Why Not Tweet When You Are In the Hospital and Not Feeling Well?

A question surfaced last month is if – or why – patients should tweet, blog, or otherwise share details of their circumstances on the Internet. The discussion focused on the “case” of a friend, a thoughtful and bright woman who enthusiastically and frequently, perhaps assertively, shares her experiences as a person who lives and receives care for metastatic breast cancer. Apart from the brouhaha surrounding some vicious and factually incorrect columns by a married pair of journalists about her blog and Tweeting – the story might and I think should generate a broader discussion among journalists and doctors about patients’ privacy, social media and “openness” in the hospital setting.

This post may seem un-PC, especially at first. But my purpose is to consider the ramifications of patients using social media while getting treatment. I intend this as a conversation-starter:

From the physician’s side 

If I were a doctor making rounds now in a hospital, let’s say an oncology floor, and I knew that any of the patients might be tweeting – or could tweet – pretty much anything about his or her situation, I’d be uncomfortable about it, enough so that it might interfere with my giving the best care possible. Maybe I’d get over it, kind of the way reality TV show participants say they start to forget about being on camera all the time. But I’m not sure I’d be so honest with patients as I was, or open, as without a certain barrier, a “privacy setting,” between us (the patient and me) and the outside world.

In a (figuratively) glass hospital, I’d be more careful with my words and gestures. On the surface, that sounds like a good thing. Transparency breeds best behavior. But it’d be harder to give a patient a hug, to sneak-deliver a bunch of abandoned flowers in a vase from the utility room, to sit down in a chair at a patient’s bedside and watch the Olympics on TV for three minutes, say, while other patients (and colleagues) were waiting for me, to give a post-op patient with parched lips an ice chip, to break a minor rule. A barrier separating the patient and doctor from the world, the medical team, case managers…can strengthen the bond, and trust, between a doctor and a sick patient.

The loss of privacy can diminish the relationship. Many hospitals have rules on patients’ use of social media, and for doctors, too. But surely the future will bring new ways to break those rules. There will be greater connectedness, not less.

Now, a smart and careful patient might say to her doctors, as I do to mine: “Don’t worry, I won’t write about you on the Internet.” And I don’t, except occasionally and vaguely. Generous words, a genuinely positive “review” might cause trouble down the road. Because if something goes wrong later, and the doctor feels exposed… Stuff happens, and you may not be able to control it.

Why this matters is that if doctors don’t trust the patients they’re giving care to, the care won’t be as kind, or “good” in the sense of quality. To practice well, most doctors need to know, to be confident, that their patients will be careful and cautious about sharing information. In recent decades, doctors’ trust in their patients has eroded, not just from threats of malpractice, but by the plain fact that patients shift from doctor to doctor based on insurance and other changes, and, increasingly, receive care from medical teams and what some call patients’ “homes.”

From the patient’s side –

Being isolated in a hospital room leaves you vulnerable to doctors and other caregivers who may be inappropriate, rude and even abusive. This is especially true if you’re in pain, unable to walk or can’t speak. You might consider that having the capacity to call for help – to Tweet – is empowering.  Health care #911, and very public!

But the main benefit, as I see it, is that patients with similar conditions can find one another and provide support, one to each other. When I was in the hospital for scoliosis surgery as a teenager, for instance, I think I would have benefited from connections to other kids going through the same. When I had my breast cancer treatment, maybe I would have found comfort in the support of – and being “with,” while in the hospital – knowing other women who were going through it, too.

Being sick and alone is scary. Having instant contact to the outside world can be a lifeline.

Split decision?  #nojudgement

Ideas welcome!

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A Theoretical Note to My Students, On a Breast Cancer Case and Future Learning

Last week my students – who are, necessarily, abstracted here – studied breast cancer. How the course goes is that we meet in a small group and, each week, work through a case by Problem Based Learning. The recent case concerned a woman who, at age 35, noted a small breast lump. Each day we acquired more information about the patient, such as the size and molecular features of her tumor and prognosis. We sorted through her treatment options.

a traditional lecture hall (Wikimedia)

a traditional lecture hall (Wikimedia)

It was a dense subject. Over 4.5 hours we discussed what kind of biopsy she needed – aspirate or core needle? We considered if excision in an operating room is required to establish a breast cancer diagnosis. (rarely) We reviewed breast imaging methods (mammograms, sonograms and MRI) and tumor staging. We covered some pathology techniques including OncotypeDx and Her 2 testing by IHC or FISH. We spoke about risk factors and BRCA testing – how that’s done, what it costs and when it might be indicated. We looked at the molecular biology of Her2 signaling, and how that might be pharmacologically blocked. We considered the nomenclature of LCIS and DCIS, and the concept of overdiagnosis. We talked about the woman’s decisions for surgery (lumpectomy or mastectomy) and sentinel node evaluation. We considered kinds of adjuvant therapy including hormone blockers, chemotherapy combinations, radiation, antibodies including Herceptin, and other treatments she might receive. We spoke about her prognosis and odds of recurrence.

