Thursday, 7 April 2016

Paediatrics? That must be heartbreaking...

It's not unusual for people, on hearing that I work in paediatrics, to ask how I can do it. "Gosh," they say, "isn't that really upsetting?". When I mention that I have a particular interest in children with cancer, they start to look at me like I've sprouted a second head. Even medical colleagues of mine, who deal with illness, pain and sufferring on a daily basis, sometimes struggle with the idea of these things happening to children. My response, generally, is a little blase. "Oh but it's so much fun!", "I get to cuddle babies as part of my job!" or "Well the tough bits are tough, but they're so rare!". What I don't think I ever say is "Yes, it is. I love what I do but it breaks my heart".

There's a lot of talk about burnout and resilience at the moment. I find it difficult to understand what's really meant by either term, but I certainly find myself worrying that admitting things are tough is somehow suggesting that I'm not cut out for this. I know different people mean different things when they talk about being "resilient", but I have to say that a lot of the time when I read headlines saying we need to "improve resilience" amongst doctors, it feels like someone in an ivory tower is telling us to "man up". I know a lot of people say that isn't what's meant by it, but I also know that I'm not the only person who hears it that way.

Increasingly, I'm realising the need to be honest about how tough my job can be at times. I'm not complaining - I love it and I genuinely can't see myself doing anything else - but downplaying the stresses and strains does no one any favours.

There are phrases that make all paediatric trainees break out in a cold sweat. "Category 1 section, obstetric theatres" - something has happened during a delivery and they need to get the baby out now. You sprint to theatres, check the oxygen is working, get out tubes and catheters in varying sizes. Someone hands you a white, floppy, lifeless baby. You hear an anxious parent ask "why aren't they crying?" as your anaesthetic colleague tries to reassure them that sometimes babies born by Caesarian are a little bit shocked and take a while to wake up - and you know they're trying to convince themselves as much as the parents. Mostly, it's ok. You dry the baby off, position their airway, sometimes give a few breaths, and then they gasp, cry and pink up. Except the times they don't. The times they stay white. The times the heart rate doesn't improve and you start chest compressions and give adrenaline and do everything totally right and it just doesn't work. Maybe you detect a heart rate after 10, 15, 20 minutes. You start trying to explain cooling and neuroprotection and know that nothing you're saying will be taken in because up until half an hour ago, these people were having a healthy baby - a normal thing that millions of people do - only it's not quite gone to plan. Sometimes, a well meaning senior tells you to get a sense of perspective. Your day was pretty bad, but nothing compared to what those poor parents are going through...

It's not just the very sick children that can upset you. Part of our role as paediatricians is in child protection; assessing children who have been abused or neglected, usually by the very people who were meant to love and protect them. You might be treating a child for a chest infection and realise that this three year old, ill and in pain, turns not to his own mother for comfort, but to a doctor or nurse he's never met before. You might be listening to his chest when you see a hand-shaped bruise on his back. You could be just walking into the room when you realise he's malnourished and dirty. You have to act to protect this child in the best way that you can.

There are so many things that can get to you as you go about your work. Sometimes, it's seeing a parent struggling to come to terms with a horrible situation and realising that you can do nothing more than offer a hug, a listening ear and a cup of tea. Other times, it's watching a child undergo futile and sometimes painful treatment because their family aren't yet ready to accept that nothing more can be done to help them. It might be being hugged by a gorgeous little one and then finding out that Mum is actually foster Mum and she doesn't understand why no one will give him a forever home.

The point of this post is not to attract pity, sympathy or praise. I chose this career with my eyes open and it's a wonderful, rewarding, fulfilling one. But it can be difficult, and admitting that should be something that it's ok to do. Would you want your child to be cared for by someone who didn't care? If you can deal with the situations I've mentioned above (and yes, all of them have happened to me over the past couple of years) and not be saddened, I would genuinely wonder whether you were in the right career. I once described paediatrics as "the little girl, with the little curl", a reference to an old nursery rhyme...

There was a little girl 
Who had a little curl Right in the middle of her forehead; And when she was good She was very, very good, But when she was bad she was horrid. 

I still feel like it's the best way of summing the job up. When it goes well, when good things happen, it's brilliant. And when they don't go so well, it's fairly dreadful.

Paediatrics? I love it, but it breaks my heart. And that's ok.

Thursday, 24 March 2016

Je Suis Brusseleir?

