaps near-inherent to the practice of medicine itself?

There is, on one level, more discourse about health and healthcare than ever before. On another, there is often a a euphemistic, evasive quality to much of it. So many terms – from “evidence-based” to “patient centered” – have become godterms that conceal the complexity and diversity of healthcare (both complexity and diversity are themselves “godterms”, increasingly, but I use them very deliberately here) and the contending priorities at play.

This is an area ripe for pompous theorising about Society and Culture and so on, and perhaps I have done my share of this already. One final thought: the WHO definition of health is:

a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.

Do you, reader, really believe that? Do you really, when you think of what it is to be healthy, think of”complete social well-being”?  What is “complete physical, mental and social well-being” anyway?

The point is not to denigrate “well being” in some way – or not to recognise the value of a positive rather than negative definition of health. The point is, this  grandiose definition has consequences – underlying not just health policy and practice but how we think about what it means to be healthy, and also what doctors (and nurses, and psychologists, and OTs, and physios, and everyone else with apologies for those left out) are trying to achieve. I would argue that the WHO definition is something out of a kind of worldly messianiac pseudo-religion rather than a workable basis for a human-scale endeavour.


“The Wild West of Health” care: mental health Apps, evidence, and clinical credibility

“The Wild West of Health” care: mental health Apps, evidence, and clinical credibility

We read and hear much about the promise of mobile health. Crucial in the acceptance of mobile health by the clinical community is clinical credibility. And now, clinical credibility is synonymous with evidence, and just “evidence” but reliable, solid evidence. I’ve blogged before about studies of the quality of mental health smartphone apps. I missed this piece from Nature which, slightly predictably, is titled “Mental Health: There’s an app for that.” (isn’t “there’s an App for that a little 2011-ish though?) It begins by surveying the immense range of mental health-focused apps out there:


Type ‘depression’ into the Apple App Store and a list of at least a hundred programs will pop up on the screen. There are apps that diagnose depression (Depression Test), track moods (Optimism) and help people to “think more positive” (Affirmations!). There’s Depression Cure Hypnosis (“The #1 Depression Cure Hypnosis App in the App Store”), Gratitude Journal (“the easiest and most effective way to rewire your brain in just five minutes a day”), and dozens more. And that’s just for depression. There are apps pitched at people struggling with anxiety, schizophrenia, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), eating disorders and addiction.

The article also has a snazzy  infographic illustrating both the lack of mental health services and the size of the market:


The meat of the article, however, focuses on the lack of evidence and evaluation of these apps. There is a cultural narrative which states that Technology = Good and Efficient, Healthcare = Bad and Broken and which can give the invocation of Tech the status of a godterm, pre-empting critical thought. The Nature piece, however, starkly illustrates the evidence gap:

But the technology is moving a lot faster than the science. Although there is some evidence that empirically based, well-designed mental-health apps can improve outcomes for patients, the vast majority remain unstudied. They may or may not be effective, and some may even be harmful. Scientists and health officials are now beginning to investigate their potential benefits and pitfalls more thoroughly, but there is still a lot left to learn and little guidance for consumers.

“If you type in ‘depression’, its hard to know if the apps that you get back are high quality, if they work, if they’re even safe to use,” says John Torous, a psychiatrist at Harvard Medical School in Boston, Massachusetts, who chairs the American Psychiatric Association’s Smartphone App Evaluation Task Force. “Right now it almost feels like the Wild West of health care.”

There isn’t an absolute lack of evidence, but there are issues with  much of the evidence that is out there:

Much of the research has been limited to pilot studies, and randomized trials tend to be small and unreplicated. Many studies have been conducted by the apps’ own developers, rather than by independent researchers. Placebo-controlled trials are rare, raising the possibility that a ‘digital placebo effect’ may explain some of the positive outcomes that researchers have documented, says Torous. “We know that people have very strong relationships with their smartphones,” and receiving messages and advice through a familiar, personal device may be enough to make some people feel better, he explains.

