Posted by: notdeaddinosaur | March 8, 2015

Shortage of Logic, Not Doctors

In news to absolutely no one with an iota of common sense, the purported physician shortage isn’t actually one of numbers, but rather a problem of distribution. Per this article by Lenny Bernstein in the Washington Post:

[C]ritics of doctor shortage projections have argued for years that the problem is actually poor distribution of physicians, with too many clustered in urban and affluent areas and too few in poor and rural areas.

Doctors prefer to live in affluent urban areas instead of rural poor ones. This is a surprise…why? Doctors are people. There are more people in urban and suburban areas than in rural ones. It’s, you know, part of the DEFINITION. Therefore there are going to be more doctors where there are more people.

Sure, there are doctors who love the rural lifestyle. Hats off to them. However apparently there aren’t enough of them. Then again, rural areas, by DEFINITION, have relatively few people scattered over a wide area. In order for doctors and patients to get together, someone’s gonna have to travel. (Yes yes yes, there’s always telemedicine. Doesn’t help much when you need an actual procedure like surgery, or help delivering a baby. No matter how you cut it, there are times when you and your doctor need to be in physical contact.)

So obviously there are going to be more doctors where there are more people. But why might they cluster in affluent areas? Contrary to popular belief, lots of us feel strongly that everyone deserves medical care. Unfortunately, we are faced with the realities of making a living in a profession that requires a truly obscene up-front investment. I am personally aware of numerous students who would make fabulous primary care physicians who feel they won’t be able to pay off their loans unless they go into more lucrative specialty fields. I’ll bet that distribution problem would sort itself out in a hurry if we overhauled the financing of medical education.

Imagine what public transportation would look like if all the operators had to purchase and maintain their own vehicles, and if they all had total freedom about what routes and vehicles they were going to run? If I’m going to be forced to buy a bus, you’d better believe I’m going to choose the best paying routes in the nicest parts of town. Then again, why bother? How about if I just get a Mercedes limousine, and limit my practice to shuttling rich folk back and forth wherever they wanted, almost like a “concierge”?

And no, Nurse Practitioners and Physician Assistants are not the answer either. In the first place, despite their lofty opinions of themselves, as a group they are not capable of replacing primary care physicians. I think that non-physician providers should care for healthy people and doctors should take care of sick people. Let the NPs do well baby and preventive care til the cows come home. Most of it is education anyway, which is their alleged forte. (Spoiler alert: It’s mainly because they have more time to spend with patients.) And in the second place, it’s just as hard to get NPs and PAs to set up shop in poor, rural areas as it is to attract doctors. Hell, most of them avoid primary care as well, and why? It doesn’t pay well enough. What a surprise.

Here’s a thought: make medical school (college too) affordable to everyone qualified who wants to go. Then see what that physician distribution issue looks like in ten to fifteen years.

Posted by: notdeaddinosaur | February 27, 2015

Crowd Sourced Suckers

“What do you think of this?” writes a friend:

…[A]n untraditional approach to medical diagnosis that is helping solve the country’s most difficult medical mysteries and creating real miracles.

This is the description of something called CrowdMed, the latest version of getting doctors to provide services for free. Thus my short answer about what I think of it: not much.

To be fair, and because I had a few minutes of free time, I went and checked it out. Patients submit questions about their medical condition(s), accompanied by varying levels of supporting detail, and “medical detectives” offer their opinions about possible diagnoses and/or other courses of action.

Are all these “detectives” doctors? Um, no:

Our Medical Detectives include medical students, retired physicians, nurses, physician assistants, chiropractors, scientists, naturopaths, and regular people who enjoy solving medical mysteries. We believe in the wisdom of crowds, not just individual experts, as you never know who will provide the insight that leads to a correct diagnosis or cure. We recruit Medical Detectives from a broad range of medical and non-medical backgrounds to assure cognitive diversity.

Right. Because regular people, presumably with access to Wikipedia and perhaps Up To Date, in large enough numbers, are just as good as doctors; maybe better. Really? “You never know who will provide the insight that leads to a correct diagnosis”?? Even a broken clock is right twice a day.

Ah, but this site actually pays. Well, offers financial compensation. How?:

Point rewards and cash compensation offered by patients are awarded to those Medical Detectives who contributed and/or assigned points to the best diagnostic or solution suggestion as determined by the patient or their physician, divided up according to each Medical Detective’s overall point winnings on that case. Patients may also direct up to 80% of their reward points and cash to named Medical Detectives who they found to be most helpful. Note that CrowdMed collects 20% of cash compensation offers as commission.


Well, where does the money come from?

Where it always does, ultimately: from patients. Anywhere from $99 to $499 depending on how long you want to let the Crowd have at it, whether you want to limit input to just the top tier “detectives,” or have a moderator involved.

There are other sites that try to rope doctors into answering patient questions, like this one. Most of the questions fall into one of these categories:

  1. Just google it.
  2. What the hell are you talking about?
  3. What on earth are you doing at a computer/get your ass to a doctor!

To its credit, CrowdMed tries to offer as complete a clinical picture as they can. But in perusing their cases, I always find myself wondering what the patient is leaving out, even inadvertently. Nothing online can take the place of actually sitting a room with a patient face to face.

So why do doctors go online and answer questions from strangers for free?

At first, you just want to help. Just a few simple words to ease someone’s mind. But then you find yourself carefully crafting those answers, and before you know it, an hour is gone. Points! Ratings! Levels! Increase your score! The competitive urge starts kicking in. Solve the case and level up!

But not for long. It’s as much of a time sink as cats on YouTube, and not nearly as adorable.

“Medical Mystery” is a literary term, not a clinical one. Doctors discuss complex cases, or zebra diagnoses, or “patients with significant psychiatric overlay.” The truly elusive diagnosis is rare. Most of these cases are indictments of a broken medical system in which doctors are not given sufficient resources (mainly time) to both gather the necessary information AND mentally process it, ie time to think. It’s the hectic, workaday world of modern American practice that sends patients shuttling around to specialist after specialist, often repeating expensive tests for no rational reason. It’s almost a wonder that so many complex diagnoses are correctly made .

CrowdMed is just another way for non-physicians to siphon money away from sick people and the doctors who are trying to take care of them. No miracles to see here. Move along.

Posted by: notdeaddinosaur | February 16, 2015

In the News Again

Yesterday’s Philadelphia Inquirer Health section’s Medical Mystery, by yours truly.

I’ve been busy. I think they’re going to print another one of mine next week as well.

Posted by: notdeaddinosaur | February 12, 2015

Aspirin and Altruism

I have a patient in his mid-60s with multiple risk factors for cardiovascular disease. He has hypertension and hyperlipidemia controlled with medication. He’s got mild, diet-controlled diabetes, and his father dropped dead of a heart attack at age 51. At least he doesn’t smoke.

This is a patient who should clearly be taking low dose aspirin daily for cardiovascular prophylaxis. But:

For the last 20 years, ever since his wife was diagnosed with breast cancer, he has been a platelet donor. Every month without fail, he goes to donate. Even after his wife passed away, he’s kept it up. Month in, month out.

