In an article in the medical magazine Pulse, I and two other commentators discuss issues around the electronic sharing of images of patients that clinicans should be aware of.
The very high use of information technology in modern society has resulted in the practical uses of sending and sharing information electronically rapidly outstripping published guidance in this area. For example, many NHS organisations have draconian policies about sending patient information by email – in some cases describing sending information by unencrypted email as similar to ‘sending it on a postcard’. No empirical evidence is ever presented in such guidance that sending information electronically is any less secure than sending it by post or telephone. Guidance from such organisations has also yet to catch up with the now near-ubiquitous access to smartphones, high-speed Internet connections and high-resolution cameras in our society. In my opinion, it is acceptable for the photo to be stored on your phone as long as you take reasonable precautions to secure your device.
Most patients would generally be happy to have an image of their skin condition shared with your colleague if this helped in getting a better diagnosis or a more appropriate treatment plan. You should though obtain consent from the patient before sharing the image with your colleague. If you are apprehensive about using a photo or file sharing app, you could send the image from one NHS Net email account to another. NHS email is a fully encrypted method of communication and can be used for sending sensitive patient information. If you want to use the image in a presentation, then you should get explicit consent for this from the patient, ideally in writing, as is now standard for case reports in medical journals.
We should encourage the use of technology as a tool for improving quality of care, patient experience and health outcomes; but at the same time, we must ensure that we respect patient confidentiality and always obtain informed consent from patients before sharing their information electronically.
You can read the full article in Pulse.
Timely diagnosis and management of heart failure (HF) is critical, but identification of patients with suspected HF can be challenging, especially in primary care where patients can present with a range of symptoms of varying severity. In a paper published in the journal Heart, we describe the journey of people with HF in primary care from presentation through to diagnosis and initial management.
We used the Clinical Practice Research Datalink (primary care consultations linked to hospital admissions data and national death registrations for patients registered with participating primary care practices in England) to describe investigation and referral pathways followed by patients from first presentation with relevant symptoms to HF diagnosis, particularly alignment with recommendations of the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence guideline for HF diagnosis.
36 748 patients had a diagnosis of HF recorded that met the inclusion criteria between 1 January 2010 and 31 March 2013. For 29 113 (79.2%) patients, this was first recorded in hospital. In the 5 years before diagnosis, 15 057 patients (41.0%) had a primary care consultation with one of three key HF symptoms recorded, 17 724 (48.2%) attended for another reason and 3967 (10.8%) did not see their general practitioner. Only 24% of those with recorded HF symptoms followed a pathway aligned with guidelines (echocardiogram and/or serum natriuretic peptide test and specialist referral), while 44% had no echocardiogram, natriuretic peptide test or referral.
We concluded that patients follow various pathways to the diagnosis of HF. However, few appear to follow a pathway supported by guidelines for investigation and referral. Although there are likely to be missed opportunities for earlier HF diagnosis in primary care, it is also the case that it can be difficult to condense the management of conditions that present in complex ways in primary care using simple linear guidelines.
The results of recent research studies illustrate the importance of prioritizing obese people with type 2 diabetes mellitus when it comes to selecting patients for bariatric surgery. For example, the number of people eligible for bariatric surgery in England far exceeds the bariatric surgery capacity of its National Health Service. If the aim of bariatric surgery is to reduce mortality and morbidity among obese patients, then the focus should be on selecting patients for surgery based on the presence of the conditions that have the greatest detrimental effect on health status. It may therefore be appropriate to reconsider the importance of body mass index alone as a predictor of mortality and put more emphasis on the presence of comorbidities when assessing eligibility for bariatric surgery. Given the significant benefits for people with type 2 diabetes that bariatric surgery offers and the resulting major improvements in their health status, there is a strong case that type 2 diabetes should be considered as the preferred comorbidity when selecting patients for surgery.
The full letter can be read in JAMA Surgery.