This week, Europe was rocked once again by the news of a terrorist attack. Only months after the senseless loss of life which occurred in Paris, this time Brussels was the target. My Facebook newsfeed is filled with friends and acquaintances adding a Belgian flag to their profile pictures in a show of solidarity. There are photos from cities around the world lighting up major attractions in black, yellow and red. "We stand with you, people of Brussels!", people are keen to proclaim, in much the same way that the Tricolore was plastered over the much of the internet and the developed world back in November and all of social media stood in unity and defiantly stated "Nous sommes Charlie" after the Charlie Hebdo shootings in January of last year.

On the one hand, I get it, I really do. These attacks have lead to suffering and loss of life in the alleged pursuit of an ideology I will never understand. Of course people want to show unity, sympathy, solidarity. We want to shout, loud and clear to any terrorists who may be passing, that we will not allow these attacks to alter our way of life. To cancel mass events and stop drawing potentially offensive cartoons is, we assume, precisely what they want - and so we will not let them win. We will carry on our daily life. The Londoners will get the tube. The Parisians will go to gigs. The Brusseleir will make their way to work, to school, to the shops in their usual way.

The thing is though, that I start to feel uncomfortable when I think of the hundreds of thousands of people around the world who we don't automatically show solidarity for. If I don't stick a Belgian flag overlay on my Facebook profile, there are some who may assume (incorrectly) that I don't care about the recent devastation in Brussels. But if I do, I worry that I am suggesting European life (or perhaps just life in the "Western" world) is somehow more valuable that that elsewhere.

If you're interested, you can easily find a list of terrorist incidents which have happened just this year - and there are a lot of them. Perhaps we don't really pay attention to attacks in Somalia or Iraq because we have grown accustomed to the violence which is sadly ongoing in those nations, but war or no war, the loss of life is still tragic. Maybe the events in Turkey or Libya simply haven't been on our radar because those places seem too far away from the world we know, but they still resulted in the deaths of innocent people.

Don't get me wrong, I stand with the people of Brussels, as I did with the people of Paris and London and Belfast before them. But whilst "je suis Charlie", because any of us face the risk that one day we could head to our workplace and not return, I am also the 3 year old girl killed in and Iraqi chemical attack. I'm a Nigerian mother blown up at the market. I'm the Somalian blown up whilst enjoying a meal in a restaurant. I'm all of these people, and thousands of of others too.

The sad fact is that I cannot keep up with all of these attacks. They are happening almost daily, with even more violence which is not classed as terrorism continuing to ruin the lives of many people. And for that reason, I cannot bring myself to stick a Belgian flag over my profile pictures, although I do not judge those who do. I stand with the people of Brussels, but more than that, I stand with the people of the world. It is simply a happy accident of birth and a chance arrangement of schedules that mean I have not been directly affected by any of these terrible events. As my sadly-missed Grandma would have said, "there, but by the grace of God, go I". So yes, I am Charlie and Paris and Brussels, and I am Baghdad and Tel Aviv too. But mostly I am a human, and I stand by all of my fellow humans through whatever atrocity we face. I believe that only in truly realising that we are all people with hopes, dreams and ambitions which are not defined by creed, colour or national boundary will there ever be peace.


"Imagine all the people, living life in peace..."

Sunday, 10 January 2016

Just Keep Swimming (Or Running...)

Back in November, I announced my somewhat ridiculous-sounding plan of running the London Marathon in April. I'll be honest, the idea scared me at the time and I wasn't entirely convinced I was going to manage it. As I embarked on my couch to 5k starters running plan, it hit home really just how unfit I was. Even the 60 second running intervals in the first week felt tough. I've tried couch to 5k in the past and always got stuck at week 5, where the running increases from 8 minutes at a time to 20 minutes solid. I wasn't sure it would be any different this time.

I'm happy to say that I finally broke the (mostly psychological) 8 minute barrier and yesterday managed to run continuously for over 30 minutes. I know I still have a very long way to go, but I think in getting to this point, I've realised just how much running is due to mentality. Although my fitness has improved, the biggest change has been in my attitude towards it. I've realised that previously, it wasn't being out of breath or achy legs that stopped me, it was not believing I could do it. Now that I've realised that, I'm hoping I can continue to push myself and will manage to complete the marathon (even if I have to crawl across the finish line).

I'm under no illusions as to how tough this is going to be, but I'm doing it for a very, very good cause. I'm raising money for CLIC Sargent, a fantastic charity who help support children and young people with cancer and their families. Anything you can spare in sponsorship would be greatly appreciated. I know money is tight at this time of year, but every penny really does count and will be put to excellent use. £15 pays for a copy of CLIC Sargent’s DVD to help families of a child or young person who has died of cancer to deal with their grief. £25 pays for an hour of a CLIC Sargent Nurse’s time, allowing them to co-ordinate a child's care and arrange for treatments to be given as close to home as is safely possible. £50 pays for three hours of a CLIC Sargent Play Specialist’s time, letting them use models, toys and photographs to prepare a child for their treatment.£75 pays for three hours of a social worker’s time, letting them provide practical, financial and emotional support to the family of a child or young person with cancer.

