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Category: Medical Practice

Clinical Depth: The Power of Knowing More than the Minimum

By HANS DUVEFELT, MD

In medicine, contrary to common belief, it is not usually enough to know the diagnosis and its best treatment or procedure. Guidelines, checklists and protocols only go so far when you are treating real people with diverse constitutions for multiple problems under a variety of circumstances.

The more you know about unusual presentations of common diseases, the more likely you are to make the correct diagnosis, I think everyone would agree. Also, the more you know about the rare diseases that can look like the common one you think you’re seeing in front if you, rather than having just a memorized list of rule-outs, the better you are at deciding how much extra testing is practical and cost effective in each situation.

Not everyone with high blood pressure needs to be tested in detail for pheochromocytoma, renal artery stenosis, coarctation of the aorta, Cushing’s syndrome, hyperaldosteronism, hyperparathyroidism or thyroiditis. But you need to know enough about all of these things to have them in mind, automatically and naturally, when you see someone with high blood pressure.

Just having a lifeless list in your pocket or your EMR, void of vivid details and depth of understanding, puts you at risk of being a burned-out, shallow healthcare worker someday replaced by apps or artificial intelligence.

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Another MCQ Test on the USMLE

By BRYAN CARMODY, MD

One of the most fun things about the United States Medical Licensing Examination (USMLE) pass/fail debate is that it’s accessible to everyone. Some controversies in medicine are discussed only by the initiated few – but if we’re talking USMLE, everyone can participate.

Simultaneously, one of the most frustrating things about the USMLE pass/fail debate is that everyone’s an expert. See, everyone in medicine has experience with the exam, and on the basis of that, we all think that we know everything there is to know about it.

Unfortunately, there’s a lot of misinformation out there – especially when we’re talking about Step 1 score interpretation. In fact, some of the loudest voices in this debate are the most likely to repeat misconceptions and outright untruths.

Hey, I’m not pointing fingers. Six months ago, I thought I knew all that I needed to know about the USMLE, too – just because I’d taken the exams in the past.

But I’ve learned a lot about the USMLE since then, and in the interest of helping you interpret Step 1 scores in an evidence-based manner, I’d like to share some of that with you here.

However…

If you think I’m just going to freely give up this information, you’re sorely mistaken. Just as I’ve done in the pastI’m going to make you work for it, one USMLE-style multiple choice question at a time._

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Climate Change is not an ‘Equal Opportunity’ Crisis

Sam Aptekar
Phuoc Le

By PHUOC LE, MD and SAM APTEKAR

In the last fifteen years, we have witnessed dozens of natural disasters affecting our most vulnerable patients, from post-hurricane victims in Haiti to drought and famine refugees in Malawi. The vast majority of these patients suffered from acute on chronic disasters, culminating in life-threatening medical illnesses. Yet, during the course of providing clinical care and comfort, we rarely, if ever, pointed to climate change as the root cause of their conditions. The evidence for climate change is not new, but the movement for climate justice is now emerging on a large scale, and clinicians should play an active role.

Let’s be clear: there is no such thing as an “equal opportunity” disaster. Yes, climate change poses an existential threat to us all, but not on equal terms. When nature strikes, it has always been the poor and historically underserved who are most vulnerable to its wrath. Hurricane Katrina provides an example of how natural disasters target their victims along racial and socioeconomic lines even in the wealthiest nations. Writes TalkPoverty.org, “A black homeowner in New Orleans was more than three times as likely to have been flooded as a white homeowner. That wasn’t due to bad luck; because of racially discriminatory housing practices, the high-ground was taken by the time banks started loaning money to African Americans who wanted to buy a home.” Throughout the world, historically marginalized communities have been pushed to overcrowded, poorly-built, and unsanitary neighborhoods where natural disasters invoke much greater harm.

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Leveraging Time by Doing Less in Each Chronic Care Visit

By HANS DUVEFELT, MD

So many primary care patients have several multifaceted problems these days, and the more or less unspoken expectation is that we must touch on everything in every visit. I often do the opposite.

It’s not that I don’t pack a lot into each visit. I do, but I tend to go deep on one topic, instead of just a few minutes or maybe even moments each on weight, blood sugar, blood pressure, lipids, symptoms and health maintenance.

When patients are doing well, that broad overview is perhaps all that needs to be done, but when the overview reveals several problem areas, I don’t try to cover them all. I “chunk it down”, and I work with my patient to set priorities.

What non-clinicians don’t seem to think of is that primary health care is a relationship based care delivery that takes place over a continuum that may span many years, or if we are fortunate enough, decades.

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What’s on USMLE Step 1?

