Medical Decisions are Complicated

By |May 3rd, 2010

In an optimistic op-ed piece in the May 1 Wall Street Journal, “Will Medicine Ever Make Up Its Mind?” Thomas Goetz, an editor at Wired and author of The Decision Tree, considers the evolution of medical knowledge that might or should inform health care decisions.

It seems like there’s an endless series of contradictory health findings, he writes:

“But here’s the thing: As frustrating as these shifts can be in isolation, taken together they reflect an effective system. Every revision and new recommendation is an attempt to put forward the best available information.

Medical science will always be a moving target, and it will always be an unfinished process…We look to science to get as close to that truth as possible. This is why medicine will always be rooted in risks and probabilities…

Not to worry, he suggests. While statistics can make us uncomfortable, some researchers at Dartmouth have demonstrated that we can, in fact, handle numbers. Ultimately, a data-driven, evidence-based system will bring us closer to the truth and deliver better care.

OK, so let’s say I agree with this utopian vision of medical informatics. (I do, at least in principle.)

What concerns me is the potential power of data, which can be coercive, misleading and even dangerous if its limits are not fully appreciated or understood by those who use it.

For example, if “studies show” that drug X is better than drug Y for condition Z, then we should choose drug X for condition Z, right? Maybe, or maybe not –

I don’t intend to be simplistic here. Goetz’s very point is that new findings can be wrong and often are. Knowledge evolves through trial and error. It’s the conglomeration of findings, by its aggregate nature more persuasive and powerful, that can be scary-wrong for a decade or two and thus do harm.

So what if it turns out that each of the small studies on which a consensus emerges is flawed and the direction of science heads backward? In some lines of investigation when search for truth meanders and then moves ahead, I wouldn’t worry much. Say there’s some quivering on the validity of string theory – whether it holds or not. As much as I’d like to have a better grasp of that topic, I think it unlikely that going back-and-forth in that sphere will affect the health of many people.

But in the case of medicine the consequences of decisions include life and death and everything in between (pain, living the rest of one’s life on a ventilator, paralysis, losing one’s virility, deafness, blindness and good effects, too – like pain relief, survival, being able to walk again, etc.)

My 20-year stint in academic medicine gives me a certain perspective on this issue, which is that sometimes scientists and researchers in medicine don’t exactly provide an objective or unbiased representation of their findings. And, of course, anyone who reads the newspaper now knows are many undisclosed ties out there between the pharmaceutical companies, the institutions and individuals that analyze their products, and the doctors who might prescribe those.

It was just two weeks ago that the Council of Medical Specialty Societies (CMSS) released a voluntary code of ethics regarding those groups’ interactions with commercial enterprises. The council of societies, according to its website, encompasses more than physician specialty groups. Based on the list as it appears on-line today (May 3, 2010) it looks like 14 groups, including the American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO) and the American College of Cardiology (ACC) have signed on, but the majority haven’t yet agreed or, perhaps for administrative reasons, haven’t yet registered their agreement to the code. (I recommend to my readers the Carlat Psychiatry Blog on this announcement.)

The societies are influential because they publish most major medical journals. Those journals, still, are loaded with ads from pharmaceutical companies and their editors, human like the rest of us, may not have sufficient self-awareness, conscientiousness or plain insight to distinguish sound information from bad. Academic leaders serve on government panels that help establish what’s evidentiary in medicine, and they usually do all of this with good intention. Still, they may not be right.

The problem, as I see it, is that evidence is only as good as the quality of the research that underlies it. And unless each editor, professor or doctor sitting at a computer in a small rectangular room with a patient really gets the details of the studies on which he or she relies to decide between treatments X and Y, and understands the stats and the limits regarding those drugs’ use in condition Z as were reported in a journal N years ago, they’ll be treating the information as dogma, something accepted but not really understood.

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Nice Nerds Needed

By |April 12th, 2010

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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News, Information, Facts and Fiction

By |March 29th, 2010

This morning I was in the gym, half-watching CNN as I did my usual exercises. Mathew Chance, a senior international correspondent based in Moscow, recapped the horrific scene involving explosions at two metro stations at the peak of rush hour. Chance reported that the bombers were both women. Most of the other facts surrounding the tragedy remain uncertain, he said. John Roberts, one of the CNN hosts, asked about any claims of responsibility for the terrorist attacks.

“Well, in fact, we had some information earlier today,” Chance responded. “…there had been a claim of responsibility…But that information appears to be incorrect.”

