Tuesday, 12 April 2016

Crafting Care Plans

Legend has it that Voltaire wrote Candide in three days. Academic enquiry suggests it took a great deal longer. The idea that talent and perfection is innate has a peculiar traction, but it is perhaps lucky for most of us, that great works are more often the function of graft than inspiration. It is something that can give us all hope.

Novels take time to appear. I like to apply the Michelangelo idea to a book: the idea that a book starts as a solid block of paper, and the novel is chiseled out of the block in a process of rough outlining, correction and laborious polishing. It starts with the idea of what book is contained within, and the application of labour and skill to reveal the story concealed within. Reading Steinbeck or Nabokov or Conrad, one can certainly appreciate the process of refinement, and sense the bloody determination and brain-aching effort taken to phrase each sentence just so. 

Perfect prose has some of the hallmarks of a wonderful goal, or a breathtaking try. Before it happens you have the hope that it will work out the way you want. Afterwards, on the replays, it has the aura of something that always was, and was in some way always meant to be. 

My friend Charlie has written a wonderful (and beautiful) book (http://charliemaclean.co.uk/). It is actually more than just a good story, it is wonderful to hold and flick through. In the hand, there is the suggestion that it could only ever have been the way it turned out. But to know Charlie is to know the hours and the years that he put into crafting his first novel. It was a sacrifice to write, and a true labour. 

I know something of the commitment required: I have 70,000 words of almost complete twaddle sitting on my hard drive, waiting for me to find the courage to erase, and start again. Such is the experience of writing: one can go for miles and miles down one path before realising that it's the wrong one, and you need to go all the way back and start again. 

I thought of the creative process this afternoon, while engaged in a lively twitter discussion with David Oliver (@mancunianmedic) and Claire Solomon (@geridoclondon) about the wisdom of screening for frailty, without a clear plan of what to do with the knowledge that someone is frail. 

Within the world of geriatrics, it seems to be de rigeur to set up projects that screen patient groups for frailty. At a couple of events recently, I have listened to project after project describe how they are screening; but I have heard very little about what they do with that information. In many instances the process of screening is conflated for an actual comprehensive assessment, and what results from the whole process is a care plan, produced in one day, that is never updated, and almost certainly, rarely referred to again. 

Geriatricians deal with advanced frailty, and as David Oliver told me this afternoon, mild frail is about self-care and prevention, while  moderate frailty is about good primary care coordination. 

The question this poses me, as a community geriatrician, is what my role in all of this frailty management is. In reality, this question answers itself when I reflect on the patients that my capable and excellent local GPs ask me to see. Their referrals to me can be divided into three groups: those in whom they can't quite figure out what is going on (diagnostic uncertainty), those with complex symptoms in the context of multiple medical problems and those for whom the limits of medical intervention and treatment need to be considered (ie ceilings of care). 

The rest they mostly manage themselves. However, I have found that there is a useful role for me in this routine work, through the time I spend with GPs and MDTs, contributing to the discussions about patients and how we can best support them. 

Over the last two and a half years, I have learned a couple of important things about helping frail and vulnerable patients at home. 

The first is that success is defined by what the patient wants to achieve, and this can vary hugely. Some want to be pain free, others want to be able to breathe a bit easier. Some want to live long enough to go to their grand-daughters wedding or celebrate their ruby wedding anniversary. Others want never to have to see a doctor or go to hospital. And some simply want to die in comfort. There is no standard definition of success for these patients, and we can only know if we have done our jobs properly if we understand what it is that they wanted to achieve in the first place. 

Understanding patients to this kind of details takes time, and can't be achieved in one assessment or home visit. It takes patience, and commitment. 

And it takes something else: it requires you to listen, not just to the patient, but also to all the nurse, therapists and carers who have spent time with the patients, and formed a deep understanding of their issues and needs. 

Community MDTs need to function in a way that allows all team members who know the patients to be heard and to have the confidence to contribute; and care plans for these patients need to capture this information, and to evolve over time, as our understanding of individual patients grows and deepens. 

Care plans are not works of literature, but some of the same principles apply. Start at the beginning with a guiding concept, and over time, rework it, hone it and polish it. Make it a living document that everyone can refer to, contribute to and refer again to. 

Of course, behind every good book is a good editor, and perhaps the same is true of care plans. 

There is something of the chicken and egg about care plans: health professionals won't rely on them until they are readily accessible and contain useful information. GPs can be reluctant to spend much time on something that people can't access and don't use. 

Where I work, we have gone a long way to solving the accessibility issue. We just need to commit to both producing them, and using them. Of course, there are still barriers, but we won't get anywhere if we let that put us off. 

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