73 Cents: A Film on Regina Holliday’s Work, and Patient Advocacy Through Art

Yesterday I took a field trip to meet Regina Holliday, an artist and patient advocate. She fielded questions after a screening of 73 Cents, a short film about why she painted a mural by that name in the days after her husband died with metastatic kidney cancer. He was 39 years old.

At the time of her husband Fred’s diagnosis, both she and her husband held several jobs but he lacked health insurance. In a video, Holliday describes how his diagnosis and care were delayed.

“73 Cents” refers to the price, per page, Holliday needed to pay to get a copy of her husband’s chart when he entered a new medical facility. According to the film, she was told she’d have to wait 21 days to get his records, even though he was acutely ill and dying. Now a widow with two young sons, she pushes for patients’ rights to access to their health  records and, more generally, for a patient-centered approach to medical care.

The film-makers’ point: The unreasonable price of the medical records, combined with the delay in receiving them, exemplifies unnecessary harms patients encounter in an outdated, disjointed health care system.

Holliday has several ongoing projects, including the Walking Gallery. In that, she represents health care stories on the backs of people’s jackets. The idea is to take the message of the mural – which is one patient’s story, and necessarily static – and take it further.

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Oh, No Methotrexate!

structure of MTX (PubChem; NCBI)

I was astonished to learn that methotrexate supplies are running short. This chemotherapy may soon be unavailable to patients who need it. And it’s not just kids with leukemia, as the Times story highlights effectively.

Methotrexate is an old, bread-and-butter cancer kind of drug, a basic ingredient in standard regimens for many tumor types. I’ve personally administered this medication to patients with breast cancer, lymphoma, leukemia, head and neck tumors, ovarian cancer, colon cancer and people whose tumor cells spread to the brain. Doctors prescribe this drug, also, in a few non-malignant conditions, like rheumatoid arthritis.

Methotrexate has been used in cancer wards for over 50 years. And like other beyond-patent meds, it’s become less profitable to manufacture MTX compared to much costlier new agents. Hard to perceive this shortage as anything but a tragedy – that the business of health care renders valuable, inexpensive drugs out of reach.

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NIH Sponsors New Website to Help Patients Understand Clinical Trials

This week the NIH launched a new website, NIH Clinical Research Trials and You. In a Feb 6 press release, NIH Director Dr. Francis S. Collins said “The ability to recruit the necessary number of volunteers is vital to carrying out clinical research.” The idea behind the website is to help patients understand how clinical research works, and what it’s like to participate.

The site offers a menu of “basics” about clinical trials, addressing topics like:

  1. What are clinical trials and why do people participate?
  2. What is clinical research?
  3. Who participates in clinical trials?
  4. What do I need to know if I am thinking about participating?
  5. What questions should I ask if offered a clinical trial?
  6. How am I protected?
  7. What happens after a clinical trial is completed?
  8. How does the outcome of clinical research make a difference?

There’s an imperfect glossary of terms, a selection of patients’ and investigators’ stories, information for kids in research, and other resources including a link to the clinical trials database:  ClinicalTrials.gov.

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Notes on Wendell Potter, and Why Companies Support the Individual Mandate

The current debate about the individual mandate reminded me to post this –

About a year ago, I had the opportunity to hear Wendell Potter, author of Deadly Spin – an insider’s sharp critique of the insurance industry, speak at a meeting of the New York Metropolitan Chapter of Physicians for a National Health Program. Despite the cold, dark winter night and midtown dreariness of the meeting location, the large lecture room was packed. I arrived well before Potter’s presentation but couldn’t get a copy of his book; they’d sold out.

The meeting was instructive: I got a sense of Potter’s personal story (he’s from Tennessee, and lived for a while in Appalachia), his previous career (he worked as a journalist, turned to marketing, eventually led PR for Cigna) and his perspective on how people in the health care industry use language to frame the debate on health care reform. Since 2009, when he left his position at Cigna, he writes and speaks critically about the insurance industry.

Potter made several points that clarified my understanding of the insurance companies’ support of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, and why many business-minded sorts are adamant about the individual mandate component in the law.

Insurance companies can’t make a profit without the individual mandate unless they deny coverage to people with pre-existing conditions, he explained. ”Think about it,” he said. “If young and healthy people aren’t going to buy insurance, and insurance companies can’t refuse to cover those with pre-existing conditions, the companies would be responsible only for providing health care to people who choose insurance, including everyone who is sick.”

