19. Queuing like you really mean it.

ImageYork’s new rapid transit system.

After the weather forecast comes the Pollen forecast. For some reason I expect to see it presented by a giant bee, in bee language.

Its pretty difficult to get a GP appointment nowadays, certainly for hay fever. I read in The Times that some GPs are averaging 66 consultations per day. If so, the situation is crying out for a production line system like they use in car factories, where patients move slowly along a conveyor belt in a giant shed.

In fact I see no reason why hospitals shouldn’t operate like this, making so called ‘care pathways’ something of a reality. There would be a faster track through the A and E department, in the same way as East Coast trains fly past First Capital Connect at Potters Bar.

If we have a track for Depression though, lets not make it a tunnel.

Recently I made a GP appointment – I couldn’t really say it was urgently needed, since, like most doctors in fact, I am a bit of a hypochondriac.

Also I made the big mistake of saying ‘its probably nothing’ to the receptionist.

I got an appointment more than 3 weeks later. Of course, like most self-limiting conditions, which is most conditions, it had already got better by the time I got to see the GP. I went in with a grovelling apology and came out in less than a minute. I felt I had blown a bit of credibility though, in case I get a genuine illness one day. Several Cry Wolf points thrown away.

Perhaps there should be a special ‘disloyalty card’ where persistently not attending earns you extra points. Every now and again these could be traded for a free consultation without prejudice.

This set me wondering whether anyone knows how to use the health care system properly. And if so, how can we learn how to do it?

After all, most illness behaviour is determined by social learning.  But no-one ever properly teaches us how to ‘do healthcare’.

We all have a huge stake in the NHS, but, amazingly, the NHS comes with no instruction manual.

Its the kind of thing Michael Gove definitely hasn’t put on the schools’ national curriculum, revealed today. But should he?

At the end of every human interest piece on the news, such as spontaneous combustion in sheep, the damage done by carrier bags or how yogurt can become dangerous under certain circumstances, the answer is always a call for ‘better education’.

This must be hugely irritating to teachers, whose curriculum is already big enough and struggling to cope with constant tinkering.

But along  these lines, instead of say, History, or Geography, why not some basic Medical Sociology?

We could learn about the pernicious effects of the private sector, the inverse care law that affects poor people, how health care systems struggle to constrain costs and how it took the French Revolution to smash the four humour system.

We could learn the difference between Disease, Illness and Sickness, and how the sick-man has disappeared from Medical Cosmology*. Perhaps he will turn up in the cafeteria or X Ray.

We could learn about the sick role and how to play it. We could have a field trip to the Broad Street Pump, where Snow discovered how cholera got transmitted.

Maybe answer the question, why isn’t holistic spelled ‘wholistic’?

We could look at screening programs and learn – very quickly – which ones are worthwhile. Borrowing a few sessions from Science we could look at Causation versus Association and show improving movies like Moneyball. (Subtitle: the art of winning an unfair game.)

If that’s not better than learning the details of World War One peace treaties, I don’t know what is.

We seem to have an insoluble problem in the UK. It is free to go the doctor or see a specialist. Although if we need to get medication it costs £7.85 per item, plus 90p to park. If it involves driving into Nottingham then there’s a £30 charge for getting in the tram lane by accident, and by accident I mean by being careless.

If we try and impose any charge, it looks as though we will discourage the very people who need to see the doctor most often, and the people who most need to drive over tramways. A number of famous studies suggest the most deprived people are those who have the highest rates of illness and shortest life spans.

But being free, the NHS system seems to attract a large number of people whom car dealers would call tyre – kickers.

Perhaps the fairest and most effective way to ration health care would be to create a giant lottery for appointments, or to make them transferable, so that slots could be traded on the open market.

In the GP waiting room, as I cowered in my corner, peering over a 1998 edition of Auto Express magazine, it looked as though the other aspiring patients needed a bit of weeding out, or triage, as it’s called in health care.

With images of Taksim Square in mind, I imagined a military type person coming out with a loud hailer every few minutes:

Anyone whose temperature is 37 or less, please leave.

Anyone with a bad cold or flu, out!.

Anyone with backache, headache, neckache, tennis elbow, golfers’ elbow, or any other kind of elbow – out!.

Anyone with a twinge.

Anyone with insomnia.

Anyone with indigestion.

Out, out, out!

Anyone here for a screening test not based on sound epidemiological evidence?

