While Grand Rounds is normally the highlight of everybody’s week here in the medical blogosphere, this time it’s different. This week, we are all – each and every one of us – completely distracted by the most wonderful sense of expectation and joy, to the exclusion of virtually every other human emotion. For DrRich, at least, the feeling puts him in mind of the giddy anticipation he experienced on, say, his 5th Christmas eve, when he was still young enough to consider Santa Claus a magical-but-real agent of earthly delights. (This was before DrRich realized that Santa, being obese, is actually a great menace to society.)
For this, dear reader, is the week when President Obama will turn his considerable powers of intellect, at long last, to the issue of jobs. The President indicated to us more than a month ago that he would, in his own good time, present to us his program for fixing the horrific and prolonged unemployment problem which now affects most American families in some way. And thus realizing that a solution is finally at hand, we in the great unwashed masses have waited, as patiently as we could, through earthquakes, hurricanes, Martha’s Vinyard vacations, and numerous pre-season football games, for the President to tell us the Answer. And, summoning together a Joint Session of Congress – a venue most often reserved for declarations of war and similar life-altering policy initiatives, thus confirming the momentous nature of his coming words – he will finally proclaim to us the Good News, a mere two days from now. One can cut the anticipation with a knife.
So, while it is indeed an honor to be hosting Grand Rounds during this historic week. DrRich must admit to finding it a little difficult to concentrate his efforts. No doubt readers will likewise find it a challenge to turn their attention away from the Big Event long enough to peruse the following posts – the best of the medical blogosphere this week.
But be assured that there is good stuff to follow. So, if you find yourself incapable of focusing your attention on Grand Rounds at the moment, simply bookmark this page, and return to it once your sense of soaring happiness returns (as it inevitably must) to a more normal state. Be assured that this week’s entries are timeless enough to outlive your ecstasy (an emotion which – alas! – to be effective, must always be transient).
So let us begin.
DrRich – having been informed not long ago, by an actual U.S. Attorney who at that moment had him under a form of official duress, that the DOJ is well aware of this blog and the general tenor of its content – always likes to mention early in any long post (so that his minders do not have to read the whole thing) any items that might be helpful to the Administration. Accordingly, we open Grand Rounds this week with the announcement, posted in The Examining Room of Dr. Charles, of the 2011 Charles Prize for Poetry. Dr. Charles has been hosting this prestigious contest – which seeks and awards excellence in poetry touching on health, science or medicine – for some time now, and it has proven to be an exceedingly popular annual event.
In addition to the significant intrinsic merits that accompany the Charles Prize for Poetry, DrRich must note that Dr. Charles is also awarding a not-inconsiderable cash prize to the winners. That is, he is creating what, in our present economic environment, must be considered damned-near jobs. Encouraging employment in the career of poetry is something, DrRich thinks, the President should seriously consider before Thursday night, lest he be tempted to make the huge mistake of attempting to whip up enthusiasm yet again for Green Jobs. (In the wake of the collapse just last week of the heavily-government-subsidized and heavily-Obama-promoted Solyndra Company, and of at least two other companies that received large federal funds for Green Jobs, treading that dead ground again would merely reveal that he is entirely bereft of ideas.) The Administration ought to thank DrRich, and especially Dr. Charles, for this critically important advice. Encouraging poesy, instead of Green Jobs, would demonstrate the kind of new thinking we are all looking for from our President at this critical juncture.
At Dr. Malpani’s Blog, Dr. M. outlines his 3-step approach for helping his patients understand the intricate concepts of in-vitro fertilization. First, you describe how the thing is supposed to work when everything is functioning normally (the “thing” in this case being the human reproductive system). Then, you describe to the patient where the system is breaking down in his/her case. And finally, you describe the options available for mitigating the breakdown. Dr. Malpani’s system, which he points out is generalizable, is aimed at creating a consensus for action when faced with a complex problem.
DrRich will only remark that Dr. M’s system, which works well enough for problems based in human physiology, is proving pretty worthless for problems based in the more social sciences, such as economics. This is because of a fundamental disagreement, among the debaters, on how the economy is “supposed to work when everything is functioning normally.” Progressives and conservatives have very different ideas about this. So Dr. M’s approach, which requires both logic and a fundamental consensus on what constitutes “normal” behavior, is unsuitable to non-physiologic systems.
Dr. Val at Better Health posts a recent interview with Dr. Dori Carlson, president of the American Optometric Association, regarding the importance of screening children for subtle but significant vision problems. (Dr. Val and Dr. Dori are referring here to the kinds of vision problems that involve optics, and not the kind suffered by our political leaders.) The type of gross vision screening which is conducted by most schools misses the majority of these vision problems in children, and those undetected vision problems not infrequently lead to impaired learning. Also, they often lead to misdiagnoses and inappropriate treatment, likely including the misdiagnosis of ADHD. (Missed vision problems constitute only one of the causes for the explosion in ADHD diagnoses in recent years. A more common cause, in our overly-feminized schools, is being a boy. Indeed, as nearly as DrRich can tell, being a boy today is a disease; they have drugs for it and everything.) In any case, if you are a parent of a school-aged child, you should strongly consider having your child’s vision checked by an ophthalmologist or optometrist – especially if somebody wants to put him on Ritalin.
