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Tag: Saurabh Jha

In Defense of the Defense of Mammograms

To the two certainties of life, death and taxes, add another two: mammograms and controversy surrounding mammograms.

The Canadian National Breast Screening Study (CNBSS) has reported results of its long term follow-up in the BMJ: no survival benefit of screening mammograms.

To paraphrase Yogi Berra “it’s mammography all over again.”

Is the science settled then?

No.

Before I wade further it’s important to understand what is implied by “settling the science.”

Einstein said “no amount of experimentation can prove me right; a single experiment can prove me wrong.”In physical sciences a theory need only be disproven once for it to be cast aside. Heliocentricity cannot coexist with Ptolemy’s universe. The statement “all swans are white” is disproven by a single black swan.

What do we do with the studies that showed survival benefit of screening mammograms? Why does the CNBSS not close the debate over mammograms, like Galileo did with celestial egocentricity?

The simple and simplistic answer is because there are powerful advocacy groups, special interests; the pink-industrial complex who have a vested interest in undermining the science.

But that lends to conspiratorial thinking. Special interests cannot undermine Maxwell’s equations or Faraday’s laws just because they do not like them.

The testability of Maxwell’s equations is inherently different from verifying that screening mammograms increase life expectancy. We must acknowledge two types of science; the former, physical science, a hard science; the latter, a hybrid of biology and epidemiology, soft science.

Soft science is a misnomer. There is nothing soft about performing a randomized controlled trial (RCT), the methodological gold standard; in ensuring factors that falsely augment or attenuate impact of screening mammograms are evenly distributed, data reliably collected, cause of death accurately recorded and correctly inferred. But the human factor and all its inevitable foibles are unavoidable in soft sciences.

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Ode to the Fat Man

Here is a sweeping generalization: When doctors write for the lay public they tend towards tiresome self-flagellation.

Samuel Shem’s House of God is an exception; a refreshing read.

Perhaps he wrote for physicians so he wrote with such open face honesty.

In today’s politically correct world, Shem would have been castigated as an ageist for his brilliant acronym, GOMER (Get out of My Emergency Room), for peri-ninety year olds with advanced dementia who are skirting that narrow zone between St. Peter’s Gate and fractured ribs post-CPR.

Time for a pronouncement for medical students: There are two things you must do before starting your internship. Pass your USMLEs and read House of God.

I have read Shem’s classic twice. I remember the Rules of House of God more reliably than I recall the names of the carpal bones.

My first read was a few days in to my internship in elderly care medicine. The hospital was a rickety establishment in Britain’s National Health Service, not quite the Best Medical School that Shem described. But I seemed to share the same clinical experiences as Roy Basch, Shem’s Gomer-phobic protagonist.

There was a deluge of Gomers on New Year’s Eve; the old practice of granny dumping. I had to justify admission by finding nitrates in their urine for suspected urinary tract infection (grandson attending New Year’s bash still does not have an ICD code), or the vaguest T wave changes on EKG (unstable angina is a useful bet in a 90 year old).

If medical taxonomy could not be clinically justified there was always “acopia.”

Shem was remarkably prescient.

Take rule 13:
“The delivery of good medical care is to do as much nothing as possible.”  This was before physicians were inserting stents through rock hard femoral arteries to give patients an aggregate of two extra hours of survival.

Basch’s elderly patients would do the best precisely because his caring was the least aggressive. He would occasionally forget to prepare them with laxatives for a barium enema, saving them from dehydration and its cascade.

If Shem realized in the seventies that nothing was more futile than an investigation leading to a futile treatment, God knows what he would have written today.

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The Conservative’s Faustian Fear

Avik Roy has done the unthinkable. In a recent op-ed title he used “conservative’s case” and “universal healthcare” in the same sentence. And bridged these disparate words by the preposition for.

Spoiler alert: Roy has asked Republicans to embrace universal healthcare.

The Twitterverse is abuzz. An angry Gary P. Jackson, a self-affirmed conservative, tweeted:

“there is NEVER a conservative case for Marxism….especially Universal healthcare.”

