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Tag: Country Doctor

The Doctor Who Played With Fire

The corpse, laid out on a gurney and covered with a white sheet, was wheeled onto the stage by two women in long, white lab coats. A middle aged man with a bow tie welcomed us, the incoming class of the spring semester, to Uppsala University and the Biomedicine Center, where we would spend the next two years in “pre-clinicals”, until we knew enough to start our three and a half clinical years at the Academy Hospital.

The Biomedicine Center was almost brand new, a glass and concrete labyrinth with a large sculpture depicting Watson and Crick’s DNA molecule by the front entrance. The vast complex lay near S-1, the Uppsala military regiment. The brick buildings diagonally across the street were very familiar to me as the place where I had met the biggest failure in all my twenty years only months before.

As I sat in the large lecture hall with the corpse on the stage, I glanced over at L., my buddy from the Swedish military’s elite division, the Interpreter School, where we had also sat next to each other on the first day, when the Captain in charge told us:

“Soldiers, you may all have been the smartest kids in your school, but it’s different here. Most of you won’t make it, and will be culled over the next two months. The Interpreter School accepts eighty recruits and graduates twenty to twenty-five. If you don’t have what it takes, don’t waste our time or yours!”

L. and I had both thought that learning Russian would be a neat way to spend our compulsory year and a half in the military, but just barely more than a month after that harsh introduction, we were both on our way back to our respective home towns to figure out what to do until we would be able to start medical school. Our military service was put on hold until we could return as medics.

The man with the bow tie went on to introduce our guest professor, on loan from the University of Bavaria. As we all knew, the Germans have been the greatest anatomists since the last century, and all of us had already been to the University book store to purchase Haeffel’s “Topografishe Anatomie”, which would be our constant companion for the next five months.

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Morbus Propedeuticus

It was spring. My medical school class, two years along in our five-and-a-half year endeavor, had earned the “medicinae kandidat” degree. We were now worthy of leaving the basic sciences and research center on the outskirts of town and starting our preparatory clinical, “propedeutic” semester at the University Hospital. In Sweden, at that time, we used a lot of Latin words and phrases. Crohn’s disease was  Morbus Crohn, chart notes listed physical exam findings by Latin names for the bodily organs: Cor for the heart, Pulm(ones) for the lungs, Hepar for the liver, etc.

Uppsala Academic Hospital was an imposing campus, with several tall, white towers, housing the most modern wards, laboratories and operating theaters. We were relegated to a pink stucco building that housed the old tuberculosis clinic.

The physical exam course was taught by a couple of older pulmonologists. At first they struck many of us as relics from a bygone era, but as the course went on, our respect grew. These unassuming physicians could percuss a patient’s chest wall and describe in detail what the x-ray would look like, they made us feel the tip of the spleen by turning the patient on his right side, they measured jugular venous pulsations and pedal pulses.

Sometimes we had real patients with remarkably abnormal findings to examine, but we often were charged with examining each other for assessment of normal physical exam findings.

My partner for the Lymphatic System module was Sven Björk, a slow-talking kid from the very north of Sweden. He had jet black, completely straight hair and a broad face with eyes set wide apart. He was part Same, the native, reindeer-herding nomadic population from north of the Arctic Circle.

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The Samurai Physician’s Teachings on the Way of Health

Every now and then the title of a book influences your thinking even before you read the first page.

That was the case for me with Thomas Moore’s “Care of the Soul” and with “Shadow Syndromes” by Ratley and Johnson. The titles of those two books jolted my mind into thinking about the human condition in ways I hadn’t done before and the contents of the books only echoed the thoughts the titles had provoked the instant I saw them.

This time, it wasn’t the title, “Cultivating Chi”, but the subtitle, “A Samurai Physician’s Teachings on the Way of Health“. The book was written by Kaibara Ekiken (1630-1714) in the last year of his life, and is a new translation and review by William Scott Wilson. The original version of the book was called the Yojokun.

The images of a samurai – a self-disciplined warrior, somehow both noble master and devoted servant – juxtaposed with the idea of “physician” were a novel constellation to me. I can’t say I was able to predict exactly what the book contained, but I had an idea, and found the book in many ways inspiring.

The translator, in his foreword, points out the ancient sources of Ekiken’s inspiration during his long life as a physician. Perhaps the most notable of them was “The Yellow Emperor’s Classic on Medicine”, from around 2500 B.C., which Ekiken himself lamented people weren’t reading in the original Chinese in the early 1700′s, but in Japanese translation. One of his favorite quotes was:

“Listen, treating a disease that has already developed, or trying to bring order to disruptions that have already begun, is like digging a well after you’ve become thirsty, or making weapons after the battle is over. Wouldn’t it already be too late?”

Ekiken’s own words, in 1714, really describe Disease Prevention the way we now see it:

“The first principle of the Way of Nurturing Life is avoiding overexposure to things that can damage your body. These can be divided into two categories: inner desires and negative external influences.

