Category Archives: hospital consultants

..but why the Octopus?

When I was looking for a book title and a name for my rejuvenated blog I wanted something slightly “off the wall”. Whilst I was writing the chapter about surgery looming I came across the consultant’s explanation of the CT scan he had in front of him. “It looks like you’ve got an octopus in there.” That set my imagination running and I pictured the scene in theatre where the surgical team had “released the octopus”, cut out the offending bit and then wrestled the remainder back, safely, into my abdomen.

Search for title over and seed of idea for book cover sewn.

As I neared the end of writing it occurred to me that there was a second octopus to be wrestled. It’s potentially a problem for all of us that suffer from chronic illnesses, namely, managing our route through the multiple tentacles of the NHS system with multiple consultants, procedures, specialities and clinics. Add to this the lack of a universal patient record system that can be accessed in different hospitals and it is apparent it’s not necessarily a simple process.

Life was simple when being treated by one gastro team at one hospital. It wasn’t until 2010 that another hospital entered the equation as my local hospital were unable to cope with the complexity of the forthcoming surgery and referred me to St.Thomas’.

This calls for a diagram –

My Personal Octopus

Some “tentacles” act in a co-ordinated manner; others seem to be a law unto themselves. Some tentacles communicate well with the others, unaided; others need a helping hand.

For example, if you’re booked to go for a procedure, let’s say an MRI scan, then it makes sense that your next gastro appointment is after the radiologist has written the follow-up report. Similarly, if you’ve had biopsies taken during a colonoscopy, you want the results to be available before you meet your gastro. This is not rocket science but if not co-ordinated then you simply end up wasting valuable appointments, consultant’s time and, just as importantly, your own time.

In the past I’ve let the system take its course but with mixed results so now I like to give it a helping hand. This is getting more difficult with the apparent demise of the dedicated medical secretary. For several years, when the frequency outpatients appointments and procedures had reached its height, I had the pleasure of dealing with a truly exceptional one. Let’s call her Sally. Any issues would be quickly resolved by a  simple exchange of emails. Sadly she left the NHS.

Nowadays I contact my consultant directly, but sparingly. I don’t particularly like doing it as I know he is already exceptionally busy. I can justify this approach to myself as in the long run time/resources will be saved by avoiding abortive appointments.

I suppose you could now say that I am “massaging the octopus” rather than an all-out Greco-Roman grapple.

 

 

 

Good Doctor, Exceptional Doctor

A while ago the BMJ blog published a guest post written by Sharon Roman, an MS patient. The subject : “What are the qualities that make for a good doctor and what can patients do if they’re missing?” (Link to blog at the bottom of this page)

It struck a chord as, over a period of 40 years, I have met a large number of doctors, consultants and even a few surgeons. Some have been good; some bad; some exceptional; some would be better off in research roles. I would put my current gastro in the exceptional category, especially if he is reading this just before performing a colonoscopy on me. But, in all honesty, there is nobody else I would rather have sticking a camera where the sun don’t shine. He can handle bends better than Lewis Hamilton.

One of the qualities that Sharon highlighted was the sense of safety that a good doctor gives the patient. It’s not something I had really thought about, not consciously at least, but I now realise that the feeling does underpin the best consultations and helps encourage open discussion. In a safe environment you tend to open up.

I’ve thought long and hard about the qualities which I believe elevates a good doctor to an exceptional one and this is at the top of my list. If pushed to sum it up in a single word it would be “adaptability” but it needs more explanation :

The ability to read body language and “language” language, if that makes sense. That’s picking up the messages in a patient’s demeanour and the words they use and then adapt how the consultation is structured.  Carefully choosing the words or medical terms that get used and ensuring the patient understands them. Definitely not sticking to a “one style fits all” approach or spending the whole appointment staring at notes on a computer screen.

(That got me wondering what training is given in “people skills”? I accept there will be the “naturals” who already have an inherent ability to adapt their consultation style but what of the others who have that innate skill in varying degrees. Are particular medical students steered towards research rather than patient facing roles?

..and then off on another tangent – do doctors have their own categories for us patients and how quickly do they decide which we are? How are we classified – hypocondriac?; realist?; fatalist?; verbal diarrhoearist; “would be medical expert” trained by Dr.Google?)

