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I have a saying I use with my patients who are prone to fret as they grow, and feel, older. “Every day on the green side,” I say to them, “is a good day.” Now that my wife, Danielle, is no longer here to share these days with me, I appreciate very much the effort she put in to making our “green side” as pleasant and inviting as possible.
We recently spent a long weekend mucking out the backyard pond and removing several dozen crawfish so the tadpoles and dragon flies would come back. They are back in force. The blueberry bushes, including the new ones we brought at the Botanical Gardens plant sale, are producing berries and the birds are, with the help of a netting reminder, leaving them on the bush long enough to stay ripe. The chickens continue to lay even after the flock has been reduced to a more manageable three birds. The citrus trees are loaded with fruit. Even the leak in the fountain has slowed, allowing me to keep the water feature flowing and providing the birds with a place to bathe. Here, in Danielle’s urban patch of green, the promise of renewal that spring brings to the gulf coast continues. Danielle is still with us, in her way, here on the green side.
Sudden cardiac death. That, in stark “doctor words,” is how she left those of us still on the green side. Although because of prompt paramedic response she still had a heart rhythm on and off after arriving at the hospital, it soon became clear that, clinically, she had left us on that Sunday, three weeks ago, while still in the house. I like to think that, once called, she decided to stick around. At the very least, she intends to make sure that the crawfish population stays down so she can continue to watch the dragon flies from the kitchen window. I choose to believe that is the case in part because draining that pond was very hard work.
Very few people study sudden cardiac death (SCD) in the general population, mostly because there is little clinical information to be had after the fact. If people make it to the hospital while having their heart attacks, we can mobilize millions of dollars of equipment and personnel to preserve their heart function. When we know that a person is at significant risk for sudden cardiac death, we implant defibrillators which stand at the ready to shock the heart back into compliance should it get out of kilter.
Most SCD happens to relatively healthy people, as it did with Danielle. As documented on the American Heart Association web site, every year about 300,000 people will succumb to SCD. This is about 15% of the deaths that occur in America annually. Of those, about half of the men and two-thirds of the women will have no reason at all to suspect a problem. The modifiable risk factors (hypertension, hypercholesterolemia, diabetes mellitus, kidney dysfunction, obesity, and smoking) have all been brought to the attention of the public. Improvements in management of hypertension and diabetes and reduction of smoking has lead to a reduction in all deaths from heart disease, including SCD. A surprising number of these events occur during exercise (which tends to make the news and provides an excuse for those who embrace the couch potato lifestyle). Jim Fixx perhaps is the most famous victim of sudden cardiac death while exercising. For the most part, habitual exercise is protective. That is, once it becomes a habit.
In Danielle’s case, genetics clearly played a role. However, saying “genetics plays a role” is not the same as saying “it runs in families” like red hair. There is a complex interaction between genes that makes us all unique. Family history doubles the risk of SCD. A rare event becomes half as rare. So far, researchers have identified 23 different gene areas that might play a part. Mathematics suggests that finding a pattern useful for screening or targeted treatment is still many years away.
So, what does this mean for SCD? In the words of the investigators, “Our ability to accurately identify individuals most at risk for SCD within the population remains poor.” Preventing SCD, as of now, is the same as preventing all heart disease. Eat right, exercise regularly, monitor blood pressure and get checked for diabetes if you are one of those at risk. Make exercise a habit and report unusual symptoms such as passing out, chest pain while exercising that improves with rest, or unusual amounts of fatigue. Fund emergency services adequately but realize they are not the answer. Support policy efforts to make exercise more accessible. Bike lanes are one such example. Support policies to reduce exposure to cigarette smoke and access to healthy food. Support research but realize the research will be difficult and expensive to perform.
How about for those of us still on the green side? Support dragon fly habitats. Eschew backyard crawfish breeding. Plant fruit trees. And remember, every day on the green side is a good day.
