The Immeasurable Value of Continuity of Care

Today I visited my internist for a checkup and flu shot. We talked about how I’m doing, and she examined me, and we discussed what procedures I ought have done and not done. She’s been my doctor since the summer of 1987, when I was an intern at the hospital.

We reviewed so much that has happened in the interim.

How rare it is, now, to have a doctor who knows me. Continuity in care is so valuable.

One of my greatest fears is being in the hospital again, and having hospitalists – doctors who work full-time in the hospital – be the ones to see me each day, and make decisions about what I need. Yet I’m bracing for it because, well, that’s how it is, now.

From a health care administration perspective, I recognize the value of delegating inpatient care to physicians who are not my usual doctors. And from the perspective of a physician who after hours and on weekends, would walk to and from the hospital, back and forth, countless times, to see my patients when they were sick, I know it’s neither cost-effective nor wise for physicians to push themselves to get over to the hospital before or after they’ve gone home, and called everyone back, and maybe eaten dinner. Doctors need rest, too.

But as a patient, when I’ve been in the hospital, nothing was more reassuring than visits by my usual doctors – my internist, my oncologist, my surgeon, my orthopedist…Being cared for by strangers, however competent, is not the same, although there may never be a study to prove it.

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Notes on Kris Carr and Crazy Sexy Cancer

I’m half-tempted to put down yesterday’s new NYT Magazine feature on crazy sexy cancer goddess Kris Carr. Her blog was one of the first I found when I started ML, and it was the most popular link on my fledgling site until I pulled it, fearful of somehow sponsoring a too-alternative oncology perspective.

But I give Carr credit, sincerely: Crazy Sexy Cancer is a lot more appealing a title than, say, Medical Lessons. I’d read CSC, for sure, if I had a new diagnosis or, maybe, if I were alone and bored or suffering from a condition like chronic fatigue syndrome or insomnia and hadn’t gone to med school. Even for people who really have cancer, letting loose and being attractive sounds, well, like a lot of fun.

Kris Carr has played her C-card like a Queen of Diamonds. You go, girl!

So this morning I pulled a hard-cover edition of Cancer: Principles and Practice of Oncology, 7th Edition (2005; Lippincott, Williams & Wilkins; edited by DeVita, Hellman and Rosenberg) off my shelf and looked up Carr’s stated disease, epithelioid hemangioendothelioma. Being the old-fashioned woman that I am, I read about EH* in print. Only then did I discover a handy, unopened CD housed inside the cover of the “oncology bible,” as we used to call this text.

the editors, 'Cancer: Principles and Practice of Oncology,' Lippincott

DeVita and his colleagues classified this condition as a vascular tumor in a chapter on sarcomas, in a section on tumors that develop in smooth muscle. Now, at risk of boring my readers with the medical “scoop” on this strange and sometimes benign-behaving sarcoma variant:

As its name implies, epithelioid hemangioendothelioma is an angiocentric vascular tumor with metastatic potential…These lesions may appear as a solitary, slightly painful mass in either superficial or deep soft tissue. Metastases to lung, regional lymph nodes, liver, and bone are reported. Another pattern is that of a diffuse bronchoalveolar infiltrate or multiple small pulmonary nodules. This entity has also been called IBVAT…can also arise in the liver, often presenting as an incidental finding or as part of a workup for mild elevation of liver enzymes or vague abdominal pain. Multiple liver nodules are the rule. Although these lesions can metastasize, they usually run an indolent course. Liver transplantation has been performed…

This sounds scary, sure, but the bottom line is that this tumor falls into unchartered oncology territory because they’re so rare. As reported in the Times piece there are only 40-80 cases per year in the U.S. A reference in the textbook, above, leads to a 1989 report in the American Journal of Surgical Pathology. In that study of 10 cases, the authors describe an unpredictable course for the disease.

As told by Mireille Silcoff in the magazine, EHE comes roughly in two forms: one’s aggressive and one’s not. So what the oncologist at Dana Farber suggested – that she go about her life, and “let the cancer make the first move” – was a reasonable strategy, one that allowed them (patient and doctor) to find out, over time, what would be the nature of her particular EHE.

Carr lucked out: She has the “good EH” as Larry David might say. So far, at least, she’s enjoyed a  productive, enterprising  life with cancer. From the Times:

She was given the diagnosis in 2003 and rose to prominence with a 2007 documentary called “Crazy Sexy Cancer.” She subsequently wrote two successful books— “Crazy Sexy Cancer Tips” and “Crazy Sexy Cancer Survivor” — about her peppy, pop-spiritual approach to her disease, and she soon became what she sometimes describes as a “cancerlebrity” or, at other times, a “cancer cowgirl.”

Now she has a blossoming business. At the cafe, she laid it all out while sipping a coconut-vanilla chai with soy. Her blog postings are being syndicated, she has pending sponsorship contracts, her weekend workshops are thriving and she has provided one-on-one coaching sessions on Skype ($250 for 90 minutes). She also just bought a farm — 16 acres complete with two houses, a barn, a meadow and a forest…

Am I jealous? Sure, maybe, some…But I’d be hopeless on a farm.

Besides, she hasn’t received chemo, had limb-removing cancer surgery, undergone early menopause…She looks fabulous! And with that kind of cancer, maybe so would you.

The issue is that Karr runs a well-connected wellness enterprise. She sells a way of life, David Servan-Schreiber style, with the message that you can beat cancer and be well if you nourish your body and mind with the likes of 21-day cleansing diets, juiced Whole Foods and meditation-enhancing mala bead jewelry.

The danger is that readers and customers/followers may believe that her current well-being is due to her lifestyle choices. And that some people with the malignant form of EHE, whose emails she may not read, struggle with feelings of inadequacy and defeat.

So I’ve learned from Kris Carr: For one thing, I don’t think I ever saw a case of EH and she, through her story, persuaded me to look it up. Second, she’s a smart business woman, who’s turned her life around upon a cancer diagnosis. Third, (am undecided, ideas?)

And I’m taking careful notes. Let’s leave it with that, for now.

*This author prefers to call epithelioid hemangioendothelioma EH, but most sources use EHE, so I’ll abbreviate as do the sources or use my own style, accordingly.

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Reducing Cancer Care Costs: The Value of Physicians’ Cognitive Work

We’ve reached what may be my favorite of the proposed ways to reduce cancer care costs, published in the NEJM by Drs. Smith and Hillner. Idea Number 8 is to realign compensation to value cognitive services, rather than chemotherapy, more highly.

What the authors are saying is that we’d save money if oncologists were paid more for thinking and communicating, relative to their compensation for giving chemotherapy. They write:

Medicare data have clearly shown that some oncologists choose chemotherapy in order to maximize income for their practice.<46,47> A system in which over half the profits in oncology are from drug sales is unsustainable.

They suggest that physicians’ compensation should go up, relatively, for time spent

  • referring patients for participation in clinical trials;
  • discussing orders for life-sustaining treatments;
  • considering advance medical directives;
  • talking about prognosis in family conferences.

I couldn’t agree more.

