Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Are resident doctors unhappy? Why?

In a New York Times “Upshot” piece on December 7, 2017, Dhruv Khullar notes that “Being a doctor is hard. It’s harder for women”. I do not doubt it, especially the second part. Dr. Khullar goes through a host of reasons for why it is harder for women, most of them related to sexism (including internalized sexism) such as having children, having the bulk of the responsibility for maintaining a household, being seen as less smart or competent by supervisors and colleagues, and on and on. The idea that “being a doctor is hard” is also one I can agree with. However, Dr. Khullar’s piece focuses mainly on residents, medical school graduates who are in specialty training. He opens it with a parody of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina: “Happy medical residents are all alike. Every unhappy resident would take a long time to count.”

This is where I take issue, at least a little, with his perspective. Mainly this is because I do not remember being unhappy as a resident several decades ago. Tired, often, but not unhappy. I liked the work I did, as a family medicine resident at Cook County Hospital in the late 1970s, both caring for patients in the hospital on a variety of specialty services and in our hospital and community-based outpatient practices. I liked my colleagues, in family medicine and in other departments, and liked working with them. I learned a lot from them. I don’t recall most of my colleagues being unhappy either, and checked with a few with whom I am still in touch, and they also do not recall being unhappy. One, indeed, said he wasn’t even that tired, as he slept through most noon conferences!

There were not only fewer women residents and medical students, but they were (in my  experience) less likely to be married and have children. A small minority of students in my medical school class were married, but now it is common. I married (another resident) and we had our first child during residency, but when I was a program director, the majority of my residents were married by the time they started (I remember a year when five women started the program with different last names than they had interviewed with).

Yet several studies do tend to support Dr. Khullar’s assertions about residents in general being unhappy, as well as feeling overworked, and I think my experience as a family medicine program director and that of one of my colleagues (and former wife) as an internal medicine program director, support the idea that more recent residents seem unhappier, at least compared to us, then, at that hospital. There could be many reasons for this, including the possibility that memory is inaccurate, and distance dulls the pain, but I don’t think that this is the main one.

Another reason could, theoretically, be that the work was less or easier back then. Indeed, at Cook County Hospital in the late 1970s most residents had every-fourth-night call, a direct result of having a residents’ union in the hospital that negotiated working conditions. Dr. Khullar asserts that “The structure of medical training has changed little since the 1960s, when almost all residents were men with few household duties.” I think that he is wrong about this. Residents who trained in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, before me and the union, often had every other night call (yes, work all day and all night and the next day, then go home and crash and come back to work). There is a reason that these doctors in training are called “residents” and “interns”; Cook County had a residents’ residence, where many actually lived and all had “call rooms” where we could get, maybe, a couple of hours rest. Although call was every 4th night, there were no other “hours rules”; Cook County had 16 medical services, with 4 taking call every 4th night and taking every 4th admission, and the two interns on each service thus taking every 8th, but this could easily be 10 or more patients per intern per night. And one didn’t get to go home the next day at a certain time even though other services were on call. One specific example was CT scans; Cook County Hospital didn’t have one then, but the private hospital across the street, Rush, did. We could take our patients there, but only at night, when they were finished with their routine scans, and the patients had to be accompanied by the Cook County intern caring for them. Often at midnight, the night after they had been admitted. Residents also did most of the work; attending physicians were not in the hospital at night, and in the day had time only to round on new admissions and those who were very sick. Even having every 4th night call was a big change from every other or 3rd night, but I do not think we had less work than most residents have today.

My point is not to try to disparage the tiredness or unhappiness of more recent residents by citing the “bad old days” when things were worse and we had to walk to school in the snow uphill both ways (although the weather was worse in Chicago then, thanks to global warming, and it was possible in winter to arrive and leave in the dark, and thanks to the system of tunnels under Cook County never see the sun). It is simply to note that workload is not the sole, or main, determinant of whether residents are happy or not. And here I can just speak from my limited experience. Many of us who were residents at Cook County Hospital were there for a reason. From the several Chicago medical schools and those further afield, we came because we were committed to providing the best possible care for people who were poor, underserved, and often ignored. We knew, and daily had reinforced, that our best efforts could not make up for the impact of poverty and discrimination; that despite the fact that the hospital did not charge patients, even for outpatient medications (although they had to wait hours for their prescriptions to be filled) the obstacles to their health were enormous. But we, most of us, cared, and tried to do our best. Our residency was not just a step on the path to a career as a successful physician, but an opportunity to work with and try to help people who had real need. We had a mission, not necessarily in the religious sense (although many who came as residents to Cook County were inspired and motivated by their religious convictions).

And, as a result of this shared mission we were each others’ greatest support, personally as well as medically. Medically, the 4 services with 4 residents, 8 interns, a chief resident, and medical students, shared an “admitting ward”, as so we were all together, to consult, to review x-rays, and help with procedures. But personally, we could reinforce each others’ beliefs, and provide support, succor, and even inspiration. I think that was the biggest part, for me at least.

Certainly, my experience at Cook County may not have been typical for residents of the era (indeed, that is part of why I chose it). Certainly, there were unhappy residents then, and uncommitted residents then, and women residents who were burdened with the care of the household and children. And, as certainly, there are now and have been ever since, happy and committed and inspirational residents. I guess “if you’ve seen one, you’ve seen one”. But I am pretty sure that a commitment to something greater than yourself and your self-interest helps a lot, as does training in a place where many of your colleagues feel the same way. And maybe that’s a lot of what we need as doctors, not just residents.

And as people.

