In amongst busy shifts, I’ve been tweeting about HCS Week 2018, and chatting to other scientists about their experiences. Yesterday, I tweeted a picture of Helen, a specialist Echocardiographer, whilst she was hard at work analysing pulse wave data, and today I’m sharing the answers she gave to a couple of questions I asked her about what she remembers about the history of her job in her 30 years of experience, and her feelings on the changes she’s seen over the years.
With 30 years under your belt, you must have noticed changes in your profession. What’s different now, compared with when you started?
Firstly, my job title has changed. I was a “Cardiac Technician” and began as a student working in Cardio-Respiratory, with a full-time, guaranteed job at the end of my training. I studied on a day-release basis for an ONC then HNC, eventually topping up to BSc when this became compulsory.
Technology has had a big impact on advancement of procedures, which is better for patient quality of life, etc; Cardiac Techs performed all the ECG’s in the hospital, carrying a crash bleep for A&E, and now, of course, there is provision for ECG’s on every ward and dept.
Procedures such as angioplasty and bi-vent pacemakers were not as widely available, either; most CAD patients went on to undergo CABG and only relatively basic bradycardia devices were on offer. Obviously this is all change now.
Alongside this, we are now much busier than ever before and our roles have changed massively. We now carry out duties which years ago only consultants could do. I think this is good for everyone but does mean we have much more responsibility, in addition to greater autonomy. We are, however, still part of a team, which is vital to remember.
Did you have any reservations about the changing nature of your specialism?
I used to worry that becoming more busy and more academic would threaten our profession, that less qualified staff would have to take on more of our roles. Fortunately, routes into this career seem to be more widely available and thus, accessible. Emphasis seems to be more about finding the right person for the job, and training is focused, usually by specialist Scientists who understand the needs of both the students and patients.
It’s important to realise that anyone can be shown how to perform an ECG or assist in a cath lab, but qualities such as initiative, kindness and compassion are inherent traits which cannot be taught, and are absolutely vital in this profession.
It’s been a little while since I’ve posted to the blog, but Healthcare Science week seems like as good a time as any to do pick it up again. I’ll try my best to upload here or to Twitter, each day, be it information on what might be happening up and down the country, or things going on within my own Trust. I’ve also roped some colleagues into answering a couple of questions, too.
HCS week is an annual event celebrating all 85 specialisms within the discipline. As the oft-overlooked scientists within the NHS, it falls to us to put ourselves out there, and this week is the time to do it! Biomedical Scientists, Physiologists (there are a few different types of this particular scientist), Audiologists, Vascular Scientists, and many, many more are showcasing what they do for patients they treat in the NHS, and using the hashtags #HCSWeek18, and #HCSWeek2018, they’re getting it to the masses. We need to inspire the next generation of scientists to join our ranks, so HCSWeek gives us the perfect opportunity to show students and potential scientists exactly how far-reaching their options are.
Today, I spoke to my colleague Oli, who like me, is a newly-qualified Physiologist, about why he opted to undertake a career as a Physiological Scientist, and what he plans on doing, moving forward.
What attracted you to this particular scientific career in the first place?
It’s as simple as being able to help people, really. Clinical Physiology allows for patient-facing tests to be performed, so I felt like it would let me make an immediate difference.
Now that you’re qualified, and are well-versed in the basics of the job, are there aspects that you appreciate more from a post-graduate perspective?
Definitely. Every day presents a different challenge, because every patient is different. In the RUH, we have a wide array of clinical skills we have to learn, and as a result, I find that I’m adding to my knowledge every day.
Where do you see your career heading, moving forward?
I’m hoping to specialise in Cardiac Imaging, and have applied to the STP programme to help with that speciality. There are a wealth of options, even after that, so whilst I’m not entirely sure at this stage, I may look at the Higher Specialist Training after that!
Myself and some of my colleagues recently relinquished a Saturday off, and braved the icy cold (read: British) weather to try to meet with the public, and raise awareness of atrial fibrillation through a project spearheaded by the AF Association.
I didn’t organise the event, but was kindly invited along, and jumped at the chance to help some of my amazing Cardiology workmates by checking pulses, and recording rhythm strips using the AliveCor mobile ECG monitor (which I have previously reviewed here).
AF is an atrial arrhythmia, wherein the sinus node does not cause appropriate, rhythmic depolarisation as it normally would. Rather, multiple foci activate, facilitating a motion akin to ‘quivering’, which raises the risk of embolism through the inefficient pushing of the blood into the ventricles. It’s an incredibly dangerous problem if left untreated, so it’s vital that it gets detected, and preferably this would happen early.
