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Tag: David Sack

From Nursify to Visit Minder: Seven iPhone Apps We’d Like to See

I read a few months ago that the number of available iPhone apps had exceeded a million, with new apps now appearing that are intended to help sort through the mountain of other apps. We have reached the age of meta-apps.

Parenthetically, I have always loved that “meta”concept. In college, when people asked why I majored in philosophy despite the fact that I was pre-med, I explained that my intention was to become a metaphysician.

In any case, there are now many thousands of medical apps, and the number seems to be growing arithmetically! (Perhaps it was exponential at first, but I suspect the viral replication phase for apps has peaked, so anyone who uses the term exponentially at this point probably needs to review their 8th grade algebra.) In spite of this seeming  plethora of handy apps, there are still a few I have yet to encounter and would like to see created, although I will probably receive some comments on this post alerting me to the fact that some of what I am looking for has already been produced.

So here are, in no particular order, 7 apps I would like to see:

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Politics in the Exam Room

An ancient maxim  of dinner party etiquette, which  I believe has been proffered  from more than one source,  is “never discuss politics, religion or sex in polite company”. In some ways, for me as a physician, entering the exam room with a patient seems to require some similar degree of discretion. But the consequences of straying outside the bounds of polite discussion in the doctor’s exam room are quite different from any awkwardness that might ensue after a social misadventure.

Dr. Henry Lee, the well-known Connecticut State forensic medicine expert likes to relate a tale of his own introduction to dinner party etiquette, which I will try to relay somewhat faithfully. His English was poor when he arrived in the U.S. and, invited to a party in which guests were seated in the traditional “boy-girl-boy-girl” arrangement, he knew he would be pressed to make conversation with the women on each side of him. A friend reassured him, “You’ll have no problem if you can just get the woman talking about herself and then all you have to do is listen politely. Simply ask  ‘Are you married?’ and then ask “Do you have any children?’. This should get things going just fine.” Armed with this strategem, Dr. Lee was seated and turned to an attractive young woman on his left and asked if she was married. She replied “No”. So of course, he went on to the next question, “Do you have any children?”. He was surprised when she reacted with a look of indignation and quickly turned her attention to the guest on her other side. Puzzled at her reaction, he surmised that he must have gotten the sequence out of order. Trying out the other way around, he turned to an older woman on his right and asked confidently if she had any children. “Three!”, she replied happily. Delighted with his progress, he then inquired if she was married. Dr. Lee says he spent the dinner conversing with his soup and salad.

I have also had exam room encounters come to grief because of sex, politics and religion, but nothing has caused me more regret than politics. I will explain.

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The Last Six Months of Life

This discussion was inspired by the two women I owe my life to: my mother and my wife.

I cannot identify the citation for this factoid, but the assertion has become engrained in the lore of medical urban myth: “50% of healthcare costs are incurred in the last 6 months of life.” (or some similar figure) There are other less arresting but more concrete statistics to be found. For example, according to Health Affairs, July 2001 vol. 20 no. 4 188-195, one quarter of Medicare outlays are for the last year of life. Another more recent discussion concerned the various factors that influence that spending in the last 6 months. An article in the Annals of Internal Medicine for February 15, 2011 vol. 154 no. 4 235-242 describes determinants of healthcare spending and points out that regional variation in medical care does not account for as much variation as is sometimes pretended.

A concise summary of that article by one consulting firm states “Individual characteristics such as black or hispanic race, severe functional impairment, having Medicare Supplement coverage, suffering from certain chronic diseases or from four or more, were associated with higher spending. Others, such as having a relative live nearby or having dementia, are associated with lower spending. And some, such as having an advance directive, sex, marital status, education, net worth, or religiosity, appeared to have no relationship. Altogether, patient characteristics account for 10% of the variation in spending in the last 6 months of life.” (Quoted from Kevin Roche at vitaadvisors.com) Yet even with all this taken into account, patient and regional factors accounted for only 15% of the variation.There seems to be a major subtext to all of this discussion about the last six months of life, whether the topic is cost, ethical issues, quality of life, or whatever. The unstated message is “WE ARE WASTING MONEY ON FUTILE CARE!”. The implication seems to be, “couldn’t we devote these scarce medical resources to more beneficial use?” and “Why are we prolonging suffering and poor quality of life at such great expense to so little gain?” I ask myself these same questions whenever I walk down the corridor of the ICU to see a consult, past room after room of people on ventilators, bloated, mittened and tubed beyond our ability to recognize them as the same individuals seen in the photos I sometimes see pasted to the wall opposite the bed. “Don’t we know”, I ask, ”when to cease and decist?

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What Doctors Think

A number of years ago, Dr. Jerome Groopman published a wonderful book for the benefit of patients and their physicians, entitled How Doctors Think. It is an excellent description, illustrated by anecdotes, of the cognitive processes by which doctors arrive at diagnoses, and the pitfalls that are inherent in such calculations owing to the inherent strengths and weaknesses of human thought processes. For example, our tendency to consider conditions that we have seen recently, or those for which can easily imagine examples, is one habit discussed in some depth. It is a fascinating read (or in my case, listen, as I heard it on a CD in my car over the course of a couple of weeks.)

So Dr. Groopman has exposed well how doctors think. But how often do we reveal just what we are thinking? No more often, in my opinion, than we reveal our inner thoughts to friends and relatives in our personal lives – and in fact, considerably less often if we value our professional success. We occasionally let slip our attitudes in a moment of carelessness, a gesture, or the infrequent loss of temper. But for the most part, we try to embody the ideal of “equanimitas” that was advocated by one of our icons of modern medicine, the great doctor William Osler. There have been many learned treatises on this quality as to its benefits to a physician and his patients, and I have little of great insight to add on that topic.

But wouldn’t it be nice to occasionally allow ourselves to express what we really think?  I always enjoy arriving home  – usually somewhat later than I promised – to relate some of the triumphs and tragedies of the battles of the day. And this, of course, is when I get to say what I really think. It has occurred to me that I might even collect enough material to publish my own book, What Doctors Think.

My wife suggested an alternative or a sequel entitled Do Doctors Think?

I am choosing to ignore the suggestion for the purposes of this post.

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