Unheard Hearts – A Metaphor, by Clifton K. Meador

Below, a guest-post by Dr. Clifton. Meador.

Many  HealthBeatt readers  know Meador as the author of a popular HealthBeat guest-post “The Art of Diagnosis,” drawn from his book True Medical Detective Stories  (“A Young Doctor and a Coal Miner’s Wife.”)

Long-term readers will recognize Meador both as one of the stars in  the film,, Money-Driven Medicine,  and as the author of well-known satirical writings on the excesses in our  medical system. They  include “The Art and Science of Nondisease (the New England Journal of Medicine, 1965) and  “The Last Well Person,” an essay he published as an “Occasional Note” in NEJM  in 1994. 

***************************************************************************

Unheard Hearts – A Metaphor 

                                                      Clifton K. Meador, M.D

A few months ago, a young cardiologist told me that he rarely listens to hearts anymore. In a strange way, I was not surprised.

He went on to tell me that he gets all the information he needs from echocardiograms, EKGs, MRIs, and catherizations. In the ICU, he can even measure cardiac output within seconds. He told me that these devices tell him vastly more than listening to out-of-date sounds via a long rubber tube attached to his ear.

There was even an element of disdain. He said, “There is absolutely nothing that listening to hearts can tell me that I don’t already know from technology. I have no need to listen. So I don’t do it much anymore.”

I began to wonder Continue reading

4 COMMENTS SO FAR -- ADD ONE

The Lost Arts of Listening, Touching, Seeing . . . The Depersonalization of Medicine

As Clifton Meador’s observes in “Unheard Hearts,” these days most doctors rarely listen to a patient’s heart.

 “Physicians do carry stethoscopes and it certainly is a badge that shows they are a physician, but the sad thing is a large percentage of them don’t know how to use it and use it improperly when they do,” says Michael Criley, professor emeritus of medicine and radiological sciences and the University of California, Los Angeles’ David Geffen School of Medicine.

In a recent interview with Cardiovascular Business, Criley explains: “When two-dimensional echocardiography became available in the mid-1970s it could have, and should have, provided a noninvasive way of seeing what the heart chambers and valves were doing when extra sounds or murmurs were created, but instead replaced bedside auscultation [listening to the heart].

Reading what Criley had to say, and thinking about Meador’s piece, it struck me that this is all part of what some call “the depersonalization of medicine.”

By and large, 21st century doctors do not lay hands on their patients. As psychiatry resident Christine Montross pointed out in a New York Times op-ed: a few years ago:  ”Today’s doctors rarely do thorough physical exams.” Instead, they rely on “diagnostic tests and imaging studies.”

Meanwhile, in medical schools, Montross  reveals, “virtual gross anatomy” lets students avoid the “messy” business of dissecting a real body. “This is a mistake,” says Montross.

                                    Listening to the Heart                        

Criley’s theory that the stethoscope has become little more than a badge of honor is based on a study of physicians’ cardiac examinations.. . Criley was the lead author on a study that investigated these exams, published in the the December 2010 issue of Clinical Cardiology. Continue reading

5 COMMENTS SO FAR -- ADD ONE

Donating an Organ: Should It Be A Gift?

A story in yesterday’s New York Times Magazine raised some very thorny questions about organ transplants. I spent the afternoon reading more about transplants; by evening I had stumbled onto what seems to me at least a partial solution.

The NYT piece tells the story of Sally Satel, a 49-year-old psychiatrist in need of a kidney transplant. In 2004, her kidneys suddenly, quite inexplicably, began to fail. (The cause may have been a medication she had taken in her twenties.)  She had no living relatives except a couple of cousins whom she rarely saw. A close friend came forward, was tested, found that her blood was a match, volunteered to donate a kidney–and then reneged. (It turns out that when she went to chorus practice one evening, “a fellow alto” talked her out of it. The fellow-alto was, of all things, an organ transplant specialist. Satel was enraged: “a transplant surgeon should know how hard it is to get a donor.”)

A second friend volunteered, and again proved a match. But then she, too, got cold feet– though she didn’t tell Satel right away.

