Medical errors are estimated to be the third leading cause of death in America’s hospitals. Though some of these errors are beyond physician control, many are the direct result of physician action and inaction. I spend a lot of time thinking about how to reduce these errors and I (like many of my peers) lose sleep over the mistakes I witness.
When you ask patients what quality is most important in a physician, they often answer, “empathy.” I think that’s close, but not quite right. I know many “nice” and “supportive” doctors who have poor clinical judgment. When it comes to excellent care quality, one personality trait stands out to me – something that we don’t spend much time thinking about:
A physician with a curious mind doesn’t necessarily know all the answers. He may not be the “smartest” graduate of his medical school. But he is a great detective, and doesn’t rest until problems are solved. This particular quality isn’t nurtured in a system that rewards partial work ups, rapid patient turnover, and rushed documentation. But some doctors retain their intellectual curiosity about their patients – and to the extent that they do, I believe they can significantly reduce medical errors.
Many of the preventable adverse events I have witnessed (outside of procedure-based errors) began with warning signs that were ignored. Examples include abnormal lab tests that were not followed up in a timely manner, medication side effects that went unrecognized, copy errors in drug lists, and subtle changes in the physical exam that were presumed insignificant. All of these signs trigger the curious mind to seek out answers in time to head off problems before they evolve into real dangers.
Of course, there are other qualities that make a physician excellent – wisdom, experience, kindness, and a grounding in evidence-based practice come to mind. But without an engaged mind fueled by genuine curiosity, it’s hard to retain the vigilance required for continued good outcomes.
Curiosity may have killed a cat or two, but I’ve seen it save a large number of patients!
Health screening is part of good preventive care, though over-screening can lead to increased costs, and potential patient harm. Healthcare professional societies have recently developed excellent public service announcements describing the dangers of over-testing, and new research suggests that though additional medical interventions are associated with increased patient satisfaction, they also lead (ironically) to higher mortality rates.
And so, in a system attempting to shift to a “less is more” model of healthcare, why is resistance so strong? When the USPSTF recommended against the need for annual, screening mammograms in healthy women (without a family history of breast cancer) between the ages of 40-49, the outcry was deafening. Every professional society and patient advocacy group rallied against the recommendation, and generally not much has changed in the breast cancer screening world. I myself tried to follow the USPSTF guidelines – and opted out of a screening mammogram for two full years past 40. And then I met a charming radiologist at a women’s medical conference who nearly burst into tears when I told her that I hadn’t had a mammogram. Her lobbying for me to “just make sure I was ok” was so passionate that I simply could no longer resist the urge to get screened.
I knew going into the test that there was a reasonably high chance of a false positive result which could cause me unnecessary anxiety. That being said, I was still emotionally unprepared for the radiologists’ announcement that the mammogram was “abnormal” and that a follow up ultrasound needed to be scheduled. I must admit that I did squirm until I had more information. In the end, the “abnormality” proved to be simple “dense breast tissue” and I was pleased to have at least dodged an unnecessary biopsy or lumpectomy. Did my screening do me any good? No, and some psychological harm. A net/net negative but without long term sequelae.
My next personal wrestling match with screening tests was the colonoscopy. I was seeing a gastroenterologist for some GI complaints, and we weren’t 5 minutes into our conversation before he recommended a colonoscopy. I argued that I was too young for a screening colonoscopy (I was 42 and they are recommended starting at age 50), and therefore was doubtful that anything too helpful would be found with the test. My suggestion was that a careful history and some blood testing might be the first place to start. My gastroenterologist acquiesced reluctantly.
As it turns out the blood testing was non-diagnostic and my symptoms persisted so I agreed to the colonoscopy. In this case I felt it was reasonable to do it since it was for diagnostic (not screening) purposes. I was quite certain that it would reveal nothing – or perhaps a false positive followed by anxiety, like my mammogram.
