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Demystifying Medicine One Month at a Time

Category: patient safety (page 1 of 6)

# This is Our Lane

Dr. Judy Melinek

The American College of Physicians recently released an updated position paper on “Reducing Firearm Injuries and Deaths from Gun Violence in the United States.”

The College’s recommendations center around the notion that gun violence should be treated as a public health epidemic, and that it’s well within the purview of doctors and other health professionals to ask their patients about firearms—namely, do you own them, and if so, are they safely stored? Are they kept in a place where your children can’t get to them?

This makes sense to me, but I’m a doctor. I don’t hunt, nor have I ever owned a gun.

The College’s position makes some very uncomfortable—it’s not a medical issue, they say. This is about personal behavior. Choice. Individual rights.

The NRA sent a tweet in response to the position paper:

Told to “stay in our lane,” doctors have loudly declared #ThisisOurLane, and now have a Twitter handle and thousands upon thousands of tweets stating that it’s medical professionals who care for gunshot victims. Many sent pictures of themselves spattered with blood from taking care of gunshot victims in emergency rooms and operating suites.

One doctor, a forensic pathologist and medical examiner in Oakland, tweeted back to the NRA:

Understandably, Dr. Melinek’s tweet went viral, and she was interviewed the world over—from Africa to Australia—even on Amanpour.

Dr. Melinek was kind enough to speak with me—our interview occurred recently for #MedicalMonday on KWGS-Public Radio Tulsa, and drew a tremendous response.

Like Dr. Melinek, I find it frustrating that the NRA’s strong advocacy has had such a chilling effect on research into gun safety and gun violence in the U.S.

Shutting down attempts to gather more detailed information is a bully tactic of someone or something afraid of truth. How can people make informed decisions without really knowing the effects of gun ownership and use?

Advocate for gun rights all you want. But let the research be done.

Questioning a Health Care Sacred Cow

If you’ve worked in U.S. health care for any length of time, you’ve no doubt lived through a period of impending ‘inspection’ by the Joint Commission at your hospital or health care organization. Stress levels amongst all staff inevitably rise in the runup.

Everyone needs to look sharp, have their protocols down, and most importantly, where to find organizational policy information if it’s not available by quick memory retrieval.

One of the 800 lb. gorillas of the U.S. health care world, the JC (as it’s known) audits, inspects and accredits nearly twenty-one thousand U.S. health care enterprises.

I was always under the impression that the JC had a complete monopoly in its market–that is, if your health care organization wanted to be accredited (the vital ‘seal of approval’ for your organization’s public relations and safety standards, but also key for reimbursement through CMS) than you had to play ball with them.

In 2012, one of the hospitals at which I worked decided to go in a different direction, choosing instead to work with the accrediting agency DNV, which has its origins in the world of Norwegian shipping. For real. As in, ocean liners need a ton of regulation and safety standards so that they don’t run into each other and sink. We’re always comparing health care to airlines, right? Maybe it’s not such a big stretch after all.

Like most of my physician colleagues who’d lived through years of JC audits, we were a bit flabbergasted: “You mean the JC actually has competition?” As it turns out, the JC only controls a mere 80% of the market. Turns out it’s only a 785 lb. gorilla.

Even though this whole issue is a little bit “inside baseball,” I wrote an essay about it for NPR. My reasoning was that there’s always value in questioning monolithic conformity. And I had been really surprised to learn that there was actually competition to the JC.

Now comes a study in BMJ, led by Harvard researcher Ashish Jha. The study compared more than 4000 U.S. hospitals and the outcomes generated for 15 common medical conditions and six common surgical conditions between the years 2014-2017 in a Medicare population data set of more than four million patients.

What did the study find?

Interestingly, there was no statistical difference in 30-day mortality or readmission rates in the patients that were seen at JC-accredited hospitals vs. those at hospitals accredited by ‘other independent organizations.’ There was a slight but not statistically significant benefit in mortality and readmission rates for JC-accreditation vs. hospitals reviewed and accredited by state survey agencies.