Children and adults with gender identity concerns are increasingly presenting for treatment, with referrals to specialist clinics rapidly rising. The percentage of children with gender identity disorder that self-harm or attempt suicide is estimated at 50%, so it is essential that it is recognised early and managed appropriately.
Gender identity disorder of childhood usually manifests before puberty. The child typically experiences distress resulting from an incongruence between their current gender identity (sense of themselves as ‘male’, ‘female’, or otherwise), and their gender assigned at birth. Behaviour and activities of the child may stereotypically be associated with that of the opposite gender and the child may be preoccupied with wanting to change their name and gender pronoun (‘she’, ‘he’). Depending on the age, they may also have a strong desire to acquire secondary sexual characteristics of the opposite gender. This may cause significant distress and can impact their performance and experiences at school or at home. Six months of persistent gender non-conforming behaviour has been proposed as an indicator that this is more than ‘a phase’, which is common and not necessarily pathological for many individuals in childhood.
Tom is 13 years old and has come with his mother to see you. She tells you he becomes distressed when people address him as Tom, and asks to be called Kelly. He hates wearing boys’ clothes, and most of his friends at school are girls, leading to teasing about him being ‘gay’. Recently, his mother found a skirt in his room, which he eventually admitted to having stolen from a friend’s house. He has asked his mother if he can ‘become a girl’, and seems so preoccupied with this idea that he is struggling to complete his school homework. Today Tom’s mother wants to know what to do.
The full article can be read in the journal BJGP Open.
Children whose GPs are easy to access are less likely to visit A&E than those whose GPs are less able to provide appointments. These are the findings of a new study, led by researchers from Imperial College London, and published in the journal Pediatrics. The research also found that during weekdays, children’s visits to A&E peak after school hours.
The study, which was funded by the National Institute for Health Research, suggests that modest changes in the provision of GP appointments – such as providing more after-school appointments between the times of 5-7pm – could prevent thousands of visits to emergency departments a year. Although the study does not show that difficulty in accessing GP services is the direct cause behind increased emergency admissions, it raises important questions about the provision of GP services.
The study’s lead author, Dr Sonia Saxena, from the Department of Primary Care and Public Health at Imperial College London, and a practising GP, says: “Use of emergency departments for problems that could be dealt with in primary care is an inefficient use of the service, and could detract resources from more seriously ill children. Our study was not a trial, which means that we don’t know whether difficulty accessing GPs is the cause of increased emergency department usage, or whether there is some other explanation for the link. However, given recent debates surrounding GP opening hours, our results suggest that additional resources to provide GP appointments for children when they need it – for instance after school rather than at weekends – may be a better investment for the NHS than blanket proposals to increase access hours.”
Health systems across the world are faced with many challenges – such as rising patient expectations, increased workload, ageing populations, and an increased number of people with long-term conditions. At the same time, health systems also face significant financial problems. Consequently, governments, other funders of healthcare and patients expect more from their doctors without necessarily offering them additional resources.
As the first point of contact with patients, what role should general practitioners (in some countries, referred to as primary care physicians or family practitioners) play in meeting these challenges? General practitioners (GPs) have to deal daily with large numbers of patients, cope with a very wide range of clinical problems, meet performance targets, and provide continuity of care. At the same time, GPs also have to provide easy access to health services, show they are addressing issues such as the rise of antimicrobial resistance; and play a public health role in addressing unhealthy lifestyles and improving the uptake of preventive programmes such as screening and immunization.
Can GPs meet all these challenges? What support do GPs need to meet them? Could more be done to support GPs by non-medical health professionals? What do patients expect from their GPs? Does the training and continuous professional development of GPs need to change? How do we make use of staff from other professional groups such as nurses, pharmacist and healthcare assistants? How should we fund primary care services? These are important questions that we will aim to examine in future work at Imperial College London.
