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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.

Motivation Is More Important Than Information At Reversing Obesity

I recently found my way to an interesting NPR podcast via a link from Dr. Ranit Mishori (@ranitmd) on Twitter. The host of the show interviewed a physician (Dr. Mishori), an obesity researcher (Sara Bleich), and a family nurse practitioner (Eileen O’Grady) about how healthcare providers are trying (or not trying) to help patients manage their weight. Several patients and practitioners called in to participate.

First of all, I found it intriguing that research has shown that the BMI of the treating physician has a significant impact on whether he or she is willing to counsel a patient about weight loss. Normal weight physicians (those with a BMI under 25) were more likely to bring up the subject (and follow through with weight loss and exercise planning with their patients) than were physicians who were overweight or obese. Sara Bleich believes that this is because overweight and obese physicians either don’t recognize the problem in others who have similar body types, or that their personal shame about their weight makes them feel that they don’t have the right to give advice since they don’t practice what they preach. While 60% of Americans are either overweight or obese, 50% of physicians are also in those categories.

Although it’s not entirely surprising that overweight/obese physicians feel as they do, it made me wonder what other personal conditions could be influencing evidence-based patient care. Is a physician with high blood pressure less apt to encourage salt restriction or medication adherence? What about depression, smoking cessation, or erectile dysfunction? Are there certain personal diseases or conditions that impair proper care and treatment in others?

Several callers recounted negative experiences with physicians where they were “read the Riot Act” about their weight. One overweight woman said she handled this by simply avoiding going to the doctor at all, and another obese man said his doctor made him cry. However, the man went on to lose 175 pounds through diet and exercise modifications and said that the “tough love” was just what he needed to galvanize him into action.

Dr. Mishori felt that the “Riot Act” approach was rarely helpful and usually alienated patients. She advocated a more nuanced and sensitive approach that takes into account a patient’s social and financial situation. She explained that there’s no use advocating personal training sessions to a person on food stamps. Physicians need to be more sensitive to patients’ living conditions and physical abilities.

In the end, I felt that nurse practitioner Eileen O’Grady contributed some helpful observations – she argued that the rate-limiting factor in reversing obesity is not information, but motivation. Most patients know what they “should do” but just don’t have the motivation to start, and keep at it till they achieve a healthy weight. Ms. O’Grady devoted her practice to weight loss coaching by phone, and she believes that telephones have one big advantage over in-person visits: patients are more likely to be honest when there is no direct eye contact with their provider. Her secret to success, beyond a non-judgmental therapeutic environment, is setting small, attainable goals. She says that if she doesn’t believe the patient has at least a 70% chance of success, they should not set that particular goal.

Starting goals may be as simple as “finding a workout outfit that fits.” As the patient grows in confidence with their successes, larger, broader goals may be set. Weight loss coaching and intensive group therapy may be the most motivating strategy that we have to help Americans shed unwanted pounds. Apparently, the USPS Task Force agrees, as they recommend “intensive, multicomponent behavioral interventions”  for those who screen positive for obesity in their doctors’ offices.

I think it’s unfortunate that most doctors feel that they “simply don’t have time to counsel patients about obesity.” Diet and exercise are the two most powerful medical tools we have to combat many chronic diseases. What else is so important that it’s taking away our time focusing on the “elephant in the room?”  Pills are not the way forward in obesity treatment – and we should have the courage to admit it and do better with confronting this problem head-on in our offices, and also in our own lives.

Health Care’s Tragedy Of The Commons

There are at least two conversations going on in the health care marketplace today, each focused on one of two key questions. One is: How can we achieve the Triple Aim? The other is: Why do they get to do that?  (It’s not fair! I want more!)

Until we stop asking the second question, we can’t answer the first question. Why? Because all too often the answer to the second question is the equivalent of: It’s OK, Timmy, I’ll buy you TWO lollipops; pick whichever ones you want.

It’s the tragedy of the commons, transposed to the health care marketplace.

Recent cases in point:

  • Avastin
  • Tufts Medical Center – Blue Cross Blue Shield of Massachusetts grudge match
  • Mammography and PSA guidelines

1.    Avastin.  Late last year, Read more »

*This blog post was originally published at HealthBlawg :: David Harlow's Health Care Law Blog*

Book Review: The First Step To Improve Health Care Is A Close Examination Of How It’s Delivered

My friend and former Chair of the CFAH Board of Trustees, Doug Kamerow, has written a book that I think you will like.

Besides being a mensch and witty as heck, Doug is a family doctor and a preventive medicine specialist.  In his new book, Dissecting American Health Care: Commentaries on Health Policy and Politics, these four characteristics constitute the lens through which he comments on scores of events, controversies and changes in public health and health policy that have taken place over the past four years. For example, Doug writes about last year’s debate over the H1N1 vaccine, the papal position on condoms and HIV, how prevention fared in the health care reform act (ACA) and his attempt to Read more »

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

NPR Addresses Upcoming Final Decision On Avastin’s Fate

On the NPR Shots blog, Scott Hensley addresses, “Avastin For Breast Cancer: Hope Versus False Hope.” Excerpt:

Any day now FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg is expected to make a final decision on Avastin’s fate. Women who said Avastin helped their breast cancer were out in force at a June hearing of an appeal of FDA’s proposal. At this point, it would be a big surprise if the agency let the approval, granted on an accelerated basis back in 2008, stand.

Now, one of the cancer specialists on the expert panel, which Read more »

*This blog post was originally published at Gary Schwitzer's HealthNewsReview Blog*

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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