Archive for January, 2008

The Biopsychosocial approach to health is thirty years old this month. The what? Yeah, I bet it doesn’t mean much to you, does it? And that’s pretty amazing really. It shows how tenaciously orthodoxy clings to its old models. The dominant model in Western Medicine is the “biomedical” one, which seeks a biomolecular explanation for all illness. This is a materialistic and a reductionist understanding of illness. In fact, proponents deny the very reality of any illness which cannot be explained by molecular, physical changes in a body.

Thirty years ago, George Engel proposed the term “biopsychosocial” as an alternative mode of understanding. Essentially this approach considered that “the study of every disease must include the individual, his/her body and his/her surrounding environment as essential components of the total system.” It situated the individual in the inextricable contexts of his or her life. It proposed that the way to understand illness required a holistic understanding of a person, with every single person being different and unique. It was an argument against reductionism and for insights gained from understandings of the links and influences which exist within our living networks. More than that, it opened the door for psychosomatic medicine – the joining back together of the body and the mind, for so long considered as separate, almost vaguely related entities. There’s an awful lot of illness which is not explainable from a disease focussed approach. We can’t really reduce individual illness experience to a set of physical entities or lesions. And the other side of the coin is that Engel’s approach demanded a holistic understanding of health. From this perspective health is so much more than the mere absence of disease.

So why hasn’t it become the dominant model? And why do we still consider most illnesses as physical entities which we call diseases which can be treated with surgery to remove the lesions and drugs to fight the disorder?

Well, Engel himself gave us the explanation in advance. He said

… nothing will change unless or until those who control resources have the wisdom to venture off the beaten path of exclusive reliance on biomedicine as the only approach to health care

Those who control the resources still like to consider the world as made up of physical, separate objects; still think of disease as an entity to be fought and expelled. We have a better scientific explanation now but it’s still a long way from being the dominant model.

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David Corfield posted about an interesting study of the placebo effect. It describes a piece of research into the power of language to effect physical change. Hotel maids burn up a lot of calories through the very nature of their work which is physical from start to finish. But interestingly most of them reckon they do no exercise and their body size and shape isn’t much different from the average woman. The researchers took a group of hotel maids and divided them into two sub-groups, one of which received information in an interview about how many calories they were using up in their different chores. The other sub-group received no information. They found that all the maids’ body fat, waist-to-hip ratio, blood pressure, weight and body mass index measurements were consistent with their perceived level of exercise. One month later they found that in the educated group there was a decrease in their systolic blood pressure, weight, and waist-to-hip ratio — and a 10 percent drop in blood pressure. Observations by the team hadn’t shown any changes in the maids’ routines or physical exercise. So it was changing the state of mind which changed the state of the body.

In the report of this study, the writers find a critic who says that such a placebo effect cannot effect a physical change as placebo can only effect subjective changes. That’s such nonsense! And the article concludes with a great example of asthmatics being given a drug which would make their asthma worse, but being told it would make it better. They not only claimed their asthma was better but the objective lung function readings improved.

Words were originally magic

— Sigmund Freud

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I just came across a paper about “Post-traumatic Embitterment Disorder”. Apparently “embitterment” is a new term in psychological classification and this study aims to demonstrate that by using new questionnaires (what psychologists call “scales” to introduce a sense of measurability to what is a purely subjective phenomenon) they can show  “Post-traumatic Embitterment Disorder” is a “sub-type of adjustment disorders”. What they are trying to show is that some people who are so severely psychologically injured by a life event that they become “impaired” by it exhibit more bitterness about their experience than others do and the claim is that this constitutes a definable category of disorder.

I am so in two minds about this.

Here’s the positive side. I think everyone tries to make sense of their lives. It’s what we do. We want to understand our experience, to make some sense of it, and, unless we do that, it’s hard to be an effective “agent” of your own life. In other words, first we need to understand a situation, then we can make some choices to engage with it differently and so develop our own particular paths forward. If we can’t do that for ourselves, we need to get the help of others. Those others might be friends or loved ones, or might be other people in the community who have different skills and who might be able to help. One of those groups of people in the community is the professional health carers – a doctor, a nurse, a psychologist or a counsellor for example. If you take your story to one of these people, they’ll try to interpret it from a medical perspective.  A doctor, for example, is skilled at making a diagnosis – finding out whether or not you have a disease. But, diagnosis is about more than naming a disease. It’s a kind of understanding. It’s a kind of making sense of a patient’s experience. Without a diagnosis, a doctor can’t treat you effectively. So, if this new “diagnosis” helps some people to be better understood, then it’s useful.

