Getting the most out of your medical appointments: more tips from a Consultant Oncologist

 

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Meet Richard!

Following on from his last blog post about preparing to meet your oncologist, Consultant Oncologist Richard Simcock writes about the best way to start a consultation with your doctor – and ways you can follow up afterwards.

 

 

 

 


Signposting

If you go to a show you normally know what you’re going to see. Have you ever seen a film or play where you literally knew nothing at all about it before it started? You were likely to have been initially bewildered as you got your bearings. Arriving at a consultation knowing what to expect means less confusion: it allows you to get straight to the substance. It is good practice for a healthcare professional to explain the purpose of the meeting (‘Today I want to explain your radiotherapy treatment’ etc.), but that isn’t always the case.

A reasonable question to ask is ‘What are you hoping to discuss today?’ This also gives you an opportunity to highlight any areas that you know that you want to cover and leads to better time prioritisation. If a follow-up meeting is being arranged, then asking ‘what would you expect us to discuss at our next meeting?’ leads to even better preparation.

Ask for Copies

After almost every clinic consultation a letter will be written. These letters have multiple purposes: they inform the referring clinician, they may be a request (e.g. ‘please prescribe drug X’), and they also act as a record of the meeting (much better than a scrawled note in undecipherable handwriting!).

Eighteen years ago, the NHS plan recommended ‘patients should as of right receive copies of all correspondence between health professionals about their care.’ This was enshrined in the 2015 NHS Constitution. Copies of letters written about you will be sent automatically in most cases. If you’re unsure whether and how this happens, it’s reasonable to check just in case it isn’t yet routine for the doctor you are seeing: ‘Will you send me a copy of the letter you send to my doctor?’

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Try filing your own notes

Not every patient wants their letters, and if you wish not to receive a copy you should make that clear too, in case letters are sent automatically.

In my opinion, far better is a letter written to the patient first and foremost. This should avoid issues with jargon and misunderstanding, but it’s also a part of patient-centred decision-making. The Academy of Royal Colleges recently produced a report (‘Please Write to Me’)  with a  ‘How to..’ document for doctors around writing directly to patients, and I’m hopeful that this will become increasingly standard practice.

You are entitled to copies of results and reports too. This can be problematic as these are almost always written in the dense jargon of the specialty. Breast Cancer Care produces a guide to understanding a breast cancer pathology report and there are other online resources for other cancers. Asking for a summary of what the report means is very reasonable, but asking for a tutorial on the meaning of every word may not be the best use of precious consultation time. As we move to a time where patients will (hopefully) be able to access more of their own data via portals, medical specialists will need to produce more readable report summaries.

Key worker

You should be allocated a ‘key worker’ – this will most often be a clinical nurse specialist (CNS). Many CNS are highly expert in their field and will know answers to all the common questions, and most of the complicated ones too. They can be invaluable in helping you navigate what is happening before, during, and after a consultation. They will often help patients ‘debrief’, particularly if a clinic meeting has been complicated or upsetting. Key workers are there to act as your advocate and help you to get the best, most personalised care. If you know that you have a lot of questions to ask, then first flag this with your key worker before a meeting: your key worker will be able to answer many questions for you, as well as prepare the doctors in the clinic and potentially organise a longer slot.

Macmillan helps to support over 4300 CNS in the NHS and yet we know there are still inadequate numbers. This means not all patients will get the CNS/key worker access they need or deserve. It is always reasonable to ask ‘Do I have a key worker/CNS? And how can I get hold of them if I have questions?’

Occasionally, a doctor-patient relationship is not good.  Communication will be poor as a result. Every doctor can have a bad day when they perform less well, but if you think you are not able to have a good meeting with a doctor attached to your care then this is an issue that your key worker should be able to handle sensitively. Key workers can often help by arranging another member of the team to see you where possible.

