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Tag: Medical Practice

What Does Your Patient Need to Hear You Say Right Now?

By HANS DUVEFELT

Today a patient told me a cancer doctor had told her husband that he only had a year to live. She was angry, because she felt that statement robbed her husband of hope and she knew well enough that doctors don’t always know a patient’s prognosis in such detail.

“Would you want to know if you only had a year to live”, she asked me.

I thought for a moment and then answered that I probably would want to know. I explained that I would want to make decisions and provisions because I live alone and am responsible for my animals. As I told her, I am well aware that if I dropped dead right now, things would be pretty chaotic for a while.

Two and a half years ago, I wrote a post titled Be the Doctor Each Patient Needs. In it I presumptuously coined the phrase I later put right on top of the sidebar of this blog:

Osler said “Listen to your patient, he is telling you the diagnosis”. Duvefelt says “Listen to your patient, he is telling you what kind of doctor he needs you to be”.

I still believe we need to be incredibly sensitive to all the verbal and nonverbal clues our patients give us about what they need. In my 2018 post, I used the analogy of being like a chameleon. That’s not the same as being dishonest. It is a matter of knowing that your education and title give you an authority, an opportunity and an obligation to use your position of trust in your patient’s life to say things they need to hear in order to carry on or perhaps to take the first step in a new direction. We all wear the mantle of a superhero in a sense, and we can use this symbol for good. But that carries a responsibility to use our powers wisely.

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“Tell Me More”

By HANS DUVEFELT

Words can be misleading. Medical terms work really well when shared between clinicians. But we can’t assume our patients speak the same language we do. If we “run with” whatever key words we pick up from our patient’s chief complaint, we can easily get lost chasing the wrong target.

Where I work, along the Canadian border, “Valley French” expressions tripped me up when I first arrived. The flu, or in French le flu (if that is how you spell it – I’ve never seen it in writing) is the word people use for diarrhea. Mal au cœur (heart pain) doesn’t mean angina or chest pain, but heartburn, a confusing expression in English, too.

But even if we are all English speaking, clinicians need to be careful not to assume common words mean the same to everyone.

I have seen many patients complain of anxiety, but not actually be worried about anything. A number of bipolar people have used the word anxiety when, in my personal vernacular, they are really describing pathological restlessness. I once had a patient complain of “nerves” but not have a worry in the world except for his hereditary essential tremor, which he assumed was a sign of untreated anxiety.

People often resist my labeling their symptom as chest pain, insisting that I am wrong about the location and the character of their discomfort. Instead, they might insist it is indigestion or prefer pressure, tightness or heaviness in their throat, epigastrium or even between their shoulder blades. “Chest pain is shorthand for all that”, I tell them.

I hear people use the word dizzy for a gnawing feeling in their epigastrium, and nauseous for a sense of early satiety after eating.

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Five Weight Loss Myths I am Constantly Fighting

By HANS DUVEFELT

1) EXERCISE MORE

I talk to people almost every day who think they can lose weight by exercising. I tell them that is impossible. I explain that it takes almost an hour of brisk walking to burn 100 calories, which equals one apple or a ten second binge on junk food. To lose a pound a week, you need to reduce your calorie intake by about 500 per day – that would be the equivalent of five hours of moderate exercise every day. We’d have to quit our jobs to do that.

2) EAT MORE FRUITS AND VEGETABLES

The other fallacy I hear all the time is that, somehow, adding “healthy” fruits and vegetables can make a person lose weight. I tell them that adding anything to their daily calorie intake will have the opposite effect. I more or less patiently explain that our job is to figure out what to take away instead of what to add. Maybe substituting a fruit for a Whoopie pie is healthy in other ways, but it has almost nothing to do with weight loss.

3) EAT BREAKFAST

A third fallacy is that eating a healthy breakfast will ensure weight loss. To explore this one, I ask: “Are you often hungry?”

