Relevance of Psychology in Primary Health Care Delivery

Critically discuss how an understanding of psychology can enhance the delivery of primary health care. (District Nursing)

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The concept of psychology as relevant to district nursing and the primary healthcare team can be examined on a number of different levels. An understanding of psychology is clearly important to the nurse when she interprets a patient’s reaction to events in their personal illness trajectory. (Yura H et al. 1998). It is equally important as she considers her professional approach to the patient and the understanding of how a patient will react to the delivery and impact of healthcare, particularly in her considerations of how to achieve maximum patient compliance in any given therapeutic regimen. (Dean A. 2002).There are other, arguably less immediately obvious, ramifications of the impact of psychological implications in the delivery of primary health care when one considers the interactions and dynamics of the primary healthcare team and the interplay between various members of the team.

In this essay we shall consider all of these implications. We start with the general plan that the topic of psychology in this context is potentially vast and for this reason we shall consider individual illustrative episodes in some detail in order to demonstrate an overall understanding of the area.

The perception of any given situation and indeed, the evaluation of the probabilities that arise from it, are generally dependent on its presentation. This in turn gives rise to differences and variations in the number and scope of the possible outcomes from that situation. This is the so called Theory of Rational Choice (De Martino B et al. 2006). The perception of a situation is dependent on its “framing”. It therefore follows that the outcome is also dependent on the same concept of framing of the presentation. This has great relevance to our question, as the District Nurse can make decisions that are influenced by the “framing” of the presentation by the patient, but more significantly, she can seek to modify the decisions that a patient ultimately makes by framing her presentation of the situation in a number of different ways. There is a substantial evidence base in the literature which cites examples of how decisions can be changed or even reversed if they are presented with different emphasis on different factors in the presentation (van Osch S M C et al. 2006).

A full consideration of the implications of this statement will suggest that these psychological concepts will have a direct bearing on other professional considerations such as autonomy and other ethical issues. (Hendrick, J. 2000).

How can a patient be considered to be making a truly autonomous decision if that decision is being influenced by the abilities of a nurse to “frame” the presentation of the relevant factors in order to suggest that one outcome is better than another? (Green J et al. 1998). How can a patient be considered to be “empowered and educated” about a course of treatment if the nurse has been selective in the way that treatment has been explained to the patient? (Sugarman J & Sulmasy 2001).

We do not presume to suggest that such concepts are necessarily wrong. It may be entirely reasonable for a nurse to use her professional skill and judgement to suggest to a patient that one particular course of action is preferable to another by framing the presentation in such a way that the patient is guided towards a certain decision. In a commonly experienced clinical situation such as a frightened patient with an extensive skin wound to the leg which clearly requires suturing and who is saying that they don‘t want anything to be done, we could probably all agree that it would be quite appropriate for a nurse to suggest that the procedure of suturing is not very painful and will give a good cosmetic result whereas to leave the wound open will give rise to infection and other difficulties. From an analytical viewpoint, this approach could be viewed as detracting from the patient’s autonomy and ability to make their own valid consent. (Gillon. R. 1997). A pragmatist might equally suggest that the nurse is employing valid psychological principles in her professional desire to achieve what is probably the best outcome for the patient (Coulter A. 2002)

One of the major areas that we shall consider in this appreciation of the significance of psychology in the delivery of healthcare, is that of attitude of those delivering the particular intervention to the patients concerned. This area is examined in commendable detail by the paper by Johansson (K et al. 2002) which specifically considered the effectiveness of the delivery of alcohol awareness programmes in a group of problem drinkers. The reason that we have selected this paper for an initial consideration is that, unusually for a research paper, it does not simply consider the efficacy of a particular healthcare package, but it reviews and critically analyses the attitudes of the healthcare professionals on the overall outcomes with specific focus on their readiness to participate in such a venture. This is seminal to the major thrust of this essay and therefore merits a detailed examination.