I go into detail about AF, it’s mechanisms and ECG presentation in this study guide, so have a look at that if you want to understand it further.
As you may or may not be aware, atrial fibrillation is, globally, the most common clinically significant cardiac arrhythmia, and it is thought that whilst 1.2 million people (a conservative estimate) in the UK are known sufferers of the sinus node disorder, a 500,000 have it, and live undiagnosed. The estimated cost of AF to the NHS was somewhere in region of £2.2 billion, in 2008, and given that the prevalence of the arrhythmia has increased year on year, this number may well be higher now.
Obviously, this is far from an exhaustive exploration of AF, but hopefully it gives some insight into why it’s so important to detect and treat, and why initiatives such as this one are a good idea.
We set up shop in Frome’s Westaway shopping centre at around 10am, where members of the public who’d read about the event in the local newspaper were already queueing. We four clinical scientists proceeded to advise and check 85 people throughout the day. We had a surprise visit from Cardiologist’s Kitchen, too!
Many people we talked to had little-to-no idea what the condition was, its risks, or how it was treated, so we used literature, ECG examples, and a scale model of a heart, to educate, and taught people how to check their own pulse before performing quick rhythm recordings which we analysed on the spot. More than a few people who attended had known AF, and their questions largely involved their current treatment, and the potential impact AF might have on their life. Most, however, visited so they could get checked over, hopefully putting their mind at rest, and learning something in the process.
We didn’t find any new atrial fibrillation (although we did discover two cases of previously undiscovered AV Block), but of equal importance to arrhythmia discovery, was the community engagement, particularly in a public setting. In clinics it’s easy to fall into a cycle with patients, due to schedules and time pressures, and whilst we all try our hardest to make sure everyone is treated individually, seeing the problem before the person is always possible. Interacting with patients on “their turf” meant the ball was in their court, if you like, and the sheer volume of people who expressed an interest meant it couldn’t have been further from a wasted day.
The feedback we received was overwhelmingly positive, and there was a recurring theme in the gratitude people felt for the healthcare environment coming to them, as oppose to the other way around. Many of those to whom we chatted understand the strain that hospitals and GP surgeries are under, and felt that visiting to be checked for AF, and other such things, would be inappropriate. In many ways, I suppose they’re right, too; regardless of the importance of finding these things, especially as they do not always present with obvious symptoms, healthcare centres, unfortunately, cannot cope with the demand a service such as this would present. To this end, I was glad to have ventured out to participate in this, an outdoor clinic of sorts, and educate the public on what to look for, as well as how they can guage their own heart rhythm and take some more control over their own health. I sincerely hope to do it again soon!
The AFA is a fantastic charity, so it’d be great if you were to find out a bit more about them by visiting them here.
I’d like to thank my colleagues for asking me to participate, and generally being fantastic people, those who visited us and asked lots of challenging questions, and the kind souls who bought us ginger ale and flapjacks when the temperature reached what *felt* like sub-zero levels.
The statistics used in this post are taken from the BHF. If you want to take a look for yourself, visit the British Heart Foundation, here.
In Western medicine, especially the U.K. and U.S.A., mandatory screening for cardiac disease in young people doesn’t exist.
The NHS currently offers screening for the following:
Newborns (blood, cardiac, hearing tests, and physical examination)
Pregnancy (foetal abnormalities, blood tests, and infectious disease)
Diabetic eye testing (annual follow-ups for cases confirmed in >12 year olds)
Cervical (every 3 years for 26-49 year olds, and every 5 years for 50-64 year olds)
Breast cancer (50-70 year olds, 70+ individuals can self-refer)
Bowel cancer (55-74 year olds)
Abdominal Aortic Aneurism (65 year old men. Over 65s can self-refer)
These tests are designed to aid in patient healthcare and to alleviate the long-term financial burden on the heath service, but as you can see, they’re fairly narrow in their scope. Aside from newborns, the vast majority of the screening programmes cater to individuals in later life, or after index presentation/diagnosis. If one suspects an abnormality, then of course, there are many private options available, and in fact, cardiac screening for precursors to sudden cardiac death (such as hypertrophic cardiomyopathy) is in place for young athletes. Given that the estimated number of young people with the abnormality currently stands at 1 in 500, it has been theorised with this and other cardiac diseases in mind, that mandatory screening for young people could ease the cost on the NHS, enhance patient treatment/safety and the emotional fallout that comes as a result of the morbidity associated with serious cardiac conditions.
The results of a nationwide U.K. screening programme known as Cardiac Risk in the Young imply that mass-screening that also encompasses ECG in addition to the standard physical exam and history increases the likelihood of early diagnosis and actually saves money.