And even saying that (and, in passing, I would note that in branch of medical practice, a placebo effect is something to be harnessed, not denigrated – but in evaluation and study, rigorously minimising it is crucial) there is a considerable lack of evidence:

But the bare fact is that most apps haven’t been tested at all. A 2013 review8 identified more than 1,500 depression-related apps in commercial app stores but just 32 published research papers on the subject. In another study published that year9, Australian researchers applied even more stringent criteria, searching the scientific literature for papers that assessed how commercially available apps affected mental-health symptoms or disorders. They found eight papers on five different apps.

The same year, the NHS launched a library of “safe and trusted” health apps that included 14 devoted to treating depression or anxiety. But when two researchers took a close look at these apps last year, they found that only 4 of the 14 provided any evidence to support their claims10. Simon Leigh, a health economist at Lifecode Solutions in Liverpool, UK, who conducted the analysis, says he wasn’t shocked by the finding because efficacy research is costly and may mean that app developers have less to spend on marketing their products.

Like any healthcare intervention, an App can have adverse effects:

When a team of Australian researchers reviewed 82 commercially available smartphone apps for people with bipolar disorder12, they found that some presented information that was “critically wrong”. One, called iBipolar, advised people in the middle of a manic episode to drink hard liquor to help them to sleep, and another, called What is Biopolar Disorder, suggested that bipolar disorder could be contagious. Neither app seems to be available any more.

And even more fundamentally, in some situations the App concept itself and the close relationship with gamification can backfire:

Even well-intentioned apps can produce unpredictable outcomes. Take Promillekoll, a smartphone app created by Sweden’s government-owned liquor retailer, designed to help curb risky drinking. While out at a pub or a party, users enter each drink they consume and the app spits out an approximate blood-alcohol concentration.

When Swedish researchers tested the app on college students, they found that men who were randomly assigned to use the app ended up drinking more frequently than before, although their total alcohol consumption did not increase. “We can only speculate that app users may have felt more confident that they could rely on the app to reduce negative effects of drinking and therefore felt able to drink more often,” the researchers wrote in their 2014 paper13.

It’s also possible, the scientists say, that the app spurred male students to turn drinking into a game. “I think that these apps are kind of playthings,” says Anne Berman, a clinical psychologist at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm and one of the study’s authors. There are other risks too. In early trials of ClinTouch, researchers found that the symptom-monitoring app actually exacerbated symptoms for a small number of patients with psychotic disorders, says John Ainsworth at the University of Manchester, who helped to develop the app. “We need to very carefully manage the initial phases of somebody using this kind of technology and make sure they’re well monitored,” he says.

I am very glad to read that one of the mHealth apps which is a model of evidence based practice is one that I have both used and recommended myself – Sleepio:


One digital health company that has earned praise from experts is Big Health, co-founded by Colin Espie, a sleep scientist at the University of Oxford, UK, and entrepreneur Peter Hames. The London-based company’s first product is Sleepio, a digital treatment for insomnia that can be accessed online or as a smartphone app. The app teaches users a variety of evidence-based strategies for tackling insomnia, including techniques for managing anxious and intrusive thoughts, boosting relaxation, and establishing a sleep-friendly environment and routine.

Before putting Sleepio to the test, Espie insisted on creating a placebo version of the app, which had the same look and feel as the real app, but led users through a set of sham visualization exercises with no known clinical benefits. In a randomized trial, published in 2012, Espie and his colleagues found that insomniacs using Sleepio reported greater gains in sleep efficiency — the percentage of time someone is asleep, out of the total time he or she spends in bed — and slightly larger improvements in daytime functioning than those using the placebo app15. In a follow-up 2014 paper16, they reported that Sleepio also reduced the racing, intrusive thoughts that can often interfere with sleep.

The Sleepio team is currently recruiting participants for a large, international trial and has provided vouchers for the app to several groups of independent researchers so that patients who enrol in their studies can access Sleepio for free.


This is extremely heartening – and as stated above, clinical credibility is key in the success of any eHealth / mHealth approach. And what does clinical credibility really mean? That something works, and works well.