In essence, the entry cohort to this study was a collection of about 150 primary healthcare team workers who could potentially be involved in the delivery of an alcohol awareness programme. Each was asked to fill in a questionnaire which was designed to evaluate a personal profile of the respondent and covered areas such as:

experiences with patients with alcohol-related health problems, knowledge and perceived capacity concerning early identification and intervention, attitudes towards the role of primary care staff in early identification and intervention and current intervention methods in use at the health centre.

The results are interesting insofar as there was general agreement that the likelihood of a patient generating or triggering an enquiry into their alcohol usage was most likely to be when issues relating to the alcohol-related health-risks were perceived by the healthcare professionals. The relevance of the psychological aspects of such an enquiry became clear when it was found that nurses were more likely to enquire than the doctors in the sample and that on average, nurses tended to drink less alcohol than doctors. (Dihn-Zarr, T et al. 1999)

Those who drank the least were more likely to be concerned about the health risks than those who drank more. Clearly the effects of alcohol in any individual patient are specific, but the willingness of a healthcare professional to instigate healthcare measures to minimise the health-related effects of alcohol appears to be dependent on their own attitudes towards alcohol and this may be reflected in their own levels of consumption.

There is an old adage that the definition of an alcoholic is a patient who drinks more than their doctor. (Fleming, M et al. 1999). In the light of this study, this comment may not be as flippant as it initially appears. In alcohol-related problems, there is frequently an element of denial, both in terms of alcohol intake and its effects. (Herbert, C et al. 1997). If the healthcare professional involved has a degree of denial of their own intake, clearly this will have repercussions on their presentation of the problem to the patient and their subsequent evaluation and willingness to invoke therapeutic or interventional measures for that patient. (Kaner, E. F. S et al. 1999)

Other significant factors that contributed to the likelihood of a healthcare professional instigating therapeutic measures were found to be their individual perception of their own degree of knowledge on the subject, both in terms of the effects of alcohol on the body and also in terms of the interventions that were available. (Aalto, M. et al. 2001)

Many nurses expressed the fact that they were concerned that patients might react negatively to such enquiries and that this would affect the degree of patient empathy. Doctors appeared to be generally more confident about handling the possibility of a negative reaction. The same study pointed to the fact that it appears that such fears were unfounded in reality, as the same proportion of patients reacted in a negative way in both groups.

>From this brief overview, it can be seen that psychology plays a role at many different levels in what is basically a fairly straightforward healthcare professional / patient interchange, and the attitudes of both patient and healthcare professional can have a profound impact on the eventual outcome of the care package for the individual patient.

The paper itself makes the comment that:

Nurses appear to be an unexploited resource, in need of training and support. Nurses may need to be convinced that an active role does not interfere with the nurse–patient relationship. Building teams of GPs and nurses in primary care might enhance the dissemination of alcohol prevention into regular practice.

A further psychological input that is relevant in this area is the perception of the healthcare professional of just how effective the intervention that is proposed is likely to be. A previous paper on the same subject (Andreasson S et al. 2000), concluded that healthcare professionals were much more likely to recommend a healthcare intervention that they had personally experienced or witnessed as successful, with greater frequency than one which had been shown to have a secure evidence base in published literature.

The paper concludes with the suggestion that specific training in the subject needs to be implemented and this training not only needs to address the knowledge gap that has been identified, but also the belief systems and attitudes of the healthcare professionals in the primary healthcare team in order that it can reach its maximum potential.

Although this paper was targeted and written in relation to a specific alcohol related intervention, it is reasonable to assume that the selected comments cited in this essay are sufficiently general to apply to most specific health related interventions and we will consider and explore other psychological rationales in specific relation to Health Promotion initiatives together with the inferences that can be drawn in relation to team building issues at greater length later in this essay.