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Black men being killed by police: A public health epidemic

“Let’s do it to them before they do it to us,” was the line with which Sgt. Stan Jablonski (played by Robert Proskey) dispatched his troops on the old TV show Hill Street Blues. When Sgt. Jablonski replaced Sgt. Phil Esterhaus (on the death of actor Michael Conrad) they had to come up with a replacement for Esterhaus’ “Let’s be careful out there”. Perhaps the show’s writers felt it was ok coming from the shorter, pudgier actor than the 6’6” Conrad, but it has a very different meaning and very different connotation, an “us against them”.

Presumably the “them” was bad guys, not the regular folks that the police were supposed to be there to “protect and serve” but now, 30 years after the show went off the air, we realize how much this was, sadly, prescient. I am not going to recite the names of all the black men – and children – killed by police in recent years, including Tamir Rice, Michael Brown, Freddie Gray, Philando Castile, but it is an epidemic. Yes, more white people have been killed by police than black in both 2016 and 2017 – about twice as many – but the proportions are way off given that just over 12% of the population of the US is black. And what has been even more graphic is the lack of convictions, and frequently even prosecutions, of the perpetrators.

If these deaths were not at the hands of police, but rather had a different cause – an odd virus that struck down black men when being confronted by the police, or a very selective alien attack, we would not hesitate to call it an epidemic and search for the cause. But this issue is political, it is personal, it is an “us” against “them”, raising the issue is seen by many to be attack on the police, who heroically and at great risk to themselves protect us from evil. Certainly, the Governing Council (GC) of the American Public Health Association (APHA), by far the largest public health association in the nation, did not choose to identify the killing of black men by police as a public health epidemic when it voted, 65%-35%, against a resolution so designating it at the recent meeting in Atlanta. The resolution had been introduced a year before, and sent by the GC back to the authors to make changes to the language, which was done. But it was not sufficient.

If it was the language, felt, for example, to be denigrating to police, that was the issue, members of the group could have introduced and passed amendments to correct it. This point was made (after the vote) by APHA immediate past President Camara Jones, MD MPH PhD. But it was not the issue; the GC (and thus, the APHA) did not want to take a stand identifying the killing of black men by police in the United States as a public health epidemic. Speakers against the resolution cited personal but irrelevant concerns like “my brother is a policeman, and he is a good man”, as well as saying “the data is not sufficient to make the case that it is an epidemic”, which is patently false. The vote was portrayed as a scientific decision, but it was clearly a political one, a decision by the overwhelmingly white group to put their fingers in their ears, their hands over their eyes, and shut their mouths rather than standing up and saying “this is a problem”.

Many of these killings have been of people (usually men, but sometimes women or children) who were not involved in committing crimes. They result from the heightened suspicion police hold of black people in general. If you don’t believe that, you’re probably white. Just before the vote, I was at an session at the meeting discussing police violence against black men. Most of the group was minority (predominantly black) and were relatively young public health professionals, students, and junior faculty in schools of public health. A couple of speakers introduced the issue, but then opened the floor. One by one, in random order, unrehearsed, person after person in the group talked about their fears and their experiences; these were not prepared in advance, but slowly came out, one giving rise to another. A government employee noted that she had two young sons, and worried about their safety. Another woman, a public health professional, noted that her flight to Atlanta departed at 5:30am, so she’d left her home in a mostly-white suburb at 3:30am to go to the airport. She was followed by a police car all the way into the city. Another woman, a professor, talked about driving to a neighboring state and being followed by a police car that eventually stopped her for no reason or violation; in the process the officer asked “if you’re a teacher, why aren’t you in school?” The stories went on and on, from the mouths of professional people, most of them, in fact, women. 

Although many people would disagree, often virulently in with this age of Trump giving loud voice to aggrieved white men, being white in America is a privilege. It is a privilege of not thinking that you will be followed by police, or pulled over by them, or subjected to inappropriately probing questions by them. It creates an illusion, obviously held by the majority of the GC of the APHA, that it is mostly criminals, or “probably-criminals”, or people who look like they might be criminals, who are followed by, stopped by, and sometimes killed by police. But that is not the experience of black people in this country, not the black men shot by a police officer who makes up a story about being threated, nor of the middle-class professionals who told their stories at that APHA session. It is not the experience of the young woman who drove me to the Atlanta airport from the conference; in talking she said she had a 3-year old son and I asked if she feared for his safety not just from gangs but from police. In response she said she did, and pointed to a button hanging from her rear-view mirror and said “my uncle was killed by the police 3 years ago”. I don’t know what occurred with her uncle beyond what she told me, but I suspect it is not fate, coincidence, or Kismet that caused my driver to have her own story to tell, but rather the ubiquity of this experience among black people in America.

What about the police? Don’t we have to worry about the safety of the people who risk their lives each day to protect us? What about the fact that there are many (if not enough) minority police officers? To identify the current situation, not only the killings but the very real sense of most black people in this country that they do not have the same rights as whites, that they are, by definition, “suspicious” because of their color, does not require denigration of all police officers. Indeed, the families (especially male family members) of black police officers, and even the officers themselves when off-duty, experience the same indignities (and worse) as other black people.

It does mean that the idea that a police officer’s first loyalty is to other officers rather than to the community that they “protect and serve” must be very narrowly construed. Rather than a “thin blue line” of brothers (always, it seems, brothers, not sisters), it means that we should have tighter standards for police, excluding those who are overtly and viciously violent and racist. It means better training in identifying a situation in which you see through your prejudice and not through reality, and how to de-escalate. It means that when an officer kills a person innocent of a crime, it is not enough for other officers to have not “done it”; they must, if they were unable to prevent it, disclose it and discourage it and, yes, testify against the perpetrator. Police officers who do so are not “traitors”, they are heroes who allow the force to be thought of as we want to think of them.

The fact that even the most respectable and middle-class black people have to fear interactions with police (even when they are the ones who have called them!) is a societal scandal. The enormously disproportionate killing of black men by police is an epidemic, and like all epidemics we must identify it as such, find the cause, and treat it.

