Monthly Archives: February 2012

Busy Health News Day Over @NYTs

It’s been a busy news day in health over at the New York Times.  There are two good articles to read.  The first is yet another great piece on the lack of benefit found for stents and stable coronary artery disease, and the second is by Dr. Gilbert Welch about the fallacy that early disease detection is always a path to better health.

I can tell you that the mantra of early disease detection is driven into the psyche of every doctor during our training.  As a medical student I always felt a little queasy about the hunt for invisible disease.  It was one of the reasons I chose emergency medicine because I thought (somewhat mistakenly) that the only patients who come to the emergency depart are really sick (they don’t feel well, as opposed to being one of the worried well). But even in my chosen field I can’t escape the most challenging of all patients.  The one who looks fine and feels fine.

The sole reason for this is that there is a voice in the back of my head telling me that if I don’t find any disease it must mean it escaped my detection, and that I have failed my patient.  I imagine to myself that in a week, six months, or six years that patient will go to another doctor and they will find a tumor, heart problems, or a myriad of other diseases, and they and their new best friend Dr. Ifoundit, will say “if only that doctor in the ED had discovered your problem sooner you wouldn’t be in this predicament!”

But what if finding that disease in someone is simply a gateway to anxiety, fear, painful tests and procedures, and a hefty bill rather than a longer or better quality of life?  Suddenly Dr. Ifoundit is not looking so smart.

These articles are a great reminder to patients and physicians alike that the forces pushing for the detection of disease and the forces for better health are not always perfectly aligned, and that if we choose to build our health care system on the former rather than the latter we may find ourselves individually and collectively on a long and painful road.


No Extra Benefits Are Seen in Stents for Coronary Artery Disease, By NICHOLAS BAKALAR, Published: February 27, 2012

If You Feel O.K., Maybe You Are O.K., By H. GILBERT WELCH, Published: February 27, 2012

Smart Phones & Emergency Medicine

iPhones and iPads (we can start calling them smartphones and tablets when there is actually some competition) are continuing to revolutionize medicine.  This article in the New York Times technology section highlights some of the current options available to people, but I think there is even more to look forward to:  imagine if a patient were able to log into their personal medical record and sends vitals, labs, ekg, data from say a pacemaker or other device, as well as audio, pictures, video, and text of their complaint.  Immediately, this would change the world of triage; the nurse just double checks a few things and it is all automatically uploaded into their medical record before they even arrive!  Okay I’m dreaming, all of this is obviously too good to be true.  The first tip off that I was getting myself into medical never-never land should have been the article’s graphic, because if I ever thought I could see a squirming kid’s ear that well (see below) in the ED I might really get excited about having to pick up my otoscope.

Who Are Emergency Physicians?

W Eugene Smith. Country Doctor - Life Magazine 1948

I have often tried to explain to friends and family what it is I do, since I find it hard to describe all of the aspects of my job in a concise way. To my ears, most explanations of a typical day in the life of an EP seem vague, long-winded, or self-indulgent.

I often describe emergency physicians as some combination of a modern emergency care specialist and an old-fashioned country doctor.  Sure we take care of critical trauma, strokes, heart attacks, infections etc, but we also deliver babies, set bones, suture up cuts and so on.  This recent attempt by Dr. Marlene Buckler comes across as a more accurate, no-nonsense description.  Thanks Marlene.


I See Dead People – A Journey Into Medicine’s Heart of Darkness

Bruce Willis and Haley Joe Osment in The Sixth Sense

Does anyone remember the movie, The Sixth Sense?  The twist, as everyone knows now is that Haley Joel Osment’s character is not just a disturbed little boy, but actually sees ghosts (really, you didn’t know? sorry), and the well-intentioned child psychiatrist played by Bruce Willis doesn’t know that he is, in fact, dead.

I always found this movie a compelling metaphor for one of the great terrors of life: that at any moment our world can radically change around us, and more terrifying still, it is possible that we may continue on, unaware of our fate until visions become nightmares, and our ignorance is confronted by a painful new reality.

There is a similar drama that plays itself out in medicine every day, where like Bruce Willis, we as the doctors with all of our training in finding and treating disease discover that the effect we are having on patients was quite different from the one we intended, and that we are in fact hurting and not helping.

