Can I make a difference? by Paul Gray

It’s a big question – can I make a difference?  How does it feel to ask yourself that?  For some of us, the answer will be different on different days.  My experience suggests that your answer depends much less on what you do, than it does on how you feel.  In this blog, I’d like to offer some thoughts on making a difference.

However, some context first.  I fully recognise the challenges we face.  Health budgets are going up – but pressures on recruitment, and the demands of an aging population, are also very real.  There is also still much to do in tackling inequalities, and improving the health of the population, which NHS Scotland can’t do on its own.  And we do know that people have the best outcomes when they are treated and cared for at home, or in a homely setting.  So our current models of care are transforming to meet these demands, and to provide the most appropriate care and treatment for people, when they need it, and change brings its own challenges.

So my first suggestion is to turn the question, “Can I make a difference?” into a statement – I can make a difference.  If you start from that standpoint, you’re much more likely to succeed.  It’s easy to become pre-occupied with the things we can’t change, and the barriers and problems – I know that I fall into that trap from time to time.  But wherever I go, I see people throughout the NHS, and in our partner organisations, making a difference every day.  So ask yourself, what is the one thing I can do today that would make a difference?  And then do it!

paul-1Now, give yourself some credit – think of an example where you did something that was appreciated.  Write it down and remember it.  If you’re having a team meeting, take time to share examples of things that the team did, that were appreciated by others.  Sharing these examples will give you a bank of ideas about simple things that matter to other people.  And it also gives you something to fall back on, if times are tough.

Next – think of an example when someone did something for you, which you appreciated.  Find a way to share these examples too – if it worked for you, it might work for someone else as well.  Ask yourself when you last thanked someone for something they did well, or something you appreciated.  It’s easier to go on making a difference if others notice what you’re doing!

If you’re leading or managing a team, ask yourself how much time the team spends discussing what went well.  It’s essential to be open and transparent about problems and adverse events, but if that’s the whole focus of team discussions, we overlook a huge pool of learning, resources and ideas from all the positive actions and outcomes.  And we risk an atmosphere where making a difference is only about fixing problems, rather than about improvement.  So, as yourself and your team, what proportion of time should be spent on what went well?

Remember to ask “What Matters to You?”.  I know that the focus of this question is on patients, and that’s right because they are our priority, but it’s a good question to ask our colleagues and our teams as well.  Just asking the question makes a difference – it gives you access to someone else’s thoughts and perspectives, and is likely to lead to better outcomes.

paul-2Will any of this change the world?  Not on its own, of course.  But you could change one person’s world, by a simple act of kindness, or listening, or a word of thanks.  You can make difference!

Paul Gray is the Chief Executive Officer for NHS Scotland and the Director General for Health and Social Care at the Scottish Government

Honest Reflections by Barbara Tamburrini

As this is now the third blog I have written for DGHealth, either there is a shortage of ‘willing volunteers’ or others have found better ways to say “maybe, possibly, perhaps soon” to Ken Donaldson when his charming request drops in the email ‘in-box’. Whatever the reason, I find myself agreeing to contribute and construct another brief moment of interest in our increasingly busy days. Having written previously about handover processes and the importance of good communication, I thought I would flip this on its head for this blog and consider the ‘inward’ communication reaching our ears from eager and sometimes over-active media sources and outlets.

A scan of headlines published over recent times don’t make happy reading for hard-working and dedicated NHS employees trying their best to simply ‘stay afloat and fight the fire’. Over the last 4 days, a number of reports sum up the general gist of current NHS news:

  • 9th Feb 17 – “Worst A&E waits ever, leak suggests” – BBC News
  • 8th Feb 17 – “The NHS and its crisis: Myths and realities” – Sky News
  • 7th Feb 17 – “Scotland’s A&E departments miss key waiting time targets over festive period” – Daily Record
  • 7th Feb 17 – “Maternity services in Scotland ‘beginning to buckle’” – BBC News
  • 7th Feb 17 – “Ageing UK midwife workforce on ‘cliff edge’, warns RCM” – Nursing Times
  • 7th Feb 17 – “NHS [Scotland] cancels 7740 operations due to lack of resources” – STV News
  • 5th Feb 17 – “Scotland patients waited more than a year for hospital discharge” – Sky News
  • 5th Feb 17 – “Revealed: The hidden waiting list scandal for Scotland’s NHS” – Sunday Post
  • 5th Feb 17 – “Growing waiting times threat to NHS” – BBC News

The recent coverage by the BBC assessing the state of the NHS across the UK in their NHS Health Check Week raised issues including a perception of desperate times inside A&E departments, analysis of patient flow reducing to a halt and “clogging up” hospital wards and frontline services being radically changed in attempts to overhaul health provision in the wake of the publication of NHS England’s five-year plan for the NHS in 2014. Indeed, as recently as 15th January 2017, chair of the BMA, Dr Peter Bennie was quoted as stating the Scottish NHS was “stretched to pretty much breaking point” and “heading for a breakdown” unless the government acknowledge the disparity between the current comprehensive service provision and existing funding levels.

