Thoughts on the trustworthiness of the healthcare system

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The media periodically report tragic stories of parents who, for one reason or another, shun the medical system and, as a result, allow their children to either die or endure severe complications.

One such story came out yesterday regarding young parents whose toddler became sick.  Instead of seeking medical attention, they took the advice of a naturopath over the phone.  The child was misdiagnosed and treated with so-called natural remedies despite showing signs of deterioration and lethargy, although at times he appeared to get better.

After a two week period of persistent symptoms, the toddler took a turn for the worse.  By the time the parents brought him to the hospital he had sustained profound, diffuse brain damage.  There is no detail on what his exact diagnosis was, but it stands to reason that the child would have been better off if brought to the hospital or to medical attention much sooner.  The parents are facing criminal charges. (more…)

Taking stock of our existence

Gawande versus Frankl on the meaningful life

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My last post was prompted by a reader’s comment where Victor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning and Atul Gawande’s Being Mortal were juxtaposed.  Since receiving that message, I have had occasion to notice that others also associate these two books.

For example, both are mentioned positively in this moving article by Dr. Clare Luz about a friend’s suicide, and in these tweets from Dr. Paddy Barrett’s podcast program:

Friends and patients of mine have likewise mentioned these two works to me, expressing praise and testifying to the deep impact the books have had on them.

I suspect that many readers of this blog will at least be familiar with these two books.  If not, summaries are here (Frankl) and here (Gawande).

I read the books in succession and found the difference between the two striking.  Frankl and Gawande seem to be at polar opposites on the question of life and death.  In this post, I will explore this difference, starting with Gawande’s point of departure.

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Good medicine starts with friendship

Advice from the ancients

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Whenever I have the opportunity to suggest that good medicine is based on friendship, I usually get a nod of approval mixed with a quizzical look.  What’s that supposed to mean?!

At a recent meeting of an editorial board on which I serve,  the reaction to my suggestion was more forceful and perhaps more honest.  The topic of the day concerned patient education, and how hard it can be to move patients to do things like exercise more or eat better.  I timidly proposed that, as physicians, we might want to start by being our patients’ friends.  The physician sitting next to me immediately objected: “I wouldn’t go that far!”

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How to safeguard your career in a treacherous healthcare environment.

Economics, ethics, and philosophy for medical students

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the following post is a slightly edited version of an article kindly commissioned by In-Training,  a website run by and for medical students. The advice I give in the article is based on lessons I learned long after finishing medical school, so I hope you will find this piece of interest, even if you are well established in your healthcare profession.

Dear medical student,

I am honored by the opportunity to offer some advice on how to safeguard your professional career in a treacherous healthcare system.

I will not elaborate on why I think the healthcare system is “treacherous.”  I will assume—and even hope—that you have at least some inkling that things are not so rosy in the world of medicine.

I am also not going to give any actual advice.  I’m a fan of Socrates, so I believe that it is more constructive to challenge you with pointed questions.  The real advice will come to you naturally as you proceed to answer these questions for yourself.  I will, however, direct you to some resources to aid you in your reflections.

I have grouped the questions into three categories of knowledge which I am sure are not covered or barely covered in your curriculum: economics, ethics, and philosophy of medicine.

I have found that reflecting on these questions has been essential to give me a sense of control over my career.  I hope that you, in turn, will find them intriguing and worth investigating.

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Is assisted suicide “medically necessary?”

Canada may soon debate the question

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André Picard, one of Canada’s foremost healthcare journalists, published an article today in which he analyzes the funding rationale for his country’s healthcare system.

Canada has the most singularly bizarre health-funding model in the world. It is, to use the technical term, bifurcated – meaning there are two distinct categories.

“Medically necessary” care, defined as hospital and physician services, is paid 100 per cent from the public purse. Selling these services privately is, with few exceptions, illegal or subject to punishing penalties…

The rest of health care is, by default, not deemed medically necessary, but still gets varying degrees of public funding. Only about 6 per cent of dental care is paid publicly, as are almost half of prescription drug costs, and about two-thirds of long-term care costs.

Given Canada’s perennial healthcare budget deficits and notorious waiting lines for medical care,  Picard adds:

Getting the mix of public and private care right means ensuring everyone has access to essential care in a cost-effective manner, and still allowing patients a modicum of choice, and the ability to supplement their publicly funded care with other services.

At some point, we have to make some clear, coherent decisions to ensure that happens. Doing so begins with asking, and answering, the question: What is really “medically necessary”?

The final question Picard asks couldn’t come at a more opportune time.

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The suicide Robin Williams was denied

The double standard of assisted dying laws

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The autopsy performed after Robin Williams committed suicide showed that the actor had widespread Lewy body disease.  His widow Susan just revealed that information and told reporters that depression was only a small part of the myriad of frightening and incomprehensible symptoms that beset him for more than a year before he took his life.  As the disease progressed, he suffered from impaired movement, anxiety, paranoid thoughts, and depression.

