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Friday, December 23, 2011

Santa’s doctor writes: My letter to the North Pole

Dear Santa,

Your lab tests came back, and your cholesterol ratios are out of line, again. As I mentioned in your physical, I’m concerned about some of your habits. For almost the entire year, you’re very inactive. Living as you do in a very isolated neighborhood in a very cold region, you don’t get out and about very much. That isolation can be very dangerous for a man of your age (or, indeed, of any age). Then in late December, you rouse yourself for a short period of supremely intense activity, logging many miles over rough terrain, and then wrestling heavy awkward bundles out of the sleigh, then climbing up icy roofs while lugging these countless loads, then forcing yourself down through narrow spaces, then hauling yourself back up, and on to the next place. For a man of your girth and your age, it’s simply too much.

I’ve explained all this at your last physical, as I do every year. I’m writing this letter out of frustration, since you never do what I say. I never hear that you’re taking the niacin I’ve suggested, or the statin I’ve prescribed, for your high cholesterol. I never see any evidence that you’ve lost weight.

To be fair, I do want to applaud you for the healthy habits you do follow. You’re exceedingly generous, and selfless, as you love giving things to people. Your belly laugh is a real gift to others, and to yourself, as it discharges a lot of the tension that might otherwise lead to high blood pressure. The affectionate attention you give to the young children brought to you by their parents is good for them, and for you. You have a definite mission in life, and you serve it diligently, which also helps. You haven’t seem to age much over the years, so it must be that these healthy habits have been giving you these long years of healthy life in your old age, counteracting the factors I mentioned earlier.

I’ve long wondered about your ruddy cheeks and nose. In many people, that’s a sign of heavy drinking: after many years of drinking, the capillaries in a person’s face rupture. But when I’ve asked, you’ve consistently denied that alcohol has been a problem for you, and I’m inclined to agree, as I’ve never heard, from you or anyone else, that your behavior has been inappropriate due to alcohol. Indeed, moderate drinking (one or two a day, for a large adult male) is a healthy behavior, so it seems that you’re OK there.

So, what is my wish for you for Christmas? Get out and about the other 11 months of the year; spread the cheer year-round. Get some more helpers, and don’t limit your deliveries of all that stuff to such a short period of time. And take the cholesterol meds!

Yes, I’ve said that before (every year, indeed) at your physical. So let’s also try something different, since that hasn’t had any effect: a shared medical appointment. I’d like to form a group you’ll feel comfortable with. I’m thinking of other altruistic people who do too much, neglecting their own health. There are lots of very driven, loving, compassionate doctors and nurses out there, for example, who are overweight and aren’t following the medical advice they know so well. I’d like to get you all together, and we’ll have some fun swapping stories. I’d like to get the group sharing some of the ways they stay healthy. They, and you, might learn from peers, and might find those ideas more compelling than following a doctor’s advice per se. That’s my wish for you.

For my own gift this Christmas, thanks, but I already have plenty of golf clubs. Give a gift for me to Heifer International, which gets farm animals to poor people around the world. Just mail them a check; don’t lug around any of their water buffaloes!

My best wishes for another year of health,

Your doctor.

Ken's Advice: As a stocking-stuffer for a parent, get Getting Your Best Health Care: Real-World Stories for Patient Empowerment.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

As though everything is a miracle

This week marks the fifth anniversary of Patient Safety Blog, which I began writing in December 2006. My purpose remains the same: to advise both family and professional patient advocates how to get the best health care.

The stories in the blog have been read hundreds of thousands of times, by readers from Algeria to Zimbabwe, by patients and world-renowned patient safety leaders. The most popular post was not about human health care, but about my dog Jackson's superlative healthcare - a model for human healthcare.

Jackson's tenth birthday is today, making him sixty-something in people years. He has been actively puppyish and in excellent health, until Saturday, when, in a sudden health crisis, a disk in his spine apparently ruptured. At this point, we don't know his prognosis. He could be like a middle-aged weekend warrior who throws his back out and then heals with rest alone. Or it could be something much more serious, requiring major surgery or even wrenching end of life discussions. It seems this has suddenly vaulted him into old age. We hope that he'll continue to get superb healthcare.

I'm heartened that tonight is the first night of Chanukah, which celebrates miraculous restoration. As a favorite aunt's holiday card quotes Albert Einstein: "There are only two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is a miracle."

Advice: Take a lesson in good health from Jackson: have a run or walk every day; get plenty of good sleep; love your family, and they'll pet you.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Prostate cancer decision-making on treatment: Would you cut off your left foot?

