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Latest Posts

Medical Journalism And The Patient’s Voice In The Media

Yesterday’s post was not really about Avastin, but about medical journalism and how patients’ voices are handled by the media.

L. Husten, writing on a Forbes blog, cried that the press fawned, inappropriately, over patients’ words at the FDA hearing last week, and that led him to wonder why and if journalists should pay attention to what people with illness have to say, even if their words go against the prevailing medical wisdom.

There’s a fair amount of controversy on this. For sake of better discussion in the future, I think it best to break it up into 3 distinct but inter-related issues:

1. About health care journalism and patients’ voices:

A general problem I perceive (and part of why I started blogging) is how traditional medical journalists use patients’ stories to make a point. What some of my journalism professors tried to teach  me, and most editors I’ve dealt with clearly want, is for the reporter to find a person with an illness, as a lead,  and then tell about the relevant news, and provide some expert commentary – with at least one person speaking on each “side” of the issue, of course – and then end the story with some bit about the patient and the future.

I argue that this form of medical journalism Read more »

*This blog post was originally published at Medical Lessons*

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 »

A New Twist On Food Allergies In Kids

The current New Yorker unfolds an engaging story on childhood food allergies. As related by Dr. Jerome Groopman, there’s a shift in how some doctors think about how these conditions  are best managed and, even better — might be prevented. The article feeds into recent discussion that medical science, and even dogma, too-often turns out to be incorrect.

Groopman interviews Dr. Hugh Sampson, director of the Jae Food Allergy Institute at Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York:

…“This increase in the incidence of food allergy is real,” Sampson said when we spoke recently. He cannot say what is causing the increase, but he now thinks the conventional approach to preventing food allergies is misconceived. For most of his career, he believed, like most allergists, that children are far less likely to become allergic to problematic foods if they are not exposed to them as infants. But now Sampson and other specialists believe that early exposure may actually help prevent food allergies.”

I recommend the full read if you can get it: Groopman probes potential causes of discordant food allergy rates in children of different geographic regions. I learned a number of details on how some doctors in the U.S. use protein-breakdown methods to desensitize children to food allergies, how in Israel newly-speaking infants are said to ask eagerly for Bamba, a manufactured, peanut-containing snack (which, for the record, I don’t particularly endorse), and how in some cultures parents chew their young children’s food in a manner that might that might facilitate breakdown of complex proteins by enzymes in saliva.

All interesting. Of course it’s hard to know exactly what’s true in this, and the causes of allergies are likely to vary among children. There’s a randomized LEAP study (Learning Early About Peanut Allergy) in the U.K. that may provide some hard evidence on this, one way or another.

*This blog post was originally published at Medical Lessons*

Avastin: The FDA’s “Disappointing Decision”

“With this disappointing decision, the FDA has chosen to place itself between patients and their doctors by rationing access to a life-extending drug. . . We can’t allow this government takeover of health care to continue any longer.”

That quote, courtesy of this morning’s [Dec 17th] Washington Post, incensed me to such a degree that I am writing this blog despite the two deadlines I have today. The speaker is Sen. David Vitter (R-La). The “disappointing decision” he refers to: The FDA’s decision to remove the breast cancer indication for Avastin (bevacizumab).

I wrote about this earlier, and you can read the post here, but that was before yesterday’s [Dec 16th] decision. I’m not going to comment here on the benefits or risks of Avastin. . . except to say that I’m sure there are individual women who are alive today because of it, and, quite possibly, individual women who are dead today despite it. But that’s not how we do medical science, based on individual patients. We do medical science based on large clinical studies (which are often designed with and approved by FDA officials). It’s not a perfect system, but it’s the system we have. Read more »

*This blog post was originally published at A Medical Writer's Musings on Medicine, Health Care, and the Writing Life*

Improving Health For Older Adults

New clinical trials and published research are giving us information on how to improve health in elderly patients. Here are some brief points from the Cleveland Journal of Medicine that were surprising to me:

– Each year 30 percent of people age 65 or older fall and sustain serious injuries so preventing falls and fractures is important. Vitamin D prevents both falls and fractures, but mega doses of Vitamin D (50,000 mg) might cause more falls. A better dose is 1,000mg a day in people who consume a low-calcium diet. 

– Exercise boosts the effect of influenza vaccine.

– The benefits of dialysis in older patients is uncertain, as it does not improve  function in people over age 80. We don’t even know if it improves survival. Older patients who receive dialysis for kidney failure had a decline in function (eating, bed mobility, ambulation, toileting, hygiene, and dressing) after starting treatment.

– Colinesterase inhibitors (Aricept, Razadyne and Exelon) are commonly used to treat Alzheimer disease, but they all can have serious side effects. Syncope (fainting), hip fractures, slow heart rate, and the need for permanent pacemaker insertion were more frequent in people taking these drugs. The benefits of these drugs on cognition is modest.