We spent time on the statistical concept of lead-time bias. And more. Medical school isn’t easy.

What I hope for my students, real and in cyberspace, is that they’ll always try to do what’s best for their patients. Sometimes in PBL we use PowerPoint. So here’s a list of three things to keep in mind, on learning – not just about breast cancer, but about all aspects of medicine:

1. Keep studying. Patients want and rely on their doctors to stay up-to-date about medical and scientific knowledge in their field of practice.

2. Keep paying attention, so you’ll hear and recall your patients’ concerns and preferences, and offer care that’s mindful of their goals and values.

3. Keep thinking, constantly – how the data applies to the person, an individual, the real patient you’re trying to help.

Of course you should keep asking good questions, solicit advice from colleagues, be respectful of the people who entrust you with their lives…

The best presentations don’t cover too much ground, so I’ll stop here.

See you in the morning, or next week,

ES

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Seeing ZocDoc, And Listening To A Panel On Improving Health Care

A few evenings ago, I visited ZocDoc. The youthful company, seemingly approaching middle age among startups that began in 2007, looks to be thriving. ZocDoc keeps its headquarter downtown in a loft-like, mainly open, SoHo space replete with a ping-pong table, open kitchen and mock street signs pointing (abstractly) to concepts like “Make Work Fun” and “Patients First.” The vibe amongst the crowd – a hundred or so by my crude estimate: a mix of doctors and entrepreneurs, a few journalists, insurance executives and investors, along with some ZocDoc employees – was strictly positive.

According to its website*, ZocDoc is:

… a free service that allows patients to find a nearby doctor or dentist who accepts their insurance, see their real-time availability, and instantly book an appointment via ZocDoc.com or ZocDoc’s free apps for iPhone or Android.

Basically it’s a small-but-not-tiny, growing health IT company that provides an on-line way, like an app, for people to find doctors who accept their insurance and have available time slots. (Think of OpenTable, but for health care?) Since 2007, ZocDoc has expanded. The company, with some 450 employees, claims over 2.5 million users monthly in over 1,800 cities.* Its business model includes that doctors, dentists and possibly other provider-types, pay an annual fee to participate ($300 per month, an employee told me). Since it started, ZocDoc has received significant press and gained prominent investors like Goldman Sachs and Jeff Bezos. It’s won awards as a top-notch place to work. Kudos!

The main event was a panel discussion of a dry-sounding subject:  “Improving Healthcare: The Public and Private Sectors’ Shared Responsibility.” ZocDoc’s founder Chief Operating Officer, Dr. Oliver Kharraz, introduced a formidable panel of speakers, in this order: Senator Tom Daschle, Dr. Brad Weinberg, of Blueprint Health, Senator and Dr. Bill Frist, Rich Fernandez, of the Boston-based Steward Medical Group and Dr. Amanda Parsons, of the NYC Dept. of Health and Mental Hygiene.

Dr. Kharraz opened with a question on how technology and medical startups, like ZocDoc, will fare in the context of Obamacare and upcoming, uncertain changes in the health care landscape. Daschle was first to answer, and he did so by congratulating the company for its talent and the passion it brings to a turbulent, transformative health care environment. A fit-looking Frist, a former heart surgeon, spoke enthusiastically on opportunities in the private sector. Other panelists chimed in, with words like “value,” “exciting,” “risk,” “entrepreneurial,” “wellness” and “opportunity.”

No word cloud is needed; we were in one. And it’s hard not to be charmed by the brightness of enthusiastic and eager tech-folks who want to make it easier for people to get to doctors they might need. In theory. The ZocDoc space bore no semblance to any hospital or office where I’ve been a doctor or a patient.

At the end of the discussion, one of the panelists noted the group’s apparent agreement on the terrific-ness of the enterprise. Rather than opening the session up to questions from the audience, we were invited to mingle and ask questions of the speakers. If I’d had the chance, I’d have asked a few:

1. Does ZocDoc help people get well, or is it simply a web-based system for procuring appointments with doctors who sign on?

