What part of “No” do you not understand?

My son taught me this response and very useful it has been in defusing my internal tensions.  However they are building up again as I read that the acute sector of the NHS is to undergo a “reset”.  A reset would be fine if it delivered.  It won’t.

The acute sector is in crisis. Two-thirds of acute Trusts are in serious deficit.  A “reset” would work if (1) it wrote all the deficits off and (2) it ensured that they would not come back.  This requires a lot of money which isn’t there.

Large numbers of Trusts (all of them in my part of England, without exception) are in “special measures”.  This means they are not performing to the required standard, whether in financial or clinical terms.  If it’s the financial state that is the problem, see the above paragraph.  If it’s a clinical problem it is almost certainly due to a lack of staff.  Fixing this requires a lot of money which isn’t there, not least if a Trust needs to cover gaps with agency locums, which cost even more lots of money.

Bust Trusts are often burdened with serious debt from Private Finance Initiative (PFI) funding, as many projects are based on long repayment terms at crippling rate of interest, which sucks a lot of money out of real healthcare.

Many Accident and Emergency departments are working at full capacity despite being short of staff, burdened further by bed shortages (or blocking because patients well enough to leave hospital but with no system to get them out).  To fix this problem requires lots of money – either to increase acute beds, or to upgrade social services support, or both – which isn’t there.

Many Commissioning Groups, or CCGs, which buy acute services, are facing severe financial difficulties and are trying to reduce costs, in one instance by the quite extraordinary suggestions that GPs stop referring any non-urgent patients to hospital.

So (I put that in because it now appears essential to preface a response from anyone in research) acute services, which are commissioned by CCGs, are bust and/or judged to be failing clinically.  To be less bust they need to cut staff, and to stop failing clinically they need to employ more staff.  This is an oxymoron. Of course, failing units could shut.  After all that’s what failed businesses do.  However that then reduces the already perilously low bed numbers and shifts the problem elsewhere – and given that every hospital is in the same boat will cause chaos.  Of course, the hospitals that remain open, requiring vastly more beds to cope with the displaced patients, could always expand, but would have to do so by adding to their PFI burden with a rebuild.

Meanwhile the government is merrily and on the basis of misinterpretation of data pushing on the concept of a seven-day service, which requires even more lots of money to cover rotas, overtime etc. It also appears to be indifferent to the scandal of generic drugs manufacturers escalating their prices without any apparent justification.  And the public still expects, in this Kafka-esque situation, everything to be completely free.  This is not a case of trying to fit a quart into a pint pot, but trying to fit Kielder Water reservoir into a test tube.  The purchasers cannot purchase, the providers cannot provide and yet everyone sits round thinking up yet another reorganisation or “reset” to add to the list of failed solutions since the 1950s.

These have never worked.  Some were devised by highly sensible and intelligent people. If they haven’t fixed it after all this time, what makes anyone think that it can actually be fixed at all?  I feel a sense of deja vu creeping up.  I have said all this before, and while it gets steadily worse, and deficits pile up in yet more places, “Nero” Hunt fiddles as Rome burns.  And, of course, makes things even worse by slagging off the doctors.

All right, you say, you have identified problems, and irreconcilable ones at that, but what are your solutions?  I suggest some or all of the following.

  1. Abandon PFI or refinance very PFI project to reduce historic and ridiculous interest rates to today’s levels
  2. Sort out the scandal of drug overcharging
  3. Stop some free prescriptions.  If someone needs thyroid replacement let it be free, but not the multitude of other drugs that are also prescribed but have nothing to do with replacement.
  4. Stop doing some expensive and marginal things. For example, is there any reasonable point in administering anti-cancer drugs at £30,000 a pop to gain six weeks of life?  And likewise is there any justification for resuscitating, or indeed treating, elderly mentally frail people in intensive care units when the quality of life when they leave the unit is awful?  This is of course contentious, but we must face the reality that the NHS as currently working is unaffordable.
  5. Stop statins (bee in bonnet here, but the costs are astronomical).
  6. Abandon any idea of seven day working until finances are demonstrably stable.  Which may be forever.
  7. Run the NHS either as a fully subsidised state monopoly enterprise, or as a business, but don’t pretend that it’s possible for it to be both.  And if it’s a business, then close bits when they go bust.  A true market will soon work out what works and what cannot.  That will focus the mind wonderfully!