So many of my overweight patients deny ever feeling hungry – that gnawing feeling in the pit of your stomach and the low blood sugar onfusion and weakness I feel by 9 or 10 am after doing barn chores on an empty stomach (only coffee).

When I hear “I never feel hungry”, I don’t recommend starting a good breakfast habit because that would likely increase a person’s daily calorie intake. But when I hear that a breakfast skipper goes for the doughnuts mid morning due to hunger, I certainly recommend eating breakfast. When I do, I always point out that the typical American cereal and banana breakfast, along with soft drinks, is actually the major reason for our obesity and diabetes epidemics.

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Screening for Depression: Then What?

By HANS DUVEFELT

Primary Care is now mandated to screen for depression, among a growing host of other conditions. That makes intuitive sense to a lot of people. But the actual outcomes data for this are sketchy.

“Don’t order a test if the results won’t change the outcome” was often drilled into my cohort of medical students. Even the US Public Health Service Taskforce on Prevention admits that depression screening needs to take into consideration whether there are available resources for treatment. They, in their recommendation, refer to local availability. I am thinking we need to consider the availability in general of safe and effective treatments.

If the only resource when a patient screens positive for depression is some Prozac (fluoxetine) at the local drugstore, it may not be such a good idea to go probing.

The common screening test most clinics use, PHQ-9, asks blunt questions about our emotional state for the past two weeks. This, in my opinion, fits right into the new American mass hysteria of sound bites, TikTok, Tweets, Facebook Stories, instant messages, same-day Amazon deliveries and our worsening pathological need for stimulation and instant gratification.

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Why We Need Good Primary Care Physicians

By HANS DUVEFELT

I have made the argument that being the first contact for patients with new symptoms requires skill and experience. That is not something everybody agrees on.

One commenter on my blog expressed the opinion that it is easy to recognize the abnormal or serious and then it is just a matter of making a specialist referral.

That is a terribly inefficient model for health care delivery. It also exposes patients to the risks of delays in treatment, increased cost and inconvenience and the sometimes irreversible and disastrous consequences of knowledge gaps in the frontline provider.

UNNECESSARY SPECIALIST REFERRALS ARE COSTLY

Seeing a high charging, high earning specialist when the primary care provider can’t diagnose and manage the condition involves higher cost and, in many cases, a comprehensiveness that is based on the fact that the patient traveled 200 miles for their appointment. In such cases patents aren’t likely to come back for a two week recheck. Consequently, specialists tend to do more in what may be the only visit they have with a patient.

UNNECESSARY SPECIALIST REFERRALS CREATE TREATMENT DELAYS

For my patients, seeing a neurologist involves a one year wait for the out of state neurologist who does consultations almost 100 miles from my clinic, or a three to four month wait for an appointment more than 200 miles away in Bangor. The situation for rheumatology or dermatology is about the same.

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The Art of Prescribing (Or Not)

By HANS DUVEFELT

I have learned a few things about prescribing medications during my 42 years as a physician. Some are old lessons, and some are more recent. I thought I’d share some random examples.

First: I don’t like to have to use medications, but when they seem necessary, I choose, present and prescribe them with great care.

CHOOSING MEDICATIONS

Medications are like people. They have personalities. With so many choices for any given diagnosis or symptom, I consider their mechanism of action, possible beneficial additional effects and their risk of unwanted side effects when selecting which one to prescribe. To some degree that goes against today’s dogma.

Blood pressure medications, for example, have what I call an A-list and a B-list. The A-list contains drugs with a proven track record of not only reducing blood pressure, but also actual heart attack and stroke risk. Why we choose from the B-list, the drugs that don’t decrease cardiovascular risk or actually increase it, is a little beyond this simple country doctor’s ability to understand.