Henry Stern at InsureBlog tells us the good news and bad news about a new study related to heart attacks. He notes that heart attack victims are receiving definitive therapy in American hospitals much more quickly than they were just a few years ago. And when you are having a heart attack, minutes count – the longer that coronary artery is occluded, the more permanent damage is done to your heart, and the higher your odds of death or disability. So the diminished delay to treatment is good news. As usual, though, there is bad news attached. DrRich, always the sunny optimist, does not wish to repeat the bad news. You can go to the InsureBlog to read it for yourself.
The ACP Internist reports a study showing that 80% of today’s doctors look up on-line information in front of their patients. DrRich, who admits to being an Old Fart, does not find this surprising, since young physicians these days are, well, young. And young people are on-line all of the time, reporting their every trivial thought and mundane action instantaneously to the Cloud. (If Andy Warhol were alive today he’d be talking about our 15 minutes of anonymity.) But you don’t have to be a young doctor to take up these new habits. It appears from this new survey that doctors of all age groups have ritualistically placed an LCD screen between themselves and their patients. In so doing, they have awarded to those distant, expert panels – the ones spinning out all those guidelines, pay-for-performance checklists, marching orders, &c – their appropriate and rightful physical position, that is, directly interposed between doctor and patient. This is more than mere symbolism, but the symbolism is delicious.
But, dear reader, please do not be too critical of today’s doctors. If you yourself were a savvy modern physician, realizing that you could go to jail if you do what you think is medically appropriate before checking with the Authorities to find out if it is also allowable, you’d have a computer screen in front of your face too, and you’d be looking stuff up in front of your patients the entire time they were blathering on about their symptoms or whatever. DrRich worries for the 20% of doctors (likely, his fellow Old Farts) who haven’t “gotten it” yet.
Beth Gainer at Calling the Shots makes an important observation about the two classic narratives to which all victims of breast cancer are assigned – the narrative of the triumphant hero, and the narrative of the courageous and noble victim. Ms. Gainer’s observation is that most women with breast cancer do not fit either of these prescribed narratives. Many women are thus left feeling guilty or diminished when they find that their experience is not meeting with society’s expectations. Ms. Gainer is absolutely correct, and indeed, her observation is generalizable. The same thing occurs whenever society’s designated narrative-makers assign a range of permissible attitudes, thoughts and behaviors to any defined group. Mercy on any member of the group who falls outside those designated norms.
David E. Williams at the venerable Health Business Blog addresses the question of how we – society – will cope with the next big trend in the drug industry – the development of “niche” drugs, drugs that are suitable for only a relatively small number of patients and which, therefore, are exceedingly expensive to develop and market. David goes directly to the real question – the problem of niche drugs makes the issue of healthcare rationing unavoidable.
So far, of course, we are doing our healthcare rationing covertly, and in the case of niche drugs that usually means interpreting clinical results in such a way as to minimize their potential benefits. We do this by saying that Drug X “only increases survival by 4 months,” and ignoring the fact that “4 months” is an average value, and that while many patients have no benefit at all, a non-negligible minority may live a lot longer. The question, “Is it worth $50,000 for only four more months of life?” is different from the question, “Is it worth $50,000 to have a realistic shot at living several extra years?” Covert rationing causes us to frame the question in such a way that the answer to any question beginning with “Is it worth. . .” is always, “no.”
At the Road to Hellth, Douglas Perednia, one of the best analysts of health policy writing today, looks at the rationale for the onerous penalties which are required under Obamacare for hospitals whose patients are readmitted at higher than the average readmission rates. Perednia describes the bogus math which the Feds are apparently using to determine what appropriate readmission rates ought to be – and points out the irony of requiring doctors to behave in an “evidence-based” fashion, while the Feds themselves are using frivolous statistics to dole out the equivalent of the NCAA Death Penalty to our hospitals.
Steven Seay, PhD discusses what ought to be second nature to any clinician – applying the principles of the scientific method to clinical practice. That is: gather the necessary data to formulate an hypothesis; institute therapy based on that hypothesis; measure the results of that therapy; revise the hypothesis to reflect this new data; repeat as necessary. This is the way clinical practice should be done. DrRich is happy to learn that it is still apparently OK for clinical psychologists to function in this manner. For physicians, especially PCPs, the scientific method has become forcibly compressed to: make a diagnosis; treat according to the guidelines. While the patient might not do so well with this new method, the physician will be OK, since “quality” will be measured according to one’s compliance with the guidelines. Measuring the actual results of the treatment, of course, would only lead to trouble, and in most cases will be avoided.