Aspirin works by inactivating platelets. It wouldn’t do the recipients of his donations any good to receive defective platelets. So he has made the conscious decision to live with a slightly higher risk of heart attack or stroke so that he can continue to help others as a platelet donor.

Now that is altruism.

Posted by: notdeaddinosaur | February 11, 2015

Told You So

For several years now I have been advising my patients that, based on my admittedly anecdotal but fairly extensive experience, dietary cholesterol is no big deal.

“What?” my patients would cry with incredulity. “What kind of doctor are you, saying that eggs aren’t bad for us?”

My response has generally been that your blood cholesterol levels have far more to do with how you pick your parents than how you pick your food. Cholesterol you eat is metabolized by the liver, which then synthesizes the stuff that winds up in the blood. And that liver metabolism is genetically programmed. Sure, being sedentary and overweight can nudge those levels up a bit, though not nearly as much as you may think. And yes, “diet”, exercise, and weight loss are perfectly good first-line treatments for high cholesterol levels.

I have now been officially proven right. Well, maybe “proven” is a bit strong. Let’s say that the weight of actual evidence (now that they’ve bothered to formally study the issue) is beginning to lean in my general direction.

What else am I probably right about?

ACE inhibitors for diabetes: Regardless of blood pressure. I tell my diabetic patients that it’s good for their kidneys.

Vitamin D: low levels in childhood may be linked to atherosclerosis in midlife. My take: Despite the USPSTF’s “Insufficient evidence” finding for vitamin D deficiency screening, I’ve been doing it — and usually recommending that otherwise healthy adults consume 2000 IU daily. Even though we may not yet understand everything Vitamin D is doing for us, it can’t possibly be good to be low. Technically yes, because it’s a fat-soluble vitamin, you can get toxic on it. But the range is from 30 to 100, and the only person I’ve only seen who was toxic had been taking 10,000 IU daily. By way of comparison, if the level is very low I’ll suggest “topping up the tank” with once weekly prescription doses of 50,000 IU.

Who knows what other new “discoveries” await to support what I’ve been doing for years?

We shall see.

Posted by: notdeaddinosaur | February 5, 2015

New Treatment for Obesity???

There’s some really fascinating research coming down the pike about the role bacteria in our gut (our so-called microbiome) play in our overall health. Rapidly becoming mainstream is the idea of “fecal transplants” to cure resistant gut infections with a particularly nasty germ called clostridium difficile (or C. diff to its friends — er, to those who know it well).

Now there’s a case report of a patient who was cured of her C. diff infection with a fecal transplant from an overweight donor, who is now packing on the pounds. While we need to be cautious about that whole correlation-causation thing, the incident is apparently compelling enough for the authors to avoid overweight fecal donors in the future.

I read this a bit differently.

Analogous to bone marrow transplants (curing bone marrow cancers like leukemia and lymphoma by wiping out the bad marrow with radiation and chemo and then replacing it with marrow from a healthy donor) how about this:

Take overweight patients and wipe out their gut microbiome with powerful antibiotics (preferably ones that aren’t absorbed; vancomycin comes to mind.) Then give them a fecal transplant from a non-overweight donor and see what happens. It seems extraordinarily low risk, despite the ick factor. Frankly, I’d sign up for that in a heartbeat.

Gives a whole new twist to the sentiment “Eat shit.”

Posted by: notdeaddinosaur | January 27, 2015

Down the Rabbit Hole of “Quality” We Go


The Obama administration on Monday announced an ambitious goal to overhaul the way doctors are paid, tying their fees more closely to the quality of care rather than the quantity.

Holy crap: they’re really doing it. Or trying to do it. Who the hell knows what they’re trying to do? Not “them”, that’s for sure.

The United States government via the Department of Health and Human Services is going to start trying to pay for “Quality of Care” without ever defining what that means!

Doctors practice medicine, an art and a skill that sometimes involves procedures and sometimes involves cognitive services. That last one means “thinking.” When you do a procedure, usually when you are done you have something to show for it; generally a wound or a specimen. When all you do is sit and think — which includes listening to and talking with patients — how does anyone else know what you’ve really done?

One way is if you write down what you were thinking about, thus producing what we call the “medical record.” Actually, I’d be okay with this if only they looked at the right part of the record: the assessment. Instead, thanks to EMRs, the medical record has devolved into a useless mass of cut and pasted, bullet-pointed lists of history and exam items that ends up useful only to billing clerks and malpractice attorneys. At this point it’s often more of a hindrance than a help to anyone actually trying to take care of patients.

“Quality” measures are meaningless because “quality” is completely in the eye of the beholder. Actually, that last link is to a damn good post of mine. To quote myself:

Some argue that when you have an operation, the surgeon shouldn’t leave anything inside you that shouldn’t be there. Others would say that everyone taking care of patients should wash their hands before and after every patient contact. Certainly all medical professionals should maintain proper licensure and credentials. I think of those things as basic expectations; more the difference between “acceptable” and “unacceptable”. “Quality” is different from “not unacceptable.”

Enter the idea of looking at “outcomes” (another meaningless word, also previously addressed by me here and here.) To reiterate: only certain kinds of illness and injuries have measurable outcomes. Fractures (should) heal. Surgically treated illnesses (should) resolve after operation. And so on. It’s generally accepted that there is a direct causal relationship between medical treatment provided and resolution of the condition, though this is not always so. Postoperative complications are not always preventable. Some fractures won’t heal. Cancers sometimes recur. So even the measurement of “outcomes” as a proxy for “quality” is fraught with hazard.

What about the relationship between “quality” and “Patient satisfaction”? Two words:Press Ganey. Short version is that there are times (lots of times) when what people think they want from doctors is not only not what they need, but can be dangerous, useless, and expensive. The patient is not the customer (and even so, the customer isnot always right). When you actually look, it seems like the more satisfied people are, the worse their care.

But now Sylvia Mathews Burwell says:

Rather than pay more money to physicians for every procedure they perform, Medicare will also evaluate whether patients are healthier, among other measures.

This is going to sound counterintuitive, but medical care doesn’t make people healthier. Much of the time, it only makes them less sick, or keeps them from dying. I guess according to Medicare’s new paradigm, every death is a failure. What about the outrageous sums of money already being thrown at patients, usually elderly, in the last year of life? And heaven forbid we actually try talking to our patients about stopping treatment. Those conversations are hard. They take time. Time we don’t have and for which we’re not paid.

None of these “quality measures” can possibly capture compassion, dignity, empathy, competence — all the things that together define the true high quality physician. This new announcement heralds nothing but a windfall for those who can wrangle enough doctors gullible enough to fall for the high-minded rhetoric of “innovative health care delivery systems”, “population based care”, “value”, and “quality.” Mark my words: this is the day we will eventually look back on as the beginning of the end of Medicare as we know it.

Which isn’t all bad. Perhaps when this new system of Accountable Care Organizations collapses under the weight of its executive compensation, we’ll finally find our way to a single payer system, which seems to work well enough for pretty much every other country in the world.