Even the APHA should be able to acknowledge that.

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

Making contraception easy and available: we are going in the wrong direction!

It is 2017. It is more than 100 years since Margaret Sanger advocated for contraception, and more than 50 years since the oral contraceptive pill became available. The last two generations of women – and men – have never known a world where there was no effective form of contraception. They probably do not recall when even condoms, although “over the counter” (in that no prescription was required) were stocked “behind the counter” and required requesting them from the pharmacist often with (if you were young) a disapproving glare, and maybe worse, a raft of questions.

The verbal and physical indignations and worse, including even murder committed on unmarried women who got pregnant and were unable, of course, to have access to abortion should be things of the past. They are, horrifically documented in Dan Barry’s New York Times piece “The Lost Children of Tuam”. The film “The Magdalene Sisters” shows the intolerable treatment of girls who may not have even gotten pregnant but were, perhaps, just a little too familiar with boys. Both the Magdalene laundries and the mother-baby home in Tuam were in Ireland, which was perhaps extreme in the poverty, ignorance, and fast ties to the Roman Catholic Church, but the treatment of women in England and the US were also inexcusably harsh. The British drama “Call the Midwife” tells the story of an unmarried teacher who gets pregnant in the early 1960s and is fired from her job (morally unfit to care for children!), tries to self-induce abortion with a coat hanger, and almost dies. Finally, post-hysterectomy so that she will never be able to have children, she is driven out of town. The most sympathetic characters in the show see it as sad, but none indicate it is horrific, immoral, and inhuman. And this was commonplace, even in the 1960s and beyond.

We should not, in 2017, even be discussing the availability of contraception, not to mention whether it works. Amazingly, we are. Teresa  Manning, appointed by President Trump in May to be the director of the Office of Population Affairs, the main family planning arm of the federal government, is not only a former employee of two anti-abortion groups, but has expressed skepticism of the effectiveness of contraception itself! Manning, a lawyer and not a health professional (although this is not an excuse), is completely wrong. The data is in. Contraception dramatically decreases unplanned pregnancy (regardless of marital status). Time recently ran an article accurately describing the science titled “No, birth control doesn’t make you have riskier sex”. That is the truth, but in fact, even if it is was associated with riskier sex for some people, that would be no reason to restrict access to it. The more contraception is available, the lower the rate of bad outcomes of virtually all kinds. It even, of course, reduces the rate of abortion; in fact, the only two things ever to have been shown to significantly reduce the rate of abortion are comprehensive and accurate sex education and easy and cheap availability of contraception. Indeed, the degree to which contraception is effective in decreasing the incidence of unplanned and undesired pregnancy is directly related to the ease of its availability, including financial availability. Unsurprisingly, reducing the cost of and increasing the ease of access to contraception has the greatest impact on teens and on the poor.

So it is amazing that, in what The Atlantic refers to as “one of its boldest moves yet” (I don’t think that they meant it was positive, but “cowardly”, as well as “stupid” and “reactionary” come to mind as better adjectives) has reversed the ACA’s requirements that employers and insurers provide contraception at no cost to women. Politically, it is part of the administration’s efforts to dismantle the ACA piece by piece, since they were unsuccessful in doing it as a whole. Morally, it is an imposition of a minority’s religious values on the rest of us, and is particularly ironic being spearheaded by Donald Trump. It will cause great harm to individual women (and men) and to the society as a whole. Arguments that the cost of contraception is “only” $50 a month may wash with those in the middle class and up, but for poor women and teens, $50 a month is a lot. The most effective methods of contraception, IUDs and implants (collectively referred to as LARC, long-acting reversible contraception) may have a lower amortized cost over the use period but a high upfront cost that is unaffordable, without subsidies, for many women. (The reason, lack of cash on hand, is the same one that leads many poor families, as described by Barbara Ehrenreich in her wonderful and depressing book “Nickel and Dimed”,  to live in expensive weekly motel rentals – the overall cost may be more than an apartment, but the upfront cost, including deposits, rent in advance, etc., is prohibitive for them.) The impact on the teens who will be denied free access is described movingly by a pediatrician in Vox.

The other important impact of such a policy would – and perhaps will -- be on the economy. This is articulately addressed in a column by Bryce Covert in the NY Times, October 29, 2017. The reasons start with individual women, and the cost of purchasing birth control, money which will not be available for them to spend on other goods – with more than 57 million women using contraception, in one year that is $1.3 billion. But the larger impact is societal – women who cannot control their own reproduction, who do not know when and if they will get pregnant – are in a poorer position to contribute to the workforce and to the economy. Again, going back to the history I address at the start of this piece, we know this empirically, not just theoretically:

… a raft of evidence has definitively found that when women gained greater access to the pill in the late 1960s and early ’70s, they were able to delay marriage and childbirth and invest in careers through education, job training and staying in paid work….Legal access to the pill transformed the economy in that era. It increased young women’s labor force participation by 7 percent….about a third of the increase in how many women attained careers in fields like law and business was due to birth control. Women with earlier access to the pill also made 8 percent more than their peers, and the pill was responsible for about a third of the decrease in the gender wage gap by 1990.

And it is still critical. Perhaps Trump himself is just cynically pandering to his base, and probably much of that base depends upon contraception, women directly but men just as much. Opposition to contraception cannot be justified except by the small minority of religious purists (and of course they are welcome to not use it); opposition to making contraception easily and freely available is almost as bad, as it is completely discriminatory. It is still, as Covert describes,

…still playing the economic role that it did in the 1970s. About half of women who use it say they do so to complete education or to get and keep a job. Contraception is still increasing the share of women who get educated and get paid work, particularly prestigious jobs.

