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Demystifying Medicine One Week at a Time

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I Floated for NPR — To Achieve Some Inner Calm.

Brigham Braces for Uncertain Future

If you’re interested in healthcare, health finance, and technology, consider adding STAT to your favorites. It’s a smart, online-only publication from the Boston Globe that features a great mix of seasoned health care journalism and many new voices (including an excellent first-person column).

This recent article by Ron Winslow (recently retired from 30+ years at the Wall St. Journal) is a great case in point:

Winslow adeptly takes readers though some of the tough decisions around budgeting at the august Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston. “The Brigham,” as it’s known, is a mecca for advanced specialty care, medical research, and a major affiliate of Harvard Medical School.

Teaching hospitals are complex economic engines, both bringing in and spending hundreds of millions (billions, in some markets) of dollars.

Such academic centers have long had a reliable flow of federal dollars through Medicare for patient care and resident training, as well as research grants though the National Institutes of Health.

But both of these resources are challenged as the federal budget for research and development grows ever more uncertain.

In addition, hospitals are under tremendous cost pressure (and deservedly so!) from insurers, who bargain to get beneficiaries better rates–and make the health care dollar stretch further.

Take a look a Winslow’s piece. If you’re at all interested in business, finance, economics, and/or health care, you will learn a lot about process in complex organizations. I’m guessing we will be seeing a lot more of this in the health care world.

Kudos to Winslow and STAT for a great investigative piece and to the Brigham for providing transparency into their finances and decision-making processes.

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.

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.

The Science of Medicine

Last week I told you of my admiration for Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, the Michigan pediatrician and epidemiologist whose strong research and advocacy was able to finally bring a shining light to the problem of lead in the water supply of Flint.

Continuing with a theme, I now bring you the story of Dr. Adriana Melo of Campina Grande, Brazil.

03-zika-doctor-adriana-melo.w245.h368Dr. Melo is an OB-GYN who subspecializes in Maternal-Fetal Medicine (MFM), the branch of obstetrics that deals with high-risk pregnancies.

She lives and works in northeast Brazil, which is less populous and more economically challenged than the southern, more well-known parts of the country (including Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo).

Dr. Melo noted an uptick in the number of fetuses with small heads on ultrasound — which is the main tool used by MFM doctors to diagnose babies in utero.

How much of an uptick? A rough look at the statistics shows ONE HUNDRED times the ‘normal’ rate of babies born with microcephaly, the medical name for the condition.

Dr. Melo had a suspicion that the mothers giving birth to these babies all had a common trait: they’d all told her that they’d had the characteristic rash associated with the mosquito-borne Zika virus.

When she tested the mothers for evidence of the Zika virus in their blood, the tests were negative. Not deterred, she convinced public health authorities to test the amniotic fluid of mothers carrying microcephalic fetuses. And indeed a strong correlation was found between exposure to Zika and microcephaly.

It’s this story of a doctor in a somewhat out-of-the-way place using her clinical insight to ‘prove’ a correlation which I find inspiring.

Dr. Melo could have been content to merely diagnose and treat these poor mothers and babies, perhaps simply ‘reporting up’ her findings on the increase in microcephaly. Instead, she decided to push against the inertia of daily medical practice because what she was seeing really bothered her — and as a mother of young children herself, she felt the urge to get to the bottom of the new trend.

If you follow health news, you no doubt have heard a lot about the Zika virus in the last few weeks, including warnings from both the CDC and the World Health Organization. As is often the case with warnings from these organizations, a certain amount of panic ensues — such as women in Latin America feeling that they’re being told not to get pregnant, for example.

I want to make it very clear that though there is a STONG ASSOCIATION between the rise in cases of Zika in the tropics of the Western Hemisphere and a concurrent rise in babies born with microcephaly, we must remember: Correlation does not equal causation. The public health agencies issuing travel and birth control warnings, while sounding dire, are making best guesses for us all to minimize our chances of harm. But drowned out in the response is the fact that we don’t yet know for certain that Zika is the cause of microcephaly. That work is ongoing.

For example, many experts think something else may be the cause — perhaps the use of dangerous pesticides in Brazil (that are banned elsewhere). That also sounds plausible since pesticides are used to “control the mosquito vector.” It’s entirely possible that microcephaly is occurring because of a chemical effect.

For now, we must wait and hope that science can show us the true cause of the uptick in microcephaly.

I also think it’s important to remind ourselves of two things about Zika virus: We’ve known about it since the 1940s, when it was discovered in Africa — so though if feels new, it’s really not. Secondly, at least for non-pregnant people, it only appears to cause mild flu-like symptoms and be a self-limited illness (not more than a few days at most).

My advice: Better to save your anxiety for the never-ending Presidential race.

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