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The Trump COVID Legacy: Bad Timing. Lots of Questions. Few Answers.

By MIKE MAGEE, MD

What a strange irony. Trump decides, full-bravado, to challenge China to a trade war just months before China unwittingly hatches a virulent pandemic that collapses our deeply segmented health care system and our economy simultaneously. And rather than cry “Uncle”, our President then fires the WHO just as their experts are heading to China to attempt to unravel the mystery of COVID-19.

With the ongoing, cascading catastrophe of Trump’s mishandling of COVID-19, it is easy to lose sight that the next pandemic (fueled by global warming, global trade, and human and animal migration) is just around the corner. And we haven’t even begun to nail down the origin story of this one.

Unraveling the transmission trail requires international cooperation. As one expert recently noted, “Origin riddles for other new infectious diseases often took years to solve, and the route to answers has involved wrong turns, surprising twists, technological advances, lawsuits, allegations of cover-ups, and high-level politics.”

What we do know is that there are originators, intermediate hosts, and human super-spreaders….and COVID-19 appears to have begun in China.  These are not new insights. We’ve seen this playbook before.

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COVID-19 & Fertility Care: Remote Monitoring Meets Fertility Benefits for Better At-Home Option

By JESSICA DaMASSA, WTF HEALTH

Trying to achieve pregnancy with fertility treatments can be challenging, stressful, and expensive in the best of times — let alone a global pandemic. Since the COVID-19 outbreak in the U.S., fertility care has been basically “paused,” and women attempting to conceive have been left with a very different set of decisions and options for care than were available pre-pandemic. So, how does fertility care shift from the clinic to the home? Tammy Sun, co-founder & CEO of fertility benefits startup Carrot Fertility, and Lea Von Bidder, co-founder & CEO of Ava, a women’s health tech startup best-known for its ovulation tracking bracelet, stop by to talk about how they are redefining the how, when, and where of fertility care for greater success outside the doctor’s office.

What’s smart about this partnership? How the two companies are working together to build off the biometric data collected by Ava’s tracker, basically adopting a remote monitoring approach to collecting and analyzing data in the home in effort to either help optimize the chances of getting pregnant naturally, or better inform the IVF or other medically-assisted procedures that will return as options as the pandemic wanes. From the impact on would-be-parents and their employers to the sentiment of women’s health investors, we talk through the opportunities and challenges of expanding fertility care in the home.

Community Organizations Can Reduce the Privacy Impacts of Surveillance During COVID-19

By ADRIAN GROPPER, MD

Until scientists discover a vaccine or treatment for COVID-19, our economy and our privacy will be at the mercy of imperfect technology used to manage the pandemic response.

Contact tracing, symptom capture and immunity assessment are essential tools for pandemic response, which can benefit from appropriate technology. However, the effectiveness of these tools is constrained by the privacy concerns inherent in mass surveillance. Lack of trust diminishes voluntary participation. Coerced surveillance can lead to hiding and to the injection of false information.

But it’s not a zero-sum game. The introduction of local community organizations as trusted intermediaries can improve participation, promote trust, and reduce the privacy impact of health and social surveillance.

Balancing Surveillance with Privacy

Privacy technology can complement surveillance technology when it drives adoption through trust borne of transparency and meaningful choice.

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USMLE Step 1 During COVID-19: A Fog of Uncertainty

Marcus Wiggins
Puneet Kaur
Pranav Puri

By PRANAV PURI, PUNEET KAUR, and MARCUS WIGGINS, MBA

As current medical students, the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic represents the most significant healthcare crisis of our lifetimes. COVID-19 has upended nearly every element of healthcare in the United States, including medical education. The pandemic has exposed shortcomings in healthcare delivery ranging from the care of nursing home residents to the lack of interoperable health data. However, the pandemic has also exposed shortcomings in the residency match process.

Consider the United States Medical Licensing Examination (USMLE) Step 1. A 2018 survey of residency program directors cited USMLE Step 1 scores as the most important factor in selecting candidates to interview. Moreover, program directors frequently apply numerical Step 1 score cutoffs to screen applicants for interviews. As such, there are marked variations in mean Step 1 scores across clinical specialties. For example, in 2018, US medical graduates who matched into neurosurgery had a mean Step 1 scores of 245, while those matching into neurology had a mean Step 1 score of 231.

One would assume that, at a minimum, Step 1 scores are a standardized, objective measure to statistically distinguish applicants. Unfortunately, this does not hold true. In its score interpretation guidelines, the National Board of Medical Examiners (NBME) provides Step 1’s standard error of difference (SED) as an index to determine whether the difference between two scores is statistically meaningful.  The NBME reports a SED of 8 for Step 1. Assuming Step 1 scores are normally distributed, the 95% confidence interval of a Step 1 score can thus be estimated as the score plus or minus 1.96 times the standard error (Figure 1). For example, consider Student A who is interested in pursuing neurosurgery and scores 231. The 95% confidence interval of this score would span from 215 to 247. Now consider Student B who is also interested in neurosurgery and scores 245. The 95% interval of this score would span from 229 to 261. The confidence intervals of these two scores clearly overlap, and therefore, there is no statistically significant difference between Student A and Student B’s exam performance. If these exam scores represented the results of a clinical trial, we would describe the results as null and dismiss the difference in scores as mere chance.

