GPs for a little while have been asked to compare each other’s outpatient referrals rates. The idea is that this peer to peer open review will help us understand each others referral patterns. For some reason and due to a natural competitive nature of human behaviour, I think we have these peer to peer figures put to us to try to get us to refer less into hospital outpatients.
It’s always hard to benchmark GP surgeries but outpatient referral benchmarking is particularly poor for several reasons
It's Very Difficult to Normalise Surgeries
Surgeries have different mortalities morbidities ages and other confounding factors that it becomes very hard to create an algorithm to create a weighting factor to properly compare one surgery against another.
There Are Several Reasons For The Referral
I’ll go into more detail on this point later but there are several reasons why doctors refer patients into hospital which can range from: doctors knowing a lot about the condition and picking up subtle symptoms and signs lesser experienced doctors would have ignored; all the way to not knowing about the condition and needing some advice from an expert in the condition.
We Need To Look At The Bigger Picture
The biggest killer to our budget is non-elective admissions and it’s the one area where patient, commissioner and doctor converge. Patients want to keep out of hospital, it’s cheaper for the NHS and Doctors don’t like the lack of continuity when patients go in. For me I see every admission to hospital as a fail. Of course it’s more complex than this and it might be totally appropriate but if we work on this concept backwards, it will help us more. Likewise if we try to reduce outpatient referrals because we are pressurised to, they may end up in hospitalisation and cost the NHS £10,000s rather than £100s as an outpatient. We need to look at the bigger picture and refer especially if we believe that referrals will lead to less hospitalisation of patients further down the line. To put things into perspective 2 symptoms patients present which I take very seriously are palpitations in the elderly and breathlessness. Both symptoms are very real and normally lead to undiagnosed conditions which if we don’t tackle and diagnose early enough will cause patients to deteriorate and end up in hospital.
Education, Education, Education
When I first went into commissioning as a lead in 2006 I had this idea of getting to the bottom of why GPs refer patients to outpatients. The idea being if we knew why, we would know how to best tackle specialities. I asked my GPs to record which speciality to refer to and why they referred over a 7 month period. The reason for admission was complex but we divided them up into these categories:
2nd care input required for management of the condition. We know about the condition but have drawn the line with what we can do in primary care. An example of this is when we’ve done a 24 hour tape and found a patient has 2sec pauses and needs a pace maker.
2nd care input required for diagnosis. We think this patient has these symptoms which are related to this condition but don’t really know about the diagnosis and need help with this. An example of this is when a patient presents with diarrhoea to a gastroenterologist There could be several reasons for this and we need help from the gastroenterologist to confirm the diagnosis via a colonscopy and ogd etc.
Management Advice. We know what the patient has but need help with managing the condition. For example uncontrolled heart failure or recurrent sinusitis.
Consultant to Consultant Referral. As advised between consultants.
Patient Choice. Sometimes the patient just wants to see the hospital doctor.
The results are enclosed here in Excel and displayed below. Please click on the graph thumbnail below.
Reasons For Referrals
Firstly a few disclaimers and thoughts.
These figures were before any GPSI ENT, Dermatology or Musculosketal services which probably would have made an impact on the figures.
There are a few anomalies which may need further thought eg I’m surprised Rheumatology for 2nd input for diagnosis is so low, as frequently I have patients with high ESRs and CRPs which I need advise on diagnoses. Also audiology medicine doesn’t quite look right.
The cardiology referral is probably high for management advise due to help on ECG interpretation although this is an assumption.
This is just a 7 month period from a subset of 8-9 GPs. Although we were careful to explain each category and it’s meaning, more work might need to be done to clarify the findings further.
In my opinion the one area where GPs need to get grips with is management advice as it’s an admission that I know what the patient has and need help on how to treat them. This graph is listed in order of management advice for this reason.
So what do you do to respond to this? The most logical step is to education GPs on the left hand side of this graph and invest in your work force but more and more I see intermediary GPSI services which are the provider arm of a commissioning group led to help intercept referrals to hospital. In favour of the data most of the left hand side of the graph have been converted into a GPSI service at one point. In my area what has happened is that referrals rates have actually gone up into these services with no decline in the outgoing speciality as GPs become dis-empowered and just off load any symptoms which patients have which they would have probably had a higher threshold to refer on if these GPSI services were not available. Having said that GPSI services can have a role in the pathway and I’m not averse to their implementation, we just have to find a better way to use their services.
3 Step Plan
As I’m not one to just give problems here are my 3 suggestions to help referrals.
To have a more responsive Layered Outpatient Service.