2. What does ZocDoc offer that another health IT program, or portal, can’t or couldn’t provide?

3. How does ZocDoc help patients who don’t have insurance? (OK, it doesn’t; but that’s not the company’s aim)

4. Sure, ZocDoc has value. It helps a small fraction of the population who might be traveling and for one reason or another need to make a doctor’s appointment without having time to ask around or call in, or prefer to just click for an appointment (as I do for groceries), but…Does ZocDoc improve the quality of health care received?

5. How do you reconcile the money being invested in start-ups like these, which make health care “easier” for a few, with the lack of resources faced by real, nearby NYC hospitals closing?

Keep in mind, my concerns are based in my enthusiasm for technology in health care, and for giving providers, aka doctors, a “shot in the arm” of modern-ness. Enter the 21st Century…But there’s no hands-on a patient, no real medicine here. It’s too clean. I’m not convinced the value’s true.

*all links accessed 9/19/13

addendum, 9/20: a ZocDoc representative has informed me by email that the fee for providers is based on an annual contract priced at about $300/month, and so I have adjusted the post accordingly. (I’d originally stated that the fee was approximately $300 per year, based on my recollection of what an employee told me during the event.) – ES

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Dr. Edward Shortliffe, on the History and Future of Biomedical Informatics

Last week I had the opportunity to hear and meet Dr. Edward Shortliffe at the New York Academy of Medicine. He’s a maven in the field of biomedical informatics (that would be the “other” BMI), and a pioneer at that. He mentioned that he began working on an electronic health record (EHR) when he was an undergraduate at Harvard in 1968.

Shortliffe emphasized the multidisciplinary nature of the field – that clinicians and computer science-oriented types need be involved for health information technology (HIT) to be effective. “Human health is at the core of it,” he said. The goal of biomedical informatics isn’t for computers to replace humans, he said, but for doctors to learn how to use it – as a tool – so that we (human doctors) can practice better medicine.

He reviewed the 50-year history of the field. The super-simple summary goes something like this: in the 1960s hospitals developed early information systems; in the 1970s, early decision support and electronic health records (EHRs) emerged at hospitals and large institutions; in the 1980s clinical research trials led to databases involving patients across medical centers; in the 1990s, progress in science (especially genetics) led to modern biomedical informatics. Now, the vast work includes clinical, imaging, biology (molecular, genomic, proteomic data) and public health.

Clinical informatics is the newest field supported by the American Board of Medical Specialties.  The first boards will be offered in October of this year, he mentioned.

If you’re interested in the future of health IT, as I am, you might want to take a glance at a perspective published recently by Dr. Shortcliffe and two coauthors, Putting Health IT on the Path to Success, in JAMA. The authors consider the slow pace of implementing HIT, and suggest that the solution rests with patient-centric Health Record Banks (HRBs):

“…Health record banks are community organizations that put patients in charge of a comprehensive copy of all their personal, private health information, including both medical records and additional data that optionally may be added by the patient. The patient explicitly controls who may access which parts of the information in his or her individual account.

I’d like to see these emerge.

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What Do We Need Doctors For?

One of the first questions I asked on this blog was, Are Doctors Necessary? In  2010, I wondered if the Internet and other open resources could replace physicians’ advice. Say you’re feeling OK and not obviously sick, you might prefer to just read and draw upon the wisdom of the crowds, Google and books. If you have a pesky symptom, you might just look it up, or pretend it’s not there, and see if it goes away, without seeking a doctor’s input.

Marcus Welby, M.D. (1969–1976), IMDb image

Marcus Welby, M.D. (1969–1976), IMDb

But if you’re sick – if you’re a patient, and not a consumer, in this blog’s lingo – well, then, of course you need a doctor if you want to get well. Physicians are necessary, still, especially if you’ve got a serious illness, like colon cancer, malaria, catatonic depression, rheumatoid arthritis or Type I diabetes, to name a few doctor’s attention-worthy conditions. Even for someone like me, who’s gone through med school, residency, fellowship and spent years giving medical care to other people, having a thoughtful physician – someone whose experience and intelligence I trust – is indispensible.

My doctors help me sort through the literature, if I choose to read it (I don’t always) and figure out what makes sense for me to live without pain and as fully as possible. I value their work immeasurably. But, as much as I have been helped by nurses, physical therapists, pharmacists and peer patients, the doctor’s opinion matters most. Admittedly, I’m lucky in this. Over the years, I’ve accrued a team of excellent physicians whom I trust. That’s not a common scenario now, which is part of why this question matters so much.

