July 21, 2016

Pay attention to burden of treatment – and its impact

Think about it: Becoming a patient can sometimes be like getting three new (and unwanted) part-time jobs:

(1) arranger/consumer of professional healthcare services,
(2) manager of self-care and activity adaptation regimens, and
(3) manager of administrative issues (benefits, purchasing, and billing).

The tasks involved in those additional jobs can sometimes be so time-consuming they interfere with other important responsibilities (like going to work). Some tasks may be beyond the patient’s capability and so don’t get done right – or done at all.

The POINT here is that Burden of Treatment is a significant but under-acknowledged and thus unmanaged issue.  Anyone “in the business”  for a while has had a vague sense that this is a practical concern with major impact.  But to date we’ve just been haphazardly addressing it.

All stakeholders in health-related work disruptions do need to stay alert to how much time and effort patients/claimants/employees are spending on treatment and care regimens of various kinds (and their attendant administrative/financial issues).  We also need to assess how well they are managing that burden.  Once we DO start to pay more attention to this issue and see how the impact varies from one treatment regimen to another, we will see that we have an opportunity to work on REDUCING BoT.

Figuring out how to systematically classify and document BoT is a necessary early step to increase awareness and opportunities for active management. There may well be a vast literature on this topic — but I am unaware of it. The particular study whose abstract appears below reminded me that this issues exists.  It explores whether/how to use the terminology in the ICF to document BoT. (ICF is the International Classification of Function, the lesser known companion to the ICD – International Classification of Disease.)  And I don’t know whether the ICF addresses the burden of administrative issues. Do you?

TAKEAWAY MESSAGE:   Let’s all think more about what a high burden of treatment means for our patients/claimants/employees, and what we can do to reduce it.

GONCALVES AV, Jacome CI, Demain SH, Hunt KJ, et al.
Burden of treatment in the light of the international classification of functioning, disability and health: a “best fit” framework synthesis.
Disabil Rehabil. 2016 Jul 3:1-9. [Epub ahead of print]
PubMed

ABSTRACT

PURPOSE: This systematic literature review aimed to (1) summarize and explain the concept of Burden of Treatment (BoT) using the International Classification of Functioning, Disability and Health (ICF) terminology, and (2) inform the development of a future Comprehensive ICF Core Set for BoT.

METHOD: Searches on EMbase, Medline, CINAHL and PsycINFO were conducted. Only qualitative studies were considered for inclusion. The screening and data extraction stages were followed by a “Best-fit” framework synthesis and content analysis, using the established ICF linking rules. Screening, data extraction, quality appraisal and data analysis were performed by two independent researchers.

RESULTS: Seventeen studies were included in this review. The “Best-fit” framework synthesis generated 179 subthemes which identified that BoT impacts negatively on body functions and structures, restricts valued activities and participation and influences contextual factors through life roles, self-identify and relationships. The identified subthemes were linked to 77 ICF categories.

CONCLUSIONS: This study is part of the preparatory phase of a Comprehensive ICF Core Set for BoT and our findings will inform the further needed studies on this phase. The use of ICF terminology to describe BoT provides an accessible route for understanding this complex concept, which is pivotal for rethinking clinical practice. Implications for rehabilitation Health professionals applying the ICF should consider the negative impact of interventions on patient’s life roles and self-identity, body functions and structures and on valued activities and participation. Health professionals who may be concerned about the treatment burden being experienced by their patients can now use the ICF terminology to discuss this with the multidisciplinary team. Poor adherence to rehabilitation programs may be explained by an increased BoT. This phenomenon can now be mapped to the ICF, and coded using a framework well known by multidisciplinary teams.


July 19, 2016

Overcoming fear of sharing our work with others

It’s scary to make a suggestion or share a work sample on a social networking site or a list serv in an effort to help less expert colleagues.  There’s a risk that an even-more-expert colleague will point out the flaws, or even make belittling comments.  If they’re kind, the expert will do it in private.  If not, there is the possibility of gossip behind one’s back, or public humiliation.

A colleague I deeply respect recently took that chance — not because he’s the world’s expert on a particular topic, but because he has a commitment to generously sharing what he does know for the benefit of others.  His goal in sharing his work product was to upgrade the way a particular issue is usually handled across the country.  That’s why I admire my colleague.  He offered a very concrete work product for others to use if they would like.

Fear of humiliation and being incompetent lie one millimeter beneath my skin. That fear, which is pretty common among humans, runs rampant in physicians.  It was intensified by our severe socialization during medical school and internship.  I hesitate every time I put any of my own thoughts or work “out there” for all to see.

I’m not alone in having this fear of being upstaged by someone more expert. For example, a doctor recently unsubscribed from the ACOEM Work Fitness & Disability Section list-serv with this comment:   “I joined the WFD section because I presumptuously (perhaps arrogantly) thought that given my decades of trying to navigate the rocky coastlines of fitness for duty and disability management I might actually have something of value to offer the newbies who might post questions.  So I responded to couple of posts and …… Well, let me tell you, I may be a big fish expert in my insular little pond, but soon recognized that the WFD Section is replete with knowledgeable, articulate, and fluent experts.  I really didn’t have much of anything new to offer. It was kind of like the experience of being at or near the top of your class in a suburban  high school then getting into a competitive college in the big city where everyone is as smart as you or smarter. So you folks don’t need me; you’ve got it covered. And I’m not fishing for compliments or encouragement either (which you couldn’t offer anyway since you don’t know me), just keeping it real.”

