These jelly babies taste terrible

On the evening of the 20th March, just as the UK was starting to go into lockdown, I was eating some jelly babies in the car.

“These are really cheap jelly babies aren’t they? They just don’t taste of anything”.

“They’re not the best but they taste ok…” replied my husband.

I tried another one with a different flavour, which tasted identically bland. I could taste the sweetness and a vague hint of sour, but no lemon, no berry flavour, nothing.

Over the previous few days the news had filled with news about coronavirus – France and Spain had already locked down and we were following suit. The symptoms we were all on the lookout for were a high fever, a dry cough and shortness of breath. I didn’t have any of those, but had had a mild headache, I’d been to a yoga class a couple of days previously so attributed my aching muscles to exercise, and I generally didn’t feel quite right.  But I didn’t have any of the symptoms at that time suggestive of coronavirus infection.

That day, I had read a tweet suggesting that a loss of smell and taste might be a symptom of coronavirus, and as I chewed on my tasteless jelly babies it slowly dawned on me that I was about to become a statistic. We had started getting admissions of severely ill patients with c-19 pneumonia, and I had been on call only a couple of days previously where one after another the patients had been brought in, some near death, some in cardiac arrest and unsalvageable. I pictured myself as one of those patients in a few days time, and I went through the people I’d interacted with in the previous few days and felt terrible at the thought that I may have infected them. I was also strangely relieved that I no longer had to fear catching the virus, I already had it – what would be would be.

As we got home I looked at the WhatsApp groups which were going crazy with frightening stories (many of them untrue) of healthcare workers dying, predictions of disaster, and pictures of people fighting over the last toilet roll in Lidl. I sat down and opened a reasonably nice bottle of wine. As I took my first sip all I could taste was a slight bitterness and the warm feeling of the alcohol. I might as well have been drinking vinegar. To make matters worse I cooked a fairly simple mushroom truffle pasta for dinner, which Paul said was absolutely wonderful, restaurant quality gush gush gush. All I could tell was that I’d salted it appropriately.

At this point I was still hopeful this would be a very temporary affair and decided to close that bottle and move on to the one from a couple of weeks previously that I had been saving for cooking. It didn’t taste any different, so I continued with this. My morning coffee might as well have been hot water, I’d peel an orange in front of my face and smell absolutely nothing, I couldn’t tell the difference between lemon juice and vinegar.

I have always had a fairly sensitive sense of smell, and I think you forget how much you depend on it. Not being able to tell if the milk is off, not smelling smoke, not knowing if you’re a bit sweaty and should have a shower, not avoiding unhealthy exhaust fumes. I have never known air smell as crisp and clean as Lockdown London in March and April, but I’m sure much of that is because I could smell nothing.

I wasn’t the only one of my colleagues to experience this: I think about 70% of us had a good suggestive history of virus infection, some of us became extremely unwell, others had a mild illness, but many experienced a loss of taste and smell. I remember doing a straw poll of the nurses coming on shift on our covid makeshift ICU and about two thirds had experienced the change. During the surge we changed the way we worked completely, and all of us went onto a shift pattern. One night there was a case in the operating theatres with a particularly offensive smell that spread through the entire suite, including various handover rooms.  It was easy to differentiate those who had been infected with covid from those who hadn’t by our lack of awareness of this particularly putrid smell that had everyone else wearing their FFP3 masks for the whole shift.

My hopes of a fast recovery from the anosmia were dashed slowly over the next few weeks, when eating became an act of habit rather than pleasure, the taste of gin was a dim distant memory, but at least the bathroom always smelled clean and fresh. I remember the joy when my habit of drinking my morning espresso that tasted like hot water was actually accompanied by the faintest hint of coffee. This was about six weeks after I lost my sense of smell, and I was beginning to think I’d never regain it.

Over the next few weeks I started smelling my soap, citrus fruit, flowers. My friends have been sympathetic but I think are growing tired of me complaining about it. I discuss it with those of my colleagues who have had long lasting anosmia, and I’m grateful that I didn’t experience aberrant smells such as the continuous smell of exhaust fumes that one of them had. We recently welcomed a new set of trainees to the department and one recent conversation had us comparing our different anosmia experiences as many of them went through the same as I did.

