Late one evening, a trauma patient, a mother of three, comes through on an ambulance. She’s having trouble breathing, despite the breathing tube lodged in her throat. Dr. Nikhil K. Murthy, the neurosurgeon on the case, assesses the situation and orders a CT, which reveals a ruptured aneurysm, or a burst blood vessel. Excess fluid in the brain is fatal, as the increased pressure deprives the brain of vital oxygen. A sense of immediacy surges through Dr. Murthy as he calls for the necessary supplies to perform a ventriculostomy to drain the blood. He rushes to connect the drill bit, brace the manual drill against his body, and drill a hole in the right place, at the precise angle and depth. With the urgency of the situation blaring in his mind, Dr. Murthy has only his experience, training, and intuition to ensure that he does not drill past the skull and into the brain. The stakes are high, and a woman’s life is on the table.
Bedside ventriculostomies, like the one described above, are common in the emergency department, as the surgery is often performed in life-or-death situations to immediately relieve fluid build-up in the brain. Dr. Murthy’s experience does not stand alone: countless neurosurgeons have stood in his exact shoes. While Dr. Murthy successfully performed the ventriculostomy, saving the woman’s life, not everyone is as lucky: the complication rate for bedside ventriculostomies in the U.S. stands at an egregious 50 percent.
“When that woman was lying on the table, a drill braced against her skull, what she and I both needed was a safer, more reliable tool to perform the surgery.” – Dr. Nikhil K. Murthy
Now that we are seeing patients via telemedicine or even getting reimbursed for handling their issues over the phone, our existing healthcare institutions are more and more starting to look like shopping malls.
They were once traffic magnets, so large that they created new developments far away from where people lived or worked and big and complex enough that going there became an all day affair for many people.
What this pandemic has brought us is a shift in our view of where you have to be in order to get things done. If you can earn your wage remotely and still buy things online when offices and physical stores are shut down, it seemed logical to try to offer healthcare the same way. And most of us have found that it works surprisingly well.
The analogy with Amazon runs deeper than that. Amazon isn’t just one megaprovider, but also a funnel for many small merchants who sell their products through Amazon. Consumers take advantage of the convenience of this centralized ordering or point of contact with a vast supply network of almost any product that money can buy. But they only give their credit card number to one central contact.
I don’t follow business literature enough to know if Jeff Bezos chose the name Amazon partly (yes, I know he went through the dictionary) because of a vision of many small contributories coming together into the second largest river in the world. But that is certainly a visual representation of what his business looks like. And “Amazon” ranks higher in the alphabet and sounds a lot catchier than “The Nile”.
Enter healthcare: Imagine the trusted brand names of our “industry” but without their traditional complete reliance on bricks and mortar places that patients have to visit.
As a physician and writer on the topic of medical careers, I’ve noticed extensive interest in nonclinical career options for physicians. These include jobs in health care administration, management consulting, pharmaceuticals, health care financing, and medical writing, to name a few. This anecdotal evidence is supported by survey data. Of over 17,000 physicians surveyed in the 2016 Survey of America’s Physicians: Practice Patterns and Perspectives, 13.5% indicated that they planned to seek a nonclinical job within the subsequent one to three years, which was an increase from less than 10% in a similar survey fielded in 2012.
The causes of this mounting interest in nonclinical work have not been adequately investigated. Speculated reasons tend to be related to burnout, such as increasing demands placed on physicians in clinical practice, loss of autonomy, barriers created by insurance companies, and administrative burdens. However, attributing interest in nonclinical careers to burnout is misguided and unjustified.
Physicians are needed now – more than ever – to take on nonclinical roles in a variety of industries, sectors, and organizational types. By assuming that physicians interested in such roles are simply burned out and by focusing efforts on trying to retain them in clinical practice, we miss an opportunity promote the medical profession and improve the public’s health.
Supporting medical students and physicians in learning about and pursuing nonclinical career options can assist them in being prepared for their job responsibilities and more effectively using their medical training and experience to assist various types of organizations in carrying out missions as they relate to health and health care.
The average American elementary school class includes two students living with one or multiple food allergies. That’s nearly six million children in the United States alone. And these numbers are climbing. There was a staggering 377 percent increase in medical claims with diagnoses of anaphylactic food reactions between 2007 and 2016, two-thirds of these were children.
As parents, we want the absolute best for our children. For many years, guidance around food introduction was unclear. Parents were told that babies, and especially those considered at risk for food allergies, should avoid some allergy-causing foods such as peanuts until they were three years old.
But thanks to ongoing research from our nation’s top allergists and immunologists, we are beginning to learn more and more about food allergies, including what new and expecting parents can do to reduce the risk of their children developing food allergies. In fact, studies now show that introducing a variety of foods early is the best course of action and has been shown to reduce the occurrence of certain food allergies like peanuts for many children.
