Category Archives: follow-up letters

The Importance of Follow-up Letters

Follow-up letters from appointments are an important part of your health records. They should contain what was discussed with your consultant, any conclusions arrived at or changes in medication etc. By default Guy’s and St.Thomas’ write to your GP after each appointment and copy in the patient under cover of a note that states “this is primarily a communication between medical professionals” (which I think is another way of saying “you probably won’t understand all the words we use”).

Now it has to be said that not all Departments stick to the “default” and I have had a couple of occasions (both with the same department) where the lack of letters caused issues. This is where my blog posts recording the latest appointment have proved more than just an exercise in self indulgence and why I read them prior to my next hospital visit.

The first time this happened was in March 2013 when I attended a regular appointment and was greeted by a doctor I hadn’t met before. We went into one of the side rooms where my notes were open on the desk. He introduced himself and said that he had been reading the notes to familiarise himself with my case. I had been hoping to see my usual consultant as I liked continuity and had issues with the lack of follow-up letters that I needed to raise with them. Unfortunately they were unavailable for that day’s clinic.

The new doctor said that, having read my notes, it was apparent that the condition I was suffering from was rare and started to discuss my low platelets. He noted that I had last been seen in October 2012. I stopped him in his tracks and said this was a clear reason why up-to-date notes and follow-up letters were so vital. There had been two further appointments since October and the platelet issue had been “parked”. A new, far more serious, condition had arisen – PVT (Portal Vein Thrombosis). This was now the priority.

I explained that this was an important appointment for me as I was expecting to run through my risk profile and at the end of it make the decision on whether to start blood thinners. My regular consultant had said they would discuss my case with th Department’s Warfarin expert, one of the professors.

At that point I started to think that this was all going to end up badly. I needed to kick start a reaction so I asked whether the professor was in the unit that day and what I needed to do to see her. Clearly this was never going to happen but it was worth a try! The doctor said that he would see if he could speak to my original consultant.

A few minutes later he returned with another consultant. I recognised her name as my clinic letters always stated that I was under her ultimate care. Putting two and two together she must have been the next one up the food chain from the doctor I usually saw. I went back over my expectations from this consultation. She explained that she worked closely with the “Warfarin Professor” and they jointly reviewed patients.

She ran through the risk factors and having looked at my notes and results, on balance, she would not recommend Warfarin yet. As far I was concerned it was the “right” answer. If there was a low risk of clotting then I was prepared to take that risk to avoid having starting yet another medication. Decision made, no Warfarin.

A month later I was still awaiting the missing follow-up letters. Time for some further action. I sent an email to the head of department (whose address I found on their web page). I apologised for contacting her directly but explained that raising the issue in clinic was having no effect. I added: “I thought it was therefore best to go straight to the top so that you can delegate any necessary actions…….” and briefly explained what had happened at my last appointment.
I hit the send button and got a very prompt response, 20 minutes later, apologising and saying it would be looked into.

The four missing letters arrived shortly afterwards, with an apology. I checked their contents against my blog and they were accurate records of the appointments.

From the above I’d like to pass on two thoughts : 1) that keeping your own record  is important and can prevent a waste of your time and a waste of NHS resources going over old issues that are already “parked”; 2) if you are having a problem with getting follow-up letters then go to the top and ask for their help. I have found those four little words “can you help me?” have opened up many situations whilst negotiating the pathway s through the NHS.

(I’ll leave the account of the second missing letter issue for another time. Suffice to say that I could have ended up having a third bone marrow biopsy! Not something I would recommend)

Elective or Emergency?

I’ve often mentioned that I find blogging a great way of keeping objective about the various medical issues I encounter, hence this post which is a prelude to a meeting with a new Upper GI surgeon in London next Friday.

Why?

At the end of January I had a bout of jaundice. Whilst I turned yellow there was never any of the pain that usually accompanies it. I was in two minds whether to go to our local A&E but eventually gave in and made my way down there. To cut a long story short, a few weeks later I had a follow-up appointment with Upper GI consultant who suggested cholecystectomy (gallbladder removal). He was, however, concerned about some possible complications and for this reason recommended the surgery be carried out in a hospital with a specialist liver unit.

I exercised my patient’s right to choose which NHS hospital to be referred to and in my case the choice was simple – Kings College Hospital. I asked around and was given the name of an Upper GI surgeon who is highly recommended and has the added bonus of also working at St.Thomas’ and therefore access to my notes.

(There was a similar situation in 2009 when I found out I needed an ileostomy. The colorectal surgeon did not consider East Surrey Hospital had the facilities to cope with recovery from such a complex operation and so was sent to St.Thomas’ . I moved my outpatient care there in 2011.)

Preparing to meet the surgeon for the first time

The appointmet is set for 9:00am next Friday (22nd September). Before then I need to have a list of questions and any relevant documents. I am expecting to meet the named surgeon.

Just to complicate matters I will be seeing Haematology at Guy’s Hospital on the preceeding Wednesday. Will my medical file make it back to St.Thomas’ for Friday?

I have printed out the relevant documents from East Surrey Hospital- 2 x ultrasound reports + 2 x follow-up letters + last blood test results.

