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Can Decision Fatigue Lead To Medical Errors?

Do you suffer from decision fatigue when you are sick or anxious or overwhelmed by bad health news?  Does your doctor make less well-reasoned decisions about the 10th patient she sees before lunch?  How about the surgeon during his second operation of the day?  How about the radiologist reading the last mammogram in a daily batch of 60?

A provocative article by John Tierney in Sunday’s NYTimes Magazine adds a new layer of complexity to the body of knowledge collecting around decision-making processes.  Considerable news reporting has focused on how cognitive biases influence our judgment and how many of us experience the abundance of choices available to us as a burden rather than a privilege.  This article adds to that understanding: Our decision-making abilities appear to be powerfully affected by the demands of repeated decision making as they interact with depleted blood glucose levels. That fatigue mounts over a day of making decisions and as blood glucose levels fall between meals. In response, we tend to either make increasingly impulsive decisions without considering the consequences or to make no decisions at all. Tierney describes a study analyzing 1,100 parole decisions by judges over the course of a year:  “Prisoners who appeared early in the morning received parole about 70 percent of the time, while those who appeared late in the day were paroled less than 10 percent of the time.”

The effects reported in the article were Read more »

*This blog post was originally published at Prepared Patient Forum: What It Takes Blog*

Bad Medical Marketing: An Ad The FDA Should Pull

If ever a medical device company crossed a line with their marketing, this one has. Essure, which makes a sterilization device for women, is trying to scare men away from vasectomy in order to drive women to use their device.

“We made men watch footage of an actual vasectomy,” says the female voiceover — and then they proceed to show men’s reactions to watching a surgical procedure, with “That’s frickin’ gross, man” being the most memorable quote. The final tagline: “You can only wait so long for him to man up.” Yeah, and to be sure he doesn’t, they’ve created this ad.

The ad is slimy, harmful, obnoxious, and just plain stupid. A couple’s decision as to which sterilization procedure is best for them should be one informed by real information, not frat-boy marketing.

How dare they? The FDA should pull this ad — now.


Addendum: I just emailed the FDA at Feel free to copy my message below and send your own email:

To the FDA,

I find this ad for Essure both inflammatory and unethical. I am incensed at the impact this ad could have on couples’ informed choices about sterilization. I ask that you mandate that the company who makes Essure immediately pull this ad, both from the Web and from any media outlet where it’s playing.

Thank you for your attention to this matter.

*This blog post was originally published at The Blog That Ate Manhattan*

Breast Reconstruction After Mastectomy: Are Patients Making Good Decisions?

An outcomes article in the January 2011 issue of the Journal of Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery asks the question: “Are patients making high-quality decisions about breast reconstruction after mastectomy?”

The objective of the study was to “measure women’s knowledge about reconstruction and to evaluate the degree to which treatments reflected patients’ goals and preferences.” Their conclusion (bold emphasis is mine):

Women treated with mastectomy in this study were not well-informed about breast reconstruction. Treatments were associated with patients’ goals and concerns, however, and patients were highly involved in their decisions. Knowledge deficits suggest that breast cancer patients would benefit from interventions to support their decision making.

Granted the study was small, but it left me wondering if we the medical community fails to educate these women.  

The study involved a cross-sectional survey of early-stage breast cancer survivors from four university medical centers. The survey included measures of knowledge about specific reconstruction facts, personal goals and concerns, and involvement in decision making. Only 84 patients participated (59 percent response rate). Participants answered only 37.9 percent of knowledge questions correctly. Read more »

*This blog post was originally published at Suture for a Living*

You Are “The Biggest Wasted Resource In Health Care” has posted a great new piece by Dr. Roni Zeiger entitled, “The Biggest Wasted Resource in Health Care? You.” Subtitle: “How Your Internet Research Can Help Your Relationship With Your Doctor.” It’s well reasoned and clearly written, and continues the trend we cited a month ago, when Time posted Dr. Zack Meisel’s article saying that patients who Google can help doctors.

Related notes:

– Dr. Zeiger’s article title parallels what Dr. Charles Safran told the House Ways & Means Subcommittee on Health in 2004: Patients are “the most under-utilitized resource.” He was talking about health IT, quoting his colleague Dr. Warner Slack, who had said it many years earlier. I often quote it in my speeches for the Society for Participatory Medicine, asserting that it applies not just to IT but to all of healthcare.

