Good news has a hard time getting heard.
This week we’ve seen new, comprehensive data from NHS Digital on the wait to see a GP, splashed across all the papers:
It’s all “true”, though I’m afraid the spin is not. The argument that “40% are seen the same day” rings hollow with anyone who has hung on the telephone for half an hour, to be told that all the same day slots have gone. Many of those 40% have been trying for several days just to get through.
Blame the patients, blame the government, blame whoever else we can think of. Or take a different look.
These tiny stories from the last few days are just a handful of the hundreds we see each week from patients grateful to their GP:
Your service and reliability are amazing. Thank you! (f 85)
Amazing fast system thank you (m 41)
Amazingly swift and very easy process than trying to jugggle around work – thank you so much! (f 24)
Amazing…More personal…Super speedy (parent, boy, 3)
Love how easy it is to speak to your own doctor . Amazing (parent, girl, 4)
Love this new system…so easy and quick , and have the problem solved without having to sit around at the surgery. (f 49)
Love ‘askmygp’. Making it so much easier to get info and solve problems whilst holding down a full time job! (f 40)
Wow. I am impressed! (m 69)
Wow, just wow. Have been in terrible painall night…absolute godsend… Thank you so much for your skills and innovations (f 65)
WOW, great system, quick easy, and no need to travel. Many thanks (m 63)
We’re now over 4,600 feedbacks from 80,000 episodes since August, and the trend is better and better. Please do have a look at the live rolling 7 day summary chart. We ask patients whether it’s better or worse and the ratio as I write has moved up to 9 which is so exciting.
These patients are getting an outstanding service from their own regular NHS GPs. The GPs have no extra funding (they pay us), and no complicated extended hours 8 to 8 hubs (that didn’t work)
Patients didn’t have to switch to an out of area GP. They could name their own GP. They were seen same day if needed.
And the GPs are happier too – happier professionally to be giving such a service and bringing the joy back into their working lives.
If you haven’t yet watched the Burnbrae video, please do and click for the demo at the end. This is one of her 5,000 patients last week, helped within 2 hours:
“fantastic service and Dr Arnott is an amazing doctor, Shotts is lucky to have all these new changes.”
How do we get this into the headlines?
Looking up Eric Berne’s classic “Games People Play” I was surprised to find it was published in 1964. He calls it “a way of predicting people’s behaviour.”
It would be pleasing to say we have learned more as time has passed. I doubt it would be true.
Without going into the great psychiatrist’s theories too far he was clear that destructive games caused a lot of pain not only to his patients but to all of us in our daily lives.
I was reminded of these ideas when joining in a Twitter conversation about DNAs (did not attends), a GP complaining that 4 out of 7 patients hadn’t turned up – blame the patients for wasting GP time, NHS resources and slots which someone in need could have taken.
It all makes sense, until you realise that these were Saturday morning “extended access hub” slots. We know that very few patients want weekend slots, and they don’t like to travel away from their own surgery or see someone they don’t know. They were sent there and then as their own practice gave them that option or nothing.
We know that the longer the gap between the booking and the date of the appointment, the higher the DNA rate. On the same day, DNAs all but vanish. Our practices don’t talk about them any more. If changing the system with the same patients eliminates the problem overnight, it follows that DNAs are a system problem, not a patient problem.
The blame game is very simple: “We tell you when and where you will be seen, by whom. We blame you for not turning up.”
We find the same things happening with all kinds of variation. The most common game for appointments is “Nothing left today, you’d better call tomorrow but make it early as they all go around 8 am”. A friend of mine had the whole family of six call the surgery at 8am to increase the chance of one of them getting through.
Another game is “We’re very busy so we allow booking up to six weeks in advance for routine matters”. The mother would take the slot, and would turn up herself or with whichever child or frail elderly relative was most in need on the day.
A new one on me recently was “If you phone in the morning a nurse will triage you. Phone after 12.30 and a GP will triage you for the next day”. In seven years this is the first ever practice I’ve met which has more “demand” in the afternoon.
Whenever we start work with a practice we ask them how the appointment system operates, and we look at their website. So often they summarise it in the two words, “It’s complicated.”