I’m still not back to normal, but most days there is a small improvement. More “earthy” smells have taken longer to come back but now five months later some are returning, giving me hope that this sense that we take for granted may actually return, and one day I may taste truffle again.

(As they say, if you’ve been affected by this there are resources out there. For instance have a look at for some practical advice on how to deal with anosmia)

Can we drop the space suits yet and slip into something more comfortable?

This week I did some reasonably “normal” operating:  caesarean sections, a couple of urgent general surgery cases, and some urgent gynaecology.  Because the caesareans were done under regional anaesthesia they didn’t count as being “aerosol generating procedures” and so we proceded as normal, just with a facemask, apron and gloves, and of course the usual hand hygiene precautions.  Our guidelines currently require us to treat anyone having an “aerosol generating procedure” such as endotracheal intubation as being covid positive.  Which is why some other cases are being treated with everyone in full PPE, a 20 minute break after the anaesthetist secures the airway, and another 20 minute pause at the end when the airway is removed, before the patient is recovered in the operating theatre.  This means that even the shortest procedure takes two to three hours out of the operating theatre, and we can get through only a fraction of the work we managed before.  This is mirrored in operating theatres up and down the country, and the vast majority of the patients we are treating in this way have no symptoms of coronavirus, and often have a negative swab test already.


Unless we triple the size of our workforce we cannot continue like this if we want to have any chance of keeping up with our non-urgent work of hip replacements, hernia and haemorrhoid repairs. It’s also important that the longer we leave them the more disability these conditions cause, and many of them turn into surgical emergencies.  We are causing active harm by not operating on non-urgent patients.


How do we keep our staff safe though?  We have looked after healthcare workers on our makeshift intensive care units nationwide, and everyone is understandably nervous, and the PPE precautions provide us with reassurance and a feeling of safety.  It’s going to take a brave person to announce that we don’t need them anymore.


The classifications of what is and what isn’t an “aerosol generating procedure” is something I find interesting, and much of it isn’t based on much evidence, just opinion.  It’s important to remember that one of the biggest aerosol generating procedures is a cough – these can happen anywhere, and coughing is not in the PHE guidelines.  Although tracheal intubation is in the guidelines, I think there needs to be a distinction here between intubating someone with florid covid pneumonia vs intubating someone for planned surgery who is essentially asymptomatic and often has a negative swab.  In the latter case, the patient does not have a cough, and even if they have asymptomatic disease, they’re unlikely to be shedding much virus. Many of these patients will already have had a negative test, and with our clinical assessment as being low risk it is obvious (at least to me) that treating all these as positive is entirely illogical.


Nothing is ever completely safe, and during my career I must have put myself in danger multiple times from intubating patients with TB and other communicable diseases, yet we didn’t wear FFP3 masks for everyone then.  As cases continue to fall there comes a time we must decide that the risk to us and our patients of wearing the full spacesuit is greater than the benefit from it.  This may be different in different regions – for instance London, the peak of the pandemic in April, now has the greatest reduction in cases.  The reason for this is unknown, but I wouldn’t be surprised if we have wildly underestimated *quite* how many of us had the virus in February and March, when you couldn’t get a test for love nor money.

It is also important to keep in mind that the full spacesuit is not only uncomfortable, but leads to dehydration, pressure sores and overheating in the wearer.  It also makes all the behaviours that are essential to surgical safety really difficult.  Effective communication is hard, teamwork becomes very tricky, and diagnosing and managing unexpected emergencies becomes much much more difficult.


I know we’ve been inundated with guidelines during this crisis, but here I think we need some.  But not risk-averse blanket guidelines that treat every region, every hospital the same.  We need flexible, pragmatic guidelines that take account of the real harm we are causing our patients.  We need to take account of how much virus there is in the local community and adjust our response to that, particularly now we are seeing so much regional variation.  We also need to be mindful that some of our high risk members of staff may be more reassured by continuing to wear a higher level of PPE, but also allow others to perform their own risk assessment and reduce their own PPE level, while keeping their colleagues safe.