So what does all this mean for humble workers ‘at the coal face’ and patients who so desperately rely on the NHS and our contribution within it? Dr Bennie wisely points out that honesty is required when assessing all elements of our much loved but potentially deeply troubled NHS. Honest reflection on our actions and behaviours as NHS staff is required to ensure we are all maintaining a focus firmly centred on our patients and clients. In a profession which is becoming more and more challenging with morale which seems to be ebbing lower and lower, can I really state with certainty that my focus is always upon my patients?

If I am looking at my last shift on duty, as part of the DGRI capacity team, I know that the greatest majority of my time was spent considering patient care but, the complexities of the work involved in capacity management mean a constant ‘juggle struggle’ between complicated discharges, patients keenly attending for their long-awaited surgery and fast and furious emergency admission rates with significant staff shortages thrown in to make life really interesting. This is a really difficult environment to function effectively, positively and proactively.

Its exceptionally difficult to have to say “I’m really sorry but I don’t have anyone who can give you a hand at the moment” to hard-working and struggling colleagues whom you respect and want to help. This inevitably influences work-focus and morale, sometimes away from patients and onto less fruitful, less important areas – we’re only human after all! I’m sure many of you reading this blog can identify with this and acknowledge that there can be times when we recognise that our concentration has slipped away from the real reason we are all here. This honest reflection is being actively encouraged in nursing through the revalidation process which will positively impact the profession in the future with a similar process in place for medical staff.

Honesty is also required from patients and clients using NHS services with individual ownership of health and the impact of lifestyle choices upon this of fundamental importance. The vast majority of NHS patients freely and actively claim this responsibility but this is not always the case in some crucial clinical areas like Emergency Departments. For the headlines to stop, the public also need to do their part. In a recent article in Glasgow’s ‘Evening Times’ (9th January 2017), it was stated that around 1 in 6 Scottish ED attendances may be unnecessary at a potential cost of £33 million and whilst ministers have provided responses aimed at removing any punitive element and reassuring the public that they are right to be concerned about their health, this concern needs to be correctly channelled for current pressures on health services to be eased. Patients with 3-month history of injuries, minor ailments which could be assessed elsewhere and those telling us they didn’t bother trying their GP as “they wouldn’t get an appointment anyway” are all too frequent presentations in busy ED’s. In my ‘other role’ as an ANP in ED, every time a patient told me this, I called the surgery myself and was given an appointment that day for their patient so, as well as accepting ownership of their own health, patients and service-users also need to be well-informed, confident and comfortable about the health services they access and when they utilise these valuable resources.

My feeling is that an organisational honesty also exits within current healthcare with ‘the powers that be’ having a responsibility to consistently and carefully examine the healthcare delivered with rectitude and reliability. We are somewhat fortunate in that we have an organisation who actively engages with staff through measures such as #ontheground, weekly core briefings, active and lively facebook and twitter accounts and the informative and interesting DG Change website (http://www.dg-change.org.uk). Indeed, this weekly blog also serves as a useful interactive communication with reflections and comments on posts actively encouraged. But is this enough? I would argue that even though these proactive measures exist in NHSDG along with many other approaches, staff morale remains low in some clinical areas and sickness absence rates are running well above optimum levels in some departments. So, are the current measures of engagement between the organisation and its employees inaccessible, uninteresting or unimportant to some staff, not effective enough, not addressing the correct issues or simply not delivering the desired impact? Although impossible to answer within this blog, the significance of this question and the consequences associated with it, must remain high on the agenda if staff empowerment, engagement, motivation and morale are to be maximised as we hurtle head-long towards a new hospital and evolving chapter in our healthcare provision.

Every ward I go in to during my capacity shift has AHP’s, nursing and medical staff who look tired, strained and burdened by an ever-increasing workload with constant financial and resource pressures making the job all the more difficult. But, and this is crucial, staff continue to come to work to do the best job they can given these constraints. They continue to change rota’s to cover absences, work through breaks and past finishing times to help their colleagues and patients and they continue to ‘fight the fire’ with dedication, sometimes in the face of adversity. Healthcare staff MUST care about the service they provide, to deliver care which remains meaningful, appropriate, safe, effective and patient-centred.

Whilst we as staff have a responsibility to continually reflect on our own practice, this must be fully supported, actively encouraged and consistently underpinned by honest reflection at a strategic level on the current ‘state-of-affairs’ and how this can be promoted and enhanced within the existing inflexibility of financial austerity.