Here’s the downside. First of all, a diagnosis declares an experience as a disease or illness. It’s not a healthy experience. Once the experience becomes classified as a disease or illness, then the way to change it, the way to provide help becomes one of treatment. Treatment of psychological illnesses tend to involve either prescribing a drug, or undertaking a talking therapy of some kind. A talking therapy which releases someone from a stuck way of thinking and therefore helps them understand their situation can well help that person to make different choices and so have a different experience. A drug solution makes sense if you can explain the experience materially – by showing some imbalance of chemicals in the brain for example – in such a situation a drug can be part of a solution too. It can help a person to find new ways of thinking by changing the way the brain functions. But when you take every experience of life and try to classify it and declare some of it as disorder or disease then you risk medicalising life and you risk reducing human experience to chemical imbalances which can be addressed with drugs. I don’t find that either life-enhancing, or a personally empowering way to live.

Bitterness? Is this a medical disorder? Is this a disease to be treated? Or is it part of an experience which needs to be understood in order to release someone from a stuck place? If someone is bitter, they are usually stuck. And without help they can find it hard to see things differently. So bitterness needs to be addressed, but do I need something like the “Bern Embitterment Scale” to be able to see this?

What do you think?

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herd of elephants
I’ve been to game reserves in South Africa a few times. I tell you, until you’ve been yourself, you’ve no idea how difficult it is to spot an elephant or a giraffe! Seriously! Huge big animals but in their natural habitat, really they’re not easy to spot. What gives them away? Movement. As you scan the bush, or a plain, or a hillside, the first thing which will catch your eye is a movement. If they stay stock still, they might be only yards away but you won’t see them till the last minute.
traffic jam of elephants
giraffe parent and child
tiny deer

Many animals are good at detecting scent change. The slightest whiff of a predator, or a human being, arriving on the scene and they pick it up.

Another example of how we give priority to change detection is noise. I’m sure you’ll have had the experience of a background noise suddenly stopping and it’s only at that moment when it ceases that you become aware it was even there. You notice it when it goes away, not when it stays the same.

Change impacts on us. It catches our attention. A recent study has examined this phenomenon and interestingly shows that we are much better at detecting auditory changes than visual ones. I’m not sure that holds true for everyone. One of the things that NLP teaches is how we have different processing preferences – by that they mean that some of us are especially good at processing visual information, others auditory, and yet others, kinesthetic. From what I can see the researchers who produced this study didn’t make any allowances for that.

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One of the most frequently viewed posts on this blog is my photograph of Stirling Castle and Wallace Monument. As you might imagine, both of these structures sitting atop hills looking over the town of Stirling, have made a big impression on me over the years. I was born here, worked here in the local hospital in my training years and have returned to live here in recent years. You’re probably familiar with the Wallace, who the monument commemorates, either from history lessons, or from the movie, Braveheart. (Mel Gibson doesn’t look a bit like the real Wallace by the way!).

In the middle of the town of Stirling is a cobbled street that climbs a steep hill to the Castle. The first part is called “King Street” and at the top of King Street is this statue


As you’ll see from the carved writing, this is Wallace. If you look a little more carefully, you can see a few words in Latin – “nemo me impune lacessit”. It’s the motto of Scotland and translated into Scottish it says “Wha daur tangle wi me!” (roughly in English that means “Don’t mess with me!”)

Have you a local hero? Have you a motto?

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In an earlier post, I showed this page from my notebook and explained the left hand page – the one about making a diagnosis. Once we understand someone, then we can begin to help them. The right hand page is my mind map to think through some of the issues related to that.

