Random Thoughts from a Restless Mind

Dr. Darrell White's Personal Blog

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The Enemy is the Couch

One of the repeating themes in all of my writings on fitness is that it is exponentially more important that one gets off the couch than it is what one does after getting up. To be sure, we in the CrossFit community have been reasonably and accurately accused of being zealous in our support of our chosen post-couch activity. Unlike “Fight Club” it has been observed that the first rule of Crossfit must be that you ALWAYS talk about CrossFit. Fair dinkum. Still, while we may be proven more right than not in the end, there exist other effective fitness options.

My nephew, a retired hockey and lacrosse player, has found his post-collegiate sweet spot in one of the cycling/spinning communities. His preferred version is “Soul Cycle”, but that’s probably more like saying Ben & Jerry’s when you really mean ice cream. You and I know all kinds of folks who swear by Pilates, Barre, various and sundry types of Yoga, and the legions of people who lace ‘em up and run at all kinds of levels at all kinds of times in all kinds of places. In the end even the most zealous among us has to admit that each and every one of these non-CF activities are substantially better than continuing in an unhealthy relationship with your couch.

Fitness, and by extension health, are profoundly complex entities. Hence my own personal difficulty in arriving at a single integer that can be used to measure relative health. It also explains the abject failure of the collective whole of the health wearables industry to come up with a single meaningful, actionable measurement. Still, we ought not dismiss the wearables industry entirely if for no other reason that putting on that Fitbit, or launching Health on your Apple Watch more often than not is like magic; it levitates your ass off that couch.

Simplifying our discussion about fitness and health along the straight line between relatively high intensity exercise versus what could be called long-slow aerobic exercise blinds us to both the essential value of forsaking the couch, while at the same time limiting our ability to explore why it is that there doesn’t seem to be that one, single best approach. Part of the genius of CrossFit is that it starts with a definition and then demands measurement. CrossFit proper has enjoyed explosive growth, growth which is now also occurring in a parallel universe of derivative programming offered by trainers who got their start owning a Box. Is it, are they, better than everything else out there?

Does it matter?

Zero sum games require that someone lose in order that another wins. Likewise, a zero sum grading of ideas means that one eventually must become axiomatic at the expense of the demise of another. Zone/macro quantitative strategies of nutrition vs. Paleo and similar qualitative strategies, for example. A complex system demands that we constantly assess not only the “games” themselves, but also the relationships between the various “games”. Perhaps the greatest gift that I have received from my discovery of CrossFit and the CrossFit community is my ongoing curiosity about all things fitness, and by extension my willingness and desire to pursue the inquiry. By extension I have learned that what works for me may not necessarily work for you.

Is it better to do my CrossFit Rx or my nephew’s Soul Cycle? The answer of course is ‘yes’. Should one do the “Taking Back Eating” macro program or find health in “The Paleo Solution”? Likewise: ‘yes’. Broad acclimations await better measurement followed by the evaluation of those measurements across very large groups of people. However, you and I need not await those conclusions because we can embark on a highly actionable study of our own, n=1.

All it takes is getting off the couch.

 

Tone Across the Service Line

Ever listen to how people address folks on the providing side of the customer service continuum? Do you ever stop to listen to yourself, or think about how you will sound before you speak? Fascinating. In North America we are moving ever more swiftly to an economy that is majority a service economy; we don’t really make stuff so much anymore, we help people use stuff someone else made, or provide assistance based on a knowledge base or skill set. Listening to people on the receive side of the equation is fascinating.

We have been forced to change our EMR at SkyVision. Our office is running behind schedule because of this. My ears are on high alert for how our patients are reacting. I’m prompted to this line of thought by three interactions in the office that happened while I was loitering at the reception desk. Three individuals not so much requesting a service but demanding it, doing so with a tone that implies not only a deep sense of entitlement but also a deeper lack of regard for the individual who will provide that service. Both in tone and content the to-be-served make it clear to the service provider that he or she is there to serve only them. In fact, the servers only reason to exist is to serve, as if the to-be-served were some kind of different, superior version of the species. It’s loathsome, actually.

I spend every waking moment of each working day on the “serve” side of the equation, whether I am a SkyVision plying my profession or CFB coaching. Having achieved some measure of expertise in both it’s very rare that I am on the receiving end of this type of behavior, but it does happen. More often is the case that it is someone lower on the org chart who gets this. The receptionist, phone operator, or check-out person who gets this “lower life-form” treatment, not the doctor or business owner.

Life can be hard for these front line people in a service business. There’s not only a “customer is always right” mentality on the other side of the interaction but also a sense that being a customer who will get what they want is as much as human right as Life or Liberty. That’s what it sounds like, anyway, if you are off to the side listening. No matter how frustrated one might become from a service situation gone wrong it’s important to remember that there is no continuum in the relationship when it comes to the inalienable rights, nor is there any evolutionary hierarchy across that desk or over that phone line.