Posted by: notdeaddinosaur | January 25, 2015

Bemoaning the Anti-Vaxers; Welcome to my World

Surprise! (NOT) There’s a new measles epidemic centered on California’s Disneyland, primarily because of non-vaccinated children. What is not so much surprising as it is interesting (and gratifying) is the way the mass media has by and large come down against the antivaccine movement responsible for the carnage.

More amusing is listening to long-time med bloggers sound off:

I do not have personal experience with the anti-vaxxers. My colleagues in other states tell me that many of these fools are well-educated. Obviously they are anti-science. I believe that many such vaccine deniers believe that diet and supplements will trump modern medicine.

The striking rise in measles is directly attributable to this ignorant selfishness. I am having difficulty explaining how angry this makes me.

Angry? Hello! Welcome to my world:

and more.

I have been vilified, cursed, accused of “sucking at the teat of big pharma”, and worse. One of the above pieces generated an (outrageously false) accusation of plagiarism. Talk about angry! I’m still reduced to trembling just thinking about it.

And my experiences are nothing compared to those of Dr. Paul Offit. He’s been fighting this fight longer than all of us combined. Only now are the anti-vaxers starting to get the negative press they so richly deserve.

Here’s the thing, though: anger is not a useful emotion to bring to the interaction with these patients/parents. When you stop to think about it, how likely are you to change someone’s mind by telling them they are being a selfish idiot, even when it’s true? Imagine trying to convince a reluctant patient to undergo what you know to be life-saving treatment. Getting angry at them for being stupid is probably not the best approach.

We need to overcome reluctance and resistance to vaccination. The only way that’s going to happen is to approach theses people with respect, hear — really hear! — their concerns, and do our level best to educate them about the logical fallacies underlying those concerns.

Quoting myself:

A few months ago, I saw a new patient in my office. This lovely, intelligent 14-year-old had received no immunizations at all. Having now done the research for himself, this boy was requesting all age-appropriate vaccinations. To his parents’ credit, although they disagreed with his decision, they respected his wishes and brought him to see me. We (he and I) sat down together and set up an appropriate schedule. I administered the first set of vaccinations; he returned as requested, and all went well.

I have another family in my practice who just had their first child. They had “concerns” about the vaccines and came to see me before the birth to discuss these issues. They ended up deciding to forego Hepatitis B, but so far their 2-month-old is otherwise “on schedule.” They don’t want her to get MMR or Chickenpox vaccine, but every time I see them we discuss it some more. I try to provide more information and address their concerns with respect. I’m optimistic that when the time comes, the kid will end up fully vaccinated. And even if she doesn’t, there’s always the possibility that she, like the young man above, will transcend her parents’ limitations and eventually choose vaccine protection for herself.

I understand the anger — and I share it. But it’s not helpful. And we are supposed to help.

Posted by: notdeaddinosaur | January 23, 2015

Busy Day

I was very busy yesterday. In addition to the Philly Inquirer piece, I also spoke with the lovely Taunya English at WHYY.

Yesterday I was in the paper. Today I’m on the radio.

Have a listen.

Posted by: notdeaddinosaur | January 22, 2015

Nice Picture

It’s kind of amazing how a big colorful picture can dominate a news story even when it has precious little to do with the subject at hand. To wit, this image:

DrLucy draws up a flu shot

now graces the top of page A3 in today’s Philadelphia Inquirer, illustrating an article headlined:

Paid more, doctors saw more Medicaid patients, Penn study finds

In other news: Water is wet.

Pardon my snark. I suppose demonstrating things that are intuitively obvious can be useful at times. Especially when dealing with the government, which includes large numbers of people who refuse to believe just about anything that hasn’t passed across their desk in triplicate.

So the big news for the day was that there is now actual evidence that increasing payments (not “reimbursements“!) to doctors allows us to provide care to people for whom we would not otherwise be able to do so. Able; not just willing. However, as I am quoted somewhat extensively toward the end of the piece, for many of us it wasn’t enough.

Here’s why, though (and this didn’t make it into the article): that $35 quoted as an office visit payment from Medicaid is a fiction, at least in my state. See, Pennsylvania administers Medicaid (it’s called “ACCESS”; Orwellian, isn’t it?) entirely through managed care programs. Capitated HMOs. There is no way for any doctor to get paid fee for service for Medicaid in Pennsylvania. Apparently they publish fee schedules to fulfill ACA requirements. But whenever I try to bill for my services, all I get is a rejection with the notation, “Member is eligible for a managed care program. Please contact the appropriate program.”

I joined in with the nascent HMO movement back in the early 90s, right when I was starting up my practice. At the time, they were the only shows in town. I hated them because of the way they kept trying to force me to balance my own bottom line against the welfare of my patients. I pretty much always came out on the side of the patients, but the resentment towards the insurance companies was deep and abiding. I only participate in two of them these days, and only because I am required to by an “All Products” clause in my contract. (If I don’t take the HMO, I can’t participate in the PPO.) But long ago I made the business decision not to join any more of them. Guess what: that includes all of Medicaid. Oh well.

Make no mistake. It’s a fine article and I’m very pleased to be part of it. So today my picture is in the paper. Why? Because I was able to pull a still image out of a video from 2012, crop a screen shot and get it in by 5:00 pm. Also because I’m a scintillating interviewee brimming with pithy quotes, of course. But after this news cycle ends and my 15 seconds of fame are over, I’ll still be here, longing to provide care for the less fortunate in my community but not willing to go broke doing it.

That’s my story.

Posted by: notdeaddinosaur | January 20, 2015

So Much Easier

I saw a patient the other day who was finally sober, again, after several relapses. She was working the program and doing very well indeed. She mentioned that she had gone to a yoga class, and then made the following comment:

It’s so much easier when I’m sober.

Which got us thinking about all kinds of other things that are easier when you’re sober:

  • Working: Much easier to get to work in the morning when you’re not hung over.
  • Laundry: Instead of getting so discouraged looking at the pile that you just have a drink.
  • Driving: without worrying about getting pulled over for DUI.
  • Yoga: and walking, swimming, basically any kind of exercise.
  • Cooking: when you haven’t filled up on booze.
  • Talking to people, like friends and family; much easier when you’re, you know, conscious. Which leads to:
  • Maintaining relationships: Directly related to the ability to interact with others.
  • Paying bills: without blowing the bulk of your paycheck on alcohol.

Then again, in fairness, there are several things that are much easier to do while drinking:

  • Wrecking your car
  • Alienating your family
  • Losing your job; after calling in “sick” one too many times
  • Going broke: much easier to lose track of where your funds are going.
  • Trashing your liver: it may take some time, but it’s still a relatively reliable way to end up with cirrhosis.

I’m sure there are plenty of other things for both lists, but this seems like a good start.

Posted by: notdeaddinosaur | January 19, 2015

Is it the Food, or is it the Fast?

Exciting recent research about the benefits of restricting eating to a certain window of time during the day: it works. On mice, at least. Granted you can’t extrapolate directly to humans, yet it supports my empiric observations that people who eat at night (technically, “when they’re supposed to be sleeping”; mice are nocturnal, so in the study, they were restricted to eating at night, corresponding to “when they’re supposed to”) find it very difficult, if not impossible, to lose weight.