Take the clinical trials example. In my experience enrolling patients in clinical trials, it was a lot of work if you (the oncologist) wanted to do it properly: You’d have to read through the entire protocol; identify any potential conflicts of interest, look up any other protocols for which the patient might be eligible and (ideally) offer that as well, take the time to explain that it’s fine for the patient to not enroll – that there’s “no pressure” (subject of a future post: when patients feel that they should enroll in their doctor’s trial), answer all of the patient’s and a family member or friend’s questions about it, process the paperwork carefully…

And I’d add to the authors’ suggestions for compensation-worthy time spent:

  • going over pathology results, carefully and with an appropriate expert (a pathologist), and discussing the findings with the patient or designated proxy;
  • reviewing radiology images with appropriate specialists (x-rays, CTs, MRIs… comparing each with the previous studies) and sharing the results, as above;
  • checking blood work; abnormalities can be subtle; trends not obvious if results aren’t charted over time;
  • discussing the patient’s condition, periodically, with other doctors such as the internist (or pediatrician), cardiologist, pulmonologist, surgeon, etc.
  • researching relevant published studies and case reports for puzzling clinical situations (using Google, Medline, a real library, maybe calling an expert at another medical center…)
  • communicating with patient about the condition, more generally (not only about end-of-life issues) – such as explaining  a tumor’s known or unknown causes, treatment options, genetic and other implications of a cancer diagnosis.

Bottom line:

When oncologists earn more money by prescribing treatments like chemotherapy, there’s a conflict of interest and a tendency to give more treatment. If oncologists’ salaries were set based on a case load, or time spent taking care of patients that includes cognitive services – thinking and communicating – patients would get better care and less unwanted treatment.

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Looking Back on ‘The Normal Heart,’ and Patients’ Activisim

A few weeks ago I saw The Normal Heart, a play about the early, unfolding AIDS epidemic in NYC and founding of the Gay Men’s Health Crisis. The semi-autobiographical and now essentially historical work by Larry Kramer first opened at the Public Theater in 1985.

Cover of the paperback, published by “Plume,” from Wikipedia

The story takes on the perspective of a young man who’s seeing the death of too many of his friends and neighbors from a strange and previously-unknown disease. As much as the situation is disturbing, and frightening, and shattering of the gay men’s barely decade-old freedom to behave as they choose, most of the protagonist’s associates just can’t deal with it. Nor can other, potentially sympathetic officials like Mayor Koch, health officials at the CDC and NIH.

Among the men who form GMHC, in this drama, there’s a mixed crew. Some say they’re  embarrassed by the attention the illness drew to some gay men’s behavior. Many stay fully or half-closeted, understandably insecure in their jobs. They worry about discrimination and rejection by families, landlords and even doctors, some who were reluctant to take on patients with this disease. Some of the affected men and their friends, straightforwardly, fear death; others are in plain denial about what’s going on in their community.

The scenes unfold between 1981 and 1984, more or less the time when I moved to Manhattan, lived downtown, applied and matriculated at NYU’s medical school. Many of the first clinical cases, i.e. patients, I saw, were young men with HIV and Kaposi’s sarcoma, one of the first conditions associated with the outbreak and that’s featured in the play – the appearance of maroon or violet-colored, usually but not always flat, often elongate, spots on the skin. The AIDS patients tended to have anemia, either from immune blood disorders or, more often, infection in the bone marrow. As a hematologist-to-be, I was intrigued.

Then and now, looking back, it’s hard not to respect those men’s activism, especially those who, with Kramer, created the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP). They were impatient with the pace of research and physicians’ protocols, and spoke out so emphatically about their needs: for more research; for prevention and treatment; for easier access to new drugs; and, simply, for good medical care.

The play closes soon in New York;  its producers are said to be planning a tour and a London production of the work. Patients and their advocates, of all backgrounds and particular concerns, might take notes.

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Get Off My Case

In my inbox this morning, via ASCO‘s “Cancer in the News” feed:

The UK’s Telegraph (5/6, Beckford) reported that as “many as 20,000 British women could avoid developing” breast cancer “each year, if they took more exercise, drank less and ate better.” Latest figures “suggest that 47,600 women developed breast cancer in 2008,” and the World Cancer Research Fund estimates that estimates that “42 per cent of these cases…would be preventable if women developed healthier lifestyles.” The WCRF’s “10 Recommendations for Cancer Prevention include being ‘as lean as possible without becoming underweight’; keeping fit; limiting consumption of fatty, salty and sugary food and drink; eating fruit, vegetables and pulses; eating less red meat and processed meat; drinking less and choosing a balanced diet rather than vitamin supplements.”

This follows numerous reports that women may develop breast cancer or suffer recurrences because they eat too much, drink too much, work too much or fret too much. (But don’t relax and put down your vacuums, girls – there’s striking evidence that household chores can reduce your risk!)

Of course it’s wise from a general medical perspective – think in terms of heart disease, osteoarthritis, type 2 diabetes and other ailments prevalent in our too-developed world – to be slender instead of fat, exercise regularly and eat a balanced diet.

I’m tired of the press trumpeting poorly-done trials that feed into a stereotypic conception of how women should behave. Yes, diet and stress could play a role in any hormone-driven disease, but so do a lot of things. As for alcohol, maybe consumption is a surrogate for wealth and living in a place like the U.S. where people drink freely, where breast cancer rates are unseemly.

We should be sure of the facts before pronouncing these fatal flaws in our ways of existence and being. Plenty of women feel badly about their tumors and disfigurement without this added layer of insult.

And what did you eat for dinner last night, big brother?

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In Defense of Primary Care, and of Sub-Sub-Sub-Specialists

An article in the March 24 NEJM called Specialization, Subspecialization, and Subsubspecialization in Internal Medicine might have some heads shaking: Isn’t there a shortage of primary care physicians? The sounding-board piece considers the recent decision of the American Board of Internal Medicine to issue certificates in two new fields: (1) hospice and palliative care and (2) advanced heart failure and plans in-the-works for official credentialing in other, relatively narrow fields like addiction and obesity.

The essay caught my attention because I do think it’s true that we need more well-trained specialists, as much as we need capable general physicians. Ultimately both are essential for delivery of high-quality care, and both are essential for reducing health care errors and costs.

Primary care physicians are invaluable. It’s these doctors who most-often establish rapport with patients over long periods of time, who earn their trust and, in case they should become very ill, hold their confidence on important decisions – like when and where to see a specialist and whether or not to seek more, or less, aggressive care. A well-educated, thoughtful family doctor or internist typically handles most common conditions: prophylactic care including vaccinations, weight management, high blood pressure, diabetes, straightforward infections – like bacterial pneumonia or UTIs, gout and other routine sorts of problems.

On the other hand, specialists can be lifesaving when highly-detailed expertise matters. There are limits to how much a general internist knows about chemotherapy, for example. Even within the field of medical oncology, a subspecialty of internal medicine, there are doctors who only see patients with particular kinds of cancers. When I had breast cancer, for example, I chose an oncologist whose practice consists almost entirely of patients with breast cancer and related diseases. If someone in my family has a lymphoma, I’d advise them to consult with someone who, for the most part, patients with lymphoma and similar disorders. Why? Because each of these cancers represent a complex group of malignancies, and successful therapy depends in part on the doctor’s familiarity with each of the specific subtypes and the relevant, current data for those. Treatment of lung cancer involves choosing among a different set of drugs than would be considered for brain or kidney cancer.

