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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I’d like to see these emerge.

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What Does it Mean if Primary Care Doctors Get the Answers Wrong About Screening Stats?

Last week the Annals of Internal Medicine published a new report on how doctors (don’t) understand cancer screening stats. This unusual paper reveals that some primary care physicians – a majority of those who completed a survey – don’t really get the numbers on cancer incidence, 5-year survival and mortality.

An accompanying editorial by Dr. Virginia Moyer, a Professor of Pediatrics and current Chair of the USPSTF, drives two messages in her title, What We Don’t Know Can Hurt Our Patients: Physician Innumeracy and Overuse of Screening Tests. Dr. Moyer is right, to a point. Because if doctors who counsel patients on screening don’t know what they’re speaking of, they may provide misinformation and cause harm. But she overstates the study’s implications by emphasizing the “overuse of screening tests.”

The report shows, plainly and painfully, that too many doctors are confused and even ignorant of some statistical concepts. Nothing more, nothing less. The new findings have no bearing on whether or not cancer screening is cost-effective or life-saving.

What the study does suggest is that med school math requirements should be upped and rigorous, counter to the trend. And that we should do a better job educating students and reminding doctors about relevant concepts including lead-time bias, overdiagnosis and – as highlighted in two valuable blogs just yesterday, NPR Shots and Reporting on Health Antidote – the Number Needed to Treat, or NNT.

The Annals paper has yielded at least two unfortunate outcomes. One, which there’s no way to get around, is the clear admission of doctors’ confusion. In the long term, this may be a good thing, like admitting a medical error and then having QA improve as a consequence. But meanwhile some doctors at their office desks and lecterns don’t realize what they don’t know, and there’s no clear remedy in sight.

Dr. Moyer, in her editorial, writes that medical journal editors should carefully monitor reports to ensure that results aren’t likely misinterpreted. She says, in just one half-sentence, that medical educators should improve teaching on this topic. And then she directs the task of stats-ed to media and journalists, who, she advises, might follow the lead of the “watchdog” HealthNewsReview. I don’t see that as a solution, although I agree that journalists should know as much as possible about statistics and limits of data about which they report.

The main problem elucidated in this article is a failure in medical education. The cat’s out of the bag now. The WSJ Heath Blog covered the story. Most doctors are baffled, says Fox News. On its home page, the Dartmouth Institute for Health Policy & Clinical Practice links to a Reuters article that’s landed on the NIH/NLM-sponsored MedlinePlus (accessed 3/15/12). This embarrassment  further compromises individuals’ confidence in doctors they would and sometimes need rely on.

We lie, we cheat, we steal, we are confused… What else can doctors do wrong?

The second, and I think unnecessary, problematic outcome of this report is that it’s been used to argue against cancer screening. In the editorial Dr. Moyer indulges an ill-supported statement:

…several analyses have demonstrated that the vast majority of women with screen-detected breast cancer have not had their lives saved by screening, but rather have been diagnosed early with no change in outcome or have been overdiagnosed.

The problem of overdiagnosis, which comes up a lot in the paper, is over-emphasized, at least as it relates to breast cancer, colon cancer and some other tumors. I  have never seen a case of vanishing invasive breast cancer. In younger women, low-grade invasive tumors are relatively rare. So overdiagnosis isn’t applicable in BC, at least for women who are not elderly.

In the second paragraph Dr. Moyer outlines, in an unusual mode for the Annals, a cabal-like screening lobby:

 …powerful nonmedical forces may also lead to enthusiasm for screening, including financial interests from companies that make tests or testing equipment or sell products to treat the conditions diagnosed and more subtle financial pressures from the clinicians whose daily work is to diagnose or treat a condition. If fewer people are diagnosed with a disease, advocacy groups stand to lose contributions and academics who study the disease may lose funding. Politicians may wish to appear responsive to powerful special interests…

While she may be right, that there are some influential and self-serving interests and corporations who push aggressively, and maybe too aggressively for cancer screening, it may also be that some forms of cancer screening are indeed life-saving tools that should be valued by our society. I think, also, that she goes too far in insinuating that major advocacy groups push for screening because they stand to lose funding.