In medicine there is always risk, nothing is ever completely safe, and the “safe approach” may not be the safest way forward.  We need to be flexible, responsive and respectful to our colleagues and our patients.

Why should we need work experience to become a doctor?

In September 1987 the Royal Surrey County Hospital hosted a 17 year old naïve and idealistic me for my work experience.  They had a varied programme where we shadowed not only doctors, but also other health care professionals, including EEG and ECG technicians, came into contact with patients and generally experienced how the hospital functions as a whole ecosystem of teams rather than just doctors and nurses.  I still remember the administrator that organised my placement clearly: an energetic and super-friendly woman aged somewhere around fifty who clearly had a passion for her job, and managed to vapourise my nerves and intimidation with a reassuring smile and matter-of-fact competence.  If Kate Gooding is still around and reads this, (she’d be somewhere in her eighties I reckon) thank you!

My best day was the surgery and “casualty” day (I know we now call it the emergency department before anyone says anything, but this was 1987). I probably should have realised then where my medical career was headed, but at the time I wanted to do paediatrics like about half the medical school intake.  In the operating theatre I observed operations and the teamwork between the different professions, I got a warm glow as a scrub nurse thanked me for my help in the team as they were very short staffed that day, which really made me feel part of the team.  I got to see what it was like being a doctor.

I shadowed a surgical SHO who was on call every third night, working about 120 hours per week, but despite that her love for her job shone through, and I realised that this was the right career path for me.  I even observed some anaesthesia, and saw the only Biers block I’ve ever seen since.

As some of you may know, I have partnered up with an amazing state school in Hackney which runs an access to medicine bursary, trying to provide the same opportunities to their pupils that those who attend private schools will get through connections and a much better funded system.  The pupils are all high achieving, clever and motivated, and we are thrilled that all fourteen this year got interviews at various medical schools around the country including Oxford and Cambridge.  I know they’re going to make great doctors and I’m proud to have been part of that process.

This week I called on a couple of London hospitals to change their policies on work experience to give their local population better access:


Most medical schools require clinical work experience as part of the application process, but trying to get that experience is not an easy task unless you know someone in the business. Some hospitals (including my organisation Imperial and my alma mater, Bart’s health) have a centralised department that coordinates it for their local population, but if you don’t live in that borough then your options are very much more limited.

If you live within the catchment area of the Royal Free hospital there is no centralised department, but you are allowed in if you manage to get a consultant to accept the placement.  This often requires hundreds of “cold call” emails, most of which will be un-answered, is demotivating, and favours those who have connections. Kings College Hospital, however has no work experience opportunities currently for their local population, but there is an initiative between the Royal College of General Practitioners and King’s medical school offering experience in local GP practices.  Incidentally if you want to do veterinary medicine, the work experience requirements are almost impossible to achieve without connections, unless you’ve grown up on a farm.

Medical schools don’t necessarily insist on clinical work experience in their entry requirements, but those students who have it are much better prepared for the interview, able to give real-life examples to ethical dilemmas and questions on teamwork.  My clinical work experience gave me a chance to dip my toe in the water before embarking on a long training programme for a rather all-encompassing career.  I realised it was going to be hard at times but also realised that it would be immensely rewarding.  It gave me something to latch onto when I would be deep in revision for some seemingly irrelevant biochemistry test, and I don’t think it’s fair to expect potential medical students to start their long studies without giving them a chance to see what the job is like.

Interestingly, most of the medical schools recognise how difficult it is to obtain clinical work experience and make exceptions in their entry requirements, also taking into account charity work and customer service roles.  However, I’m sure the interview performance of those who have had clinical work experience will shine through, and they will be more likely to be successful.  If you have money, you can of course pay for your work experience, and there are several organisations that will charge you around £1,500 per week for work experience in the UK, and more if you want to go abroad.  I know that the vast majority of the pupils in the Hackney school couldn’t come anywhere near raising that sort of money.