Every penny you can spare will spur me on with my training and help CLIC Sargent continue to provide their incredibly valuable services. Please go to to sponsor me.

Thank you.

Friday, 25 December 2015

Christmas Reflections

Christmas, for many reasons, is a time of year when I always feel particularly contemplative. I'm not a religious person - I was raised in a "respecting all religions but following none of them" kind of household and seem to have continued along that path into adulthood - but there's still something about Christmas that seems special. There's no denying that, as a little girl, at least part of the excitement was about presents, but I think it's always been about more than that. My Daddy used to finish work at lunch time on Christmas Eve, we would probably see friends and cousins who we didn't see often, there would be lots of people visiting and, of course, no school for us or work for our parents, so we spent lots of time together as a family. Overwhelmingly, though, what sticks out in my memories of my childhood Christmases is that everyone was happy. It was simply a time of seeing the people you loved and enjoying being together.

During my teenage years, as many of you will know, I had a rather difficult time with my mood. A time when everyone was so cheerful, and the general attitude appeared to be "you should be happy, it's Christmas!" suddenly became difficult to cope with. The general tolerance for misery seems to drop at this time of year, and anyone who isn't feeling full of the festive spirit not only has to contend with their own difficulties, but also with accusations of bringing everyone else down and spoiling Christmas.

Now, as an adult, I enjoy Christmas again, but a combination of my teenage difficulties and work and family circumstances mean I'm all too aware of how difficult this time of year can be. I'm working again this year, but come Monday when I have some time off, I'll be heading up to see my parents and sisters before spending New Year with my boyfriend. I'm lucky to have not only a job that I genuinely enjoy and that pays me enough to be able to spoil the people I love, but (more importantly) people I love close by, happy and healthy.

Working over Christmas in a hospital is an odd experience which brings with it a strange combination of emotions. I still smile when I remember the sweet nonagenarian who burst into tears of happiness when Santa came around the ward and gave gifts to all the inpatients. The same day, I had to tell a lady that the symptoms her son had brought her to A&E with were likely due to metastatic cancer. Another year, I got a Christmas kiss on the cheek from a very mischievous older gentleman patient before discussing end of life care for someone else. Last year, I saw babies and children spending their Christmas in hospital - for some it was their first Christmas, for others it would be their last; for a few it was both.

Whatever you're doing this Christmas, spare a thought for those who aren't enjoying the festivities in the usual way. My colleagues in the health service, from the domestic staff keeping the wards clean to the consultant surgeons performing life-saving operations, will be there to ensure you and your family are well looked after. Those in the fire service and police force are making sure our streets and homes are kept safe. Thousands of hospitality workers are spending today serving up countless turkey dinners and glasses of prosecco to help other people have a merry day. To everyone working this Christmas - thank you.

If Christmas is a challenge for you, know that you aren't forgotten. Those struggling to get through the day without a loved one - be it for the first or the fiftieth time - I feel for you. If you're spending the day in the hospital, either as a patient or visiting a loved one, I hope Christmas is comfortable and that the New Year will be brighter. If you simply feel overwhelmed and are struggling, there are people who care and who will listen.

Merry Christmas, everyone, stay safe and I hope 2016 brings health and happiness to all xxx

There are a number of places you can get help should you need it. The services I've listed are free to call and open 24/7. A more comprehensive list is available through the NHS choices website, but not all services are free or open over Christmas.

If you're struggling today, or any day, the Samaritans are there to listen for free - call 08457 90 90 90.
Children and young people can contact ChildLine on 0800 1111 whilst adults who have concerns about a child can call the NSPCC helpline on 0808 800 5000.
If you feel in danger of hurting yourself and don't have a crisis plan, please call 999 or go to your local A&E department.
For those who need help with domestic abuse, contact Refuge on 0808 2000 247.
If alcohol is a problem, you can call Alcoholics Anonymous on 0845 769 7555.
If you need help with drugs, you can speak to Frank on 0800 77 66 00.

Friday, 6 November 2015

A Marathon Journey

Anyone who's read this blog before will realise that I'm a fan of a metaphorical journey - the journey from schoolgirl to doctor, the journey from messed up adolescent to semi-functioning adult, that sort of thing.

Well, recently I made what may turn out to be one of the most ridiculous decisions of my life so far - I decided I'd make the journey from lazy so and so to... marathon runner. Yes, that's right, marathon runner. On 24th April 2016, all being well, I will complete the London marathon.