One of the major areas where psychology is relevant to the success (or otherwise) of a particular treatment is encapsulated in the concept of empowerment and education. (Howe and Anderson 2003). The patient who is both empowered and educated by the nurse will approach their illness trajectory in a completely different psychological frame of mind than one who is not. Time spent in explanation to a patient of the parameters and reasons for their treatment is rarely wasted. (Holzemer W et al. 1994). Marinker’s concept of the differentiation of compliance and concordance. (Marinker M.1997) is particularly useful in this respect. Although his original paper was written with specific regard to the taking of medication, the principles that it expounds are sufficiently general that they are now commonly extrapolated to cover most aspects of the interaction between the healthcare professionals and the patient. The patient who understands why he is being asked to undergo a particular therapeutic regimen is far more likely to complete is successfully than one who is simply told what to do. This can be encapsulated in the professional advice on the subject from the RCN

Patients are as fully involved as practicable in the formulation and delivery of their care (e.g. through the use of self-care plans) Where appropriate, patients are offered treatments other than medication Treatment plans are individually tailored for each patient Patients are involved, unless impracticable, in any decisions about referral Where practicable, patients are informed of the reasons for referral to specialists or other professionals

(cited in CSAG 1999)

This element of compliance is frequently cited in many of the tools of quality indication that are used in formal studies in this area. The degree to which a patient complies (or concords) with instructions can be viewed as a measure of success of the presentation of that treatment directly to the patient. (Campbell S M et al. 2000)

As we have intimated in the introduction, the title of this essay can be interpreted at several different levels. In this segment we shall consider the impact of formal psychology services in primary health care. The rationale for our consideration of this topic specifically lies in the fact that an understanding of basic psychological principles is fundamental in allowing the nurse to appreciate the elements of treatment commonly undertaken in a psychology clinic. The excellent and informative article by Sobel (A B et al. 2001) provides a good starting point for this consideration. In practical terms, the average attendance at a psychology clinic is about five outpatient attendances. (Arndorfer, R. E et al. 1999). This means that the contact of a patient with the primary healthcare team is likely to outnumber the attendances at the clinic over a period of time. To give a specific example, it is clearly important for the nurse, who may come into contact with (for example) an anorexic adolescent, to understand the issues revolving around body dysmorphia, self-image enhancement and self-esteem (Lavigne, J. V. et al. 1999) if they have been undergoing treatment, if the nurse is to consider giving any degree of holistic consideration to whatever problems are being presented to her at the time. It is clearly of little value, if requested to give advice on the subject of weight loss (which is a common enquiry at nurse-run clinics), (Hogston, R et al. 2002) . to attempt to give such advice without a background knowledge of the psychological principles that have been employed in trying to restore the patient’s eating habits to a more normal pattern. (La Greca, A. M. 1997). Equally the parents of a child who is undergoing treatment for enuresis may have questions that they have not felt able to ask at a busy clinic and these may be presented to the practice nurse. A background knowledge of current treatment (both interventional and behavioural) is clearly vital to being able to answer the questions with a degree of professional confidence.

Another area where the nurse’s knowledge of psychological issues may be important is that, given the fact that a comparatively high number of patients default from follow up before being formally discharged, the nurse should know that psychological treatment is rarely successful if the “less than optimum” course of treatment is completed. (Sobel, A. B et al. 2001). Encouragement to return to complete the full course may be a useful remit for the nurse confronted by a patient in this situation. It follows that a sensitive exploration of the reasons for default my also be helpful and a knowledge of the subject is clearly helpful here as well. The patient who has defaulted from follow up through apathy needs completely different handling from the patient who has defaulted because of a resurgence of painful or difficult memories during a course of cognitive behavioural therapy. (Street, L. al. 2000). In the latter case, empathetic handling is of great importance as the issues involved may have a deep significance for the patient and completion of the course may be fundamental to a complete resolution of the issues involved. (Mitchell M C et al. 2004). When dealing with the patient who has specific emotional or psychological issues, the professional nurse would commonly have to employ a degree of psychological understanding which may be deeper than in many other cases for both of the reasons set out above.