As a doctor I have to live with the reality that some of my actions may have unintended consequences, but when the foundation that my actions are built on become unstable then those unintended consequences can become a nightmare.

The cognitive errors that lead to this phenomenon are many and varied, and recent medical history is full of them (radical mastectomy for breast cancer, hormone supplements for menopause, COX-2 inhibitors for pain, bisphosphonates for osteoporosis).

Another of these errors is recently well described by Dr. David Newman on his blog over at SMARTEM about the current state of affairs in the world of cardiology, and the literature supporting the use of stress tests and revascularization techniques to treat coronary artery disease.

Like all great medical empiricists, David has asked a simple question.  Where is the observed benefit?  In asking this question he instead unearthed a pervasive flaw in the body of evidence that cardiologists hold up daily to patients as proof that what they are doing for them is in their best interest.

The flaw, simply put is this:  that an intervention for something (opening up or bypassing a clogged artery in this case) is not the same as the the something (heart attack or death from heart attack) itself.  Successfully placing a stent in someone’s coronary artery does not mean you succeeded in preventing a heart attack in that patient, and equating the two may, by a certain sleight of hand, offer some impressive numbers to justify continuing to put stents in people, but they do little to reassure the patient who now has a stent in their heart that all they went through was worth it.  In fact, according to David’s review of the literature.

Studies and meta-analyses have proven repeatedly that except for patients actively having a heart attack, placing stents neither saves lives nor prevents future attacks. This is a discomfiting fact that even the American Heart Association has recently conceded.(1) Furthermore, the most optimistic trial data suggest that, at best, 3 to 5% of bypass surgery patients live longer because of the operation.(2) Thus at least 19 of 20 people who have bypass surgery will not experience a life-saving benefit.

No benefit for stents unless you are actively having a heart attack?  Well, at least there is some small benefit for bypass you say.  But when you add up the personal cost of having your chest sawed open (time in the hospital, pain, complications, etc) just for the one in 20 chance that you may live a few months longer, the benefit seems much more questionable. David sums up the effect this cognitive error has on the practice of medicine like this:

“The great tragedy of flawed study design in research is its legacy. Instead of stress tests being a predictor of what patients care about (having heart attacks or dying), they are a predictor of an invasive, expensive, and largely fruitless techno-bangle. Instead of modern cardiac drugs being proven effective against heart attacks and death, many are effective only at preventing bad tests and unnecessary procedures. In a twisted way this seems useful too, but it’s a dishonest and ineffective approach to preventing real heart problems.”

His plea to “untangle the legacy of past research errors and…to understand and learn from them in order to prevent them in the future” seems an obvious call to reason.  But will anybody listen?

I don’t believe on the whole that it is greed, lack of compassion or intelligence that perpetuates these types of errors, rather something much more frightening to us as doctors.  Our version of the Sixth Sense metaphor: that perhaps without realizing it, our training has led us into a world where healing becomes harm.

For 200 years modern medical training has focused on finding and treating disease in the service of our patients.  As doctors we depend on this training to see through our patients to the disease.  So why wouldn’t a cardiologist, focused on atherosclerosis as the object of his attack, see revascularization as cutting through to the problem rather than a misstep of logic.

But what happens when you are forced to admit that your current field of knowledge is inadequate, and that treating disease is, in this instance, not equivalent with helping the patient.  What happens if your realization of this fact places the body beyond the interventions you were trained to perform?

For many doctors this is an intolerable reality, made even worse by the thought that you might be hurting or even killing some of the people you intended to help.  Better to gloss over and ignore the possibility than address it.  “We’ll get to that later, I have patients to see”.

Whether we  choose to delve deeply into these issues, or skirt them like inevitable ghosts in the machine living furtively in the background, they are questions that haunt all of us as doctors. I have learned to deal with it by asking myself what is it we are about as a profession?

Is the search for disease a means to an end, or is it the end in itself?  Are we going to be technocrats inculcated in a belief system, or are we going to be philosophers and free thinkers; doctors who accept our cognitive errors and try to address them (no matter how jarring it may be to our worldview) in order to benefit our patients.