The results are the endpoint of a 4-year process, involving roughly 30,000 young persons who were screened using the above methods, all of which were performed and interpreted using the relevant professionals and governing body guidelines.
8.1% of the 30,000 were deemed to produce an abnormal 12-lead ECG, 3.5% had an abnormal physical exam and/or history, and 0.5% showed abnormality in all three areas. 11.7% underwent echocardiography to confirm or deny the presence of dysfunction, 0.9% were referred for cardiac MRI, 1.7% were moved on to longer-term ECG monitoring, and 1.7% had exercise stress testing.
87 abnormalities associated with SCD syndrome were positively diagnosed at the 2-year follow up mark, accounting to 0.3% of the cohort, and 83% of this number was done so using the ECG alone. Interestingly this 83% was found in individuals who presented as asymptomatic, and would likely go undiagnosed otherwise.
The cost of this screening and subsequent treatment of a positive identification is estimated to be 20% lower than the cost of treatment and screening using current requirements, due to its lowering of false positives from 21.8% to 4.3%. This, in turn, lowers the amount of unnecessary follow ups, so this study may have great implications for young athletes, and non-athletes alike in helping to spot these potentially fatal conditions, many of which can be managed.
Beyond Verbal, an Israeli company leading the market in voice/emotion analysis software are making headlines thanks to their study with the Mayo Clinic, that shows that voice analysis can indicate the presence of coronary artery disease (CAD).
CAD is responsible for one of the highest cardiovascular mortality rates in developed countries globally, and whilst lower in developing countries, this figure is quickly rising. With this in mind, inexpensive, low-risk and non-invasive screening methods are a very desirable prospect. Currently, ECG, Exercise Tolerance Testing (ETT), Radionuclide testing and Pharmaceutical Stress Testing are the most common procedures used to screen for CAD, but, aside from ECG, each has contraindications, and/or is fairly invasive. Again, aside really from a simple ECG, each has a middling to significant associated cost attached to it. Technology that could reduce these costs and the potential for unnecessary testing presents a possible alternative to patients being referred to chest pain clinics and such, without a sure fire reason to do so.
Beyond Verbal have already used their vocal analysis software to find audio characteristics associated with Parkinson’s disease and autism, and have now turned their technology to CAD.
The Beyond Verbal/ Mayo Clinic study hypothesised, due to the association coronary atherosclerosis has with other systemic pathologies, that vocal processes and the structures responsible may also be affected.
150 patients, 120 of which presented for angiography of the coronary arteries and 50 healthy, or non-cardiac control patients had their voice recorded prior to the test. Beyond Verbal then used a variety of their analytical software to record three 30 second voice clips from each patient; the first (R1) was a predetermined script, R2 was a description of a positive experience, and R3 was personal like R2, only a negative experience.
The analysed results show a 19-fold increase in the likelihood of CAD in R3, the negative voice clip, irrespective of traditional cardiac risk factors such as age, suggesting there is indeed a link between CAD and voice.
BV hope that future development of this technology can be used to screen patients telephonically.
I’m used to reviewing mobile apps and, to a lesser extent, PC and Mac software, so this is something of a new experience for me. I’ve frequently used rate rulers and pocket tools in the past, but the Rapid Cardiac Analysis Tool (R-CAT) is seemingly different to such an extent that I felt it made sense to put it through its paces.
This tool is designed to enable a healthcare professional of any specialism to quickly assess some of the basic criteria of a 3 or 12 lead ECG, such as heart rate, interval and segment duration as well as waveform deviation from the isoelectric baseline.
First, the card itself; it’s well crafted, durable, flexible at the same time, is roughly the same size as an I.D. card/driving licence, and its structure and non-embossed build mean it’s easily disinfected, much the same as many other pieces of equipment you would use in a clinical environment. There are two cutaway sections that allow you to attach R-CAT to your lanyard in either a portrait or landscape orientation, and it sits snugly behind the badge holder without getting in the way.
It is, however, too large to slot into the standard NHS card holders which is a minor niggle, but this isn’t too much of a bind as it doesn’t take a huge length of time to remove, and if you have a pull-reel badge holder, it’s no problem whatsoever, as you can use it without removing the card or your lanyard.
The R-CAT focusses specifically on heart rate, segment and interval length, and baseline deviation (if you’re looking for a cardiac axis diagram, then you’ll have to keep looking, I’m afraid). The heart rate measurement works in exactly the same way as a regular rate ruler, with a similar error margin. It doesn’t have as many timing markers as similarly priced full rulers, but I guess it was a necessary concession to make in order to accommodate everything else on its small frame. Whatever the reason, you get a rough to fairly accurate indication of the true R-R interval.