Yet I find myself wondering whether it’s the restricted eating period, or the enforced fasting that’s doing the trick. When you’re talking 12 hours vs 12 hours, this wouldn’t seem to be much of a distinction. But here’s where it comes into play.

What if I try to eat only during a certain window of time during the day — say 7:00 am to 7:00 pm — and screw up? Can I get back on (biologic) track by waiting a full 12 hours since that last indiscretion? Although the research doesn’t yet exist, I’m going to bet Yes. At least, it’s a tweak to my current weight loss program (basically just writing down everything I eat, which worked before) that’s not all that hard to do.

If I know I have a late dinner planned as a special event, I wait until later in the day to begin eating. Then the next morning I just wait 12 hours after I finished the night before.

If nothing else, it’s a strategy to help get through the holidays and other times when special events collude to sabotage the best dietary intentions.

Posted by: notdeaddinosaur | January 18, 2015

The Joy of a Foodie Child

I do not have a foodie child. Not one living at home, at least. (Though I’m not sure if promising to try one new food a week but being an accomplished cookie maven qualifies as a true foodie. Sorry, DinoDaughter.) However I found myself jealous of a patient the other day on account of hers.

There’s a game in my family. We call it the “What do you want for dinner?” game. The object of the game is to be the first to ask the other, “What do you want for dinner?”, thus forcing the other person to make the decision. (This doesn’t always work. DDS’ answer is often, “I don’t know. What do you want?” In the context of the game, this is cheating.) But I have a patient who doesn’t have this problem.

Patient to son: What do you want for dinner?

Foodie son: I want that french dip roast something in the crock pot…Never mind. I’ll text you the recipe.

And he does. Here’s the link:

Here’s the recipe:

  1. Trim excess fat from the rump roast, and place in a slow cooker. Add the beef broth, onion soup and beer. Cook on Low setting for 7 hours.
  2. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F (175 degrees C).
  3. Split French rolls, and spread with butter. Bake 10 minutes, or until heated through.
  4. Slice the meat on the diagonal, and place on the rolls. Serve the sauce for dipping.

And he follows up through the day, texting:

Did Dad get the right rolls?

I’m leaving a little later than I thought. Save some for me.

Is it any good?

Is there any left?

(Answers: Yes, Okay, Oh yes!, and Yes.)

What a fun kid.

Not complaining. None of my kids are still at home, unlike the above-mentioned one. But it must be nice to get such a decisive answer to that age-old question.

Posted by: notdeaddinosaur | January 17, 2015

Here We Go Again: Flu and Flu Shots


Patient-linked article on Facebook about the tragic case of a 26-year-old woman in Wisconsin who died of sepsis from pneumonia as a complication of the flu, despite having received a flu shot. Somehow this now becomes a reason not to get flu shots. Say what?

Maybe she ate tomatoes. Did you know that everyone born before 1890 who ate tomatoes is now DEAD? Tomatoes are deadly! Don’t eat tomatoes.

Actually, the first thought that popped into my head was to wonder if she was pregnant. It’s known that pregnancy greatly increases the risk of serious complications from the flu.

The real take-home lesson from this tragedy is NOT the lethality of flu shots, but the perils of failing to promptly recognize and treat sepsis. Just because this year’s flu virus managed to outsmart the vaccine manufacturers, who had to decide nine months agoa which strains to include in this year’s shot, does not mean that flu shots are worthless. Quite the contrary.

Funny how you don’t see the thousands of reports of “perfectly healthy” people who died of the flu but didn’t get the vaccine. I guess those stories are too “dog bites man” to make the news. Doesn’t change the fact that not getting the flu shot is far more dangerous than getting it, despite the prevalence of the post hoc ergo propter hoc logical fallacy.

Here’s where I should insert all the correct information about the flu and flu shots. Fortunately, this lady has done it for me. Click through; it’s well worth it. And come get your flu shot. (I’m talking to you, FG.)

Posted by: notdeaddinosaur | January 15, 2015

Senior Immunization Update

First patient this morning began with a question:

What’s this new coxie vaccine something-or-other I’ve been hearing about? Can you explain that to me?

Cox? Oh, you must mean Pneumococcus. Yes, I can explain that:

There’s a very common germ that lives on our skin and in our noses, and usually doesn’t cause us any trouble. It’s full name is streptococcus pneumoniae, but we usually call it by its nickname: Pneumococcus. It originally got the name because it’s a fairly frequent cause of pneumonia (lung infection), though it also causes other kinds of infections, like skin, bloodstream, and lining of the brain (meningitis.)

There are different strains of this germ that are exactly alike except for different antigens (proteins, sugars, or some combination of the two) on their surface. We call those “serotypes” and they’re important because it’s how our body recognizes them, and protects us from them by making antibodies; separate antibodies for each serotype.

There are several vaccines that have been approved against pneumococcus. One is called Pneumovax (which most people refer to as the “pneumonia shot”, but it’s against the germ, not the disease. You can still get pneumonia from other germs, and the shot protects against pneumococcal infections other than pneumonia), and it protects against 23 different strains. It’s currently recommended for everyone at age 65, and for some people younger than that who are at higher risk for pneumococcal infections. There’s another called Prevnar that contains 13 different antigens (12 of which are also in Pneumovax) but because it’s made a little differently (“conjugated”) it’s more effective. (It produces a stronger immune response, meaning higher antibody levels.) Prevnar was first approved for infants and young children to protect them from meningitis caused by pneumococcus, but is now also recommended for adults.

So what does that mean for Pneumovax? Are you still supposed to get it? Are you supposed to get both? When?

Here are the new recommendations?

  • Healthy people (defined as not having another indication for pneumococcal vaccination) should get Prevnar (PCV13) at age 65, and then 6-12 months later should get Pneumovax (PPSV23).
  • If you’re over 65 and have already gotten a dose of Pneumovax at least 6 months ago, you should get Prevnar now.
  • (There’s a slightly more complicated algorithm if you got Pneumovax before age 65.)

To which my patient replied:

That makes a lot more sense.

Posted by: notdeaddinosaur | January 13, 2015


Dumb luck.

Turns out most cancers are probably the result of random mutations. Bad luck; nothing more. Sure, things like smoking don’t help, but, if we’re being honest, isn’t it always among the first questions we ask when we hear someone has cancer? Talk about adding insult to injury to blame the victims of plain dumb luck.

Blind luck.

When you stop to think about it, just about everything of any importance in life comes down to luck. Born American; born white; born affluent. #WhitePrivilege is real. The lasting advantages in life from a first-rate education, paid in full? Largely luck. How much credit to take? Intelligence enough to make the most of all the opportunities; hopefully with humility enough to recognize the relative role of luck over any intrinsic merit. Think about it: if medical schools only take 10% of qualified applicants, then for every MD graduated there are nine other folks out there who could have done it too; maybe better than those who did. Why me? Why not them?

Sheer dumb, blind luck; nothing more.

Posted by: notdeaddinosaur | January 11, 2015

Pizzelle Fail?