The updated part of the question, now, is whether nurse practitioners (NPs), straight RNs, physician assistants (PAs), pharmacists, social workers and others including, yes, peer patients, should take up much – or even most, of doctors’ tasks. As outlined in a recent editorial, these non-physician health care workers can be paid less and may do a better job at certain chores that, historically, have been carried out by MDs. They can order scans and contact patients about the results, fill out forms for home physical therapy, measure your blood pressure and give injections, like flu shots.

At one level, assigning minor and not-so-minor tasks to other kinds of health care providers sounds great. It’s a partial, 2-for-1 solution, because it relieves the physician shortage and, simultaneously, lowers health care costs. It makes perfect sense, to a point, for efficiency.  There are, legitimately, some tasks that nurses are better-trained to do, such as giving medications. Pharmacists are more likely to pick up on dangerous drug combinations than busy pediatricians, because that’s the focus of their work and training. Peer patients are valuable too. Etc.

But if doctors are just thinking about your “case” or doing complex  procedures, and not being the ones to call you back, or putting in intravenous catheters, or even just sitting and taking a thorough history – they’ll know you less well. And if they spend less time with you, a patient with a serious illness, they – according to the laws of human nature, and my observations on rounds on hospital wards over many years – will not care so much about the outcome of your case. When and if a doctor spends time with a patient, that builds trust, concern, and – possibly, better outcomes.

Reality dictates that we have to protect doctors’ time so they can read, sleep, and spend at least a few minutes each day with the people they care about outside of the workplace, and take care of themselves. If we don’t unload some of the tasks to other health care workers, we’d have to assign fewer patients to each physician. That would exacerbate the shortage…

No simple answer –

ES

 

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Contemplating Breast Cancer, Beyond October 2012

It’s foggy today, October 3, ten years since the last mammogram I had and will ever need. I’ve been remiss in updating the blog. The reasons include family concerns and other projects. Meanwhile, I’ve been thinking about the big picture – what’s most important for progress against breast cancer in the decade ahead.

So here’s what I see, now – in terms of three priority areas: improving treatment, prevention, and education to inform treatment decisions.

Pumpkins, organized by subtype (WikiCommons image)

As an oncologist, I perceive huge strides in understanding BC since the time of my diagnosis. But these advances are largely invisible to patients because they’re in the realm of pathology and classification of different subtypes. What was essentially a 3-type malignancy with a handful of treatment options has expanded under the molecular microscope to a spectrum of 4, 10 or – what’s probably most accurate – hundreds or thousands of patient-particular conditions, depending on the level of precision by which you define a disease. I’m optimistic, because it looks as though, in my lifetime, BC treatment will be tailored to each patient. There’ll be less surgery and better drugs.

The hitch, now, is not so much with science as with funding– funding to analyze each patient’s tumor at the genetic and protein levels, funding to pay for treatments selected by patients (which might include less treatment and/or palliative care in advanced cases), and funding to educate doctors about BC subtypes and medical progress, so they might offer “modern” advice to each patient in ordinary clinics, apart from clinical trials and academic centers. Newer is not always better in medical care. Same goes for more treatment (especially when it comes to higher doses). Still, the lag between advances in BC science and application of distinct, targeted and better treatments is frustrating at best.

Some of my colleagues call for patience – emphasizing that studies need be confirmed, drugs tested in mice, etc. Their point is that we can’t jump from pathology research and new BC classifications to new therapy. But one lesson I take from progress against AIDS is that maybe we shouldn’t be so patient. At least not for young people with poor-prognosis BC subtypes or stage. We could do studies and studies of particular BC treatments, and studies of studies (those would be meta-analyses) and debate 8 or 10 years from now whether a particular drug or combination of drugs worked in clinical trials that selected for patients with an antiquated subtype of the disease. Or we could move toward “n=1” trials, with smart, well-trained physicians assessing each patient by a combination of old-fashioned physical exams and the most modern of molecular studies of the tumors, considering the options, and moving forward with individual, mini-experimental treatment plans.

I vote for the latter. If the drug works in a patient with advanced BC and the patient feels better, why not?

For people with early-stage BC, prescribing or taking new and essentially untested drugs makes less sense at first glance. That’s because standard treatments are “successful” – leading to long-term remissions and possible cures in over 80 percent of those affected. But these relatively good results may have, paradoxically, hampered development of better drugs that could obviate the need for breast-deforming surgeries and radiation in many women. The possible application of BC drug cocktails, in lieu of surgery for early-stage patients, is a huge question for the future, and one for which trials would be necessary. Just getting those projects going – applying BC science to treatment of early-stage cases – would be a step in the right direction.

