Better Health: Smart Health Commentary Better Health (TM): smart health commentary

Latest Posts

Coffee And Stroke: Another Study The Media Got Wrong

Here we go again. Headlines across America blaring lines like, “Coffee may reduce stroke risk.”

It was a big study, but an observational study. Not a trial. Not an experiment. And, as we say so many times on this website that you could almost join along with the chorus, observational studies have inherent limitations that should always be mentioned in stories. They can’t prove cause and effect. They can show a strong statistical association, but they can’t prove cause and effect. So you can’t prove benefit or risk reduction. And stories should say that.

USA Today, for example, did not explain that in its story. Nor did it include any of the limitations that were included in, for example, a HealthDay story, which stated:

“The problem with this type of study is that there are too many factors unaccounted for and association does not prove causality, said Dr. Larry B. Goldstein, director of the Duke Stroke Center at Duke University Medical Center.

“Subjects were asked about their past coffee consumption in a questionnaire and then followed over time. There is no way to know if they changed their behavior,” Goldstein said.

And, he noted, there was no control for medication use or other potential but unmeasured factors.

“The study is restricted to a Scandinavian population, and it is not clear, even if there is a relationship, that it would be present in more diverse populations. I think that it can be concluded, at least in this population, that there was not an increased risk of stroke among coffee drinkers,” he said.”

When you don’t explain the limitations of observational studies — and/or when you imply that cause and effect has been established — you lose credibility with some readers. And you should. Read more »

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

Alzheimer’s Disease: To Test Or Not To Test?

The medical profession’s ability to diagnose far exceeds its ability to effectively treat the conditions discovered. Consider arthritis, Parkinson’s disease, irritable bowel syndrome, strokes, emphysema, and many cancers.

When a physician orders a diagnostic test, ideally it should be to answer a specific question, rather than a buckshot approach. A chest X-ray is not ordered because a patient has a cough. It should be done because the test has a reasonable chance of yielding information that would change the physician’s advice. If the doctor was going to prescribe an antibiotic anyway, then why order the chest X-ray?

Physicians and patients should ask before a test is performed if the information is likely to change the medical management. In other words, is a test being ordered because physicians want to know or because we really need to know the results?

Does every patient with a heart murmur, for example, need an echocardiogram, even though this test would be easy to justify to patients and to insurance companies? If the test won’t change anything, then it costs dollars and makes no sense. Spine X-rays for acute back strains are an example of a radiologic reflex. Read more »

*This blog post was originally published at MD Whistleblower*

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*

Understanding Treatment: The Communication Disconnect Between Doctors And Patients

Over the long week­end I caught up on some read­ing. One arti­cle* stands out. It’s on informed con­sent, and the stun­ning dis­con­nect between physi­cians’ and patients’ under­stand­ing of a procedure’s value.

The study, pub­lished in the Sept 7th Annals of Inter­nal Med­i­cine, used sur­vey meth­ods to eval­u­ate 153 car­di­ol­ogy patients’ under­stand­ing of the poten­tial ben­e­fit of per­cu­ta­neous coro­nary inter­ven­tion (PCI or angio­plasty). The inves­ti­ga­tors, at Baystate Med­ical Cen­ter in Mass­a­chu­setts, com­pared patients’ responses to those of car­di­ol­o­gists who obtained con­sent and who per­formed the pro­ce­dure. As out­lined in the article’s intro­duc­tion, PCI reduces heart attacks in patients with acute coro­nary syn­drome — a more unsta­ble sit­u­a­tion than is chronic sta­ble angina, in which case PCI relieves pain and improves qual­ity of life but has no ben­e­fit in terms of recur­rent myocar­dial infarc­tion (MI) or survival.

The main result was that, after dis­cussing the pro­ce­dure with a car­di­ol­o­gist and sign­ing the form, 88 percent of the patients, who almost all had chronic sta­ble angina, believed that PCI would reduce their per­sonal risk for hav­ing a heart attack. Only 17 percent of the car­di­ol­o­gists, who com­pleted sur­veys about these par­tic­u­lar patients and the poten­tial ben­e­fit of PCI for patients fac­ing sim­i­lar sce­nar­ios, indi­cated that PCI would reduce the like­li­hood of MI.

This strik­ing dif­fer­ence in patients’ and doc­tors’ per­cep­tions is all the more sig­nif­i­cant because 96 percent of the patients “felt that they knew why they might undergo PCI, and more than half stated that they were actively involved in the decision-making.” Read more »

*This blog post was originally published at Medical Lessons*

Cutting Healthcare Costs Means Saying “No” To Patients

Let’s face it, the best way to cut healthcare costs is to say “no.” That means denying unnecessary tests that most patients in the United States are accustomed to having.

The New York Times‘ David Leonhardt has the best take on this issue that I’ve read. He acknowledges the difficulty of telling the American public “no,” and cites examples ranging from the breast cancer screening controversy to the managed care backlash in the 1990s:

This try-anything-and-everything instinct is ingrained in our culture, and it has some big benefits. But it also has big downsides, including the side effects and risks that come with unnecessary treatment. Consider that a recent study found that 15,000 people were projected to die eventually from the radiation they received from CT scans given in just a single year — and that there was “significant overuse” of such scans. Read more »

*This blog post was originally published at KevinMD.com*

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…

Read more »

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…

Read more »

See all interviews »

Latest Cartoon

See all cartoons »

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…

Read more »

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…

Read more »

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…

Read more »

See all book reviews »