Wow!  Now, there’s an AM Fix.

Can information be wrong? Of course it can, we all know. There’s good evidence for this in my medical textbooks, among other reliable sources.

Lately, and especially since I started this blog, I’ve been thinking a lot about the nature of information – how we define it, how and if it might be distinguished from data, and what separates information and opinion.

“Information is the lifeblood of modern medicine,” wrote Dr. David Blumenthal in a carefully-designated “perspective” piece in the February 4 issue of the New England Journal of Medicine. He continued:

Health information technology (HIT) is destined to be its circulatory system. Without that system, neither individual physicians nor health care institutions can perform at their best or deliver the highest-quality care, any more than an Olympian could excel with a failing heart…

OK, so information needs to get around. It’s kind-of like blood; we can’t thrive without it. We won’t win any gold medals in health-care delivery before implementing the Health Information Technology for Economic and Clinical Health (HITECH) Act.

I agree on the essentialness of information in medical practice and decision-making. But that brings us back to the crucial issue of its nature – how people, doctors, scientists, news reporters or anyone, literate or otherwise, can tell if something’s true or untrue.

Last year in journalism school at Columbia University I took a course called “Evidence and Inference.” We went as far back as Plato’s cave, and as far forward as the New York Times’ 2002 reporting on possible evidence for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. The point of the exercise, in sum, was that it’s sometimes hard, even for inquisitive journalists, scholars and scientists, to tell fact from fiction.

(Rest assured, I didn’t need a graduate course at Columbia to learn that much, although I did enjoy going back to school.)

Last week’s cover story in the Economist, on “Spin, Science and Climate Change,” drew my attention to some parallels between the Climategate controversy and distrust regarding other areas of scientific and medical knowledge. In a briefing within, the author or authors write:

…In any complex scientific picture of the world there will be gaps, misperceptions and mistakes. Whether your impression is dominated by the whole or the holes will depend on your attitude to the project at hand. You might say that some see a jigsaw where others see a house of cards. Jigsaw types have in mind an overall picture and are open to bits being taken out, moved around or abandoned should they not fit. Those who see houses of cards think that if any piece is removed, the whole lot falls down. When it comes to climate, academic scientists are jigsaw types, dissenters from their view house-of-cards-ists.

The authors go on to consider some ramifications of a consensus effect. (There’s an interesting discussion on this, which relates to a herding effect, in a recent post by Respectful Insolence).  Meanwhile, house-of-card-ists, dubbed doubters, emphasize errors from confirmational bias, or the tendency of some people to select evidence that agrees with their outlook.

There’s far more to consider on this subject – how we perceive and represent information – than I might possibly include in today’s post. So let’s just call this the start of a long conversation.

Getting back to medical lessons – the problem is that most of us can’t possibly know what’s really right. (Yes, I mean doctors too.) Few know enough of the relevant and current facts, or even the necessary terms, to make decisions about, say, which therapy is best for Ewing’s sarcoma in a four-year-old child or whether a new drug for Parkinson’s is worth a try in your dad’s case. Even for those of us who know something about statistics, it’s tricky.

Ultimately, I think it comes down to a matter of trust in the people who provide us information. It’s about knowing your source, whether that’s Deep Throat, a person reporting from the street in Moscow early this morning, or your personal physician.

Well, it’s a holiday for me over the next few days. I’ll read some history first, and then some fiction.

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MedlinePlus, Now More Than Ever

By |March 1st, 2010

Last week, ABC announced drastic cuts for its newsroom staff. The situation is similar at CBS, which in early February reduced its news-gathering personnel. These pull-backs by the major networks, paralleled by lessening or flat-out elimination of newspapers, will boost the number of people who check the Internet for medical news.

Two recent studies, from the Pew Center’s Internet & American Life Project and the CDC’s National Center for Health Statistics, confirm that most Americans are going on-line for health information. Compounding this effect, in all likelihood, are the uninsured, those reluctant to fork out hefty co-pays and some who are unable to dole out a deductible before they see a doctor.

Bottom line: the role of Internet-based health resources is likely to expand over the next decade. We need to know what’s out there –

We should start with MedlinePlus, a virtual superstore of free medical information. Co-sponsored by the National Library of Medicine (NLM) and the National Institutes of Health (NIH), this site is comprehensive and relatively clear of commercial bias. (There are significant exceptions, see below). It’s a useful origin for most any health-related search.

