By HANS DUVEFELT
We use the word health rather loosely in America today. Especially the expression health care, whether you spell that as one word or two, is almost an oxymoron.
Health is not simply the absence of disease, even less the pharmaceutical management of disease. The healthcare “industry” is not the major portion of our GNP that it is because there is a lot of health out there, but the opposite. What consumes so much money and generates so much profit is, of course, sick care. The sicker people are, the more money is spent and earned in this market segment. It is a spiral, and a vicious one.
Health is a naturally occurring phenomenon, a state of perfection. Modern life has corrupted many natural, self-healing biological mechanisms and upended the natural order of things in our bodies – just the way it has altered our environment.
Our bodies are pretty ingenious in their ability to heal. When I crushed my finger in my garage door a few years ago, my disfigured fingertip, bisected nail and contused nail bed slowly regained their original shape, almost like a lizard grows a new tail. Yet in an opposite scenario, a person with scleroderma can lose their fingertip to gangrene without physical injury because of what we call autoimmunity – instead of self healing, our bodies can engage in self destruction. My fingertip could heal perfectly but some people’s skin or stomach ulcers fail to do so.
We intuitively seem to have accepted that, most of the time, nature takes care of itself if we don’t mess with it. And when temperatures rise, forests burn or species go extinct, we are quick to assume our industrial or agricultural processes are the cause.
Yet, we have this head-in-the-sand view of disease that it is a random occurrence, the sudden manifestation of ancient and rare genetic glitches or I don’t know what. The real answer is that much of it is a consequence of what we eat and otherwise expose our bodies to – how we produce and refine food, how we alter its natural properties and how we over- or under-consume basic nutrients.
Functional Medicine asks and answers many of these questions and promises to be the future of medicine. I believe in this, but I also believe that the sick-care industrial complex is powerful enough to severely slow down this revolution. I also believe the food industry will double down its efforts to continue misleading the public.
By HANS DUVEFELT
Everybody knows how to operate smartphones and understands complex modern phenomena, but many Americans are frighteningly ignorant about basic human nutrition.
I am convinced this is the result of a powerful conspiracy, fueled by the (junk) food industry. Here are just a few examples:
Milk has been advertised as a healthy beverage. It is not. No other species consumes milk beyond infancy. Milk based products like ice cream and yogurt are on top of that often sweetened beyond their natural properties.
Fruit juices make it possible to consume the calories of half a dozen pieces of fruit faster than eating just one. Naturally tart juices, like cranberry, are sweetened the same way as soft drinks (high fructose corn syrup), and therefore no healthier than Coca Cola.
Things made from flour—like bread, crackers, boxed and instant cereal, pasta and snacks like pretzels or chips other than plain potato chips—raise blood glucose levels faster than eating table sugar: The breakdown of flour starts in our mouths because of enzymes in our saliva while sucrose doesn’t break down until it reaches our small intestine.
Sugary foods, even candy like Twizzlers, are advertised as “fat free”, which is a relic from the days when fat was believed to be bad for you. Many fats, like those in olive oil, salmon, tree nuts and avocado are extremely healthful.
Another example of tangential descriptions is when flour based snacks are promoted as “baked, not fried”. Flour is bad, no matter what you do with it and, in fact, the presence of fat slows down the blood glucose rise from highly processed carbohydrates.
By HANS DUVEFELT
I sometimes tell patients “I work for the government”, but sometimes I say the opposite, “I work for you”.
Herein lies a dichotomy that is eating away at primary care in this country, like a slow growing cancer. I suspect everybody is aware of it, but it seems nobody has the inclination to deal with it.
2020 exposed how differently Americans view and prioritize things like personal freedom and public safety. We have also seen how vastly different perceptions of reality suddenly exist about what constitutes medical facts. Alternative facts and fake news are suddenly household concepts.
For years, American healthcare has paid lip service to ethnic and cultural sensitivity, as long as minority opinions or practices don’t clash too badly with the holy cows of western society. We tolerate circumcision in men, but not genital mutilation in women, for example. But we don’t even pay lip service to the majority’s right to direct their own healthcare.
