Category Archives: hospital consultants

Good Doctor, Exceptional Doctor

A few weeks 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 #patientchat.

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

Medical Records

This post has been prompted by the topics for #patientchat discussion on Twitter, “Medical Records” (#Tweetchat – Friday 4th August 2017 13:00 EST 18:00 BST).

I have touched on this subject before but it’s always worth revisiting. These are my experiences within three UK NHS Hospital Trusts and span 40 years.

These are the topics set for the #patientchat discussion

T1: Do you have access to your Electronic Health Records (EHRs)? If so, does that info help you actively share in your healthcare decision making?

T2: What are benefits to patients being able to view the notes that doctors, nurses and other clinicians write after a visit?

T3a: Do you sometimes find the amount and type of info available in your EHRs overwhelming and/or incomprehensible?

T3b: If so, what are some ways to make it easier to decipher and use in your decision making?

T4: What are your tips for keeping your healthcare records organized? Do you use any resources?

T5: Is it important to request past medical records from your doctors and keep copies for yourself?

T6: What do you think some of the barriers are to implementing EHRs? How can we work together to overcome them?

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 reults. 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 nothing. 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 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 OsiriX which opens and views the files. (The Lite version of the software is available as a free download). 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 are 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. There are a couple of examples below :

In Practice

In February I ended up in our local A&E (ER) Department as I had turned yellow. The first person I saw was a triage nurse who asked lots of questions about health conditions, history  and medications. When we had finished running through the various ailments she complimented me on my knowledge. (Definitely a result of researching and tabulating my health records)

Next I saw an A&E Registrar. Who asked the same questions but what would he have concluded if I hadn’t been able to fill in the details? He would have been confronted with a patient with a large scar up the midline and an appendectomy incision. He wouldn’t have been aware why the large scar was there and would have assumed my appendix had been taken out. He would be unaware that I had Crohn’s disease, that there were additional veins growing in my esophagus (varices), that my spleen was enarged or that my platelet count was around 60. Valuable time could have been lost trying to investigate the wrong problems.

Do It Yourself

As a result of my A&E visit I wondered – is there was a standard, minimum set of data that should be available? Is there a standard format for the data? I searched the internet and could find nothing. I suppose a good starting point would be the questions the triage nurse had asked – personal details; current medication; current medical conditions; and any known allergies.

There are, of course, the likes of SOS Talisman bracelets which have some very basic information engraved on, or contained within, them. There are several subscription services which will hold your medical information and can then be accessed via a unique code you wear on a bracelet or dog tag, but these appear to be US based only and the data held was not in sufficient detail.  How feasible would it be to produce a standalone, wearable device?

I had a go at making one using a USB bracelet. I settled upon two top level documents – i) a simple, overall summary plus ii) a detailed table that recorded each appointment or procedure. These documents are stored as pdf files and linked to various back-up documents such as laboratory or histological reports.
I

USB Bracelet

There is one problem. Security. Does an NHS computer allow the reading of an external USB stick or is access restricted to protect from viruses etc? (Particulary relevant since the recent cyber attack). I have a feeling this is a non-runner so I’m favouring storing the files on a secure server and potentially accessing them via a QR code on a dog tag (or even a wrist tattoo)

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 show 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.

Managing Consultants and Appointments

What follows is based on my experience being treated by the UK NHS as both an in-patient and an outpatient, mainly with gastroenterologists but more recently haematologists and hepatologists as well. The dynamics described may be different where you are funding your healthcare privately and paying a consultant directly or via an insurance company.

If this post seems rather analytical and cold, with few emotional considerations, it is because I have found this “matter of fact” approach has made the Crohn’s, other minor annoyances such as PVT, potential PSC, BAM, hospital stays and consultants, a lot easier to deal with.

I thought long and hard about how I could encapsulate my attitude in the length of a Tweet and came up with this :

I AM THE EXPERT IN MY HEALTH

MY CONSULTANT IS THE EXPERT IN MY CONDITION

For old hands at the “health game” most of this will probably seem blindingly obvious so it’s aimed at newer patients, ones that become tongue tied in front of their consultant or that find appointments difficult to handle.

1)  Making Lists – Definitely in the “blindingly obvious” category. This has to be the best thing I’ve ever started doing. I used to go into the consulting room with the attitude “of course I’ll remember all the things I want to ask.” It was a male arrogance thing. I’d then arrive home and my wife would say “and what about x?” Blank stare. “Why didn’t you write a list?” Another blank stare. This went on for many years (male arrogance is a long term condition) until the penny finally dropped. Nowadays I start preparing a list several days before the appointment date. (The one shown below was compiled in preparation for seeing the haematologist prior to weighing up the advantages/disadvantages of starting Warfarin).

