Sunday, 28 August 2016

Supporting clinical decisions and helping triage

Most of us understand the need to keep healthcare costs low. On the other hand, when we become patients, we’re not keen to see savings made at the price of increased risk. When it comes to avoiding the avoidable in healthcare, we like to think that costs are unavoidable if they ’re incurred ensuring our safety.

The Netherlands have an out-of-hours service patients can call when their GP practice is shut. The aim is to reduce visits to emergency departments in lieu of family practitioners. Nurses take callers through guidelines, asking a series of questions to establish what care the patient needs and with what urgency.

An out-of-hours call centre at work
A 2007 study set out to find out how well the service was performing. The results were disturbing. In 19% of cases, nurses underestimated the urgency of the patient’s condition. The study’s authors conclude that the service was “possibly not safe,” which feels like an understatement.

Denmark’s out-of-hours service gives evidence of the opposite effect: excessive caution by nurses. The Danish service is principally staffed by GPs, but there’s pressure to use nurses as an economy measure. However, a 2013 investigation found that nurses might be too inclined to refer a case for a GP to see instead of taking a decision themselves. The result? On top of the cost of employing the extra nurses needed, the service, far from reducing calls on GP time, might increase them. Costs could rise instead of falling.

What’s the answer? How can we reduce expenditure by having nurses or, even better, non-medical staff, take responsibility for triage, without either increasing risk to patients or incurring higher costs?

The 2007 Dutch study came up with one answer: it found that the more training nurses had received in the use of the call centre guidelines, the less frequently severity was underestimated. Certainly, telephone triage isn’t simply another application of already acquired skills. It’s a legitimate healthcare service in its own right, needing its own knowledge and expertise.

There is, however, another way in to  improve services. That’s the field in which I’m currently spending much of my time: clinical decision support.

What we’re talking about here is software that helps nurses or non-clinical call handlers work their way through guidelines. At the most trivial level, such software can ensure that nothing’s forgotten. A question might be mandatory, so the handler simply can’t move on until it’s asked. That would ensure essential information isn’t missed. Even with optional questions, their mere appearance on a screen would at least prompt the handler to ask them and might trigger a new line of enquiry.

That, however, is far from enough. There has been research (not enough, yet, but what there has been is telling) into the impact of clinical decision software. A revealing article showed that a call handler might be pushed down the wrong line by the software itself. It cites the example of a handler, a nurse, who had begun to explore what the software offered on the subject of nausea, while the caller had moved on to talk about back pain. With one line of questions already under way, the call handler failed to pick up the second symptom, however important it may have been.

Again, on some occasions, the lack of an appropriate response to certain questions led to a distorting effect: the patient was saying that she felt sick each time she ate, but the software hadn’t allowed for that reply, imposing instead quantitative entries – once a day, three times a day, and so on.

That’s what makes the search for effective software design such an interesting challenge. It’s not enough just to list all possible questions, in a fixed order. It’s vital to take all the information concerning any particular patient into account, without deciding too soon that one item has overriding importance or letting the software itself drive the direction of the investigation. In fact, the system has to:
  1. take into account all the information about the patient, entered in whatever order. In other words, as in a real, face-to-face medical consultation, the patient should be able to describe all his or her symptoms without making a judgement about which is the most important 
  2. suggest questions to the call handler based on all the symptoms, not just one of them 
  3. drop irrelevant questions but propose all the others 
  4. handle unquantified information, such as “I feel sick each time I eat”
That would be the kind of clinical decision support software that can really make a difference, because it emulates what happens in a medical consultation: the patient describes symptoms as they come to mind, not in an orderly or pre-filtered way. Alongside the kind of comprehensive training we’ve already seen is needed, such support software could bring us closer to the goal we seek: a triage service that delivers a reduction in costs without an increase in risk.

In fact, it would be valuable for far more than triage. It can make a major contribution to managing medical pathways in general. But that’s the subject of my next post.


Anonymous said...

I wonder if there is an invisible line as to what a nation should spend on Health Care or is it without limit and above every other demand for cash?

David Beeson said...

It has been forecast that if US healthcare spending continues to increase as it has so far, it would reach 100% of GDP by the end of this century. Obviously, that's impossible. Somewhere there must be a line, but as you say it's invisible. 50%? Surely too much. 30%? It seems inconceivable. 20%? Hard to believe in Britain but the US isn't far off.

The judgment's hard to make. What I do know, though, is that there's certainly a financial imperative to find ways to deliver healthcare as cheaply as possible; the challenge is to balance it with the moral imperative to do the most we can for our fellow citizens to protect their health. It's tough and that's why the debate continues.