As for BC prevention, of course that would be infinitely better than detecting or treating the disease. Unfortunately, I think we’re farther away from preventing the disease than we are from having effective and less brutal treatments for most patients. The problem with lifestyle modification – like staying active and not obese – is that it’s far from full-proof: You can be seemingly fit as a fiddle and get a lethal case of BC. Still, there are plenty of other health-related reasons for women to exercise and eat sensibly. As for avoiding carcinogens or, first, just knowing what chemicals contribute to BC formation and growth, the science isn’t there yet.  It’ll be a long haul before anyone can prove that a particular chemical causes this disease. That said, I advocate research in the slow-growing field of environmental oncology and wish there’d be more enthusiasm for regulating our exposure to likely-toxic chemicals.

The third priority is for improving education in math and science, starting at the elementary school level. Doctors need to understand statistics, but many don’t. They need to know about genomics and basic science in medicine. Patients need this kind of knowledge if they want to have a clue, if they want to engage meaningfully in decisions about which antibody to take, or pill, or whether they want to participate in a clinical trial of pills instead of surgery for a Stage II tumor with high levels of Her2, for example. That’d be a tough decision for an oncologist. I only wish that we could reach the point where we could have those kinds of truly informed conversations about clinical treatment of breast cancer, which happen every day.

We’ve got a lot of information in hand, but we need to learn how to apply that to more patients, faster and more openly.

All for a while. I’m open to ideas on this. Happy October!

ES

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10 Newly-Defined Molecular Types of Breast Cancer in Nature, and a Dream

Breast cancer is not one disease. We’ve understood this for decades. Still, and with few exceptions, knowledge of BC genetics – information on tumor-driving DNA mutations within the malignant cells – has been lacking. Most patients today get essentially primitive treatments like surgical hacking, or carving, traditional chemotherapy and radiation. Some doctors consider hormone therapy as targeted, and thereby modern and less toxic. I don’t.

Until there’s a way to prevent BC, we need better ways to treat it. Which is why, upon reading the new paper in Nature on genetic patterns in breast cancer, I stayed up late, genuinely excited. As in thrilled, optimistic..The research defined 10 molecular BC subgroups. The distinct mutations and gene expression patterns confirm and suggest new targets for future, better therapy.

The work is an exquisite application of science in medicine. Nature lists 31 individuals and one multinational research group, METABRIC (Molecular Taxonomy of Breast Cancer International Consortium), as authors. The two correspondents, Drs. Carlos Caldas and Samuel Aparicio, are based at the University of Cambridge, in England, and the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada. Given the vastness of the supporting data, such a roster seems appropriate, needed. The paper, strangely and for all its worth, didn’t get much press –

Just to keep this in perspective – we’re talking about human breast cancer. No mice.

The researchers examined nearly 2000 BC specimens for genetic aberrations, in 2 parts. First, they looked at inherited and acquired mutations in DNA extracted from tumors and, when available, from nearby, normal cells, in 997 cancer specimens – the “discovery set.” They checked to see how the genetic changes (SNPs, CNAs and/or CNVs) correlated with gene expression “landscapes” by probing for nearly 29,000 RNAs. They found that both inherited and acquired mutations can influence BC gene expression. Some effects of “driver” mutations take place on distant chromosomal elements, in what’s called a trans effect; others happen nearby (cis).

Next, they honed in on 45 regions of DNA associated with outlying gene expression. This led the investigators to discover putative cancer-causing mutations (accessible in supplementary Tables 22-24, available here). The list includes genes that someone like me, who’s been out of the research field for 10 years, might recall – PTEN, MYC, CDK3 and -4, and others. They discovered that 3 genes, PPP2R2A, MTAP and MAP2K4 are deleted in some BC cases and may be causative. In particular, they suggest that loss of PPP2R2A may contribute to luminal B breast cancer pathology. They find deletion of MAP2K4 in ER positive tumors, indicative of a possible tumor suppressor function for this gene in BC.

