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Tag: Saurabh Jha

The Radiology Report

“’Normal’ is one of the most powerful words a radiologist can use”: Curtis P. Langlotz MD PhD, Professor of Radiology, Stanford University

After I used “clinically correlate” thrice in a row in my report, the attending radiologist asked, “How would you feel if the referring clinician said on the requisition for the study “correlate with images”? When you ask them to clinically correlate, you’re reminding them to do their job.”

I had been a radiology resident for six months – too soon to master radiology but not too soon to master radiology’s bad habits. I had acquired several habits, tics to be precise. These tics included saying “seminal vesicles are unremarkable,” which I stated remorselessly on the CT of the abdomen in males, even if the clinical question was portal vein thrombosis, sending, I suspect, several young men to existential despair. But the tic that really got under my attending’s skin was “cannot exclude.”The attending was Curtis P. Langlotz, the author of The Radiology Report, a book about writing effective radiology reports.

Ubiquitous in clinical care, and sometimes parody, radiology reports are enigmatic. What’s most striking about radiology reports is their variability. Reports vary in length, tone, precision and frequency of disclaimers. Reports vary in strength of recommendations for further imaging.

One radiologist may say “small pancreatic cyst, recommend MRI to exclude neoplasm.”Another, aware that the patient may cross St. Peter’s gate sooner rather than later, may bury the findings in the bowels of the report, hoping the clinician will spots its irrelevancy. Yet another, eager to be non-judgmental,might say “small pancreatic cyst, likely benign, but MRI may be considered if clinically indicated,” which, Langlotz notes, is vacuous because with pancreatic cysts there’s nothing clinically the clinician can anchor that recommendation on.

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Data Socialism

In an unusually candid editorial in the NEJM, Longo and Drazen say that data sharing may be problematic because some researchers fear that the data could be used to by others to disprove their results. The editors predicted a new class of researchers who use data created by other researchers without ever taking the trouble to generate data themselves – research parasites.

With this editorial, the NEJM has firmly established itself as descriptive (the way the world is), rather than normative (the way the world ought to be). I, for one, find this move rather refreshing. I have been pumped to a diabetic state by the saccharine naivety of the hopey-changey, “we need this and that” brigade. The editors merely said what some researchers secretly think, and how many actually behave.

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The War on Death

Screen Shot 2016-01-08 at 11.31.53 AMThomas Hobbes described life as pitifully “nasty, brutish, and short.” Thanks to the free market and the state, life is no longer a Hobbesian nightmare. But death has become nasty, brutish, and long.

Surgeon and writer, Atul Gawande, explores the medicalization of ageing and death in Being Mortal. Gawande points to a glaring deficiency in medical education. Taught to save lives and fight death, doctors don’t bow out gracefully and say enough is enough. We’re not taught about dying. We’re taught about not dying.

In our lexicon, life is a constant war against the Grim Reaper. We say inactivity kills; screening saves lives; an intervention reduces mortality by 5 %—an arithmetic impossibility as mortality for our species, barring select prophets, remains 100%. Words have precise meanings. Words also hide precise desires. It’s not that we can’t distinguish between a murderer and colorectal cancer; but by giving cancer moral agency—we wage war on cancer—we imply that death is an anomaly that must be fought.

And we fight. We fight death in the hospices. We fight death in the hospitals. In many parts of the world, more people die in hospitals than in their homes. Some die, attached to a noradrenaline infusion, in the CAT scan—the last pit stop of hope between the intensive care unit (ICU) and the morgue.

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False Positive Mammograms and Cancer Risk: An Epidemiological Whodunit

I enjoyed Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot. Not only did the ingenious Belgian solve the murder so artfully. But someone identifiable is killed and someone identifiable is the killer.

Epidemiological studies are whodunits, too. Except you don’t know who has been killed, what the murder weapon is, or  who the killer is. You only know that a murder may have happened.

A study found a higher incidence of breast cancer with false positive than true negative mammograms. Meaning false positive findings – findings thought to be cancer but aren’t – should lead to vigilance, not celebration.

Here’s an image to help put the absolute difference in perspective: If in the right aisle of a hall there are 600 women with false positive and in the left aisle 600 women with true negative mammograms, one extra woman in the right aisle will develop cancer over 10 years. Once we factor lead time and overdiagnosis, the extra cancer will probably not reduce longevity.

Whether it is the tiny benefit of statins or a tiny absolute risk increase in epidemiological studies, no effect is too small to fret about. The authors, to their credit, handled the results modestly and merely suggested that a false positive status be used in predicting risk of cancer — not that the false-positive result itself somehow causes an increase in cancer risk.

