Back to Basics – But Which Ones?

A front-page story on the Humanities and Medicine Program at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine, here in Manhattan, recently added to the discussion on what it takes to become a doctor in 2010. The school runs a special track for non-science majors who apply relatively early in their undergraduate years. Mount Sinai doesn’t require that they take MCATs or the usual set of premedical science courses – some college math, physics, biology, chemistry and organic chemistry – before admission.

The idea of the program is two-fold: first, that the traditional med school requirements are a turn-off, or barrier, to some young people who might, otherwise, go on to become fine doctors; second, that a liberal arts education makes for better, communicative physicians and, based on the numbers published in a new article, a greater proportion who choose primary care.

Today Orac, a popular but anonymous physician-scientist blogger, considers the issue in a very long post. His view, as I understand it, is that if doctors don’t know enough science they’ll be vulnerable to misinformation and even quackery.

On the side of the spectrum, perhaps, Dr. Pauline Chen, a surgeon who puts her name on her blog and essays. In a January column, “Do You Have the Right Stuff to Be a Doctor?” she challenged the relevance of most medical schools’ entry requirements.

I see merit on both sides:

It seems fine, even good, for some students to enter medical school with backgrounds in the humanities. Knowledge of history, literature, philosophy, art history, anthropology and pretty much any other field can enhance a doctor’s capability to relate to people coming from other backgrounds, to recognize and describe nonparametric patterns and, perhaps, deliver care. Strong writing and verbal skills can help a doctor be effective in teaching, get grants and publish papers and, first and foremost, communicate well with patients and colleagues.

Still, there’s value in a doctor’s having a demonstrated aptitude in math and science. Without the capacity to think critically in math and science, physicians may not really understand the potential benefits and limitations of new medical findings. What’s more, doctors should grasp numbers and speak statistics well enough so they can explain what often seems like jumbled jargon to a patient who’s about to make an important decision.

Thinking back on my years in medical school, residency, fellowship, research years and practice in hematology and oncology, I can’t honestly say that the general biology course I took – which included a semester’s worth of arcane plant and animal taxonomy – had much value in terms of my academic success or in being a good doctor. Chemistry and organic chemistry were probably necessary to some degree. Multivariable calculus and linear algebra turned out to be far less important than what I learned, later on my own, about statistics. As for physics and those unmappable s, p, d and f orbitals whereabout electrons zoom, I have no idea how those fit in.

What I do think is relevant was an advanced cell biology course I took during my senior year.  That, along with a tough, accompanying lab requirement, gave me what was a cutting-edge, 1981 view of gene transcription and the cell’s molecular machinery. Back then I took philosophy courses on ethical issues including autonomy – those, too, proved relevant in my med school years and later, as a practicing physician. If I could do it again, now, I’d prepare myself with courses (and labs) in molecular biology, modern genetics, and college-level statistics.

My (always-tentative) conclusions:

1. We need doctors who are well-educated, and gifted, in the humanities and sciences. But for more of the best and brightest college students to choose medicine, we (our society) should make the career path more attractive – in terms of lifestyle, and finances.

(To achieve this, we should have salaried physicians who do not incur debt while in school, ~European-style, and who work in a system with reasonable provisions for maternity leave, medical absences, vacation, etc. – but this is a large subject beyond the scope of this post.)

2. There may not be one cookie-cutter “best” when it comes to premedical education. Rather, the requirements for med school should be flexible and, perhaps, should depend on the student’s ultimate goals. It may be, for instance, that the ideal pre-med fund of knowledge of a would-be psychiatrist differs from that of a future orthopedist or oncologist.

3. We shouldn’t cut corners or standards in medical education to save money. As scientific knowledge has exploded so dramatically in the past 30 years or so, there’s more for students to learn, not less. Three years of med school isn’t sufficient, even and especially for training primary care physicians who need be familiar with many aspects of health care. If admission requirements are flexible, that’s fine, but they shouldn’t be lax.

Critical thinking is an essential skill for a good doctor in any field. But that kind of learning starts early and, ideally, long before a young person applies to college. To get that right, we need to go back to basics in elementary and high school education. If students enter college with “the right stuff,” they’ll have a better understanding of health-related topics whether they choose a career in medicine, or just go to visit the doctor with some reasonable questions in hand.

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On Sergey’s Search (for a Cure for Parkinson’s Disease)

This week I brushed up on Parkinson’s disease. What drew me into this mini-review is an informative article, “Sergey’s Search,” that appeared in the July (print) issue of Wired and is now available on-line. The feature, by Thomas Goetz, offers insight on what it’s like to know that you’ve got a genetic disposition to Parkinson’s, details on some enzymes implicated in the illness and, further, considers what might be done to help future patients.