We’ve reached the point that we know from the rules what games patients will play. Then we get the data on demand patterns and it turns out exactly so.
It’s really “Games providers play”, and the cost they and their patients pay is rework. Everyone gets locked into the game, working like stink, deeply frustrated, achieving little.
I love what Eric Berne says in his field:
“Everybody has a hunger for intimacy, a game free zone where people are straight with each other.”
The alternative for practices is to rewrite the rules very simply:
“Let us know your problem, whenever you like. Tell us who you would like to help you, if not anyone, how you’d like us to contact you, and any issues with timing.
“We’ll work out very fast how to help you. No promises, but we’ll do our best to meet your preferences too.”
What happens is quite astonishing. Not only do patients almost always find their needs met, but because there’s so little rework, it’s less effort for providers.
This week from a Bristol patient: “So much easier as I have time to think what I want to say, and it frees up staff to do what they need to do.” We get dozens every week on the same theme.
Shotts, North Lanarkshire. Small town and surrounding areas, ex-mining community. Traditional, somewhat deprived area.
Dr Sue Arnott, full time single hander GP. Team consisting of 8 session ANP, practice nurse.
“We were looking to do things completely differently”
As well as hearing the story, you may like to see the data.
Innovation is risky, and change is risky, so it should come as no surprise that we have failures. Perhaps we have more to learn from failure than success, which means we must reflect.
Since launching askmyGP v3 in August we’ve had three practices turn it off. I won’t name them, suffice to say they differ widely in size, demographic and location, but you all want to know why they gave up.
The common theme in what they told us was that they felt unable to cope with patient demand.
Yet patient demand was very close to predicted, within 10%, as it has been with the great majority of successful practices.
We do point out that unmet need is uncovered when limits are removed, which may appear to be a rise in demand in the early weeks. A small number of patients will abuse the new system, as they did the old one, but we’ve found from our Datalog audit that in the GPs’ view this is around 3% both before and after launch.
We don’t say it will be easy. We do say that with perseverance both patient service and GP working lives improve. But those that start from a strong patient service ethos seem to do best for their own working lives too.
The commitment to fast and appropriate response from the whole team puts them in control and minimises rework. That doesn’t mean saying yes to what every patient “wants” – that way lies madness. It does mean sufficient breaks around GP and staff needs. Indeed the day can be much more flexible, with many opting to work from home part of the time.
While failure means a return to the previous state with all its frustrations and stresses, success is a journey not an endpoint. It’s all about flow, measured continuously:
- Patient demand, by type, mode and timing over weeks, days and hours. This matters for designing the service.
- Elapsed time to complete requests. Usually the chief concern of patients.
- Continuity, where appropriate. Often key to patient satisfaction, GP job satisfaction and quality of care.
- Efficiency, a chief concern of providers as it drives workload, quality of working life and profit.
- Patient satisfaction, for which we publish summary charts in real time:
The benefits from wholly embracing system change are orders of magnitude greater than from any hybrid system, and a large part of our work is giving practices the confidence to do so. Followng that is an enchanting journey of learning, experimentation and refinement.
We too are continually learning, often finding we can help the flow with new features, better measures, or working with practices to solve unique problems. Sometimes we change our advice,
While change cannot be absolutely risk free, for many businesses, staying the same may be the most risky strategy. We only have to walk down our high streets to see the consequences. For most GPs, protected as they are by permanent contracts, staying the same and offering a service no worse than others locally may not seem too bad, though it hardly inspires.
Our greatest challenge, and by far the greatest cause of failure, is failure to overcome fear, to reach consensus and therefore failure even to start. Let’s re-iterate our purpose in undertaking this work:
We make it easier for patients to get help from their own GP.
We make it easier for GPs to provide that help to their own patients.
Sometimes the way may seem hard, but reward comes through perseverance. We have a mantra to take us through those times:
“First for our patients, then for ourselves.”
PS After the rain, sunshine. I’m about to share some of the most moving patient feedback we’ve had, just from the past week.
Last month we were at Best Practice conference in Birmingham and having a jolly good time until something really annoying happened.