 

Once you’ve written it out talk it through with someone close to you as they may have spotted things in your appearance or behaviour that they are concerned about but “didn’t like to mention” or didn’t think were significant.

Nowadays, I print out the list and make a point of having it in my hand as I enter the consulting room and after the initial pleasantries explain that there are a number of questions I want to get answered and point to the list. This sets the scene for what follows i.e. don’t expect to finish this consultation until we’ve been through it all.

It is worth noting down the answers, although these should be covered in the follow-up letter that you get sent a few days later. (Or rather SHOULD be sent –  more about that further on). Another advantage of having a paper list is that if you print it, or write it out nice and legibly, and then become emotional or tongue tied you can hand it over and let the doctor work their way through it.

2)  Manage Your Appointments – This may or may not be necessary depending upon how your hospital works. I get treated by two different departments in the same hospital. One of them will make the next appointment for you there and then so that you leave the hospital with the appointment letter in your hand. The other department says they will contact you closer to the time but there is always that doubt at the back of my mind that the request will get lost somewhere in the system and by the time I realise there’s a problem the appointment gets delayed.

Nowadays I set a reminder in my calendar, two months before the appointment is due, to contact the consultant’s secretary just to remind them and that does the trick. Two months is the right length of time for me but it may differ in your area. For Guys and St.Thomas’ (GSTT) it’s usually between 3 and 6 weeks to get an appointment with a particular consultant or to book up for a procedure such as an endoscopy.

3) Continuity – Generally I like to see the same consultant each time so there is continuity in approach and it is not necessary for them to go through my whole medical history before starting the consultation. I didn’t used to question it when I was seen by different registrars or junior doctors but as my health worsened I really felt it could become a matter of life or death (maybe slightly over dramatic!) that I saw the person with the most experience/expertise and who understood my case.

The best way to approach this is to tell the nurse that weighs you that you need to see a particular consultant and they can then put a note to that effect on the front of your file or make sure your notes get put in the right pile. Occasionally it doesn’t work and you end up being called in by another doctor. At that point I politely explain that I’m not doubting their medical knowledge but I do need to see my usual doctor. This has always worked OK.

All the above goes out the window if I’m just having a routine, follow-up appointment where no important decisions need to be made. If that’s the case I’m happy to see any of the doctors. I do actually question whether this type of appointment has any value and would be quite happy to do it by email, Skype or even an old fashioned telephone call. The only advantage of the face-to-face contact that I can think of is the doctor being able to spot something of concern that you haven’t noticed or the ability to carry out a physical examination.

4) Medical History – important if you are seeing new doctors or consultants. If you’ve only been suffering from Crohn’s, or whatever disease you’ve got, for a short period then it’s likely that you can remember all the key dates and events that have brought you to this particular appointment.

If you’ve always been treated by the same hospital then your medical history should be available to any of the professionals treating you via their records system but if you’ve moved around between hospitals, health authorities and consultants then it is likely that there won’t be one single, unified set of records.

When moving to a new consultant and/or hospital, or if you are unfortunate to have been admitted to a new hospital as an emergency, possibly unconscious, then a brief outline of your history can save a lot of time in the early stages of working out what has gone wrong or which will be the best area to start investigations or treatment.

35yrs_MedRecs35 years of medical records

[For years I was always being asked when was my first Crohn’s operation and what exactly the surgeon did at that time. I knew it was an emergency admission to Croydon General Hospital sometime in 1979 (suspected appendicitis) and that it turned out to be a perforated bowel, but I couldn’t say whether any gut had been removed or if it had simply been repaired. It was only in 2011, when I obtained copies of all my medical records from Croydon Health Authority that I could finally give the definitive answer.

Since then I’ve painstakingly, some would say anally, extracted all the key points from consultation notes and follow-up letters and summarised the whole lot, in date order, onto a spreadsheet. This is my “back-up” evidence from which I have then drawn up a simple, one page chart representing my full Crohn’s history and a second, more detailed one, covering the last 6 years. My current set of consultants seem to approve of this approach and have put copies into my notes.

Click here to open pdf – “Health Record 1977 to 2015”

Click here to open pdf – “Health Record 2010 to 2016”

Unfortunately very few x-rays were still available but I consoled myself with a couple of more recent CT scans which I can view using Osiri-X Lite (available as a free download). I find them fascinating but my work colleagues are not quite so sure.]