Second (and third and fourth) opinions

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Your case is reviewed by multiple doctors

It is standard within the NHS that all newly diagnosed cancer cases are discussed by a multidisciplinary team of professionals. I attend two of these meetings a week. In the Head and Neck cancer meeting, I sit with two other oncologists, a consultant radiologist and pathologist, three specialist nurses, three dieticians, two speech and language therapists, a consultant dentist, a specialist radiographer, and six consultant surgeons and trainees. We discuss every case, and multiple different approaches to the patient’s problem. Later in clinic we will meet the patient and present a summary view. The ‘first opinion’ is often the combination of multiple expert opinions.

You might want to ask ‘Has my case been discussed at the MDT and were any other options discussed?’. This might be particularly important if there are different possible treatments.

Records of the MDT discussion are also available.

Despite these multiple opinions you may still feel that you would like another team to consider your case. A second opinion can be arranged by your treating team (hospital to hospital) but the mechanisms by which hospitals get paid mean that it is often preferred if the request for another opinion comes from your GP. Transferring clinical information and the masses of data contained within scans can now usually be achieved instantly and electronically. Be aware that another opinion will inevitably lengthen the time before treatment can be delivered.

Research and Trials

Research in cancer is vital to drive innovation and improve survival. Clinical centres that engage in research may produce better results (this has been shown in recent radiotherapy trials), perhaps through more detailed systems of quality assurance.

You may be offered the opportunity to take part in a clinical trial, but if you are not then a good question to ask is ‘Are there any clinical trials for my situation in this hospital?’

If there are no local trials then looking at the National Cancer Research Institute website and their Portfolio Maps for a specific cancer will show what important questions investigators have about treating that disease.

If trials are not available locally it is helpful to ask if there are other accessible centres that are running relevant research. This information will usually be available to your team although you will have to consider carefully if the promise of a trial justifies the burden of travel to a centre further away from home.

Conclusion

There is a whole science devoted to analysing different styles of doctor-patient communication and ultimately doctors want the meetings with their patients to be effective, efficient, and friendly.

‘Communication’ has a double meaning – it can also mean a connection between places, a route or a bridge. Good communication should be able to take you somewhere new: bring you to a new point of awareness or knowledge. I hope these tips help you make the best use of those vital minutes, so you have maximum opportunity to arrive at the best possible destination of understanding.

Richard tweets as @BreastDocUK. He is a Consultant Clinical Oncologist at the Sussex Cancer Centre. 

Getting the most out of your medical appointments: tips from a Consultant Oncologist

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Consultant Clinical Oncologist, Richard Simcock

We’ve all been there: you spend weeks stressing over an upcoming appointment with your medical team – but you walk out feeling like you forgot to ask three of the four Very Important Questions you had and you’re not sure you made the most of the precious minutes you were allocated. While at Shine we’re used to seeing things from the patient’s point of view, we thought it might be useful to hear from someone on the other side of the table – what do doctors think about making sure those stressful appointments go well?

We were very happy that Richard Simcock, who is a Consultant Clinical Oncologist at the Sussex Cancer Centre, took on our blog challenge.  In the first of two blogs, he shares some of  advice about getting the most out of your face-to-face meetings with your oncologist. Please do share – or let us know if you think he’s missed anything!

 


As a Consultant Oncologist, a large part of my week is spent in clinics where I talk and listen. I have a schedule that averages around 40 appointments a week. Visits are listed between 20-40 minutes but can range from 5-90 minutes and more.  There’s a lot to get through in this short amount of time. In this environment, it’s easy to forget that a patient may have been waiting days, weeks, or even months for this conversation. The conversation itself is not evenly balanced: on one side is a healthcare professional under time pressure but with (hopefully) the answers and on the other, a patient with much on their mind and the greatest possible personal interest in the outcome. If this weren’t difficult enough, there’s the extra complication of a whole new language. Here is a place where ‘stage’ has nothing to do with actors, ‘progression’ is a bad thing, ‘negative’ nodes are a positive and the drug names seem deliberately difficult.

It’s not surprising then that many patients find clinic meetings unhelpful and sometimes a source of frustration and even anxiety.

Lots of things can conspire to make it more difficult (such as time pressure, or bad news), but there are ways in which you can be surer that a consultation will be effective and useful for you.

In the next two blog posts, I’ll take you through a list of things which I think are helpful. First up: four ways to prepare for the consultation.

