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The Gathering Around Cancer 2018 conference will take place in Croke Park Convention Centre, Dublin, on Thursday 8 and Friday 9 November. The conference is one of the major oncology events of the year and will feature presentations from a wide panel of experts, who will give their perspective on the major developments within their specialty.
The inaugural meeting took place in 2013 to coincide with the Gathering events being held that year to mobilise the Irish diaspora. Since then, the event has gone from strength-to-strength.
“We had a very large meeting, a three-day meeting, at that time,” according to organiser and Consultant Medical Oncologist in the Mater Misericordiae University Hospital, Dublin, Prof John McCaffrey, who co-founded the event with Consultant Medical Oncologist in St James’s Hospital, Dublin, Prof David Gallagher.
“And it was so successful that we decided to carry on. It became a meeting that wasn’t disease-specific, but covered everything. It is mainly medical oncology but we take in radiation and surgery and paramedical also, so I think it satisfies all the things we needed and has become the meeting that people want to have.”
Speaking to the Medical Independent (MI) ahead of the 2018 meeting, Prof McCaffrey said he is delighted by the positive response the meeting has generated among the oncology community.
“Myself and David Gallagher continually get very positive feedback that people like the way we do it. We want stay fresh, so we try to change things a little bit each year,” according to Prof McCaffrey.
“But I think the formula we have now suits people.”
After the welcome address on Thursday, the first session of the conference will be devoted to presentations from ‘Young Investigators’. The topics in this session will range from immunotherapy in breast cancer to overcoming EGFR TKI’s resistance in lung cancer. Prof McCaffrey said that this is always one of the most popular sessions.
“A lot of these people will be known to the community in Ireland, and then to see the step up that people take when they go abroad is quite impressive,” Prof McCaffrey stated.
“And these are the people who will be our future leaders, so it is great to see it happening.”
The following session will be on the subject of ‘Global Oncology’. CEO of the Irish Cancer Society (ICS) Ms Averil Power will begin the session with a talk on patient advocacy. The next speaker, Dr Patricia Scanlon, Muhimbili University, Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania, will deliver a talk on the challenges of running an oncology programme in the developing world. Other talks concern ‘The Future of AYA Oncology’ and ‘Burnout in Oncology: A Global View’, which will be delivered by Dr Scheryll Alken, St James’s Hospital and Our Lady’s Children’s Hospital Crumlin and Dr Blanaid Hayes, Dean of the Faculty of Occupational Medicine, RCPI, respectively.
Prof McCaffrey told MI that meeting organisers felt that it was essential to cover the theme of burnout, given the enormous workload pressures those working in the field of oncology face.
“The inability of male and female doctors to disconnect from work isn’t something we pay a great deal of attention to,” according to Prof McCaffrey.
“Our only fear is that we are not giving it enough time on the programme. It is a huge issue and a topic that needs to get more air-time than is currently the case.”
Dr Sean Ennis from Genomics Medicine Ireland will give the last talk of the session on population genetics, industry and academic collaboration.
The final session of the day will be on the timely and controversial subject of cancer screening.
Head of Services and Advocacy at the ICS Mr Donal Buggy will talk about screening from the patient’s perspective. There will also be a presentation specifically on cervical cancer screening, which will be delivered by Prof Grainne Flannelly, St Vincent’s University Hospital, Dublin. Given the recent controversy concerning CervicalCheck and the publication of the Scally Report, these talks are sure to be of extreme interest to delegates.
Two of the presentations will be on the subject of breast cancer screening. Prof Fidelma Flanagan, Mater Hospital, will deliver the first talk, while Prof John Crown, St Vincent’s University Hospital, Dublin, will talk about the “benefits and pitfalls” of breast cancer screening. Colon screening will also be covered by Prof Diarmuid O’Donoghue, St Vincent’s University Hospital.
“I think it is to reaffirm the importance of screening in the various areas; to take a look at what has been achieved, to hopefully show that we are saving lives,” according to Prof McCaffrey.