To give you an idea of quite how huge a journey this is going to be, I'll give you some details on my current fitness levels and running ability. In 2010 I completed a 10k run for charity in a not-at-all-impressive time of 1 hour 20 minutes. I say run, I did minimal training and walked most of it. I haven't really run since. I intermittently get the gym bug and start building up my fitness, but I have always avoided the treadmill like the plague. I even had a personal trainer for a while, but whilst we did a lot of work to build up my strength, we did very little to do with running. Our sessions were mostly "interval" training, so I'd do short bursts on the cross trainer or bike, followed by 5 reps of dead lifts or similar. In February, I started a job with over an hour's commute each way and was so exhausted I basically stopped all forms of exercise. I've been saying since August that I'd start getting fit again, but until this week I hadn't done much about it. I've downloaded a 16 week beginner's training plan, and have just over 23 weeks to train. My plan is to use the C25k programme to get me able to run for 25 minutes or so over the next 7 weeks, and then to move on the the training plan (which seems to suggest you can start with no running experience at all, but includes 20 minute runs in the first week). It's going to hurt.

So, why on earth am I putting myself through this? Firstly, because I had been thinking for a while that it was about time I did something mad to raise money for charity, and secondly, because whilst I know I need to get fit, I'm absolutely dire at doing things without a specific target in mind.

I mentioned charity, and I am hoping to get some sponsorship for this. I've decided to raise money for the fantastic CLIC Sargent. As a paediatric doctor with an interest in oncology, I'm aware of the brilliant advances in science and medicine that mean we can now cure more children than ever of cancer. We're lucky enough to live in a country where the NHS means that families don't have to pay for treatment. Whilst there's still a long way to go, the treatment of children's cancer now is getting better and better. What I also know as a hospital doctor is that hospitals can't do everything. The emotional impact of a cancer diagnosis on a child or young person is enormous. The disruption to family life is huge. Parents may not have to pay for their child's treatment, but there is often a financial burden - be this travel to and from a treatment centre or having to temporarily give up work to care for a sick child. We are getting better and better at treating the physical disease state, but hospitals can't do everything. This is where charities like CLIC Sargent come in. They do an amazing job of helping children and their families cope emotionally, be this through formal counselling or just providing activities allowing them to spend time together without worrying about hospitals. They provide grants to families who are struggling with the financial impact of a childhood cancer diagnosis. They provide free accommodations for families who live too far from their treatment centres to reasonably be expected to travel. They supply a range of information aimed at children of varying ages so that their diagnosis and treatment is explained in terms they understand. In short, the care provided in hospitals is excellent and gets better year on year, but we couldn't provide the fantastic support required by our patients and their families without the help of charities like CLIC Sargent.

My training might hurt, but each time it gets tough, I'll just remind myself that it's nothing compared to a childhood cancer diagnosis.

If you'd like to spur me on with sponsorship, please go to

Thank you.

Sunday, 1 November 2015

I'm Not A Lousy Doctor - But I'm A Lousy Friend

If you've read this blog before, you'll probably be aware that I'm a prolific tweeter. In fact, I'd be surprised if you were reading and had come across this post via anything other than seeing me tweet about it. One of the things I love about Twitter is that it makes the world a smaller place. One of my favourite Tweeters is the lovely @dr_ashwitt; although she is as far from me as is basically possible (Melbourne, if you were wondering), I frequently read her tweets and think "oh my God, me too!". Recently, Ash re-posted a link to a post she wrote a couple of years ago about her experiences of depression. She urged other doctors to post their own 140 character experiences of mental health issues, and #MH4Docs got a fair number of tweets which Ash has collated here. I haven't actually tweeted yet, but I've been pretty vocal about my own issues over the years and it's good to see that people feel they can open up about these things. The thing that really made me think, though, was the sentence she used to link to her blog.

"I have depression, but that doesn't mean I'm not a good doctor."

I think a big part of the reason that a lot of health care professionals (and non-health care professionals, come to think of it) are reluctant to open up about mental health issues is the fear that their abilities at work will be called into question. I know that one of my major fears when I "admitted" to having depression was that people might think I was unable to do the job I love and have worked for for a long time. 

My mental health problems don't mean I'm not a good doctor. I have a need to be busy which means that I will crack on with as much work as I can, and I'll find non-essential tasks which just "need doing at some point" to keep me occupied. Focusing on other people means I'm not thinking about myself and my own emotions, so I'm unlikely to slip into a spiral of despair. My lack of self esteem and constant impostor syndrome mean I'm keen to please and make an extra effort to be friendly and polite. Work makes me feel better and I think my own issues mean I will always work as hard as I can. Possibly I'm at risk of burnout, but it's nothing I've ever felt close to, and the other hobbies I've developed to occupy myself and prevent negative thinking mean I have outlets outside of medicine.