Got any ideas for how to solve this cultural problem?  I don’t — other than to point out these three aphorisms which seem relevant:

  • “Don’t let the excellent drive out the good.”
  • “You may need to lower your standards in order to improve your performance.”
  • “In the land of the blind, the one-eyed is king”

Fear of sharing stifles collaboration and innovation — so it inhibits any community’s ability to upgrade its current prevailing level of quality — “what typically happens”.  There’s something wonderful about people contributing what they DO KNOW.  There’s something wrong about being made to feel bad if it turns out someone else is EVEN MORE expert or wise.  So, perhaps we need to ponder, in the “land of the blind”:
— how a kind and respectful person with binocular vision (“the nation’s top expert at seeing”) should behave towards blind and the (rare) one-eyed people?
— how one-eyed people could best respond to input from the (very rare) binocular individuals?
— how blind people should differentiate between the (rare) one-eyed individuals and the (very rare) binocular people?

In the meanwhile, here is what happened with my colleague.   I received feedback that there were some inadequacies in his work product.  I sent that feedback along (anonymously by request) to him.  I ended my email with this:  “On behalf of all of those who are less well organized and systematic than you are, and for whom your tool provides a concrete model of what ‘good looks like’ — thank you for this contribution.   And, please, if you have the time, use the feedback to go take it up a notch!”

His response: “I’m very open to discussions on ways to improve this document.  I look forward to input of all sorts.”   He also plans to teach a session on how to use the “new & improved version” at our professional development conference next year.   THIS is the kind of professional behavior I DEEPLY ADMIRE.


July 14, 2016

Why we need a 1:1 ratio of healers to lawyers when designing reforms for “comp”

While Linda Rudolph was Medical Director of the California workers’ compensation regulatory agency in the mid-1990’s, she defined workers’ compensation as a medically-driven legal system.  I still use that definition when I give my annual lecture on work comp at the Harvard School of Public Health.   Based on my interpretation of what that succinct and elegant summary really means, I believe that any group setting out to improve the workers’ compensation system should have a roughly equal number of people at the table who were originally trained in a healing art and the law — because of the way their minds were indelibly imprinted by that training.

As you may have heard, I was among 38 workers’ compensation experts of various stripes who participated in the Workers’ Compensation Summit co-hosted by blogger Bob Wilson from workerscompensation.com and blogger Judge David Langham, Deputy Chief Judge of the Florida workers’ compensation system.

I was surprised as we went around the room introducing ourselves.  I was one of only two physicians in the room.  There were no others with healthcare professional training.  There was one person whose original training had been as a vocational counselor.  By far the largest group had had legal training, although many of them were now in other jobs — judges, legal scholars, workers’ compensation system administrators, corporate executives.

Training in both law and in medicine shapes a student’s worldview, teaches a precise vocabulary, builds a foundation of factual knowledge as well as rigorous intellectual discipline, and defines how things work in a certain part of human life.  The training also establishes a finite range of things that seem possible, and offers a particular inventory of potential solutions.  A behavioral acculturation process accompanies it, too.  The point here, though, is that the actual shape and content of those worldviews, vocabularies, knowledge bases, intellectual disciplines, possibilities and solutions — and behavioral cultures — differs in most respects between the two professions.

Earlier in life, I spent 20 years as a physician married to a lawyer.  For many reasons, it was kinda like a nice cat being married to a nice dog.  We had a primordial kind of incompatibility.  But I did get to know what made that particular dog tick pretty well.

Lawyers seem to have a predilection for solutions that involve clarifying rights, justice, entitlements, boundaries, and who is responsible to pay for what.  Lawyers are trained to advocate for their clients’ rights and interests.  Most lawyers seem to spend an awful lot of their time and energy anticipating arguments or actually arguing, fighting, and trying to win  — because the everyday grist of their vocational mill is broken promises and disputes.

As I was pondering the difference between the “head set” of medicine and law, I found a quote from an article in the May 31 Boston Globe about a 35 year old man, a published author and poet, now  graduating from Yale Law School — who at age 16 had hijacked a car at gunpoint and served 8 years in prison.   He said “The law is a way to think and argue, and a way to find solutions….. Law is the language of power, and understanding that language is important to understanding power.”  This quote struck me — not because he’s so amazing (which he obviously is) but because he articulated so precisely what I had predicted a lawyer would say.

Physicians and others in the healing professions have a predilection for solutions that reduce peoples’ suffering and restore the integrity of their bodies/minds.  Medicine has nothing to do with winning.  The first precept of medicine is to do no harm.  Physicians are trained to advocate for their patients’ health, to meet their immediate needs today and maximize their future well-being in the future.  The everyday grist of their vocational mill is providing comfort, relief, and reassurance to a stream of patients coming through the door with symptoms, with bodies or minds that aren’t working right, distressed and worried about the meaning of those things for their health and everyday activities (and often secretly fearing death).

In my view, a good “medically-driven legal system” for people injured at work should concern itself primarily with helping injured workers get back on their feet.  That requires paying roughly equal attention to

  1. Helping them manage any life predicament the injury has caused (reducing worry, suffering, and distress, arranging good care promptly that maximizes healing and restores function as quickly as possible, preserving daily routine, minimizing work disability and job loss or providing assistance to find a new job quickly.  The goal is to get everyday life back to normal as soon and as completely as possible.  Time spent in limbo is destructive.
  2. Minimizing their short-term financial stress as well as long-term financial loss, sorting out their rights, and dealing with disputes.