The segment/interval indicators are found on the opposite side of the rate calculator, and span two of the outer edges of the card. The smallest measurement is 0.03s, and the printed values then increase from 0.04s by two, up until the largest at 0.44s. In practice, this system takes a little longer to use than simply measuring with a ruler, but once you’ve used it a couple of times, and get an eye for it, it doesn’t add too many vital seconds to quick analysis.
The hook, as it were, that R-CAT introduces, is in the big window through the centre of the card designed to be used in ST segment and Q wave analysis.
Whereas using the edge of some paper, or a ruler can obscure or distort the view of 50% of the waveform under scrutiny, R-CAT uses a thin, red bar in the middle of a clear window, allowing for quick assessment of Q waves and ST segments simultaneously.
The window works well, and also functions in the presence of baseline wander, so when such an occurrence is unavoidable, it isn’t a detriment to your analysis.
The company website states it to be more accurate than marking in pencil, as graphite marks can be up to 0.4mm thick, and that is has a greater longevity than callipers, which can loosen with time, and be moved involuntarily. These are excellent points, but with wear and tear printed graphics deteriorate, so I assume that scratches on the measurement indicators could reduce the accuracy of this tool, rendering these comparisons obsolete. Nothing lasts forever, though, and out of the box it works perfectly well.
All in all, I can’t really see this product replacing already-existing products en masse, as this is £10/$8 and the analysis aids already circulating are either slightly cheaper or free, and some provide more functions, but as a learning tool the R-CAT is really effective. During my testing for this review I asked a few cardiology veterans for their immediate impressions, and all shared this opinion. New products in this category are often more of the same; a different colour here, an additional picture there, but R-CAT isn’t one of these products. It shines with its novel portability, and its gimmick; the window. I almost feel bad calling it such, as I feel the word “gimmick” detracts from the product which is, overall, a very cool bit of kit. I won’t say this is an absolutely essential purchase for current professionals who operate outside of an A&E or non-cardiac ward, but it’s certainly worth a purchase. Universities and students however, should take the plunge.
Ah what the heck, it’s unobtrusive and is genuinely helpful when you don’t have a calculator or a rate ruler to hand. If you’ve got a spare £10/$8 kicking about(!), then you should definitely buy one.
On the 10th of November, after a long process of meetings between local council members, healthcare union staff and members of the public, Bath and North East Somerset council voted in favour of Virgin Care for its delivery of adult services in the area, rejecting the rival bid from ousted former controllers, Sirona CIC.
B&NES council have given their reasons for preferring Virgin Care for this role, citing their transforming services across the country and positive collaboration with GPs, care centres and charities as two of those at the forefront of the decision.
It is important to note that B&NES has made this decision with deep input from the local Clinical Commissioning Group and community champions over two years, so it is the culmination of a number of differing viewing perspectives and backgrounds.
The vote, which was 35/22 in favour of the Richard Branson-owned healthcare firm, marks the first time a for-profit organisation has been in charge of NHS contracts in the B&NES area. It has been met with vehement opposition from numerous individuals and local organisations since the bid was announced, and the company itself has previously been under scrutiny for its use of tax havens, quality of care, and alleged mistreatment of staff.
In 2012, a Dispatches documentary revealed how under-target a Virgin Care centre was regarding Chlamydia screening, exposed a memo asking staff to take test kits home with them, in order to increase the number of screens executed and keep them in line with national targets.
A year later, emergency department medics and the CQC expressed deep concern with practice policy, after a VC-run centre triaged a patient using a receptionist as oppose to a healthcare professional. This proved fatal, but Virgin still defended their actions at a hearing, saying that the patient was appropriately treated.
Despite only being in the market since 2010, Virgin Care currently has NHS contracts worth a reported £1bn, and provides services across the country. It being a Virgin subsidiary and having its head offices in the British Virgin Islands, means it is exempt from corporation tax, but, tax aside, the company has said that all profits made by its B&NES services are to be re-invested into local healthcare delivery. At the same time, however, it has been made clear by the company itself and from other sources that Virgin Care are not looking to make profit from this deal.
Confused yet? I am.
With this deal citing a new precedent in the volume of healthcare services of which Virgin Care have control in the UK, confusion isn’t something that benefits patients, and the majority of middling to major news networks have sensationalised this to the point of farce;
The Canary used the headline “While We’re Still Recoiling from Trump, Branson Quietly Buys up the Biggest Chunk of our NHS…”
Given that this deal has been featured in local and national news for well over a year, spawned public and political backlash (acclaim too, in fairness), and has only now reached a conclusion, the word “quiet” isn’t even slightly appropriate in this case. Headlines such as these only serve to stoke the fire.