“If we are doing something not right, that will come up at the meeting, and what are the steps that can be taken to reassure us as the practitioners and the wider public that there are clear benefits to doing it [screening].”
The first session on Friday will concern ‘Updates in Medical Oncology’. Prof Donal Brennan, University College Dublin, will start the session with a talk on gynaecology cancer surgery. This will be followed by a talk on ovarian cancer by Dr Dearbhaile O’Donnell, St James’s Hospital. Other subjects to be covered in the session include: Cervical/endometrium cancer; radiation therapy gynaecology; renal cell carcinoma; the central nervous system; and lung cancer.
GI, breast and prostate cancer
The next session will discuss aspects of GI cancer specifically. Presentations will cover upper GI cancer and lower GI cancer. Dr Steven Hochwald, Roswell Park Cancer Centre, New York, US, will speak about ‘Advances in Surgery for Gastro-oesophageal Malignancy’ in an eagerly-anticipated talk.
Dr Hochwald’s research focuses on technical advances in minimally-invasive oesophageal and GI surgeries and developing new targets and agents for treatment of pancreatic and other GI cancers. He has lectured both nationally and internationally on Western approaches to minimally-invasive oesophageal and gastric resection for malignancy and has published broadly on these topics. He has taught several courses and organised symposiums on minimally-invasive oesophagectomy. He serves as Editor of the book titled Minimally Invasive Foregut Surgery for Malignancy, which was published by Springer in 2015.
Prof John Reynolds, St James’s Hospital, will also give a presentation on the interesting topic of the relationship between obesity and cancer, while Prof Frank Sullivan, NUI Galway, will talk about diet and weight loss in cancer.
The final session of the conference is on both prostate and breast cancer. Subjects under discussion will include prostate surgery, radiation therapy, and systemic therapy. Prof David Gallagher will deliver a presentation on the role of the BRCA gene in prostate and breast cancer. Genetics will also be the subject of talks by Dr Janice Walshe, St Vincent’s University Hospital, who will discuss ER + HER2- stage IV breast cancer and Dr Cathy Kelly, Mater Hospital, who will talk about HER 2+. Dr Con Murphy, Bon Secours Hospital, Cork, will also deliver a presentation on triple-negative breast cancer.
The event comes just over a year since the National Cancer Strategy 2017-2026 was published. Prof McCaffrey believes that implementation of the strategy over the past 12 months has been “steady”.
“I think we are all encouraged by the need to improve manpower, especially in medical oncology centres, but also supportive staff, including dietetics and psycho-oncology and the nurse specialty. I think they are all important things. A 10-year plan always needs to be given time to work. Now in its third iteration, I think we have made huge progress in the time since we have had the strategies. Of course, you don’t get to where you need to be every time, but that’s the nature of the evolving landscape. Things like genetics and genomics need to be incorporated into the management of cancer also. Overall, I think on-the-ground resourcing is the most important thing to achieve in terms of implementation.”
Cancer Trials Ireland’s Autumn Scientific Meeting coincides with Gathering Around Cancer
Cancer Trials Ireland (CTI) will be holding its Autumn Scientific meeting on 8 November in the Croke Park Conference Centre to coincide with this year’s Gathering Around Cancer.
Registration begins at 8am and will conclude at 1pm. Registration for the Gathering Around Cancer starts at noon that day in the same venue.
CTI’s meeting will bring together members — medical, surgical, radiation oncologists, haematologists and research specialists (oncology research nurses, translational scientists and staff in cancer trials research units around the country) — to discuss the organisation’s 100+ cancer trials portfolio.
Separate meetings will be held during the morning in a range of disease-specific subgroups, giving participants the opportunity to share their experience and insights.
These meetings are only open to registered CTI members and will focus on the following disease types: Breast; gastrointestinal; genitourinary; gynaecology; lung; melanoma; and central nervous system.
The meeting will also include training modules for chief and co-chief investigators, new investigators and researcher training, and good clinical practice training.
Consultant Medical Oncologist in the Mater Misericordiae University Hospital Dublin Prof John McCaffrey told the Medical Independent that having the CTI meeting coincide with the Gathering makes sense, given the essential role of research within the oncology landscape.
