Sunday, June 25, 2017

Why I Don't Prescribe Pain Medicines

It may seem strange that a gastroenterologist like me does not prescribe pain medicines.  Let me rephrase that.  I don’t prescribe opioids or narcotics.   I write prescriptions for so few controlled substances that I do not even know my own DEA number.  You might think that a gastroenterologist who cares for thousands of patients with abdominal pains would have a heavy foot on the opioid accelerator.  But, I don’t.  Here’s why.


I truly do not know my DEA number.


I believe that one person on the health care team should manage the pain control.  In my view, this should be the attending hospital physician or the primary care physician in the out-patient setting.  There should not be several consultants who are prescribing pain medicines or changing doses of medicine prescribed by another physician.   With one physician in charge, the patient’s pain is more likely to be managed skillfully while the risk of fostering drug dependency and addiction is lessened.  We all know addicted patients who obtain medicines from various physicians and emergency rooms.  It’s cleaner when a patient on pain medicines knows that a single physician is in charge of managing this issue. 

While my argument of single physician authority can be applied to other medical conditions, this is even more important with narcotic agents.  For example, if a patient has an internist a cardiologist and a kidney specialist, only one of them should be managing the patient’s high blood pressure, at least in my view.   Since narcotics and related medications have addictive potential, it is even more important to have a limited prescribing source for patients. 

When I am seeing patients with abdominal pain, particularly in the hospital, I’m often asked for narcotics or to increase the dose or frequency of pain medicines that were already prescribed.  I counsel these patient that the attending physician is in charge of this and that the patient should discuss the request with this doctor. 

Other gastroenterologists and medical consultants may approach this issue differently.  I’d love to hear from them or from patients who have faced this issue. 

We can all agree that pain is the enemy.  But, the medical profession in its zeal to eliminate it, has contributed to the ravages and suffering of drug addiction.  In my state of Ohio, we lose thousands of our people every year to drug overdoses.  For many of them, their tortured path toward agony started with a medical prescription prescribed by a doctor like me.


Sunday, June 18, 2017

Yikes! When Your Doctor's Computer Crashes!

Earlier this week, as I write this, our office lost a skirmish against technology.  It was my procedure day, where lucky patients file in awaiting the pleasures of scope examinations of their alimentary canals.  A few will swallow the scope (under anesthesia), but most will have back end work done.  We are a small private practice equipped with an outstanding staff.  We do our best every day to provide them with the close personal attention they deserve.

The first patient of the day is on the table surrounded by the medical team.  The nurse anesthetist and I have already briefed the patient on what is about to transpire.  Propofol, the finest drug in the universe, is introduced into her circulatory system, and her mind drifts into another galaxy.  I pick up the colonoscope, which is locked & loaded for action, and the screen goes dark.  Our nurse goes through a few steps of messing around with plugs and doing a quick reboot, but we are still in the dark.  I glance at the back of the scope cart and have an eye-popping moment when I see dozens of wires and connectors coursing off the cart in a collage of chaos. 


Ready, Willing, but not Able!


After 5 minutes, when it is clear that the Almighty has not declared, Let There Be Light, we transport the patient into the recovery area where she is awakened.  Patients in the recovery area never remember their procedure.  This time, there was no procedure to remember.

There was tension in our office as we contemplated our options for colonoscopy patients who took the day off, arranged for a driver and swallowed the required liquid dynamite to cleanse their bodies and souls.  We called the hospital who could not accommodate on short notice request for multiple procedures.  I was not willing to cancel anyone and told my staff that I would stay until midnight to get the work done.

Our IT professional was in our office in 30 minutes.  I think he was the youngest person in the building.  When your IT guy is sweating and stumped, you know you’re in trouble.

So, here we were with an able gastroenterologist, a crack staff, patients ready for probing, but we were paralyzed because a computer monitor was in a coma.  It’s a reminder that we have all had of how totally dependent we are on our technology.  Even at home when the modem goes out, we feel that our oxygen supply has been compromised. 

Here’s the denouement of the drama.  About 2 hours after the first case was to have started, we concocted a ‘work around’, which allowed our cases to proceed.  So, we won this skirmish against Technology.  But, I fear they are regrouping, lying in wait for their next strike.

Sunday, June 11, 2017

Obamacare - Repealed and Replaced!

The House of Representatives enjoyed success weeks ago, depending on how one defines success.  Unquestionably, the passage of TrumpCare was a great political success that was not easily achieved.  I can’t fathom the intensity of threats and pressure that was utilized to convert a few ‘no votes’ into TrumpCare supporters.  The president and his team desperately needed a win after so many setbacks domestically and internationally.  And, this is a clear win, at least in the short term.  We will see if this vote becomes one that GOP House members can run on or will try to run from in 2018. 

Indeed, the GOP high-fiving and Rose Garden ceremony seemed premature considering that they have ascended only about 20% of their upward trek on an icy mountain as they hope to slog to the summit.  They may never get there.  The Senate, who have been quietly working on their own reform bill, are unlikely to endorse the House bill which contains antagonistic policies toward Medicaid expansion and pre-existing condition coverage.


The White House Rose Garden


Like Obamacare, this bill was passed without a single supporting vote from the opposition party.  Like Obamacare, this means that the effort is unlikely to attract the nation’s support, which is so critical for an issue that affects every American.  Imagine if Congress passed a declaration of war with votes from only one political party.  Would this be good for the country?   Could such a war be maintained when half the country opposed it initially?

The GOP’s mission was to achieve a win at any cost.  The Democrat’s response is to hope the reform effort soars over a cliff so they can benefit politically.  Does any reasonable person challenge me on these assertions?   

Leaving your own partisanship aside, do you feel that our legislators from either party care about our medical health or their political health?   Which institution – the Congress or the Health Care System – needs reform more?   Guess which one I’d like to repeal and replace?

Sunday, June 4, 2017

Are You A Victim of Abuse or Neglect?

Words matter.  Patients can get spooked by the words we use.  All of us have heard vignettes of how some inadvertent harsh words from a physician have caused injury.  I know there were times that I wish I could rewind and erase some errant words. 

Sometimes, an innocent remark from the doctor doesn’t land innocently.   When I ask as a matter of routine, ‘is there a family history of colon cancer’, as I do with every patient, this may provoke anxiety in a patient who is seeing me for a bowel disturbance.

Words Matter

We ask every patient who arrives at our ambulatory surgery center if they have a living will.  This often causes the patient to utter a nervous joke.  We then go on to ask if the patient has ever been ‘a victim of abuse or neglect’.   We are required to ask this..  It would seem rather unlikely that a patient who has just purged themselves for the pleasure of a colonoscopy, would confess to a nurse that (s)he is meeting for the first time that (s)he has been victimized.  Keep in mind that this a question follows a barrage of very routine medical inquiries.
  • Did you complete the laxative prep?
  • When did you last eat or drink?
  • Did you take any medications this morning?
  • Have you ever been a victim of abuse or neglect?
  • Who will be driving you home after the procedure?
Let me state unequivocally, that I am dead against all forms of abuse and neglect, both foreign and domestic.  I acknowledge that this is a serious problem that is clearly under-reported, particularly among the elderly.  I am skeptical, however, that querying our patients who are poised for an endoscopic adventure about a personal abuse history is likely to be enlightening.  A better case could be made for having these conversations in our office practices after we have developed rapport.

