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Last week in my personal blog I reflected on humility as defined by James Ryle:
God given self-assurance that eliminates the need to prove to others the worth of who you are and the rightness of what you do.
Ryle suggests, from 1 Peter 5:5-7, that central to humbling ourselves is throwing our cares on to God. Every concern, care and fear being hurled on to God who is faithful and powerful enough to handle them. When we know that we are loved by Him no matter what and that He is in control no matter what, then we remove the need to prove ourselves or protect ourselves. We become humble – secure enough to allow God to be in control and to serve others. Once our eyes are lifted from ourselves we are able to see others to love and serve them.
Just before writing the last post I was reading an article about the report by Robert Francis QC on the appalling treatment of patients at Stafford Hospital. One of the recurring comments made by many different people is that the pressure of targets and incentives increasingly displaces focus on compassion and patient care. When doctors, nurses and managers alike are bombarded with ever increasing and regularly changes hoops to jump through and targets to meet, no wonder their attention and efforts are dragged from patient care.
I’ve seen something of the effects of this in a family member who for many years worked as a Health Visitor. In their decades of service they saw an ever increasing and ever changing string of targets and goals alongside cost cutting moves that stripped resources and personnel. Their desire to be compassionate and offer the best care possible became more and more stressful until it finally proved too much. She recently changed jobs.
Now I’m not trying to attack the NHS and I am well aware that so many people receive great care. But this is not a new concern that is being bandied around with fresh vigour in the light of Stafford Hospital. What struck me is that it demonstrates on an institutional level what also seems true at a personal level. Namely, that when we are forced to operate from a place of insecurity we begin to miss the most important things. NHS services have to meet targets to receive funding to simply keep operating – there will be no patient care if there is no hospital. Oftentimes, especially as a leader, we can live with a sense that, unless we meet expectations or make people like us or recognise our worth, then we’ll have no influence to do any of the things we know we are called to do.
The secret of personal humility is to recognise that we are already loved by our Father before we even move our finger; to recognise that He is control and we can throw every care on Him. A person who can live from that place of security finds, free from the need to prove themselves or their actions, can begin to simply do what they are made and called to do. They are no longer pulled in different directions by a multiplicity of cares. What about an institution?
It strikes me that a similar solution is needed for the NHS. Is there a way to give security for doctors, nurses and caring professionals so that they are able to do what they are called to do without constantly watching their back? Obviously there is a need for accountability for the safety of patients and to ensure a good standard of care, but the constant need to prove worth and achievement cannot be helpful for those who are called to compassionate care.
I’m not a healthcare professional. I don’t know exactly what this would look like. But I recognise in the diagnosis of struggles in the NHS, God’s diagnosis of struggles in many people’s lives. The way He designed us to live with Him is often a good basis to begin to imagine a new way for every level of society to function.
So, my question is this: what would a humble NHS look like? To whom could a National Health Service throw it’s concerns and cares?
In the USA the issue of indiscriminate use of expensive, sophisticated, and time consuming test in lieu of, rather than in addition to, the clinical exam is being much discussed. The cause of this problem is of course multifactorial. One of the factors is the decline of the teaching of clinical skills to our medical students and trainees.
Such problems seem to have taken hold in developing countries as well. Two personal anecdotes will illustrate this.
In the early nineties I worked for two years as a faculty member in the department of ob & gyn at the Aga Khan University Medical School in Karachi, Pakistan. One day, I received a call from the resident in the emergency room about a woman who had come in because of some abdominal pain and vaginal bleeding. While the resident told me these two symptoms her next sentence was: “… and the pelvic ultrasound showed…” I stopped her right in her tracks before she could tell me the result of the ultrasound scan. I told her: “First tell me more about this patient. Does she look ill? Is she bleeding heavily? Is she in a lot of pain and where is the pain? What are her blood pressure and pulse rate? How long has she been having these symptoms? When was her last menstrual period? What are your findings when you examined her ? What is the result of the pregnancy test?”. The resident could not answer most of these basic clinical questions and findings. She had proceeded straight to a test which might or might not have been necessary or even indicated and she was not using her clinical skills or judgment.
In another example, the resident, also in Karachi, called me to the emergency room about a patient with a ruptured ectopic pregnancy. He told me that the patient was pale, and obviously bleeding inside her abdomen and on the verge of going into shock. The resident had accurately made the diagnosis, based on the patient’s history, examination, and a few basic laboratory tests. But when I ran down to see the patient, he was wheeling the patient into the radiology department for an ultrasound. "Why an ultrasound?" I asked. “You already have made the correct diagnosis and she needs an urgent operation not another diagnostic procedure that will take up precious time before we can stop the internal bleeding.” Instead of having the needless ultrasound, the patient was wheeled into the operating room.
What I am trying to emphasize is that advances in technology are great but they need to be used judiciously and young medical students and trainees need to be taught to use their clinical skills first and then apply new technologies, if needed, to help them to come to the right diagnosis and treatment. And of course we, practicing physicians need to set the example. Or am I old fashioned and not with it?
Medico legal and other issues may come to play here and I am fully aware of these. However the basic issue of clinical exam is still important.