James Gault, MD, of the blog Retired Doc’s Thoughts, is a long-time champion of classical medical ethics (as opposed to the New Age medical ethics now formally espoused by all the major professional organizations). As such, Dr. Gault often deconstructs arguments being published by modern medical ethicists supporting these New Age ethics, which require doctors to act for the benefit of the collective rather than for the benefit of their individual patients. In this post, Dr. Gault gives a very effective what-for to Professor Fuchs of Stanford, who, once again, has published a paper advancing the bankrupt argument that what’s good for the collective is necessarily good for the individual. These kinds of vapid arguments may fool the Whippersnappers, but they’re not fooling us Old Farts.
The ACP Hospitalist notes that, according to the Institute for Safe Medication Practices, a “grey market” is developing for life-saving medications that have been in severe short supply for the past few years. A grey market, DrRich thinks, is like a black market, but less illegal – though it is possible they are referring to Old Farts who are merchants. In any case, the ISMP says the grey market is price-gouging hospitals that need those important drugs, and have nowhere else to buy them. The solution, according to the ISMP, is (among other things) to empower the FDA to manage drug shortages and tighten regulations for drug distribution.
The growing, widespread shortage of important medications is indeed a bad problem. We should look for a solution to this problem. Shortages of any product occur when it costs companies more to make the product than they can get for it in the marketplace. Onerous regulatory policies by the FDA which, in the name of product safety, have greatly increased the cost of doing business for pharmaceutical companies, along with recent de facto price controls on generic drugs, have combined to make it economically unfeasible for drug companies to expend large resources to manufacture these drugs. It seems doubtful that piling on even more regulations will improve the situation. And attacking the grey markets will simply drive them further into the dark (since black markets are nature’s way of providing a product when governments act to limit it). Given the expected 500,000 pages of new regulations being conjured up out of the Obamacare legislation, drug shortages are merely the first of many critical medical shortages we will be seeing in the coming years. So it will be instructive to watch how our leaders handle this problem.
In any case, from the job-creation standpoint, DrRich believes there will be many employment opportunities in coming years in sundry black markets related to healthcare. Many skills will be needed, some of which should be quite exciting!
At the Prepared Patient Forum, Trudy Lieberman writes a post entitled “Health Insurance, Meet the Jolly Green Giant,” in which she discusses the new, patient-friendly labels that are supposed to accompany health insurance policies under Obamacare beginning no later than 2014. The labels sound like a good idea, but as Ms. Lieberman points out, there will be problems. For instance, for the Feds to mandate transparency in labeling is unlikely to be all that helpful when, at the same time, they often mandate utter secrecy on the part of providers (for instance, in creating severe anti-trust penalties for doctors who reveal the fees they have negotiated with insurance carriers). But as always, results are far less important than simply meaning well.
Sharp Incisions, a blog written by a self-described “fledgling” medical student, has sent in an affecting post about scrubbing in on a unique surgical case – the harvesting of six vital organs for transplantation from a patient who has been declared brain dead. DrRich prays that Dr. Incisions will maintain for a long time the same sense of wonder and gratitude, expressed in this post, for the gift of life.
A medical student who blogs anonymously at the D.O.ctor Blog, describes her first experience participating in cardiopulmonary resuscitation when it actually counted. DrRich, who in his days as a cardiac electrophysiologist ran hundreds of these things, and who became convinced over the years that three people was the optimal number to run a “code,” admits to being a little taken aback by this student’s description of the event, which sounds like it must have been as complex to coordinate as a Busby Berkeley production number. No wonder she was a little astonished by her experience. DrRich supposes that this must be the new-style CPR mandated by some new guideline or other, and would not be surprised to learn later this week that CPR procedures requiring 15 participants is part of the President’s new Jobs Plan.
Speaking of sudden death, one of DrRich’s recurrent themes here on the CRB is that sudden death is a great boon to our healthcare system (since not only is sudden death itself very cheap, but also it tends to remove individuals who would otherwise continue collecting Social Security, and who tend to have expensive chronic heart disease), and that therefore the government will tend to stifle the prevention of sudden death any time it can. Accordingly, Dr. Wes tells us that the Feds are about to further limit the use of the Zoll wearable defibrillator. Doctors have taken to using this device in high-risk patients during the first month or so after a heart attack, since guidelines specify that ICDs (implantable defibrillators) must not be implanted during this interval. Since sudden death is particularly likely during that first month, the Zoll device is being used as a “bridge to ICD.” Obviously, sudden death being the healthcare system’s friend, this must not be permitted. And so, Dr. Wes points out, soon it will not be.