Effect size correlates poorly with media sensationalism. Media coverage was extensive, partly because false positives increasing cancer risk is Twilight Zonish – just when you thought it was safe to go outside.

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Was Martin Shkreli Arrested For Hiking Drug Prices?

Martin Shkreli

I don’t subscribe to conspiracy theories. I never believed a second shot was fired. Nor do I believe that Bill Clinton was stalked on the grassy knoll. So I won’t speculate that Martin Shkreli’s arrest for alleged securities fraud that happened years ago is related to his raising Daraprim’s price by 5500 %.

Just because something isn’t suspicious doesn’t mean that it isn’t odd.

Shkreli is a perfect poster child for rapacious pharmacocapitalism – so perfect that it’s odd. He openly admits “I have a sworn duty to my shareholders to maximize profit.” Shkreli’s admission is odd not for its implausibility, but brazen honesty.

Who, in the business of making money, says they’re in the business for profit?

Elizabeth Holmes wants to change the world, including Africa, by biotechnology, and she has recruited Henry Kissinger, known for his contributions to emerging economies and biotechnology, to help. Even Goldman Sachs believe their work leads to greater good. Their CEO once said banking is “doing God’s work.” I developed a Richter’s hernia reading that.

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Saving Normal

Screen Shot 2015-12-16 at 1.39.02 PMThe iconoclastic psychiatrist Thomas Szasz said that mental illness was metaphorical, not real, because mental diseases lacked biological substrates. The absence of a substrate predisposes psychiatry to overdiagnosis and avoiding overdiagnosis is psychiatry’s biggest challenge. This challenge has been taken up by Allen Frances in Saving Normal. Like Szasz, Frances writes in cultured, erudite prose. Unlike Szasz, Frances believes that psychiatric illnesses are real. To save the mentally ill, to save psychiatry from itself, Frances says we must save normal.

Six years ago, Frances was enjoying retirement after a distinguished career, minding his business sipping cocktails at the annual meeting of the American Psychiatric Association (APA). Psychiatrists were excited about updating the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (the soon to be DSM-V). Frances had chaired the previous edition of DSM, but in the zeal of the latest edition, he saw diagnostic hyperinflation of a frightening scale.

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The End of the NHS?

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Britain’s health secretary wants to uncharm his way to a revolution.

To galvanize support for a seven-day National Health Service (NHS), which the NHS was before Jeremy Hunt’s radical plans, and still is, he asserted that thousands die because there is a shortage of senior doctors during weekends. This is an expedient interpretation of a study which showed that mortality was higher in patients admitted on weekends. Hunt ignored the fact that patients admitted on Friday night are actually sicker than those admitted on Wednesday morning.

When logos failed, and after briefly dabbling with pathos, Hunt resorted to ethos. He insinuated that doctors were clock watchers (“service that cranks up on a Monday morning and starts to wind down after lunch on a Friday”). This led to a hashtag on Twitter: #ImInWorkJeremy.

Hunt wants to modernize the NHS. Leaving aside whether modernization is modernization, post-modernization or pre-post-pre-modernization, presumably this endeavor benefits from having doctors on board. How has Hunt enticed the doctors? He prophesized that GP’s diagnostic skills could be obsolete in twenty years. He wanted to replace doctor’s clinical judgment with computers, sooner rather than later (he’d just returned from Silicon Valley).

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Right Care Action Week – What can Radiologists do?

thcbThe Lown Institute advocates rational use of medical resources. This is a noble goal and worthy of the attention of radiologists. This week is the right care action week. Here are five simple things any radiologist can do this week, and the following weeks. This will improve patient care by avoiding unnecessary tests.

    Speak to the referring clinician, at least sometimes, if not often, perhaps twice a day. The conversation need not be adversarial. Ask before the imaging two simple questions. What will you do if the test is positive? What will you do if the test is negative? Inquire four weeks after the imaging is done if the study changed the clinical management. Inquire politely displaying academic curiosity not, judgmentalism. Appropriate use is a two-way street.

Don’t call pulmonary hypertension if the main pulmonary artery is > 3.1 cm on CT. Yes, I know this is the threshold, but thresholds are arbitrary. The chances that you will pick up pulmonary hypertension incidentally in someone with a 3.2 cm main pulmonary artery are dwarfed by the chances of an unnecessary right heart catheterization to confirm that the pulmonary hypertension was never there. It’s not fun having a right heart catheterization, even though cardiologists are really nice people.

Follow the ACR guidelines on the management of incidental thyroid nodules. Remember, if you pick up a papillary carcinoma of the thyroid, chances are that this will be overdiagnosed. Just ask the South Koreans. Be daring and bury the nodule in the “body” of the report, not the “Impression.”