“Most Republicans who say they favor repeal are disingenuous in that,” he said. “They’re using a smoke screen tactic to persuade the public that they’re against the legislation, but really they support it,” he told. “The insurance companies need it to stay in business,” he added.

The new legislation will also serve most large providers of health care services. That’s because without reform,  more and more Americans will go without any insurance. “If you keep shifting the costs of health care to consumers, they won’t buy it,” he said. And without insurance, most people can’t afford all but the most essential medical services – if those.

So the individual mandate assures that the insurance industry can remain profitable. And it serves the health care industry by maximizing the number of healthy people who will participate in health care spending.

In other words (ES): The health care industry needs health care to be affordable to many “consumers.”

All for now –
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NEJM Reports on 2 New Drugs for Hepatitis C

Last week’s NEJM delivered an intriguing, imperfect article on a new approach to treating hepatitis C (HCV). The paper’s careful title, Preliminary Study of Two Antiviral Agents for Hepatitis C Genotype 1, seems right. The analysis, with 17 authors listed, traces the response of 21 people with hepatitis C (HCV) who got two new anti-viral agents, with or without older drugs, in a clinical trial sponsored by Bristol-Meyers Squibb.

The 21 study participants all had chronic infection by HCV genotype 1, a strain that’s common in North America and relatively resistant to standard treatment. All subjects were between 18 and 70 years old, with a measurable level of HCV RNA in the blood, no evidence of cirrhosis, and no response to prior HCV treatment (according to criteria detailed in the paper). In the trial, 11 patients received a combination regimen of daclatasvir (60 mg once daily, by mouth) and asunaprevir (600 mg, twice daily by mouth) alone; the other 10 patients took the experimental drugs along with 2 older meds for HCV – Peginterferon (Pegasys, an injectible drug by Roche) and Ribavirin (Copegus, a pill, by Roche).

The main finding is that the 10 patients assigned to take 4 drugs all did strikingly well in terms of reducing detectable HCV in their blood over the course of 24 weeks. There was a dramatic response, also, in 4 of the 11 patients assigned to the new drugs only. An accompanying editorial highlighted the work as a Watershed Moment in the Treatment of Hepatitis C. The medical significance is that they’ve demonstrated proof of principle: by “hitting” a resistant HCV strain with multiple anti-viral drugs simultaneously, they could reduce it to undetectable levels.

The first question you have to ask about this report is why the NEJM – the most selective of medical journals – would publish findings of an exploratory analysis of two new pills paired with two older drugs for HCV. The best answer, probably, is that the virus infects some 4 million people in the U.S. and approximately 180 million people worldwide, according to the study authors. HCV can cause liver damage, cirrhosis, liver cancer (which is usually fatal) and, occasionally blood disorders.

The new drugs derive from some interesting science. This, maybe, also is a factor in why the article was published in the NEJMDaclatasvir (BMS-790052) blocks a viral protein, NS5A, that’s essential for HCV replication. The second new drug, asunaprevir (BMS-650032) inhibits a viral protease, NS3.

I have several concerns about this report. One is that the researchers screened 56 patients for possible registration but enrolled only 21 on the trial; according to a supplementary Figure 1, 35 potential subjects (over half) didn’t meet criteria for eligibility. This disparity makes any once-researcher wonder about bias in selecting patients for enrollment. If you’re a pharmaceutical company and want to show a new drug or combo is safe, you’re going to pick patients for a trial who are least likely to experience or display significant toxicity.

Toxicity seems like it could be problematic. Diarrhea, fatigue and headaches were common among the study subjects. Worrisome is that 6 patients (of 21, that would be 28.5% of those on the trial) had liver problems manifest by at least one enzyme (the ALT) rising over 3 times the normal limit.

Further complicating the picture is there’s no indication of how these new drugs mesh with the two drugs approved for HCV in 2011: Vic­trelis (boceprevir) and Incivek (telaprevir).

Given all these limitations, you might wonder about BMS’s influence at the Journal or, more likely, the manuscript’s peer reviewers. The 17 study authors, and the editorialist, separately, disclose a host of industry ties.

