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

Latest Posts

A Bagels And Boobs Mammogram Party

I don’t always practice what I preach. Regular mammograms, for instance. Last year I realized I had skipped a few, so I decided to turn my procrastination into an opportunity to reach out to those of my patients guilty of the same thing.

I made arrangements with my hospital to monopolize half their schedule one Saturday morning, put flyers up in my office and talked it up like crazy to every eligible woman I saw. On the appointed day, I brought a whole bunch of bagels, half a dozen spreads (I asked the ladies to bring their own coffee), and we proceeded to have a blast! Or as much fun as you can have getting your boobs squished. Hey; it’s all in the name of early detection.

Last year’s final tally was a bakers dozen (twelve patients plus me), out of which about 5 people were called back for more views (mainly those with old films not readily available from other institutions), 2 benign biopsies were done, and one case of invasive breast cancer was diagnosed and treated. Not bad, I thought. Read more »

*This blog post was originally published at Musings of a Dinosaur*

Why Double Mastectomies Are Popular: Watchful Waiting Is Too Difficult?

The rise of prophylactic double mastectomy in women with increased risk of breast cancer has been a topic of recent discussion. In particular, this trend has been observed amongst women with the diagnosis of unilateral carcinoma in situ, or pre-invasive breast cancer. While it has been known that in women with genetic cancer syndromes, including BRCA1 and BRCA2, double mastectomy reduces risk, the efficacy of the approach is uncertain in women with other risk profiles, yet more women and surgeons seem to be doing it.

Knowing when to test, treat and act is part of art of medical practice. The ability to convey this information effectively is also an art. Both patients and doctors may have a hard time embracing watchful waiting with respect to many forms of cancer and pre-cancer. In the case of cancer of the cervix, it is known that infection with human papillomavirus (HPV) is causative in cancer development. However, only a small percentage of those infected actually go on to get cancer. Low grade dysplasia, a condition that is early in the cervical cancer development continuum, frequently spontaneously resolves without treatment. Fortunately, in the case of cervical cancer, there is now a vaccine to prevent high risk HPV infection.

“Watchful waiting” has been most discussed as a treatment strategy for prostate cancer. Read more »

*This blog post was originally published at ACP Internist*

How Experienced Is The Radiologist Who Reads Your Mammogram?

There’s a new study out on mammography with important implications for breast cancer screening. The main result is that when radiologists review more mammograms per year, the rate of false positives declines.

The stated purpose of the research*, published in the journal Radiology, was to see how radiologists’ interpretive volume — essentially the number of mammograms read per year — affects their performance in breast cancer screening. The investigators collected data from six registries participating in the NCI’s Breast Cancer Surveillance Consortium, involving 120 radiologists who interpreted 783,965 screening mammograms from 2002 to 2006. So it was a big study, at least in terms of the number of images and outcomes assessed.

First — and before reaching any conclusions — the variance among seasoned radiologists’ everyday experience reading mammograms is striking. From the paper:

…We studied 120 radiologists with a median age of 54 years (range, 37–74 years); most worked full time (75%), had 20 or more years of experience (53%), and had no fellowship training in breast imaging (92%). Time spent in breast imaging varied, with 26% of radiologists working less than 20% and 33% working 80%–100% of their time in breast imaging. Most (61%) interpreted 1000–2999 mammograms annually, with 9% interpreting 5000 or more mammograms.

So they’re looking at a diverse bunch of radiologists reading mammograms, as young as 37 and as old as 74, most with no extra training in the subspecialty. The fraction of work effort spent on breast imaging –presumably mammography, sonos and MRIs — ranged from a quarter of the group (26 percent) who spend less than a fifth of their time on it and a third (33 percent) who spend almost all of their time on breast imaging studies. Read more »

*This blog post was originally published at Medical Lessons*

A Video Poem: Medical Tests And What “Normal” Means

I’ve written a few times about Veneta Masson, a nurse practitioner who wrote in Health Affairs and the Washington Post about her decision to forego further mammograms despite the fact that she was in a higher-risk category.

Veneta is also a poet. She sent me a video animation of her poem “Reference Range,” which I’m pleased to share with you. I think the poem and the video are beautiful, touching on important issues of how meaningless numbers and scores may be, subject to misinterpretation. She writes:

I see no cause for alarm.

“Is it normal?” you ask.

Normal’s a shell game you seldom win.

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

Mammography: An Important Discussion To Keep Alive

This is a thoughtful “sounding board” piece in the New England Journal of Medicine this week: Lessons from the Mammography Wars.

It is so important to keep this discussion alive. The miscommunication that took place last November of what the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force tried to convey, and the complicity of some news organizations in adding to that confusion, provide lessons from which we simply must learn to do better.

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

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 »