I mention oncology, here, because I’m most familiar with this field. But the same holds, for example, in the subspecialty of Infectious Diseases: knowing about all the new HIV drugs, in pregnant women, children and adults, involves a different set of knowledge than knowing about parasites in the tropics, and that differs from knowing about viral and other, unusual infections in patients are immunocompromised after kidney, heart or lung transplants.

In each of these settings, expertise can reduce errors – because specialists are more likely, in the first place, to establish a correct diagnosis and, next, to prescribe the right therapy based on the best evidence available.

The same holds for other medical specialties, apart from Internal Medicine. As I’ve described before, the radiologist who interpreted my routine mammogram and follow-up sono was a breast imaging specialist. The orthopedist who reconstructed my spine is a scoliosis spine surgeon. I am confident that I wouldn’t be here and feeling as well as I do if it weren’t for their expertise.

You could argue that it’s impossible to provide these kinds of sub-sub-specialists to people in rural areas, or that it’s too expensive, but I don’t think either of these factors should be limiting. To a large extent, experts might work with primary care providers and communicate with patients via Telemedicine and Skype-like technologies. As for surgical subspecialties, it may be that patients would find it worthwhile to travel to a regional center where a specialized procedure is done routinely, as opposed to having an operation in a local hospital where the doctors perform a certain kind of surgery – say a laparoscopic splenectomy, for example – only a few times each year.

There’s a tradeoff, as discussed in the NEJM piece, between increasing use of specialists and fragmentation of care. I think this concern is legitimate, based on my experiences practicing medicine and as a patient. But I do think we need specialists, and sub-specialists if we want doctors who can answer their patients’ questions, i.e. who really know what they’re doing.

I was a bit surprised that the article mentions a survey of physicians in which the majority of respondents reported that “professional image” was the primary reason for seeking subspecialty credentials. While this may be true, I don’t think doctors’ motivation matters in this. From the public’s perspective, what’s important is that hand surgeons know how to do hand surgery, and that a heart specialist knows how to interpret an echocardiogram, and that the hospitals where they work not let them practice if they’re not appropriately credentialed.

In cutting health care costs, or in trying to so, I don’t think it makes sense to reduce the number of physicians or to short-cut their educations by way of 3-year medical schools. Rather we need well-trained primary care doctors we can rely on, who know the limits of their knowledge as much as they understand medicine, and top-notch specialists, both.

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Pink’s OK With Me

On Sunday, Feb. 20, the Northeastern Pennsylvania Affiliate of Susan G. Komen for the Cure will host its seventh annual Pink Elegance on Parade fashion show at the Radisson at Lackawanna Station hotel, reports the Scranton Times Tribune. The fundraiser will feature breast cancer survivors and others modeling fashions from Coldwater Creek, Lee’s Denim Diner, Luna Bleu and Suburban Casuals.

Portrait Of A Lady In Pink Ribbons, by Raimundo Madrazo (Wikimedia Commons)

Some BC survivors, thrivors, thrivers, in-the-throws-ers and whatever we might call ourselves (I still can’t make up my mind on this) express disdain. Others, lately, convey cynicism, if not frank contempt, for the pink cancer culture in its entirety.

Pink is tacky, pretty and possibly too rosy a color to link with the fate of so many sick and dying women. I half-agree. But then again, I’ve never favored pastels: I’m a brown and gray sort of woman. When I’m feeling cheery, I wear navy or maybe mauve. This is not a policy statement; it happens those hues match my skin tone and nature.

Yes, I and others have written that it can be off-putting, that it clouds and distracts us from the reality of cancer. But it takes a certain confidence to don a magenta outfit and not feel silly or excessively feminine (if there is such a thing), as I would, regardless of one’s BC status or awareness level. So I give women credit for wearing pink. And I’m half-envious, besides.

If you’ve had breast cancer and wear pink – why not? I fear the anti-pink movement is making people feel bad about wearing pink to show support for breast cancer awareness, fundraising and related issues. Which is ridiculous. People with breast cancer and their supporters should wear what they want and do as they please, at least wardrobe-wise.

So all power to you, women in Scranton and BC fundraising friends! Show off those post-treatment non-breasts. Be pretty in pink, and proud!

And I’m sure you won’t mind if I wear gray. In the end, isn’t this about supporting one another, and tolerance?

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Considering the Significance of a Doctor’s White Coat

A while back, a first-year med student asked me if I think physicians should wear white coats. There’s a debate about it, she mentioned. Indeed, in the spring of 2009 the AMA considered an unenforceable mandate that physicians in the U.S. not wear white coats. The news was getting around that doctors spread infection from one patient to the next by our garments.

My thoughts on this have always been clear. “Yes,” I answered. “But they’ve got to be clean white coats.”

This week I came upon two stories that led me to pick up the thread on the white coat debate. First, a recent post from the Singing Pen of Doctor Jen, by Jennifer Middleton MD, MPH, who writes from western PA:

We physicians might make assumptions about what patients want us to look like, but what does the evidence say?

A cross-sectional survey in Tennessee a few years ago found that patients prefer family physicians who wear white coats (1).  Another study in a South Carolina internal medicine office found that patients “overwhelmingly” preferred physicians in white coats (2).  A Northeast Ohio OB residency found similarly; patients preferred a white coat and professional dress to scrubs (3). A quick PubMed search pulls up the same theme over and over: the patients studied have more trust in, and comfort with, physicians who wear white coats…(hyperlinks inserted by ES)

Today in the New York Times, a piece by Sandeep Jahuar, MD alludes to the issue by its title: Out of Camelot, Knights in White Coats Lose Way. He considers disillusionment of many doctors with medicine as a profession. He writes:

Physicians used to be the pillars of any community. If you were smart and sincere and ambitious, the top of your class, there was nothing nobler you could aspire to become. Doctors possessed special knowledge. They were caring and smart, the best kind of people you could know.

Today, medicine is just another profession, and doctors have become like everybody else: insecure, discontented and anxious about the future.

As a doctor, I think physicians should wear white coats for several reasons. First, the white coat reminds the wearer that medicine is a special kind of profession, that doctors have extraordinary obligations to patients. Second, the white coat recalls medicine’s basis in science, from which we wouldn’t want to stray too far. Third, it’s to protect ourselves: going home to dinner with your family, loaded with hospital germs, is just not smart.

As a patient, I like it when my doctors where a white coat. It’s reassuring in a primitive kind of way; it makes me feel like the physician is a real doctor who is capable of taking care of me. But the coat should be clean – every day a fresh one, with extra changes if needed.

Of course there are some circumstances when the white coat is appropriately relegated elsewhere: in places like the OR, in most psychiatrists’ offices and in pediatrics – so as not to scare the children, I once learned although I’m not convinced it would.

