Can You Trust a Selfie?

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about the value of patients’ voices. As a doctor, I was trained to be somewhat skeptical of what people say, or admit, about their conditions. I was told, though never inclined, to steer the conversation, the history-taking part of the exam, to get the patient’s story in a way that fit succinctly, to answer the questions I was required to ask. The goal of the interview was to form a reasoned opinion about what might be ailing the person, i.e. a diagnosis – and, later, to establish a plan to help make the person feel better.

Journalists, whether they’ll say so or not, tend to do the same. They write an article with a purpose, on assignment or otherwise. And they’ll interview people with the goal of getting pithy quotes to make a point. And they’ll take the words other people and chop ‘em up, and present those to relate a certain narrative. Here too, I’m guilty.

But my point here, today, is about truth, and where the most credible information can be found. Can you trust a selfie?

When I glanced through yesterday’s paper on-line, I read a wrenching account of child abuse. The story, presented in the form of a letter, came through Nick Kristof, a reliable source in my view. I value his columns on environmental and women’s health. When I read the letter he presented, by Dylan Farrow, detailing the humiliating experiences she had as a young child in the home of her adopted mother, Mia Farrow, and the filmmaker Woody Allen, I was stopped by revulsion. Her depiction of an incident had the immediate effect of making me never wish to see another of Allen’s films again. Later on, I read Kristof’s regular NYT column, which includes just a clipped segment of the letter. The picture clouded. He makes a point with which I agree, fully – that girls and women who claim to have been assaulted, or abused, should be taken seriously. But I found myself wondering: how do we know what Dylan says is true?

I’m struck by how two versions of the same story, offered by one journalist, led me along diverging sympathies. One, in which the young woman’s testimony is included fully, left me feeling convinced that the filmmaker, who’s created many of my favorites, shouldn’t receive awards and, in fact, deserves punishment. The other, in which the journalist presents parts of her letter in the context of his admitting a relationship with the family and some legal issues around the case, left me wondering if the celebrity is a victim of finger-pointing or distorted recollections of things that happened to a child a long time ago.

The bottom line is that I certainly can’t know what happened, nor can most readers. Memory of pain, illness, trauma and ordinary experience is subjective.

Getting back to medicine –

Few journalists I know would want a doctor to not listen attentively to their account of their illness, however long. Many doctors claim they’re giving patient-centered care, but are they really listening to their patients’ stories? How do professionals count, or discount, an individual’s rendition of a story, and render a diagnosis or prescription?

My only conclusion is that it’s usually worth hearing what a person says, directly. She is a key witness to her experience. Doctors and journalists may aspire to being more objective, by documenting what happened to a person or group. They draw their own pictures, or graphs, and offer separate explanations of events and phenomena. But they make edits all the time, consciously and otherwise.

All for this week.

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“The Dallas Buyers Club” Takes on AIDS, Peer Patients, and Not Taking “No” for An Answer

If you’re a doctor or nurse of a certain age, the Dallas Buyers Club will jog memories. If you’re among those who lost a loved one or friend to AIDS maybe 20 or 30 years ago, or not, this new film might wrench your heart. Anyone watching will be pushed to think hard about drug development today, the slow pace of progress for metastatic breast cancer and other young life-takers, and the FDA’s role in sanctioning, or blocking, treatments for adults with terminal illness.

Dallas Buyers Club image from FOCUS films copy

scene from “the Dallas Buyers Club” (Focus Films)

The movie draws loosely on the story of Ron Woodroof, a Texan rodeo rider who developed AIDS around 1985. A rail-thin Matthew McConaughey, who says he dropped nearly 50 pounds for this role, somehow nails the look of young, HIV-infected men who were filing into hospitals and clinics back then. After absorbing his diagnosis and said prognosis of 30 days to live, the cowboy teams up with Rayon, a (fictitious) transgender woman portrayed, memorably, by Jared Ledo. Together with an oddball group of sympathetic accomplices, the pair set up shop, to procure and distribute unapproved medications the doctors won’t prescribe. Jennifer Garner plays a sympathetic young physician, Dr. Eva Saks, who in the movie crosses lines a bit incredibly, too personally in the second half, to help the AIDS patients and commiserate. But otherwise the film is spot-on. It captures the desperation, determination and clinging together of people, then, affected by what was incurable disease.