Easy and affordable (affordable for all those who need to use it, not just billionaires or even the upper middle class!) is not a “women’s issue”, it is not a “special interest” issue. It is a core need for people. People with the views of Teresa Manning should not be given center stage, and certainly not given authority over contraception. We need to guarantee permanent access to contraception for all, and for accurate sex education. 


Sunday, October 22, 2017

Guns and the Public's Health: what can we do?

 "A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed."

Recognize those words? The Second Amendment to the Constitution of the United States, what all the fuss is about. In addition to the confusing use of commas, apparently more generously applied in the 18th century, we have two key phrases. The final phrase, “shall not be infringed”, is read by the NRA and other “gun rights” zealots (and it is important to remember that only a minority of NRA members, and a smaller minority of gun owners, support this position) to mean essentially “no legislation regulating guns in any way”. That includes assault rifles, semi-automatic and maybe even automatic rifles, armor-piercing (“cop killer”) bullets, and any other weapon or gun modification that creative minds can come up with. Of course, it has been noted that none of these types of weapons were available at the time of the Constitution, when firearms were muzzle-loaded muskets, quite different from current weapons (see graphic).

The NRA take the position that there is qualitatively no difference, as noted by its President, Wayne LaPierre, after the December 2012 massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School: "Absolutes do exist. We are as ‘absolutist’ as the Founding Fathers and framers of the Constitution. And we’re proud of it!" Others (including me, in case you were wondering) would disagree, and say that clearly at some point the quantitative difference becomes qualitative. This is the only amendment they are absolutist about; the First Amendment says “Congress shall make no law… abridging the freedom of speech…”, but it has long been settled that it is not OK to yell “Fire!” in a crowded theater.

The other obviously important phrase is “A well regulated Militia”. Again, obviously, this has been the source of much discussion, with the NRA taking the position that “Militia” just means “everyone” (kind of a stretch), and (as far as I can tell) “well regulated” means, um, not regulated at all. Is this cherry picking the words one wants? Maybe, but I can’t imagine how it is possible to ignore completely the words “well regulated”. But does it matter? Yes, when we live in a country where
The 36,252 deaths from firearms in the United States in 2015 exceeded the number of deaths from motor vehicle traffic crashes that year (36,161). That same year, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that 5 people died from terrorism. Since 1968, more individuals in the United States have died from gun violence than in battle during all the wars the country has fought since its inception.
-Bauchner et al., Death by Gun Violence—A Public Health Crisis, JAMA, October 9, 2017[1]

Those are staggering numbers, and certainly justify the assertion that it is a “public health crisis”.

The authors also note that “60.7% of the gun deaths in 2015 in the United States were suicides, a fact often ignored. That is a majority. A large majority. If it were an election, 60.7% would be considered a landslide. But with guns it is a mudslide of death. I have written before about suicide (e.g, Suicide: What can we say? December 13, 2013, Suicide in doctors and others: remembering and preventing it if we can September 14, 2014, Prevention and the “Trap of Meaning” July 29, 2009) and its impact on myself and my family, with my son’s successful suicide-by-gun at the age of 24. My son, to my knowledge, had never used a gun before his final act. He lived in a state and city with strict gun control laws (some of which, sadly, have been eliminated by the courts). He was nonetheless able to go to another state, buy a carbine (terrific choice! No permit needed, even in those days, like a handgun would require, but short enough to reach the trigger with the barrel in his mouth!), and use it. It would be easier now, in that state and many others.

My son was apparently very committed to this act, and was successful despite some obstacles. But for many, many people it is the availability of guns that make a spur-of-the-moment decision lethal. I have noted before that nearly 95% of suicide attempts by gun are lethal while less than 5% by drug overdose are. My clinical experience is that many suicide survivors do not repeat their attempts (though many do). The successful suicide rate for young adult males in low gun control states is several times higher than in high gun control states. And on and on.

But the epidemic of suicide and murder and mass murders resulting from the easy availability of guns has not changed the legal landscape. After the Las Vegas massacre, there was a small ray of hope that maybe one of the most egregious products the white terrorist Stephen Paddock used, the “bump stocks” that effectively convert semi-automatic to automatic rifles, might be limited; even the NRA voiced some possible support. But never underestimate the cowardice and lack of moral fiber of the Congress; Speaker of the House Paul Ryan has suggested that this be done by regulation rather than legislation. This is absolutely because it will not require any congressperson to actually vote for it and thus be targeted by the zealots in the next election. Hopefully, not literally targeted by guns, but do not forget Gabby Giffords and Steve Scalise!

Dr. Bauchner, who is the editor-in-chief of JAMA, also joined the editors of several of the other most prestigious US medical journals, New England Journal of Medicine, Annals of Internal Medicine, and PLOS Medicine in an editorial that appeared in all their journals (this link is the the NEJM), ‘Firearm-Related Injury and Death — A U.S. Health Care Crisis in Need of Health Care Professionals’.[2] Again, this emphasizes the fact that guns are a public health epidemic in the US, and that there is little likelihood of anything being done at the federal level to stem its carnage. It recognizes that there is a variable response at the state level, with some states going as far as trying to legally prohibit physicians from asking about guns in the home (Florida; since struck down by the courts) while others have had stronger regulations. Many legislatures have also acted to prevent the cities in their states from acting independently to regulate guns in any way. One of the most insane was the state of Arizona suing to prevent the city of Tucson from destroying guns seized from criminals. The legislature mandated that they be sold – thus keeping them on the streets – and the Arizona Supreme Court upheld this, saying state law trumped local ordinances!