Decent but useless

Some years ago, when I was Clinical Tutor at Queen Mary’s Hospital, Sidcup, one of our new pre-registration housemen (just qualified) was struggling badly.  Clinically he was finding things difficult and the nurses often could not contact him.  His consultant came to see me (Clinical Tutors were responsible for PRHOs).  We agreed that one of the more experienced trainees, who was between jobs, should shadow him for a fortnight.

At the end of that time we met again.  My colleague asked the shadower for their opinion.  They were originally from Europe, and had picked up their English in the course of a six month post.

“He is very nice man.  Very nice.  But at medicine, absolutely f*****g useless”.

Which brings me to politics.  I lean to the right, so might be expected to be dancing with glee at the Labour Party’s current woes, with a defiant, but supposedly decent, Jeremy Corbyn refusing to step down despite to all intents and purposes being the most useless Labour Party leader in living memory.  And given history that’s pretty useless.  Michael Foot’s donkey jacket and Miliband’s Stone of Promises are nothing compared to the debacle of Corbyn.  He would even fail in Venezuela. It takes some doing to hit the main banner headline when the convulsions within the Conservative Party are as they are, but maybe the media got it right, deserting Angela Eagle’s launch speech en masse as the news came through that Theresa May was a shoo-in for the new leader.  Maybe Labour is an irrelevance.

What is required to be a party leader?  It would appear in today’s Labour Party to be simply a vote from those who have an ideological viewpoint, but yet have no knowledge of the individual who is proposed.  Oh – and the support of the underworld, aka the unions.  But these creatures should weigh up the pros and cons.  To be an effective leader of her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition requires an ability to orate, the ability to score points in debate, the ability to develop relevant policy and an ability to communicate with the public through the media.  Corbyn has none of these.  He stumbles at the despatch box, cannot win at Prime Minister’s Questions, parrots old-fashioned and discredited Marxist dogma and is positively rude to journalists.  His performance during the Brexit crisis was execrable. He has never held any ministerial brief or shadow ministerial post so is uniquely unqualified to manage government.  He looks untidy.  He doesn’t appear to be interested in what he is saying.  He has lost the support of the vast majority of his MPs, who have had plenty of opportunity to weigh his attributes in the balance and yet find him wanting.  His shadow cabinet has deserted him and he is reduced to getting 81-year-olds to fill gaps.  To disinterested (though not uninterested) members of the public he is a shambling incompetent.  It is an embarrassment.  OK, he opposed the Iraq war but it’s no use being decent if you cannot perform.  But yet he hangs on, claiming he has been “democratically” elected by the party-at-large, despite a large number of those being new £3-a-head opportunists, of course propped up by the union block votes.

What part of the word useless does he not understand?

You can see why I am reminded of my problem with the trainee.  But given the shadowy, almost sinister presence of Seumas Milne I am likewise reminded of the useless Tsar Nicholas and the evil Rasputin.  What any government needs is an opposition that can oppose.  And that requires an effective leader who is not Mr Nice-but-dim.

All change, please!  All change!

Reinventing wheels etc

In the BMJ of 23rd April are listed the finalists for the BMJ Neurology team of the year awards, which include the Multiple Sclerosis team of UCLH for its integrated service.

Reinvention of the wheel? Failure of institutional memory? Left hand not knowing what right hand is doing?  All three possibilities come to mind when I read the nomination which “to everyone’s surprise” showed that urinary infections were the commonest cause of admission in patients with MS.

