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The Magic Question That Every Patient Should Ask Their Doctor

I realize that my blog has been littered with depressing musings on healthcare lately, and so I thought I’d offer up one very positive and “actionable” suggestion for all you patients out there. In the midst of a broken system where your doctor is being pressured to spend more time with a computer than listening and examining you, where health insurance rates and co-pays are sky-rocketing, and where 1 in 5 patients have the wrong diagnosis… There is one “magic” question that you should be asking your physician(s):

“What else could this be?”

This very simple question about your condition/complaint can be extremely enlightening. Physicians are trained to develop extensive “differential diagnoses” (a list of all possible explanations for a set of signs and symptoms) but rarely have time to think past possibilities 1 through 3. That’s one of the reasons why so many patients have the wrong diagnosis – which is both costly in terms of medical bills, time, and pain and suffering.

There is a risk in asking this question – you don’t want to be over-tested for conditions that you are unlikely to have, of course. But I maintain that the cost/risk of living with the wrong diagnosis far exceeds the risk of additional testing to confirm the correct diagnosis. So my advice to patients is to keep this very important question in mind when you see your doctor for a new concern.

In addition to asking this question of your doctor, you can also ask it during a second opinion meeting with another physician. The good news is that these days you don’t even need to get a second opinion in person. I myself have been working with an online second-opinion service called eDocAmerica for several years. Those who sign up for the service can pick the brains of board-certified U.S. physicians on any subject, 24-7 via email (and in some states via phone). The cost is extraordinarily reasonable when provided by employers, and winds up being about one or two dollars per member per month.

If you have a complicated disease or condition (such as cancer) where experts may not all agree on the best treatment plan, a company called Best Doctors offers detailed chart reviews and second opinions from top specialists at academic centers. Again, this service is quite affordable and reasonable if the cost is spread among a group. Employers are able to pay a small fee per employee per month to enroll the entire company in the service.

So why don’t all employers offer these benefits? I suspect that part of the reason is lack of awareness that second opinion services exist, and the other part is tepid demand on the part of employees. So if you’d like to make sure that you’re not one of the five people who have the wrong diagnosis, why not raise the question with your HR department? Enrolling as an individual is also an option, and still as inexpensive as about thirty dollars a month.

My bottom line: make sure you ask your doctor the magic question at least once for every new concern that you have. And if you’re too shy to do it, or your doctor’s answer seems too short, then get a second opinion online or in person.

This one little question could save your life.

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*

So Many Patient Complaints, Not Enough Time

Primary care physicians often have to see patients with a litany of issues — often within a span of a 15-minute office visit.

This places the doctor in the middle of a tension: Spend more time with the patient to address all of the concerns, but risk the wrath of patients scheduled afterwards, who are then forced to wait. And in some cases, it’s simply impossible to adequately address every patient question during a given visit.

It’s a situation that internist Danielle Ofri wrote recently about in the New York Times. In her essay, she describes a patient, who she initially classified as the “worried well” type:

… a thin, 50-year-old educated woman with a long litany of nonspecific, unrelated complaints and tight worry lines carved into her face. She unfolded a sheet of paper on that Thursday morning in my office with a brisk snap, and my heart sank as I saw 30 lines of hand-printed concerns.

Ms. W. told me that she had recently started smoking again, after her elderly mother became ill, and she was up to a pack a day now. She had headaches, eye pain, pounding in her ears, shortness of breath and dizziness. Her throat felt dry when she swallowed, and she had needling sensations in her chest and tightness in her gut. She couldn’t fall asleep at night. And she really, really wanted a cigarette, she told me, nervously eying the door.

This is the kind of patient who makes me feel as though I’m drowning.

Dr. Ofri did as many doctors do: She listened appropriately, went over the patient’s history and physical, reviewed prior tests, and concluded that many of her symptoms were due to anxiety. Except, in this case, they weren’t. The patient eventually had a pulmonary embolus, and hospitalized. Read more »

*This blog post was originally published at*

The Relative Unimportance Of Diagnosis In Psychiatry

Look, he came back! Guest blogger Mitchell Newmark, M.D., put on his armor and came to blog with us again.

The Relative Unimportance of Diagnosis In Psychiatry

As we will soon be witness to the emergence of DSM-V, the new rule book for psychiatric diagnosis, I am reminded of all the pitfalls of diagnosis in psychiatry. In other fields of medicine, diagnosis is based primarily on etiology, with objective findings, rather than on symptoms alone, as it is in psychiatry. When you go to your internist with stomach pain, there’s an endoscopy to look for ulcers, a sonogram to look for gall stones, a blood test to look for hepatitis. But in psychiatry, there is no CT scan to check for bipolar disorder, no blood test to assess if the patient has schizophrenia, no spinal tap to check for major depression.

For the psychiatric community at large, diagnosis is important for many reasons. It helps doctors sort out patients so that clinical trials can be conducted on similar groups of patients. It enhances communication among psychiatrists when behavioral, affective and cognitive symptoms can be categorized. But for the individual patient, it is less useful. Some patients fit nicely into DSM categories, and others don’t. There are many patients who have unique combinations of symptoms across several diagnostic criteria. This leads to assigning multiple diagnoses, and confusing the treatment picture. Read more »

*This blog post was originally published at Shrink Rap*

Real Reform In Healthcare

“We want our employees to spend their time on real issues,” said Charlie Salter, VP of Benefits at ConAgra. He means it. Charlie and ConAgra have built their healthcare benefits around some simple concepts that are yielding impressive results. How impressive? Close to flat healthcare cost trend since 2007.

Charlie’s work is part of a growing trend among America’s most innovative companies: Designing healthcare benefits in ways that have a real impact on quality and cost. It’s why I [recently] asked Charlie to share the podium with me in Boca Raton. ConAgra is showing it’s possible to control healthcare costs by helping people do the right thing.

The vision behind ConAgra’s programs is simple: Employees have to be responsible for managing their own care. But, says Charlie, this is easy to say, harder to do. “So we do as much as we can to make it as easy for people to do the right thing.” ConAgra gives its employees a significant financial stake in their well-being, through a health plan that has a $1,500 deductible. ConAgra supplements the plan with a health savings account (HSA) that lets workers use pre-tax dollars to pay for the deductible. Like other HSAs, any money the employee doesn’t spend is theirs to keep. It means employees are more engaged in healthcare decisions. Read more »

*This blog post was originally published at See First Blog*

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