I recommend this article to any of my readers who are interested in genetics, Parkinson’s and/or what some even consider as a new era for health-related research.

There’s a lot to take in –

The Wired story starts with Google co-founder Sergey Brin. A Moscow native and, more recently, a California swimmer, Brin’s got his reasons for concern. He’s got a strong family history, for one thing: the illness has affected both his mother and aunt. It turns out Brin has a genetic disposition to develop the condition because he shares the disease-associated G2019S mutation with his mom. As Goetz explains, this alteration in the DNA segment of the gene encoding LRRK2, a leucine-rich repeat kinase, involves a single-nucleotide switch of an adenine for a guanine.

(I’ll add this, just in case you’re interested: the gene encoding LRRK2, or dardarin, resides at human 12q12 – that’s the long arm of chromosome 12. The G2019S nomenclature indicates that the mutation results in a change at the 2019th amino acid position along the protein’s encoded structure, so that a glycine, normally present, is replaced by a serine molecule at that spot. A fascinating tidbit, news to me today, is that when the gene was first cloned in 2004 the researchers, who’d studied several affected families of Basque origin, called it dardarin, derived from the Basque word dardara, meaning tremor.)

The G2019S mutation is relatively common among Ashkenazi Jews. Still, not all of those who carry the mutation develop the disease, and not all who have the disease have this particular mutation. Other genetic variants have been identified, and it’s not clear exactly how these wreak havoc with LRRK2’s function. Enzymes like LRRK2, a kinase, usually transfer ATP molecules from one protein to another. The presumption is that in Parkinson’s, abnormalities in this enzyme’s function – whether they’re caused by this particular mutation or another – somehow lead to loss of dopamine-producing cells in the brain.

Back to Sergey’s story –

“Brin didn’t panic,” Goetz reports (a point I’d emphasize too). Rather, he was reassured by his mother’s experience and high level of functioning with the disease. She still goes skiing (among other things one’s mother might do), he reasons.

What Brin is doing, along the lines of Goetz’s Decision Tree approach, is cutting his risk as best he can. He exercises regularly, doesn’t smoke, and funds research.

Like other rock star informaticists before him (think of Netscape founder James H. Clarke, who launched Healtheon and Steve Case, who started Revolution Health – these are my examples), Brin is struck by the slow pace of medical investigation:

“Generally the pace of medical research is glacial compared to what I’m used to in the Internet,” Brin says. “We could be looking lots of places and collecting lots of information. And if we see a pattern, that could lead somewhere.”

If only medical research could be more like Google…

Some clinical background:

Parkinson’s, a progressive and often debilitating neurological condition, affects a half million or so people in the U.S. As a practicing as a physician, I cared for many patients who had this illness. Although I would see them for other reasons, it was hard not to notice, and know, the characteristic tremor, rigidity and shuffling walk of those affected. The onset of symptoms is usually insidious, slow and unnerving.

As Goetz indicates, most of what doctors understand about Parkinson’s comes from observing patients in the clinic. Illness emerges, it’s thought, as the number of dopamine-producing cells in the brain diminishes. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter, a molecule that transmits messages between cells or groups of cells within the nervous system. Since around 1967, when the drug Levodopa was first marketed, doctors have prescribed this and other pills for people who have Parkinson’s. While these meds can ameliorate symptoms, these don’t reverse the unstoppable deterioration of body and, ultimately, the mind.

One problem with Parkinson’s research and treatment is that once the disease becomes evident, it’s hard – probably too late – to reverse the loss of dopamine-producing cells. Most people don’t develop symptoms until dopamine production is around 20 percent of normal levels. Now, with the advent of genetic markers and potential to “catch” this disease early on, there’s an opportunity for early intervention.

One promising area for Parkinson’s research:

LRRK2 is a kinase, a kind of enzyme that’s over-active in some cancers. Already, pharmaceutical companies have developed specific kinase inhibitors; a dozen or so are already FDA-approved for treatment of particular cancers, and many more are in the pipeline.

What excites me, in all of this, is the possibility that these drugs might be effective in patients with Parkinson’s disease. And because the same enzyme – LRRK2, or dardarin – is implicated in cases without the particular G2019S mutation, it may be that these drugs would work even in cases that lack this particular genetic feature. (There are examples in oncology, in terms of tumor genetics and responsiveness to targeted drugs, that would support this contention, but that’s just theory for now.) The bottom line, as I see it, is that these new drugs should be carefully tested in clinical trials.

Sergey’s view:

One of the key ideas in Goetz’s piece has to do what he considers and may well be a revolutionary approach to medical research.

…Brin is after a different kind of science altogether. Most Parkinson’s research, like much of medical research, relies on the classic scientific method: hypothesis, analysis, peer review, publication. Brin proposes a different approach, one driven by computational muscle and staggeringly large data sets. It’s a method that draws on his algorithmic sensibility—and Google’s storied faith in computing power…

In what may indeed be a “fourth paradigm” of science, as attributed to the late computer scientist Jim Gray, there’s an inevitable evolution away from hypothesis and toward patterns.

