Category Archives: Director & Co-Directors’ Blog

Private Consultations More Effective than Public Provision in Rural India

Doing work across high-income countries (CLAHRC WM) and lower income countries (CLAHRC model for Africa) provides interesting opportunities to compare and contrast. For example, our work on user fees in Malawi [1] mirrors that in high-income countries [2] – in both settings, relatively small increments in out-of-pocket expenses results in a large decrease in demand and does so indiscriminately (the severity of disease among those who access services is not shifted towards more serious cases). However, the effect of private versus public provision of health care is rather more nuanced.

News Blog readers are likely aware of the famous RAND study in the US.[3] People were randomised to receive their health care on a fee-for-service basis (‘privately’) vs. on a block contract basis (as in a public service). The results showed that fee-for-service provision resulted in more services being provided (interpreted as over-servicing), but that patients were more satisfied clients, compared to those experiencing public provision. Clinical quality was no different. In contrast, a study from rural India [4] found that private provision results in markedly improved quality compared to public provision, albeit with a degree of over-servicing.

The Indian study used ‘standardised patients’ (SPs) to measure the quality of care during consultations covering three clinical scenarios – angina, asthma and the parent of a child with dysentery. The care SPs received was scored against an ideal standard. Private providers spent more time/effort collecting the data essential for making a correct diagnosis, and were more likely to give treatment appropriate to the condition. First, they compared private providers with public providers and found that the former spent 30% more time gathering information from the SPs than the public providers. Moreover, the private providers were more likely to be present when the patient turned up for a consultation. There was a positive correlation between the magnitude of fees charged by private providers and time spent eliciting symptoms and signs, and the probability that the correct treatment would be provided. However, the private providers are often not doctors, so this result could reflect different professional mix, at least in part. To address this point, a second study was done whereby the same set of doctors were presented with the same clinical cases – a ‘dual sample’. The results were even starker, with doctors spending twice as long with each patient when seen privately.

Why were these results from rural India so different from the RAND study? The authors suggest that taking a careful history and examination is part of the culture for US doctors, and that they had reach a kind of asymptote, such that context made little difference to this aspect of their behaviour. Put another way, there was little headroom for an incentive system to drive up quality of care. However, in low-income settings where public provision is poorly motivated and regulated, fee-for-service provision drives up quality. The same seems to apply to education, where private provision was found to be of higher quality than public provision in low-income settings – see previous News Blog.[5]

However, it should be acknowledged that none of the available alternatives in rural India were good ones. For example, the probability of receiving the correct diagnosis varied across the private and public provider, but never exceeded 15%, while the rate of correct treatment varied from 21% to about 50%. Doctors were more likely than other providers to provide the correct diagnosis. A great deal of treatment was inappropriate. CLAHRC West Midlands’ partner organisation in global health is conducting a study of service provision in slums with a view to devising affordable models of improving health care.[6]

— Richard Lilford, CLAHRC WM Director

References:

  1. Watson SI, Wroe EB, Dunbar EL, et al. The impact of user fees on health services utilization and infectious disease diagnoses in Neno District, Malawi: a longitudinal, quasi-experimental study. BMC Health Serv Res. 2016; 16: 595.
  2. Carrin G & Hanvoravongchai P. Provider payments and patient charges as policy tools for cost-containment: How successful are they in high-income countries? Hum Resour Health. 2003; 1: 6.
  3. Brook RH, Ware JE, Rogers WH, et al. The effect of coinsurance on the health of adults. Results from the RAND Health Insurance Experiment. Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 1984.
  4. Das J, Holla A, Mohpal A, Muralidharan K. Quality and Accountability in Healthcare Delivery: Audit-Study Evidence from Primary Care in India . Am Econ Rev. 2016; 106(12): 3765-99.
  5. Lilford RJ. League Tables – Not Always Bad. NIHR CLAHRC West Midlands News Blog. 28 August 2015.
  6. Lilford RJ. Between Policy and Practice – the Importance of Health Service Research in Low- and Middle-Income Countries. NIHR CLAHRC West Midlands News Blog. 27 January 2017.

The New and Growing Interest in Mental Health: Where Should it Be Directed?

Mental health provision and mental health research are undergoing something of a renaissance. The subject has been the priority of successive governments, more people are entering mental health professions, and mental health attracts a financial premium under the Research Evaluation Framework, through which universities receive care funding. The biological basis of many mental health diseases has recently been unravelled – see for instance past News Blogs on the molecular biology of schizophrenia, and Alzheimer’s disease.[1] [2] From a philosophical standpoint the mind is now seen as a function of the brain, just as circulating the blood is a function of the heart. The interaction between the brain and the rest of the body, first discovered by observations on Alexis St. Martin in 1822, and later seen in ‘Tom’ in 1947,[3] is now a major source of investigation (see another article in this News Blog on a part of the brain called the amygdala).

>Much of this renewed attention on mental illness carries the, often implicit, implication that mental health treatment should improve. This is undoubtedly the case for many diseases at the severe end of the psychiatric spectrum. One does, however, have to wonder whether the traditional medical model that serves us well in diseases such as schizophrenia and autism, is really the right way to go for other conditions such as depression and anxiety, especially in their milder forms. Depression, one often reads, affects 30% of the population. But 30% represents a choice of threshold, since the definition of ‘caseness’ turns on where the line is drawn. If set at roughly one-third of the population one has to wonder about the logistics of supplying sufficient treatment. And even if the logistics can be managed, it still seems wrong to make ‘cases’ of fully a third of the human race. To put this another way, common problems, such as depression and obesity are best tackled at the societal level. Therapeutic services can then deal with the most serious end of the spectrum – people who really should be given a diagnostic label. This would seem to be the way to go for (at least) two reasons. First, many people (especially at the milder end of the spectrum, where normality elides into diseases) do not present to health services. Their mental health is important. Second, the brain is a ‘learning machine’ and it is hard to reverse harmful behaviours, such as eating disorders, once they have been firmly encoded in neural circuits. Mental health practitioners therefore have a preventive / public health responsibility to intervene by encouraging a wider ‘psycho-prophylactic’ approach. And this topic needs research support every bit as much as therapy. A population level approach would seem to have two broad components – a supportive environment, and encouraging resilience in the population.

