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Tag: Shannon Brownlee

Health Care Needs Its Rosa Parks Moment

On Wednesday, October 25, 2017 I was at the inaugural Society for Participatory Medicine conference. It was a fantastic day and the ending keynote was the superb Shannon Brownlee. It was great to catch up with her and I’m grateful that she agreed to let THCB publish her speech. Settle back with a cup of coffee (or as it’s Thanksgiving, perhaps something stronger), and enjoy–Matthew Holt

George Burns once said, the secret to a good sermon is to have a good beginning and a good ending—and to have the two as close together as possible. I think the same is true of final keynotes after a fantastic conference. So I will do my best to begin and end well, and keep the middle to a minimum.

I have two main goals today. First, I want to praise the work you are doing, and set it into a wider context of the radical transformation of health care that has to happen if we want to achieve a system that is accountable to patients and communities, affordable, effective — and universal: everybody in, nobody out.

My second goal is to recruit you. I’m the co-founder of the Right Care Alliance, which is a grassroots movement of patients, doctors, nurses, community organizers dedicated to bringing about a better health system.  We have 11 councils and chapters formed or forming in half a dozen cities. I would like nothing more than at the end of this talk, for every one of you to go to www.rightcarealliance.org and sign up.

But first, I want to tell you a bit about why I’m here and what radicalized me. My father, Mick Brownlee, died three years ago this Thanksgiving, and through his various ailments over the course of the previous 30 years, I’ve seen the best of medicine, and the worst.

My father was a sculptor and a scholar, but he was also a stoic, so when he began suffering debilitating headaches in his early 50s, he ignored them, until my stepmother saw him stagger and fall against a wall in the kitchen, clutching his head. She took him to the local emergency room, at a small community hospital in eastern Oregon. This was the 1970s, and the hospital had just bought a new fangled machine—a CT scanner, which showed a mass just behind his left ear. It would turn out to be a very slow growing cancer, a meningioma, that was successfully removed, thanks to the wonders of CT and brain surgery. What a miracle!

Fast forward 15 years, and Mick was prescribed a statin drug for his slightly elevated cholesterol. One day, he was fine. The next he wasn’t, not because his cholesterol had changed, but the cutoff point for statin recommendations had been lowered. Not long after Mick began taking the statin, he began feeling tired and suffering mild chest pain, which was written of as angina. What we didn’t know at the time was the statin was causing his body to destroy his muscles, a side effect called rhabdomyolysis. Even his doctor didn’t recognize his symptoms, because back then, the drug companies hid how often patients suffered this side effect.

The statin caught up with Mick at an exhibit in Seattle of Chinese bronzes, ancient bells and other sculptures that my father had been studying in art books his whole career. Halfway through the exhibit, he told my brother to take him home; he was too tired to take another step.

Three days later, he was in the hospital on dialysis. The rhabdomyolysis had finally begun to destroy his kidneys. Three weeks later, he was sent home alive with one kidney barely functional. Soon his health would begin to deteriorate at a steady pace.Continue reading…

An Open Letter to Ezekiel Emanuel on Life and Death

Ezekiel Emanuel

In the October issue of The Atlantic, physician and medical ethicist Ezekiel (Zeke) Emanuel, brother of Rahm Emanuel (former official in the Clinton White House, then Congressman, then Chief of Staff for President Barack Obama, now Mayor of Chicago) published an article why he thinks we should all forgo advanced age and die at 75. As a 69-year-old moving toward 75, my response to that article is this blog post requesting a stay of execution from our newly appointed Czar of American longevity.

An Open Letter to Ezekiel Emmanuel.

Dear Ezekiel Emmanuel:

Please forgive me for taking so long to comment on your article in The Atlantic arguing that we should declare our lives to have reached their productive limit at age 75 and therefore gracefully exit this world before we move into an inexorable decline. Your article – “Why I Hope to Die at 75″ –– appeared in The Atlantic in October and here it is December and I have not joined the 3000 plus people who commented on it earlier. First, I confess, I did not read it until almost a month ago, and then, I had to stew in some juices before figuring out how to reply. You make many good points in your article. Americans do indeed consider themselves to be “immortals,” do prolong death rather than extend life when they push for futile treatments or agree when their physicians who too often recommend them (if they were not so enthusiastically recommended, would so many American patients so heartily sacrifice themselves on the altar of science?) But does the solution to the out of control medicine lie in declaring that 75 should be the age of exit?  See, for example, Shannon Brownlee’s Overtreated.

In your article, you carefully explain why you have picked 75 as the human sell by date.Continue reading…

Bigger Hospitals Mean Bigger Hospitals with Higher Prices. Not Better Care.

Hospitals are busily merging with other hospitals and buying up groups of doctors. They claim that size brings efficiency and the opportunity to deliver more “value-based” care — and fewer unnecessary services.

They argue that they have to get bigger to cut waste. What’s the evidence that bigger hospitals offer better value? Not a lot.

If you think of value as some combination of needed services delivered for the right price, large hospitals are no better than small hospitals on both counts.

The Dartmouth Atlas of Health Care and other sources have shown time and again that some of the biggest and best-known U.S. hospitals are no less guilty of subjecting patients to useless tests and marginal treatments.

