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What the heck is a "rehab doc?" Part 2

- continuation of previous post -

What does a PM&R doc do?

The foundational principle upon which rehabilitation medicine is based, is this: physical modalities (exercise, movement, muscle strengthening) are critical components of achieving the highest level of wellness and functionality. The goal of a PM&R specialist is to maximize a person’s functional ability within the constraints of their physical limitations. So that if a person is an amputee, or has had a spinal cord injury, or stroke – the goal is to make them as independent as possible, using prosthetics, orthotics, adaptive equipment, physical training or family assistance.

The rehab physician works tirelessly to enable the disabled. Whether the patient has temporary (such as after a broken bone) or permanent (such as a spinal cord injury) disability, the rehab doctor wants to seamlessly reintegrate the patient into society, into meaningful work, and into a joyful participation in life to the max.

PM&R physicians are the ultimate integrative medicine specialists – they practice a combination of physical and medical healing techniques, while leading a team of specialists to help their patients achieve their goals (nurses, social workers, physical therapists, occupational therapists, cognitive therapists and psychologists, speech & language pathologists, prosthetics & orthotics specialists, and more).

I guess I could sum it up like this: when the proverbial Humpty Dumpty “has a great fall,” the surgeons knit his bones back together, the internists maintain his vital signs, but the rehab doc finds him some crutches, teaches him how to walk again, gets him cognitive therapy and counseling, helps him reintegrate into society, and stimulates his progress towards physical independence and emotional wellness.

Why did I choose this “odd ball specialty?”

Well, truthfully, I didn’t hear much about PM&R during medical school. I happened to meet a group of exceptionally happy residents in the hallway one day, and I asked them why they were smiling. (My only experience with residents was that they were tired, bedraggled, ill-tempered and hen-pecked – and this group defied the stereotype).

They explained to me that they were “rehab residents” and that’s why they were happy. That seemed like a non-sequitur to me, so I investigated the specialty in more detail, and became convinced that there was no higher call than to care for the disabled. I had been a home health aid in college, taking care of young adults with cerebral palsy, and I spent my summers at a camp for disabled adults, sponsored by the March of Dimes, so this was familiar territory and seemed to be a good fit for my nurturing temperament.

As we look at Americans’ current medical needs, we don’t see hundreds of thousands of war amputees (though there is a steady trickle coming from the war in Iraq), or polio victims – but what we do see is a population disabled by obesity and its collateral damage: diabetes (with its amputations), heart disease, stroke, severe arthritis, and various pain syndromes.

I believe that Rehabilitation Medicine, as a specialty, should adapt to serve the needs created by this new obesity epidemic. We have always been the masters of physical exercise for healing – now we should apply those principles to help Americans lose weight and keep it off. I couldn’t agree more with Dr. Jim Hill, who believes that dieting leads to weight loss, but exercise leads to weight loss maintenance (the real key to long term health benefits).

As I have argued in the past, America needs to be rehabilitated. And I hope that my work at Revolution Health will contribute to improving the general wellness of our citizens.

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

What the heck is a "rehab doc?" Part 1

One medical specialty has managed to avoid (nearly completely) the public eye: Physical Medicine & Rehabilitation (or PM&R). Physicians who choose this specialty are referred to as “physiatrists” or “rehabilitation medicine specialists” or “rehab docs.” But the truth is that very few people understand what they do, and unfortunately the rehab docs haven’t made much of an effort to explain themselves to their peers or the world at large.

A dear friend and mentor once asked me, “why did you choose such an odd ball specialty?” This rather direct question forced me to ponder my career decision, and to determine how it came to pass that PM&R was given the unhappy reputation of “odd ball specialty.” I’ll begin with a little background about the specialty and then explain why I chose to devote my life to it.

The history of PM&R

PM&R really traces its roots back to the American Civil War (1861-1865). This gruesome battle resulted in over 620,000 casualties and over 60,000 limb amputations. The modern specialty of general surgery developed through life saving trial and error on the battlefield. Massachusetts General Hospital, for example, was performing an average of 39 surgeries/year before the civil war, and this increased to 2,427 in the late 1800’s.