I’ve met many cancer agency workers, some founders, some full-time, paid and volunteer helpers – with varied priorities and goals – and I honestly believe that each and every one of those individuals hopes that the problem of cancer killing so many non-elderly individuals in our society will go away. It’s beyond reason to suggest there’s a hidden agenda at any of the major cancer agencies to “keep cancer going.” There are plenty of other worthy causes to which they might give their time and other resources, like education, to name one.

Which leads me back to the original paper, on doctors’ limited knowledge –

As I read the original paper the first time, I considered what would happen if you tested 412 practicing primary care physicians about hepatitis C screening, strains, and whether or not there’s a benefit to early detection and treatment of that common and sometimes pathologic virus, or about the use of aspirin in adults with high blood pressure and other risk factors for heart disease, or about the risks and benefits of drugs that lower cholesterol.

It seems highly unlikely that physicians’ uncertainty is limited to conceptual aspects of cancer screening stats. Knowing that, you’d have to wonder why the authors did this research, and why the editorial pushes so hard the message of over-screening.

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Confusing Reports On Coffee and Cancer, and What To Do About Breakfast

When I was a medical resident in the late 1980s, we treated some patients with pancreatic cancer on a regimen nick-named the coffee protocol because it included infusions of intravenous caffeine. How absurd, we thought back then, because years earlier caffeine had been linked to pancreatic cancer as a possible cause.

Now, two new studies suggest that coffee consumption reduces a woman’s risk for developing breast cancer, according to MedPage Today:

Women who drank at least five cups of coffee daily had a significantly lower risk of postmenopausal breast cancer, an analysis of two large cohort studies suggested.

…Coffee has a paradoxical relationship with breast cancer risk. The beverage’s complex mix of caffeine and polyphenols suggests a potential to confer both carcinogenic and chemopreventive characteristics, the authors noted…

I’m incredulous, still.

As with most compounds we ingest or otherwise absorb, it’s conceivable that caffeine could damage some cells or somehow factor into some tumors’ growth just as it might suppress others, and that the dose matters. The fact is that, like most dietary chemicals, we really don’t know much about its specific effects on any cancer type.

This morning, as usual, I had an early cup of joe with low-fat milk stirred in. I might have a second cup, or a cappuccino with skim milk and cinnamon, in the afternoon. And that’s about it.

When I’m not sure if something’s good or bad for me, or both, I take it in moderation, if at all, if I choose.

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Internet-Based Medical Information May Prove More Trustworthy Than Printed Texts

Today Ed Silverman of Pharmalot considers the case of a ghost-written medical text’s mysterious disappearance. The 1999 book, “Recognition and Treatment of Psychiatric Disorders: A Psychopharmacology Handbook for Primary Care,” (reviewed in a psychiatry journal here) came under scrutiny last fall when it became evident that the physician “authors” didn’t just receive money from a relevant drug maker, SmithKline Beecham; they received an outline and text for the book from pharmaceutical company-hired writers.

poster for the X-Files

The book is no longer evident at the website for STI (Scientific Therapeutic Information), the company that provided authorship “help.” I tried to get a copy on Amazon.com, where it’s said to be temporarily out-of-stock. The work remains listed in the Library of Congress on-line catalog: #99015420.

I’m reminded of clinical handbooks I used all the time when I was practicing hematology and oncology. At the hospital, I’d get freebie, small-sized chemo regimen primers that conveniently fit into my white coat pocket. In retrospect, perhaps I didn’t adequately check the authors’ credentials on those mini-book sources. It was too easy to take that information and keep it at hand, literally, especially in the times before we had constant Web access.

And I’m struck by how the Internet – that infinite bucket of once-lowly or at-best mixed-quality information doctors disparaged for years – may prove a better information source than printed books.

It’s a minor paradox, or a twist in trust –

Now, with a few clicks if you know where to look, you can get recommendations for chemo dosing from reliable sources, like the NIH or peer-reviewed journal articles. Although transparency about physicians’ ties to industry is not nearly yet where it should be, you can find out about more about an author’s connections and potential conflicts of interest than at any time in medical publishing history.

What we write here can’t be discarded, burned, or go out of print.

(And it may be corrected, readily, before the next edition.)

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