By BRYAN CARMODY

Recently, I was on The Accad and Koka Report to share my opinions on USMLE Step 1 scoring policy. (If you’re interested, you can listen to the episode on the show website or iTunes.)

Most of the topics we discussed were ones I’ve already dissected on this site. But there was an interesting moment in the show, right around the 37:30 mark, that raises an important point that is worthy of further analysis.

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ANISH: There’s also the fact that nobody is twisting the arms of program directors to use [USMLE Step 1] scores, correct? Even in an era when you had clinical grades reported, there’s still seems to be value that PDs attach to these scores. . . There’s no regulatory agency that’s forcing PDs to do that. So if PDs want to use, you know, a number on a test to determine who should best make up their class, why are you against that?

BRYAN: I’m not necessarily against that if you make that as a reasoned decision. I would challenge a few things about it, though. I guess the first question is, what do you think is on USMLE Step 1 that is meaningful?

ANISH: Well – um – yeah…

BRYAN: What do you think is on that test that makes it a meaningful metric?

ANISH: I – I don’t- I don’t think that – I don’t know that memorizing… I don’t even remember what was on the USMLE. Was the Krebs Cycle on the USMLE Step 1?

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I highlight this snippet not to pick on Anish – who was a gracious host, and despite our back-and-forth on Twitter, we actually agreed much more than we disagreed. And as a practicing clinician who is 15 years removed from the exam, I’m not surprised in the least that he doesn’t recall exactly what was on the test.

I highlight this exchange because it illuminates one of the central truths in the #USMLEPassFail debate, and that is this:

Physicians who took Step 1 more than 5 years ago honestly don’t have a clue about what is tested on the exam.

That’s not because the content has changed. It’s because the memories of minutiae fade over time, leaving behind the false memory of a test that was more useful than it really was.

I’m speaking from experience here.

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Let Patients Lead – Explaining Addiction and Recovery to Families

By HANS DUVEFELT, MD

We knew that the most powerful way to provide substance abuse treatment is in a group setting. Group members can offer support to each other and call out each other’s self deceptions and public excuses, oftentimes more effectively than the clinicians. They share stories and insights, car rides and job leads, and they form a community that stays connected between sessions.

Participants with more experience and life skills may say things in group that we clinicians might hesitate saying, like “Now you’re whining” and “Time to put on your big boy pants”. They can become role models by being further along in their recovery and by at the same time revealing their own fear or respect for the threat of relapse.

What has also happened in our clinic, entirely unplanned, was that after an informational meeting where we explained the group model and had a national expert physician speak about opioid recovery, several parents raised their hand and said there should be a group for families, too.

We listened and within a few months we started such a group and now, a year and a half into it, the group is co-led by a few of our patients, who naturally had become leaders of the patient group earlier.

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How to End Egregious Medical Bills (while minimizing the impact on the provider’s bottom line)

By HAYWARD ZWERLING, MD

I recently saw a patient who received a bill for an outpatient procedure for $333. The Medicare allowable reimbursement for the procedure was $180. I have seen other medical bills where the healthcare provider was charging patients more than 10 times the amount they expected to receive from Medicare or any insurance company.

Another one of my patients had an unexpected medical complication which necessitated a visit to an emergency room. He received a huge bill for the services provided. When I subsequently saw him in my office (for poorly controlled diabetes) he told me he could not attend future office visits because he had so many outstanding medical bills and he could not risk incurring any additional medical expenses. While I offered to see him at no cost, he declined, stating the financial risk was too high.

A patient is required to pay the entire medical bill if they have:

  • no insurance
  • poor quality insurance
  • a bureaucratic “referral problem”
  • an out-of-network provider, which means they have no contractural relationship with the healthcare provider/institution, as might result from an emergency room visit or an unexpected hospitalization.

Hospitals, physicians and other healthcare providers usually do not know what they are going to get paid for any given service as they contract with many insurance companies, each of which has a different contracted payment rate. Healthcare providers and institutions typically set their fee schedule at a multiple of what they expect to get paid from the most lucrative payer so as to ensure they capture all the potential revenue. In the process, they create an economically irrational fee schedule which is neither reflective of a competitive marketplace nor reflective of the actual cost of the services provided.

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Click and Exercise! Amazon, Netflix, Hulu—Are You Listening?

By DEBORAH A. COHEN

Physical inactivity is a mounting challenge for America. In reviewing the 2013-2015 American time use survey, we found that most Americans report spending their daily leisure time watching screens, and devote only a small fraction of leisure time—24 minutes for men and 14 minutes for women—to physical activity. A recent longitudinal examination of the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey showed that sitting time increased by an hour a day between 2007 and 2016, with the largest increases among adolescents ages 12-19 and adults, 20 years and older. As mortality rates for heart disease have begun to climb, increases in sedentary behavior bodes poorly for future control of disease and health care costs.