Given this situation, the joint editorial suggests that there are many things that physicians can and should do, including (quoted):
·        Educate yourself. Read the background materials and proposals for sensible firearm legislation from health care professional organizations. Make a phone call and write a letter to your local, state, and federal legislators to tell them how you feel about gun control. Now. Don’t wait. And do it again at regular intervals. Attend public meetings with these officials and speak up loudly as a health care professional. Demand answers, commitments, and follow-up. Go to rallies. Join, volunteer for, or donate to organizations fighting for sensible firearm legislation. Ask candidates for public office where they stand and vote for those with stances that mitigate firearm-related injury.
·        Meet with the leaders at your own institutions to discuss how to leverage your organization’s influence with local, state, and federal governments. Don’t let concerns for perceived political consequences get in the way of advocating for the well-being of your patients and the public. Let your community know where your institution stands and what you are doing. Tell the press.
·        Educate yourself about gun safety. Ask your patients if there are guns at home. How are they stored? Are there children or others at risk for harming themselves or others? Direct them to resources to decrease the risk for firearm injury, just as you already do for other health risks. Ask if your patients believe having guns at home makes them safer, despite evidence that they increase the risk for homicide, suicide, and accidents. [this is what the Florida law would have made illegal]
·        Don’t be silent.

The first (JAMA) editorial says:
Guns kill people….the key to reducing firearm deaths in the United States is to understand and reduce exposure to the cause, just like in any epidemic, and in this case that is guns.

The fact is that while physicians have influence and moral authority, so do other health professionals, and, in fact, so do all of us. So the advice must pertain to all of us.

Don’t be silent.

[1] Bauchner H, Rivara FP, Bonow RO, Death by gun violence—a public health crisis, JAMA online Oct 9, 2017, doi:10.100/jama.2017.16446
[2] Taichman DB, Bauchner H, Drazen JM, Laine C, Peipert L, Firearm-Related Injury and Death — A U.S. Health Care Crisis in Need of Health Care Professionals’, October 9, 2017DOI: 10.1056/NEJMe1713355

Friday, October 13, 2017

Fake news, fake facts, and fake science: making stuff up to justify hurting people and the planet

The flood of “fake news” threatens serious damage to our society as surely as floods have recently destroyed much of the Caribbean and coastal US or fires have burned up much of Northern California. While it is President Trump (whom I call the #Trumpenik, from the Yiddish “trombenik”, a lazy person or ne'er-do-well; a boastful loudmouth) who uses the term most often, in fact it is he and his allies who create most of the falsehoods. A central and terrifying one is the denial by the President and his EPA of global warming, certainly linked to the increase in horrific storms and fires, and the counter-scientific efforts of his administration to make it worse by increasing the burning of fossil fuels and refusing efforts to contain climate change despite the fact that it is “Trump country” that is supplying much of our nation’s alternative energy

Key to this fake news is the use of “fake facts” to support reactionary political agendas. While these agendas are mostly about making more money for the richest people and corporations rather than the middle and working-class Americans who support them, they also exploit a bizarre antipathy toward science among a good hunk of our population. (One explanation is that science sometimes reveals facts that are incompatible with pre-existing beliefs, so we reject them. However, the Catholic Church finally got over its opposition to Galileo, so maybe there is, eventually, hope.) Indeed, these people don't oppose all scientific facts, but rather those that make them uncomfortable despite being true. This is suggested by the efforts to manufacture false “scientific” facts to buttress social agendas. A prominent example is the use of “fetal pain syndrome” to justify efforts to limit access to abortion, particularly in the second trimester. The flaw here, of course, is that the evidence for fetal pain is slim to none, certainly before the third trimester, as shown is several reviews of the literature, and discussed at length in this article in Popular Science. notes that “The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) said it considers the case to be closed as to whether a fetus can feel pain at that stage [20 weeks] in development.” Of course, while the number of people who would change their positions on the availability of second-trimester abortion if they believed that the fetus experienced pain during the procedure would be small to minimal, it provides a convenient, if false, cover for efforts to restrict access, including a House bill that passed just this month in Congress.

This use of fake facts and junk science has recently been expanded beyond restricting abortion to efforts to limit access to contraception for women. Let’s get this completely straight: access to contraception has been a terrific thing. It has given women – and men – much greater control of their reproduction, dramatically reduced the incidence of unintentional pregnancy (although this still remains far too high), and, duh!, even reduced the incidence of abortion. While the decision to use contraception should and does remain up to the individuals involved, it needs to be easily available to them. Thus access is critical. For many – including but not limited to teens – access is, instead, very limited, and there are ongoing efforts in Congress and in many states to further restrict it. Particularly onerous and vile is the effort of the Trump administration to roll back the ACA’s mandate for insurers to cover birth control, pandering to the religious right.

A terrific piece by Aaron Carroll on October 10, 2017 in the NY Times, “Doubtful science behind arguments to restrict birth control access”, details and refutes the bogus claims made by those who want, bizarrely, to do so. These include the idea that access to contraception has not reduced unintended pregnancy (it absolutely and most assuredly has, and greater availability would further reduce it). The Trump (and at the time, Tom Price-led) Department of Health and Human Services used cherry-picked and archaic data to support its tortured argument. Carroll notes that “In 2011, the unintended pregnancy rate hit a 30-year low. And the teenage pregnancy rate and teenage birthrate right now are at record lows in the United States. This is largely explained by the use of reliable and highly effective contraception.”

HHS also argues that there are health risks, especially from hormonal contraceptives. There are, of course, but there are health risks and side effects from any drug treatment, and the risk of harm from the treatment has to be weighed against the probability of benefit. Ironically, in the care of hormonal contraception, the most significant side effects (both symptoms and even blood clots) are similar to (if generally less severe than) those from the condition contraception is designed to prevent – pregnancy. That is, not using contraception because of concern about these side effects and then getting pregnant increases the risk of these adverse events!