“I think the fact that the Cancer Trials Ireland group are having a session ahead of ours is to capture the audience who go to the Gathering,” according to Prof McCaffrey.
“There is good synergy between the speakers who present and who attend the meeting and those who are conducting very important research for Cancer Trials Ireland and a lot of what will be presented will be multi-centre research done with bigger centres with Irish researchers being closely involved. So it is a very important partnership.”
There is no charge to attend and to register, contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
In 5-6 October in the Convention Centre Dublin a dedicated two-day meeting hosted by BMS/Pfizer on stroke prevention in non-valvular atrial fibrillation (NVAF) and the prevention and treatment of venous thromboembolism (VTE) will take place. The event will feature presentations from leading multidisciplinary international experts from Europe and Canada, as well as local expert Dr Rónán Collins, about the latest clinical advances in anticoagulation and practical guidance on how to apply this knowledge in patient practice.
In an interview with the Medical Independent (MI), Dr Collins stressed the need to increase awareness of atrial fibrillation, and its connection to stroke among both clinicians and the general public and the best ways to clinically manage it.
Dr Ronan Collins
“Atrial fibrillation is the commonest cardiac arrhythmia and affects about 5 per cent of people over the age of 60, and about 10 per cent of people over the age of 75, so therefore it is a very common condition and it is a growing problem because of our demography in Western Europe and also particularly in Ireland. Because of the huge risk factor for stroke, particularly in Ireland where about 35 per cent, a bit over one-in-three, strokes are caused by atrial fibrillation, it is crucially important in any stroke strategy that we pay attention to prevention.”
Dr Collins was involved in the development of the newly revised European Heart Rhythm Association (a branch of the European Society of Cardiology (ESC)) Practical Guide on the use of non-vitamin K antagonist oral anticoagulants in patients with atrial fibrillation (2018).
This Practical Guide, like its predecessors from 2013 and 2015, supplements ESC guidelines on how to use non-vitamin K antagonist (VKA) oral anticoagulants (NOACs) in specific clinical situations for stroke prevention in patients with atrial fibrillation (available at www.NOACforAF.eu).
“We extended it this year beyond the traditional remit of just atrial fibrillation in general to consider special populations with atrial fibrillation, for example, those who are frail and quite old who may be quite prone to falling, they may have co-existent dementia, have age-related kidney issues, have lower body weight, etc. So for those reasons it was important that the document focused on special populations this year. It is within that context, as one of the authors of the guidelines that I will be speaking at this week’s meeting about optimising treatment management, with particular reference to older people, frail people, people who have just had a stroke and the importance of multidisciplinary working as well,” he explained.
Dr Collins stressed that a multidisciplinary approach to atrial fibrillation “is a critical point” that has been “an ESC recommendation for the last two years”.
“We are probably one of the few places in Europe that have an interdisciplinary atrial fibrillation clinic. In Tallaght Hospital our atrial fibrillation clinic is a joint effort between cardiology, geriatric and stroke medicine, clinical nurse specialists and pharmacy. We think that is the right way forward to deal with atrial fibrillation.”
Awareness of atrial fibrillation among the general population is poor in Ireland. Dr Collins noted the Irish Heart Foundation has run campaigns to try to address this but awareness still remains quite low; according to the most recent data less than 30 per cent of surveyed people in Ireland had heard of the condition. “Which is amazing as it is so common. The awareness is slightly higher in older people, which is good as older people are more likely to have it and it is slightly higher in higher socio-economic groups,” he said.
In addition, in people who have heard of atrial fibrillation most do not realise the connection with stroke, which is quite worrying, Dr Collins commented.
“Public awareness is low and we know it is even low in people who have atrial fibrillation; we know from a paper from Birmingham on people attending an atrial fibrillation clinic that less than half of them knew what it is. So if that was in a specialist clinic you can imagine what it [awareness] is like among the general public. Basically we know that only 25 per cent of people know anything about atrial fibrillation and only half of those are aware it is associated with a risk of stroke. So there is a lot to be done. I don’t think Ireland is very different from other European countries. There is a taskforce to get European Parliament engagement on this as a public health issue but we have a lot to do.”