Paul VanDevelder, a middle-aged journalist and father, learned five years ago that his PSA (prostate specific antigen) test showed a sudden spike in his PSA level, making him feel panicked. A doctor friend calmed him and had him learn a lot more. Paul learned that for 88% of men with elevated PSAs, the results were a false positive.

The prominent Dartmouth Medical School researcher, Dr. H. Gilbert Welch, explains the odd truth: "The presumption often is that anyone who has had cancer detected has survived because of the test, but that's not true. In fact, and I hate to say this, in screen-detected breast and prostate cancer, survivors are more likely to have been overdiagnosed than actually helped by the test." Indeed, the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force formally recommended in October 2011 that doctors stop using the PSA blood test to screen healthy men for prostate cancer.

Paul will get retested in a year, and will think carefully before any prostate surgery. He explains his decision this way to his urologist: "If your doctor told you that an asymptomatic, non-life-threatening tumor was growing on the instep of your left foot, would you cut your foot off?"

Advice to men with elevated PSA levels: Think carefully before deciding on prostate surgery.

Read about another journalist's decision on prostate cancer. Thanks to Paul for sharing his story in today's Los Angeles Times, where the full article can be found.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Diarrhea from CAT scans: Otherwise healthy, well fed and feisty

Sandy’s story:
I am a 66-year-old cancer patient diagnosed with colon cancer fall 2006, treated with surgery and chemotherapy. My surgical treatment consisted of a partial sigmoidectomy; loose movements are not a post op complication or pattern. Other than some allergies, and some mild, intermittent, infrequent asthma symptoms and aging bones, I am otherwise healthy, well fed, and feisty.

Now, having had several CAT scans, and having passed the fifth anniversary of my diagnosis, the plan is for me to have no more scans unless symptoms should develop that require them.
I was a nurse in the days when the only way to diagnose diseases such as cancers was to “go in” and have “look/see” exploratory surgery. I remember when the first CAT scanner arrived in Boston and the waiting lists for the test. Scans are clearly a far more accurate, “pleasant”, and life-saving tool. Yet I have a hunch that one of their side effects might be underreported.
My first three CAT scans resulted in mild cramping and a few loose bowel movements over the course of several hours. The fourth scan led to intermittent diarrhea over 6-8 hours, with onset approximately an hour after completion of the test, making the interval significantly more unpleasant than previous years. When I shared the observation with my oncologist on my subsequent visit, it was dismissed as not meriting concern.

Prior to my fifth test I began conversing with another elderly patient in the waiting room. She revealed that she lived more than an hour away from the imaging center, and was providing her own transportation. After her previous scan she had severe, sudden diarrhea on her way home, soiled herself, and feared the same might recur. Her medical condition did not involve any problem with her colon. She had been too embarrassed to report the previous incident to her medical team.

My fifth anniversary CAT scan took place in November 2011. For scanning purposes I was asked to ingest barium sulfate. The imaging center that administered the test I believe uses readi-cat smoothies for their patient prep. My scans have usually occurred briefly after noontime.
I was taken for my scan 20 minutes early, had not even completed the second bottle of contrast, but was reassured it “would be all right”. Afterward, I reached home in about 20 minutes travel time, barely “made it” into the bathroom. I had severe bloating, explosive diarrhea, that led to my spending several hours out of the next 6-9 on the toilet. I also experienced mild nausea, cramping, intermittent sweating, late onset “headache” and my “usual” back pain. The experience was far worse than any colonic cleansing prior to previous colonoscopies. There was no sign of an allergic response such as urticaria or wheezing. I did not report the event at the time. My next medical visit is planned for early January; I will do so then.

The technician (for the first time) did tell me prior to my leaving the imaging center that I may experience diarrhea, leading me to wonder if more frequent, more serious cases of it are being reported. When I told her I was aware of the possibility and that symptoms were worse after each test, she replied that she was “not surprised”.

Discussion of the radiologic dosing with respect to scans is common. I do wonder however, at the range of acceptability in side effects for patients undergoing such tests, how often they are actually warned about their possible severity, and whether such effects are either reported or dismissed upon doing so. In a frail, ill, low body mass, or older individual living alone, an episode such as the one I had could have led to a serious medical situation, let alone a simply unpleasant one.

I believe other preparations are available. Of course no alternative is offered if there is no effective reporting and tracking of statistics indicating the need for the substitution.

I wonder how often patients are warned about the possible severity of symptoms, whether increased sensitivity with repeated exposures may be a factor, and if any plans are in place to consider that and offer alternate contrast media in any radiology centers. Of course no alternative is offered if there is no effective reporting and tracking of statistics.