One question that sticks with me, as a physician reflecting on the story, is how unclear it is which drugs, exactly, helped the protagonist. Woodroof, as depicted in the film, briefly takes AZT and then moves on to all kinds of substances including DDC (Zalcitabine) from Mexico, interferon of unknown purity or dose from Japan, protein supplements and more. Through a mix of stuff he lives until 1992, seven years beyond what the doctors first told him to expect. An old-school clinical trialist, almost any of my former teachers, and anyone who appreciates evidence-based medicine (as I do, for the record) would know and state and insist that you can’t draw any conclusions based on what happened to the movie’s protagonist, or Woodroof in real life.

On the other hand, clinical trials are painfully slow. Published trials can be flawed. Even if they’re randomized and well-analyzed, the findings can be hard to interpret when it comes to a single patient’s course and well-being. What’s a dying man to do?

Another relevant point, for people affected by almost any health problem, is the extent to which the patients took charge in the Dallas Buyers Club. They found and shared information about their disease independently of their physicians. The image of an AIDS patient using an old computer in a library, looking up articles about his condition, anticipates patient networks of which there are hundreds, on-line and in communities, today.

I came away from this movie feeling optimistic. Because when I was a student, 30 years ago, I wouldn’t have believed that a man afflicted by AIDS, as McConaughey portrays, could now, likely, live for a long time.

#hope, and happy Thanksgiving,


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A Case for Slower Medicine

A few days ago I met Katy Butler, author of Knocking on Heaven’s Door. Her revealing book about her elderly father’s slow death and her mother’s reaction to that – by learning to question doctors and, ultimately, choosing “less” – is a cautionary tale of too much medicine. The prose is elegant, and daughter’s point of view, graspable.Knocking on Heaven's Door

What emerges, through Butler’s voice about her parents’ ordeal, is anger. She tells of the pacemaker that was placed in her father’s heart. It kept him alive through multiple strokes and progressive debility. Her father’s protracted illness became a burden to her aging mother, who cared for her husband through thick and thin. Butler minds the costs of the procedure and doctors who, with seemingly little contemplation, inserted the device and billed for it. When her mother, in her eighties, became weak with heart valve problems, she opted not to have surgery. That was a triumph, Butler suggests – that her mother didn’t let the doctors take her heart, too.

And so she writes. There’s value in this intensely personal story. Because every day in hospitals patients receive treatments they don’t want, that they wouldn’t have selected if they had understood in advance what the consequences would or could be. Too many people, especially the elderly, die after they’ve had futile, intensive or just plainly aggressive care. Butler points to the pitfalls of a system that pays doctors to do procedures rather than to communicate.

Anger is an understandable reaction to a system that dehumanizes us (patients), that treats human bodies as containers of billable ailments and broken parts. I get that. But most of the many doctors I know go about their daily work with good intention – to heal. Plus, there’s a danger of underselling, or not choosing, care that could extend life, with good quality, for years or decades.

It’s not easy to reconcile the positions of over-treated patients and over-worked doctors. Some say the answer is in better medical education, in programs like narrative medicine, in patients’ gaining knowledge and asking more questions, or in revamping doctors’ payment incentives. I don’t see an easy solution from the doctors’ side, except for what’s obvious:  practicing physicians need time to think, to contemplate the purpose of what they’re advising in each patient’s case. They should be paid for intellectual and communicative (non-PR) efforts. And they should learn, or be given enough minutes in each visit assigned, to hear, listen and respond to patients’ concerns.

The author of Knocking on Heaven’s Door, Katy Butler, mentioned that she’s eager to give grand rounds, to speak before doctors including cardiologists. She’d love to tell and teach them, and us, a thing or two.

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How Much Do You Want Your Doctors To Say About Risks of Treatment?

When I was diagnosed with breast cancer, I was working as a board-certified oncologist. The initial decisions most patients face – which doctor to see, what kind of doctor to see, and at which medical center to see them – were basically non-decisions. I knew, within an instant of my diagnosis, who I’d ask to be my oncologist, surgeon and plastic surgeon. Those choices were straightforward, because I knew what those physicians were like in terms of how they cared for patients, their knowledge and other aspects of their practices and personalities.

The harder decisions were what treatment to take, or not, for my early-stage breast cancer. I was perhaps the most informed cancer patient who could walk into an oncologist’s office. I was familiar with the different regimens. I knew that adjuvant chemotherapy would, roughly and over the long haul, reduce my odds of recurrence by a third. I was aware that, if I opted for a lumpectomy, radiation treatment would reduce the local recurrence rate but was unlikely to affect my long-term survival. I understood that dose-intense regimens were more likely to make me sick and more likely to cause problems down the road.

And yes, in the back of my head I knew that chemotherapy can cause another cancer. Did I think about that possibility? The best answer is, probably, not so much. I was coping with the present.