Danny Meyer, the great NYC restauranteur, is probably closest to correct when he says “the customer is not right all of the time, but mostly right most of the time. A customer [only] has the right to be heard.” How you express yourself when you are on the “receive” side of the customer service experience is not only an important measurement of how you value the person across from you providing the service, but frankly is probably also a predictor for how likely you are to be successful in being heard. It’s instructive that none of the three SkyVision clients who made difficult (bordering on unreasonable) requests in an unpleasant manner were accommodated because doing so would have required an extraordinary effort which may not have been successful in any event.

Sorry, no pithy statement to wrap it up this week. In the end we all want what we want, and we all need to be heard. It helps to look at the person on the other end of the service divide as if you were looking in a mirror. Would you say that, like that, to the person in the reflection?

Cost + Quality + Convenience = Value

My wife Beth and I had a rather spirited discussion about how we in the U.S. might be able to pay for the healthcare of our citizens. Being ever practical, and also owning the job of writing the checks that pay for the “health insurance” our company offers its associates (including us), Beth in effect is arguing for a national consensus on something we might describe as a baseline ‘value’ for healthcare. Others would label her concept a ‘floor’, but you get the idea.

What Beth intuitively understands is the tension between cost, quality, and convenience. You pick a baseline or a floor level of value and offer that to everyone. With training as a nurse and 15 years in healthcare administration, her idea of what constitutes the sum of cost, quality, and convenience naturally overweights the integers for cost and quality: outcomes should be essentially equal across the board at the baseline or floor level, and the costs of achieving that should be in some way equitably shouldered by something we could describe as “society”. Very practical. A strategy that lends itself to being observable and measurable.

What’s the rub? Well, only two of the three elements that make up value are covered. To obtain an agreed upon level of medical outcomes (mortality, morbidity, longevity, etc.) the cost is covered. Ah, but HOW you obtain those outcomes is still a variable. It is the FLOOR of value that is guaranteed. Our family is experienced a bit of this recently with Beth’s Mom. After a hospitalization she was living in a setting that ws providing excellent care at a reasonable cost, but it was a setting that did not provide any extras; it was old, not very pretty, and she could  have had a roommate. Her (and her daughters’) experience, what we might call “convenience” or  in our formula, was found to be lacking. The girls opted to move her to a nicer setting, one that will eventually involve a higher cost because of the enhancements to the experience, with no change in the already best possible outcome, or quality.

Therein lies the problem with any discussion about literally anything that we might discuss as a “right”. Is everyone entitled to anything other than the minimal amount of convenience/experience necessary to obtain the best outcome at an affordable cost?

If we examine food, we find something quite similar. No one among us would say that X Million people should go without food. Indeed, we don’t even really talk about true hunger in the U.S. anymore, we talk about “food insecurity”, the concern that we may become hungry. By the same token, though, no one asserts that everyone is entitled to the same quality of food. Not even a little bit. No, quite the contrary, all that is discussed is cost and convenience (access).

Now, of course, we in the CrossFit world (and to a degree in the medical world) argue that quality is an ineluctable part of nutrition, that one must extend the equation outside of food alone so that an explicit choice is made that prioritizes quality calories over other purchases (cell phone, cable, fancy car, etc.). While this is accurate and proper I believe that we can reasonably quarantine nutrition and keep it separate from other needs, at least for the purpose of our discussion. The universal concept of the interplay between cost, quality, and convenience holds true in nutrition/food on a global, grand policy making level:

You can pick any two, but only two, when you are declaring what is the minimally acceptable level.

My formulaic approach to the coverage of needs has a little wrinkle that should be mentioned: quality cannot be increased ad infinitum. In all examples we might evaluate there is a practical limit to the ability to improve quality or outcomes. The law of diminishing returns arrives in the form of the asymptote as quality rises. On the other hand, cost and convenience are unbound and can rise almost infinitely. It is the alcohol in a drink that confers the health benefit; the same outcome occurs no matter what you drink. One person’s jug wine from Costco is another person’s Chateau Lafite served in the Gulfstream V. You get the picture.

What will become of our conversations about issues such as healthcare? Will we arrive at a similar juncture to the one we have now in food, clothing, and shelter? Where quality (outcomes) and cost issues are addressed and everyone is left to make their own call on convenience/experience? Beth can’t see how it can be any other way. Me? I’m much less optimistic. That old “want vs. need” thing just keeps popping up. Confusion arises when a truly generous people confuse what people want with what they need. Need is measurable and therefore finite, whereas want is neither. We can, and should, all work to pick up the check for the needs of each. “Want”, on the other hand, is the proverbial “free lunch”, and we as a society will need to agree on that before we can even begin to discuss begin to talk about the mechanics of paying the bill.

