The overhead

There are many misnomers in American medical English. Patients walk into your clinic (from Greek kline, bed) to learn whether their scan was negative (good) or positive (bad). Those who have severe chronic pain may ask for their pain medicine (that relieve pain, not cause it), usually opioids. Some physicians would call them pain-seeking (though what they are seeking is relief). If they don’t get a prescription, they may rate their doctor poorly on a patient satisfaction survey, which is a big thing if you are into quality improvement. Quality improvement. There’s a misnomer.

Quality improvement in medicine is by definition limited to improving things you can measure, i.e. quantify, i.e. judge by criteria that are the ying to quality’s yang. Those measures may be valid or not, and may improve patients’ lives, longevity, etc. (or not) but they are not quality. Because they are measures. Numbers. You know, quantities.

The movement is dangerous in at least three ways. Firstly and most obviously, many of the things being measured haven’t been validated in prospective trials. They are either (poor) conjecture—like tight glycemic control for type II diabetics assumed to help because of good outcomes in type ones (since, you know, a skinny teenager and a morbidly obese 60-year-old are similar that way.) Or they came out of a corporate think-tank cocaine-fueled outside-the-box brainstorming session, like patient satisfaction scores1.

Secondly, even if they were the best measures in the world, tying them to promotion and compensation would have the unintended consequence of having practitioners loose sight of all other aspects of medicine, including the patient. There are many accounts of how it can happen—this one from Dr. Centor comes readily to mind—but since (1) identifying and (2) addressing the patient’s actual problem is difficult to measure objectively, it is not one of the benchmarks.

And finally, wherever there are numbers and money, techniques will evolve to game the system. David Simon’s account of how this happens in law enforcement is applicable. Want fewer central line infections? Enact a policy not to draw blood cultures from central lines! Too many nosocomial urinary tract infections? Urinalyses on admission for everyone! Hospitals create teams with dozens of people whose only job is to find new and better ways to do this. And they have to—because everyone else is doing it. A depressing amount of time, money, and effort wasted because of pointless exercises of anonymous pencil-pushers.

This is how you get to a near 3000% increase in the number of hospital administrators over 30 years. I am sure they are all good people, with good salaries, but they are, for the most part, insignificant. An epiphenomenon induced by someone’s desire to turn healthcare into an industry, forgetting that the six sigma ideology that works so well for toaster ovens can’t be forced onto moist, squishy, and fragile humans.

Which is also a good working definition of quality improvement.


  1. Some speculation on my end there. They might have been on LSD

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Talk therapy

She makes the mistake of talking to patients.”

Overheard from a fellow discussing the consult attending’s rounding habits

Is there such a thing as spending too much time with a patient? The question seems preposterous, when recent time motion studies showed that physicians in general, and residents in particular, clock embarrassingly few face-to-face minutes. The quote above was said with a wink and a nudge, but there are situations when it can be true, particularly if you talk to a patient—or get talked to—instead of having a conversation.

Two groups are at highest risk of talking too much—trainees and consultants. Many an internist remembers having to pick up the pieces after a consulting physician flew by the bedside to throw an unasked for opinion bomb. Think hematologists talking about insulin regimens, cardiologists about causes and treatment of back pain, or orthopedic surgeons about code status. “But one doctor said…” and a perplexed look is the usual outcome, more so if the consultant debated him or herself out loud.

Fellows are even more efficient sowers of confusion. Unlike some of their superiors, they still remember other fields well enough to a) have a valid opinion, and b) keep it to themselves. Where they are at highest risk for foot-in-mouth is the area of their future expertise—picking up just enough from the attendings to sound knowledgeable, yet not knowing enough to tell the patient what they don’t know. Even at later stages of training, a fellow’s best plan shared with the patient may tumble down when the attending gives a diametrically opposed recommendation. The common scenario is one in which there is no evidence, and clinical judgment rules. You can either not share your own view, or punctuate every conversation with “But we’ll see what my attending says.” More time wasted, and for nothing.

Patients themselves can be talkative, sometimes to their detriment. The reasons are many, and understandable: they have much to say about themselves—relevant to why they are in the hospital and not so much, they might not have anyone at home listening, they may have some level of delirium, dementia, or other cognitive disorder. Being able to identify such a person, and then knowing how to direct the conversation, is an unknown skill for most trainees and goes against today’s dogma of giving patients time to talk. No harm done to the chatty ones, but there are only so many hours in the day, and some of them should be spent thinking.

To be clear, we don’t have an epidemic of young doctors staying in the hospital until 2am while demented World War II veterans regail them with half-made up stories from Normandy. If only. But more isn’t always better, and physicians need to know when to speak up (to get their patient back on the topic), and when to stay quiet (not to overwhelm them with half-baked ideas).

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Kaposi’s: not your every day sarcoma

Kaposi’s sarcoma is an often misunderstood disease. You don’t need to have AIDS to get it; if it is AIDS-associated it doesn’t always disappear with antiretroviral therapy; and if it does it may come back years later. Even oncologists in the US don’t see it often, let alone podiatrists—hence some bizare treatment recommendations in the slides below.

