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Managing Patient Uncertainty

How comfortable are we with uncertainty? I struggle with this question every day. I treat children with abdominal pain. Some of these children suffer with crohns disease, eosinophilic esophagitis, and other serious problems. Some children struggle with abdominal pain from anxiety or social concerns. I see all kinds.

But kids are tricky, and sometimes I can’t pinpoint the problem. Trudging forward with more testing is often the simplest option since it involves little thinking. And some parents perceive endless testing as “thorough.”

The question ultimately becomes: When do we stop? Once we’ve taken a sensible first approach to a child’s problem and judged that the likelihood of serious pathology is slim, when and how do we suggest that we wait before going any further? This requires the most sensitive negotiation. It’s about finding a way to make a family comfortable despite the absence of absolute certainty. This is easier said than done. Parents can unintentionally advocate for themselves and their worries by insisting on the full-court press. Alternatively they may refuse invasive studies when absolutely indicated.

All of this is for good reason: You can’t be objective with your own kids.

Pediatrics is tricky business and managing parental uncertainty is perhaps my biggest preoccupation. As I’ve suggested before, sometimes convincing a family to do less represents the most challenging approach.

*This blog post was originally published at 33 Charts*

Defining Online Physician Conduct

This week a reporter cornered me on the issue of professional behavior in the social space. How is it defined? I didn’t have an answer. But it’s something that I think about.

Perhaps there isn’t much to think about. As a “representative” of my hospital and a physician to the children in my community, how I behave in public isn’t any different than a decade ago. Social media is just another public space. Sometimes it’s easy to forget that we’re in public. When I’m wrapped up in a Twitter thread it’s easy to forget that the world is watching. But the solution is simple: Always remember that the world is watching.

On Twitter I think and behave as I do in public: Very much myself but considerate of those around me. I always think about how I might be perceived.

Here’s a better question, online or off: What is professional behavior? I have a pediatrician friend who, along with the rest of his staff, wears polo shirts and khaki shorts in the summer. The kids love it.  One of my buttoned-down colleagues suggested that this type of dress is “unprofessional.” Or take a handful of physicians and ask them to review a year of my blog posts and my Twitter feed. I can assure you that some will identify elements that they find “unprofessional.” I believe I keep things above board.

This is all so subjective.

The reporter was also interested in how I separate my professional and personal identities in the online space. I’m not sure the two can be properly divided. The line is increasingly smudged. I try to keep Facebook as something of a personal space. I think it was Charlene Li who suggested that she only “friends” people she knows well enough to have over for dinner. That’s evolving as my rule as well. But independent of how I define “well enough,” Facebook is still a public space. My comments and photos can be copied to just about anywhere.

Social media has not forced the need for new standards of physician conduct. We just need to be smarter than we were before. Everyone’s watching.

*This blog post was originally published at 33 Charts*

Questioning Mobile Health

This is something. Jay Parkinson on the Future Well blog has suggested that health apps are overrated. Then on Twitter came a remark that the post represented “fightin’ words.” While I think the tweet was in jest, I’m sure there are some who will take offense to the less-than-flattering remarks about our coveted health apps.

We love the concept of health apps for what they represent more than for what they really offer us. We want to feel that we’ve got it all in the palm of our hand. After all, technology might do for us what we won’t do for ourselves.

Like Jay I’m underwhelmed, but I don’t think that’ll always be the case. The post’s criticism should start a conversation about what’s real in mobile health and what isn’t. Even the fantasy of Health 2.0 has been questioned, and that’s a good thing. This dialog about reality versus rainbows and unicorns needs to continue.

Youngme Moon in Different: Escaping the Competitive Herd wrote, “The way to keep criticism from devolving into cynicism is to make it a starting point rather than a punctuation mark.” Jay Parkinson’s post is a starting point.

*This blog post was originally published at 33 Charts*

Narrative Medicine: Healing Through Storytelling

More in the evolving meme of narrative medicine: Researchers at the University of Massachusetts Medical School (my alma mater) have found that for a select population of individuals, listening to personal narratives helps control blood pressure. While the power of stories is old news, the connection to clinical outcomes is what’s newsworthy here. Read Dr. Pauline Chen’s nice piece in the New York Times. The implications for ongoing work in this area are mind boggling.

The Annals of Internal Medicine study authors sum it up nicely:

Emerging evidence suggests that storytelling, or narrative communication, may offer a unique opportunity to promote evidence-based choices in a culturally appropriate context.  Stories can help listeners make meaning of their lives, and listeners may be influenced if they actively engage in a story, identify themselves with the storyteller, and picture themselves taking part in the action.

This nascent field of narrative medicine caught my eye when I stumbled onto the work of Rita Charon and the concept of the parallel chart. Extrapolation to social media may be the next iteration of this kind of work.

*This blog post was originally published at 33 Charts*

Consumer Health Information: The New Third Party In The Exam Room

It was sometime in the mid-nineties that parents started showing up in my office with reams of paper. Inkjet printouts of independently unearthed information pulled from AltaVista and Excite. Google didn’t exist. In the earliest days of the Web, information was occasionally leveraged by families as a type of newfound control.

A young father and his inkjet printer

One case sticks clearly in my mind. It was that of a toddler with medically unresponsive acid reflux and chronic lung disease. After following the child for some time, the discussion with the family finally moved to the option of a fundoplication (anti-reflux surgery). On a follow-up visit the father had done his diligence and appeared in the office with a banker box brimming with printed information. He had done his homework and his volume of paper was a credible show of force.

At the time in Houston, the Nissen and Thal fundoplication were the accepted fundoplication procedures in children. Deep from the bottom of one of the boxes, the father produced a freshly-reported method of fundoplication from Germany. He had compared the potential complications with other types of fundoplication and this was the procedure he wanted.

What he didn’t understand was that an experimental technique used on a limited numbers of adults didn’t necessarily represent the best option for his toddler. I gave it everything I had but didn’t get very far. The tenor of his argument was slightly antagonistic. Ultimately there was nothing more I could do. I deferred the remainder of the discussion to one of our best “talking” surgeons, but knew the father wouldn’t get the time and consideration that I had offered.

I never saw the child again. As they say, the father voted with his feet. Read more »

*This blog post was originally published at 33 Charts*

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