Let us consider a supportive environment. Reducing bullying in schools is an archetypal example of an intervention to create a psychotropic environment. There is clear and present evidence that the victim (but not the perpetrator) is harmed by bullying, and there is also good evidence that the problem can be prevented.[4] How a psycho-therapeutic environment may look in other respects is less clear-cut. Workplace culture is likely to be important. The Whitehall studies show that a feeling of powerlessness is associated with stress and illness,[5] but putting this right is not a simple manner. For example, it is widely believed that an optimistic, or so-called ‘positive’, outlook is helpful in the workplace, but the experimental evidence actually points the other way. Being realistic about difficulties ahead and (often low) chances of success, is more helpful than a culture of poorly titrated optimism.[6]

There are many specific groups that are at risk of mental suffering and where environmental modification may help. While the workplace is stressful and a source of anxiety and depression, it has its antithesis in the loneliness that often accompanies old age. There is a fashion to try to keep everyone living independently in their homes for as long as possible. However, such an environment is likely to lead to increasing isolation. I think that communal living should be encouraged in the declining years between retirement and death.[7]

What about resilience in the population? To a degree, the workplace will always be stressful since competing interests and time pressures are inevitable. How can we increase resilience? Taking part in guides and scouts is associated with better mental health outcomes in young people.[8] Exercise has positive benefits on mental health across the age spectrum,[9] and team sports seem particularly beneficial. It is possible that we can encourage ‘mental hygiene’ by talking about it and encouraging healthy mental behaviours. I have a tendency to self-pity and so practice a kind of cognitive behavioural therapy on myself – I think of role models and count my blessings. Others practice ‘mindfulness’. We need to learn more about how to build resilience through experience. Where lies the balance between a bland life devoid of competition, and a ruthless environment creating ingrained winners and losers? I hypothesise that an environment where people are encouraged to have a go, but where coercion is avoided and failure is seen as par for the course, will prepare children for life’s vicissitudes. However, I suspect we are in the foothills of discovery in this regard.

There is always a temptation to screen for illness when it cannot be fully prevented, but the screening can often do more harm than good, and this is true in mental health as well as a physical context. Certainly, routine debriefing after a major incident or difficult childbirth appears to be at best unhelpful. CLAHRC WM collaborator Swaran Singh and colleagues showed that screening for the prodromal symptoms of schizophrenia is also unhelpful as it produces an extremely high false positive rate.[10] Again, working out when screening is of net benefit is an important task for the future.

In conclusion, none of what I have written should be seen as a criticism of therapeutic research and practice. Rather, I argue for a broadening of scope, not only to find things that are predictive of poor mental health, but to find workable methods to improve mental health at a population level. Public mental health is an enduring topic in CLAHRC WM.

— Richard Lilford, CLAHRC WM Director

References:

  1. Lilford RJ. Psychiatry Comes of Age. NIHR CLAHRC West Midlands News Blog. 11 March 2016.
  2. Lilford RJ. A Fascinating Account of the Opening up of an Area of Scientific Enquiry. NIHR CLAHRC West Midlands News Blog. 11 November 2016.
  3. Wolf S. Stress and the Gut. Gastroenterol. 1967. 52(2):288-9.
  4. Menesini E & Salmivalli C. Bullying in schools: the state of knowledge and effective interventions. Psychol Health Med. 2017; 22(s1): 240-53.
  5. Bell R, Britton A, Brunner E, et al. Work Stress and Health: the Whitehall II study. London: Council of Civil Service Unions / Cabinet Office; 2004.
  6. Lilford RJ. Managing Staff: A Role for Tough Love? NIHR CLAHRC West Midlands News Blog. 2 September 2016.
  7. Lilford RJ. Encouraging Elderly People to Live Independent Lives: Bad Idea? NIHR CLAHRC West Midlands News Blog. 16 April 2014.
  8. Lilford RJ. Does Being a Guide or Scout as a Child Promote Mental Health in Adulthood?. NIHR CLAHRC West Midlands News Blog. 25 November 2016.
  9. Lilford RJ. On the High Prevalence of Mental Disorders. NIHR CLAHRC West Midlands News Blog. 7 March 2014.
  10. Perry BI, McIntosh G, Welch S, Singh S, Rees K. The association between first-episode psychosis and abnormal glycaemic control: systematic review and meta-analysis. Lancet Psychiatry. 2016; 3(11): 1049-58.

And Today We Have the Naming of Parts*

Management research, health services research, operations research, quality and safety research, implementation research – a crowded landscape of words describing concepts that are, at best, not entirely distinct, and at worst synonyms. Some definitions are given in Table 1. Perhaps the easiest one to deal with is ‘operations research’, which has a rather narrow meaning and is used to describe mathematical modelling techniques to derive optimal solutions to complex problems typically dealing with the flow of objects (people) over time. So it is a subset of the broader genre covered by this collection of terms. Quality and safety research puts the cart before the horse by defining the intended objective of an intervention, rather than where in the system the intervention impacts. Since interventions at a system level may have many downstream effects, it seems illogical and indeed potentially harmful, to define research by its objective, an argument made in greater detail elsewhere.[1]

Health Services Research (HSR) can be defined as management research applied to health, and is an acceptable portmanteau term for the construct we seek to define. For those who think the term HSR leaves out the development and evaluation of interventions at service level, the term Health Services and Delivery Research (HS&DR) has been devised. We think this is a fine term to describe management research as applied to the health services, and are pleased that the NIHR has embraced the term, and now has two major funding schemes ­– the HTA programme dealing with clinical research, and the HS&DR dealing with management research. In general, interventions and their related research programmes can be neatly represented as shown in the framework below, represented in a modified Donabedian chain:

078 DCB - Figure 1

So what about implementation research then? Wikipedia defines implementation research as “the scientific study of barriers to and methods of promoting the systematic application of research findings in practice, including in public policy.” However, a recent paper in BMJ states that “considerable confusion persists about its terminology and scope.”[2] Surprised? In what respect does implementation research differ from HS&DR?