By YASMIN ASVAT
An estimated 1.8 million people in this country may face a cancer diagnosis this year, in what has already been a bleak year of isolation and loss.
While news of the COVID-19 vaccine rolling out across the U.S. offers hope in a year of 311,000 deaths, 11 million people face the financial pressure of unemployment, and, approximately 43 percent of the nation reports some symptoms of anxiety or depression.
It is understandable that a cancer diagnosis now may be too much to bear. And yet, somehow, many patients cope with the diagnosis and the associated uncertainty, fragility, and the threat of mortality with remarkable resilience.
As a clinical psychologist in the Supportive Oncology program at a major Midwestern cancer center, I witness these quiet heroics every day.
Since the beginning of the pandemic earlier this year, I have been striving to listen, empathize, support, and help cancer patients cope as their lives have been disrupted by both a cancer diagnosis and COVID-19. These are lessons these patients have taught me.
Courage is being faced with doing something that utterly terrifies you, and you do it anyway. One of my patients described that leading up to the day of chemotherapy treatment, she is highly anxious, has racing thoughts and worries, and has trouble concentrating and sleeping. The morning of treatment, she vents to her partner about how she doesn’t want to go to the clinic. During the drive, she braces herself repeating, “I don’t want to do this” over and over again.
Once in the clinic, she tells some of her nurses that she doesn’t want to be there because she worries about COVID-19 exposure, despite all the precautions the clinics have in place. She tells another set of nurses that she is scared of the side-effects of treatment – the disabling fatigue, the nausea, the suppressed immune system.
By HANS DUVEFELT, MD
Growing up in Sweden without a Thanksgiving holiday, Christmas has been a time for me to reflect on where I am and where I have been and New Year’s is when I look forward.
I have written different kinds of Christmas reflections before: sometimes in jest, asking Santa for a better EMR; sometimes filled with compassion for physicians or patients who struggle during the holidays. I have also borrowed original sentences from Osler’s writings to imagine how he would address physicians in the present time.
This year, with the pandemic changing both medicine and so many aspects of life in general, and with a gut wrenching political battle that threatens to erupt in anarchy or civil war within the next few weeks or months, my thoughts run deep toward the soul of medicine, the purpose of being a good doctor, even being a good human being.
We live in ideological silos, protected from dissenting opinions. News is not news if it is unpopular. Fake news and fake science are concepts that seemed marginal before but have now entered the mainstream.
As a physician, I serve whoever comes to see me to the best of my ability. But this year I have had to pay extra attention to the fact that so many people have already made up their minds about the nature and severity of the pandemic we are living with. If they don’t believe the country’s top experts, they are not likely to believe in me. Still, I try to gently state that we are still trying to figure this thing out and until we do, it’s better to be cautious.
I am starting to read about what some are now calling the Fourth Wave of the pandemic, the mental health crisis this winter may see in the wake of the physical illness we are surrounded by.
By MICHAEL E. LIPKIN and RUSSELL S. TERRY, JR.
Burnout has always been a concern in medicine, and that concern has been amplified by the added stress of COVID-19. Many months into an unpredictable and distressing situation, we have both hung on to our mental health and professional passion by seeking out strategies that work for us. We offer them in two perspectives: veteran and relative newcomer.
Dr. Lipkin: A Veteran’s Perspective
When lockdown began in March, we slowed down my practice for about 6 to 8 weeks, and then returned to full pre-COVID levels. It feels like the uncertainty has affected me most, since it has not been clear if and when things will get substantially better. Everyone is both experiencing and projecting persistent anxiety, stress and uncertainty. Isolation is a problem as well. I no longer have the time or ability to sit down with colleagues and vent over a beer, which was an outlet I counted on to mitigate burnout. At the same time, on a more concrete level, the pandemic has made everything we do incrementally more difficult, which is grindingly stressful. These tips are helping me cope and avoid burnout.