Everyone’s goal should be to expedite the activities in #1 even if there are difficulties in #2, instead of allowing #2 to delay #1 as is common today.

 


July 6, 2016

Where does working age end? Who is too old to work?

I’ve been trying to draw more attention to the special healthcare needs of the working age population since they power the engine of the economy.  The healthcare industry needs to expand its focus beyond symptoms and select treatments that rapidly restore the ability to function in this group  — to help them recover faster and more completely, to keep their jobs and livelihoods, and avoid the negative consequences of prolonged worklessness for them and their family!  Doctors and other healthcare professionals often don’t really THINK ENOUGH about the impact of their treatment regimens on working people’s lives outside the office.

But as I advocate, I’ve begun pondering that definition: “working age”.  It seems safe to use 18 as the low end of the range (even though kids younger than that do work, most of them are still in school).  But what about the top end?  At what age should we stop seeing work as the norm?  Stop expecting anyone to work?   Start thinking it’s silly to insist on working?  What term should we use to describe those who have lived for a really long time but are still very active and working?  What term should we use to describe people who are the exact same age but the press of years has made them too feeble to work anymore, even though they are “healthy”?  We all know people in both of these categories.  Simply calling them both old seems inaccurate.

I found a thoughtful article from the World Health Organization (WHO) exploring how to define “old” or “elderly” — in Africa!   Have you noticed how often we notice oddities about our own culture when we look outside it?  That’s when we notice the automatic assumptions and blind spots we’ve been living with.

I think you’ll enjoy reading the excerpts I’ve pasted below from the full WHO article.  I have colored in red the parts I found most eye-opening.  They are a breath of realistic and straight-spoken fresh air about how humans age.

Bottom line as I see it:  In developing societies where the administrative and legal fictions of retirement and pensions do not exist, the people tend to define old and elderly straightforwardly and on a case by case basis depending on the actual circumstances of humans as they accumulate years (and as younger generations come behind).  Old age begins when one assumes the social role of an elder, when one withdraws from social roles either because it is time for someone younger to take over or because of decline in physical / mental capability.  And finally, when it is no longer possible to actively contribute, one is definitely well into old age.

By that reasoning, if you are still able to play the roles and carry the same load of a person a decade younger, you are not old yet.  I still don’t know what to call you though.  Or, more truthfully, I don’t know what to call myself.  I am still in there pitching though I turn 70 years old this year.  I did recently give up one of my roles to make room for a younger person who deserved her day in the sun.  Didn’t want to hog it and hold her back.

Proposed Working Definition of an Older Person in Africa for the MDS Project

Most developed world countries have accepted the chronological age of 65 years as a definition of ‘elderly’ or older person, but like many westernized concepts, this does not adapt well to the situation in Africa. While this definition is somewhat arbitrary, it is many times associated with the age at which one can begin to receive pension benefits.

Although there are commonly used definitions of old age, there is no general agreement on the age at which a person becomes old. The common use of a calendar age to mark the threshold of old age assumes equivalence with biological age, yet at the same time, it is generally accepted that these two are not necessarily synonymous.

As far back as 1875, in Britain, the Friendly Societies Act, enacted the definition of old age as, “any age after 50”, yet pension schemes mostly used age 60 or 65 years for eligibility. (Roebuck, 1979). The UN has not adopted a standard criterion, but generally use 60+ years to refer to the older population (personal correspondence, 2001).

The more traditional African definitions of an elder or ‘elderly’ person correlate with the chronological ages of 50 to 65 years, depending on the setting, the region and the country. ….. In addition, chronological or “official” definitions of ageing can differ widely from traditional or community definitions of when a person is older.  Lacking an accepted and acceptable definition, in many instances the age at which a person became eligible for statutory and occupational retirement pensions has become the default definition. ….

Defining old
“The ageing process is of course a biological reality which has its own dynamic, largely beyond human control. However, it is also subject to the constructions by which each society makes sense of old age. In the developed world, chronological time plays a paramount role. The age of 60 or 65, roughly equivalent to retirement ages in most developed countries, is said to be the beginning of old age.

In many parts of the developing world, chronological time has little or no importance in the meaning of old age. Other socially constructed meanings of age are more significant such as the roles assigned to older people; in some cases it is the loss of roles accompanying physical decline which is significant in defining old age. Thus, in contrast to the chronological milestones which mark life stages in the developed world, old age in many developing countries is seen to begin at the point when active contribution is no longer possible.” (Gorman, 2000)

Categories of definitions
When attention was drawn to older populations in many developing countries, the definition of old age many times followed the same path as that in more developed countries, that is, the government sets the definition by stating a retirement age. Considering that a majority of old persons in sub-Saharan Africa live in rural areas and work outside the formal sector, and thus expect no formal retirement or retirement benefits, this imported logic seems quite illogical. Further, when this definition is applied to regions where relative life expectancy is much lower and size of older populations is much smaller, the utility of this definition becomes even more limited.

Study results published in 1980 provides a basis for a definition of old age in developing countries (Glascock, 1980). This international anthropological study was conducted in the late 1970’s and included multiple areas in Africa. Definitions fell into three main categories: 1) chronology; 2) change in social role (i.e. change in work patterns, adult status of children and menopause); and 3) change in capabilities (i.e. invalid status, senility and change in physical characteristics). Results from this cultural analysis of old age suggested that change in social role is the predominant means of defining old age. When the preferred definition was chronological, it was most often accompanied by an additional definition.