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Managing Surgical Wait Times in the Intra-COVID-19 World

Finding the Right Prioritization Model

By JUSTIN SPECTOR

Restrictions on elective surgical volume in hospitals across the United States are causing a dilemma heretofore unseen in the American healthcare system. Surgeons across services have large and growing backlogs of elective surgeries in an environment where operating room (OR) capacity is restricted due to availability of inpatient beds, personal protective equipment (PPE), staffing, and many other constraints. Fortunately, the U.S. is not the first country to experience and deal with this situation; for many countries, this is the normal state of medicine.

By combining the accumulated experience of health systems around the world with cutting-edge technologies, it is possible to make this crisis manageable for perioperative leadership and, potentially, to improve upon the preexisting models for managing OR time.

The first step in creating an equitable system that can garner widespread buy-in is to agree upon a method for categorizing cases into priority levels. Choosing a system with strong academic backing will help to reduce the influence of intra-hospital politics from derailing the process before it can begin.

Why Cases Should Be Prioritized

If your hospital has a mix of surgeons who perform highly time-sensitive cases — cases where patient quality of life is substantially impacted — as well as cases with minor health or quality of life outcomes, it is important to make sure there will be enough capacity to get the higher urgency cases done within a reasonable amount of time. This allows cases in the backlog to be balanced against new cases that are yet to be scheduled and will help to optimize the flow of patients through the OR.

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Contact Tracing: 10 Unique Challenges of COVID-19

Deven McGraw
Eric Perakslis
Vince Kuraitis

By VINCE KURAITIS, ERIC PERAKSLIS, and DEVEN McGRAW

This piece is part of the series “The Health Data Goldilocks Dilemma: Sharing? Privacy? Both?” which explores whether it’s possible to advance interoperability while maintaining privacy. Check out other pieces in the series here.

A worldwide dialog about COVID-19 contact tracing is underway. Even under the best of circumstances, the contact tracing process can be difficult, time-consuming, labor-intensive, and invasive — requiring rigorous, methodical execution and follow-up.

COVID-19 throws curve balls at the already difficult process of contact tracing. In this post we will provide some basic background on contact tracing and will list and describe 10 challenges that make contact tracing of COVID-19 exceptionally difficult. The 10 unique challenges are:

1) COVID-19 is Highly Contagious and Deadly

2) Contact Tracing is Becoming Politicized

3) We Lack Scientific Understanding of COVID-19

4) Presymptomatic Patients Can Spread COVID-19

5) Asymptomatic Patients Can Spread COVID-19

6) Contact Tracing is Dependent on Availability of Testing

7) Contact Tracing is Dependent on New, Extensive Funding

8) Contact Tracing is Dependent on an “Army of Tracers” and Massive Support for Patients

9 ) The Role of Technology is Unclear — Is it Critical Support or a Distraction?

10) The U.S. Response Has Been Fragmented and Inconsistent

The thrust of this post is about traditional boots-on-the-ground contact tracing conducted by public health agencies. We will touch on a few aspects of digital contact tracing (e.g., smartphone apps), but we’ll go into much more depth on digital contact tracing in future posts.

How does contact tracing relate to the theme of this series — The Health Data Goldilocks Dilemma? It’s about obtaining the right amount and types of information — not too much, not too little. Not too much data so that privacy rights or civil liberties are infringed, or that contact tracers are overwhelmed with useless data; not too little data so that public health agencies aren’t handcuffed in protecting our safety in tracing COVID-19 cases.

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Escaping COVID-19

By RAGHAV GUPTA, MD

“In seeking absolute truth, we aim at the unattainable and must be content with broken portions.”

William Osler

A colleague shared an experience with me about testing one of his patients for the novel coronavirus and it left me a bit puzzled.  An elderly gentleman with past medical history of severe COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease) and heart failure came to the ER with shortness of breath, edema and fatigue.  Chest x-day suggested pulmonary edema.  He wanted to test him for SARS-CoV2 but hesitated.  Eventually he was able to order it after discussions with various staff administrators.  Dialogue included sentences like “why do we need testing? He has Congestive Heart Failure (CHF), not COVID-19” and “it could create panic amongst staff taking care of him”. I applauded his persistence as eventually the test was done.  To not test is counter-intuitive and more like an escape from diagnosing the virus rather than escaping the virus itself. 

One – the mere fact that we might hesitate before testing for a virus which is a cause of a (ongoing) pandemic should ring all the bells of concern about lack of an optimal strategy.  Inadequate testing has remained the Achilles heel of our stand against COVID-19 because to have a lasting stand, we must know where to take the stand.  