Curtis, et al. in "Nature": April 2012

The investigators looked for genetic “hotspots.” They show these in Manhattan plots, among other cool graphs and hard figures, on abnormal gene copy numbers (CNAs) linked to big changes in gene expression. Of interest to tumor immunologists (and everyone else, surely!), they located two regions in the T-cell receptor genes that might relate to immune responses in BC. They delineated a part of chromosome 5, where deletions in basal-like tumors marked for changes in cell cycle, DNA repair and cell death-related genes. And more –

Cluster Analysis (abstracted), Wikipedia

Heading toward the clinic, almost there…

They performed integrative cluster analyses and defined 10 distinct molecular BC subtypes. The new categories of the disease, memorably labeled “IntClust 1-10,” cross older pathology classifications (open-access: Supplementary Figure 31) and, it turns out, offer prognostic information based on long-term Kaplan-Meier analyses (Figure 5A in the paper: Supplementary Fig 34 and 35). Of note, here, and a bit scary for readers like me, is identification of an ER-positive group, “IntClust 2” with 11q13/14 mutations. This BC genotype appears to carry a much lesser prognosis than most ER-positive cases.

Finally, in what’s tantamount to a 2nd report, the researchers probed a “validation set” of 995 additional BC specimens. In a partially-shortened method, they checked to see if the same 10 molecular subtypes would emerge upon a clustering analysis of paired DNA mutations with expression profiles. What’s more, the prognostic (survival) information held up in the confirmatory evaluation. Based on the mutations and gene expression patterns in each subgroup, there are implications for therapy. Wow!

I won’t review the features of each type here for several reasons. These are preliminary findings, in the sense that it’s a new report, albeit a model of what’s a non-incremental published set of observations and analysis; it’s early for patients – but not for investigators – to act on these findings. (Hopefully, this will not be the case in 2015, or sooner, preferably, for testing some pertinent drugs in at least a subset of the subgroups identified.) Also, some of the methods these authors used came out in the past decade, after I stopped doing research. It would be hard for most doctors to fully appreciate the nuances, strengths and weaknesses of the study.

Most readers can’t know how skeptical I was in the 1990s, when grant reviewers at the NCI seemed to believe that genetic info would be the cure-all for most and possibly all cancers. I don’t think that’s true, nor due most people involved with the Human Genome Project, anymore. The Cancer Genome Atlas and Project should help in this regard, but they’re young projects, larger in scope than this work, and don’t necessarily integrate DNA changes with gene expression as do the investigators in this report. What’s clear, now, is that some cancers do respond, dramatically, to drugs that target specific mutations. Recently-incurable malignancies, like advanced melanoma and GI stromal tumors, can be treated now with pills, often with terrific responses.

Last night I wondered if, in a few years, some breast cancers might be treated without surgery. If we could do a biopsy, check for the molecular subtype, and give patients the right BC tablets. Maybe we’d just give just a tad of chemo, later, to “mop up” any few remaining or residual or resistant cells. The primary chemotherapy might be a cocktail of drugs, by mouth. It might be like treating hepatitis C, or tuberculosis or AIDS. (Not that any of those are so easy.) But there’d be no lost breasts, no reconstruction, no lymphedema. Can you imagine?

Even if just 1 or 2 of these investigators’ subgroups pans out and leads to effective, Gleevec-like drugs for breast cancer, that would be a dream. This can’t happen soon enough.

With innovative trial strategies like I-SPY, it’s possible that for patients with particular molecular subgroups could be directed to trials of small drugs targeting some of the pathways implicated already. The pace of clinical trials has been impossibly slow in this disease. We (and by this I mean pharmaceutical companies, and oncologists who run clinical trials, and maybe some of the BC agencies with funds to spend) should be thinking fast, way ahead of this post –

And given that this is a blog, and not an ordinary medical publication or newspaper, I might say this: thank you, authors, for your work.

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The Outlier’s Message, and Evolutionary Science in Breast Cancer

This past week I read several attitude-altering articles about breast cancer.

Kathy Rich, as featured in ‘O’ Magazine

The first lesson, if I might call it that – in the way an oncologist can learn from variations in her patients’ pathology and clinical outcomes – comes from the case of Katherine Russell Rich, who died last week at the age of 56. As reported by Katherine O’Brien in the I Hate Breast Cancer Blog, Rich lived with metastatic BC (MBC) for 18 years. That’s phenomenal, was my first reaction to this news. The prognosis for MBC is said to be around 3 years, and Rich lived for 18 years beyond her tumor’s recurrence with stage IV disease.

As sad and unsatisfactory as this outcome may seem, and it is, Rich’s story offers hope for life beyond the 3 or 4 or 5 years some women with MBC pray, “ask” or otherwise bargain for, fingers-crossed…

As she detailed in an O article, Rich’s initial diagnosis came when she was 32 years old, in 1988. The Times, in an obituary, tells of her lumpectomy, chemo and radiation. In 1993 her cancer came back in bones including her spine. She had a bone marrow transplant, but the disease progressed. Ultimately, she coursed through various and some archaic hormone treatments.