Public health has an odd place in medical education and the physician’s practice. Although clearly required as a part of the curriculum, it has historically been underemphasized. By historically, I mean since 1848. Medical schools were created to train doctors in the science of the person (singular) but not in the science of people. Someone had the bright idea of offering further training to doctors (further detailed here) to allow them to have a broader perspective:
To earn this postgraduate certificate, students took courses on“preventive medicine and sanitary science, personal hygiene, public health administration, sanitary biology, sanitary chemistry, special pathology, communicable diseases, sanitary engineering, and demography” as well as“special courses and lectures in infant mortality, social service work, mental hygiene, oral prophylaxis, the prevention of ear, nose and throat disease, hygiene of the eyes, industrial hygiene and medicine, eugenics, genetics, and sanitary law.
Because it was a post-graduate degree, rather than create a cadre of “super docs” it moved public health out of the medical school entirely.
In 1998, the Association of American Medical Colleges urged medical schools to incorporate public health by “first, teaching students the practical fundamentals of the core disciplines that underpin the effective application of population health; second, giving students experiences in studying real populations; and, third, integrating the teaching and learning into all parts of medical curriculum rather than relying solely on a stand-alone population health course.”
In the last 20 years, medical schools didn’t answer the call. From the requirements for medical school curriculum they are required to provide instruction in the following:
- The recognition and development of solutions for health care disparities
- The importance of meeting the health care needs of medically underserved populations
- The development of core professional attributes (e.g., altruism, accountability) needed to provide effective care in a multidimensional and diverse society
As someone with an interest in the health of the population, I sought more than just “recognition.” My medical school offered a joint degree (MD/MPH) which allowed me to obtain instruction in the health of people (plural) in addition to health of a person.
One class in particular sticks with me. It was a health policy class taught by a professor who was a self-described Maoist. Communism in the mid-1980s was scary and having a person who admired a communist leader was more than a little controversial. I would leave my basic science lectures at the medical school and go to a class where we discussed how China had markedly improved the health of their citizens with “barefoot doctors” who indeed were barefoot, and had minimal training. They transformed the Chinese countryside by providing primary health care services, and focused on prevention rather than treatment. They provided immunizations, delivery for pregnant women, and improvement of sanitation. To my medical school classmates they were in no way doctors. To my public health classmates they were a model for the future.
Fast forward 30 years, and we are coming around to learning that China was onto something. People from the community are much more likely to work to improve their community and care for their friends and neighbors. Known as community health workers in this country, they are frontline public health workers who are trusted members of and/or have an unusually close understanding of the community served. This trusting relationship enables the workers to serve as a liaison/link/intermediary between health/social services and the community to facilitate access to services and improve the quality and cultural competence of service delivery. It looks like we are going to start employing these folks to help improve the health of the citizens of Alabama.
Unfortunately, I’m afraid my physician colleagues won’t recognize a good thing when they see it. After all, it’s only been 150 years.
Patient: I can’t afford the insulin you prescribed for me.
Me: It’s a pretty standard long acting insulin
Patient: My insurance says it’ll cost $350 a month to use it, is there something less expensive?
Insulin is a magic drug. Discovered in 1921, it was first administered to humans in 1922. Although there were a long line of discoveries that made the discovery possible, Drs. Banting and Best at the University of Toronto were the first to identify the source (the pancreas) and to extract insulin for use. Even more amazing, the University made the discovery “open source,” allowing the manufacture and distribution without royalty.
The discovery was not without its problems. Although human insulin was synthesized in the lab, it was difficult to make for many years. Insulin taken from cows and pigs was commonly used clinically. Unfortunately, in one of the Creator’s little jokes, these insulins vary from human insulin by a couple of amino acids. Not enough to make them unusable as extracted but enough so that over time the diabetic patient developed antibodies and was unable to use the insulin, leading to his or her premature death.
In 1982 Richard diMarche and Eli Lilly obtained a patent for human insulin made from recombinant DNA. Originally sold as Humalog, this was the first medication manufactured in this manner and it was a game changer. No longer were we putting a foreign body into people to lower their blood sugar temporarily. We were putting human insulin into people and keeping people alive longer and keeping people healthier.