I am certainly surprised it was a surprise.  Indeed when I read this I was almost speechless.  I have known, and taught this for nearly 30 years.  I took over a Young Disabled Unit in 1985.  Over the next ten years I and my multidisciplinary team turned it from a long-stay unit with 15 residents to a dynamic rehabilitation unit with some 300 clients, the majority of whom had MS.  We provided a regular inpatient respite service, a helpline and regular outpatient review, which was supplemented in later years with bladder ultrasound.  The superb nursing staff were also alert to admissions of our clients to acute beds, from which they would be extracted as soon as possible – or at the very least they would make a trip to the acute ward to advise.  I taught all the trainee doctors that patients presenting to A&E with a sudden deterioration in their MS had an infection (usually urinary, but sometimes chest) until proved otherwise.  While deterioration was rapid, so was recovery if effective treatment was instituted rapidly.  I might add that, as a clinical point that will save some lives if anyone reads this, some patients with an acute infection regularly developed severe hyponatraemia which we attributed to acute adrenal insufficiency, and recovered with hypertonic saline and hydrocortisone; whether this phenomenon was related to previous high dose steroid treatment for relapses we never did determine.

We also provided an effective pressure sore service. Regular physiotherapy helped prevent contractures and maintain mobility.  Occupational therapy home visits were a sine qua non. Our service was entirely integrated.  Our local district nurses involved in home care regularly exchanged information.  If a patient “went off” suddenly then infection testing was arranged at home.  Not infrequently I would write the antibiotic prescription.  Unit emergency admissions were organised not by GPs but by family or the district nurses by direct contact.  In this way we actually kept MS patients out of acute hospital beds.  All of this was done without any input from neurologists.

To return to my opening paragraph it appears to me that the UCLH team have reinvented the wheel.  I regret that my teaching in a suburban district general hospital never permeated to the centre to provide a lasting institutional memory, but perhaps the most damning indictment is that, until relatively recently, it was rehabilitationists who dealt with long-term MS patients and not neurologists, who concentrated on diagnosis (once made, there was little treatment, so many, though not all, lost interest). So the crossover of information from left to right hand was as limited as in a patient whose corpus callosum has been transected.  It is thus encouraging to see the growing interest and enthusiasm of neurologists in integrated long-term management.

Though our model was highly effective, and much appreciated by patients and their families, it was expensive.  The Unit kept afloat as much through my political lobbying as through its care success. Within a year of my retirement it had been closed down.

Never mind the money; it’s better to be wise than foolish

April 2016 has proved a strange month.  Revelations about offshore accounts held in Panama have captured the attention, and hysteria, of the press.  Yes, there have been some interesting disclosures about possible money-laundering by unsavoury individuals, but the dead father of Britain’s Prime Minister has been traduced for being wise.  And his son has unwillingly been subjected to increasingly aggressive attention in respect of how he might have benefited.

I will make my position clear.  I have no offshore accounts (that I know of) and my accountant is scrupulous in ensuring that my income is all identified, and taxed.  I used to do my own accounts until the revenue tripped me up over my expenses (quite simple – I paid my private secretary but did not keep a receipt, so the amount I submitted as secretarial costs was disallowed).  Thereafter I did not wish to fall foul of them again, so I sought professional help.  Even so I failed on one occasion to declare interest on two accounts that I had rolled over into new ones, and HMRC had another little go at me, even though the income was measured in tens of pounds.  But professionals must set a good example.

The furore over Mr Cameron’s finances is senseless.  He earns an income, has unearned income and rent from a house, and was given a lump sum by his mother.  So? It is all declared.  The lump sum may be a will rearrangement that will end up tax free if mum lives seven years, but it is all perfectly legal.  Indeed every finance column in the papers advises that money should be transferred in this way if it is affordable.  I have done it with my children; my mother did it with me, and anyone who does not take advantage of such an opportunity is, quite simply, stupid.  It is perfectly legal, and until it isn’t then there is nothing wrong with it.  Leaving aside whether income should be taxed twice – and inheritance tax is just that – it is sensible.  It is prudent.  Likewise if it is legal to put money offshore, then one cannot criticise those who do it, unless of course the money was ill-gotten in the first place.

So anyway – Mr Cameron has released details of his income, and tax.  His accountant has signed off the information.  Now people are saying the information is inadequate; they want the actual tax return figures.  That is tantamount to accusing both him, and his accountants, of not telling the truth.  Now I know politicians don’t always tell the truth, but I cannot imagine for one moment that a Prime Minister would be so stupid as to provide information that could be proved to be inaccurate.  What’s there is quite good enough for me; indeed it is far more than I either need or want..  So he has share income.  So do I (not a lot). He has rental income.  I have a holiday house which is let out.  Is he, or am I supposed to leave the house empty?  If there are tax breaks should he not take them?  I put money into a perfectly legal tax-free fund – a NISA.  And if I decided to set up an offshore fund should I be obliged to ask permission from my children?  Don’t be so silly.

