You’re missing the point, Jeremy

I haven’t said much about Mr. Hunt’s address to the King’s Fund, or the uprising and furore it has caused amongst medical professionals. This will come as a surprise to most of you.

When I say I haven’t said much, I have barely shut up about it to my friends and family, firmly and repeatedly ranting and reiterating all the notions and arguments you will have read the internet over. The reason I have not written about it to date, is that there were people far more qualified and eloquent than myself taking up the battle, and it was enjoyable to sit back and read some excellent, incredibly worded letters and diatribes that were emerging from varying areas of clinical medicine.

The reason I am writing now is because I feel a little as if we are missing the point. It doesn’t matter how many Facebook rants, twitter campaigns, signatures on letters we have, this is not going to change the final outcome.

Jeremy Hunt and David Cameron do not read social media; they have people for that. And right now they definitely aren’t reading it because they are on a nice long, comfortable summer break. It is hugely ironic that Mr. Hunt’s speech criticised doctors for not working hard enough, criticised our union and told it to “get real” about the challenges facing the NHS, whilst he prepared to sun himself for 2 months. No, the jobs aren’t the same, and no, I am not criticising him for his inbuilt holiday. I am just pointing out the incredible timing.

As the media bubble is dying down, and attention is shifting away from the implications of his words, this is the time to take action.

No one in the NHS wants you to be more likely to die on weekends. As a junior doctor who has worked 3 out of the previous 4 weekends, with one still to come, I know how stressful and challenging working weekends can be. I know the devastation of someone dying unnecessarily on your watch. I know the heartache when you leave work at 11pm on a Saturday, a broken human being, and have to return again at 8am the next day. But the issues we face do not stem from inadequate Consultant cover.

Take a typical 400-bed district general hospital; maybe 12 medical wards. During the week, there will be anywhere up to 4 doctors per ward, with consultant or registrar input most days. There will be an entire team of radiographers, radiologists, biochemists, microbiologists, outreach nurses, clinical nurse specialists, not to mention highly trained and experienced ward sisters who know their patients inside out. There will be specialist teams working and receiving referrals, psychiatry, rheumatology, neurology to name but a few. Getting advice about a patient is easy.

Come the weekend, there is one on call radiographer for the entire hospital, potentially 2 biochemists running all the samples sent to the lab, and a team of 4 doctors covering all the wards and running an acute medical take. Usually you will take between 20-30 patients per day, and as such the registrar and one SHO is entirely focused on the take. This leaves an FY1 (with anywhere between zero days and 12 months of experience) and one SHO (a doctor 2-4 years into training) covering all the potentially unwell ward patients.

It is impossible to do a ward round on 400 patients. It is impossible to assess each and every person for signs of deterioration. The only way we know about you is if your day team has handed you over as likely to need review, or if your observations are so horrendous that they trigger a hospital wide emergency call. As I’m sure you can imagine, catching things when they are already an emergency dramatically decreases our chances of turning things around. Now, say someone needs an urgent CT, or urgent blood transfusion, or, god forbid, out of hours surgery or blue light transfer to another hospital. Being the weekend, this takes so much longer, purely due to demand outstripping supply, and the fact that people have to come in from home to perform tests.

You run like idiots from one ward to the next, assessing and managing people who are sometimes on the brink of death. The sense of relief that floods through you on a Monday morning when the normal teams turn up is indescribable. I often compare it to firefighting, only you are fighting so many fires at once you don’t know where to start.

Now, if someone can point out how getting consultants to work longer at weekends will solve this, I’m all ears. The government know that this isn’t the crux of the issue. They are not idiots, and that makes these proposals all the more terrifying. They have identified an issue, which is that the NHS as a whole does not operate the same on a Sunday as it does on a Tuesday. They have created mass hysteria by implying that if you are in hospital over a weekend you will probably die. (As an aside, if you read the literature properly, there is no such obvious link between weekend admission and death, which honestly is a miracle considering how unsafe the working conditions are).

The government has alluded that workers in the NHS don’t want 7 day working. This is a lie. I have lost count of how many times I have said I would happily work twice the number of on calls if it meant twice the number of doctors present. But then they would have to pay us all a fair wage and where would that money come from? To implement 7 day working, you either have to employ more people, or work the current employees harder. There is no money for increased recruitment, let alone the dwindling supply of people actually willing to work in the NHS.

It was the changeover for junior doctors last week. The time for new FY1s, fresh from medical school and enthusiastic about their future careers, to come out into the harsh reality of the NHS. One of these fresh eyed and enthusiastic doctors was working with me on the weekend. He was struggling against a new computer system, no log ons, no patience from nursing staff and discharge coordinators and a demanding consultant. All the while trying to learn how to document properly and order the correct tests. This young doctor worked close to a 12-hour shift (4 hours over his contracted hours) on his birthday. He missed a surprise party thrown by his friends, and finally left the hospital late at night, only to come back bright and early and do it all again the next day. All without a word of complaint and a smile on his face. These are the people keeping the NHS alive in the face of ridiculous proposals and underhand attempts at privatisation. New FY1s, I admire you, and it is for you that we must fight these proposals. Join the BMA, go to meetings, have your voice heard. It might be cynical, but there is a very real possibility that this is a long term plan to privatisation –  they raise an issue, try and fail to fix it, and then legitimise the idea that the NHS is no longer viable.

