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Medical errors – apologies required

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Our Chief Privacy Officer sent me an interesting article today about how hospitals are promoting “disclosure and apology” (by physicians to patients or their families) when a medical error is committed.  The report suggests that less money will be spent in malpractice suits if physicians fess up to their mistakes instead of trying to hide them.

Another study suggests that 99% of physicians believe that it is morally right to confess errors to patients and family members, but that only about 33% report doing so.  The article says that the number one reason why they don’t report errors is fear of being sued.

While these statistics don’t reflect well on physicians, I think there’s some murkiness here that’s worth reviewing.  First of all, what constitutes an error?  When a young resident physician performs a procedure in an inferior manner due to lack of experience, is that an error?  When a code team is not called soon enough because a patient doesn’t appear gravely ill initially, is that an error?  If an unconscious patient arrives in the ER and is treated with a medicine that causes a life-threatening allergic reaction, is that an error?  I think that many times physicians perceive some “errors” as unfortunate and regrettable aspects of the natural practice of medicine and don’t report them formally.

Another reason why physicians may not report errors is because it’s unclear that the error has a specific adverse effect – perhaps a patient’s Tylenol was given at the wrong time of day.  That’s an error – but is it worthy of formally reporting it to the patient?  What about when the lab loses the tube of blood drawn from a patient?  Should the patient be told about it or should the labs be added to the next day’s scheduled draw?

The majority of “errors” that I’ve witnessed are in the realm of sub-optimal care due to inexperience, inattentiveness, or misinterpretation of test results.  However, errors of the sort that result in death and serious harm appear to be alarmingly frequent (some studies argue that there are 40-90 thousand of these errors per year).

I think that physicians should always tell patients the truth about their care, the risks associated with certain procedures, and the full range of choices that are available to them.  I do believe that patients value (and deserve) to know the truth – even when it makes the physician or hospital seem less than perfect.  In the cases of errors that result in serious consequences – honesty is the best (and only) policy.This post originally appeared on Dr. Val’s blog at RevolutionHealth.com.

My medical heroes

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On New Year’s Eve when many people are drinking champagne and worrying about who they should kiss at midnight, Dr. Brian Fennerty, Section Chief of Gastroenterology at Oregon Health & Science University is fighting to keep patients alive in the Intensive Care Unit. Severe internal bleeding has put these patients’ lives in jeopardy, and Dr. Fennerty stays with them all night, ordering blood transfusions and tamponading their bleeding.

Dr. Jack Cook, US Navy veteran and former submarine commander, is under a mountain of medical charts. At 67, he is spearheading the transition from paper records to an electronic medical records system for his group practice of primary care physicians in Virginia. He wants his patients to have the opportunity to experience chart portability – something he believes might save their lives in cases where they are brought to the ER in an unconscious state. Although this project will take his group 2 years to complete, and cost untold hours in lost wages (with no clear reimbursal benefit for his practice) he is making the investment for his patients’ sakes.

In the middle of a teleconference, Dr. Iffath Hoskins, Chair of Ob/Gyn at Lutheran Medical Center in Brooklyn, excuses herself to perform an emergency C-section on a young woman with a complicated pregnancy. Against all odds she saves both mother and baby, and reschedules the teleconference for late that evening so she can complete her interview on time for a feature article at Revolution Health.

Just returning from Africa, Dr. Leo Lagasse, Vice Chairman of Ob/Gyn at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, is preparing for his next mission’s trip with medical residents and faculty. His non-profit organization, Medicine for Humanity, has been behind countless trips to Afghanistan, Kenya, and Eritrya – serving impoverished women with medical problems. Dr. Lagasse takes time out to explain to me the link between smoking and cervical cancer for an article I’m preparing.

Dr. Charlie Smith is spending the afternoon with his son Jordan in Arkansas. Jordan was accidentally shot in the chest by a child with a BB gun, tearing a hole in his heart that caused him to go into cardiac arrest. He was rushed to the hospital where surgeons resorted to cardiac massage to keep him alive – he survived the ordeal, but his brain never fully recovered from the temporary lack of oxygen. He was rendered permanently bed-bound, and raised at home by his loving parents. Dr. Smith created a company called eDocAmerica to allow him to work from home and spend more time with Jordan. eDocAmerica is devoted to answering consumer medical questions via email.

At Harlem Hospital, Dr. Olajide Williams works tirelessly to raise awareness of stroke symptoms in a high risk inner city population. He organizes outreach through musical youth initiatives, lectures nationally to narrow the racial gap in quality care, and declines all prestigious medical recruitment offers. He is steadfast in his devotion to his community – no matter what the cost. Dr. Williams spends part of his weekends preparing blog entries for Revolution Health.