But that knowledge did influence the decision I made to take a relatively “light” dose of chemotherapy. I was lucky, also, in that I understood my pathology. My tumor, at 1.5 cm, with a negative sentinel node and generous expression of hormone receptors, was a good-prognosis tumor. I was 42 years old, and wanted to live for a few more decades if I survived my spine surgery (another story). I chose the minimal amount of chemo that had been shown in clinical trials to reduce the odds of recurrence.

Last week, I wrote a piece for the Atlantic on how doctors and patients talk about the risks of chemotherapy, or not, and whether patients listen or necessarily want to listen. The reason I put it out there is because I’ve seen doctors shy away from this part of the conversation about cancer treatment. I’m a firm believer in informed consent, and in patients’ access to as much information as they choose to have. If you get chemotherapy, you have the right to know about these risks, and to ask your doctor about them.

I’ve been there with patients who’ve said: “please, don’t tell me this. I can’t deal with it.” Some might even consider it cruel to tell patients with a serious, urgent and treatment-needing condition details of all the possible side effects. Many ask, “what would you do, doctor, if it were someone in your family?” And if they like and respect you, they go with your recommendation.

This kind of paternalism, when a doctor assesses the risks and benefits, and spares the patient’s “knowing” seems anachronistic. But it may, still, be what many people are looking for when and if they get a serious illness. Not everyone wants a “tell me everything” kind of physician. What do you think?

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Illness is Not Discrete. On Feeling Sick, and Not Knowing What’s Next

This post is probably a bad idea. But I’ve been pondering it for two days now, since the room around me starting spinning. And I wish I were Jack Kerouac now, so that it wouldn’t matter so much if my thoughts are clear but that I tapped them out. Rat tat tat. Or Frank Sinatra with a cold. You’d want to know either of those guys, in detail. Up-close, loud, even breathing on you. You’d hire ‘em. Because even when they’re down, they’re good. Handsome. Cool, slick, unforgettable. Illness doesn’t capture them, or define them.

Two days ago I was feeling great. I went to the National Press Club for the first time, and was excited about some presentations I heard there, about which I took careful notes and intend, eventually, to share with some commentary. It was a sunny day, and I bought some groceries, planning a bunch of posts and to finish a freelance piece. In the evening I had dinner with my husband, and it seemed like my life was on track.

The rash was the first thing. Just some red, itchy bumps on the back of my neck. And then fatigue. Not just a little tired, but like I couldn’t write a sentence. And since then I’ve been in the center of a kaleidoscope, everything moving clockwise around my head. It’s not bright purple or hot pink and blue and stained glass-green kinds of colors circling, but the drab objects in the bedroom: the lamp, the shadow cast by the top of the door, the rows of light through the blinds, the brown and beige sheets, the back cover of last month’s Atlantic and my reading glasses on the nightstand, the gray bowl I’ve placed at hand, just in case I barf again. Walking is tricky. I’m dehydrated and weak, and my vision’s blurred.

This is not a pretty scene, if you could see it. And that’s the thing. The point.

Because in my experience, which is not trivial, people on both sides of illness – professionals and people you just know – are drawn to healthy people. A broken arm, a low-stage breast cancer that’s treated and done with, a bout of pneumonia – these are things that a career can afford, an editor can handle, friends can be supportive. But when you have one thing, and then another, and then another, it gets scary, it weighs you down. Just when you start feeling OK, and confident, something happens and you’re back, as a patient.

Today, in the apartment on this spring day, with fever and fatigue, I’ve got no choice. I am not a consumer now. Not even close. That is my role, maybe, when I go to the dentist and decline having x-rays or my teeth whitened. No choice, except if I go to a hospital, to have a bunch of blood drawn and my husband would fill in the forms before the doctors who don’t know me in this city inform me I’ve got a viral infection, and labrynthitis as I’ve had a dozen times before, all of a sudden, disabling. Nothing to do but rest and hydrate. And wish I’d gotten some other work done, but I couldn’t.

I’ve got to go with it, my health or illness, be that as it is. No careful critiques of comparative effectiveness research today. No reading about the Choosing Wisely guidelines. No post on Dengue, as I’d planned for yesterday.  Like many people with illnesses – and many with far more serious conditions – I’m disappointed. Maybe because I was sick as a child and missed half of tenth grade, I have trouble accepting these kinds of disruptions. Illness represents a loss of control, besides all the physical aspects.

I might try to watch TV, but more likely I’ll just fall sleep again. That happened yesterday. And for those of you health IT or gadget guys reading, who talk about smart phones and how useful they are for patients seeking info, or maybe even checking vitals, I’ll say this: I’m just glad I’ve got such a device, simply that I can call for help, that I can be in touch,  call my doctor and family. That makes being sick less scary.