The system as it is currently is unfair, discriminates against those students who are poor, or have no one medical in the family.  There are some projects around aimed at widening participation, but what is really needed is just a level playing field that offers the same opportunities regardless of your background.

So, if you’re a hospital doctor or general practitioner reading this, and you have a centralised work experience programme, please do your bit and allow work experience students into your department, and encourage your hospital to set up a centralised system.

If you’re in charge, and your hospital doesn’t yet do its bit for its local population, please change it, and incidentally when you’re writing the policies please make the age limit sixteen, not seventeen, otherwise half the school year won’t be able to access your scheme in time for the UCAS medical school application process (or just say year 12 or above).

Work experience for students applying for medicine (and nursing, physio etc for that matter) is immensely valuable to those pupils, not only as a hurdle for their application process, but as a window into the life they’re choosing for themselves.  Please make it easy for them to obtain it.

Prehabilitation and paternalism

As many of you may know, I have been involved in a project where we train our patients physically and psychologically before their cancer surgery. The project (which I described a couple of years ago in a blog post here) has won many awards, has reduced our length of stay by about 25% and reduced our postoperative complication rate by a staggering 60%. Not only that, but the complications our patients get are now less severe, so fewer of them need to be admitted to the intensive care unit.

What has really impressed me, however is how much more motivated our patients are. They are psychologically much more prepared for the operation – one of the most invasive and extensive that we perform – understanding it better and understanding the hard work they themselves have to put in. This month I had a patient who successfully stopped smoking at the first consultation, and by the time she came to surgery her sheer will to succeed was obvious.

In this week’s BMJ I read an editorial by Giles and Cummins on prehabilitation, discussing particularly its negative aspects. Some of the problems they suggested puzzled me, especially having seen how the patients I’ve treated responded.

Maybe I’ve misunderstood the message that it’s trying to convey, but I find the suggestion that patients may be too upset by their cancer diagnosis to engage in lifestyle modification and pre-habilitation insulting and patronising to our patients, as is the statement that our patients can’t process the additional information because they’re getting information overload already.

So are they really saying that because our patients have just been told they have cancer and need treatment they’re going to be too upset for us to be able to help them stop smoking and increase their exercise levels? In my experience the time of a cancer diagnosis is an immensely valuable moment when people re-assess their life and are very open to lifestyle modifications. To deny our patients this opportunity because they may be “upset” would be do do wrong by them. Our patients love the pre-habilitation programme we provide for them, and one of the points they always mention is how it gives them a chance to be active participants in their care rather than passive recipients.

Further down the article the authors caution against pre-habilitation for lower social class patients as they may be more resistant to interventions such as stopping smoking. I found this bizarre, as in our experience the high success we have in getting our patients to engage in our pre-hab programme is not dependent on social class, and in fact those patients stand to gain more benefit from the programme than better informed health conscious patients who will probably be quite fit to begin with.

The paternalistic tone in the article is something I thought we had left behind in the 1980’s, and I think it’s really important we don’t reinforce the stigma of cancer where we have to protect them from information or additional resources as they may be upset about their diagnosis. It is a difficult time for them, and the structure of a pre-habilitation programme is an immensely positive addition where our patients feel cared for, guided through the programme, and…yes…even loved.

Wi-Fi – getting our communication beyond the 1980’s


This week my Tuesday surgeon and I did a major cancer resection as usual. Our service has recently moved to another hospital within our NHS trust whose proximity to Wormwood Scrubs prison means that the phone reception and 4G coverage in the hospital is absolutely terrible, with enormous black spots, emails stuck in the outbox, “failure to send” text messages and general isolation from modern humanity. (I’m being dramatic, I know, but bear with me).


As usual, my surgeon popped to the office while I was anaesthetising the patient, which takes a bit of time – thoracic epidural, double lumen endotracheal tube, cannulas, nasogastric tube, subclavian central venous line and an arterial line. As usual, after about 40 minutes I sent him a ‘5 minute warning’ text message, and then the patient was ready for our time-out safety check and an all-day operation.