Therefore, returning to our news headlines, what does the future hold for the NHS locally and nationally? Locally, despite considerable challenges, there are exciting times ahead as we look to fully embed health and social care integration and also move our main hospital services into our new build. Nationally, the picture is less clear with ever-increasing financial pressures being placed on continually growing workloads in a society with greater demands in terms of health due to conditions such as obesity, diabetes, heart and respiratory diseases. This is compounded by an ageing population sometimes presenting with chronic conditions which one simply did not survive from a decade or two ago.

hould we as NHS employees, the general public, healthcare service providers and users be concerned about the growing tide of negative headlines? Perhaps. Maybe these give an insight into the ‘health of our NHS’ – gosh, that’s a worrying thought. Or maybe, we now live in an environment feeding off news negativity and scandal in which we have all become de-sensitised to minor challenges therefore pushing media providers to ‘raise-the-bar’ in their reactionary reporting of our beloved NHS which would have, until relatively recently, been ‘off-limits’ to the eager reporter looking for a scoop however vague, misleading or sensational.

Lets return to our honesty theme. Within this blog, I have suggested that some honesty is required in our NHS and this should also extend to the reporting of challenges and issues to a certain extent. The antonym to sensationalism, where bad, critical or damming NHS news is forbidden with offenders punished by a stint taking minutes for certain western hemisphere parliamentary press conferences, is also not good for contemporary healthcare since this stifles and prevents honest reflection from which, lessons can be learned and development thrives.

There is every likelihood that the headlines wont go away and they may even increase in frequency or adversity. Perhaps though, if we all contribute in our own way, positive, honest and transparent analysis at individual, peer, organisational and national level will drive, develop and sustain an NHS we are all proud of and which we want to protect, however difficult or complex the discussions and decisions.

Barbara Tamburrini is an Advanced Nurse Practitioner at NHS Dumfries and Galloway

 

 

Gender Matters by Lynsey Fitzpatrick

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image5On 6th September 2016 in Lockerbie Town Hall, NHS Dumfries and Galloway and Dumfries and Galloway Council, supported by the national feminist organisation ‘Engender’, jointly hosted ‘Gender Matters’ – an opportunity, in the form of a workshop, to explore the issues surrounding gender equality.

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There were over 40 people from a range of organisations including NHS, Council, South West Rape Crisis and Sexual Abuse Centre, LGBT Plus, LGBT Youth Scotland, DG Mental Health Association, Support in Mind and Glasgow University, and also members of the public along with staff from other Health Board areas.
When I started to write this blog post, I was thinking back as to why the steering group behind the event decided to host this event in the first place. There is a plethora of evidence to back up why we need to support events of this nature, for example:

  • Women are twice as dependant on social security than men
  • In 2015 the gender pay gap in Scotland was 14.8% (comparing men’s full time average hourly earnings with women’s full time average hourly earnings)
  • Also gender pay gap in Scotland when comparing men’s full time average hourly earnings with women’s part time hourly earnings was 33.5%
  • This means, on average, women in Scotland earn £175.30 per week less than men.
  • The objectification and sexualisation of women’s bodies across media platforms is so commonplace and widely accepted that it generally fails to resonate as an equality issue and contributes to the perception that women are somehow inferior to men.
  • Femininity is often sexualised and passive whereas masculinity is defined by dominance and sometimes aggression and violence.
  • At least 85,000 women are raped each year in the UK.
  • 1 billion women in the world will experience physical or sexual violence in their lifetime.
  • In 2014/15, there were 59,882 incidents of domestic abuse recorded by the Police in Scotland. 79% of these incidents involved a female ‘victim’ and male perpetrator.

 

So there are plenty of reasons as to why we held this event; to challenge social gender norms, to progress thinking around changing perceptions in our homes, at work and how we confront the media (not least our legal duty under the Equality Act 2010).

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But what is it that made us so passionate about being part of this work?
image12A huge reason for me personally is that I have an (almost) 5 year old daughter. In my current post as Equality Lead for NHS D&G I have become much more aware of some of the research and facts around gender equality and often reflect on how her future is being shaped as we speak; because of the gender norms all around her, expectations from her family, her peers and her school.
I’m horrified to think that she is more likely in later life to be paid less than a male counterpart for doing the same level of work, or that her relationships and self esteem will be impacted by the stereotyping of her gender in the media.

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image29A friend and I had a discussion at one of the film screenings for “16 days of action against Gender Based Violence” which focused on the sexualisation of children from an early age. We talked in particular detail following the film about the impact the internet might have on our daughters as they grow up – the availability of porn, more opportunity to be groomed, shifting expectations of how our bodies should look and what we should be doing with them – and decided that we really wanted to do something about this, to make a difference to our daughter’s lives, and hopefully many more at the same time.
As NHS employee’s we are legally obliged to consider gender issues in everything we do. The often dreaded impact assessment process is designed to help with this. Yet at times it is seems more of a burden than a way of informing services how best to prevent discrimination and advance equality for all.