No, depression doesn't mean I'm not a good doctor. It does mean I'm not a good friend, though. Being nice and polite to people can be frankly exhausting. After a whole day smiling and engaging in banal conversation and generally giving the impression that I'm a functional human being, I am absolutely worn out. I very rarely agree to after-work plans because I know I'll be too tired to be good company. If I've made arrangements, there's a good chance I'll flake out at the last minute because I just can't face being around people any more. Finally living alone rather than with flatmates is a Godsend because it means I can have meltdowns in the living room and kitchen rather than being restricted to my bedroom. On nights out, I'm renowned for disappearing without telling anyone after being consumed by an overwhelming wave of misery and wanting to get away before I spoil anyone else's night. As for relationships, I am probably one of the worst girlfriends out there. I take insecurity and anxiety to ridiculous levels, any compliment is analysed repeatedly to ensure it isn't actually a heavily veiled insult and "I love you" is not infrequently followed not with "I love you, too" but "..really? Do you actually though?".

So yeah, I have depression, and that doesn't mean I'm not a good doctor. But it does mean I'm not a good friend. If you've stuck around anyway, thank you. I may not say it with nights out or long conversations, I may cancel half of our arrangements and you might feel like you're walking on eggshells when we talk, but you are loved and appreciated.

Friday, 24 July 2015

I'm A Paeds FY1... Get Me Out of Here!

With the much anticipated first Wednesday in August (for non-UK/non-hospital based folks, that's when all the junior doctors change jobs and our shiny new colleagues start their first roles as qualified doctors) fast approaching, I'm breaking from the EBM theme to write a #tipsfornewdocs type post for those who will be starting out in the crazy, scary, exciting world of paediatrics. I never actually did a paediatric rotation in FY1 but over the past year or so I've worked with numerous FY1 colleagues, some of them excellent and some of them a little less so. This is basically a list of the things I think really make the difference between the good ones and the rest.

If you're starting your first job as a doctor on paediatrics, lucky you! Whilst a lot of people are naturally anxious about working with children (yes, some of them are quite small, and they can be sticky and noisy, and worse than that, they come with parents attached!) you'll be working in a very well-supported environment with, on the whole, a very approachable group of senior colleagues. No one will expect you to be cannulating neonates or taking bloods from chunky toddlers on your first day! You also have the benefit, if you start in August, of working in a specialty with quite marked seasonal variation in admissions, so over the summer it should be relatively quiet on the wards and you'll have time to get your head around how things work before the winter chaos commences!

Paediatrics is a lovely, varied specialty with lots to learn. How much you do in terms of venepuncture, cannulation etc is largely up to you - if you aren't comfortable, no one will make you do it, but if you're keen then the SHOs and registrars will be more than happy to teach you. There should be lots of opportunity for getting involved in audit, if that's your sort of thing, and there's usually some kind of research going on if that's what interests you. So what makes a great paediatric FY1?

Be organised. This goes for every FY1 job out there, to be honest. If you know who your patients are, what's going on with them and when they might get home, you'll probably not go far wrong. If you know a patient might go home, get started on their discharge paperwork early. This is great for your patients, as it means they have less of a wait between being told they're fit for discharge and actually getting to go home. It also keeps the nurses happy, and frankly keeping the nurses on your side is one of the biggest things you can do to help yourself survive as a junior doctor!

Be interested. I get it, not everyone is keen on kids. For some of you, paediatrics will probably be your worst nightmare. We all do at least one job during our training we are not remotely keen on (FY1 general surgery, in my case), but these jobs still have plenty to teach you. The majority of you will end up having some contact with children during your future training, and even if you have your heart set on geriatrics from day one, there's a lot of opportunity for embracing multi-disciplinary working and improving your communication skills, which will be useful in any future career. You don't have to love it, but please don't treat your rotation as some kind of sentence which must be served.

Be able to spot a sick child. This is the biggest "clinical" thing expected of you if you're going to be involved in assessing children. Hopefully you'll get a chance to see new admissions to the unit and clerk them, as that's probably the best learning opportunity. No one will expect you to correctly diagnose everything you see, but it's important that you can recognise those children who look unwell and need senior review sooner rather than later. There is a really useful website called Spotting the Sick Child, which has elearning modules and videos of what to look out for and is worth doing if you aren't clear what a sick child looks like (you also get a certificate of completion which you can stick in your ePortfolio...). If in doubt, ask. Children can deteriorate quickly so if you aren't comfortable and feel something is wrong, get help sooner rather than later. Management priorities for someone acutely unwell follow the ABC approach, but you should never be in a situation where you're dealing with this by yourself. The DEFG (don't ever forget glucose) is particularly important in young children as they're prone to hypoglycaemia and it can have serious consequences.