However, there was no sign of Mr Tuesday, or his trainee.  I was a little puzzled as they’re pretty reliable, then looked at my phone.  The text message hadn’t gone through. Our hospital provides a very slow free wifi that throws you off it the minute you give up waiting for a page to load, with an option of paying £25 or so per month for a faster, more reliable version, that still logs you off when you’re not looking.  The message had the lovely red circle by it after my phone gave up trying to send it. I tried ringing him but couldn’t get reception.  The wifi wasn’t strong enough to do an internet call, and in any case his phone was logged off from the modern world and receiving nothing.  We ended up going for the 1980’s approach and one of the scrub staff went to find him, which he did.  All went well, we lost about ten minutes of operating time (at a cost of about £120, but who’s counting…) and then went on to operate for the rest of the day.


In the same way as most of the population is addicted to their smartphone, we rely on our phones for communicating with each other at work. This incident spurred me to ask the twitter hive mind how common this is, and whether it affects the way we work.



Although not scientific and biased to my followers I think the results are probably quite representative (or maybe under-representative of the places with no wifi and poor phone reception as they’re less likely to have seen the poll).  1144 people responded to the first poll, with 12% reporting no wifi access at all, 58% with a slow free wifi, and only 27% with good wifi access.


This means there are many, many hospitals in the UK where connection to the internet is at best intermittent, and some where it is completely absent.  So what? So – we access a lot of medical information and decision support on the internet, most of our professional communication is via instant messaging. I did a night shift as a trainee last Friday night, and the team comms were much enhanced by our instant messaging group, leading to a safer and more efficient service.  Finally, as I have previously discussed on this blog, WhatsApp was an absolutely brilliant tool for communication during our major incidents in 2017.  (see


This is not acceptable. Having a slow log-on Wi-Fi for hospital staff, where your phone is logged out into the black hole as soon as you stop looking at it is no way of enhancing the way we communicate and is detrimental to both the efficiency and safety of the service.  This is particularly true for times when the service is stretched or when urgent communication is necessary.  Having no Wi-Fi at all is inexcusable.


Getting the NHS technology out of the 1980’s is one of the priorities for the NHS long term plan, and the health secretary has made it one of his personal priorities to improve the IT infrastructure of hospitals. This is happening in many places (our health records are electronic, and most of us really like it), but we need to get the basics right.


Providing  a reliable always-on staff Wi-Fi should be as basic to a hospital’s function as providing hot water or piped oxygen.  In today’s world it is no longer a luxury, but an essential piece of infrastructure required for effective and safe communication within hospitals.



I wish you a good death

A couple of weeks ago I gave a talk to a group of sixth form students (17 years old) at @mcamossbourne. I get nervous about these talks, maybe more nervous than talking to a group of doctors at a conference. Maybe it’s the fear of being judged by teenagers, deemed boring, or maybe it’s the responsibility of being able to influence their thinking one way or another, and much more so than an older audience. I wanted to be a little challenging and thought provoking so I wanted to cover a taboo subject, and as it wasn’t going to be sex, I made the choice to talk about death.

I told them about two patients, one of whom I think I failed and the other I think I and my ED consultant colleague looked after really well in difficult circumstances. (I’ve changed some of the details to improve anonymity, but the story is still the same).

The first man, where I think we failed him, was transferred to us from another hospital with a ruptured aortic aneurysm. This is a serious condition which will result in death, quickly, if not treated. The operation to fix it is a huge one, with a high risk of dying on the operating table or on the intensive care unit afterwards. He was in his eighties, still smoking, didn’t leave his house much, and had a lot of other medical diagnoses which increased the risk of doing an already high risk operation. In fact the likelihood of him returning home with the same quality of life he had beforehand is pretty much zero, and if he survives the operation he is likely to be in a nursing home for the rest of his life.

This man had already had a discussion with one of my surgical colleagues who also painted a bleak picture, but the man had heard the chances of death were not completely zero. His desire not to die was strong and he was adamant he wanted to go ahead with the operation. Despite me being very honest about the likelihood of death or complete dependence nothing would sway him. His family was also very optimistic, saying he was a fighter and would pull through against the odds.