ACE inhibitors like lisinopril and diuretics like hydrochlorothiazide are the two recommended first choices in this country. But the A-list also contains amlodipine, a calcium channel blocker and, further down, metoprolol, a beta blocker. I make those less favored A-listers my initial choice in two scenarios:

Amlodipine is my choice when I see a hypertensive patient who prefers a set-it-and-forget-it treatment plan. No bloodwork is required after starting it to monitor for kidney or electrolyte problems, so even if the patient doesn’t come back for a year or more, there is no real risk involved.

Metoprolol, which blocks the effect of the stress hormone adrenaline on the cardiovascular system, is what I talked my own doctor into prescribing for me. That was back in the day, when I was a hard working, somewhat Type A personality with high blood pressure. With the passage of time, life experience, weight loss and my transformative relationship with my Arabian horses, my blood pressure normalized and I didn’t need medication anymore.

Years ago, we all selected blood pressure medications according to the “phenotype” (appearance or general impression) of the patient: metoprolol if intense, hydrochlorothiazide if swollen, nifedipine if cold-handed, lisinopril If naturally hypokalemic (low potassium).

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The Art of Explaining: Starting With the Big Idea

By HANS DUVEFELT

We live in a time of thirty second sound bytes, 280 character tweets and general information overload. Our society seems to have ADHD. There is fierce competition for people’s attention.

As doctors, we have so many messages we want to get across to our patients. How many seconds do we have before we lose their attention in our severely time curtailed and content regulated office visits?

I have found that it generally works better to make a stark, radical statement as an attention grabber and then qualifying it than to carefully describe a context from beginning to end.

Once a person shows interest or responds with a followup statement or question, you have a better chance for a meaningful discussion. Just starting to explain something without knowing if the person wants to hear what you have to say could just be a waste of time.

Here are some of my typical conversation starters – or stoppers, if you will:

“The purpose of a physical is to talk about stuff that could kill you, more than about symptoms that annoy.”

“Nothing makes a cold go away faster.”

“Urology is about plumbing, nephrology is about chemistry.”

“Most headaches are migraines.”

“Sinus headaches don’t exist in Europe.”

“I don’t care what your blood pressure is today if you’re scared or in pain.”

“A healthy lifestyle is at least as effective as taking Lipitor.”

“We now know that eating fat makes you lose weight.”

“Cholesterol only causes damage if there is also inflammation.”

“Fat free means high in sugar.”

“I don’t believe in vitamins.”

“Osteoporosis happens to every woman around 80, so is it really a disease?”

“You have to treat 35 men for prostate cancer to save one life.”

“You know how many cases of testicular cancer I’ve come across in 40 years? Three!”

“It takes 45 minutes of walking to burn 100 calories, but only 10 seconds to drink them.”

My brief experience as a substitute teacher for junior high school students as well as my many years as a scout leader taught me that you can’t assume you have people’s attention just because you’re standing in front of them. They will give it to you if they believe you have something interesting to say. You often have less than thirty seconds to prove that you do.

Is our medical knowledge alive enough in our minds that we can share it in a quick, easy and captivating way with our distracted patients?

Hans Duvefelt is a Swedish-born rural Family Physician in Maine. This post originally appeared on his blog, A Country Doctor Writes, here.

There Are Three Kinds of Primary Care, Not to Be Confused With Each Other

By HANS DUVEFELT

Primary care doctors, the way things are organized in this country, perform three kinds of services. If we don’t recognize very clearly just how fundamentally different they are, we risk becoming overwhelmed, burned out, inefficient and ineffective. And, if we think about it, should we really be the ones doing all three?

SICK CARE

Historically, people called the doctor when they were sick. That service has, at least in this country, become more or less viewed as a nuisance in primary care offices. We keep a few slots open for sick people, in part because the Patient Centered Medical Home recognition process requires us to. But our clinics may worry that those slots go unfilled and lead to lost revenue.

Instead, sick people scatter toward emergency rooms with crowding, high overhead and liability driven testing excesses or to freestanding walk-in clinics that only sometimes are integrated with the primary care office but universally staffed by providers who don’t know the patient. These providers, due to staffing cost strategies, are sometimes the least experienced clinicians within their organizations, doing what I feel is the most challenging work in health care – sorting the very sick from the only moderately ill or even completely healthy but worried patients.