The bugbear for religious conservatives in this debate is their fear that contraceptive availability will increase people – especially teens -- having sex, but for the rest of us the concern is how this would impact the unintended pregnancy rate. Carroll cites a “2016 study in The New England Journal of Medicine showed that the unintended pregnancy rate among women who earn less than the federal poverty line was two to three times the national average in 2011. An earlier study showed that in the years before, that rate was up to five times higher.” From a cost point of view, the study’s author, Jeffrey Peipert, notes that “Every dollar of public funding invested in family planning saves taxpayers at least $3.74 in pregnancy-related costs.” For women (and their partners), especially those who are low-income or teens, the direct cost for contraception is sometimes prohibitive, especially for the most effect type of contraception, long-acting reversible contraception (LARC), IUDs and hormonal implants, that have a high one-time up-front cost. It is the programs to make these more affordable and available are exactly the ones being targeted for major cuts. And, in the “adding insult to injury” department, the justification for cutting some programs is sometimes the existence of other programs, which are also being targeted for cuts!

The use of junk science, sadly but unsurprisingly, is not limited to contraception, abortion and even climate change. In a Viewpoint piece published in JAMA, October 10, 2017, “Flawed theories to explain child physical abuse”, John Leventhal documents a new trend in legal cases of child abuse. Defense attorneys bring in “medical experts” who testify that something else could have caused the child’s injuries. These include real diseases that could cause the findings but are both uncommon and can be ruled out with proper workup, real diseases that are very uncommon and unlikely to cause the findings, and essentially made-up conditions to explain the findings. Since child abuse is generally not a controversial area (nobody claims to be in favor of it!) the reasons for this seem to be mainly personal gain – such “experts” make big money for this testimony. There are not that many real experts in child trauma willing to offer absurd pseud-explanations for the injury, so there will be fewer of you willing to testify in defense of the perpetrators, so you again stand to make a lot more money.

In any case, the use of fake or fraudulent science and fake facts to support political agendas is one of the many bad things growing in the fertile “don’t try to tell me the facts” environment in Trumpian politics. The administration is now allied with “traditional” Republicans to facilitate rape of the planet in pursuit of gains for the wealthiest, and with “populists” in pursuit of social repression. There is some irony in that these advocates for “freedom” (e.g., from gun control) are so intent on denying it to others (e.g., gays, women, poor people, children), but apparently this is a long-standing US tradition (see: slavery), which inspired Abraham Lincoln’s famous quote “Those who deny freedom to others deserve it not for themselves,” There is also irony in the pursuit of the cloak of (fake) scientific facts to facilitate an anti-scientific agenda.

But the irony is not nearly sufficient satisfaction to mitigate the terror.  

Monday, September 25, 2017

How to prescribe a glucometer – or why I can’t support Medicaid-for-All

This is a guest post by Seiji Yamada, MD, MPH.
A shorter version recently appeared on the KevinMD blog,

In a recent Vox interview, Senator Brian Schatz of Hawaii announced his plans to sponsor a bill to allow individuals without insurance to buy Medicaid coverage for themselves.  As a family doc who cares for patients on Medicaid in safety net clinics in Senator Schatz’s home state, I cannot support such a plan.

While private insurance companies offer supplemental insurance, Medicare continues to be run largely by the federal government.  In contrast, while Medicaid programs receive federal funding, they are largely run by state governments.  In a trend known as Medicaid managed care, in recent decades, states have been contracting out Medicaid to private insurance companies.

