Attune and Attend

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My friends, I am offended.  I’m insulted and frustrated.  Part of me screams, stomps, and rages inside.

I am embarrassed.

My friend went to establish care with a new primary care physician last week.  Before the appointment she was told to bring all of her medical records.  No instructions, no specification of which parts or in what form.  So, being the tech-savvy and eco-friendly woman she is, she downloaded all that was available to her onto a thumb drive, as it was rather copious now in her 7th decade of life.

Upon arrival, she presented the drive to the woman who initiated the evaluation.  She thinks this was a nurse; but she’s not sure.  The woman said she could not ‘handle’ the thumb drive, but said, “I can just pull it up here online.”  What?  Ok whatever, clearly the medical record request was simply a routine request made of all new patients.  Thereafter the woman proceeded through routine medical questioning.  But as my friend answered the interrogation, she felt distinctly ignored.  Her concerns were not addressed and she did not feel any rapport.  The woman did an EKG and left the exam room.

Later, while my friend was still sitting on the exam table, the woman returned with an old man in a white coat.  He stood there, hands behind his back, and informed my friend they had called for an ambulance to take her to the emergency department.   The EKG showed an abnormal heart rhythm.  They said she would likely be in the hospital for two days for observation and tests.  The nurse and doctor spoke to each other but not to my friend.  They did not ask her how she was feeling, or what she knew about the/her condition, and they did not check the online record for evidence of past evaluations or recommendations.

My friend refused, for various reasons, not the least of which was that this condition had already been thoroughly evaluated, multiple times, and was actually well controlled.  But the doctor and nurse showed no interest in knowing my friend, nor did they seem to care to include her in any medical decision they made about (for) her.

Granted, this is my friend’s side of the story.  But for right now this is where I focus, because her experience is all too common, and I hate it.  She experienced everything that makes physicians and our healthcare system look and feel so broken, and that contributes to the widening relationship gap between patients and physicians/providers.

She was asked to bring her records, she put forth the effort to do so, and they were not reviewed.

She felt ignored and dismissed, even though the objective of the visit was to establish care and initiate a long term, collaborative relationship with a new primary care doctor.

She was ordered to submit to an ambulance transfer to a hospital emergency department, with neither discussion nor negotiation of other care options, and without regard to the financial and other costs to her.

She felt harassed by the office in the following days, receiving calls admonishing her for not presenting herself to the emergency department.

The bottom line is that my friend felt completely unseen in this encounter.  She felt treated like an object—a set of data, a statistic, a box on a flowchart.  Context, history, and individuality be damned.  When you’re in a relationship with someone who is supposed to help you, on whom you rely to help you understand the best plan of care for you personally, feeling unseen, dismissed, and belittled is exactly the opposite of helpful.

Maybe we should not judge the nurse and doctor too harshly.  We all know the time and volume pressures primary care providers live under these days.  Maybe they were distracted by other, sicker patients they had seen that day.  Maybe that made them more vigilant and aggressive with care recommendations for her, and put them behind schedule so they felt they could not take the time to explain things in more detail.  Maybe the doctor had seen this arrhythmia once before, treated it more casually, and the patient died.  We have no idea.  And it matters, insofar as it impacted how he presented to my friend.  Because his presence was dominating, authoritarian, rigid, and cold.

The patient-physician relationship serves as the foundation for medical care and healing.  No matter how much we talk about and try to honor patient autonomy, the power differential in this relationship remains fixed and real.  The doctor has the power and the responsibility to make the patient feel safe, to earn the patient’s trust.  On this day, in this visit, this doctor blew it, in my opinion.  It was their first encounter.  He should have taken the time and interest to get to know her, even a little, to agree on how they would work together.  If he were truly concerned about her health, knowing she had an arrhythmia (which are often made worse with stress), might he not have noticed the distress he was causing her?  Couldn’t he have given her additional care options, like referring her to a specialist within the week?  Or perhaps he could have opened the electronic health record and looked at her previous cardiologist’s last note?

He did none of these things—or at least not in any way that my friend perceived.

Further, he not only failed to establish a good relationship with her; he undermined her trust in our whole medical system.  How many experiences like this does a person have before she starts to reject the medical community altogether, ignoring symptoms of disease because she would rather deal with pain and disability than try to navigate a hostile system?  Fewer than you might think.  This is how patients end up in emergency rooms with truly life-threatening illness, where, guess what?  They get shamed again for not seeking help sooner.

It’s rather tragic when you think about it.

There is hope, though.  But as this post has already a thousand words, my thoughts on solutions will have to wait.

I hope you all had a restful and joyous holiday season.  My unplanned holiday writing hiatus lasted longer than I intended, and it’s nice to be back.  May we all reconnect with one another in more meaningful, productive, and uplifting ways in 2019.

 

 

On the Full Body CT Scan: Don’t Do It.

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NaBloPoMo 2016, Letters to Patients, Day 27

To Patients Considering Full Body CT Scans:

Please reconsider.

Forgive me for putting on my preachy doctor hat for this post.  I will also break my NaBloPoMo 500 word limit for this one.

As we approach the end of the calendar year, many of you may have met your health insurance deductibles.  Maybe now would be a good time to get in some tests to ‘check under the hood,’ as some of you have said.  I share below some of my screening  recommendations, along with rationale.

Keep in mind that for this article, I define ‘screening’ as looking for a disease in a person with a) average risk for developing the disease and b) no symptoms.

Please also know that the opinions I express here are my own only and do not necessarily represent those of my colleagues, employer, or professional societies.