Be friendly. Engaging well with a child can make a huge difference. Not everyone is naturally comfortable with children, but if you can chat about something that interests them, that's a great start. Knowing which characters frequently appear on t-shirts and pyjamas is useful, as clothes are a great starting point for conversation ("oh wow, that's Peppa Pig on your top, is she your favourite?"), as are toys and characters around the room. Frozen and Minions are particularly popular at present. If you can distract a child talking about whether they like Anna or Elsa best or how funny it is when the naughty Minions turn purple, you're much more likely to work out whether they have genuine abdominal tenderness, for example. Hi-fives after finishing an examination or procedure go down well, and if there are bravery certificates and stickers on the ward these tend to be good bargaining tools if you need to do something the child perceives as unpleasant (including looking at the throat; you would be amazed at just how much kids hate opening their mouths when you ask them to do it!).

Be professional. There's a fine balance between being child-friendly and being silly. Yes, parents want someone who's good with their child and knows how to communicate with them, but they also want a doctor. Being daft when you're examining and chatting to a kid is fine, but make sure when explaining finds and communicating plans to parents that you come across as the knowledgeable professional you are. This also goes for speaking with teenagers, who will be wholly unimpressed if you treat them like children.

Common things are common. Have a basic grasp of the common presentations and how to manage them. A lot of paediatrics is about simple things, done well. Wheeze and fever are probably the 2 most common presentations, so know your local investigation and management guidelines for these. You'll also probably see a a lot of jaundiced babies, rashes and gastroenteritis. If you can take a decent history, examine and work out which kids are the really poorly ones (see earlier point) you won't go far wrong.

Enjoy it! Paediatrics is fun and children are interesting. Plus, where else can you get baby cuddles, play with bubbles and watch cartoons whilst at work?!

Good luck!

Monday, 13 July 2015

Potential Pitfalls in Evidence Based Medicine

In my last post, I talked a bit about why we need to use evidence in medicine. However, much as I support using evidence wherever possible, I can also see that there are a number of things that can go wrong when using EBM approach. Most of these are not due, per se, to EBM, but are down to issues with its implementation. Nonetheless, I think they're worth discussing.

One of the biggest issues with evidence is knowing how to apply it. A study may say something that sound potentially interesting, but it's important to work out whether the result actually applies to the patient sat in front of you before changing your practise. Was the study you're reading carried out exclusively in 50 year old men with high blood pressure but no other co morbidity? That doesn't mean that the 65 year old diabetic women in front of you won't benefit from the intervention studied, but it does mean that the evidence is less applicable to her and you should think carefully about applying it to her case. Lots of studies look at extremely specific groups. This is to reduce the likelihood of "confounding variables" - things other than the intervention which may result in a difference in outcome between study groups. However, the flip side is that the study result may not apply to those who differ from the specific group looked at in the study. It's therefore well worth having a good look at the inclusion criteria for participants in trials and bearing in mind that the results might not automatically apply to all of the patients you see.

A related issue arises when we look at guidelines. Clinical guidelines are available for many, many conditions now, and provide advice on interventions, investigations, referrals etc. In the UK, most of these are issued by The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence and, in Scotland, the Scottish Intercollegiate Guidelines Network. Guidelines are usually devised by a group of professionals appraising the available evidence - basically, they've done the hard work for you and read through all the evidence to determine what the best thing to do is in a number of situations. They will usually reference the evidence they used, should you wish to read it for yourself, and also tell you how strong the evidence is behind each recommendation. However, they are not hard and fast rules, they don't replace clinical decision making and they certainly don't cover every eventuality. Use them, just don't do so without thinking.

An issue it's also worth talking about is the difference between clinically significant and statistically significant. Statistical significance in most medical (and other) science) is usually taken to mean p <0.05. This means that there is less than a 1 in 20 chance that the result occurred by chance; in other words, it's likely that any difference in outcome between groups was down to differences in intervention rather than just being coincidental. Statistical significance is important because it's how we know that our interventions have actually done something. However, this has no reflection on whether the difference in outcome will make any kind of difference to a patients health, well being or long-term risks. This is another important thing to bear in mind before advising or prescribing an intervention based on evidence; will the outcome matter to my patient? An example where this becomes important is when thinking about statins, a group of drugs which lower cholesterol. There is good evidence that (a particular group of) patients who take statins are significantly less likely to suffer a stroke or heart attack within 20 years than those who don't. This sounds great, but if you have an octogenarian sat in front of you, does this really matter? They are unlikely to live another 20 years, so is it worth adding to their drug burden, with all the risks of side effects and drug interactions this brings? I'm not saying don't, just that you should be realistic about what the benefits of this will be to your patient. Maybe discuss the risks and benefits with them and see what they think.

