Recognising the difference between normal and abnormal

“Would you mind if the medical student examines you as well?” It’s a common phrase in our practice (usually mentioning the medical student’s name too) and the common response from patients is positive. “Yes of course, we’ve all got to learn, don’t we?”

Although they prefer to see diseases, I also try to expose students to as many variants of normal as possible. Normal skin, normal heart sounds, normal ear drums, normal eyes, normal breathing sounds. Interestingly, ‘normal’ has a scale too – there is a wide variety.

Most students love to listen to the fascinating stories patients bring to the consulting room. They appreciate the opportunity to practise their skills on real patients – but it’s not always spectacular.

When the next person comes in with a similar problem I can see the facial expression of the student: why examine all these normal body parts? But I’ve known this patient for a while and there’s something not quite right. The patient and I both suspect it, but the medical student hasn’t picked it up yet because ‘abnormal’ is sometimes only evident when measured against normal.

“Can you feel this?” I ask, “Compare it to the patients we saw earlier.” The student tries again and eyes light up. When they learn the many presentations of normal, students become better at recognising significant deviations from normal.

Defining normality and abnormality can be challenging, even for experienced clinicians. Being able to make the call that something is a variant of normal is as valuable as identifying abnormal findings.

With the appropriate safety nets in place, it can prevent angst, misdiagnosis, overtesting, overdiagnosis and overtreatment.

Why we need to get over the Medicare Locals disappointment

Many people are still getting over the disappointment of Medicare Locals. I get that. Although some MLs were able to make a difference, too many were not. The new Primary Health Networks (PHNs) may be a different kettle of fish. One thing is for sure: they are here for the long haul.

There is an enormous opportunity for PHNs to add value where they support quality primary healthcare services to the community. For that reason the RACGP is keen to work with the new organisations. I believe there are at least three areas where grassroots support from local PHNs can make a big difference.

Working together

The first area is relationship building and teamwork. We all know there are too many silos and tribes in healthcare. On the other hand, long-term relationships positively influence knowledge exchange, understanding and trust.

Where possible, health providers should be freed up to have the option to discuss clinical care with each other. This is important all for health professionals, and even more so for those working in rural and remote areas.

We should ensure that non-clinicians do not get in the way of effective inter-collegial communication. For example, referral letters have to contain the necessary information to allow the next health provider to do their job properly, but we must avoid overly bureaucratic referral rules. A clinical override mechanism of these rules must always be available.

PHNs could assist, for example, with developing shared clinical priorities and organising site visits, breakfasts, lunches, dinners and conferences that cross disciplinary and organisational boundaries.

Continuity of care

The second area is improving continuity of care. This is not a catchphrase, but a crucial element of general practice with numerous proven long-term health benefits. Unfortunately it seems this principle is often sacrificed in new initiatives and models for the sake of short-term results, convenience or commercial interests.

It is helpful to distinguish the three types of continuity of care, as explained by Haggerty et al: informational continuity (sharing data), management continuity (sharing a consistent approach) and relational continuity (fostering an ongoing therapeutic relationship).

Electronic health records will assist with informational continuity, but not necessarily with management continuity and relational continuity.

“New models of care should not further fragment care

There is ample evidence that comprehensive, continuous care by GPs results in improved patient health outcomes and satisfaction. Continuity of care is cost-effective and reduces both elective and emergency hospital admissions.

GPs play a key role in keeping people out of hospital. It is important however that hospital avoidance projects help to build capacity, facilitate access in primary care and respect the principle of continuity of care.

New integrated models of care should carefully be evaluated to make sure they don’t do the opposite and fragment care thereby negatively impacting on health outcomes – often with the best intentions. PHNs can play a big role here.

Data exchange and communication 

A third area where PHNs should assist general practice is electronic data exchange and communication. Because of its central position in primary care, general practice is the natural collection point of clinical information. Direct, secure, electronic communication between GPs, specialists, community pharmacists and allied health providers is beneficial for optimal patient care, but remains problematic in many regions.