The proposals try to highlight areas of weakness with no legitimate offer of solution, all the while alienating people who willingly give up their time off, their social lives and any semblance of normality and go above and beyond to keep people alive against horrendous odds.

I am not trying to be arrogant, but doctors are the people you want on your side. We are the people who have endured 5 or 6 years of grueling exams, long hours trailing around after consultants in hospitals, and actually celebrated the day when we graduated and were able to work like dogs from 8am to 7pm and beyond for pityingly little compensation and very little thanks. I am not looking for sympathy. We do this job because the rewards are immense. People come into hospital close to death and by our input (and that of many other hospital professionals) go home healthy. We get to see people at their worst, and help them recover. It is a hugely satisfying and rewarding job, and the only reason you still have people doing it is that you never get over the joy of giving someone back their mother/father/sister/child when they thought they had lost them.

And David Cameron and his health secretary have that, and that alone, to thank for doctors and healthcare professionals in general still getting up and going to work in the morning (or middle of the night for that matter).

It is naïve and unrealistic to expect people to work harder, longer, and for less money, which is essentially what the new proposals boil down to. And we are medical professionals, we do not strike, we do not make waves, we accept multiple reforms, none of which have been an improvement on the last, all the while quietly assessing and treating your family, without complaint at 2am, without complaint when we should have left work 3 hours ago, because we know we are privileged to be able to provide this type of care, we know how important it is. But the NHS is running on our goodwill now, and I don’t know how much more we can take.

I trained as a doctor, not a discharge coordinator.

My current medical placement is on an Endocrine ward. This basically means that as a firm, we should get all the acute diabetes cases; complications including renal disease, ulcers, hypoglycaemia etc. We also get people who have deranged electrolytes such as a low sodium, which in some cases is an indication of an underlying cancer or other disease. If I was in a tertiary centre (big teaching hospital) then I would be seeing exciting, rare endocrine cases such as Cushing’s, Addisonian crises and the like. As it is, in a district general hospital, there are not enough endocrine cases to fill the ward and as such we become the dumping ground for various other cases.

We take the social care cases, the patients who are awaiting placement, the long stayers, people with no discharge destination, the waifs and strays of the hospital. Whilst this feels like it should be a varied job, it is actually the dullest thing in the world. Within a very short space of time these patients are medically stable and they are in need of physiotherapy, OT input and social services for packages of care. Or they are awaiting transfer to a rehabilitation ward, or to another hospital for dialysis, or amputation. A typical ward round for us consists of maybe three or four patients who are medically unwell, and then about 20 medically fit long stayers.

This makes you incredibly lazy as a physician. It is so easy to write “obs stable, afebrile, no new issues” in the notes several times over and then go get a coffee and spend the day surfing the net. It is incredibly easy to miss a hospital acquired infection because you haven’t listened to someone’s lungs for a day or two, or noticed that their catheter is draining more concentrated urine. These guys go off quickly too, they go from months of medical stability to dead in a day or two.

It is a well known fact that increased time in hospital increases your risk of getting an infection and dying. It drives me crazy the amount of time it takes to get these guys out of hospital. I understand that there is a complicated assessment process involved in setting up placements, for example. The patient has to be needs assessed, placed in the right type of care facility, means tested for funding and then the individual home has to be seen and agreed by either the patient or their family. This can take weeks. What worsens this process is the total inability of any professional inside or outside of hospital to communicate with someone else. Social services will require a checklist. They will not communicate which checklist to the nursing staff. The nurses will fill in an inappropriate checklist, fax it off and it will be declined. The decision will not be communicated back to the ward. The doctors will go on the ward round and write “medically fit for discharge, awaiting placement” for weeks on end without knowing where in the process they are. Inappropriate people will be asked about updates – OTs get asked when the placement will be approved even though it is driven by social services, but social services are never on the ward and frustration leads to apportioning blame for delay to the wrong people.

Every time that someone is discharged from hospital with an existing package of care that needs restarting, a section 5 is necessary 48 hours prior to discharge to give the carers time to set up the package again. Everyone knows this is necessary, we know who comes in with a POC and therefore they will certainly need the same or increased POC on discharge, yet inevitably we will get to the morning of departure and it is news to everyone that the section 5 has not been sent. It is apparently impossible for the different teams on the ward to communicate directly with each other. People write their interactions in the notes and other teams don’t read them and then plans are made on incorrect information.