Let’s start with the basics:

  1. HS&DR studies interventions at the service level. So does implementation research.
  2. HS&DR aims to improve outcome of care (effectiveness / safety / access / efficiency / satisfaction / acceptability / equity). So does implementation research.
  3. HS&DR seeks to improve outcomes / efficiency by making sure that optimum care is implemented. So does implementation research.
  4. HS&DR is concerned with implementation of knowledge; first knowledge about what clinical care should be delivered in a given situation, and second about how to intervene at the service level. So does implementation research.

This latter concept, concerning the two types of knowledge (clinical and service delivery) that are implemented in HS&DR is a critical one. It seems poorly understood and causes many researchers in the field to ‘fall over their own feet’. The concept is represented here:

078 DCB - Figure 2HS&DR / implementation research resides in the South East quadrant.

Despite all of this, some people insist on keeping the distinction between HS&DR and Implementation Research alive – as in the recent Standards for Reporting Implementation studies (StaRI) Statement.[3] The thing being implemented here may be a clinical intervention, in which case the above figure applies. Or it may be a service delivery intervention. Then they say that once it is proven, it must be implemented, and this implementation can be studied – in effect they are arguing here for a third ring:

078 DCB - Figure 3

This last, extreme South East, loop is redundant because:

  1. Research methods do not turn on whether the research is HS&DR or so-called Implementation Research (as the authors acknowledge). So we could end up in the odd situation of the HS&DR being a before and after study, and the Implementation Research being a cluster RCT! The so-called Implementation Research is better thought of as more HS&DR – seldom is one study sufficient.
  2. The HS&DR itself requires the tenets of Implementation Science to be in place – following the MRC framework, for example – and identifying barriers and facilitators. There is always implementation in any trial of evaluative research, so all HS&DR is Implementation Research – some is early and some is late.
  3. Replication is a central tenet of science and enables context to be explored. For example, “mother and child groups” is an intervention that was shown to be effective in Nepal. It has now been ‘implemented’ in six further sites under cluster RCT evaluation. Four of the seven studies yielded positive results, and three null results. Comparing and contrasting has yielded a plausible theory, so we have a good idea for whom the intervention works and why.[4] All seven studies are implementations, not just the latter six!

So, logical analysis does not yield any clear distinction between Implementation Research on the one hand and HS&DR on the other. The terms might denote some subtle shift of emphasis, but as a communication tool in a crowded lexicon, we think that Implementation Research is a term liable to sow confusion, rather than generate clarity.

Table 1

Term Definitions Sources
Management research “…concentrates on the nature and consequences of managerial actions, often taking a critical edge, and covers any kind of organization, both public and private.” Easterby-Smith M, Thorpe R, Jackson P. Management Research. London: Sage, 2012.
Health Services Research (HSR) “…examines how people get access to health care, how much care costs, and what happens to patients as a result of this care.” Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality. What is AHRQ? [Online]. 2002.
HS&DR “…aims to produce rigorous and relevant evidence on the quality, access and organisation of health services, including costs and outcomes.” INVOLVE. National Institute for Health Research Health Services and Delivery Research (HS&DR) programme. [Online]. 2017.
Operations research “…applying advanced analytical methods to help make better decisions.” Warwick Business School. What is Operational Research? [Online]. 2017.
Patient safety research “…coordinated efforts to prevent harm, caused by the process of health care itself, from occurring to patients.” World Health Organization. Patient Safety. [Online]. 2017.
Comparative Effectiveness research “…designed to inform health-care decisions by providing evidence on the effectiveness, benefits, and harms of different treatment options.” Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality. What is Comparative Effectiveness Research. [Online]. 2017.
Implementation research “…the scientific inquiry into questions concerning implementation—the act of carrying an intention into effect, which in health research can be policies, programmes, or individual practices (collectively called interventions).” Peters DH, Adam T, Alonge O, Agyepong IA, Tran N. Implementation research: what it is and how to do it. BMJ. 2013; 347: f6753.

We have ‘audited’ David Peters’ and colleagues BMJ article and found that every attribute they claim for Implementation Research applies equally well to HS&DR, as you can see in Table 2. However, this does not mean that we should abandon ‘Implementation Science’ – a set of ideas useful in designing an intervention. For example, stakeholders of all sorts should be involved in the design; barriers and facilitators should be identified; and so on. By analogy, I think Safety Research is a back-to-front term, but I applaud the tools and insights that ‘safety science’ provides.

Table 2

Term
“…attempts to solve a wide range of implementation problems”
“…is the scientific inquiry into questions concerning implementation – the act of carrying an intention into effect, which in health research can be policies, programmes, or individual practices (…interventions).”
“…can consider any aspect of implementation, including the factors affecting implementation, the processes of implementation, and the results of implementation.”
“The intent is to understand what, why, and how interventions work in ‘real world’ settings and to test approaches to improve them.”
“…seeks to understand and work within real world conditions, rather than trying to control for these conditions or to remove their influence as causal effects.”
“…is especially concerned with the users of the research and not purely the production of knowledge.”
“…uses [implementation outcome variables] to assess how well implementation has occurred or to provide insights about how this contributes to one’s health status or other important health outcomes.
…needs to consider “factors that influence policy implementation (clarity of objectives, causal theory, implementing personnel, support of interest groups, and managerial authority and resources).”
“…takes a pragmatic approach, placing the research question (or implementation problem) as the starting point to inquiry; this then dictates the research methods and assumptions to be used.”
“…questions can cover a wide variety of topics and are frequently organised around theories of change or the type of research objective.”
“A wide range of qualitative and quantitative research methods can be used…”
“…is usefully defined as scientific inquiry into questions concerning implementation—the act of fulfilling or carrying out an intention.”