In relation to anticoagulation of those who are at risk of stroke, Dr Collins said that while more people are being treated, there is still much unmet need. He noted that the use of NOACs has increased dramatically in the last five years in Ireland and that it is now well-established that warfarin is no longer the gold standard of care with the newer NOACs being the first choice for anticoagulation as per the ESC guidelines.
“To be fair I think we are doing much better in this regard. If you look at the pharmacoeconomic data there has been a huge increase in the use of NOACs. Therefore, there are a lot more prescriptions being written… Clearly these drugs cost and I’m not saying pharmacoeconomics aren’t important, but stroke is our third leading cause of death and our leading cause of acquired neurological disability. That’s a fact and atrial fibrillation is one of the major causes of stroke in Ireland and in Western Europe and that is also a fact. So therefore the pharmacoeconomics have to be set in the context of what the drugs are actually doing. The country has a lot of expenditure on drugs and it is important that we police it, but these are effective drugs. Sometimes I do wonder when it comes down to discussing drugs, for example, cancer, because cancer can be such an emotive issue, the pharmacoeconomics might get looked at, but it doesn’t get the same drilling as a preventative drug, so paring atrial fibrillation back to its core message: It is very common, the consequences of atrial fibrillation can be very severe. Atrial fibrillation can be detected before it causes any major health problems and the health problems can be prevented by effective intervention. The effective intervention is relatively cheap and relatively well-tolerated and there is a huge economic gain in preventing stroke to the health service and a huge personal gain in preventing stroke for people who have suffered one.”
Dr Collins pointed out that the World Health Organisation (WHO) criteria for screening programmes is based on the 1968 Wilson and Jungner criteria that if “a condition is common, that it is easily detectable by an acceptable means, that if you do not detect it, it causes a major health problem, that if you do detect it you can intervene to prevent that major health problem and that it is cost-effective, and atrial fibrillation ticks all these boxes”.
“This is something that causes one-in-three strokes in Ireland. And stroke is our third leading cause of death and leading cause of adult acquired disability so I think atrial fibrillation is a massive public problem.”
He commented that diseases like breast cancer “do not affect 5 per cent of people over the age of 60 or 10 per cent of people over the age of 70, but we have screening programmes. And I’m not saying we shouldn’t have screening programmes for that; that’s not the point I’m making. The point I’m making is that atrial fibrillation is a very serious problem but because it is not directly associated with something with the same emotive or terrifying understanding of cancer [it is overlooked]”.
“So there are other important things we should be screening for and atrial fibrillation is one of them. But in order to have an effective screening programme you must have public knowledge of the issue as well, so that is the starting point. And then we must get engagement with the HSE to look at this for screening. I have to say in Ireland we did a health technology assessment (HTA) of pulse screening [in a general practice setting] under Dr Breda Smyth [Consultant in Public Health, Department of Public Health Galway, HSE Health and Wellbeing Division] in the West of Ireland and the Dáil has approved the pulse check. It is not a comprehensive screening programme, but it has been approved by the HTA, by the Department of Health to be included in the health programme and it is probably part of the ongoing GP contract negotiations.”
However, Dr Collins reiterated that the medical community must further collaborate to raise awareness of the importance of atrial fibrillation. “We have to do our job better, we have to work out a way as to how we get this message across, how do we get people to understand. Once you get public engagement the rest of it tends to fall into place. If you don’t have public engagement you don’t have anything.”
Coming back to this week’s meeting, Dr Collins expressed his excitement at the “world class speakers” who will be giving presentations, including Prof Stefan H Hohnloser, Professor of Medicine and Cardiology at the Johann Wolfgang Goethe University in Frankfurt, Germany, where he is the Head of the Department of Electrophysiology; and Prof Giancarlo Agnelli, Professor of Internal Medicine and Director of the Department of Internal, CV Medicine and Stroke at the Perugia University Hospital, Italy. “They are at the top of their game. It would be hard to get a group of people with such expertise in one room as is being brought to Ireland for this meeting.”