This is a drag of a post, but it’s real. No point in blogging if I don’t say it like it is, what I am. If nothing else, this proves I’m alive. So there!

Better tomorrow –

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The Trouble With Placebos

The latest NEJM features a big story about a small trial, with only 39 patients in the end, on the potential for placebos to relieve patients’ experience of symptoms. This follows other recent reports on the subjective effectiveness of pseudo-pharmacology.

My point for today is that placebos are problematic in health care with few exceptions. First, in clinical trials, patients sometimes agree to take what might be a placebo so that researchers can measure effects of a drug, by comparison. A second instance is, possibly, when doctors treat children. Even then, I’m not sure it’s wise to “train” kids to take a pill and expect to feel better.

The relationship of an adult patient with a physician involves, or should involve, trust and mutual respect. A person cannot possibly give informed consent for a treatment he or she doesn’t know about. So if the doctor’s giving a placebo to the patient, and making the decision for the patient because it might help, that diminishes the patient’s autonomy, or self-determination. In simpler terms, it’s condescending.

You might consider the hypothesis that there’s nothing wrong with something if it makes you, or someone else, feel better. But that’s kind of like saying the ends justify the means.

A placebo is, by definition, manipulative. I wouldn’t want any doctor to treat me that way.

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Lowering Cancer Care Costs by Reducing Tests After Treatment

This is the second in a series of posts on Bending the Cost Curve in Cancer Care. We should consider the proposal, published in the NEJM, gradually over the course of this summer, starting with “suggested changes in oncologists’ behavior,” #1:

1. Target surveillance testing or imaging to situations in which a benefit has been shown. This point concerns the costs of doctors’ routinely ordering CTs, MRIs and other imaging exams, besides blood tests, for patients who’ve completed a course of cancer treatment and are thought to be in remission.

The NEJM authors consider that after a cancer diagnosis many patients, understandably, seek reassurance that any recurrence will be detected early, if it happens. Doctors, for their part, may not fully appreciate the lack of benefit of detecting a liver met when it’s 2 cm rather than, say, just 1 cm in size. What’s more, physicians may have a conflict of interest, if they earn ancillary income by ordering lab and imaging tests.

My take:

It’s clear that some and possibly most cancer patients get too many and too frequent post-treatment surveillance tests. Believe it or not, yours truly, whose life was saved by a screening digital mammogram, maintains a healthy fear of excess radiation exposure. I agree to x-rays, CT scans, myelograms and whatever else my doctors suggest only when I’m reasonably confident that the test result would influence a treatment decision.

My impression is that, in general, oncologists’ habits of ordering routine, interval-based imaging for patients in remission after cancer treatment (such as a scan every 3 or 4 or 6 or 12 months) are arbitrary and unsupportable by any published data. These sorts of practices, which vary among communities, arise like this: A senior, smart and well-intentioned oncologist at a major teaching hospital, circa 1990, orders newfangled CT scans of the chest, abdomen and pelvis on his lymphoma patients every 4 months for two years, and then every 6 months for two years, and then every 12 months, for no reason other that he thinks it’s a good idea. The patients like it; they’re reassured, and he (the oncologist) feels good about having prescribed the drugs that caused their sustained remission.

Talk about a positive feedback loop! (We needn’t even invoke financial incentives as a motivating force.) And then that’s just how it’s done by all the fellows he’s taught over the years, who then branch out into other communities and even other countries, and teach…

Why not?

Now things may be changing a bit, as patients like me are starting to fear radiation exposure, and also are starting to question doctors’ recommendations more than they did even a few years ago. Younger doctors, too, have more requirements to continue their medical education in order to keep practicing at most hospitals and maintain their board certificates, and so they, too, may be more questioning of these archaic practices.

About post-treatment screening with scheduled blood work, I see this issue somewhat differently than do the NEJM authors, mainly in that I’m optimistic about simple blood tests, in the future, that may provide affordable and clinically relevant information to patients who’ve undergone treatment with tumors at high risk of recurrence.

As the authors point out, there are some old tests, such as CEA screening, that can be helpful in monitoring for recurrence in patients with a history of colon cancer. In general, blood tests are less dangerous and less expensive than imaging studies. Besides, in patients with aggressive tumors that might respond to new targeted drugs, tests that measure circulating tumor cells (CTCs) in small blood samples, and could assess cells for new mutations, at low costs in the future (not now), might render some blood tests useful and even cost-effective, in the future.