 — Richard Lilford, CLAHRC WM Director and Peter Chilton, Research Fellow

References:

  1. Lilford RJ, Chilton PJ, Hemming K, Girling AJ, Taylor CA, Barach P. Evaluating policy and service interventions: framework to guide selection and interpretation of study end points. BMJ. 2010; 341: c4413.
  2. Peters DH, Adam T, Alonge O, Agyepong IA, Tran N. Implementation research: what it is and how to do it. BMJ. 2013; 347: f6753.
  3. Pinnock H, Barwick M, Carpenter CR, et al. Standards for Reporting Implementation Studies (StaRI) Statement. BMJ. 2017; 356: i6795.
  4. Prost A, Colbourn T, Seward N, et al. Women’s groups practising participatory learning and action to improve maternal and newborn health in low-resource settings: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Lancet. 2013; 381: 1736-46.

*Naming of Parts by Henry Reed, which Ray Watson alerted us to:

Today we have naming of parts. Yesterday,

We had daily cleaning. And tomorrow morning,

We shall have what to do after firing. But to-day,

Today we have naming of parts. Japonica

Glistens like coral in all of the neighbouring gardens,

And today we have naming of parts.

Measuring Quality of Care

Measuring quality of care is not a straightforward business:

  1. Routinely collected outcome data tend to be misleading because of very poor ratios of signal to noise.[1]
  2. Clinical process (criterion based) measures require case note review and miss important errors of omission, such as diagnostic errors.
  3. Adverse events also require case note review and are prone to measurement error.[2]

Adverse event review is widely practiced, usually involving a two-stage process:

  1. A screening process (sometimes to look for warning features [triggers]).
  2. A definitive phase to drill down in more detail and refute or confirm (and classify) the event.

A recent HS&DR report [3] is important for two particular reasons:

  1. It shows that a one-stage process is as sensitive as the two-stage process. So triggers are not needed; just as many adverse events can be identified if notes are sampled at random.
  2. In contrast to (other) triggers, deaths really are associated with a high rate of adverse events (apart, of course, from the death itself). In fact not only are adverse events more common among patients who have died than among patients sampled at random (nearly 30% vs. 10%), but the preventability rates (probability that a detected adverse event was preventable) also appeared slightly higher (about 60% vs. 50%).

This paper has clear implications for policy and practice, because if we want a population ‘enriched’ for high adverse event rates (on the ‘canary in the mineshaft’ principle), then deaths provide that enrichment. The widely used trigger tool, however, serves no useful purpose – it does not identify a higher than average risk population, and it is more resource intensive. It should be consigned to history.

Lastly, England and Wales have mandated a process of death review, and the adverse event rate among such cases is clearly of interest. A word of caution is in order here. The reliability (inter-observer agreement) in this study was quite high (Kappa 0.5), but not high enough for comparisons across institutions to be valid. If cross-institutional comparisons are required, then:

  1. A set of reviewers must review case notes across hospitals.
  2. At least three reviewers should examine each case note.
  3. Adjustment must be made for reviewer effects, as well as prognostic factors.

The statistical basis for these requirements are laid out in detail elsewhere.[4] It is clear that reviewers should not review notes from their own hospitals, if any kind of comparison across institutions is required – the results will reflect the reviewers rather than the hospitals.

Richard Lilford, CLAHRC WM Director

References:

  1. Girling AJ, Hofer TP, Wu J, et al. Case-mix adjusted hospital mortality is a poor proxy for preventable mortality: a modelling studyBMJ Qual Saf. 2012; 21(12): 1052-6.
  2. Lilford R, Mohammed M, Braunholtz D, Hofer T. The measurement of active errors: methodological issues. Qual Saf Health Care. 2003; 12(s2): ii8-12.
  3. Mayor S, Baines E, Vincent C, et al. Measuring harm and informing quality improvement in the Welsh NHS: the longitudinal Welsh national adverse events study. Health Serv Deliv Res. 2017; 5(9).
  4. Manaseki-Holland S, Lilford RJ, Bishop JR, Girling AJ, Chen YF, Chilton PJ, Hofer TP; UK Case Note Review Group. Reviewing deaths in British and US hospitals: a study of two scales for assessing preventability. BMJ Qual Saf. 2016. [ePub].

Wrong Medical Theories do Great Harm but Wrong Psychology Theories are More Insidious

Back in the 1950s, when I went from nothing to something, a certain Dr Spock bestrode the world of child rearing like a colossus. Babies, said Spock, should be put down to sleep in the prone position. Only years later did massive studies show that children are much less likely to experience ‘cot death’ or develop joint problems if they are placed supine – on their backs. Although I survived prone nursing to become a CLAHRC director, tens of thousands of children must have died thanks to Dr Spock’s ill-informed theory.

