#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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What practice which seems perfectly fine to us now will seem weird/unethical/laughable in fifty years?

On my other blog I posted a quote from James Jeremiah Sullivan’s essay  on the polymath Constantine Samuel Rafinesque:

That’s what’s so terrifying but also heroic in Rafinesque, to know he could see that far, function at that outer-orbital a level intellectually, yet still wind up viciously hobbled by the safe-seeming assumptions of his day. We do well to draw a lesson of humility from this. It’s the human condition to be confused. No other animal ever had an erroneous thought about nature. Who knows what our version of the six-thousand year old earth is. It’s hiding somewhere in plain sight. In five hundred years there’ll be two or three things we believed and went on about at great length, with perfect assurance that will seen hilarious to them.

One could cite many many examples of “safe seeming assumptions” in every sphere – moral, scientific, social, cultural – which as time went by became unsafe and then positively harmful, laughable or just plain weird.

There is a self-congratulatory tendency to exaggerate and outright distort how wrong people were in the past. This is a form of epochalism, the belief that we live in a time unique in human history  True in a trivial sense, but blind to the patterns of human life and what could be called the human condition. One of the recurrent themes on Stephen Pentz’s poetry blog First Known When Lost is that the modern belief that We Are Somehow Unique is an illusion. Other people, at other times, have struggled with mortality, the passing time, what is a good life, and in times in their own way as complex and baffling as our own.

Anyhow, the point of this post is really to post a question, and a question that is in principle unanswerable. What will the practices in medicine in healthcare that, in fifty years, will seem either weird or unethical or simply bad, that we take for granted today? The nature of this question that these are not things that, by and large, are objected to today, but seem a normal part of practice. One could put forward many obvious answers about eHealth or about health insurance, but of course values change over time and assuming our values now will be the normative values of fifty years is a fool’s game.

Hype, The Life Study and trying to do too much

A while back I reviewed Helen Pearson’s, “The Life Project” in the TLS. I had previously blogged on the perils of trying to do too much and mission creep and overload.

From the original draft of the review (published version differed slightly):

Pearson is laudably clear that the story of the birth cohorts is also a study of failure; the failure of the NHS to improve the inequality of health incomes between social classes, the failure of educational reforms and re-reforms to broach the similar academic achievement gap. Indeed, the book culminates in a failure which introduces a darker tone to the story of the birth cohort studies.

Launched in January 2015, the Life Study was supposed to follow 80,000 babies born in 2015 and intended to be a birth cohort for the “Olympic Children.” It had a government patron in David Willetts, who departure from politics in May 2015 perhaps set the stage for its collapse. Overstuffed antenatal clinics and a lack of health visitors meant that the Life Study’s participants would have to self-select. The optimistic scenario has 16,000 women signing up in the first eighteen months; in the first six months, 249 women did. By October 2015, just as Pearson was completing five years of work on this book, the study had officially been abandoned.

Along with the cancellation of the National Institute for Health’s National Children’s Study in December 2014, this made it clear that birth cohorts have been victims of their own success. An understandable tendency to include as much potentially useful information as possible seemed to have created massive, and ultimately unworkable cohorts. The Life Study would have generated vast data sets: “80,000 babies, warehouses of stool samples of placentas, gigabytes of video clips, several hundred thousand questionnaires and much more” (the history of the 1982 study repeated itself, perhaps.) Then there is the recruitment issue. Pregnant women volunteering for the Life Study would “travel to special recruitment centres set up for the study and then spend two hours there, answering questions and giving their samples of urine and blood.” Perhaps the surprise is that 249 pregnant women actually did volunteer for this.

Pearson’s book illustrates how tempting mission creep is. She recounts how birth cohorts went from obscure beginnings to official neglect with perpetual funding issues to suddenly becoming a crown jewel of British research. Indeed, as I observe in the review, while relatively few countries  have emulated the NHS’ structure and funding model, very many have tried to get on the birth cohort train.

This situation of an understandable enthusiasm and sudden fascination has parallels across health services and research. It is particularly a risk in eHealth and connected health, especially as the systems are inherently complex, and there is a great deal of fashionability to using technology more effectively in healthcare. It is one of those mom-and-apple-pie things, a god term, that can shut down critical thinking at times.