Who makes up these silly rules?   This is but one example of the documentation abuse that has been foisted upon the medical profession by the government and others.  I wish we could simply neglect to comply, but this boldness would only generate more government abuse on us.  

Sunday, May 28, 2017

Memorial Day 2017



Freedom is not Free.


Expressing profound gratitude to all those who served our nation and serve today, and to their families who share their sacrifice.

Sunday, May 21, 2017

Why My Patient Will Quit the Military

I had an interesting conversation with a patient in the office some time ago.  He was sent to me to evaluate abnormal liver blood tests, a common issue for gastroenterologists to unravel.  I did not think that these laboratory abnormalities portended an unfavorable medical outcome.  Beyond the medical issue he confided to me a harrowing personal tribulation.  Often, I find that a person’s personal story is more interesting and significant than the medical issue that led him to see me.

I am taking care to de-identify him here, and I did secure his permission to chronicle this vignette.  He is active duty military and is suffering from attention deficit disorder (ADD).  He likes his job.  He was treated with several medications, which were either not effective or well tolerated.  Finally, he was prescribed Vyvanse, which was a wonder drug for him.  The ADD symptoms melted away.  This is when military madness kicked in.  He met with military medical officials who concurred that this medicine was appropriate for him.  This decision, however, was overruled by a superior, since Vyvanse, is a controlled drug, which was prohibited.  My patient was told that he could choose between taking this drug or keeping his job.  In other words, if he opted for the one drug that worked for him, that he would have to quit. Who wins here?

Scales Tipped Against Him

While I do not know all of the relevant facts , this seemed absurd to me.  My guess is that the decision came right out of a Policy & Procedure Manual, which so often contains one-size-fits-all directives that override any measure of common sense.  It is this mentality that expels a first grader who kisses a classmate because the school has a rigid zero-tolerance policy against sexual harassment. 

When the patient was in my office, he had been off Vyvanse as required by his military superiors.  He was not feeling mentally well.  Not only was he off of his medication, but he was facing a profound professional decision that would change his life. 

And here’s the most ludicrous aspect of the situation.  The patient told me that other branches of the military had no issue with their servicemen taking VyVanse.  These branches apparently use  different Policy & Procedure Manuals. 

If this vignette is representative of the how decisions are made in his military branch, then they have a deeper issue to address.  Is there a medication that can combat rigid and robotic thinking?  If so, let’s hope it’s not a controlled substance.  

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Patients Who Drink Too Much

When I am facing an alcoholic in the office, I do not advise him to stop drinking.  Other physicians may advocate a different approach.  We live in a free society and individuals are free to make their own choices.  I have decided, for example, not to own a firearm, ride a motorcycle or bungee jump as these activities are not only beyond my risk tolerance threshold, but are also activities that I have decided would not enrich my life.  Many smokers, though addicted, enjoy the experience and are aware of the risks of this activity. 

Preparing One for the Road

My responsibility as a physician is to inform and counsel, not to lecture or preach.  I tell alcoholics with clear candor the medical risks they face if they decide to maintain this lifestyle.  I advise them that if they wish to aspire to sobriety, that I will refer them to appropriate professionals for treatment.  I further inform them that in my decades of experience, very few alcohol addicts can quit on their own, despite their vigorous declarations that they can do so.  Finally, I tell them that if they decide to venture on the difficult journey away from wine and spirits, that I will be there at every step to assist and encourage them.  However, there is no hectoring or finger-wagging from me.  No threats or intimidation – which never work anyway - just cold facts and honest predictions.  The patient is then free to make his decision, as he is with any medical proposal.

Patients aren't obligated to accept my advice.  Indeed, the bedrock concept of informed consent places the authority of the decision where it properly resides, with the patient.  

Alcoholsim is an insidious disease whose tentacles slowly suffocate the addict and causes many friendly fire casualties.  Yes, I am aware that there may be a genetic predisposition to the illness, but at some point the decision to drink was still a choice.  Ultimately, only the afflicted one can cast off the chains. 

What do you think?  Am I derelict by not delivering an energetic exhortation, “You’ve got to stop your drinking!”  Is it my job to tell patients what to do, or to give them a fair presentation of their options so that they can choose for themselves?  

Sunday, May 7, 2017

Should Physicians Provide Futile Care?

I was covering for my partner over the weekend and saw his patient with end stage liver disease, a consequence of decades of alcohol abuse.  He was one of the most deeply jaundiced individuals I have ever seen.  His mental status was still preserved.  He could converse and responded appropriately to my routine inquiries, although he was somewhat sluggish in his thinking.  It’s amazing that even after the majority of a liver is dead, that a person can still live.

The Liver - Alcohol's Enemy

When I do my hospital rounds, it is rare that one of my patients is not suffering some complication of chronic alcoholism.  In the hospital, the disease is rampant.  In my office, this addiction is much more easily disguised.  I know that many of the high functioning alcoholics whom I see there have kept their addiction a secret.  Some lie and others deny. 

There was a dispute with regard to the jaundiced patient referenced above.  There was no disagreement among the medical professionals on treatment options.  At this point, there was no medical treatment to offer beyond his current medications.  A palliative care specialist advised that hospice care was the most appropriate option.  The physicians and nurses concurred.  Why didn’t it happen?

The patient’s wife, who lived out of town, insisted that all medical measures be pursued.  Hospice care was a non-starter. While the patient and his wife were separated, she was still the legal spouse and next of kin.  The patient had not prepared a living will.  It was not felt that the patient possessed sufficient mental capacity to make this profound medical decision.  So, the wife's view prevailed.

My task was easy as I was only responsible for his gastro care over the weekend.  But, there was a huge ethical task that demanded to be confronted.  Physicians were continuing to provide futile care because a wife demanded it.  Such care, in my view, is unethical and need not be provided, despite the insistence of a family member.

Physicians are under no professional obligation to provide care that is futile, oris  extremely unlikely to offer benefit, even if patients and families demand it.  The fact that a third party is usually paying for this treatment only deepens the ethical infraction.  Physicians should not feel obligated to accede to futile care requests, or feel that they need a court order to protect them against such requests.  In my experience, surgeons are more comfortable than are medical specialists and internists in declining to provide care that won’t help.  I have often heard surgeons tell patients and their families that an operation simply won’t help and shouldn’t be done.  For some reason, this issue seems to be murkier for non-surgeons. 

Of course, physicians must be sensitive when discussing these issues with patients and families who understandably want anything and everything done to save their loved one.  But, giving care that won’t work is wrong. 

