Category: Primary care

The mystery of change (-ing others): article in the Irish Psychologist

How may I help you– change you?* 

“Change is the Law of Life. And those who look only to the past or present are certain to miss the future.” – John F. Kennedy


Trying to help somebody to change their bad habits is an admirable act of kindness. It shows our compassion and care for the less fortunate. The best is when it comes from the person’s own initiative. Motivated helpers are assumed to be good helpers. Some of us help others pro bono, while others do it as part of their job description. But what if the professional helper doesn’t want to help? How do you help the helper with change in others?

Encouraging professional helpers to address excessive drinking is a complex problem. It’s so complex and resistant to change, that their unwillingness to adopt these new practices can be viewed as a bad habit. Many experts called for complex strategies to persuade their clinician colleagues to address alcohol. But complex strategies did not help.
Professors Anderson, Laurant, Kaner, Wensing and Grol reviewed available scientific evidence and claimed it was possible to increase the engagement of doctors in screening and advice-giving for excessive drinking. They saw a potential in programs which were specifically focussed on alcohol and that were multi-component. Later, some of the original team tested this theory by doing a clinical trial, which is a type of study considered as a golden-standard by many experts. Their Swedish experiment “failed to show an effect and proved difficult to implement”. Are the Swedish too stubborn to embrace change? Let’s not be harsh by accepting this cultural stereotype as a plausible explanation for their negative findings, before we look at more perplexing findings from other countries.
When scientists ask doctors and other professional helpers about what’s so difficult in talking alcohol with their patients, they give the same reasons all over the world. The World Health Organisation (WHO) commissioned a multi-state study, at the beginning of the millennium, which documented all of these reasons – the myths about alcohol care. The myths were lack of time, inadequate training, a view that alcohol is not a matter that needs to be addressed by medical doctors, conviction that doctors’ advice won’t work and fear of talking about such sensitive issue. It seems that the next twist in the story of change brings us to helpers’ beliefs.
Recent research at the University of Michigan, cardiovascular centre demonstrated how doctors’ confidence in their ability to advise patients on diet and exercise correspond with their own personal health and fitness levels. Could this apply to alcohol too? Would it help if we use some evidence-based strategy to boost their confidence or ambivalence about drinking behaviours?
Motivational enhancement therapy (MET) is an evidence-based treatment which targets person’s ambivalence about unwanted behaviours including their attitudes and beliefs. A team supervised by Professors Hettema and Sorensen used this Swiss-army knife of addiction counselling to help doctors-to-be to resolve their ambivalence around managing alcohol and drug problems. They’ve put a group of nine medical residents through a brief MET therapy before they learned more about alcohol consulting and advice-giving. Five weeks later, their consulting and advice-giving went up, but due to the small numbers, the researchers called for caution with interpretation of their results.
Resident education was combined with a team-based approach to systems change in the Richmond clinic – a busy family practice in the south-east Portland, Oregon. Dr Muench led his team to change the way they deal with drinking issues – from receptionists, through medical assistants to physicians.
Dr Muench is a slim, middle-aged physician with a passion for teaching young doctors and helping patients from difficult backgrounds. Explaining their approach to practice change, he points out, ‘we’ve strengthened our practice systems, but the system leaks at three points. They are at the front desk, in the consultation room and in the teaching modules.’ In making these comments, Dr Muench argues that while their project led to many improvements, there are things that can be improved. Ultimately, Muench conveys a positive message about systems change being possible, although not without some obstacles. In the Richmond team-based approach, the receptionists should give patients alcohol check-ups while they wait for the consultation, but they often forget because the PC fails to remind them of this. When the receptionist doesn’t forget to hand out the form, and the patient brings it to a medical assistant, she frequently forgets to complete the full assessment. It is no surprise then that the next ‘cog in the machine’ – the doctors – ‘forget’ to discuss alcohol with patients.
What science tells us about implementing change is reassuringly similar to the traditional knowledge of common folk. If you can’t change others, change yourself. “We must become the change we want to see”, said Gandhi. Richmond truly became the change they wanted to see in others. And yet, the project’s 75% yardstick of engaging patients into alcohol discussions wasn’t met. Why was Richmond below targets? Embracing change in healthcare requires system changes and education on several levels – multi-level changes.

*This is a shortened version of my article published in the Irish Psychologist, Volume 40, Issue 2/3. Dennis McCarty, PhD gave me feedback on drafts of this blog post.

Citation for the full version of this article:

Klimas, J. (2013). The mystery of change(ing) others. Irish Psychologist, 40(2-3), 78-79. http://www.psihq.ie/irish-psychologist-journal-of-psychology

Recruitment shock

3.6% response rate? Shocking! For our new feasibility study, we sent over 200 invitations to primary care doctors in Ireland and the invitees sent us back a very strong signal. “We are not interested”, or “we are too busy”, or “we don’t have enough eligible patients”? Whatever the reason, the message remained the same: No, thanks.

