I recall that about half-way through my medical career I had a premonition of the problems with patient dissatisfaction that we are now see. It was therefore with dismay, but no real surprise, that I read the results of the British Social Attitudes Survey on patient satisfaction with the NHS and social care. This has shown that growing dissatisfaction continues; now only 57% of people were satisfied with their healthcare while nearly a third (29%) were dissatisfied. These were significant changes, and deterioration, from previous reports and there was a particular drop in satisfaction with General Practice services. Primary Care had previously been the jewel in the crown of the NHS but now was viewed little better than other areas of the NHS. Some areas barely managed a majority of the population feeling satisfied (A&E for example at 52%) and these are generally worrisome figures.
These rates of satisfaction should alarm us. We often hold up the NHS as the “envy of the world” despite its relatively lacklustre outcome measures. We are now watching it slip to the bottom of league tables, of developed European countries, in public satisfaction as well as in performance. Why is this ? It does not seem that it is due to sudden increases in public satisfaction with other European services (though they have generally modestly improved their scores on this matter). It is because of an increase in dissatisfaction with the NHS’s provision and people cite unhappiness with inadequate staffing, delays in being seen, and poor quality of care. They tend to view this as a consequence of inadequate funding and government interference.
These two factors will, without any doubt, foster and magnify dissatisfaction but I am unsure that these factors are as important as they might initially seem. European healthcare funding has been squeezed in all countries but other countries have not witnessed the deteriorations in satisfaction we have observed, indeed, some have even seen slight ongoing increases. It is difficult to quantify government interference but it is a safe bet that this has not been absent in any of our comparator countries. But could there be another factor underpinning this dissatisfaction ? I thought I felt the start of this change many years ago, and this premonition, lead me to leave the practice of medicine earlier than I might otherwise have done.
When I finished University and started working as a practicing doctor I was full of enthusiasm and keen to learn and use new skills. I saw myself as a medical technician; the better I could be at various techniques then the better my patients would fare and the more satisfied I would feel. This was a useful approach, it spurred my education and learning. When a young doctor I had little time for the “professional” hokum that my seniors espoused. It seemed to me to be a way of holding onto power in the face of technological change and advancement they seemed to be using calls to “professional standards” as ways to obstruct needed change. I was certain that I would never become an old reactionary like them.
But time progressed and I learnt my craft and I started to realise that technological skill was only one aspect of healthcare. There was also a large number of other skills that were necessary, political ability for example, to effect change. I also learnt through my successes and, more importantly, failures that there was an art to the practice of medicine which was as important as my knowledge or technical ability. I know that the times that I failed patients it was rarely through ignorance or ineptitude but rather because of a failure to relate to the patient equally and fairly. I recognised that when I failed; it was the times I rushed, did the job but little extra, and paid inadequate heed to the opinions of the patient or their wishes. I started to recognise that I needed more in order to be a decent doctor and began to discover the importance of professionalism.
I grew to learn that professionalism was an asset for both me and the patients I worked with. The NHS was changing around me, a culture of target setting and central planning was reducing the autonomy of clinicians and reducing the choice for patients. It is often said that patients have difficulty in making healthcare decisions due to the knowledge deficit and that they are almost wholly reliant on their medical attendants in order to make these decisions. This is not the case. I grew to be very aware that one skill that patients have is the ability to distinguish between good and bad doctors. They are much better at it than fellow professionals, they know who is good at the job and who is not. But unfortunately they do not get to make that most basic choice – the choice of whom to see, whose advice to seek and with whom they will work to improve their health. In the NHS these decisions are removed; you see the GP that covers your area and the specialist contracted for your area, the patient has little or no say in the matter. If they are lucky they will be paired with the best, on average they will receive average care, and if they are unlucky they may be stuck with the underperforming. You could be referred to the best doctor for people with Parkinsons disease but if your problem is diabetes then this might be less than wonderful. Patients would rarely make this kind of mistake, systems often do.
This lack of patient choice was worsened by another aspect. The patient didn’t chose the doctor and the doctor increasingly didn’t feel that they worked for them as an individual. The central planning and target setting meant clinicians felt that their employer was the NHS, in its various bodies, not the patient per se. Targets were set at Health Board meetings not by patient-doctor discussion. Many times targets could be thought of as useful but a target which pays doctors to increase the number of people on statins might mean that the elderly man who went to see his GP because of loneliness and poor mobility might find himself on the bus back home with a prescription for a statin he had never thought he wanted. It may be beneficial for him, and it might reduce the cardiovascular morbidity of the group, but that had not been his issue and it is possible that the time taken to discuss the statin left less time to talk about the poor mobility and their fears about this. Taking a professional approach meant that, while we would try and meet the targets put forward by my employer, my first loyalty was to my patient and we had to address their concerns first, agree a plan of action with them, and only secondly try and mesh this with the central dictats which were aimed at improving the group.
Without this professional approach there was a great danger of starting to practice a little like a veterinarian. When you take your hamster to the vet, the vet assesses the hamster and discusses with you how you would like to proceed. If the vet informs you that you will have to sell your car to pay for the hamster’s surgery, or forgo a holiday, it is quite likely that the hamster’s days are numbered. We will all grieve for the hamster and agree that it was for the best. Increasingly I found that patients came to me for advice, for example with Alzheimer’s Disease, and I would consider whether we should start a cognitive enhancer. But I would not discuss this with the patient, who is now in the role of the hamster, but with the NHS prescribing group who was in the role of the hamster’s owner. They (Hamster owner/ Prescribing Group) often decided that economically it was for the best that we didn’t prescribe and while this was true at a group level (in health economic terms) it may not have been at the individual level.
These are always difficult decisions but they are difficult decisions that should be taken openly, after discussion, with the patient. The patient should be able to trust that the advice they are being given is the best advice for them as an individual not simply the best decision for the community. When patients choose their doctors they are seeking the best source of advice, advice they can trust because it is not skewed to meet a third parties interest.
In the NHS patients lack the ability to choose who they see. Doctors and nurses are becoming increasingly micromanaged and their professionalism, and thus their independence, undermined. Together this leads to patients unable to work well with their medical attendants and unable to be certain that the advice given is the best available. It sets up distrust and discontent, they see that other European countries, with similar healthcare budgets to ours, do better by patients with common serious medical conditions. Patients read that survival rates for breast cancer in Britain are poorer than elsewhere and that we have more infant deaths than the European average. No matter how many politicians tell them that there are more doctors or nurses, or the NHS is doing more than ever before (which is quite possibly true), will counteract their experience of impersonal healthcare and poor quality outcomes. They will become dissatisfied and this dissatisfaction will continue to grow until the primary problems are addressed.
Until individual patients are again at the centre of how healthcare is delivered it is likely that even if we throw much more money at the system (which will probably be the electoral strategy) this discontent will grow. When we look back, we see the Tredegar Workmen’s Medical Aid Society made a great influence on Aneurin Bevan and influenced the development of the NHS. Unfortunately we seem to forget that the workmen in the Medical Aid Society chose and employed their doctors – they voted on who would be employed and sacked those that were felt inadequate to the job. I am sure this choice greatly enhanced the likelihood of patient satisfaction and is something that we need to rediscover.
Before my career had arrived at its natural end, I had premonitions that dissatisfaction by patients would be inescapable and lead to dissatisfaction in clinical staff also. I could see the first changes in morale and attitude and felt I had to leave. I hope that I will be proved to be wrong in this prediction, as I have been on many others, but recent news has not given me cause for optimism.