Changing our healthcare system starts in the consulting room
15 September 2017
Dr Ayman Shenouda
There’s been a lot of discussion around empowering the patient more in their treatment decisions. That we need to shift our focus toward a system that empowers and facilitates choice. But undermining a shared decision-making model – one which has room to provide for both clinical choice and patient choice – is our healthcare system. We have a system which is based on a disease-based model of care which leaves little room to take into account the context of the patient's illness. A system that can allow us to refocus on the patient-centered, personal and unique experience of “illness” must be prioritised.
Patient experience in the health system is so vitally important and has to be valued. For me, changing our healthcare system really starts in the consulting room. It’s that doctor-patient relationship that I really value. And this often goes unnoticed by our decision makers – but it is here where lasting change can be realised. Discussions in general practice are of great value for helping patients take charge of their own health. A more focussed effort here not only helps to improve health but will support quality reform measures which can reduce costs.
Research shows us the benefits of a shared decision-making model approach. These include knowledge gain by patients, more confidence in decisions, and more active patient involvement. Studies have shown that, in many cases, informed patients elect for more conservative treatment options.
Preparing for the challenges ahead
The health system cannot cope with what it is facing. Health care demand on the system is reaching crisis point with public spending at unsustainable levels. Empowering patients is most certainly part of the solution if we are ever going to meet rising demand with an ageing population. But to do this, empowerment needs to be met with a system that can facilitate choice.
Recently I attended an event organised by the RACGP NSW Faculty delivered by an ICU Physician who led an impressive discussion around frailty. He spoke about the elderly intensive care unit (ICU) patient and poor outcomes. More specifically, the need to identify frail patients at high risk of poor outcomes and plan accordingly.
We were brought across a study which investigated the effects of frailty on clinical outcomes of patients in an ICU. It used a frailty index (FI) which was derived from comprehensive geriatric assessment parameters. It found that the use of a FI could be used as a predictor for the evaluation of elderly patients’ clinical outcomes in ICUs. Another study found frailty is common in patients admitted to ICU and is associated with worsened outcomes. It recommended that this vulnerable ICU population should act as the impetus for investigating and implementing appropriate care plans.
Identifying patients at high risk of poor outcomes is key here. But the system cannot identify what frail means, nor does it empower GP decision making at the cold face. Applying the FI is one way to ensure we’re not placing patients where there is no real benefit. But the culture within hospitals makes it hard to implement this tool. Enabling end-of-life discussions particularly at a point when there is a crisis situation is also a barrier.
Planning for end of life and putting in place an Advance Care Plan early is essential. GPs are very good at this. It should be undertaken as part of the Over-75 Health Check. and helps equip the patient, and their family, well for what lies ahead. It’s a good time to talk to the patient about prevention, maintaining functionality, minimising pain or complexity of disease as well as strategies to address them. It is also time to start the discussion around being frail and their expectations around that.
High price for poor outcomes
We know that more than 30 percent of patients admitted to intensive care units never make it out. Those that do rarely make it back to their own home. It costs around $4,000 per night in ICU . This spend can be better utilised if redirected to support patients in their own home.
I know from my own elderly patients’ experience that it is often hard for the patient not to end up in ICU. The system makes it hard to facilitate this care in the community. And it’s hard to take on the system during a crisis. It takes a strong family who is across their loved one's wishes.
Care in the community
I recall consulting at my surgery in The Rock some years ago and receiving an urgent phone call. It was the daughter of my 82-year-old patient and she needed my help in preventing the transfer of her mother from Wagga Base to Sydney. She told me the specialist was transferring her and that the family did not want her to go through this and that her mum didn’t want this either. They understood that their mum was in a critical condition but wanted her close to home.
I immediately made the call to the Specialist Respiratory Physician who explained she had a flouting clot in her pulmonary artery and needed an embolectomy and a filter in her IVC. The specialist had already discussed her case with the Cardiothoracic Surgeon in Sydney and organised the transfer. I explained that the family had called and that this was not what my patient, nor her family, wanted. I also explained that I was prepared to look after her in the community. Fortunately, the specialist at Wagga was comfortable provided she sign a discharge against medical advice.
This patient lived for a further five years. She was able to attend her grandson’s wedding in Sydney two years before she died peacefully at her home with her family around her. A testament to her strength and also that of her family. They ensured she stayed in Wagga to receive care an appropriate level of care in the community. They insisted that she was not transferred to a Sydney hospital where she was likely to end up in ICU and never to come home.
Making the system work
How can we ensure that the system can default to enable care in the community, rather than automatically preference for tertiary care? While there exists a frailty tool there’s reluctance to use it. There’s plenty of GPs happy to care for their patients in the community if that’s their choice. But rarely will the patient’s GP be consulted at that critical stage. There is also limited funding to facilitate this care.
A reality check is well-overdue in terms of outcomes particularly in dealing with the frail. We’re missing the point on where to focus care. This needs to be where there is the greater need and where the efficiencies can be found. And this is not on a system which is disease focussed and already crippled by expensive treatments. To prevent waste, more realistic expectations around outcomes can be achieved through person centred care enabling empowerment. One of the strengths of general practice is the unique relationship between patients and their GPs. Patient centred communication and shared decision making is the foundation on which our health system can be remodelled. Let’s prioritise it.
 Green AR, Carrillo JE, Betancourt JR. Why the disease-based model of medicine fails our patients. Western Journal of Medicine. 2002;176(2):141-143.
 Stacey D, Bennett C, Barry M, Col N, Eden K, Holmes-Rovner, M Llewellyn-Thomas, H Lyddiatt A, et al. Decision aids for people facing health treatment or screening decisions. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews. 2011;as well as(10):CD001431.
 Kizilarslanoglu, M.C., Civelek, R., Kilic, M.K. et al. Is frailty a prognostic factor for critically ill elderly patients? Aging Clin Exp Res (2017) 29: 247. https://doi.org/10.1007/s40520-016-0557-y
 Muscedere J, Waters B, Varambally A, et al. The impact of frailty on intensive care unit outcomes: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Intensive Care Medicine (2017). 43: 1105.https://doi.org/10.1007/s00134-017-4867-0