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I came across the following clip at a Close the Gap event which shows how gender mainstreaming is applicable in situations that many of us deal with on a daily basis and how this can impact on efficiency and quality of public services, benefitting not only the people who use our services, but also our key partners:

(Watch from the beginning to 3:18minutes in for a quick demonstration on how indirect gender approaches can change the way people live).
Back to the event in September: the day was split into two halves – the morning session focused on Culture and the afternoon session on Economy. The format for the day was Open Space Workshops, starting with a short presentation on each of the topics. Participants then identified topics that their group wanted to focus their discussions around. Participants were free to move around the room and join in or leave discussions as desired.
Some of the topics covered during the course of the day included:

  • Gender in the Media
    Equal pay for equal work
    Rape Culture
    Part time Work
    ‘Hidden Care’ and the economic ‘value’ of care
    Societal Norms
    Women and Sport
    Success
    Cultural Expectations
    Being non-gender specific (e.g. clothes, toys, activities)
    Women’s Only Groups
    Gender Education
    Welfare Reform

Understanding ‘double standards’
There was a real buzz in the room as each of the groups discussed their topics of interest and it was clear that participants appreciated the opportunity to discuss the issues openly, an opportunity we don’t often get.
All of the event feedback was extremely positive, and there was a real interest from participants in taking this work forward, both in the workplace setting, and in their personal lives. Some of the suggestions included the creation of a Gender Equality Network for D&G, avoiding stereotyping, creating safe spaces for women to talk openly, promoting the White Ribbon Campaign, encouraging managers to see the benefits of a work/life balance, challenging the way gender is represented and considered across society, e.g. across social media, within policies and structures. This list is by no means exhaustive of everything that was covered on the day!
I hope that having a quick read of this sh

ort blog (and hopefully a watch of the gender mainstreaming clip) will be enough to convince a few more people that gender equality really does matter.
If you are interested in being part of future discussions on gender inequality and involved in a Women’s Network then please get in touch.

Lynsey Fitzpatrick is Equality and Diversity Lead at NHS Dumfries and Galloway

Island reflections by Heather Currie

Holidays are for fun, relaxation, recharging the batteries, catching up, all things good. But holidays also give time to think and reflect and often holiday situations trigger a thought which may have relevance to a work situation. I think that’s ok, I don’t think I’m pathologically workaholic. I enjoy having time to reflect, whether that be on holiday or other.

heather-jettyA recent holiday in the beautiful west coast, triggered reflection on how we respond to patient’s needs, and perhaps how we could do better.

On the west coast of Mull is a ferry which goes to the tiny island of Ulva. While waiting to take a boat trip out to the Treshnish Isles (home of a huge colony of wonderful puffins), I noticed the sign indicating how to summon the ferry. No regular routine service, just a board with a moveable cover. Move the cover, red board shows, ferryman on Ulva sees red board, ferry sets out. Simples.. Ferry there when needed and when summoned. Receptive and responsive. It made me think whether or not we are receptive and responsive to our patients’ needs and what about the needs of the relatives?  A few examples make me think perhaps not enough?

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In recent times my mother in law sadly suffered from a stroke and was in an acute hospital for several months before being transferred to a Rehab unit and subsequently a nursing home. Being a patient is always a humbling and learning experience, as is being a relative and visitor of a patient. On one visit I was concerned that her finger nails were quite long and dirty. “Mum” could not speak at this stage but since she was always very particular about her appearance, I knew that this would cause her distress and asked the nurse in charge if it was at all possible, please please, thank-you so much…(it felt like asking for anything was a major challenge) could her nails be cut. To my surprise and disappointment, I was told that this was not possible since only two nurses on the ward had had the “training” and when they were on duty it was unlikely that they would have time. Receptive and responsive or too rigidly bound up in rules and protocols of questionable evidence base that basic needs are not met? Thereafter we took it upon ourselves to cut the nails ourselves!

I was very reassured on return to DGRI that this would not happen here and strongly believe that we are more receptive and responsive, but could we do better?

Recently, one of our gynaecology patients who had been diagnosed with a terminal condition was moved between wards four times as her condition deteriorated. As long as her medical and nursing needs were being met, was it fair on her at this sad stage to have so many moves? Did we really think about what was best for her and her family and were we receptive to their needs?

In outpatients, how often do we ask patients to return for a “routine” appointment when they may not need to be seen in six months time, but have problems at a later date? Could we instead be able to respond to their needs and see them or even make telephone contact when really needed?

An elderly gentleman understandably complained because he spent a whole day travelling from the west of the region to Dumfries by patient transport, for a ten minute outpatient appointment to be given the result of a scan. In his own words, “he was not told anything that could not have been told by telephone”.

What routine investigations do we carry out that are of limited clinical benefit, often subjecting patients to yet further unnecessary investigations because of slight irrelevant abnormalities?

When questioning our practice, let’s also be prepared to be curious about that of others in hospitals to which we refer—recently a patient was referred to Glasgow for a gynaecological procedure. The procedure went well but the patient subsequently contacted me concerned that she had been asked to return to Glasgow for a follow up discussion. She wondered if a phone call would be possible in view of the huge inconvenience that this appointment would cause. I wrote to the consultant and asked if this would be possible. His rapid response was enlightening and reassuring: he had always brought patients back to a clinic as routine practice and never considered an alternative. He promised that from then on he would offer all such patients a telephone follow up instead.