What Mr Cameron has done is to prove that he is astute in managing his finances.  He is wise.  What of his Labour opponent, Mr Corbyn?  He is so busy trying to get his nose into the business of others that he cannot even submit his own tax return on time! He was fined for that.  What a fool.  What a contrast.  If you wanted someone to manage your money, whom would you choose?

Looking back at 60 years of the National Health Service: which R-word?

Looking back at 60 years of the National Health Service: which R-word?

There are many myths in healthcare. The first is that the Labour government of 1948 invented the NHS. It didn’t. The basic principles were put together by the Socialist Medical Association some 10 years previously, and the first official stab at an NHS was laid down in a British Medical Association report of 1942. Bevan’s difficulty in getting it through (exemplified by his oft-quoted statement that he had had to stuff consultants’ mouths with gold) was not really a problem of principle, but of detail.

An analysis of healthcare in the era between 1930 and 1945 reveals a split hospital service that was largely bankrupt. Large teaching hospitals were cushioned by their endowments. The local authority hospitals were run on a shoestring, while the voluntary hospitals were under severe financial pressure and, if they had not been subsumed by the NHS, many would have had to close. Bevan fondly believed that the NHS would so improve public health that the cost of provision would fall, failing to see that the eradication of some diseases such as TB and diphtheria would prolong lives. New conditions would then rise up (heart disease, cancer, diabetes); treatment of these would negate any saving, and so it proved – and proves today. It is perhaps strange to reflect that in 2012 teaching centres remain cushioned by their endowments but many of the general hospitals are once again near to financial ruin.

I have little doubt that despite all of the inefficiencies of a state monopoly the NHS is a fundamentally sound idea. Indeed it is, in many respects, a communist system, where all parts of the country have by virtue of provision (and salaries) been rendered similar. However successive governments, in seeing the problems and costs, have chosen to think that they can be swept away by reform. I have lived through too many, going back to Kenneth Robinson in the 1960s (I remember several meetings of north London GPs at my parents’ flat, which he attended (not a likely scenario today), through the abolition of health boards, the establishment of district and area health authorities, the purchaser-provider split, fundholding, the development of Trusts and then Foundation Trusts, the introduction of the Private Finance Initiative and most recently the idea that GP consortia should and could run the NHS. Furthermore, just as in the great communist societies of the 20th Century, the NHS has been plagued by bureaucracy that has eventually stifled it, not least because it has become preoccupied with saving itself, and money, and the jobs and reputations of its managers, many of whom have risen beyond their competence level and job-hopped when the going got tough, often to a post with a higher salary and with some gigantic payoff. It remains a way of disposing of the incompetent. Overlying this is a Stalinist doctrine of Five Year Plans, Maoist principles of Great Leaps Forward, Stasi-like suppression of dissent, the punishment of whistleblowers by exile and a North Korean publicity machine fuelled by Directors of Information who begin to believe their own propaganda.

Undoubtedly there have been changes in what we can do for people (much of it good), and the cost of it, but none of the reorganisations or reforms has solved the underlying problems. I do not believe they ever will. Is this an implementation failure, or is it an indication that it’s the wrong thing to do?

One thing that I have learned from experience is that the NHS is not good at reflection. The plans for reform came up at fairly regular intervals, and were introduced with great fanfare. Some were carefully thought through; others (notably the Thatcher reforms of the 1980s) were sketched on the back of an envelope (literally) and then worked up on the hoof. However, analysis of the benefits of each reform is superficial – except that it is deep enough to force realisation that the last one did not work. So another is dreamed up. It seems odd to me that, as each reform fails in its turn, we spend all our time on yet more reform, as if we seek ceaselessly for the Holy Grail. There is an old saying that a surgeon is a blind man looking for something, a physician is a blind man in a dark room looking for something, and a metaphysician is a blind man in a dark room looking for something that isn’t there.