Which brings us to today. Drug companies developed pens, different types of insulins, and different delivery methods. They have also jealously guarded their patents, preventing cheaper generics from being developed. To quote the New England Journal:
“But whether each incremental innovation is worth the price we pay, in a world where insulin remains unaffordable to many patients with diabetes, is less certain.”
Reasons used for the high cost might include the need to ship the medication in liquid form as well as the different delivery mechanisms. The bulk of the cost of the drug, however, is in R&D. These drugs have been developed for years and there are no more R&D costs. Their investment has been recouped. It is becoming clear that a major reason is good old-fashioned “profit taking”:
Between 2005 and 2015 the cost of a lispro vial went up 264 percent, while a vial of insulin glargine went up 348 percent, and a vial of NPH went up 364 percent. That’s a lot, but other insulins went up even more.
So, in America in 2016 we have people choosing between insulin and food. People that weren’t having to do that in 2006. The speculation is that this profit taking is in advance of the loss of the patent as well as the lack of “blockbuster” drugs on the horizon. Perhaps generics will be developed soon.
What did I do for my patient? There is one type of intermediate acting insulin that is $27 a vial at Wal-mart. No special pen, has to take it twice a day. For now, it turns out that diabetes in now a two-tiered disease, easy for the rich to handle but increasingly difficult to manage if you are poor.
“Of the many painters I have known, almost all I found unhealthy … If we search for the cause of the cachectic and colorless appearance of the painters, as well as the melancholy feelings that they are so often victims of, we should look no further than the harmful nature of the pigments…”
Italian physician Bernardinus Ramazzini in De Morbis Artificum Diatriba
Humans have had love-hate relationship with lead. Easy to find and convert from an ore to a malleable metal, lead was in cosmetics, eating utensils, and used to create the pipes that move water from the Alps to Rome. The Romans were not universally impressed. Per Vitruvius:
“Water conducted through earthen pipes is more wholesome than that through lead; indeed that conveyed in lead must be injurious, because from it white lead [ceruse or lead carbonate, PbCO3] is obtained, and this is said to be injurious to the human system. Hence, if what is generated from it is pernicious, there can be no doubt that itself cannot be a wholesome body. “
We now know that lead poisoning, or plumbism, is a very real problem (image from Wikipedia).
For those of us who live in older houses, lead is a constant concern. Our pipes are made of lead, there is lead in our paint, there is lead on the dirt from leaded gasoline. My children were at continuous risk from lead growing up. From the CDC:
Lead-based paint and lead contaminated dust are the most hazardous sources of lead for U.S. children. Lead-based paints were banned for use in housing in 1978. All houses built before 1978 are likely to contain some lead-based paint. However, it is the deterioration of this paint that causes a problem. Approximately 24 million housing units have deteriorated leaded paint and elevated levels of lead-contaminated house dust. More than 4 million of these dwellings are homes to one or more young children.
What those of us who live in old houses and old cities know is that lead much less of a problem if you leave it alone. As long as the paint is not peeling, the kids won’t eat it. As long as the dirt is not disturbed, the kids (who always eat dirt) will only eat lead free dirt. As long as the pipes are not disturbed, the water will be lead free. Those of us that live in older cities rely on the water board to do the right thing and not create a problem where none exists. And it turns out there is a lot they need to take into consideration.
Flint Michigan is an old city full of old houses. The older houses were mostly lived in by poor people, who unfortunately were living in a town with an infrastructure built for many, many more people than are currently living there, making the infrastructure very expensive. The people, unable to pay for existing services, were taken over by the state. The state, in a story worth reading, elected to go with cheaper drinking water from the Flint River. The cheaper drinking water, in a predictable chemical reaction, leached the lead out of the pipes and put it into people’s drinking water.
