Thursday, 15 September 2016

Book of the month: Bounce by Matthew Syed

About the author
Matthew Syed (@matthewsyed) is a journalist and was the English number one table tennis player for almost ten years

Who should read this book?

Anybody involved in education and training will find something useful in this book.  Although there are a few problems, they are more than outweighed by the readability of this book and the transferability of the acquired knowledge into practice. Syed talks about the myth of innate talent, deliberate practice, expertise, motivation, the benefits of standardisation, the training of radiologists and inattentional blindness.

In summary

The book is divided up into 3 Parts and 10 Chapters:

Part I: The Talent Myth. Here Syed effectively destroys the myth of innate talent. He tells us what you need is opportunity, deliberate practice with feedback and luck. 
  1. The Hidden Logic of Success
  2. Miraculous Children?
  3. The Path to Excellence
  4. Mysterious Sparks and Life-Changing Mindsets
Part II: Paradoxes of the Mind. In this part Syed look at how our beliefs can help (or hinder) us.
  1. The Placebo Effect
  2. The Curse of Choking and How to Avoid It
  3. Baseball Rituals, Pigeons, and Why Great Sportsmen Feel Miserable after Winning
Part III: Deep Reflections. This part is less obviously related to the preceding parts (see "What's bad about this book?" below)
  1. Optical Illusions and X-ray Vision
  2. Drugs in Sport, Schwarzenegger Mice, and the Future of Mankind
  3. Are Blacks Superior Runners?

What's good about this book?

This book is well-written and very easy to read. As someone who has "been there" Syed does a great job of debunking the talent myth (or the "myth of meritocracy" (p.7)) He references a few of the other writers in this field including Malcolm Gladwell (p.9) and Anders Ericsson (p.11)

Syed explains why the talent myth is bad, in part because it means we give up too quickly because "we're just not good at it". The talent myth also means that "talented" people are given jobs which they are not suited for, this may be a particular problem in government.

This book is relevant to the acquisition of skills (technical and non-technical): Syed refers to Ericsson when he says tasks need to be "outside the current realm of reliable performance, but which could be mastered within hours of practice by gradually refining performance through repetitions" (p.76) In addition, mastery of skills leads to automaticity and a decrease in mental workload.

As mentioned in previous blog posts, failure is an important element of improvement and in order to improve we need to push ourselves (and our learners). Are your sessions set up in order to make the best possible use of the learners' time? Syed also explains that it is not just time (cf 10,000 hours) but the quality of the practice that is important.

Syed extols the benefits of standardisation. He spent two months perfecting his stroke so that it would be identical "in every respect on each and every shot" (p.94). This meant that now he could introduce small changes and he would be able to tell if these were improvements or not as the rest of the stroke remained the same. There is a strong argument for similar standardisation or reduction in variation within healthcare. Currently it is extremely difficult to see whether a change is an improvement because of the variation in the system.

"Feedback is the rocket that propels the acquisition of knowledge (p.95-96). Syed again refers to Ericsson when he discusses how the training of radiologists and GPs could be improved by giving them access to a library of material where the diagnosis is already known (e.g. mammograms for radiologists, heart sounds for GPs). Because the participants are given immediate feedback on their diagnosis they can learn very quickly from their mistakes. Could your skills or simulation centre offer something similar?

Syed also deplores the lack of adoption of purposeful practice outwith the sports arena. He quotes one business expert: "There is very little mentoring or coaching... and objective feedback is virtually non-existent, often comprising little more than a half-hearted annual review" (p.103). How many of our workplaces can identify with this?

Syed's final chapter "Are Blacks Superior Runners?" is a very well-written argument that it is economic and social circumstances that result in more black people being motivated to take up sport and excel in it. The false belief that black people have sporting talent, but are intellectually inferior, is part of a wider culture of discrimination, where for example people with 'black'-sounding names are less likely to be invited to a job interview.

What's bad about this book?

Syed commits the same mistake as Gladwell (which is nicely refuted by Ericsson here) that "(w)hat is required is ten thousand hours of purposeful practice" (p.85) or that it takes 10,000 hours to "achieve excellence" (p.15) 

Syed changes Ericsson's "deliberate practice" to "purposeful practice". Although he does explain his reasoning, this change does not improve our understanding of what the term stands for and is an unnecessary variation.

Syed states that "some jobs demand deep application... nurses are constantly challenged to operate at the upper limits off their powers: if they don't people die."(p.72) Unfortunately this is not the case. Most nurses (and most healthcare workers) do not work at the upper limits of their powers and patients do die. Healthcare currently neither rewards nor encourages excellence. Healthcare rewards, if not mediocrity, then not being noticed for the wrong reasons.