What it did show was some polyps that had a 50% chance of becoming malignant colon cancer in the next 10 years. I was shocked. If I had waited until I was 50 to start screening, I could have missed my cure window. The uneasiness about screening guidelines began to sink in. As a physician I had done my best to apply screening guidelines to myself and resist the urge to over-test, even with a healthy dose of natural curiosity. Yet I failed to resist screening, and in fact, my life was possibly saved by a test that was not supposed to be on my preventive health radar for another 8 years.
Screening tests are recommended for those who are most likely to benefit, and physicians and patients alike are encouraged to avoid unnecessary testing. But there are always a few people outside the “most likely to benefit” pool whose lives could be saved with screening, and the urge to make sure that’s not you – or your patient – is incredibly strong. I’m not sure if that’s human nature, or American culture. But a quick review of Hollywood blockbuster plots (where tens of thousands of lives are regularly sacrificed to save one princess/protagonist/hero from the aliens/monsters/zombies) testifies to our desperately irrational tendencies.
I am now biased towards over-testing, because my emotional relief at dodging a bullet is stronger than my cerebral desire to adhere to population-based recommendations. Knowing this, I will still try to avoid the temptation to over-test and over-treat my patients. But if they so much as hint that they’d like an early colonoscopy – I will cave.
Does that make me a bad doctor?
I am a regular reader of patient blogs, and I find myself frequently gasping at the mistreatment they experience at the hands of my peers. Yesterday I had the “pleasure” of being a patient myself, and found that my professional ties did not protect me from outrageously poor bedside manners. I suppose I’m writing this partly to vent, but also to remind healthcare professionals what not to do to patients waking up from anesthesia. I also think my experience may serve as a reminder that it’s ok to fire your doctor when conditions warrant.
I chose my gastroenterologist based on his credentials and the quality of training and experience listed on Healthgrades.com I had no personal recommendations to rely upon – so I used what I thought was a reasonable method for finding a good local doctor. When I met him for our initial office consultation he seemed rushed and distracted, without genuine curiosity about my complaints, complicated history, or how to help me find the correct diagnosis. I brushed my instincts aside, presuming he was just having a “bad day” and hoping for more time to discuss things fully once a battery of blood tests had been completed.
Sadly, I didn’t have the chance to review the results with him – instead he instructed his nurse to read me the results over the phone and to schedule me for a colonoscopy. I wanted to discuss the pros and cons of the procedure and what he thought he might be able to rule out with the test. He did not provide me with basic informed consent information, nor was he able to articulate medical necessity for the scope. I decided not to have the test, and I didn’t hear another word from him or his office.
Months later my symptoms had worsened and so I decided that a colonoscopy might help to further elucidate the potential cause. I was not able to get through to my doctor via phone, so I scheduled the test via his nursing staff. I planned to be the first patient of the day, so that we would have time to discuss my symptoms and concerns.
On the day of the procedure my physician stormed into my surgical bay and began reading my medical history to me from the computer screen, without exchanging basic niceties or introducing himself to my husband. I confirmed the information and tried to offer some nuance since our last office meeting. He cut me off, and made me feel as if my observations were completely unhelpful and were getting in the way of our scope time. He left in a rush before I felt that he had any clear sense of what we were trying to accomplish or rule out with the procedure.
A jovial anesthesiologist then entered my curtained cubicle, and made genuine human contact with me. He inquired about the reasons for the procedure and expressed appropriate glee regarding my Mallampati grade I airway. I asked him if he would be so kind as to not position me directly on my left shoulder during the procedure as it was exquisitely tender from a recent orthopedic injury. He promised to do his best to protect the injury while I was sedated.
Cut to the endoscopy suite where the gastroenterologist enters with a grumble as the techs bustle around the scope equipment and the anesthesiologist explains the slightly altered positioning for my comfort. As the propofol anesthetic goes into my vein I feel the gastroenterologist push me fully onto my injury as I lose the ability to protest.