They weren’t brown enough, or thin enough, or crisp enough. But the anise oil (not extract) gave them a flavor that was magnificent, and aside from the color, they were pretty enough. But they weren’t all consumed at the party last night, so what was I to do with 16 leftover too-light, too-thick, too-soft pizzelles?

photo (4)

Pair them up, slather on a thick layer of Nutella™, refrigerate for a while, then cut into quarters.


Posted by: notdeaddinosaur | January 10, 2015

Too Many Notes*

Doc, can you write me a note?

All depends; what for?

1. I forgot to get a note for work (or school) when I was in to see you yesterday.

No problem.

2. I’ve been out sick for three days. Just a cold, nothing you can really help me with, but my work (school) insists on a doctor’s note.

Sure, I can do that. Some employers can be really anal about doctors’ notes.

3. Can you write me a note to go back to work after an injury that was treated by another doctor?

No, sorry. You have to go back to the other physician (ortho, workman’s comp doc) for that.

4. I’m looking for another job and I have an interview tomorrow. Can you write me a doctor’s note for my boss so they don’t find out?

Um, no. That’s called lying. Figure out something else (that doesn’t involve me.)

5. I’m in nursing school and I don’t want them practicing blood draws on my right arm. Can you write me a note?

You don’t need a note; you need a backbone transplant. Just say no.

6. [Woman diagnosed with flu] Can you write a note telling my husband I need to rest?

Absolutely. No cooking, cleaning, or housework for six weeks. Here you go!

*With apologies to Amadeus.

Posted by: notdeaddinosaur | January 8, 2015

How to Kill a Doctor

It’s really quite easy to kill a doctor. Here’s a step-by-step process guaranteed to succeed at least 400 times a year:

Start early.

Be sure to denigrate medical students whenever possible. Even if they’ve come to the profession later in life and have accomplished all kinds of amazing things personally and professionally (which don’t count, of course, since those are other professions) they don’t know squat about medicine and you do. Make sure to emphasize their ignorance and inexperience at every turn, because it’s the only way to prove that you know more than they do, which of course means that you’re a better person than they are. The fact that as a group they’re all at the very top of their peer group in motivation and intelligence is irrelevant.

Tell them they’re lazy when they say they’re tired after being up for 36 hours (since they’re not residents, they don’t have work hour restrictions). Tell them they smell of formaldehyde from the anatomy lab and make amusing gagging noises whenever you see them. If all else fails and they are actually able to competently work up a patient, plus answer the most esoteric questions you can think of, impugn their sexuality or tell them they dress weird. Don’t worry about being judgmental; patients are the only ones deserving of your respect. And other doctors, of course; well, the ones ahead of you in training at any rate. But only in your own specialty.

Don’t let up once they graduate from medical school.

The first year of residency training is a great time to kill doctors. They’re foundering around desperately trying to figure out how to function in their new roles. Most of them are also drowning in debt and watching as their non-medical friends (if they still have any) get married, buy houses, and have kids; you know, have lives. Yell at them for everything that goes wrong with their patients, whether it was their fault or not. Tell them it builds character.

Hospital administrators have an important role.

Make sure the physicians you hire understand how important it is that they show up for their shifts, but don’t give them any input into the schedule. Ignore their scheduling requests, but tell them they were lost; better yet, imply that they were never sent. Same with messages, committee meetings, and other administrative responsibilities. Make sure there are enough of these to make it impossible for doctors to take care of the patients. Otherwise the patients may actually think it was the doctors, and not your wonderful hospital (or hospital system) responsible for their recoveries.

If you’re not a particularly affluent institution, make sure that the food, decor, and customer service at your institution is as bare-bones as you can, but lump everything under “Medical care” in your patient satisfaction questionnaires so the doctors get blamed. Then tie their payments to those satisfaction scores. Win-win, for you.

Be sure to switch up your EMR annually at least, but call it “Upgrading” and label any doctors who complain as “disruptive.” It helps if the main hospital, Emergency department, and Radiology departments all run separate systems that don’t interact. Make sure each system requires different passwords, and require that they be changed at different intervals. Forbid physicians to write them down. Security, you know.

Don’t stop once you’re in practice.

Pick on your younger colleagues for their inexperience. Whatever you do, never tell them they’re doing a good job. Stick them with as much holiday and weekend call as you can. After all, you’ve paid your dues; now it’s their turn. (Tell them that.) Don’t listen to your older colleagues either. They’re just old farts whose knowledge is waning. Who cares about their decades of experience? Just tune them out when they start talking to you, then nod condescendingly and walk away.

Practice that condescending look and use it at hospital staff events. Make it a point to ignore newcomers. Concentrate on talking just with your friends and laughing at inside jokes, especially when others are around. Don’t return their calls, and don’t take their calls if you can possibly help it. If you accidentally wind up on the phone with the patient’s primary physician, just tell them you’ve got it all under control, and that he (and the patient) are so lucky you got involved when you did.

Target your efforts.

None of the above actions in and of themselves is likely to drive a doctor to suicide. However if you manage to select individuals with a personal or family history of depression, those with poor social supports or self esteem issues, you can greatly increase your chances of killing a doctor. Concentrating on certain specialties where there may be easier access to more lethal means, like anesthesiology and surgery, may also raise your yield. Don’t despair, though. Intensively applying all the strategies above and more (you know what to do; much of it has been done to you over the years, and may still be occurring as we speak) to doctors in any specialty represent proven ways to kill them.

Now you know how to kill a doctor.

It’s really not that hard. The question is: Why would you want to?

Posted by: notdeaddinosaur | January 7, 2015

Patients Showing Appreciation

Everyone knows doctors are only in it for the money. Not.

The most rewarding thing about the practice of medicine is making a difference in the lives of our patients. Whether it’s saving a life with surgery in the middle of the night, handing over a newly-delivered baby, or just reassurance that it’s only a cold and not bronchitis and everything will be all right; those are the moments we all treasure.

Patients have many ways of showing their gratitude, almost all of which are warmly appreciated. From flowers in the dead of winter:


to homemade holiday cookies (even store-bought), or just the sincere “Thank you” at the end of the visit, patients’ expressions of appreciation always make our day.

But yesterday, a family went above and beyond.

There was only about two inches of it, light and fluffy. No big deal. But after leaving my office reassured that her toe wasn’t going to fall off, this teen and her mom cleaned the snow off my car.

Posted by: notdeaddinosaur | January 6, 2015

Relative Value

How much would you pay a valet to park your car?

Certainly a job consisting of getting into a car not your own, safely navigating it from point A and parking it at point B, then reversing the procedure at your request is a service that deserves compensation. The question is how much?

Does it depend on the car? Or the skill of valet?

I would say, talking to various people, that the appropriate amount lies somewhere between five and twenty dollars, depending on the specific locale.

Now consider how much you would pay someone to draw your blood, a job that consists of the following steps:

  1. Wrapping a tourniquet around your arm
  2. Palpating to locate an appropriate vein
  3. Cleansing your skin to prevent infection
  4. Passing a needle through your skin and into the vein (but not all the way through it)
  5. Attaching one or more vacuum tubes to the needle (without pushing the needle through the vein)
  6. Removing said tubes and needle, dressing the puncture wound, labeling the tubes, completing the paperwork, and processing the specimens.

