Our Nation’s Biggest Public Health Problem

The subject of this blog is sensitive and difficult. It may stir up some difficult issues or memories for you, as you read. If this happens, then please take time to seek the help you need. I believe this blog and ones to follow might be some of the most important I have written to date.

 

UnknownI am currently reading a phenomenal book, sent to me in the post, by a dear friend of mine, who is a trained counsellor and knowing the work I do, felt that I should read it also. The book is called “The Body Keeps the Score” by the eminent Psychiatrist, Bessel Van Der Kolk. In my humble opinion, it should be compulsory reading for every person training in any of the clinical specialities, including public health and for those working in education. The book focusses on the detailed research and work done by Van Der Kolk and others at Harvard over the last 30 years in the whole area of Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (CPTSD), or “Disorders of Extreme Stress, Not Otherwise Specified” (DESNOS). It is not a part of our vocabulary, unfortunately, because even now, after a huge evidence base and many studies, there still remains no such psychiatric diagnosis. However, it is a hidden epidemic affecting huge numbers of our population and is the root of many of our major public health issues. So what causes this problem and just how wide spread is it? The evidence shows so strongly that the cause of CPTSD or DESNOS is Adverse Childhood Experiences, which we more starkly call Child Abuse.

 

Child abuse falls into four main categories: Physical abuse, Sexual Abuse, Verbal Abuse and Emotional abuse – usually in the form of neglect. 10% of children suffer regular verbal abuse. 25% suffer regular physical abuse. 28% of women and 16% of men have suffered sexual abuse. 16% regularly watch domestic violence. 87% of all those who suffer one type of abuse, are also abused in other ways. Each of these forms of abuseUnknown lead to major health problems later in life and studies are showing that it is not just mental health issues (many of which lead to inappropriate diagnoses like Borderline Personality Disorder or Bipolar Disorder and ineffective treatments) but also major physical health problems. Those who have been abused are twice as likely than others to develop cancer and four times as likely to have emphysema. The more difficult a person’s experiences, the higher the chance of developing heart, liver or lung disease at an early earlier age with much higher chances of taking more health risks with smoking, becoming overweight or having multiple sexual partners. There is good evidence to suggest a link with autoimmune diseases, such a lupus, and other complex conditions like chronic pain, chronic fatigue and fibromyalgia. The body cannot be separated from the mind and literally keeps the score of the internalised turmoil. So, even if the abuse happens before memories are formed, or our minds manage to forget or block out what has happened, the body simply cannot forget and sometime and in someway, the damage will show itself. Studies show that the overall cost of this appalling reality far exceed those of cancer or heart disease. In fact, eradicating child abuse would cut depression rates by over 50%, alcoholism by 66% and suicide, IV drug use and domestic violence by 75%. Antidepressants and antipsychotics are now some of our largest prescribing costs. We know this, but are doing very little about it. Perhaps it feels too big. Perhaps we don’t want to face the demons involved. Instead, we are numbing the problem, trying desperately to get people to be just functional enough to keep on serving the needs of our economic system, but we are not facing up to or dealing with this horrific problem, nor its true cost.

 

What can be done in the face of such evil? How can we develop aimages culture of compassion and restorative justice in which we can find a new way through for humanity? It isn’t getting any better. It is just as widespread and far reaching in its consequences as it was a generation ago. Is it possible for us to face up to the startling reality we face? Van der Kolk offers much hope, but it is not within the gift of the health service and social services to tackle this alone. If we are to take this issue seriously, we must embrace what Bessel refers to (at the end of chapter 2) as four fundamental truths:

 

  1. Our capacity to destroy one another is matched by our capacity to heal one another. Restoring relationships and community is central to restoring wellbeing.
  2. Language gives us the power to change ourselves and others by communicating our experiences, helping us to define what we know and to find a common sense of meaning.
  3. We have the ability to regulate our own physiology, including some of the so-called involuntary functions of the body and brain, through simple activities such as breathing, moving and touching – (learning to be present in our own bodies is a vital way of separating out the memories of the past which can overwhelm us at times).
  4. We can change social conditions to create environments in which children and adults can feel safe and where they can thrive.

