How Business As Usual Is Killing Us

Surf & turf and a side of asparagus, lobster bisque, smashed potatoes, and an unlimited bread basket, with cocktails and wine, and tiramisu if there’s room.

Most people don’t eat like this all the time, but how many restaurants are filled every night with rooms full people eating exactly this? Many of my patients may eat like this (or something very similar) multiple times a week.

If you want to drastically increase your risks for gout, acid reflux, severe sleep disruption, brain fog, stress intolerance, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, weight gain, and diabetes, there could hardly be a better recipe than the typical business dinner. Here’s the physiology: 1. Red meat, shellfish, alcohol and asparagus are high purine foods that elevate uric acid levels in the blood, increasing the risk of gout, a painful inflammation of joints, especially the first joint of the big toe. 2. High volume, high fat, and alcohol: All of these delay gastric (stomach) emptying, and may loosen the lower esophageal sphincter, making it easier for stomach acid to escape upward, causing heartburn, chest pain, even shortness of breath. 3. Late and prolonged eating: with an already sluggish stomach, finishing a meal within two hours of going to bed makes it even more likely that the stomach will still be relatively full when lying down, sloshing acidic stomach contents right up against that loosened sphincter in the horizontal position, causing painful night time waking, disrupting sleep and negatively affecting mood. 4. Alcohol itself causes neurologic changes that interfere with sleep, even though it may feel initially sedating. It also increases nocturia (getting up at night to pee), can worsen sleep apnea, and is a mood depressant in itself. Taken together, the compounding consequences of the business dinner make it a formidable enemy of health for many executives.

Now add frequent and often international travel with chaotic jetlag, the stress of high pressure, high stakes business transactions, responsibility for whole workforces of people, and disconnection from family, plus emails, voicemails, text messages, and all manner of 24/7 media demanding attention, energy, and time, all finite and precious human resources. It’s a wonder I don’t witness more heart and panic attacks than I do.

Despite these risks and challenges, though, many of my patients actually do and feel fine. They report high meaning in their work, enjoyment from connecting with colleagues (though nobody tells me they love those dinners). They find time to exercise on the road and at home, manage healthy eating, and get good enough sleep in other ways.

Or so we all thought, until the pandemic hit.

My practice closed along with the rest of the country for about 2.5 months in spring of 2020, and the rest of the year and beyond, most of my patients worked from home. Not surprisingly, and also a little shockingly, many of them showed marked improvements in standard objective biometrics when they came for their annual exams that year. BMI, body fat, blood pressure, and cholesterol fell, often precipitously. All of a sudden healthy behaviors that required heroic effort became almost as easy as rolling out of bed. With their long daily commutes eliminated, people could now make–had–time to exercise…and they wanted to because they weren’t mentally exhausted all the time. They could pace about their home office while on Zoom, maintaining energy and engagement. No more international travel, no more business dinners. Their environment and circumstances suddenly and significantly eliminated all kinds of friction on the path to healthy habits. And more importantly, they felt so much better, because they were sleeping more and better, rushing less, and spending more quality time with people they loved. It’s not rocket science–they had their lives back. [Note: I understand that I’m writing about an extremely privileged population. Please know that this awareness is not lost on either my patients or me, and we talk about it candidly.]

Today, frequency and distance of business travel approaches prepandemic levels. Typical work practices are resuming, with some consideration as to their net benefit, but maybe not a lot of action to experiment with or create new, more optimal models of workflow and interaction. In my office, I see patients’ stress levels rising again, weight coming back on, and an overall sense of bewilderment and resignation at it all.

As I write this, I feel a dense tangle of frustration, exasperation, empathy, impatience, protectiveness, and an urge to throw or slam something. Really I feel kind of rageful, actually. Existing disparites of access to resources, autonomy, security, and overall health and well-being widened and intensified dramatically through the pandemic. It makes me ashamed of humanity. How is it that my patients and I–people with agency, autonomy, knowledge, and power–can feel, and actually be, so powerless to change the systems that make us all, privileged and not, so f*ing unhealthy??

I have no concrete or actionable suggestions for how to make things better.