It takes a certain effort for a doctor to put on a white coat. When I used to get called back in late at night, or after weekend rounds, I’d occasionally just go straight to the patient’s ward or E.R., without stopping by the room where my coat was kept. That was easier, sure, but when I skipped the white coat I felt as if I weren’t fulfilling my part of the deal: to look and act like a doctor should.

Patients need that, usually. And maybe that’s a hang-up, a superficial wanting, a simple reassurance of authority. But maybe it’s also a sign that you’re serious in your duties as a physician, that you’re not cutting corners, that you will do everything you can to fulfill your obligation to the persons under your care, that you know who you are as the doctor.

Maybe, when younger doctors elect not to wear the white coats, for whatever legitimate reasons, or out of laziness in finding a clean one, it’s really that they don’t want the responsibility the coat conveys.

It could also be that they’re just hot, or uncomfortable.

I’ll leave this open, at that.

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Why the Term ‘Patient’ Is So Important in Health Care

An on-line friend, colleague and outspoken patient advocate, Trisha Torrey, has an ongoing e-vote about whether people prefer to be called a “patient” a “consumer” a “customer” or some other noun to describe a person who receives health care.

My vote is: PATIENT.

Here’s why:

Providing medical care is or should be unlike other commercial transactions. The doctor, or other person who gives medical treatment, has a special professional and moral obligation to help the person who’s receiving his or her treatment. This responsibility – to heal, honestly and to the best of one’s ability – overrides any other commitments, or conflicts, between the two.

The term “patient” constantly reminds the doctor of the specialness of the relationship. If a person with illness or medical need became a consumer like any other, the relationship – and the doctor’s obligation – would be lessened.

Some might argue that the term “patient” somehow demeans the health care receiver. But I don’t agree: From the practicing physician’s perspective, it’s a privilege to have someone trust you with their health, especially if they’re seriously ill. In this context, the term “patient” can reflect a physician’s respect for the person’s integrity, humanity and needs.

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After Breast Cancer, Get a Gym Membership!

Earlier this month the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) published a myth-busting paper on weight lifting for women at risk for lymphedema after breast cancer treatment.  The study was neither large (154 patients at max, whittled down to 134 at analysis) nor high-tech (interventions involved gym memberships, weight training and lifting in neighborhood facilities like YMCAs).

The results were clear: working out with hand-held weights, carefully, is good for most women who’ve had surgery for breast cancer (BC).

Lymphedema, or swelling due to a damaged gland, can develop in a patient’s arm after removal of lymph nodes in the armpit. The uncomfortable condition can be disabling by impairing arm or hand movements. It affects a significant number of BC patients: among women who’ve had have just a sentinel lymph node removed, lymphedema affects roughly 6%; for those who’ve had complete axillary (armpit) lymph node dissection, the incidence is around 30%. There are roughly 2.5 million women living in the U.S. after a breast cancer diagnosis; most are at elevated risk for lymphedema.

Years ago, doctors commonly advised patients not to lift weights or perform strenuous exercises with their arms after a mastectomy or lumpectomy with lymph node dissection. To a lesser extent, this happens still today. As reported in the JAMA article:

Breast cancer survivors at risk for lymphedema alter activity, limit activity, or both from fear and uncertainty about their personal risk level, and upon guidance advising them to avoid lifting children, heavy bags, or other objects with the at-risk arm.9,10 Such guidance that deconditions the arm, increasing the potential for injury, overuse, and, ironically, lymphedema onset.11 Adherence to these precautions may limit physical recovery after breast cancer and, for some women, result in lost employment. Furthermore, activity avoidance may deter survivors from performing regular exercise…

The researchers recruited women in the Philadelphia area who’d undergone surgery for localized, unilateral breast cancer sometime between 1 and 5 years before the study. Each had at least 2 lymph nodes removed in surgery. The median age was around 55 years. The women were divided into two balanced groups before randomization – they received a year’s membership at a gym and a trainer for the first 13 weeks, or not.

So it’s good news that the women in “weight lifting intervention” group developed less lymphedema. What’s more, those women became stronger and sported a lower percentage of body fat. All of these differences were statistically meaningful and, for the most part, quite strong. Perhaps more remarkably, in a pre-planned subset analysis of women who’d had 5 or more lymph nodes removed, the proportion who experienced lymphedema in the weight-lifting group was only 7%, compared with 22% in the controls. That difference was highly significant, with a p-value of 0.003. The findings, in sum, show that it’s safe for women who’ve had breast cancer surgery to work out in a way that includes a careful, progressive upper body strengthening.

About a week ago, I was alerted to this article by Dr. Ramona Bates, a plastic surgeon who authors Suture for a Living. She’s had several recent, excellent pieces on this subject including a post on lymphedema and the JAMA report. I chose to write on this, in part, because it meshes with my professional and medical history.

In my case, I got conflicting advice on the matter. I wanted to continue swimming because it helps my scoliotic back. But some colleagues suggested that arm-intense strokes might be best avoided after mastectomies. A cosmetic surgeon rightly told me that some strokes might have untoward effects on implants. So I relied on my judgment: I chose to swim because it made me feel better and stronger. In the past year, I’ve started lifting a few small weights, carefully and slowly.

In the end, this is a story of a small clinical trial and the value of common sense in medicine. Weight lifting is not only safe; it can reduce the incidence of lymphedema in women at risk. But “old wives’ tales” still persist in some doctors’ minds; these need be dispelled. Finally, I can’t help but wonder what would happen if every woman could have a year’s membership at a local gym –

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The U-Shaped Curve of Happiness

This evening, when I finished cleaning up the kitchen after our family dinner, I glanced at the current issue of the Economist. The cover features this headline: the Joy of Growing Old (or why life begins at 46). It’s a light read, as this so-influential magazine goes, but nice to contemplate if you’re, say, 50 years old and wondering about the future.

The article’s thesis is this: Although as people move towards old age they lose things they treasure—vitality, mental sharpness and looks – they also gain what people spend their lives pursuing: happiness.

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The Cost of Room Service and Other Hospital Amenities

A perspective in this week’s NEJM considers the Emerging Importance of Patient Amenities in Patient Care. The trend is that more hospitals lure patients with hotel-like amenities: room service, magnificent views, massage therapy, family rooms and more. These services sound great, and by some measures can serve an institution’s bottom line more effectively than spending funds on top-notch specialists or state-of-the-art equipment.

Thinking back on the last time I visited someone at Sloan Kettering’s inpatient unit, and I meandered into the bright lounge on the 15th floor, stocked with books, games, videos and other signs of life, I thought how good it is for patients and their families to have a non-clinical area like this. The “extra” facility is privately-funded, although it does take up a relatively small bit of valuable New York City hospital space (what might otherwise be a research lab or a group of nice offices for physicians or, dare I say, social workers) seems wonderful.

If real health care isn’t an even-sum expense problem, I see no issue with this kind of hospital accoutrement. As for room service and ordering oatmeal for breakfast instead of institutional pancakes with a side of thawing orange “juice,” chicken salad sandwiches, fresh salads or broiled salmon instead of receiving glop on a tray, that’s potentially less wasteful and, depending on what you choose, healthier. As for yoga and meditation sessions, there’s rarely harm and, maybe occasionally, good (i.e. value).