We went ahead with the operation and he did survive initially. Unfortunately he eventually died on the intensive care unit about two weeks later, still unconscious and ventilated. He was swollen and bruised from all the drips inserted and the family were in and out visiting him, visibly exhausted and distressed seeing him die slowly without ever regaining consciousness.

I truly feel we failed this man. We allowed him to go ahead with a futile operation, removing from him the chance of a dignified rapid death. We gave his family lasting memories of a slow decline with the enduring images of their father/grandfather as a swollen bruised body attached to a ventilator, completely dependent on others for life.

My other story is of an eighty-two year old woman who was making her husband a cup of tea and fell down the stairs in their home. Her husband found her at the bottom of the stairs unable to move her arms and legs, straightened her out and called an ambulance. When she came in to us the first thing she said to us was “I don’t want this”. It was clear she knew exactly what had happened: her cervical spine had broken in the fall and transected the spinal cord. She would never regain movement, and she would be fully dependent on others for all her personal care.

Her blood pressure at this point was unstable due to the injury and we had to give her drugs to support it. Her breathing was laboured but she still held her own. We got her down to the MRI scanner to rule out anything reversible, and it turned out as we feared. The spine was transected. Her son and daughter were with her by this point and it was clear they had previously had conversations about death and about this kind of scenario. We explained the findings to her, with her husband and children present, and made a decision together to withdraw treatment and allow her to die.

This all took place in the resuscitation area. At this time it was very small and not fit for purpose (after the Care Quality Commission visited us we finally got a refurbished area which is much better). It was a very busy trauma day, but despite this we managed to create an atmosphere of intimacy. When we withdrew the drugs keeping the blood pressure up she became more drowsy, and over the next half an hour she became progressively more unconscious and died peacefully surrounded by her family.

It would have been very easy for us to intubate and ventilate her, fix her neck, and she would have survived on the intensive care unit for days, weeks or even months before dying. She would not have been able to do anything for herself and her death could have been long and protracted. She had previously discussed death with her family, and this made all the difference when deciding on the right course of treatment for her. Her children had already thought through the scenarios and maybe visualised them before that day. There was no doubt what the right course of action was for her and I truly feel we provided excellent care for her in her last few hours.

When I went to speak to the young men and women of Mossbourne I wanted to give them something to think about, and something to challenge their outlook on life. I wonder if the first patient would have had a different experience if his seventeen year old granddaughter had heard a doctor talk about a good death at school and decided to have a conversation with him about it?

I’m allergic to quinoa – allergy, intolerance and NAP6

A friend of mine recently posted probably one of the more middle class new age Facebook posts I have ever come across, saying that she had been reminded of her allergy when she mistakenly ate quinoa crisps rather than hummus ones. I resisted going on my soapbox for a bit but in the end couldn’t resist, and calmly explained the difference between an intolerance and an allergy. It also made me think and spurred me into putting fingers to keyboard, mainly just to get this allergy thing off my chest a bit more.

Some of you may have been aware of the launch of the sixth national audit project (NAP6) by the Royal College of Anaesthetists (RCOA) a few weeks ago. This was an impressive project where every NHS hospital in the country participated and reported every single anaphylaxis during anaesthesia through the study period. Interestingly only 13% of private hospitals participated despite being written to repeatedly by the president of the RCOA – a figure that should make the private sector hang their head in shame.

Anaphylaxis is a life threatening immunological reaction and the most severe form of any allergic response. The immune system goes into overdrive, releasing substances that cause generalised swelling, breathing difficulty and constriction of the airway. The blood pressure drops dangerously and without fast treatment the results can be fatal.

The audit project came up with some interesting results: the drugs most likely to cause anaphylaxis were the antibiotics, and of them teicoplanin was 17 times more likely to do so than alternatives. We often use teicoplanin for patients allergic to penicillin, believing it to be a safer alternative, however more than 90% of those who think they’re allergic to penicillin aren’t, and we may be exposing them to greater risk by giving teicoplanin. What was reassuring, though, was that most patients who developed life threatening anaphylaxis survived, and fast action by anaesthetists diagnosed and started emergency treatment within 5 minutes in most cases.

