I recently took care of Rosaria, a cheerful 60-year-old woman who came in for chronic joint pain. She grew up in rural Mexico, but came to the US thirty years ago to work in the strawberry fields of California. After examining her, I recommended a few blood tests and x-rays as next steps. “Lo siento pero no voy a tener seguro hasta el primavera — Sorry but I won’t have insurance again until the Spring.” Rosaria, who is a seasonal farmworker, told me she only gets access to health care during the strawberry season. Her medical care will have to wait, and in the meantime, her joints continue to deteriorate.
Migrant and seasonal agricultural workers (MSAW) are people who work “temporarily or seasonally in farm fields, orchards, canneries, plant nurseries, fish/seafood packing plants, and more.” MSAW are more than temporary laborers, though— they are individuals and families who have time and time again helped the US in its greatest time of need. During WWI, Congress passed the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1917 because of the extreme shortage of US workers. This allowed farmers to bring about 73,000 Mexican workers into the US. During WWII, the US once again called upon Mexican laborers to fill the vacancies in the US workforce under the Bracero Program in 1943. Over the 23 years the Bracero Program was in place, the US employed 4.6 million Mexican laborers. Despite the US being indebted to the Mexican laborers, who helped the economy from collapsing in the gravest of times, the US deported 400,000 Mexican immigrants and Mexican-American citizens during the Great Depression.
“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?
When Samuel Morse left his New Haven home to paint a portrait of the
Maquis du Lafayette in Washington DC, it was the last time he would see his
pregnant wife. Shortly after his arrival in Washington, his wife developed
complications during childbirth. A messenger took several days on horseback to
relay the message to Mr Morse. Because the trip back to New Haven took several
more, his wife had died by the time he arrived at their home. So moved was he by the tragedy of lost time
that he dedicated the majority of the rest of his life to make sure that this
would never happen to anyone again. His subsequent work on the telegraph and in
particular the mechanism of communication for the telegraph resulted in Morse
code – the first instantaneous messaging system in the world.
Mr Morse’s pain is not foreign to us in the 21st century. We feel the loss of new mothers so deeply that, when earlier this year new statistics on the rate of maternal death were released and suggested that American women died at three times the rate of other developed countries during child birth, doctors, patient advocates, and even Congress seemed willing to move heaven and earth to fix the problem. As someone who cares for expectant mothers at high risk for cardiovascular complications, I too was moved. But beyond the certainty of the headlines lay the nuance of the data, which seemed to tell a murkier story.
First at issue was the presentation of the data. Certainly, as a rate
per live births, it would seem that the United States lagged behind other OECD
countries – our maternal mortality rate was between 17.2 and 26.4 deaths per
100,000 live births, compared to 6.6 in the UK or 3.7 in Spain. But this
translated to approximately 700 maternal deaths per year across the United
States (among approximately 2.7 million annual births). While we would all agree
that one avoidable maternal death is one too many, the low incidence means that
small rates of error could have weighty implications on the reported results.
For instance, an error rate of 0.01% would put the United States in line with
other developed countries.
Surely, the error rate could not account for half the reported
deaths, right? Unfortunately, it is difficult to estimate how close to reality
the CDC reported data is, primarily because the main source data for maternal
mortality is a single question asked on the application for death certificates.
The question asks whether the deceased was pregnant at the time of death,
within 42 days of death, or in the 43 to 365 days prior to death. While
pregnancy at the time of death may be easy to assess, the latter two categories
are subject to significantly more error.
There are many public health
conferences that focus on young people, or that center around youth issues, but
very few that actually include the young people’s voices that we are claiming
to uplift as public health professionals.
There are also very few conferences
that emphasize innovation in healthcare, that are pointed towards solutions
rather than discussing problems at length without clear ways of solving them.
These core issues are at the heart of the annual YTH Live conference. Each year (we’re on our twelfth!), we showcase the boldest technologies in health and cutting-edge research in all facets of youth health and wellness. We also have attendees that range from IT professionals to high school students, with over 25% of last year’s attendees and speakers being young people themselves.
YTH’s Communications Coordinator
Erin McKelle has first-hand experience of this. “I first attended YTH Live when
I was a senior in high school. It was the first conference I ever spoke at and
all of my fears about being the only young person in the room were quickly put
to rest, once I saw that YTH plans a youth conference that actually centers
around youth voices,” she says. “I’m proud to now be working for the
organization years later, after serving on the Youth Advisory Board, paying the
mission of youth empowerment forward to the next generation of youth leaders.”
With everyone talking about health data and being able to impact population health thanks to AI and machine learning algorithms, it ONLY makes sense to talk to a good, ole’ fashioned Public Health Epidemiologist like Maureen Perrin about the science and the philosophy at work behind all that data. Smoking, sex, vaccinations, plastic straw bans — this interview has it all! (Well, mostly in the context of changing behavior at-scale to improve the overall health of very large populations of people.) As everyone from digital health startups to health systems look at data as a way to study then impact behavior change, Maureen reminds us that “data doesn’t always make a difference in terms of how we make decisions” as individuals. What else can you learn from someone who’s made it her life’s work to study how to influence behavior change to reduce everyone’s health risks? Watch and learn…
Filmed in the HISA Studio at HIC 2019 in Melbourne, Australia, August 2019.
Jessica DaMassa is the host of the WTF Health show & stars in Health in 2 Point 00 with Matthew Holt. Get a glimpse of the future of healthcare by meeting the people who are going to change it. Find more WTF Health interviews here or check out www.wtf.health.