Here’s a question: who deserves to be paid more? Or in other words, what is the relative value of each task?

Medicare pays $3.00 (less 1% for the sequestration) for the procedure, coded 36415. Other insurers pay from $2.25 to $5.75, if they pay at all.

Because I draw blood in my office, I can legitimately add to the list above:

  1. Reviewing current medications
  2. Inquiring about the need for any refills, and
  3. Refilling meds as needed
  4. Reviewing results when available
  5. Forwarding results to ordering physicians, when someone other than me is the one who wants the tests
  6. Communicating results to the patient by their preferred means (phone call, email, snail mail)

By adding (“bundling”) the things on the second list, I legitimately bill these encounters as Level 1 office visits. Still makes you wonder about the pricing: I guess people care more about their cars than about their arms.


Posted by: notdeaddinosaur | January 5, 2015

Mammograms for 40-Somethings

My New Years *Resolutions* are going well…five days in. The cat box is immaculate, I’m more than halfway through The Lost Gate, I’m on track to post here every single day for at least a week, and I just finished the paper today.

Speaking of today’s paper: What should I espy in the Health section of my Philadelphia Inquirer but a familiar name! My good friend Margaret Polaneczky (I get to call her Peggy), my old blog-buddy from those heady early days of medblogging quoted in an article about helping women in their 40s make informed decisions about mammograms. And here it is: Breast Screening Decisions, Peggy’s interactive online tool that *rocks*. Check it out.

For the record (and just to prove I knew her when), here’s my reaction to the brouhaha instigated by the original USPTF mammogram recommendations: Mammograms for the Masses…complete with a comment from Peggy herself. Even then she was working on the recently launched tool.

Well done, Peggy, and thank you. My 40-something ladies will love it.


Posted by: notdeaddinosaur | January 4, 2015

Beyond First World Problems

First world problems: Problems complained of by those living in a wealthy, industrialized nation that third worlders would probably roll their eyes at. Things like which car to take when going out to dinner, or where to go out to dinner, or what to order when going out to dinner.

The other day I was chatting with a gent who was fretting about getting his tax information together for his accountant. He was bragging complaining that a stock with a large capital gain was forcing him to forage around for capital losses to offset it.

That’s not just a First World Problem; that’s a “1% problem.”

Posted by: notdeaddinosaur | January 3, 2015

Affordability vs. Value

I’ve been enjoying Twitter for a while now (@DinoDocLucy for any wannabe followers). It’s providing me with links to all kinds of fascinating things I never would have found otherwise. It’s also really cool how often I come across things that have nothing to do with medicine but everything to do with my practice.

“Six Mistakes Your Sales Reps are Making”

I thought the title looked interesting, so I clicked through. It turned out that the reps in question were calling on libraries, as the  post was on a blog about scholarly publishing. Still, several points (sort of) applied to pharma and other reps who come a-calling on me.

Then came point #5: Responding to Affordability Statements with Value Arguments

…For the last several years I have been fielding pitches from a particuarly aggressive sales rep who very much wants to sell my library a backfile database at a price of roughly $150,000. When we tell him that we don’t have $150,000 available for such a purchase, the response is always a long explanation of how important and valuable the database is. We couldn’t agree more. But the value proposition doesn’t make $150,000 magically appear in our budget. …Takeaway point: Value and affordability have nothing to do with each other, and price trumps value every time.

Hello! That’s what I’ve been saying about electronic medical records all along. All the “value” they add is completely irrelevant when I can’t afford them in the first place.

That’s the biggest reason I finally adopted a free EMR. When you start by maximizing Affordability (with a price tag of zero), Value approaches infinity.


Posted by: notdeaddinosaur | January 2, 2015

Diets and Denominators

News non-flash: comparison of various diets (low carb/Atkins, low carb + low fat/South Beach, low calorie/Weight Watchers, and whatever-the-hell-the-Zone-diet is/protein-carb ratio) shows no difference in long term outcomes, defined as sustained weight loss, with the attendant presumed decrease in cardiovascular risk factors and events.

Sorry; no great surprise here. But I think it’s because nutrition research has a huge blind spot: not adequately controlling for type 2 diabetes/metabolic syndrome.

Let me explain.

I have a hypothesis that people with the inborn error of metabolism (insulin resistance) that in the setting of dietary carb overload and low levels of physical activity result in overt glucose intolerance and, eventually, diabetes, respond better to low-carb diets than people born with normal carbohydrate metabolism. By not carefully screening them out in the research, negative results are meaningless.

Current definitions of diabetes, “pre-diabetes”, metabolic syndrome, and so on center on blood sugar levels in both the short term (fingerstick glucose measurements) and long term (the 3-month horizon afforded by the hemoglobin A1c). The problem with this is that the increased cardiovascular risks from these conditions appear to manifest independently of actual blood sugar levels. Witness the disappointing results of studies of so-called “tight control”: modest reduction in microvascular disease (kidney failure and retinopathy) but no significant effect on macrovascular disease (heart attacks and strokes.) This says to me that there’s something more than just hyperglycemia going on in these patients.

We also know that lifestyle issues (read: exercise), not smoking, and treatment with lipid-lowering statin medications DO decrease these risks in these patients. But who are they?

Diabetics, of course. Pre-diabetics too, plus anyone with metabolic syndrome (high triglycerides/low HDL/abdominal or “apple” shaped fat). Women with PCOS and/or a history of gestational diabetes. These folks are relatively easy to identify, whether or not they’re excluded (or at least controlled for) in nutritional research. But I think there’s another group of folks who have this inborn metabolic error but who, because they’re already “living right” (exercising, maintaining ideal body weight, not overdoing dietary carbs) have perfectly normal blood sugar levels, and therefore completely normal A1c levels.

How to identify them? A few thoughts: family history. Anyone with any first degree relative with either diabetes or any of the above equivalents (PCOS, gestational diabetes). Or we can check insulin levels. Because the inborn metabolic error is that of resistance to insulin, these folks walk around with higher insulin levels in order to maintain normal blood sugar levels.

Control future dietary studies for diabetes — REALLY control for it — and see what turns up. Better still, select out people who don’t have it. I bet you’ll see better, more robust responses to any version of carb restriction. But until inborn errors of carbohydrate metabolism are adequately controlled for in dietary research, I don’t think there are any valid conclusions to be drawn.

Posted by: notdeaddinosaur | January 1, 2015

New Years “Resolutions”

Happy New Year to all. New month; new year; new calendar. Everything begging to be new and fresh, even while the days are still too short and the air too cold, with the worst of the winter yet to come. What cheer!

Lots of people talk about why New Years resolutions don’t work and they’re right. Hence the quotation marks.

Technically what follows aren’t Resolutions. They’re not goals, or vague aspirations like “get in shape”, “lose weight”, or “Be nicer to your sister.” (Hi, Dr. Kensingon!) They’re more like items I want to add to my daily to-to list. Things you don’t even bother to make a to-do list for because you just do them every day, like taking your pills, brushing your teeth or making your bed (all of which I do.) They’re things I really want to do each day — and often do; just not always.