For instance, the partially FARE-funded Learning Early About Peanut Allergy (LEAP) study showed a remarkable 80 percent reduction in peanut food allergies in high-risk infants who were exposed to peanut foods at a young age. Shortly after LEAP, there was the Enquiring About Tolerance, or EAT, study. This project, led by top medical researchers at Kings College London, found significant reductions in allergies to both peanut and egg after introducing small amounts of the foods into infants’ diets. The LEAP-on study soon followed, and had the same children from the original LEAP study remove peanut from their diets for 12-months. The results showed that they maintained their tolerance to peanut, indicating early introduction to babies can result in long-lasting protection from peanut allergy.
I recently participated in a debate opposing me to Professor Adam Cifu on the topic of “Evidence-based medicine in the age of COVID.” The debate took place on an episode of Dr. Chadi Nabhan’s Outspoken Oncology podcast. Dr. Saurabh Jha was the moderator and he did a great job keeping us on point and asking for important clarifications when needed. It was a fun and cordial moment and I found it intellectually fruitful. You can listen to it here or on any podcast platform. The discussion strengthened my conviction that the central issue about EBM is the conflation of the role of the physician with that of the clinical scientist.
That conflation was quite apparent in a recent online editorial published by Robert Yeh and colleagues on the topic of equipoise during the COVID-19 pandemic. Yeh at al. are accomplished academic cardiologists and outcomes researchers (Yeh was a guest on The Accad and Koka Report a couple of years ago).
I’ll get to their editorial in a moment, but equipoise is a term that I became aware of only in the last few years, mainly from mentions on MedTwitter. From those mentions I developed an intuitive sense of what equipoise must mean: a mental state of uncertainty about a treatment that prompts the medical community to seek a more definitive answer by way of a randomized controlled trial. For example, one might say “I’m not sure if hydroxychloroquine works to prevent or treat COVID-19. Based on the existing collective experience, there is equipoise about it. We need a clinical trial.”
That seems reasonably straightforward, but the editorial by Yeh et al. piqued my curiosity so I decided to look into the origin of the term and its introduction in the medical literature.
“The goal for me and for my clinical and research colleagues is to put ourselves out of a job as quickly as possible”. This is how Mikkael Sekeres ends his book “When Blood Breaks Down” based on true stories of patients with leukemia. I share Mikkael’s sentiments and have always stated that I’d be happy if I am out of a job caring for patients with cancer. To his and my disappointment, this wish is unlikely to ever come true, especially when dealing with leukemia.
With almost 15 years of experience, Sekeres possesses a wealth of knowledge and patient stories making him the ultimate storyteller taking us along an emotional journey that spanned hospital rooms, outpatient clinics, and even his car. We get to know Mikkael the person and the doctor and immediately recognize how difficult it is to separate these two from each other. With hundreds of patients he has cared for, Mikkael could choose which stories to share. He decides on 3 patients, each with a unique type of leukemia and a set of circumstances that makes their story distinct. While I don’t know for certain, his selection likely reflected his ultimate goal of writing this book. It was about sharing life lessons he had learned from his patients–lessons that we could similarly learn—but it was also about giving us a glimpse of history in medicine and the progress that has been made in treating leukemia.
We get to know the three main characters of the book very well. David is an older man with acute myeloid leukemia (AML), Joan is surgical nurse who suddenly finds herself diagnosed with acute promyelocytic leukemia (APL), and Mrs Badway is a pregnant woman who was in her 2nd trimester when she was diagnosed with chronic myeloid leukemia (CML). While learning about their illnesses and family dynamics, Sekeres educates us about the various types of leukemia and enlightens his readers about so much history that I found fascinating. I did not know that the Jamshidi needle that I have used on so many patients to aspirate their bone marrows was invented by an Iranian scientist. Maybe I should have known, but I didn’t, that FISH was developed at Yale in 1980 and the first description of leukemia has been attributed to a French surgical anatomist, Dr. Alfred Velpeau in 1827. Somehow, I always thought that Janet Rowley discovered the Philadelphia chromosome, but Sekeres corrects me when he pictured Peter Nowell and David Hungerford who discovered that chromosome in 1961. As a reader, you might be more drawn to the actual patient stories, but the geek in me enjoyed the history lessons, especially the ones I was unaware of. Sekeres inserts these pearls effortlessly and with perfect timing. He does that so seamlessly and naturally that you learn without realizing you are being taught.
There have been disturbing reports of hospitals firing doctors and nurses for speaking up about inadequate PPE. The most famous case was at the PeaceHealth St. Joseph hospital in Washington, where Dr. Ming Lin was let go from his position as an ER physician after he used social media to publicize suggestions for protecting patients and staff. At Northwestern Memorial Hospital in Chicago, a nurse, Lauri Mazurkiewicz warned colleagues that the hospital’s standard face masks were not safe and brought her own N95 mask. She was fired by the hospital. These examples violate a culture of safety and endanger the lives of both patients and staff. Measures that prevent healthcare workers from speaking out to protect themselves and their patients violate safety culture. Healthcare workers should be expected to voice their safety concerns, and hospital executives should be actively seeking feedback from frontline healthcare workers on how to improve their institution’s Covid-19 response.