We must remain physicians and surgeons. Medicine is science, not metaphysics. There are various reasons for reform failure. Sometimes it is because the change is impractical. On occasion it is too expensive, and distracts effort, and money, from the real business of patient care (the PFI initiative is a good example – see below). Sometimes it is because science moves on and the world has evolved; the classic example is Bevan’s firm belief, in 1948, that providing a national service would reduce costs as the people’s health improved, not understanding that the costs of medical advances would more than wipe out such savings.

Reform, from experience, merely shuffles the pieces on the board. It is rare for any to be added or removed unless cost dictates it. Reform is destabilising and demoralising. If it doesn’t work, we should understand that the only way to save costs is to ration care, and plan sensibly how we do this. It is a pity that politicians fail to understand that much of the resistance to reform by the medical profession is not stick-in-the-mud stuff, but based on experience. We are here today and tomorrow; they are gone tomorrow.

It is also a pity that modern politicians, managers and to some extent the public have developed their ideas for the NHS from the wrong starting point. If you look carefully at the proposals of the last ten years you will find that they have a common theme – that care in the NHS consists of discrete packages. People become patients; they consult their GP; they may be referred to a specialist; they have an operation; they are discharged. Alternatively they get suddenly sick and are admitted to hospital through the emergency department; they get better; they are discharged. Some, of course, die, but if you predicate the whole of healthcare on such a simplistic pathway you omit great swathes of the medical spectrum that do not fit into it. It is bad enough doing rheumatology, where a proportion of patients do not “get better” in the way those outside medicine perceive “getting better” (in other words, they revert to normal); it is worse being a rehabilitation specialist, where a large proportion of patients inevitably and inexorably get worse.

There is a nice set of posters reproduced from the Second World War by the London Transport Museum. These show a series of reconstructive processes required after damage from enemy action. The strapline reads “Rehabilitation Takes Time” and so does good clinical care. Time and again my clinics overran because I talked to my (chronic) patients. Time and again they told me that they did not get such time with their general practitioner – that is, if they can actually see their own GP and are not given whoever is free that day. I have had patients who told me that if they try to introduce a second problem they are told to go away and book another appointment. So much for holistic care, not least if each system problem (and with rheumatoid arthritis patients develop all sorts of other problems ranging from heart disease to skin ulcers) then gets managed by a different doctor. But such stories stem both from growing pressures on time and from a spreading trait in doctors – that they must do as politicians and managers ask. Do these folk really know what is best for patients? If so, how? What qualifications have they got to make decisions on medical management? It is a sad day when medicine is planned by focus groups of the middle-class well who do not understand some of the consequences of their aspirations. It is sadder when clinicians order clinicians of other disciplines to do as they are told when they have no concept of inter-specialty differences.

I fear that many doctors have lost the skill (or will, perhaps) to ask “Why?” I asked why I had to discharge follow-up patients to meet a ratio target (see below), among many other things, and I was not popular for doing so.

The concept of institutional memory is also important to understand, and respect. It derives from those who have been around a long time. It is useful (like that mythical medical instrument, the retrospectoscope) and should rarely be ignored. Often the guardians of institutional memory can point out that the “reform” has been tried before. Beethoven tried, in one famous example, to reform a sonata by pasting pieces of paper over lines he didn’t like. When musicologists unstuck the amendments they found the first draft was identical to the last. A “modern” colour scheme for Paddington Station turned out, after dozens of layers of old paint had been burnt off, to be almost identical to the original. So it would be helpful to stop talking about reform as if it will improve things.

That said we doctors must be honest in setting our relative priorities, and accept that the common good may downgrade us. Richard Smith expressed this beautifully in the introduction to an editorial in the British Medical Journal:

“The BMJ never publishes anything useful to leechologists. You haven’t got a single leechologist on your editorial board. Once in a blue moon you publish a leechology paper, and it’s always bloody awful. I don’t know who you get to review them. What you don’t seem to understand is that leechology is one of the most important specialties in medicine. There aren’t enough of us, we’re overworked, and general practitioners don’t seem to know even the basics. Everyday we’re dealing with dreadful cock ups. It’s time your journal taught ordinary doctors the rudiments of leechology.”

He reminded me of this when I asked for space for a special plea for rheumatology nearly 10 years later. Fair comment.

