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Demystifying Medicine One Week at a Time

Category: health disparities (page 1 of 5)

Match Day 2017

Click on the link below to see an essay from NPR on learning from and working with foreign medical graduates.

All in honor of St. Patrick’s Day, which this year is also Match Day — when medical students learn where they will match for residency — the next chapter in their training.

Health is More than Health Care

When we think about achieving good health, it’s natural to think of visits to the doctor for “checkups” and age-appropriate interventions like vaccinations or cancer screening.

But here’s something you might not know: The “health care system” as we know it, an American industry on which we collectively spend $3 trillion annually, only accounts for one-fifth of our overall health.

Twenty percent? How can so much spending impact so relatively little of our well-being?

 

Well, it turns out other factors collectively have a much greater impact:

 

Genetics: To whom we are born impacts our health profoundly. If our parents are blessed with long, healthy lives, then we are much more likely to be, too.

 

Education: The better our education, individually and collectively, the more we can achieve in life. Education is tied to income (something we all know), but it also correlates directly to health outcomes in aggregate. Cutting investments in common and higher education is sabotaging our children’s future — not just in earning potential, but in real health: more suffering and earlier death.

 

Employment: The ability to earn a living wage means that people can be financially solvent and participate in the consumer economy. Given a choice, almost no one would choose handouts. People want meaningful work — work that employs our skills and engages our minds.

 

A diverse economy that grows new businesses means more job opportunities that not only pay the bills but allow us to invest in our families, homes, and communities.

 

Environment: It’s well known that those residing in certain Tulsa ZIP codes have life spans on average 11 years less than those in more affluent parts of the city (This difference has actually lessened from 14 years over the last decade.) Mayor G.T. Bynum has made reducing this disparity one of his administration’s central goals, as celebrated in a recent editorial in this newspaper.

 

We also know that when our neighborhoods are safer, we increase the likelihood that we will move our bodies more — which along with nutrition is the single greatest predictor of good health.

 

And of course: Nutrition! Access to healthy food and safe water is something that most of us take for granted. But many areas north, east and west of downtown Tulsa are literal food deserts — places with greater than two-mile gaps between locations where fresh fruits and vegetables can be purchased. And our Tulsa public transportation options barely ease this burden.

 

Nutrition and exercise are the two health determinants over which we have the most direct individual control. (How are you doing with those New Year’s resolutions so far?)

 

We can’t choose our parents, or therefore our genetics. But collectively, if we are in agreement that we want Tulsa to be a place of improving health, we do have a lot of say in how we manage our neighborhoods, our food supplies and our educational attainment.

 

At the University of Oklahoma-University of Tulsa School of Community Medicine the curriculum emphasizes study and advocacy of these so-called social determinants of health — beyond the “traditional” organ-based pathologies. We believe that interdisciplinary understanding of these factors — which can lead to exorbitant stress — will help to reduce the burden of ill health in our population as we age.

 

Tulsa has an opportunity to become a “Blue Zones” city like Shawnee and Fort Worth, Texas, recent cities that have contracted with Healthways to make structural changes to spur better health. The Blue Zones idea comes from the discovery of the five places in the world where citizens live the healthiest and longest lives because of exercise (walking most places), nutrition (more plant-based diets), and social connectedness.

 

We have the ingredients here in Tulsa to take on such a challenge, and working through the updated Community Health Improvement Plan that will soon be released by the Tulsa Health Department, we can all choose to live healthier lives — both individually and as a community.

 

Amazingly, we can do all of this regardless of our need to interact with our “health care system.”

 

Note: This essay appeared as an op-ed in today’s Tulsa World

Gleaning up after Thanksgiving

food-bank-frontWith the holiday season upon us, our thoughts often turn to those in need — of food, clothing and shelter.

I recently attended the Oklahoma Food Security Summit and was struck by a presentation about the practice known as gleaning, a term I’d never heard before.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture defines gleaning “as the act of collecting excess fresh foods from farms, gardens, farmers’ markets, grocers, restaurants….or any other sources, in order to provide it to those in need.”

In other words, getting food that would otherwise go to waste to those in need. This is how many food banks originated.

I interviewed Katie Plohocky, co-founder and director of Tulsa’s Healthy Community Store Initiative about one of its programs called “Hands 2 Harvest,” which is a gleaning effort for much of Tulsa.

In a nutshell Plohocky gathers volunteers to go to local farms and harvest crops that would otherwise be left to rot or plowed under because of minor blemishes or lack of farm labor. She then either sells this produce in her mobile grocery or distributes it to the Community Food Bank of Eastern Oklahoma or other local food pantries.