As I understand it, Brin seeks to invert the traditional scientific method by applying Google-size data-mining power to massive and very imperfect data sets in health. Already, he and his colleagues have accomplished this by Google’s Flu Trends, which several years ago beat the CDC to an epidemic’s discovery by two weeks.

You should read this article for yourself, as I’m afraid I can’t adequately describe the potential powers of computational health and science analyses that might be applied to well, pretty much everything in medicine. This goes well beyond a new approach to finding a cure for Parkinson’s disease.

This story, largely based in genomics and computational advances, reflects the power of the human mind, how the gifted son of two mathematicians who fell into a particular medical situation, can use his brains, intellectual and financial resources, and creativity, to at least try to make a difference.

I hope he’s successful!

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Some Notes after Grand Rounds, and Questions for Medical Blogs and the Internet

Earlier this week I had the opportunity to host med-blog Grand Rounds. This honor – or assignment, depending on your perspective – came just in time for the new academic year.

(That would be today, July 10, 2010 – welcome new students! and interns! and “mature” doctors without supervision!)

Coincidentally, or not, over the past year I’ve made it my business to study what some might call on-line medicine. Since completing my J-School (that would be J for journalism, just to be clear) degree, I’ve spent much of my time reading, clicking and otherwise navigating through the medical blogosphere and greater Web.

So far I’ve tried to examine what’s out there – websites, on-line newspapers, magazines, blogs, advertisements, academic medical journals, Twitter, videos and more – as best I can, to understand how people find and share information having to do with health. What I’ve learned, largely confirming what I thought previously, is that the Internet as a source of medical information is a complex, evolving, powerful and largely unregulated instrument.

Some key questions for the future:

1. What is a blog and how might that be distinguished from, say, a website with ads and text, or from a newspaper or multimedia conglomerate with an engaging on-line section?

2. How might a reader identify a medical blog or health-related website? Is there a reason to separate these kinds of Internet domains from those concentrating on wellness, health care delivery, science, ethics or policy issues?

3. How much value, if any, should we assign to articles for which the author is unknown?

4. The issue of conflict of interest (COI) is slowly working its way into academic medical journals and continuing medical education programs for physicians. But on-line there’s essentially no regulation and it would be hard to implement any disclosure requirements even if there were. How the public might be informed of COI regarding on-line content – whether that’s provided by individual bloggers, newspaper-employed journalists, med-tech companies or pharmaceutical corporations – seems a critical issue for the future.

Any thoughts?

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DNA Comes Home, or Maybe Not

Earlier this month employees at most of 7500 Walgreens pharmacies geared up to stock a new item on their shelves: a saliva sampler for personal genetic testing. On May 11, officials at Pathway Genomics, a San Diego-based biotech firm, announced they’d sell over-the-counter spit kits for around $25 through an arrangement with the retailer. A curious consumer could follow the simple package instructions and send their stuff in a plastic tube, provided in a handy box with pre-paid postage, for DNA analysis.

DNA helix structure (Wikimedia Commons)

Once the sample’s in the lab, the cost of genomics testing depends on what, and how much, you want to know. Pathway offers a variety of options. A pre-pregnancy planning report would check to see if you carry mutations for each of 37 inherited diseases – conditions as varied as beta thalassemia, cystic fibrosis and familial Mediterranean fever – for $179. A profile of tests for genes involved in metabolizing specific drugs, such as Plavix and Coumadin, goes for $79. A vaguer, health conditions panel suggests a propensity to develop particular diseases including Type II diabetes and melanoma. This series runs $179 if purchased separately, but might be had for less through a discounted package rate. A genetics ancestry evaluation lists for $249.

Within two days, after some controversy and a receipt of a letter from the FDA Office of In Vitro Diagnostic Device Evaluation and Safety addressed to James Plante, Founder and CEO of Pathway (dated May 10), Walgreens nixed the plan. Now, Congress wants to know more about direct-to-consumer personal genomics testing. On May 19, the House Committee on Energy and Commerce sent letters to Plante and the CEOs of two major competitors – Navigenics and 23andMe. House Committee Chairman Henry Waxman and colleagues have some questions about how samples are processed and the accuracy of the results:

“The Committee is requesting information from the companies on several aspects of the tests:  How the companies analyze test results to determine consumers’ risk for any conditions, diseases, drug responses, and adverse reactions; the ability of the companies’ genetic testing products to accurately identify any genetic risks; and the companies’ policies for the collection, storage, and processing of individual genetic samples collected from consumers.

