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Demystifying Medicine One Month at a Time

Category: screening tests

Anxiety

How are you feeling post-election?

In the practice of medicine, we use validated questionnaires like the PHQ-9 to screen for depression or the GAD-7 to screen for anxiety.

My wife, a family doctor, administered the GAD-7 to a patient of hers this week; post-election, I started wondering how many Americans could be diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder* right now.

Go ahead and take the quiz yourself:

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What’s your score?

A score of five or more indicates mild symptoms. Ten or more moves you to moderate. Fifteen or more means you are highly likely to have diagnosable anxiety disorder–what the experts call generalized anxiety disorder.*

If you’re in this highest category, think about getting help. You can start with your primary care physician. She can help you directly or refer you to other community mental health resources that can be helpful.

*Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD), according to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5):

A. Excessive anxiety and worry (apprehensive expectation), occurring more days than not for at least 6 months, about a number of events or activities (such as work or school performance).
B. The individual finds it difficult to control the worry.
C. The anxiety and worry are associated with three (or more) of the following six symptoms (with at least some symptoms having been present for more days than not for the past 6 months):
Note: Only one item is required in children.

  1. Restlessness or feeling keyed up or on edge.
  2. Being easily fatigued.
  3. Difficulty concentrating or mind going blank.
  4. Irritability.
  5. Muscle tension.
  6. Sleep disturbance (difficulty falling or staying asleep, or restless, unsatisfying sleep).

D. The anxiety, worry, or physical symptoms cause clinically significant distress or impairment in social, occupational, or other important areas of functioning.
E. The disturbance is not attributable to the physiological effects of a substance (e.g., a drug of abuse, a medication) or another medical condition (e.g., hyperthyroidism).

In Medicine, Less is Often More

Dr. Rita Redberg at #Lown 2016

Dr. Rita Redberg at #Lown 2016

Fewer visits.

Fewer tests.

Less harm from what we find, and less harm from any subsequent treatments.

Less cost.

More engagement with your own health, and what you can do to make it great. You can do it yourself.

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.

Costs of Care

Getty Images

Getty Images

Ever received a bill for a health service that troubles you? Does it seem too much?

Is it hard to understand what you owe from what insurance pays? Does it seem like the share you pay always goes up?

Medical costs are a universe unto themselves. How doctors and medical facilities (hospitals, radiology practices, etc.) come up with their charges seem to lack any rational basis.

Famously, in his article that became a book, author Steven Brill challenged the CEO of a big health insurance company to explain his ‘explanation of benefits’ (the bill-like statement you get that is NOT A BILL), and the CEO couldn’t do it. Here Brill recounts the story in an interview with Minnesota Public Radio. Context — Brill had a big operation for an abdominal aortic aneurysm, so he decides to use himself as a test case:

After I got home, about 2 or 3 days later, I received in the mail 36 different explanations of benefits from my insurance company, in 36 different first class envelopes, which tells you something about how inefficient the system is.

As I started to open them, I thought to myself: I’m the world’s leading expert on hospital bills and insurance bills, this is going to be fun. When I opened the third envelope, it said the following. This is an explanation of benefits from United Healthcare, which is headquartered in Minnesota: Amount billed: $0; amount paid by insurance: $0; amount you owe: $154.20. I looked at it and I looked at it. If nothing was billed, how could I owe $154.20? I turned it over, I tried to decode it, I couldn’t figure it out.

As it happened, before I went into the hospital, I had scheduled an interview with the CEO of United Health out in Minnesota … So as soon as I was able to travel, I went out to Minnesota and I did the interview. … And then at the end, I reached into my pocket and took out that explanation of benefits and handed it to him. I said: “I’m wondering if you could just help me understand this, I’m having trouble figuring out what this means. How could I be billed $154 if nothing was billed?”

He looked at it and he looked at it, he turned it over, he looked at the coding, and finally looked up and said to me: “I could sit here all day and I could not explain that to you. I have no idea what it means. I don’t know why they sent it to you.”