Sometimes I fantasize about going to these business dinners with my patients, like a chaperone. But rather than policing their choices, the point would be to make it safe for everybody to admit that they don’t necessarily want to be there, doing this conventional thing that social norms dictate. Based on years of conversations in the privacy and intimacy of the physician-patient interview, I feel peer pressure operating at the same intensity, and with just as high social consequences, as when we were all adolescents. It’s fascinating and depressing, like a black cloud that everybody feels, nobody acknowledges, and everybody suffers from in collective isolation.

What would it take for these deeply rooted cultural norms, ones that harm us all, to shift even a little? It’s a question I ask myself every day, in multiple domains. I get agitated and hyperventilate at the glacial pace of change. And then, usually, I can take a deep breath. I call on wiser voices than mine to get through.

I know there are people out there bucking the norm, challenging the status quo. I look for that spark in my patients, and I try to fan it, ignite it further. That’s the little good I can do, I guess. Maybe our little fires will one day light the way to bigger change.

Why I Take the Scenic Route

June 23, 2020 somewhere in Colorado

I-70 or 285?

I ask myself every time I leave Centennial, on my way to Silverthorne. If I have time and nobody in the car who will complain, I always choose 285. It takes at least 45 minutes longer, and it’s a much prettier drive. Thanks to dear friend Rachel who took me this way the first time in 2012, I have now stopped at state parks I never knew existed and passed through beautiful valleys and plains that take my breath away. Less traffic also makes for a more relaxing, even contemplative ride, which I appreciate more and more. Fun turns that open up around the bend to expansive landscapes never get old, and depending on time of year or day, and of course weather, I never know what I’m going to get. Every time, I am richly rewarded with yet a new perspective on the path, the journey–this iteration of the way. I get to explore and learn, to savor and revel. I learn what exits lead to which trails, where to get gas, and where to stop for the best views.

I have the sweetest gig any primary care doctor could hope for. With 5% of a typical full time patient panel, I have the greatest luxury in all of medicine: time.

When someone presents with classic signs and symptoms of a well-described and well-understood condition, it’s okay to take the highway of standard testing and conventional treatment. When the story and picture are less clear and straight, we need to slow down, look around, listen harder, wander the side roads. What’s rustling in the bushes? What path was taken to get here, and what roadblock(s) encountered along the way? What equipment do we anticipate needing as we proceed, and will we know how to use it?

Sometimes even the clear and straight path turns icy, muddy, or otherwise unexpectedly obstructed. This is when knowledge of alternate routes really pays off; even better if those routes are familiar. So often I take extra time talking to patients, even when I think I know what’s happening. I ask more questions to flesh out the story fully, to learn more. Have you had this before? What’s same/different about it this time? What was the context? What made you call me about it? How much is this bothering you? What are you worried about? What’s going on in your life now that may have triggered this? What else is happening? What do you think is going on, what story are you telling? Anything else?

I never know what I’ll learn in these meandering exchanges; most of the time I just get to know my patient a little better. That’s worth so much in itself. And eventually, I have learned, all of this accumulated familiarity matters. My ‘impression and plan’ for any given problem can evolve quickly over a history and physical exam, sometimes taking sharp turns. And it’s the best feeling when my patient and I can look at each other and say, “Wait, remember when…?” and it sheds light from the past on what’s happening today.

Today’s objective may be relief of pain and discomfort. Depending on the severity and urgency of the problem, we may race to that end speeding on the freeway. Our journey together as physician and patient, however, is more like a long and winding road trip. We have much to explore, if we travel together long enough. When you’re not in pain and have some time, we can take the scenic route together, get to know each other better. All of the photos, wildflowers, stories, and memories we collect along the way just make the trip, and our connection, that much more beautiful.

Meaningful Metrics

  • On a scale of 0-10, 10 being physically, mentally, emotionally, spiritually, and relationally ideal, how to you rate your overall sense of health and well-being right now? 
  • How satisfied are you with how you feel in this regard?
  • If you’re not that satisfied enough, what would make it better?
  • How can my team and I help?