We’d spent a lot of effort on our stand and if you’ve ever done these events you’ll know the few square metres cost £ thousands, never mind the little table and bar stools which are more to rent for the two days than they would be to buy.
We were dead opposite a mini theatre where every hour someone would roll up, no doubt having paid more £ thousands, to do their presentation on the latest dermatological cream or ear inspection widget. They’d pull in a couple of dozen delegates, grateful for the chance to sit down and fiddle with their devices.
Then all of a sudden we find custom has dried up and we are looking at the backs of a huge audience, filling all the chairs and spilling into the space around our stand. Everyone rapt.
The title: “How to Run a More Profitable Practice”
Sorry I have no idea what he was on about, I couldn’t see over the crowd, but he was one of the small army of advisors which serve general practice.
They are the accountants, solicitors, lenders, financial advisers and so on who make their crust knowing the many little levers of profit which independent contractors can play on to their hearts’ content. Good luck to them.
What amuses me is that when we ask GPs what are their priorities in undertaking change, 93% of them put “money” as the lowest (out of 5) of their concerns. Haha.
What amazes me is that these same GPs getting advice on how to reclaim VAT on rubber gloves are not even thinking about the dominant cost in their businesses, which is of course the GPs – their own time, their salarieds and especially their locums’ time.
The main cost of meeting patient demand is GP time. (by the way, this is why “GP at Scale” is doomed to have precious little effect on drawings. It’s no more efficient for consultations, and possibly worse because of lost continuity)
Therefore the best way to be more profitable is for the GPs to be more efficient. (I’m not including the option to turn patients away. No matter how much it happens, it’s plain wrong).
Bluntly, with askmyGP we enable GPs to be far more efficient in dealing with patient demand. How much, how fast, how that is balanced between fewer sessions, finishing earlier, running more patients or giving a better service, all those factors vary.
Just to get a sense of how that works out, watch our new three minute video, the Burnbrae story. Dr Sue Arnott is so cool and calm, as a full time single hander with her team running 5,000 patients.
You do the maths.
PS we’ve had a tremendous response from GPs signing up to the Digital Triage Experience even before we put it on the website, but click the link and we’ll create yours. You will make your own triage decisions on 50 cases within about 15 minutes, and see why this is the greatest lever on profit you’ll ever find.
Today’s blog is by a patient, with permission and reproduced here in full. It’s the longest comment we’ve ever received and while it followed a normal request from a patient to his own GP near Ely, the vision takes flight.
“This new system will make the most enormous improvement to NHS healthcare and waiting lists at both Health centres and A and E there has been for many years.
The many advantages are obvious and predictable. It will greatly enhance the chances of speaking directly to your GP as soon as possible IF the patient has a potentially serious, or possibly life-threatening condition and even more important will allow the GP more time to read a carefully thought out email of the condition the patient is worried about.
It will also allow the GP to filter out timewasters, or people expecting Antibiotics for a virus, with the expectation that it is all they need and completely missing the whole point of why and where there are prescribed and therefore further reducing the effectiveness of antibiotics and the increasing resistance of viruses to them.
As a result, the waiting times for an appointment will be more responsive to the apparent severity and urgency of the individual patient’s condition and allow the GP to carefully analyse and make informed decisions on priorities regarding urgency, or non-urgency of face to face appointments.
Expectations and confidence amongst young parents in their local health centre will gradually rise, rather than immediately adding to the long list of worried people turning up and waiting in line for hours at A and E always wanting immediate attention from hospital staff who neither know them, or are aware of particular people who worry, perhaps too much, about their children’s possible health problems.
Given the constant and continuing limitations and financial constraints on the NHS in general, and healthcare centres in particular, this will prove to be one of the most considerable improvements to the healthcare system there has ever been! Great idea, hope every other NHS medical centre follows your lead.
9th October 2018”
This week marks seven years since I registered GP Access Ltd, aiming to make it easier for patients to get help from their own GP, and easier for GPs to provide that help. While we had the germ of a method from pioneering GPs including Chris Barlow and Simon Coupe, I knew that if we were to survive it would be through things not yet invented in 2011.
