Archive for the ‘Women’s Issues’ Category

This article appeared first in “The Conversation” on April 25, 2018, under the title “Why it’s so hard for doctors to understand your pain”. 

We’re all human beings, but we’re not all alike.

Each person experiences pain differently, from an emotional perspective as well as a physical one, and responds to pain differently. That means that physicians like myself need to evaluate patients on an individual basis and find the best way to treat their pain.

Today, however, doctors are under pressure to limit costs and prescribe treatments based on standardized guidelines. A major gap looms between the patient’s experience of pain and the limited “one size fits all” treatment that doctors may offer.

Concerns about the opioid epidemic make the problem worse. Opioids – including heroin and fentanyl – killed more than 42,000 people in the U.S. in 2016. Four in 10 of these deaths involved prescription painkillers such as hydrocodone and oxycodone. Physicians are increasingly reluctant to prescribe opioids for pain, fearing government scrutiny or malpractice lawsuits.

Where does this leave the patient whose experience of pain is outside the norm? How can physicians in all specialties identify these patients and do our best to manage their pain, even when their needs don’t match our expectations or experience?

Pain differences

Some pain is a natural part of healing. But that pain can vary depending on who is experiencing it.

Let’s start with a question that for years perplexed physicians who specialize in anesthesiology: Do redheads require more anesthesia than other patients? Anecdotally, many anesthesiologists thought they did, but few took the question seriously.

Finally, a study examined women with naturally red hair compared to women with naturally dark hair when under standardized general anesthesia. Sure enough, most of the red-haired women required significantly more anesthesia before they didn’t react in response to a harmless but unpleasant electric shock. DNA analysis shows that nearly all redheads have distinct mutations in the melanocortin-1 receptor gene, which is the likely source of the difference in pain experiences.

Cultural norms also can determine how different groups of people react to pain. In the U.S., for instance, boys playing sports and young men in military training traditionally have been encouraged to act stoically and “shake it off” when hurt, while it has been more socially acceptable for girls and women to react emotionally in comparable circumstances. As a result, medical personnel may subconsciously take male complaints of pain more seriously, assuming that a man must be in severe pain if he’s complaining at all.

Many people believe that women’s pain is consistently undertreated, and often blamed on “hormones” or “nerves.” Women more commonly suffer from fibromyalgia, autoimmune diseases including lupus and inflammatory arthritis, and migraine headaches, among other painful conditions that can be hard to control. Recently, research has identified genetic explanations for why these conditions strike women more often than men.

More women than men had at least one prescription for opioids filled in 2016. Though women are less likely to die of opioid overdose, they may become dependent on prescription opioids more quickly than men.

Race and ethnicity, too, can play a role in the experience of pain. The unequal treatment of pain, even cancer-related pain, among minority patients is part of the tragic legacy of racial discrimination in the U.S. In 2009, a major review article concluded that “racial and ethnic disparities in acute pain, chronic cancer pain, and palliative pain care continue to persist.” For example, minority patients who presented to emergency departments with abdominal pain are 22 to 30 percent less likely to receive analgesic medications than white patients with similar complaints.

In spite of research showing that non-Hispanic white patients show less sensitivity to pain than do black patients and patients of Hispanic ancestry, these inequities persist. The stereotype of the stoic Northern European patient may have a basis in genetics more than personality. The minority patients demonstrated a lower threshold for experiencing pain and a lower tolerance for acute pain, suggesting that they need more medication for adequate pain relief.

The hope of genetic research

My guess is that the next decades will bring an explosion in research illuminating the genetic mechanisms behind pain experiences. Genetic differences can help explain why some patients develop certain diseases while others, exposed to the same environmental factors, never do. Some patients undoubtedly are more sensitive to pain from the start than others, based on genetic factors that the medical community doesn’t yet understand.

At UCLA, where I work, the Institute for Precision Health obtains a sample of blood from nearly every surgical patient. By analyzing each patient’s genetic data, we hope to explain why patients often respond so differently after the same type of surgery, injury or illness.

Furthermore, chronic pain is associated with long-lasting changes in gene expression in the central nervous system. Simply put, the experience of pain changes a patient’s nervous system at the molecular level. These changes are linked to behavioral expressions of pain. Emotional factors – including a history of previous traumatic stress or depression – increase the chances that a patient will become dependent on opioids after experiencing pain.