…… If one considers the self-definition of old age, that is old people defining old age, as people enter older ages it seems their self-definitions of old age become decreasingly multifaceted and increasingly related to health status (Brubaker, 1975, Johnson, 1976 and Freund, 1997).


June 28, 2016

Reduce ill-considered surgeries by using shared medical-decision making

Something called “shared medical decision-making” increases patient satisfaction while reducing utilization of elective procedures that are invasive, risky, of questionable value — and often high cost.   But it is rarely used today outside large health plans.

Do you know how shared medical decision-making (SMDM) differs from “informed consent”?  I didn’t until I attended a presentation by Ben Moulton from the Informed Medical Decisions Foundation. In brief, informed consent is a legal process that is supposed to protect patients and promote patient autonomy.  You’re probably familiar with it.  You get a form to read a minute before the doctor walks in to talk at you for a few minutes about risks and benefits of your up-coming test, procedure or surgery.  Then you sign the form after barely glancing at all the legalese.  In contrast, SMDM is a structured process by which a patient and a clinician share information with each other in a two-way exploratory conversation that prepares the patient to make a truly informed decision.  The INSTANT I learned about SMDM, I became an ardent fan.

(Please forgive the acronyms.  We have been doing a project with the military.  They constantly use acronyms in the interest of brevity.  I now find myself making an acronym out of EVERY multi-syllabic or multi-word term.  Here’s the latest one I learned:  BLUF which means “bottom line up front”.  In other words, instead of beating around the bush, the point of the memo or report is right here at the start!)

So here’s the BLUF:  Since the superiority of SMDM is now well-established among healthcare researchers and legal scholars, and many articles have documented its benefits to patients, to healthcare professionals, and in some cases to health payers, why isn’t it in widespread use every day and everywhere?   As soon as I heard SMDM existed, I began to wonder about what’s getting in the way of constant use?   I bet a combination of conflict of interest and pesky not-so-little logistical details like the lack of vendors, undeveloped operational mechanisms, and lack of fair payment for effort are the main reasons why.  And of course, a preference for costs later rather than costs today.  We gotta find a way around those obstacles!

BACKGROUND:

Ten years ago, a landmark article appeared that distinguished between informed consent and SMDM — then made a persuasive case for the latter.  Here’s the full citation:  King, Jaime S. and Moulton, Benjamin, Rethinking Informed Consent: The Case for Shared Medical Decision-Making. American Journal of Law and Medicine, Vol. 32, pp. 429-501, 2006.

First the authors described the two prevailing types of legal definitions for informed consent.   They wrote: “Currently, the states are almost evenly split between two types of standards for informed consent – the physician-based standard, effective in 25 states, and the patient-based standard, effective in 23 states and the District of Columbia.  Physician-based standards generally require physicians to inform a patient of the risks, benefits and alternatives to a treatment in the same manner that a ‘reasonably prudent practitioner’ in the field would.  On the other hand, patient-based standards hold physicians responsible for providing patients with all information on the risks, benefits and alternatives to a treatment that a ‘reasonable patient’ would attach significance to in making a treatment decision.”

The crux of the problem:   About one third of the time, the prevailing standard of care does not require the physician to do the treatment  (for example, the surgery is not the only treatment available, or is not required to save the patient’s life).  In that third of cases, in which the treatment or procedure is referred to as “elective”,  the intended outcome of the surgery is basically improved quality of life.  Thus, the decision whether to go ahead with the treatment really should depend largely on the values and preferences of the patient.  However, patients vary widely in how much information they want, their appetite for risk, their tolerance for various side effects and possible poor outcomes, and their confidence in their own decision-making ability.   Many of them will not feel prepared to make a good decision no matter how much information they get;  they want guidance or an out and out recommendation from their doctor.  Without knowing the patient’s  preferences and values, physicians are not able to give advice about treatment decisions tailored to the patient’s personal situation — and may inappropriately bias the discussion of alternative plans.

Then the authors defined SMDM:   “a process in which the physician shares with the patient all relevant risk and benefit information on all treatment alternatives and the patient shares with the physician all relevant personal information that might make one treatment or side effect more or less tolerable than others. Then, both parties use this information to come to a mutual medical decision.”  They also said SMDM must occur BEFORE the patient can give truly informed consent.

Here’s another problem:  Many physicians have trouble talking in lay language;  they tend to use big words and medical jargon.  And because medical visits are stressful, patients have trouble remembering the things the doctor tells them.   Moreover, most physicians do not have comparative factual data at hand about likelihood of success and specific side effects for the various treatment alternatives.  This has led to the development of decision aids – pamphlets, booklets and videos for patients that summarize information about procedures and treatments, their likelihood of success, what it is like to live with potential side effects and poor outcomes, and so on, all written in simple everyday language. Both the Foundation and its partner Healthwise have produced many of them.

Finally, the authors asserted that despite the “bureaucratic headaches, the enormous expenditure of financial and human resources, and the need for state by state adoption of new informed consent laws, the long-term benefits of shared decision-making and the use of evidence based decision aids to promote patient understanding of medical information to arrive at informed medical decision making far outweigh the costs for both patients and physicians.”

MY SIMPLISTIC ANALYSIS OF THE REASONS FOR LOW USE

Conflict of interest:
Some (or many) surgeons and interventionists of various kinds earn their living by delivering expensive services – and usually have convinced themselves believe those services are the best thing for the patient.   They often work for healthcare delivery organizations that want to drive revenue up – not down.   The whole team has a vested interest in making sure the patient says “yes” and understandably has less commitment to spending valuable time helping patients say “no thank you” to the operation or the treatment.