(Pauses for a moment) It’s 95% certain you should leave.

Now we are seeing a definite thinning in the crowd and a line of people heading for the Cooperative Pharmacy or the alternative practitioners ghetto. No need for the water cannon and rubber bullets after all.

The military style triage is unlikely to prove acceptable in the era of consumerism. Tesco don’t use it, even for the people who turn up at 9pm to get the reduced loaves and then ride around the car park in trolleys.

Instead we have had NHS Direct and 111 – who tend to ‘direct’ you to A and E.

The A and E department have their own filtering system, using time and, to a lesser extent, squalor. More recently they have taken a lead from Heathrow and created a stacking system for ambulances, which circle the hospital, waiting for a landing slot.

I made the mistake of trying to reach Leicester Royal Infirmary by car recently. Like the health care system in microcosm, there is no way in and no way out. I felt like an Apollo space capsule, orbiting the moon, but I had no lunar module to send down.

Those with self limiting conditions have probably got better by the time they are seen. Even those people who are seeking healthcare mainly to meet other people who are seeking healthcare and chat to them, have had enough social contact after 3 hours in a hot little waiting area with a very expensive Coke machine and a silent, armoured television showing volleyball from Belgrade.

Using time as a subtle disincentive is an example of the ‘British’ way of filtering access to healthcare, which is called ‘implicit’ or ‘covert’ rationing. For example, many people who are referred to primary care mental health or substance misuse services receive a letter asking the prospective patient to ring up and make an appointment. Sometimes this also involves filling in some forms and rating scales. A really off-putting one is asking an open question like, ‘what would you say are the aims of this appointment?’

This little change in the Choice Architecture reduces the number of people given appointments significantly. Perhaps these not-very-motivated patients are the right ones to weed out. Or perhaps not. Maybe those who are least forthcoming are most in need.

Because mental health services are very limited, and mental health problems are very common, there is a massive amount of covert rationing for psychological treatments.  Which brings us to the pressing issue. If it’s that difficult to get an appointment for something concrete and medical, like muscle cramps and twitching, oops I gave it away, how much more difficult must it be for a depressed person to enter the system?

Most people with Depression have reduced energy and motivation. Often they are ashamed of seeming weak or useless. Studies have shown that it takes most people a long time to get round to making an appointment. Often it takes a crisis of some kind to bring people into contact with services.

Recently I’ve seen people turned away from blood-doning sessions because they had not made an appointment, even O negative donors, like myself, who should be given the red carpet and chocolate digestives.

I heard would- be donors say things like, ‘I just like to come down here when I’m able to, I just can’t plan that far ahead’. The person in charge assured them that the new appointments system was much more efficient.The Times (10.06.13) reports that the number of blood donors has fallen by 23% in the last ten years.

NHS blood and transport are apparently looking to attract young donors, so perhaps this should also be included in the national curriculum. I’d have given more blood if doning had been offered as an alternative to PE.

It would perhaps make sense to abandon or reduce the system of making appointments in favour of just turning up. We seem to like walk in centres and A and E, where we go when we need to.

In fact I seem to remember GP surgeries used to be like this, before appointments took over. I am sure GPs can produce evidence supporting the idea of appointment systems. And further evidence to support their recent system of the mad telephone rush for slots, jamming the  lines at 8.30 am.

But there has been a massive change recently in the number of things you can do while you wait. This has transformed public transport and it could transform access to healthcare.

If you have a tablet computer, or smart-phone even, you can listen to music, read a book or two, watch a movie and play a few games.

You can skype your relatives and buy a new cardigan online.

This is quite different from even 10 years ago, when you had to be content with old copies of Golf Monthly, collections of curling pucks and a fish tank.

Somehow we have created a system where people’s time is felt to be incredibly important and they can’t be released from work. Did planners fondly imagine that people would pop out of work during their lunch break to have a quick endoscopy?

It looks as though ill people will seek help, providing they know which queue to join and where it starts. All they need is a sign saying, ‘Stagger this Way’.

The biggest crime in the NHS is to make covert rationing ‘explicit’. It’s a bit like a magician showing how the tricks are done.

Perhaps there’s something more honest and straightforward about a queue. A bit like Stargate, we’d call it a ‘Portal into Care’.

Take your iphone. And the charger. Food and drink also. And if you see the sick-man, please send him back to Medical Cosmology*.