So, I was fascinated by an article in the Guardian newspaper, titled ‘No evidence to back the idea of learning styles’.[1] The article was signed by luminaries from the world of neuroscience, including Colin Blakemore (who I knew, and liked, when he was head of the MRC). I decided to retrieve the article on which the Guardian piece was mainly based – a review in ‘Psychological Science in the Public Interest’.[2]

The core idea is that people have clear preferences for how they prefer to receive information (e.g. pictorial vs. verbal) and that teaching is most effective if delivered according to the preferred style. This idea is widely accepted among psychologists and educationalists, and is advocated in many current textbooks. Numerous tests have been devised to diagnose a person’s learning style so that their instruction can be tailored accordingly. Certification programmes are offered, some costing thousands of dollars. A veritable industry has grown up around this theory. The idea belongs to a larger set of ideas, originating with Jung, called ‘type theories’; the notion that people fall into distinct groups or ‘types’, from which predictions can be made. The Myers-Briggs ‘type’ test is still deployed as part of management training and I have been subjected to this instrument, despite the fact that its validity as the basis for selection or training has not been confirmed in objective studies. People seem to cling to the idea that types are critically important. That types exist is not the issue of contention (males/females; extrovert/introvert), it is what they mean (learn in different ways; perform differently in meetings) that is disputed. In the case of learning styles the hypothesis of interest is that the style (which can be observed ex ante) meshes with a certain type of instruction (the benefit of which can be observed ex post). The meshing hypothesis holds that different modes of instruction are optimal for different types of person “because different modes of presentation exploit the specific perceptual and cognitive strengths of different individuals.” This hypothesis entails the assumption that people with a certain style (based, say on a diagnostic instrument or ‘tool’) will experience better educational outcomes when taught in one way (say, pictorial) than when taught in another way (say, verbal). It is precisely this (‘meshing’) hypothesis that the authors set out to test.

Note then that finding that people have different preferences does not confirm the hypothesis. Likewise, finding that different ability levels correlate with these preferences would not confirm the hypothesis. The hypothesis would be confirmed by finding that teaching method 1 is more effective than method 2 in type A people, while teaching method 2 is more effective than teaching method 1 in type B people.

The authors find, from the voluminous literature, only four studies that test the above hypothesis. One of these was of weak design. The three stronger studies provide null results. The weak study did find a style-by-treatment interaction, but only after “the outliers were excluded for unspecified reasons.”

Of course, the null results do not exclude the possibility of an effect, particularly a small effect, as the authors point out. To shed further light on the subject they explore related literatures. First they examine aptitude (rather than just learning style preference) to see whether there is an interaction between aptitude and pedagogic method. Here the literature goes right back to Cornbach in 1957. One particular hypothesis was that high aptitude students fare better in a less structured teaching format, while those with less aptitude fare better where the format is structured and explicit. Here the evidence is mixed, such that in about half of studies, less structure suits high ability students, while more structure suits less able students – one (reasonable) interpretation for the different results is that there may be certain contexts where aptitude/treatment interactions do occur and others where they do not. Another hypothesis concerns an aspect of personality called ‘locus of control’. It was hypothesised that an internal locus of control (people who incline to believe their destiny lies in their own hands) would mesh with an unstructured format of instruction and vice versa. Here the evidence, taken in the round, tends to confirm the hypothesis.

So, there is evidence (not definitive, but compelling) for an interaction between personality and aptitude and teaching method. There is no such evidence for learning style preference. This does not mean that some students will need an idea to be explained one way while others need it explained in a different way. This is something good teachers sense as they proceed, as emphasised in a previous blog.[3] But tailoring your explanation according to the reaction of students is one thing, determining it according to a pre-test is another. In fact, the learning style hypothesis may impede good teaching by straightjacketing teaching according to a pre-determined format, rather than encouraging teachers to adapt to the needs of students in real time. Receptivity to the expressed needs of the learner seems preferable to following a script to which the learner is supposed to conform.

And why have I chosen this topic for the main News Blog article? Two reasons:

First, it shows how an idea may gain purchase in society with little empirical support, and we should be ever on our guard – the Guardian lived up to its name in this respect!

Second, because health workers are educators; we teach the next generation and we teach our peers. Also, patient communication has an undoubted educational component (see our previous main blog [4]). So we should keep abreast of general educational theory. Many CLAHRC WM projects have a strong educational dimension.

— Richard Lilford, CLAHRC WM Director

References:

  1. Hood B, Howard-Jones P, Laurillard D, et al. No Evidence to Back Idea of Learning Styles. The Guardian. 12 March 2017.
  2. Pashler H, McDaniel M, Rohrer D, Bjork R. Learning Styles: Concepts and Evidence. Psychol Sci Public Interest. 2008; 9(3): 105-19.
  3. Lilford RJ. Education Update. NIHR CLAHRC West Midlands News Blog. 2 September 2016.
  4. Lilford RJ. Doctor-Patient Communication in the NHS. NIHR CLAHRC West Midlands News Blog. 24 March 2017.

Publishing Health Economic Models

It has increasingly become de rigueur – if not necessary – to publish the primary data collected as part of clinical trials and other research endeavours. In 2015 for example, the British Medical Journal stipulated that a pre-condition of publication of all clinical trials was the guarantee to make anonymised patient-level data available on reasonable request.[1] Data repositories, from which data can be requested such as the Yoda Project, and from which data can be directly downloaded such as Data Dryad provide a critical service for researchers wanting to make their data available and transparent. The UK Data Service also provides access to an extensive range of quantitative and, more recently, qualitative data from studies focusing on matters relating to society, economics and populations. Publishing data enables others to replicate and verify (or otherwise) original findings and, potentially, to answer additional research questions and add to knowledge in a particularly cost-effective manner.

At present, there is no requirement for health economic models to be published. The ISPOR-SMDM Good Research Practices Statement advocates publishing of sufficient information to meet their goals of transparency and validation.[2] In terms of transparency, the Statement notes that this should include sufficiently detailed documentation “to enable those with the necessary expertise and resources to reproduce the model”. The need to publish the model itself is specifically refuted, using the following justification: “Building a model can require a significant investment in time and money; if those who make such investments had to give their models away without restriction, the incentives and resources to build and maintain complex models could disappear”. This justification may be relatively hard to defend for “single-use” models that are not intended to be reused. Although the benefits of doing so are limited, publishing such models would still be useful if a decision-maker facing a different cost structure wanted to evaluate the cost-effectiveness of a specific intervention in their own context. The publication of any economic model would also allow for external validation which would likely be stronger than internal validation (which could be considered marking one’s own homework).