My question is:  How can we get around this obstacle?   Why can’t managed care companies or health/disability/workers’ comp payers find qualified third party vendors who can engage patients in shared medical decision-making conversations when the treating physician can’t – or doesn’t want to?   The company Health Dialog does that – but last time I talked with them, they are only set up for bulk sales to healthplans.    I haven’t yet run across an organization that will do onesie and twosie shared medical decision conversations on request.   In workers’ compensation and disability benefits programs, that option is the only way this will fly.

Scarcity and cost of materials, logistics, and lack of delivery mechanisms:
1.    Materials to educate and prepare the patient for shared medical decision-making are available only for a limited number of procedures.  It takes time and expertise to prepare them, and since they are based on the latest scientific evidence, they must constantly be updated.  For example, when I looked last, the Foundation had no package for spine fusion surgery, though they did have them for laminectomy and spine MRI.
2.    Medical offices that buy the materials used to educate and prepare the patient for a shared medical decision-making conversation can’t bill for the cost of the materials.  There is no CPT billing code expressly designed for it, and if the provider bills under a similar-appearing code, it often won’t be paid.
3.    Physicians who conduct “real” shared decision-making conversations in their office aren’t paid for the time.  There is no CPT billing code expressly designed for it, and if the provider bills under another code, it often won’t be paid.
4.    Medical delivery organizations that have especially trained staff on hand to conduct these conversations can’t bill for the time they would spend doing it.   Non-physicians can’t bill health payers for the time they spent on these conversations.  There is no billing code expressly designed for this service, and if the provider bills under another CPT code, it usually won’t be paid.

GOTTA FIND A WAY TO MAKE THIS WORK

Many studies have shown increased patient satisfaction when SMDM occurs.  In addition, Group Health of Oregon reduced healthcare costs by 40% by putting SMDM in place throughout their group practice HMO.  (They didn’t have to worry about getting paid for doing it because Group Health is a prepaid health plan that employs its own physicians.  Increasing patient satisfaction strengthens their business, and any dollars they save stay in house)

Those of us who contract with vendors and operate provider payment mechanisms really ought to get ourselves in gear to remove the barriers to widespread adoption of SMDM.   Drs. Ian Hargreaves and Victor Montori from the Mayo Clinic summarized the situation in an article in Health Affairs entitled “Shared Decision Making: The Need For Patient-Clinician Conversation, Not Just Information,” They wrote: “The patient and clinician must jointly create a course of action that is best for the individual patient and his or her family. The larger need in evidence-informed shared decision making is for a patient-clinician interaction that offers conversation, not just information, and care, not just choice.”


June 22, 2016

Psychiatrist says we should use food to treat anxiety and depression

Dr. Drew Ramsey is a well-trained psychiatrist at Columbia in New York.  He grew up on a farm in Indiana.  When his patients weren’t getting well despite “evidence-based” psychotherapy and drugs, he starting wondering what was missing.  Then he started thinking about the link between what we eat and the health of our brains.  He figured out where all the latest nutrition research is pointing us, and started using food as part of his treatment plan for his patients — with good results.

Makes sense to me.  The brain consumes more energy than any other organ in the body. Obviously, a brain that isn’t getting what it needs in the way of nutrients will not function at its best.

So, one question to ask when we see someone who is not performing at their best mentally is:  are they eating right?   Which brings up another, much bigger question:  why are inquiries about nutrition not part of EVERY medical interview of sick people?  Why aren’t recommendations about foods that foster healing part of EVERY medical treatment plan?  Besides feeding the brain, nutrition is critical to healing injured tissues.

For years I’ve read about how doctors don’t learn nutrition.  It didn’t bother me because I DO know it.   My parents raised me to be a mother/wife and to be responsible for making sure I know how to feed my family well and keep them healthy.  I am also the main cook in our household.   But …. EVERY doctor should know what I know, and should keep it on the front burner.  And here’s the weird part.  Nutrition really ISN’T part of the medical culture.  Even though I’ve always known how important nutrition is, it hasn’t been part of what I talk about with people who are sick and need to get well.  Wow.  What a realization.  How stupid.

Dr. Ramsey has done at least two TedX talks, Brain Farmacy and Brain Food at the End of Your Fork.  He has a website, a blog, and three books.  Check it all out.  To me, his basic ideas make a lot of sense, and the nutrition stuff he’s saying is pretty solid, based on my own reading.  All in all, this seems like sensible stuff from the practical son of an Indiana farmer — who turned into a scientist, physician, psychiatrist and now educator.

(One concern: he may be getting swept up in the Dr. Oz fame whirl.  I hope he will avoid becoming faddish and commercial, pandering to the demands of TV fans who demand new woo woo immediate magic cures every day. So let’s go catch him now, in case he gets spoiled.)

I just ordered his Happiness Diet book to see if it’s a good patient education tool. Just THINK of all the people who are having trouble getting well.  Their medications aren’t working, they can’t tolerate their medications; therapy isn’t working, they don’t like their therapist.  I wonder how many could help heal themselves by thinking of food as therapy– and start making their brains healthier by eating nutritious (and delicious) food!

Do tell me what you think after you look at all of this stuff.


June 17, 2016

Free webinar on getting off opioids next week — offered by CIRPD

See below for the topics and schedule for a series of (free) summertime webinars sponsored by  the Canadian Institute for Relief of Pain and Disability (CIRPD).  They’ve got some excellent and expert presenters lined up.   The first one is on a technique for reducing dependence on opioid medications — on Wednesday next week!