MedlinePlus covers more than 800 topics in English, 500 in Spanish and selective information in over 45 languages – you can read about anemia in Bosnian, hand hygiene in Creole or viral hepatitis in the Hmong language.

The site includes a medical dictionary, an encyclopedia (provided by A.D.A.M., a health education company that’s traded on the NASDAQ, ADAM), a compendium of drugs, supplements and herbs (put forth by the American Society of Health-System Pharmacists), a database on herbal remedies from Natural Standard, and some 165 interactive health tutorials.

There’s a direct link to the original on-line database that doctors used for decades, Medline/PubMed. This professional reference encompasses over 16 million articles published in more than 5000 scientific and medical journals. For the most part it’s a well-organized list of titles and abstracts, or summaries, of biomedical papers. A growing proportion of the articles are available in their entirety, and the abstracts can sometimes provide helpful clues in a medical search.

Another key connection is to ClinicalTrials.gov, an NIH-sponsored registry of all federally-sponsored and many privately-funded clinical trials conducted in the United States and elsewhere. For cancer patients, this database is crucial; previously, only doctors searching for clinical trials could access a public database of experimental treatments. (I’ll cover this site in a separate, future post.)

MedlinePlus offers an extensive catalogue of surgical procedure videos. You can watch an abdominal hysterectomy, vasectomy reversal or open heart surgery if you choose. While the films can be helpful, perhaps, to some patients who are deliberating about a procedure, some of my non-physician friends have found them rather bloody. I have some reservations about this component of the MedlinePlus site, in that many of the videos are provided by community medical centers and, the films are provided by a commercial enterprise, ORlive.

In recent years the number of visitors to MedlinePlus has hovered over 10 million per month. In 2009, the site received hits from approximately 128 million distinct Web addresses.

Last year, I spoke with Robert Logan, Ph.D., of the Office of Communications at the National Library of Medicine. “We’ve hit some sort of tipping point,” he said. “The internet has eclipsed other health information sources.”

Despite the comprehensiveness of MedlinePlus, there’s work to be done, said Logan. Some particular areas he hopes to improve on include ethics, epidemiology and statistics. “It’s hard for people to look at numbers and make clinical decisions,” he said. “But that’s a serious weakness in all areas of medicine all over the world.”

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Are Doctors Necessary?

By |February 2nd, 2010

Ten years ago, my colleagues and I squirmed in our swivel chairs when a few tech-savvy patients filed in bearing reams of articles they’d discovered, downloaded and printed for our perusal. Some of us accepted these informational “gifts” warily, half-curious about what was out there and half-loathing the prospect of more reading. Quite a few complained about the changing informational dynamic between patients and their physicians, threatened by a perceived and perhaps real loss of control.

How a decade can make a difference.

In 2000 the Pew Charitable Trusts initiated the “Internet & American Life Project” to explore how the Web affects families and communities in matters of daily life. Susannah Fox is an associate director of the Research Center project.

“It’s the ultimate information appliance” she says of the Internet. Now that it’s in most people’s homes, people use it as they choose.

And that’s quite often –

In 2008 over 140 million Americans, a majority of U.S. adults, looked for health information on-line, according to the Center’s 2009 report. Nearly 60 percent of those admit that a recent Internet search influenced a medical decision.

“Back in 2000, our data was used to prove the concept that people were going on-line to get heath care information,” she says. But that’s no longer the issue.

“With Facebook, MySpace and Twitter, there’s a new frontier” she states. “I think we’re at a new inflection point, and now is the time to have a very clear conversation on health care.

There’s been a significant shift on the physicians’ side, too.

“It’s become clear that increased communication and discussion can change care in a positive way” says Dr. Barron Lerner, a primary care physician and medical historian at Columbia University. His most recent book, When Illness Goes Public: Celebrity Patients and How We Look at Medicine, considers how ailments in the public realm can influence peoples’ perception of illness and inform their care choices.

“The Internet can be amazingly good to get people up and running” he considers. Lerner encourages his patients who have cancer to visit the National Cancer Institute (NCI) website.

“Why not go on, and explore,” he tells them. “Now as for how much they can absorb there, I don’t know,” he adds. “It’s a very hard website.”

Dr. Gretchen Berland is a primary care physician, videographer and former MacArthur Foundation fellow at the Yale University School of Medicine. She led an early study on the quality and accessibility of web-based medical information in that was published in the Journal of the American Medical Association in 2001.