doctor's job

Most diagnoses focus on the physical, measurable “disease”. This naturally leads to treatments being designed to address pathology. In acute disease this is highly relevant. If you’ve broken a leg, you want a treatment which will lead to repair of the bone. If you’ve had a heart attack, you want a treatment which will address the damage done to your heart, and so on. Most drugs and most surgical procedures are designed to do just that – they address the damages tissues and attempt to effect a repair. A repair is either the removal of a lesion, for example, a wart, or a tumour. Or it is a restoration of a necessary balance in the body eg replacing insulin in diabetes. Actually, this is a commonly misunderstood element of medicine. Drugs and operations don’t actually repair anything. They simply, at best, assist the body in effecting its own repair. It’s not the orthopaedic surgeon who heals the bone, it’s the body. Similarly, we tend to think antibiotics cure infections. They don’t. They kill bugs. It’s the body which heals the inflamed lungs, or throat, or bladder, or whatever was infected. This whole approach accounts for much of modern medical practice. It’s materialistic, reductionistic and focussed on measurements of change and definable outcomes. Yet, the misunderstanding about how healing is actually coming about means that the focus is too narrow and overplays the role of the treatment at the expense of the individual human being.

What if helping someone who is ill, is more than a matter of repairing? Well, the next part of the diagram shows how we can focus instead on resilience. By resilience I mean the human capacity to adapt and to cope. The body’s natural defences and systems of repair are a manifestion of a person’s resilience. You know how if your general energy and mood is low, your immune system is compromised and you catch more minor infections? Not only that, in such a state it takes longer to get over something. An intervention which explicitly seeks to foster resilience, fosters repair too. I think this is a concept you’ll understand very quickly, but, clinically, it’s a lot harder than repair. For a start, the contexts of someone’s life plays a big part in their resilience. We see this in work which shows how dates of deaths are often related to significant personal dates – like anniversaries, birthdays and so on. We also see this in work on the effect of the physical environment on recovery rates after operations in hospitals. Resilience is a fundamental part of self-recovery and self-repair. It’s probably a part of the explanation for placebo effects. But it is terribly poorly understood and researched – probably because there are no simple resilience drugs to be marketed!

The final part of the right hand page above is about “growth”. The most amazing result from an illness is when a patient doesn’t re-establish a status quo but where they actually become stronger and more resilient through the experience of the illness. A classic example of this is the Lance Armstrong story – “It’s Not About the Bike” – where he shows how overcoming cancer actually made him into the man who could win the Tour de France more times than any other man in history.

What interventions would explicitly support and encourage growth? Well, that’s even more complex than the resilience issue and even more personal and individual.

But I think that’s our challenge.

I think we need to develop systems of health care which explicitly address the issues of resilience and growth. If we don’t do that, we just end up fire fighting again and again and again. We don’t want to just fight infections, we want to develop people’s capacity to remain healthy and well-defended against infection and other diseases.

So, here’s my wondering and, I hope, some of you will wonder about this too – what would a health service look like if it was more than a repair service? What would we do to encourage and support resilience and growth?

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Here’s an example of how I think something through. I often write out my thoughts in a notebook and frequently I do so by constructing a kind of mind map – not the Tony Buzan kind of mind map with all its bells and whistles but spreading the main ideas and concepts out over a blank canvas then seeing the connections between them and using boxes and arrows to tie it altogether. When I was wondering about what exactly is a doctor’s job recently I drew this map –

doctor's job

Let me explain it because some of it might be self-explanatory but it’s drawn as a thinking tool, not a communication one.

On the left hand page I’m thinking about diagnosis and the difference between the concepts of “disease” and “illness”.

People present to their doctors with symptoms (what they experience) and signs (what the doctor can feel, hear, measure and so on). Together they are used to make a “diagnosis” – a diagnosis, is, essentially, simply and understanding. It’s where the doctor recognises what these symptoms and signs are evidence of. Actually, diagnosis in the biomedical approach (that’s what we European and American doctors sometimes call “Western medicine”), is usually about discovering and naming pathology ie diseased tissue. Historically, that was known as the “lesion”. It’s a very materialistic and, frankly, usually reductionist approach to medicine. That circle means that it’s the symptoms and the signs together which constitute the diagnosis. What Kroenke and others have shown us is that there is a relationship between the symptoms and signs but whilst a sign may be highly likely to be indicative of a certain pathology, symptoms most definitely are not. Kroenke shows that over 80% of the symptoms patients experience are NOT caused by any “lesions” or pathology. This is best understood by thinking about “disease” and “illness” differently. Eric Cassell is great about this. He says “disease” is what the organ has and “illness” is what the man has. Disease is about pathology and illness is about suffering. It’s illness that encompasses the subjective experience and disease remains an objective, measurable concept.