Let’s use common sense and be prepared to challenge and bend the rules. Remember the ferry. While we do not have a “ferryman” waiting to respond at all times, we could consider the 4 “Rs”and be –

Responsive not Rigid,

Receptive not Routine.

Heather Currie is an Associate Specialist Gynaecologist and Clinical Director for Women and Sexual Health at NHS Dumfries & Galloway 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Journey to Africa by Dave Christie (@bagheera79)

At a little half past eight in the morning on the 25th of November last year I started on the ICU ward round with the team of residents, at the Black Lion Hospital in central Addis Ababa – the capital of Ethiopia. There were sixteen patients to see, with a high proportion of trauma – especially brain injury – and severe life-threatening infections. It looked so different from the unit here in Dumfries. It had big wide windows allowing in daylight, for a start. In a UK hospital, windows at this height would be securely fixed so as to avoid the kind of unfortunate incident that makes the headlines. Here, in Addis, one of the nurses was leaning right out of the window and yelling cheerfully to a colleague in the carpark over a hundred feet below.

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As I looked around I took in more differences. The beds were quite close together, with a low wall separating the heads of beds between the divided area. Instead of uniform ranks of identical equipment all bought at the same time, the pumps and ventilators were a mishmash of ancient and relatively modern kit. Huge, head height tanks of oxygen sat beside each ventilator, as there was no built in oxygen supply in the walls. Beside most beds sat a big bottle of caramel liquid – it took me a moment to work out that this was nasogastric feed. Of course! – they don’t have the pumps to delivery a trickle of feed continuously, so they have a supply for the day and administer it at intervals. Each patient’s bedsheets were different, brightly coloured, and obviously donated or brought in from home. Nobody was wearing aprons, or gloves – the bright smurf blue and purple hands of healthcare that are so ubiquitous in UK ICU were nowhere to be seen. I could imagine our own infection control team spontaneously combusting at the sight. Of course, they would likely have already lost consciousness at the sight of an entire team of doctors standing around the bedside in long-sleeved white coats – something which has been verboten in the UK for years.

But then, I looked closer and readjusted. Put into context, they were doing the same stuff we do. Airways were protected. Patients were being rolled, washed, and cleaned every day, with a change of sheets. Physiological parameters were being diligently recorded on big charts in close detail. Because pumps were usually either broken or in very short supply, sedation and analgesia were given by injection at regular intervals. They were being fed – one way or another. Patients were receiving regular chest physiotherapy to try to shift stubborn sputum and prevent pneumonias. Blood tests. The nurses still laughed and joked and teased each other. It’s the same stuff that we do, but in a much simpler, less precise way. And, a lot of the time, it worked. Which, to be brutally honest, is just as true of our own, ‘modern’ intensive care.

I turned my attention to the lady in the bed. Clearly profoundly affected by a severe head injury as a result of trauma, she also had signs of a severe chest infection. Here in the UK, it would be standard practice to send sputum samples off to the lab to identify the offending organism, certain specific blood tests might be done, and a chest x-ray would be a routine investigation in order to see the extent of the infection. I asked if they could do any of those things. Dr. Woubadel looked at me with a wry, slightly sheepish smile. “Well, we can. But we only have two antibiotics and our microbiologists have refused to analyse our sputum samples. And the lifts are out at the moment.”

Right. Wait, what? “You only have two antibiotics?”

“Yes, ceftriaxone and ceftazidime.”

If you don’t speak antibiotic, that’s a little like going to the supermarket and discovering that the only two cleaning products available are napalm and a hydrogen bomb. Given that antibiotic resistance is a real and growing threat, this is a disaster for the future.

And the lifts…. ah. The building of the Black Lion is definitely a little bit past its best, and was undergoing a phase of refurbishment. Almost all of the lifts were removed and in true, relaxed Ethiopian style, there was occasionally a warning sign. I had had a look at one of the lift shafts and it really was an open door onto a seven storey drop. Later that day, I watched a patient being taken urgently to theatre from one of the wards on the floor above the theatre complex. Four orderlies and a nurse were carrying the entire bed – with the patient lying on it – down a flight of stairs. Another nurse was carrying the drip. That morning, if they really wanted a chest x-ray, they’d have to do the same thing if the lift was out as there was no portable facility to take x-rays on the unit. And if need be, they’d have done it.