What I’m thinking, as much as I’m critical of this research work, is that this is probably the way of the future – smaller, pharma-funded studies of targeted new drugs in complicated combinations. Many will be authored by academics with ties to industry, if not put forth directly by company-employed researchers. These quick-and-promising studies in select patient groups will be routine. And while advocates push for rapid publication of new clinical research in patients with resistant, disabling diseases, it’ll be hard for physicians and patients to interpret these kinds of data.

So these particular findings may turn out to be true and life-saving, or not. The bigger concern is this: It would be helpful if the journals would take a really tough stance on full disclosure of authors and editors ties to industry. As Merrill Goozner has emphasized, the Physician Payment Sunshine Act – a small component of the 2010 HCR legislation – has important implications for academic medicine and reporting of clinical research studies.

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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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Regorafenib, an Experimental Pill Tested in Colon and Rectal Cancer Patients, on Conference Agenda

Tomorrow the American Society of Clinical Oncology* will host its 9th annual GI Cancers Symposium. Bloomberg and the LA Times have already reported findings of a paper, still in abstract form, to be presented on Saturday.

The drug of interest is regorafenib, a pill that loosely inhibits quite a few kinases – enzymes critical in cell signals that control growth of normal cells, tumors and blood vessels. The experimental med, manufactured by Bayer, is also known as BAY 73-4506. The new data emerge from an international, randomized Phase III trial that goes by a loaded acronym: CORRECT.

The study included 760 patients with advanced colon or rectal cancer whose tumor progressed after receiving standard treatments. Participants received either the study drug or BSC (best supportive care) and a placebo. According to the paper, BSC includes antibiotics, pain meds, radiation for bone mets, steroids and some other treatments. The median survival in patients who received the Regorafenib was 6.4 months, compared with 5.0 months in patients who got the placebo. This difference, of 1.4 months in the median, was statistically significant. The “disease control rate” – a term that warrants separate explanation – was 44% in the regorafenib group c/w 15% in the placebo group.

The most frequent high-grade toxicities reported so far include a skin reaction affecting patients’ hands and feet, fatigue, diarrhea, elevated bilirubin in the blood, and high blood pressure. (Question to ask the oncologist who’s presenting these data at the meeting – was the elevated bilirubin from liver damage or hemolysis? With all the $millions spent on this trial, surely someone’s followed up on that detail.)

The language of the report and investigators’ comments are reminiscent of some regarding Avastin for advanced breast cancer. According to a media release: “…a subset of patients in the trial have responded particularly well to regorafenib, continuing to have stable disease for a relatively long time; research is ongoing to find ways to identify these individuals.” There are no biomarkers known to check for Regorafenib responsiveness.

What’s odd is that, according to the abstract, # LBA385, all patients entered the study between May, 2010 and March, 2011. This means some subjects were evaluated for less than a year, and the longest observation period for any patient on the trial is 20 months. Seems early to draw meaningful conclusions about the long-term toxicity and possible benefits of a cancer drug, especially for tumor types, like colorectal cancer, that don’t generally grow fast (c/w a condition like acute leukemia).

The list of investigators’ disclosures regarding ties to industry is too long to post here. You can find them at the tail end of the release. The FDA has assigned Fast Track status to this drug, according to Bayer.

*I am an ASCO member.

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Quote of the Day: On Death Panels and the Insurance Industry, From Dr. Donald Berwick

Dr. Donald Berwick left his position last week as head of CMS. He said this, as quoted in the WSJ’s Washington Wire, yesterday:

“Maybe a real death panel is a group of people who tell health care insurers that is it OK to take insurance away from people because they are sick or are at risk for becoming sick.”

I couldn’t agree with him more.

All for this week,

ES

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A Good Personal Health Record is Hard to Find

Over the weekend I developed another bout of diverticulitis. Did the usual: fluids, antibiotics, rest, avoided going to the ER, cancelled travel plans.

One of my doctors asked a very simple question: is this happening more frequently? The answer, we both knew, was yes. But I don’t have a Personal Health Record (PHR) that in principle, through a few clicks, would give a time-frame graph of the bouts and severity of the episodes over the past several years.