*The disappearance of the sickman from medical cosmology, by Nick Jewson,  Sociology May 1976 vol. 10 no. 2 225-244


17. Giving feedback without using the hairdryer.


The characters seemed a little two dimensional and transparent in places.

For a long while, every time I filled the kettle with cold water first thing in the morning I thought I heard someone upstairs scream. I wondered at the time whether this might be an interesting kind of hallucination.

A ‘functional hallucination’ is a false perception that occurs at exactly the same time as a real perception, such as the sound of running water. I had assumed till then it only occurred in old German text books and multiple choice exam questions.

It turned out there was a more mundane explanation. The reduction in water pressure caused by turning on the kitchen tap caused the person having a shower elsewhere in the house to experience a sudden water temperature change, first quickly upwards followed by quickly down. The culprit was and still is a poorly operating thermostatic mechanism in the shower unit.

Although the shower over-reacted in terms of temperature control, I am careful to state that the showering person reacted completely appropriately.

The thermostat is our basic model of a feedback system. It senses the temperature of the water. If the temperature goes too hot or too cold, it responds by cutting or increasing the power to the heating element.

The same sort of negative feedback system occurs in most devices, throughout our bodies, and more generally through social systems.

It requires two prongs – a sensing device, and a device that effects a change.

When we come to try and understand the word ‘dysfunctional,’ that seems to describe certain behaviours or relationships – sometimes even applied to an individual – most often we are looking at a faulty feedback mechanism.

In British culture we have a great deal of trouble knowing how to react to things. For instance, it seems the height of bad manners to criticise someone directly. That would be like sounding a car horn. Instead, we tend to use a low key grumbling approach via third parties – like trip advisor, or writing a rude letter and not sending it.

There are a few exceptions, such as talent shows, and the army. If you want a more challenging annual appraisal, perhaps Alex Ferguson would oblige, using his famous ‘hairdryer method’.

But in general it is very difficult to get honest feedback.

If you write a reference for someone who is absolutely terrible at their job, the custom is to write a glowing reference with the tiniest hint of faint praise, e.g. ‘may lack ultimate commitment’.

One guide to how to behave in a crisis is watching drama. Millions watch soaps like Eastenders on a regular basis. How far do people model their social behaviour on such programs?

Whereas stage actors tend to exaggerate voice and gesture, movie actors have to play it deadpan. TV is somewhere in between, perhaps to do with the size of the actors face relative to real life. If shows get made specially to be viewed on a smartphone, they will probably star Brian Blessed.

Like actors in Greek tragedy, people with Depression tend to ‘catastrophise’ in reaction to events. Odysseus’s mother apparently committed suicide after hearing flimsy evidence that he had died.

In drama, Greek or Soap, no-one ever responds to a crisis by calling a helpline.

British people are more likely to under-react to a crisis. David Beckham found out one of his tattoos had misspelt the word Victoria, written in Sandskrit, as Vichtoria. History records that he was not unduly concerned, merely resolving to stick to Latin for further etchings.

A gentleman with OCD I used to know told me this story. One day he had taken his long suffering ‘good lady’ to the seaside, leaving early to avoid the traffic. Having driven 120 miles to the coast, he was confronted by a completely empty car park with hundreds of spaces. He drove around several times, unable to choose a space and eventually had a panic attack. After recovering, and still not in a parking space, he drove home again.

‘I’ve been a bit silly again’, he finally told me.

I should perhaps have anticipated this kind of eventuality and suggested a simple algorithm for parking. Recently I discovered that elevator systems in large buildings have just such a system for deciding which lifts should go to each floor.

Apparently, according to Mitsubishi Electric, a person becomes irritated immediately he presses the lift button and nothing happens. However, the level of irritation is proportional to the square of the waiting time. From this we can begin to understand how people can develop rage attacks surprisingly quickly.

Remember Christian Bale’s outburst on the set of Terminator? Apparently a technician walked across his sightline during a scene.

I know the feeling, from trying to talk to acutely psychotic patients in the same hospital room where builders are operating pneumatic drills and ripping up the lino with Stanley knives.

There are a number of ways to explain why certain people seem to ‘lose it’, experiencing an acute change in mood and behaviour.

Steve Peters would call it ‘letting the chimp out’, meaning a switch in mind-set, allowing a different set of brain pathways to take over control. Thankfully, Mitsubishi have not included a Chimp Mode in their elevator systems. Though Beko appear to have included a ‘Surrealist Mode’ in their washing machines.