The explosion in streaming apps and content is likely contributing to the increased sitting time. According to the Motion Picture Association of America, TV and movie views have more then doubled between 2014 and 2018. The availability of multiple series and the ability to binge watch can keep people glued to their couches for hours at a time. The immersive quality of the programming makes it increasingly difficult for viewers to pull themselves away from their screens. Yet, the technology could provide options to help viewers watch and still get regular physical activity.

Currently, after each episode, an option is available to allow the viewer to immediately call up the next episode. Why not consider adding a pop-up that can remind viewers that sitting more than 20-30 minutes at a time may not be good for health, and that it’s important to move around to avoid chronic diseases? A narrator could ask viewers to treat themselves to an activity break. Then the viewers could have the option to choose a short video that can guide them through a 10- minute exercise break. Or even a 5-minute break. Something is better than nothing.

There could be many options, from a just a simple stand up and stretch, like the 7th inning break at a baseball game, to vigorous workouts, like the 7-minute workout published by the American College of Sports Medicine or doing a Bhangra dance with a Bollywood film star. 

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Training the Modern Physician: A Call to Incorporate Finance and Law into Medical Education

By SAI BALA, JD

The United States medical education system is heralded as one among the top in the world for medical training. Given the strict standards of education, multiple licensing boards, and continuous oversight by governing bodies, getting a placement to train in the US is extremely competitive.  In 2017 alone, nearly 7000+ non-US citizens (commonly referred to as “foreign medical graduates”) applied to compete with 24,000+ US citizens for American residency spots to pursue specialty training. The reasons for this competitiveness are simple. The vast majority of medical institutions in the US boast a comprehensive curriculum that entails basic sciences, clinical principles, practical and hands-on didactics, and enriched exposure to the clinical aspects of patient care. This training produces astute clinicians that are capable of resolving the most complex diagnoses while providing comprehensive patient care.

However, it is high time to recognize that being a shrewd clinician is no longer a sufficient product for the demands of the healthcare market today. That is to say, the scope of medicine today for a physician has gone far beyond resolving complex medical problems, but demands a higher understanding of multidisciplinary skillsets, most important of which are finance and legal theory. In these aspects, the US medical education system direly underprepares physicians, and thus, requires a thorough reevaluation.

The art of medicine, as much as it was originally developed to be purely about the betterment of patient health, has become yet another siloed service industry. Simply put, patients are customers, and physicians are increasingly held accountable for the financial metrics and revenue their work produces. Compensation models are increasingly favoring productivity based payment methods, such as the relative value unit (RVU) system, and are moving away from the traditional, salaried physician. This has resulted in increased pressure on physicians to become more efficient with their workload and patient docket, while managing the often turbulent and contradictory interests of insurance, patients, and hospital administration.

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The Rise and Rise of Quantitative Cassandras

By SAURABH JHA, MD

Despite an area under the ROC curve of 1, Cassandra’s prophesies were never believed. She neither hedged nor relied on retrospective data – her predictions, such as the Trojan war, were prospectively validated. In medicine, a new type of Cassandra has emerged –  one who speaks in probabilistic tongue, forked unevenly between the probability of being right and the possibility of being wrong. One who, by conceding that she may be categorically wrong, is technically never wrong. We call these new Minervas “predictions.” The Owl of Minerva flies above its denominator.

Deep learning (DL) promises to transform the prediction industry from a stepping stone for academic promotion and tenure to something vaguely useful for clinicians at the patient’s bedside. Economists studying AI believe that AI is revolutionary, revolutionary like the steam engine and the internet, because it better predicts.

Recently published in Nature, a sophisticated DL algorithm was able to predict acute kidney injury (AKI), continuously, in hospitalized patients by extracting data from their electronic health records (EHRs). The algorithm interrogated nearly million EHRS of patients in Veteran Affairs hospitals. As intriguing as their methodology is, it’s less interesting than their results. For every correct prediction of AKI, there were two false positives. The false alarms would have made Cassandra blush, but they’re not bad for prognostic medicine. The DL- generated ROC curve stands head and shoulders above the diagonal representing randomness.

The researchers used a technique called “ablation analysis.” I have no idea how that works but it sounds clever. Let me make a humble prophesy of my own – if unleashed at the bedside the AKI-specific, DL-augmented Cassandra could unleash havoc of a scale one struggles to comprehend.

Leaving aside that the accuracy of algorithms trained retrospectively falls in the real world – as doctors know, there’s a difference between book knowledge and practical knowledge – the major problem is the effect availability of information has on decision making. Prediction is fundamentally information. Information changes us.

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