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Pain Management And Why It’s So Personal

Most of my patients think about pain medicines in terms of the symptoms they treat. “This is my headache medicine, and this is my arthritis medicine,” they often say. Healthcare providers are more likely to categorize pain medicines by the way they work: some are anti-inflammatory, some affect nerve endings, and others influence how the brain perceives pain. But the truth is that no matter how you classify pain medicines, there is no way to know if they’ll help until you try them for yourself.

Most people don’t realize that pain management is personal. Research is beginning to help us understand why people respond to medicines so differently, and one day we will probably be able to personalize treatment plans more successfully. For now, there are several known genetic reasons why pain medicines are more or less effective for one individual over another. Genes affect:

  1. The number of enzymes that break down medicines and remove them from the body. Some people have larger numbers of these enzymes and therefore require more drug to feel its pain-relieving effects. Others may be strongly affected by even small doses of drug.

  2. Pain medicine receptor variations can make one medicine effective and another (nearly identical medicine) ineffective in relieving pain.

  3. Differences in carrier molecules that transport pain medicine across the blood stream and into the cells that are triggering pain sensations. Some people have fewer carrier molecules to bring the medicine to the site of pain.

  4. The number of “middle man” neurotransmitter molecules that pass along the pain response. Too many of these molecules can reduce drug binding and mute the pain relief effects of some drugs.

When pain is severe, prescription medications may be necessary. However, mild to moderate pain may be effectively managed with over-the-counter (OTC) medicines. I believe in the start low, go slow approach to finding the smallest effective dose of pain medicines. I always recommend that my patients read and follow all the instructions on the Drug Facts labels to make sure that they don’t accidentally overdose on active ingredients.

When I choose a pain reliever with my patients, the first thing I think about is potential side effects. Some medicines (such as non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs like ibuprofen and naproxen sodium) can be hard on the stomach lining, or cause bleeding in people who are at risk for it. Other medicines (such as acetaminophen) can harm the liver if used in excess, while prescription pain medicines can cause constipation and drowsiness. The best pain medicine to start with is one that is least likely to cause harm to the specific person.

The next thing I ask is whether or not the medicine has worked for the patient in the past. Previous experience is one of the best indicators of future success. Since I know that my patient has a unique, genetically determined number of enzymes, transporters, and receptors, previous experience with pain medicines will give me a good idea of how well they will tolerate it again, and if it will be effective.

Finally, I consider the type of pain that they are experiencing. If the pain is caused by inflammation (from an injury, surgery, or arthritis) I’ll consider a medicine with primarily anti-inflammatory properties. If the pain is caused by tension (such has headache) or complicated by fever, I may consider acetaminophen first. If the pain is coming from a nerve (such as sciatica or neuropathy) then I’ll use pain medicines that work for nerve pain specifically. If the pain is complicated by depression, I may discuss additional medicines and approaches.

Sometimes, combinations of medicines are significantly more effective than one medicine alone at treating pain (this is why some prescription pain relievers are combinations of an opioid and acetaminophen). When using more than one pain relief medicine, it is important to compare active ingredients in both prescription medications and OTC products to make sure that accidental overdoses do not occur. I also recommend consulting with a healthcare professional if there are concerns about drug interactions or if the patient is already on a significant number of prescription medications that could interact with his or her OTC pain medicine choices.

The bottom line is that science is still catching up to pain management. Perhaps one day a simple blood test will help us to determine the very best pain medicine regimen for a specific patient at a given time. But until then, adopting a strategy of careful trial and error (avoiding unwanted side effects, using the lowest effective doses, and consulting a physician when pain is severe) is the only option. Don’t worry too much about whether a specific medicine is “best” for your pain. Pain management is very personal, so you will need to discover your own best solution.


Disclosure: Dr. Val Jones is a paid consultant for McNeil Consumer Healthcare Division.

Why In-Person Visits Will Always Be The Foundation Of Quality Healthcare

In a recent Forbes editorial, conservative commentator John Goodman argues that the Texas Medical Board is sending the state back to “the middle ages” because they are trying to limit the practice of medicine in the absence of a face-to-face, doctor-patient relationship. He believes that telemedicine should have an unfettered role in healthcare – diagnosis and treatment should be available to anyone who wishes to share their medical record with a physician via phone. This improves access, saves money, and is the way of the future, he argues.

He is right that it costs less to call a stranger and receive a prescription via phone than it does to be examined by a physician in an office setting. But he is wrong that this represents quality healthcare. As I wrote in my last blog post, much is learned during the physical exam that you simply cannot ascertain without an in-person encounter. Moreover, if you’ve never met the patient before, it is even more likely that you do not understand the full context of a patient’s complaint. Access to their medical records can be helpful, but only so much as the records are thorough and easy to navigate. As the saying goes: garbage in, garbage out. And with EMRs these days, auto-populated data and carry-forward errors may form the bulk of the “narrative.”