The study raises the reasonable question: if there aren’t patient outcome differences in hospitals accredited by JC vs. those accredited by either state review (government) or other independent agencies (other privates), then should the JC enjoy such a massive industry dominance?

After all–many health care leaders cite the JC’s regulatory and inspection processes as burdensome, and argue that the whole preparation game and citation-fixing business is expensive and distracting from the core hospital mission: taking care of people.

Other JC critics cite the fact that the organization is less than optimally transparent, electing to keep its inspection reports private, despite the fact that many health care enterprises flagged for violations are able to stay accredited.

Congress has even begun an investigation into possible lax oversight.

Apparently Jha’s work has struck a chord, as there was some notable media coverage about the BMJ piece. For one, the Wall Street Journal ran a story about it, which it kept in front of its paywall, while noting that hospitals pay on average $18,000 for an inspection and annual fees of up to $37,000 to the Commission.

Cardiologist and prolific blogger John Mandrola also wrote an opinion piece titled “Joint Commission Accreditation: Mission Not Accomplished.” In his piece, Mandrola compares JC accreditation to medications or surgery that fail to live up to evidence-based standards and subsequently fall out of practice. He concludes, “If the JC’s brand of accreditation can’t show benefit, than it too needs to be de-adopted.”

Having learned that there’s an emerging marketplace of agencies equipped to inspect hospitals and health care enterprises it seems there’s an opportunity here: Perhaps the agency offering the greatest value in terms of cost, reporting, and public accountability will triumph against a behemoth that seems too complacent and entrenched in its ways.

Medical Marijuana: Not Up to the Standard

This year Oklahoma voters made a clear choice to legalize medical marijuana, joining thirty other states that permit cannabis for medicinal use.

Unsurprisingly, immediately in the vote’s aftermath, patients began asking me to ‘prescribe’ medical marijuana licenses, as the new law stipulates users must have as a precondition for legal purchase. The new law does not, however, specify qualifying diagnoses for which medical marijuana might be clinically indicated.

My answer thus far has been, “Not now. Likely never.”

This has not been a popular response. One patient looked at me as if I’d put a lump of coal in his Halloween bag.

I’m not a fan of medical marijuana for several reasons. The main issue is the lack of proven medical efficacy. I know there are thousands of anecdotes from people whose pain or anorexia has been diminished by marijuana–and I’m genuinely glad for them. But I’d like to see better powered controlled trials of cannabis products head-to-head with accepted therapeutic agents. Having the FDA weigh in on marijuana’s safety and efficacy would also go a long way toward legitimizing pot’s medicinal use.

Another major problem is smoking the stuff. If we had proven, standardized dosing of edibles, I’d be more supportive of medicinal use. But smoking anything–tobacco, marijuana, vapor juice–is not a healthy practice, and one I counsel patients to avoid. I hear the arguments about the purity of pot and how it’s ‘more natural’ than manufactured tobacco products. The bottom line is that inhaling burning plant matter into your lungs is a terrible idea–regardless of the herb.

If voters want to legalize marijuana for recreational use, I have no objection–provided we put in place a legal framework to make sure that people don’t get hurt. Standardized dosing and measures to assure product consistency would be integral. And we’d need adequate enforcement to make sure that people aren’t impaired when at work or in other situations in which their marijuana use could jeopardize others.

Putting doctors in the middle of what amounts to a political, legal, social, and economic debate steers the medical profession in a race to the bottom–and let’s face it–our profession has enough problems already without being the gatekeepers of grass.

Remember that marijuana is still scheduled by the Drug Enforcement Administration as a Class I narcotic, defined as having “no accepted medical use and high potential for abuse.” So even though medical weed is now legal in my state, I have no interest in violating or abetting violations of federal law.

In fact, as it turns out, since I work at a university, our legal counsel is of the opinion that no provider in our system shall recommend marijuana, since our institution has numerous federal grants and funding streams and must therefore comply with all federal rules and regulations.

Some have suggested that given our national opioid epidemic, marijuana can serve as a safer alternative for pain control. Since most cannabis is homegrown, and where legalized a tax revenue source–this does make medical marijuana a more appealing alternative to propping up the seemingly ubiquitous heroin/fentanyl drug cartels.