A full exclusive meeting report from the event will appear in a future edition of MI.
Dysphagia can have a “huge impact” on a person’s life, according to Dr Margaret Walshe, Associate Professor in Speech Language Pathology, Trinity College Dublin and Vice President of the European Society for Swallowing Disorders (ESSD).
Difficulty feeding and swallowing is a common problem in preterm infants, children with various neurological problems and craniofacial anomalies, such as cleft palate. It is also frequently associated with acquired neurological conditions, such as motor neurone disease; stroke; multiple sclerosis; Parkinson’s disease; dementia; as well as head and neck cancer.
Speaking to the Medical Independent (MI) from the ESSD Annual Congress in Dublin, attended by around 1,000 delegates on 25-29 September, Dr Walshe said that being unable to eat or drink normally has a profound impact on a person’s quality-of-life and can lead to depression and anxiety.
“It has huge implications socially but it also has implications in terms of aspiration pneumonia, which is the biggest consequence of a swallowing problem, and that is probably the biggest single cause of death in Parkinson’s disease and conditions such as motor neurone disease. It is also strongly associated with malnutrition, dehydration and choking. ”
Aspiration pneumonia in people with dysphagia is often preventable, certainly in the case of acute stroke patients. Research confirms that people with dysphagia following stroke have longer length of hospital stay and poorer outcomes overall than those unaffected by dysphagia, noted Dr Walshe.
Dr Walshe said there has been “a lot of focus” on early screening for dysphagia. However, in terms of patient access to stroke unit rehabilitation, Ireland is “lagging way behind” many other developed countries.
The Burden of Stroke in Europe published in 2017 suggests that less than 30 per cent of patients had access to a stroke unit. Furthermore, according to the report Irish Heart Foundation/HSE National Stroke Audit – Rehabilitation Units 2016, bed access to rehabilitation units was age-restricted for patients in almost half of sites surveyed, while only around 40 per cent of sites had a stroke specialist responsible for the management of stroke patients’ rehabilitation.
According to Dr Walshe, another major issue is lack of access to specialised care following discharge from acute services.
“We have a dysphagia centre in Trinity where, with postgraduate students, we can see patients intensively. With intensive therapy – the patients doing exercises daily and we could see them for four-to-six weeks – they can return to oral feeding. So change is possible and it is even possible a long time after stroke.”
There is a huge unmet need in respect of early supported discharge for patients with dysphagia and a lack of access to speech and language therapy services in the community.
“Some of the acute hospitals in Ireland – including those in the Dublin area – don’t have an outpatient speech and language therapy service, so [patients] go home and they get nothing if the community services can’t pick them up. They might have been on a thickened liquid diet in a hospital, and we see them a year or two later and they are still on a thickened liquid diet, and they no longer need to be. This is especially true for people who have had a stroke or traumatic brain injury.”
Ireland’s only dysphagia research centre runs within the Department of Clinical Speech and Language Studies in Trinity College. The centre has a long history of clinical research in dysphagia, attracting international students to Trinity in order to develop specialist skills in swallowing disorders at a postgraduate level.
Speech and language therapists in Ireland are heavily involved in research around dysphagia, according to Dr Walshe, who feels the next step must be making these projects more multidisciplinary.
“In clinical practice, without a doubt, we have really good multidisciplinary teams; in our research [around dysphagia] we tend to be working in our silos a little more,” noted Dr Walshe.
She added that Dublin’s hosting of the ESSD conference should have a positive impact in this regard.
The Congress heard the latest topical news and views on swallowing disorder research from national and international speakers.
The ESSD is the leading European forum for dysphagia research and is rapidly becoming one of the world’s foremost platforms for the dissemination of clinical dysphagia research.
Among the topics under special focus were approaches to managing aspiration; rehabilitation in dysphagia; new tools to assess swallow function; innovations in dysphagia assessment; interventions in chronic respiratory disease; dysphagia in chronic respiratory disease and dysphagia rehabilitation in critical care.