What are the lessons to learn? First, our public infrastructure is aging and that will affect people’s health. Clean water and sanitary sewer systems were a game changer in the 1880s but that was 100 years ago. We need to pay attention. Second, poor people are disproportionately affected by our failing infrastructure. They are more likely to live in poor cities and more likely to live in older neighborhoods. Third, listen to the patient/constituent. The state of Michigan looks especially bad because they tried to substitute toxic waste for water and when people caught on they tried to cover it up.
Hopefully, Flint will overcome this though it may not be financially feasible to rebuild the water delivery system. I only hope leaders in other towns with aging infrastructures (such as Mobile) heed the warning.
“Snake oil” was brought over by the Chinese in the 1800s as a traditional cure. As it turns out, the oil was found to be very effective for the aches and pains associated with doing labor such as, well, building a railroad across America. As this is what the Chinese were doing, they found it very valuable. They also shared it with their non-Chinese counterparts, who found it to be a useful salve as well. Unfortunately for snake oil users, extracting oil from Chinese snakes (or pretty much any snake) in America was tough. Selling snake oil was not. Witness the story of Clark Stanley, aka The Rattlesnake King:
“[Stanley] reached into a sack, plucked out a snake, slit it open and plunged it into boiling water. When the fat rose to the top, he skimmed it off and used it on the spot to create ‘Stanley’s Snake Oil,’ a liniment that was immediately snapped up by the throng that had gathered to watch the spectacle.”
Rattlesnakes, as it turns out, are missing the anti-inflammatory properties of Chinese water snakes. Since Stanley didn’t put any snake in his snake oil, the oil was remarkable ineffective but very lucrative for Stanley.
The evidence based medicine movement, now 20 years old, helped us to focus our efforts on “the conscientious, explicit, and judicious use of current best evidence in making decisions about the care of individual patients. The practice of evidence based medicine means integrating individual clinical expertise with the best available external clinical evidence from systematic research.” Our attention is now focused on things like “is the patient’s diabetes under control” as opposed to “should I use the latest new drug that the nice rep lady came and told me about.” A blow against snakeless snake oil.
The extension of this movement is focusing us on quality. We are now looking at the quality implications of analyzing large numbers to determine small differences in outcomes. For example, a certain surgeon might have an infection rate of 10% and another of 5%. If this difference is not due to dirtier patients (the surgeon only operates on people who fall in sewers), a patient will likely choose to go to the one with the better outcomes. This data is now becoming available from the federal government from Medicare. For example, hospital outcomes for Medicare patients can be found here. The score care for orthopedic surgeons replacing hips and knees can be found here. These, data, though useful, only paint a partial picture. The hospitals and the surgeons take care of folks other than Medicare so the truth, although likely present in the data, may be difficult to pull out.
For certain types of procedures a more complete picture can be obtained. If only a few places do a procedure, for example, and they keep track of their outcomes, then folks can see how the program performs over time. Such was the case with pediatric heart operation in Florida. Children’s Medical Services, a state agency that pays for the bulk of the services provided to children with congenital defects, had been quietly tracking information and collecting data of years on heart surgeries done to small children as part of a quality initiative. In information obtained by CNN, about 2300 such procedures were done in eight Florida hospitals from 2011 to 2014, with 4 of the hospitals accounting for over 90% of the cases. These procedures can be very lucrative, bringing in over $500,000 for each operation. The reason CNN began looking into this is because St Mary’s hospital in Palm Beach, one of the low volume programs that was trying to build business, had an extraordinarily high death rate. The rate was even higher than it appeared because several dying patients were transferred to other hospitals immediately prior to death, unusual in a center that performs such complex procedures. Also unusual was when a quality panel was called in and made recommendations on how to fix the problem including not operating on some of the more complex cases, the recommendations appeared not to be followed. Lastly, unusual because the hospital’s parent company gave money to the governor and, coincidentally, the quality panel which tried to keep the hospital from doing operations they were bad at (and which the governor had created) was disbanded because it had no statutory authority. The hospital eventually did closed their pediatric cardiac surgery program, the CEO resigned, and the physician is giving depositions while being protected by armed security guards in case you were concerned. Florida’s side of the mess can be found here.