Over the weekend that I saw this patient, I was not in a position to set the patient free.  It seemed surreal that everyone on the case knew the right thing to do, but none of us were doing it.


Sunday, April 30, 2017

Does the Patient Need a Feeding Tube?

What should a medical consultant do when the referring physician wants a procedure that the consultant does not favor?

Of course, this sounds like a lay up.  The consultant, readers would surmise, should have a conversation with the referring colleague to explain why the procedure is not in the patient’s interest.  The colleague then thanks the consultant for his thoughtful input, and for sparing the patient from the risks and expense of an unneeded medical procedure.  Then, a rainbow appears, songbirds tweet in harmony and the lion lies down with the lamb.

When Physicians Dialogue, the Heavens Open and Music Plays!

This is not how it works in real world of medical practice.  I wish it did.  Indeed, this issue has tormented me more than, perhaps, any other in my decades of work as a gastroenterologist.  Many referring physicians request procedures from us – not our opinions – and expect that their requests will be complied with.  This is the same mentality that all physicians, including me, have when we order a CAT scan.  We generally do not consult with the radiologist in advance soliciting their opinion.  We simply click ‘CAT Scan’ on the computer and then the magic happens. 

On the morning that I write this, a physician has consulted a gastroenterologist to place a feeding tube in a patient hospitalized for this purpose.  The patient is not only demented, but speaks no English.  I called the son to acquire more understanding of his dad’s condition.  The patient has lived with the son for 7 years and knows his feeding habits intimately,   From time to time, he will have some coughing spells during meals, but this pattern has not accelerated.  This is his normal pattern.  The son related that his dad ate sufficiently and has not lost weight.

While I am able to connect the dots here that would lead to a feeding tube, for me this would require a lengthy caravan of dots to reach the referring physician’s request.  While I acknowledge that the patient likely has an impaired swallowing mechanism, it does not seem to pose a medical threat.  Today is Sunday and the physician expects that the tube will be placed tomorrow.

I am covering over the weekend for the gastroenterologist who will assume the patient’s care tomorrow.  I did not schedule placement of a feeding tube.  I requested instead that a speech pathologist, who is an expert in swallowing, offer an opinion.  I think that was the right answer here.

Consultants know that all referring physicians are not created equal.  Some welcome our opinions and others don’t.  Still others will punish us by cutting us out of their referral stream if we push back against their requests.  This is a sad reality that I wish I could remedy.

I’ve certainly complied with procedure requests for tests that I might not have personally favored.  This is not unethical, as long as there is a rational basis for the test, and the referring physician will use the information gained to adjust a treatment plan.  Additionally, we consultants may be wrong.  Perhaps, the referring physician’s request for a colonoscopy is the proper test, even if we may not think so.  No one knows it all.

Oftentimes, when folks are offered a ‘peek behind the curtain’, they are surprised to see what is happening behind the scenes.  Anyone shocked here?


Sunday, April 23, 2017

Is My On-call Doctor Any Good?

Physicians spend a lot of time counseling patients on the phone.  Often, these conversations occur at night with patients we have never met before. When I am on-call in the evenings or on the weekends, these are some typical phone calls I receive from patients I have never met.
  • I have a very bad stomach ache for the last hour.
  • I started having rectal bleeding an hour ago.
  • My wife tells me that my eyes are yellow.
  • My chest is hurting.  It feels different from my usual heartburn.
How do we manage patients with issues like those above?  We get hundreds of calls like this every year.  Do we send every patient to the emergency room just to play it safe?  Do we tell them to hang in there and to call their regular doctor when office hours open?   How can we be sure that a simple stomach ache isn’t the first warning of appendicitis or some other severe abdominal condition?

My After Hours Medical Equipment

Phone medicine relies on an entirely different skill set than physicians use in the office or in the hospital.  Consider these obstacles:
  • We often don’t know the patient.  The doctor who does know him may readily recognize that the complaint is benign.
  • On a phone call, we cannot read body language to gauge a patient’s level of distress.  Seasoned physicians get a gestalt feeling about a patient’s intensity of illness from simple observation.
  • There is no opportunity to perform a physical examination.
  • Prior medical records may not be available, although many electronic medical record systems to do permit remote access.
During my 3 years of internal medicine training and my 2 years of gastroenterology fellowship, I received not a whit of training in phone medicine.  This was a gaping oversight in medical education considering how important these skills are to practicing physicians.  I use them every day.   I confess that during my first several months on the job, there were many anxious moments for me as I fielded phone calls from anxious and sick patients.   It would have been easier had my educators given me a few pointers.

Understandably, patients who are calling physicians off hours are not aware of the handicaps that these doctors face.  Patients often seem to feel that even on a phone call, we somehow have our full toolboxes available and can make diagnoses or prescribe treatments.  Consider the following scenarios.

  • Driving at night wearing sunglasses.
  • Playing guitar with a broken string.
  • Enjoying a movie without sound.
  • Preparing a dinner party with only a saucepan available.
  • Providing medical care to a stranger on the phone.
Want to discuss this further?  Give me a call after hours.

Sunday, April 16, 2017

Overcoming Drug Addiction Solo - A Mother FInds Strength

Recently, I saw a young woman referred to me for an opinion on her hepatitis C infection.

In the latter part of 2013 she made an unwise decision and started using intravenous drugs.  She also made a more unwise decision and shared needles.  She is fortunate that the only virus she contracted was hepatitis C, now curable.  I do not know the details of her life then which led her to lean over the edge of a cliff. It would seem to most spectators that her new lifestyle would portend an inexorable slide into an abyss.  Young addicts, for example, often cannot fund their addictions, and resort to criminal activities to generate necessary revenue.  Employment status and personal relationships become jeopardized.  The tapestry of a person’s life can rapidly unravel. 

But, none of this happened.  About two years after the first shared needle pierced her vein, she quit and she’s been clean since. It was nearly a year later that she first saw me in the office accompanied by her young, spirited son.  I asked her how she molted and emerged from a grim and dangerous world of self-destruction.  “Who helped her?” I inquired.   “No one,” she said.   She had thrown the devil off her back herself, and had dispatched him to a place so distant that he would never find her again.

Devil, Be Gone!

Consider how extraordinary this life-preserving act was.  Only someone who has overcome a true addiction can understand the magnitude of this act.  That she succeeded alone only magnifies the accomplishment.  I admired her grit and devotion, but I couldn’t feel it on a visceral level since I have never suffered from an addiction.

She told me that she her two young kids gave her the motivation she needed to put her needles aside.  She owes them a great debt.  They gave her a gift that she can never repay.  But, I have a sense that she will spend the rest of her life giving back to them. 


Sunday, April 9, 2017

Health Care Reform 2017 Solved!

Have you noticed over the past several weeks that reforming the health care system must be slightly more complicated that we were told?  The promise that Obamacare would be repealed and replaced on Day 1 seems to have been met with a few minor obstacles.  In other words, it’s dead in the water.