Two – the concern of CHF raised above is clinical and valid, but it is of grave importance to understand that CHF and COVID-19 are not mutually exclusive.  We now know that even the infamous flu and COVID-19 are not mutually exclusive.  Common protocols from a few months ago to test for flu in sick outpatients and not test for COVID-19 if flu was positive was like the prey closing its eyes and hoping the predator does not see it.  It did defer the use of an already scarce resource at the time, testing.  SARS-CoV2 is a virus and the disease caused by it is called COVID-19.  Virus can be ubiquitous; disease does not have to be.  A patient with CHF exacerbation can be an asymptomatic carrier of SARS-CoV2 but may not phenotypically express the disease manifestations of COVID-19.  Or may be his COPD or CHF exacerbation has happened due to a milder COVID-19 inflammatory response?  What we know about COVID-19 is that we don’t know enough about it and therefore we cannot rule out its presence.  Especially while we are in the middle of a growing pandemic.  

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The Lack of Persuasion as a Failure Against COVID-19

By RAFAEL FONSECA, MD

Reopening safely out of the current pandemic ought to be done via persuasion, not coercion.

It has been more than five months since the world first learned about COVID-19. Models predicted a sharp increase in the number of cases, and a seemingly high likelihood the pandemic would overwhelm our hospitals. These models were often inaccurate, and we have all come to learn about the imprecision of epidemiological prediction.  Nevertheless, the infection is far worse than anyone initially accepted – becoming a staple of our generation. Fearing uncountable deaths and the possible need to prioritize resources for those affected, initial government measures were put in place to curtail the spread of the virus. Images of the Lombardic tragedy compelled all to stay in place and wait for the storm to pass, and with few exceptions most complied. Realizing the gravity of the situation, governments gradually implemented measures to prevent infections.  With some vacillation, we evolved from travel restrictions, to social distancing, shelter in place and universal mask use.

As the pandemic ensued, we watched the horror stories taking place in New York City and Boston. Even while we are in the midst of the so-called first wave, with thousands of deaths per day, many have started to wonder how long society will remain isolated and locked. Politicians look to experts for recommendations regarding policies that might save lives, and for the most part they have complied. However, as the weeks ensue, we see growing jobless claims, lines for food banks, and impatience.

This brewing impatience is a response to an unknown future dictated by the vagaries of nature and the lack of a coherent strategy to resume a life with a resemblance to normal. The public searches for guidance from federal agencies, state governments, and health authorities. A lack of clear direction from these institutions has heightened this anxious impatience. Additionally, the conversation is now ideological, with an almost Manichaean division between those wanting to save lives more so than the economy, and vice versa, creating cartoons of opposing perspectives.  Even for those recognized as  accomplished, dissenting from orthodoxy is punished severely. In the background, the public’s patience is running thinner.

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Even Covid-19 May Not Be Causing Your Doctor To Wash His Hands

By MICHAEL MILLENSON

If you think the grim coronavirus death toll is causing health care workers everywhere to always wash their hands, think again.

A recent research letter published in The Journal of Hospital Infection examined whether it’s “possible to achieve 100 percent hand hygiene compliance during the Covid-19 pandemic.” The medical center involved in the research, Queen Mary Hospital in Hong Kong, had reached a pre-Covid-19 hand hygiene rate of over 75 percent.

Yet the hospital’s goal of complete compliance proved surprisingly elusive. In one pediatric ward devoted to suspected or confirmed Covid-19 patients, doctors and nurses followed hand hygiene rules 100 percent of the time, but in another ward with similar patients and staff, compliance was 83 percent, or about one-fifth less.

Given Covid-19’s risk to providers as well as patients, this was “unexpected,” the researchers admitted. 

The Queen Mary study supports what infection control experts have long maintained: awareness isn’t enough. Doctors and nurses, particularly during a pandemic, understand that hand hygiene is “the most important intervention” to reduce the staggering death toll from infections, as the American Journal of Infection Control put it.

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Primary Care Practices Need Help to Survive the COVID-19 Pandemic

Ken Terry
Paul Grundy

By PAUL GRUNDY, MD and KEN TERRY

Date: June 20, 2022.

The Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History has reported its biggest number of visitors in more than 2 ½ years. There’s a string of new Broadway musicals that are well-attended every night. It’s safe to shop in malls, eat out in restaurants and go to movie theaters again.

Of course, this has all been made possible by an effective vaccine against COVID-19 that was widely administered in the fall of 2021. Vaccinated citizens of the world are now confident that it’s safe to go out in public, albeit with appropriate precautions.

However, U.S. residents who have health problems are facing a new challenge. Five years ago, in 2017, the median wait time of new patients for doctor appointments was six days. In 2022, the wait time is six months or more.

The reason for this is no mystery. While life has started to return to what we think of as the new normal, the U.S. healthcare system has taken an enormous financial hit, and primary care practices have been especially affected. Many primary care physicians have closed their practices and have retired or gone on to other careers. Consequently, the shortage of primary care has been exacerbated, and access to doctors has plummeted. Urgent care centers, retail clinics and telehealth have not filled this gap.

Because of the long waiting times for primary care appointments, many more people now seek care in emergency departments (EDs). The waiting rooms of these EDs are overcrowded with people who have all types of complaints, including chronic and routine problems as well as emergencies. And this is not just a common sight in inner-city areas, as it once was; it’s now the same pretty much everywhere.

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