Half way through her post Sharon voices her fear that the exceptional doctors will become burnt out, victims of their own success. It’s a subject I have discussed with my own consultant as temporary referrals from other hospitals inevitably choose to become permanent patients and his department’s workload is ever increasing with static resource levels.

Shortly after reading her post I happened to hear an interview on the radio (BBC Radio 5 – Pienaar’s Politics) with an eminent surgeon who had become so stressed and disillusioned by the pressures within the NHS that he has left the profession and now bakes waffles in SW19. As he said “you only get one shot at this life”.

If we turn the question on its head – “What are the qualities that make for a good patient or an exceptional one?” There are the obvious – “takes their medication”,  “turns up to appointments” but are there other behaviours we can adopt that will ease the pressure on doctors’ time and resources? Maybe this would be a good subject for a future #Tweetchat.

Link to Sharon’s post – http://blogs.bmj.com/bmj/2017/09/13/sharon-roman-in-good-hands

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…..

From Diagnosis to Surgery

In the dim and distant past I was becoming unwell, the sort of unwell that ended up in dashes to the bathroom. My GP quickly announced his verdict – I was suffering from “nerves”. He gave me a course of Nacton because, as we all know, the way to treat “nerves” is with a medication for peptic ulcers. Thank heavens for locums….

Within 18 months I was “enjoying” my first trip in an ambulance, compete with blue lights flashing and sirens wailing. Was I on my way to die? (Clearly not or you wouldn’t be reading this)

To fill in some of the details I’ll point you at the fuller version of the story. Clicking on the image below will open up a pdf file of my book/journal’s draft first chapter, and some early, rather pathetic, selfies…….

Living with a timebomb

I’m not trying to scare anyone with this story. It is very unlikely you will experience the same but it is worth being aware of yet another part of the rich tapestry that Crohn’s Disease can weave for us.

This is what happened…..

Monday 28th May 2012 – Outpatient Appointment at Guy’s.

The original intention was to go into work as usual then catch the Tube down to London Bridge in time for my 10 o’clock appointment. I wasn’t feeling so good so decided to catch a later train and go direct to the hospital. I’m used to an early start with virtually no traffic so rather underestimated how long it would take to get to Redhill station from home. By the time I got to the station I could hear the train pulling into the platform. I didn’t realise that it would wait there 5 minutes before leaving so I tried to run and realised just how bad I felt. My chest started heaving and my heart pumping. I really thought I was having a heart attack. Once I was on the train I managed to take some deep breaths and gradually return to some type of normality.

I made my way to the Outpatients Dept. in time for my appointment but then had a long wait before seeing my consultant. When I was finally called in I was relieved to find that I was seeing the top man, not one of the registrars. He did apologise for the long wait.

We went through my list of queries and eventually discussed  the issue I was having with passing a jet black liquid from my back end. He asked me to get a sample for analysis which I thought would be easy but no luck. He also asked me to make an appointment to repeat the colonoscopy to verify the results of the MRI scan.

Eventually I was on my way home and by now the temperature was high. I bought a bottle of cold drink and then boarded the train back to Redhill. By the time I got home I was feeling pretty exhausted and went to have a lie down to recover. Around six o’clock I started to feel sick so disappeared into the toilet and then it happened… (don’t read any further if you are squeamish)

I brought up a large amount of what looked like redcurrant jelly but was clearly freshly congealed blood. I must have gone into shock for a few minutes, thinking “What do I do now?” (Not like me at all. I usually come quickly to terms with what is happening, decide the best actions to take and get on with it but this was like nothing I had experienced before and for a while I couldn’t cope).

I came to the conclusion that this was definitely a 999 moment. I heard my wife coming back from feeding our ponies so called out to her to ring the number. She made the call and then responded to the long series of questions that you now get asked by the operator. The decision to send an ambulance was made and my wife then hurried herself to get together some things into a bag before the ambulance pulled up our sideway. She didn’t quite finish as the ambulance arrived incredibly quickly. When she opened the door she recognised the paramedics as the ones who had taken me into hospital the last time we had reason to call 999 (see “Post Op – Back Home” page – 12th November). They came in to see what state I was in, took one look at the blood surrounding me and, to put me at ease, told me that it was only a small amount!

I was loaded into the ambulance and then went through various tests before we set off. They were obviously concerned at my state and said that my blood pressure was very low. They put me on a drip and the driver said “I think we’ll go for the siren”…….