This argument makes pot part of a harm reduction strategy, which I’d be more supportive of if the evidence were stronger.

Right now I see the pot economy as a Wild West with hundreds of entrepreneurs and medical professionals looking to stake claims in this new quasi-legal economy.

Get back to me when we have more state/federal legal congruence and clarity on the stuff’s true medical benefits.

This essay originally appeared as a Doximity Op-(m)ed.

Mushrooms: Magic?

3/22/2013--Shelton, WA, USA Pioppini mushrooms (Agrocybe aegerita) from Fungi Perfecti. Paul Stamets, 57, is an American mycologist, author, and advocate of bioremediation and medicinal mushrooms and owner of Fungi Perfecti, a family run business that specializes in making gourmet and medicinal mushrooms. ©2013 Stuart Isett. All rights reserved.

©2013 Stuart Isett.

In ‘study of the week’ news, major media outlets reported on two small studies looking at the possible benefits of the chemical psilocybin, the ingredient found in psychedelic mushrooms.

Both studies were conducted in volunteers with cancer, who also had concomitant depression and anxiety–assumed related to their cancer.

The interesting headline-grabbing finding was that after a single dose (“trip”) with psilocybin, a majority of patients in both trials reported improved mood, decreases in mental health symptoms, and positive experiences with the drug (i.e. good trips).

Here’s the kicker: 6 months after their trips, without additional drug, many of the study participants still reported improved mental health.

Study 1 was conducted at NYU and involved 29 patients. The study found that at 6.5 months, “60-80% of the participants continued with clinical significant reductions in depression or anxiety.”

The second study was conducted at Johns Hopkins, involved 51 patients, and had similar findings. Note how the second study describes the orchestration of its sessions:

Psilocybin sessions

Drug sessions were conducted in an aesthetic living-room-like environment with two monitors present. Participants were instructed to consume a low-fat breakfast before coming to the research unit. A urine sample was taken to verify abstinence from common drugs of abuse (cocaine, benzodiazepines, and opioids including methadone)….

For most of the time during the session, participants were encouraged to lie down on the couch, use an eye mask to block external visual distraction, and use headphones through which a music program was played. The same music program was played for all participants in both sessions. Participants were encouraged to focus their attention on their inner experiences throughout the session. Thus, there was no explicit instruction for participants to focus on their attitudes, ideas, or emotions related to their cancer.

Both studies appeared in the Journal of Psychopharmacology. While I agree this news is of general interest, I think the media reporting on the studies is overly sensational. Many doubts remain about the safety of psilocybin. Cancer patients–and indeed the lay public–are vulnerable to this sort of unchecked hype. Issues unaddressed:

  • Negative effects of psilocybin (i.e. no reporting on any adverse effects)–which were listed in the studies
  • Cost
  • Alternatives
  • Small sample sizes in the studies

Overall, I’m glad that researchers are reconsidering ideas long thought too risky or out of bounds. But more science needs to be done before psilocybin is ready for mainstream use.

We Used To Sell Cigarettes in Hospitals

nurse_1471846fNice article in STAT, a relatively new Boston Globe-affiliated publication devoted entirely to health care. Melissa Bailey reminds us that ‘candystripers’ used to sell cigarettes to patients to comfort them while hospitalized.

How quaint.

She goes on to point out 5 practices that will seem just as antiquated. Soon, we hope.

  1. Advising doctors NOT to say, “I’m sorry.” Hospitals still do this. It can be seen as an admission of guilt, the thinking goes.
  2. Have prescription labels that don’t indicate what the medicine is for. How smart. And not even close to standard at present.
  3. Not washing our hands in front of you every time. ‘Nuff said.
  4. Spending more time typing than talking and listening to you. We can hope, can’t we?
  5. Easily getting your medical records, without your having to pay, wait, fill out forms, or just be hassled like you’re asking for state secrets.

I think this is an excellent list. There are no doubt dozens more. (Why do we awaken people in the hospital so often?) What are your ideas for health care pet peeves you’d like to see abolished?

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