“Delayed information from hospitals is still one of the biggest problems

Delayed or absent correspondence from hospitals to referring doctors is still one of the biggest problems for GPs who are frequently trying to deal with returning patients without any information from the hospital.

All necessary information should be supplied in hospital discharge summaries, and it should not be left to the GP or practice staff to chase up any information from the hospital.

General practitioners need to ensure their referrals are of sufficient quality, consistent with RACGP standards, and useful for practitioners who continue the patient care in different settings of the health system. That means the referral information must be complete, accurate and timely.

Hospital referral criteria may require additional, locally agreed-on information, but extensive extra information (such as patient questionnaires) is the responsibility of the requesting institutions, and GPs should not be made responsible for its collection and supply.

There is room for improvement of communication between GPs. Getting the different healthcare computer systems to talk to each other is a big issue in many parts of the country. This is problematic as Australia has a mobile population. Low-cost software solutions such as GP2GP, used in New Zealand and the UK, could solve this.

The MyHealthRecord (formerly PCEHR) is, due to its many technical and medicolegal issues, not yet widely accepted as a reliable clinical tool and we see more alternative, locally developed e-health solutions in the near future.

In conclusion there are substantial opportunities for PHNs in supporting and adequately resourcing general practice and its interactions with other parts of the health system. To quote the National Health and Hospitals Reform Commission (NHHRC): “We believe that strengthened primary health care services in the community, building on the vital role of general practice, should be the ‘first contact’ for providing care for most health needs of Australian people.”

This article was originally published in The Medical Republic.

How should Primary Health Networks support GPs?

It appears the new  Primary Health Networks (PHNs) are here to for the long haul. There is an enormous opportunity for PHNs to add value where they support quality primary healthcare services to the community.

RACGP Queensland has developed a draft position statement identifying 4 concrete targets that should be aimed for in primary healthcare reform at a local level.

The targets are presented below. I believe that PHNs could play an important role in achieving these goals – in collaboration with GPs.

  1. PHNs are in an excellent position to assist healthcare providers and organisations to build effective relationships. PHNs should facilitate a shared health vision for their local area, exceeding disciplinary and organisational boundaries.
  2. PHNs should encourage continuity of care and make sure new models and initiatives do not further fragment our health system and/or adversely affect health outcomes.
  3. PHNs need to play an important role in facilitating better information exchange and communication between healthcare providers.
  4. PHNs should encourage the development of innovative models of care that introduce genuine integration between the various parts of the health system.

Continuity of care is more than just a catchphrase

The practice I work for recently took over another practice. As is not uncommon in acquisitions, this caused a temporary increase in staff turnover, including GPs.

The response from patients was interesting: just about every other patient asked if I was going to stay. And most patients – not just those with chronic or complex health conditions – expressed their dissatisfaction with the lack of continuity of care.

I’m sure that many colleagues can recall similar anecdotes. This seems to indicate that our patients value personal and longitudinal primary care. Yet, we are seeing many proposals, trials and projects at the moment that threaten this model, and will create fragmented care.

Two examples

For example, Queensland Health is running several trials at the moment that bypass the usual GP, including a hospital-avoidance project where the ambulance service brings patients to selected GP clinics that receive state funding.

However, usual practices do not receive funding or support to increase capacity to manage these extra presentations. Although projects like the one in Queensland may reduce visits to the ED, they don’t support a stable and enduring relationship between GPs and patients.

In another Queensland Health project, pharmacies are being encouraged to administer MMR vaccinations. That vaccinations in general practice are an opportunity for screening and prevention does not seem important to policy-makers.

In primary care literature, ‘continuity’ is often described as the relationship between a practitioner and a patient that extends beyond specific episodes of illness or disease. Unfortunately, other terms are often used synonymously, such as ‘care co-ordination’, ‘integration’, ‘care planning’, ‘case management’ and ‘discharge planning’.

The experience of continuity may be different for the patient and the health practitioner, adding to more misunderstandings.

According to a 2003 BMJ article by Haggerty et al, there are three types of continuity of care: informational continuity, management continuity and relational continuity. Of course, continuity is more than just sending a message to another health practitioner, or uploading a piece of information to an e-health database.