Inner desires encompass the desires for food, drink, sex, sleep, and excessive talking as well as the desires of the seven emotions – joy, anger, anxiety, yearning, sorrow, fear and astonishment. (I see in this a reference toarchetypal or somatic medicine.)

The negative external influences comprise the four dispositions of Nature: wind, cold, heat and humidity.

If you restrain the inner desires, they will diminish.

If you are aware of the negative external influences and their effects, you can keep them at bay.

Following both of these rules of thumb, you will avoid damaging your health, be free from disease, and be able to maintain and even increase your natural life span.”

On the topic of Restraint, the Yellow Emperor text states:

In the remote past, those who understood the Way followed the patterns of yin and yang, harmonized these with nurturing practices, put limits on their eating and drinking, and did not recklessly overexert themselves. Thus, body and spirit interacted well, they lived out their naturally given years, and only left this world after a hundred years or more.
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What the EMR Saw

Lately, my virtual inbox in our electronic medical record has seen a surge in requests for prescriptions for the vaccine against Herpes Zoster, shingles. This has made me think a lot about our responsibility as physicians to inform patients about the evidence behind our recommendations – but who informs the patients when doctors are kept out of the loop or put under pressure to prescribe without seeing the patient?

What has happened is that our local Rite-Aid Pharmacy started to give these shots, covered by many insurers, but still requiring a doctor’s prescription.

I cannot give the shots in my clinic, because as a Federally Qualified Health Center, we are reimbursed at a fixed rate. The shingles vaccine costs more for us to buy than we charge for an entire office visit. I used to have the discussion about the shot, and would give patients a prescription to take to the pharmacy if they wanted it.

The pharmacy can give the shot at a profit, because it is considered a medication, just like a bottle of Lipitor.

The new system creates a bit of a dilemma for me. I get a message through the pharmacy that the patient wants the shot, and I don’t have the opportunity to sit down and review the effectiveness, side effects and long-term efficacy according to the available evidence with the patient.

For example, the shingles vaccine only cuts the risk of getting shingles in half. This is about the same effectiveness as the flu vaccine, but far less than, say, the vaccine against smallpox, which has now been eradicated.

Most patients are very surprised to hear about the 50% efficacy when I catch up with them at some later date; so many health care interventions are portrayed as both completely effective and absolutely necessary.

I see my role as a primary care physician as a guide and resource for patients, who are bombarded with overly optimistic claims and recommendations by mass media, drug companies and retailers.

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The Art of Measuring Blood Pressure

Edna Lavoie has had horrendous blood pressure readings for several decades, but she has never had a stroke or heart attack. Her eye doctor swears her retinae are healthy. Whenever she takes a pill that even begins to normalize her blood pressure, she complains of severe dizziness.

Dwayne Lieber’s home blood pressure cuff never reads anywhere close to our manual office sphygmomanometers, even though it is a good brand that usually seems quite accurate for our other patients who own the same model.

Donald Dickinson and Jane Green seem to be a pair of Jekyll and Hyde characters as far as their blood pressures are concerned; every other visit they seem to have a normal blood pressure in the 125/80 range and the rest of the time their systolic pressures are between 180 and 200.

Blood pressure measurements are routinely done every time a patient visits the doctor and hypertension is one of the most common diagnoses in primary care. A patient’s blood pressure is sometimes done with an automatic cuff, sometimes by the nurse or medical assistant and sometimes by the doctor. It is actually a complicated matter, fraught with problems and potential pitfalls.

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What if Physicians Worked for Free?

Today I am going to write about how the US could save up to 10% on its healthcare bill.

The US spends more on health care than any other nation, $8,500 per person per year. Multiply that by 300 million people and try to grasp the vast sum of $2,5 trillion.

A lot of changes are taking place with the intent to save healthcare dollars. So far, many of those changes have involved creating new layers of middlemen, whose paychecks will come out of the same healthcare budget as MRI’s, prescription medicines and physician salaries.

Every so often physician salaries come into focus as a place where money might be saved. Some people even picture physician pay as a major driver of healthcare costs.

Now, I am just a country doctor, and I don’t have an MBA or any financial background. But I used to be pretty good at math, and I’d like to think I still am.

If the 2.5 trillion dollars this country spends on healthcare is paid to or prescribed by our 850,000 physicians, then each doctor controls 3 million dollars from our nation’s healthcare budget.

Of course, physicians aren’t the only providers or prescribers. I don’t have a figure for how much money is controlled by our 100,000 Nurse Practitioners and 70, 000 Physician Assistants. I also don’t know what portion of our 50,000 chiropractors’ work falls inside the traditional healthcare budget, but let me assume each physician on average controls only 2-2.5 million dollars worth of products or services…

Then, if every physician took a $200,000 pay cut, we could reduce our healthcare spending by up to 10%!

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