images-1People can be healed of trauma. We need this at both an individual and corporate level. We have become so focussed on saving money, on quick fixes to ensure the NHS and Social Care System can survive, but we are ignoring the root cause of many of our ill health issues. If we are willing to face up to the truth of child abuse in our society and its long lasting and far reaching impact on overall health and wellbeing, then we might just be able to find a way through to healing and restoration of what has become an extremely broken society. In the blogs that follow, I will look at some of the ways we might find a way through this crisis of epidemic proportions. One thing we must face straight away is that we are spending our resources in the wrong places and are focussing our attention in the wrong areas. We must protect our children and help people learn how to be good parents. We must strengthen our school teachers and sense of community. We must invest in the first five years of life far more than we are doing so currently, especially those key first 12 months of bonding and attachment. Together, if we want to, with love, care, bravery and determination, we can change the future. There is hope. There is healing. Our systems are not yet designed to cope with this, but we must speak the unspeakable, break the silence and face up to the truth. The truth will set us free and enable us to develop the kind of wellbeing that every human being should be able to live within.

 

 

 

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Why Better Care Together?

imgresThere is an ancient proverb that says: without vision, people perish. I believe we in danger of watching the NHS perish in front of our eyes, not because we don’t know what to do or even how to do it. I believe we have been so focused on the what and how of healthcare, that we may have forgotten why we do what we do.

 

The NHS is an organism, made up of many living cells, called human beings, who have a vast range of complementary skills and interpersonal connectivity. These cells work imagetogether in tissues, joined to each other in complex systems to function as a body, a body which gives itself for the health and well-being of the nation. This body is not a robot, who’s performance can be processed like a machine for a predetermined output, but it has been treated as such, just another example of biopower, where people are used, rather than cherished. So now we have more of a Tin Man with no heart, than a living, breathing body.

 

But at the heart of the NHS is what we find in the heart of every human being, if we dig deep enough. The heart of the NHS, the very core of its being, it’s true raison d’être, it’s driving force is in fact, love. And the people, the cells who work in this loving imageorganism, also carry love in their hearts for other people. It is stamped through the DNA. It is the motivation. It is the reason people get out of bed in the morning, or work through their weekends and nights. It is why the wards are clean and the beds are made, why the bloods are taken, the investigations are done, the research is carried out, the people are washed and fed. It is why the hours of study and audit are diligently pursued, it is why the training is so robust, it is why the skills are acquired, it is why the time is given. It is why the NHS was founded in the first place, because all people, no matter how rich or poor, saintly or depraved, are worthy of love.

 

And yet we find that the human beings who join together to form this body are often struggling with severe stress, anxiety, depression and low morale. How can this be so? Is it possible that the structures we have put in place to try and support this body have instead become a hindrance? When my wife was born  she imageshad congenital talipes aka clubbed feet, due to a positional issue in her mum’s womb. When she was born, her feet were turned in and she had to wear painful calipers for 2 years until she was operated on by a very skillful orthopaedic surgeon. Now, in her mid thirties, she can run and dance because the calipers were taken off in childhood. As the NHS grew and developed, structures were put in place in its formative years to help the right sort of growth and strength to happen, but many of these are no longer useful and in fact are now a hindrance. We have become slaves to serving structures and ways of doing things that work against us as we try and stay true to our core motivation of love.

 

Part of what we are exploring through ‘Better Care Together’ hereiu-4 in Morecambe Bay is how to dismantle and reform these structures in order to allow this amazing body to function more naturally and freely. This organism is constrained within bizarre silos that make the what and the how of healthcare provision so complex that the why of what we are doing so easily gets forgotten amidst the complexities of service delivery. So, first and foremost, we must recover/rediscover/reconnect with/strengthen our vision, founded upon love and compassion for other people. Galvanized by this vision to provide continually improving, high quality, compassionate and loving healthcare to all in our community, we must tell the structures again and again, that we do not serve them, but they are only there to help us in our task. Right now, they need remodeling, and this is happening. We need less care in hospitals and more in the community, we need better integrated IT, different payment methods, new ways of working in General Practice (in larger more resilient practices, federations or co-operatives) and across the old boundaries, better pathways for patients and communities to be able to care for themselves and each other more effectively. But unless we have love, all these things are like a great symphony orchestra, playing a great new score but void of any connectivity with the audience. The form, as our chief commissioning officer, Hilary Fordham, rightly tells us, must follow the function, but I believe both the form and the function are motivated and under-girded by love and compassion.