But what if those resources draw funds away from necessary medicines, better software for safer CT scans and pharmacies, and hiring more doctors, nurses or aides? (I’ve never been in a hospital where the nurses weren’t short-staffed.) As for employees who clean – hospital floors, nursing stations, patients’ TV remotes, IV poles, computer station keyboards and everything else that’s imperfect and unsterile, they should get more funding, everywhere. Clerks and transport workers are frequent targets in hospital layoffs, but they’re needed just the same.

Two years ago when a family member was hospitalized, his doctor – a senior cardiologist – personally wheeled him in the stretcher from the x-ray area back to the emergency room bay where he waited for a room, so that he wouldn’t spend more than the half hour or so he’d already been in the hallway, after the film was taken, waiting for the escort service. What’s wrong is not so much that the physician helped with a menial task that isn’t his job; he’s a really nice and caring sort, and I believe he didn’t mind, really, except that he does have a wife and family at home who surely were waiting on that day.

The cardiologist might have used that time, instead, to examine more closely someone’s neck veins or heart sounds, or spent a few more minutes reading a journal article, which would make it more likely he’ll make the right recommendation to his patients about, say, a drug for congestive heart failure or a new blood thinner. We can’t short-change hospital workers in such a way that physicians fill in on ordinary tasks because there’s no one else to perform those, while patients get first-class meals and art classes to make them happier.

I’m reminded of boarding airplanes. I fly coach, and as I pass through the first class section I often think how nice it would be to sit in front and have pleasant flight personnel attend my every need to maximize my comfort during what’s typically a miserable trip. But then, I’d be paying perhaps $3,000 instead of $680 for the same flight.

As passengers, maybe we’re not so discerning about our pilots or the model of airbus as we should. A pleasant, cheery place isn’t always the safest.

In the NEJM piece, Goldman and colleagues write:

…Why do amenities matter so much? Perhaps patients simply don’t understand clinical quality. Data on clinical quality are complex, multidimensional, and noisy, and they have only recently become systematically available to consumers. Consumers may be making choices on the basis of amenities because they are easier to understand.

The authors note the potential value of amenities in patients’ experiences and outcomes:

One could argue that they’re an important element of patient-centered care. If amenities create environments that patients, providers, and staff members prefer, then providers and staff members may give better care and service in those environments and patients may have better health outcomes.

Amenities are costly, but they attract patients:

… the value of amenities is important because our health care system currently pays for them. Under its prospective payment system… Each hospital receives the same amount of reimbursement for each patient with a given diagnosis and is free to decide what mix of resources to devote to clinical quality and what to spend on amenities. In our research, we found that improvements in amenities cost hospitals more than improvements in the quality of care, but improved amenities have a greater effect on hospital volume.

I’ll remind my readers that health care costs in the U.S. total over $2.3 trillion per year, and that number is growing.

Hospital amenities are really nice, and I believe they can help patients heal. But I don’t know if it’s right to spend limited health care dollars on more than essentials.

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A Play About the Life and Work of Dr. Rosalind Franklin

Last weekend I snagged a last-minute ticket to see Photograph 51, a new play about the work and life of Rosalind Franklin. Her data, possibly stolen, enabled Francis Crick and James Watson to decipher and model the double-helix structure of DNA.

The intimate production, enacted by the small Ensemble Studio Theatre on the second floor of a nondescript building on West 52nd Street, affords a fresh look, albeit partly fictionalized, into important moments in the history of science. Most of the scenes take place in a research lab in post-War London, at King’s College, where Franklin took on a faculty appointment.

Franklin’s story starts like this: She was born in 1920 to a Jewish family in London. She excelled in math and science. She studied physical chemistry at Cambridge, where she received her undergraduate degree in 1941. After performing research in photochemistry in the following year on scholarship, she joined the British Coal Utilisation Research Association (BCURA) and carried out basic investigations on the micro-structure of coal and carbon compounds, and so earned a Ph.D. from Cambridge University. She was a polyglot, and next found herself in Paris at the Laboratoire Central des Services Chimique de l’Etat, where she picked up some fine skills in x-ray crystallography.

You get the picture: she was smart, well-educated and totally immersed in physical chemistry before, during and after WWII. Single-minded and focused, you might say –

Franklin in Photograph 51 wears a simple brown dress with large black buttons straight down the middle of her lithe frame. Her lipstick and haircut seem right, but her three inch heels, even after a few years of experiencing the joie de vivre in Paris, or just being holed up in a research institute there, seem a tad too high for such a pragmatic soul. The lab set is perfect with its double-distilling glassware, wooden pegs on racks, tall metal stools with small, flat circular seats, light microscopes, heavy metal desks with file drawers and a contentious cast of characters.

As this narrative goes, Franklin spurns socializing with most of her colleagues. They find her difficult. She spends nearly all of her time and late hours using x-rays to generate crystallographic images of DNA and making detailed notes and related calculations. Eventually a lab assistant gives her key data, Photograph 51, to her colleague, Maurice Wilkins, who is inexpert in crystallography and cannot independently interpret the structure. While Franklin continues working at a measured pace, refusing to rush into publishing a model until she’s sure of her findings and the implications, Wilkins shares the image with Watson and Crick. They move quickly, publish first in Nature and, later, win the Nobel Prize for the discovery. Meanwhile Franklin leaves Wilkins’ lab and starts a new project on the structure of tobacco mosaic virus. She dies at the age of 37 of ovarian cancer, likely caused or effectuated by the radiation to which she exposed herself at work.

It’s a sad story, but instructive, engaging and very well-done, so much that it’s haunted me for days. Hard to know what’s real –

According to a program note from Anna Ziegler, the playwright: “this play is a work of fiction, though it is based on the story of the race to the double helix in England in the years between 1951 and 1953.” Ziegler refers to several books from which she drew material: The Dark Lady of DNA (by Brenda Maddox), The Double Helix (by James Watson) and The Third Man of the Double Helix (by Maurice Wilkins).

My favorite part is Franklin’s statement at the beginning: “We made the visible, visible.”


For a (depressing) counterpoint to this play’s version of events, you can take a look at Nobel Laureate James Watson’s 2007 TED lecture on YouTube. “She was a crystallographer,” he says of Franklin, and other things, before delving into his late-life happiness and current ventures in cancer genetics and autism studies.

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Why I Went for My Screening Mammogram

Dear Readers,

This week marks eight years, exactly, since I had an abnormal mammogram that led to my breast cancer diagnosis. I was 42 years old, and lucky because the excellent radiologist who discovered my tumor was a super-specialist in breast imaging, the kind of radiologist who spends her work-time analyzing mammograms, performing breast sonograms and taking biopsies of suspicious lesions. She doesn’t often look at hip films or ordinary x-rays. She just does mammograms, mammograms and mammograms, and sometimes additional tests to evaluate abnormalities she detects in those. She knew her stuff.

I was afraid to get a mammogram because I didn’t want to learn I had cancer. Back then, my breasts were so glandular it was hard for me, an oncologist, to discern what might be a pathological lump, or not. I feared having a “false positive,” and undergoing multiple tests to evaluate abnormal images that would turn out to be nothing but big-bill inducing benign lesions.