It hasn’t been easy but sometimes there’s a shaft of light, and Mr Tiley’s unsolicited comments encapsulate so well what we do that he deserves his own blog.
His practice, Staploe and Cathedral, launched on Monday and in five days has seen a complete transformation of their service. The wait to contact a named GP has dropped from weeks to minutes, and despite unplanned GP leave they have coped with all demand on the day.
Well done and thank you.
I’m sitting here in my shorts, tee shirt and sandals and it’s the middle of October. Yes, I’m in Leicestershire, for those thinking laterally, and I have a jumper on, but I felt it worth dressing up to make the point.
Unless you’ve already settled on Mars, you’ve noticed that it’s significantly warmer than in your youth and while a fine warm week in October is weather rather than climate, we know the trend is one way.
The IPCC warned this week that our fossil fuel burn must fall more rapidly than we thought. Policy must change, and behaviour must change.
We link our work with askmyGP directly to lower carbon use, because it saves travel to the GP surgery. It’s hard to measure the numbers with telephone consulting, but we have much better data now with some 10,000 patient requests via askmyGP each week. Roughly 9,000 are for the GP, of which 6,000 are resolved remotely. Say half would have involved a car journey of say 1 mile each way, that’s 6,000 road miles saved – and we have only just started.
I’m optimistic that if we do the right thing, a lower carbon future can be a better one all round, and I’m glad to say the patients agree.
“Fantastic service, much easier to speak to GP whilst sitting in the comfort of your own home. Many thanks” f 53
“So much better than getting in the car and visiting. Personal chat with my GP at a time convenient to us both.” f 65
“I think the new system is excellent. Saves time and must give the doctor more time to see patients who actually need proper medical attention. Saves me from having to bundle my 1 year old son on a bus and come up for nothing. Love the new system!”
And why should patients have all the fun? One of our practices has instituted a work-from-home-day for all the partners. They are as productive as ever if not more so, one telling me she saves a 50 minute car commute each way.
GPs keep telling me they are terribly stressed, and I’m sorry we don’t do counselling or mindfulness sessions. All we can offer is to change the system, but consulting in slippers is quite nice.
Anyway, if you haven’t yet seen it, listen mindfully for 25 minutes as
PS. When each request is completed, we invite the patient to leave feedback and about 5% do so. The real time chart shows about 3 to 1 say the new system is better v worse, but one wrote this yesterday which was moving:
“It’s more than better. This is revolutionary. No waiting to see a GP and the speed at which the service delivered is outstanding.
I’ve switched practices to Central….the doctors are way above my previous experiences with another practice” m 67.
Another patient yesterday wrote the longest comment we’ve ever seen, an essay. I’m going to publish it tomorrow, do look out.
*Featured image is one I took in a GP car park, the environmental consequence of “GP at scale”.
Have to say it makes one a little queasy to see the Secretary of State take the platform at a competitor HQ and tell they world he wants their product to be offered to everyone. Taking a few shortcuts on procurement, open competition, evidence and so on, but then he’s new.
Two things I share with Matt Hancock are his enthusiasm for how technology can help, and his frustration with the glacial rate of innovation adoption in the NHS (plenty of innovation does not equal high rate of adoption).
But we absolutely must see technology within the whole system context, which is why we call what we do “Systems thinking applied to general practice.”
Mr Hancock might like to consider a few matters before handing over the jewel in the NHS crown to Babylon’s GP at Hand:
– their patient profile is skewed to younger adults
– they’ve traded access for discontinuity of care
– their exclusions, agreed by NHS England, cover children, pregnancy, many chronic conditions, those who can’t travel, pretty much most of the demand on GPs.
– taking out the above patients leaves remaining GPs with most of the work but much less of the income.
He’s right that a quick query on an acute illness from the back of the ministerial Jag could and should be dealt with online (if appropriate) by the patient’s own NHS GP. But from the GP side, that’s a very small segment of demand.
I fear a sinister side to the Babylon gig on Thursday: BMJ reports that Ali Parsa is lobbying NHS England not to cut funding for “digital first” GP providers out of area. Well he would say that, but having the SoS publicly tout your product is quite a nice negotiating gambit.