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Commencing the first clinical year is a milestone. Things will now be different as your student career steers straight into the unchartered waters of clinical medicine. New challenges and responsibilities lie ahead and not just in an academic sense. After all this is the awaited moment, the start of the apprenticeship you have so desired and laboured for. It won’t be long before these clinical years like the preclinical years before them, will seem just as distant and insular, so why not make the most of it?
The first days hold so much excitation and promise and for many they deliver, however, it would be wise not to be too optimistic. I am afraid your firm head standing abreast the doors in a prophetic splaying of arms is an unlikely sight. In this new clinical environment, it is natural to be a little flummoxed. The quizzical looks of doctors and nurses as you first walk in, a sure sign of your unexpected arrival, is a recurring theme. If the wards are going to be your new hunting ground, proper introductions with the medical team are in order. This might seem like a task of Herculean proportions, particularly in large teaching hospitals. Everyone is busy. Junior doctors scuttling around the ward desks job lists in hand, the registrar probably won’t have noticed you and as luck would have it your consultant firm head is away at a conference. Perseverance during these periods of frustration is a rewarding quality. Winning over the junior doctors with some keenness will help you no end. What I mean to say is that their role in our learning as students extends further than the security of sign-off signatures a week before the end of the rotation. They will give you opportunities. Take them! Although it never feels like it at the time, being a medical student does afford some privileges. The student badge clipped to your new clinic clothes is a license to learn: to embark on undying streaks of false answers, to fail as many skills and clerkings as is required and to do so unabashed.
Unfortunately, the junior doctors are not there purely for your benefit, they cannot always spare the time to directly observe a history taking or an examination, instead you must report back. With practice this becomes more of a tick box exercise: gleaning as much information and then reconfiguring it into a structured presentation. However, the performance goes unseen and unheard. I do not need to iterate the inherent dangers of this practice. Possible solutions? Well receiving immediate feedback is more obtainable on GP visits or at outpatient clinics. They provide many opportunities to test your questioning style and bedside manner. Performing under scrutiny recreates OSCE conditions. Due to time pressure and no doubt the diagnostic cogs running overtime, it is fatefully easy to miss emotional cues or derail a conversation in a way which would be deemed insensitive. Often it occurs subconsciously so take full advantage of a GP or a fellow firm mate’s presence when taking a history.
Self-directed learning will take on new meaning. The expanse of clinical knowledge has a vertiginous effect. No longer is there a structured timetable of lectures as a guide; for the most part you are alone. Teaching will become a valued commodity, so no matter how sincere the promises, do not rest until the calendars are out and a mutually agreed time is settled. I would not encourage ambuscaded attacks on staff but taking the initiative to arrange dedicated tutorial time with your superiors is best started early. Consigning oneself to the library and ploughing through books might appear the obvious remedy, it has proven effective for the last 2-3 years after all. But unfortunately it can not all be learnt with bookwork. Whether it is taking a psychiatric history, venipuncture or reading a chest X-ray, these are perishable skills and only repeated and refined practice will make them become second nature. Balancing studying with time on the wards is a challenge. Unsurprisingly, after a day spent on your feet, there is wavering incentive to merely open a book. Keeping it varied will prevent staleness taking hold. Attending a different clinic, brushing up on some pathology at a post-mortem or group study sessions adds flavour to the daily routine. During the heated weeks before OSCEs, group study becomes very attractive. While it does cement clinical skills, do not be fooled. Your colleagues tend not to share the same examination findings you would encounter on an oncology ward nor the measured responses of professional patient actors.
So ward time is important but little exposure to all this clinical information will be gained by assuming a watchful presence. Attending every ward round, while a laudable achievement, will not secure the knowledge. Senior members of the team operate on another plane. It is a dazzling display of speed whenever a monster list of patients comes gushing out the printer. Before you have even registered each patient’s problem(s), the management plan has been dictated and written down. There is little else to do but feed off scraps of information drawn from the junior doctors on the journey to the next bed. Of course there will be lulls, when the pace falls off and there is ample time to digest a history. Although it is comforting to have the medical notes to check your findings once the round is over, it does diminish any element of mystery. The moment a patient enters the hospital is the best time to cross paths. At this point all the work is before the medical team, your initial guesses might be as good as anyone else’s. Visiting A&E of your own accord or as part of your medical team’s on call rota is well worth the effort. Being handed the initial A&E clerking and gingerly drawing back the curtain incur a chilling sense of responsibility. Embrace it, it will solidify not only clerking skills but also put into practice the explaining of investigations or results as well as treatment options. If you are feeling keen you could present to the consultant on post-take.
Experiences like this become etched in your memory because of their proactive approach. You begin to remember conditions associated with patient cases you have seen before rather than their corresponding pages in the Oxford handbook. And there is something about the small thank you by the F1 or perhaps finding your name alongside theirs on the new patient list the following morning, which rekindles your enthusiasm. To be considered part of the medical team is the ideal position and a comforting thought. Good luck.
This blog post is a reproduction of an article published in the Medical Student Newspaper, Freshers 2013 issue.