Although applicable to sports, Syed's writing on the dispelling of doubt, does not translate well into healthcare. "Positive thinking" must not turn into the cognitive trap of "false positivism" and a degree of doubt is necessary for safe care.

Part III: Deep reflections consists of 3 chapters which seem to have been added, slightly ad hoc, to the end of the book (perhaps it wasn't long enough?) Syed's argument in Chapter 9 that a policy of "regulated permissiveness" would be better than the current doping ban does not hold water. It is more likely that everybody (who can afford it) will then be on the permitted drugs and the cat-and-mouse game between the dopers and the doping agencies would continue with the illegal drugs. With respect to the Haemoglobin-boosting drug EPO, Syed states: "It is only when [the haematocrit] is elevated above 55 per cent that the risks begin to escalate..." (p.226). When it is more likely that there is no safe limit for the haematocrit. In the same vein Syed states: "Moderate steroid use improves strength and aids recovery without significant damaging side effects" This begs the question: "Why are we not all taking a moderate amount of steroids?"

Final thoughts

Syed argues that standards are spiralling upward in a number of fields because "people are practising longer, harder (due to professionalism), and smarter." He also talks about coasting (driving car) and unfortunately this is where many of us end up. Once the exams are finished we neither push ourselves nor are we pushed.

If we "institutionalised the principles of purposeful practice" (p.84) as Syed encourages us to do, our training would be more effective, healthcare workers more qualified and patients safer.

Thursday, 8 September 2016

Harnessing the Power of Mistakes (by Vicky Tallentire)

Mistakes are an inevitable aspect of any system that involves decision-making; healthcare is no exception.  For better or for worse, the mistakes that we make over the course of our careers define, to some extent, who and what we become.  In the early days they often influence career decisions.  Subsequently, they shape our approach to work, subtly impacting on our communications with patients, our investigative decisions and our willingness to discharge people home.  For many nearing retirement, the timeline of a career is a haze of professional satisfaction, punctuated by incidents of avoidable harm recalled with the clarity of yesterday.  

Henry Marsh (1) describes the impact of mistakes on his professional demeanour: “At the end of a successful day’s operating, when I was younger, I felt an intense exhilaration. As I walked round the wards after an operating list… I felt like a conquering general after a great battle. There have been too many disasters and unexpected tragedies over the years, and I have made too many mistakes for me to experience such feelings now…”(p.33)  Dealing with one’s own failures is, I think, the most challenging aspect of a career in healthcare.  How does one balance the inevitable sorrow and guilt with the need to hold one’s head high and continue to make high-stakes decisions?

Medical school lays the foundations for a career in medicine.  The thirst for knowledge is unparalleled.  As Atul Gawande (2) says, “We paid our medical tuition to learn about the inner process of the body, the intricate mechanisms of its pathologies, and the vast trove of discoveries and technologies that have accumulated to stop them. We didn’t imagine we needed to think about much else.”(p.3)  And yet we do.  At medical school I was introduced to the abstract concepts of error, unintended harm and, God forbid, mistakes.  But I didn’t understand them concretely, like I do now.  That I will make mistakes, I will cause harm, inflict distress and compound misery.  That one day I would be crouched on the floor beside a patient, with the hateful glare of a relative fixed on the back of my head, uttering “I’m sorry”.

Don’t we, as a profession, have a duty to better prepare our future doctors to deal with their own failings?  Shouldn’t we augment the vast knowledge of pathophysiology with self-awareness, emotional resilience and the language of professional but meaningful apology?  The challenges are great, but so too are the rewards. 

Immersive simulation is a tool that facilitates rehearsal of high-stakes decision-making in emotionally charged situations. Mistakes are more than likely in such contexts.  The debrief allows participants to reflect on their actions, off-load emotionally and discuss the possible consequences of alternative choices.  That journey of self-discovery and emotional development is, in my mind, what underpins the power of immersive simulation.  The challenge now is how that journey can be continued, and supported, in the workplace.

  1. Henry Marsh. Do No Harm: Stories of Life, Death and Brain Surgery. Published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2014.
  2. Atul Gawande. Being Mortal: Illness, Medicine and What Matters in the End. Published by Profile Books Ltd, 2014
About the author:
Vicky Tallentire is a consultant in acute medicine at the Western General Hospital in Edinburgh.  She has an interest in the training of physicians, and has held a number of roles in the Royal College of Physicians in Edinburgh.  Vicky has a particular interest in simulation based research and completed a doctorate at the University of Edinburgh in 2013 using simulation as a tool to explore decision-making and error.  She is keen to develop the research profile of the centre and would like to hear from anyone, from any professional background and at any level, who is interested in undertaking research projects in the field of simulation.