Tuesday, 16 August 2016

Tilting: the absence of effective team functioning.

I suffer from recurrent earworms. It's an affliction I've had for a long time. I once had to watch Adele's performance of Someone Like You on Jools Holland about 100 times before I could move on. The problem has flared up again recently with Christine and the Queens' 'Tilted'. The traditional management strategy is either to feed it relentlessly until it burns out, or pass it on to someone else. Usually, I have resorted to the former, but more recently, I have tried to share it with my 4 year old daughter. She loves music videos - her favourite is Michael Jackson's 'Beat It'. I don't think she is entirely convinced by Michael's ability to heal gangland rifts through the power of dance, but she does find it terribly amusing. 

For the last week, therefore, I have been exposing her to repeated viewings of Christine and the Queens' 'Tilted', both in video and live performance versions; she particularly enjoys two aspects: the man who walks on his hands and the line 'I am doing my face with magic marker.' 'That's silly, Daddy', she says. She is right, which only leads me to wonder whether a magic marker is the same as a permanent marker, and how worried I should be that she will become a music-lyric-copycat, and be left with ink stains on her face that remain until she grows new skin. She's due to start school in a few weeks - it's a real concern.....

Tilted is a song that first appeared in French. Heloise Letisser (Christine is her alter ego) speaks English with the kind of thought and consideration that allowed Nabokov and Conrad to write beautiful English prose in non-native languages. Tilted in English, is, I suspect, purposefully ambiguous, and contains the delicious line 'I am actually good, I can't help it if we're tilted.'

You make of that what you will, but to me, it invited comparisons with what it is like to work in healthcare. Over my career, there have been moments when I was unable to be the conscientious, well-meaning young man that decided to be a doctor. There have been moments when I found it impossible to be as compassionate as I wanted to be, to be a considerate as I needed to be, or as patient as my patients needed me to be. 

I am not alone in having set out in medicine to be expert, caring and good under pressure. I am not alone in having failed to live up to these objections. I am not alone in having felt the shame of having fallen short. Today, I wonder sometimes how I made it through my time as a medical registrar. 

Feelings of inadequacy in a hospital can be insidious, and undermining. You look around at all the people who manage to be nice all the time, who seem to breeze through the day, while you wrestle with the anguish of feeling inadequate. You exhort yourself to try harder, to be better, because, well, that is how you manage problems in the NHS. 

We have been fostered in an environment that talks about 'no-blame cultures', but which, through every action it actually takes, cements the perception that you are OK as long as you don't mess up. Targets are met through constant cajoling, pushing and exertion. Each day is a full throttle effort to keep up, leaving no time for colleagues to sit down and ask of each other 'Are you OK?'. There is no space to reflect, to learn, to plan different ways of working, or simply to make sense of what has happened. 

It is in this environment of working that staff start to wonder whether they have the stamina to survive. Each day in an acute hospital is run as if it is a crisis. Yet a crisis response is only sustainable if you know that the crisis will end; that one day soon, you will be able to take your foot of the peddle, slow down, catch up, tidy up and recover. 

The recovery time in medicine has disappeared. Recovery used to take place in the mess, in the pub, in the quiet moments of the day. The old way of team building through having the whole firm working together all the time wasn't ideal - machismo and practising on patients are no way to do healthcare, but at least there was solidarity. Now the hours have changed, but nothing has replaced the team structure. Modern working schedules do not allow firm team structures to exist in the way they used to. Without them, however, junior doctors have lost the support networks they used to have, and they have not been replaced with anything. One would have thought that with doctors switching teams so often, that the NHS would be the world leaders in team development strategies. Perhaps we might be, except that the current culture of healthcare seems to view team-building as non-essential. For confirmation, look at the number of junior doctors who started posts this August who still don't have contracts, know what they will earn and didn't get their rotas until a few days before starting. 


I have been musing over this, to the tune of Christine, and various online articles that have caught my eye (here and here, for example). The comments section of the 2nd article is illuminating, including the remark 'You're already a good doctor, and you'll get better.' A revealing insight into the perception that you learn by doing, and by coping. I would hope for more than that. 

The moment of expressed crisis in a colleague is not the moment to reflect deeply on what they are doing wrong. It is the moment to reflect on what you as a team are doing wrong. The moment a colleague makes a mistake is not the moment to enquire only on whether they are competent to do their job, but to enquire whether your team is functioning as effectively as it could be. Crises and mistakes are the moments when teams should huddle together in collective responsibility and openly outline the problems, and earnestly offer the solutions they can try. 

Fostering a team environment in which mistakes and crises are taken as opportunities to reflect genuinely on how they can operate better need not be hard. It requires only two commitments: to treat mistakes and crises as the whole team's responsibility, and commit to open, safe discussion of the causes and solutions as a group. 

I am glad I survived registrar training, because I have ended up working in with teams with whom I think I could take on the world. More importantly, I have ended up with teams with whom I feel I can be fragile and vulnerable. I know they will help me, and I wouldn't swap them for anyone. We may be out in West Dorset, but together we are working really hard to offer our patients services that we are proud of; and we are doing this by making sure we have time in our schedules to discuss what is going well, what isn't and what we want to try next. 

Next time someone looks like they're struggling, or they make a mistake, sing yourself the song, and remember, 'They're actually good, but can't help it if they're tilted'. 

Monday, 1 August 2016

Domiciliary admissions

On Friday, a GP phoned the integrated care hub in the community hospital I work in to request an admission for a lady bed bound at home, and in need of medical attention. We took her details, made sure the ward was ready for her and organised transport to bring her in.

Ordinarily, a team would wait for her to arrive and assess her when she was in her bed. Ordinarily, she would be brought on to the ward, sometimes after an interminable delay waiting for transport, and then be assessed by a nurse, then a doctor, and then acclimatise herself to the unfamiliar environment she found herself in.

Ordinary is boring. I wanted to do something a little different. Instead of waiting for her to arrive, I picked up my computer, my bag, and a drug chart, and I drove round to her house. I clerked her in her bedroom. I assessed her medical needs, I had a quick look around her house, and I met her husband. The ambulance arrived while I was still there, and I was able to talk to the crew about her needs. I spoke with her about what I thought was going on, and outlined to her how we would try to help when she arrived in hospital.

After I finished at her house, I popped round to a couple of other patients at home, and by the time I arrived back at the hospital, she was there, at her bed, looking both relaxed and relieved.

Seeing her at home might seem like a small thing. It might seem like a massively inconvenient thing, But it was also very useful. For some time already, I have given up out-patients clinics and only see patients at home. I find it is more relaxing for them, and useful for me. When you see someone in their own home, you instantly get a feel for how they are actually managing. In the same way, by assessing this lady at home, I could instantly get a feel for what she needed from me. It was also, surprising and reassuring for her to meet one of the doctors who would be looking after her in hospital, before she arrived.

I'm not saying that all patients could be assessed at home prior to admission, but I am saying that introducing  new ways of working that are designed around the needs of the patients you are trying to help can have a big impact on their experience and comfort with health services. I also suspect that it allows us to help them more effectively.