Megaprojects are seductive also in an age where the politics of funding research loom large. The big, “transformative” projects can squeeze out the less ambitious, less hype-y, more human-scale approaches. It can be another version of the Big Man theory of leadership.

Whatever we do, it is made up of a collection of tiny, often implicit actions, attitudes, near-reflexes, and is embedded in some kind of system beyond ourselves that is ultimately made up of other people performing and enacting a collection of tiny, often implicit actions, attitudes, and near-reflexes.


Review of “Casebook of Psychosomatic Medicine”, Bourgeois et al, IJPM 2011

The above review from the Irish Journal of Psychological Medicine follows on from my review of The Physician As Patient in the same journal. Both books were excellently written, and as time has gone by I appreciate their approach more deeply. As I say in the first paragraph, evidence based medicine and what could be called experience based medicine are often driven into a false dichotomy. Both these books possess wisdom in abundance, and wisdom based medicine is perhaps what we should all be aspiring to practice.  

Leandro Herrero: “An enlightened top leadership is sometimes a fantastic alibi for a non-enlightened management to do whatever they want”

From Leandro Herrero’s  website, a “Daily Thought” which I am going to take the liberty of quoting in full:

Nothing is more rewarding than having a CEO who says world-changing things in the news, and who produces bold, enlightened and progressive quotes for all admirers to be. That organization is lucky to have one of these. The logic says that all those enlightened statements about trust, empowerment, humanity and purpose, will be percolated down the system, and will inform and shape behaviours in the milfeulle of management layers below.

I take a view, observed many times, that this is wishful thinking. In fact, quite the opposite, I have seen more than once how management below devolves all greatness to the top, happily, whilst ignoring it and playing games in very opposite directions. Having the very good and clever and enlightened people at the top is a relief for them. They don’t have to pretend that they are as well, so they can exercise their ‘practical power’ with more freedom. That enlightened department is covered in the system, and the corporate showcase guaranteed.

The distance between the top and the next layer down may not be great in organizational chart terms, yet the top may not have a clue that there is a behavioural fabric mismatch just a few centimeters down in the organization chat.

I used to think years ago, when I was older, that a front page top notch leader stressing human values provided a safe shelter against inhuman values for his/her organization below. I am not so sure today. In fact, my alarm bell system goes mad when I see too much charismatic, purpose driven, top leadership talk. I simply smell lots of alibis below. And I often find them. After all, there is usually no much room for many Good Cops

Yet, I very much welcome the headline grabbing by powerful business people who stress human values, and purpose, and a quest for a decent world. The alternative would be sad. I don’t want them to stop that. But let’s not fool ourselves about how much of that truly represents their organizations. In many cases it represents them.

I guess it all goes back, again, to the grossly overrated Role Model Power attributed to the leadership of organizations, a relic of traditional thinking, well linked to the Big Man Theory of history. Years of Edelman’s Trust Barometer, never attributing the CEO more than 30% of the trust stock in the organization, have not convinced people that the ‘looking up’ is just a small part of the story. What happens in organizations has a far more powerful ‘looking sideways’ traction: manager to manager, employee to employee. Lots of ritualistic dis-empowering management practices can site very nicely under the umbrella of a high empowerment narrative at the top, and nobody would care much. The top floor music and the music coming from the floor below, and below, are parallel universes.

Traditional management and MBA thinking has told us that if this is the case, the dysfunctionality of the system will force it to break down. My view is the opposite. The system survives nicely under those contradictions. In fact it needs them.


I found this reflection, especially the final three paragraphs, particularly striking. Health care organisations are getting better and better at talking the talk at the highest levels about empowerment and respect and [insert Good Thing here] – but how much that really has an impact on the daily management practices that are the day to day reality of working within that organisation?

I also like the scepticism about Role Model Power of the Big Man (or Woman) on top. Dr Herrero, described on his Twitter as an “organisational architect”, clearly has a healthy view of the reality that underlies much rhetoric. I look forward to the HSE’s Values in Action project which is very much following the lines of his work.

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.