I asked these questions recently on my patient’s executive physical summary. It was a more direct, concrete, and global query than I usually make, and better, I think.

When I think about the ultimate collective goal of medicine, maybe it’s preventing death–at least the premature, preventable kind? Just think of the time, energy and resources we Americans spend on anti-aging this, longevity that, etc. About a quarter of Medicare spending occurs in patients’ last year of life. We spend more money on healthcare, for much worse outcomes across multiple health metrics (including life expectancy), compared to other developed countries.

But isn’t death/longevity the ultimate lagging indicator? If my current patients live to be 80 or older, I will not know most of them at the ends of their lives–I’ll be long retired. How will I know if I helped them live longer or better? What metrics can I use in the meantime to know if I’m making a difference (of note, medical care of any kind appears to contribute only about 10-20% to overall health outcomes in the United States–the rest being determined by genetics, behaviors, and socioeconomic and environmental factors)?

We measure all kinds of things in the clinic: Weight/BMI, blood pressure, cholesterol, and blood sugar, among others. But other than weight, none of these metrics are sense-able in real time, unless they are extreme. They are markers of risk–correlates–and important to monitor. Taken together, they can indicate an individual’s risk for illness or even mortality. But they can never predict any given person’s ultimate health outcomes. They are incomplete markers. Other correlates such as loneliness and stress are just as important, and much harder to measure, so we generally leave them out of the overt risk assessment.

Too often, the metrics become the goals themselves. Look no further than the myriad wearable devices available today to track sleep. With little to no evidence as to accuracy, precision, or relevance of the ‘data’ collected, consumers fixate, spending precious psychological capital, on colorful graphs and numbers of their nightly sleep metrics. They compare results at the gym, evaluating and judging, thinking and worrying, even catastrophizing, about dementia or other decline because their sleep scores are less than ideal. Is this really better than simply attuning to one’s own body and mind? I think we can all estimate with adequate accuracy the overall quality and quantity of our sleep, and what affects it.

So what better metrics can we use to assess health and well-being in real time? Ideally, these would be sense-able markers, unique to each person, and also actionable in real time. I think we do this in many ways already–we attune, sense, and respond to body cues, and many patterns become routine, often mindlessly: We feel fatigued so we caffeinate. We feel anxious so we imbibe. We feel stressed so we eat, withdraw, or lash out.

Real time and sense-able markers of health and well-being include hunger, satiety, mobility, ease of motion, strength, pain, endurance, energy, joy, tension, curiosity, mood, confidence, ability to accomplish goals, and feelings of connection. But how often do we actually stop and sense these aspects of body, mind, and community? How might my advice about blood pressure, cholesterol, and glucose management change, if I asked you more relevant questions about how you feel in your body, mind, and spirit, at various times of day, and in various environments and contexts? How might this modify your openness to, engagement with, and ability to execute said advice?

My job as primary care physician is to help you be as informed and intentional as possible about relationships between your senses, health metrics, their risk correlates, and potential outcomes. It’s up to you to decide, in any given moment, what’s worth attending to, trading off and not, for which values and goals you prioritize. What are your ultimate health goals? What, if you have a moment to reflect at the end of your life, will give you peace? How can you attune and act today and hereafter, to make that scenario more likely?

I wrote to another patient recently, who expressed disgust at himself for regaining weight he had lost during the height of the pandemic, feeling alarmed at watching his ‘numbers go in the wrong direction’:

“My highest goals for you this year are to redirect your focus away from numbers (cholesterol, weight) and more toward tuning in to your body and mind.  I would love for you to come back next year and tell us about your unique signs of hunger, satiety, loneliness, sleep deprivation, and relationship rupture, and how you discovered to address them!  I think I want this for myself, too!”

When reporters ask healthy old folks how they stay well, they never talk about blood pressure, cholesterol, or blood sugar. They talk about finding fun ways to move their bodies, enjoying and moderating food, learning new hobbies, and staying connected to their loved ones. Medical metrics have their place; I think it’s in the back of the health awareness and action bus.

And no matter the length of your life, I want to help you make it the highest quality, every day you get to live it.