 

So, why Better Care Together? Because the world has changed and the health needs of the population have changed and we simply can’t afford for things to remain as they are. But the deeper reason is so that we can provide continually improving, high quality, compassionate and loving healthcare to ALL in our community. This involves a mindset change. No more can we think of our own little patch. No more can we think ‘I’m just a GP of 1500 patients’, or ‘I’m just a nurse on the cardiology unit’ or I’m just a physio working in one particular area’ or ‘my practice only looks after 17,500 people’ (though of course this kind of personal care is still absolutely vital), but the paradigm shift in our thinking is towards being a member of a healthcare system that cares for the 350,000 people around the Bay. It’s about allow our hearts and our vision to grow bigger whilst giving brilliant care to individuals where we are located. That means learning to work differently, always motivated by the love and compassion we have for people.

 

 

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Changing the Culture of the NHS

imgresI had the very real privilege of listening to and interacting with Prof Mike West of the Kings Fund as part of a Cumbria Wide learning collaborative a few days ago. It was utterly engaging and inspiring. His basic strap line is this: “The vision of health and social care is to deliver continuously improving, high quality and compassionate health care to all in our community.” The problem is that we’re not doing this, and we’re not doing this because there is something deeply wrong in our culture. And so how do we change a system, especially when it feels that the odds are seriously against us? How do we recover compassion? How do we envision a floundering workforce and help them to believe? Why are there some beacons of light in each organisation and some really dark holes? Why are we not learning more readily from areas of good practice and challenging those that are way below par?

 

There are some seriously problematic things for us to face up to, and although I love to take a ‘solutions-focused’ approach, I do believe that sometimes you have to face up to your reality before you decide to move into a different kind of future. We could talk until the cows come home about the potential dismantling of the NHS, the low morale of staff and this ‘black hole’ of debt. But what I want to focus on in this post is the cultural deficit. Previous governments have tried to address this with targets, competition and inspections, but each of these, although I think introduced with good intentions, have backfired spectacularly and driven morale lower without improving the culture at all.

 

imgresStress is defined by Mike West as a poisonous concoction of high work demand, low control and poor support. Chronic high stress levels are significantly higher in the NHS (26.8%) compared to any other sector (17.8% on average). High stress is detrimental for people’s health and a well known cause of early death. And so in an organisation in which we have 1.4 million people spending on average 80000 hours of their lives caring for other people, we are literally killing them by not caring for them. This is a paradox in an organisation which is supposed to have compassion at its core. And yet we know through significant evidence that the lower the morale and health of your team, the worse the outcomes for patients will be. Stress in the NHS and the lack of compassion with which we treat our own staff is a more significant health risk to the population than many of the issues that we give far more attention to.

 

So, what can we do? Are we doomed to serve systems that de-humanise people and devour them like bread? Must a system be driven by what Foucault calls ‘biopower’, ie using human beings as the fodder to drive the machine? Can the systems be harnessed and redeemed and made to work for us rather than served by us? Yes! I can say that this is happening here in Morecambe Bay and I see evidence of it in many areas. Nationally, we can take comfort from 2 things, in particular. Firstly, although the truth about our current culture is uncomfortable, the truth is now available to all, so change really can happen. Secondly, the vast majority of people genuinely want the culture to change and the dominant minority in the centre of toxic cultures can no longer hold. Mike West says systems can change, and he has gathered some good evidence to back this up. But it takes time (5-6 years), it takes focus and it takes consistency. He breaks cultural change down into 6 key elements that are well worth exploring.

 

6 Key Elements of Cultural Change

 

1) Vision, values and strategy. It is absolutely vital in order for a culture to change that the direction of travel is obvious to all. Salford Royal Hospital in Manchester have for years had the same vision statement: “To be the safest hospital in England”, and they have done it! A vision has to be clear, it imgreshas to mark ambition for the future and be able to guide and inspire the whole organisation towards change. However, it takes 5-6 years to embed this through an organisation. So those who communicate a vision to staff and then wonder why they haven’t got it yet need to understand that a paradigm shift in thinking doesn’t happen overnight. A change in direction of the rudder doesn’t turn the ship in one go. The vision needs to be communicated multiple times in multiple ways to multiple audiences. It needs to be inspiring, owned by all and makes clear commitments to the direction of travel.

 

2) Clearly aligned goals at every level. If a vision is to be cast, there must be measurable goals along the way, so that a team knows they are heading in the right direction. These goals have 2 key elements. Firstly they must be clear and achievable (so not more than 5 or 6). Secondly, they must be aligned to vision, measurable and challenging. People must be challenged to reach an objective, so that the process is both stretching and fun, and there needs to be celebration of goals being reached along the way. Problems emerge here when leaders don’t want to hear about problems that are being encountered. The team needs to be responsive to barriers. For example, there is no point wasting time and energy on collecting data for the sake of it. We want to collect data that actually helps improve patient care or helps staff do their job more effectively. If we want our staff to treat people with care and dignity, then we must treat our staff with care and dignity and that means listening to them and responding to them as we head into uncharted waters.