Dave C 1So why was I there? It’s worth pointing out that the Black Lion is a large teaching hospital in the city centre. It’s one of the lucky ones, as the facilities it has are relatively modern. They can even do cardiac bypass – provided there’s a visiting perfusionist from overseas to work the machinery. This definitely wasn’t one of the small hospitals out in the country. I was there along with Fanus Dreyer, a consultant in General Surgery here in Dumfries, to teach on a critical care course that he organises. The College of Surgeons of East, Central and Southern Africa overseas the training of surgeons in that part of the world, and the critical care course is part of the mandatory requirements of their training. It is a charity – the aim is to make the course (along with the others which deal with surgical skills, and research) self-sustaining in each of the involved countries. The idea behind all of this is to try to improve the healthcare in that part of the world, by standardising surgical training, ensuring basic competencies etc, in an area where healthcare is sporadic and frequently poor or non-existent. Peri-operative and critical care is a vital part of that – being able to competently do an emergency bowel operation is nothing if the patient dies post-operatively from a lack of care.

Being out there and teaching on the course was an extraordinary experience. Having had the chance to spend some time in the actual clinical areas, to see how they worked on a day-to-day basis, helped hugely as it helped give me direction on what the course attendants needed. The junior surgeons on the course had excellent clinical knowledge and ability – the real difference was the approach. They have the same knowledge as our junior surgeons – medicine is universal, fundamentally – but what they needed was guidance on how to organise the approach to sick patients, and how to structure their management. They were highly motivated, and very keen to learn. But as I knew, they would often be working in facilities that had next to zero resources, hundreds of miles from Addis. There’s no value in teaching about the potential uses of dialysis in critical care in that sort of scenario – but there is enormous benefit in teaching about the approach to sepsis. Being able to manage a patient with a critically endangered airway with simple techniques would be life-saving – even in the most rural surgical facilities there will be some sort of scalpel.

David C 3And over the two days of the course, in the four days that I spent there, I realised that the simplicity of approach is something that we are still striving to teach here, even with the advanced facilities available to us. Their ICU looked primitive in comparison to the UK, but it was still striving to provide the basics of critical care. I realised I was teaching the same things that I teach here – sort out the basics and communicate well. Recognise illness, recognise dying, and treat each thing in turn, with compassion. These things are universal – and we shouldn’t allow a distraction with technology to cost us our humanity.

 Dave Christie is a Consultant Anaesthetist at NHS Dumfries and Galloway

Stressed about Stress by Amanda Taka

Stress is one of those words that has become intrinsic in our everyday vocabulary: we’ve all heard ourselves moaning “I’m so stressed!” What is it and how can we manage it?

Stress is defined in different ways by different organisations, but the common thread seems to be that stress is “feeling under pressure”. A small amount of stress is good for us: it keeps us motivated and helps us to do our best. However, when we are living with stress all the time, it can lead to a myriad of unpleasant feelings and physical symptoms can follow.

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Often we are quick to identify stress in others, but would we recognise it in ourselves? Symptoms associated with stress are wide ranging and initially we might not associate the physical symptoms as related to our mental wellbeing. There has been a tradition to separate mental and physical health, but evidence shows the link is greater than we previously may have understood. The jury is still out as to whether stress itself causes disease, but there’s lots of evidence to show that the unhealthy habits we rely on when we’re stressed contribute to many conditions.

Physical symptoms can include:

  • Sleep problems
  • Dizziness
  • Chest pain, palpitations
  • Dry mouth, lump in the throat, shaky hands
  • Lack of appetite, or conversely, comfort eating
  • Repetitive tic
  • Headaches
  • Diarrhoea or constipation
  • Loss of libido
  • Tearfulness/depression/anxiety
  • Worsening symptoms of long term conditions

Additionally:

  • Poor concentration
  • Difficulty making decisions
  • Irritability
  • A feeling that things are hanging over you
  • Excessive intake of caffeine, cigarettes or alcohol
  • Low self esteem/lack of confidence

This list is not exhaustive!

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What causes stress?

Here’s the tricky bit. We’re all different, so we all have different triggers. For example, one nurse would struggle to cope with the incessant physical and emotional demands of working in the Emergency Department, whereas that environment is perfect for a different nurse.

Acknowledged triggers of stress are as follows:

  • Work pressures, job instability, fear of redundancy
  • Parenting, family and relationship difficulties
  • Financial pressures
  • Bullying and discrimination
  • Loneliness and isolation
  • Living with a long term condition
  • Caring responsibilities

And one more for us workaholics:

  • Taking on too much responsibility and feeling you don’t have enough time to do everything!

OK, so it looks like life itself is stressful.

If you’re feeling like stress is starting to impact on the quality of your life then the first thing would be to get it down on paper. Spotting stress in its early stages can help prevent things from getting worse. Things to include in your “stress diary”:

  • Date, time and place of the incident
  • What you were doing, before, during and after
  • Who you were with
  • What were your feelings, before, during and after
  • Any physical sensations
  • Give the event a “stress rating” e.g 0 = no stress, 10 = the most stressed you could possibly feel.