The most significant benefits of publication are most likely to arise from the publication of “general” or “multi-application” models because those seeking to adapt, expand or develop the original model would not have to build it from scratch, saving time and money (recognising this process would be facilitated by the publication of the technical documentation from the original model). Yet it is for these models that not publishing gives developers a competitive advantage in any further funding bids in which a similar model is required. This confers partial monopoly status in a world where winning grant income is becoming ever more critical. However, I like to believe most researchers also want to maximise the health and wellbeing of society: am aim rarely achieved by monopolies. The argument for publication gets stronger when society has paid (via taxation) for the development of the original model. It is also possible that the development team benefit from publication through increased citations and even the now much sought after impact. For example, the QRISK2 calculator used to predict cardiovascular risk is available online and its companion paper [3] has earned Julia Hippisley-Cox and colleagues almost 700 citations.

Some examples of published economic models exist, such as a costing model for selection processes for speciality training in the UK. While publication of more – if not all – economic models is not an unrealistic aim, it is also necessary to respect intellectual property rights. We welcome your views on whether existing good practice for transparency in health economic modelling should be extended to include the model itself.

— Celia Taylor, Associate Professor

References:

  1. Loder E, & Groves T. The BMJ requires data sharing on request for all trials. BMJ. 2015; 350: h2373.
  2. Eddy DM, Hollingworth W, Caro JJ, et al. Model transparency and validation: a report of the ISPOR-SMDM Modeling Good Research Practices Task Force–7. Med Decis Making. 2012; 32(5): 733-43.
  3. Hippisley-Cox J, Coupland C, Vinogradova Y, et al. Predicting cardiovascular risk in England and Wales: prospective derivation and validation of QRISK2. BMJ. 2008; 336(7659): 1475-82.

Doctor-Patient Communication in the NHS

Andrew McDonald (former Chief Executive of Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority) was recently asked by the Marie Curie charity to examine the quality of doctor-patient communication in the NHS, as discussed on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme on 13 March 2017 (you can listen online). His report concluded that communication was woefully inadequate and that patients were not getting the clear and thorough counselling that they needed in order to understand their condition and make informed choices about options in their care. Patients need to understand what is likely to happen to them, and not all patients with the same condition will want to make the same choice(s). Indeed my own work [1] is part of a large body of research, which shows that better information leads to better knowledge, which in turn affects the choices that patients make. Evidence that the medical and caring professions do not communicate in an informative and compassionate way is therefore a matter of great concern.

However, there is a paradox – feedback from patients, that communication should lie at the heart of their care, has not gone unheard. For instance, current medical training is replete with “communication skills” instruction. Why then do patients still feel dissatisfied; why have matters not improved radically? My diagnosis is that good communication is not mainly a technical matter. Contrary to what many people think, the essence of good communication does not lie in avoiding jargon or following a set of techniques – a point often emphasised by my University of Birmingham colleague John Skelton. These technical matters should not be ignored – but they are not the nub of the problem.

In my view good communication requires effort, and poor communication reflects an unwillingness to make that effort; it is mostly a question of attitude. Good communication is like good teaching. A good communicator has to take time to listen and to tailor their responses to the needs of the individual patient. These needs may be expressed verbally or non-verbally, but either way a good communicator needs to be alive to them, and to respond in the appropriate way. Sometimes this will involve rephrasing an explanation, but in other cases the good communicator will respond to emotional cues. For example a sensitive doctor will notice if, in the course of a technical explanation, a patient looks upset – the good doctor will not ignore this cue, but will acknowledge the emotion, invite the patient to discuss his or her feelings, and be ready to deal with the flood of emotion that may result. The good doctor has to do emotional work, for example showing sympathy, not just in what is said, but also in how it is said. I am afraid to say that sometimes the busyness of the doctor is simply used as an excuse to avoid interactive engagements at a deeper emotional level. Yes, bringing feelings to the surface can be uncomfortable, but enduring the discomfort is part of professional life. In fact, recent research carried out by Gill Combes in CLAHRC WM showed that doctors are reticent in bringing psychological issues into the open.[2] Deliberately ignoring emotional clues and keeping things at a superficial level is deeply unsatisfying to patients. Glossing over feelings also impedes communication regarding more technical issues, as it is very hard for a person to assimilate medical information when they are feeling emotional, or nursing bruised feelings. In the long run such a technical approach to communication impoverishes a doctors professional life.

Doctors sometimes say that they should stick to the technical and that the often lengthy business of counselling should be carried out by other health professions, such as nurses. I have argued before that this is a blatant and unforgivable abrogation of responsibility; it vitiates values that lie (and always will lie) at the heart of good medical practice.[3] The huge responsibilities that doctors carry to make the right diagnosis and prescribe the correct treatment entail a psychological intimacy, which is almost unique to medical practice and which cannot easily be delegated. The purchase that a doctor has on a patient’s psyche should not be squandered. It is a kind of power, and like all power it may be wasted, misused or used to excellent effect.

The concept I have tried to explicate is that good communication is a function of ethical practice, professional behaviour and the medical ethos. It lies at the heart of the craft of medicine. If this point is accepted, it has an important corollary – the onus for teaching communication skills lies with medical practitioners rather than with psychologists or educationalists. Doctors must be the role models for other doctors. I was fortunate in my medical school in Johannesburg to be taught by professors of Oslerian ability who inspired me in the art of practice and the synthesis of technical skill and human compassion. Some people have a particular gift for communication with patients, but the rest of us must learn and copy, be honest with ourselves when we have fallen short, and always try to do better. The most important thing a medical school must do is to nourish and reinforce the attitudes that brought the students into medicine in the first place.

