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)
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.
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.
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 :
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?
A few months back I ended up in our local A&E (ER) Department as I had turned yellow. The first person I saw was the triage nurse who asked me lots of questions about health conditions, history and medications. When we had finished running through the various ailments she complimented me on my knowledge but it struck me that it would have been a different story if I had been admitted unconscious or in a confused state.
Next I saw an A&E Registrar. What would he have concluded if I had been unable 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 platelets would show up around 60, rather than 150+. Valuable time could have been lost trying to solve the wrong problems.
What actually happened it that I handed him a copy of a chart I had drawn up showing the key events in my medical history over the last 7 years. The doctor thanked me and used it as the basis for the questions he then asked. He then added it to my medical notes. Here’s the diagram :
In the ideal world the NHS would have a comprehensive medical record for each patient, held on a central system, that could be accessed by any doctor when required. A patient’s unique identifier, probably their NHS number, could be used as the reference code. The NHS tried to implement such as system (NpFIT). It didn’t work and there’s a link to the 2014 Report at the bottom of this post.
There are, of course, the likes of SOS Talisman bracelets which have some very basic information engraved on or contained within them. Then 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 all appear to be based in the US. What I wanted was a standalone device that would be easily wearable and accessible. A bracelet with built-in USB memory seemed to be the ideal solution. The next challenge would be how to record the information.
I searched to see if there was a proposed standard data set for NHS use but could find nothing that displayed more than the most basic data. Certainly nothing that was suitable for a patient with long term, multiple conditions. There was nothing for it but to produce my own format. I settled upon two documents – i) a simple, overall summary plus ii) a very detailed table that recorded each appointment/follow-up letter; each procedure undergone and associated report; and any other relevant items such as emails.
I had already obtained hard copies of all the medical records from the three health authorities I have been treated under and had started the task of entering the relevant sections onto a computer. The thought of entering 40 years worth of notes from scratch would have been just too daunting.
The detail (geeky) bit : initially the bulk of the data was put into a spreadsheet (Excel) using a combination of a simple scanner and text recognition software. As the task neared completion it made sense to convert from Excel to Word as this would allow me to save the document as an html file that could be read by any web browser. The external documents (reports, emails) were scanned or saved as either jpg or pdf files and then linked back to the main document.
Job done. I can now wear all the relevant my medical details on a simple, universally accessible wristband, rather like a tortoise carrying everything with them wherever they go.
There are issues that I haven’t addressed :
Privacy – I don’t have any issues with allowing access to my medical records confidential (if I did I wouldn’t write a blog) but I can understand that some patients would want some type of password or lock on the files.
Security – does an NHS computer allow the reading of an external USB stick or is access restricted to protect from viruses etc?
Since originally publishing this post a fellow patient suggested using a QR code to link to a remotely held copy of relevant medical details. The QR could be engraved on a pendant or bracelet but would it be obvious to medical staff how to use it? How about a QR tattoo in a prominent position? More thinking to be done…..
The 2014 Report on NpFIT failure :
*NpFIT – this proposal has been around for several years but proved impossible to implement. The link below will take you to the report outlining why the £6billion project failed.”
19th May – IBD Awareness Day – and my blog is in a sort of remission. It’s not cured as we all know there is no cure for blogging. Achieving the next big milestone of 50k hits may prove difficult if it goes into deep remission although the steady stream of Russian porn site spiders searching for “anaesthetic fetish” stories (yes, honestly!) may help get there.
The days of weekly, sometimes daily, updates seem like a distant memory. Clusters of outpatient appointments and procedures have been thinned out to 6 monthly intervals. The next scoping session will be late October and there maybe a colonoscopy just before Christmas.
How does this make me feel? Mixed emotions oddly enough. I am obviously pleased to have reached some stability healthwise but I’ve grown so used to having to think about medical matters, given 2 or 3 years of intense medical activity, that it feels strange to have more time to devote to other aspects of life. Producing this blog has greatly helped me to get my health issues into perspective and the very regular appointments/procedures have proved to be a rich source for writing posts. This blog was set up for the specific purpose of recording “the rich vein of experiences along the Crohn’s highway and some of its detours.” I’m hoping that some of the content might just strike a chord with other Crohn’s sufferers and they will realise others understand what they are going through or maybe give them some warning of what could lie ahead.
My health related creative efforts have now been redirected into writing a book based on this blog. It’s nearing completion which, as my wife would point out, is the status of most things I start. (Anyone familiar with the Belbin Theory will understand the problem – low score in the Completer/Finisher category)
I still have some health concerns. The diagnosis of severe Bile Acid Malabsorption late last year has given a name to, and a reason for, the continuing dashes to the bathroom. Now I have this explanation I can visualise what the problem is, what is likely to exacerbate it and what can be done to manage it. I’ve become strangely relaxed about the issue.
My other health concern is keeping fit. Statistics show that if you’ve already had surgery for Crohn’s it is likely that you will end up under the knife again. The speed at which you recover is, in part, helped by being fit and up to weight at the time of the operation. My first operation was 1979, the second 2010 – a 31 year gap – who knows when it will happen again but I want to be as prepared as possible. My chosen regime is to walk whenever possible. I’m trying not to become too obsessive about the distance I walk each day but it does feel good when the app on my phone announces “All-Time Record” (currently 17.6 km).