Imagine a massive public health crisis in the United States that affects tens of thousands of people. Now imagine that the government had a simple tool at its disposal that could prevent this kind of physical and psychological trauma. You might think that I’m writing about America’s deadly outbreak of gun violence, which has made headlines this summer from Dayton to El Paso.
But actually I’m talking about a different crisis that affects even more people – all of them children — and which could be sharply reduced with one simple step that lacks the bitter political animus of the gun debate. The issue at hand involves babies born to mothers who used opioids during pregnancy – babies who tend to develop a condition called Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome, or NAS.
Experts say that state and federal governments have grossly underestimated the number of NAS babies currently born in the United States, as the addiction crisis triggered by Big Pharma’s greed in pushing painkillers refuses to fade. They say an accurate accounting would find a minimum of 250,000 children — and possibly two or three times that every year born with NAS. These kids will face chronic symptoms such as trembling and seizures, gastrointestinal problems, and an inability to sleep. Their numbers are more than eight times higher than the last official estimate from the government.
For more than a year now, I’ve been working with a team of attorneyscalled the Opioid Justice Team who are fighting for any settlement of the massive court fight pitting more than 2,000 localities against Big Pharma to include a medical monitoring fund for the estimated hundreds of thousands of kids born with NAS syndrome. But our team has also been pushing for radical measures that would prevent many of these unfortunate cases.
A close look at disease and suffering would lead most of us to the same conclusion: our natural environment is inextricably linked to our health. When the Army Corps of Engineers approved the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) in July 2016, thousands of water protectors from across the world gathered in protest. Through staunch, organized resistance, indigenous activists and their non-indigenous allies refuted the proposed pipeline, which now shuttles over 500,000 barrels of oil per day through the Standing Rock Sioux’s sole water supply and most coveted burial grounds.
In December 2016, I joined the thousands at Standing Rock to briefly bear witness to their commitment to protecting the health and well-being of future generations. Eager to assist, I provided medical care to these heroes, many of whom had given up their jobs, quit school, or come out of retirement in solidarity with the water protectors. Their determination and strength became even more inspirational when a blizzard brought -40° F in its wake, trapping everyone inside the camp for several days.
Photo Courtesy of Phuoc Le, MD
After battling corporate juggernauts, state governments, and fossil fuel lobbyists for months, the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and their allies neared victory when the Obama administration denied a permit required for the pipeline’s completion. Just a couple of months later, however, President Trump authorized its advancement and on February 23rd, 2017, the U.S. National Guard evicted the final Standing Rock protestors from the Oceti Sakowin camp. Last week marks the two-year anniversary of that eviction.
By FELICIA D. GOODRUM STERLING, PhD and HEIDI L. POTTINGER, DrPH, MPH, MA
The measles outbreak in Washington state this week has brought new attention to the anti-vaccine movement. In fact, the World Health Organization recently identified “vaccine hesitancy” as one of top threats to global health. In the US, the number of unvaccinated children has quadrupled since 2001, enabling the resurgence of infectious diseases long-since controlled. In fact, the WHO claims a staggering 1.5 million deaths could be prevented worldwide by improved vaccination rates.
Amidst the media and public health outcry, a mystery persists: Why has vaccine hesitancy continued, despite years of vigorous debunking of shoddy science? The answer may lie in a deeply-rooted distrust of doctors and science.
One of the authors of this article, Dr. Pottinger, surveyed hundreds of Arizona parents, from schools with exemption rates greater than 10%, about their perceptions on vaccines. Pottinger and colleagues found the vast majority of the parents surveyed who delayed or chose not to vaccinate their children did so because of true personal beliefs and not convenience. Specifically, they tended to distrust physicians and information about vaccines or held misperceptions about health and disease, including the idea that immunity by natural infection is more effective or that vaccine-preventable diseases are not severe.
These beliefs, stoked by a fraudulent 2010 study, have proven almost impossible to shake—despite the fact that the debunked study, based on 12 children, was retracted due to serious ethical violations and scientific misrepresentation; authors cherry-picked and fabricated data, and the first author had undisclosed business interests in the vaccine industry.
Much of the media coverage following the high-profile suicides of Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain has followed recommended best practices to reduce risk of suicide contagion or “copycat” suicides by including warning signs a person may be at risk of suicide due to depression and contact information for the national hotline for suicide prevention. This overly simplistic approach implies that we can prevent all suicides by reaching out to loved ones in emotional distress and advertising the existence of mental health treatment.
As a psychiatrist who treats individuals hospitalized for acute suicide risk, I am concerned that much of the media coverage has belied the complexity of suicide. While we do not yet fully understand why suicide rates are rising, we do know that suicide is a complex public health problem that will require a multifaceted approach to reduce deaths. Increased awareness of depression as a treatable medical illness is an important but insufficient response to the suicide epidemic.
In defiance of dire predictions, children haven’t been sent to workhouses and women haven’t been chained to utensils after the GOP gained strength in the House and the Senate. And Vivek Murthy, the unabashed Obamaphile, was finally confirmed Surgeon General.
To be honest, I always thought the controversy surrounding Murthy’s nomination because of his stance on gun control was rather daft. Stopping doctors from pontificating over guns, such as the Docs versus Glocks legislation, is like banning me from trying to convert Pope Francis to Hinduism. The legislation is a parody not just for its own sake but because what it seeks to prevent is parody as well.
Murthy’s first challenge is to raise the position of the Surgeon General from that tokenism of a career UN bureaucrat to something vaguely useful. Which means Murthy must resist the call of banality, the banality of ideology and the ideology of making all of mankind’s imperfections public health problems.