One of the ways we try to prevent allergic patients not receiving the drug they are allergic to is with the red name band system. Normally the patient’s identifying name band is white, but for those with a severe allergy a red one should be used, as an additional reminder to be careful. In recent years there has been a lot of discussion in the media about “food allergy”, and many patients I treat have a long list of things they are allergic to.

Except almost all of them are not.

If you get abdominal cramps from eating quinoa it does not make you allergic to it. You may be intolerant, yes, but not allergic. Yet there is often a red name band. Some of the common “allergies” seen on red name bands include hay fever, intolerance to gluten, eggs, milk, being a vegetarian, religious food stipulations and many others.

It has reached a point where so many of my patients have a red name band on that the visual reminder that it is supposed to give me is entirely blunted, defeating the whole point of the system.

So I want to make a plea:

If you think you’re allergic to penicillin but don’t know exactly what happened, you’re probably not. Why not get yourself tested and then you’ll be able to be treated with antibiotics with fewer side effects, which are often very much more effective than the alternatives.

Please don’t use red name bands for hayfever, intolerances etc. We ask about allergies and intolerances when we discuss the anaesthetic with the patient, but the red band is to warn me of a possible serious reaction. It should be rare to see a patient with a red name band.

Also, have a look at NAP6 – if you’re a professional the full report is available here, but there is also a nice summary infographic here for those short of time.

And finally, if you’re in private sector hospital management please increase your engagement in these audits. Many private sector institutions do not have an anaesthetic department or any clinical anaesthetic leadership. A strong, proactive anaesthetic department is essential to any hospital and increases the strength of governance and safety.

I’ll get off my soapbox now.

WhatsApp Doc?

This year London has had its fair share of major incidents with the Westminster and London Bridge attacks, and most recently the Grenfell fire. On these occasions we have activated our well thought out major incident plan, and each time analysed what went well, and what we could improve, and debriefed our teams. 

At the final Westminster debrief there was some discussion about the use of our personal mobile phones and WhatsApp to improve communication within our teams. During the meeting I set up a WhatsApp group for the anaesthetic consultants for use only in major incidents – it took me two minutes, most of my colleagues were broadly supportive, a couple immediately left the group and a few others mentally rolled their eyes at yet another group that was going to ping on their phone and generally annoy them. 

When I was woken by the major incident phone call at 3am on the 14th June I looked at my phone and there was already a lot of activity on the WhatsApp group, colleagues offering to come in, directions on where to report to and what needed doing. I looked out on our terrace and was met with an awful sight of West London lit up by the Grenfell fire.

 Image courtesy of Paul Barlow
Our hospital’s response to the fire was very well coordinated and effective, but I was particularly proud that the information sharing and general coordination of the anaesthetic department was second to none. Other teams looked on us with envy and the central coordination team was asking me for updates on how things were going. Anaesthetists are central in the treatment of any critically injured patient, and in the management of multiple casualties it is vital to have the anaesthetist and ODP/anaesthetic nurse in the right place. WhatsApp was absolutely central to this and made team coordination simple. 

Despite being against most NHS information governance rules, WhatsApp is used routinely every day in the NHS for communication within teams. I’m glad to say that no patient identifiable information was shared in or Major Incident group but I know such information passes within clinical team WhatsApp groups up and down the country every single day. Is this a contravention of information governance principles? I would say no, as long as professional safeguards are applied. 

WhatsApp is end-to-end encrypted, meaning that the only way of viewing those messages is on the smartphones of the members of the group, and hacking into the messages is otherwise pretty much impossible, so security is dependent on the group members having encryption on their phones and treating the information they receive responsibly. Many of the concerns expressed about WhatsApp involve irresponsible behaviour – what if they share the information on social media? This would be no different to taking a set of notes and leaving it open in the hospital cafe for everyone to see, and contravenes the GMC’s excellent social media guidance

Why doesn’t the NHS spend a lot of money on setting up its own social media platform to mirror WhatsApp where you can share patient data then? I would argue it would be a waste of money as the platform already exists and is already secure. In addition the NHS platform wouldn’t have the resources to be kept up to date with new operating system releases and would soon enough become less secure and more prone to attacks. Also, new, convenient features get added quickly to WhatsApp but would be extremely slow to get into any bespoke system. 