Maybe a step too far! Scenes from CT scans on my ‘phone

5) Contacting your consultant between appointments – Some consultants are happy for you to email them directly when you have a query or a problem or there may be a dedicated, condition specific, helpline that you can use as the first point of contact. It really does seem to vary. I have read of other patient’s experiences where the “patient confidentiality card” is played to avoid email contact. I’ve never come up against this. So far so good. You should be able to work out an individual email address as organisations like to follow a particular format or you could simply ring up their secretary and ask for it straight out. Nowadays many hospital websites clearly display the consultants contact details.

This doesn’t come without some responsibility from the patient’s side. I make sure that I only contact the consultants directly if I have something that is urgent and only they can answer or they’ve asked me to report back about a problem. I was being treated by three different specialities during 2012/3 so I usually copied any emails to all three consultants as it helped to maintain the co-ordinated care.

It is worth keeping copies of the emails as I found out when I went to have a second bone marrow biopsy and the doctor performing the procedure was not aware that she needed to use a blood thinner to get usable samples (which is why the second biopsy was required). I was able to show her, on my phone, the email trail that explained it all after the previous biopsy.

6) Follow-up letters – shortly after an appointment or procedure your consultant should write a letter to your GP – secondary care provider to primary care provider. These letters are important to keep your GP up-to-date with your condition and a copy should also be sent to you, normally with a caveat that it is a communication between medical professionals.

This system of follow-up letters has always worked smoothly for me with gastroenterology and hepatology issuing them a couple of days after the appointment but then I came up against Haematology. The appointments were fine. Lots of good, open discussion but no follow-up letters. Four appointments and no follow-up letters. I did query this a number of times but still no letters, just apologies.

A few months on and guess what, still no follow-up letters. In the end I looked at my hospital’s website and found the name and email address of Haematology’s head of department. I contacted her, explaining the situation and suddenly I had four, retrospectively written, follow-up letters.

Are there lessons to be learned? I think so.

Lesson 1 – If you are not getting the service you should expect then go to the top and explain the problem. Will this always work? No, but might at least set the wheels in motion to getting a solution.

Lesson 2 – Keeping your own record of what gets discussed and agreed during a consultation is worthwhile if you end up in a similar situation to the above. I use a blog to record what goes on but if you don’t want to share your experiences with others then keep your own private health diary for future reference.

7)  Manage Your Appointments 2 – er, haven’t we already done this one? Yes, but this is managing how the actual appointment goes. I’ve left this one almost until the last as it’s fairly new territory for me. I hope to develop the theme in the future to reinforce the notion that the patient should actively manage how the appointment goes and make best use of the resources available i.e. your consultant’s experience and advice.

This train of thought was triggered by a visit to, yes you guessed, Haematology when things started to go very wrong. My usual consultant wasn’t available so I was being seen by a new doctor. The lack of follow-up letters meant that he started discussing a subject that had been “parked” a year previously.

At that point it struck me that going into the appointment I had a very clear idea of the outcome I was expecting and of the information/areas/risk factors we needed to discuss to arrive at a conclusion. (The decision was whether to start Warfarin or not). Clearly my issue wasn’t with the new doctor, as he had simply referred to the latest notes, so I asked to see the Head of Department. I knew this would never happen, but at least it had the effect of getting the appointment back on track with the appearance of one of the senior consultants who had been a party to reviewing my case at a recent MDM (multi-disciplinary meeting). I ended up with the decision I had been expecting.

I’m wondering if it would be worthwhile starting the next appointment by explaining where I want to be the end of the appointment and how I see us getting there. Would that be too pushy?

8) and finally – as always – keep a sense of humour if you can – useful in surviving ALL medical encounters but I accept this is not easy if you feel really terrible; you’ve been waiting an hour to be seen; the phlebotomist has made several attempts at finding a vein; that person who arrived after you has just been called in before you; etc. – I’m sure we’ve all been there.

Sometimes humour doesn’t work. A few of the doctors I have met do seem to have had a “humour bypass” (I’d just like to make it clear that this doesn’t apply to any of the fine doctors who are treating me at Guys and St.Thomas’, especially the ones that drive the endoscopes or biopsy needles). I have however been left in the situation in other, lesser establishments where my witty remark has gone down like a lead balloon and I’m left staring at a doctor who is clearly thinking “should he be in the psychiatric ward?”.

..and remember if you’ve been kept waiting longer than you were expecting it’s probably because your consultant has spent more time with preceding patients than the allotted 10 minutes. This works both ways. You may also need more than your ten minutes.