Finally, a 62-year-old stranger in Canada saw Satel’s message on an organ match website, called and offered to help her.  He was the right blood type, he seemed “steady” and “honest,” and after a few weeks of phone calls and e-mails, they set a date to do the operations in early January. Then, just before Thanksgiving, he went dark. “Everything turned to radio silence as my e-mail and phone messages went unanswered,” Satel recalls. When her transplant coordinator contacted him, he waffled. He wasn’t sure he would be able to make it in January; he was too heavily involved in a political campaign…

“I was astonished at the Canadian’s . . . what? Negligence, cowardice, rudeness?” Satel writes. “It was a sickening roller-coaster ride: hope yielding to helpless frustration, gratitude giving way to fury. How dare he reduce me to groveling and dependence? Yet I assume he intended no such thing. I think the Canadian was actually quite devoted to the idea of giving a kidney — just not necessarily now or to me.”

By now Satel is desperate. She realizes that her only alternative is dialysis “three days a week, for four debilitating hours at a time, I would be tethered to a blood-cleansing machine… I had an especially morbid dread of dialysis,” Satel admits.  She was haunted by what she had read about “the playwright Neil Simon [who] received a kidney from his longtime publicist in 2004 . . .but before that he endured 18 wretched months on dialysis, suffering cramps and vomiting spells that kept him largely confined to his house. His memory deteriorated, and he hated the time away from his writing. Shortly before his donor came forward (unsolicited, it should be noted), Simon’s doctors said he might have to start spending more time on dialysis. If that were necessary, he said, he had decided, ‘I didn’t want to live my life anymore.’ Neither, I thought, would I.”

Continue reading

22 COMMENTS SO FAR -- ADD ONE

Your Yearly Physical Is a Waste of Time

…or at least that’s what some experts have increasingly been suggesting. According to the American College of Physicians (ACP), instead of having an annual physical, “healthy adults should undergo a much-streamlined exam that’s focused on prevention every one to five years depending on a person’s age, sex and medical profile.”

So what does that mean, exactly? According to the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force, doctors should focus on “interventions that help patients change health-impairing habits or that spotlight emerging illnesses for which reliable and effective treatments exist.”  These include “Pap smears, mammograms, cholesterol tests, blood-pressure checks, and counseling to stop smoking, lose weight, get more exercise and eat a healthier diet.” In other words, rather than just checking for everything, doctors should focus on interventions that can be substantively linked to treatments we know work. Currently, most check-ups are comprehensive run-throughs that seem to be administered  just for their own sake, regardless of how, or even if, they relate to meaningful treatments.

For many of us, the annual physical is a fixture of our health care
experience, something we assume to be both necessary and desirable.
Indeed, a study released last month found that 64 million Americans a
year get a physical or gynecological exam, costing a total of $7.8
billion.  Regular gynecological exams are important—they include Pap
smears that have made cervical cancer a rare disease. But the point of
the general physical is less clear.  More people get annual check ups
than visit doctors for respiratory conditions or high blood pressure,
and the price tag for yearly physicals closes in on the $8.1 billion
spent on breast cancer care.

Continue reading

10 COMMENTS SO FAR -- ADD ONE

The Genetic Effects of Loneliness

In September, a UCLA study took the long-recognized connection between loneliness and poor health to a new level by uncovering the genetic consequences of loneliness (see the full text of the study here). Its results are compelling, both on their own and as an opening salvo in medicine’s new campaign to understand how perception, feelings, and interaction with others determines health. 

Measuring loneliness (referred to in the study as “social isolation”) through the UCLA loneliness scale, researchers found that “feelings of social isolation are linked to alterations in the activity of genes that drive inflammation, the first response of the immune system.” At the same time, “key gene sets were under-expressed”—in other words, were not as functional as you’d expect them to be–in lonely individuals, “including those involved in antiviral responses and antibody production.”