Whose fault is it?  It’s like Agathe Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express [Spoiler alert!] – everyone is guilty!

The Freedom Caucus stiff-armed the Speaker of the House.  The GOP House moderates dissed the Freedom Caucus.  President Trump learned that being the leader of the free world is not quite the same as being a CEO of a private company.  If the repeal plan was adjusted to capture a few more hard line GOP members, then moderate GOPers jumped ship.  The Democrats gloated at the GOP’s failure, although their smiles became slightly more taut once Judge Neil Gosruch was confirmed to occupy the GOP’s 'stolen' Supreme Court seat. 

Remember John Boehner?   He’s the happiest man on the planet!

Now, I don’t pretend that the Whistleblower can reform the health care system in a blog post, although I don’t think my results could be worse than the GOP controlled House of Representatives.


Health Care Reform - Searching for Low Hanging Fruit

As a medical insider, consider a few issues listed below that would save zillions and improve our health.  They are not controversial.  Why then, aren’t we pursuing ideas that every medical professional supports?  Perhaps, one of my erudite readers can enlighten us, as I am stumped.   
  • Tens of millions of dollars are wasted on unnecessary antibiotics, which result in serious side effects and are creating superbugs. 
  • We are spending too much money on end-of-life and futile medical care.
  • Every physician who is breathing orders CAT scans, stress tests and colonoscopies that are not truly necessary.
  • Patients are punctured much too often for blood tests, particularly in the hospital when multiple specialists (like me) are on the prowl.  Most patients need only occasional blood tests.
  • Patients, particularly our elderly, are overmedicated.  The length of some of their medication lists are staggering.  Any wonder they are routinely sent to gastroenterologist to explain their nausea and other side-effects?
  • Whatever happened to watchful waiting?  Does every complaint that a patient brings to the office have to result in test or a prescription?   How often does a patient’s medical issue simply resolve on its own?
  • The PSA, prostate specific antigen has single handedly harmed more men and wasted more money than perhaps any other screening test.  Despite mountains of evidence supporting my contention, the diehards are still hanging on.
That was a quick list of some very low hanging fruit.  I’ll wager that if all of them were implemented, that we could reform the entire system and have enough money left over to subsidize obscenely high drug prices.   The absurdity is that the above bullet items would be supported, if not championed, by every reasonable physician, informed patient and health care policy pro.  Here’s the riddle.  Why do we persist in behaviors that we all agree are destructive?   Why do we keep furiously digging in the same hole that leads nowhere?






Sunday, April 2, 2017

Is My Doctor Up to Date?

Professional training and development are critical.  Police officers, educators, orthodontists, painters, chief executives, musicians and chefs all need ongoing training to remain current.  Job requirements evolve, and we must adapt.  An accountant who hasn’t kept up with new or anticipated tax law changes might not account for much when computing your tax obligation or refund.

Physicians need to be dedicated to ongoing professional development as much as any other occupation.  Patients often wonder if their doctor is up to date.  Does your primary care physician know about new medications for your condition?  Does your orthopedist use the latest medical hardware when replacing your hip joint?  Is your anesthesiologist using the same old laughing gas to put you asleep?  Is your dermatologist’s knowledge of his field only skin deep?

In the medical profession, there has been a paradoxical emphasis on reducing professional training.  Here’s what I mean.  In hospitals, it is no longer true that every patient relies upon a registered nurse, or R.N., for nursing care.  Now, lower level personnel such as nurses aides and other care assistants are frequently utilized.  I’ll let the reader surmise what motivated this hospital ‘reform’.  Nurse practitioners now roam the hospital wards, technically under the authority of a physician who is seeing his own patients in an office miles away.  Why see your own primary care physician, when the ‘minute clinic’ on the street corner is open for business.  These clinics are conveniently housed in pharmacies so that any antibiotics prescribed, which we hope and pray are truly necessary, can be purchased on site. 

Who should be doing your colonoscopy?  Do you prefer a trained gastroenterologist, or would you be satisfied with a nurse who has been trained in how to technically use the instrument, as some cost cutters have advocated?    Even a casual reader might appreciate that competency in a colonoscopy, heart catheterization or knee arthroscopy extends far beyond the technical requirements of the procedures. 

Gastroenterologists are similar to Navy SEALS.  We both train to a knife’s edge and do all that we can to stay razor sharp.  To my patients, I want to reassure you that staying current in colonoscopy is my life’s mission.  The training manual pictured below is never out of reach.  Feel better?


Sunday, March 26, 2017

Beware of Joining a Clinical Trial - Medical Research Must Come Clean

From time to time, friends, patients and relatives ask my advice on participating in a medical experiment.  My response has been no.  More accurately, once I explain to them the realities of research, they don’t need to be persuaded.  They back away.

Here’s the key point.   When an individual volunteers to join a research project, the medical study is not designed to benefit the individual patient.  This point is sorely misunderstood by patients and their families who understandably will pursue any opportunity to achieve some measure of healing for an ailing individual.  I get this.  In addition, I believe that these research proposals are often slanted in a way to suggest that there may direct benefit that the patient will receive.  I am not accusing the medical establishment of uttering outright falsehoods to prospective study patients, but there are two powerful forces that may incentivize investigators to recruit patients with undue influence.
  • The Medical Research Industrial Complex is a voracious beast that needs a steady diet of new recruits.  In other words, the beast must be fed.
  • Investigators have bias favoring their research and truly believe that the new drug has a real chance of helping study patients.
The truth is this.  In general, research projects are designed to generate new knowledge that will be used to help patients down the road, not those in the study.  Of course, I cannot state with absolute certainty that a study patient won’t realize a favorable result, but this serendipitous outcome is not the study’s planned yield. It should be viewed as a happy accident.  This is why the study is properly called a research experiement.

Napoleon Has Stomach Pain.
Should He Join a Study?

Beware of the packaging.  If your mom or dad has Alzheimer’s disease, of course, you would be susceptible to the following hypothetical pitch.

Is someone you love struggling against Alzheimer’s disease?  Our Neurological Institute is fighting hard against this disease and is now testing a new drug to help conserve memory.  Call for confidential information. 

Recently, in France, 90 volunteers took a study medicine testing the safety of a psychiatric medication.  One volunteer is now dead and others have suffered irreversible brain damage.  We don’t know the underlying facts yet.  While a horrible outcome is not tantamount to guilt, this is a terribly troubling event that must be sorted out. We will find out soon enough if the French study subjects were given all the information they were entitled to, and if the investigators and others behaved properly.  The investigation that must be full and fair.  A conclusion of c’est la vie won’t be enough.

If you want to join a medical study to serve humanity – and not yourself – then you are free to make an informed choice.  Be mindful of the risks including those that are not known. 

Helping others is a praiseworthy act.  So is telling the truth.


Sunday, March 19, 2017

Medical Marijuana Use - Ready, Fire, Aim!

Promoting medical marijuana use is hot – smokin’ hot.  States are racing to legalize this product, both for recreational and medical use.  In my view, there’s a stronger case to be made for the former than the latter. 