 

3) Leaders need to manage and engage with their staff well to gain high quality care. The high level ofimgres chronic stress in NHS staff proves that this is not happening as well as it needs to. The Kings fund have discovered some key themes from their research in this area: a) patient satisfaction rates are far higher where staff have clear goals and are working together as a team to achieve them, b) staff views of their leaders is directly linked to patients’ views of care quality, c) staff satisfaction/commitment predicts patient satisfaction, d) if staff feel high work pressure, low control over this and low support then patients will also report low staffing numbers, insufficient support, privacy and respect, e) poor staff health and well-being is directly linked to high injury and mortality rates, and good HR practices lead to lower and decreasing levels of patient imgresmortality. Another key factor is the reduction of hierarchy. The John Lewis Partnership has consistently had the highest level of staff morale for the last 180 years. one key factor is this: there are only 3 levels of hierarchy – CEO/board/partners. Staff/partners feel empowered to make changes and they are listened to.

 

We are not managing our staff well in the NHS. 24% of staff report regular bullying by ‘management. Discrimination is higher especially for those of Black-African and Black Afro-Caribbean descent. It is still high for those from Asia and 18 times higher for Muslims than for any other group and is also high for those who are not ‘heterosexual’. If you have white skin, you are three times more likely to be imgrespromoted into senior leadership positions, when account for numbers is made. And despite the suffragettes we continue to see discrimination against women in certain specialties, most notably, surgery. This is not an acceptable culture. We need to change the culture. Leaders need to learn to be present for their team. Mike West puts it so well: “Leaders need to learn to listen, with kind eyes, full of care and fascination (just as we would want our patients to be listened to). We need to learn empathy, to communicate well and take intelligent action.” Engagement with our teams is about really engaging at an emotional level and this takes trust. Our management styles must change towards being far more inclusive, empowering and under-girded with our values and integrity. For staff to feel happy, there needs to be a sense of a stable senior leadership team. There should be a real sense of anger about how badly staff in the NHS are currently treated but a clear positive attitude towards affecting change. Leaders must help process negative emotion in their teams and deal with quarrelsome, disruptive behaviour that spoils the hope for a different future. Poor performance and attitude has to be challenged if we are to create the kind of culture we need and want to see.

 

There are many situations and systems in which an entire culture can be toxic, with top down bullying as the order of the day. Creating resilience in our teams is not about toughening people up to go back into toxic situations until they finally break. No, we need something far more creative than this. It is impossible to change a culture as a lone shark. Mike West talked about gaining ‘minority imgresinfluence’ – good examples of this are found in the Feminist movement and the Green Party. A small group of committed and determined people can accomplish an incredible amount. But if the culture will not change, then wipe the dust off your feet and go and give your energy elsewhere. Systems can change if there is desire enough to change them. There are hospital trusts in the UK that report significantly higher staff morale than anywhere else. We must learn from places like Salford Royal, Royal Wolverhampton Hospitals, St Helen’s and Knowsley, Bedford and Frimley Park. Here in Morecambe Bay, where the maternity service has been at rock bottom, we are part way through an incredible cultural shift and many other departments throughout the country are beginning to turn here and ask us what we’re learning in our journey of change.

 

4) Learning, Quality Improvement and Innovation. This is a very straight forward point, but one to which we do not pay enough attention. Learning organisations facilitate the learning of all staff and the system itself to continuously improve. If we’re not improving, we are going backwards. We must learn to learn from failures and create a culture where this is acceptable. Learning organisations are characterized by systems thinking with information systems that can measure performance. In such a system, staff are encouraged and motivated to focus on improving quality (why would we want to do a shoddy job?). Learning is done in teams and crosses the boundaries of role and specialization and there is always dialogue going on around this. Prof West says that a key question to continually ask is this: “What do we need to change around here to enable you to be able to do your job more effectively?” We must make a promise to learn and a commitment to act. Where staff have a focus on continually improving patient care and this is embedded in the culture, targets become obsolete. Reflective practice and learning becomes endemic. All staff are accountable and all staff are enabled and empowered to bring about change.

