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Social Media May Be Better Than Tests And Credentials At Identifying Good Doctors

I am consistently bemused by those who recommend more rigorous or more pervasive standardized testing as the primary means for insuring physician quality. The vast majority of physicians have already passed through a complex gauntlet of multiple choice exams, extended credentialing and certification processes, and lengthy tests of knowledge and skill. And yet, some physicians (to put it bluntly, sorry friends) are very bad at what they do.

Intellectual intelligence is necessary, but not sufficient, for doctoring. It is emotional intelligence (EI) that is sorely lacking – because it has neither been cultivated, nor selected for, by many training programs. Some educators openly acknowledge the problem, pointing to “extra-curricular activities” as their primary means of distinguishing equally qualified applicants. The disappointing reality is that non-academic performance may be a tie-breaker for students with similar standardized test scores, but raw scores almost always trump any other factor. In the end, we have a physician work force that is highly adept at assimilating and regurgitating facts, but is only accidentally good at human interactions.

Is there hope for change in this arena? I believe that the prognosis is guarded. As our culture becomes more and more digital data-driven, a tsunami of “meaningless use” threatens to drown us all in false quality measures, electronic medical record documentation “quality assurance” requirements, and analysis of trends without comprehension of context or influencing variables outside the scope of the measuring instruments. Lies, damn lies, and statistics. We can’t get enough! And guess who are the biggest proponents of these methods? Why, people who only excel at standardized testing – mostly because their true flaws also lie outside the measuring instruments. Bad doctors (sometimes turned-administrators) themselves are often fueling the onslaught of fruitless quality improvement initiatives.

Dr. Howard Luks, orthopedic surgeon and social media activist, wrote a provocative blog post on the subject of why physicians don’t engage more in social media. He suggests that many avoid it because they lack people-skills in the first place and don’t genuinely enjoy engaging with patients. If you’re a “jerk” in real life, he argues, then what advantage is there to making that more obvious on blogs, Facebook, Twitter, etc.? Better to stay socially quiet.

The interesting thing is that social media might be the most reliable way to discover whether or not your doctor is kind, thoughtful, observant, and detail-oriented. Reading a physician’s thoughts online can help you get to know their true personality and work ethic. In the future it would be nice if medical schools and residency training programs took the time to read applicants’ blogs (for example) instead of crunching their test scores for admission via the path of least resistance. An extra hour of reading up front could save our medical system from a new wave of low EI providers.

As Seth Godin put it, “Uncaring hands are worth avoiding.”

We all recognize the importance of this statement intuitively, but have a hard time quantifying “caring” with standardized tests. That’s why admissions officers and patients alike must use their judgment when selecting doctors. We pay verbal homage to the importance of “clinical judgment” in medicine but in reality are culturally afraid of straying from numbers to support our decision-making.

How will you know a good doctor? You’ll know him [or her obviously] when you see him. And sometimes you can see him best on social media platforms.


A few caveats of course:

1. Social Media is a sensitive but not specific test. Meaning, you can probably accurately identify caring doctors from their blogs, etc. but if they don’t have one, it doesn’t mean they aren’t good/caring.

2. It may not matter if you find a great doctor online if they’re not in your limited ACA network. :-?

3. Direct primary care is a potentially excellent way to get connected to exceptional doctors. I am a fan of this movement and have been actively involved in a practice in VA. The practices can reduce costs and enhance quality care, though recent caps on Health Savings Accounts (initiated by the Obama administration) have reduced consumer freedom to spend pre-tax income on direct primary care.

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*

Do Patients Have Clinical Judgment?

I used to think they didn’t, but they do.

Clinical judgment is the application of individual experience to the variables of a patient’s medical presentation. It’s the hard-worn skill of knowing what to do and how far to go in a particular situation. It’s having the confidence to do nothing. Clinical judgment is learned from seeing lots of sick people. Good clinical judgment is when the gifted capacity of reasoning intersects with experience. Some doctors have better judgment than others.

Aristotle called this phronesis – or practical judgment.

Patients have practical judgment. We often can tell when something’s amiss with our own body. Things feel different or look different. Taking action on these observations is how we exercise judgment as patients.

Parents of children with central venous lines, for example, can often identify the early signs of infection before fever has ever appeared. They know the subtleties of their child’s behavior. The same goes for children with epilepsy. People with diabetes increasingly have the latitude to apply judgment to the management of their disease. This tends to be quite defined, however, with fixed variables and limited options for intervention. Read more »

*This blog post was originally published at 33 Charts*

Mental Illness And The Tucson Shooting

When reports arrived that accused gunman Jared Lee Loughner had opened fire in Tucson, Arizona on January 7, journalistic first responders linked the incident to the fierceness of political rhetoric in the United States. Upon reflection, some of the discussion has turned to questions about mental illness, guns, and violence.

And plenty of reflection is required, because the connections are not at all simple. To get a sense of just how complicated they are, we invite you to read the lead article in this month’s Harvard Mental Health Letter entitled, “Mental Illness and Violence.” Strangely (for us) it was prepared for publication a month before the tragedy in Tucson. In light of the shooting, we are making the article available to non-subscribers.

I am not surprised at the outrage expressed in the news or at the impulse to blame. A quick scan of the news, however, shows there is not much agreement about whom to blame. In addition to the alleged perpetrator, one can find explicit and implicit criticisms of politicians for playing to our baser instincts; of media figures, various men and women of zeal, for their disingenuous or manipulative partisanship; of the various community bystanders (police, teachers, doctors, family members, neighbors, friends), whom we imagine could have intervened to prevent tragedy.

The political debate flowing from this incident will continue, as will the endless cycle of blame and defensiveness. But I caution all of us — and especially mental health professionals — not to make clinical judgments about Mr. Loughner. Very few people will or should have access to the kind of information that would allow such judgments. From a public health perspective, however, we should make careful judgments about policies that could reduce risk. Read more »

*This blog post was originally published at Harvard Health Blog*

So Many Patient Complaints, Not Enough Time

Primary care physicians often have to see patients with a litany of issues — often within a span of a 15-minute office visit.

This places the doctor in the middle of a tension: Spend more time with the patient to address all of the concerns, but risk the wrath of patients scheduled afterwards, who are then forced to wait. And in some cases, it’s simply impossible to adequately address every patient question during a given visit.

It’s a situation that internist Danielle Ofri wrote recently about in the New York Times. In her essay, she describes a patient, who she initially classified as the “worried well” type:

… a thin, 50-year-old educated woman with a long litany of nonspecific, unrelated complaints and tight worry lines carved into her face. She unfolded a sheet of paper on that Thursday morning in my office with a brisk snap, and my heart sank as I saw 30 lines of hand-printed concerns.

Ms. W. told me that she had recently started smoking again, after her elderly mother became ill, and she was up to a pack a day now. She had headaches, eye pain, pounding in her ears, shortness of breath and dizziness. Her throat felt dry when she swallowed, and she had needling sensations in her chest and tightness in her gut. She couldn’t fall asleep at night. And she really, really wanted a cigarette, she told me, nervously eying the door.

This is the kind of patient who makes me feel as though I’m drowning.

Dr. Ofri did as many doctors do: She listened appropriately, went over the patient’s history and physical, reviewed prior tests, and concluded that many of her symptoms were due to anxiety. Except, in this case, they weren’t. The patient eventually had a pulmonary embolus, and hospitalized. Read more »

*This blog post was originally published at*

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