I refuse to tell you what to eat

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Note: I first published this on the website of Athletic Heart SF, my cardiology practice.

A recent tweet from JAMA, the journal of the American Medical Association, urged me and other doctors to “include nutrition counseling into the flow of [our] daily practice.”

Along with the tweet came a link to an article that outlines “relatively small” dietary changes, based on the latest Dietary Guidelines for Americans, that can “significantly improve health.”

My response to the tweet was swift and knee-jerk.  I will not do it.  I simply will not.  I refuse to follow dietary guidelines or recommend them to my patients.

“What are you saying?!” “Are you the kind of self-interested doctor who only treats disease and cares nothing about prevention?!”  I imagine my outraged critics erupting in a chorus of disapproval.

Is my reaction unwarranted?  After all, the recommendations themselves seem sensible enough:  Eat fast food less often; drink fewer sugary sodas; consume more fruits and vegetables.  What’s not to like?

Unhealthy guidelines

I don’t know.  Perhaps it’s dietary guideline fatigue.

For more than 40 years, the nutrition experts have instructed us with guideline after guideline, food pyramid after food pyramid.  But what have they got to show for?  The obesity epidemic followed the introduction of dietary recommendations, and some doctors even blame those recommendations for causing the epidemic!

The blame may be far-fetched, but there’s something un-natural and perhaps even unhealthy about dietary guidelines.

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Charlie Gard, disproportionate care, and assisted suicide

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Kevin Malik writes in the New York Times in support of Charlie Gard’s parents, presenting a secular, utilitarian argument for the continuation of the child’s treatment.

In the article, Malik draws attention to a contradiction between the State’s position regarding Gard and its position regarding the wishes of a patient with a terminal neurological condition who wishes for assisted suicide.

The practice of withdrawal of care is often invoked in the debate over assisted suicide.  Proponents of assisted suicide frequently make an “equal protection” argument: since we allow the death of patients by withdrawing intensive care, shouldn’t we also allow patients to commit assisted suicide?

A few years ago, Neil Garsuch wrote an excellent book examining the legal and moral arguments that bear on the question of assisted suicide. He discussed at length and with meticulous detail the question of withdrawal of care as it might relate to assisted suicide.

Opponents of assisted suicide sometimes argue that withdrawing care is not the same as assisting someone’s suicide because the former is an omission, while the latter is an “action.”  Gorsuch explains that that argument is unsatisfactory.

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Health insurance is not insurance

A message for conservatives

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Is health insurance a plan to help healthy people mitigate against an unexpected illness, or an income subsidy to help the sick pay for medical care?

Conservatives ought to have a clear answer to that question.  Congressman Morris Brooks from Alabama did not and found himself on the receiving end of liberal ridicule.

By suggesting that those who take better care of themselves should pay lower health insurance premiums, Brooks implied that health insurance is indeed a type of insurance arrangement.  After all, the risk adjustment of premiums is a practice proper to all other kinds of insurance services: A prudent driver pays less for auto insurance than one with a pre-existing driving record.  A home owner pays more for home insurance if the property is on muddy terrain rather than on sturdy ground.  A smoker pays more for life insurance than a non-smoker, as does anyone whose risk of dying prematurely is high, even if that predisposition is inherited genetically.

Brooks’ conception of health insurance, however, intuitive as it may be, is wrong.

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Good health care news from America

My dispatch to Switzerland

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I was kindly asked to provide an article for Courrier du Medecin Vaudois, the French language journal of the medical society of the canton of Vaud.  The article was published as part of an issue on the theme of ‘America First against Obamacare.’ Below is an English version of the piece.

Health care in the United States: The surprising good news

On the surface, the news from America about health care seems rather grim: cost and dissatisfaction keep rising, reforms are stalling, and, for some, even life expectancy may be declining.  If that wasn’t bad enough, President Trump issued a tweet on March 25 predicting that “Obamacare will explode.”

For a small but growing number of doctors and patients, however, the future is surprisingly hopeful. 

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Interview on Mendelspod

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I had another very enjoyable interview with Theral Timpson on the Mendelspod podcast.  We covered a lot of ground: my book, clinical trials, biological mechanism, and more! The link is here: https://mendelspod.com/podcasts/population-medicine-failing-us-michel-accad/

Does Bergen, Norway, hold the key to the mystery of hypertension?

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At the beginning of my new book, Socrates engages Geoffrey Rose to discuss one of the most fascinating conceptual questions regarding hypertension.

The question is the following:  Compared to normal subjects, do hypertensive patients constitute a distinct population of patients?  In other words, if we go out and measure the resting blood pressure of a large swath of the population and plot the numbers as a distribution curve, do we get two separate bell-shaped curves or just one?

 

A “2-peak” distribution of systolic BP

The answer to that question was the subject of an intense debate that began in the mid 1950s and lasted a couple of decades until it died down in the 1970s without any settled conclusion.  Yet, an answer to that question is of critical importance not just for our understanding of hypertension, but for medical science in general and, by implication, for the direction of our healthcare system.

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Compassionate care in 2017

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A 90-year-old mother is in the hospital for a stroke.  Her son gave me the following details:

Two months ago, mom was admitted to the hospital for dehydration.  At baseline she had mild dementia and chronic atrial fibrillation.

She recovered well.  Before discharge, the primary care physician convinced the family to change her status to “hospice,” arguing that she would get better, more appropriate, and more comfortable care.  Her blood thinner Eliquis was discontinued for being “too risky.”

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A health insurance CEO daydreams

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Jim was at his desk, looking weary.

The last few weeks had been brutal.  Despite working twelve-hour days, he felt that he had little to show for.  His annual board meeting was to take place the next day, and he expected it to be tense.

With a replacement bill for the ACA about to be voted on, and with Trump in the White House, the situation seemed particularly precarious.  The board members had asked him to present a contingency plan, in case things in DC didn’t go well.

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Should we blame technology for increased healthcare spending?

Healthcare economists mistake cause and effect

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Should we blame technology for the growth in healthcare spending?  Austin Frakt, a healthcare economist who writes for the New York Times, thinks so.  Citing several studies conducted over the last several years, he claims that technology could account for up to two-thirds of per capita healthcare spending growth.

In this piece, Frakt contrasts the contribution of technology to that of the ageing of the population.  Frakt notes that age per se is a poor marker of costs associated with healthcare utilization.  What’s important is the amount of money spent near death.  If you’re 80 years old and healthy, your usage of healthcare services won’t be much more than that of a 40-year-old person.

So far, so good.  But should we accept the proposition that technology is the culprit for healthcare spending growth?

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The body language of assisted suicide

What the verbal request fails to reveal

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Laws that allow assisted suicide restrict the provision of “aid-in-dying” drugs to patients whose mental status is not impaired and who are capable of sound judgment.

Medscape recently featured a video interview of Timothy Quill, the palliative care specialist and long-term assisted suicide activist.  He is interviewed by the ethicist Arthur Caplan, and the two discuss the psychological evaluation of terminally ill patients who request physician-assisted suicide (PAS).

Several points made by Quill caught my attention.

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