Demystifying Medicine One Month at a Time

Category: Uncategorized (Page 1 of 9)

Bookends to the Year of Covid

Carl was in his early 70s. A Vietnam vet, he suffered from PTSD along with his diabetes, high blood pressure, and smoking-induced COPD. He’d survived a bout of kidney cancer, too, along his medical journey.

In late 2019 he came to see me because he was considering making a move to an assisted living facility. I thought it was a good idea—as an older male with previous suicide attempts, I was worried that loneliness would compound his difficulties.

Carl was estranged from his family. I knew he had an adult son and daughter, but he refused to talk about them let alone to them.

Assisted living would provide some community in addition to three squares a day. The facility also had a nurse who could help with medical care.

About a month after he moved there, the nurse called to tell me that she’d sent Carl to the hospital for fever and shortness of breath. His oxygen saturation had dipped below 90 percent.

This was in early March, when Covid-19 was still mostly in China and Italy. Our lives hadn’t stopped. Yet.

Carl was admitted to the ICU with “double pneumonia.” On his chest x-ray, there was evidence of it in both lungs. Not surprising for an older man with a long history of smoking, lung disease and diabetes.

Carl narrowly avoided intubation. With careful ministrations he turned the corner and was discharged back to his facility after a lengthy hospitalization. A nasal swab came back positive for influenza. Flu had been the culprit!

His return to assisted living occurred right around the time the world was shutting down. All of our lives were changing dramatically.

Carl was quarantined in the facility. The nurse working there actually lived in during March and April, until it was no longer feasible. She and the other staff did everything they could to keep their residents safe.

Prior to his hospitalization, Carl had come in every month. It helped quell his anxiety. Now that his facility was on lockdown, our visits had to be by telephone.

I was amazed he’d survived his hospitalization, let alone that he had somehow missed getting Covid. His lungs were practically kindling for this type of infection.

Throughout the spring, summer and fall, Carl and I talked, sometimes weekly. He was frustrated that he couldn’t go anywhere.

In one of the perversities of the pandemic, Carl started smoking again just so he could go outdoors to have a cigarette a few times per day.

The happiest I heard him this whole year was when he revealed that he and some friends in the facility would play late night card games—with an assist from a friendly aide who didn’t report them.

By fall, there had been sporadic cases in his facility. He and his fellow card players were remanded to their rooms again. He was not a happy camper.

All along, I was fearful that Carl would eventually test positive. He was high risk, and elder care facilities have acted as accelerators to Covid spread.

In December, it finally happened. Another fateful call from the nurse.

Carl was sent back to the hospital for fever and symptoms. He tested positive for Covid-19 this time.

Amazingly, after a three day observation, Carl was deemed medically stable for discharge. He’d had fever and aches without the pulmonary involvement this time.

Because of the number of cases at his facility, he had to first go into isolation in a skilled nursing facility—one used as a transition zone between the land of the sick and home.

While there on a Saturday, he began to decompensate. His oxygen saturation dropped, and he was sent back to the hospital.

I was able to converse with his bedside nurse, who told me he was struggling to breathe, but remained lucid. I was able to get there in time to say goodbye.

Carl was in a Covid-specific unit that had been commandeered from ‘regular’ hospital use because of the pandemic.

His bedside nurse was visibly pregnant. “I’ve already had Covid,” she told me.

Carl had clearly expressed his desire NOT to be intubated or have ‘heroic’ measures taken to try to prolong his life. He and I had talked about it a lot after his prior hospitalization.

He shook my gloved hand and said, “Keep doing the good work you’re doing,” knowing it would be the last time we spoke.

He died a few hours later.

Just one of more than 334,000 Americans.

“Public Charge” is a Public Health Disaster in the Making

The following post was written by Sam Aptekar and Dr. Phuoc Le, Associate Professor of Medicine and Pediatrics at the University of California – San Francisco and Co-Founder of Arc Health.

I was born in a rural village outside of Hue, Vietnam in 1976, a year after Saigon fell and the war ended. My family of four struggled to survive in the post-war shambles, and in 1981, my mother had no choice but to flee Vietnam by boat with my older sister and myself. Through the support of the refugee resettlement program, we began our lives in the United States in 1982, wearing all of our belongings on our backs and not knowing a word of English.


Though we struggled for years to make ends meet, we sustained ourselves through public benefit programs: food stamps, Medicaid, Section 8 Housing, and cash aid. These programs were lifelines that enabled me to focus on my education, and they allowed me to be the physician and public health expert that I am today. Looking back, I firmly believe that the more we invest in the lives and livelihoods of immigrants, the more we invest in the United States, its ideals, and its future.

So, when I first learned of the current administration’s plan to make it harder for immigrants with lower socioeconomic statuses to gain permanent U.S. residence, the so-called changes to the “Public Charge” rule, I felt outraged and baffled by its short-sightedness.

Chart courtesy of www.cgdev.org

If this proposal comes into effect, government officials would be forced to consider whether an applicant has used, or is deemed likely to use, public benefit programs like Section 8 Housing, Medicaid, the Supplemental Nutrition Program (SNAP), and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF).  Additionally, applicants with pre-existing health conditions could be rejected purely on these bases.[1]

The implications of this rule are not hard to predict (and have already been observed throughout the country)[2]: noncitizen parents who are hoping to get green cards will not enroll their citizen children in government healthcare, which they have a legal right to obtain, out of fear that harnessing public benefits will prevent them from gaining legal permanent residence. According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, President Trump’s proposal could lead to a decrease in Medicaid and CHIP enrollment by a minimum of 15% and as much as 35%.[3]  Any proposal that decreases the number of insured American citizens, as this measure surely would, would increasethe financial strain on taxpayers who will be forced to compensate for unpaid coverage. Furthermore, Forbes estimates that Trump’s proposal would decrease legal immigration to the United States by more than 200,000 people a year and therefore “would have a negative impact on the Social Security System”- a deficit that American taxpayers would have to help cover.[4]

If the moral argument that every human being deserves the pursuit of a better life doesn’t work for you, then let the economic one suffice. A 2016 study by the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine concluded “immigration has an overall positive impact on long-run economic growth in the United States” and “immigration is integral to the nation’s economic growth.”[5]

Whether you are an immigrant or were born in the US, we all have a responsibility to vocalize dissent against the Department of Homeland Security’s morally and fiscally-flawed anti-immigrant proposal. Vote, attend town-hall meetings, write to your representatives, conduct personal research, engage in constructive dialogue, and comment below to get the conversation started. Remember, the Statue of Liberty reads: “give me your poor, your tired, your huddled masses.” If we match xenophobia and ignorance with empathy and facts, we can ensure that America remains a beacon of hope for future immigrants, just as it was for me in 1982.

[1] http://apps.washingtonpost.com/g/documents/world/read-the-trump-administrations-draft-proposal-penalizing-immigrants-who-accept-almost-any-public-benefit/2841/

[2] https://www.washingtonpost.com/outlook/2018/12/18/proposed-new-public-charge-rule-puts-childrens-health-insurance-risk/?utm_term=.82971bc137f9

[3] https://www.washingtonpost.com/outlook/2018/12/18/proposed-new-public-charge-rule-puts-childrens-health-insurance-risk/?utm_term=.0ac0803db1a9

[4] https://www.forbes.com/sites/stuartanderson/2018/12/14/these-flaws-may-kill-the-public-charge-rule/#17d961c72884

[5] http://www8.nationalacademies.org/onpinews/newsitem.aspx?RecordID=23550

# 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.

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