Archive for the ‘Women’s Issues’ Category

For several years now, I’ve been the social media curmudgeon in medicine. In a 2011 New York Times op-ed titled “Don’t Quit This Day Job”, I argued that working part-time or leaving medicine goes against our obligation to patients and to the American taxpayers who subsidize graduate medical education to the tune of $15 billion per year.

But today, eight years after the passage of the Affordable Care Act, I’m more sympathetic to the physicians who are giving up on medicine by cutting back on their work hours or leaving the profession altogether. Experts cite all kinds of reasons for the malaise in American medicine:  burnout, user-unfriendly electronic health records, declining pay, loss of autonomy. I think the real root cause lies in our country’s worsening anti-intellectualism.

People emigrated to this country to escape oppression by the well-educated upper classes, and as a nation we never got past it. Many Americans have an ingrained distrust of “eggheads”. American anti-intellectualism propelled the victory of Dwight Eisenhower over Adlai Stevenson – twice – and probably helped elect Bill Clinton, George Bush, and Donald Trump.

Don’t make the mistake of thinking that American anti-intellectualism today is exclusive to religious fundamentalists and poorly educated people in rural areas. Look at the prevalence of unvaccinated children in some of America’s most affluent neighborhoods, correlating with the location of Whole Foods stores and pricey private schools. Their parents trust Internet search results over science and medical advice.

Remember when physicians were heroes?

For a long time, physicians were exempt from America’s anti-intellectual disdain because people respected their knowledge and superhuman work ethic. The public wanted doctors to be heroes and miracle workers. The years of education and impossibly long hours were part of the legend, and justified physician prestige and financial rewards. Popular TV series in the ‘60s and ‘70s lionized the dedication of Ben Casey, Marcus Welby, Dr. Kildare, and Hawkeye Pierce. In real life, heart surgeons Michael DeBakey, who performed the first coronary bypass operation in 1964, and Christiaan Barnard, who performed the first heart transplant in 1967, became famous worldwide.

But over the next decades, greater opportunities for women to enter medicine coincided with a decline in public respect for physicians. Though many women in medical school and residency worked just as hard as men — or harder — to prove themselves, the money and prestige didn’t follow. Women physicians working full-time today earn an average 28 percent less than men, a gender wage gap that persists across specialties.

Could it be that the anti-intellectual tradition in America tolerates highly educated men in the doctor’s role, but can’t quite stomach giving the same respect and pay to highly educated women? Nearly everyone has heard of the Apgar score for assessing the health of newborn babies, but how many people know that Virginia Apgar, who developed it in 1952, was a physician?

Less formality, less respect

Even as more women entered the medical profession, other social trends dimmed the public image of physician infallibility. The tragic Libby Zion case in 1984, in which exhausted residents made a series of errors resulting in the death of the 18-year-old college freshman, prompted the first-ever law to limit resident work hours.

While Depression-era parents raised the “baby-boomer” generation to work hard without questioning it, their grandchildren in Generation X demanded extended parental leave, shorter work days, and more vacation time. “Work-life balance” became their mantra. Workplaces everywhere became more informal and dress codes more casual.

Patients and hospital staff began to address physicians by their first names. (As a Baylor medical student, I would have loved to see the fallout if anyone in the operating room at Methodist Hospital had addressed Dr. DeBakey as “Mike”.) Younger physicians, especially women, went along with it so they wouldn’t seem elitist or unfriendly; they started answering their phones saying, “This is Emma,” instead of  “This is Dr. Smith.” It should come as no surprise that the line between physician and non-physician “care providers” began to blur.

The trap of “evidence-based medicine”

The concept of “evidence-based medicine” gained traction, mandating that every disease and procedure must be managed according to a standardized set of guidelines. Never mind that science evolves, and that early research findings often don’t pan out in large-scale studies. Forget that some published research proves to be fraudulent or tainted by conflict of interest. Ignore the fact that a protocol that works well for one disease may be exactly the wrong treatment for another, and that many patients have multiple diseases.

Individual physician judgment today is presumed wrong if it defies a standardized protocol. Compliance with checklists is viewed as proof of quality care. Ezekiel Emanuel, one of the architects of the Affordable Care Act, has even suggested that medical training be cut by 30 percent, as he believes healthcare by protocol makes all that book-learning unnecessary. In this view, all “providers” are interchangeable pawns.

Today, young physicians start their careers in a world where their advancement and pay may depend on patient satisfaction surveys, and the Internet fuels distrust of medical advice. They spend their days functioning as data-entry clerks, with more face-time in front of a computer than with patients. Innovation is stifled. Their clinical decisions are reviewed for compliance with protocols, and their hospitals are run by administrators for whom the delivery of healthcare quickly and cheaply is the main objective. They fear replacement by mid-level “providers” who can be trained to follow a protocol without question.

Today’s medical students and residents see the dissatisfaction all around them, and they note the growing number of physicians who want to change careers. Many look for pathways out of clinical care from the start of their training, obtaining additional degrees — in public health, information technology, bioengineering, or business administration — that can lead to creative careers outside medicine. Some young physicians turn away from clinical care to become entrepreneurs, designing smartphone apps or using mobile vans to deliver IV therapy for hangovers.

The dystopian future

American anti-intellectualism is growing worse. Our national inability to debate political issues with reason rather than emotion is a symptom of this disease. So is the distrust of higher education and of experts in every field including medicine. I wonder every day if we are being honest with college students about the future when we encourage them to apply to medical school.

The Association of American Medical Colleges predicts a shortage of up to 120,000 physicians in 2030, both in primary care and specialties. A third of currently practicing physicians will be older than 65 within ten years. They’ll be retiring soon, and too many young physicians already are looking for an exit strategy. Even if we train more physicians, if the malaise in American medicine doesn’t get better we won’t keep them in clinical practice.

Unless something changes, we may find ourselves in a dystopian future with only 10 physicians who spend all their time in Washington writing “evidence-based” protocols, while people without the education to realize the full implications of what they’re doing will decide at your bedside which protocol applies to you. Are you feeling lucky?

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.

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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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