I have been on the CIRPD board for a couple of years now.  I am impressed with their focus on educating professionals alongside patients as well as their efforts to build a web portal to expedite translation of evidence from academic researchers to real world practitioners.

I am certain there OUGHT to be an analogous organization here in the USA.  One reason why CIRPD manages to survive is that it has kept getting annual grants from the British Columbia government’s “gaming” revenue.  Seems like a good use of that money!

See much more at www.cirpd.org — where you can also register for one of the webinars shown below.  Here’s an idea:  Put the ones you like on your calendar now!
——————————————–
Upcoming (free) CIRPD Webinars

Targeting Pain and Prescription Opioid Misuse with Mindfulness-Oriented Recovery Enhancement (MORE)
Eric Garland, Ph.D., LCSW – Associate Dean for Research and Associate Professor in the University of Utah College of Social Work
Dr. Eric Garland will discuss his research on the clinical benefits and neurobiological mechanisms of Mindfulness-Oriented Recovery Enhancement, a novel therapy designed to target chronic pain and prevent opioid-related problems.
DATE:            June 22, 2016 – 11:00am PDT / 2:00pm EDT

Keeping the Boom(ers) in the Labour Market: Can Existing Workplace Policies and Accommodations make a Difference?
Monique Gignac, PhD – Associate Scientific Director and a Senior Scientist at the Institute for Work & Health
Dr. Gignac will discuss current research on understanding the interplay between accommodation and chronic diseases so employers can better retain older workers.
DATE:            June 8, 2016 – 11:00am PDT / 2:00pm EDT

The Be Well at Work Program: Managing Depression, Absenteeism, and Presenteeism in the Workplace
Debra Lerner MS, PhD – Director, Program on Health, Work and Productivity, Tufts Medical Center
Dr. Debra Lerner will discuss current research on how depression in the workplace affects levels of absenteeism and presenteeism. She will also present strategies for working with employees with depression.
DATE:            June 15, 2016 – 11:00am PDT / 2:00pm EDT

The Difference Gender and Sex Make to Work Disability Outcomes
Mieke Koehoorn, PhD – Professor and Head, Occupational and Environmental Health Division, University of British Columbia
Gender and sex can have an impact on the outcomes of workplace disability. Dr. Mieke Koehoorn will discuss recent research on how gender and sex affect disability outcomes and will provide some practical steps for handling the differences.
DATE:            July 13, 2016 – 11:00am PDT / 2:00pm EDT

Exercise Management for Chronic Fatigue Syndrome – The Evidence and Current Approaches
Suzanne Broadbent PhD – Senior Lecturer, Clinical Exercise Physiology, Southern Cross University
Dr. Broadbent will provide an over view of exercise management for Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and discuss current research describing the most effective types of exercise practices to use.
DATE:            August 23, 2016 – 4:00pm PDT / 7:00pm EDT

Pain-related Distress: Recognition and Appropriate Interventions
Tamar Pincus PhD – Professor in Health Psychology, Royal Holloway, University of London
Many people who live with chronic pain report that they also suffer from low mood, irritability, and withdrawal from activities and relationships. Dr. Tamar Pincus will discuss new research which helps distinguish whether these behaviours are based in depression or pain-related distress.
DATE:            September 20, 2016 – 8:30am PDT / 11:00am EDT / 4:30pm UK


June 14, 2016

Take an important step BEFORE the sausage making starts …….

Do you know the Bible story about wise King Solomon and his response to the two mothers fighting over two babies — a living one and a dead one?   Each claimed the living one was hers and the dead baby belonged to the other.  King Solomon offered to cut the living baby in half and give each mother a fair share. The real mother was revealed when she said she would give up her claim to the baby rather than have it die.

The efforts being made now to “modernize” workers’ compensation and other large scale disability benefits programs may end up dividing the live baby in half by becoming prematurely dominated by the sausage-making and log-rolling among powerful vested interests on all sides.  In particular, past efforts at “reform” in workers’ comp have been feeding frenzies for those who live off system inefficiencies and inequities.  The result is the continuing sacrifice of the metaphorical living baby — the well-being and long-term quality of life of the individuals these systems are intended to protect, and the economic and social health of our society as a whole (as represented by the taxpayers).

By their nature in a pluralistic and democratic society, legislative and regulatory reform ARE sausage-making and log-rolling activities.  As a regulator commented at last month’s Workers’ Comp Summit, good government must “account for the multiplicity of interests”.  That said, we have a better shot at creating a more satisfactory system IF we give the sausage-makers a North Star to guide their efforts.   As they write legislative language, they need to be using a written “spec sheet” of requirements that the solution must meet — a list of the major design principles or performance specifications that a twenty-first century replacement would need to satisfy.  A credible group needs to come up with a draft System Design and Performance Specifications document which could then be circulated for comment and revision in community meetings and industry groups all around the country.

The people invited to create the spec sheet should be well suited for this kind of socially responsible foundation-laying project:  thoughtful, expert in the matters at hand, with real world and front line experience, each respected in their own sector, able to see things from a broad perspective — and preferably NOT elected officers or designated representatives of organizations.  The participants must feel completely free to advocate for what they think is best for the two parties most vulnerable to system dysfunction (the affected individuals and society as a whole).  The people sitting at the table must not allow themselves to be swayed by the vested interests of their own livelihood, profession, enterprise, trade association, or industry — but should be worldly wise enough to acknowledge the power that those interests have to distort and defeat naive solutions.