One of the things Katie and I discussed was how food distribution often is misaligned between food available and folks’ needs. Seems like there should be an app for that…

Also because of the season, the ever-reliable Oklahoma Policy Institute posted this video debunking myths about food insecurity. Great minds, as they say…

A New Hero

I have a new hero. Her name is Mona Hanna-Attisha, MD, MPH.

monahannaattishaDr. Hanna-Attisha is a pediatrician in Flint, Michigan. She grew up in a suburb of Detroit. She graduated from the University of Michigan before attending medical school at Michigan State University. During her clinical years (the 3rd and 4th years of medical school), she spent many months at Hurley Medical Center in Flint, which serves as a clinical training site for MSU medical students (far from the flagship campus — something I can relate to).

As you may know from recent news, Flint has had some problems — especially due to an overabundance of lead in its drinking water.

For cost-saving reasons, the city of Flint switched the source of its drinking water from the Detroit system to the Flint River in April 2014. Almost immediately residents of the town began noticing the water looked, smelled, and tasted different. It took nearly a year and half for both state and federal officials to acknowledge that there was too much lead in the Flint water — repeatedly questioning the evidence that it was so.

That’s where our new hero comes in.

Dr. Hanna-Attisha directs a pediatric residency training program at Hurley. There are 190 pediatric residency training programs in the United States, training in total about 2600 pediatricians every year.

I can relate to this part of her job — my most recent role was directing an Internal Medicine residency. Though the medical issues are different (kids vs. adults), residency program directors have three essential jobs: recruiting medical school graduates, charting the learning curriculum, and making sure the program stays accredited.

Program Directors become role models for trainees. We try to inspire and motivate residents, offering career and life advice during what is a demanding three year training curriclum.

On top of clearly being good at this role for her residents (7 per class for a total of 20 or so residents), Dr. Hanna-Attisha uses her MPH training to do science — in this particular case epidemiology.

She combed through records at her medical center and discovered that lead levels measured in children’s blood in Flint (as part of routine pediatric care) had on average nearly doubled since the time of the water source switch. Though her claims were at first disputed by state officials, Dr. Hanna-Attisha kept at it, talking to parents, hospital leadership, and advocating with state and federal officials.

In the end, the simple elegance of her team’s science got the message across. The story has now received national attention, including the declaration of a federally-recognized ‘State of Emergency’ in Flint over its water supply.

I was researching Dr. Hanna-Attisha, and came across this TED-like talk she gave at a Michigan State College of Medicine event in 2014. It predates the Flint water story, but it shows her to be a dedicated public servant — not only committed to her trainees and her patients, but beyond that to questioning the very core of what makes people unhealthy: the social determinants of health.

Take a look and let me know what you think.

Being Black and a Doctor in America

Imagine you’ve a new medical student. You’re trying to prove yourself among your professors and your peers. You dress the part, you work hard, and early on you start feeling like you can do it.

Then one morning as you enter the lecture hall, the professor says, “Oh — you’re here to fix the lights. What took you so long?”tweedybook

You turn around, thinking he can’t be talking to you. But there’s no one behind you. He has simply assumed that you’ve come to answer his maintenance request, because of the color of your skin.

Now imagine you’re a resident, a doctor-in-training, working in hospitals to diagnose and treat patients at all hours of day and night. You enter a cubicle in the Emergency Department to evaluate your next patient, and he blurts out, “I don’t want no n**ger doctor.” Welcome to the profession.

Such are the experiences of many African-American medical students and doctors in the U.S. Not only must minority medical students excel with the content of medical science, they must develop strategies for coping with people’s pre-conceived notions about them based on their race.

A new memoir by one black doctor, Damon Tweedy, recounts his journey through these travails to become a faculty member in psychiatry at Duke University.

I was fortunate enough to interview Dr. Tweedy recently, and I found him to be just like the self he presents in the book — thoughtful, warm-hearted, and very open and engaging. His memoir is an excellent read, one that I would strongly recommend to anyone thinking about joining the health care field — or anyone who likes memoir, recent U.S. history, or the study of race relations.

His book has generated reviews in major news sources, and while all of them laud his candor and writing, some criticize Dr. Tweedy for not fully addressing the policy questions surrounding the dearth of blacks (particularly black males) in the medical profession. I think this is an unfair criticism, because in telling his story, Tweedy moves the discussion forward and teaches Americans not in the medical profession something that the folks in charge of medical education already know.

Tweedy’s book will move us forward in creating more inclusivity in Medicine. It’s incumbent on all of us in health and education to think through ways of improving this imbalance.

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