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Unaccountable: A Book About The Underbelly Of Hospital Care

I met Dr. Marty Makary over lunch at Founding Farmers restaurant in DC about three years ago. We had an animated conversation about hospital safety, the potential contribution of checklists to reducing medical errors, and his upcoming book about the need for more transparency in the healthcare system. Marty was well dressed and soft spoken – sincere, and human. We exchanged business cards and wished each other luck in changing the healthcare system for the better. We were two doctors tilting at windmills.

Just two months ago my fiancé sent me a “must read” article from the Wall Street Journal. It was Marty’s provocative piece, “How To Stop Hospitals From Killing Us.” The article was an excellent primer for his book, “Unaccountable: What Hospitals Won’t Tell You And How Transparency Can Revolutionize Health Care” which I highly recommend (holiday gifts, anyone?)

Unaccountable is both horrifying and oddly optimistic. Marty describes case after case of medical errors, lapses in judgment, and near misses in the surgical suite. He exposes the cultural foibles of the medical and hospital hierarchy, leaving no dirty stone unturned. Surgical delinquents such as Dr. Hodad (“hands-of-death-and-destruction”) are presented with detached accuracy, along with a clear list of reasons why the system fails to prevent the Hodads of the world from operating.

From the micro (individual physician mistakes) to the macro (trends in hospital safety breakdowns), Marty turns to survey data to make sense of the shortcomings. Interestingly, hospital “culture” (rated by its own employees) is the most predictive of overall hospital safety performance. Detailed record keeping of surgical complication rates correlates strongly with how employees rate their hospital on three simple questions:

1. Would you have your operation at the hospital in which you work?

2. Do you feel comfortable speaking up when you have a safety concern?

3. Does the teamwork here promote doing what’s right for the patient?

Marty’s conclusion that culture is the defining factor in patient safety and satisfaction ratings is both accurate and squishy. It’s difficult to create a reproducible template for a healthy work culture, and yet good culture is the basis for the success of hospitals such as the Mayo Clinic. Individual hospitals, like individual surgeons, have different personalities and temperaments. Raising them to be upstanding citizens involves a combination of good parenting and good luck.

Because I think Marty is absolutely right about culture as the foundation for safe and effective care, I think he’s also overly optimistic about the potential success of strategies to reproduce caring hospital cultures. By his own admission, not even the Mayo Clinic “mother ship” in Rochester, MN, has been able to create the exact level of quality care in its sister hospitals in Scottsdale, AZ, and Jacksonville, FL. So how can we dramatically improve patient care on a national level? Marty suggests that we need to find ways to force hospitals to become more transparent in order to revolutionize healthcare. His ideas include:

1. Mandatory hospital public reporting of patient re-admissions, complication rates, and never events.

2. Adoption of check lists by surgical teams to reduce errors.

3. Installation of video cameras throughout hospital floors and surgical suites so that staff behaviors can be monitored more effectively (e.g. to enforce hand washing or identify surgeons who have high error rates).

4. Accessible and transferable medical records that put patients at the center of their documentation.

While these ideas have merit, I believe they will fall short of achieving our ultimate goals. In my view, a culture of accountability is not the same as a culture of caring. Adopting certain “Big Brother” (cf. #3 above) strategies to pressure staff to behave/perform appropriately is only going to force the Hodads underground. We need staff to genuinely care enough about their patients to gang up on the Hodads and kick them out of the hospital for good. Caring doesn’t happen at a national level, it is personal and local. That’s why individual hospitals must develop their unique cultures for themselves, with progress measured by responses to those staff questions about whether or not they’d want to be cared for at their own institution.

I agree with Marty that hospital data transparency might be the best antiseptic we have to scrub the underbelly of medicine, though the ultimate success of our procedures will always be culture and surgeon-dependent. And that’s something you can’t regulate from Washington.


Marty’s book is available for purchase at

Check out your local hospital safety scores from LeapFrogGroup.

The Importance Of Balance In Achieving Good Health

One of the best things about writing a blog is when life provides Eureka moments. I read an essay this weekend that literally jolted the blogger in me.

If you are an athlete seeking a pinnacle; (That about covers all of us.)

Or a doctor striving to be the best that you can be–for humanity;

Or a parent wanting to provide the best for your children;

Or a learner wishing you could some day be smart enough to work in a think tank; (Ever wonder what a think tank looks like?)

