Archives For Innovation

Using art to heal

June 30, 2015 — Leave a comment

Health factors2Because Health is Life, our lifestyles are just as important to our health as going to the doctor or taking our medicines. In a paper published June 30, 2015 in the Annals of Internal Medicine, a study looking at survey data found that half the heart disease deaths in the US from 2009-2010 were caused by 5 factors all of which can be modified through healthy behavior: smoking, obesity, high cholesterol, diabetes and high blood pressure. But many of these behaviors are difficult to change and are influenced by our families, our culture and our community.

This picture shows that clinical care by doctors and hospitals accounts for only about 20% of health outcomes. The picture comes from a project called County Health Rankings developed by the University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute (and supported by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation) that looks at health by county in the US. Addressing factors like cigarette smoking, income, education, employment, housing and clear air can help make communities healthier places to live.

We need to find ways to build healthier communities and the arts may be one way to accomplish this.

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N-of-1During my medical training, we were taught that if a patient responds to a treatment, it doesn’t necessarily mean that every patient will respond in the same way. The results in a single patient might be due to chance so it was important to look at the results of well-designed research studies before we could conclude that the treatment really worked.  In statistics, “N” refers to the sample size in an experiment so we referred to these individual observations as “N-of-1” experiments (and we did not look at them very favorably).

Unfortunately, there are lots of problems with research studies – they take a long time to complete, the patients in the studies are very carefully selected and may be very different from you, there is often bias in the way the results are interpreted, etc.

What if doctors and patients had tools that allowed them to design high-quality experiments specifically for the individual patient?

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microbiome2Remember in elementary school science class when we put samples of our hair and saliva in Petri dishes to see what grew? We even used cotton swabs to test the surfaces of our desks and bacteria grew in a few days. These experiments were designed to show us that we have lots of bacteria inside and on our bodies – and all around us. There are microbes (bacteria, viruses, fungi, etc.) everywhere in our “built environment” – the buildings we live and work in – as seen in this incredible animation.

Research suggests that the microbes in our guts play an important role in the development of disease. This collection of organisms, referred to as the microbiome (although technically the collection of organisms is called the microbiota and the genes of those organisms are called the microbiome), may play a role in the development of many diseases including diabetes, obesity, rheumatoid arthritis, asthma, allergies, Crohn’s disease, autism and cancer.

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Listen up

March 31, 2015 — Leave a comment

AudioLike millions of other people, I became hooked on “Serial”, the 12 episode podcast series that launched in late 2014 investigating the murder of a teenage girl in Baltimore in 1999 (that included phone conversations from prison with her personable ex-boyfriend who was convicted of the crime).

I don’t listen to a lot of podcasts but this was different. It was chatty, used a lot of personal stories and was the perfect thing to listen to while driving, walking or cooking. And I couldn’t wait for the next episode (nor could my 84-year-old mother or my 20-something daughters). Devoting over 10 hours to the program was not only easy but enjoyable. In the process we listeners also learned stuff – about the workings of the legal system, the nature of truth, the problems with first-hand accounts, the limitations of memory and much more.

It was like nothing I had ever experienced before and got me thinking about how we could use a similar strategy in healthcare.

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Health is life

January 30, 2015 — 1 Comment

Healthislife

When I was an infectious diseases specialist, most of the patients I saw were hospital inpatients but I also saw a few outpatients. They came to see me because of weeks or months of symptoms that their doctors couldn’t figure out and were often worried that they had a mysterious infection that was hard to diagnose. All of these patients had real symptoms – they were extremely tired, had headaches, muscle pains and sore throats. They generally arrived with stacks of medical records – numerous lab tests and notes from other doctors. I also noticed that many of them had serious “real life” problems – bad marriages, difficulties at work, housing problems, sick relatives and more. Perhaps they really did have an infection that I couldn’t find but I also began to wonder if their symptoms were caused by the stress.

My intuition was that many of these patients would benefit from speaking with a social worker, marriage counselor, psychologist, an expert in finding affordable housing or a financial planner. Unfortunately, these services were not part of our health care system. I suspected that many of my patients would get better if we were able to treat the whole patient, not just the symptoms.

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Research in real time

October 15, 2014 — Leave a comment

Big Data2This past week, I was reminded of the problem of fraud in medical research when the British courts ruled that the mother of a child with autism had lied about her child’s symptoms. The woman was a supporter of Dr. Andrew Wakefield, the British doctor who published studies connecting the Measles Mumps and Rubella – MMR – vaccine to autism based on “data” he made up.

Published medical studies, especially randomized controlled trials, remain the most reliable way for doctors to make treatment decisions. But, in addition to fraud, there are many other problems with medical research studies including the fact that they cost a lot of money to perform and take a long time to complete. An even bigger problem is that research studies have not been done for most of the questions that doctors and patients want answered. And even if there is a relevant published study, the people in the study may be very different from you.

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OurSuccess_Updated_20140808-480pxWhat if hospitals worked together to improve the care they deliver to patients with a particular disease (instead of competing with each other)? What if these hospitals considered patients and families their teachers and members of their teams? I’ve written before about the magic of the ImproveCareNow (ICN) network but even I am amazed at how quickly the interest in patients and parents as partners has grown within the network.

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Parents as partners

March 21, 2014 — 2 Comments

ICN-SuccessReportCard-20140310-480pxImagine a group of medical centers that share ideas and borrow from each other in order to improve the quality of the care they deliver. Imagine care teams where doctors, nurses, nutritionists, other health professionals and researchers work side by side with pediatric patients and their parents to figure out the best ways to deliver care. Imagine a healthcare conference where patients and parents are the teachers with doctors listening attentively and asking questions.

I just returned from the ImproveCareNow Spring Learning Session where I saw all of this firsthand. ImproveCareNow (ICN) is a network of 64 (65 as of yesterday) care centers whose mission is to

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As I begin my 4th year interviewing prospective medical students, I am reminded of how challenging it is to figure out which applicants will possess all of the characteristics that I would want in my own doctor.

There is little question that we need to rethink the way we educate medical students to meet the needs of a changing healthcare system. Medicine is no longer a paternalistic practice where the doctor tells the patient what to do. Not only are patients becoming more empowered to participate in the own care, but they also have information at their fingertips about their own conditions and can access online discussion groups to talk with other patients about their shared experiences. The blog Wing of Zock looks at innovative ways to redesign medical education.

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Care teamWhen I was in clinical practice as an infectious diseases specialist, most of my patients were very sick and hospitalized but I saw a small number of outpatients as well. They were often people who had nonspecific complaints and were convinced that they had a chronic infection that their doctors were missing. They often arrived with numerous records – laboratory tests results, x-ray reports and consultation letters from other doctors.

While it is certainly possible that these patients had an infectious disease that we don’t know about yet or that I had missed, many of them had significant stress in their lives – housing issues, trouble with their children or spouses, difficulites at work, etc. There is a lot of evidence that stress can lead to serious health issues including heart attacks.

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