— Richard Lilford, CLAHRC WM Director

References:

  1. Wragg JA, Robinson EJ, Lilford RJ. Information presentation and decisions to enter clinical trials: a hypothetical trial of hormone replacement therapy. Soc Sci Med. 2000; 51(3): 453-62.
  2. Combes G, Allen K, Sein K, Girling A, Lilford R. Taking hospital treatments home: a mixed methods case study looking at the barriers and success factors for home dialysis treatment and the influence of a target on uptake rates. Implement Sci. 2015; 10: 148.
  3. Lilford RJ. Two Ideas of What It Is to be a Doctor. NIHR CLAHRC West Midlands News Blog. August 14, 2015.

Sustainability and Transformation Plans in the English NHS

Sustainability and Transformation Plans (STPs) are the latest in a long line of approaches to strategic health care planning over a large population footprint. These latest iterations were based on a one million plus population, looked at a five year timescale, were led by local partners (often acute trusts, but sometimes, as in Birmingham and Solihull, by the Local Authority), and focused inevitably on financial pressures. The plans were published in December 2016 and now the challenge to the STP communities is further refinement of the plans and, of course, implementation.

The Health Service Journal (HSJ) reviewed the content of the STPs in November 2016 and highlighted three common and unsurprising areas of focus: further development of community based approaches to care (notably aligned to the New Models of Care discussed in the CLAHRC WM News Blog of 27 January; see also https://www.england.nhs.uk/ourwork/new-care-models/); reconfiguration of secondary and tertiary services; and sharing of back office and clinical support functions. More interestingly, the HSJ noted an absence of focus on social care, patient/ clinical/ wider stakeholder engagement and on prevention and wellbeing.

The King’s Fund has produced two reviews of how STPS have developed in November 2016 and February 2017. These have been based on interviews with the same sub set of leaders , as well as other analyses. Both have reached similar conclusions. Recommendations have included the need to: increase involvement of wider stakeholders; strengthen governance and accountability arrangements and leadership ( including full time teams ) to support implementation; support longer term transformation with money, e.g. new models of care, not just short term financial sustainability; stress-test assumptions and timescales to ensure they are credible and deliverable, then communicate with local populations about their implementation honestly; and finally, align national support behind their delivery, e.g. support, regulation, performance management and procurement guidance.

A specific recommendation relates to the need to ensure robust community alternatives are in place before hospital bed numbers are reduced. The service has received strong guidance about this latter point from NHS England in the last few weeks. Various other Thinktanks have also produced more or less hopeful commentaries on STPs, such as Reform, The Centre for Health and Public Interest and the IPPR; they all say they cannot be ignored.

Already, in March 2017, the context is shifting: yet again, ‘winter pressures’ have been high profile and require a NHS response; the scale of the social care crisis has become even more prominent; there is a national push to accelerate and support change in primary care provision.

Furthermore, the role of CCG is changing in response: some are merging to create bigger population bases which may or may not be the same as STP geography; some GP leaders are moving into the new primary care provider organisations; the majority of CCGs will be ‘doing their own’ primary care commissioning for the first time just as the pace of primary care change is increasing; some commissioning functions may shift to new care models such as accountable care arrangements. It is clear that for some geographies and services the STP approach could work, but more local and more national responses to specific services and in specific places will continue to be needed. All these issues will influence how the STPs play out in the local context.

— Denise McLellan

Clinical Research Stands Out Among Disciplines for Being Largely Atheoretical

A recent paper in the BMJ (see our recent Director’s Choice) described the (null) result in a RCT of physiotherapy for ankle injury.[1] The broader implications of this finding were discussed in neither the discussion section of the paper itself, nor in the accompanying editorial.[2] The focus was confined entirely on the ankle joint, with not a thought given to implications for strains around other joints. The theory by which physiotherapy may produce an effect, and why this might apply to some joints and not others, did not enter the discourse. The ankle joint study is no exception, such an atheoretical approach is de rigour in medical journals, and it seems to distinguish clinical research from nearly everything else – most scientific endeavours try to find out what results mean – they seek to explain, not just describe. Pick up an economics journal and you will find, in the introduction, an extensive rationale for the study. Only when the theory that the study seeks to explicate has been thoroughly dealt with do the methods and results follow. An article in a physics journal will use data to populate a mathematical model that embodies theory. Clinical medicines’ parent discipline – the life sciences – are also heavily coloured by theory – Watson and Crick famously built their model (theory) entirely on other researchers’ data.

The premise that theory features less prominently in medical journals compared to the journals of other disciplines is based on my informal observations; my evidence is anecdotal. However, the impression is confirmed by colleagues with experience that ranges across academic disciplines. In due course I hope to stimulate work in our CLAHRC, or with a broader constituency of News Blog readers, to further examine the prominence given to theory across disciplines. In the meantime, if the premise is accepted, contingent questions arise – why is theory less prominent in medicine and is this a problem?

Regarding the first point, it was not ever thus. When I was studying medicine in the late 1960s / early 1970s ‘evidence-based medicine’ lay in the future – it was all theory then, even if the theory was rather shallow and often implicit. With the advent of RCTs and increased use of meta-analysis it became apparent that we had often been duped by theory. Many treatments that were supported by theory turned out to be useless (like physiotherapy for sprained ankles), or harmful (like steroids for severe head injury). At this point there was a (collective) choice to be made. Evidence could have been seen as a method to refine theory and thereby influence practice. Alternatively, having been misdirected by theory in the past, its role could have been extirpated (or downgraded) so that the evidence became the direct basis for practice. Bradford Hill, in his famous talk,[3] clearly favoured the former approach, but the profession, perhaps encouraged by some charismatic proponents of evidence-based medicine, seems to have taken the second route. It would be informative to track the evolution of thought and practice through an exegesis of historical documents since what I am suggesting is itself a theory – albeit a theory which might have verisimilitude for many readers.

