BMJ: Continuity and individualised care matter more to patients than guidelines

old woman walking

By Martin Rowland and Charlotte Paddison
Adapted from article in BMJ 18 May 2013
As the population rises more people are living with multiple medical conditions. These can be diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis, macular degeneration, depression, cancer, coronary heart disease and dementia among others.

These cause complex health, emotional and social problems which make their management difficult, especially in socioeconomically deprived areas. A new model of care is needed to manage patients optimally in these circumstances.
Although this seems obvious, care seems to be moving in the wrong direction for these patients.
Evidence based guidelines are really geared to patients with single conditions. They don’t cater to someone who has multiple conditions. Over treatment, and overly complex surveillance and assessment routines result. Older, less well educated and less affluent patients cope particularly poorly with these regimes. Guidelines also fail to recognise that patients get more frail as they age. The burdens of illness and treatment are different for a 100 year old compared to a 50 year old.
An individualised regime for each patient needs to be developed to focus on what matters most to each one.
Unfortunately doctors often feel that they can’t deviate from a guideline for fear of criticism and litigation. Perhaps guidelines should only be applied when they are clearly being used in the patient’s best interests, instead of the doctor’s? Exception reporting is a mechanism that allows doctors to deviate from guidelines and maybe should be used more.
Medical training does not as yet focus on this sort of individualised care. Medicine of old age comes the closest.
Listening to patients is the key thing that can help a doctor understand what their needs and goals are. The most appropriate care can then be built around that. The biggest barrier to this seems to be the over emphasis on single conditions.  This prevents rather than enhances goal oriented care.
Longer consultations are needed to help guide patients talk about their needs and think through complex decisions.
Satisfaction and outcomes are improved if this can be achieved. Despite this patients still often complain that they never see the same doctor twice both in hospital and primary care. It is also particularly difficult to provide a good quality of care when a doctor does not  know the patient and does not see the patient for follow up.
Young adults say they want to see the same doctor 52% of the time, but this increases to over 80% in those aged over 75.  More than a quarter of patients however say they struggle to see the doctor of their choice. This seems to be getting worse over time rather than better. Perhaps this is due to nurses taking over a lot of the care regarding chronic illness. Doctors are also increasingly working part time and may be involved in other tasks other than direct patient care. Shift systems in hospitals limit continuity a great deal.
In primary care, advanced access schemes give faster access but at the expense of continuity of care.
Older patients are particularly keen on waiting a few days longer to see the GP of their choice. Booking systems need to allow for both access and continuity.
This can be improved by receptionists attempting to book patients with their “own” doctor rather than simply the first available. Two or three doctors can share lists and try to see each other’s patients if one is not available.  E-mail booking of doctors directly can help. E-mail consultations can help.  Time for these must be built into the working day. The number of doctors who deal with  particularly complex needs may need to be restricted. Monitoring continuity of care can help. What gets monitored tends to get done more often after all.
As guidelines need to become less important for patients with multi-morbidity, a doctor’s clinical judgement becomes more critical.  There can be squads of other health care professionals involved in a patient’s care and deciding what ones are necessary and what ones are not is a useful task.  As the need for the traditional UK General Practitioner is increasing, sadly, their availability and time commitments to patient care seem to be decreasing.

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