After the procedure I’m back in my bay with my husband, groggy but with more pain in my shoulder than anywhere else. The curtain is drawn back with a yank and in marches the GI doc, relaying the unanticipated abnormal findings. I ask (in a slightly slurred tone) for more information, to which he responds in a loud voice, “You’re not going to remember any of this so just be quiet and listen!”
I persist in my attempts to understand the details to which he shouts “Shut up and listen” with increasing decibels. When I say that the findings still don’t explain my symptoms and that I remain perplexed he says that I should “try probiotics.” Finally he leaves the room, not offering any reassurance about the possibility of bowel perforation and stating that we’ll “Just have to wait for the pathology report, and it will take a while because of the July 4th weekend.”
I was dumbfounded, and not just because of my post-anesthetic stupor, but because of the open hostility showed to me by one of my peers. I asked my husband if I was out of line in my questioning and he said that I sounded “like a drunk person” but that the doctor was definitely being “an a**hole.”
As the nurses untangled me from the IV and EKG stickers and rushed me into a wheelchair and out to my husband’s waiting vehicle, all I could say was “Wow, my gastroenterologist was really mean to me.”
The nurses just nodded and suggested that I wasn’t the first to notice that.
As I recover from the whirlwind interaction with the healthcare system, I feel relief and anger. I’m relieved that my GI doc didn’t perforate my bowel and that we accidentally caught some very bad stuff early on, but I’m angry about how I was treated and feel no closer to an explanation for my symptoms than when I started investigating a year ago. My experience was probably fairly typical for many patients dealing with physicians who have lost empathy and compassion. I am sad that there are so many like that out there and I promise to do my best not to follow suit.
My bottom line on gastroenterologists (sorry for the horrible pun): Go with your gut. If your doctor displays jerk-like tendencies during your office visit, rest assured that they can bloom in time. Have the courage to find another doctor before you put your life in their hands and/or they get the chance to verbally abuse you in a post-anesthetic stupor. I am firing my doctor a little bit on the late side, but doing it nonetheless. I just hope that my orthopedist is a good egg (like my anesthesiologist) – because I’ve got one heck of a sore shoulder coming his way!
Twenty years ago I started my job as ‘Professor of Complementary Medicine’ at the University of Exeter and became a full-time researcher of all matters related to alternative medicine. One issue that was discussed endlessly during these early days was the question whether alternative medicine can be investigated scientifically. There were many vociferous proponents of the view that it was too subtle, too individualised, too special for that and that it defied science in principle. Alternative medicine, they claimed, needed an alternative to science to be validated. I spent my time arguing the opposite, of course, and today there finally seems to be a consensus that alternative medicine can and should be submitted to scientific tests much like any other branch of health care.
Looking back at those debates, I think it is rather obvious why apologists of alternative medicine were so vehement about opposing scientific investigations: they suspected, perhaps even knew, that the results of such research would be mostly negative. Once the anti-scientists saw that they were fighting a lost battle, they changed their tune and adopted science – well sort of: they became pseudo-scientists (‘if you cannot beat them, join them’). Their aim was to prevent disaster, namely the documentation of alternative medicine’s uselessness by scientists. Meanwhile many of these ‘anti-scientists turned pseudo-scientists’ have made rather surprising careers out of their cunning role-change; professorships at respectable universities have mushroomed. Yes, pseudo-scientists have splendid prospects these days in the realm of alternative medicine.
The term ‘pseudo-scientist’ as I understand it describes a person who thinks he/she knows the truth about his/her subject well before he/she has done the actual research. A pseudo-scientist is keen to understand the rules of science in order to corrupt science; he/she aims at using the tools of science not to test his/her assumptions and hypotheses, but to prove that his/her preconceived ideas were correct.
So, how does one become a top pseudo-scientist? During the last 20 years, I have observed some of the careers with interest and think I know how it is done. Here are nine lessons which, if followed rigorously, will lead to success (… oh yes, in case I again have someone thick enough to complain about me misleading my readers: THIS POST IS SLIGHTLY TONGUE IN CHEEK).
