For this post, I caught up with Dr Manpinder Sahota, a GP in Britain's NHS. We first interacted over Twitter, where we met on the topic of shifting healthcare to a world of prevention. Dr Sahota said he had a vision for building a GP practice with a focus on wellness and prevention of disease, and was curious if technology could play a role in that. So I hopped on a train to see him, and what follows is the interview at his practice, in Gravesend. For those who have never visited, Gravesend is an ancient town in north west Kent, England, situated 21 miles east south-east of Charing Cross, London on the south bank of the Thames estuary. Gravesend has one of the oldest surviving markets in the country, its earliest charter dates from 1268. For my American readers, Gravesend is where Princess Pocahontas is buried, having died there almost 400 years ago, on a ship bound for the Commonwealth of Virginia. Back to the present day, Gravesend [and the borough of Gravesham that it falls under] faces the challenge of childhood obesity, with 38.9% of 10 to 11-year-olds resident in Gravesham being overweight or obese. Demographics are changing, with 17% of the population of the borough of Gravesham having been born outside of the UK.
1. What is your role & responsibilities?
I've been at the Pelham medical practice since 1999. We have 7 GPs, over 2 sites and almost 14,000 patients. I'm the Diabetes lead and a GP trainer as well. I also provide free acupuncture to some of my patients.
2. What are the key challenges you're facing in the year ahead?
In a place like Gravesend, where 50% of patients are not tech savvy, getting reminders on their mobile phone or 'choose and book' [Note: Choose and Book is a national electronic referral service which gives patients a choice of place, date and time for their first outpatient appointment in a hospital or clinic] doesn’t mean anything to them. Furthermore, many can just about get to the local hospital on the cheapest bus, and often they can't afford a taxi to a hospital that is further away, so services such as 'choose and book' are of no use to them. I'm seeing the local population getting sicker and sicker, and although some of my patients are living longer due to being on 9 or 10 drugs, they usually have very little quality of life.
My main challenge is educating people in lifestyle changes, especially those from the lower social classes. I've found that if I can give them a practical bit of advice or even encouragement, it does lead to lower blood pressure and loss of weight.
Patients only seem to listen when they are about to have ill health, many times there is no motivation to change behaviour, diet and exercise, especially given education levels can be quite low.
I'm interested in pre-Diabetes and screening for pre-Diabetes, that is where the biggest change can happen. Usually, my patients know a bit about Diabetes from someone in the family, so there is some emotional trigger, which can help in our conversations.
3. What is your big vision for moving to a world with a focus on prevention of disease?
My overall big vision is to get away from prescribing drugs, there are dangers of polypharmacy and I want to get people to rely upon themselves, and use lifestyle medicine as the first discussion point, before we go down the path of handing out tablets. I'm also thinking about depression, back pain, obesity related diseases, and am keen to provide Tai Chi classes, Yoga classes and Meditation classes at this new centre.
4. Tell us more about your new centre
My new centre is not replacing the existing GP surgery. It would be a new GP practice with a preventative component, One idea is to have a gym at the top of the surgery where Tai Chi classes could take place. I want to be able to prescribe patients a 12 week course on diet and nutrition with a personal trainer. There is a national program where certain courses for diabetes prevention can be done. No current funding, but in the future, there should be money coming from it. If the NHS wont fund my ideas, I will go to the British Heart Foundation or National Lottery.
5. Switching over to technology, there is much talk about giving patients online access to their medical records, in the hope that it will improve the quality of care, shared decision making as well as patient outcomes. How often do patients come in and ask for a paper copy of their medical records?
Very rarely, it does happen though.
6. If today, your practice was able to offer online access to medical records for your patients, as an estimate, how many would use it?
I estimate 25% would use it. The remaining 75% aren't that educated and/or don't have computers. In fact, 10% of the patients visiting our practice need an interpreter during the visit, as they don't speak English, or don't speak it well enough.
Our other practice is in a deprived area. Over there, the patients tend to believe the doctor knows best, and they don't want to be involved in their treatment decision, patients actually want a paternalistic healthcare system. Quite a lot of my Indian patients, believe that the doctor is God, and if you give them management options, they are not interested.
7. We hear so much about how wearable technology is changing healthcare. How many of your patients are coming in and showing you apps or wearables with respect to behaviour change (such as using a FitBit as a tool in increasing physical activity)?
Hardly any patients are showing up at appointments with this kind of technology.
8. What are your thoughts when you hear the term 'Big Data' in healthcare? How does it make you feel as a GP?
We are already overloaded with information, letters from hospitals, from agencies, if we have to look at even more information, that would be too much for us. We are doing too much administration work already, any new information would have to be controlled very well. We are literally drowning in information, as everything in the NHS gets sent to a patient's GP.
9. How might 'smarter homes' in the future help you as a GP in terms of prevention?
Technology that could help spot rises in blood sugar, oxygen, pulse rates. Patients are already bringing in paper to their appointments showing their rising Blood Pressure levels. For current hypertensives, I'd like to see a patient's BP readings at home on my computer screen prior to the patient's visit. Patients could save admin time if they could pre-enter this information for me to see. What if we could get food diaries into patient's medical records, that would be great for preventing Diabetes. To be able to understand what they are eating on a daily or weekly basis, the carbohydrate content etc.
10. Who influences you?
I follow Dr Aseem Malhotra and Jamie Oliver, they are both leading a national conversation. I hope to see celebrities and sports starts taking up the baton in health prevention and get involved in their local areas. What if we had footballers like David Beckham or Wayne Rooney helping to spread this message? Kids would listen to those people, rather than us.
[Disclosure: I have no commercial ties with the individuals or organisations mentioned above]