By HANS DUVEFELT, MD
Many patients make this or similar requests, especially in January it seems.
This phenomenon has its roots in two things. The first is the common misconception that random blood test abnormalities are more likely early warning signs of disease than statistical or biochemical aberrances and false alarms. The other is the perverse policy of many insurance companies to cover physicals and screening tests with zero copay but to apply deductibles and copays for people who need tests or services because they are sick.
It is crazy to financially penalize a person with chest pain for going to the emergency room and having it end up being acid reflux and not a heart attack while at the same time providing free blood counts, chemistry profiles and lipid tests every year for people without health problems or previous laboratory abnormalities.
A lot of people don’t know or remember that what we call normal is the range that 95% of healthy people fall within, and that goes for thyroid or blood sugar values, white blood cell counts, height and weight – anything you can measure. If a number falls outside the “normal” range you need to see if other parameters hint at the same possible diagnosis, because 5% of perfectly healthy people will have an abnormal result for any given test we order. So on a 20 item blood panel, you can pretty much expect to have one abnormal result even if you are perfectly healthy.
By KIM BELLARD
The New York Times had an article that surprised me: Current Job: Award Winning Chef. Education: IHOP. The article, by food writer Priya Krishna, profiled how many high-end chefs credit their training in — gasp! — chain restaurants, such as IHOP, as being invaluable for their success.
I immediately thought of Atul Gawande’s 2012 article in The New Yorker: What Big Medicine Can Learn From the Cheesecake Factory.
Ms. Krishna mentions several well-known chefs “who prize the lessons
they learned — many as teenagers — in the scaled-up, streamlined world of chain
restaurants.” In addition to IHOP, chefs mentioned experiences at
chains such as Applebee’s, California Pizza Kitchen, Chipotle, Hillstone,
Houston’s, Howard Johnson’s, Olive Garden, Panda Express, Pappas, Red Lobster,
Waffle House, and Wendy’s.
Some of the lessons learned are
instructive. “It was pretty much that the customer is always
right,” one chef mentioned. Another said she learned “how to be
quick, have a good memory, and know the timing of everything.” A
third spoke to the focus that was drilled into all employees: “Hot food
hot. Cold food cold. Money to the bank. Clean restrooms,”
By HANS DUVEFELT, MD
A new decade and a new EMR are making me think about what the best use of my time and medical knowledge really is. The thing that stands out more and more for me is the tension between what my patients are asking me for and what the medical bureaucracy is mandating me to do. This is, to be blunt, an untenable, crazy-making situation to be in.
Many of my patients with chronic diseases don’t, deep down, want better blood sugars, BMIs or blood pressures – nor do they want better diets or exercise habits. People often hope they can feel better without fundamentally changing their comfortable, familiar and ingrained habits – that’s just human nature.
I went to medical school to learn how to heal, treat and guide patients through illness, away from un-health and toward health. I didn’t go to school to become a babysitter or code enforcement officer.
By HANS DUVEFELT, MD
I have noticed several articles describing how antibiotic development has bankrupted some pharmaceutical companies because there isn’t enough potential profit in a ten day course to treat multi-resistant superbug infections.
Chronic disease treatments, on the other hand, appear to be extremely profitable. A single month’s treatment with the newer diabetes drugs, COPD inhalers or blood thinners costs over $500, which means well over $50,000 over an effective ten year patent for each one of an ever increasing number of chronically ill patients.
Imagine if the same bureaucratic processes insurance companies have created for chronic disease drug coverage existed (I don’t know if they do) for acute prescriptions of superbug antibiotics: It’s Friday afternoon and a septic patient’s culture comes back indicating that the only drug that would work is an expensive one that requires a Prior Authorization. Patients would die and the insurance companies would be better off if time ran out in such bureaucratic battles for survival.
By HANS DUVEFELT, MD
I looked at a free book chapter from Harvard Businesses Review today and saw a striking graph illustrating what we’re up against in primary care today and I remembered a post I wrote eight years ago about burnout skills.
Some things we do, some challenges we overcome, energize us or even feed our souls because of how they resonate with our true selves. Think of mastering something like a challenging hobby. We feel how each success or step forward gives us more energy.
Other things we do are more like rescuing a situation that was starting to fall apart and making a heroic effort to set things right. That might feed our ego, but not really our soul, and it can exhaust us if we do this more than once in a very great while.
In medicine these days, we seem to do more rescuing difficult situations than mastering an art that inspires and rewards us: The very skills that make us good at our jobs can be the ones that make us burn out.
Doctors are so good at solving problems and handling emergencies that we often fall into a trap of doing more and more of that just because we are able to, even though it’s not always the right thing to do – even though it costs us energy and consumes a little bit of life force every time we do it. And it’s not always the case that we are asked to do this. We are pretty good at putting ourselves in such situations because of what we call our work ethic.
By HANS DUVEFELT, MD
I find myself thinking about how being a doctor has come to impact the Christmas Holiday for me over the years. I have written about working late and driving home in the snow and dark of Christmas Eve in northern Maine; I have shuffled Osler’s written words into something that speaks to physicians of our times; I have written about the angst around the Holidays I see in my addiction recovery patients.
This year, my thoughts go to the way Christmas is a time of reconnection for many people. We reconnect with family and friends we may not see as often as we would like, and many of us reconnect with secular traditions dating back to our childhood. Many people also reconnect more deeply with their Christian traditions, the ancient celebration of Hanukkah or the newer one of Kwanzaa.