In other words, loneliness fundamentally alters our immune system. As one author put it, “…the biological impact of social isolation reaches down into some of our most basic internal processes …the activity of our genes; changes in immune cell gene expression  in [ways that are] specifically linked to the subjective experience of social distance.” This is important: it’s feeling alone that matters. 

Continue reading

4 COMMENTS SO FAR -- ADD ONE

The Ten Most Overused Medical Tests and Treatments

I often write about how difficult it is to evaluate the quality of health care.  There is no Consumer Reports (CR) for healthcare, I argue, because while CR can rate mid-priced refrigerators briskly and clearly, in a way that makes comparisons easy, it is often all but impossible—even for a physician—to be positive of the relative benefits of a great many medical treatments. 

But if it’s hard to sort out the “best” healthcare, it may be easier to spot both negligent and unnecessary care.  As a hospital CEO once told me, “Our patients know whether they like the food, and the views, and whether the nurses are pleasant. They really have no way of knowing whether they are getting very good care or mediocre care . . . Though,” he added, “they are more likely to be able to tell if they are getting bad care.”

With that thought in mind, it might be worth taking a look at Consumer Report’s list of the 10 most overused medical tests and treatments. Thanks to  Gary Schwitzer of the University of Minnesota’s  School of Journalism and Mass Communication for calling attention to this list on his always interesting Schwitzer Health News Blog.
As Schwitzer points out, “You can quibble with the list, but you can’t help but commend CR for raising public awareness about the medical arms race.  And this list is just part of a broader special section on overspending on overtreatment.”

Continue reading

3 COMMENTS SO FAR -- ADD ONE

Class and Health

When compared to other developed countries, the U.S. ranks near the bottom on most standard measures of health. Many people assume that this is because the U.S. is more ethnically heterogeneous than the nations at the top of the rankings, such as Japan, Switzerland, and Iceland. But while it is true that within the U.S. there are enormous disparities by race and ethnic group, even when comparisons are limited to white Americans our performance is “dismal” observes Dr. Steven Schroeder in a lecture  published in the New England Journal of Medicine yesterday.

Why? It’s not the lack of universal access to healthcare" says Schroeder, though that’s important. And it’s not just that we don’t exercise enough and eat too much—though that is a major cause. But there is one factor undermining the nation’s health that we just don’t like to talk about in polite society: Class. When it comes to health, class matters.

Schroeder, who is the Distinguished Professor of Health and Health Care at the University of California San Francisco (UCSF) underlines how poorly even white Americans stack up when compared to the citizens of other countries by pointing to maternal mortality as one measure of health. When you look at “all races” you find that in the U.S. 9.9 out of 100,000 women die during childbirth.  Focus solely on white women, and the number is still high—7.2 deaths out of 100,000 –especially when compared to Switzerland where only 1.4 women out of 100,000 die while giving birth.

Statistics on infant mortality reveal the same pattern: among “all races” 6.8 American children who were born alive die during infancy; limit the analysis to “whites only” and 5.7 infants die—compared to just 2.7 out of 1,000 in Iceland. .) When researchers compare maternal mortality and infant mortality in white America to rates of death in the 29 other OECD countries, white America ranks close to the bottom third in both categories.

Turn to life expectancy, and you find that white women in the U.S. can expect to live 80.5 years, only slightly longer than American women of all races (who average 80.1 years). Both groups lag far behind Japanese women (who, on average, clock 85.3 years). The gap between “all American men” (who live an average of 74.8  years) and white men in the U.S. (75.3 years) is wider—but not as wide as the gap between white men in the U.S. and men in Iceland (who live an average of 79.7 years).

“How can this be?” asks Schroeder. After all, as everyone knows, the U.S. spends far more on health care than any other nation in the world.

The answer is a stunner: the path “to better health does not generally depend on better health care,” says Schroeder. “Health is influenced by factors in five domains — genetics, social circumstances, environmental exposures, behavioral patterns, and health care. When it comes to reducing early deaths, medical care has a relatively minor role. Even if the entire U.S. population had access to excellent medical care — which it does not — only a small fraction of premature  deaths could be prevented. [my emphasis]

Continue reading

Comments are off for this post