Sandy’s Advice: If you have these side effects from the barium sulfate, Medline and the Mayo Clinic say that you should report that to your doctor or health care professional as soon as possible:
allergic reactions like skin rash, itching or hives, swelling of the face, lips, or tongue
breathing problems
chest tightness
prolonged nausea, constipation, diarrhea or pain in stomach or abdomen

At the very least there should be a “call your doctor if” pamphlet given to patients. Not everyone has other ways of obtaining any or even accurate information other than from their medical care teams. Some patients for varied reasons may not question doctors, technicians, or perhaps even understand the discussion if it takes place.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Robert Gold's book, Are Your Meds Making You Sick?: Just what Santa's doctor ordered

In this day and age, Santa's doctor would have him taking a statin for his cholesterol, and an ACE inhibitor or calcium channel blocker for the high blood pressure caused by the tension of meeting all those urgent customer demands. Luckily, the interactive effects, and potential adverse reactions to those and many other drugs, are discussed in Robert Steven Gold's new book, Are Your Meds Making You Sick?: A pharmacist's guide to avoiding dangerous drug interactions, reactions and side effects.

Gold, a hospital pharmacist and instructor of clinical pharmacy at Purdue University, lists 16 rules of safe medication use. In each of 30 case studies, he describes a patient, his or her symptoms, the suspect meds, a summary, the mystery to be addressed, the drug "culprit" and "accomplice," the solution, the odds that you'll encounter a problem, and advice for those taking that medication. The case studies illustrate the usefulness of the rules.

Professional patient advocates should buy this book so they can advise patients who take any of the dozens of drugs that Gold describes.

Gold's book is available from the publisher, Hunter House. Thanks to Sean Harvey for connecting us and making available a copy of the book.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Magic is for fairy tales: A useful placebo

Michael Spencer's story:
Three years ago, a week before Thanksgiving, while I was sitting in my office, my chest began to throb. It was a diffuse pain, but pain nonetheless. I am a middle-aged man with the usual amount of stress (too much) and I handle it in the usual way (denial). My cholesterol and blood pressure are normal, and I exercise regularly and try to eat sensibly. Still, I have read many obituaries of "healthy" men my age who ignored chest pain. So, somewhat sheepishly, I called my doctor and explained the situation, and he told me to come right over.

He conducted a thorough examination, and then we talked. He told me I was fine, that Thanksgiving is often a tense time, and that I should relax. My pain suddenly disappeared. I have written frequently of my belief that magic is for fairy tales and science is for humans. But something about that process soothed me. Of course, it was a relief to know that I wasn't sick. But could words really banish a pain I had struggled with for hours?

After I got home, I realized that I had been given a placebo. Not purposefully, perhaps, but it had the same effect. My doctor told me that I was fine, and that made my pain go away. It also eased my anxiety at least as effectively as if I had swallowed a pill. My doctor takes an extremely science-based approach to his work. That's what makes him so good at his job. But that afternoon we engaged in exactly the type of ritual that, according to Harvard Medical School Professor Ted Kaptchuk, will have to play a critical role in the future of American health care. And, at least in this instance, it would have been hard to argue that it didn't work.

Thanks to Michael Spencer, from whose article in Dec. 12 issue of the The New Yorker this was reprinted.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Yes to biking, Yes to hiking: Heart transplants

Today is the 44th anniversary of the first heart transplant in the U.S., back in 1967. Nowadays, heart transplants are safer and more common, and more complex transplants can be performed. A domino transplant is performed on patients with cystic fibrosis because both lungs need to be replaced and it is a technically easier operation to replace the heart and lungs at the same time. As the recipient's native heart is usually healthy, it can be transplanted into someone else who needs a heart transplant.

Here's the story of Andrew Wilson, a 30-something Brit who received a heart transplant in 1987:

It all started when I was ten days old and I contracted suspected Meningitis, the virus attacked my heart muscle, the doctors at Warrington General Hospital also suspected I had also suffered from a stroke leaving me with slight brain damage and a weakness down my right side.

My early life was spent in and out of Hospital's suffering from many chest infections and viruses. I was placed under heart consultant Dr. Arnold at Myrtle Street Children's Hospital in Liverpool. I was placed on a cocktail of drugs from an early age such as digoxin, frusimide aimed to stop my failing heart. 
As I grew older into my childhood my condition worsened and I was un able to do the normal things kids did back then, I was a mad football fan and was unable to play football or walk very far without feeling breathless and tired.