 

  1. Full body CT scan: This is not recommended by any clinical guideline or medical professional society as a screening test for anything.  As I will describe below, specific screening tests are recommended for specific diseases, and the best ones obtain actual cells or tissue, rather than imaging alone.  In addition, a full body CT exposes you to significant radiation, the long term consequences of which are still not fully understood.  Lastly, CT scans inevitably detect incidental abnormalities that have no clinical consequences, but that often lead to invasive tests that can cause real harm, such as bleeding, pain, infection, and anxiety.  This article from the FDA and this one by a radiologist at Harvard explain pretty clearly how the risks of this test far outweigh the benefits.
  2. Colonoscopy (colon cancer): This is the one test that nobody argues.  It is both diagnostic (can see signs of early disease) and therapeutic (can take it out).  Start at age 50, and repeat every 10 years if normal, barring new symptoms.  Read the full guideline from the US Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF) here.  I know the prep is a pain, and I know you have to take a day off of work to have it.  But on the whole, the returns here are well worth the investment.
  3. PSA and digital rectal exam (prostate cancer): This is perhaps the most personal decision of all cancer screening. Population-wise, we have yet to show mortality benefit from screening of any kind, such that the USPSTF now recommends against screening until better tests become available.  But it’s not really that simple, because prostate cancer affects so many men, and is the second leading cause of cancer deaths in men in the US.  The most important thing here is to decide which risks you are more comfortable with: potential serious harm from screening and unnecessary treatment, or finding cancer at a later, potentially more high-risk stage.  This article from the New York Times may help, and this one from the National Cancer Institute.cancer-cases-and-death-2016
  4. Mammogram (breast cancer): It’s hard to walk back from more screening to less; people fear loss of security. When I started my training over 20 years ago, the recommendation was to screen every woman every year, starting at age 40.  Since then epidemiologists have kept track, and similar to prostate cancer screening, the mortality rate from breast cancer has not decreased proportionally to the amount of screening done.  Diagnosis has increased dramatically, due to early detection.  Again, screening increases the risk of certain harms:  anxiety (so much, for so many), pain, deformity, infection (from invasive biopsies), and then commitment to repeated testing (a vicious potential cycle of imaging, needling, more imaging, and more needling), while likely not saving your life.  Here is the USPSTF guideline, and a helpful infographic .  Like prostate cancer screening, this is one you have to decide for yourself, with the help of your doctor.mammo-infographic
  5. Pap smear (cervical cancer): Again, former guidelines called for annual screening. Today, if your test is repeatedly normal and your sex habits are low risk, the interval can be lengthened to 3 to 5 years, and can start later in life (over 21).  Cervical cancer is highly correlated to exposure to human papilloma virus, or HPV, which is sexually transmitted.  Positive pap results, which range from mild to severe, occur far more often in younger women, and of those, many will revert to normal without progression to cancer in a woman’s lifetime.  The main risk of over-screening, again, is unnecessary procedures when true disease not present.

In summary, these are the most common conversations I have with patients about screening.  You may rightly infer that my personal bias is minimalist:  Primum non nocere.  Unfortunately, we have no good screening tests for some diseases, such as pancreatic cancer, ovarian cancer, and liver cancer, and the screening guidelines in other countries (eg Taiwan screens adults regularly for liver cancer) do not apply here because prevalence rates differ so widely.

This is why I think it’s important to establish care with a primary care physician and get regular check-ups.  That fatigue you feel is likely just life and chronic sleep deprivation.  You’re probably constipated because you eat too few stems/stalks/leaves and don’t move enough.  You and your doctor can review your general health together, and if there is suspicion for some underlying health risk, it can be addressed personally and specifically.

To look up USPSTF guidelines yourself, I recommend searching Google for “USPSTF (disease) guidelines” and look for the hit that starts with “Final Recommendation Statement…”  I have no financial or professional interests in Google or the USPSTF.  Other respected sources for screening recommendations include the National Cancer Institute, the American Cancer Society, and the American Medical Association.  As an internist, I recommend the American College of Physicians.

I hope this piece has helped illuminate the complex decision-making behind screening and diagnostic testing.  I have only scratched the surface; the links contain the data and full rationale.  Please take the time to read through them and discuss them with your doctor.

On Primary Care

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NaBloPoMo 2016, Letters to Pateints, Day 2

To Those Who Disdain Primary Care:

Maybe you don’t know what you’re missing.

“I don’t need a doctor, I never get sick.”  And yet, optimum health means so much more than the absence of illness.  I am called to steward your health as a whole person.  I value the chance to know you as such.  I seek to understand your temperament, your history, your past experiences, and how they influence your current perceptions and choices.  That is how I help you optimize your health—by reflecting your own patterns back to you, so you may determine how they serve you, and when they need updating.

So often our daily routines take the path of least resistance, like spring runoff tumbling inevitably downhill between the rocks and shrub roots of a mountainside.  Without attention and navigation, topsoil erodes and the landscape can get disorganized, unstable.  But with some intention and guidance, we can channel your energy and activities toward the mighty river of health.  There your strengths and motivation preserve the ecosystem that is your best you, for the long journey of life.

As a general internist, I have the privilege of getting the first call when something takes you down.  I get to hear the story first, to initiate the investigation.  If I know you already, I can apply history and context in the most personalized way.  Together we can examine and understand the mudslide triggers (there’s almost always at least one).  We can make an appropriate plan to slow the erosion, and then rebuild.  With each episode, our tools sharpen.  We become a team.

I relish the chance to help you dig deeper into your own capacities for self-care.  Each encounter is an opportunity to share and connect, in service of your long term health.  I want you to live not just to be an old man or woman, but a STRONG old man or woman.

But to do that, I need to know you starting now.  I need to connect with you early and often, in good times and bad.  It’s a relationship like any other.  I can’t help unless I see, hear, and understand.  There is no substitute for time and contact.  So think about it.  I’m here to help.