The CNN story begins with a mother whose child has just been paralyzed and, in the elevator, she has the following exchange:
“Do you know a child with a heart problem here?” asked the stranger.
“Yes. My daughter,” McCarthy answered, and explained what had happened to Layla.
“You need to get her out of here,” the stranger warned.
The hospital had not revealed their their pediatric cardiothoracic surgery team’s low volume, complication rate, or inexperience to prospective patients. If patients had looked, they would have found outcomes for the 4 high volume Florida programs posted on the internet (here is the one from Nicklaus Children’s). St Mary’s, rather than posting quality data, posted releases heralding the arrival of “nationally renowned pediatric heart surgeon Dr. Michael Black” with glowing claims such as “smaller incisions — improved self-esteem.”
In this era of complex care, the great doctor has been supplanted by the great team. Great teams keep score. Hiding poor quality as an institution is akin to selling snakeless snake oil. Consumers for elective procedures should demand to know outcomes. Those who insist on keeping their data to themselves should not have the privilege of your business. Et qui vendit pellucidum. Insist on knowing how much snake is in your snake oil.
When last we left the village (about 2 weeks ago) whose entire existence was to support pulling babies form the stream, a search party had gone upstream to find out where the babies were coming from. Meanwhile there were still babies coming down the stream. As you may remember, a very sophisticated infrastructure had arisen to pull the babies from the stream. The folks who took the lead, the “baby savers,” took their job very seriously and were valued. They often had to jump in and save babies who were coming down or might have to manipulate the equipment to pluck one from the waterfall. As befits their importance, they were paid very well and had an honored place in the village.
The baby savers executive committee, already threatened by the fear that the search party might find where the babies are coming from and put a stop to it, began looking somewhat critically at the entire operation:
Baby saver president: As you know, we have been looking into the “babies in the stream” issue. We have a lot of folks who care a whole lot about babies and have been giving there time to make sure the babies are pulled safely from the water. However, it seems there is room for improvement.
Village baby saver: What do you mean improvement, we work our butts off.
Village baby saver 2: Yeah, we are up all night. Often I have to jump in. The water is cold.
Baby saver president: Well, we have started to keep track of your work and, to be honest, we are not doing some of the things we should. As you know, we pay you by the baby.
Village baby saver 3: Your point?
Baby saver president: Not to name names, but I think we should have thought through this more carefully. I’m not going to name names, but one of you pulls out a lot of babies. Many of these babies are blue when they come out and the baby resuscitators are complaining. They say you (not to name names) are too rough and push others out of the way so that you can get the most babies.
Village baby saver 2: They are just jealous.
Baby saver president: And one of you, again I’m not naming names, is just too old to do this. Your eyesight is poor and you don’t swim well. The resuscitators have to jump in and grab your babies but then you take credit.
Village baby saver 3: They need to step back and let me do my job.
Baby saver president: I suspect the search party will be successful and there will be many fewer babies going forward. So we are going to start posting how well you do on the wall over there and it may well be that some of you won’t be able to be baby savers any more. From now on, everyone will know how many babies you catch, what percent are blue, and how many went over the waterfall that you should have saved.
Village baby savers (talking at once): wait, that isn’t fair. How is it my problem if they come down too fast? What if more than 2 people are on a shift? I have a wife and kids to feed. Those resuscitators can kiss my…
If you want to see how hospitals do in regards to preventable mortality and certain procedures and use that to pick your hospital, the government’s hospital compare website is for you (go to this site). If you want to see if your hospital or surgeon has an unusual number of complications or just doesn’t do a lot of the procedures that you need, Propublica has a tool that compares individual surgeons (go to this site). If you want to float along and let a random person pull you out of the water and hope they do a good job, enjoy the ride and I hope you avoid the waterfall.