In order to attempt to coordinate all these things, there is a multidisciplinary team meeting on a weekly basis. This is my least favourite activity of the week. At face value, it is an excellent plan. You can get updates from therapy, nurses, discharge teams and doctors and then everyone is on the same page and we can expedite someone’s discharge. In reality, however, most weeks social services don’t turn up, totally negating the point of the meeting for at least half of the patients, or the sister in charge will have out of date information, or the doctors will spend half the meeting discussing someone entirely medical, thereby wasting the time of every other professional in the room. In complete defiance of their job title, the discharge liaison team neither discharge, nor liaise. The social worker never has an up to date ward list and is always at least 3 weeks behind with information. It would make a brilliant sketch show, it would be hilarious if it was exaggerated. As it is, people sit in acute hospital beds costing the NHS £500 per night doing nothing other than eat shit hospital food, go delirious from a hospital acquired infection, or become thoroughly institutionalised because it takes four months to communicate the need for placement, fill in the correct forms and get approval.

I don’t know what the answer is, obviously people should be in a place of safety until they can be appropriately discharged, but should that place be an acute ward in a hospital? Arguably not. In addition, most of the patients have come in with relatively minor complaints such as a UTI or chest infection, and got stuck after recovery due to worsened mobility or inappropriate houses for discharge. This job has definitely highlighted to me the importance of trying everything possible in A&E to get these patients safely out of the door. No one wants to take responsibility for discharging a 92 year old with a UTI in case she goes home and falls. But the other option is a 6 month hospital stay, loss of independence and eventual placement. Obviously, if people are unsafe at home I am not suggesting emergency care physicians chuck them out into the cold at 3AM, however, all most people need is a course of antibiotics, or some IV fluids, or plugging in to community services and they will be fine. Alternatively, we saturate our medical wards with people who have no medical problems, and the doctors become deskilled and lazy, and wonder why they bothered going to medical school in the first place.

A Good Death

Everyone has an opinion about the Euthanasia Bill.

For most people with an opinion, the number of times they will be affected by the bill in their lifetime could be counted on one hand. For me, in my current placement, it would affect me daily. I regularly deal with frail, elderly people with terminal diseases. On the whole, they are managed very well, and are often discharged to die at home with dignity, surrounded by their families, supported in the community.

However, there are regularly people who slowly waste away in side rooms in hospitals, with their poor families spending hours, days, weeks in a horrible limbo awaiting their inevitable, but strangely reticent, death. Desmond Tutu has recently been quoted as saying that a “dignified death is our right”. There is nothing dignified about a prolonged dying process. There is nothing sacred about the last few days spent rattling, gurgling and unable to communicate.

I recently had a patient who expressed the wish to die constantly. He was an elderly gentleman who had lived an incredibly full life and was immeasurably frustrated at his current inability to do all the things he wanted to. He was not coping at home, but refused help, and was repeatedly hospitalised due to falls or chest infections. He refused antibiotics for his third pneumonia, and eventually wasted away after a long period of discomfort in a side room in hospital.

Of course, the situation will invariably be more complex than this. The proposed Bill would allow doctors to provide fatal medication to people judged to have less than 6 months to live. As with everything in medicine, there are no certainties. There is new information emerging all the time; scans can be reported poorly and treatments can work better or worse than expected. Estimating survival time is my least favourite part of my current job in Geriatrics. You will inevitably be proven wrong by a patient living months rather than weeks or hours rather than days. People towards the end of life fluctuate regularly with regards to wishes and needs. They are scared. They are frustrated. They are dying. These are difficult situations. But just because something requires thought, and safeguarding, does not mean it is not worth implementing.

I am not suggesting that we approach terminal illness in any way differently with regards to our palliative care input, and our social support systems. These systems are, by and large, incredible, and hugely beneficial to both the patients and their families. However, I think that we have a right to make decisions about our own lives. We are already able to refuse life-prolonging treatments, we can say no to life saving procedures. However, we are unable to actively end our own lives, and that is contrary to our right to autonomy as human beings.

Bishop Egan is calling for group prayers across the UK prior to the discussion in the House of Lords. Apparently, legalising euthanasia would mark the “catastrophic collapse” of the respect for life. Unsurprisingly, I disagree.

As always, religious arguments that hinge on our lives not being our own to dispose of baffle and vaguely amuse me. The argument centres on the fact that God knows what is best for us; life is a gift from God and we should appreciate it. If we take this viewpoint to its full force then where do we draw the line with medical treatments? It is bizarre to me that it is deemed acceptable to do things to prolong our “God given” life, and yet not to shorten it. Surely if God should choose when we die then neither of these things are acceptable. Surely there is an argument that if God has given us the knowledge and ability to heal people, He would be in favour of us using that knowledge to hasten a hideously prolonged wasting away of a previously fiercely independent octogenarian with incurable metastatic disease.

Not all opposition for legalising euthanasia stems from religion. There are people who worry that allowing people the option of ending their lives will lead to a lack of respect for those who don’t, a pressure on the elderly to end their lives prematurely, a reduction in the importance of good palliative care and end of life management.

Safeguarded correctly, no one is going to be forced to die early. Just because euthanasia might be legalised does not mean it will be imposed on the whole population. If you don’t agree with it, then don’t choose it. But people should have the right to decide what happens to them in their final days, a right to die comfortably, quickly, and at a time of their choosing.