– A new drug called Pradaxa (dabigatran) will likely prove to be safer than Coumadin (warfarin). Over two million adults have atrial fibrillation and the median age is 75. The blood thinner warfarin is critical for prevention of strokes but it caries a high risk of bleeding and drug levels have to be monitored frequently. Dabigatran will probably replace warfarin, but it will probably also be a lot more expensive.

As I often say, medicine and science are constantly changing and evolving. As new evidence comes forth, physicians and patients need to re-evaluate they way we do things.

*This blog post was originally published at EverythingHealth*

Latest Interviews

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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How To Make Inpatient Medical Practice Fun Again: Try Locum Tenens Work

It s no secret that most physicians are unhappy with the way things are going in healthcare. Surveys report high levels of job dissatisfaction burn out and even suicide. In fact some believe that up to a third of the US physician work force is planning to leave the profession…

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Latest Cartoon

Richmond, VA – In an effort to simplify inpatient medical billing, one area hospitalist group has determined that “altered mental status” (ICD-9 780.97) is the most efficient code for use in any patient work up.

“When you enter a hospital, you’re bound to have some kind of mental status change,” said Dr. Fishbinder, co-partner of Area Hospitalists, PLLC. “Whether it’s confusion about where your room is located in relationship to the visitor’s parking structure, frustration with being woken up every hour or two to check your vital signs, or just plain old fatigue from being sick, you are not thinking as clearly as before you were admitted. And that’s all the justification we need to order anything from drug and toxin screens, to blood cultures, brain MRIs, tagged red blood cell nuclear scans, or cardiac Holter monitoring. There really is no limit to what we can pursue with our tests.”

Common causes of mental status changes in the elderly include medicine-induced cognitive side effects, disorientation due to disruption in daily routines, age-related memory impairment, and urinary tract infections.

“The urinalysis is not a very exciting medical test,” stated Dr. Fishbinder. “It doesn’t matter that it’s cheap, fast, and most likely to provide an explanation for strange behavior in hospitalized patients. It’s really not as elegant as the testing involved in a chronic anemia or metabolic encephalopathy work up. I keep it in my back pocket in case all other tests are negative, including brain MRIs and PET scans.”

Nursing staff at Richmond Medical Hospital report that efforts to inform hospitalists about foul smelling urine have generally fallen on deaf ears. “I have tried to tell the hospitalists about cloudy or bloody urine that I see in patients who are undergoing extensive work ups for mental status changes,” reports nurse Sandy Anderson. “But they insist that ‘all urine smells bad’ and it’s really more of a red herring.”

Another nurse reports that delay in diagnosing urinary tract infections (while patients are scheduled for brain MRIs, nuclear scans, and biopsies) can lead to worsening symptoms which accelerate and expand testing. “Some of my patients are transferred to the ICU during the altered mental status work up,” states nurse Anita Misra. “The doctors seem to be very excited about the additional technology available to them in the intensive care setting. Between the central line placement, arterial blood gasses, and vast array of IV fluid and medication options, urosepsis is really an excellent entré into a whole new level of care.”

“As far as medicine-induced mental status changes are concerned,” added Dr. Fishbinder, “We’ve never seen a single case in the past 10 years. Today’s patients are incredibly resilient and can tolerate mixes of opioids, anti-depressants, anti-histamines, and benzodiazepines without any difficulty. We know this because most patients have been prescribed these cocktails and have been taking them for years.”

Patient family members have expressed gratitude for Dr. Fishbinder’s diagnostic process, and report that they are very pleased that he is doing everything in his power to “get to the bottom” of why their loved one isn’t as sharp as they used to be.

“I thought my mom was acting strange ever since she started taking stronger pain medicine for her arthritis,” says Nelly Hurtong, the daughter of one of Dr. Fishbinder’s inpatients. “But now I see that there are deeper reasons for her ‘altered mental status’ thanks to the brain MRI that showed some mild generalized atrophy.”

Hospital administrators praise Dr. Fishbinder as one of their top physicians. “He will do whatever it takes to figure out the true cause of patients’ cognitive impairments.” Says CEO, Daniel Griffiths. “And not only is that good medicine, it is great for our Press Ganey scores and our bottom line.”

As for the nursing staff, Griffiths offered a less glowing review. “It’s unfortunate that our nurses seem preoccupied with urine testing and medication reconciliation. I think it might be time for us to mandate further training to help them appreciate more of the medical nuances inherent in quality patient care.”

Dr. Fishbinder is in the process of creating a half-day seminar on ‘altered mental status in the inpatient setting,’ offering CME credits to physicians who enroll. Richmond Medical Hospital intends to sponsor Dr. Fishbinder’s course, and franchise it to other hospitals in the state, and ultimately nationally.

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Click here for a musical take on over-testing.

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Latest Book Reviews

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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Unaccountable: A Book About The Underbelly Of Hospital Care

I met Dr. Marty Makary over lunch at Founding Farmers restaurant in DC about three years ago. We had an animated conversation about hospital safety the potential contribution of checklists to reducing medical errors and his upcoming book about the need for more transparency in the healthcare system. Marty was…

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