Stated differently, universal healthcare is the worst form of Marxism except for all other forms of Marxism.

Thus far Roy has not been asked to produce his birth certificate, which is just as well. Roy, a prolific Forbes columnist and a scholar at the Manhattan Institute, was healthcare policy adviser to Mitt Romney. He is not a cheerleader of the Affordable Care Act.

There are things one may disagree with Roy. However, his short treatise, How Medicaid Fails the Poor, was impressive, as it deftly dealt with Medicaid’s structural problems. That a right-of-center policy analyst would write a book with that title is one of the many ironies I am now accustomed to encountering (the other delicious irony was the love of Cadillac health plans by unions).

In The Washington Examiner and National Review Online, Roy urges conservatives to acknowledge and embrace universal healthcare, in no uncertain terms:

“…[conservatives] have to agree that universal coverage is a morally worthy goal.”

The arguments put forward by Roy are pure common sense. No one objects to public education as “socialized education.”  If conservatives are afraid that universal healthcare means big government, government is already heavily involved in healthcare.

And not just Medicare, which a certain tea party placard asked the government to keep its hands off!
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One Libertarian’s Dilemma: Genetic Testing or the FDA

An advantage astrologers have over genetic testing is that the prediction of astrologers are personally verifiable. An astrologer once emphatically stated that I had no chance of a career in international cricket or Bollywood. So far both claims have turned out to be remarkably accurate.

How does one personally verify a “12.5 %” increased chance of lung cancer, the sort of number the vendor for genetic testing 23andMe produces? If one develops lung cancer how would one know that the chances were indeed 12.5 %, not 6.25 % or 25 %?

We die only once. Whether one ends up with lung cancer or doesn’t, the veracity of the claim can be made only empirically. Meaning we need to see how many develop lung cancer out of 10, 000 people just like us.

Yet there is an element of scientific precision in the number, augmented by the decimal point. And it is precisely because genetic testing tends towards science not metaphysics that it falls within the dominion of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). FDA does not regulate palm readers.

FDA has asked 23andMe to stop sales of its genomic testing.

As a libertarian seeped in the Austrian school of Economics, I am generally disposed against regulations. I also share the sentiments of the monetarist Milton Friedman that the true costs of the FDA must also include the treatment opportunities foregone in their lengthy review process.

So it hurts me to be somewhat sympathetic of FDA’s stance on 23andMe, even as I think an outright ban was a tad harsh.

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How Can Patients on Medicaid Possibly Be Worse Off than Those Who Don’t Have Insurance?

“Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence,” said Carl Sagan.

The claim that health insurance improves health outcomes is hardly ground breaking. Studying whether insurance affects health status is like wondering whether three meals a day lead to a higher muscle mass than total starvation.

Well that’s what I thought. Until I read the study on Oregon’s Medicaid program by Baicker and colleagues in the NEJM earlier this year and, more recently, Avik Roy’s short treatise “How Medicaid Fails the Poor”.

Baicker et al found that Medicaid enrollees fared no better in terms of health outcomes than those without insurance. That is, no insurance no difference.

The study is an exemplar of policy research laced with regression equations, control of known confounders and clear separation of variables. There is only so much rigor social science can achieve compared to the physical sciences. Yet this is about as good a study as is possible.

The one thing the study did not lack was sample size. It’s useful to bear in mind sample size. Large effects do not need a large sample size to show statistical significance. Conversely, if study with a large sample size does not show even a modest effect, it means that the effect probably does not exist.

There are several interpretations of the Medicaid study, interpretations inevitably shaped by one’s political inclination. The ever consistent Paul Krugman, consistent in his Samsonian defense of government programs against philistines and pagans, extolled critics of Medicaid as “nuts” and asked, presumably rhetorically, “Medicaid is cheaper than private insurance. So where is the downside?”

Unlike Krugman I am not a Nobel laureate and am about as likely to win a Nobel Prize as I am of playing the next James Bond, so it’s possible that I am missing something blatantly obvious.  Could the downside of a government program paying physicians, on average 52 cents, and as low as 29 cents, for every dollar paid by private insurance in a multiple payer system be access?