In order to help myself commit, I figure I should write them down. Even better, write them down publicly. So here goes:

1. Write every day; even just a little.

It doesn’t have to be just a little, and I’m sure once I get started, I’ll often do more. I just have to sit my tush down in front of the damn screen and do it (Nike style.) I’ve reclaimed my writing desk from DDS, and even though it’s in the bedroom instead of my writing room, it turns out to be better than the kitchen table. So no more excuses. At least once a day, sit down and write. It may be a brief blog post (or a longer one), or the next installment in Dr. Lucy’s Ridiculously Simple Guide to Health and Wellness, or who knows what else. But I really would like to get back to writing every day.

2. Read every day, even just one chapter.

Maybe this is the source of a lot of my malaise of the last year, but I somehow got away from regular reading. I had a whole stack of books, but I started having trouble getting into things. Now thanks to the Jock, who gave me two new Orson Scott Card books for Hanukah (the Mither Mages series), I’ve begun reading one chapter before bed. Rather like nibbling at a box of chocolates one at a time instead of pigging out on the whole thing, I’ve decided to savor these slowly instead of “waiting until I have time to read as much as I want” (which only happens on planes anyway). An added advantage is that it keeps me away from backlit screens (cough*Candy Crush*cough) right before bed, which seems to be improving my sleep.

3. Play the piano every day, even just a little while.

A far cry from the distant childhood refrain, “Did you practice yet?” Now that my piano is right out in the open (and tuned! Thanks DDS), my Handel album sitting open and ready, I’m getting great pleasure sitting down and re-establishing that old muscle memory. There has been talk of lessons, but like those who insist on cleaning up for the cleaning lady, I want to get better first. I know how the music is supposed to sound (because I used to make it sound like that) and all it’s going to take is time.

4. Clean the cat boxes every day.

Okay, this one is right up there with pill-taking and teeth-brushing. At the moment, I confess it’s not. But it should be. Which is why I’m including it here.

5. Read the newspaper every day.

I’ve gotten a little lazy on this one. I do eventually read it, often 2-3 days (or more) at one sitting. But if I do it every day, it’s much more efficient.

6. Eat only during an eight hour window every day.

This one’s new-ish. I’ve had good experiences with modified fasting, and bad experiences with eating at night. Following this guideline should be helpful. Whatever time I first eat something in the morning, eight hours later I’ll stop. I’m definitely going to continue writing down everything I eat, which I have done every single day for over five years now. No reason to stop. And I really do have to lose the weight I’ve partially re-gained over the last four years.

7. Walk every day, at least 30 minutes.

Who am I kidding? This one’s not going to happen at least until the weather gets nicer. I’ll give it a shot, but I’m not going to beat myself up if it doesn’t happen.

Posted by: notdeaddinosaur | December 30, 2014

What Doctors are Thinking

Ever wonder what your doctor is thinking while taking your history? If we’re doing it right, we’re looking at you instead of a computer. We’re making appropriate eye contact while displaying welcoming body language. And we’re letting you tell your story with as few interruptions as possible. Clearly we are listening intently, but did you ever wonder what’s going through our minds while you’re speaking?

I’ve been thinking about this lately in the context of teaching medical students about history-taking. They’re being taught all the right questions to ask and how to ask them (body language, open-ended, etc) but it often seems like they don’t know what they’re supposed to be listening for, or how to elicit the kind of information that will let them make a diagnosis (which is, of course, the necessary prerequisite for appropriate treatment.)

So here’s an analogy to try and help both patients and learners better understand what’s going on inside the doctor’s head:

Imagine that someone is telling you a story. There are lots of different stories it could be, but the person has no idea which one it is. In fact, as far as he’s concerned, no one has ever heard the story before, because it’s the first time he’s telling it. But he’s telling it to you because he’s hoping you’ll recognize the story, and tell him how it’s going to end — or, more importantly, intervene to change the ending, if it happens to be a story that ends badly.

What are your prerequisites? First, you need to know a lot of stories. Because you can’t help the storyteller if you’ve never heard of his story. (Even if you’ve never actually heard it, you need to have heard OF it.) Next, you need to know what elements are intrinsic parts of the story, and which ones are minor details that can vary from one telling to another without materially affecting the essence of the story. There are also significant clues you can take from who’s telling you the story. Younger women, older men, little kids each seem to tell their own specific stories. Timing also matters. Some stories are told more often within several months of giving birth, or within a week of major surgery for example.

Say the storyteller begins, “Once upon a time…”

You wouldn’t immediately jump in and start asking a whole bunch of specific questions like:

  • Was there a little girl?
  • Was she in a forest?
  • Was she in a castle?
  • Was she under a spell?

No, you’d let the storyteller go on as long as possible on his own.

“Once upon a time, there was a little girl in a blue riding hood, whose mother sent her off to her grandmother’s house with a basket of goodies.”

If you’re sufficiently familiar with enough stories, you should immediately recognize that the color of the girl’s clothing may not be as important as getting her to turn around and NOT get any deeper into that forest until you’ve had a chance to do a scan and a Wolf-ectomy. Or at least make sure she’s got a hunter escort.

Even though the stories are basically the same, each person tells them differently. Think about how many different ways you’ve heard stories that are basically Romeo and Juliet.

As the storyteller is relating his tale, you start thinking about the various possible stories he could be telling. Once you start to recognize the story (or even what kind of story: is this a short one where nothing much happens of consequence, or one where things don’t end well for the protagonist?) you begin to listen for specific details from one story or another. As you hear them, they lead you down the path towards figuring out the correct story. If they’re not forthcoming, you try and ask open-ended type questions to elicit them. Things like “What kind of place was the princess living in?” as opposed to, “Was she in a forest? Was she in a town? Was there a castle?” (analogous to asking, “What does eating do to the pain?” instead of, “Is the pain relieved by eating or does eating make it worse?” Open-ended instead of yes-no.)

Once you’ve heard a hundred people tell you the story of their gallbladder (“I’ve been getting this pain in my stomach, up high on the right, for a while now, but it’s getting worse after I eat, especially fatty foods. It nauseates me and sometimes I throw up,”) or the story of their appendix, or the story of their hemorrhoids, or the story of the flu, or the story of their ulcer or their pneumonia or their MS or their UTI…you get the idea — you start to recognize it within a few sentences. You want to keep listening, though, because this just might be the person telling you the story of their brain tumor instead of the story of their migraine headaches. The best way to figure it out for sure is to keep listening, which means keep the storyteller talking.

There’s lots of overlap between stories. There are many conditions, like upper and lower respiratory infections, viral syndromes, gastroenteritis, pinkeye, and many other conditions which will all get better with time. Assuming you’re very confident that the story is one of the many short simple ones with lots of overlapping features where nothing really bad happens, recommending things like rest and plenty of fluids will often result in the storyteller living happily ever after. But your patient is counting on you to correctly recognize which story they’re telling, to know how it progresses — including how it ends — and how to intervene to change a bad ending to a better one.