In order to try to cut through media Chinese whispers and rhetoric, I spoke to Liberal Democrat Councillor for Oldfield Park, Bath, Will Sandry. Will attended, and was an active part of the B&NES meeting, so I asked him for his thoughts on the deal itself, and what he thinks this means for service users in the Northeast Somerset area.
Virgin Care have never had charge of a number of the services, such as social work, which are contained under this Adult Services umbrella. As I see it, this makes service users guinea pigs in this case. Would it be fair to say that this is something of a risky move on B&NES’ part?
It’s fair to describe service users as “guinea pigs” because some of the services have not been provided by a private company before, and a key element of Your Care Your Way is a redesign of services so the services themselves will change during the contact. I don’t think this is “risky” because I have faith that the wellbeing of service users will remain paramount.
During the meeting you were, along with one of your Labour counterparts, in favour of moving for a deferral of the vote so as to further scrutinise numbers you felt didn’t “stack up”, appearing to cite distraction techniques and I quote, “Jedi mind tricks”. What about the numbers and overall proposal sounded alarm bells for you?
In our meeting papers the costs of the services were listed as remaining static for 7 years. I did not have confidence that was achievable. The papers were glossy but had scant financial detail. I had also asked for details of the Virgin Care management team that would deliver the contact, but I could not get a clear answer as to how much of their time would be allocated to delivering the B&NES contact. These are the main reasons I wanted more time for scrutiny.
The most vocal reactions from the public have been almost unanimously negative; a petition, anti-privatisation websites and protest marching, as well as cries of “shame” from those who attended the meeting. We know from recent referenda and elections that small samples of public opinion may not represent the view of the community, so with that in mind, what have you and your colleagues heard from service users on the street?
Apart from the vocal reactions you describe I’ve not had any direct concerns raised by service users. I suspect that the vast majority of people don’t know or mind who delivers their care as long as it remains available to them and free at the point of use.
Conservative councillor Anthony Clarke assured the meeting that Virgin Care were not looking to make profit from this deal. I personally find it strange, and indeed improbable that a for-profit organisation isn’t looking to make a profit from a £700m deal. How is the proposed budget going to monitored and how will it be enforced by the council?
I don’t know, but would presume it will be by the Council’s Health Scrutiny Panel or the B&NES Heath and Wellbeing Board. Profit is an interesting thing. An organisation can have legitimate costs (for example the cost of using the “Virgin” brand) but not record any profits for accounting purposes. I don’t know what (if anything) Virgin Group will be charging Virgin Care for the use of the Virgin brand.
What happens if this figure is exceeded? Comparing news reports from this year, it already appears to have increased by £200m, so how does the council aim to allay concerns and potential indignation that a for-profit organisation (who controversially escape corporation tax) may possibly have a future need to utilise tax payers’ money in order to do its job?
Savings can also be made by redesigning a service to deliver the same outcomes – this was always the aim of Your Care Your Way. Ultimately if that doesn’t work I imagine that the tax payer (local or national) will pay or there will be a reduction in the levels of service available.
Has anyone shed any light on how Virgin Care plan to reinvest profits that they have assured us they aren’t trying to make?
We in healthcare treat patients using a risk:benefit ratio, wherein the potential risks of a treatment should be less than the benefits they could provide in order to make them viable. Given that the issues surrounding Virgin Care’s practices have been documented nationally, were these problems taken into account and considered to be outweighed by the benefits a VC-driven service could provide?
As an opposition Councillor who voted against the deal, this is a question for those who voted in favour of it. In B&NES we have good Heath and Social Care, in part because we don’t play a political game over it. Nobody would thank us for that. If it could have been proven to me that the deal was the best for our residents I would have supported it despite any personal political concerns about privatisation. Let’s hope it is a good deal for service users, but I could not be convinced about the finances of it.
Finally, Will, our whole healthcare system hinges on its patient-centred approach. Given the vote for Virgin Care, despite the vocal opposition to it, it can be logically assumed that the majority of the council feel it will bring about positive changes. What sort of changes can service users expect to see under Virgin Care? What has been proposed that betters the existing system?
I can’t speak for those who voted for the deal, but it is logical to assume they did feel it would bring about positive changes. The contact is too big to list what specific changes might be made, but I imagine any changes will attempt to keep the same beneficial outcome for service users while reducing costs.
These represent the thoughts and opinions of Cllr Sandry himself, and are not necessarily indicative of those held by his associates, or by Bath and North East Somerset Council