Really I was hesitant in visiting her office. I didn’t have time for cancer, because I was in pain from a crumbling spine and needed to get my back fixed before even opening up the possibility of additional medical problems. I wanted to work as much as I could then, before and after that big reconstructive spinal surgery, so that I might continue research and publish more papers. Besides, my sons were young then – ages 8 and 10 – and I didn’t want to not be able to make dinner because I was throwing up, or die.

Not getting a mammogram was a way of not finding out. The shoemaker’s kids don’t get shoes. An oncologist doesn’t get a mammogram…

My general internist, whom I trusted, insisted that I go for screening. “You’re over forty, you know,” she said. But I had no family history of the disease, then – this has since changed, and I didn’t consider myself at increased risk. Ultimately I went for the mammogram because I knew it was the responsible thing to do, to take care of myself.

When I had the mammogram, and the sono to evaluate an abnormality, and the core needle biopsies in the next week, I wasn’t afraid so much as I was annoyed by all the inconvenience. “Who has time to be a patient?” was my attitude. I came to each doctor’s appointment armed with research articles and colleagues’ manuscripts to review. I had meetings to attend, and responsibilities, and participated actively in a typical two-career family kind of up-and-out-early way of raising our sons.

All of that is behind me now, as is the chemo,  hair loss, some incidental fractures, surgeries, generalized fatigue and sad times that followed. How lucky I am that I went that day. There is no doubt in my mind.

Next year, approximately 45,000 women in the U.S. will die of metastatic breast cancer. Why I advocate for screening mammograms is because I know that a significant fraction of those advanced cases, perhaps half or more, could be prevented by early detection. That benefit would be a boon to the public health: perhaps as many as 20,000 – 30,000 women spared per year from morbidity, suffering and mortality of metastatic breast cancer, which is currently an incurable, costly disease.

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Another Take On An Ordinary Day

A few weeks ago, on August 1, I threw out the concept of living life every day as if it’s Shark Week. The line, delivered by 30 Rock‘s Tracy Morgan in that show’s first season, has stuck with and puzzled me for years.

Then I came upon a striking post called Live Each Day Like There’s a Lot of Them Left, dated August 2. Jen Singer, a blogger with two sons and a history of lymphoma, expresses the considered notion that maybe the best thing to do after cancer is to live, essentially, as you would do otherwise, except with a bit of added balance.

She writes:

… I — the one who has been so close to the end of life – am supposed to tell you to treat each day as though it’s your last. Except, if it were my last, I certainly wouldn’t be tanking up my mini-van for the rest of the week’s carpools…

Rather, I suggest that you treat every day as though you’ve got a whole lot of them left, precisely because you don’t really know if you do. Go about the everyday, do the drop-offs, get out the knots. Clean the house. Go ahead and get through the stuff that fills your To-Do list…Slog, if you must, because that’s perfectly okay…

Still, every now and then, don’t forget to turn up the radio and listen…

Her point, I think, is that we all have to move on with our lives if we can. It’s the nitty-gritty, mundane activities that keep families on track may also keep us sane, safe and sound. Cancer can be liberating, but that doesn’t necessarily mean we should exploit that as license to escape from responsibilities.

The pressure to “treasure each moment” can be counterproductive. To live life as usual is a challenge of another sort, important for the normal development of our kids and ourselves.

I like this perspective.

Like Jen, I take pleasure in the ordinary stuff – cooking, helping my family and yes, checking off items on the list of things I’ve been meaning to do for years. It’s a long list, and I’ve lots to take care of.

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The Physical Exam’s Value is Not Just Emotional

Lately there’s been some talk about the value of the physical examination. It’s my sense that this discussion was sparked by a lovely piece by Danielle Ofri published two weeks ago in the New York Times. In that, Dr. Ofri describes a patient’s visit in which, toward the end and almost as an afterthought, she pulled out her stethoscope and performed a physical exam in a perhaps cursory but essential, thoughtful manner.

Or is it so cursory? There’s little scientific evidence to support the physical exam in practicing medicine but, as she writes:

…Touch is inherently humanizing, and for a doctor-patient relationship to have meaning beyond that of a business interaction, there needs to be trust — on both ends. As has been proved in newborn nurseries, and intuited by most doctors, nurses and patients, one of the most basic ways to establish trust is to touch…

KevinMD picked up on the story, essentially echoing the idea in a post called “Touch Humanizes the Doctor-Patient Relationship.” In that, he considers that some doctors (including him, previously) dismiss the physical exam obsolete – “like staying with a horse and buggy when cars are rapidly becoming available.”

It happens I know something about physical exams. Early in my years as a junior faculty member at Cornell’s medical school, around 1994, I was assigned to teach physical examination to second-year students during each of two consecutive spring semesters. To prepare for teaching, I carefully reread my copy of Bates’ Guide to Physical Examination.

my old copy of Bates’ Guide to Physical Examination, on my desk now

Together, my students and I listened to normal and abnormal heart sounds. We looked in each others eyes with ophthalmoscopes. We visited some of my patients with lymphadenopathy (swollen glands), big livers and palpable spleens who were willing to let us learn from their pathological physical findings. We listened and described course and fine rales on some pneumatics’ lung exams, and checked arthritic joints for swan-like deformities characteristic of rheumatoid arthritis. We examined patients’ petechiae, purpura, ecchymoses and more, and discussed the differences among those findings and what they might signify. All of this we did without CT scans or echos.

I know also, as a patient, that physical examination can be life-saving. Once, when I was in the hospital as a child and had unexplained fevers after surgery, it seemed for a while that no one could figure out what was wrong. I was terrified. The surgical team consulted with an infectious disease specialist, who as I recall ordered a whole bunch of unpleasant tests, and then my dad – a physician – noticed that one of my legs was more swollen than the other. He realized, based on my physical exam, that I might have a blood clot. It turned out that he was right.

So I agree that the physical exam is humanizing. So much so that, later in my career when I routinely donned space suit-like gowns and masks on rounds for the leukemia and bone marrow transplant services, I became frustrated by those barriers, and by the very lack of touch which, I think, can help patients heal.

But what’s also true, in a practical and bottom-line sort of way, is that a good physical exam can help doctors figure out what’s wrong with patients. If physicians were more confident – better trained, and practiced – in their capacity to make diagnoses by physical exam, we could skip the costs and toxicity of countless x-rays, CT scans and other tests.

Recently I wrote a piece on medical education and going back to basics. The physical exam should be included, for sure.

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The “Survivor” Term After Breast Cancer: Is There a Better Expression?

I hope this post will be the start of a long conversation on breast cancer survivorship. The question is, what’s the right, PC and emotionally-sound, sensitive but not sappy term to describe the situation of a person who’s living after breast cancer?

Some might say, who cares if you’ve had it?

Once, about six years ago, a colleague – an oncologist in my community – I met on the street stopped and asked me how I’d been. I said, well, I’d been out for a while because of some health problems. I mentioned that I had breast cancer among other things. “Who doesn’t have breast cancer?” she quipped, and then we talked about medical offices.