 

5) Team working. Teams need clear objectives, roles, communication and learning. In the NHS, 5% of people say they do not work in a team. 40% of people feel they work in an effective team. That leaves 55% of people who consider the team they work in to be dysfunctional. Stress, injury, bullying and errors are all higher in ‘pseudo-teams’ and the mortality rates are significantly lower for patients who are cared for by teams that function well. Interpersonal conflict is a disaster for effective team and inter-team working. The imgresKirkup report into Morecambe Bay and the Francis report into Stafford both highlight the appalling and detrimental effects of the breakdown of relationship between consultants and hospital departments.  It is estimated that up to 30000 deaths per year could be prevented by more effective team working. This conversation really matters! We have to change our culture.

 

To develop good teams, we must encourage positive and supportive relationships, resolve and prevent conflicts, create a positive group attitude to diversity, be attentive and really listen to our teams, encourage inter-team cooperation and nurture team learning improvement and innovation. Our teams must develop reflexivity. Teams are more effective and innovative to the extent to which they take time out to reflect upon their objectives, strategies, processes and environments and make changes accordingly. The best response to pressure is not to work even harder, but to stop, take a step back and reflect. This is true even in emergency situations, as evidenced by the pilot who handed over the controls to his co-pilot whilst he took time to assimilate his options and decide on a strategy to land US Airways flight 1549 in the Hudson river in 2009.

 

iu-46) Collective Leadership. Leadership is the responsibility of all. It is for anyone with any kind of expertise to take responsibility where and when appropriate. Leadership is shared in teams across the whole community. It is interdependent and collaborative, working together to ensure high quality health and social care. This is our experience through Better Care Together in Morecambe Bay. It needs to be both clinical and managerial. The more hierarchy there is, the less opportunity there is to innovate. There are lessons for us to learn from more collaborative leadership styles like ‘The Art of Hosting’. We would do well, to take heed and learn some vital lessons from teams daring to do things differently.images

 

Mike West finished his lecture with a very beautiful summary: Health and Social Care is about the core value of compassion. We want to create compassionate communities that listen with fascination and are empathic. We have to begin with ourselves. We need to take intelligent actions around this so that we can create the kind of cultures we want to see.

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Death – Allowing it to Happen Naturally

Twice a week I do a ward round at our local nursing home. All of my patients there have profound dementia, and none of them recognise me from one visit to the next. Most of them are doubly incontinent and many of them are unable to communicate and are bed bound. And in that place I find the very best of human compassion and care; real, genuine dignity. I completely understand why families feel unable to care for their loved ones when they reach this stage of life and these kind of care facilities, although imperfect, are of huge value.

But, I believe we need to have an emotive conversation about advanced care planning, living wills and how to allow people to die in a compassionate way without needing to kill them. Most of my patients in this particular home have had at least one urinary tract infection and a chest infection in the last year. Our current default position as medics is to treat the infection and keep the person alive. And I want to ask some tough questions: – For what? For how long? Why? Isn’t there a difference between living and being kept alive?

Now, please hear me. I am not saying that people with dementia are worthless and we should just let them die. Indeed my lovely Nanna has vascular dementia, but she is truly happy and doing very well. I recently went to see her for a weekend. On the first night I took her out to dinner with my family. The very next day she had forgotten all about it, though she still knew who I was! I’m not suggesting that next time she gets a chest infection, we shouldn’t bother treating her. I am saying that every human life is precious, and each person should be honoured and loved. But there comes a point when we have to ask if our ability to sustain life becomes more inhumane than genuinely loving.

Although most of our patients in nursing homes have a ‘Do Not Attempt CPR’ order (because not one of them would survive such an attempt and it would be an horrific ordeal to put them, their family or staff through it), we actively keep them alive when they have an infection. It has caused me to personally reflect that I will make a living will that if I develop dementia one day, and become doubly incontinent, bed bound  and unaware who my family are, I will not want to be treated with antibiotics. I would like to be kept comfortable and let the natural consequences of an infection overwhelm my immune system and allow me to die in peace.

 

I understand that this either takes a living will or should involve team decisions with doctors, nursing staff and where possible the family of the person or next of kin.

We are keeping literally thousands of people alive in this country every year who would be able to die peacefully, without the need for euthanasia if we took our ‘healing hands’ out of the way and allowed compassionate hands to nurse them into the grave. We have every drug we need to keep people comfortable. We have the most amazingly caring staff to treat them with dignity. Are we afraid of letting go? Are we scared of what is on the other side of death? Whatever our reasons, we have to ask if our current management of our elderly citizens with end-stage dementia is kind or compassionate or indeed sustainable.

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