Sunday, 20 January 2013

Back to basics to move forward!

Back to basics to move forward!

The world is changing at a speed none of us could have imagined in our undergraduate years. I typed out my undergrad project on a so-called computer with an 8086 processor chip; these days a scientific calculator packs more punch and occupies much less space. This example is just one of countless ways in which the educational and professional aspects of the pharmacy profession have evolved, in the most part for the better.

There is one area where we have ostensibly taken a step backwards and this is in the manner in which we approach our face to face meetings with our patients. One of the reasons for this is the lack of personal communication skills which are fundamental to productive human interaction.

The main drivers in this lack of drive for human connection can be summarized as such:

I) Social media such as Facebook, Twitter and others have reduced a large percentage of our person to person interventions to electronic means, e-mail included. This decrease in direct communication has engendered a confidence gap and also a lcl of warmth and understanding in professional exchanges.

II) The majority of undergraduates, and also to a certain extent of pharmacy graduates, have no clear idea of why they have chosen their appointed profession. In some instances it is a case of following in the footsteps of a parent or close relative and taking over a long-held family business. In others it is a case of taking the easiest route to a good quality degree as a health professional. However, how many of these individuals can actually profess that they always wanted to become a pharmacist?

Thus what is missing in the majority of cases is the vocation to work as a health professional, to listen, emphasize and sympathize with patients and provide moral comfort as well as physical relief to the condition at hand. The mind and body are inextricably linked and no one medical professional can hope to heal the latter without paying great attention to the needs of the former.

III) Educational institutions are failing to recognize this gap between better informed students or graduates and better world-ready and personable ones. Focused and specific training in personal communication is missing in the curricula of most health professions. At least, with respect to our local pharmacy course, a six month work placement in the fifth year Master stage goes someway to addressing this point since Bachelor of Science graduates can observe licensed pharmacists in their daily patient interactions. The only drawback to this is that the educational and professional gain to be made depends on the randomness of a students placement, and thus uniformity of education is not guaranteed.

The take-home message of this short piece is that educational priority within the health professions, with the inclusion of the local pharmacy profession, should not only be on academic prowess but also on the development of graduates with a capacity for the basic human skills of communication and empathy.


Sunday, 6 January 2013

The National Audit Office Report 2011 - The healthcare perspective

The latest version of the NAO report out last week highlights deficiencies across the board with the government sector, as is the remit of the individuals trusted with its collation and publication. What is of concern to those of us with a vested interest in the health sector and the formulation of health policy and its actuation, are certain grave and fundamental shortcomings within this same sector. The aim of this short note is not to dwell in depth on each point but to emphasize the importance and relevance of the basic facts elucidated by this report.

The NAO report 2011 review of the Ministry for Health and the Elderly can be easily subdivided into the following criticisms:

I) The lack of control on employee attendance and the brazen refusal of doctors' and dentists' unions to accept such a basic tenet of employment. 

II) The fact that tendering procedures for medicines and surgical materials and also non-surgical equipment are routinely circumvented by direct orders, and the limits and approvals required for the latter are disregarded at will.

III) The storage of medicines and surgical materials is not centralized and one of the depots does not provide satisfactory storage conditions under the regulations laid out by the MA. This suggests that sub-standard medicinal and supplies are being passed onto the local treatment chain.

IV) The discrepancy in stocks held was said to be less than Eur 2,000 on a total figure of over Eur 18 million. This range of accuracy is not credible to the trained observer, as it implies no human error in stock transfers and no inventory pilferage. For some reason this did not seem odd to the auditors.

The implications of the NAO report are many and will be discussed in detail in a future note. What these brief points do immediately emphasize is that the Maltese healthcare system is not suffering from a lack of funding, but rather from a very inefficient utilization of the funds available to it. With points of failure at every main cost sector: wages, stocks and purchasing and stock control are all major weaknesses. This implies that major gains are to be had by simply getting the basics done right. Deeper analysis is required to quantify the magnitude of the savings to be had, but the report leaves no doubt that the material impact on the level of local health outcomes would be dramatic, given the gross wastage of resources identified.