Let us now consider a different aspect of psychology and its relevance to nursing practice in primary care. A large proportion of the work of the district nurses can be taken up with the care of the dying patient. The dying, or terminally ill patient typically has a psychological profile that is quite different to the “average” patient. This was explored in the fascinating and very well written paper by The (The et al. 2000) who considered the elements of denial and cognitive distortion exhibited by a patient when being given news that they do not want to hear. The diversity of psychology shown by these patients is virtually unique to this group and a firm grasp of the essential elements is vital if the district nurse is going to handle the situation both professionally and well. The concept of “a good death” (Seale C et al. 2003) is one that is frequently cited in the modern literature and a fundamental prerequisite to a good death is that the patient is surrounded and treated by healthcare professionals who have broad understanding of the psychological issues that are relevant to this spectrum of patient. (Wilkerson, S. A et al. 1996)

There are many patients who confront the inevitability of death with a stoical inevitability that makes their management a relatively straightforward matter (Wadensten et al. 2003). The patients that we shall specifically consider in this segment however, are those who have a positive diagnosis of a life threatening condition but employ a number of coping mechanisms so that they do not have to directly confront the possibility of imminent death. These mechanisms can range from false optimism right through to frank and abject denial (Weeks et al 1998).

We have already considered some of the ethical implications of autonomy and consent earlier in this essay, but they also are of great relevance in this section. It follows that if a patient is to have any degree of meaningful input into their treatment plans and consideration of the various options that are open to them, they must be both fully aware of, and quite prepared to confront, the implications of the situation that they find themselves in. If they chose to distort some or any of the relevant facts of the case, it equally follows that they cannot make a reasoned and rational decision about the options and choices that they have in front of them. Once again we return to the issue and concept of framing the presentation, the only difference here is that it is generally the patient who deliberately distorts the frame rather than it being distorted or manipulated by the healthcare professionals.

This specifically is the issue that The and his colleagues considered in their paper (The et al. 2000). We should start a consideration of this issue however, with a reference to an earlier paper by Jennings (1997) who described the “emotional roller coaster” experienced by patients who deal with a malignant diagnosis and that this “evolution of emotional landscapes” can be predicted with a degree of certainty. This can be best examined with a verbatim extract from the The paper which refers to patients with small cell carcinoma of the lung:

“False optimism about recovery” is usually developed during the (first) course of chemotherapy and was most prevalent when the cancer could no longer be seen in the x ray pictures. This optimism tended to vanish when the tumour recurred, but it could develop again, though to a lesser extent, during further courses of chemotherapy. Patients gradually found out the facts about their poor prognosis, partly because of physical deterioration and partly through contact with fellow patients who were in a more advanced stage of the illness and were dying. “False optimism about recovery” was the result an association between doctors’ activism and patients’ adherence to the treatment calendar and to the “recovery plot,” which allowed them not to acknowledge explicitly what they should and could know. The doctor did and did not want to pronounce a “death sentence” and the patient did and did not want to hear it.

Clearly an understanding of the psychology of what colours the patient’s reactions is vital to the district nurse if she is to handle this type of situation both professionally and empathetically.

If we take a completely detached and dispassionate consideration of this situation the healthcare professional can say with almost complete certainty, that the patient with a positive diagnosis of small cell carcinoma of the lung is going to die. Statistically we know that over 90% of patients are dead within two years of diagnosis and the overall five year survival figures are nil. (Seale C et al. 2003)

The practicality of the situation is therefore that it clearly makes sense to discuss options in terms of treatment, palliation and support as soon as a positive diagnosis is made. In real terms, this is rarely done because healthcare professionals frequently find it difficult to effectively pronounce a “death sentence” on patients. In this respect the psychology of the situation is as much a reflection of the attitudes and feelings of the healthcare professionals as it is of the patient.