In the worst case scenarios, the walk-in clinic is freestanding, operating without any access to primary care or hospital records, starting from absolute scratch with every patient. Some of these clinics are well equipped, with laboratory and x-ray facilities and highly skilled staff. But some are set up in a room in the back of a drug store and staffed by a lone nurse practitioner with minimal equipment and no backup.

Because health care in this country has no master plan, this is what has emerged. If we had a national strategy for health care services, does anybody think it would look like this?

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This is Not Health Care

By HANS DUVEFELT

We use the word health rather loosely in America today. Especially the expression health care, whether you spell that as one word or two, is almost an oxymoron.

Health is not simply the absence of disease, even less the pharmaceutical management of disease. The healthcare “industry” is not the major portion of our GNP that it is because there is a lot of health out there, but the opposite. What consumes so much money and generates so much profit is, of course, sick care. The sicker people are, the more money is spent and earned in this market segment. It is a spiral, and a vicious one.

Health is a naturally occurring phenomenon, a state of perfection. Modern life has corrupted many natural, self-healing biological mechanisms and upended the natural order of things in our bodies – just the way it has altered our environment.

Our bodies are pretty ingenious in their ability to heal. When I crushed my finger in my garage door a few years ago, my disfigured fingertip, bisected nail and contused nail bed slowly regained their original shape, almost like a lizard grows a new tail. Yet in an opposite scenario, a person with scleroderma can lose their fingertip to gangrene without physical injury because of what we call autoimmunity – instead of self healing, our bodies can engage in self destruction. My fingertip could heal perfectly but some people’s skin or stomach ulcers fail to do so.

We intuitively seem to have accepted that, most of the time, nature takes care of itself if we don’t mess with it. And when temperatures rise, forests burn or species go extinct, we are quick to assume our industrial or agricultural processes are the cause.

Yet, we have this head-in-the-sand view of disease that it is a random occurrence, the sudden manifestation of ancient and rare genetic glitches or I don’t know what. The real answer is that much of it is a consequence of what we eat and otherwise expose our bodies to – how we produce and refine food, how we alter its natural properties and how we over- or under-consume basic nutrients.

Functional Medicine asks and answers many of these questions and promises to be the future of medicine. I believe in this, but I also believe that the sick-care industrial complex is powerful enough to severely slow down this revolution. I also believe the food industry will double down its efforts to continue misleading the public.

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Health Professionals Are Tomorrow’s Health Journalists. Here is a Code of Ethics to Guide Us and Trump’s White House Doctor.

By MIKE MAGEE

The patient/health-professional relationship is fundamentally grounded in science and trust, and involves the exchange of compassion, understanding and partnership. The Covid-19 pandemic has challenged this relationship by acutely increasing the nation’s burden of disease, creating new barriers to face-to-face contact, and injecting high levels of fear and misinformation.

Dr. Sean Conley, Trump’s White House physician, in his dodgy and evasive management of legitimate questions from the White House press corps regarding the President’s health, has made matters worse.

As this week’s report on an analysis of 38 million articles on the pandemic revealed, much of the misinformation our citizens have experienced can be traced to a single individual who lacks any health credentials – our own President Trump. Sarah Evanega, the director of the Cornell Alliance for Science and lead author of the report stated, “The biggest surprise was that the president of the United States was the single largest driver of misinformation around Covid. That’s concerning in that there are real-world dire health implications.”

The solution to that specific problem is only one month away – vote him out. But if Trump can be successfully sent packing, how prepared are our health professionals, in the face of these new and complex challenges? A President Biden health reform package will likely include expansion of health care teams, exponential growth of telemedicine, and increasing dependence on reliable information to advance personal health planning.

Today’s modern health professionals are tomorrow’s health journalists. What principles should guide them in their new and expanded role. As a guide, I offer the following:

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