- Throw yourself into qualitative research. For instance, focus groups are a safe bet. This type of pseudo-research is not really difficult to do: you assemble about 5 -10 people, let them express their opinions, record them, extract from the diversity of views what you recognise as your own opinion and call it a ‘common theme’, write the whole thing up, and - BINGO! – you have a publication. The beauty of this approach is manifold: 1) you can repeat this exercise ad nauseam until your publication list is of respectable length; there are plenty of alternative medicine journals who will hurry to publish your pseudo-research; 2) you can manipulate your findings at will, for instance, by selecting your sample (if you recruit people outside a health food shop, for instance, and direct your group wisely, you will find everything alternative medicine journals love to print); 3) you will never produce a paper that displeases the likes of Prince Charles (this is more important than you may think: even pseudo-science needs a sponsor [or would that be a pseudo-sponsor?]).
- Conduct surveys. These are very popular and highly respected/publishable projects in alternative medicine – and they are almost as quick and easy as focus groups. Do not get deterred by the fact that thousands of very similar investigations are already available. If, for instance, there already is one describing the alternative medicine usage by leg-amputated police-men in North Devon, and you nevertheless feel the urge of going into this area, you can safely follow your instinct: do a survey of leg-amputated police men in North Devon with a medical history of diabetes. There are no limits, and as long as you conclude that your participants used a lot of alternative medicine, were very satisfied with it, did not experience any adverse effects, thought it was value for money, and would recommend it to their neighbour, you have secured another publication in an alternative medicine journal.
- Take a sociological, anthropological or psychological approach. How about studying, for example, the differences in worldviews, the different belief systems, the different ways of knowing, the different concepts about illness, the different expectations, the unique spiritual dimensions, the amazing views on holism – all in different cultures, settings or countries? Invariably, you will, of course, conclude that one truth is at least as good as the next. This will make you popular with all the post-modernists who use alternative medicine as a playground for getting a few publications out. This approach will allow you to travel extensively and generally have a good time. Your papers might not win you a Nobel prize, but one cannot have everything.
- Do a safety study. It could well be that, at one stage, your boss has a serious talk with you demanding that you start doing what (in his narrow mind) constitutes ‘real science’. He might be keen to get some brownie-points at the next RAE and could thus want you to actually test alternative treatments in terms of their safety and efficacy. Do not despair! Even then, there are plenty of possibilities to remain true to your pseudo-scientific principles. By now you are good at running surveys, and you could, for instance, take up your boss’ suggestion of studying the safety of your favourite alternative medicine with a survey of its users. You simply evaluate their experiences and opinions regarding adverse effects. But be careful, you are on somewhat thinner ice here; you don’t want to upset anyone by generating alarming findings. Make sure your sample is small enough for a false negative result, and that all participants are well-pleased with their alternative medicine. This might be merely a question of selecting your patients cleverly. The main thing is that your conclusion is positive. If you want to go the extra pseudo-scientific mile, mention in the discussion of your paper that your participants all felt that conventional drugs were very harmful.
- Publish case reports. If your boss insists you tackle the daunting issue of therapeutic efficacy, there is no reason to give up pseudo-science either. You can always find patients who happened to have recovered spectacularly well from a life-threatening disease after receiving your favourite form of alternative medicine. Once you have identified such a person, you write up her experience in much detail and call it a ‘case report’. It requires a little skill to brush over the fact that the patient also had lots of conventional treatments, or that her diagnosis was assumed but never properly verified. As a pseudo-scientist, you will have to learn how to discretely make such irritating details vanish so that, in the final paper, they are no longer recognisable. Once you are familiar with this methodology, you can try to find a couple more such cases and publish them as a ‘best case series’ – I can guarantee that you will be all other pseudo-scientists’ hero!
- Publish a case series. Your boss might point out, after you have published half a dozen such articles, that single cases are not really very conclusive. The antidote to this argument is simple: you do a large case series along the same lines. Here you can even show off your excellent statistical skills by calculating the statistical significance of the difference between the severity of the condition before the treatment and the one after it. As long as you show marked improvements, ignore all the many other factors involved in the outcome and conclude that these changes are undeniably the result of the treatment, you will be able to publish your paper without problems.