Or perchance, Read more »

*This blog post was originally published at Dr John M*

Birth Control And Sexual Attraction – The Wall Street Journal’s Breathtakingly Bad Reporting

In an article filled with speculation, misinformation and broad sweeping generalizations, the Wall Street Journal does its damned best to make the birth control pill seem to be the worst thing to have happened to modern civilization, implying that by interfering with ovulation, the pill impairs our natural ability to choose a mate, causes women to choose less masculine partners and then stray from them, and makes us pick genetically similar rather than dissimilar mates.

Women on the pill no longer experience a greater desire for traditionally masculine men during ovulation….Researchers speculate that women with less-masculine partners may become less interested in their partner when they come off birth control, contributing to relationship dissatisfaction…That could prompt some women to stray, research suggests. Psychologist Steven Gangestad and his team at the University of New Mexico showed in a 2010 study that women with less-masculine partners reported an increased attraction for other men during their fertile phase.

“Less masculine” men. What the heck does that mean? Less hairy? Less into sports? Less violent? Not into Nascar or big trucks?

How about more likely to engage in conversation? More likely to care about their partner’s satisfaction in bed than their own? More likely to accept a woman having a career? Read more »

*This blog post was originally published at The Blog That Ate Manhattan*

Accountable Care Act Unconstitutional? The Fate Of Americans’ Health

A Florida’s judge’s ruling that the Accountable Care Act (ACA) is unconstitutional doesn’t resolve the underlying constitutional issue (which will ultimately have to be decided by the U.S. Supreme Court) but it has introduced new uncertainty for the $2.3 trillion health care industry, and emboldened the law’s critics to push even harder for repeal (not that they weren’t trying already).

The Wall Street Journal’s (WSJ) health blog reports that “states and companies that are supposed to be implementing the law trying to figure out what to do next. The WSJ reports that the 26 states that are parties to the suit are considering whether to ask the Supreme Court to take up the case now, before it has fully wended its way through the legal system. The New York Times (NYT) quotes the governor of Florida as saying that until the fate of the law is clear, “we’re not going to spend a lot of time and money” to implement it. Other states, even if part of the suit, will move ahead,” the NYT says. The WSJ also reports that most health care companies plan to “stay the course” and continue to plan for the law’s implementation. Meanwhile, the Obama administration says that the judge’s ruling will have no effect on the implementation of the law or the requirement that states (including those who brought the suit) comply with its mandates and claims that most constitutional experts agree with the administration.

Now, I am not a lawyer, so I don’t have any expertise on the legal arguments over the ACA’s constitutionality. For those of you who want to hear more about the constitutional questions from people who might actually know what they are talking about, I recommend this Health Care Blog post from attorney Mark Hall, a critic of the Florida judge’s ruling. He notes that “at least half of the relevant part of the opinion is devoted to discussing what Hamilton, Madison, Jefferson and other Founding Fathers would have thought about the individual mandate” (Judge Vinson concluded that they would not have approved of it) but “the same Founders wrote a Constitution that allowed the federal government to take property from unwilling sellers and passive owners, when needed to construct highways, bridges and canals.” The Washington Post’s Ezra Klein — a supporter of the Affordable Care Act — has posted an excellent overview of what legal experts are saying about the ruling, pro and con, including a link to a posting that argues Judge Vinson ruled correctly. Read more »

*This blog post was originally published at The ACP Advocate Blog by Bob Doherty*

Tired Surgeons: How Long Was The Patient Asleep?

In a recent New England Journal of Medicine, a perspective piece on what to do with fatigued surgeons is generating debate. The issue of work-hour restrictions has been a controversial issue when it comes to doctors in training, something that I wrote about earlier in the year in USA Today. But once doctors graduate and practice in the real world, there are no rules.

As summarized in the WSJ’s Health Blog, the perspective piece argues for more regulation for tired surgeons:

… self-regulation is not sufficient. Instead, “we recommend that institutions implement policies to minimize the likelihood of sleep deprivation before a clinician performs elective surgery and to facilitate priority rescheduling of elective procedures when a clinician is sleep-deprived,” they write. For example, elective procedures wouldn’t be scheduled for the day after a physician is due to be on all-night call.

And the authors suggest that patients be “empowered to inquire about the amount of sleep their clinicians have had the night before such procedures.”

It’s a noble goal, and indeed, data does show that fatigued surgeons tend to make more errors. Patients, once confronted with a choice of being operated on by a tired surgeon, may choose to postpone surgery. Read more »

*This blog post was originally published at*

Latest Interviews

IDEA Labs: Medical Students Take The Lead In Healthcare Innovation

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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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