As an example of the KIND of document that might result, see this preliminary draft for a set of design principles for the nation’s healthcare system.  This list was developed in the late 2000’s — before Obamacare was passed and signed into law.   It expands and refines an initial set of ideas that bubbled up from a small group of people in different walks of life in my “social set.”

As citizens and taxpayers, we were uncomfortable at the country’s lack of a core document articulating widely-accepted values, principles or expected outcomes against which to judge the merit of various details in the legislative proposals.  We also felt that a document with core principles like these could later be used to determine whether a law is creating the desired changes, and to guide later amendments and regulatory changes.   After creating this document, I envisioned groups around the country holding community meetings, to either consider and modify it or come up with their own versions.

Widespread engagement in dialogue at the community level — a “from the ground up” development of the US population’s vision of what a well-functioning health system would look like — would have given the USA a coherent values-based and outcomes-based population health policy at long last.  The results being produced by the ACA today could be compared with that vision/policy in order to judge whether Obamacare has moved us towards or away from that vision, and to identify places where changes need to be made.  (And you do realize that the US still doesn’t have a population heatlh policy, right?)

Similarly, while there is wide acknowledgement that modernization of our nation’s workers’ compensation system is needed, why don’t we take this tack and start building a vision of how a good system SHOULD operate, and the results it SHOULD produce?


June 12, 2016

Almost embarrassed to mention my near miss with “disfigurement”

It’s almost embarrassing to mention my own personal experience with my birthmark, because it is so trivial.  But when I think about why my birthmark has NOT had much impact on my life, I see clearly the impact of the messages that kids get from their parents and the world around them.  I feel lucky and grateful — and more aware of the ways that the lives of others with the same or more substantial “imperfections” and “impairments” may have been changed by the reactions of their parents and the world around them.

There was a defining moment in my life when I had a near miss with defining myself as “disfigured”  Had that moment gone another way, I might have carried myself  differently, dealt with other people differently, and adjusted my view of the future that was possible, given my situation.

I do have a red birthmark on my cheek — roughly 2″ in diameter.  It has grown darker with the passage of time.  It was pale red in my youth.  In my mind, it has never been a big thing — but over the years I have come to realize that everyone doesn’t agree with that assessment.

My life would have been very different if my parents had taught me to see myself as disfigured. Daddy was a pediatrician, and approached every parenting issue from this point of view:  “What will create the best adult out of this kid?”

While I was in elementary school there must have been a specific day when I asked a question about my birthmark — because I remember what happened next.   They pointed out that everyone has “imperfections”.  In fact,  we (the four kids) then took turns combing over each other’s bodies until we did find some kind of mark on all of us.  Theirs were QUITE subtle: a pale brown “café au lait” spot on an arm, a patch of unusually thick and hairy skin.  Nothing on the face.   But as far as I was concerned, that proved the truth of my parents’ statement.

They also claimed that during Colonial times, people thought the best way to tell who was a witch was to look for an imperfection — because witches look perfect and real human beings don’t.  Later, with no apparent awareness of any philosophical contradiction, my parents also pointed out that only God is perfect. Overall, their explanations answered my questions, met my needs, reassured me, and settled the issue. I didn’t sense that anything was “wrong” with my birthmark, my face, or my appearance. I decided I was fine in that department.  And in fact, my parents indirectly told me I was pretty by constantly reminding me that  “beauty is only skin deep” and focusing their energy on molding and developing my “insides”.

So I grew up feeling pretty “normal” and reasonably confident — without any belief that I had any appearance problems beyond the ones that most kids have (pimples, hair, etc.).  No thoughts about my birthmark at all, really.  I wasn’t afraid of other people’s reactions to it.   In fact, I was only rarely asked about it, and then I would simply answer “it’s a birthmark.”   I was never ever teased about it or bullied — nor even called names.  A few years ago I realized that my maiden name (Harting) would have made a great rhyme with farting!  As things turned out, I was quite a popular kid, elected Homecoming and Junior-Senior Prom Princess two years in a row, etc — all the while feeling the usual terrible insecurities and desires of adolescence. Using my mother as my role model, I never wore any make up at all unless it was a dress-up occasion.  That’s still true now, except I wear cover-up for presentations as well as fancy parties.

It wasn’t until I was in my mid-30’s and went to a cosmetics counter to ask for cover-up makeup that the salesperson’s reaction taught me my attitude was unusual.  She said most women in my situation WHISPER when they approach to ask her for cover-up.  A few months later, a woman my mother’s age (with whom I had gotten quite close) asked why I didn’t cover my birthmark.   I acted surprised and said it just didn’t seem necessary.  She then shared her theory: she had decided my coping strategy was to be defiant and “flaunt it.”  I was stunned. I had had no inkling she thought my birthmark WAS a big deal.

She did get me to thinking though.  I realized that if other people notice the birthmark, I can use it.  So now when I arrange to meet people I’ve never seen before, I sometimes remember to say I have a birthmark on my right cheek.  It’s useful as an “identifying mark” as the cops would say!

What a gift my parents gave me!   Imagine how different my perception of myself and the way the world was looking at me — and thus my interactions with the world — could have been. All because of a little 2″ square red mark on the skin, that affects no function at all.  I suspect that my outgoing and dominant temperament / personality and social skills have also been a help.  The fact I never experienced bullying of any kind (until I was in medical school) indicates to me that I am by nature near the top of the human version of the hen house pecking order.