Presently, marijuana is a Schedule I drug, along with heroin, LSD and Ecstasy.  The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) defines this category as drugs with no acceptable medical use and a high potential risk of addiction.  Schedule I contains drugs that the FDA deems to be the least useful and most dangerous.  Schedule V includes cough medicine containing codeine.

On its face, it is absurd that marijuana and heroin are Schedule I soulmates.  I expect that the FDA will demote marijuana to a more benign category where it belongs.  It will certainly have to if marijuana is going to be approved as a medicine. 

There is no question that some advocates favoring medicalization of marijuana were using this as a more palatable route to legitimize recreational use.  The strategy was to move incrementally with the hope that over time the ball would cross the goal line.  We have seen this same approach with so many other reforms, legal decisions and societal acceptances, many of which we take for granted.  Consider gay marriage and women’s role in the military as two examples of goals that required a long journey to reach.

Marijuana has had no personal or professional role in my life.  I do not object to responsible recreational use and would support such a measure.  To criminalize marijuana use while cigarettes, chewing tobacco and alcohol are entirely legal seems inconsistent and hypocritical.  Is smoking marijuana more dangerous than riding a motorcycle?

Paradoxically, I have hesitancy at this point to endorse medical marijuana use based on the fragmentary data that supports its efficacy.  If you ‘Google’ this subject, and you believe what you read, you will conclude that marijuana is the panacea we’ve been waiting for.   It helps nausea, neuropathic (nerve) pain, glaucoma, muscle spasms, Crohn’s disease, multiple sclerosis, epilepsy, Hepatitis C, migraines, arthritis, Alzheimer’s disease, cancer and numerous other ailments.  Do we accept so readily that one agent can effectively attack such a broad range of unrelated illnesses?  It sounds more like snake oil than science. 

Cure is Just a Puff Away!

Shouldn’t high quality medical studies demonstrate benefit before we sanction medical marijuana use?

The medical profession and our patients should demand that all our medicines be rigorously tested for safety and efficacy.   I realize that there is huge public acceptance that marijuana is real medicine.  Not so fast.  Let the FDA evaluate marijuana as it does for all medications and treatments.  I do not think we should relax our professional standards just because the public is willing to inhale without evidence and entrepreneurs want to cash in.

If you had a chronic disease, would you expect your doctor to offer you a medicine with definite risks but no proven benefit?  Why would you accept it and why would he prescribe it?  

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Why Are Drug Prices So High?

Why are the costs of prescription drugs so high?  While I have prescribed thousands of them, I can’t offer an intelligent answer to this inquiry.  Of course, all the players in this game – the pharmaceutical companies, Pharmacy Benefit Managers, insurance companies, consumer activists and the government- offer their respective bromides, where does the truth lie? 

While I don’t fully understand it, and I don’t know how to fix it, we all know that the system is broken.  More than ever before in my career, I am seeing patients who cannot afford the medicines I prescribe for them.  In the last few weeks of this writing, 3 patients with colitis, a condition where the large bowel is inflamed, called me to complain about the cost of their new medicine.  The annual cost was in the $2,500 - $3,000 range, which is way out of range for normal folks.  While I was only focused on the colitis drug, many of these patients face prohibitive costs over multiple medicines.  All of these patients had medical insurance, thought it didn’t feel like it to them. 

Medicine or Retirement?

Should sick patients be given the added burden of price gouging?

I'm not an attack dog against PhRMA.  I've expressed sympathy on this blog and elsewhere that it costs pharmaceutical companies a fortune to design, test and market new medicine.  R & D is not cheap.  If we want this industry to take risks developing tomorrow's drugs, then they deserve a profit high enough to justify the investment.  Nevertheless, from the prescribers and the consumers points of view, the system is out of balance and needs to be recalibrated.  

I reviewed my colitis patients' formularies, which is the list of medicines that patients' insurance companies cover.  If a drug is labeled as a ‘Tier 1’ drug, then the cost to the patient is the lowest.  The higher the Tier #, the more the patient will pay.  This is how the insurance company ‘guides’ physicians to prescribe cheap drugs.  Of course, the insurance company will never say that the patient can’t receive an expensive drug.  That’s a decision, they claim with a straight face, that’s between a patient and the doctor.  Give me a break.  Ordinary folks, especially retired people on fixed incomes, are confined to lower Tier medicines.

I have no issue with the Tier system as long as there is at least one Tier 1 drug that can do the job.  If there are half a dozen heartburn medicines that are equally effective, I understand if an insurance company makes one of them Tier 1, their preferred choice.  This happens when the insurance company gets a special discount on this particular medicine.  

With regard to my 3 colitis patients, the only Tier 1 drug was one that came on the scene decades before I was born.  The standard colitis medicines that every gastroenterologist would have prescribed were all upper Tier. My patients had no choice but to accept an inferior drug. 

If any reader can explain why our drug prices are the highest in the world, can you also explain why insurance companies are not practicing medicine?



Sunday, March 5, 2017

Should Attorney General Jeff Sessions Resign?


For me, the test of fairness, which many of us fail, is if we would have the same view of events if the situation were reversed. 

An employee approaches his boss requesting a raise, pointing out that he has not had a raise in 2 years, while other colleagues have received pay increases.  The boss responds that while his performance was highly satisfactory, the colleagues who did receive pay raises demonstrated sterling reviews.  The employee believes this decision is unfair, and suggests there may have been some favoritism at play.   The fairness test here is what would the employee do if he were the manager.

A nursing supervisor is told that two nurses on a hospital ward are unable to report to their shift.  Each nurse has to carry a heavier patient load for that shift.  These nurses believe that they are entitled to additional compensation as their already heavy work load has been increased.  This request is denied by the hospital’s administration.  I wonder if the hospital administrators would agree with their edict if they were the overworked nurses on that shift.  Would they still agree that no additional pay for additional work is downright fair?  Can't you just hear them saying that if they were these nurses that they would welcome the opportunity to be saddled with extra work and would refuse any offer for additional comp.  (Readers are invited to laugh at this point.)

Events always look a little different when we swap places. 

The Attorney General of the United States, Jeff Sessions, is the newest star performer on CNN and other networks this week.  He gave misleading responses during his confirmation hearings when asked if he had any contact with Russian officials during the campaign.  In addition, he did not correct his misstatements afterwards until his 2 meetings with the Russian ambassador were disclosed.  He has been accused of lying and deceiving congress, an allegation that he denies.  He claims that he misunderstood the question and had no intent to mislead anyone.


Public Enemy #1?

Personally, I am not satisfied with his inaccurate testimony and subsequent silence    Did he lie?  I’m not sure.  If so, it would seem to be a poor choice since telling the truth of the two meetings could have been justified and explained.  

Many Democrats are screaming for his resignation and for a special counsel to be brought in to assess the situation independently.   I suggest that the reasons behind these two Democrat requests have nothing to do with Sessions’ behavior, but deserve a larger context, which I’m sure my readers will acknowledge.

