The other day we had David Cameron getting pumped up about a seven day NHS. Pumped up is the New Tory, but a lot of old hats were still put on pegs, some hats more moth-eaten than others. JC (of the Department of Health Sunshine Band) was wheeled onto the Today programme, sounding about as pumped up as a flat tyre. Despite the ill wind blowing today through NHS General Practice, with more vacancies than currants in a bun, the government’s prescription is five thousand more GPs. Quite which wind these GPs will arrive by has yet to be explained. Historically, the NHS has outsourced, or at least gained, extra doctors from abroad. Pigs, after all, can always fly, if they are pumped up enough.
Doing his best to out-kip UKIP, a British surgeon has come under fire for blowing the wrong sort of raspberries in that esteemed organ of Middle England thought – if that’s not too rich a word – known to its readers as The Daily Mail, and by various other non-printable names by its non-readers. The gist of ex-Prof – his professorship ‘expired’, however that happens, though the Mail continues to provide its man with a fictitious chair – Joseph Meirion Thomas’s jam is that the time has come to round up health tourists, nice lady doctors and GPs and shoo them back from whence they came, preparatory-like to re-staffing the health service with proper male hospital doctors.
There’s not much to say, even if Dr No is going to say a bit, about Atul Gawande’s third 2014 Reith Lecture, except that he blew it in the title – overweening confidence, Gawande’s definition of hubris, is not the problem, striving officiously in hopeless desperation is – and then spent thirty or so minutes stating the bleeding obvious. Called The Problem of Hubris, the lecture dealt with doctors’ failure to deal with the inevitable, the appointment we all must keep when our bell tolls, the appointment not with a doctor, but with death.
Time for a Gawande anecdote, this time about a friend called Peg. Emotional strings were taughtened by casting Peg as piano teacher to Gawande’s 13 year old daughter. Given Gawande’s subject, one knew Peg’s cards were marked: at some point, Peg would peg out. Best be grateful for small mercies: at least Peg wasn’t called Sue.
The annual metronome to British public service broadcasting, the Reith Lectures, have begun this year’s tick, with Dr Atul Gawande doing the tocking. A smooth tocker with hints of George W Bush style pulsing rising enunciation, today’s first lecture – the first of four, we should note – asked ‘Why do Doctors Fail?’. Master of the personal anecdote, Gawande told the tale of a certain Baby Walker – not the contraption, but his son – who survived despite being born with an aortic abnormality, while the baby in the next cot with the same condition did not. The answer, by and large, was systems failure: Baby Walker ended up in the right place at the right time, while Baby Maine next door did not: the right place, perhaps, but too late. Walker walked, Maine died.
Some six months after care.data1, the contentious plan to upload personal medical data held by GPs to big-daddy mainframes, was stalled to allow a FF style listening exercise, care.data2 has been announced. The Information Emperor, Tim Kelsey, insists NHS England has listened, and heard – ‘heard, loud and clear’ – but it seems to Dr No that instead of hearing the waves of discontent crashing on the beach, all NHS England has heard is the wind rushing through the night. Getting on for two million patients registered at ‘pathfinder’ practices will have their GP records, including date of birth, NHS number and postcode, uploaded to big-daddy, with the default being opt-in unless the patient explicitly opts out. Since care.data1 had GP records, including date of birth, NHS number and postcode, uploaded to big-daddy, with the default being opt-in unless the patient explicitly opted out, nothing key appears to have changed. The only high profile change, which does nothing to change care.data itself, is that, instead of a bungled central promotion, care.data will be now be promoted by GPs, many of whom, we may note in passing, are not happy to be cast as the Emperor’s new goons.
The unfortunate tale of Ashya King, which the media has devoured as a starving man might devour a double burger and triple fries, has by and large cast everyone as a villain, except the patient himself. The Southampton doctors failed to maintain a working relationship with the parents. The parents became Drs Google & Google, and removed their son from hospital without warning, though it wasn’t ‘without consent’, or even kidnap or abduction, as some have suggested. The hospital delayed telling the police Ashya was missing, and the police, when they were told, responded by firing a high energy proton beam of a warrant, the European Arrest Warrant, at the parents, who ended up in the Spanish nick while their son languished in a distant Spanish hospital. The gruesome cogs of the Court of Protection ground into action, and the parents were left crushed, ex-parents in all but name, as Ashya became a ward of court. Even the private Czech Proton Beam Therapy clinic has been accused of profiteering on the back of Ashya’s media coverage. All the while, the media frothed itself into a foaming frenzy, and on the white waters of the frenzy, thousands of commentators bobbed up and down, each more determined than the last to finger their choice of the true villain. As the froth piled up, facts sank like stones. It became a tale in which all are villains, and none heroes.
Last week, as yet more errors were piled on the statin comedy, and antibiotics got it in the neck from Red Dave, another it’s time we put-it-in/took-it-out of the water story caught Dr No’s eye. An economist – economists seem to get all the top health slots these days – and a psychologist – he was on the Today programme, sounding worryingly like Peter Cook’s classic amiable psychiatrist – want Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) to be much more widely available to treat mental health problems. It is what airheads call a no-brainer. As Bush Lite might have said, CBT is where wings take dream (it works), and it makes the pie higher (it more than pays for itself: lower healthcare costs and folks back at work). Yet not just folks but our government have misunderestimated the power of CBT. NHS provision has increased in recent years, but from a very low base, and still only one patient in eight who might benefit gets the therapy. That’s one helluva misunderprovision for something that has if not wings then legs.
stackery n., – the art of confounding people about statins.
Just when you thought it was safe not to take your statins, another report hits the fan. Or rather three. The Oxford academic Sir Rory Collins, who does for statins what Viagra does for old men, has been banging on BMJ editor Dr Fiona Godlee’s back door – curiously he declined to provide an open letter for publication – demanding she retract two articles published in the journal recently. Both articles claimed, as part of their arguments, that statins had high rates of side-effects, affecting up to 20% of all patients taking the drugs. The gist was that not only were statins pretty useless for primary prevention of cardio-vascular disease (folk with no prior history of CVD: NNT’s in the high tens if not hundreds), they also caused unacceptably high rates of side-effects, some of which were serious. The implication, though not stated in such lurid terms, was that peddling statins to low-risk folk was little short of institutionalised quackery.
As a doctor who has dabbled in epidemiology, Dr No is not unaware of the siren song of care.data. Greater minds, including epideiology’s Einstein, have frothed at the prospect of the data orgy to be had, only to have it dawn that theirs was a premature cigar. Yet even when left staggering at the catastrophes revealed, a hard core group still want care.data to happen, the idea being that if enough corks are inserted, then nothing will leak.
If only! Dr No remains persuaded that the call of care.data is indeed the song of a siren balanced on dangerous rocks. However alluring the song, the rocks remain; many rocks, but four stand out as especially dangerous.
The front door, or rather back door, tactics of the shadowy Health and Social Care Information Centre have achieved a sort of slow-burn blowback over the last few weeks. Kicked off with a junk mail leaflet that aimed to be funky but turned out flakey – eye catching shape, double helix on the front, but the helix unravelling on the inside, and written by a Kafkaesque we who never said who we were, in opaque prose that bizarrely got a Crystal Mark for Clarity from the Plain English Campaign – the idea was to have patients default into allowing the NHS to hoover personally identifiable GP medical records into a vast data silo the size of Russia, generally for the purposes of improving care. But that was only part of it. Buried in the flyer, we also had plans to flog off your data, including sometimes personally identifiable so called red data, but only after the strictest approvals, you understand. Or at least we did. Whether the rest of us did was another matter.