I sat next to a guy on a plane recently with a facial birthmark like mine–a hemangioma.  His was BIG.  It covered half his face and neck.  In some places, dark blue-red skin hung in folds, almost like a turkey.  It really was disfiguring — from my vantage point, one side of his face didn’t look like a “regular” face at all.  The guy was SUPER chatty, outgoing, and engaging.  He was almost so “in your face” as to be socially odd.  But after a minute or two, the net result was that he put everyone at ease because our focus shifted to the topic of conversation instead of his appearance.  Turns out he is a specialist in some sort of technological field (forget exactly what) and is on the road constantly.  That means being out in public and meeting new people in new situations is his everyday reality.  I decided that his extreme extroversion is the way he has responded to his predicament — the way he copes with the outside world’s reaction to his appearance.  Rather than shrink away, ashamed, in an attempt to be invisible and thus sidelining himself, he has INSISTED on his right to participate fully in life by INSERTING himself in the middle of it.  I wonder what HIS parents told him as a child…….

I guess you could say that guy on the plane and I have ended up in similar places — with an approach sort of like the puppy in The Present video.  If you don’t SEE yourself as disfigured / disabled, and/or if you don’t even CARE that you are, life is a lot bigger and more fun.

Which makes me wonder:  why do we insist that people define themselves as “disabled” in order to be eligible for “reasonable accommodations” that would let them get or keep a job?  Why can’t we just ask them to explain what they cannot do without the accommodation — instead of insisting that they label themselves?


June 9, 2016

My detailed analysis of “The Present” video

Here’s my detailed deconstruction and analysis of why The Present video is so touching — what was going on with the puppy, the kid, and also with us the viewers.

The facts:   A boy is sitting home in the dark on a sunny day, intently playing video games. We don’t know why.  His mother gives him a box with a gift inside:  a puppy.  When the boy notices the missing leg, he angrily rejects the dog and throws it to the ground with a dismissive hiss and curled lip.  Momentarily stunned, the puppy spots a ball and bounces up, full of happy busy energy.  He starts pursuing the ball — like any puppy would.  He doesn’t pay attention to the rejection or to his own mobility difficulties.  As the boy watches the dog, the expressions on his face soften, and he decides to take the dog outside.  When he arises, we hear the sound of metal — and see that he has a missing leg.  The two cooperate to open the door and go outside to play fetch.

My analysis of the dynamics:  Basically, the puppy’s joie de vivre was infectious and it changed things.  First it altered the physical environment as well as the emotional tone in the room — and then it altered the kid’s head and his heart.  As things transpired and his view of the puppy started changing, the fact of the puppy’s missing leg (and his stumbles and falls) became less and less relevant/important.

What the kid learned by watching the puppy was that the puppy was determined to enjoy life and have fun, no matter what.  As the boy absorbed the puppy’s joie de vivre, he also noticed how the puppy’s stumbles and falls and momentary pain didn’t stop it from getting right up again — because the puppy was focused on normal puppy stuff:  he REALLY wanted to bounce around, explore, and engage the boy to play with him and the ball.  Its innocent enthusiasm for life warmed the boy’s heart.  The pup’s energetic intention to have fun and DO stuff is what warmed the boy’s heart, energized him, and got him up off the couch.

From a scientific point of view, those dynamics are biologically realistic.  We have learned that watching someone who is happy (or sad) influences our brains, and makes us happier or sadder.  We have “mirror cells” in certain parts of our brains that fire while we are moving an arm, wincing in pain, or crying with sadness — and those EXACT SAME CELLS fire while we are watching someone else do those things too.  Mirror cells are thought to be the source of the inner experience we call empathy — the deep understanding and connection with another living thing’s experience in the moment.

I re-watched the video after learning that it was created by a student team at an animation “college”.  Like some of you, I had failed to notice the missing leg at the same time the kid did.  This time I did see it.  Watching the kid’s and dog’s facial expressions more carefully the second time revealed how artfully they are done.  The dog’s expressions are almost a caricature of generic “enthusiastic puppy” with only two exceptions:  He does express pain one time when he really falls down hard, and he never communicates ANY sign of discouragement.

The really MASTERFUL animation is the human’s facial expressions.   In fact, that’s really the PROFOUND part of this video because his expressions are our window into the kid’s inner experience.  And those expressions are what trigger OUR mirror cells, the reason why WE are touched by what we see.

The transformation in the kid is gradual and we watch while it unfolds.  But, as a testament to the subtlety and power of the artist,  our intellectual understanding of what has happened arises mostly in retrospect after the “punch line”:  the surprise ending when he gets up and we hear, then see, his crutches and his own missing leg.

An original comic strip by Brazilian artist Fabio Coala entitled “Perfection” provided the basis for the video.  It has been translated into English.  The strip makes the kid’s thoughts more explicit.  He rejects the dog initially, saying that it is sick, he hates it, and the dog just exists to make people feel sorry for it.  In retrospect, after we see the last frame, we realize he was projecting his own situation onto the dog, reflecting his own bitter views about the meaning of his own life with a disability. The dog’s refusal to behave that way, to be sad or act pathetic, is what cracks open the kid’s thinking.

The comic strip has also had a profound impact on readers, one of whom spontaneously described what happened to him: “My eyes, they are leaking the salty water. .I am a disgusting mess…whose heart just grew ten times and fell out of my butt. I don’t know how that works but this comic isn’t allowing me to use the rest of my brain for thinking.”  That’s what mirror cells and empathy do for us — enable our “hearts” to feel on a much deeper level than our eyes can see.