Making a stress diary is helpful because it aids our ability to make connections between the context and the symptoms. Ideally, a stress diary should be continued for at least 2 weeks. This helps us to see things in perspective. Additionally, this is a vital piece of evidence to discuss with your GP if you’re feeling overwhelmed and unable to cope.

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Quick Fix

When I searched ‘wellbeing’ in Amazon at the beginning of the year, I was astounded at the number of different products that claim to enhance one’s wellbeing: necklaces, crystals and orthotic sandals sat alongside the list of ‘new age’ literature that was available. I’m not sure it’s something that can be bought. There’s certainly no single ‘cure all’ solution. Therefore it’s worth trying, or combining, a number of different approaches until you succeed. Most research shows the following are a good place to start:

  • Physical activity – doesn’t need to be a gym membership, incorporating 30 minutes of activity can help boost mood and clear the mind (remember it can be in blocks of 10 minutes)

 

 

  • Relaxation techniques such as mindfulness and breathing exercises are evidence based ways of reducing stress. Courses are available across the region, check the local press or http://www.uws.ac.uk/wellnessandrecoverycollege for details.

Nursing is acknowledged to be a stressful profession. In our profession, we tend to put everyone before ourselves, but who looks after the caring professions? I passionately believe that we need to give ourselves the time and effort to look after our own mental wellbeing, and being aware of our stress levels is intrinsic to this.

Further self help resources to try:

  • Living Life telephone self help service and online programme for people with mild to moderate feelings of anxiety and depression using Cognitive Based Therapy. See http://www.llttf.com/ for more info

 

  • Breathing space – confidential helpline that describes itself as a ‘first stop’ service which aims to listen and provide emotional support. http://breathingspace.scot

 

 

  • Steps to Deal with Stress – you may have noticed the little square booklets floating around NHS D&G, pick one up, they have great common sense tips to help with stress busting. More info at http://www.stepsforstress.org/

A last word

If you or someone you know is struggling and self help techniques haven’t worked, you may need to seek expert help. For some people a combination of medication, talking therapy alongside some of the techniques outlined above are appropriate. Also, it’s worth remembering that the Samaritans have changed their number to 116 123. Further helplines can be found at http://www.nhs.uk/Conditions/stress-anxiety-depression/Pages/mental-health-helplines.aspx

And remember… “taking on too many commitments” may lead to feelings of stress!

Amanda Taka is a Keep Well Nurse at NHS Dumfries and Galloway

The art of dying well by Margaret McCartney

Do we want to live as long as modern medicine allows us, or only so long as life is sweet?

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Death is our only shared destiny, but we are in a new era; it’s not unusual to have 70-year-olds looking after a 90-year-old parent. A few years ago we had to reorganise the shelving in the general practice where I work in order to accommodate the notes of our octogenarians and nonagenarians. In 1917, King George V sent out 24 messages to people having a 100th birthday. In 2011, the Queen sent 9,736.

This is worth celebrating. Just before Christmas, I was languishing in a long queue at the Post Office where a 93- and a 94-year-old were holding court, debating the standards of humour in the greetings cards display to such uproar that the postmistress had to pause to wipe tears of laughter away. Age does not mean a loss of fun, vivacity, or pleasure in living.

But age is still the most potent risk factor for death, and many older people at the end of life have its quality impaired by loneliness and, frankly, too much medicine. If we want good living right up until we die, we should be examining what makes it good — and what stops it being so.

At the heart of the problem is the difficulty in predicting death. There is good evidence that doctors overestimate how long people who are known to be terminally ill will survive: we have libraries stuffed with research papers, but no crystal ball. This matters because medicine is often conflicted over the question of preserving life at the cost of its quality. Treatments in hospital might reduce the size of a cancer, but prevent the patient from going home, where she’d prefer to be. Medication for the heart might cause fatigue or dizziness but give extra weeks or months of life. But if this means less walking and independence, is it worth it?

Death is inevitable, but frequently seen as an inadequacy in medicine or treatment. Harpal Kumar, the chief executive of Cancer Research UK, said on the radio recently that his aim was to ensure that no one died of cancer any more. But we are still going to die, so what are we to die of? Is every death to be fought back with all of medicine’s might, and to be always considered its failure?

Surprisingly, in older people, frailty is a bigger risk factor for death than cancer, organ failure or dementia. Frailty is a relatively new concept in medicine, though William Shakespeare described it well in As You Like It:

the lean and slipper’d pantaloon,
With spectacles on nose and pouch on side,
His youthful hose well sav’d a world too wide
For his shrunk shank; and his big manly voice,
Turning again towards childish treble, pipes
And whistles in his sound

Frailty is often rapidly recognisable: low levels of activity, a loss in muscle mass, weakness, falls and easy tiredness. The months and weeks before death in an older person are frequently characterised by a series of crises, caused by something as seemingly small as a urine infection or a trip. But the background of frailty means less recovery each time, and a slow, or stepwise decline. If ageing is the cause of frailty, how can we treat it? Medicine has moved into a new era of riskfactorology. We are no longer concerned about people who have a disease, but people who have a risk factor for a disease. We search for blood pressure or cholesterol levels which are deemed high enough to then lower, to try to prevent heart attacks or strokes. We look for bone-thinning, in order to prescribe medicines to attempt to strengthen the bones and prevent a fracture; we offer flu vaccination to everyone over the age of 65.

