The conventional wisdom in the circles I hang out in – pro-Hillary, morally conscious,happy bunnies who pretend to enjoy French wine and opera – is that the greatest scourgeon humanity after the bubonic plague is inequality of wealth. They worship Pope St. John Paul Piketty and canonize Archbishop Paul Krugman. Not only is inequality bad for its own sake, they say, it makes people ill, like medically ill.
Their premise always struck me as specious. I once took them through a thought experiment. Imagine, I said, you time travel to the Bengal famine. There was a lot of equality then – people were equally malnourished. Everyone’s ribs protruded equally because of muscle wasting from marasmus. The loss of protein from kwashiorkor made sure everyone’s belly popped out without prejudice. Starvation because of poverty is a great leveler. It cares little about gender, caste or religion. It is non-judgmental.
It was Boxing Day weekend. The consultant surgeon summoned the on-call team. “We face a calamity,” he said. The house officer had called in sick. The locum wasn’t going to arrive for another 12 hours. This meant that I, the senior house officer, would have to be the house officer. The registrar would take my place. The consultant, looking tense, would have to be the registrar—i.e. a junior doctor again.
“Junior doctor” is a misnomer because it implies a master and an apprentice. Running the National Health Service (NHS) are apprentices who become Jedis very quickly, and without a Ben Kenobi showing them the ropes.
I’ll never forget my first night on-call in the emergency room (ER). I was one of two junior doctors managing a busy inner city ER in London from midnight to 8 am. Just a year earlier, I was an errant medical student bunking lectures. Now I had to see people with heart attacks, strokes, and broken bones. Seeing the terror on my face, the senior nurse reassured me. “Just look as if you know what you’re doing. We’ll handle the rest.”
Of life’s two certainties, death and cataracts, it seems statins defer one and prompt the other, although not necessarily in the same person. If you blindly love life you may be blinded by your love for life.
In the HOPE-3 trial, ethnically diverse people without cardiovascular disease were randomized to 10 mg of rosuvastatin daily and placebo. The treatment group had fewer primary events – death from myocardial infarction (MI), non-fatal myocardial infarctions, and non-fatal stroke. For roughly ten MIs averted there were seven excess cataracts. Peter may be blinded without being saved. Paul may be saved without being blinded. And then there is Rajeev who may be blinded and saved. But the very nature of primary prevention is that you don’t know you’re Peter, Paul or Rajeev. So everyone is grateful to statins. Not even God of the Old Testament had such unconditional deference.
Once you’re taking statins there is no way to disprove that any and every breath you draw is because of statins. Statins enjoy the metaphysical carapace, the immunity from falsification, which not even God enjoys. At least you can experiment with God. Don’t pray for a week and see if you’re still alive- you know if God really cares about prayer-adherence. Even if you die at age 55 on statins, you can never disprove that you wouldn’t have died sooner if you weren’t taking statins.
It is possible that in a few months from now, only Nate Silver’s prediction models will stand between Donald Trump and the White House. I will leave it to future anthropologists to write about the significance of that moment. For now, the question “What will President Trump be doing when he is not building a wall?” has assumed salience.
This is relatively easy to answer when it comes to health policy. Just ask what people want. Seniors don’t want Medicare rescinded. Even the free market fundamentalist group, the Tea Party, wants Medicare benefits as they stand. At one of their demonstrations against Obamacare a protester warned, without leaving a trace of irony, “Government, hands off my Medicare.”
Rest assured, Trump will protect Medicare. Even raising the eligibility age for Medicare may be off the cards as far as he is concerned. He has promised that no one will be left dying on the streets. That people no longer die on the streets, but in hospitals, because emergency rooms must treat patients regardless of their ability to pay, is irrelevant. The point is that Mr. Trump knows that the public values their healthcare. Trumpcare will show that Trump cares.
I like healthcare journalists. Some of my best friends are healthcare journalists. I’d rather read Larry Husten on clinical trials than the constipated editorials in peer review journals. Healthcare journalists are an important force against overdiagnosis, overtreatment, overprescription, overdoctoring and overmedicalization. They’re articulate and skeptical. But they seem to have a blind spot – overoutrage.
Overoutrage is excessive moral outrage. Outrage is excessive anger. Anger is excessive emotion. Emotion is excessive anti-reason. Overoutrage is the mother of all overdoing.
Overoutrage is the healthcare journalist’s kryptonite. These skeptical Rotweillers become credulous poodles when they see overoutrage. Overoutrage axiomatically assumes a moral high ground – for the transgression must have been severe for the outrage to occur. Overoutrage is circular reasoning without an exit. Overoutrage is more powerful than any randomized controlled trial. Much of healthcare policy, indeed civic life, is shaped by it.
A recent event highlights this phenomenon very well. NEJM’s national correspondent, Lisa Rosenbaum, wrote about a surgeon’s determined, and widely publicized, advocacy to ban morcellation, a procedure to treat uterine fibroids. Dr. Hooman Noorchashm’s wife, Amy Reed, underwent morcellation to treat uterine fibroids. Unbeknownst, she had uterine cancer, and the morcellation almost certainly worsened the prognosis by spreading the cancer beyond the uterus. Banning morcellation would be a no-brainer except that morcellation has fewer complications than open surgery for fibroids, and that the chances of undiscovered uterine cancer in a woman with fibroids are exceedingly rare.
As a general rule, if you keep clobbering a body part it may, in the long run, get damaged. This is hardly rocket science. Soldiers marching long distances can get a stress fracture known as “March fracture.” The brain is no exception. Boxers can get “dementia pugilistica.” This is why we frown upon people who bang their heads against brick walls.
Footballers are at risk of brain damage, specifically a neurodegenerative disease known as chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). CTE was described in a football player by forensic pathologist, Bennet Omalu, who performed an autopsy on Michael Webster, a former Pittsburgh Steeler. Webster died of a heart attack but had a rapid and mysterious cognitive decline. Webster’s brain appeared normal at first. When Omalu used a special technique, he found a protein, known as tau, in the brain.
Omalu’s discovery inspired the movie Concussion in which Will Smith plays the pathologist. The Fresh Prince plays convincingly a god-fearing, soft-spoken but brilliant physician, who is up against incredulous colleagues and the National Football League (NFL). The NFL clearly has a lot to lose from Omalu’s discovery. However, the director’s attempt to emulate The Insider, where big tobacco tailgates the scientist, fails at many levels.
“’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.
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.
Thomas 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.
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.