“The Internet gives people a sense of control,” she says. “People use the Web to augment the information they’re given by their physicians, to look for a second opinion, and to search for clinical trials.”

But despite the wealth of information, and good quality of many sites, Berland sees limits in the Internet’s use, particularly for patients with complex, serious conditions like cancer. Even if online materials are comprehensive and accurate, they rely on people’s ability to find and understand them.

The Internet is not enough to help most people, she states.

Recently Berland searched on-line resources on behalf of a friend who had cancer surgery. When she looked at all the data, including material gleaned from some physician-oriented sites, there were gaps. “It wasn’t clear what he should do, despite how much information is out there.”

That’s the paradox of the Internet, she notes. “It’s hard to know what applies to a particular person’s unique and complex medical circumstances.

“One thing the Web doesn’t do is personalize the information,” she says. “That’s what physicians do.”

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A Note on Blogging and Medicine

By |January 31st, 2010

Some of you may have noticed I’ve been quiet for a few days. That’s because I’ve been working on the elements of my new Medical Lessons site. Among the things I’ve learned since starting this project in mid-November, just 2.5 months ago, is this –

Blogging is like practicing medicine in some surprising ways:

1. You learn how to blog by doing it;

2. What you say, and how you say it, makes all the difference;

3. Some people will appreciate your style, others won’t;

4. You have to be careful, details can make things go right or wrong;

5. There’s never enough time in the day;

6. It’s fun, interesting and rewarding (largely in intangible ways);

7. You have to stay current to be good at it;

8. You get to interact with all sorts of people;

9. You’re constantly learning;

10. I love it.

As soon as the new site is ready, you’ll find the directions automatically.

Not to worry – I’ll be writing lots, then and there. Once the formatting’s done I’ll have more time to spend on ideas and information.

See you there!

ES

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Beware the Power of Data Handling in Politics (and Medicine)

By |January 17th, 2010

Into my Google Reader this morning came a post from Biophemera (an intriguing blog at the interface of art and science). Scientist-artist-blogger Jessica Palmer offers a provocative clip featuring Alex Lundry, a self-described conservative political pollster, data-miner and data visualizer.

Alex Lundry Chart Wars: The Political Power of Data Visualization
more about “Alex Lundry Chart Wars: The Political…

Some excerpts:

“These charts are meant to illustrate the political power of data visualization. It’s a discipline that’s only just beginning to bloom as a messaging vehicle…

“So what changed, why now?” he asks rhetorically.

“Well of course the internet…What’s really changed is data. We capture more data, we store more data and more data is available to us in machine-readable parsable format. So it’s really gotten to the point where anybody with a computer can create a data visualization easily enough…

“Here are a few quick lessons in graphical literacy…You’ll see that messing around with the origin and axis can make unimpressive growth look pretty amazing, right?…

——

Scary stuff. We’re vulnerable to brainwashing by pie graphs with pretty colors. Men are hired to collect and represent data with a particular aim. And there’s more to come this way, faster than ever by twitter.

So why here? Why a Medical Lesson?

Because the same is true for health information.

——

One of the first rules of medicine is knowing your sources. Before you make a decision, consider: did you read or hear about a treatment in a textbook, in a reputable journal, at a scientific meeting or over lunch with a representative from a pharmaceutical company?

Immersed in data as we are, it’s tempting to grasp at the best-presented material regardless of its intrinsic value. Nifty graphs can persuade or fool even the best of us.

For patients:

1. Know your doctor – be aware of industry ties, academic connections and other sources of pressure to perceive or publish results more clearly than they are;

2. Distinguish ads from articles about health – the difference is not always clear, especially on-line;

3. Read the fine print and identify the perspective of who’s depicting “data” in charts and graphs – when medical information comes onto your TV screen or magazine page, there’s a good chance someone’s got something to sell you.

For doctors:

1. Remember the difference between peer-reviewed journals and PeerView Press (a CME company with a host of industry sponsors, one of many such that provide free, neatly-packaged information targeted to busy doctors);

2. Take the trouble to read the methods and statistical sections of published papers in your field – your patients are counting on you to discern good studies from bad;

3. Don’t forget we’re human, too. We’re vulnerable, drawn to promising new results –

Mind those origins and axes!

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Skyping Medicine

By |January 8th, 2010

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

By |January 4th, 2010

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

By |December 21st, 2009

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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