Setting up an 18 week target for all outpatients is strange, as symptoms and specialities need to be prioritised. For example I don’t mind waiting 20 weeks for a ENT referral on a condition which is bothering me but not life threatening but need to only have a 3 week turn over if I’m breathless with a sudden reduction in my exercise tolerance. This adds an extra layer of complexity but always in the back of my mind it’s about getting them seen sooner to prevent hospitalisation.
Education, education, education
It’s ironic that the first budget to be slashed in my area was education. We need to education our GPs to empower them to bring the management advice category down as this is the category which will make the biggest impact to improving health care. In essence we need to focus on working on the left hand side of this graph first.
Diagnose Earlier and Refer Appropriately
The worst case scenario is when GPs refer patients to the wrong speciality and it can happen frequently as symptoms blur between conditions. This leads to delayed diagnosis, delayed management and you guessed it, increased hospitalisation. The obvious example is whether patients with breathlessness is caused by heart or lung or is psychogenic. As GPs we need to work up patients appropriately and make a best choice based on the evidence in front of us. Peer to peer GP delayed referral letter analysis groups have a place in this process.
At the end of the day it's about appropriate referrals always, not just a reduction.
Indeed for us to get a grip on the NHS Budgets as future Clinical Commissioners, I would expect outpatient referrals to go up at the expense of non-elective, as then you are looking at patients being seen and diagnosed earlier and kept out of hospital.
Thanks to those who read my last post. I was encouraged to hear from my colleagues at Med school that the post sounded very positive and hopefully. A few of them queried whether I had actually written it because there was a noticeable lack of sarcasm or criticism.
So... the following posts may be a bit different. A little warning - some of what I post may be me playing "Devil's advocate" because I believe that everything should be questioned and sparking debate is a good way of making us all evaluate what we truly think on a subject.
With no further a do, let's get on to the subject of today's post ....
An Introduction to Clinical Medicine
The previous year was my first as a clinical med student. Before we started I naively thought that we would be placed in helpful, encouraging environments that would support us in our learning, so that we were able to maximize our clinical experience. My hope was that there would be lots of enthusiastic doctors willing to teach, a well organised teaching schedule and admin staff that would be able to help us with any difficulties. I hoped these would all be in place so that WE medical students could be turned from a bunch of confused, under-grad science students into the best junior doctors we could possibly be.
It seems that medical school and the NHS have a very different opinion of what clinical medical teaching should be like. What they seem to want us to do is 1) listen to the same old health and safety lecture at least twice a term, 2) re-learn how to wash our hands every 4 weeks, 3) Practicing signing our name on a register - even when this is completely pointless because there are no staff at the hospital anyway because the roads are shut with 10 inches of snow most of the time, 4) Master the art of filling in forms that no one will ever look at or use in anyway that is productive, 5) STAY OUT OF THE WAY OF THE BUSY STAFF because we are useless nuisances who spread MRSA and C.Dif where ever we go! How we all learn medicine and pass our exams is any ones guess!
Undergraduate Co-Ordinators - Why won't you make life easier for us?
While at my last placement I was elected as the 3rd year student representative for that hospital. While I was fulfilling that role it got me wondering what it is that Under-grad Co-Ordinators actually do? I thought this may be an interesting topic of debate.
1) Who are they and how qualified are they?
2) what is their job description and what are they supposed to be doing?
3) Are they a universal phenomena? or have they just evolved within the West Midlands?
4) Does anyone know an under-grad Co-Ordinator (UC - not ulcerative colitis) who has actually been more benefit than nuisance?
1) UC's as a species are generally female, middle aged, motherly types who like to colonize obscure offices in far flung corners of NHS training hospitals. They can normally be found in packs or as they are locally known "A Confusion of co-ordinators". How are they qualified? I have absolutely no idea, but I am guessing not degrees in Human Resource Development.
2)I am fairly certain what their job should involve: 1) be a friendly supportive face for the poor medical students; 2) organise a series of lectures; 3) organise the medical students into teaching firms with enthusiastic consultants who are happy to give them regular teaching; 4) ensure the students are taught clinical skills so that they can progress to being competent juniors; 5) be a point of contact for when any students are experiencing difficulties in their hospital and hopefully help them to rectify those problems to aid their learning.
What do they actually do? It seems to be a mystery. I quite regularly receive emails that say that I wasn't in hospital on a certain day, when I was in fact at another hospital that they specifically sent me to on that day. I often receive emails saying that my lectures are cancelled just as I have driven for over an hour through rush hour traffic to attend. I sometimes receive emails saying that I, specifically, am the cause of the whole hospitals MRSA infection because I once wore a tie.