We all know that when there is an independent counsel that the investigation always morphs into a mega-mission creep that extends far beyond the initial target.  That’s why political partisans always zealously request this measure when the other party is under attack, but push back hard when they are in the crosshairs.  

Now for the fairness test.   Remember when the Democrats were screaming and whining when independent counsel Ken Starr was on the attack?  His mission started with Whitewater but was incrementally expanded and extended to the Monica Lewinsky affair.  I think the Democrats had a valid point that his investigation became untethered.  However, is an independent counsel only fair when your opponents are being targeted?

As for Jeff Sessions resigning, I think this is transparent partisanship.  How would the Dems react if the situation were reversed?  The experiment has already been done.  Remember when Loretta Lynch, the Attorney General had a near hour long meeting with Bill Clinton on the tarmac while Mrs. Clinton was the target of an FBI investigation?  Quite a long time to be discussing golf and grandchildren.  

How many Democrats called upon her to resign or face a special prosecutor?   Have they passed the fairness test?

Of course, many partisan Democrats will point out the the Lynch affair is 'completely different' from the Sessions matter.  How stupid do they think we are?

I'm taking aim at the Democrats here, but I fully acknowledge that the GOP also fails the fairness test regularly.  


Sunday, February 26, 2017

Do Doctors have a Right to Free Speech? Hippocrates Weighs In.

Free speech is one of our bedrock constitutional rights.  The debate and battle of what constitutes lawful free speech is ongoing.  The issue is more complex than I can grasp with legal distinctions separating political speech, commercial speech and non-commercial speech.  And, of course the right of speech does not permit the free expression of obscenity or ‘fighting words’, along with some other exclusions.  And, there is no right to free speech in a private work place, where an employee can be fired for speaking his or her mind.  While worker in a private shop may claim that he had a right to call his boss a flippin’ jerk, he would likely find that he suddenly has an abundance of free time to contemplate his prior utterance.

Leaving aside the First Amendment, physicians have always enjoyed free speech in our offices.  We ask our patients questions of the most private and intimate nature.  And, they answer us.  We ask such questions because, under appropriate circumstances, we need the information in order to provide our best medical advice.   We ask about specific sexual practices.  We ask about prior or current substance abuse.  We ask if patients are alcoholics.  We ask if patients are suffering from abuse or neglect. 

While we may not invariably receive truthful responses from these inquires, often we do.  Patients trust us to respect their confidentiality, which has been embedded into medical culture and practice since the time of Hippocrates.

And whatsoever I shall see or hear in the course of my profession, as well as outside my profession in my intercourse with men, if it be what should not be published abroad, I will never divulge, holding such things to be holy secrets.

Hippocrates -2500 years before HIPAA!


His admonition holds true nearly 2500 years later.  How’s that for meeting the test of time?

In 2011, the Florida Republican legislature, with the approval of the governor, passed a law that restricted physicians from inquiring of their patients about gun ownership and safety.  Physicians found to be in violation risked loss of their professional licenses or fines.  Nearly two weeks ago, an appeals court struck this silly law down.  Not only was such a law an obvious encroachment on physicians’ First Amendment rights, but also posed a barrier preventing doctors from doing their jobs.  Should a pediatrician, for example, be prevented from asking a parent if firearms in the home are properly secured?  This is not a political or partisan issue – it’s a medical and safety issue.

Of course, the appeals court got it right in a case that I regard as a judicial lay-up.  But, how did such a ridiculous law get passed in the first place?



Sunday, February 19, 2017

Do Judges Legislate from the Bench? What's Your Ruling?

Judge Neil Gorsuch, President Trump’s nominee to fill a vacant seat on the Supreme Court of the United States, will face a contentious vetting process in the U.S. Senate.  I expect the sausage-making process to be an opportunity for political grandstanding where bombastic bloviators will spew forth partisan pabulum.  Look for a senator, for example, to point out that the judge did not clean up after his dog when he was in the 7th grade.  “If we can’t trust you to clean up after Sparky, then how can we trust you to mind the Constitution?”

We read and hear about the scourge of judicial activism (JA), where judges invent laws rather than interpret existing law, as they are charged to do.  The antidote to judicial activism is judicial restraint (JR), when judges exercise modesty and base their rulings on the intent of the framers or on the words in the statute.  If, for example, the statute does not specify that “the puppies shall be saved”, then it is not for the judge, who may be a dog lover, to take on canine rescue as a ‘pet project’.

Let me define JA and JR more clearly for readers who do not wallow in the judicial universe.

Judicial Activism: A ruling that is disliked by various individuals and interests.
Judicial Restraint: A ruling that is celebrated by various individuals and interests.

If a judge rules for your cause, then he or she is a titan on the bench.  If however, you did not receive your desired judicial outcome, then the judge is an activist hack who is legislating from the bench.  I am generalizing, of course, but you get the point. 


A Den of Activism?

How has the judicial branch been performing?  A lot better than the other two branches, in my view.  Here’s some rough polling data.

      Approval Rating
Trump                            38%  (2017)
Congress                        28% ((2017 –  Surging -up 9 points in 1 month!)
Supreme Court             42% (2016)

Let’s not read more into this than the numbers merit.   Negative poll numbers do not mean that an individual or an institution is not performing well.  It simply means that the public is dissatisfied.  If Congress, for example, passes a law eliminating the deductibility of home mortgages, which may be a sound public policy measure, don’t look for an upward spike in poll numbers.

Hopefully, this blog, at least from time to time, polls well with readers.  What’s your ruling?  Of course, if I don’t like it, I will merely label you as an Activist Reader!

Sunday, February 12, 2017

Communication Between Doctors and Patients - Words Matter

Here’s a quote that readers will not readily recognize.

It is a pity that a doctor is precluded by his profession from being able sometimes to say what he really thinks.

I’ll share the origin of the quote at the post’s conclusion.  How’s that for a teaser?  I'll give you a hint below.

Author of the Quote as a Young Child

Physicians by training and experience are guarded with our words.  To begin, we are never entirely sure of anything, and we should make sure that we do not convey certainty when none exists.  This is why physicians rarely use phrases such as, I’m positive that..., I’m 100% sure…, there are no side-effects…

Because of the uncertainties of the medical universe, sometimes we sanitize our own concerns when we are advising patients and their families.  We may see an individual in the office with unexplained weight loss and a change in her bowel pattern.  While we may fear that a malignancy is lurking, we would be wise to keep our own counsel on this impression pending further study.  This patient, for example, may be suffering from a curable thyroid disorder. 

Words matter.  We all have heard how patients and families can dwell on one or two words uttered by a physician, who may have spoken at some length on a patient’s condition.  In these cases, the families may have inferred more serious news than the physician intended.  Doctors need to be mindful of this phenomenon when we are communicating.  Which of these messages would you prefer to receive on your voice mail?

“Please make an appointment to review your biopsy results.”