What is continuity of care?

Understanding individual patients’ preferences, values, background and circumstances cannot always be captured in health records. Practitioners who have longstanding relationships with their patients often know this information.

The RACGP describes continuity of care as “the situation where patients experience an episode of care as complete, or consistent, or seamless even if it is provided in a number of different consultations by different providers”.

There is abundant evidence that continuity in primary care results in improved patient health outcomes and satisfaction, and reduced costs. For example, relational continuity reduces both elective and emergency admissions. In other words, the rate of hospital admissions drops when people have their own GP.

Better aligned funding that supports primary care practitioners to provide long-term quality care is much needed at the moment.

Team care

A sustainable health system should free up GP teams and other health practitioners to deliver clinical co-ordination and integration of care across disciplines, especially for people living with complex and chronic health conditions.

Avoiding hospital admissions and increasing immunisation rates are laudable objectives, but it’s not a good idea to do this at the expense of continuity of care by the GP. If patients don’t have a GP they should be encouraged or assisted to find a doctor of their choice.

There is nothing wrong with new models of care as long as they don’t impact on the many benefits general practice has to offer.

This article was originally published in Australian Doctor Magazine.

The family doctor – old-fashioned or the key to a healthy future? (Part 2)

Is the family doctor who provides ongoing care a thing of the past? Not really.

In part 1 I mentioned the three types of continuity of care: informational, management and relational continuity. Continuity in primary care results in improved patient health outcomes and satisfaction. Evidence also shows that primary care, in contrast to specialty care, is associated with a more equitable distribution of health.

Receiving care from one general practitioner is beneficial for a variety of health outcomes. For example, relational continuity reduces both elective and emergency admissions. In other words, the rate of hospital admissions drops when people have their own GP.

6 mechanisms that improve our health

Primary care researcher Barbara Starfield identified six mechanisms that, alone and in combination, may account for the beneficial impact of primary care on population health:

  1. Primary care increases access to health services for relatively deprived population groups
  2. The quality of clinical care by primary care physicians is at least similar to specialist care for specific common diseases
  3. The positive impact of primary care on prevention
  4. The beneficial impact of primary care on the early management of health problems
  5. The accumulated contribution of primary care characteristics to whole-of-person care
  6. The role of primary care in reducing unnecessary or inappropriate specialty care.
Barbara Starfield
Barbara Starfield: “(…) good primary care is associated with better health outcomes, lower costs, and greater equity in health.” Source: Wonca

Starfield: “There is now good evidence, from a variety of studies at national, state, regional, local, and individual levels that good primary care is associated with better health outcomes (on average), lower costs (robustly and consistently), and greater equity in health.”

General practice can deliver long-term, cost-effective continuity of care. A visit to the GP is on average ten times cheaper than a visit to the emergency department. Dr Sebastian Seidel mentioned at a Senate Inquiry last month that GP services in Australia cost taxpayers only $250 per person a year – cheaper than car insurance.

In Australasia, chronic conditions account for about 85% of the total burden of disease, and in 9 out of 10 deaths a chronic disease was a contributing factor.

Unfortunately there is currently inadequate support for the continuity of care required to improve outcomes for patients with complex or multiple chronic conditions and comorbidities.

The Australian government is developing a National Strategic Framework for Chronic Conditions and recently, the Primary Health Care Advisory Group has investigated options into the reform of primary health care to support patients with complex and chronic illnesses. The group’s reform paper is complete and handed to the Federal Health Minister. It will be very interesting to see what happens next.

Conclusion

Although I am more than likely biased, it is obvious to me that primary care has a lot to offer. Continuity of care by general practitioners and their teams has many proven benefits as outlined in part 1 and part 2 of this blog post series.

GPs see about 85% of Australians each year but general practice spending represents less than 8% of the overall government healthcare budget. What we need is better aligned funding that supports primary care practitioners to deliver long-term quality care.

A sustainable health system should free up GP teams and other health practitioners to deliver coordination and integration of care across disciplines, especially for people living with complex and chronic health conditions. Looking at the reform processes that are under way in Australia, we may be getting closer to a better and more sustainable solution.