A more neuroscience-based model still, is the possibility of positive feedback, or kindling, where the response actually goes the opposite way from restoring the norm. This is often called a vicious circle.

One theory of panic attacks uses a vicious circle model, where mild signals of distress from around the body are over-read, cause anxiety and thus further physical distress signalling, such as breathlessness, palpitations or chest pain. Finishing with a slightly embarrassing visit to the coronary care unit.

A behaviourist could explain ‘losing it’ in terms of social learning. Previous tantrums or losses of control have been rewarded by parents or others, either in terms of letting the upset person have his way, or by way of reducing ‘messing’ with that person. Having a ‘short fuse’ can be quite useful in certain situations. I once worked for a consultant who was completely benign 99% of the time, but the word about him was, ‘watch out, he goes berserk every now and again’.

One of the triggers seemed to be handing him a post it note with a poorly worded or scribbled message and a phone number. It was not that he had been hypnotised previously and made to react this way, although this is possible, knowing the hospital involved.

It was just that being handed a post it note is a metaphor for being handed a problem, but without the information needed to act on it properly.

I’d like to think that his reputation would have worked to reduce the number of post it notes he got handed, but I never saw any sign of this. Post it notes continued to flow like confetti. Perhaps he should have set fire to them immediately or eaten them.

In the NHS, feedback loops operate comparatively slowly, so it would have taken about 20 years to see the post it notes’ eventual downturn.

Remember the film, ‘Falling Down’? Here, the character, D Fens, is played by Michael Douglas, who is a screen actor and therefore tends to play deadpan. D Fens progressively loses it after a ‘rare morning’, ending up in a spree of violence across LA. The trigger event appears to be a shopkeeper refusing to give change.

An older theory of ‘losing it’ relied on the notion of a repressed or over-controlled person, which I think is what the director had in mind. D Fens had seemingly suppressed his anger by being extremely tidy and organised, never allowing himself to become emotional, and therefore never setting appropriate limits on people.

Here I suppose the systems analogy is the pressure cooker. This has a very primitive feedback loop, so that a massive degree of change from steady state is needed before the feedback occurs, in the form of opening a safety valve.

Here the feedback loop is too coarse to make rapid enough corrections, necessitating an external over-correction, such as being gunned down, albeit reluctantly, by Robert Duvall.

CBT is designed to improve a person’s feedback system: on the cognitive side to make sure the right information is collected; and on the behavioural side to make the appropriate responses.

Luckily the government has given us a new way to make sure we react appropriately.

We’ve been used to making a 999 call, for moments where we identified a very serious crisis. However, the 999 system is abused on a daily basis. One of the problems is that TV never shows anyone calling a helpline appropriately, so we don’t know what constitutes a 999 level emergency.

People have rung 999, for instance, to ask ‘how to dial 111’; because they were not being served in Macdonald’s; to try and obtain a laptop password, and to report the theft of parts of a snowman.

Now, to create a kind of crisis scale, at the milder end, we also have the 111 call.

That gives us the potential, provided British Telecom goes along with this, to fill up the numbers in between, 222, 333, etc, with a sliding scale of catastrophisation.

Let’s put in some examples to test the system.

You are Henry VIII, the most powerful king England ever had.

You have some marital issues, and in particular no male heir to the throne.

I’m thinking 333 would be about right.

Instead of which Henry over-reacts massively, dissolving the monasteries and the catholic church, divorcing his wife and executing some of his best pals.

There is no indication that the younger Henry was overly ‘buttoned up’, casting some doubt on the over-control theory. Although if he really had cerebral syphilis, that might have damaged some of his feedback loops.

Or try this one: Confronted with a pompous email from NHS management you write a reply you misguidedly think is witty, accidentally pressing the Reply to All button, so that every person in the whole NHS gets a copy.

555, agreed?

You eat a yogurt from your fridge mistaking the sell by date 2003 for 2013?

Not even 111, I don’t think. Yogurt never kills.

We are going to need an advisory panel of some kind as arbiters of how to interpret and assign a crisis to a number scale. This would be an efficient resource, especially if we can charge a premium rate for the crisis line. I hope the NHS is working on this.

Failing that I think Mitsubishi could run something up. For indecisive parking, press 111. For misspelt tattoos, press 222. For incorrect change, press 333…

What if the elevator seems awfully slow today? Press 444. Pressing using the fingers is sufficient. It is not necessary to use the axe.