The primary objective of our study, as for most feasibility studies, is to estimate numbers needed for a definitive trial. We want to know how many people should be invited into the study; of those, how many should be randomized; of those, how many will stay until the end. Right from the beginning, we were faced with a question whether we can recruit enough people for a fully-powered experiment.

Statistical power

Power in research experiments is about finding the truth. Experimenters want to know whether their drugs or treatments work. If the drug or treatment works and they give it to a group of people, some of them will improve, some won’t. There’s a lot of chance and uncertainty in any drug or treatment administration. If we want to know the truth beyond the effects of chance, we need to give the drug or treatment to the right number of people. There’s a formula for it, known to most statisticians. It depends on many things, like the size of the improvement that you want to observe in the treated group, or other confounding factors. The higher power in a study, the more likely it says true (see, e.g., Dr Paul D Ellis’, PhD site here).
A rule of thumb says that the more people are in the study, the higher the chances of finding a meaningful impact of the intervention. Common sense also tells us that the more people in the trial, the more representative they are of the whole population – the more confidence you can be that your results apply to all; except for Martians – unless you really want to study Martian citizenship.

Solution

The easiest would be to call some friends, doctors, and ask for a favor. This should work, but it’s not really scientific. Or you can shut down the study and conclude that it’s not feasible. Or you can do the study with the small number of interested participants. Or you can send another mailshot, a reminder, to all – sometimes that can help.

Doing research with busy doctors – an open space world

Family doctors are notoriously busy. Lack of their time is the number #1 barrier of doing anything outside their patient workload, including research. And yet, some enthusiasts get involved in the research endeavour, believing it can enhance primary care.

Knowing this, I looked for ways to do research with busy family physicians for my INVEST fellowship in Portland, OR. I needed to get them in one room and ask the group a couple of questions about their recent resident training initiative, SBIRT Oregon. The only time when my doctors were all in the clinic was right after another meeting. One of them suggested doing an open meeting technology. The phrase vaguely rang a bell with me.

‘Open space’ describes the process by which a wide range of individuals, in any organisation, can facilitate creative meetings around a complex theme of importance to all stakeholders 1. While a theme may be important to all stakeholders, they may have differing perspectives and responses, so this approach permits all voices to be heard and facilitates a process where stakeholders move from conflicting views to consensus. The approach has been widely used in commerce, religious communities, (non-)governmental agencies and war zones 2.

How did this work for us?

Our field ‘experiment’ lasted for about 90 minutes with two meetings in one room, right after each other. The meetings were unrelated, but 3/4 of the participants from the first meeting were scheduled for the second meeting too. I and my co-facilitator arrived well ahead of the first meeting. As doctors started to show up for the 2nd meeting – the 1st meeting was still in progress – some people were confused; others patiently listened to people talking at the 1st meeting. I found it very useful to sit on the 1st meeting and the transition to the 2nd meeting was much easier – all were in their seats already.

All in all, this set up had many advantages for multiple meetings with extra busy attendees. It can help solve problems and it works best with many people attending your meeting, but maybe it’s not ideal for research focus groups. A tip for a freshman facilitator: it’s amazing how much powerful an incentive for research can food be, especially pizza.

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1http://www.michaelherman.com/cgi/wiki.cgi
2http://www.openspaceworld.com/papers.htm

Honor pot: testing doctors’ drug counselling skills in a new pilot study in Ireland

In our new new paper, we outline plans for doing a study which should tell us whether doctors and agonist patients accept psychological interventions as means of curbing alcohol in primary care; it should also tell us whether we can do more research on this topic in Ireland. Access the full protocol here  http://www.researchprotocols.org/2013/2/e26/

For some people, publishing research protocols is not fun because of two reasons:

  1. everybody knows what you’re doing
  2. you have to do what you said – everybody knows now.

However tough for researchers, these two reasons make publicly available research protocols the best way to achieve transparency in research. Transparent research is in line with ethical principles of research conduct and makes an honorable contribution to the scientific knowledge – to the honor pot. Together with accountability, it should be the core pillar of scientific discovery.

If these safeguards fail, we may see more instances of academic fraud and data falsification, such as Diederik Stapels’. The social psychology community has been embarassed by the revelation that Diederik Stapels made up the data for his papers.  The NY Times link provides a detailed analysis of the Stapels and his academic fraud.

Helping agonist patients with alcohol problems: A NEW guide for primary care staff

What should doctors do differently when screening for alcohol use and delivering brief interventions for agonist patients in primary care? General principles remain the same like for other people, but:
  1. the screening and treatment processes should be more systematic and proactive in all problem drug users, especially in those with concurrent chronic illnesses or psychiatric co-morbidity,
  2. lower thresholds should be applied for both identification and intervention of problem alcohol use and referral to specialist services,
  3. special skills and specialist supervision is required if managing persistent/dependent alcohol use in primary care.