Last month, Governor Jerry Brown signed into law a bill that allows doctors to prescribe a lethal medication to terminally ill patients who wish to end their lives.  In the letter he issued as he signed the bill, he wrote: “I do not know what I would do if I were dying in prolonged and excruciating pain.  I am certain, however, that it would be a comfort to be able to consider the options afforded by this bill. And I wouldn’t deny that right to others.”

But apparently, Jerry Brown and those who support the law would deny “that right” to people who, like Robin Williams, suffer from Lewy body disease.

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At the tribunal of Jerry Brown’s conscience

Assisted suicide and our peace of mind

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When California Governor Edmund Gerald “Jerry” Brown, Jr. signed into law ABx2 15, legalizing assisted suicide in the state, he issued the following statement explaining the reasoning behind his decision:

ABX2_15_Signing_Message cropped

In his 1993, John Paul II had this to say about the kind of examination of conscience through which Governor Brown would become “certain” about the comfort that the law would provide him and others:

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Neither expert nor businessman: the physician as friend.

Arguments against the outcomes movement

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In a recent Harvard Business Review article, authors Erin Sullivan and Andy Ellner take a stand against the “outcomes theory of value,” advanced by such economists as Michael Porter and Robert Kaplan who believe that in order to “properly manage value, both outcomes and cost must be measured at the patient level.”

In contrast, Sullivan and Ellner point out that medical care is first of all a matter of relationships:

With over 50% of primary care providers believing that efforts to measure quality-related outcomes actually make quality worse, it seems there may be something missing from the equation. Relationships may be the key…Kurt Stange, an expert in family medicine and health systems, calls relationships “the antidote to an increasingly fragmented and depersonalized health care system.”

In their article, Sullivan and Ellner describe three success stories of practice models where an emphasis on relationships led to better care.

But in describing these successes, do the authors undermine their own argument?  For in order to identify the quality of the care provided, they point to improvements in patient satisfaction surveys in one case, decreased rates of readmission in another, and fewer ER visits and hospitalizations in the third.  In other words…outcomes!

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Phronesis

5 must-read articles about what good medical decisions are all about

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I told you before that I would do my best to avoid bringing up phronesis, but a superb essay by Lisa Rosenbaum, national correspondent at the New England Journal of Medicine, is forcing my hand.

In “The Paternalism Preference — Choosing Unshared Decision Making,”  Rosenbaum calls into question the gradual shifting of the burden of decision-making onto patients in the name of informed consent and autonomy.

The essay begins by examining the issue from the patient’s perspective, but Rosenbaum’s reflection then turns to the role of the physician.  She remarks:

But science cannot answer a question at the core of our professional identities: As information-empowered patients assume greater responsibility for choices, do we assume less?

The answer to that question has to do with our understanding of what constitutes good medical decision-making.  Clearly, the prevailing notion assumes that good medical decisions come after a rational approximation of an objective biological reality, a “predictive analysis” that forms the core of “evidence-based medicine.”

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Feel-good medicine: yesterday and today

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I’m on summer break but I thought you might enjoy this piece, published a year ago in the August 2014 issue of the Nob Hill Gazette.  The version below is slightly edited compared to the original.

In their recent book titled, Dr. Feelgood: The Shocking Story of the Doctor Who May Have Changed History by Treating and Drugging JFK, Marilyn, Elvis, and Other Prominent Figures, Richard Lertzman and William Birnes chronicle the startling career of Max Jacobson, a physician who specialized for decades in treating celebrities with his personally concocted injections of vitamins, human gland extracts, and high doses of amphetamines.

Operating from a filthy office in Manhattan, Jacobson showed no regard for basic medical hygiene and never obtained a basic medical history from his patients. Yet, over the years, he dispensed untold quantities of his “cocktails” to political and show business superstars suffering from fatigue, pain, or lack of stamina. For some of his patients, such as Cecil B. DeMille, the German-born doctor was a paragon of modern medicine. But others saw their careers and personal lives ruined as they became addicted to the treatments, and a few might have actually died as a result of it. The authors of the book relate instances where, under the influence of Jacobson’s amphetamines, President Kennedy’s behavior became wildly erratic. They even speculate that a motive for his assassination might have ensued.

Max Jacobson’s story might seem like a sordidly entertaining tale from a bygone era. Nevertheless, given our current love affair with medications (one in five adult Americans takes a psychiatric drug, and 70 percent of the U.S. population takes some form of chronic prescription medication), it behooves us to reflect on the professional and ethical failings of Jacobson’s practice to help keep our way of “better living through pharmaceuticals” within healthy boundaries.

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