Larger hospitals are also very good at raising prices. In 2010, an analysis for the Massachusetts attorney general found no correlation between price and quality of care.

study published recently in Health Affairs offered similar results for the rest of the country: On average, higher-priced hospitals are bigger, but offer no better quality of care.

Continue reading…

How Patients Think

Recently, I had a conversation with Shannon Brownlee (the widely respected science journalist and acting director of the Health Policy Program at the New America Foundation) about whether men should continue to have access to the PSA test for prostate cancer screening, despite the overwhelming evidence that it extends few, if any, lives and harms many more men than it benefits. She felt that if patients could be provided with truly unbiased information and appropriate decision aids, they should still be able to choose to have the test (and have it covered by medical insurance). Believing that one of the most important roles of doctors is to prevent patients from making bad decisions, I disagreed.

After reading Your Medical Mind, the new book by Harvard oncologist and New Yorker columnist Jerome Groopman, I think he would probably side with Brownlee’s point of view. Groopman, whose authoring credits include the 2007 bestseller How Doctors Think, and wife Pamela Hartzband, MD have written a kind of sequel to that book that could have easily been titled How Patients Think. Drawing on interviews with dozens of patients about a wide variety of medical decisions – from starting a cholesterol-lowering drug, to having knee surgery, to accepting or refusing heroic end-of-life interventions – the authors explore many of the factors that influence people’s health-related choices. The result is a compelling narrative that seamlessly blends “rational” factors such as interpreting medical statistics and decision analysis with personal factors such as past experience, emotional states, and personality styles.

Continue reading…

Why We Should Think Twice About Getting A CT Scan

There’s an eerie video up on YouTube, shot by a Japanese journalist who ventured into the evacuation zone surrounding the Fukushima nuclear power plant, armed with a camera and a radiation meter. The video looks like b-roll footage from a low-budget zombie movie, with roving bands of stray dogs and a soundtrack of the radiation meter’s increasingly frantic beeping.

Shortly after the earthquake that damaged the plant, the Japanese government evacuated residents from a more than 1,000 square mile zone. Last week, they raised the severity level of the crisis at Fukushima to a 7 out of 7, making it the worst nuclear disaster since the complete meltdown of the reactor at Chernobyl, in 1986. In its wake, worldwide fear of nuclear power spiked. The German government shut down seven of its 17 nuclear reactors, and plans to eliminate nuclear power by 2020. In the U.S., a Fox News Poll conducted in early April found that 83 percent of respondents thought a similar disaster could happen to an American nuclear plant.

People fear radiation for good reason. All ionizing radiation passes unimpeded through cells of the body, mutating or destroying DNA along the way. The danger level depends on the dose and the length of exposure. We’re exposed to small amounts of radiation all the time — from cosmic rays to the normal radioactive decay of soil, rocks and building materials. Even the granite in the U.S. Capitol Building emits low levels of radiation. These levels are harmless, but a high dose can kill, and prolonged or repeated moderate exposure can lead to cancer.Continue reading…

Save Money on Medical Costs – Get Your Old Medical Records

There are many tips to saving money on medical costs like asking your doctor only for generic medications, choosing an insurance plan with a high deductible and lower monthly premiums, going to an urgent care or retail clinic rather than the emergency room, and getting prescriptions mailed rather than go to a pharmacy.

How about getting your old medical records and having them reviewed by a primary care doctor?  It might save you from having an unnecessary test or procedure performed.

Research shows that there is tremendous variability in what doctors do.  Shannon Brownlee’s excellent book, Overtreated – Why Too Much Medicine Is Making Us Sicker and Poorer, provides great background on this as well as work done by the Dr. Jack Wennberg and colleagues on the Dartmouth Atlas. Some have argued that because of the fee for service structure, the more doctors do the more they get paid.   This drives health care costs upwards significantly.  Dr. Atul Gawande noted this phenomenon when comparing two cities in Texas, El Paso and McAllen in the June 2009 New Yorker piece.

Between 2001 and 2005, critically ill Medicare patients received almost fifty per cent more specialist visits in McAllen than in El Paso, and were two-thirds more likely to see ten or more specialists in a six-month period. In 2005 and 2006, patients in McAllen received twenty per cent more abdominal ultrasounds, thirty per cent more bone-density studies, sixty per cent more stress tests with echocardiography, two hundred per cent more nerve-conduction studies to diagnose carpal-tunnel syndrome, and five hundred and fifty per cent more urine-flow studies to diagnose prostate troubles. They received one-fifth to two-thirds more gallbladder operations, knee replacements, breast biopsies, and bladder scopes. They also received two to three times as many pacemakers, implantable defibrillators, cardiac-bypass operations, carotid endarterectomies, and coronary-artery stents. And Medicare paid for five times as many home-nurse visits. The primary cause of McAllen’s extreme costs was, very simply, the across-the-board overuse of medicine.

Doctors apparently seemed to order more tests.  Patients, not surprisingly, agreed.  After all, without adequate medical knowledge or experience, how sure would you be if a doctor recommended a test and you declined?Continue reading…

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