The last time this happened, and the time before that, I thought I’d finally start a PHR. Like most compulsive patients, I keep records about my health. In the folder in my closet in a cheap old-fashioned filing box, the kind with a handled top that flips open, I’ve got an EKG from 15 years ago, an OR report from my spine surgery, copies of lab results that the ordering physicians chose to send me, path reports from my breasts, a skin lesion or two, and, more recently a colonic polyp, bone density studies from 2004, EMGs and more, essentially miscellaneous results.

None of the records I have are digital.

A few years back I considered using Google Health. But their service, as I understood it, involved scanning documents and uploading them to the Cloud, or paying someone else to do so. That sounded like a hassle. But even had I done that, I wouldn’t have been able to, say, see a graph of my hemoglobin since 1986, or something as simple as my weight changes over time. When Google Health folded a few months back, I was disappointed. At the same time, I breathed a sigh of relief that I hadn’t invested my personal and limited energies into putting my records there.

But now what?

I searched for a PHR, again on-line, and found some commercial stuff, mainly targeting doctors’ offices and larger health care systems. Medicare’s information on Managing Your Health Information Online offers bullet-point explanations on Why Use PHRs?

But I needed no convincing. What I need is software, or a platform, that’s user-friendly and secure. Ideally mine would mesh with my physicians’ records, but my doctors use a variety of record systems. So it’s up to me to integrate the data, if anyone will. The problem is there’s little out there, as best I can tell, that’s intended for patients. Most IT companies are, for now, focused on getting doctors to sign on.

So I’ll start an Excel spreadsheet, today, on my PC. There must be a better way.

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Final Word on Avastin, and Why We Need Better Physicians

Today’s breaking breast cancer news is on Avastin. The FDA has just announced, formally, that it will rescind approval for the drug’s use in people with metastatic breast cancer. Commissioner Dr. Margaret Hamburg writes this her statement:

I know I speak on behalf of the many physicians that have been involved with this issue here at the Food and Drug Administration and elsewhere in saying that we encourage patients, and those who support them, to ask hard questions and demand explanations concerning the drugs that are recommended to treat serious illnesses.

On this much I agree with Dr. Hamburg – that patients and others, including doctors who prescribe treatments to patients with likely incurable illnesses, and all medical conditions, for that matter, should ask hard questions.

Others have already, immediately expressed that the FDA did the right thing. Because they think the FDA’s decision was rational, and it was. Likely there’ll be an editorial in the paper I usually read, celebrating the victory of reason over anecdote. The WSJ, whose words tend to align more with business interests, will likely be critical. Opponents of health care reform will, inappropriately and mistakenly, use this as an example of rationing, which it isn’t.

The fact is that many, and possibly most, medical treatments are given in the absence of studies to justify their use. So you might ask, instead, why give chemotherapy to most stage IV cancer patients. Or why give it in the adjuvant setting? Apart from some tumors, like some kinds of lymphoma and leukemia, and common breast and testicular cancers, and a few others, when carefully measured the benefit is often slim.

What I think is that Avastin is a scapegoat of sorts, a costly drug not particularly worse than many others, nor better, and that helps a small minority of women with a lethal disease for reasons their doctors can’t predict or explain.

We experiment, on insurance and Medicare dollars, with so many costly treatments. Bone marrow transplants, at a cost of hundreds of thousands of dollars per patient, for example, are given to some with little formal proof of benefit for the approved indications. But there’s a lobby for these treatments. Support comes from hospitals profiting from transplant procedures and, more subtly, from academic physicians who’ve built careers in that field and write papers about their benefits, complications and management. I might cite other complex, costly and unproved examples in oncology, surgery and other fields of medicine, but that’s not the real point for today.

What I wonder is, ironically, because the data on Avastin were collected so carefully, that its lack of effectiveness over a population of women was better-documented than has been the lack of evidence for other drugs and regimens. Besides, there’s no group of hospitals and doctors whose profit and livelihood, respectively, depends on giving Avastin to just a few people with metastatic breast cancer. There was just Genentech, an easy big-Pharma target, and a few women, pleading for continued access to a drug that’s helped to keep them alive.

(I wonder, also, had those patients who testified been men, would their words have been taken more seriously?)

Meanwhile, doctors can keep giving Avastin to patients with other forms of cancer, for which its efficacy is not so different as you might think. Like any drug, this drug’s response varies from patient to patient for every tumor type that it might be given. And the physicians can still give Avastin, as the commissioner points out in her decision, to women who can pay for it, by circumstances of their particular insurance, or good fortune of wealth. But some of these women’s families will be hurt hard by this FDA decision. Most are in the 99%.