There are other important factors to think about too when looking at a paper/trial/study. Rather than go through all of them, it makes more sense to hand over to the experts at this point. There are really useful study appraisal checklists available on the CASP (Critical Appraisal Skills Programme) website, which guide you through the things you should ask yourself when you're considering the value of a piece of research.

I've hopefully discussed the main issues that occur when trying to implement evidence. In my next post, I plan to talk more about what we actually mean by "evidence" and how we can decide whether one piece of evidence is more or less worth using than another.

Thursday, 9 July 2015

Why We Need Evidence in Medicine

I’m a self-confessed geek. I like learning. I like working things out. I like science. I did a science degree before going to medical school and I spend my spare time on such fun activities as post graduate certificates and systematic reviews. This doesn’t mean that I think of medicine as a science – I think there is definitely an art to lots of what I do – but I do think that it’s important for doctors to have a good understanding of scientific methodology so that they can interpret the vast amount of evidence they are presented with when making clinical decisions.
This is the first in a series of posts about evidence-based medicine. It's deliberately simplistic so that those outside of the medical field can understand it, but I hope it doesn't come across as patronising. The premise of this post is to explain why we need evidence in medicine. In later posts, I'll go on to talk about what constitutes evidence, problems we face in evidence-based medicine and ways in which we can use it to benefit patients.
I’ve heard numerous colleagues tell me that they “aren’t convinced by this evidence based medicine lark”. Their arguments usually centre around the fact that they have seen interventions work before and therefore are happy to use them again. On the surface, this is a reasonable argument. Someone is poorly. You give them some tablets. They get better. Next time you see someone who is poorly in the same way, you give them the same tablets. They get better too. The problem is, how do you know that they wouldn’t have got better anyway?
Let’s take a common example – a cold. If you have a cold and you take a course of antibiotics, you’ll probably feel better within 2-3 days. However, if you don’t take the antibiotics, you’ll also feel better in the same amount of time. That’s just how long it takes for a cold to get better, but if you gave every patient with a cold some antibiotics, you’d be forgiven for thinking you had found an excellent treatment. Observations like this are very useful in medicine. They’re the basis of a lot of important discoveries. They just aren’t the be all and end all.
So, how do you work out whether your treatment actually makes a difference? This is where trials come in. In very simple terms, if you want to know whether or not your treatment works, you need to randomly give it to half the people you see with a particular condition and not give it to the other half. If the half who get the treatment get better more quickly than those who don’t, that’s a good indicator that your treatment probably does make a difference. Of course it’s more complicated than that, but that’s the basic premise.
You might ask why I really care about evidence at this stage. After all, in the examples I’ve been giving, the patients all get better. There are two issues that we need to address here. The first one is side effects. No medication is risk free, so before choosing to give it to your patient, you want to be comfortable that the benefits of using it outweigh the risks. If you’d stopped at the first, observational stage, you wouldn’t know that your treatment didn’t offer any benefit over not treating, so you’d be subjecting all your patients to the risk of a treatment that might not actually make them any better. Remember, “first, do no harm”.
The next issue is about multiple treatment options. What happens when two people think their treatment works? We owe it to our patients to give them the best possible treatment, so we need to use trials and evidence to work out which option is “best”. This needs to take into account multiple factors, such as which treatments make more people better, which ones get people better more quickly and which ones have fewest side effects.
This has been a very brief run-down of why we need evidence. Without proper trials etc, we are left guessing whether or not things work and which things work best, and who wants medicine based on guess-work?

Monday, 6 July 2015

Survival Tips For Medical Students

Tonight I noticed a tweet asking for top self-care tips for medical students, and (unsurprisingly) I felt I had too much to say to fit it into 140 characters, so I thought it might be worth a blogpost. Being a medical student is an amazing experience, but it can also be incredibly difficult for lots of reasons. This post isn't supposed to be in any way comprehensive. I'm not an expert, by any stretch. This is just a collection of suggestions and ideas based upon my own experiences and those of people I know.