1. List your questions

Memory is a fickle thing – that essential question that popped into your head uninvited at 3am is likely to be difficult to recall by 9am, and absolutely missing without trace by the time your appointment comes around. The question that was on the tip of your tongue may be kicked to a distant corner of your brain if the doctor starts asking about your bowels. Don’t take the risk of forgetting an important question: write a list.

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Make a list!

A doctor will not be irritated by a list. A careful set of questions can be really helpful in a consultation and helps manage time and concerns effectively. A list avoids the inconvenience of ‘oh, I just remembered one last thing’ (some people can manage to have multiple and separate ‘one last things’). More inconvenient still is to have to contact the patient again days later because ‘they forgot to ask….’ This is really time-consuming for everybody.

I mention lists of questions first – because so should you.

Introduce your questions early to help plan the time: ‘I know that you need to go through some things with me today, but I also have some questions I’ve written down. Is it OK if I tell you what these are at the beginning?’

Many doctors will prefer to know what the questions are at the outset as they may be able to answer them in the course of their usual conversation.

Try to order your list: are these questions about a clarification, current treatment, or what happens next? Grouping helps to deal with them efficiently. Also try to think what priority these questions have – particularly if you have lots. In a time-sensitive situation and with a list of 30 questions, it may be reasonable for a doctor to ask ‘which of these are the most important for us to deal with today?’

2. Bring someone

asking-beautiful-brainstorming-601170It isn’t always possible to have someone with you in clinic, but it can be really helpful. It’s too easy to end up in a consultation somewhere very different from where you expected to be (after bad news, for example). A friend or relative is likely to be calmer and can remind you of important details. They can also act as your secretary, as you will see.

3. Record

You wrote down the questions, so shouldn’t you record the answers? The answer is definitely ‘yes’ (and you shouldn’t need to write that down). You can’t remember everything that is said no matter how hard you try. The average brain can probably only keep around four things at once in it, for around 30 seconds, and 40–80% of medical information is forgotten immediately after a consultation.

You don’t need to come to your appointment with a stack of notebooks and leave with writer’s cramp – it can be unhelpful for patients to write their own notes. If you’re trying to capture every word, scribbling furiously like the last five minutes of your school English exam, you will miss details. Bring someone who can take notes while you focus on what’s being said.

Less stressful than writing is recording. An audio recording of the consultation is the perfect way to ensure that everything is captured, and nothing is forgotten.  In my department we have been recording consultations for patients since the 90s, using tapes and CDs. We have found it to be enormously helpful.

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You’ve probably got a voice recorder with you already

These days, almost everyone carries a portable recorder around in their phone. Both Android and iPhones/iPads have voice recorders as standard and they are easy to use. Make sure you know how it works before the clinic and test the settings – it’s a clinic, not a sound-check! Once recorded, these sound files can then be emailed anywhere, e.g. to a relative overseas.

There are also useful apps that allow you to add questions before the clinic and then record the answers for future reference. The OWise App is aimed at UK-based breast cancer patients, and the Cancer Net App is produced by the American Society of Clinical Oncology for all patients (although with a US bias in the information sections). These recordings are secure to your phone, which is a good way to protect privacy, but means they that cannot be shared as widely as simple sound files.

Finally, remember to ask your doctor before you record the meeting. Secretly recording a consultation is legally permissible but should be avoided – it suggests a significant breach of trust and a sense that doctor and patient are not on the same ‘team’.

Richard Simcock is a Consultant Clinical Oncologist at the Sussex Cancer Centre, with particular expertise in breast and head and neck cancer. He also works as a Consultant Medical Advisor for Macmillan Cancer Support.

He is a member of the National Cancer Research Network subgroup in psychosocial oncology and he is interested in research which improves the experience of people living with cancer. He was part of the James Lind Alliance Priority Setting Partnership that established the Top 10 priorities in research for people living with and beyond cancer.

He has been involved in communication skills training for healthcare professionals for many years, but still learns something new every week.

In his next blog post, Richard shares some more tips and tricks for the meeting itself, as well as some ideas for seeking further opinions and learning more about clinical trials. 

Richard tweets as @BreastDocUK.