And so maybe what we really need are better doctors, not only in oncology, who would carefully monitor patients when they give any and every medical treatment and stop it if it’s not working, and continue only if it helps, and would communicate and obtain informed consent through meaningful discourse.

If we had that, we’d save a lot of money, and get better care.

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Thoughts, on Getting My Photo Taken at a Medical Appointment

A funny thing happened at my doctor’s appointment on Friday. I checked in, and after confirming that my address and insurance hadn’t changed since last year, waited for approximately 10 minutes. A worker of some sort, likely a med-tech, called me to “take my vitals.”

She took my blood pressure with a cuff that made my germ-phobic self run for self-regulation, i.e. I stayed quiet and didn’t express my concern about the fact that it looked like it hadn’t been washed in years. I value this doctor among others in my care, and I didn’t want to complain about anything. Then the woman took my weight. And then she asked if she could take my picture, “for the hospital record.”

I couldn’t contain my wondering self. “What is the purpose of the picture?” I asked.

“It’s for the record,” she explained. “For security.”

I thought about it. My picture is pretty much public domain at this point in my life, a decision I made upon deciding not to blog anonymously. Besides, most everyone at the medical center used to know me, including the receptionists, janitors, cafeteria cashiers, nurses’ aides, social workers, deans, full professors, geneticists, fellows in surgery and old-time voluntary physicians, among others who work there. So why didn’t I want this unidentified woman who works in my oncologist’s office to take my picture?

It made me uncomfortable, and here’s the reason: My picture is a reminder that, without it, I might be like any other patient in the system. They (administrators?, nurses, other docs, maybe even my future doctors) will need or want the picture to recall and be certain who Elaine Schattner is.

Don’t get me wrong. I agreed to the photo after all of maybe 20 seconds deliberating. (And my doctor was, I soon learned, duly informed I’d “had an issue” with it. Was that for just asking the reason?) The unidentified med-tech person used an oddly small, ordinary pink camera to complete her task.

When I met with my doctor, she explained that the photo is for security and, essentially, to reduce the likelihood of errors. The hospital has records of so many thousands of patients, many who have similar or identical names. There are good reasons to make sure that your notes on “Sally Smith” are entered into the chart of “Sally Smith” who is your patient.

It’s understandable. I remember when at the nurses’ station there’d be a sign (on “our” side) saying something like “CAREFUL: Anna Gonzalez in 202, Alma Gonzalez in 204b,” or something like that.

Patients blur.

It’s hard, veritably impossible, for most doctors and nurses to keep mental track of all of the patients they’ve ever seen and examined. There’s utility in the new system. Yes, it’s a good idea for a doctor, say upon receiving a call from a woman she hasn’t seen in 3 or 6 or 9 years, to see her picture in the chart, as a reminder.

But I hope my doctors know who I am, and not just what I look like in the image.

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HCR Law Requires Insurers to Cover Routine Care for Patients Participating in Clinical Trials

Something I learned at the MBCN conference is that the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010 (PPACA, a.k.a. HCR), will require that private insurance companies cover the routine costs of medical care for patients participating in approved clinical trials.

Medicare does so already, said Dr. Tatiana Prowell, an oncologist on the Johns Hopkins faculty who spoke at the meeting. Indeed, it says so on a CMS document.

The Association of Community Cancer Centers provides a readable section on the relevant changes, including definitions of “routine costs” and what are “approved trials” according to the new law.

All for now –

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Brief Report: Annual Meeting of the Metastatic Breast Cancer Network

The Metastatic Breast Cancer Network held its fifth annual meeting in Baltimore over this past weekend. Most of the nearly 300 registrants were women living with MBC.

The lively group of women coalesced in the face of unexpected, pre-seasonal wintry weather. At an evening reception they stood, sat, waited for drinks and lined up for buffet food. Some lingered, chatting at round tables for well over an hour beyond the party’s official end-time. Over breakfast and lunch breaks the next day, there was plenty of reconnecting, hugs and catching up.