Prior to 1994, Hawaii’s state Medicaid system was run by HMSA, Hawaii’s Blue Cross/Blue Shield.  During the Clinton presidency, the buzzword was managed competition, the idea being that insurance corporations would compete on price to provide publicly funded health insurance.  Thus in 1994, the State of Hawaii devolved to managed care Medicaid and started farming out Medicaid to other corporations besides HMSA.  In 2009 Medicaid managed care was extended to the aged, blind, and disabled.
Medicaid also generally reimburses at lower rates than Medicare or private insurance.  (Senator Schatz proposes to fix this.)  However, low reimbursement is only one reason that physicians in private or group practice take few Medicaid patients today.  Another reason is the administrative hassles to care put up by insurance companies as well as the difficulties of dealing with multiple insurance companies.  Thus, Medicaid patients have relatively restricted networks of providers from which to choose.  Many are therefore seen by safety net providers such as Federally Qualified Health Centers (FQHCs) or training clinics.
The modern practice of medicine is complicated enough, but the different requirements and different formularies of different insurance companies complicates it to Kafkaesque levels.  I believe that the powerlessness and helplessness induced by this nightmarish bureaucracy is a major cause of physician burnout.  I want to give just one example.  Let us say that one of our patients has newly diagnosed diabetes.  Let us say that he has Medicaid.  Just to prescribe him a glucometer, I have to go through the following:
Patients on Medicaid must enroll with one of the following:  HMSA, AlohaCare, Ohana (WellCare), United Healthcare, and Kaiser.  I need to go to the insurance section of the patient’s Electronic Health Record (EHR) to find out which insurance corporation is responsible for this patient.  Then I go to The Prescribing Guide (, a cheat sheet developed and maintained by my family medicine faculty colleague Chien-Wen Tseng, MD.  The prescribing guide tells me which brand of glucometer to prescribe.
Each insurer contracts with a different glucometer manufacturer, so I can’t just prescribe a generic glucometer.  I have to figure out whether to prescribe Freestyle, or OneTouch, or AccuChek.  Because the contracts are continually re-negotiated, the preferred brand can change every six months.  If you enter the wrong brand, the pharmacy will reject it and tell you to get a prior authorization.
Next, I have to identify the ICD-10 code that corresponds to the highest complexity of the patient’s diabetes.  Does she have nephropathy, or neuropathy, or ophthalmopathy?  I often have to review the patient’s labs to see if the creatinine/GFR is abnormal.  Am I going to place the patient on long-term insulin?  Because if I am, I can justify asking for test strips for more than once a day testing.  The number of times per day the glucose is to be measured, the ICD-10 code, and whether or not the patient is on insulin has to be on the prescription.  If not, the pharmacy will reject it.
Now that I have prescribed a glucometer, I can now start working on prescribing a diabetes medication.
And I’ve yet to address the fatigue, the blood pressure, or the back pain for which his friend’s oxycodone worked real good, Doc.
. . .
All the world's a stage, And all the men and women merely players” -Shakespeare
Was this theater of the absurd composed by Alfred Jarry?  Samuel Beckett?  No, this play was composed by the layers of business administration types that have piled onto the health care system over the past couple of decades to bring corporate-style efficiency to medicine.  Insurance companies limit their costs by imposing roadblocks.  By making it so time-consuming and so frustrating to get anything done, we physicians throw up our hands and decide, no it’s not worth the hassle to order a different medication or sophisticated tests.  Perhaps my patient gaining weight on a sulfonylurea would benefit from a glucagon-like peptide 1 receptor agonists or a sodium glucose transporter 2 inhibitors instead.  But the prior authorization form requires me to list the dates that the patient has taken every other diabetes medication she has ever been prescribed . . .
For those physicians who are employed by hospitals or other institutions, we are finding that our employers are engaging in an arms race with the insurers by hiring their own army of coders and billers.  These coders and billers find our documentation lacking in order to maximize return.  So now we are told to write addenda to chart notes entered months ago - in order to justify higher reimbursement.  These coders and billers shake their heads sadly and say to themselves, “Dr. Yamada, you are such an idiot.”
. . .
The new interns started in July.  When they were medical students, I taught them about the pathophysiology of diabetes, about the evidence base of what treatments have been shown to improve patient outcomes, about how to discuss lifestyle measures, about the social determinants of the development of diabetes.  Now that they’re interns, though – all of that goes out the window.  Now that they’re managing real patients, I teach them how to enter billing codes into the electronic health record, and how to get a glucometer covered by insurance.
They look at me with incredulity.  They are dumfounded by how irrational and Byzantine our health system is.  They realize that I am no longer teaching them medicine.  Because there is no time for that now.  There is only throughput.  Treat ‘em and street ‘em.
 “Welcome to the desert of the real,” I say.  “Get used to it.”
. . .
The MBAs who manage us physicians say, “It’s not about throughput.  It’s about quality.  We’re not going to pay you for throughput any more.  We’re going to pay for performance.  We don’t care how many times you see the patient.  We only care about their A1cs.”
OK, then, tell me how you get better outcomes with a patient with diabetes without seeing them every once to talk with the patient about diet and exercise, to prescribe a glucometer so they can learn how diet and exercise affects their glucoses.  What is the point of telling the homeless patient to bring down their A1cs by eating more fresh vegetables?  What use is the A1c when the patient has cancer?  What does the patient dealing with domestic violence care about her A1c?  To measure the quality of care provided by a physician through A1cs is like the drunkard searching for his keys under the streetlight because that’s where the light is.  The A1c is easily measured.  Other aspects of medical care are not so easily assessed.
. . .
Insurance companies and their corporate mind-set have so thoroughly taken over American medicine that we can hardly see the forest for the trees any more.  EHRs, essentially designed for reimbursement purposes, define the patient encounter – such that physicians look only at their screens.  I can’t afford to make eye contact with my patients, or I’ll fall hopelessly behind.  Was there a time that we used to eat lunch?  Nowadays, lunchtime is for finishing with charting or dealing with phone calls.  Dealing with medication refills, or lab or x-ray results?  Planning for the patients on tomorrow’s schedule?  We do that in the evenings or weekends by remote access to the electronic health record.

Though Senator Schatz’s proposal would make Medicaid something like the public option that didn’t make it into the Affordable Care Act, it would likely leave intact insurance company-run Medicaid managed care – with its restricted networks and administrative hassles.  As a practicing physician, I would like to get corporate profits and the layers upon layers of bureaucrats out of medicine.  The American physician is in a predicament like that of Josef K in Kafka’s The Trial.  The rules are obscure and seem to be constantly changing.  We are never told what crime we committed to justify our being treated the way we are.  The sense of a lack of agency and helplessness induced is one major cause of physician burnout.  The practice of American medicine needs to be rationalized, so that we health workers can go back to focusing on the medicine.  Medicare for All is what we need.  Not all the inefficiencies and irrationalities of the modern practice of medicine will be fixed by Medicare for All – but patients and doctors need a way out of this Kafka novel.

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

"Blockbuster" drug or slanted reporting: never forget "cui bono"

‘Drug Aimed at Inflammation May Lower Risk of Heart Disease and Cancer’, by Denise Grady in the New York Times, August 27, 2017, reports on a study in the New England Journal of Medicine, Antiinflammatory Therapy with Canakinumab for Atherosclerotic Disease’ by Paul M. Ricker, et al. The study, funded by the drug’s manufacturer, Novartis, examined the impact of the use of canakinumab (brand name: Ilaris) on heart attack survivors. The drug is in a class called “monoclonal antibody inhibitors” (as is almost anything ending in “…mab”); in its case, it inhibits antibodies known as “interleukin 1β”. The main effect is anti-inflammatory, which is why it was originally developed for treatment of juvenile rheumatoid arthritis, an inflammatory disease. However, research showing that inflammation plays a major role in coronary artery disease (the cause of heart attacks) stimulated this large multi-center, drug-company sponsored, trial.