Along the way, she lost or quit a job in publishing, or both, and traveled to India, and authored two books. In a 2010 first-person story about her case, she told of updating her status – of being alive – at Breastcancer.org each year. She wrote:

…I tell the women how deeply I believe there’s no such thing as false hope: all hope is valid, even for people like us, even when hope would no longer appear to be sensible.

Life itself isn’t sensible, I say. No one can say with ultimate authority what will happen — with cancer, with a job that appears shaky, with all reversed fortunes — so you may as well seize all glimmers that appear.

My take, as an oncologist and former clinician, is that patients sometimes surprise you. Hard to know which woman will respond to a non-targeted treatment, or even a drug like an estrogen modulator, without trying. And I wonder – and this is speculative, but maybe, likely, the two together – doctor and patient – worked together to see what worked in Rich’s case over nearly 2 decades, and what didn’t work.

A Bell Curve

If a drug helps, keep it going; if it hurts, stop. There are so many algorithms in medicine, and molecular tools, but maybe the bottom line is how the, one, your patient is doing.

Which leads me to another post, by Dr. David Gorski, a breast cancer surgeon and researcher who blogs as Orac – what once was imagined as a fabulously capable information processor, at Respectful Insolence. He describes how tough it can be to define, and thereby target or destroy, any individual patient’s breast tumor because the cancer cells are constantly changing. Within each woman’s tumor, an evolution-like process is ongoing, leading to selection of treatment-resistant cells. This is not news in oncology; the concept has been understood for years as it applies to “liquid” tumors like leukemia, as he points out.

In breast cancer, understanding the complexity of each case is more recent. Gorski considers a genetic analysis of 104 triple negative breast cancer (TNBC) cases presented at the recent AACR meeting and published last week in Nature:

“…The 59 scientists involved in this study expected to see similar gene profiles when they mapped on computer the genomes of 100 tumours.

But to their amazement they found no two genomes were similar, never mind the same. “Seeing these tumours at a molecular level has taught us we’re dealing with a continuum of different types of breast cancer here, not just one,” explains Steven Jones, co-author of this study.

…TNBC is not a single disease. In fact, even an individual TNBC tumor is not a single disease. Tumor cells evolve as they proliferate, so that the cells in them are genetically heterogeneous. The cells growing in one area of a tumor can and often do harbor markedly different genetic mutations from the cells growing in another part of the tumor…

The team found that each tumor displayed multiple “clonal genotypes,” suggesting that the cancer would have to be treated as multiple diseases, rather than a single entity.

So besides that there are distinct subtypes of breast cancer, those labeled as TNBC are diverse and contain variation within; each patient harbors sub-clones of malignant cells that, in principle, respond differently to treatment.

Orac, the fictional supercomputer (Wiki-Commons image)

Putting these links together –

The message from Katherine O’Brien, who lives with MBC and blogs about it, is that one outlier – like Katherine Russell Rich – can provide hope to other patients and, maybe, clues for scientists about why she lived for so long with metastatic BC. The message from Orac, a physician-scientist blogger, is how hard it is to pinpoint an individual breast tumor’s molecular aspects, because the disease is so mutable and diverse.

The problem, and this reflects evolution in my thinking over a long while, is that published data – the gold standard, what supports EBM – are largely limited to findings based on trials of groups. We understand now, better than we did 10 or 20 years ago, that each patient’s tumor is unique and can evolve over time, naturally or in response to therapy. Clinical trials, though rigorously planned and elaborately structured, are incredibly expensive and flip-floppy, disappointing overall.

What I’m thinking –

Algorithms – except in the broadest sense – may not offer the optimal approach to cancer treatment. Maybe the median doesn’t matter so much as we’d thought.

Here’s a ~retro idea: In 2012, maybe the ideal and most cost-effective oncology practice would blend low-tech observations – like findings on physical examination and how the patient’s feeling – with occasional, high-tech analyses – like markers for genetic drift within a tumor. If doctors are well-trained and non-robotic, in either the literal or figurative sense, and if they lack COIs regarding treatment decisions, they’d provide better, more effective and personalized treatments than what’s typically offered based on evidence reached through elaborate, costly clinical trials of many patients with similar but non-identical cancers.