Like other medical conferences, there were plenary and breakout sessions on the educational program. You could choose, for example, between panels on “Treatment of Bone Metastases,” “Role of Surgery in Soft Tissue Mets” and “Managing Side Effects.”  Later, fuzzier and perhaps more intense sessions covered “Role of the Caregiver,” “Nutrition and Wellness” and a “Living with MBC.” Plenary talks ranged from introductory, light remarks to hour-long lectures on breast cancer immunotherapy, clinical trials and epigenetics. I took extensive notes.

Two highlights from this noteworthy gathering:

In introductory remarks shortly after 9AM, MBCN Board member Shirley Mertz recalled attending her first conference of this group, and the feelings she experienced upon meeting other women in similar straits. Her message was this: “Take a look around, you are not alone.”

Late in the day Dr. Stephen Baylin, a professor of oncology and medicine, prefaced his talk as follows: “It’s a privilege – talking with you, hearing what the disease is like, hearing your questions.” He was standing at the podium of Turner Auditorium at Johns Hopkins. “Please teach me,” he said – rare words emanating from the front of a prestigious medical school lecture hall.

Indeed, there’s a lot a doctor might learn at a conference like this. I did, for sure.

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Reading About Thinking (on D. Kahneman’s Ideas on Perceptions of Knowledge)

An article appeared in yesterday’s NYT Magazine on the hazards of over-confidence. The Israeli-born psychologist (and epistemologist, I’d dare say), Nobel laureate and author Daniel Kahneman considers how people make decisions based on bits of information that don’t provide an adequate representation of the subject at hand. He recounts how poorly, and firmly, army officers evaluate new recruits’ leadership potential and how brash, rash or naive traders maintain investors’ trust while weighing stocks to buy or sell.

The point, as I understand it, is that individuals, including influential and powerful people, routinely make recommendations without having adequate knowledge to support their decisions. And they do so comfortably.

Men are afflicted by overconfidence more than women, he suggests, although I’m not sure he’s right on this point. In the article, he uses reckless investors who rack up stock losses as an example: Guys are more likely to lose lots of money than are women who, in general, are more cautious in their investments and, perhaps, less confident about their predictions.

I’ll have to read Kahneman’s forthcoming book, Thinking Fast and Slow, to learn more about his views on differences between men and women’s cognitive biases.

Nearing the end of the magazine piece, Kahneman alludes to medical decisions. He suggests that some doctors, perhaps through life-and-death sorts of feedback on the outcomes, may be distinguished by their capacity to gauge their own judgment skills.

He writes:

We often interact with professionals who exercise their judgment with evident confidence, sometimes priding themselves on the power of their intuition…

And asks:

How do we distinguish the justified confidence of experts from the sincere overconfidence of professionals who do not know they are out of their depth? We can believe an expert who admits uncertainty but cannot take expressions of high confidence at face value…people come up with coherent stories and confident predictions even when they know little or nothing. Overconfidence arises because people are often blind to their own blindness.

And broaches the topic of doctors’ expertise:

True intuitive expertise is learned from prolonged experience with good feedback on mistakes. You are probably an expert in guessing your spouse’s mood from one word on the telephone…true legends of instant diagnoses are common among physicians….Anesthesiologists have a better chance to develop intuitions than radiologists do….

I read this article on the train last evening and found it fascinating, so much so I hope I can find time to read the full book. Even though Kahneman is just a single human, and necessarily biased like the rest of us, he’s got some interesting and well-articulated ideas. I’m curious, in particular, if he’ll further dissect the critical thinking pathways among different doctor types.

In my experience, we’re a variable bunch. But who knows?

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Note to Government: Please Don’t Pull Back on Patient Safety Regulations

A few days ago I had a colonoscopy to evaluate some gastrointestinal problems. Subjective summary: Yuck. Downing 3 liters of Nu-Litely, a hyper-osmotic colonic cocktail prep, does not make for a pleasant Sunday afternoon, evening or night. As for the procedure itself, I don’t know how Katie Couric did it on TV.

But what made the procedure tolerable, and non-scary, and worthwhile, was that it was done by a careful, experienced gastroenterologist in a well-run facility. The outpatient unit where I had my colonoscopy employs reputable anesthesiologists and maintains functional, appropriate monitoring instruments and, should they be needed, life-saving equipment.

Why I mention this recent ickiness is this –

This morning’s paper reports that the U.S. administration plans cuts in hospital regulations:

… after concluding that the standards were obsolete or overly burdensome to the industry.

