Sunday, January 26, 2020

Personalized Medicine - The Future of Medicine

Future doctors will celebrate that they no longer prescribe the same drug at the same dosage for hypertension or pneumonia or arthritis or cancer or many other conditions.  Who knows even if drugs will be the mainstay of medical treatment.  Tomorrow’s treatments will be tailored to one’s age, gender, weight, race, overall medical condition, severity of the medical threat and genetic profile, among other variables.  We don't all wear the same sizes of socks and shoes, but yet medicine today has a one-size-fits-all treatment utility.  A new era, however, is upon us.

What will be the fate of my beloved colonoscopies or heart catheterizations or blood draws or biopsies of tissues?   Fear not.  They will all be available to you, just as Van Gogh paintings or fossils of T-Rex are -  in museums.  The first exhibit will be a diorama of the physician’s office from yesteryear, adorned with some antique artifacts such as a stethoscope, an EKG machine and a reflex hammer. 

Museum Quality

Without question, health care will smash through one barrier after another.  But, the humanity of the profession will be subsumed and sacrificed as the medical technological tsunami bursts forth.  Our health will improve but the health care experience will be unrecognizable.  Indeed, all aspects of our lives will be technologically driven.  Today, Alexa can turn off the lights.  Tomorrow, Dr. Alexa might be cleaning out our arteries. 

And while technology will permit portions of the exam to be transmitted, such as vital signs, heart and lung sounds, skin lesions, etc., I don’t see how a patient’s abdomen can be palpated, at least not yet.

Performing robotic surgery remotely is already a reality and such surgeries and medical procedures from afar may become commonplace.  Individuals may place their smart phones on various parts of their body and transmit information to their physicians.  Patients may be able to use their phones or some other device to do a CAT scan (or whatever technology will replace it) on their own bodies.  And, reminiscent of the once futuristic novel Fantastic Voyage, patients may swallow a trackable pill that can course throughout the body transmitting data about the health of various tissues and organ systems.  Similarly, medications will be customized to each individual that can be directed to the target location.  For example, a medicine for Alzheimer’s disease will be personalized for a specific patient with the drug remaining only in the brain.  These developments will boost drugs' efficacy and reduce adverse drug reactions.   When drugs are free to roam throughout the entire body, obviously there will be unintended and unfavorable consequences.

The routine physical examination may be replaced by spitting into a tube or submitting a cheek scraping for a comprehensive medical analysis.

We can hope and pray that the upcoming technological take over will be guided and restrained when necessary by just and ethical principles.  The revolution is coming and no force can derail it.

Sunday, January 19, 2020

Electronic Medical Records - Broken Promises

I have written, or more accurately ranted, about electronic medical records (EMR) systems throughout this blog.  While the systems have clearly improved since their mandatory introduction into the medical universe, they have still not delivered on many of their promises.

Of course, EMR has brought tremendous advantages to the medical profession and we are all grateful for the technology.  But this progress has exacted a cost.  Many of them are clumsy to utilize.  When the technology breaks down or freezes, the office become paralyzed.  The systems are vulnerable to hackers who can exploit personal medical data or demand ransomware.  Many of the computerized notes  are so filled with pre-populated fluff carried over from prior visits, that it can be challenging to identify new medical information.  I often scroll through several pages in search of the physician’s thoughts and plans.  And a physician who is staring at a computer screen during an office visit will create a very different genre of a doctor-patient relationship. 

But here’s an EMR frustration that I am astonished is still torturing us.  In our digital era, different EMR systems cannot communicate with each other.  Indeed, one of the seductive promises of the EMR prophets was that physicians would have access to all of a patient’s medical data.  Imagine, for example, how useful this would be to an emergency room (ER) physician who is treating a sick patient who has been treated for the same condition elsewhere?

The Medical Records are in there somewhere!  

Every day in my office practice, I see patients with active conditions who have been treated by other physicians and at other hospital systems.  The patient before me with abdominal pain may have been seen for this in an ER a few weeks ago, and then seen by his own primary care physician days afterwards.  Shouldn’t I be able to have real time access to all of this data?  Wouldn’t this help me to make a more accurate diagnosis?  Might this prevent me from ordering an unnecessary medical test?  Is this vexing issue simply insurmountable?  ‘Is there no app for this’?

Patients are as frustrated over this as we are.   “Alexa, please get my this patient’s CAT scan report!”