One-in-five people will develop heart failure (HF) in their lifetime. There are up to 90,000 people in Ireland living with HF and the estimated cost of the condition is €660 million per annum.
The Irish Heart Foundation has launched a new campaign, ‘Pay Attention to the Signs’, to raise awareness of HF symptoms. The campaign, supported by Novartis, aims to encourage those aged 50 and over to be aware of the signs of HF, as early detection of the symptoms can significantly improve a patient’s prognosis.
Swollen ankles, fatigue and shortness of breath are warning signs that should never be ignored in patients, according to the campaign.
Due to Ireland’s ageing population, the condition is set to increase dramatically, leading to a rise in HF hospitalisations of more than 50 per cent over the next 25 years.
Dr Angie Brown, Consultant Cardiologist and Medical Director, Irish Heart Foundation, said that HF can often go unnoticed because its symptoms come on gradually. “It’s easy to attribute tiredness to a busy lifestyle, and breathlessness to being out of shape. These are signs we need to watch out for.”
One-in-five people over 65 years presenting to their GP with breathlessness will have unrecognised HF, Dr Brown told the Medical Independent (MI). Furthermore, the incidence is expected to increase substantially over the next 30 years, but despite this, Ireland’s public awareness of the signs, symptoms and causes of HF is very low, she noted.
“This is why our campaign is aimed at the general public. In addition to the discussions on the radio, our campaign materials include posters, leaflets and a brochure; there is also information on our website or via the nurses helpline, 1800 25 25 50. Any GP can get in touch and receive the materials or download from our website [www.knowyourheart.ie].”
Dr Brown said it is important that GPs remain aware of how common HF is. She said that while GPs are well aware of HF symptoms, it can often be difficult to diagnose.
“Some of the main symptoms are breathlessness and fatigue, which are quite non-specific and can be due to other things, such as a chest infection or underlying lung disease, or even in some people due to deconditioning. It is therefore important to have a high index of suspicion, particularly in patients with risk factors such as ischaemic heart disease, hypertension, valve disease or diabetes. If heart failure needs to be excluded, a blood test to measure the natriuretic peptides (BNP) is very useful, as it is elevated in heart failure. Patients can then be referred for an ECG, ECHO and specialist review.”
Dr Angie Brown
Once a diagnosis of HF has been made, the patient will be started on several types of medication (ACE inhibitors, beta-blockers, angiotensin receptor blockers (ARBs), hydralazine with nitrate, diuretics, aldosterone antagonists, sacubitril/valsartan, ivabradine and digoxin, etc) to improve the heart function, control blood pressure and heart rate, and remove any fluid from the lungs. These medications can improve symptoms as well as heart function and lower mortality. “Other treatment may be necessary, depending on the cause of heart failure — for instance, if it is due to a narrowed heart valve, this may need replacing, or if it is due to blocked heart arteries (ischaemic heart disease) then the patient may need a stent or a heart bypass. Some people may need a special sort of pacemaker. All of the treatment available now means that people’s symptoms and prognosis if they have heart failure has improved compared to years ago, when these weren’t available,” Dr Brown said.
Women often have different cardiac symptoms to men and can underplay their symptoms, Dr Brown noted. “Women are protected in part by their hormones but after the menopause, the risk of developing heart disease increases and catches up with men, so it is equally important for women to be investigated for heart failure if they present with fatigue, dyspnoea, swelling of the ankle [and] some may complain of ‘gasping’ or inability to lie flat in bed or wake up at night breathless. Some may have palpitations or dizzy spells.”
In summary, Dr Brown said it is important for everyone to be aware of their HF risk factors, “so to get blood pressure, cholesterol and blood sugar checked, try and keep to a healthy weight, eat a healthy diet, cut down on alcohol, stop smoking and if a person has breathlessness, fatigue or swollen ankles, that they get a check-up with their GP”.
Patient information meetings
The Irish Heart Foundation will hold two public information meetings on HF in the coming weeks. The meetings are suitable for people with HF and their families, healthcare staff and anyone with an interest in HF.