Management-speak is a joke in the NHS. New phrases assail us every month as the change-drivers hear what we say. Doctors have a number of defence mechanisms, ranging from passive acceptance to cynical subversion – into which latter category fall the players of “Bullshit Bingo” (take your grid of management words and phrases, tick them off as they are used and shout “Bullshit!” when you complete a line in any direction. There is also a perverse reverse variant, in which participants have to use words in the grid appropriately.)

“Reform” is on the grid. “Modernisation” is another. In the NHS context they set the background for politically driven change and, if ministers are correct, the NHS cannot move forward (and that’s on the grid) until it has reformed and modernised.

Modernisation likewise is a synonym for doings things differently, but with an outcome that may be better, the same or worse. A modern hospital may perform better in some functions because it has smooth surfaces and piped oxygen, for instance, but if it starts to fall down after twenty years, or the flat roof develops a terminal leak, then it may, overall, be no better than a soundly built Edwardian voluntary hospital. If I am tied to paperless records, a server failure, generator test or power cut makes them inaccessible. My analogy is of a clock. Why should I “modernise” my timekeeping by replacing a serviceable and decorative 17th Century grandfather clock with a digital version that automatically updates itself via a satellite link to an atomic clock? Assuming I remember to wind it up it tells the same time to an acceptable precision, and a satellite clock won’t run without a battery.

So “modernisation” is a smokescreen. Keep people modernising and it distracts them from their real jobs. That’s not to say we must set things in aspic; lateral thinking may achieve huge benefits. Our managers call that “thinking outside the box”, or “blue-sky thinking” and, of course, moves to take down local Chinese walls between health and social services will promote joined-up thinking and we can move forward. (My God, I’ve got a line! Bullshit!)

We have all become preoccupied with getting what is best. We cannot afford perfection and so must look at planning what is least bad. I believe we should consider changing the R-word from Reform (including Reconfiguration) to Rationing.

Experience is one of the benefits of getting older. Then you learn from experience that once you have learned from experience, no-one listens to you.

When is a deficit not a deficit?

Being retired I don’t often meet Health Service managers, but merely snipe at them from the sidelines.  However I met some the other day and sniped face to face about the impossibility of squaring good clinical services with “good” financial management.  I pursued my usual line of “If every acute Trust is in deficit then it’s not the Trusts that are wrong, but the system.”

Well. I was put right on that.  The Trusts you had to worry about, they said, were the Trusts who could not explain their deficits.  In some cases these had sort of appeared out of the blue, and the managers found it most puzzling, but from outside you could see it coming so they had a problem.  “We have a £40m deficit” they said “but it’s not a problem because we know exactly why”.

Oh boy.

I thought that perhaps if I were to go to my bank and say “I have an overdraft of £10,000 but it’s not a problem because I know exactly why” then, adopting this principle, the bank would say “well, that’s all right then”.  Somehow I don’t think that’s very likely.  A deficit is a deficit.  It may be nice to know why it’s there but if it cannot be sorted (or written off) then I for one think that it is a problem.

Following the evidence base is excellent – or is it?

I have started my section on EBM, as it is commonly known, with an example of decision-making by management based on no evidence – or, to be fair, bits of evidence that do not add up (this is the bare below the elbows issue). However there are numerous examples of clinical trials which have produced good evidence that cannot be relied upon.[1]

Three examples in my own specialty come to mind. In one case a lack of anatomical knowledge prejudiced the outcome (also true of the second) and in the third a failure to understand exponential data meant that like was not compared with like.

Bear these examples in mind when you look at any clinical trial.

Do you know your anatomy (1)

Colleagues in a neighbouring Trust performed a sequential audit on the benefit of steroid injection for frozen shoulder – technically known as capsulitis, and basically a severe inflammation of the joint between long arm bone (humerus) and shoulder blade (scapula) – the glenohumeral joint. The injections were administered by a single practitioner, and the results suggested little or no benefit. The injections had been given by the lateral approach, which enters another part of the shoulder mechanism – the joint under the tip of the shoulder blade (subacromial joint). This and the glenohumeral joint are quite separate unless the main shoulder muscle, the rotator cuff, has torn – an anatomical fact not appreciated by the study sponsors, probably because rheumatologists don’t read orthopaedic textbooks and never sat in orthopaedic clinics. So, one can reasonably suppose that injection of one joint will only rarely have any effect on the other, and that as the wrong joint had been injected the study was useless.