So, as doctors, we can engage with the patient at the level of their disease, but if we want to help relieve suffering we have to think more broadly than that, and expand into the unmeasurable. This is where stories come in. People convey their illnesses by telling the stories of their experience. Two things about this are highlighted in the above mind map. Firstly, that experience is interpreted by patients themselves as well as by their doctors. It’s through narrative (story-telling) that we make sense of our experience. It’s through narrative and talking that we can understand the meaning of our illnesses. People like Darian Leader and David Corfield, and Brian Broom have made that very clear in their work on psychosomatic medicine.

Once we start to consider more than the material, the physical and the measurable, we can start to try and understand an illness in the contexts of a person’s life. The triangle of body, mind and spirit highlights how context might refer to what’s important in an individual person’s life. Some people talk about physical and material needs and security, others primarily of feelings and relationships and yet others of a world greater than themselves ie of purpose, meaning and belief. A patient’s suffering needs to be understood in the context which matters most to that person. Some people for example have chest pain because they believe they’ve offended God, others because they’ve been humiliated or abandoned and yet others because they’ve lost their jobs and income.

The final part of that left hand page is the contexts of the individual, their relationships and their environments (cultural and physical). Cassell again is great on this, asking the question of where a patient’s suffering actually lies – is it in them, their relationships or family, or their society or culture?

Many doctors don’t consider these questions but I think if we want to understand people we have to go further than the materialistic, disease model.

OK, that’s enough for this post! I’ll cover the right hand page, which is about thinking through appropriate interventions and treatments, in another post.

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I read the Prosperous Peasant, written by Tim Clark and Mark Cunningham, recently. It’s one of those books which teaches (in this case five) principles (or ‘secrets’) which you should learn if you want to have a better life. The writing is better than many other books of this genre, partly, I suspect, because both of the authors are already established writers, one of them a novelist. Their writing skills show. The message of the book is very simple – here are the five principles –

  1. Gratitude attracts luck
  2. Know your gift
  3. Conceivable means achievable
  4. Effort determines results
  5. Collaboration breeds success

I’m not going to elaborate any of these here. There’s nothing ground-breaking in here. However, my favourite one is the third one. A long of goal-setting and visualisation teaching is ridiculous and sets people up for disappointment. This particular principle emphasises that you have to be able to “conceive” how you’re going to achieve what you want to do, and that’s what makes it possible. It’s the conceiving that sets it apart from fanciful daydreaming. The principles are all ones you’ll have read about elsewhere but I like two things – the first is the way the principles are taught using the classic storytelling method. This time the stories are set in Japan, during the time of the samurai, and each story is well told and memorable. The second is that, unlike The Secret, the principles are practical, reasonable and useful. There’s nothing quasi-religious or mystical about it. It’s got charm. You can read the book for yourself, or have a look at the website.

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Dr Des Spence is a Glasgow GP who writes a regular column in the British Medical Journal. I frequently find myself agreeing with what he writes and this week is no exception. He looks at the way doctors (and the public) are presented with “the facts”. It’s all in the way the statistics are chosen and published. He takes the West of Scotland Coronary Prevention Study as his working example. This large study showed a reduction of 32% in the deaths of men in the study who took statins to lower their cholesterol. I won’t re-iterate the detailed statistical analyses here, but that’s the “relative risk”, and another way to present exactly the same findings is to show that the “absolute risk” shows reduction in mortality from cardiovascular disease was 0.7%. That’s startling enough, but what it means is that you have to treat 715 men with the statins to save 1 life. In other words, one person benefits and 714 take the pills but don’t benefit.

I wrote about this in an earlier post where I reviewed “Reckoning with Risk” by Gigerenzer. I urge you to read either that book, or his “Gut Feelings“. You’ll never swallow “the facts” so easily again.

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The Beatles were the band I grew up liking. One of the first “singles” (yes, the little, black, vinyl things!) I bought was “She Loves You”, closely followed up by “I Want to Hold Your Hand”. I don’t know how significant that is but maybe it explains a little why I am such a sucker for a good love song.

That’s part of the explanation I think, but the other is my most fundamental belief is that the world will become a better place the more love there is in it.

Anyway, here’s a song that’s new to me, and by a singer songwriter I haven’t heard before. It’s called “Better” and it’s by Tom Baxter

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