“Your biopsy results are benign.  Please make an appointment so we can discuss them further.”

On other occasions, physicians may opt to leave out certain words or suspicions.  Why unload anxiety on folks before the truth is known?  Additionally, not every patient wants the whole truth administered in a single dose.  These scenarios demonstrate the advantage that a physician has when he has an established rapport and relationship with his patient. 

Conversely, I don’t feel we are helping patients and their loved ones when we overly sanitize the medical situation in order to postpone an unpleasant physician task or to create hope that may not be realistic.  There’s a balance to be attempted, and I still struggle to achieve it. 

The quote that started this post was published 90 years ago, not by a doctor or a nurse.  I stumbled upon it when reading The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, one of the greatest works by the master of mystery, Dame Agatha Christie.


Sunday, February 5, 2017

Should Patients Order Their Own Lab Tests?

Knowledge is power.  Increasingly, patients are demanding and receiving access to levers in the medical machine that would have been unthinkable a generation ago.  I have already opined on this blog whether the informed consent process, which I support, can overwhelm ordinary patients and families with conflicting and bewildering options.  Television and the airwaves routinely advertise prescription drugs directly to the public.  Consider the strategy of direct-to-consumer drug marketing when millions of dollars are spent advertising a drug that viewers are not permitted to purchase themselves.  The public can now with a few clicks on a laptop, research individual physicians and hospitals to compare them to competitors.  The ‘Sunshine Act’, an Obamacare feature, publicizes payments to physicians and hospitals by pharmaceutical companies and other manufacturers.


"Sunlight is said to be the best disinfectant"
Every physician today has the experience of patients coming to the office presenting their internet search on their symptoms for the doctor’s consideration. “Yes, Mrs. Johnson, although it is true that malaria can cause an upset stomach, I just don’t think this should be our first priority.”
There are now laws that permit patients to order their own lab tests such as cholesterol or glucose.  Even registered nurses working in intensive care units are not permitted to order these tests without a physician's authorization.  Ordering diagnostic tests and medical treatments has always been under the purview of a physician or highly trained medical professionals.  Who interprets the results?  The patient?  The lab tech who drew the blood? The cashier at the retail health clinic?  A policeman?  A hospital custodian?
I had an office visit with my own physician to discuss how best to manage my own cholesterol level.  While this discussion did not have the drama of cardiac bypass surgery, it took time to consider the risks and benefits of various options along with my personal and family risk of cardiac disease.  My point is that even two medical professionals had to navigate through an issue that had more complexity than one might think.  Understanding the significance of a lab result takes nuance and medical judgment.
Patients already purchase all varieties of heartburn medicines over-the-counter, that years ago were out of reach.  Should we permit patients to buy antibiotics, blood pressure medicines, ‘statins’ for elevated cholesterol and anti-depressants? Why not?
Think of all the money the system would save.  A depressed individual, for example, doesn’t have to waste time and money with a psychiatrist.  He already knows he’s depressed. He can proceed directly to the Mood Aisle of the local drug store and get the pills he needs.  Wouldn’t it be easier and cheaper if patients could just buy antibiotics themselves for those pesky colds and flus?  No office visit or time off work for a doctor appointment. The fact that antibiotics don’t combat colds and other viruses never seemed to deter their use. 
Eventually, patients can order their own colonoscopies, stress tests, cardiac catheterizations and gallbladder removals.  Perhaps, we will see the creation of AmazonMEDPRIME.  Feeling a little chest tightness?  Just click the app, and the Cardiac Cath Mobile will be at your door in 30 minutes or less.    


Sunday, January 29, 2017

Probiotics Promote Digestive Health - Is There a Germ of Truth

Several times each week, I am asked about the value of probiotics.  Many of my patients are already on them, based on a personal recommendation or an advertisement.  As a gastroenterologist, I routinely treat patients with all varieties of diarrhea conditions, such as irritable bowel disease, ulcerative colitis, Crohn’s disease, lactose intolerance, celiac disease and the highly feared gluten sensitivity.  Many of them arrive in the office with a probiotic in hand waiting for me to pass judgment.  These patients look to me as a Digestive Supreme Court Justice as they sit on the edge of their chairs waiting for my ruling in the case of Probiotics vs Disease.  

First, let’s all be clear on what a probiotic is.  Probiotics are bacteria that provide health benefits when consumed.   Stop a moment and consider how bizarre this concept is.  Physicians have been fighting germs since the days of Louis Pasteur.  We have taught the public for generations how important personal hygiene is.  We are counseled not to eat under-cooked food from fear of contracting a food borne illness.  Every hospital in the country is stressing hand washing to all personnel to protect patients from infection.  Many of us won’t leave the house without a hand sanitizer bottle. 

In other words, germs are bad – unless they are probiotics!  In the latter case, billions of germs are deliberately ingested in order to relieve symptoms and treat diseases – an ironic shift in classic germ-fighting medical practice. 

Germs - Friend or Foe?

Are Our Intestines Germ-free?

Hardly. Our intestines are filled with zillions of bacteria.  Miraculously, during health these germs are not able to penetrate through the walls of intestines to reach internal organs which would cause a severe infection.  These strains of bacteria within the bowel all live together in balance providing health benefits to us.  They aid in digestion and immunity.  Some of these germs create vitamin K, which we use to maintain a healthy clotting system.  

When this bacterial neighborhood, which is called the intestinal biome, is disrupted, then disease can set in. For example, when we take antibiotics to attack ‘bad germs’, such as for a pneumonia or a urinary tract infection, the antibiotic also upsets the ‘good bacteria’ within our intestines.  In addition, many digestive diseases have an intestinal biome that is out of balance.   When the biome isn’t balanced, then the whole body is under a strain.

How Do Probiotics Work?

Here’s the theory in simplified form.  When the community of beneficial germs within our bowels is disrupted from antibiotics or disease, probiotics can get the biome back into balance.  Scientists are not entirely sure how this happens, but probiotic research is in high gear to understand how they work and who should receive them.  The theory is that bringing the biome back to its normal state restores health and relieves symptoms. 

What do I tell my patients with digestive conditions regarding probiotics?  I tell them the truth.  The supportive science is rather thin, but many of my patients feel better on a probiotic program.  We don’t know precisely which probiotic works best for a specific patient or disease, or how often to dose them.  Importantly, we believe that they are safe, but I would be very reluctant to recommend them to someone with compromised immunity.

If you have digestive symptoms and are contemplating a probiotic, here are 3 steps to consider.
  • Open the jar.
  • Open your mouth.
  • Open your mind to the belief that these germs can heal you.




Sunday, January 22, 2017

Repeal and Replace Obamacare - STAT!

Am I referring to Obamacare here or Obama himself?

I am glad that we have a new president.  Like most of the country, I was ripe for a change of direction and a new approach to foreign and domestic affairs – and we are certainly getting that.  New readers here might erroneously suspect that I voted for Trump.  I didn’t.  For the first time in my presidential voting history, I wrote in my choice for our top two office holders.