At the HealthAGEnda Blog of the John A. Hartford Foundation, Marcus Escobedo describes how his father is coping with the decisions that need to be made as he deals with recurrent prostate cancer. Helping elderly patients deal with health issues is the thrust of Mr. Escobedo’s work at Hartford, and his new personal experience, he tells us, drives home the point. Specifically, Escobedo works to assure that elderly patients are considered to be more than just the sum of their disease and their age. DrRich is sorry to have to point out that no less an expert on American healthcare than President Obama has explicitly disagreed with this approach, and on national television to boot. Perhaps when he said this the President was suffering under the influence of teleprompterpenia, and perhaps if he had an opportunity to meet with Mr. Escobedo over a beer in the Rose Garden, he would possibly begin to revise his position to one that is more compatible with the mission of the Harford Foundation. On behalf of America’s Old Farts, DrRich would certainly hope so.
Dr. Thomas Pane writes in the Business, Surgery & Medicine Blog about tantrums, specifically, the kind occasionally thrown by surgeons in the operating suite. His post carries an important Labor Day lesson for anyone who hopes to make a career in the medical field in the coming years, so pay attention:
Everyone can agree that throwing tantrums in the operating room is never a good thing, and that quite often, it is a very bad thing. But Dr. Pane points out that, counterproductive as tantrums often are, they are nonetheless not the worst possible way in which a surgeon can express his/her utter frustration at a bureaucracy that blithely conspires to disrupt surgical procedures at critical moments. He reminds us, once again, that the biggest handicap one can ever have when working in an environment in which bureaucratic mud has fouled every gear is: giving a sh*t. So, while Dr. Pane may or may not agree, here’s the lesson: If surgeons would simply adopt the apathetic, indifferent attitude that classically characterizes long-term survivors in work environments mired by bureaucracy, all would be well.
Jaqueline writes Laika’s MedLiblog, a blog dedicated to medical information science. She submits a post entitled, “PubMed’s Higher Sensitivity than OVID MEDLINE… & other Published Clichés,” in which she shows how medical researchers doing literature searches for, among other things, meta-analyses, will stumble upon various “anomalies” in their searches of the PubMed and OVID databases, and then write additional, CV-padding papers about those anomalies. Jaqueline points out that these so-called “anomalies” are actually well-documented “clichés,” which are well-known to information specialists and anyone else who is competent in doing comprehensive literature searches. In other words, Jaqueline has documented that these meta-analysis researchers are rank amateurs at doing the most critical step in conducting meta-analyses – searching the literature for all the appropriate published studies. DrRich has always mistrusted meta-analyses, and Jaqueline has helpfully identified yet another reason to justify such mistrust. He thanks Jaqueline, and whoever planted those database anomalies which allow us to identify potentially incompetent meta-analysis researchers.
Nicholas Fogelson of Academic OB/GYN writes about taking care of the dying Jehovah’s Witness patient, or rather, taking care of the Jehovah’s Witness patient whose illness is potentially curable but who is dying because he or she refuses to accept blood products. DrRich can attest to how very difficult it is for a doctor to respect a patient’s religion when doing so results in their death. Dr. Fogelson’s description of his evolving attitude regarding this dilemma is compelling.
Need to be uplifted after reading the above post? Read Jordan Grumet’s submission from his blog, In My Humble Opinion. It’s brief and beautifully written, and it reminds us that sometimes our efforts as doctors – which all too often seem futile – can pay off in unimagined ways.
Pranab at the Scepticemia blog points to a news story about a medical school in Mumbai selling seats (that is, entry to medical school) to the highest bidder. He strongly objects to this practice, even though he postulates that his objection will make some of his readers call him “a leftist commie” (which DrRich finds to be the most common kind). DrRich does not agree with Pranab’s (tongue-in-cheek) conclusion that it is America’s fault that Mumbai medical schools are selling seats. (It is actually only George Bush’s fault.) But DrRich does agree entirely that the practice itself is an abomination. Indeed, we can all agree that entry to any career which requires a high degree of skill, talent, and/or intelligence ought to depend on merit, and nothing but merit. Can we not? Good.
DrRich will end by noting that he is finishing this Jobs! Jobs! Jobs! Edition of Grand Rounds during the waning moments of Labor Day, which causes him to fondly recall those long-ago days of yesteryear, when the U.S. still had plenty of steel mills and DrRich was a card-carrying member of the United Steelworkers of America, and the thought of attending medical school had not yet penetrated his still-empty head. And he recalls how, while he was working one day as a lowly laborer, a union boss came over to him to explain (after DrRich had complained about it) the utility of his spending three painful days moving a large pile of slag, employing only shovel-and-wheelbarrow technology, from one location to another – AND THEN BACK AGAIN. Now, those were the days when we knew how to make jobs!
Say, whatever happened to those steel mills, anyway?