The Federal Trade Commission has cautioned consumers about genetic testing kits since 2006.  Still, personal genomics tests are readily through available on-line sales. You can get the 23andMe “DNA Test for Health and Ancestry Information” from the manufacturer or at Amazon.com for $499. Navigenics takes a distinct approach by marketing its genetic tests strictly as a laboratory service for medical practitioners and so, thus far, avoids some rules regarding in vitro diagnostic tools.

New York State, my home, is one region where Walgreens wouldn’t have sold the kits in stores. That’s because of stricter state laws regarding genetic testing.

Dan Vorhaus, writing for the Genomics Law Blog, provides a considered analysis:

At present, whether a genetic test is subject to FDA regulation largely depends on how it is developed and marketed. The literature, as well as current FDA regulatory policy, divides genetic tests into two primary categories:

(i) in vitro diagnostic test kits (also sometimes referred to as IVD kits or, simply, as genetic test kits), which may be sold by their manufacturers directly to consumers, testing laboratories, clinicians or other approved recipients, depending on the device; and

(ii) laboratory developed tests (or LDTs, also sometimes referred to as “home brew” assays), which are not sold directly to the general public or to physicians; rather, a testing service (as opposed to the actual test itself) is marketed, and samples (e.g., of saliva) are collected and submitted to the laboratory for evaluation.

The FDA regulates IVD kits as medical devices…

Up until now personal genomics testing companies have had few constraints, and little profit. What’s clear from the recent news is that we’ll be hearing more about these kits – their manufacture, distribution, accuracy and interpreting results. And that doctors, for our part, have some serious studying to do. Whether the test results go directly to patients, or not, they’re sure to raise many legitimate questions. We’ll need some solid answers about the testing process in itself, besides meaningful responses about what’s found in our DNA.

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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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9 + 1 Ways to Reduce Health Care Costs

Recently in the Times‘ “Patient Money” column, Lesley Alderman shared nine physicians’ views on how we might reduce our country’s health care mega-bill.

Here, I’ll review those comments, add my two cents to each, and then offer my suggestion (#10, last but not least)  regarding how I think we might reduce health medical costs in North America without compromising the quality of care doctors might provide.

The “answers” from the Times piece*:

1. Insure Catastrophes Only

I don’t see this as a solution, first because it would reduce insurance costs without reducing routine health care costs. This sort of system would discourage people from seeking preventive or routine care. And it might effectively punish those with non-catastrophic illnesses.

2. Change Malpractice Law

Yes, fear of malpractice triggers some extra medical testing, driving up costs, hassle and occasional risks. But I doubt the costs of malpractice fear-inspired medical testing amount to more than two percent of our health care budget, if that much.

This point is valid but is way over-emphasized by the AMA and others.

3. Counsel Nutrition

It’s hard to argue with your mom. (Eat your fruits and vegetables.)

This falls into the category of preventive care and better public education and is obviously a good idea. But given the anticipated physician shortage, I’m not sure we can afford for many doctors to spend a lot of time on this topic. Ultimately, this agenda may be best served by nutritionists who collaborate with physicians, schools, public health programs and other agencies.

4. Rely on Evidence…

I agree. But the evidence has to be fair, current and free of bias, including academic bias.

5. But Allow for Expertise

Yes.

6. Use ‘Integrative Medicine’

I’m open to acupuncture, herbs and other “alternative” remedies if people find them to be helpful, and even more so if there’s evidence to support their use. At the same time, I’m wary – there’s a huge amount for sale in this market.

As far as reducing health care costs, I doubt that more integrative medicine would be effective. I’m not persuaded by the evidence supporting hypnosis before surgery, as is mentioned in the Times piece. (And just in case it comes up, somewhere else  – I don’t think the purchase or use of candles has anything to do with health care in the absence of an electric black-out.)

7. Pay to Treat Child Obesity

Sure, someone should intervene to help heavy kids slim down before they become heavier adults. But it’s better to reduce obesity before it happens. (Back to the garden, suggestion #3, above).

8. Stop Over-treating

This huge idea, articulated by Dr. H. Gilbert Welch, is essential to reducing health care costs.

The problem is in establishing a consensus on what’s worth screening for, what’s worth treating, and what’s best left alone.

More on this later –

9. Restore the Humanity

“…There are doctors in training now who do not want to do a physical exam; they just want the lab tests and the echo-cardiogram on a heart patient, for example. But the laying on of hands is a powerful tool in establishing trust and in healing…”

The idea here, provided by Dr. Edward Hallowell, is that doctors order tests rather than knowing and examining their patients.

I couldn’t agree more completely.

*For the names of the physicians who were quoted in the New York Times, please check that column directly. (As I’ve excerpted from their comments, that were already condensed, I don’t think it appropriate to use their names out of context here.)

