Cutting the Sugar…. by Fiona Green

Over the last 2 years NHS DG have been offering a structured programme of work experience to young people in their final years at school thinking about a career in medicine. This has been very well received by the young people who attend and the success of the programme is largely down to excellent organisation and communication skills of Anne-Marie Coxon and her team in the education centre who arrange tasters in various areas of medicine including medical admissions, theatre, surgery and A&E along with some time with me in the diabetes centre

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Linocut by Hugh Bryden Crichton Hall- home to the Dumfries Galloway Diabetes centre

As a clinician it has been really interesting to spend time with these young people who have yet to develop preconceived ideas about healthcare and for me to try and understand what it is that excites them about spending a lifetime in medicine and to try and remember what it was that motivated me to apply for medicine and ultimately what made me move into Diabetes and Endocrinology.

For those of you who know me you will have heard me say that it is diabetes that excites me rather than the rare and esoteric conditions that I deal with in the endocrine service but I recognise that despite my real enthusiasm and commitment to improving care in diabetes that when these young work experience students come to diabetes clinic I sometimes find myself apologising to them that I don’t have any exciting procedures to show them, or new diagnoses to make; in fact in diabetes clinic I rarely examine people and I spend my time just listening to things that seem unrelated to sugar levels and talking…..

Just Listening and Talking…

The fact that I feel the need to apologise about the nature of diabetes clinic being  “just listening and talking” has made me realise  how little value we as hospital healthcare professionals place on these core skills that we all use every day. We are required to do mandatory training in many important areas such managing the deteriorating patient, infection control, awareness and fairness to name a few- yet it is possible for a healthcare professional to go through their in working career without any update, assessment or post graduate training in the core communication skills that we use every day. This lack of post graduate training in clinical communication skills is particularly apparent in the acute hospital setting compared to our colleagues in general practice and psychiatry where advanced post graduate training in consultation skills is the norm. Despite the seemingly acute nature of a hospital environment many of us spend a large part of our working week in clinics working with people to try and improve their health and wellbeing but what are we doing to ensure that these interactions are effective and meet the patient’s agenda?  Do we find it easier and quicker to pursue our own agendas and default into education mode rather that hearing about what is really important?  Several research studies have shown that by exploring a person’s background, worries and their understanding of their condition can help to avoid unnecessary investigations or anxiety for the patient as well as reduce the strain on resources[i][ii]

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The success of the late Dr Kate Granger’s “Hello my name is …” movement and the “What Matters to Me” campaign show that in acute setting healthcare teams are beginning to contemplate a change to a more patient centred rather than the traditional paternalistic, didactic approach to our interactions with patients but this change is slow and these important initiatives are only an entry level to improving our communication with the people we see in clinic and reaching a shared agenda.

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Locally Jean Robson and her colleagues from psychology, human resources and other interested clinicians have recently worked hard to put together a directory of diverse courses and programmes which are delivered locally by NHS Dumfries and Galloway aimed at improving advanced communication skills including sessions on communication skills which allow individuals to film and review their performance in real life clinic setting (been there and done that -daunting but very helpful), communicating with people with existing communication difficulties, human factors training and sessions on communicating with colleagues in meetings to name a few

So, back to the title of “cutting the sugar”. The discovery of insulin almost 100 years ago is one of medicine’s most remarkable discoveries changing the outcomes for people diagnosed with type 1 immeasurably as the before and after pictures below poignantly demonstrate

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December 1922

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February 1923

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“Child 3” before and 3 months after insulin treatment

There is of course a but; insulin is not a cure for type 1 diabetes just a treatment and Insulin treatment brings with it a huge burden for the person with type 1 diabetes- blood testing more than 4 times a day, injecting insulin at least 5 times a day, assessing the carbohydrate content of foods are all required to achieve the tight blood sugar targets required to maintain health and wellbeing. This all needs to be balanced against activity levels and avoidance of hypoglycaemia. People with diabetes can never have a day off.  They become experts in managing their blood sugar levels and this brings me to the “just listening and talking bit”. Listening to what’s important to people when I’m clinic seemed more time-consuming in the beginning but by encouraging this shared understanding I have come to recognise that almost universally people with type 1 diabetes want to be healthy and that they fully understand the importance of controlling blood glucose but what I also now appreciate more clearly is that there are many other things that get in the way of achieving this goal. Some of these barriers to change seem obvious e.g. fear of hypoglycaemia, fear of injections but others may take gentle probing to identify e.g. the young woman who removed her insulin pump because she had a new boyfriend who didn’t know she had diabetes, the young mum on her own putting her own health after the needs of her family. Through training, practice and reflection I have come to learn is that each person is different and whilst a particular solution may work for one person it might not work for the next and whilst the temptation is for me to offer the solutions that I think will work by practicing the skills I have learnt at various communication skills sessions I now recognise that solutions generated by the person with diabetes are far more likely to be successful that anything that I may suggest. Of course very few consultations are perfect and like every skill we use practice, reflection and additional training can help us to improve which is why I believe that consultation and communication skills shouldn’t be seen as just “the icing on the cake” but more of the “meat on the bones” of our daily work.

Dr Fiona Green is a Consultant in Diabetes and Endocrinology at NHS Dumfries and Galloway

[i] Heisler M, Bouknight RR, Hayward RA, Smith DM, Kerr EA (April 2002). “The relative importance of physician communication, participatory decision making, and patient understanding in diabetes self-management”. J Gen Intern Med. 17 (4): 243–52. doi:10.1046/j.1525-1497.2002.

[ii] eisler M, Bouknight RR, Hayward RA, Smith DM, Kerr EA (April 2002). “The relative importance of physician communication, participatory decision making, and patient understanding in diabetes self-management”. J Gen Intern Med. 17 (4): 243–52. doi:10.1046/j.1525-1497.2002.

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