The best physicians can do in the short term is to respect what patients tell us and try to gain insight into any of our own biases that could lead us to underestimate a patient’s experience of pain.

Avoiding #metoo in medicine

Let me say first that any woman who has ever been harassed or assaulted should NEVER be made to feel that it is her fault. It is always the perpetrator’s fault. Men can be boors, or worse, and testosterone can be toxic.

I went to Princeton University at a time when the ratio of men to women was 8:1, graduated from medical school in the 1980s, and raised two daughters. I’ve had ample reason and plenty of time to think about strategies to deal with harassment, parry a verbal thrust, and maneuver out of a potentially humiliating or harmful situation.

We’re lucky in medicine that we have intellectual qualifications — board scores, professional degrees — that are our primary entryway into medical school and residency programs. We’re not being judged PRIMARILY on our looks. Yet many social media comments recently have underscored the fact that some women in medicine have endured ridicule, harassment, and even assault in the course of their careers. It makes sense to explore any tactic that can help other women avoid similar painful encounters.

Here are some tips — learned through long experience. My hope is that they might help younger women in medicine feel less like potential victims, and more like strategists in a behavioral chess game.

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How reporter Jan Hoffman and the New York Times manage to insult female physicians and get their facts about anesthesia so wrong all at the same time.

My husband and I, both anesthesiologists, enjoy our Sunday mornings together — coffee, the New York Times, a leisurely breakfast. No rush to arrive in the operating room before many people are even awake.

Today, though, seeing reporter Jan Hoffman’s front-page article in the Times — “Staying Awake for Your Surgery?” — was enough to take the sparkle out of the sugar. Her article on how much better it is to be awake than asleep for surgery reminded me why I left a plum job as a reporter for The Wall Street Journal to go to medical school — because reporters have to do a quick, superficial job of covering complex issues. They aren’t experts, but seldom admit it.

Physician anesthesiologists across the country are likely to face patients on Monday morning who wonder if they ought to be awake for their surgery. The answer to that question may well be “no”. But according to Ms. Hoffman, that answer reflects “physician paternalism”, and makes us opponents of the “patient autonomy movement”, because a patient should have the right to choose to be awake.

It’s not that simple.

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It’s amazing how quickly my role switched from physician to patient, thanks to a silent assailant: osteoporosis.

I went to the gym in the morning before work 12 days ago, as I often do now that my children are all grown up and out of the house. First, a couple of light sets of leg exercises served as a warm-up, and then I started a set with a barbell on my shoulders. I’ve been doing weight training for years, since my mother suffered badly from osteoporosis and I knew I was at risk. Weight training, along with calcium and Vitamin D, can help maintain bone density.

The weight was average for me, and I was halfway through my second set of 12 repetitions when suddenly there was a loud noise, like a sharp crack or pop, that people in the gym heard 10 feet away. I felt my mid-spine collapse downward what seemed like an inch, accompanied by sharp pain. The trainer grabbed the weight, helped me lie down, and called my husband.

I did a quick self-assessment.

Can I move everything? Check.

Is anything numb? No.

Can I do a straight leg raise without more pain? Yes.

This confirmed that I didn’t have any spinal cord injury and probably didn’t have a herniated disk. The most likely diagnosis was a spinal compression fracture, which turned out to be exactly what happened.

Off to the emergency room

My husband insisted on driving immediately to the emergency room, which gave me a little time to reflect.

By coincidence, September is “Pain Awareness Month”, and I had been wanting to write a piece in support of the American Chronic Pain Association and the American Society of Anesthesiologists‘ recognition of pain as an endemic problem. Chronic pain ruins lives, and inappropriate treatment of pain with narcotics too often leads to addiction, overdose, and death.

But what to write?? I treat acute pain in my daily work as a physician anesthesiologist looking after patients in the immediate recovery timeframe, right after surgery. Sometimes I take Aleve for a headache, but that’s about it. Now, of course, it seemed much likelier that I would have a story to tell.

Luckily for me, the Cedars-Sinai Medical Center emergency room was relatively quiet at 6 a.m. The staff whisked me off to X-ray, and the technician quickly took supine and lateral films. He said, kindly, “Ma’am, I’m not a doctor, but it looks to me like you have a compression fracture.” He printed out the films for me to see, and of course he was right. A nurse gave me some morphine, which eased the pain considerably, and then it was time to consider next steps.

Conservative treatment or intervention?