Don’t leave the decision to following an incidental adrenal nodule, which is over whelmingly likely to be benign, on CT in an eighty year old to the referring clinician by saying “MRI may be obtained if clinically indicated.” Take ownership of the decision. Do we really believe that net societal suffering is reduced by doing chemical shift MRI on adrenal nodules on octogenarians? We are simply diverting their limited time on this planet from their grandchildren to the magnet.

God invented radiologists so that he could not be ruled out. The hedge is important, on occasion. The hedge cannot be a way of life. Please stop saying “sub segmental pulmonary embolism cannot be excluded.” Sub segmental pulmonary embolismis often an overdiagnosis. Let’s save our hedges for real monsters. On a similar note, just say “normal.”

 Radiologists can reduce societal burden of too much medicine. We know the Axis of Futility, by heart.

Saurabh Jha is skeptical by nature not because he hates you. He can be reached on Twitter @RogueRad

What India’s Teleradiology Market Teaches Us About the Future of Medicine

Teleradiology has the same effect on radiologists as Lord Voldemort has on Muggles. It’s the feared end point of the commoditization of imaging, with Rajeev in Bangalore outpricing Rajeev in Chicago for reading follow-up CTs for lung nodules.

But despite the fears of U.S. radiologists, their counterparts in India have more pressing things on their mind.

“U.S. radiologists think that Indian radiologists are [itching] to steal their jobs. We have plenty of work in India,” reassured Dr. Sumer Sethi, director of TeleRad Providers of New Delhi.

A tech-savvy blogger, Sethi founded TeleRad Providers in a flash of inspiration and an appreciation of market forces.

“There is unimaginable competition in private medical imaging in New Delhi,” he said.

A new radiologist wishing to set up shop in one of India’s metropolitan areas faces large upfront costs: There is little discount for a 1.5-tesla MRI scanner. This means one must have abundant spare change floating around — or ancestral wealth. And once the shop is set up, the aspiring radiology entrepreneur embarks on a long and uncertain road toward establishing reputation and market share.

Employment models in the U.S., such as partnership tracks and buying into a practice, are not generally available to Indian radiologists. The alternative to entrepreneurship is working as a salaried employee for a corporate hospital, private imaging center, or government hospital. That was not the career pathway for Sethi, whose teleradiology practice is a pure fee-for-service model.

“It’s a low-cost operation,” he explained. “We read from home.”

An elegant model

The costs of an Indian teleradiologist are certainly low. Sethi does not have to deal with intermediary agents. There are no concerns about using the wrong billing code, and there are no separate state licenses to acquire. The model is elegant in its simplicity. He gets a study, renders a report, and gets paid.

However, the low operating costs belie the actual effort that is required of Sethi to grow his practice. He negotiates with hospitals directly. Being an entrepreneur means recognizing the need for teleradiology, and persuading others of the need and its solution.

Most of Sethi’s clients are hospitals in tier 2 and tier 3 cities in India, the equivalent of Dayton, OH. The hospitals have the machines and patients but not always the radiologists.

“We mostly plug the gaps in the rota at these places,” Sethi said.

This must mean that the radiologists at these centers welcome his efforts, I surmised.

“The scrutiny of our reports is intense,” he said. “This does not mean all our reports are overread. But were we to miss something, we could lose the contract, as the local radiologists would say, ‘See, this is a report from a teleradiologist.’ I tell my team that we must be at the top of our game, always.”

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Satisfaction Scores: How I Almost Made a Hotel Manager Lose His Job

Recently, I was asked to fill a questionnaire during check-out at a hotel in India. I was very pleased with my stay so I agreed to providing feedback. It is worth pointing out that if I was only mildly satisfied I would not have agreed. If I was disappointed with my stay I would have filled the form more enthusiastically.

When I offer feedback I am in one of two extreme emotions: I either love the service or, more commonly, loathe it. There is no time to talk about the average. And I have given up on Comcast.

The form had about twenty questions asking how satisfied I was with various components of their hospitality. I had to choose between one and ten, the higher number for greater satisfaction. I decided to set a record for the fastest completion of the questionnaire. I quickly chose ‘9’ and ‘10’. To appear objective I gave a ‘7’ to a service, randomly. Seven meant “above average”. Nine and ten meant “outstanding” – that is satisfaction cannot be measurably higher.

In the section which asked “how can we do better?” I said “put some more trees.” I didn’t really think the hotel premise needed more trees, but I was on a roll of objectivity. I had to say something.

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