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Managing Patient Uncertainty

How comfortable are we with uncertainty? I struggle with this question every day. I treat children with abdominal pain. Some of these children suffer with crohns disease, eosinophilic esophagitis, and other serious problems. Some children struggle with abdominal pain from anxiety or social concerns. I see all kinds.

But kids are tricky, and sometimes I can’t pinpoint the problem. Trudging forward with more testing is often the simplest option since it involves little thinking. And some parents perceive endless testing as “thorough.”

The question ultimately becomes: When do we stop? Once we’ve taken a sensible first approach to a child’s problem and judged that the likelihood of serious pathology is slim, when and how do we suggest that we wait before going any further? This requires the most sensitive negotiation. It’s about finding a way to make a family comfortable despite the absence of absolute certainty. This is easier said than done. Parents can unintentionally advocate for themselves and their worries by insisting on the full-court press. Alternatively they may refuse invasive studies when absolutely indicated.

All of this is for good reason: You can’t be objective with your own kids.

Pediatrics is tricky business and managing parental uncertainty is perhaps my biggest preoccupation. As I’ve suggested before, sometimes convincing a family to do less represents the most challenging approach.

*This blog post was originally published at 33 Charts*

In The ER With Abdominal Pain? Lower Your Diagnosis Expectations

Abdominal pain is the bane of many emergency physicians. Recently, I wrote how CT scans are on the rise in the ER. Much of those scans look for potential causes of abdominal pain.

In an essay from Time, Dr. Zachary Meisel discusses why abdominal pain, in his words, is the doctor’s “booby prize.” And when you consider that there are 7 million visits annually by people who report abdominal pain, that’s a lot of proverbial prizes.

One reason is the myriad of causes that lead bring a patient to the hospital clutching his abdomen. It can range from something as relatively benign as viral gastroenteritis where a patient be safely discharged home, to any number of “acute” abdominal problems necessitating surgery.

But more importantly, we need to consider how limited doctors actually are in the ER. Consider the ubiquitous CT scan, which is being ordered with increasing regularity:

The pros: CT scans are readily available, able to look at every organ in the abdomen and pelvis, and very good for ruling out many of the immediately life-threatening causes of belly pain. CT scans can also reduce the need for exploratory surgery. The cons: Often, CTs can’t diagnose the actual cause of ER patients’ abdominal pain. Worse, CTs deliver significant doses of radiation to a patient’s abdomen and pelvis (equivalent to between 100 and 250 chest X-rays). Over a lifetime, patients who receive two or three abdominal CT scans are exposed to more radiation than many Hiroshima survivors.

Add that to the fact that patients expect a definitive diagnosis when visiting the hospital — one that doctors can’t always give when it comes to abdominal pain. Read more »

*This blog post was originally published at*

How Good Is Your Doctor At Diagnosing You?

We’ve all been there. It often starts with some kind of recurring pain or dull ache. We don’t know what’s causing the pain or ache. During the light of day we tell ourselves that it’s nothing. But at 3:00am when the pain wakes you, worry sets in: “Maybe I have cancer or heart disease or some other life-ending ailment.” The next day you make an appointment to see your doctor.

So now you’re sitting in the exam room explaining this scenario to your doctor. Based on your previous experience, what’s the first thing your doctor would do?

A. Order a battery of tests and schedule a follow-up appointment.

B. Put you in a patient gown and conduct a thorough physical examination, including asking you detailed questions about your complaint before ordering any tests.

If you answered “A,” you have a lot of company. A recent post by Robert Centor, M.D., reminded me of yet another disturbing trend in the doctor-patient interaction. The post, entitled “Many doctors order tests rather than do a history and physical,” talks about how physicians today rely more on technology for diagnosing patients than their own “hands-on” diagnostic skills — a good patient history and physical exam, for example.

Prior to the technology revolution in medicine over the last 20 years, physician training taught doctors how to diagnose patients using with a comprehensive history and physical exam. More physicians today are practicing “test-centered medicine rather than patient-centered medicine.” Medical schools focus on teaching doctors to “click as many buttons on the computer order set as we possibly can in order to cover every life-threatening diagnosis.” The problem is that medicine is still an imperfect science, and technology is not a good substitute for an experienced, hands-on diagnostician. Read more »

*This blog post was originally published at Mind The Gap*

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*

False Positives In Medical Tests: How They Can Kill Patients

I’ve written in the past that more medicine and tests do not necessarily reflect better care.

There is no test that is 100 percent specific or sensitive. That means tests may be positive, when, in fact, there is no disease (“false positive”), or tests may be negative in the presence of disease (“false negative”).

It’s the latter that often gets the most media attention, often trumpeted as missed diagnoses. But false positives can be just as dangerous. Consider this frightening case report from the Archives of Internal Medicine:

A 52-year-old woman presented to a community hospital with atypical chest pain. Her low-density lipoprotein cholesterol and high-sensitivity C-reactive protein levels were not elevated. She underwent cardiac computed tomography angiography, which showed both calcified and noncalcified coronary plaques in several locations. Her physicians subsequently performed coronary angiography, which was complicated by dissection of the left main coronary artery, requiring emergency coronary artery bypass graft surgery. Her subsequent clinical course was complicated, but eventually she required orthotropic heart transplantation for refractory heart failure. This case illustrates the hazards of the inappropriate use of cardiac computed tomography angiography in low-risk patients and emphasizes the need for restraint in applying this new technology to the evaluation of patients with atypical chest pain. Read more »

*This blog post was originally published at*

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