This failure led to some debate. It became clear that there was disagreement on the management of shoulder problems that extended further to the actual accurate assessment of them. We set up a little study which showed that even experts did not agree on a diagnosis even when they saw the patients together[2]. There are a number of published trials which have fallen into the same trap – but are still adduced as evidence when people attempt to assess the efficacy of joint injections.  The first thing you must do is ensure that you are actually treating the part that need treating.

Do you know your anatomy (2)

People are still treating sacroiliac joint strain. This is diagnosed by finding – pain over the sacroiliac joints. Injection treatment relieves symptoms. QED.

I am not so sure. A registrar in our department, when I was a senior registrar, came to me asking my views on this syndrome. He could not see no logic in it. Inflammation and infection – yes; you can see changes on X-ray and scans and intrinsically you know that pain could result. But how do you strain a rigid joint – so stable that if you are in a dreadful car accident the pelvic bones are more likely to fracture than the SIJ disrupt? Also, despite the book descriptions of how to inject the joint, he was not clear, anatomically, how it was possible to get a needle into it. So if injections seemed to work, how could this be?

So he set up a little experiment. He decided to do a traceable injection. Taking a series of corpses (necessary permissions were obtained) he performed injections by marking out the surface anatomy as per the books, and then injected under X-ray control using Indian ink. Then he dissected down to see where the ink was.

He did not get into a single sacroiliac joint. The ink was everywhere but. Interestingly some got into the venous plexuses and spread up in the vertebral veins but most spread out over the surface of the pelvis under the attachments of the gluteal muscles.

Could it be, therefore, that sacroiliac region pain is actually a gluteal strain syndrome? This little piece of evidence suggests so. If pain is in a particular area that has more than one anatomical structure, you should beware of deciding it comes from one and not another.

You may not be clear if a drug is working…

 …but if you stop it, and everything goes haywire, then you can be sure that it was. This is sometimes the only way to persuade a patient to stay on their pills.

The converse applies. If a patient appears to have side-effects, and you stop it, and everything returns to normal, you can be fairly sure of cause and effect – and make certain by a re-challenge that produces the same problem.  I did this with statins.  More fool I.

You may not be clear if a drug is working (2)…

…and you rely on the evidence as is. However the evidence can change. My biochemistry professor used to say that medical knowledge had a half-life of seven years, so by that time half of what we had been taught might be wrong. Only we don’t know which half.

There are dozens of examples of this with drugs. Take bisphosphonates and osteoporosis. There is no doubt that you can prove that their administration may stop the progression of bone loss. However as time goes by other things surface; thus there has been a significant scare over osteonecrosis of the jaw, and undoubtedly there a many patients who have significant side-effects, either with dreadful indigestion or worse (hence the instruction to wash it down with lots of fluid and then stay upright for half an hour) or acute allergic reactions to the infusions designed to get round this. Just recently reports have appeared of an increased risk of unusual site hip fractures in people on bisphosphonates.[3] So the drug you give causes the very thing you are trying to stop. Not good.  By the same token the elderly patient (more prone to fracture) has been put on blood pressure pills.  So when he or she stands up suddenly they pass out and fall over.  So before starting, ask why (actually with the blood pressure thing you may be risking trouble, as narrower vessels need a higher driving pressure, so you might be at greater risk of a stroke, or coronary, if the pressure drops too far.).  The owner of our local dry cleaners worked that one out so it’s odd that doctors cannot.

[1] For more examples, see Malcolm Kendrick’s “Doctoring data”

[2] Bamji AN, Erhardt CC, Price RP & Williams P. The Painful Shoulder. Can Consultants agree? Brit J. Rheumatol 1996; 35: 1172-74

[3] Agarwal S, Agarwal S, Gupta P, Agarwal PK, Agarwal G, Bansal A. Risk of atypical femoral fracture with long-term use of alendronate (bisphosphonates) : a systemic review of literature. Acta Orthopaedica Belgica 2010; 76 (5): 567-71