Kathleen Sebelius, the secretary of health and human services, said the proposed changes, which would apply to more than 6,000 hospitals, would save providers nearly $1.1 billion a year without creating any “consequential risks for patients.”

A few aspects of the proposed regulatory pull-back seem reasonable, like allowing hospitals to delegate more work to nurse-practitioners. But some of this regulatory reversal sounds dangerous:

…Other proposals would eliminate requirements for hospitals to keep detailed logs of infection control problems…

…Federal officials would also eliminate a detailed list of emergency equipment that must be available in the operating rooms of outpatient surgery centers. Such clinics would have leeway to decide what equipment was needed for the procedures they performed.

Fortunately, the administration is accepting public comments on this matter for 60 days. But they could make it easier. Instructions from the HHS press release involve a series of links:

To view the proposed and final rules, please visit: www.ofr.gov/inspection.aspx…Both proposals invite the public, including doctors, hospitals, patient advocates, and other stakeholders, to comment.  To submit a comment, visit www.regulations.gov, enter the ID number CMS-9070-P or CMS-3244-P, and click on “Submit a Comment.”

My position is that any lessening of infection control is a disservice to patients. As for monitoring of outpatient facilities where procedures are performed, it’s crucial; patients rely on maintenance of modern, clean and functional equipment in places where they receive medical care.

My bottom line: Patient safety should take precedence over cost-saving measures by the inspectors and the inspected.

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A Medical School Problem Based Learning (PBL) Parody of ‘The Office’

Last week a video came my way via ZDoggMD, a popular blog by doctors who are not me.

The Office Med School Edition

The clip is a parody of The Office about Problem Based Learning (PBL).

In a typical PBL, the students meet regularly in small groups. On Monday they begin with clinical aspects of a case. The process involves finding information and researching relevant topics to “solve” the diagnosis and /or a treatment dilemma. Over the course of each week the students move forward, working through a hypothetical patient’s history, physical exam and lab studies to the nitty-gritty of molecules, genes and cells implicated in a disease process.

It’s a lot of fun, usually.

The video was uploaded in February, 2007. It’s attributed to a group of med students at the University of Pittsburgh, class of 2009.

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The Immeasurable Value of Continuity of Care

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

We reviewed so much that has happened in the interim.

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

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

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

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

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Reducing Cancer Care Costs by Comparative and Cost-Effectiveness Research (CER)

Well, it’s the day after Labor Day, time to resume our discussion of Bending the Cost Curve in Cancer Care.

We’ve reached the end of the list, on ideas to reduce oncology costs put forth by Drs. Smith and Hillner in the May 25 issue of the NEJM. Really this 10th and final point intended for oncologists is two-in-one: “The need for cost-effectiveness analysis and for some limits of care must be accepted,” they chart. So doctors should embrace studies of comparative effectiveness and cost effectiveness.

Hard to argue with reason – they’re correct, of course. They write:

… The national imperative is to empower a transparent, acceptable, equitable, politically independent agency for guidance in making tough choices in the public interest so that doctors do not have to make them at the bedside.60 Ultimately, we will have to make decisions based on some criteria, and comparative-effectiveness61 and cost-effectiveness62 analyses are good ways to align resource use with the greatest health benefit.

This sounds great, and is probably right, but I don’t think it’s realistic.

A more detailed consideration on the issue of cost-effectiveness, IMO, came out a few weeks later, also in NEJM: Comparative Effectiveness Research and Patients with Multiple Chronic Conditions. This piece, by Drs. Mary Tinetti and Stephanie Studenski, considers the problematic application of CER in the real world.

The problem with CER, these authors emphasize, is that most medical patients have more than one condition and many are elderly; clinical trials tend to include, exclusively, patients who don’t have more than one major illness are relatively young. This limits the physicians’ abilities to apply data to their patients.

What’s more, reported results tend to focus on central results, but most patients fall elsewhere on measured curves:

The heterogeneity of treatment effects will further complicate CER. Although studies typically report average effects, most participants experience more or less benefit and harm than average. Such heterogeneity results from variability in patients’ initial level of risk for a given outcome, in their responsiveness to treatment, and in their vulnerability to adverse effects — issues with particular relevance to patients receiving treatment for multiple coexisting conditions.