I’ve also included my “jigsaw” diagram which shows the various conditions we need to consider and the dates they were diagnosed or last tested – Crohn’s, PVT. BAM, thrombocytopenia, potential PSC + last blood test showed borderline thyroid.

What Shall We Talk About?

Reason for referral – the consultant at East Surrey was concerned that, in my case, cholecystectomy ran the risk of liver damage due to cirrhosis. He also noted my low platelet count and thought that keyhole surgery may not be feasible due to the scarring/adhesions from two previous laparotomies.

Latest test results – Fibroscan (testing for liver cirrhosis) – 2012 was 7.2; currently 7.8. Platelets – 96 (but have been as low as 56). Ultrasound scan showed one large gallstone but made up from many small ones. Weight – 78kg

Risks and Benefits of Surgery

Type of surgery – Keyhole or laparotomy? What factors will decide

Timescales – waiting time for operation; how long for surgery and recovery for either keyhole or laparotomy

Likelihood of liver damage?

WIll bile acid malabsorption become worse if gallbladder removed? (SeHCAT in 2015 showed severe BAM. I keep it under control with just Loperamide but have Colesevelam ready should it be required).

Likelihood of post-operative ileus? After two previous operations I experienced it badly?

Do I need to have reached a particular weight prior to surgery? (Prior to my ileostomy I was given 3 x Fortisip/day to reach a target weight of 85kg)

My Preferred Way Forward

To have surgery when it becomes necessary not as pre-emptive measure. “Emergency rather than elective”. Maybe that’s over dramatic and should read “Just-in-time rather than elective?” What are the risks of this approach? What signs will indicate that an operation is needed? How soon does action need to be taken once the signs appear?

The consultant at East Surrey Hospital said if I get jaundice again I should go to their A&E and then they will decide whether to  transport me to London by ambulance.

Anything Else?

Next upper GI endoscopy/variceal banding due December 2017

Bloating – have been like this since ileostomy/reversal. Any thoughts on likely cause? One or more of the 5 F’s?

…..should be an interesting meeting

Medical Records

A subject I’ve written about before but always worth revisiting. These are my experiences within three UK NHS Hospital Trusts and span 40 years.

Ideal World vs. Reality

In an ideal world each of us would have our full medical record available in a universally readable format that could be easily accessed by any medical professional that is treating us.

Now let’s look at the real world. If you are a relatively new patient who hasn’t moved hospital and not had an in-patient stay then you may indeed have a complete record, held electronically, on an IT system. If, however, you are a long term patient who has moved between GPs and hospitals and spent time as an in-patient then the situation is far more complicated. You are likely to have a mixture of hand written notes and observations, type written letters and, more recently, computer generated letters and test results. There are also x-rays and scans to consider.

The above does not address the issue of universal access. The last attempt in the UK to implement a system was NpFIT (The National Programme for IT in the NHS), a project initiated by the Labour government in 2002 and cancelled some years later having spent in the region of £12bn and having delivered very little. Government backed IT projects are notorious for being disaster areas.

Patient Rights

Where does that leave the patient?

In the UK you have a right to access your medical records. Since 2000 onwards I have received copies of the follow-up letters from outpatient appointments  that the consultant sends to my GP. This may be sufficient for your needs but I needed to fill in a lot of missing detail for the book I was writing. For the payment of a fee you can obtain copies of all your medical records . Requests forms are available online for each Healthcare Trust and as I had been treated by 3 different Trusts I filled in 3 different forms and sent them off with the relevant payments (between £20 and £50 depending upon whether you just require medical notes or want copies of x-rays and scans as well).

A series of packets duly arrived and I was amazed to find they really  did contain ALL my medical notes from October 1977 to the present. Two Trusts chose to send hard copies whilst the third had scanned the notes to a pdf file of over 700 pages. I also had loadable files for CT, MRI and US scans. The only things missing were certain early x-rays.

Information Overload?

My initial reaction was “information overload” but over the space of a few nights I sorted the documents by type and date order and picked out the “juicy bits”. Those bits that explained some long, unanswered questions about my treatment. Probably the most fascinating were the ward notes from the times I spent in hospital. These are not usually documents that you get to read.
The discs containing CT and MRI scans looked a bigger challenge but I found a great piece of software called Horos which opens and views the files.. Hours of fun looking at 3D visualisations of your innards.

What use are they?

What can you do with, potentially, a huge amount of very detailed medical notes? Whilst they might be of academic interest to the patient and provide a fascinating insight into how you arrived at your current state they are not a lot of use to your medical professionals due to the sheer bulk of the information. This is especially true if you are seeing a new consultant who needs a succinct overview of your medical history and current issues or if you end up in A&E (ER) where they need to start treatment as soon as possible.

It gets considerably more complex if you are suffering from multiple conditions. Initially I put together all the major events into a spreadsheet table. Going through the process certainly gave me a good grasp of my overall health and I have ended up a much better informed patient. This helps greatly when you need to take decisions about the course of future treatment. It helps clarify the most important issues.

If you still find it difficult to work out how your health threads come together then draw a diagram. I’ve tried a number of different format. Here’s my chosen format :

Future Developments

There are more references appearing where patients are recording their consultant appointments or having consultations via Skype. Would these audio and video files need to be kept as part of your medical record? Do medical professionals expect to have access to any recordings you make?

Watch this space…..