On a fictional level one can cite the classic literary example of A J Cronin’s Dr Findlay (Cronin A J 1934) who disagreed with his partner Dr Cameron. Dr Findlay felt strongly that the eponymous Mrs McIver should be told of her hopeless prognosis on the grounds of being completely truthful with the patient and this was against the advice of the older, more experienced partner, Dr Cameron who had been hitherto managing the situation by keeping the lady’s spirits high by telling her how well she was looking at each occasion he had contact with her. Dr Findlay confronts the situation by telling Mrs McIver the truth and within a few days she has died. The relevance of the story is seen at the end where Dr Findlay is depicted talking to the dead lady’s husband and Dr Findlay expresses his shock at the speed at which the old lady died and the husband concludes the episode by observing that:

“She was doing really well until you took away from her the one thing that she had left – and that was hope”.

In short, this episode highlights some of the difficulties and dilemmas that are frequently faced by healthcare professionals in general and district nurses in particular. The practicality of the situation could have been handled better with a more thorough understanding of the thought processes and psychological mechanisms employed by Mrs McIver in her last few weeks. One can see the point of view of Dr Findlay who took the view that the lady would not have been in any realistic position to make appropriate arrangements to confront her own death if she had never faced the possibility in the management plan that Dr Cameron had adopted. Dr Findlay’s approach could be argued to have allowed her to consider a number of timely treatment options if the truth was confronted. The fact of the matter was that she chose to actively collude with the optimistic approach of Dr Cameron and she derived strength and the ability to cope from the transparent belief (a cognitive distortion) that her prognosis was not hopeless. Dr Cameron was clearly of the opinion that this was of greater benefit to her than confronting her imminent death.

What the story does not tell us (and we can only surmise) is that Dr Cameron, in common with many other real healthcare professionals, also has psychological difficulties in dealing with the subject himself. A number of different mechanisms may be active in this situation. It is possible that, by telling a patient that they are soon to die, it may challenge the notion that medical science can cure everything and that healthcare professionals are infallible (sadly, a still all to common belief). Equally it could be that the healthcare professionals involved do not like to be vicariously reminded of their own mortality and therefore collude willingly with the patient’s false optimism. Others again may take a rational view that “if the patient wants to know the truth then they will ask, if they don’t want to know then they won’t ask” and thereby actively avoid confronting the situation (Curtis J R. 2000)

The The paper examines this issue in considerable depth with a commendable degree of scientific scrutiny. In the words of the paper, the authors suggest that:

The problem of patient / doctor collusion does actually require an “active, patient orientated approach from the doctor”.

A practical and novel solution to this problem is suggested in the form of the use of a “treatment broker” who is defined as:

“a person who is trusted by both patient and doctor and who can help both parties to clarify and communicate their (otherwise implicit) assumptions and expectations”.

The’s analysis suggested that the majority of patients in the study did actively want to know if the illness that they had was terminal with over 85% stating that they would wish to be told the truth rather than be given false optimism in an unrealistic fashion. This is contrasted with the finding that, in the study, when a patient was given a terminal diagnosis, the next question was almost invariably a variation of “what are the chances of a cure?” (Meredith et al 1996).

It is also the case that other studies on the psychology of this type of situation have shown that when patients ask about their condition (and this applies not specifically to terminal conditions) they do not want to hear anything other than good news (Costain et al 1999). This argument is extrapolated even further in a study by Leydon and his co-workers (Leydon et al 2000) who provide an excellent qualitative study into patient’s reactions and they cite examples of patients who were interviewed directly after a recorded conversation with a healthcare professional and who overtly denied that they had been given a terminal diagnosis even though this was demonstrably not true.

An interesting twist in these discussions of the psychology of the situation is provided by Dean (Dean 2002), who offers a specific insight into the way patients perceive the differences between nurses and other healthcare professionals. He takes the arguments of false optimism and overt denial and examines them further. Again, this paper is specifically concerned with the patient with a terminal diagnosis, and it looked at the differences in the content and tone of the conversations that patients had with both doctors and nurses. A significant finding from this paper was that a patient may choose to overtly collude with the doctor during discussions of “a cure” but within a very short space of time may choose to talk in a much more open way with a nurse when pretences of a cure are actively dropped. Dean suggests that “such a dichotomy of approach is not unusual”. He suggests that:

Patients may well feel a need for a theatrical facade to bolster their own psychological states as well as to collude with the doctor and indicate that they are remaining positive and confident in the doctor’s ability to try to achieve a cure.