Work hard.
Medicine is hard work. Most of it isn't intellectually particularly stretching, but there's a vast amount of stuff to learn and the majority of people will have to do a reasonable amount of work to keep on top of it. I'm not advocating becoming a hermit, but going to most of your lectures, showing up on the wards and keeping up with reading will mean exam season is far less stressful. If you have to actually learn everything from scratch, rather than just revise it, you'll be giving yourself a far more difficult task than is necessary.

Play hard.
It's also important to make the most of being a student. Go to toga parties. Play pub golf. Go clubbing whilst dressed as a giant chocolate bar or do garlic and chili body shots from the Med Soc president. Or don't, if you'd rather not. But don't feel like doing an academically demanding degree means you have to  miss out on the student experience. A boss of mine once said "you can resit an exam, but you can't resit a party". I'm not sure that's the most sensible advice, but find a balance that makes you happy. Whether it's partying, music/sports/drama societies, volunteering or just reading novels and watching trashy TV, doing fun stuff is important. Keeping up with friends and enjoying yourself is an essential way of dealing with the stress you will feel from time to time. Speaking of friends, they're really important. Make sure you keep up with those outside of your course, too. Non-medics are brilliant for allowing you to properly relax and giving you a sense of perspective (medic friends are great and can relate to a lot of what you've experienced, but have an awful habit of talking shop so you don't truly escape medicine around them).

But don't forget to sleep.
Seriously, sleep is really important. When you're trying to balance partying and studying, sleep can seem like something you don't have time for, but it's essential. Everything seems worse when you haven't been sleeping well. As a medical student, you've embarked on a pretty awesome journey, but you need to be on top of your game to make the most of it.

Eat well.
OK, so it's boring, but it's another essential. If you're spending long days in lectures and then going out drinking, it can be tempting to sustain yourself on Pot Noodles and Red Bull, but there's no way you'll be at your best if you aren't getting a decent amount of vitamins, minerals, fibre etc. Sorry guys, your Mum is right about this one.

Similar to the above, exercise is useful for both keeping you physically at your peak and helping beat stress. As a naturally lazy person who would rather exercise by lifting a spoon from ice cream tub to mouth than go anywhere near a gym, I totally get that this is not top of some people's agendas, but it's amazing how much more energy you have after a swim or run. Even a brisk walk around the block is better than nothing.

Sometimes you will see things that really resonate with you and upset you. This is absolutely OK. Allow yourself to be upset. Talk to a friend. Have a cry. I still get upset about cases from years ago (such as this one), Remember that if there ever comes a time when sad things don't bother you in the slightest, you probably want to think about a change of career.

Take a break.
OK, so this might go a little against what I said earlier about working hard, but it's important. Sometimes, things will get on top of you (see previous point). You might be unwell. You will have stressors in your life outside of medicine. If you're struggling, give yourself permission to take a sick day. There's no point dragging yourself in when you aren't going to be properly concentrating. Doctors are absolutely terrible for going into work when they're unwell. It does noone any favours. Learn now to spot when you aren't well and sort it out early. Even if you're cruising along fine, don't spend more time working than you have to. If your registrar says you can leave early, do. Don't spend the holidays in the library. Having time off is vital to your emotional and physical well being.

Don't let the b*st*rds grind you down.
There are horrible people everywhere. Some of them will be in your year, some will be your seniors, some will be non-medical colleagues. Giving you a dressing down if you're rude or you really don't know your stuff is fine, but nobody should be bullying you. If they are, report it. Snide remarks, sniggering behind your back, deliberately telling you lies about teaching sessions or criticising your appearance or personality is not acceptable. People who do this are, frankly, arseholes. They're probably covering up their own insecurities by pointing out yours. They may well be jealous of how awesome you are. Either way, it's not cool. Don't let it get to you. (But if you're actually being bullied, tell someone. There is help to stop this kind of thing from happening.)

Be the best you you can, not a second-rate someone else.
This is more general life advice I suppose, but in medical school where you're surrounded by brilliant people it's easy to constantly compare yourself to other people. Try not to. The people who may seem the best at uni are not necessarily the ones who make the best doctors. Focus on your weaknesses, by all means, and work on improving them, but don't assume that anyone who really understands the kidneys or can do a super-slick neuro exam is better than you at everything. Maybe you have a really lovely manner with confused old ladies or perhaps you know intricate details of the coagulation cascade. Whatever it is, you'll have something you're awesome at too. Remember what it is you do well, feel proud of it, and work on improving other stuff so that you become the best doctor you can be, not so that you can beat someone else in an exam.

That's a very brief run-down, but those would be my top "survival" tips. Most of all, remember to enjoy it. You're on your way to doing the best job in the world, and you're going to be awesome at it.