Finally, I’d like to throw in a concern I have about some clinical trials, in case any study designers or persuasive cancer IRB members happen to be reading this post:

Some of the clinical trials for new cancer drugs may require too many follow-up MRIs, CTs and other scans. Even if Pfizer or any other company foots the bill, by participating in the trials patients shouldn’t be subjected to excessive radiation or even just the unpleasantness and hassle of a said-to-be-safe test like an MRI. This pet peeve is especially concerning in some trials requiring multiple post-treatment PET scans, the most rad-intense of common imaging methods.

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Don Berwick, Head of CMS, on the Value of Patient-Centered Care

A few weeks ago I had the opportunity to hear Dr. Don Berwick speak at the annual meeting of the Association of Health Care Journalists.

Berwick now heads the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services. When he spoke in April, on transparency and how we might simultaneously cut costs and improve care, I thought his talk was pretty good. This morning, through Twitter, I came upon a short clip from a Berlin conference in 2009. Here, he tackles the meaning of patient-centered care. It’s near-perfect:

Don Berwick, on YouTube: What Patient-Centered Care Really Means

My favorite lines:

…The errors and unreliability of health care are not the main reason that I fear that inevitable day in which I will become a patient…I can use my own wit to stand guard against them…


…What chills my bones is indignity. It is the loss of influence on what happens to me. It is the image of myself in a hospital gown, homogenized, anonymous, powerless, no longer myself. It is the sound of young nurse calling me “Donald” which is a name I never use, ‘It’s “Don.’…

It is the voice of the doctor saying ‘we think,’ instead of ‘I think,’ and thereby placing that small verbal wedge, the pronoun ‘we,’ between himself as a person and myself as a person…


Why I like this clip so much is that Berwick gets the nuanced language of medicine in a way few doctors, in my experience, do. He’s not so much afraid of data and making decisions or even errors, which are in theory surmountable problems, through better information and education, and despite everything may not lead to a “cure” or even a person’s survival, per se. He most fears being perceived as an object, without respect for his concerns and preferences.

That is my greatest fear, too.

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E-Patient Dave Explains What It Means to Be An E-Patient

Med-blog grand rounds this week is hosted by e-patient Dave, who is Dave deBronkart, a real man who was diagnosed with a renal cell (kidney) cancer a few years back. He’s a terrific speaker and an Internet friend.

By coincidence I was searching for the definition of an e-patient, and came upon it there, in a video of his presentation at the TED (for those of you in the 1990s, that would be Technology, Entertainment, Design ideas worth spreading) “x” – meaning independently-organized meeting held in Maastricht a few weeks ago. Dave and others spoke on the topic of “The Year of Patients Rising.”

Dave explains: An e-patient is empowered, engaged, equipped and enabled. Got it?

e-patient Dave, in Maastricht

In Dave’s bio, he attributes the “e-patient” term to the late Dr. Tom Ferguson, a physician and author who, with Dave and others, founded the Society for Participatory Medicine.

All for today –

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The Flip Side of Unrealistic Optimism

Last week, Pauline Chen wrote on medical ethics and clinical trials. She reflects on her training at a cancer research hospital, where some cancer patients go with unrealistic optimism.

Like Dr. Chen, I spent part of my training at a famous cancer center where I worked as a resident and fellow on rotations. And yes, some patients were unreasonably optimistic and some – perhaps even most, it seemed – didn’t fully “get” the purpose of their trial, which in Phase I studies were not designed to help them. This is a real dilemma for treating oncologists.

The problem of patients’ false expectations might arise from a Lake Wobegon effect, suggests Dr. Daniel Sulmasy in the Times piece: “If you have more than 50 percent of patients saying their chances are better than average of avoiding some harm or obtaining some benefit, they are being unrealistically optimistic because you can’t say that most people are above average.”

I share Chen’s concern about ethics in clinical trials. Besides that patients don’t always (read: often) don’t understand the study, and that they may be coerced – usually subtly – into signing on, and that they may, ultimately, be simply used as objects in a researcher’s career-advancing investigation, clinical research sometimes does help humans, and progress occasionally happens in medicine. Take the woman with metastatic melanoma she recalls in the story: There might be effective drugs for her condition now, or next year.

The flip side of the Wobegon effect in medical ethics of clinical trials is that some patients (and their doctors) might have undue pessimism. These are the “50 percent” of patients who won’t show up at research centers, which could, potentially, help them to get well or at least feel better.

I think one of the biggest challenges for patients with serious conditions and their doctors is discerning what’s worth trying, and what’s snake oil in an academic outfit. Hard to know before the trial’s done –


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