Sunday, January 12, 2020

There is Too Much Technology in Medicine

As promised, here is the continuation of last week's post where I discussed the loss of physicians' diagnostic skills which have been largely replaced by technology.

Of course, the medical community celebrates the miracles that technology has brought us.  Innovation has improved our lives and will continue to do.  On this issue, there is no debate. But, as with many advances, there is a cost.  Here's my take on the downsides of the technologization of the practice of medicine.  

Could a CAT Scan Do Damage?
Readers, Scan Below!

  • Overreliance on technology has cost zillions of dollars.
  • Much of the overdiagnosis and overtreatment in our health care system – which I have decried on this blog – is caused by medical technology.
  • Technology has strained the doctor-patient relationship.  It is often easier to order a scan than to have a deeper conversation with patient who needs advice and counsel, particularly when physicians’ schedules are jammed.
  • CAT scans and their ilk regularly find unrelated ‘abnormalities’ that would remain dormant for life, but now assume a life of their own as doctors must pursue them. 
  • Technology is not perfect, even though we all tend to regard it as the Holy Grail.  A negative test result may blind us to the truth if we are not vigilant.  A patient with stomach pain and a normal CAT scan can still be in deep trouble. 
  • Patients have taken heed of our technology obsession.  They regularly ask their doctors for testing that they may not need.  Every doctor has had a patient facing him insisting that a CAT scan be done.  The public understandably believes that more testing is better medicine.  Of course, this is false premise but try convincing a patient and their family of this.  I know from my own family; they don’t get it and the medical profession and our payment system is responsible for it. (Patients are more enthusiastic for testing that the insurance companies will pay for)
  • There are financial conflicts of interests that drive the overuse of technology.  Yes, medicine is a business and we would should expect that the normal forces of profit seeking are operative.
  • Technology has not only eroded physicians’ physical exam talents but has also diminished doctors’ skill and enthusiasm in obtaining patients’ medical history, the important narrative that the patient communicates to the physician.   
I often hear and read presentations of patients' medical history where the 3rd sentence is “…and the CAT scan showed…”   This premature intrusion of a technology result - a physician spoiler - immediately prejudices the doctor who should have been given time just to hear the patient’s own story.  If you are told in advance of an important future development in a mystery story, will you still read the book as carefully as you would have otherswise?  The danger for doctors who are given a sneak preview of events is that we become less attentive and vigilant which can lure us into false passages.

Sunday, January 5, 2020

Can Doctors Still Examine Patients?

Does your doctor really know how to use a stethoscope or palpate your abdomen?

Today’s physicians do not have the physical exam skills that our predecessors did.  We can argue if this truth has diminished medical quality – I’m not sure that it has.  But it has completely changed how medicine today is practiced.  The reason for declining physician exam skills is that technology has largely supplanted physicians’ hands, eyes and ears.  In the olden days, the stethoscope was the diagnostic tool for examining hearts.  I spent a month as a medical student with a legendary cardiologist who could make all kinds of cardiac diagnoses right at the bedside using 2 advanced medical instruments known as ears.  Surgeons and gastroenterologists in years past had to make  diagnoses of acute appendicitis and other abdominal emergencies based on feel and their ‘gut’.  Neurologists made accurate diagnoses of stroke just using their clinical skills.

An Advanced Medical Instrument

These days, there is really no need to be sleuth with a stethoscope since any murmur or extra click will be followed by an echocardiogram.  I can’t recall a case of appendicitis in my career that didn’t involve a CAT scan to confirm a surgeon’s suspicion.   And, if a stroke is suspected, a head CAT scan will be arranged.

Since, medical technology has in many cases taken over the physical examination, doctors’ hands-on skills have decayed.  There is much less pressure for our exam skills to be superb since we know that some rescue scan or diagnostic test that does it better will follow.  Conversely, if a physician were seeing a patient with stomach pain, and there was no technology available, I surmise that this doctor would do a more careful exam than he otherwise would.  Get my point?

Are patients better served with more accurate technology to make and exclude diagnoses?  Some have and many haven’t.  We all celebrate how technology in medicine has revolutionized the profession and has saved and improved lives.  I rely upon this every day in my practice.  But we must acknowledge that this progress has exacted many costs.

What’s the harm with ordering a CAT scan?  After all, it’s non-invasive.  Next week, I will address this issue in detail giving you a true ‘peek behind the curtain’, the raison d’etre of this blog.  Feel free to offer your own thoughts on this issue on this post in advance of next week’s full disclosure.