A few minutes later we arrived at East Surrey Hospital and I was taken straight into the Accident and Emergency assessment area and was immediately seen by a doctor to make sure I was stable. Over the next hour or so I was seen by a couple more doctors whilst they decided the best ward for me to be sent to. Their decision was to admit me to the Medical Assessment Unit where I underwent further assessment. By this time my sister had turned up to take my wife home so we said our goodbyes and I waited to see where I would end up.

My wife returned home and had to clear up the blood from the floor. I’m so lucky to have someone so tough to support me when things are going wrong.

The decision was taken to send me to the ward which specialises in gastroenterology and I was duly taken to this new ward. I then saw the doctor on duty who made sure I was comfortable and worked out what drips I needed to be on.

Tuesday 29th May 2012 – the rest of the night was spent undergoing regular checks on my blood pressure and temperature. I didn’t get much sleep but was just happy to be in the best place, given the condition I was in.

During the day I saw various doctors who were trying to decide which tests I should undergo. The immediate priority was to have an endoscopy (camera down throat) to see where the blood had come from. They tried to get me onto that day’s list and so I wasn’t allowed to eat anything. Unfortunately an emergency case took priority and at six o’clock I was told that I could eat some supper. Apparently the doctor was very surprised at how calmly I took the fact that I wouldn’t be having the test done that day and said she wouldn’t have been so laid back.

They decided that I needed to have a blood transfusion as my blood count had fallen to 6.6. The normal figure for a man is around 14. I therefore had two drips going into the cannula in my left arm.

Wednesday 30th May 2012 to Monday 4th June  – The blood transfusion had brought my blood count up to 8.6, still very low. Over the next few days I had the upper GI endoscopy. I think the doctors were expecting it to show that I had an ulcer, which had burst, or that the Crohn’s inflammation had spread into my stomach. What they actually found were esophageal varices, prominent veins in the lower third of the esophagus and usually related to alcoholism! I looked them up on the internet and found that there is a possible link between them and the Azathioprine drug that I had been on for seven years.

The next step was therefore to have an ultrasound scan to look at my liver as sometimes damage to one of the large veins could route the blood supply into the esophagus causing the varices. I asked what the outcome of this test was and it sounded like nothing particularly untoward showed up apart from a gall stone and a slightly enlarged spleen. I would ask again later, just to make sure I got that right.

The whole ward then went into a sort of 4 day limbo as it was the extended holiday weekend to mark the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee. The number of doctors was greatly reduced and were only seeing patients by exception. I resigned myself to not progressing any further with an explanation of my problem until the following Tuesday.

The phlebotomists did their usual rounds every day and I later found out that my blood count had dropped to 8.0 from 8.6. Not good and would prolong my stay in hospital. The ward sister said that the doctors would be doing a proper ward round on the following Tuesday so I had plenty of time to get a list of questions together. I resigned myself to not progressing any further with an explanation of my problem until then.

Tuesday 5th June 2012 – I knew at some point I would encounter the consultant that I had emailed around a year ago saying that, basically, I was now being treated by St.Thomas’ so not to bother to make any further appointments for me. I had a very good reason for doing this and it is recorded in my book (when it finally gets published).

I’m not going to go into all the details of this encounter but suffice to say that initially he would not look me in the eye and my decision, a year ago, was clearly still bugging him. I reiterated my original reason for leaving his care and this may not have helped the situation. (My decision to move to St.Thomas’ was not taken lightly as it is far easier for me to get to East Surrey Hospital from home, approx. 10 minutes, than it is to get to St.Thomas’). At one point it was suggested that maybe it would be best for me to be put in an ambulance and transported up to London.

I was now in the position that I was under the care of East Surrey for my emergency admission but the long term treatment of Crohn’s was still with St.Thomas’. At the end of a long and detailed discussion on what my current situation was caused by, whilst the junior doctors listened on, we ended up shaking hands and agreeing that we should do what is best for my long term health. Enough said on this matter, let’s move onto possible diagnosis, tests required and best place to have them carried out. So clearly I was not in a position to think about discharge yet.

The recurring terms he used were primary sclerosing cholangitis (PSC) and portal hypertension. He thinks that these are symptoms of a malfunctioning immune system and are also linked to my thrombocytopaenia (low platelet count) and enlarged spleen. I had thought that this last condition had been brought on by the use of Azathioprine but he was sceptical at this.