I said, “Aren’t you they?

That explanation of benefits is the single most common form that consumers receive in what is by far the largest industry in the United State: The healthcare industry. Tens of millions of those explanations of benefits go out from United Healthcare every year, and the head of the company can’t even understand what it means, so how are the rest of us supposed to understand what it means?

As an entree to discuss the issue of health costs in the U.S., and people’s disparate reactions to them, I share with you the story of Mrs. Sutton, a patient of mine who had a somewhat atypical reaction to the cost of her colonoscopy — even though she owed nothing out of pocket. I also want to emphasize how poorly doctors do in helping patients anticipate their costs of care. Reliable pricing information is hard for us to come by, too — as some commenters note. But some new companies (apps, of course) are trying to tackle this issue head-on.

Click on the box below to read it. Feel free to add your own story to the mix.

Evidence shows that in spite of mutual doctor-patient desire to discuss drug costs, we docs usually shirk the duty, writes Dr. John Henning Schumann.

Posted by NPR on Saturday, January 16, 2016

Thanks for reading.

Mammograms: Find Your Sanity

Fairly typical week in health news: Mammograms.

The big story is that the American Cancer Society issued an updated guideline recommending that women undergo mammography less frequently than before.

mammogramThis announcement was denounced on both “sides” of the perennial debate. Those in the “mammograms save lives” camp are outraged that a scientific society dedicated to cancer prevention and treatment would issue a proclamation that seems to run counter to the notion that “early detection saves lives.”

Those in the “putting scientific evidence in the forefront” camp are actually somewhat pleased that the ACS is finally “moving in the right direction,” but displeased that the society didn’t get all the way to the vicinity of, for example, the US Preventive Services Task Force, which has the most heavily-weighted (and least stringent) screening mammography recommendations: for women at average risk (i.e. those that don’t have a mother or sister with breast cancer), start breast cancer screening at age 50 and get a mammogram every 2 years until age 74.

The new ACS guideline: start screening at age 45 (well, 40 if you want to) and have mammograms annually until age 55, at which point you can go to every other year.

If a woman at average risk for breast cancer follows the USPSTF guideline to the letter (and is lucky enough to avoid a ‘call-back,’ i.e. further looks for a possible abnormality), she’d have 13 mammograms over 25 years. If she follows the new ACS guidelines to the letter, she’d have 20 mammograms, possibly more. Of course, every mammogram not only increases the cumulative total of lifetime radiation exposure, it increases the odds that an abnormality will be found and a call-back will be issued.

The best analysis regarding the new ACS recommendation (and actually, one of the best pieces about the whole breast cancer screening issue in general) is from FiveThirtyEight’s lead science writer, Christie Aschwanden, whose piece is titled, “Science Won’t Settle the Mammogram Debate.” Aschwanden correctly points out the ‘right thing’ depends on you, the patient, and your values. There is no right answer.

For some, not getting mammograms annually (or even at all) is the right choice. For the rest, following the ‘rules’ such as they are provides the best piece of mind.

And that’s OK.

Here’s the thing: because choosing to have mammograms or not is a personal decision, we should refrain from blaming people who choose one way or the other. People have their reasons. As with many social and medical issues, the personal has become very political, because people’s beliefs are strongly held. Ultimately, a lot of economics is impacted by the politics here. Pro-screening partisans are always uneasy when edicts cutting back on screening are issued, because the fear is that the health care ‘establishment’ (i.e. insurance companies) will stop covering the tests.

That’s simply not going to happen with mammography.

If we strip the emotion out of the issue and just try to stick to facts, what, at heart, is undergoing a mammogram like?

The video below comes from the the UK’s Cancer Institute. It’s just more than a minute, and is very matter-of-fact.

WARNING: THE VIDEO SHOWS AN ACTUAL WOMAN UNDERGOING AN ACTUAL MAMMOGRAM, THUS INCLUDES BARE BREASTS. Therefore, NSFW in most workplaces.

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