But physicians and surgeons were not prepared for the aftermath of war – tens of thousands of maimed and partially limbless now trying to live out their careers in a disabled condition. One confederate soldier, James E. Hanger, lost a leg in the war, and subsequently created America’s first prosthetics company, still in operation today. Unfortunately for the disabled, though, there was no guarantee that appropriate accommodations would be made for them to be fully reintegrated into society.

With the rise of surgery came a major realization: patients did not do well after surgery if they remained in bed. Conventional medical wisdom suggested that bed rest and inactivity were the most effective way to recuperate, but now with thousands of post-operative patients in full view, it became painfully clear that the patients who did the best were the ones that got up and returned to regular physical activity as quickly as possible.

Following this realization, the University of Pennsylvania created (in the late 1800’s) an orthopedic gymnasium for “the development of muscular power with apparatus for both mechanical and hot air massage, gymnastics and Swedish movement.”

A young Canadian gymnast trained in Orthopedic Surgery, Dr. Robert Tait McKenzie, was recruited to U. Penn to develop a new field in medicine: “Physical Training.” Dr. McKenzie created a medical specialty called “Physical Therapy” and he was the first self-proclaimed “Physical Therapist.” He wrote a seminal book on the subject called “Reclaiming the Maimed” (1918) and continued to practice orthopedic surgery until his death in 1938.

Other major medical institutions followed U. Penn’s lead, creating “Medicomechanical Departments” at Mass General and the Mayo Clinic. Technicians were trained to assist in helping post-operative patients to become active and reclaim their range of motion – these technicians were known as “physiotherapists” and formed the first physiotherapy training program at the Mayo Clinic in 1918.

World War I (1914-1918) resulted in millions of additional amputations, thus flooding the health system with disabled veterans. In response, the army created two medical divisions: The division of orthopedic surgery and the division of physical reconstruction. By 1919, 45 hospitals had physiotherapy facilities, treating hundreds of thousands of war veterans.

And then there was polio. Suddenly a viral illness created a whole new wave of disabled individuals, further stimulating the need for orthotics (leg braces and such) and rehabilitative programs.

World War II (1940-1945) resulted in yet another influx of disabled veterans. All the while the medical community was developing innovative programs to maximize veterans’ functionality and integration into society and the work place through the burgeoning field of Physical Medicine & Rehabiltiation.

Key players in the development of the specialty:

Dr. Frank Krusen developed the first physical medicine training program at the Mayo Clinic in 1935 and the “Society of Physical Therapy Physicians” (now the American Academy of Physical Medicine & Rehabilitation) in 1938. He coined the term “physiatrist” to describe the physicians who specialized in physical modalities for rehabilitating patients.

Dr. Howard Rusk founded the Institute for Physical Medicine & Rehabilitation in 1950 at NYU.  Excellent research in the field ensued.

Dr. Henry Kessler founded the Kessler Institute for Rehabilitation, in New Jersey, 1949.  More medical research was developed.

Mary E. Switzer successfully lobbied for the enactment of Public Law 565 which mandated that government funds be channeled towards rehabilitation facilities and programs for the disabled.

What’s in a name?

So as you can see, there is some good reason to be confused about the modern specialty of PM&R. It has undergone several name changes, molded by historical circumstance. Today, physiotherapists (they still go by that name in Canada) or physical therapy technicians have become a well known and respected profession: Physical Therapy.

Physicians who specialize in Physical Medicine & Rehabilitation are called rehabilitation medicine specialists or “rehab docs” or “physiatrists.”

-See Next Post for the rest of the story -
This post originally appeared on Dr. Val’s blog at RevolutionHealth.com.

Give your doctor some flowers?

Richard Reece’s recent blog post echoes my sentiments – that it is important, in the midst of a broken healthcare system (and all the frustration that it creates), to stop and ponder the good things that yet exist. There are flowers popping up between the concrete slabs of our system…

Dr. Reece writes,

This is an anti-hero age. We no longer send bouquets or offer praise or optimism, beauty, life, or achievements.

Instead we doubt, dissect, disparage, analyze, impugn, question, and investigate.