As a doctor, I think Christmas is a time when individuals are more open toward others, more willing to extend “good will toward men” (Luke 2:14). It can be an opener for future relationships to form or grow, a time to share our humanity in the context of experiencing something larger than ourselves and our everyday existence. It allows us to get a little more personal by sharing something of what we all have in common – the need for togetherness with those we love.
By HANS DUVEFELT, MD
Medical researchers and their groupies – early adopters, thoughtleaders, those easily influenced or whatever you want to call them – never seem to learn that when you try to outsmart Mother Nature or Our Heavenly Father, whichever appeals more to your world view, you usually get your hand slapped.
When I was a resident (1981-1984), I got penalized if I didn’t offer postmenopausal women estrogen-progesterone replacement therapy because it seemed obvious that if women with endogenous estrogen didn’t get many strokes or heart attacks and women without estrogen did, all we needed to do was make up for God’s or Mother Nature’s oversight in not keeping the estrogen coming after age 50.
Then the Women’s Health Study in 2000, almost 20 years later, showed that women on Prempro had more strokes, blood clots and heart attacks, and more breast cancer on top of that, than women who accepted the natural order of things – menopause with all its symptoms and inconveniences.
The same things has happened with osteoporosis – more subtrochanteric femur fractures after five years of Fosamax than in untreated women.
By HANS DUVEFELT, MD
“By the way, Doc, why am I tired, what’s this lump and how do I get rid of my headaches?”
Every patient encounter is a potential deadly disease, disastrous outcome, or even a malpractice suit. As clinicians, we need to have our wits about us as we continually are asked to sort the wheat from the chaff when patients unload their concerns, big and small, on us during our fifteen minute visits.
But something is keeping us from listening to our patients with our full attention, and that something, in my opinion, is not doctor work but nurse work or even tasks for unlicensed staff: Our Public Health to-do list is choking us.
You don’t need a medical degree to encourage people to get flu and tetanus shots, Pap smears, breast, colon and lung cancer screening, to quit smoking, see their eye doctor or get some more blood pressure readings before your next appointment. But those are the pillars of individual medical providers’ performance ratings these days. We must admit that the only way you can get all that health maintenance done is through a team effort. Medical providers neither hire nor supervise their support staff, so where did the idea ever come from that this was an appropriate individual clinician performance measure?
By ANISH KOKA, MD
It took some doing, but I had finally
made it to Bobby’s home.
It was a rowhome tucked into one of those
little side streets in the city that non-city folks wouldn’t dream of driving
down. As I step in, I’m met by the usual set up – wooden steps that hug the
right side of the wall leading up to the second floor. Bobby certainly hasn’t made it up to the
second floor in some time. At the moment she is sitting in her hospital bed in
the living room. The bed is the focal point to a room stuffed to the gills with
all manners of stuff. At least three quarters of the stuff seems to be food.
Cinnamon buns, Doritos, donut holes, chocolate frosted Donuts, crackers,
Twinkies. The junk food aisle at Wawa would be embarrassed by the riches on
Bobby weighs in at four hundred pounds, 5
foot 5 inches. She has a tracheostomy from multiple prior episodes of
respiratory failure that have required ventilatory support. I’m here at the
request of a devoted primary care physician that still makes home calls. I’ve
looked through the last number of hospital stays. The last few discharge
summaries are carbon copies of each other. Hypoxemic respiratory failure
related to pulmonary edema complicated further by morbid obesity. Time on the
vent. Antibiotics. Diuretics. Home. Return to the hospital 2 weeks later. The
last echocardiogram done was 3 admissions ago. A poor study. Not much could be
seen due to ‘body habitus’.
I sit on the side of the bed trying to acquire my own images of her heart. I talk to her as I struggle. Bobby is 58, the youngest of three sisters, and the only surviving member of the family. Her elder sisters died of respiratory complications as well. They both died with tracheostomies. The conversation is circular. The problem according to Bobby is the tracheostomy. Everything was fine before that. I explain that a prolonged period of time on the ventilator on a prior admission prompted the tracheostomy, and that the multiple recent admissions to the hospital that required a ventilator seemed to validate that decision. She doesn’t waver. Both her sisters died shortly after they got tracheostomies. Bobby thinks the physicians taking care of her sisters had a hand in their demise. “They didn’t care.” “We told them they were sick.”
By YOLONDA Y. WILSON, PhD
Last week a nurse posted a video of
herself on Twitter mocking patients with the caption “We know when y’all are
faking” followed by laughing emojis. Twitter responded with the hashtag #patientsarenotfaking,
created by Imani Barbarin, and
a slew of testimonials of negligent medical care. While the nurse’s video was
not explicitly racialized, plenty in the black community felt a particular
sting: there is clear evidence that this attitude contributes to the problem of
black patients receiving substandard care, and that negative behavioral traits like faking or exaggerating symptoms are more likely
to be attributed to black patients. The problem is so bad that it turns
out racial bias is built right into an algorithm widely used by
hospitals to determine patient need.
Since we can’t rely on the system or
algorithms, many health organizations and the popular media encourage patients to
themselves and their loved ones by, for example, asking questions, asking for second (or more) opinions, “trusting [their] guts,”
and not being afraid to speak up for themselves or their loved ones. But this
ubiquitous advice to “be your own advocate” doesn’t take into account that not
all “advocacy” is interpreted in the same way—especially when the advocacy
comes from a black person. Sometimes a patient’s self-advocacy is dismissed as
“faking;” sometimes it is regarded as anger or hostility.
Black male faces showing neutral expressions are more likely than white faces to be interpreted as angry, violent, or hostile, while black women are often perceived as ill-tempered and angry. These stereotypes can have a chilling effect on a person’s decision to advocate for themselves, or it can prompt violent reaction.