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Credibility & Prestige In Medicine: How Are They Measured?

In my last blog post I discussed how harmful physician “thought leaders” can be when they are dismissive of the value of other specialists’ care. I must have touched a nerve, because a passionate discussion followed in the comments section. It seems that physicians (who spend most of their time involved in clinical work) are growing tired of the leadership decisions of those who engage in little to no patient care. Clinicians urge lawmakers to turn to practicing physicians for counsel, because those who are out of touch with patients lack real credibility as advisers.

Interestingly, the credibility question was raised in a different light when I  was recently contacted by a prestigious medical organization that was seeking expansion of its board membership. I presumed that this was a personal invitation to join the cause, but soon realized that the caller wanted to use my influence to locate “more credible” candidates with academic gravitas.

When I asked what sort of candidate they wanted my help to find, the response was:

“A physician with an academic appointment at a name brand medical school. Someone who isn’t crazy – you know, they have to be respected by their peers. Someone at Harvard or Columbia would be great. You must know someone from your training program at least.”

While I appreciated the honesty, I began thinking about the age-old “town versus gown” hostilities inspired by academic elitism. In medicine, as with many other professions, it is more prestigious to hold an academic position than to serve in a rural community. But why do we insist on equating credibility with academics?

Another facet of credibility lies in physicians’ tendencies to admire only those at the top of their specific specialty. Dr. Lucy Hornstein described this phenomenon in her powerful essay on “How To Drive Doctors To Suicide:”

“Practice that condescending look and use it at hospital staff events. Make it a point to ignore newcomers. Concentrate on talking just with your friends and laughing at inside jokes, especially when others are around. Don’t return their calls, and don’t take their calls if you can possibly help it. If you accidentally wind up on the phone with the patient’s primary physician, just tell them you’ve got it all under control, and that he (and the patient) are so lucky you got involved when you did.”

A reader notes:

“And perhaps those of us who do see patients should get some self esteem and stop fawning all over [physician thought leaders] at conferences like needy interns.”

And finally, there seems to be an unspoken pecking order among physicians regarding the relative prestige of various specialties. How this order came about must be fairly complicated, as dermatology and neurosurgery seem to by vying for top spots these days. I find the juxtaposition almost amusing. Nevertheless, it’s common to find physicians in the more popular specialties looking down upon the worker bees (e.g. hospitalists and family physicians) and oddballs (e.g. physiatrists and pathologists).

While I try very hard not to take offense at my peers’ dismissiveness of my career’s value, it becomes much more concerning when funding follows prejudicial lines in the medical hierarchy. As a sympathetic family physician writes:

“I have observed the inequitable distribution of resources from the less glamorous to the sexy sub specialties despite obvious patient needs. Unfortunately, the administridiots who usually lack any medical training, opt to place resources where they are most likely to attract headlines.”

Yes, caring for the disabled (PM&R) is “less glamorous” than wielding a colonoscope (GI) (again, not sure who made that decision?) but it should not be less credible, or become a target for budget cuts simply because people aren’t informed about how rehab works.

It is time to stop specialty prejudice and honor those who demonstrate passion for patients, regardless of which patient population, body part, or organ system they serve. Excellent patient care may be provided by academics, generalists, or specialists, by those who practice in rural areas or in urban centers.  The best “thought leaders” are those who bring unity and an attitude of peer respect to the medical profession. With more of them, we may yet save ourselves from mutually assured destruction.

If Emergency Medicine Physicians Told Hospitalists The Truth…

Physician Specialty Silos Can Cause Friendly Fire Casualties

It’s no secret that medicine has become a highly specialized business. While generalists used to be in charge of most patient care 50 years ago, we have now splintered into extraordinarily granular specialties. Each organ system has its own specialty (e.g. gastroenterology, cardiology), and now parts of systems have their own experts (hepatologists, cardiac electrophysiologists)  Even ophthalmologists have subspecialized into groups based on the part of the eye that they treat (retina specialists, neuro-ophthalmologists)!

This all comes as a response to the exponential increase in information and technology, making it impossible to truly master the diagnosis and treatment of all diseases and conditions. A narrowed scope allows for deeper expertise. But unfortunately, some of us forget to pull back from the minutiae to respect and appreciate what our peers are doing.

This became crystal clear to me when I read an interview with a cardiologist on the NPR blog. Dr. Eric Topol was making some enthusiastically sweeping statements about how technology would allow most medical care to take place in patient’s homes. He says,

“The hospital is an edifice we don’t need except for intensive care units and the operating room. [Everything else] can be done more safely, more conveniently, more economically in the patient’s bedroom.”