Indeed, it’s darn impossible for patients on Medicaid to see a new physician.  As Avik Roy explains “…massive fallacy at the heart of Medicaid….It’s the idea that health insurance equals healthcare”.

But wait. It gets better.

I am accustomed to US healthcare throwing more plot twisters than Hercule Poirot’s sleuth work. But one I least expected was that patients on Medicaid do worse than patients with no insurance (risk-adjusted, almost). I am not going to be that remorseless logician, which John Maynard Keynes warned us about, who starting with one mistake can end up in Bedlam, and argue that if you are for Medicaid that is morally equivalent to sanctioning mass murder. Rather, I ask how it is possible that possessing Medicaid makes you worse off than no insurance whatsoever.

To some extent this may artifactually appear so because poverty correlates with ill health, and studies that show Medicaid patients faring worse than uninsured, cannot totally control for social determinants of health.

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Healthism: The New Puritanism

Here is a thought experiment. Assume that every hour you run you extend your life by an hour.

I have chosen a one-to-one ratio between the increase in longevity from running and the time running because higher ratios lead to the immortality paradox. Lazarus aside, the all-cause mortality for Homo sapiens is 100 % and will remain so for the foreseeable future.

This arithmetic means that at one point you will literally be running for your life: your life being extended precisely by the time spent running. But ignore this logical fallacy.

You run an hour every day for 40 years. Your life is extended by 1.67 years. Your costs are a new pair of running shoes every three months, which might even be covered at zero co-payment by insurance if USPSTF gave running a grade A or B recommendation.

A back of the envelope calculation, assuming the shoes cost $ 80, yields cost per life year of roughly $7664. There is, of course, more nuance. I am not including injuries that may result from running. I am not discounting time: I am assuming we value an hour now the same as an hour 40 years from now.

I am also not factoring the costs avoided of treating late stage cardiovascular disease, which must be balanced against the additional social security checks that the individual will draw because of living longer, not to mention the costs of treating diseases of extended longevity such as cognitive impairment, Alzheimer’s disease, recurrent falls.

But please continue to indulge my approximation. The point is not precision of economic calculations but a principle.

$7664 for an additional life year. Compared to the benchmark of $50, 000 per quality-adjusted life year that’s a bargain!

Was it worth it then?

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Radiologist: Thou Shalt Disclaim by Law

There is an old joke. What’s a radiologist’s favorite plant? The hedge.

Radiologists are famous for equivocating, or hedging.

“Pneumonia can’t be excluded, clinically correlate”. Or “probably a nutrient canal but a fracture can’t be excluded with absolute certainty, correlate with point tenderness”.

Disclaiming is satisfying neither for the radiologist nor the referring physician. It confuses rather than clarifies. So one wonders why legislators have decided to codify this singularly unclinical practice in the Breast Density Law.

The law requires radiologists to inform women that they have dense breasts on mammograms. So far so good.

The law then mandates that radiologists tell women with dense breast that they may still harbor a cancer and that further tests may be necessary.

You may quibble whether this disclaimer is an invitation or commandment for more tests, or just shared decision-making, the healthcare equivalent of consumer choice.

But it’s hard to see why any woman would forego supplementary tests such as breast ultrasound, magnetic resonance imaging and 3 D mammogram, or all three, when their anxiety level is driven off the scale.

What piece of incontrovertible evidence inspired this law, you ask?

Perhaps a multi-center trial run over 10-15 years that randomized women with dense breasts to (a) mammograms plus additional screening and (b) screening mammograms alone, show that additional screening saves lives, not just find lots of small inconsequential cancers.

No. The law was instigated by a heart-rending anecdote, which avalanched into the “breast density awareness” movement, cloaked by an element of scientific plausibility: women with dense breasts may have a higher incidence of cancer; a conjecture of considerable controversy.

Wasn’t  the Affordable Care Act (ACA) supposed to usher an era of rational policy-making, guided by p values, statistics not anecdotes?

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