But does it matter? From a philosophy of science point of view the answer is ‘yes’. Science is inductive, meaning that results from one place and time must be extrapolated to another. Such an extrapolation requires judgement – the informed opinion that the results can be transferred / generalised / particularised across time and place. And what is there to inform such a judgement but theory? So much for philosophy of science, but is there any evidence from practice to support the idea that an atheoretical approach is harmful? This is an inevitably tricky topic to study because the counterfactual cannot be observed directly – would things have turned out differently under an imaginary counterfactual where theory was given more prominence? Perhaps, if theory had been given more weight, we would have extrapolated from previous data and realised earlier that it is better to treat all HIV infected people with antivirals, not just those with supressed immune systems.[4] Likewise, people have over-interpreted null results of adjuvant chemotherapy in rare tumours when they could have easily ‘borrowed strength’ from positive trials in more common, yet biologically similar, cancers.[5] [6]

In the heady days of evidence-based medicine many clear cut results emerged concerning no treatment versus a proposed new method. Now we have question inflation among a range of possible treatments and diminishing headroom for improvement – not all possible treatments can be tested across all possible conditions – we are going to have to rely more on network meta-analyses, database studies and also on theory.

Richard Lilford, CLAHRC WM Director

References:

  1. Brison RJ, Day AG, Pelland L, et al. Effect of early supervised physiotherapy on recovery from acute ankle sprain: randomised controlled trial. BMJ. 2016; 355: i5650.
  2. Bleakley C. Supervised physiotherapy for mild or moderate ankle sprain. BMJ. 2016; 355: i5984.
  3. Hill AB. The environment and disease: Association or causation? Proc R Soc Med. 1965; 58(5): 295-300.
  4. Thompson MA, Aberg JA, Hoy JF, et al. Antiretroviral Treatment of Adult HIV Infection. 2012 Recommendations of the International Antiviral Society – USA Panel. JAMA. 2012; 308(4): 387-402.
  5. Chen Y-F, Hemming K, Chilton PJ, Gupta KK, Altman DG, Lilford RJ. Scientific hypotheses can be tested by comparing the effects of one treatment over many diseases in a systematic review. J Clin Epidemiol. 2014; 67: 1309-19.
  6. Bowater RJ, Abdelmalik SM, Lilford RJ. Efficacy of adjuvant chemotherapy after surgery when considered over all cancer types: a synthesis of meta-analyses. Ann Surg Oncol. 2012; 19(11): 3343-50.

 

Scientists Should Not Be Held Accountable For Ensuring the Impact of Their Research

It has become more and more de rigour to expect researchers to be the disseminators of their own work. Every grant application requires the applicant to fill in a section on dissemination. We were recently asked to describe our dissemination plans as part of the editorial review process for a paper submitted to the BMJ. Only tact stopped us from responding, “To publish our paper in the BMJ”! Certainly when I started out on my scientific career it was generally accepted that the sciences should make discoveries and journals should disseminate them. The current fashion for asking researchers to take responsibility for dissemination of their work emanates, at least in part, from the empirical finding that journal articles by themselves may fail to change practice even when the evidence is strong. Furthermore, it could be argued that researchers are ideal conduits for dissemination. They have a vested interest in uptake of their findings, an intimate understanding of the research topic, and are in touch with networks of relevant practitioners. However, there are dangers in a policy where the producers of knowledge are also held accountable for its dissemination. I can think of three arguments against policies making scientists the vehicle for dissemination and uptake of their own results – scientists may not be good at it; they may be conflicted; and the idea is based on a fallacious understanding of the normative and practical link between research and action.

1. Talent for Communication
There is no good reason to think that researchers are naturally gifted in dissemination, or that this is where their inclination lies. Editors, journalists, and I suppose blog writers, clearly have such an interest. However, an inclination to communicate is not a necessary condition for becoming an excellent researcher. Specialisation is the basis for economic progress, and there is an argument that the benefits of specialisation apply to the production and communication of knowledge.

2. Objectivity
Pressurising researchers to market their own work may create perverse incentives. Researchers may be tempted to overstate their findings, or over interpret the implications for practice. There is also a fine line to be drawn between dissemination (drawing attention to findings) and advocacy (persuading people to take action based on findings). It is along the slippery slope between dissemination and advocacy that the dangers of auto-dissemination reside. The vested interest that scientists have in the uptake of their results should serve as a word of caution for those who militantly maintain that scientists should be the main promotors of their own work. The climate change scientific fraternity has been stigmatised by overzealous scientific advocacy. Expecting scientists to be the bandleader for their own product, and requiring them to demonstrate impact, has created perverse incentives.

3. Research Findings and Research Implications
With some noble exceptions, it is rare for a single piece of primary research to be sufficiently powerful to drive a change in practice. In fact replication is one of the core tenets of scientific practice. The pathway from research to change of practice should go as follows:

  1. Primary researcher conducts study and publishes results.
  2. Research results replicated.
  3. Secondary researcher conducts systematic review.
  4. Stakeholder committee develops guidelines according to established principles.
  5. Local service providers remove barriers to change in practice.
  6. Clinicians adapt a new method.

The ‘actors’ at these different stages can surely overlap, but this process nevertheless provides a necessary degree of detachment between scientific results and the actions that should follow, and it makes use of different specialisms and perspectives in translating knowledge into practice.

We would be interested to hear contrary views, but be careful to note that I am not arguing that a scientist should never be involved in dissemination of their own work, merely that this should not be a requirement or expectation.

— Richard Lilford, CLAHRC WM Director