– Dr. Zeiger is on the editorial board of our Journal of Participatory Medicine and is Chief Health Strategist at Google. He gets the power of patient engagement deeply and clearly. Last fall he posted a prediction that in the future it might be malpractice for doctors not to prescribe a patient community to help you help yourself with your conditions.

Prediction: Googling and patient networks will become essential as we move toward the practice of shared medical decision making (SMDM). I know firsthand that the information my kidney cancer community gave me about coping with treatments went well beyond what my excellent clinicians could offer. (We’re starting a series on SMDM. The first entry was in December.)

*This blog post was originally published at*

Book Review: “Tabloid Medicine: How The Internet Is Being Used To Hijack Medical Science For Fear And Profit”

This was the Guest Blog at Scientific American on February 23rd, 2011. 

In his new book, “Tabloid Medicine: How The Internet Is Being Used to Hijack Medical Science for Fear and Profit,” Robert Goldberg, PhD, explains why the Internet is a double-edged sword when it comes to health information. On the one hand, the Web can empower people with quality medical information that can help them make informed decisions. On the other hand, the Web is an unfiltered breeding ground for urban legends, fear-mongering and snake oil salesmen.

Goldberg uses case studies to expose the sinister side of health misinformation. Perhaps the most compelling example of a medical “manufactroversy” (defined as a manufactured controversy that is motivated by profit or extreme ideology to intentionally create public confusion about an issue that is not in dispute) is the anti-vaccine movement. Thanks to the efforts of corrupt scientists, personal injury lawyers, self-proclaimed medical experts, and Hollywood starlets, a false link between vaccines and autism has been promoted on a global scale via the Internet. The resulting panic, legal feeding frenzy, money-making alternative medicine sales, and reduction in childhood vaccination rates (causing countless preventable deaths), are sickening and tragic.

As Goldberg continues to explore the hyperbole behind specific “health threats,” a fascinating pattern emerges. Behind the most powerful manufactroversies, lies a predictable formula: First, a new problem is generated by redefining terminology. For example, an autism “epidemic” suddenly exists when a wide range of childhood mental health diagnoses are all reclassified as part of an autism spectrum. The reclassification creates the appearance of a surge in autism cases, and that sets the stage for cause-seeking.

Second, “instant experts” immediately proclaim that they have special insight into the cause. They enjoy the authority and attention that their unique “expertise” brings them and begin to position themselves as a “little guy” crusader against injustice. They also are likely to spin conspiracy theories about government cover-ups or pharmaceutical malfeasance to make their case more appealing to the media. In many cases the experts have a financial incentive in promoting their point of view (they sell treatments or promote their books, for example).

Third, because mainstream media craves David and Goliath stories and always wants to be the first to break news, they often report the information without thorough fact-checking. This results in the phenomenon of “Tabloid Medicine.” Read more »

Latest Interviews

IDEA Labs: Medical Students Take The Lead In Healthcare Innovation

It’s no secret that doctors are disappointed with the way that the U.S. healthcare system is evolving. Most feel helpless about improving their work conditions or solving technical problems in patient care. Fortunately one young medical student was undeterred by the mountain of disappointment carried by his senior clinician mentors…

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How To Be A Successful Patient: Young Doctors Offer Some Advice

I am proud to be a part of the American Resident Project an initiative that promotes the writing of medical students residents and new physicians as they explore ideas for transforming American health care delivery. I recently had the opportunity to interview three of the writing fellows about how to…

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Latest Book Reviews

Book Review: Is Empathy Learned By Faking It Till It’s Real?

I m often asked to do book reviews on my blog and I rarely agree to them. This is because it takes me a long time to read a book and then if I don t enjoy it I figure the author would rather me remain silent than publish my…

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The Spirit Of The Place: Samuel Shem’s New Book May Depress You

When I was in medical school I read Samuel Shem s House Of God as a right of passage. At the time I found it to be a cynical yet eerily accurate portrayal of the underbelly of academic medicine. I gained comfort from its gallows humor and it made me…

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Eat To Save Your Life: Another Half-True Diet Book

I am hesitant to review diet books because they are so often a tangled mess of fact and fiction. Teasing out their truth from falsehood is about as exhausting as delousing a long-haired elementary school student. However after being approached by the authors’ PR agency with the promise of a…

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