If you decide too soon that you know what story it is, you may stop listening for clues to other stories and miss them altogether. Then, as the story progresses (or as the disease progresses along its natural history) you may be making things worse instead of better, because you’re not getting the right story. Many times, the most important clue is recognizing that there’s a significant detail that just doesn’t fit. The girl in the blue riding hood is being imprisoned in a tower with no doors, and happens to have really long hair. An adult with a sore throat that began with a runny nose two weeks ago is now getting much worse; Rapunzel does not have strep.

There are two basic cognitive strategies to figuring out the story. At first, when you don’t know many stories or what you can do to modify the scary ones, you do something called “hypothesis testing.” You take the first story that pops into your head and start asking all kinds of questions specifically about that story. Once you decide that’s not it, you take the next most likely one and start specifically seeking information to confirm or deny it. And so on. Thinking about it in terms of trying to figure out which fairy tale someone is telling you helps you appreciate the inefficiency of this approach.

The strategy used by experienced clinicians is called “pattern recognition.” That’s what we mean when we tell learners to “listen to the patient,” and “the patient will tell you what’s wrong.” As we listen, we hear familiar riffs: chest pain that worsens with exertion steers us toward the heart; pain with nausea after eating pushes us towards the gall bladder. We have to keep the patient talking, but we have to know how to ferret out key details that will guide our questions when we finally get around to asking them. You just need the confidence that you will recognize the story the patient is telling you.

How do you learn these stories? Aside from hearing them from lots of different patients, of course, you can read them in medical textbooks, where they are called things like “Presentation” and “Natural History”. Except in this case, you know what the story is (because the title is on top of the page), as opposed to learning how to figure out which one the patient’s telling you.

These stories have also been called Illness Scripts. Most of the academic work on them has been done with groups of medical students in small group settings. But I believe there would be value in writing them down in transcript form, just as a hypothetical patient might relay the story, with a sidebar containing the contemporaneous text of what’s going through my head as I listen to the patient. Symptom-based as opposed to diagnosis-based, I think it would be useful to entry-level medical, nursing, and allied health care students to help make the jump to pattern recognition from hypothesis testing.

Any takers for a collaboration?

Posted by: notdeaddinosaur | December 14, 2014

Latest YouTube Parody Star

Okay, not technically the star. But dancing and twisting and writhing around (and decorating a model of DNA like a Christmas tree) in the background is a very stealthy NinjaBaker:

Posted by: notdeaddinosaur | December 4, 2014

Customizing Communication, or Which One I Sent

It’s been a fascinating week or so listening to everyone weigh in on which response they thought I sent to my patient (also here.) The general consensus, unsurprisingly, was that the first was far too cheeky — not to mention insulting — to effectively convey the necessary information.  The second, of course, was the one I send every day, day in and day out. Just this once, circumstances conspired to allow me to send the first.

Let me explain.

I’d like to begin by quoting myself:

I find it amusing to intentionally adopt a far more curmudgeonly attitude here than I would ever dream of displaying in meatspace. It’s part of the fun of blogging, which is why I’ve been doing it now for almost eight years.

All I ask is recognition that my public blog persona is different from my personal, real self.

The first message was perceived as an expression of my frustration with a patient who wouldn’t comply with recommended treatment while complaining about one of the manifestations of her condition. (There were also some interesting digressions about hypothyroidism and weight loss, none of which actually apply. Remember the first rule of blogging: anonymize! Suffice it to say that her TSH wasn’t 7; it may not have been a woman; the issue may not have been weight loss; etc.)

Here’s the thing, though: in real life, I don’t actually get frustrated with my patients. Really. I’ll admit this wasn’t always the case, however the older I get, the less I care. Not that I don’t care about my patients, but it’s become much easier to actually live the truism embodied by the old Polish proverb, “Not my circus, not my monkeys.” ie, My patients problems are not mine. If patients don’t take their medicine, they’re the ones who live with the consequences. (I take my Synthroid.)

This particular patient was also a health care professional herself. In fact, when I read my first email aloud, my work-spouse said, “That sounds exactly like how she talks to her patients.” Because it was. She’s a cheerful, vivacious, funny, sarcastic person who doesn’t pull punches with her patients, her family, or me. When she said, “Nah, I stopped taking [the synthroid],” it was with a sardonic smile that conveyed recognition of the fact that she was being irrational. Cost wasn’t an issue. Understanding its purpose wasn’t an issue. I don’t think she could articulate precisely why she stopped it. But she had, and here she was, back again, bitching yet again (albeit good-naturedly) about her weight.

So when the repeat blood work confirmed the condition (or at least the distinct possibility that taking the med would help) the first response kind of wrote itself. In a way, I may have been channeling her voice talking to herself. One thing I’ve learned in my own weight loss journey is that no one can be harder on me than I am on myself.

Couple of other things edited out for the sake of the blog:

After the CAPS, I added “(Sorry for shouting)”, and after “Dig?” at the end, I added (“Love you.”) Finally, before hitting the SEND button, I picked up the phone. I didn’t reach her but I left a message, “Just to let you know there’s an email coming, meant to be funny, hope you don’t take offense.” The rest of it, BTW (except for the clinical specifics) was verbatim. ie, “Big girl panties” and all.

Bottom line: She loved it. Message received loud and clear, along with a good laugh. Customized communication at its finest.

Would I ever write such a message again? Perhaps. But only if I were absolutely certain it would be received as intended, as it was this time.

Thanks again to all who responded.


Posted by: notdeaddinosaur | November 22, 2014

Which One Did I Send?

Middle-aged lady, twenty pounds overweight.

Doing everything I can, doctor. Everything imaginable. Diet: I eat practically nothing. Exercise: all the time! Weight Watchers doesn’t work. Jenny Craig, South Beach, the Zone; I’ve tried it all. Nothing works. Have to lose weight. Have to lose weight.

Yadda yadda yadda.

Oh look: a few years back I diagnosed you as hypothyroid and gave you some Synthroid. Are you taking it?

Nah; I stopped that. I just didn’t want to take it.

Hm. Send some blood work. Low and behold: TSH is 7. That’s high, and it means her thyroid is underactive, which is probably a big part of why she’s having so much trouble with her weight.

She’s asked to be notified by email, so I sit myself down at my little keyboard and compose:

Labs are back; report attached. Cholesterol, sugar, blood count all fine. BUT: I don’t want to hear one more word from you complaining about not being able to lose weight IF YOU DON’T TAKE THE DAMN SYNTHROID. Your TSH is 7. That’s hypothyroidism. Until we get you titrated to a dose that gets your TSH below 2, nothing is going to change, including difficulty losing weight. So put your big-girl panties on and let me know where you want me to send a new prescription for synthroid. Then get back here in 6-8 weeks for another TSH. Dig?

But my finger hesitated over the SEND button. Could I really send that?

I hit SAVE DRAFT and started over:

Labs are back; report attached. Cholesterol, sugar, blood count all fine, but the TSH is still a little high. I really think you should try the synthroid again. It’s almost certainly the reason you’re having so much trouble with your weight. Why don’t you let me know what drugstore you use so I can send a new synthroid prescription. Then we can check another TSH in about 6-8 weeks. Okay?

I read both versions over again. Back and forth. Over and over.

Then I hit SEND.

Guess which one?

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