So, here’s my entry – if I’d been asked by the Times columnist what I think should be done to reduce health care costs, I’d say something like this:

(10) Think More, Do Less

For a swamped, chronically-running late physician (know a few?) it’s easy to order a standard set of tests (such as blood work, an electrocardiogram, a urine analysis and sometimes even a CT scan or MRI) before meeting a patient. So a doctor working in a hospital might wait for the labs before evaluating a patient in the emergency room. In an office, a consulting doctor might “lab” a person (yes, it’s been used as a verb) before thinking about the case.

Lately, patients are speaking up a bit in this regard, partly afraid of x-rays and partly afraid of the costs of so much testing. But, especially for hospitalized patients who are sometimes quite sick and may not be able to say no, or “doctor, do I really need that test?” most rely on their physicians to weigh the costs and potential benefits of what tests they order and treatments they prescribe. (This ties in with point #8, above.)

Stabs at efficiency like admission “order sets” for hospitalized patients can be useful in busy hospitals and may, indeed, render it less likely that a needed test is left out when blood is drawn. But for patients who are hospitalized for, say, two or three weeks at a time, with multiple tubes of blood removed each day, the tests add up. (Note:  some very sick patients do indeed need lots of blood tests, sometimes as often as every few hours.)

What I’m suggesting is that doctors shouldn’t order tests by default, in a routine sort of way. Excessive, daily blood work in hospitalized patients is just one example of this phenomenon. I’m aware of other, costlier examples.

Ultimately, what I think would help patients most, and would save lots of money, are smart and well-educated doctors who have the time to know their patients (#9, above) and think really hard. The more familiar a doctor is with a person and his or her disease, the more readily she’ll pick up on a change in the patient’s condition, and the more likely she’ll prescribe therapy that meshes with the patient’s values and that works, too. When a physician stays up-to-date, she’s more likely to establish a correct diagnosis and implement appropriate, effective treatment if needed.

So I think better medical education should be added to the list, along with greater compensation for physicians’ time in terms or thinking, reading and communicating with their patients.

minor rev 4/7/10, ES

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Other, Oral Targeted Cancer Treatments

Some of you may be wondering why I’m so fixated on oral, targeted therapies for cancer. In my last post I provided some information on nine cancer drugs aimed at cellular enzymes, or kinases.

I’m encouraged, first, by the rapidity of these drugs’ emergence: ten years ago, none of the kinase-blocking drugs were available except for a few in experimental trials; most received FDA approval only in the past five years. These are very new agents indeed.

Why I’m enthusiastic – I anticipate that within a few years from now, cancer patients will take “medication cocktails” for their tumors, much in the way people living with HIV use drug combinations to fend off infection.  Cancer will, in many circumstances now deemed incurable, be managed instead as a chronic disease.

Now I can complete my assignment – a list of current, oral FDA-approved targeted cancer therapies. As indicated previously, I’m not including hormonal treatments in this list. I considered oral drugs targeting kinases in the last post.

I should emphasize that I’m neither recommending nor advocating any particular drugs. Rather, my point is to demonstrate the evolution of the field, that so many new and varied types of cancer pills are available. I think this is the start of a new era in oncology with expanded treatment options for people with all kinds of malignancy.

Part II of FDA-approved Oral Targeted Treatments for Cancer (see also part I – on oral kinase inhibitors)

1. Zolinza (vorinostat) is FDA-approved for use in a few forms of lymphoma that are cutaneous T cell lymphoma (CTCL). These are non-Hodgkin’s lymphomas in which the malignant cells are T-lymphocytes infiltrating the skin.

How this agent works is by inhibiting histone deacetyalases. These enzymes act in the cell’s nucleus, or center, where lies the DNA strung out along chromosomes. It removes acetyl groups, small chemical structures, from histone proteins. The genetic material normally wraps around the histones, and the presence or absence of acetyl groups on histones affects how genes are turned on or off. (Merck, October 2006).

2. Targretin (bexarotene) comes in capsule and in gel forms. It’s a retinoid, a Vitamin A-like compound that binds retinoid X receptors. These receptors regulate gene expression in normal and malignant cells. The drug is FDA-approved for use in CTCL. (Ligand, now Eisai, December 1999).

3. Vesanoid (tretinoin) is a retinoid that binds retinoic acid receptors. This drug is approved by the FDA as part of the treatment regimen for a particular form of leukemia called acute promyelocytic leukemia (APL). The drug targets a retinoic acid receptor that’s abnormally produced in the malignant cells due to a disease-defining chromosomal switch involving the retinoic acid receptor alpha (Roche, and generic, 1995)

This list is derived, in part, from information on the National Cancer Institute website on targeted cancer therapies, supplemented by other public-access resources on the relevant drugs and molecules as I’ve indicated with relevant links.