The family doctor – old-fashioned or the key to a healthy future? (Part 1)

A few years ago, when I was boarding a plane I picked up The Times newspaper and noticed a big headline stating: ‘The family doctor is going out of fashion’. In the article journalist Matthew Parris explained why young people prefer to go to the emergency department. I kept the article as I thought it would be a great blog topic, but for some reason I forgot about it – until something jolted my memory.

Last month I had the pleasure of meeting with the Board of Health Consumers Queensland. I enjoy conversations with consumer representatives as I always learn something, even though these exchanges are usually slightly confronting. One of the topics we touched on was continuity of care, or better, the perceived lack thereof in general practice by consumers. During the drive back home to the Sunshine Coast I suddenly remembered the article in The Times.

In 2013 Parris wrote: “Very gradually the era of the personal physician is drawing to a close.” He said he noticed a trend in the UK where younger, busier people were going directly to specialist accident & emergency departments and argued that they don’t want a local GP because working men and women in a hurry will be attracted to a place where they can walk from one room to another and access the specialism they need.

So, I wondered, is the family doctor who provides ongoing care a thing of the past? Am I really a dying breed – the last of the Mohicans?

What exactly is continuity of care?

In primary care literature continuity is often described as the relationship between a single practitioner and a patient that extends beyond specific episodes of illness or disease. To confuse the situation other terms are used synonymously, such as ‘care coordination’, ‘integration’, ‘care planning’, ‘case management’ and ‘discharge planning’. On top of that the experience of continuity may be different for the patient and the health practitioner, adding to even more misunderstandings.

Continuity is how individual patients experience integration and coordination of care.

The authors of an article in the BMJ titled ‘Continuity of care: a multidisciplinary review’ said that continuity is not an attribute of practitioners or organisations. They defined continuity as the way in which individual patients experience integration of services and coordination. And also: “In family medicine, continuity is different from coordination of care, although better coordination follows from continuity. By contrast, a trade-off is required between accessibility of healthcare providers and continuity.”

There are three types of continuity of care:

  1. Informational continuity: The use of information on past events and personal circumstances to make current care appropriate for each individual
  2. Management continuity: A consistent and coherent approach to the management of a health condition that is responsive to a patient’s changing needs
  3. Relational continuity: An ongoing therapeutic relationship between a patient and one or more providers.

Continuity is more than just sending a message to another health practitioner, or uploading a piece of information to an e-health database. Understanding of individual patients’ preferences, values, background and circumstances cannot always be captured in health records; health providers who have a longstanding relationship with their patients often have this information in their heads.

“Poor continuity gives rise to high risk medicine

In 2010 Dr Frank Jones wrote in Medicus: “Poor continuity gives rise to high risk medicine. Ideally continuity should be personal and longitudinal – the essence of the traditional general practitioner. However the very concept of continuity gets more complicated nowadays. How does it apply to single-handed GPs or to group practices?”

Indeed, continuity of care exceeds disciplinary and organisational boundaries. The Royal Australian College of General Practitioners describes continuity of care as “the situation where patients experience an episode of care as complete, or consistent, or seamless even if it is provided in a number of different consultations by different providers.”

The benefits of continuity

There is abundant evidence that continuity in primary care results in improved patient health outcomes and satisfaction. Evidence also indicates that primary care (in contrast to specialty care) is associated with a more equitable distribution of health.

GPs often manage up to 4 problems per visit, which is of course more efficient than walking ‘from one room to another’ in an emergency department or hospital outpatient department. Overall, primary care is associated with lower total costs of health services.

Looking at the primary care reform processes that are under way in Australia, it is not unlikely that the multidisciplinary general practice team will be the key component in the care for people with chronic and complex health conditions.

In part 2 I will discuss the six methods GPs use to improve our health, according to world-renowned primary care researcher Professor Barbara Starfield, and why primary care plays an important role in a sustainable health system.

Image sources: The Family Doctor in 1948, Nedhardy.com and The Times.

Is family medicine going out of fashion?