The authors, who recognize the need for better research to support treatment decisions, write that “CER will probably accelerate the movement toward outcome-driven decision making, reimbursement, and quality assessment. As this shift occurs, we must move toward a focus on cross-disease, “universal” outcomes in research and clinical care.” Their thesis gets more abstract (which I admire), but meets a wall or two: the lack of consensus on a set of universal health outcomes, different parameters measured by the likes of the VA administration, CMS, the FDA, NIH and other huge agencies.

They make a practical suggestion, about the need for head-to-head comparisons in CER:

… interventions such as exercise that affect multiple conditions simultaneously should be a high priority…Studies should include assessment of the burden of treatments for patients and families. Another CER priority should be the examination of treatments for common pairs of diseases in which treatment of one may exacerbate the other. For example, when hypertension and osteoporosis coexist, what treatment best minimizes the risk of adverse cardiovascular outcomes without increasing the risk of falls and fractures?

All of this sounds reasonable to this patient-doctor, but it’ll take a lot of time and money to accomplish effective CER that encompasses the needs and conditions of sufficient numbers of patients in disease and age combinations to power any meaningful studies. You have to wonder at some point, as I have been lately, is all this clinical research worth the effort?

That said, I respect this paper‘s conclusions on CER:

Researchers have largely shied away from the complexity of multiple chronic conditions — avoidance that results in expensive, potentially harmful care of unclear benefit. We cannot improve health care’s quality, effectiveness, and efficiency without addressing its greatest consumers. Development and testing of innovative approaches to care for patients with multiple chronic conditions could prove the most lasting legacy…

My bottom line: CER, and consideration of treatment costs, should underlie reduction of cancer care costs in the near and long-term future. As to how we accomplish sufficiently careful research, and avoid inappropriate cutting of helpful treatments – especially those that prove beneficial for some younger and otherwise healthy cancer patients – is one of the two main challenges ahead.

(The other big challenge, mainly a moral one, is the subject of rationing, to which Smith and Hillner allude but don’t detail, and which subject I won’t address in this post.)

Meanwhile: thorough, apolitical, nuanced and transparent reporting of trial results would help doctors, patients and the general public understand what information is available.

Finally, in the next month or so I will look back over the full, provocative and generally excellent list by Drs. Smith and Hillner, and see what holds hope for the future of cancer medicine. What’s clear is that the path ahead mandates clear thinking through some very tough clinical decisions.

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Reducing Costs by Better Integration of Palliative Care in Cancer Treatment

We’re up to point 9 on the list – and nearing the end – on Bending the Cost Curve in Cancer Care from the May 26 NEJM. The suggestion from Drs. Smith and Hillner is that doctors better integrate palliative care into usual oncology care.

The authors start this important section well:

We can reduce patients’ fears of abandonment by means of better-integrated palliative care. This topic is fraught with misunderstanding given the references to “death panels” during the recent debate concerning health care legislation…

Here they’re on target: Some patients think, mistakenly, that inclusion of palliative care in their treatment means their doctors are throwing in the towel. I’ve known some oncologists who think the same, who perceive palliative care as a last resort.

The truth is that palliative care, which aims to relieve symptoms, can be implemented at any point in the treatment of disease.

The authors go on to provide data that cancer patients who receive palliative care live just as long, or longer, than those who don’t, and that their medical bills are lower. The issue I have here is their choice of emphasis on a published study of the Aetna Compassionate Care Program in which nurses identified patients for palliative care by administrative claims, “thus bypassing the oncologist.” Evidently this strategy led to a doubling of hospice referrals and other possibly good effects.

Besides that the cited study was authored by employees of an insurance company, which I find unpalatable, the concept of having nurses do the referrals deflects the issue: that oncologists talk about palliative care with their patients, directly. Relying on nurses to carry out these conversations would, understandably, contribute to a sense of abandonment, even if the nurses do the job perfectly. A critical role oncologists is to communicate about treatment care options, part of the cognitive work considered in point 8 of this discussion.

But the main idea, that doctors should integrate palliative care into their cancer patients’ treatment planning, earlier, and as a supplement – and not a replacement – for potentially curative or tumor-shrinking strategies, is right on.

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

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

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

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

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

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

I couldn’t agree more.

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

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

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

Bottom line:

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

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