Some comments:

In this review, I note that some drugs that are not conceptually distinct from conventional chemotherapy or hormonal treatment appear to be marketed as “targeted” cancer treatment. My concern is that some companies are using this term, which implies a scalpel-like effectiveness and selectivity, to sell drugs to patients and oncologists (who may not all be up on their kinases) regardless of the drugs’ real specificity or lack thereof.

Given that all cancer drugs are designed, in principle, to kill malignant cells without killing the person who has cancer, we might consider all anti-tumor drugs as “targeted therapy.” But I don’t think that would be reasonable or helpful to patients and physicians who are trying to distinguish among treatment options.

In my opinion, the “targeted” term should apply only to drugs that impede troublesome molecules that act up particularly in the malignant cells, such as the bcr-abl tyrosine kinase mentioned in the last post, or the altered retinoic acid receptor that’s implicated in APL, as considered above.

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Moms Tweet About Blood and Cancer

This afternoon I found a Tweet from a colleague, a journalist who happens to be a mom in my community:

Tweet from SuSaw:

“RT @JenSinger: Hey, baby. What’s your blood type? Nothing against the Big Pink Machine… http://ow.ly/URkg

As a trained hematologist (blood doc), oncologist and breast cancer survivor, I couldn’t resist checking this out. Here’s what I discovered:

The link traces to MommaSaid.net. Turns out MammaBlogger Jen Singer counts herself among lymphoma survivors in remission. Another mom in remission, I might add –

Jen clues us in on a new breast cancer awareness campaign that migrated to Facebook but three days ago – breast cancer awareness ? I updated my Status with my Bra colour ? and, as of this moment, has over 57,000 fans. Her solidarity with breast cancer patients and their loved ones is very real. She’s at increased risk, among other reasons for her sensitivity to the issue.

Jen plugs for greater public consciousness of other malignancies including tumors that arise from blood cells – conditions like non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, leukemia and myeloma. She’s particularly concerned about a young neighbor, a teenager with recurrent leukemia, who needs blood now.

In a post “O Positive is the New Pink” she writes:

“So, I ask you this: Please put your blood type in your Facebook status and ask your friends to do so, too, to raise awareness for lymphoma and leukemia. Mine is O+, a blood type…

I was blown away by this, and impressed. What social media might do for the practice of hematology!

With just a few clicks at the keyboard and some thousands of on-line connections, one lymphoma survivor has improved the chances that one girl with leukemia will get the platelets she needs. And, maybe thanks to the Facebook blood typing information campaign, more potential blood donors will connect with those who need cells in the future.

Last year, Phil Baumann listed 140 potential applications for Twitter in health care. I was curious but skeptical. Now I’m partly persuaded, at least.

Besides, just think what three moms can do. It takes a village…

——-

More soon – on giving blood, blood types and blood cells.

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Skyping Medicine

Yesterday, Dr. Pauline Chen reported in the New York Times on virtual visits, a little-used approach for providing care to patients hundreds or thousands of miles apart from their physicians.

Telemedicine depends on satellite technology and data transfer. It’s a theoretical and possibly real health benefit of the World Wide Web, that giant, not-new-anymore health resource that’s transforming medicine in more ways than we know.  Chen writes:

Telemedicine has the potential to improve quality of care by allowing clinicians in one “control center” to monitor, consult and even care for and perform procedures on patients in multiple locations. A rural primary care practitioner who sees a patient with a rare skin lesion, for example, can get expert consultation from a dermatologist at a center hundreds of miles away. A hospital unable to staff its intensive care unit with a single critical care specialist can have several experts monitoring their patients remotely 24 hours a day.

I’m reminded of three things:

First, my recent visit to my internist’s office on East 72nd Street, a short walk from my home. When I see my doctor she smiles warmly, shakes my hand firmly and examines me from head to toe. She takes my blood pressure with an old-fashioned sphygmomanometer, looks at my eyes and into my throat, applies a stethoscope to my scarred chest as she listens to my heart and lungs, and palpates – “feels” in doctorspeak – my lymph nodes, liver and spleen. All that along with a neurological exam; she sees how I stand, walk and balance my head over my torso.

Second, my husband’s conversation with his mom yesterday evening, via Skype, transmitted between his laptop in our living room and her computer in a Buenos Aires apartment.

Third, some history from the 1950s – on how early computer scientists envisioned the future of medicine. From my master’s thesis at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, on how the “How the Internet is Changing the Practice of Oncology”:

When Vladimir Kozmich Zworykin addressed the 1956 assembly on “Electrical Techniques in Medicine and Biology,” he marveled at the technological feats of computers, and envisioned how these new instruments might be applied in health care. Zworykin, an inventor of television …was privy to the newest developments in applied science.

