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The Real Problem with Board Exams-and How to Solve It

This week there’s been a debate brewing about why so many young doctors are failing their board exams. On one side John Schumann writes that young clinicians may not have the time or study habits to engage in lifelong learning, so they default to “lifelong googling.” On the other, David Shaywitz blames the tests themselves as being outmoded rites of passage administered by guild-like medical societies. He poses the question: Are young doctors failing their boards, or are we failing them?

The answer is: (C) All of the above.

I can say this with high confidence because as a young doctor-in-training who just completed my second year of medical school, I’ve become pretty good at answering test questions. Well before our White Coat Ceremonies, medical students have been honed into lean, mean, test-taking machines by a series of now-distant acronyms: AP, SAT, ACT, MCAT. Looming ahead are even more acronyms, only these are slightly longer and significantly more expensive: NBME, COMLEX, USMLE, ABIM. Even though their letters and demographics differ, what each of these acronyms share is the ability to ideologically divide a room in less time than Limbaugh.

This controversy directly results from the clear dichotomy* between the theory behind the exams and their practical consequences. In theory these exams do serve necessary and even agreeable purposes, including:

1)     Ensuring a minimum body of knowledge or skill before advancing a student to the next level in her education,

2)     Providing an “objective” measure to compare applicants in situations where demand for positions exceeds supply.

So apart from the common, albeit inconvenient, side effects that students experience (fatigue, irritability, proctalgia), what are the problems with these tests in practice? These are five of the core issues that are cited as the basis for reformations to our current examination model:

1)     Lack of objectivity. Tests are created by humans and thus are inherently biased. While they aim to assess a broad base of knowledge or skills, performance can be underestimated not due to a lack of this base but due to issues with the testing format, such as duration, question types, and scoring procedure (e.g. the SAT penalizes guessers, whereas the ACT does not). Just as our current model of clinical trial testing is antithetical to personalized medicine (What is a standard dose? Or, more puzzlingly, a standard patient?), our current model of testing does not take into account these individual differences.

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Are Young Doctors Failing Their Boards? Or Are We Failing Them?

A short piece in The Health Care Blog  reveals (albeit unintentionally) why so many outside of healthcare think the medical establishment still doesn’t get it.

The post, written by a general internist and residency program director, asked why an increasing number of internal medicine doctors are failing their internal medicine board exams.  The pass rate has reportedly declined over the last several years from 90% to 84%.  (Disclosure: I passed this required test about a decade ago.)

His differential included two possibilities:

(1)    The test is getting harder – The testing agency said this wasn’t the case.

(2)    Millennials lack the study habits of their elders, and have become great “looker-upers.” – The author suggested this was a key factor, and several commentators enthusiastically agreed.

The basic thesis here that in the Days of Giants, doctors worked harder, learned more, and were better.  Nowadays, doctors are relatively complacent, less invested, less informed, and are generally worse – which is what’s reflected on the board exams.

Let me suggest a third possibility – perhaps today’s doctors are providing better care to patients than their predecessors were a generation ago.  Maybe today’s doctors have figured out that in our information age, your ability to regurgitate information is less important than your ability to access data and intelligently process it.  Maybe what makes you a truly effective doctor isn’t your ability to assert dominance by the sheer number of facts you’ve amassed, but rather how well you are able to lead a care team, and ensure each patient receives the best care possible.

In other words, what if the problem isn’t the doctors, who are appropriately adapting, but rather the tests (and the medical establishment), which may not be?

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Designing for Caregivers

What user personas do healthcare technology designers and entrepreneurs have in mind as they create their products? And how often is it the family caregiver of an elderly person?

This is the question I found myself mulling over as I wandered around the Health Refactored conference recently, surrounded by developers, designers, and entrepreneurs.

The issue particularly popped into my head when I decided to try Microsoft Healthvault after listening to Microsoft’s Sean Nolan give a very good keynote on the perils of pilots and the praises of platforms (such as HealthVault).

As some know, I’ve been in search of apps and services that can help older adults and their families keep track of lengthy and frequently-changing medication lists. For years now I’ve been urging family caregivers to maintain some kind of online list of medications, but so far I haven’t found a specific app or service to recommend.

Why? Because they all require way too much effort to enter long medication lists. Which means they are hardly usable for my patients’ families.

Could HealthVault do better? Having heard generally promising things about the service these past several months, I signed up and decided to pretend I was the daughter of one of my elderly patients, who had finally decided to take Dr. Kernisan’s advice and find some online way to keep track of Mom’s 15 medications.

Sigh. It’s nice and easy to sign up for HealthVault. However, it’s not so easy to add 15 medications into the system. When I click the “+” sign next to current medications, I am offered a pop-up box with several fields to complete.

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Is Technology Making Us Fat?