- Rig the study design. As your boss seems to be obsessed with the RAE and all that, he might one day insist you conduct what he narrow-mindedly calls a ‘proper’ study; in other words, you might be forced to bite the bullet and learn how to plan and run an RCT. As your particular alternative therapy is not really effective, this could lead to serious embarrassment in form of a negative result, something that must be avoided at all cost. I therefore recommend you join for a few months a research group that has a proven track record in doing RCTs of utterly useless treatments without ever failing to conclude that it is highly effective. There are several of those units both in the UK and elsewhere, and their expertise is remarkable. They will teach you how to incorporate all the right design features into your study without there being the slightest risk of generating a negative result. A particularly popular solution is to conduct what they call a ‘pragmatic’ trial, I suggest you focus on this splendid innovation that never fails to produce anything but cheerfully positive findings.
- Play with statistics until you get the desired result. It is hardly possible that this strategy fails – but once every blue moon, all precautions turn out to be in vain, and even the most cunningly designed study of your bogus therapy might deliver a negative result. This is a challenge to any pseudo-scientist, but you can master it, provided you don’t lose your head. In such a rare case I recommend to run as many different statistical tests as you can find; chances are that one of them will nevertheless produce something vaguely positive. If even this method fails (and it hardly ever does), you can always home in on the fact that, in your efficacy study of your bogus treatment, not a single patient died. Who would be able to doubt that this is a positive outcome? Stress it clearly, select it as the main feature of your conclusions, and thus make the more disappointing findings disappear.
- Create confirmatory studies that follow your rigged design and faulty statistics. Now that you are a fully-fledged pseudo-scientist who has produced one misleading or false positive result after the next, you may want a ‘proper’ confirmatory study of your pet-therapy. For this purpose run the same RCT over again, and again, and again. Eventually you want a meta-analysis of all RCTs ever published. As you are the only person who ever conducted studies on the bogus treatment in question, this should be quite easy: you pool the data of all your trials and, bob’s your uncle: a nice little summary of the totality of the data that shows beyond doubt that your therapy works. Now even your narrow-minded boss will be impressed.
These nine lessons can and should be modified to suit your particular situation, of course. Nothing here is written in stone. The one skill any pseudo-scientist must have is flexibility.
Every now and then, some smart arse is bound to attack you and claim that this is not rigorous science, that independent replications are required, that you are biased etc. etc. blah, blah, blah. Do not panic: either you ignore that person completely, or (in case there is a whole gang of nasty skeptics after you) you might just point out that:
- your work follows a new paradigm; the one of your critics is now obsolete,
- your detractors fail to understand the complexity of the subject and their comments merely reveal their ridiculous incompetence,
- your critics are less than impartial, in fact, most are bought by BIG PHARMA,
- you have a paper ‘in press’ that fully deals with all the criticism and explains how inappropriate it really is.
In closing, allow me a final word about publishing. There are hundreds of alternative medicine journals out there to chose from. They will love your papers because they are uncompromising promotional. These journals all have one thing in common: they are run by apologists of alternative medicine who abhor to read anything negative about alternative medicine. Consequently hardly a critical word about alternative medicine will ever appear in these journals. If you want to make double sure that your paper does not get criticised during the peer-review process (this would require a revision, and you don’t need extra work of that nature), you can suggest a friend for peer-reviewing it. In turn, you can offer to him/her that you do the same to him/her the next time he/she has an article to submit. This is how pseudo-scientists make sure that the body of pseudo-evidence for their pseudo-treatments is growing at a steady pace.
Dr. Ernst is a PM&R specialist and the author of 48 books and more than 1000 articles in the peer-reviewed medical literature. His most recent book, Trick or Treatment? Alternative Medicine on Trial is available from amazon. He blogs regularly at EdzardErnst.com and contributes occasionally to this blog.