As the years drew on it was decided to transfer me to Harefield Hospital as Dr. Arnold had told my mum (Sue) and dad (Bryan) that there was nothing more they could do and that I needed a heart transplant, so we waited for the call to go down to Harefield......

Transplant Years- The Gift Of Life! 
Finally we got the call to go down to Harefield and little did my parents and myself know the life changing effects that one journey would have....
I underwent the tests and expected to be home in time for Christmas after being put on the waiting list.
In the early hours of December 17th 1987 I was visited by non other than Professor Sir Magdi Yacoub and after seeing me told my mum and dad that I needed a heart transplant and there was
A young Scottish girl named Samantha Dawkins who had suffered from cystic fibrosis needed a new heart and lung transplant and had decided to donate her heart for transplantation.
Both my parents were left with little time to decide on the life saving operation, but woke me later that night and told me I was going to have a heart transplant!!

Funny as it sounds my parents told me I was in high spirits as I went down to theatre, my parents then said good bye and my life was about to change.

The operation itself went on for nine hours and after a few hairy moments placing me on the life support machine the operation was a success.

I spent over six months at Harefield and in that time lived in Harefield Village in the designated flats for the patients well before Parkwood was built (on site accommodation).
Eventually I was able to finally meet the young girl who had saved my life and soon enough we had struck up a friendship I was given a St. Christopher medal with the message "With All My Heart Samantha." I also gave her a golden heart locket, the gifts symbolised the bond between us.

I had expected setbacks with rejection in the early days including a biopsy which had gone wrong, a surgeon accidentally went through an artery in my neck causing blood to flow into my chest and lungs, I was then placed into intensive care where eventually I recovered. 

Despite that my childhood from the age of nine changed for the better as I was finally able to play football, run in local school races and do everything my fellow friends could do, it was indeed a whole new experience and a welcome one!

 Whilst down in Harefield both Samantha and myself had the opportunity to meet H.R.H. The Duchess Of York when she opened at the time the new intensive care unit.
 We also appeared on such programmes as T.V.AM and Bodymatters, and were interviewed by the national newspapers,( I guess you could say we were celebs Ha..)
 I also helped in fund raising for Harefield and the British Heart Foundation. Being a Liverpool fan I was also lucky enough to have my childhood dream granted and became the mascot for the reds back in 1988.

"My Heart Is Yours"
 For eighteen months both Samantha and myself enjoyed a bond beyond friendship, we often kept in touch taking a holiday to Blackpool, as well as spending time together at Christmas. As time drew on Samantha unfortunately contracted a virus and desperately needed a new transplant, though sadly this time there wasn't a donor available and she died a day after her 17th birthday in 1989. I take comfort in the fact that a part of Sam still lives on inside me, and that I got to see her before she died.

After Samantha's tragic death I appeared again on T.V.A.M talking about the need for donors. Since then, though I have found it hard, I have tried to move on. I still keep in contact with Samantha's family (Liz, Roger and Jason). 

Health wise I have gone from strength to strength with only my last rejection in 1993 and a heart rhythm disorder in 1996. I was then placed under Dr. Banner, I then underwent a small procedure to stop and restart my heart, thankfully it worked and with the help of medication I recovered.....
Flash Back - Be Positive in Mind!

With regards to my schooling I attended Hamblett School which was a school for children with disabilities as I also suffer with cerebral palsy, I eventually left after my transplant and moved into main stream where I then moved on to college gaining a G.N.V.Q in business studies at Distinction level and also a G.C.S.E In both English Lit and Language grades A for course work and B and C for the respective exams. I also studied on a creative writing course gaining university credits though I did not take up that option. 
Despite my limited school access before and after my transplant I was still able to achieve my goals within education with a positive determination that I am indeed proud of!!

Message Of Hope!
 This December, is my sixteen year anniversary [this was written in 2004] and looking back I am eternally grateful to Samantha and her family not to mention all the doctors at Harefield for for their continuing dedication and support to fellow Transplants like myself. Despite some challenging times my transplant has given me and many other people years of happiness and long may it continue.....

A New Century, A New Man
I am now a singer/songwriter and was a member of the British Music Academy, I have written for Eurovision with a track called "Come Together", back in 2001 and was later aired on "Radio Merseyside" which was a huge boost. I have also written for a local arts theatre in 2002. It is now 2004 and I'm preparing to go into the studio to lay down some of the tracks I have written including an animated cartoon like track "Where Are You Now" which I hope to pass on to future publishers. 
I am also a keen writer and have written both novels and poems in the past. I have decided to end the story but not the journey with a poem I wrote a few years after my heart transplant, which I hope you enjoy.