…He’d seen closed-circuit “Telecolor Clinics” that transmitted the latest cancer research news to physicians in cities along the eastern Seaboard and Great Lakes Region. A color, television microscope linking monitors in Philadelphia, Washington and Baltimore enabled doctors in one city to identify cancer in another…

We’re back in the future! My take on telemedicine includes three components; each corresponds to one association above.

1. Telemedicine is not the same as real medicine. I like seeing my doctor in real life and am reassured by her true presence in the room.

Besides, a hands-on exam has some tangible benefits. A good doctor, who knows how breathing sounds should sound, confident in her examination skills, might skip an x-ray she’d otherwise order. A competent hematologist, skilled in palpating her patients’ lymph nodes, liver and spleen, could spare us the costs and risks of some CT scans and MRIs.

Of course, the doctor’s hands should be clean… (a topic unto itself)

2. Virtual visits might help. The reality of medicine requires innovation and compromise – making the best of a sometimes difficult situation.

As Pauline Chen points out in her column, there’s a shortage of doctors affecting some, particularly rural, parts of the U.S. Policy experts anticipate the problem won’t go away with current health care reform measures, and some business reports warn the situation will get worse. Telemedicine, while not ideal, might ameliorate this effect and make a positive difference in the health of people living far from major medical centers. The technology could, indeed, connect patients with specialists who would otherwise be out of reach.

3. The future of medicine will embrace some elements of telemedicine. We just need to fine-tune the process.

As I see it, Internet or satellite-directed medical examinations are most promising for image and data-centric fields like radiology and pathology. It’s telling that Pauline Chen’s first example pertains to dermatology (skin diseases). Sure, I think a far-away expert’s view of a skin lesion could be helpful – it might reassure some that a mole or a rash is nothing to worry about, or inform them that indeed, they should hop on a train to Memphis. For patients with benign-appearing lesions, telemedicine could save costs and time in travel and unnecessary appointments, besides biopsies.

But I’m wary of implementing this tool in primary care areas and interventional fields like surgery and obstetrics. The prospect of delivering babies upon real-time instruction by doctors in cities far away is not what I’m hoping for, at least not for my kids’ kids.

I guess we’ll have to wait and see.

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Looking Ahead: 7 Cancer Topics for the Future

Here’s my short list, culled from newsworthy developments that might improve health, reduce costs of care and better patients’ lives between now and 2020, starting this year:

1. “Real” Alternative Medicine. By this I don’t mean infinitely-diluted homeopathic solutions sold in fancy bottles at high prices, but real remedies extracted from nature and sometimes ancient practices.

A good example is curcumin, a curry ingredient from the root of the turmeric plant. We’re just starting to uncover this compound’s anti-cancer effects in humans. Another natural antidote that’s gaining ground is green tea; scientists are sifting through its components to see how it reduces cell growth in some forms of leukemia and other tumors.

2. Chemotherapy Pills. Why get treatment through an intravenous catheter if you can pop some pills instead? To be clear, some of the best and most effective cancer therapies require infusion. And just because a medication can be taken by mouth doesn’t mean the side effects are trivial.

But quite a few targeted therapies, like Gleevec or Tarceva, besides some old-fashioned drugs like Leukeran and new forms of old agents, like Xeloda, work just fine in pill or capsule form. Many patients, especially those with limited life expectancies, would gladly choose an oral combination therapy, the sort of medication cocktail taken by AIDS patients only for cancer, instead.

A gradual shift from intravenous to oral therapies for cancer would transform the practice, and economics, of oncology as it’s practiced in North America.

3. Environmental Hazards. Where we live, what we carry and ingest surely affect our bodies and our cells. We’ve learned about Bisphenol A (BPA), an estrogen-like molecule that leaches from plastic food containers into the foods we eat.

Now, we should expect and demand more information on what’s really in the water, so to speak. And in our sunscreens, and in so many chemicals we use routinely and without hesitation.

4. Health Informatics. The Pew Research Center reports that two thirds of American adults are going on-line for health information.

But that’s only part of the story. Sure, the internet makes it easier for people to learn about medical conditions, but the same applies to physicians. In principle, the internet should help doctors stay current, make sound decisions and provide better care.

Electronic health records (EHRs) will, in the long run, reduce costs from duplicate testing, faxing and re-faxing of reports and, more importantly, lessen errors from illegible or incomplete medical files that are too-often inaccessible. Over the next decade, we’ll see how patients find value in their own records (or don’t), how privacy issues play out, and if electronic documentation of millions of health reports provides, in itself, new information on disease trends and treatment effects.

5. Better Cancer Monitoring. The costs and risks of repeated CT scans are very real.

For a cancer patient undergoing therapy, the current standard involves multiple scans at intervals of months or even weeks, to see how a tumor is responding, or not, to a particular treatment regimen. Once in remission, some people undergo additional periodic studies just to be sure there’s no evidence for the tumor’s recurrence.