Share power with frontline workers
According to the Institute for Healthcare Improvement, it is common for organizations facing a crisis to assume a power grab in order to maintain control. As such, it is not surprising that some hospitals are implementing draconian policies to prevent hospital staff from speaking out. While strong leadership is important in a crisis, it must be balanced by sharing and even ceding power to frontline workers. All hospitals want to provide a safe environment for their staff and high-quality care for their patients. However, in a public health emergency where resources are scarce and guidelines change daily, it’s important that hospitals have a systematic approach to keep up.
By PRANAV PURI, PUNEET KAUR, and MARCUS WIGGINS, MBA
As current medical students, the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic represents the most significant healthcare crisis of our lifetimes. COVID-19 has upended nearly every element of healthcare in the United States, including medical education. The pandemic has exposed shortcomings in healthcare delivery ranging from the care of nursing home residents to the lack of interoperable health data. However, the pandemic has also exposed shortcomings in the residency match process.
Consider the United States Medical Licensing Examination (USMLE) Step 1. A 2018 survey of residency program directors cited USMLE Step 1 scores as the most important factor in selecting candidates to interview. Moreover, program directors frequently apply numerical Step 1 score cutoffs to screen applicants for interviews. As such, there are marked variations in mean Step 1 scores across clinical specialties. For example, in 2018, US medical graduates who matched into neurosurgery had a mean Step 1 scores of 245, while those matching into neurology had a mean Step 1 score of 231.
One would assume that, at a minimum, Step 1 scores are a standardized, objective measure to statistically distinguish applicants. Unfortunately, this does not hold true. In its score interpretation guidelines, the National Board of Medical Examiners (NBME) provides Step 1’s standard error of difference (SED) as an index to determine whether the difference between two scores is statistically meaningful. The NBME reports a SED of 8 for Step 1. Assuming Step 1 scores are normally distributed, the 95% confidence interval of a Step 1 score can thus be estimated as the score plus or minus 1.96 times the standard error (Figure 1). For example, consider Student A who is interested in pursuing neurosurgery and scores 231. The 95% confidence interval of this score would span from 215 to 247. Now consider Student B who is also interested in neurosurgery and scores 245. The 95% interval of this score would span from 229 to 261. The confidence intervals of these two scores clearly overlap, and therefore, there is no statistically significant difference between Student A and Student B’s exam performance. If these exam scores represented the results of a clinical trial, we would describe the results as null and dismiss the difference in scores as mere chance.
With the exceptions of pediatrics and obstetrics/gynecology, women make up fewer than half of all medical specialists. Representation is lowest in orthopedics (8%), followed by my own specialty, urology (12%). I can testify that the numbers are changing in urology – women are up from just 8% in 2015, and the breakdown in our residency program here at Indiana University is now about 20% of the 5-year program.
One reason for the increase is likely the growth of women in medicine – 60% of doctors under 35 are women, as are more than half of medical school enrollees. I also credit a generational shift in attitudes. The female residents I work with do not anticipate hostility from men in the profession and they expect male patients to give them a fair shake. They may be right – their male contemporaries are more egalitarian than mine – but challenges still exist in our field.
Urologists see both men and women, but the majority of patients are male. Urology focuses on many conditions that only affect men such as enlarged prostate, prostate cancer, and penile cancer. Furthermore, stone disease is more common in men, as are many urologic cancers such as bladder cancer and kidney cancer. So the greatest challenge for young women in urology is to gain acceptance among older men who require examination of their genital region and often need surgery. I’m hopeful that women entering urology today can meet that challenge, largely because we have already made significant progress. For the barriers we still face, leading urologists have blazed a clear path to follow with these three guideposts.
If you think the grim coronavirus death toll is causing health care workers everywhere to always wash their hands, think again.
A recent research letter published in The Journal of Hospital Infection examined whether it’s “possible to achieve 100 percent hand hygiene compliance during the Covid-19 pandemic.” The medical center involved in the research, Queen Mary Hospital in Hong Kong, had reached a pre-Covid-19 hand hygiene rate of over 75 percent.
Yet the hospital’s goal of complete compliance proved surprisingly elusive. In one pediatric ward devoted to suspected or confirmed Covid-19 patients, doctors and nurses followed hand hygiene rules 100 percent of the time, but in another ward with similar patients and staff, compliance was 83 percent, or about one-fifth less.
Given Covid-19’s risk to providers as well as patients, this was “unexpected,” the researchers admitted.
The Queen Mary study supports what infection control experts have long maintained: awareness isn’t enough. Doctors and nurses, particularly during a pandemic, understand that hand hygiene is “the most important intervention” to reduce the staggering death toll from infections, as the American Journal of Infection Controlput it.