All for now,

ES

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Why I Support Health Care Reform

One advantage of blogging is that I can share my ideas, directly, with people who find them interesting, provocative or otherwise read-worthy. So for those who are curious, here is my general view on health care reform (HCR) by any name, in 3 points:

First, we need it. The U.S. health care system doesn’t work. It doesn’t serve doctors. Good physicians are few and far between in some geographical regions, in primary care and in needed specialties (like oncology and geriatrics). It doesn’t serve people who might be patients, except if they happen to work for a generous employer that offers a good plan (few do), they are rich enough so they might spend thousands each year out-of-pocket and out-of-network, or they are most fortunate of all, having no serious medical problems to contend with or pay for.

Second, although I wholeheartedly support the Affordable Care Act, because it’s a step in the right direction, I don’t think the legislation goes far enough. We need a simpler, single-payer solution, as in a national health care program, Medicare-style, for all. Why? Because the quasi-plan for state-based exchanges, each with competing offerings and not necessarily interpretable terms of coverage, is too complicated. There’s no reason to think a free market operating at the state level would match the public’s or many individuals’ medical needs. As long as each provider is trying to make a buck, or a billion, it won’t put patients’ access to good care first. Besides, there’ll be administrative costs embedded in each exchange that we could live better without. As for private insurers, well, I couldn’t care less about the well-being of those companies or their executives’ incomes.

Profit is not what medical care is about, or should be about. What we need is a simple, national health plan, Europe-style, available to everyone, with minimal paperwork and, yes, limits to care.

Third point – on rationing.

Some of my readers may wonder how I, who support some costly components of good medical care, like providing breast cancer screening for middle-aged women and sometimes giving expensive drugs to people with illness, favor health care reform. New cancer meds cost around $100,000 year, more or less, as do innovative treatments for cystic fibrosis, inflammatory bowel disease, rheumatoid arthritis and other conditions. I don’t think the sane solution is abandoning expensive but life-saving and quality-of-life-improving treatments.

The hardest part of this debate and what’s so rarely discussed is the appropriate limits of medical treatment, not based on costs – which we can certainly afford if we pull back on administrative expenses of health care and insurers’ huge profits – but on factors like prognosis and age. So, for example, maybe a 45 year old man should get a liver transplant ahead of an 80 year old man. Screening for breast cancer, if it is valuable as I think it is, should perhaps be limited to younger women, maybe those less than 70 or 75, based on the potential for life-years saved. Maybe we shouldn’t assign ICU beds to individuals who are over 85, or 95, or 100 years old.

The real issue in HCR, if you ask me, is who would decide on these kinds of questions. That conversation’s barely begun, and I would like to participate in that…

Meanwhile, the Supreme Court is busy doing its thing, sorting out whether the Affordable Care Act is constitutional or not. I’m glad they’re on the case, so that they might find that it stands and we can move on and forward.

#Obamacare is right –

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The ‘Journal’ Asks, Should Patients Have Identification Numbers?

Today’s Wall Street Journal includes a special Big Issues health care section. A post on their blog caught my attention: Should Patient Have Electronic Identification Numbers?

The idea is that people who use health care would each be assigned a universal patient identifier, or UPI. This unique number would link to a person’s health records. In principle it would facilitate transfer of a patient’s medical history between doctors, hospitals and, likely, insurance companies. There are arguments pro – mainly having to do with efficiency and patient safety; and against – mainly having to do with privacy.

My issue is that it reminds me of Auschwitz. But apart from that particular association, labeling people with numbers seems dehumanizing – what’s already a big negative in modern health care. I/we need to realize that already we have numbers. Most people have social security numbers. I have several hospital ID numbers and insurance company numbers.

As for privacy, that’s history, or an illusion. If someone wants to know something about almost any person here in the U.S, they can find it. We inhabit a grid.

The debate reminds me of when I was an oncology fellow, and I treated a woman from Central America who had breast cancer. After she underwent a biopsy at our hospital, I reviewed the slides with the pathologist and wrote orders and injected her with chemotherapy. For 15 years or so I followed her in the clinic, and at some point, maybe 5 years after her diagnosis, she told me that her name was not what I’d thought or what her chart said it was. She’d used a cousin’s name and insurance card to get the care she needed.

More recently, I was with a relative who had an MRI. Upon registering at the radiology facility, he had to show a state-issued picture ID besides his insurance card. The issue was clear: with some 50 million or so Americans uninsured, and others without the ready means to cover co-pays, some people are assuming other patients’ identities to get the care they want or need.

The costs to insurers and hospitals of patient identity fraud – what in some instances I might liken to a hungry person stealing a loaf of bread – may underlie this topic’s appearance in the WSJ.

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