“YOUR LIKELIHOOD OF SECURING RESIDENCY TRAINING DEPENDS ON MANY FACTORS – INCLUDING THE NUMBER OF RESIDENCY PROGRAMS YOU APPLY TO.”
So begins the introduction to Apply Smart: Data to Consider When Applying to Residency – a informational campaign from the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC) designed to help medical students “anchor [their] initial thinking about the optimal number of applications.”
In the era of Application Fever – where the mean number of applications submitted by graduating U.S. medical students is now up to 60 – some data-driven guidance on how many applications to submit would be welcome, right?
And yet, the more I review the AAMC’s Apply Smart campaign, the more I think that it provides little useful data – and the information it does provide is likely to encourage students to submit even more applications.
This topic will be covered in two parts. In the first, I’ll explore the Apply Smart analyses and air my grievances against their logic and data presentation. In the second, I’ll suggest what the AAMC should do to provide more useful information to students.
Introduction to Apply Smart
The AAMC unveiled Apply Smart for Residency several years ago. The website includes lots of information for students, but the piece de resistance are the analyses and graphics that relate the number of applications submitted to the likelihood of successfully entering a residency program.
I scribbled my signature on a pharmaceutical rep’s iPad today for some samples of Jardiance, a diabetes drug that now has expanded indications according to the Food and Drug Administration. This drug lowers blood sugar (reduces HbA1c by less than 1 point) but also reduces diabetes related kidney damage, heart attacks, strokes and now also admission rates for heart failure (from 4.1% to 2.7% if I remember correctly – a significant relative risk reduction but not a big absolute one; the Number Needed to Treat is about 70, so 69 out of 70 patients would take it in vain for the heart failure indication. The NNT for cardiovascular death is around 38 over a three year period – over a hundred patient years for one patient saved). There are already other diabetes drugs that can reduce cardiovascular risk and I see cardiologists prescribing them for non-diabetics.
It’s a bit of a head scratcher and it makes me think of the recently re-emerged interest in the notion of a “Polypill” with several ingredients that together reduce heat attack risk. The tested Polypill formulations are all very inexpensive, which is a big part of their attraction. Jardiance, on the other hand, costs about $400 per month.
The “rep” asked whether this medication would be something I’d be likely to discuss with my diabetic patients.
“Well, you know I’ve only got fifteen minutes…” dampened his expectations. But I told him about the Polypill studies. I think patients are still not ready to make the distinction between on the one hand medications that treat a more or less quantifiable problem like blood sugar levels, blood pressure or the much less straightforward lipid levels and on the other hand ones that only change statistical outcomes. Most of my patients have trouble wrapping their head around taking a $400 a month pill that doesn’t make them feel better or score a whole lot better on their lab test but only changes the odds of something most people think will never happen to them anyway.
I am a naturopathic doctor, and because I operate outside of insurance-based medicine, I have, what most healthcare providers would consider, lots of time with my patients. My typical first patient appointment is 90 minutes long and my follow-up visits are 30 minutes long.
What, you may ask, do I do with all this time? I get to know my patients by listening to their stories, their concerns and their hopes. We delve into their health concerns, we review their medical records, and we explore lifestyle-based strategies to optimize their healing and wellbeing.
In short, I listen and apply what I know in partnership with each patient with the goal of empowering them towards greater wellness. Over and over, I hear from my patients how unusual this is. They speak about the 5-minute visits with their doctors that feel rushed and disconnected. They express frustration and dismay about being a diagnosis, not a person, when seeing their healthcare providers.
A recent survey conducted by the New York Times found that two-thirds of Americans support some form of change to the current healthcare system and favor moving towards greater insurance coverage for all. My experience for almost 25 years leads me to conclude that underlying this vision of healthcare is a deep-seated desire for patients to be cared for and listened to.
I strongly believe that getting people the information and incentives necessary to choose higher-value providers and insurers is the solution to improving value in healthcare (see my Healthcare Incentives Framework). But, you say, we’ve tried that and it doesn’t work, and current efforts are a waste of time!
Here’s an example of some great research that you might use to support your opinion:
The news media would see this and report the main findings–that only 3% of enrollees used Aetna’s price comparison tool–and argue that even people who have the opportunity to shop for care will not do it, which they will interpret to mean any “consumer-driven” healthcare effort is proven through evidence not to work. People can wrest information to prove whatever they want.
But what if you actually read the study?
Sinaiko and Rosenthal found that only about 60% of enrollees even had a claim during their study period. And of those 60%, I’m guessing a large percentage of those were outpatient visits (primary care or specialty) with established providers, which are claim types that people historically do not shop for. Think about it, if you have your favorite hairdresser who knows you best, you have a relationship with that person, and you like how they cut your hair, are you going to price shop every single time you need to get your hair cut?
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.
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.
If you think I’m just going to freely give up this information, you’re sorely mistaken. Just as I’ve done in the past, I’m going to make you work for it, one USMLE-style multiple choice question at a time._
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.