The evening will feature talks by leading medical experts from University Hospital Waterford, including Consultant Cardiologist Dr Pat O’Callaghan, to increase awareness and understanding of the condition. The Foundation will launch a HF support group at this meeting.
Date: Thursday, 19 April.
Location: Woodlands Hotel, Dunmore Road, Waterford.
The evening will feature talks by leading medical experts from the Mater Hospital, Dublin, including Consultant Cardiologist Prof Niall Mahon, to increase awareness and understanding of the condition.
Date: Thursday, 12 April
Location: Ashling Hotel, Parkgate Street
The Irish Heart Foundation also runs a National Heart and Stroke Helpline staffed by specialist nurses. Freephone 1800 25 25 50, Monday to Friday, 9am-5pm. A range of patient support and information booklets are available at https://irishheart.ie/publications/.
The issue of suicide will be accorded particular focus at the upcoming Spring Conference of the College of Psychiatrists of Ireland, which takes place in Athlone on 12-13 April.
A presentation on ‘Suicide in Doctors — What we Should Know’ by Dr Justin Brophy, Clinical Advisor to the National Office for Suicide Prevention (NOSP), opens the morning session on 12 April, followed by an examination of contemporary suicide prevention strategies by Professor of Mental Health Sciences at Ulster University, Prof Siobhan O’Neill.
Also speaking will be Consultant Liaison Psychiatrist Dr Siobhán MacHale on the role of psychiatrists in respect of suicidal behaviour; and Prof Ella Arensman, Director of Research at the National Suicide Research Foundation and an expert on the epidemiology of suicide.
Later in the day, two presentations will further examine this important public health issue: ‘Not Waving but Drowning: Suicide Crisis Intervention in an Ocean of Risk’ by Clinical Director of Donegal Mental Health Services Dr Cliff Haley; and ‘Assessment of Risk of Suicide’ by former Inspector of Mental Health Services Dr Patrick Devitt and Consultant Psychiatrist Dr Declan Murray.
Speaking to the Medical Independent (MI), College President Dr John Hillery said suicide is a “constant” concern for psychiatrists. Nevertheless, in wider society, psychiatrists’ management of patients with suicidal thoughts is not always well-understood, he suggested.
“People may feel suicidal but they don’t always want to share that, because they would think people would get alarmed, they’d send them to hospital and they’d be admitted, when really they would rather carry on trying to deal with this in the community with the support of people. And yet, if there is a suicide, the professionals who have been dealing with that person often come in for very close scrutiny and even criticism,” outlined Dr Hillery.
Dr John Hillery, President, College of Psychiatrists of Ireland
“So the role of the psychiatrist is to enable people, not to disable people. In enabling people, we have to take risks and the trouble is, if the risk goes wrong, what is the outcome for the psychiatrist as well as for the patient, obviously? But if we don’t take risks and allow people to plan their own recovery and to try to deal with their own issues with our support, rather than the old days when everyone ended up incarcerated, we are not being good doctors either.”
Suicide is of concern within the body of psychiatrists in respect of their patients, but there is growing recognition of the risk to doctors themselves. Sadly, a number of suicides of doctors have occurred in Ireland over recent years. Dr Hillery feels this will be an important focus at the meeting. “What is it about our health service, and the wonderful privilege it is of being a doctor, that it can result in such a negative outcome?” he commented.
“I remember when I was President of the Medical Council, we ran a full day [conference] on doctors’ health and [the late, renowned psychiatrist] Anthony Clare was there. At the end of it, we had a large group discussion; Anthony Clare said we really needed to realise that being a doctor was a huge privilege — very exciting, interesting work, but also very stressful… between the hours and the commitment, and we need to be teaching doctors about resilience from an early stage in their career.”
On a different tact, health economics from a mental health service perspective will be the focus of a presentation by Dr Caragh Behan, Consultant Psychiatrist and PhD in Health Economics.