So should the NHS embrace WhatsApp communication? I would say yes, but there needs to be guidance on it. It is the responsibility of healthcare professionals to treat that information confidentially and with respect, to have their phones encrypted and to delete information from groups after they move to a different job. We need to accept the reality of WhatsApp and all the benefits it brings us, but need to provide sensible safeguards on the way it is used, and to treat unprofessional social media behaviour in the same way as leaving a set of confidential notes on a park bench. 

In the meanwhile, I hope my Major Incident WhatsApp group stays silent for a while now.

In praise of Prepare surgery and the Imperial Charity

I have just finished packing my bag before doing some insanely stupid 24 hour hill climbing thing tomorrow in aid of our Prepare for surgery programme – a simple idea where we train our patients before their major surgery so they are fitter, healthier and more motivated than they were before we started it.

One of my frustrations in the cash strapped NHS is that it is very difficult to get funding for innovation, even if it will reap savings in the medium term we do not have the capital funds to make these projects happen as we are already in deficit and have to balance the books by the end of the financial year (or rather minimise the imbalance in the books). It stifles creativity, crushes our desire for improvement and instils in us a learned helplessness where we eventually just do things the same way we have always done them and stop trying.

I’m very fortunate to work with some inspiring people who refuse to let this attitude affect them and find ways of funding their excellent ideas, and Prepare is no exception.

This is where the Imperial Charity comes in, with a refreshing open attitude and money to give out they fund great ideas and allow projects like Prepare to become reality.  The benefit of their funding extends way beyond the borders of Imperial itself, as the project is being taken up in many places throughout Europe, and I think will change the whole way we deal with preparing our patients for major surgery. We have already seen some extremely positive results – reduction in length of stay in hospital and much fewer chest complications, and our patients seem to me much more motivated and involved in their care.

So as I put my softest of soft socks and waterproofs into my bag and head up to Scotland tomorrow to climb Ben Nevis I want to take this opportunity to say thank you to the Imperial Charity and their constant support, and for sharing our passion for innovation and better healthcare.

If you want to read a bit more about what we’re doing and maybe donate have a look here:

For more information about the Prepare programme look here:

Preparing our patients for surgery. 

Would you run a marathon without training for it? Didn’t think so. So why do we expect our patients to undergo major surgery with just a bit of pre-assessment and a pat on the back?

St Mary’s is one of London’s centres for upper GI surgery – meaning we operate on oesophageal and stomach cancers.  These are big operations with a high rate of post operative complications like pneumonia.  Our patients generally undergo chemotherapy for three months before their operation and usually they lose physical fitness during this time.  

This three month period is also a wonderful opportunity for training. We always told our patients to stop smoking, do more exercise and ensure they ate well during their chemo, but they were essentially on their own.

For the last two years with grants from the Imperial charity and CLARHC we have been taking this further and providing our patients with a training programme cantering not only on physical exercise, but also nutrition and psychological support.  Our patients are more prepared on their day of surgery, they are motivated, fit, better nourished and have a glint in their eye and a determination to get through the operation. Our complication rates have improved (particularly pneumonia) and our patients mobilise earlier after surgery. Our patients are in control and are able to influence their cancer therapy.

This programme is charity funded at the moment for our NHS patients (interestingly several private medical insurers have refused to fund their insured patients to go through it), and somehow my colleagues have persuaded me to join them on the three peaks challenge in June to fundraise for it. For those who don’t know, the challenge is to climb the three highest peaks in Scotland, England and Wales all in 24 hours. I asked if we couldn’t just do a 10km race or half marathon or something like that, but no – apparently it has to be something more crazy. 

So here I am with my begging bowl – the prepare for surgery programme isn’t a shiny gadget, it’s a simple concept that makes sense, and has made a big difference to our patients.  We’re planning on rolling it out to other specialties and hospitals, we’ve developed an app for our patients and for all this to work we need funds.  

The fundraising link is here