After the ward round was complete I called one of the junior doctors over and asked how to spell “that primary thing the consultant mentioned” so I could look it up. She replied that it might not be a good idea at present. I decided to park the research for the day but happened to mention it to my sister who immediately looked it up and rang me back. It was all a little scary. Ultimately, if PSC was diagnosed, the long term prognosis – liver transplant! The only way of getting a definite diagnosis would be to carry out a liver biopsy.

With regards to where the tests should be done and the subsequent treatment – I’m not sure what we concluded. I think that we agreed that due to the complex nature of my Crohn’s I would be better remaining under St.Thomas’ as they have more extensive facilities than East Surrey. I wouldrevisit this subject tomorrow on the ward round.

I try to keep a cool head at all times and remain rational so I thought I’d taken the above information in my stride but a little voice at the back of my head kept saying “you’re only keeping calm because you don’t understand the full implications of what you’ve just been told”. When I caught sight of the IBD Nurse I asked her if she could answer some questions, including what were all the long words the consultant were using. She could tell by some of my questions that no one has ever sat down and gone through some of the basic concepts of Crohn’s and its implications.

I got to thinking about this later and she had hit the nail on the head, one of her many skills! (which also includes an encyclopaedic, some might say Wikipedic, knowledge of medical terms and conditions).

No one has ever talked through the bigger Crohn’s picture. For years I thought it was simply an inflammation that caused diarrhea and some pain for which you took steroids. Some years later I ended up with a stricture so I was then aware of another possible complication. The results of the CT scan that I had done three years, or so ago, then introduced me to the concept of fistulas and having to have a stoma. It would be good to be able to spend some time talking this through with a specialist and understanding other possible symptoms and potential effects on other parts of the body. Ultimately I would like to get a clear understanding of the likely effects on my potential life expectancy or quality. I could then use the information to decide when to retire. Maybe I should talk to an actuary.

Back to the ward – it was decided that I should be given another 2 units of blood. Since I hadn’t had any for a week they needed to do another “crossmatch” as they only last 7 days. (All part of ensuring you get the right blood type).

Wednesday 6th June 2012 – that must have been the quietest night so far on the ward. I slept until about 3:00am but then couldn’t get back to sleep until around 7:00am.

The phlebotomist turned up to take more blood samples and she was followed by the registrar and junior doctors on their round. I had quickly made a list of things to ask them – the top question was “plan for escape”.

I was somewhat taken aback when the Registrar said that as long as today’s blood test showed an Hb of over 10 then I could go home. Today! I really wasn’t expecting that. I had told everyone I was in until at least the weekend or possibly would be transferred to St.Thomas’. I’ve now had to wait until around 1 o’clock for my score.

I discussed various things with the Registrar, including going over again what the endoscopy and ultrasound tests had shown. For my long term care they are suggesting that I remain under St.Thomas’ and would be liaising with my specialist there to make sure the necessary test results were passed over. One of the junior doctors was tasked with making this contact.

Thursday 7th June 2012 – back home. My first good night’s sleep for 10 days. Time to take stock. The discharge letter made interesting reading but took a fair amount of translation. The bulk of it listed what they didn’t find so I was rather confused as to what I have actually got wrong with me. The only definite observations were an enlarged spleen and a gallstone.

I read through the leaflets that came with the new drugs. They’d given me – Propanolol – a beta blocker used to prevent stomach bleeding in patients with high blood pressure in their liver or swollen blood vessels in their gullet; and Omeprazole – a proton pump inhibitor to reduce the acid in one’s stomach. Reading through the possible side effects of these two drugs I could end up with insomnia and nightmares. Fingers crossed.

…and since then? – I was put under the care of a liver specialist and underwent a liver biopsy to check for cirrhosis. The result showed mild stiffening, something to keep in mind. I now have yearly visits to the endoscopy dept to check out the varices. If they have regrown then the first visit is followed by another two or three when they “obliterate” the veins with rubber bands. Next visit January 2017.

I inevitably turned to the internet. The first page I found, when I searched for PVT and Crohn’s, started with the words “if the patient survives….” Another one said “inevitably fatal”. Not a good start and I was only partly comforted by realising that the articles were written many years ago and by hoping that treatment must have moved on leaps and bounds. If I was to suffer another major bleed from the varices it’s a question of how quick I can get to a hospital and have a transfusion.

It’s like living with a timebomb.