So with a casual wave of the hand, this physician thought leader has described a world without my specialty (Physical Medicine & Rehabilitation) – and all the good that we do to help patients who are devastated by sudden illness and trauma. I can’t imagine a patient with a high level spinal cord injury being sent from the ER to his bedroom to enjoy all the wonderful smartphone apps “…you can get for $35 now from China.” No, he needs ventilator care and weaning, careful monitoring for life-threatening autonomic dysreflexia, skin breakdown, bowel and bladder management, psychological treatment, and training in the use of all manner of assistive devices, including electronic wheelchairs adapted for movement with a sip and puff drive.

I’m sure that Dr. Topol would blush if he were questioned more closely about his statement regarding the lack of need for hospital-based care outside of the OR, ER and ICU. Surely he didn’t mean to say that inpatient rehab could be accomplished in a patient’s bedroom. That people could simply learn how to walk and talk again after a devastating stroke with the aid of a $35 smartphone?

But the problem is that policy wonks listen to statements like his and adopt the same attitude. It informs their approach to budget cuts and makes it ten times harder for rehab physicians to protect their facilities from financial ruin when the prevailing perception is that they’re a waste of resources because they’re not an ICU. Time and again research has shown that aggressive inpatient rehab programs can reduce hospital readmission rates, decrease the burden of care, improve functional independence and long term quality of life. But that evidence isn’t heeded because perception is nine tenths of reality, and CMS continues to add onerous admissions restrictions and layers of justification documentation for the purpose of decreasing its spend on inpatient rehab, regardless of patient benefit or long term cost savings.

Physician specialists operate in silos. Many are as far removed from the day-to-day work of their peers as are the policy wonks who decide the fate of specialty practices. Physicians who have an influential voice in healthcare must take that honor seriously, and stop causing friendly fire casualties. Because in this day and age of social media where hard news has given way to a cult of personality, an offhanded statement can color the opinion of those who hold the legislative pen. I certainly hope that cuts in hospital budgets will not land me in my bedroom one day, struggling to move and breathe without the hands-on care of hospitalists, nurses, therapists, and physiatrists – but with a very nice, insurance-provided Chinese smartphone.

Knee Arthritis Treatments Ranked By Relative Effectiveness

Wear and tear on the knee joints creates pain for up to 40% of Americans over age 45. There are plenty of over-the-counter (OTC) and prescription (Rx) osteoarthritis treatments available, but how effective are they relative to one another? A new meta-analysis published by the Annals of Internal Medicine may shed some light on this important question. After 3 months of the following treatments, here is how they compared to one another in terms of power to reduce pain, starting with strongest first:

#1. Knee injection with gel (Rx hyaluronic acid)

#2. Knee injection with steroid (Rx corticosteroid)

#3. Diclofenac (Voltaren – Rx oral NSAID)

#4. Ibuprofen (Motrin – OTC oral NSAID)

#5. Naproxen (Alleve – OTC oral NSAID)

#6. Celecoxib (Celebrex – Rx NSAID)

#7. Knee injection with saline solution (placebo injection)

#8. Acetaminophen (Tylenol – OTC Synthetic nonopiate derivative of p-aminophenol)

#9. Oral placebo (Sugar Pill)

I found this rank order list interesting for a few reasons. First of all, acetaminophen and celecoxib appear to be less effective than I had believed. Second, placebos may be demonstrably more effective the more invasive they are (injecting saline into the knee works better than acetaminophen, and significantly better than sugar pills). Third, injection of a cushion gel fluid is surprisingly effective, especially since its mechanism of action has little to do with direct reduction of inflammation (the cornerstone of most arthritis therapies). Perhaps mechanical treatments for pain have been underutilized? And finally, first line therapy with acetaminophen is not clinically superior to placebo.

There are several caveats to this information, of course. First of all, arthritis pain treatments must be customized to the individual and their unique tolerances and risk profiles. Mild pain need not be treated with medicines that carry higher risks (such as joint infection or gastrointestinal bleeding), and advanced arthritis sufferers may benefit from “jumping the line” and starting with stronger medicines. The study is limited in that treatments were only compared over a 3 month trial period, and we cannot be certain that the patient populations were substantially similar as the comparative effectiveness was calculated.

That being said, this study will influence my practice. I will likely lean towards recommending more effective therapies with my future patients, including careful consideration of injections and diclofenac for moderate to severe OA, and ibuprofen/naproxen for mild to moderate OA, while shying away from celecoxib and acetaminophen altogether. And as we already know, glucosamine and chondroitin have been convincingly shown to be no better than placebo, so save your money on those pills. The racket is expected to blossom into a $20 billion dollar industry by 2020 if we don’t curb our appetite for expensive placebos.

In conclusion, the elephant in the room is that weight loss and exercise are still the very best treatments for knee osteoarthritis. Check out the American Academy of Orthopedic Surgery’s recent list of evidence-based recommendations for the treatment of knee arthritis for more information about the full spectrum of treatment options.

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