I have written multiple posts on my unfavorable views of Obamacare since it was jammed through congress without a single Republican vote.  (Do I sound slightly partisan here?)  Interested readers are invited to peruse posts on this blog within the Health Care Reform Quality category, if you dare.

There are two kinds of people who oppose Obamacare
  • Folks who believe it is wrong on policy grounds
  • Folks who wield it as a political cudgel to bash Obama.
Some opponents are a hybrid of both of the above.

I was also suspicious that the Affordable Care Act (ACA) was always an interim step preceding a full nationalization of our health care system.  Obama is on the record favoring such a policy during his 2008 campaign.  If Obama could have achieved this politically in one step, he would have.  The ACA represented the political upper limit that he could achieve, hoping that this would make a full would bring us within reach of a government takeover.   Some conspiratorial skeptics believe that the ACA was designed deliberately to fail so that private insurance companies would have to abandon it – as they have.  Then, the beneficient government would have to step in to rescue Americans who needed medical coverage STAT!  While I offer no opinion on this wild charge, there were many smart people who averred when the ACA was delivered to us, that the numbers would never add up. And they didn't.


Derailing the Obamacare Runaway Train

It is my belief that government is simply not equipped to assume control of the entire health care system and operate it at the highest level of quality possible, while controlling costs.  Remember how smoothly the healthcare.gov web site release was?  Do you think this would have happened if Google, or Facebook was in charge?  Which company do you have a higher opinion of in terms of quality and efficiency, the Bureau of Motor Vehicles or Amazon?  If folks want to have a government insurance plan like Medicare, I am fine with this.  But, give us access also to the free market.  I like choice because competition breeds excellence.  When FedEx came onto the scene, it forced the U.S. Postal Sevice to really step up, which they have. 

And, we all know that the plan’s proponents were somewhat less than truthful.  Feel free to GOOGLE Jonathan Gruber to become reacquainted with his 2014 comments which make reference to stupid American voters and other niceties.  How long did it take the Obamians to admit that the statement, “If you like your doctor, you can keep your doctor”, was known to be false from the outset?

Let’s face it.  The ACA promised us quality and cost control and in my view it has failed on both counts.  I do congratulate the president here, as I have previously, for taking on the challenge of health care reform.  Republicans over several presidential administrations failed to seriously confront this challenge.  And the plan does cover more Americans, which we all agree is a necessary goal.  But, the collateral damage of this achievement warrants a new direction, admitting that it may not be possible to uproot the entire tree.    

The replace part is going to be tougher than the repeal part.  Will the GOP take a lesson from their adversaries and jam it through without a single Democrat vote?

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Insurance Company Helps Patients Who Don't Speak English

When I was a kid, it was fun to get mail.  Now, not so much.  My mailbox at home is a receptacle for junk mail, various solicitations for services I will never need, and bills.  Office mail is not much more fun.  Each day I look through the stack and separate them into 3 categories.
  • Important stuff
  • Garbagio
  • Not sure

The latter category is the most vexing.  Some stuff is cleverly designed to appear important when, in reality it is drivel and nonsense.  We’ve all seen this stuff.  Sometimes, the envelope will include a teaser label, such as ‘Time Sensitive Material’, or ‘Signature Required’.   Once I have been duped to open up the envelope, I’ve lost the game.  Then, I am forced to scan the printed page as fast as my retinas can process the image with the hope that in a few nanoseconds I can send the page sailing into the waste bin.  Sometimes, however, even after reading the entire page, I simply can’t determine if the document merits calling an office meeting to discuss the contents or if it should be simply burned, with the ashes scattered over Lake Erie in a solemn ceremony.  One must choose wisely when facing these conundrums.  If a document is shredded instead of scanned into a patient’s chart, the potential consequences are simply too grisly for me to detail here on a blog that children can access.

I received a notification from a pharmaceutical company indicating that the heartburn medicine I prescribed so casually to an elderly patient was not the ‘preferred agent’.  These was a form letter which demonstrated the same level of warmth and human emotion that one expects when you call the Internal Revenue Service for assistance.  But, there was a 2nd page in the envelope, appears below.  Kindly note that I was able to technically reproduce the image here without the assistance of a 13-year-old child. 


This letter, sent to the patient, advises that customer service agents at WellCare are available to discuss the issue with the patient.  I am not certain if my patient intends to contact them, but my own experience is that making these phone calls is about as fun as undergoing oral surgery.  But, what struck me was all of the languages contained in the letter, many of which I could not recognize.  At the bottom of the letter is a Yiddish translation.  Yes, Yiddish.  Yes, the moribund language that many of our grandparents spoke.  I can’t speak it or read it, but I can recognize it.  Obviously, WellCare must include so many Yiddish speakers that they need to include this language in their correspondences.  My guess is that not a single Yiddish speaker is a WellCare customer.

Maybe, I am wrong and that Yiddish is roaring back.  Kudos to the linquists at WellCare for providing their customers with this essential service.  I may politely suggest that they include hieroglyphics on future mailings.  Why should these folks be left out?

So, was this letter worth saving?  Probably not, but I just couldn’t part with it. 


Sunday, January 8, 2017

Is Informed Consent Overrated?

Physicians now practice in the era of patient autonomy.  Most agree that the era of medical paternalism should not be resurrected.  During those days, doctors simply told patients what to do, and patients complied.  The informed consent process then was a shadow of what it should have been.  In general, physicians did not proffer medical options and alternatives for patients to ponder over.  They were told, ‘you need a hysterectomy’.
Sometimes, I think we physicians today have over-corrected for past arrogance.  Yes, I believe in informing patients, but I often wonder if many patients today really only want us to tell them which path they should pursue.  Even the most informed patients are not medical professionals who can grasp every medical nuance or ramification of a decision.  It can be vexing for them to choose among different medical options that are presented to them in an effort to meet our obligation to apprise patients of all reasonable treatment alternatives. 
Consider this scenario.
"You can proceed with surgery to treat your condition or try a new medication instead. The medication has risks and if doesn’t work, you can certainly have surgery.  Keep in mind that if surgery is delayed while you are trying the medication, it is less likely to be effective.  Additionally, the medical center downtown is doing experimental treatment for your condition.  Finally, some experts advise against any treatment, advocating watchful waiting instead.  What is your decision?" 
Not an easy labyrinth for a normal patient to navigate through.
Such a presentation is often followed by a patient asking, ‘what do you think I should do?’


What should I do?
I’m not advocating depriving patients of information they are entitled to in order to make rational health decisions.  I believe in informed consent and have written many essays supporting it on this blog and elsewhere.  However, I often believe that this process overwhelms patients and their families with competing choices that torture and confuse them.  As a statement of fact, many patients today are only seeking our best recommendation, even though physicians today go much further in an effort to meet our ethical obligation and to protect against a medical malpractice charge.  

I am very interested in what readers think on this issue.  Inform me, please.

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