There are so many changes—just accept them. As COVID affects so many areas of practice, there’s a kind of low-grade stress that fluctuates with events. It seems like everything is a little bit harder. We have to shift some patient visits to telehealth and make sure they get COVID tests before surgery. We’re all looking over our shoulders, wondering who’s going to get us sick. There’s always the specter of more shutdowns and how they might affect our livelihoods. Budgets have been cut back, so hiring is frozen and there’s virtually no incremental spending. Everything will stay this way for now, so the best thing to do is accept that we’re going through a tough period and focus on the big picture, rather than the list of irritations.
By HANS DUVEFELT
Life as we knew it and medicine as we had viewed it shapeshifted so dramatically in the past year that it is still hard to believe.
Medicine has started to move from an in-person only profession to one that finally recognizes that clinical assessment and treatment have fewer boundaries than people assumed. A patient of mine with newly diagnosed mastocytosis had a productive first consultation with an immunologist hundreds of miles away right from her own living room.
Efficiency increased when we could handle straightforward clinical issues electronically, even over the telephone, and still get paid. We were liberated from the perverted and miserly view by insurers that services not delivered in person should be free, as if fast food restaurants couldn’t charge for food at the drive through.
We delivered more virtual services to allow patients the safety of staying at home and avoiding lobbies, waiting rooms and exam rooms where airborne particles might linger.
Yet, when a primary care or mental health patient is in crisis or a person with new symptoms needs to be evaluated, a video visit is sometimes not enough. Step by step, we improvised screening protocols, not knowing which would be efficient or relevant as we didn’t know quite how the coronavirus behaved and transmitted.
By HANS DUVEFELT
Insurance is the wrong word for what we have here. Our private health insurance system’s prioritization of sometimes frivolous screenings but non-coverage for common illnesses and emergencies is a travesty and an insult to typical American middle class families.
State Medicaid insurance for the underemployed has minimal copays of just a few dollars for doctor visits and medications. From my vantage point as a physician, it is the best insurance a patient can have. They cover almost everything and it is clear to me how to apply for exceptions or follow their step care requirements. I cannot say that about most other insurers.
Most employed people have the kind of commercial health “insurance” that covers an annual physical and certain screening tests at no cost, but requires people to pay the first several thousand dollars of actual sick care expenses out of pocket. This is, in my opinion, insane. It causes delays and omissions in diagnosis and treatment.
A shining example of this bizarre arrangement is the screening colonoscopy. It is free as long as it is normal. If a patient has a polyp removed, which if unchecked could turn cancerous, future health care costs for treating colon cancer are eliminated. But the patient gets billed for the early cure.
By HANS DUVEFELT
Sooner, rather than later, we will be driving electric cars because of the environment. We use energy efficient light bulbs and recyclable packaging for the same reason. And there is a growing debate about the environmental impact of what kind of food we produce and consume. But I still don’t hear enough about the internal impact on our own bodies when we consider stewardship of natural resources.
Our bodies and our health are the most important resources we have, and yet the focus in our culture seems to be on our external environment.
Just like the consumption culture has ignored its effect on our planet in favor of customer convenience and business profits, it has ignored the effect it has had on the health of the human beings it set out to serve. And just as we now are fearing for the future of our planet, we ought to be more than a little bit concerned about the future of the human race.
But, just as we really can’t expect the corporate world to lead the environmental effort, unless we can engineer a way for them to see profit in doing that, we cannot expect it to lead any kind of effort to make the population healthier. That is something that has to start with the individual.
By HANS DUVEFELT
A doctor’s schedule as typical EMR templates see it only has “Visit Types”: New Patient, 15 minute, 30 minute. But as clinicians we like to know more than that.
One patient may have a brand new worrisome problem we must start evaluating from scratch, while another is just coming in for a quick recheck. Those are diametrically opposite tasks that require very different types of effort.
Some visits require that test results or consultant reports are available, or the whole visit would be a waste of time. How could you possibly plan your day or prioritize appointment requests without knowing more specifically why the patient needs to be seen?
So, as doctors, we usually want our daily schedules to have “Chief Complaints” in each appointment slot, like “3 month diabetes followup”, “knee pain” or “possible dementia”. That helps everybody in the office plan their day.