These are only a handful of the wonderful physicians associated with Revolution Health. I hope you’ll enjoy getting to know them through their blogs, articles, and future contributions. They are here for you… to support your need for credible information, to answer your questions, and to help guide you towards optimum health.This post originally appeared on Dr. Val’s blog at RevolutionHealth.com.

Conflicting research studies: how do I know what’s true?

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Consumers often express frustration with new research findings reported to them by the media.  One day a medicine is being promoted on TV as the cure for arthritis pain, the next it is being removed from the market by the FDA, citing increased risk of death.  One day margarine is considered a healthy alternative to butter, the next day trans fats are being banned from entire states.  And so medical research is eyed with suspicion and people are left to wonder about the safety of their food, medications and treatments.

I sympathize with the confusion and frustration.   Here’s part of what fuels it:

1)  Clinical trials are designed to answer very specific questions under a set of limited conditions. They have to be designed this way in order to prove a cause and effect.  The results should be repeatable, given the same conditions.  Sometimes when a drug is used in a different way (like, at a higher dose or for a longer period of time, or in older patients) it has different or more frequent side effects.  It’s important not to generalize efficacy or safety to use cases outside those tested in a clinical trial.  What’s good for the goose is NOT necessarily good for the gander.

2)  Large observational studies can often pick up trends that might not have been noted in a clinical trial. This is why previously unknown (or rare) side effects are sometimes detected after clinical trials seem to indicate that a drug or treatment is safe and effective.

3)  We are all tempted to over-simplify research data, especially the media. How many of us would like to read a headline that says, “Drug X may reduce your arthritis pain by 10% if you are over 80, have no history of high blood pressure or diabetes, use it 3 times a day at 10mg doses and take it on an full stomach” versus “Drug X can cure your arthritis!”  Yup, we just want something easy to understand, and so we opt for statement #2, even though it’s not accurate.  Inaccurate statements generate a lot of confusion and lead to unwarranted hype.

So, what is a consumer to do? My opinion is that the educated consumer’s best friend is an educated physician.  Doctors are natural skeptics – they are formally trained (for a minimum of 7-10 years at good schools) to understand the limitations of research studies and effectively communicate all the caveats that are so critical for informed decision making.  If you’re having a hard time figuring out if a drug or treatment is right for you, ask your doctor (wow, did that sound like a TV ad!)  Or better yet, keep reading the physician blogs and medical news commentary at Revolution Health.  We are committed to translating research news into a format that you can understand and use.  We’ll do our best to cut through the hype and give you the real facts.This post originally appeared on Dr. Val’s blog at RevolutionHealth.com.

Understanding introverts

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Here’s an excerpt from a timeless essay in the Atlantic Monthly about understanding and appreciating introverts. For the full article, click here.

“Extroverts are energized by people, and wilt or fade when alone. They often seem bored by themselves, in both senses of the expression. Leave an extrovert alone for two minutes and he will reach for his cell phone. In contrast, after an hour or two of being socially ‘on,’ we introverts need to turn off and recharge. My own formula is roughly two hours alone for every hour of socializing. This isn’t antisocial. It isn’t a sign of depression. It does not call for medication. For introverts, to be alone with our thoughts is as restorative as sleeping, as nourishing as eating. Our motto: ‘I’m okay, you’re okay—in small doses.’”


This post originally appeared on Dr. Val’s blog at RevolutionHealth.com.

Why are hospitals so ugly?

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I used to believe, quite naively, that hospitals were depressing places simply because no one had noted the connection between environment and recovery. It seemed that white walls, antiseptic scents, and cork boards were somehow required of hospitals – and no one had bothered to imagine anything different.

I thought that the solution was fairly simple – get some creative minds to come in and make recommendations for change. So one day I called the chair of the department of interior design at Parsons School of Design and asked whether she might send her students to my hospital to consider how to improve our situation. She was intrigued with the idea – and we soon had an entire team of bright young designers measuring the floors and windows, considering the limitations of our square footage, and getting to work on some dramatic proposals for exciting change.

Several months later the Parsons students made a presentation to our hospital’s executive team, and this was met with great enthusiasm. We all thought that we were on the verge of an exciting breakthrough for patient wellness. But alas, in the end not a single design suggestion was implemented as our administrators told us that there was no money available for environmental improvements.

I found out much later that our acting CEO was making about ½ million dollars per year in salary at the time. All the while the poor patients had to recover in a grim void of sensory stimulation.

There is ugliness in hospitals – and it runs deeper than the white walls. As with many sectors, money is the deciding factor regarding whether or not something gets done. I think that hospitals should take a hard look at their white walls, and the white linings of their executive pockets and ask themselves whom they were built to serve.


This post originally appeared on Dr. Val’s blog at RevolutionHealth.com.

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