We aren’t just going to rail at the darkness. It would be lovely to have the endorsement of the SoS but until then, we’ll let the evidence talk.
- Practices running askmyGP serve about 8 times as many NHS patients as GP at Hand.
- Last week they did 6,600 online requests, probably 3 times as many as GP at Hand (and twice as many as eConsult, who claim 500 practices now to our couple of dozen)
- All patients had a choice of their own GP.
- They are digital first but never digitally exclusive – patients are able to use the channel that works for them.
- They get a faster service than Babylon can do, response in minutes and face to face same day.
- No patients are excluded from the GP list or turned away.
Call it disruptive innovation if you wish, but we’re disrupting the operating model, not the business or contracting model. That’s why GPs love it.
Parsa announced on Thursday another $100million investment into his company to be spent on AI, on top of the $60m already sunk. I don’t know whether this has been systematically reviewed, but it couldn’t recognise my fungal toenail infection. More seriously, @DrMurphy11 has shown how it misses a “barn door PE”.
I’m announcing today a secret weapon in askmyGP. We call it HI. It’s used for every single clinical diagnosis and decision, and even better, it does care. It can care for any patient, even one deaf, blind, lame, foreign, depressed and pregnant all at once. It understands context, nuance, subtlety, ambiguity, the importance of relationships. It even takes responsibility.
We work with over 100 GPs and I can tell you, each one is worth well over $1million. So much we can’t measure it.
Something else you need to know about GP at Hand, which is why they worry so much about funding per patient. Their Achilles heel is operating costs, sky high, compared with regular partnerships offering digital first. Drop me an email to find out how we know.
Our mission is to enable regular local GPs to outcompete Babylon, online, on quality, service and profitability. We’re showing how any practice can do it. We’re growing multiple times faster than GP at Hand, adding another 20,000 patients this week.
Someone will notice before long. A GP copied me yesterday her invite to Mr Hancock to come and see askmyGP in action.
Game on, Babylon.
PS A North East practice launched two weeks ago and has already blown my socks off as well as its own. They’ve gone from a median 5 day wait to see a GP to median completed request in 70 minutes, and demand went down in week 2.
One of their 91 year old patients commented, “Excellent, this service should have come earlier”
It’s remarkable for a quote that seems almost modern in politics, often attributed to Abraham Lincoln, but it seems he was quoting John Lydgate of Suffolk, writing in the fifteenth century, “You can’t please all of the patients, all of the time.”
OK he said people, not patients, but the point is made. You’d be mad to try and please all of the patients, all of the time, because whatever you do, some won’t like it, and that’s the thing about people. Perhaps that’s what makes us interesting.
Having said that, “Happier Patients” is one half of our motto and it is of utmost importance for us to do what is best for patients in the quality of service both we and the doctors provide. We ask patients directly for their feedback to help us achieve that.
In our version 2 askmyGP we’ve had over 4,500 patient comments from 105,000 episodes in the last 18 months. They have been overwhelmingly positive, with some negatives and some suggestions, and they have been a big part of our design process for version 3.
One difference is that where we used to collect feedback when the patient submitted the request, in the new version it’s done after the request has been completed. Ah, we thought, all those complaints based on the patient not believing it possible would vanish, and positivity would go up.
So far (first 4,000 episodes) it hasn’t quite worked out like that. We’ve structured the feedback very simply. The killer question is whether the new system is Better, Same or Worse, and the figures as I write are 98, 4, 27.
Yes, it’s overwhelmingly positive, and I’d love to share all the comments with you but even though we ask patients not to enter personal details, sometimes they do so we can’t do a real time feed. Some examples are below.
But I know what you’re thinking. I’ve been working with GPs for over nine years now and if I may be allowed a little over-generalisation, you’re really interested in the negatives. (btw academics are worse. They couldn’t find the silver lining in a solid silver tea service, present company excepted of course).
