Friday 8 June 2018

Patience.....or patients?

It's an old joke, based like many on the rich supply of homophones in the English language:

“You need patience to be a doctor” 😂😂😂

Or is it patients? Hahaha.

Well of course, you need both. A doctor with no patients would be rather pointless, whilst a doctor with no patience would be, well, unlikely to succeed.

But this post is about the role of patients in healthcare, specifically in respect of diabetes, as it's the area I know a bit about. Regular readers of my blog will know that all my posts have to have a song title, so please....have a little patience. Or maybe some patients?

I've noticed much discussion on the role of patients in diabetes care ever since I started using the informal diabetes peer support network known as GBDOC around 5 years ago. In diabetes, especially Type One diabetes, the role of the HCP is to teach the skills needed to live with the condition, then to leave it to us patients to get on with it. 

The skills and knowledge required are daunting and all-too-familiar to those of us who have had to learn them: calculating, checking, testing, guessing, and judging; handling and operating advanced, expensive pieces of kit; and above all self-administering constantly varying doses of an expensive and potentially lethal drug whilst continually monitoring its short and long term effects.

In the case of those diagnosed in childhood, this expertise is learned and practised by parents and carers, then handed over to the child, often at a fairly tender age, to allow them to live as normal a life as possible as a teenager. Is it any wonder that people with Type One are so often exceptionally resourceful, composed, capable, balanced and empathetic individuals?

People with diabetes, and parents of children with diabetes, are, in effect, experts in the condition. Now of course, that is to an extent true of any medical condition. If something affects you or your loved ones, you very quickly know all there is to know about it. Fifteen years ago, I and my family suddenly became very knowledgeable about embolization and stereotactic radiosurgery when my son suddenly presented with a previously undiagnosed life-threatening arteriovenus malformation. He owes his life to the NHS, a pioneering German radiologist at the Walton Centre in Liverpool and radiographers at the Hallamshire in Sheffield. Seven procedures on his brain virtually eliminated the risk of a fatal haemorrhage.

But there's a crucial difference: in my son's case, as in most other diseases and conditions, all we could do was stand and watch in awe and fear as the doctors, nurses and radiologists did their thing. The expertise was manifestly theirs, even if the unwanted knowledge was ours.

Whereas with diabetes, it's the patient (or parent) who is the expert. S/he administers the treatment, assesses its effects and adjusts it constantly according to a range of factors – and does so 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, for life. Input from HCPs is minimal compared to that of the patient.

Which is why - and I apologise if this sounds pompous - I was elated by a response I received when recently I was given the opportunity to speak to members of my local CCG in support of the widening of access to CGM, flash monitoring and insulin pumps on the NHS in my home area. I spoke about the life-changing benefits, both physical and mental, that I and many others have experienced from self-funded use of the FreeStyle Libre to help monitor blood glucose levels. At the close of the meeting, a senior member of the CCG, a GP with forty years experience in general practice, referred to my submission as that of an “expert patient” and urged his colleagues to take strong note of my input in reaching their forthcoming decisions on access to FreeStyle Libre sensors on prescription. I walked out of that meeting feeling valued, understood and supported, because a man whom I respect and consider to be an expert in medicine had acknowledged me to be an expert in my own very small way.

So therein, surely, lies an important way forward for diabetes care. Of course we require education and training by experts,  both initially and when necessary along the way, rather like a pilot learning to fly. But once we can fly – and most Type Ones are pretty good at that “flying” – we just need the appropriate support, checks and the latest equipment where feasible, and an acknowledgement that we know pretty well how to get safely through our days and nights of flying. Judgements and criticisms from those who - to extend the metaphor – know how to fly but have never actually flown, are most unhelpful.

As we enter Diabetes Week 2018, I am delighted to report a growing awareness of patient expertise and its role in diabetes care. A small but influential band of doctors - known as the #DocsOfGBDoc - and their DSN colleagues have engaged with the online patient community through #GBDoc chats both structured and unstructured in a spirit of cooperation, professional inquizitiveness and humility, to the extent that I and others consider them to be friends, and many users of the #gbdoc know them better than their own HCPs.

Of course HCPs should not feel compelled to interact informally with patients, especially their own patients. There is a place for professional distance and those HCPs who use social media such as GBDoc should be aware that eloquent, plausible  and forceful patients may not necessarily represent the majority and can become disproportionately influential at the expense of a more reticent minority.

However, I salute those HCPs who do engage with the patient community and thank them all for their friendship and support. Perhaps they could remind others that patience and patients both have a crucially important part to play in healthcare.

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