All this results in more medicines being prescribed and taken. This might sound so reasonable that the mechanism GPs work to (monetary carrots for adhering to targets and shameful sticks whipped out by the Care Quality Commission when we fail to reach them) seems OK. But our riskfactorology results are for the risks and benefits for populations, not individuals, and the result is thousands of people being prescribed medication that they will never benefit from.

Take the medications designed to prevent osteoporosis, tablets called bisphosphonates, such as alendronic acid. These are taken by over a million people in the UK, usually once a week. Ideally, they prevent hip fractures or collapses of the spine. Hip fractures in frail older people can precipitate death, and are to be taken seriously. However, these medications usually don’t work. For example, the independent Cochrane Collaboration has found that for women with low bone density, or who have already had a fracture in the spine, long-term use of alendronic acid can cut the risk of hip fracture from two to one in 100. This is only a small reduction, although it can be described as a ‘halving’ of risk.

What about side effects? Some women will get none, others will feel sick and nauseated. Some women dread the day they take the tablet and feel they have to write it off. Some will consider that a price worth paying, others will not.

However, people aged over 65 are on an average of two drugs, and 10 per cent are taking five or more. In medical terms, this is an alarm signal — is this combination of medicines really doing more good than harm? Older people are chronically under-represented in clinical trials. So there might be trial data to show that a drug works pretty well in a 40-year-old — but will it have just the same effect in an 85-year-old? Our kidneys and liver — which metabolise our medication — tend to work less well as we age, meaning that standard doses can become toxic. And the drugs can interact with each other. Our nervous system is partly composed of unconscious nerves, controlling our heart rate, digestive systems and blood pressure. Many drugs have an effect on these nerves — from antidepressants such as trazadone, to medicine for diarrhoea like loperamide, to oxybutynin, for the bladder, and many antihistamines. The effect can be cumulative, risking falls and memory problems.

It’s this constant play of harm versus advantage, pro versus con, that characterises much medicine, taking in Shakespeare’s sixth and, then, seventh stages of life. Frailty is a risk factor for death, but most frail patients will not die that year. As a doctor trying to decide which prescriptions are worthwhile and which are not, I’m also keen that I try to understand what matters to patients. Is this side-effect worth it? Is this medication keeping you well or causing you problems?

Medicine can do great things — joint replacements can add life to years, heart attacks are treated with swift declogging of arteries, HIV can be managed long-term. But life through a medical prism is prone to give a medical answer to social problems. Loneliness is one of the biggest. Up to 16 per cent of our elders describe themselves as lonely. I’ve come across patients where the only conversation they’ve had all week has been with the doctor. People who are lonely are more likely to use NHS services, and loneliness is a risk factor for depression and earlier death, as big a risk factor as obesity or high blood pressure. Research points towards social interaction being protective against memory loss. Good health at the end of life is not just about medicine; it is about social activity and networks.

So where do doctors fit in? Just before Christmas there was a sudden (and, sadly for me, temporary) lull in the demand for appointments. Instead of the usual ten, I could spend 20 minutes with just one patient. I had a joyous couple of days, because I could look away from the computer, relax and listen without the constant narking pressure of running late. Suddenly, there was time to talk about what really mattered. With this illness, what are you thinking about the future? Is there anything that is worrying you? What are you enjoying just now? What do you hope for? Unleashed from the tickbox demands of the contract we GPs work to, general practice is fascinating, uplifting and profound in its humanity. Listen, and people talk.

It’s clear from the research that the vast majority of people with life-limiting conditions want their healthcare professionals to play it straight — most people want honesty. This does not mean that people should be told brutal truths in one unexpected sitting. It does, though, mean that talking about death and what quality of life means — for you — should be an unfolding, commonplace conversation.

This is hard, not just because it can feel awkward or upsetting. But the problem is plain. Medicine has a habit of almost unstoppable escalation. One treatment leads to a side effect, which can lead to another treatment, which can lead to another side effect: we can end up chasing tiny odds of benefit while the problem, staring us in the face, is that death is going to happen at some point no matter what we do. Too much medicine is capable of changing a peaceful death into a medical battleground, a peaceful death surrounded by family at home into a death in the bright lights of intensive care. Stepping off the medical escalator may take courage, not just for patients and families but also for doctors. Until we value a good death as much as we value a good life, we will fail to serve people well at the end.

This article was published in The Spectator on October 24th 2015. The original version can be found at http://www.spectator.co.uk/2015/10/the-art-of-dying-well/

Dr Margaret McCartney is a GP in Glasgow and writes regularly for the BMJ and other publications.