Monday, 18 April 2016

Crowd-sourced trust

I have a snippet of a memory from many years ago. Aged 3 or 4, I am sitting in the back of a car - my parents are up front. There are novelties for all of us: it smells different, it is beige, it runs on diesel, it is Montego hire car. Remember the Montego? Outside it is foggy, snowing even, and it is bitterly cold. I hear my parents whisper to each other about it being too cold for a diesel car, that the fuel will freeze and we may well end up stranded on the side of the road.

For the rest of the journey, I am petrified. I give myself a pep-talk, telling myself how brave I am going to be if we break down and have to walk home. It never occurred to me to ask my parents if we were going to be OK - I had heard enough. And I dealt with my own fear by myself, because the last thing my worried parents needed was to have to deal with my own, small, child worries. Surely aged 3 or 4, I should be able to manage those for myself?

In the end, there was no crisis - the Montego defied expectations and carried on going, and we returned home without further incident.

I was thinking about that memory recently, as I drove to work on a cold, cold morning. And two things struck me: firstly, was it even a thing that diesel cars in the 80s would freeze if the ambient temperature dropped too low? I never saw it, I never see it now. Or was it that my parents had enough experience of British Leyland cars to know that if conditions fell off optimal then you could never be sure what the car would do. It's like the memory that in the 80s, whenever someone had a new car and you asked them how it was, they would always say 'It's too soon to tell.' You had to give them a couple of months to find out where all the gremlins were, which panels weren't properly fitted, which electrical components had been botched, and which bits of paint were going to flake off first.

I still see this in lots of my patients: the tacit acceptance that something brand new won't necessarily work well straight away. I think it might be why they take so much better care of their cars. They have the hard won knowledge from years of suffering well-designed, but terribly-made British cars, which unless they were cherished, polished, waxed and oiled, would seize up. They would look at the tide-mark of Dorset mud on the side of my car and shiver, I'm sure.

The second thing that this memory triggered was the realisation that my parents at that time had no idea how worried I was, and if I had mentioned it to them, they would have talked me through it, reassured me, and let me know that it would all be all right.

I often wonder how much I understand about what is worrying my patients. Sometimes I get a sense of what they aren't telling me, when one of them asks me a question, or does something so ordinary but unusual, that I begin to wonder whether a lot of their concerns never get asked, or aired. A man the other day interrupted my ward round review of him because he needed the loo. He was clearly desperate, but couldn't stop apologising afterwards. I couldn't reassure him enough that it was OK, that nobody should have to have an important conversation while bursting for a wee.

Another lady shyly asked me how her recent injury would affect some deeply personal aspect of her life. I was happy to advise her, but she was clearly mortified to have to ask, but still determined enough to do so.

This all begs the question, how do we give patients the confidence to ask, the time to be heard, and the confidence that they will be treated with compassion? I notice that so much emphasis is placed on my ward rounds by the patients that they get performance anxiety, and forget some of the things that they meant to ask. I encourage them to write their questions down when they occur, so that they don't slip their minds. But more than that, the thing I try to do now is to be present less formally. A ward round is quite a formal time: I go round the ward and see each patient in turn. They see me walk into the bay, and they wait their turn. Sometimes it must have the sense of an inspection, or progress report.

I have previously commented that my most fruitful relationships with patients are when we have a relationship on equal terms. They are them, and I am me, rather than a patient and a doctor. Honesty, to some extent, thrives on informality and familiarity; these are aspects of relationships that take time to build. and time is the one thing that we are not given enough of. I have 80 in-patients. If I spend just ten minutes with each of them, that is 13 hours a week.

Over time, I have learned that although my own relationship with my patients is important, it is not the only important relationship they have. They have close friends, and families; they have strong relationships with district nurses, therapists, their GPs. There are many people who have spent time with my patients over the years, and they are often well ahead in the trust-stakes with them.

Each moment I spend with them counts, but they are not the only moments that count. There are countless other opportunities to learn and understand. Effective team working enables this learning, and flat team hierarchies mean that it doesn't matter whether important conversations take place with a doctor, a nurse or a healthcare assistant - they can all be brought to bear for the patients' benefit as long as you have the trust in all the people you work with.


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