The impetus to keep walking is helped considerably by working in London. There are so many possible routes to get to and from work that it never becomes routine or boring. There is always something new to see and photograph. At 7:00am there are very few people about. I’ve set myself a challenge of posting at least one Instagram photo a day (account name = crohnoid) with either a new angle of an existing view or something transitory or a new experience.
Having rambled on so long it’s time for another appointment……………
Tuesday 5th May 2015 – Gastroenterology – St.Thomas’ Outpatient’s Clinic
The forecast said 50 mph winds and I could vouch for that. Crossing Westminster Bridge was “interesting” and made more so by the polar bear halfway across. I think it was the continuation of the PR stunt for SkyTV.
This was to be a routine, six monthly appointment. I had prepared a short list of questions to ask.The visit started as normal. Get weighed. Wait. Go to Room 18 – see Registrar. Explain that I would like to see usual consultant for the sake of continuity. Return to waiting area. Wait for new message to appear on laser display screen. Go to Room 19. (Appointment time 2:50pm, in with the “right” doctor by 3:20pm. Not bad).
I knocked on the door, list at the ready, and entered. I got a warm welcome from my usual doctor who had a medical student sitting in with him. My notes were on the desk. The file was so thick it looked like it couldn’t take one more sheet. “We need to get a new one of these”. I replied that I might just have the solution as I had written a book covering my medical history and experiences including the treatment at St.Thomas’. He seemed genuinely surprised. I assured him it was for real and that I was currently going through the final stages of editing and proof reading. I reassured him that he wasn’t mentioned by name and that it was all positive anyway!
That prompted a discussion on doctor/patient communication and how patients react to what they are told. He considered himself to be a good communicator (I’ll second that) but was concerned that without him realising it a seemly innocuous remark, made in passing, could take on far more significance to a patient. We then went on to discuss when and where it is appropriate to tell patient potential bad news. I mentioned that there were two things I wish I had been told about prior to surgery, and that they were on my list…….
1) I had been quite tired over the last couple of months and even the B12 injection three weeks ago didn’t seem to have made a difference. He suggested that next time I had a blood test I should get checked for iron and vitamin D levels. I did mention that last week I had walked nearly 50km to and from work and at lunchtime, so maybe I should be cutting back a little. That lead off at a tangent to the merits of exploring London early in the morning, or on a Sunday, when the streets were quite deserted. I couldn’t resist mentioning the Sky Garden (at the top of the WalkieTalkie building) that we had visited a few weeks ago. (There are a few photos at the bottom of the post).
2) As ever the ache around my anastomosis (join) comes and goes. It was worse after physical work or with a full gut. We had previously agreed it was probably just a mechnical issue as the recent colonoscopy had shown no sign of inflammation. He wondered if there might be some inflammation in a part of my small intestine that neither the colonoscopy or the previous endoscopy had reached. There was a technique, called a balloon assisted enteroscopy, that allowed the scope to propel itself right through the small bowel…….that’s enough thinking about that one. I asked if a capsule endoscopy would be better but he replied the disadvantage for some patients was the possibility of the capsule becoming stuck if there was a stricture along its path.
Maybe it was time for another MRI scan as the last one was three years ago. He recalled that it had suggested inflammation but the subsequent colonoscopy had shown nothing. He said that sometimes you could get conflicting messages with no explanation as to why the difference.
3) The plan going forward. The current monitoring regime consisted of six monthly calprotectin tests (with possibility of a colonoscopy if high reading), yearly upper GI endoscopies to check for growth of esophageal varices and six monthly appointments with haematology to keep an eye on my low platelet count/PVT. Were there any other tests I should be having that might be age related? “No.”
He set the next appointment or six months but I will fine tune the actual date, nearer the time, so that it is after the annual endoscopy. It will also be down to me to make sure the results of the calprotectin test are available.
4) BAM. I’m becoming increasingly convinced that Bile Acid Malabsorption is a subject that not enough patients, who have been through IBD surgery (ileal resection), know sufficient about. This was one of the two subjects I wish had been discussed prior to surgery. It could be part of the pre-op assessment with either the Enhanced Recovery Nurse or the surgeon.
The other thing I wish I’d been warned about was ileus, or the lockdown of the digestive system, following surgery. I explained that unless you have suffered intense nausea you have no idea how bad you can feel. I wasn’t joking when I said that it was a good thing the windows on the 11th floor surgical ward at St.Thomas’ were non-opening. I really would have jumped! Both of them looked surprised.
5) This one was more out of curiosity – is there a link between shingles and having an IBD flare-up? In preparing my book, I had found a reference to the bad attack of shingles I suffered in 2005. As I read on I realised that a flare-up started shortly afterwards, breaking the remission I had been in for quite a while. He wasn’t aware of any link, in his experience, but there were common factors such as stress that might cause a trigger.