And this suggestion is echoed and expanded in the Curtis paper (Curtis 2000) with the observation that, in their more candid moments patients may well wish to get a more “down to earth“ response, which they perceive that they will get from the nurse, who they think may not require a facade or even indulge in the sophisticated game play of the doctor. Lynn (Lynn 2001) adds a counter-intuitive note of caution for the nurse with the thought that this situation requires a great deal of careful handling by the nurse, as the psychological mechanism that underlies the nursing approach is that the patient may actually be looking for reassurance and (possibly unexpected) reinforcement of their own false optimism. This is an exemplification of the constant calls in the literature for a holistic and patient centred approach to patient care rather than a blanket approach to this type of clinical problem.

The rest of The’s paper is concerned with the psychological theory behind the explanations of just why it is that patients do adopt these defensive positions and just why it is that healthcare professionals frequently collude with them on this issue. It is not particularly relevant to explore this in any further detail as the point is clearly made that a basic understanding of the mechanisms by which patients cope with their adversity and the psychological constructs that are frequently presented in these circumstances is of great importance to the nurse who has to deal with, interpret and empathise with the patient’s particular needs at any given time in their illness trajectory.

Nurses are often involved, both overtly and in their everyday work, in the business of Health Promotion. Psychology plays a very important part in the overall success and implementation of health promotion strategies on a both a population and an individual level. The theoretical basis of much recent work in the field of Health Promotion is in the concept of the Attitude-Behaviour theory (A-B theory) (Rise J 2000). This theory suggests that the optimum change in behaviour patterns (at least in the field of health and self-interest) is achieved with the optimum change in attitude (or “realignment” in the jargon).

We opened this essay with a reference to the Theory of Rational Choice. An offshoot of this theory (the Theory of Reasoned Action) modifies the A-B Theory to the extent that it provides a model framework by which one can assess the many divergent processes by which attitudes guide behaviour. The hypothesis states that if people can become highly motivated to make a correct decision and are in a position (because they have been given relevant information), then they are likely to spontaneously engage in a “deliberate and thoughtful process in deciding how to behave” (Rise J 2000). In the context of Health Education (which was the field that the theories were originally developed in) the theory suggests that if people are given sufficient and persuasive information in relation to their health, then a significant proportion will spontaneously indulge in lifestyle changing activity which can be consistent with healthier living. The significance of these theories is that, if the nurse has a remit to promote a healthier lifestyle (which is arguably part of a professional remit), she is most likely to have the greatest success in providing significant amounts of information to patients rather than simply dictating to them how they should alter their lifestyle without any significant explanation. This comment effectively brings us full circle to the concept of compliance and conformance as postulated by Marinker.

Another issue that has deep seated psychological implications, is the current trend towards teambuilding in primary health care. The ramifications of this concept are huge, and therefore we intend to only discuss the issue by considering a number of the most relevant points. To a large extent, team building overlaps with the concept of multidisciplinary team working. This move has required a redistribution of both power and authority (and thereby a redistribution of responsibility) within the team. (Shortell S M et al. 1998).The psychological implications of this are that if one considers the NHS of more than about twenty years ago its structure was more isolationist and based on individual practice (DHSS 1988). Individual speciality teams and individuals worked in a degree of comparative isolation and this also implied a greater degree of individual responsibility than they have at present. This change has brought about a number of major changes in areas such as ethics and work practices which are not particularly relevant to our topic in this essay (and therefore will not be discussed further), and also the psychology of working, which clearly is.

The first consideration is the psychology behind the concept of leadership. Leadership is clearly important if one is to have an effective team. In psychological terms styles of leadership can be divided into several categories. The two most prominent being congruent leadership and transformational leadership. A full discus

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