So what? was her point.

Sure, everyone’s got stuff by the time they approach their 50th birthday. Life would be pretty boring if we didn’t. And my personal history happens to include BC.

OK, NBD.

Why it matters, at least in my situation, is that I’m writing about health issues including breast cancer. So I think it would be deceptive to not mention this loaded “credential.” In a few weeks I’ll be teaching med students again, and although I don’t think that episode of my life is central to my capability as a teaching physician, I do think (and hope) it makes a difference.

Thinking more generally:

A lot of women, me included, have major physical changes upon undergoing treatment for BC. My hair was curly for most of a year. My breasts are gone. My bones are thinner and I’m estrogen-deprived. Sound depressing? It is, for as many as 30 to 40 percent of women at some point after their diagnosis. It’s not a minor experience in the physical, emotional or life-changing sense.

TV aside, the problem with the “survivor” term is that, maybe, it implies some sort of heroism or strength. But as an oncologist who happens to have had good insurance, knowledge and friends in the field, I just see it as, largely, the luck of the draw: there’s no reason for me to survive while another woman struggles and succumbs to metastatic disease.

I can’t deny to my readers, family, friends and others that I’ve had breast cancer, because it does affect my writing, feelings, capabilities and outlook. But I wish there were a better term for my status.

Any ideas?

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Mind over Matter? Don’t Kid Yourself (on Stress and BC)

I learned of a new study implicating stress in reduced breast cancer survival by Twitter. Three days ago, a line in my feed alerted me that CNN’s health blog, “Paging Dr. Gupta,” broke embargo on the soon-to-be-published paper in the journal Clinical Cancer Research. It seems the story – that women who undergo a stress relief program live longer after breast cancer recurrence – couldn’t wait.

“Less stress helps breast cancer patients” is the title of the rushed post. What the researchers, based at Ohio State’s Comprehensive Cancer Center, report is that psychological intervention helps to increase the quality of life and survival among women with recurrent breast cancer.

The intervention at issue is this: weekly, small-group meetings of BC patients for 4 months after their initial surgery and diagnosis. Led by clinical psychologists, the women met 18 times and discussed strategies to reduce stress, improve mood, strengthen social networks, eat better, exercise and adhere to medical treatments.

The current report is an extension of previous findings among an initially larger group of women at the time of BC diagnosis. Then, the researchers randomized 227 patients after surgery, all with stage II or III disease, either to receive the intervention, or not, after an initial psychological assessment and blood tests to check their immune function. The women were overwhelmingly Caucasian, mostly with stage II tumors, well-educated and, for the most part, had ER/PR+ tumors. What the researchers noted was that:

…As predicted, patients receiving the intervention showed significantlowering of anxiety, improvements in perceived social support,improved dietary habits, and reduction in smoking…

In 2008, the same Stress and Immunity Cancer Project investigators reported in the journal Cancer that the psychological intervention reduces BC recurrence and prolongs survival. Here’s where the results become both exciting and suspicious. In 2007, with a median follow-up of 11 years, 62 women (29%) in the initial study had recurrent disease. The proportion among those who’d received the intervention was indeed lower, confirming the authors’ hypothesis that the intervention would help prevent BC from coming back. But the p-value for this difference was 0.034, barely meeting the threshold for statistical significance. Similar results were observed for overall survival among the women who’d attended the group sessions: they had a reduced risk from death with a minimally-significant p-value (0.028) for the difference.

Now, the Ohio group reports on the 62 patients who relapsed. Before going further, I should say that it’s a bummer of a result from a medical perspective and from mine as a BC survivor out at seven years. Group support aside, 44 (71%, yikes!) of the patients with recurrent disease have died with a median time until death (after recurrence) of 2.8 years (range: 0.9 – 11.8 years).

What the authors conclude is that the psychological intervention improved survival after BC recurrence. How the data flowed is this: among the recurrences, there were 33 women who’d been randomized to the assessment only, “A” arm of the original trial and 29 who’d been randomized to the intervention, “I” arm. These numbers were whittled down to 18 patients who could be followed for continued study on the “A” arm and 23 women on the “I” arm. So the total number of women evaluated in this new report is small: just 41 women.

Among those, the women who received the psychological intervention were more likely to survive, with what’s called a hazards ratio of 0.41. Here again the p-value is valid but marginal (p= 0.014). The authors show a very limited amount of data regarding test-tube based studies of natural killer (NK) and T lymphocytes in the different patient groups, and suggest in the paper’s abstract that “immune indices were significantly higher for the intervention arm.”

What would have killed this paper (pardon the verb) had I been a reviewer is this: among the 41 women with recurrent disease, there was a major difference in the treatments they received. According to the “Patients and Methods” section of the paper, in the section on “adherence, chemotherapy dose intensity,” the authors indicate that just 6 of the “A” patients received chemo in the 12 months following the recurrence, while 13 of the “I” patients got chemo in the same period.

My math: only 6 of the 18, or 33 percent of the “A” group (assessment-only) patients received chemo, while 13 of the 23 (56 percent) of the “I” (intervention) patients got chemo in the year after recurrence. That’s a huge difference in medical treatment among a very small number of patients.

My point: the small difference in survival after recurrence among those women who received structured psychological support, years earlier, may be attributable to the prompt chemotherapy they received upon relapse of the cancer. This seems a more plausible explanation than that group therapy-type sessions make a difference in tumor biology or treatment resistance. (Neither outcome is proved by this study.) The difference may also derive from better overall health in the women who initially received the intervention that included advice and support regarding diet, exercise, smoking cessation and medication compliance.

My opinion:

I think there can be tremendous value in psychological support for people with illness of any kind, whether that’s provided casually by supportive families and friends, one-on-one psychotherapy, medication and/or group meetings. And it’s easy to envision that meetings in which women with similar disease situations and concerns get together and discuss coping mechanisms, how to stay healthy, eat better and exercise could have positive effects on overall survival.

But the immune benefits of stress relief, like those presented in David Servan-Schreiber’s like-minded Anti-Cancer, are bogus. There’s no scientific evidence that the sort of NK or T cell changes tested in this study help or hurt breast cancer growth. It’s possible that a revved-up, stress and steroid-driven immune system might help kill cancer cells, or might favor their expansion. It could go either way. The effects of stress steroids on tumors vary and are complex. Prednisone and similar steroids, for example, which resemble the body’s natural stress steroid cortisol, are well-established and effective components of most lymphoma treatment regimens and once were a mainstay of breast cancer treatment. My point is not that the immune system doesn’t affect tumor growth. (I think it can and does.) But the effects are complicated and differ among individuals and according to the specific tumor type.

On linking stress and breast cancer: this argument, which is all that it is in the absence of better data, is patronizing and demeaning to women. It’s the kind of advice we offer children, that if they think and do the right things the outcome will be favorable. Oncology doesn’t work that way. If a woman’s breast cancer comes back, it’s not because she didn’t go to support groups or relax sufficiently. Tumors grow due to inherent, malignant properties of the cancerous cells and other biological factors in the body, such as other illnesses that may, indeed, weaken the immune system or limit a person’s capacity to receive effective treatment.