Dr Behan’s workshop will outline how utility values are generated and why equity issues are so important in mental illness. In the UK, the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) requires that interventions provided by the health service prove their ‘utility’. In order to receive funding, the cost of the intervention has to be under a certain amount per quality-adjusted life year (QALY). In Ireland, to date, this has only applied to medication reimbursement and some screening, but as Dr Behan will outline, it is expected to become increasingly prevalent in time.
This workshop will also be an opportunity for delegates to further discuss under-funding of mental health services, a matter that has perturbed the College for many years. “The mental health budget remains way behind equivalent countries, as well as behind A Vision for Change, which is over 10 years old. The College say it should be between 12-to-13 per cent [of the overall health budget], but it’s about 6.5 per cent,” commented Dr Hillery.
Other afternoon sessions on 12 April include a presentation on body image and eating disorders in men. This will be delivered by Consultant Child and Adolescent Psychiatrist Prof Fiona McNicholas and Consultant Psychiatrist Dr Caroline Maher, who chaired the College’s Clinical Advisory Group on the development of the model of care, and Dr Niamh McNamara, psychologist, UK.
Consultant Psychiatrist Dr Lorcan Martin will chair a debate titled ‘Our Daily Lives are Incompatible with Maintaining Professional Competence’, which Dr Hillery predicted will elicit “robust discussion”, particularly as many psychiatrists are working above a whole-time equivalent post.
“A lot of people are covering much more than they should be and are working without [the required numbers of] junior doctors or allied health professionals, and getting criticised as they are not giving people access to the other things which they’d love to do; when do you find the time for personal reflection on your practice, which is very important, and keeping up your competence?”
According to Dr Hillery, recruitment and retention in psychiatry remain of deep concern.
He emphasised that there has been positive feedback to the Medical Council from medical graduates who enter specialist training in psychiatry.
However, there are also perceptions that mitigate against medical students and junior doctors opting for a career as a psychiatrist in the first instance, outlined Dr Hillery.
“There is a perception, first of all, about psychiatry, that you are dealing with people with chronic illness and they never get better and it is very depressing. We obviously work to overcome that, because there is a well-known phenomenon called the ‘hidden curriculum’ where in medical schools, general practice and psychiatry are portrayed to medical students as places for people who aren’t able to do other things in medicine, or places where you are really not dealing with scientific stuff — it is just not true, but it is a battle.”
Many doctors who enter psychiatry training often fear that they will not have the time and resources to practise appropriately as a consultant, added Dr Hillery. Moreover, trainees want to be working in teams with fully-trained specialists, “not locums who are just passing through. We have a problem in this country with having locums who aren’t on the Specialist Register — that’s a difficult one too. Once again, that discourages people from staying to train here.”
The College has at times experienced difficulties filling all training posts in recent years. However, this year it requested a 10 per cent rise in numbers into basic specialist training (to 66), but was only accorded a 5 per cent increase (63). “We are a bit concerned because we know we can fill the training posts,” said Dr Hillery.
“This year, we actually have enough people for more training posts applying for our scheme and of a quality that we’d be happy to accept, if we could. This is a ‘good news story’ but unfortunately, they [HSE] are giving us less than we wanted, but more than we had before.”
Dr Hillery pointed out that non-training posts involve doctors in the General Division of the Medical Register who don’t have the same level of supervision. He also alluded to the barrier to entering training experienced by some non-EU doctors, whose internships are not deemed equivalent by the Medical Council. He said the College has advocated for an amendment to the Medical Practitioners Act 2007 in this regard.
Meanwhile, among the highlights of the Spring Conference’s final day will be a presentation on early parent-infant interaction and attachment, and why infant mental health matters. Child and Adolescent Psychiatrist Dr Aoife Twohig will discuss a range of findings, including those from a study on the effects on maternal sensitivity and infant social-emotional development of an early attachment-focused intervention using video interaction guidance for parents of very preterm infants born at less than 32 weeks’ gestational age, in the neonatal ICU.
The presentations on 13 April will conclude with an examination of mental capacity in legislation and practice implications for professionalism, ethics and care (Prof Brendan Kelly); mandatory reporting/legal requirements in relation to children (Dr Brendan Doody); and professionalism in medicine (Dr Anthony Breslin).