In Defense of Primary Care, and of Sub-Sub-Sub-Specialists

An article in the March 24 NEJM called Specialization, Subspecialization, and Subsubspecialization in Internal Medicine might have some heads shaking: Isn’t there a shortage of primary care physicians? The sounding-board piece considers the recent decision of the American Board of Internal Medicine to issue certificates in two new fields: (1) hospice and palliative care and (2) advanced heart failure and plans in-the-works for official credentialing in other, relatively narrow fields like addiction and obesity.

The essay caught my attention because I do think it’s true that we need more well-trained specialists

New Numbers Should Factor Into the Mammography Equation

On Friday the New York Times reported that surgeons are performing far too many open breast biopsies to evaluate abnormal mammogram results. A new American Journal of Surgery article analyzed data for 172,342 outpatient breast biopsies in the state of Florida. The main finding is that between 2003 and 2008, surgeons performed open biopsies in an operating room – as opposed to less invasive, safer biopsies with needles – in 30 percent of women with abnormal breast images.

I was truly surprised by this should-be outdated statistic, which further tips the mammography math equation in favor or screening.

Word of the Week: floccinaucinihilipilificationism

ML learned a new word upon reading the newspaper: floccinaucinihilipilificationism. According to the New York Times now, Moynihan prided himself on coining the 32-letter mouthful, by which he meant “the futility of making estimates on the accuracy of public data.”

She’s not exactly sure how the term, said to be the longest non-technical word in the English language, might be used in medical communication, but it seems that it might be relevant to estimating health care costs, and – possibly by extrapolation – to understanding the hidden ambiguousness of inferences drawn from vast amounts of seemingly hard data.

It’s Not About the Money

If physicians’ potential profit motives cloud the mammography debate, as the authors contend, that doesn’t mean that mammography is ineffective. Rather it signifies that doctors and scientists should analyze data and make clinical decisions in the absence of financial or other conflicts of interest.

The Physical Exam’s Value is Not Just Emotional

But what’s also true, in a practical and bottom-line sort of way, is that a good physical exam can help doctors figure out what’s wrong with patients. If physicians were more confident – better trained, and practiced – in their capacity to make diagnoses by physical exam, we could skip the costs and toxicity of countless x-rays, CT scans and other tests.

About Those Skipped Heart Test Results

Harlem Hospital Center stands just three miles or so north of my home. I know the place from the outside glancing in, as you might upon exiting from the subway station just paces from its open doors. The structure seems like one chamber of its neighborhood’s heart; within a few long blocks’ radii you’ll find rhythms generated in the Abyssinian Baptist Church; readings at the Schomburg Center and artery-clogging cuisine at the West 135th Street IHOP.

So I was saddened to hear about the missed heart studies. Or should I say unmissed? No one noticed when nearly 4,000 cardiac tests went unchecked at the Harlem center,

Why Blog on OncotypeDx and BC Pathology?

I can’t even begin to think of how much money this might save, besides sparing so many women from the messy business of infusions, temporary or semi-permanent IV catheters, prophylactic or sometimes urgent antibiotics, Neulasta injections, anti-nausea drugs, cardiac tests and then some occasional deaths in treatment from infection, bleeding or, later on, from late effects on the heart or not-so-rare secondary malignancies like leukemia. And hairpieces; we could see a dramatic decline in women with scarves and wigs.

The Checklist and Future Culture of Medicine

…Poka-yoke, a Japanese term for rendering a repetitive process mistake-proof, is familiar to some business students and corporate executives. This concept, that simple strategies can reduce errors during very complex processes, is not the kind of thing most doctors pick up in med school. Rather, it remains foreign.

When ‘No’ Turns Positive in Medical Care and Education

The medical word of the month is a most definite “no.”

The word is featured, explicitly and/or conceptually, in recent opinions published in two of the world’s most established media platforms – the New York Times and the New England Journal of Medicine. Their combined message relates to a point I’ve made here and elsewhere, that if doctors would or could take the time to provide full and unbiased information to their patients, people might choose less care of their own good sense and free will.

Let’s start with David Leonhardt’s April 7 column, “In Medicine, The Power of No.” In this excellent essay…

9 + 1 Ways to Reduce Health Care Costs

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

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

The “answers” from…

Considering Targeted Therapies For Cancer

I first heard about STI-571 (Gleevec, a targeted cancer therapy) from a cab driver in New Orleans in 1999. “Some of the doctors told me there’s a new cure for leukemia,” he mentioned.

We were stuck in traffic somewhere between the airport and the now-unforgettable convention center. His prior fare, a group of physicians in town for the American Society of Hematology’s annual meeting, spoke highly of a promising new treatment. It seemed as if he wanted my opinion, to know if it were true. Indeed, Dr. Brian Druker gave a landmark plenary presentation on the effectiveness of STI-571 in patients with chronic myelogenous leukemia (CML) at the conference. I was aware of the study findings.

“Yes,” I said. “There is a new drug for leukemia.”

Since then, oncologists’ enthusiasm for targeted therapies – medications designed to fight cancer directly and specifically – has largely held. But the public’s enthusiasm is less apparent. Perhaps that’s because many people are unaware of these new drugs’ potential, or they’re put off by their hefty price tags.

The High Cost of Food-Borne Illness, and Some Steps To Avoid These in Your Home

A new report from the “Make our Food Safe” project, based at Georgetown University, makes clear that food-borne illnesses – from bacteria, parasites and a few viruses – are ever-present and costly.

The study, authored by Robert Scharff and funded by the Pew Charitable Trusts, finds that food-borne illnesses tally nearly $152 billion per year. This huge sum includes some subjectively-measured expenses like pain, suffering and missed work. Even without those, the toll registers above $100 billion – it’s a big sum, either way.

The main culprits are

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