The news is that easier, more accurate and less dangerous methods for monitoring tumors are forthcoming. Using microchip-based detectors doctors can, using just a few drops of blood, measure the extent of a colon or lung cancer and examine how tumor cell genetics change during treatment. Over time, this and similar technologies will improve and, with standardization in manufacturing, come down in price.

6. Palliative Care. Not everyone wants to spend the last days of his or her life in an ICU hooked up to a ventilator with tubes and intravenous lines. But few people prepare for the end of life when it happens in a hospital, and doctors don’t generally talk about it in advance.

Palliative care, the kind of medicine aimed at treating symptoms, rather than achieving cure, is underused in the United States. Over the next decade, we should see better education of doctors in this essential field in cancer medicine, and of the public, too.

7. Cancer Vaccines. These work by immunizing a person against a tumor just as one might, instead, inoculate a person with a modified virus or bacterium to stave off infection.

Cancer vaccines would stimulate and harness the body’s normal immune cells to confront and eradicate cancer cells. This year, the FDA will take another look at Provenge, a vaccine that’s designed to treat men with prostate cancer. Similar biological agents are in the works for most other tumor types.

We’ll be hearing more on these innovative drugs that, so far in clinical trials, appear to have few side effects. Whether the vaccines are effective – if they can shrink tumors – we’ll have to wait and see.

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Information Overload

Americans are consuming unprecedented amounts of information. Some small fraction of that – what we read, hear and see on TV – relates to health and illness. Today’s sources might include a story on cell phones and cancer, an NPR feature on autism or a commercial in which Sally Fields recommends Boniva, a drug for osteoporosis.

Does knowing more help us lead better, healthier lives?

In Bits, a NY Times blog on business, innovation, technology and society, Nick Bilton recently described our voracious appetite for enlightenment: 34 Gigabytes or, depending on how you count, nearly 12 hours’ worth of data-gleaning per day from diverse channels like television, radio, the Web, text messages and video games.

The Bits piece links to the Global Information Industry Center‘s “How Much Information?” (HMI?) project that issued a December 2009 paper. The research center, based at the University of California in San Diego, dates to 1960, when the Internet was, if anything, theoretical, and the concept of sharing computer-based data a matter of defense.

As best I can tell, the topics of “health” and “cancer” don’t figure prominently in the recent analysis. Maybe we don’t want to know much more on these subjects than we find in our doctors’ offices. But long runs of TV shows like “Marcus Welby, M.D.,” “ER” and “Scrubs” suggest otherwise. Indeed, many tune in regularly for a peek into the medical world, at least when fed in bits and pieces by idealized or heart-throb fictitious physicians with complex, warm and sometimes hot personal lives.

Nearly two-thirds of U.S. adults seek health-related information on the Web, says Susannah Fox of the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project. The agency tracks how North Americans use the Internet for medical purposes and published an update, “The Social Life of Health Information” earlier this year.

Dr. Kevin Pho touched on the issue in a December 16 post on KevinMD:

To be sure, doctors and other health professionals don’t get everything right. But anyone can find information on the web, which can be of dubious accuracy.

Knowing what to do with that data can only come with experience and training.

Fox, of the Pew Research Center, commented:

…one of our key findings is that most people use on-line health resources to supplement advice they get from doctors and other health professionals. After 10 years of researching this field, we have no evidence that the internet is replacing traditional sources of medical advice. Yes, many people are gathering and sharing health information online, but they are also discussing it with friends, family, and health professionals.

I was considering the matter last week, it happens, when I received an email from a former patient. He has hemochromatosis, an inherited disposition to iron overload. His body is programmed to take in excessive amounts of iron, which then might deposit in the liver, glands, heart and skin. He offered holiday greetings and mentioned “some amazing videos on hematology and hemochromatosis and genetics” he’d discovered on YouTube.

This is the future of medicine, I realized. A patient accesses public databases, videos and other resources to learn about signs and symptoms of his illness, what foods to eat or best avoid, what medicines and treatments he might need and if his condition is likely to affect others in his family.

Whether physicians want their patients to search the Internet for medical advice is beside the point. We’re there already, whether or not it’s good for us and whether what we find there is true.

The current issue is not about limiting non-professionals’ access to facts or fiction. Rather, it’s about how we might sift through so much material – whether that’s a CNN segment we take in, passively, while running on a treadmill in the gym, or a detailed analysis of a new prostate cancer treatment provided straight from an oncologist – and digest it properly.

Perhaps information is a bit like iron, an essential nutrient that makes us stronger. To benefit from such a surplus, we’ve got to somehow identify, process and absorb what’s useful, what helps and doesn’t hurt.

Patients using internet health information without physician guidance

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