As we look back over the past year and some of the amazing medical breakthroughs like wearable robotic devices, genomic sequencing and treatments like renal denervation that are improving people’s lives, it bears reflection on what else we could be doing better. Our world has changed more in the past century than in thousands of years of human history. We not only know more about our biology than ever before, but science and technology are unlocking the secrets of the very building blocks of our health. Somehow, in the midst of this incredible innovation, we’ve gotten fat, and not just a little. The result? Alarming rates of obesity and related chronic disease that threaten to crush us physically and financially.

But is it technology’s fault that we’ve become fat? A recent study by the Milken Institute that tied the amount an industrialized country spends on information and communication technologies directly to the obesity rates of its populations thinks so.

Most of us are guilty of a little overindulgence around the holidays but for many, overindulgence is a normal way of life. As economies transition to more sedentary, the physical movement that burned calories and kept us fit simply does not occur. Our lifestyles compound the issue — dual-income homes rely on the convenience of packaged meals, and our leisure activities have shifted to heavy “screen time” with movies, games and social media.

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Hospitals’ Twenty First Century Time Warp

There has been a lot of controversy in health policy circles recently about hospital market consolidation and its effect on costs.  However, less noticed than the quickened pace of industry consolidation is a more puzzling and largely unremarked-upon development:  hospitals seem to have hit the wall in technological innovation.   One can wonder if the two phenomena are related somehow.

During the last three decades of the twentieth century, health policymakers warned constantly that medical technology was driving up costs inexorably, and that unless we could somehow harness technological change, we’d be forced to ration care.  The most prominent statement of this thesis was Henry Aaron and William Schwartz’s Painful Prescription (1984).  Advocates of technological change argued that higher prices for care were justified by substantial qualitative improvements in hospitals’ output.

Perhaps policymakers should be careful what they wish for.  The care provided in the American hospital of 2013 seems eerily similar to that of the hospital of the year 2000, albeit far more expensive.    This is despite some powerful incentives for manufacturers and inventors to innovate (like an aging boomer generation, advances in materials, and a revolution in genetics), and the widespread persistence of  fee for service insurance payment that rewards hospitals for offering a more complex product.

Technology junkies should feel free to quarrel with these observations.  But the last major new imaging platform in the health system was PET , which was introduced into hospital use in the early 1990’s.  Though fusion technologies like PET/CT and PET/MR were introduced later, the last “got to have it” major imaging product was the 64 slice CT Scanner, which was introduced in 1998.  Both PET and CT angiography were subjects of fierce controversy over CMS decisions to pay for the services.

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Validating Mrs. X

Mrs. X is a 46 year-old mother of two and wife to an Iraq war veteran. On this particular day she meets with her oncologist to follow up after treatment for skin cancer. Beyond her well-groomed hair, thick plastic framed glasses and coral-red manicured toes, she doesn’t have a clear agenda for her appointment and expectations have only been vaguely outlined. However, this will change.

Wired Magazine asked Mucca Design in 2010 to reimagine the blood test report and the result was an inspiring new way of communicating with patient. 2011 marked the launch of the Tricoder X-Prize worth $10 million supported by X-Prize Foundation and Qualcomm.  The goal is to bring to life the fictional Star Trek multifunctional handheld medical device that can scan, analyze and produce results with a goal to diagnose patients better than or equal to a panel of board certified physicians. And while 2012 launched a series of new medical innovations that leverage the power of the mobile device, 2013 will be a time to bring together these technologies into a web of interconnectedness.

In 2013, Mrs. X and her mobile device will have access to a digital medical record that gives access to prior appointment notes, recorded videos from remote mobile appointments with her team of physicians, and yesterday’s blood work results. New innovations in medicine will create a foundation for Mrs. X to have better access to care, translate her behavior into actionable data all being tied together to provide what is most important: validation.

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Slow Medicine

I have been thinking about the difference between slow medicine and UCLA medicine.  It has made me realize how complex and difficult it is to transform American health care so that we lower per-capita cost and increase the quality of our lives. And yet we must achieve these two goals.

Slow medicine is practiced by a small, but growing subculture whose pioneer and spokesperson is Dr. Dennis McCullough, author of the book My Mother, Your Mother: Embracing “Slow Medicine,” The Compassionate Approach to Caring for Your Aging Loved Ones. Slow medicine is a philosophy and set of practices that believes in a conservative medical approach to both acute and chronic care.

McCullough describes slow medicine as “care that is more measured and reflective, and that actually stands back from rushed, in-hospital interventions and slows down to balance thoughtfully the separate, multiple and complex issues of late life.” Shared decision-making, community and family involvement, and sophisticated knowledge of the American health care system are some of the slow medicine practices that sharply contrast with UCLA medicine.

UCLA medicine is the status quo where the hospital is the center of the medical universe; where care is often uncoordinated and hurried, and where cure is the only acceptable outcome for both patient and physician. I call it UCLA medicine because the CEO of that well-regarded medical center was quoted in a New York Times Sunday Magazine article as saying, “If you come into this hospital, we’re not going to let you die.” This is a statement that puzzles me as an old time anatomic pathologist.

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