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The pitfalls of ultrasubspecialization

If you haven’t yet seen the new PBS documentary on Cancer, do it as soon as possible. A free stream is available on the PBS website but it is well worth the $15 on iTunes.

It makes many good points, one of which is the siliness of viewing cancer in general, or of any particular organ, as being a single entity. Genitourinary and GYN malignancies are sill fresh in my mind after this last rotation, so an example that comes first is prostate cancer. Most have your standard testosterone-dependent, androgen deprivation therapy-sensitive cells. Once they stop responding to hormonal therapy, treatment is still targeted towards the (now mutated) androgen receptor. Small cell prostate cancer, however, looks and behaves differently—tending to be bulkier, more aggressive, and having earlier visceral organ metastases. Ultimately, we treat it more like its namesake in the lung, with cisplatin and etoposide.

That was an easy distinction to make, since small cell prostate cancer looks nothing like adenocarcinoma under a microscope. Not so for breast cancer. We now know that it is at least four diseases which are at first glance all the same: luminal A (hormone receptor-positive, Her2-negaitve); luminal B (HR-positive, Her2-positive); HR-negative, Her2-positive; and triple-negative (also called basal-like, though definitions of basal-like breast cancer vary). The first three, which we are now able to distinguish with immunohistochemistry and FISH, have different behaviour, treatment, and prognosis. The fourth is a catch-all category that probably contains many different diseases we don’t know about yet. Some of those triple-negatives may have more in common with colon or lung cancer than they do with other malignancies of the breast.

Which organ the cancer is in should be important to a surgeon or a radiation oncologist, who have to deal with the anatomy. But should medical oncologists subspecialize by organ, or by cell? Why is a neuro-oncologist better suited to treat primary CNS lymphoma than a hematologist whose main interest are aggresive lymphomas? Does a GI oncologist have a better skillset and knowledge base for dealing with neuroendocrine tumors of the pancreas than an oncologist who deals with endocrine gland malignancies? Are there other, not so obvious connections between different cancers that we are missing because of ultrasubspecialization?

I don’t know enough oncology to answer any of these questions, but they are interesting questions to make.

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Male breast cancer, a slide show

As the year winds down, these tumor board presentations will get less frequent. For now, though, it is still once a month. My latest, on breast cancer in men, seemed to be well-received. I suspect it was because, unlike most rare cancers, this one was easy to fit into a preexisting pattern: it is just like female breast cancer, except for… And voilà—you get quick and easily understood knowledge about a whole new disease entity.

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Apple’s App Store rules, Dosegate edition

First they came for the nerds.

Now they are coming for the doctors (see What’s New in Version 3.0.5). The makers of MedCalc, the best medical calculator app out there, explained what happend in detail1. This was the rule they were supposedly infringing:

22.9 Apps that calculate medicinal dosages must be submitted by the manufacturer of those medications or recognized institutions such as hospitals, insurance companies, and universities.

Nevermind that many doctors view themselves as institutions—this is an idiotic rule. Is University of Baltimore, which has no biomedical science courses or programs, allowed to publish a drug dose calculator? Is GEICO?

The FDA has issued guidance for mobile medical apps. It specificaly allows calculators that use generally available formulas, and forbids apps which calculate radiation dosage, but does not mention drugs. Where, then, did this rule come from?

It is, of course, the same App store rules that allowed these pearls of quackery.

It’s madness, and it’s maddening.


  1. Seeing that URL made me appreciate the developers even more. 

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The more you know…

If the unstated goal of these rotation post-mortems was to summarize what I had learned, a single post may not be enough for breast cancer. Six weeks ago, I knew that it was common, maybe overdiagnosed, possibly overtreated, and beating all other cancers for research funding by a vast margin. All this was a vague sense of being informed—like a NYT reader may feel after reading the Sunday Magazine feature—rather than actual knowledge.

Having talked to a good number of women with breast cancer, and worked with a few attendings dedicated to the field, I know it enough to know that I need to know more; but also enough to keep me interested. What from the outside looks like cookbook this-marker-means-she’s-getting-that-treatment medicine is in fact an intricate work of knowing your patient, figuring out where she stands in the heaps of data generated by decades-long studies following thousands of women on different protocols, discussing the options, and coming to a mutualy agreed decision1. Hard work, all of it.

Harder still is working on those data-generating trials. Anyone can think of a clinicaly relevant question, but can they make it into a feasable protocol? Can they gather a team to manage all the patients in the center, and all the different centers? Can they manage that team? Looking at a recent set of trials you will hear more about soon, the scale boggles the mind.

Side note: “We don’t have a crystal ball” is common oncspeak for “I don’t know what your prognosis is”2, but if a person has breast cancer what are the Gail model or Oncotype DX if not (developing, imperfect) tellers of fortune? And wouldn’t it be great to have a similar set of tools and statistics for all cancers?

So, not going into the field, but thoroughly impressed.


  1. Which is—truth be told—what we should do for any cancer, or illness. Alas, most diseases lack data, options, or both. 

  2. Or in the paternalistic dialect of the language, “I don’t want to tell you that you prognosis is poor”.  

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