My fracture was at the level of the 12th thoracic vertebra or “T12”, the commonest site for compression fractures. This is hardly a rare problem. One in four American women will have a vertebral compression fracture during her lifetime, and men can suffer them too. The most common cause is osteoporosis, a condition in which bone loss over time results in weak, brittle bones.

The emergency room physician ordered a CT scan to see the extent of the fracture in more precise detail, and to see whether or not any bone fragments were endangering the spinal cord. Then he called a neurosurgeon, Dr. Khawar Siddique, to see me.

The neurosurgeon outlined treatment options. Basically, there were three:

Conservative treatment: a back brace, pain medications, and 6-8 weeks of rest, with gradual mobilization;

Surgery: thoracic fusion;

Kyphoplasty: a less invasive procedure to stabilize the fractured vertebra.

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Did it ever occur to some of today’s physicians that many people work awfully hard and complain a lot less than they do about “burnout” and “work-life balance”?

Did it ever occur to them that “work-life balance” is the very definition of a first-world problem, unique to a very privileged class of highly educated people, most of whom are white?

Every day, I go to work and see the example of the nurses and technicians who work right alongside me in tough thoracic surgery cases. Zanetta, for instance, is the single mother of five children. She leaves her 12-hour shift at 7 p.m. and then faces a 60-mile commute to get home. She never complains, and unfailingly takes the extra moment to get a warm blanket for a patient or cheerfully help out a colleague. When I leave work, I see the gardeners who arrive in battered pickup trucks and mow lawns in the Los Angeles summer heat for slim pay and no benefits. I can’t imagine these people wasting time worrying about work-life balance. They’re too busy working.

Or look at what it’s like to work in one of the world’s top restaurants. Edward Frame, now a graduate student in social research, described his first job in a Michelin-starred kitchen for an article in the New York Times.

“I worked in a small alcove, connected to the dishwasher,” he wrote. “Glass racks came out, I wiped away any watermarks or smudges, and then, just as I finished one rack, another appeared. This went on for hours, like some kind of Sisyphean fable revised for the hospitality industry. By hour two my fingers hurt and my back ached. But I couldn’t stop. The racks kept coming. Slowing down never occurred to me. There wasn’t time. I needed to make it nice. I wanted to make it nice.”

Let’s face it—a lot of people have jobs much worse than being a physician. Apparently, they don’t expect to be coddled or to receive much sympathy about their rate of burnout, or their lack of “work-life balance”. Nor do they expect that workplace expectations will be altered just to suit them.

I can’t imagine having the gall to complain about how tough it is to be a physician when all you have to do is open your eyes and see what’s all around us:  people working incredibly hard, making far less money than we do, and then returning home to face the responsibilities of family life, child care, housework, home maintenance, and everything else.

We—physicians—thankfully can afford help with these tasks. The Medscape Physician Compensation Report for 2015 reported that the average compensation for a primary care physician was $195,000 and for a specialist $284,000.

When I was a new faculty member making an instructor’s salary right after residency, it’s true that I didn’t have a lot of take-home pay left after I made monthly payments for student loans, private pre-school for two children, housecleaning help, and a full-time nanny to provide transportation and after-school care. The full-time nanny was essential because a child with a bad cold or an upset stomach needs to stay home, and a physician can’t drop everything to stay home too. These were investments that my husband and I made because we felt that being a physician is important work.

But in medicine, the prevailing wisdom today is that the rigorous culture of the past needs to change—along with the expectation of dedication to duty, long work hours, and stoicism—because it’s all just too difficult and we risk getting burned out.

Now Stanford University has started a new “time-banking” program designed to ease pressure on faculty physicians and basic science professors. As admiringly described by reporter Brigid Schulte in the Washington Post, the program allows faculty members to “bank” hours that they spend on uncompensated activities such as committee work and earn credits to use for support services at home or work.

Dr. Gregory Gilbert, an emergency physician who was the poster child for the Post article, used his credits for delivery of meals to his home, housecleaning services, and employing a “life coach” to help him “find better balance in his life”.

Wait just a minute. I’m sure that Dr. Gilbert is a good person—a divorced father trying to be a conscientious physician and spend time with his children. He must be a smart guy if he’s on the faculty at Stanford. Do you mean to tell me that Dr. Gilbert couldn’t figure out how to order food delivery and arrange for housecleaning before Stanford came up with this program?

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