I never receive emails saying that such and such a doctor is happy to teach me. I never receive emails with lecture slides attached to them so that I can revise said lectures in time for an exam. I NEVER receive any emails with anything useful in them that has been sent by a UC!
Questions 3 and 4, I have no idea what the answers are but would be genuinely pleased to hear people's responses.
The reason I have written this blog is that, these people have frustrated my colleagues and I all year. I am sure they are integral to our learning in some way and I am sure that they could be very useful to us, but at the moment I just cannot say that they are as useful as they should be.
To any NHS manager/ medical educator out their I make this plea
I am more than happy to give up 2 weeks of my life to shadow some UC to see what it is they do. In essence I want to audit what it is they do on a day to day basis and work out if they are a cost-effective use of the NHS budget? I want to investigate what it is they spend their time on and how many students they help during a day? I would like someone with a fresh pair of eyes to go into those obscure offices and see if they can find any way of improving the systems so that future generations of medical students do not have to relive the inefficiencies that we have lived through. I want the system to be improved for everyone's sake.
OR if you won't let a medical student audit the process, could you manager's at least send your UC's to learn from other hospitals where things are done better! If we (potential future) doctors have to live by the rule of EVIDENCED BASED MEDICINE, why shouldn't the admin staff live by a similar rule of EVIDENCED BASED ADMINISTRATION? Share good ideas, learn from the best, always look for improvements rather than keep the same old inefficient, pointless systems year after year.
My final point on the subject - at the end of every term we have to fill in long feedback forms on what we thought of the hospital and the teaching. I know for a fact that most of those forms contain huge amounts of criticism - a lot of which was written exactly the same the year before! So, they are collecting all of this feedback and yet nothing seems to change in some hospitals. It all just seems such a pointless waste.
Take away thought for the day.
By auditing and improving the efficiency, of the admin side of an undergraduate medical education, I would hope the system as a whole would be improved and hence better, more knowledgeable, less cynical, less bitter, less stressed junior doctors would be produced as a result. Surely, that is something that everyone involved in medical education should be aiming for.
Who is watching (and assessing) the watchers!
As a hospital doctor, surgeon or GP we encounter death frequently. We quickly learn to cope. It helps when we know that we have done everything within our power to prevent death. When death is close we have the ability, medication and specialists services to make the process as 'comfortable' as possible. In the final moments it is rare that the patient is alone; whether in the company of family, friends or health care professionals.
When an individual dies on expedition it may have been avoidable, you have very little kit to prevent it, they may be alone and they probably were your friend.
No one prepares you for the potential of a client dying. But it happens.
First of all, I am not trying to put you off doing an expedition. I love expedition medicine and have dedicated the last five years of my life to it. But I was not prepared for my first near death experience and I want to make sure you are.
During an expedition injuries, near misses and deaths are sometimes avoidable. There may have been a faulty bit of kit, medication which wasn't packed or route marker that fell down ... Hindsight is a wonderful thing. You, the team and the organisers work within what is feasible and normal health and safety don't and can't apply. I am NOT saying it is ok to be negligent, but a degree of pragmatism is need. What you need to remember is the competitors/ clients are aware of the dangers and, as medics, we should be too.
Many medics are shocked by the lack of kit taken on expedition. But you need to think about the environment you are in and then think rationally. If your nearest decompression chamber is 3 days away by boat, is there much point taking oxygen on a diving expedition? If you are on expedition in the middle of the jungle is there any point taking a defib if any client in need of a defib is unlikely to survive extrication. You have to work within the limits of your environment and with the kit you have. As the medic you need to be aware of the nearest hospital and their facilities, the nearest large hospital with surgical and ITU facilities and the casevac plan.
During expeditions the clients often become good friends. You will experience their highs and lows and share incredible experiences. This makes it especially hard when unfortunate events occur. At this point our role as medic often broadens to counsellor and bereavement officer. The other clients, organisers and medics need support during this time. Try to start this process whilst you are out there.
Even with near misses, the psychological effect on people can be huge. Signs and symptoms are generally easy to spot, but screen for them at clinics. Be aware during race events that grief may manifest though clients pulling out, loss of performance and increased injuries due to lack of sleep, low mood or poor concentration.
No matter what happens when you are on expedition my advice is; you can only work within your skill set and with the equipment you have. As a foundation doctor, if you’re faced with an unresponsive client - you are not expected to perform RSI and intubate. Work through your ABCDE and work within your limitations.
If you would like to suggest any other blog topics or have any questions please post below.
A Pecha Kucha talk (400 second video). I hope that by sharing my personal story in this way, it will help raise awareness of unfit drivers and the responsibilities involved when assessing fitness to drive.