I am in Vienna this week for the Annual Meeting of the European Epidemiological Forum, which this year is on the topic of “Real World Data and Pharmacoepidemiology in Europe”. It’s been a good opportunity to catch up on biomedical research using ‘Big Data’. There is a lot of work going on in this field that will have a big impact on health. There was also some sadness among European colleagues about Brexit and uncertainty about the future role academics and companies from the UK will play in European research collaborations. At the meeting, I was asked to give one of the keynote presentations on the topic of Brexit and how it might affect the UK contribution to research on areas such as pharmaco-epidemiology. In my talk, I outlined some of the current uncertainties for UK researchers and the what the future might look like for the UK’s universities, NHS and life sciences sector, depending on the type of Brexit we negotiate with the other countries of the European Union.
I spoke at a joint training day for primary care and public health registrars in London on the topic of Public Health and Primary Care in England: What does the future look like?
The key points from my presentation were:
- Some new NHS investment – but investment is very low by historical standards
- Will the new models of healthcare delivery deliver the £22 billion efficiency savings the Treasury expects?
- What impact will contractual changes have? Junior doctors, consultants, GPs, public health consultants
- Can primary care attract and retain enough doctors?
- What impact will cuts in public health budgets have on health improvement programmes and on careers in the specialty?
My presentation can be viewed on Slideshare.
Our analysis of impact of the NHS Check programme on cardiovascular disease risk was published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal in May 2016. The programme had statistically significant but clinically modest impacts on the risk for cardiovascular disease (CVD) and individual risk CVD factors, although diagnosis of vascular disease increased.
Overall program performance was substantially below national targets, which highlights the need for careful planning, monitoring and evaluation of similar initiatives internationally. The effect of the programme on CVD risk was the equivalent of one CVD event (e.g. heart attack) prevented for every 4,762 people who attended a health check in a year.
For the NHS health check scheme to be effective, it needs to be better planned and implemented – our work will help highlight how this can be done. In future we plan to evaluate whether particular groups – for instance older patients – have greater health benefits from the check than younger patients. It would also be interesting to investigate the reasons why the health check produced such modest benefits. For instance, to evaluate the advice patients are given during the health check.
The article was covered by a number of media outlets including The Guardian, Daily Mirror, Daily Mail, Science Daily, Independent, Times, Western Daily Press, Pulse, GP, Sun, BMJ, OnMedica, Nursing Times and BT.
We are employing a pharmacist to help with treatment reviews and to see minor acute illness but we are finding resistance from some patients to seeing him, with receptionists reporting that patients are requesting appointments with ‘a proper doctor’ instead. How do we respond?
Pharmacists offer many potential benefits to general practices. They can free up doctors’ time, deliver cost-savings to the NHS through more rational prescribing, and improve the quality of patient care. For example, pharmacists can improve patients’ understanding of their medication and their adherence to their drug regime. An increasing number of general practices are now using pharmacists and their role will be further expanded when the GP Forward View is implemented. However, some patients may be unwilling to see a pharmacist and insist on seeing a doctor.
To overcome this resistance, it is essential that all staff are briefed about the role of the pharmacist and what to say to patients who express concerns about seeing him. This process should start before the pharmacist is in post, as should a discussion of the role of the pharmacist with the practice’s Patient Participation Group. The staff briefing should reinforce points such as pharmacists being highly trained professionals; pharmacists who work in primary care will have undergone additional training such as an Independent Prescribing Course; by taking on work such as medication reviews and the management of minor illnesses, pharmacists can allow doctors to spend more time with complex patients; and that pharmacists can always seek advice from a doctor when needed. You could also include this information on your practice website, in any induction pack given to new patients and in your practice newsletter.
If some patients remain reluctant to see a pharmacist, they could speak to a more senior member of the practice team such as the practice manager or deputy manager. If however a patient remains unconvinced by these explanations, I would let them see a doctor. Attitudes towards pharmacists will change over time and patients will eventually come to understand that they are highly skilled professionals who have a valuable role to play in primary care.
You can read my article, and also those of some other doctors, in Pulse.