Category Archives: In Between

The professional is political

There is little hope in a recent piece on Respiratory Futures from Dr Phil Hammond. He paints a bleak picture of the NHS under the current Conservative government, and crystallises fears that many of us have that things will only get worse post-Brexit.

The NHS is more than a place we go to work: it is a community, a family. Attacks on our family feel personal and hurt deeply. What has disappointed me over the last few years is the lack of anger and action from our community. Doctors in particular seem to take pride in separating politics from professionalism. They refuse to speak up or get involved, maintaining a so called ‘neutral’ position. It is not neutral to stand by as our workforce is decimated by regressive barriers to migration, by a failure to pay nurses a wage they can live on, by a junior doctor contract justified by lies and driving many out of the profession. It is not neutral to watch our patients get sicker and sicker as they struggle to self-manage complex chronic health conditions in inadequate housing, fighting income uncertainty, benefit cuts, poverty, and hunger.

I include myself in this. I have got angry, I have written letters, I have protested with doctors, nurses, and students. But I have not done enough. We must all reflect on our personal and professional responsibilities outside of a narrow interpretation of what our work entails. Healthcare professionals care for people. What can we do to make sure that care is effective, expert, compassionate, and sustainable? I would suggest that we need to get political.

It is heartening to see a few well known names, and a few new faces doing this in both the mainstream and social media. But more of us must shoulder some of the responsibility. We cannot stand by as our non-UK born colleagues are made to feel unwelcome and undervalued. We must challenge the narratives on ‘health tourism’ and constantly cite data on the tiny proportion of the budget this takes up. We must celebrate the expertise of all our staff, from home and abroad, and shout loudly that they need and deserve to be paid well for their intense physical and emotional work. We must shut down any suggestions of blame for individuals who are getting older, having mental health difficulties or are becoming dependant, and we must value care workers by giving them time, money and respect. We must listen to people, hear what they need to self-manage their health, and relinquish some of our power and control to them. We must challenge our representative bodies when they are slow to change, silent in the face of national crises, or out of touch with their members.

We must use our privilege and power, we must speak up, and we must act.

The Future is Red

I spoke to Marie Claire magazine about my vote, and my response to the election result. You can read the full article, including three other women’s responses, here. Below is my section of the article.

Waking up after the last general election and after the Brexit vote I felt a sense of hopelessness, alienation and despair. What kind of country was I living in? This morning things are very different. I have voted Labour for years, but have done so grudgingly on more than one occasion, feeling it was the best choice of a narrow offering. Yesterday I voted enthusiastically for Labour, and for Jeremy Corbyn. I woke up feeling hopeful and excited for a brighter future.

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Relationship status update

I wrote the following as an entry for the Royal College of Physicians Teale Essay Prize 2017. The essay title was: How do trainees engage with the RCP and vice versa? – is this a case of a long distance relationship – how can we make this marriage work better? I did not win, but I am sharing here as a provocation. What should postgraduate education look like, and how do we get there?

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More doctors should engage with arts and health

An article I co-wrote “More doctors should engage with arts in health” was recently published in BMJ careers. A longer version is below. Many healthcare professionals are interested in the arts, as part of their own wellbeing as well as their patients. It may not be clear how to align this interest with day to day work, and arts in health practice can therefore seem inaccessible to clinicians. We hope to bridge this gap with an introductory training event, the first of which will be on 30th June at the UCL Macmillan Cancer Centre, and has been approved for 3 RCP CPD points. Read more about it on the LAHF website, and book tickets via EventBrite.

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What is good health?

Doctors spend their professional lives trying to help their patients achieve good health. Although many start medical school with an idealised image of medicine as cure, most rapidly realise that despite phenomenal advances in science, cure is seldom possible. This is partly due to the nature of disease and the inevitable frailty of the human body, and partly due to the fact that none of us exist in a vacuum, and our potions and pills do nothing to change individual patients’ contexts or experience of illness. In fact ‘illness’ is almost impossible to define, as we medicalise more and more natural life processes and events. How can medicine address modern day phenomena of socioeconomic inequalities, lack of housing, poverty, loneliness, ageing, grief, disengagement from society, struggles with sexuality, or finding meaning in life? Should it? The role of the doctor has historically been to promote, maintain and restore health where possible, and to relieve suffering, and offer comfort to all. In this context, wellbeing as a concept that extends beyond a narrow definition of health becomes increasingly important. The WHO definition of health acknowledges this, and states that health is “a complete state of physical, mental and social wellbeing, and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.”[1]

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Finding the words

Making and documenting good decisions about CPR (cardiopulmonary resuscitation) and treatment escalation plans, that are truly shared decisions, is a challenge. I find that the challenge comes from a number of factors: intrinsic difficulties of talking about the possibility of death in a largely death-denying culture; the great diversity of beliefs, wishes, and level of preparation for such decisions amongst patients; difficulties in facing my own mortality and the ways in which personal situations may affect my professional abilities; navigating tensions between hope and acceptance; and additional complexities that stem from having such conversations in the context of an emergency hospital admission. In the midst of a busy shift, faced with distressed people who are in pain, sometimes it is hard to find the words.

A number of recent cases have highlighted concerns about the process of resuscitation decision making and documentation. In particular, people have been distressed by the fact that DNACPR (do not attempt cardiopulmonary resuscitation) orders have being placed in their records without an explicit discussion with either them or their family. The High Court Ruling on R (David Tracey) vs 1) Cambridge University Hospitals 2) Secretary of State for Health forced the medical profession to face up to residual paternalism in this area of practice, and to make changes. It prompted some important reflections amongst individuals, teams and institutions and I have seen a noticeable difference in practice since the ruling, which reinforced the legal duty to discuss decisions about care with patients, particularly DNACPR decisions.

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Parallel lives

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I am immeasurably proud of the NHS: the most successful model of healthcare the world has ever seen. If anyone within my earshot suggests that privatisation would be a step forward they rapidly regret it. But even I sometimes get a wake up call: a stark reminder of the absolute necessity of the NHS, and the horror we may face if the political right’s dream of marketised healthcare is realised.

On a recent shift as the Medical Registrar I received a call from an A&E doctor who wished to discuss a patient who had suffered a stroke. I was surprised as all patients with strokes are channelled into the acute stroke pathway: assessed and treated by a dedicated team and admitted to a specialised unit for consideration of thrombolysis; specialist investigations; and early physio, speech and language therapy. However the A&E doctor explained the situation and I agreed to admit Maria*.

I sat by Maria’s bed in the Medical Assessment Unit, and listened as she told me her story.

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Lonely this Christmas

I love Christmas. But I occasionally find myself in a moment of loneliness in the midst of all the crowds and music and noise. When I see pictures of friends with their newborns, home just in time for Christmas; hear couples conspiring about the perfect present for each other; or catch the refrain of a song and am reminded that no-one is thinking “all I want for Christmas is you” the sparkle loses it’s shine. Being in the ever diminishing demographic of single 30-somethings can be lonely. But these moments are fleeting. I’m soon reminded of how much love surrounds me as my Mum calls to double check when my train is getting in, my brother texts to ask whether vegetarians eat gravy, and my friends email checking who is bringing the Gin at New Year. I know how lucky I am and how full of people my life is, and I was reminded of this on my last day of work before the Christmas holiday.

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Ron* was a patient I had previously met in clinic. He had severe COPD and lung cancer for which he’d opted not to have treatment. He was admitted the week before Christmas with breathlessness and we were treating him for an infective exacerbation of COPD. We were fully staffed and the team had the ward under control so there was time to do what I wish we could do more often: sit and chat.

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