Boy, do we investigate. We investigate Presidents, Vice-Presidents, Attorney Generals, Politicians, Army Generals, Priests, Physicians, and Establishment Institutions. The prevailing attitude is: if they or it have succeeded in our society, something must be wrong. Our most prominent heroes, even Mohammad Ali, have feet of Clay. So we send no flowers, only regrets that things are not perfect.

And physicians?

Well, they are the worst. Imagine. They err like other mortals. They occasionally misinterpret signs, symptoms, and results. They cannot guarantee perfect results under all circumstances. They cannot even repeal the Laws of Nature, or the inevitable Limits of Longevity. Physicians are not even omnipotent, omniscient, or omnipresent

Maybe we should praise our doctors and their institutions, considered many to be “the best in the world.” That may be why the U.S. introduces 80% of the world medical innovations and wins 80% of the world’s Nobel Laureates in Medicine even though we only have 5% of the world’s doctors. Maybe we should give our doctors flowers, instead of defoliating them. Maybe they should be our heroes, rather than our villains. American doctors are not miracle workers, but given limited resources and Nature’s limitations, they are damn good.

I encourage you to read Dr. Reece’s whole post. This excerpt doesn’t do it justice.

And if you’d like to give a shout out to a good doctor you know (in lieu of flowers) please comment here!

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

The "non-compliant" patient

It used to strike me as odd that physicians used somewhat hostile language to describe patient behavior – “the patient is non-compliant,” “the patient refused [this-or-that drug or procedure],” “the patient denies [insert symptom here].”

After many years of using these words, I forgot just how inflammatory they are. They became part of my language, and I used them every day to describe people. I’m not really sure how this phraseology became common parlance, but it is a tad adversarial when you think of it. It sets up a kind of us versus them environment. And really, medicine is all about us in partnership with them.

I was reminded of this fact as a friend of mine described a recent “non-compliance” episode. She had been complaining of shortness of breath, and had some sort of suspicious finding on her chest CT. The pulmonary specialist (called a ‘respirologist’ in Canada) recommended a bronchoscopy. Here’s what she says,

I wish I had the chance to explain to my respirologist why I was non-compliant about the bronchoscopy. I got the impression that she thought I was being “difficult” for no good reason, and that I was wasting her time. But the truth is, all my life I’ve had this vague sense that anything big going down my throat was particularly scary to me. I knew I had trouble gagging down pills, but it never occurred to me to mention that. I also chew my food to death in order to swallow it comfortably, but I never thought about that very consciously, either. It wasn’t until months later when I had to undergo surgery for my gallbladder that my anesthesiologist (who had to intubate me) discovered that I had an internal throat deformity.

So my point is that it might be valuable for the respirologist to know that when a patient is very scared of something (especially when she is usually never scared of tests, needles, etc), it could be an important clue. I know now that bronchoscopies are not without risk. A bronchoscopy technician might not have handled the situation nearly as well as that highly-trained, very experienced anaesthesiologist did.

What I learned is this: patients don’t know how to explain things that they haven’t thought much about before, especially when they know that their doc is understandably pressured to get through her scheduled appointments on time. All they know is that they’re scared and that they want to run away. They’re not primarily out to exasperate their docs with their noncompliant attitude. Still, it isn’t easy being a doc. I’m sure noncompliant patients are indeed very irritating. But it isn’t easy being a patient, either. Being looked down upon is irritating too. Not only that, but the patient has a lot more to lose if a mistake is made. But what can you do? Everybody is under a lot of pressure when it comes to medical issues. We all just have to try to be understanding and do our best to work together for a good outcome. It’s in the best interest of both parties, so it shouldn’t have to be a battle!

Have you been a “non-compliant” patient for a good reason? Do share.

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

Rare skin disorder may be triggered by wart virus?

For those who are faint of heart, please do not click on this link (via KevinMD). This poor man living in Eastern Europe developed a rare disorder (called Lewandowsky-Lutz dysplasia) where he had growths appear on his hands and feet starting at age 14. Many years later the growths are quite disfiguring and difficult to remove.

Some speculate that this may be similar to a warty disorder in rabbits. Either way, it is a little disturbing to me that this condition could be triggered by a virus. Viruses, of course, can be quite contagious…

Any dermatologists out there want to weigh in?

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

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