When we stray from the latter course, it is not because we don’t want health and healing, rather it is that to do so means having to let go of some of the comforts of 200 years of belief that disease always has an objective structure, one that we can “see” and therefore manipulate.  More importantly we have made the grave error in believing that the ability to manipulate a disease process and benefiting patients are always the same thing.

I decided long ago, that while I carry the tools of modern medicine into battle against disease every day in my effort to help patients, I must understand and accept the limitations of my weapons.  In doing so I hope I’m not blindly following dogma, and in turn being a better doctor to my patients.  I also hope I’m a little more prepared when a new paradigm comes along to disentangle us from our current visions and the nightmare of disease.  Sound crazy?  Well everyone thought Haley Joel Osment’s character was crazy too.

Hot off the Press

Walter Winchell, New York. 1950s.

I used to love all those “myths in medicine lectures” as a resident.  For a while I collected evidence-based Myth-buster articles like trophies, and to me the truth hunters who unearthed and dispelled these myths were heroic dragons slayers, but it turns out that the dragon is really a many-headed hydra, and I just can’t keep track of how many things I’ve been taught as absolute gospel that have in fact turned out to have no basis in reality whatsoever.

Honestly I’m starting to believe that doctors have a special affinity for believing their own bullshit that is unparalleled in any profession.  Wait, can you say Newt Gingrich?  Okay, maybe we’re not so bad.  Despite my irrational desire to join the republican party and hum along with Mitt that poor people are just fine, I present to you this Myth-busters article that caught my attention after being posted by the folks over at EDTCC:

Does size matter? A prospective analysis of 28–32 versus 36–40 French chest tube size in trauma Inaba, Kenji MD; Lustenberger, Thomas MD; Recinos, Gustavo MD; Georgiou, Crysanthos MD; Velmahos, George C. MD; Brown, Carlos VR; Salim, Ali MD; Demetriades, Demetrios MD; Rhee, Peter MD

In this study there was no difference in any of the clinical outcomes they measured between large and small chest tubes in trauma.  So how long have I been pushing 40F tubes into patients for no good reason? I once put a 28F into a little old lady with a large hemothorax (who probably weighed 90lbs wet) because I couldn’t even get my pinky finger past her ribs, and then I never heard the end of it from the trauma service.

While the study found no difference in pain between the small and large size chest tube groups, at least now I can make a choice based on my patient rather than tube size. Thanks Kenji & Co. for lopping off another head.  (and nice job on the title).

Google Doctor Graduates

Oh happy day. Google Doctor Graduates!!!  Team Google has announced a new feature of its search engine that caught my attention.  Apparently (although I tried it today without success) if you have some unexplained symptom and go to Google Doctor (but you would never do that would you?) you will get a new search algorithm working on your behalf.  Here’s what they have to say about it:

Every day, people search on Google for health information…to make the process easier, now when you search for a symptom or set of symptoms, you’ll often see a list of possibly related health conditions that you can use to refine your search (shown below).

This seems to be a very promising beginning, unfortunately the state of medical education is not what it used to be, and Google goes on to explain:

The list of health conditions you see is aggregated from what’s written on the web about the symptoms you searched. The list is not authored by doctors and of course is not advice from medical experts.

We hope this feature makes it easier and faster to research symptoms and related health conditions on Google. We’re humbled by the number of people who turn to Google with such important questions (as are we), and we are working especially hard to make our search results even more useful for health searches.

Thank you Google Doctor, I’m very happy you can come up with a differential diagnosis, now please stop sending all your patients to the ED and start doing the workup yourself.

Sincerely your friendly neighborhood ED physician.

Tools to Live by – Doxie Go

This Tools to live by is a followup to the Keeping it Together post today.  Here’s a great tech option to help you get all your credentialing paperwork together.  It has been a long time since my personal computing required me to sit chained to a desk in front of a bulky monitor, but scanners and printers seem a forgotten casualty of the mobile digital revolution.  Mostly they just sit on my desk taking up space that could be better used storing the junk mail and magazines I don’t ever look at.

While I rarely need to print anything anymore, the one thing I do have need of fairly often is a way to stuff paper documents back into the digital world.  So here you go.  The perfect mobile, storable, wi-fi scanner for getting all your paper credentials into your digital archives.  Doxie Go is here, check it out.

*I have no financial ties to any products I post about*


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