What’s interesting is that with the 21% who say it’s worse we are picking up reactions not only to askmyGP (though some are, and there were a couple of technical issues), but mainly to patients’ views of the GP. The main driver for negatives at 16/27 is very poor on “solving your problem”. It might be that something went wrong with the process, there was a delay, or the patient just didn’t like what the doctor said. Well, it happens, and you can’t please all of the patients all of the time.
Anyway, it’s good to see that 76% of those responding say the new system is better, while for those of you who think they are trumped by the 21%, you are amply justified in doing nothing.
Everyone can enjoy our star comment of the week, from a fellow Yorkshireman. This is only the opener and the rest has had to be moderated for family viewing, but you get the gist: “Whoever thought of this stupid idea wants a good kicking up the arse.”
PS Some of the feedback this week:
“Very good service it’s been amazing when I’ve needed advice for my children never waited longer than an hour for reply”
“far easier using this system than actually going through the surgery reception” male 28
“The new system is so much better, especially if you only want to ask a question rather than seeing a doctor. Massive thumbs up 👍” female 45
Thoughtful for others: “Ok for those who are familiar with the use of computer systems but I have concerns for elderly who would have no idea how to use a computer” female 70
Do you glaze over when they report the latest A&E statistics? It’s all about what % of patients were seen within four hours. The latest figure for July is 89.3% and while it produces a lot of headlines, gnashing of teeth and calls for more resources, the saddest little note in the NHS England Statistical Commentary is where it says, “The 95% standard was last met in July 2015.”
Readers of this column know that I’ve been campaigning against the target culture that grips the NHS for many years. For me the personal journey was working in manufacturing in 1990 when I came across the work of W Edwards Deming, who said we must abolish all numerical targets. I fought against that thought internally as I tried to come up with ever cleverer targets for the factory, to cover all bases of timeliness, efficiency and quality. Until I crumbled – they could never work.
Nearly thirty years later we have this regime in the NHS which daily makes hard working professional people feel like failures. It has seen off a string of hospital chief executives who were either unlucky enough or failed to cook the books enough to keep their impossible jobs when the inspector called.
Measurement and accountability matter, but they are completely different from targets. Just briefly, let us suppose that the time to be treated in A&E matters – well I think it does – we can measure the median time, and chart it day by day, week by week, ever so simply. Everyone can be engaged in improving the system which will show in this and other appropriate measures. Fear of failure is replaced by pride in work.
I’m building up to some quite astonishing news but while we are on the theme, similar thinking is applied to ambulance response times. Red C1 and C2 calls have to get a response in 8 minutes 75% of the time, and there’s a vast bureaucracy, dreaming up and calculating the numbers and beating up the failures. Sigh.
Back in the GP world thankfully there are not so many high profile arbitrary targets (arbitrary ratings on arbitrary measures by CQC are another matter) but there is related anxiety about some of what we do. We get asked “How does your online askmyGP system handle red flags?” I assume on the basis that the patient may have something urgent wrong with them.
My answer is always the same: “Red flags are dangerous because algorithms cannot completely and safely cover all eventualities, yet they can give a false sense of security.”
Because we are very concerned about patient safety, we have a different approach, which is to understand that safety is a function of the system as a whole. Rapid response by a GP, appropriate to the patient and their condition, is a very safe system. Oh, and we make it very clear to the patients, “Do not use in emergency.”
We are also very clear on what they can expect, which is a next day response out of hours, or in working hours “usually within the hour.”
When GPs doing our Pathfinder diagnostic hear about this they often blanch and explain how they would water this down as it’s clearly impossible. And then we look at the data.
So here is the astonishing news from the first two practice launches with our new software (no, you didn’t miss anything, we haven’t announced it yet). In the first week of operation they achieved a first response average time respectively of 6.0 and 5.2 minutes.
That’s a personal response from a GP who has seen their request and triaged how to help (a face to face may come later). But it’s average, all demand, not just what someone considers urgent. No blue lights, no inspectors, no targets, no pressure, no overwork, no rework, just ordinary GPs, predictable demand and good flow.
Have an ordinary weekend.
PS Dr Simon Wade of Webinars for GPs has invited me to present this Wednesday 22nd August 8 – 9pm. Do join us on “Workload stress and burnout: can online access make a difference?” CPD points too!