Telemedicine works beautifully as an extension of a previously established relationship. Expanding a physician’s ability to connect with his/her patients remotely, saves money and improves access. But bypassing the personal knowledge piece assures lower quality care.

I currently see patients in the hospital setting. I run a busy consult service in several hospital systems, and I have access to a large number of medical records, test results, and expert analyses for each patient I meet. Out of curiosity, I’ve been tracking how my treatment plans change before and after I meet the patient. I read as much as possible in the medical record prior to my encounter, and ask myself what I expect to find and what I plan to do. When medical students are with me, we discuss this together – so that our time with the patient is focused on filling in our knowledge gaps.

After years of pre and post meeting analysis, I would say that 25% of my encounters result in a major treatment plan change, and 33% result in small but significant changes. Nearly 100% result in record clarifications or tweaks to my orders. That means that in roughly 1 in 4 cases, the patient’s chief complaint or diagnosis wasn’t what I expected, based on the medical record and consult request that I received from my peers.

If my educated presumptions (in an ideal setting for minimizing error) are wrong 25% of the time, what does this mean for telemedicine? The patient may believe that they need a simple renewal of their dizziness medicine, for example, but in reality they may be having heart problems, internal bleeding, or a dangerous infection. Let’s say for the sake of argument that the patient is correct about their needs up to 75% of the time. Are we comfortable with a >25% error rate in healthcare practiced between strangers?

Goodman’s cynical view of the Texas Medical Board’s blocking of telemedicine businesses for the sake of preserving member income does not tell the whole story. I myself have no dog in this fight, but would side with Texas on this one – because patients’ lives matter. We must find ways to expand physician reach without eroding the personal relationship that makes diagnosis and treatment more customized and accurate. Texas is not returning healthcare “to the middle ages” but bringing it forward to the modern age of personalized medicine. Telemedicine is the right platform for connecting known parties, but if the two are strangers – it’s like using Facebook without access to friends and family. An unsatisfying, and occasionally dangerous, proposition.

Progress In The Field Of Personalized Medicine And What We Can Expect Next

The third edition of The Case for Personalized Medicine (PDF) was released a week ago and I had a chance to do an interview with Edward Abrahams, Ph.D. of the Personalized Medicine Coalition.  The new edition is a primer that highlights the progress in the field of personalized medicine for policymakers, researchers, and business leaders.

  • How many prominent examples of personalized medicine might we have next year?

It’s impossible for us to know how many prominent examples of personalized medicine products will be available a year from now, but we project that the rapid acceleration in the number of new products coming onto the market will continue. When we published the first edition of The Case for Personalized Medicine in 2006 – there were only 13 available products; when we published the second edition in 2009, there were 37 products available, and now, in 2011, there are 72.

  • Sometimes lecturers use two numbers: 7 billion and 3 billion referring to the mass sequencing of everyone’s DNA in the world. When could it happen, what is your estimation? Read more »

*This blog post was originally published at ScienceRoll*

Can Computers Enhance The Doctor-Patient Relationship?

One of my favorite movies is Back to the Future starring Michael J. Fox.  I must admit after reading this New York Times piece, titled “When Computers Come Between Doctors and Patients” I have to wonder.

Am I fortunate to be coming from the future?  Because I completely disagree with Dr. Danielle Ofri, again.

I’ve had the privilege and opportunity to work in a medical group which has deployed the world’s largest civilian electronic medical record and have been using it since the spring of 2006.  I don’t see the issue quite as much as Dr. Ofri did.  It is possible that she examined patients in her office with a desk rather than an examination room.

If placed and mounted correctly in the exam room, the computer actually is an asset and can improve the doctor patient relationship. It is part of the office visit. The flat screen monitor can be rotated to begin a meaningful dialogue between the patient and me. Read more »

*This blog post was originally published at Saving Money and Surviving the Healthcare Crisis*

Individualizing “The Fight Against Cancer”

You have heard it countless times, “The War on Cancer.” President Nixon announced it. The National Cancer Institute has spearheaded what TV and radio commercials always talk about as “the fight against cancer.” Singular. But we really need to start thinking about it as a plural.  Wars on cancer. Fights against cancer. Taking it one step further, we need to see each person’s fight as an individual battle.  Not just individualized to the patient’s spirit or age or sense of hope, but individualized to his or her particular biology, matched up with the specific cancer and available treatments. That is the nature of “personalized medicine” applied to cancer. We’ve been talking about it for a few years around here, but what’s exciting now is that even more super smart people in the cancer scientific community are devoting themselves to it.

I met two people like that today near the research labs at the University of Washington in Seattle. Without giving too much away (they’ve got big plans), these two hematologist-oncologists, with many advanced degrees between them and decades of experience, are trying to build something really big that could lengthen lives and save many too.

What they’re trying to do is Read more »

*This blog post was originally published at Andrew's Blog*

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