I’m all for stress reduction, as an aim in itself. But it’s not a cure for cancer.

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The Checklist and Future Culture of Medicine

Like many New Yorkers, I learned about the checklist in a magazine. I remember thinking, in late 2007, that maybe I’d seen something on the subject in The New England Journal. Indeed, a year earlier Dr. Peter Pronovost and colleagues reported on a simple, inexpensive strategy to save lives in a now-landmark article, “An Intervention to Decrease Catheter-Related Bloodstream Infections in the ICU.” Still, I’d missed the paper. Or at least I’d overlooked the significance.

Fortunately I had the opportunity to hear Pronovost, a still-youngish Professor at Johns Hopkins and recent MacArthur award recipient, speak at the annual meeting of the Association of Health Care Journalists in Chicago. After hearing his talk, I couldn’t wait to read more.

The checklist refers to 5 steps doctors can take to reduce the likelihood of patients getting serious infections from catheters placed in the ICU. One problem with Pronovost’s quintet is that it’s, well, unexciting. In his book Safe Patients, Smart Hospitals he reveals what a person shouldn’t forget before inserting an intravenous (IV) tube through a vein to the heart’s entryway:

1. wash hands with something like soap before the procedure;

2. set up a clean work area by covering the patient with a sterile drape and donning a gown, cap, mask and sterile gloves;

3. insert the catheter in a place other than the patient’s groin, if possible;

4. wipe down the patient’s skin with antiseptic fluid, chlorhexidine;

5. remove catheters that are no longer needed.

Pronovost, an intensive care specialist who holds an MD and a PhD in Public Health, first tested the checklist on his home turf, the surgical ICU at the Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, MD, in 2001. At the start, he distributed the list and asked ICU staff nurses to mark physicians’ compliance. It turned out the doctors skipped at least one step in over a third of central catheter placements. Next, he upped the list’s power by talking to Hopkins administrators. Nurses, they said, could call out a physician if they didn’t stick to the rules.

“This was revolutionary,” said Atul Gawande in the New Yorker.

What’s the big deal, you may wonder. It’s this – first, in the usual culture of medical practice, doctors don’t follow orders but give orders. And second, what’s implicit in the checklist is that physicians – even at one of the world’s most renowned medical facilities – are fallible to such a degree that their work can improve, and measurably so, by using something as ordinary as a checklist. It’s humbling.

“We don’t use checklists in health care because we still have his myth of perfection,” Pronovost said at the journalism conference.

In the year after Pronovost’s team implemented the checklist at Hopkins, the rate of central catheter infections there dropped from eleven percent to zero. As for how much good this did – the estimate runs at 43 infections spared, 8 deaths avoided and $2 million saved in one year at that hospital alone. The work expanded, soon to cover ICUs in most hospitals in the state of Michigan. There, after a lot of fuss, administrative hurdles and number crunching of results for some 375,757 catheter-days’ worth of infection data, the incidence of central line-associated bacterial infections snapped from 2.7, on average, for every 1000 days a patient was in a Michigan ICU with at least one central line, down to 0 (zero!).

These numbers are supported by impressive stats, with p-values falling below 0.002 in the original study. Estimates for the Keystone Initiative render some 1000 lives saved and $175 million in hospital costs reduced in a single year in Michigan. What’s more, all of this was accomplished without the use of expensive technology or additional ICU staffing.

This is a win/win intervention with huge implications. Every day some 90,000 people receive care in ICUs in North America. The annual incidence of catheter-related blood infections is 80,000 per year in the U.S.; the cost of treating each line infection runs around $45,000. In the U.S., we might save over $3 billion in expenses per year.

So why aren’t more hospitals and states adopting these and other, similar measures? Gawande addresses this, to some extent, in the New Yorker piece and in his book, The Checklist Manifesto. “There are hundreds, perhaps thousands, of things doctors do that are at least as dangerous and prone to human failure as putting central lines into I.C.U. patients,” he writes. “All have steps that are worth putting on a checklist and testing in routine care. The question – still unanswered – is whether medical culture will embrace the opportunity.”

Poka-yoke, a Japanese term for rendering a repetitive process mistake-proof, may be familiar to business students and corporate executives.  This concept, that simple strategies can reduce errors in highly complex works, is not the kind of thing most doctors pick up in med school. Rather, it remains foreign.

Pronovost is unusual because he examines health care delivery, in itself, rather than attempting an innovative cure for cancer or surgical method. His work just isn’t sexy enough to sell. I suspect that’s the reason he came to the health care journalism conference in Chicago and gave such an impassioned talk about the checklist, so that a few of us might help get the word out.

Things change, after all, and sometimes they do get better.

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Nice Nerds Needed

In last weekend’s edition of NPR’s Wait Wait…Don’t Tell Me!, host Peter Sagal asked a panelist about a serious problem facing the Pentagon: There’s a shortage of nerds, a.k.a. geeks.

Space Shuttle Atlantis (NASA image, Wikimedia Commons)

Happily, Houston Chronicle deputy editor and blogger Kyrie O’Connor came to the right answer.

On the quiz show, Sagal reported that Regina Dugan, head of DARPA (the Pentagon’s research arm and developer of the early Internet), recently testified before the House Armed Services Committee about her concern for our country’s most famous five-sided structure’s looming intellectual deficit.

“The decline in science education in this country means fewer nerds are being produced, a fact which has serious national security implications,” Sagal said in summary.

“Nerds molt into tech geeks. Tech geeks grow into scientists and scientists maintain the United States technical superiority,” he explained. No worries, though –

Sagal suggests the current nerd shortage will self-correct based on the predictable laws of high-school ecosystems. (To listen to his short description of this evolutionary process, check the track for Panel Round 2, after minute 4:48.)

Wired covered, earlier, the same story on DARPA’s looming technogeek shortage and Dugan’s forward-thinking statement on the matter:

…outlined her vision for the future of the Pentagon’s blue-sky research arm, with everything from plant-based vaccines to biomimetics making the short list. But none of it’s possible, she told the panel, without more investment in American universities and industry to cultivate the techies of the future…

So we lack sufficient math and science education to support the Pentagon’s needs for cutting-edge technology. And we all know that American businesses are losing out for the same reasons.

My concern is health, that some turned-on science and math-oriented kids should grow up and become physician-scientists or even plain-old, well-trained doctors who are good at interpreting graphs and applying detailed, technical information to patients with complex medical conditions. Last week I wrote that better education would improve health and medical care delivery in the U.S. This seems like an obvious point, but the more common discussion strikes on the need for math and science education to support hard technology in industry.

We’re facing a shortage of primary care physicians, oncologists and other doctor-types. Lots of clever and curious young people are turning away from medicine. The hours are too long, the pay’s too low, and the pressure is too great. If we want doctors who know what they’re doing, we should invest in their education and training, starting early on and pushing well past their graduation from med school.

Sure, we like physicians who are kind and honest people and can talk to them in ways they understand. This is crucial, but only to a point – we still depend on doctors to know their stuff.

I like doctors who are nice nerds. We need more of those, too.

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