6) Getting involved. I’ve been cutting back on work recently. For the last six months I’ve only working three days most weeks. Whilst I have plenty to keep me occupied in my spare time I felt I could at least use part of it to give something back to the IBD Community but wasn’t sure how I could help. He ran through a number of ideas that they had been discussing at Guy’s/St.Thomas’ – research, patient panels – where they would like to include “lay” representatives. I asked him to bear me in mind for such an opportunity.
Appointment over and a chance to brave the high winds again. By now they had died down a little and the sun was shining so I decided to take a slight detour on my route back to Victoria and walk down the Albert Embankment. It’s not a walk I often do but will certainly repeat it.
If all goes to plan the next post should be to announce the completion of my book. Still need a decent title though. Suggestions welcome.
Starting with a blank piece of paper I put down the most important things I expect and what I consider to be acceptable timescales. I concentrated on my needs as a hospital outpatient with multiple chronic conditions as this is a situation I find myself in. (I’ve excluded GP’s, as I very rarely see them, and I’m hoping that in-patient hospital stays are few and far between).
Before reading the list below you might like to have a go yourself and then see where we agree or what additional items you’ve come up with. I’ve ended up with 12 key items. Here they are, in no particular order :
Easy to book appointments/tests/procedures and carried out within a reasonable or appropriate time frame (4 weeks?)
Consultants that make you feel welcome and are prepared to spend sufficient time to answer your questions
Consultants who communicate at the appropriate level of detail. (Communication includes the ability to listen and “hear” what is being said)
Consultants who take joint decisions with the patient. (You are the expert in YOUR health, THEY are the experts in their chosen fields and provide the knowledge to inform decisions)
Good co-ordination between multiple consultants if more than one condition is being managed with a named lead consultant who co-ordinates your care
Ability to make suggestions to / ask questions of / get responses from consultants by email
Follow-up letters sent out promptly
Test results communicated promptly (or appointments organised to go through results as soon as they are available)
Appointments that start on time or if they are delayed then patients are told why they are running late and how late
Provision of a disease/condition specific help line with prompt response time (within 24 hours)
Routine appointments over the ‘phone or by Skype (to save on hospital trips and consultant’s time)
Electronic, transferable, whole life health records with electronic patient access
11) and 12) are more long term aims and probably the remit of the NHS as a whole rather than an individual hospital. If there are any blindingly obvious omissions please let me know. You can tweet me at @crohnoid
…and how does my treatment measure up? Having established the list (and the two aspirations) I thought I’d see how my current treatment measures up against each of them.
1) Appointments are easy to book either on the ‘phone or in person but not all departments are consistent in their approach to routine, six monthly appointments. Some give you the appointment letter there and then; others won’t book further than six weeks ahead so I always make a note in my calendar of when I need check that I’m on the six week radar. So far I haven’t had any problems and nowadays you recieve text messages and/or telephone reminders of your forthcoming appointment.
2), 3) and 4) The communication with the various consultants has always been excellent. I’ve never felt I’m being hurried out the door. We always have a full and frank discussion at a level of detail I can cope with.
5) Co-ordination works well. Letters and emails are always copied between the three main consultants and there is a MDM (Multi Disciplinary Meeting) were patients are discussed.
6) I’ve always received prompt responses to my emails. If I have a question that I think may have implications across disciplines then I copy it accordingly.
7) I did have an issue with follow-up letters from one particular department but a simple email to the Head of Department sorted that out. It’s all resolved now and we’re back on track.
8) There have been a few problems with test samples being mislaid or the original sample not being suitable for testing. One of these occurences meant that I had to have a second bone marrow biopsy, not really an experience you would want to go through more than once. The mere mention of the procedure makes my gastro consultant squirm.
9) Late appointments are the biggest problem, made worse by there often being no communication to the patient as to what is going on. These seem to be worse at Guy’s. The new Outpatients Dept. at St.Thomas’ has large screens all around the waiting area and these carry messages if any clinics are running more than 30 minutes late (although this isn’t always the case).
10) I’ve only had reason to contact the IBD and Stoma helplines. Both have replied very quickly. When I had a problem with my stoma I was able to go and see one of the nurses the same day.
11) Video appointments are more an aspiration than something I think will happen in the very near future. I don’t know at what level the decision has to be taken to implement it – Departmental ; Hospital Trust; or from the NHS on high.
12) The electronic medical records system works within the Guys/St.Thomas’ (GSTT) itself but they do not have access to my previous records held in Croydon and East Surrey Health Authorities. This was brought home to me when I was admitted to my local hospital. Fortunately I had taken it upon myself to collate this information and was able to pass the key facts to the A&E Registrar and prevent a lot of uneccesary tests that would have just confirmed already known about conditions.
I’m very impressed with the treatment I receive from the NHS at GSTT but it is let down by the lack of communication when outpatient clinics are running late. In the original version of this post (2014) I gave them a score of 9 out of 10 but now I would reduce this to 8 out of 10 simply due to poor communication on late running clinics (2018).
I have had the odd hiccup along the way but by taking an active role in managing my treatment they have quickly been sorted out and never caused a problem.