So what did the study show? Of the over 10,000 people in the study, those who were treated with canakinumab had lower rates of what the study designers defined as the “primary end point”, the main thing that they were looking for, “nonfatal myocardial infarction, nonfatal stroke, or cardiovascular death.” That is, did patients have another heart attack or stroke, whether they lived or died. The lower rates in the canakinumab groups were statistically significant, with the group that did the best, the middle-dose (they tested 3 different dosages), having 3.86 “events” per 100 person-years, compared to 4.50 for the placebo group. In absolute terms, there were, thus, 0.64 fewer “events” for each 100 person-years (which is a valid concept, one person taking a drug for 100 years, or 100 people for one year, or any combination in between).

There was, however, no significant difference in “all cause” mortality between the treated and untreated groups, mainly because of the increase in deaths from infections in those treated.  This is not surprising because the anti-inflammatory effect of canakinumab also decreases the body’s immune response. It is also not surprising that the people most likely to die of infection were those who were oldest and sickest in the first place. Six people developed tuberculosis.

Given that the cost of the drug is about $200,000 a year (think about that!), 100 person-years of treatment would cost $20,000,000. And for this price, 0.64 fewer people have a cardiac “event”, and no fewer people die. And some untold number suffering serious side effects from canakinumab, including the infections that occurred that didn’t kill them (not reported). These could be really serious – long hospitalizations for sepsis or pneumonia or cellulitis, non-fatal but significant events like amputations, etc. No wonder the Times article quotes Dr. David J. Maron, the director of preventive cardiology at Stanford University School of Medicine, as saying “This is fantastic”! Dr. Maron, I imagine, has terrific insurance.

Of course, it didn’t cost Novartis $200,000 a year for the drug for the study; that is the retail price that it plans to charge hospitals, insurers, and patients. We have no idea what the drug actually costs Novartis to manufacture; the price they will charge is based on the highly scientific formula called “what the market will bear”. For their own bizarre reasons (see Elizabeth Rosenthal’s “An American Sickness” and this commentary by Jacob Hacker) insurers may gladly pay for this drug (they get to keep a percent, and a higher price means a higher percent, and they just raise rates). Or they may get a discounted charge. Certainly, many poor and uninsured people are not likely to get it. Maybe – probably – Novartis will have a program for giving the drug for little or no money to poor people. But, given how common coronary heart disease (CHD) is, they are incredibly unlikely to give it for free to every uninsured person who has CHD. Maybe they’ll give them a discount, say 90%. Then the poor person would only have to pay $20,000 a year out of pocket. To reduce their risk of another coronary event by 0.0064 per year. And have no lower likelihood of dying. And a greater likelihood of severe infection. Maybe this is, after all, a boon to the poor and uninsured, as they are unlikely to get this terrific opportunity.

The other amazing thing is the actual story in the Times, and what that says about health journalism. As noted by the insightful Howard A. Rodman, the
·        Headline says: "Drug... May Lower Risk of Heart Disease and Cancer"
·        The 2nd paragraph tells us it is a "major milestone"
·        The 3rd paragraph quotes Dr. Maron saying "This is fantastic."
But then you have to scroll down to find
·        In the 5th paragraph, that the drug costs $200,000 per year. It's available only from Novartis, and that Novartis paid for the study.
·        And in the 7th paragraph, that the drug suppresses immune response. In the study, the number of deaths from drug-caused infections equaled the number of lives saved.
Lead with the positives, and then let us down later, maybe after those of us scanning the article have stopped reading.

Is the Times trying to mislead us? I don’t think so. I think that they want, however, to get our attention, get us reading, show us blockbusters. Blockbusters are good for getting attention. It is a big article for the New England Journal of Medicine also. This is why there is a built-in prejudice in medical journals for publishing articles with positive results, and why the authors do their best to “spin” results to positive. As if the incredible amount of work they have put in to the study, not to mention the interest of the sponsor, in this case, a pharmaceutical company that makes the drug in question, was not sufficient impetus. After all, getting our attention is what it is all about; it is why reality TV is so big, and why a reality TV star is now POTUS; see Matt Taibbi’s piece “The Media Is the Villain – for Creating a World Dumb Enough for Trump”. He notes that “If a meteor crashes into jello night at the Playboy mansion, it doesn't matter if you send Edward R. Murrow to do the standup. Some things sell themselves.” Maybe a drug that treats a disease that treats heart disease isn’t that big, but it is big; after all, as Grady notes, “Cardiovascular disease is the leading cause of death worldwide and in the United States, where it killed nearly 634,000 people in 2015. Globally, it killed 15 million,” (paragraph 4, if you’re tracking it).

Neither does this mean that published scientific research is unreliable. Some of it is very good science (even this study is generally good science, despite the published report in NEJM and the coverage in the Times being unconscionably skewed to the positive). Some of it actually reports on drugs or other interventions that make a difference. Sadly, however, in addition to the “blockbuster” effect that the media (including medical journals) want to cover, those interventions that will make a lot of money for a company get more publicity. Especially when the company funds the research. Aspirin, by the way, is still cheap, and it is more effective than this drug, recommended by the US Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF) for prevention of CHD in adults with greater than a 10% 10-year risk.

I tell medical and other health professions students (at all levels) that, although the Introduction and Discussion sections of the article may seem most interesting, the important parts to read are the Methods and Results, which have the meat (or soy, if you’re vegan) and from which you should draw your own conclusions, without the authors’ spin. If you’re not a health professional, and depend on the mass media for coverage, then you better read the whole article and not stop after the fanfare. It is the reporter’s job to provide the necessary information, but your job to read it wisely.

Certainly, health professional or reporter or consumer, look at who is funding the study. It is important information. And think about conflict of interest. And think, of course, about cui bono. It is likely to be the manufacturers, and maybe the researchers, and sometimes those who are wealthy or well-insured enough to get the drug or intervention (when it is of benefit).

And, surprise, it is never likely to be the poor, uninsured, or those most in need.

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