No football, no biking,
No running, no hiking,
Bleep goes the machine,
You lie there so weak,
Why is life so mean?

With the oxygen mask,
Life's a uphill task,
Oh donor come fast,
And save me at last.

A donor is found,
Put your feet on the ground,
And jump up for joy,
Life's changing my boy.

Yes to football, Yes to biking
Yes to running, Yes to hiking,
No more bleeps from that-
dreaded machine,
Life is better than ever it's been.

Your no longer wistful-
As you run in the grass-
Thanks to the gift of life,
Your problems may pass.....

This poem was written when I was eleven years old and is dedicated to the lasting memory of my donor Samantha and all who have helped me through the years A BIG THANK YOU TO ALL!!!
And So The Journey Continues.........

Read another inspirational heart transplant story. Thanks to Andrew for his story, reprinted from the website of To Transplant and Beyond, and to Wikipedia for the definition of domino transplant.

Monday, December 5, 2011

They assumed she was demented: Health care at home

Dr. Jack Resnick's story:

I had one 83-year-old patient whose arthritis kept her from moving around, but she loved to talk about her career as a rocket scientist. One day, a well-intentioned neighbor dropped by and called 911 after finding her feverish and dehydrated from diarrhea. My patient had never been treated before at that hospital, and as a Russian immigrant, had no family here for the hospital to contact. She became disoriented; the hospital assumed she was demented and transferred her to a nursing home. It took me two months to track her down and many more to get her home, where, among well-kown attendants and friends, she became lucid again. If she had lived out her days in an institution, she would have cost Medicare a great deal of money, and her life would have been shorter and far less happy.

Patients who are treated at home by a doctor and nursing staff who know them intimately and can be available 24/7 are happier and healthier. This kind of care decreases infections, mistakes and delirium. And it is far more efficient. According to a 2002 study, for the patients treated by the Veterans Affairs' Home Based Primary Care Program, the number of days spent in hospitals and nursing homes was cut by 62% and 88, respectively, and total health care costs dropped 24%.

Thanks to Dr. Resnick, whose article in today's New York Times is excerpted here.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

There is a moon shot here: Don Berwick's exit from CMS & the irrationing of healthcare

In my blog post yesterday, I mentioned the sometimes ridiculously high cost of healthcare, and the resulting lack of coverage for many people.

No one wants rationing of healthcare; rationing connotes a period of barely adequate consumption in a time of war. Yet coming from the same root as "rational," rationing is the product from a conscious effort to equally and fairly share a limited resource.

Our high prices create "irrationing." Think of the harm to Deamonte Driver, a boy with a gap in his Medicaid coverage, who eventually died from an untreated toothache, to Nikki White, a young woman with cancer who was denied benefits by her insurer for her pre-existing condition of lupus, and to Natoma Canfield, an uninsured woman whose cancer was detected far too late, among far too many others. That's irrationing; irrational, needlessly cruel and jarringly wrong for the richest and greatest country on earth.

In 2009, Dr. Don Berwick told a biotechnology journal, "The decision is not whether or not we will ration care - the decision is whether we will ration with our eyes open."

Now, as he exited his leadership role over the Medicaid and Medicare programs, Dr. Berwick said, just as Americans supported manned missions to the moon without knowing the details of rocket science, they ought to support the universal health insurance law because of its ultimate destination. "We are a nation headed for justice, for fairness and justice in access to care," Dr. Berwick said. "We are a nation headed for much more healing and much safer care. There is a moon shot here."

Thanks to Robert Pear for his interview in today's New York Times.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

An MRI, or a fleet of cars: High healthcare prices

Of the cars I've owned over the years, my favorite was my homely first car, a pale yellow 1976 Ford Maverick with a lime green interior, which I bought, very used, from a good friend, after it had run 113,000 miles. The purchase price in 1985: $325. The car wasn't pretty, but it was rugged, and served me well.

My mother recently had an MRI in an Atlanta hospital as an outpatient. Thankfully, the MRI helped to rule out a serious condition, and she promptly got back to 100% health after a course of antibiotics. The hospital billed her Medicare plan $3,200 for the 10-minute test! The price tag was so high that I struggled to find an appropriate yardstick: it was enough to buy a fleet of ten Ford Mavericks.

When prices are that high, something has to give; not everyone will have insurance that covers such tests, and some will go without care, usually people who lack excellent insurance.