TANSTAAFL. Heinlein was right.

 

Full-Ass

“It’s better to full-ass one something than to half-ass a bunch of things.” Anonymous

At the moment I am living day seven of another week of on-call coverage for one of the largest hospitals in Ohio. When asked recently by colleagues why I still do hospital coverage I had to admit that I really didn’t have an answer. I don’t really have to do it, and yet it doesn’t really seem like it feels right not to. There’s a kind of “pay it forward” debt to the giants who came before me that still lingers, I suppose. That debt’s been paid, with a bundle of interest, many times over, and it may be time to close the ledger.

Why now? Well, it has very little to do with the work itself because that hasn’t really changed all that too very much over the years. No, it’s more about the work that’s NOT being done by others, work that they own and are responsible for and don’t do, that will ultimately drive me away from this part of my day job. It’s really no different than any other job or workplace anywhere. The lazy and the shiftless, the incompetent and the entitled all see it as just fine to kick the can downstream to whomever they can get away with kicking it to.

I’ll bet you just had a dozen images of this from your own life flash by, right?

Boy, there are a thousand reasons you will hear to explain and rationalize why they feel it’s perfectly reasonable to get you to do their work. After awhile it gets really old. The first thing you should do when you encounter this is to look within and make sure that YOU aren’t doing this anywhere to anyone else. Gotta make sure that your virtue is intact before you saddle up the high horse! Once you’ve ascertained that all is right and proper with your own work ethic you then have a bit of a choice to make: rock the boat or sail along. Sadly, though you know the consequences of the latter (you continue to do that slacker’s work), be prepared for the possibility of not being thanked for pointing out reality to bosses and co-workers. It’s entirely possible that you will be the one criticized. Totally fair, right?

In the end there is no best answer to this dilemma. All you can do is use the feelings generated in you by being on the receiving end of this work-shifting to make yourself a better worker, no matter who it is you do that work for. If you do, indeed, reach that point where you just can’t look at yourself in the mirror any more because the injustice is simply too much to accept, it’s OK to call it as you see it. That’s where I am today, and that’s what I’ll be doing this week. To be sure, all of that “pay it forward” I’ve done will get me an audience, though it may not mean I will be able to effect change. Other than workload, that is. As of tomorrow, in this tiny part of my day job, I will be doing the very best job I possibly can, as I always do, for each of my patients each time I see them.

What I won’t be doing is picking up the other half an ass that someone else missed before I full-ass my part of the job.

Sunday musings: Opiate Overdoses and American Health

To the victors go the spoils. History is written by the victors. Truer words, eh?

I find myself turning off all manner of information outlets of late because they are all just so many repeats. The other side of that victor coin is that the vanquished simply repeat the lines of the victor when s/he was losing. Look no further than the kerfuffle about the Accountable Care Act. If you remove time stamps and the naming of characters what one hears or reads is essentially unchanged today from what was said or written some 7 years ago.

Try it.

My sense of ennui is so strong that it is fairly paralyzing. Is there no one out there who is willing or able to propose something that is truly new? Can we not even even come up with new or original complaints and criticisms? Must we be doomed to this endless cycle of sameness about seemingly everything?

It’s almost as if the vanquished do not so much fail to learn from history but that they work very hard to faithfully replay history in exquisite detail, dooming us all.

We are looking at a true health crisis in the U.S. In 2016 some 40,000 Americans died from opiate overdoses. This is more than the number of deaths by firearms by a factor of 4, and is similar to the number of deaths in automobile accidents. This morning I read a startling statistic: 7 million working age men are out of the employment market, and 1/2 of them take painkillers on a daily basis. Crazy, huh?

On CrossFit.com we agree that there is a general crisis of health in the American populace stemming from over-consumption of calories (most of which are high glycemic index carbs) and under-consumption of physical activity. Another equally startling story in this week’s news is the growing acceptance of excess body weight fat as some kind of new normal, a normal that should somehow be institutionalized.Total capitulation, that.  In this discussion one must add the over-consumption of alcohol, because countless studies have shown that this legal substance is responsible for all kinds of negative health effects, both direct and indirect. (As an aside, it does give one pause when one considers the possibility of legalizing another neuro-depressant, marijuana). As if this isn’t enough, we now must add to this toxic recipe the ingestion by any route of opiates.

The U.S. is regularly taken to task for its failure to sit at the top of the world’s life expectancy leader board despite spending the largest amount per capita on healthcare in the world. This criticism becomes more and more unreasonable as we dive further into what it is that actually drives statistics such as life expectancy. Deaths from overdoses are illustrative of the folly of conflating health and healthcare: there is nothing in the healthcare system of treatment that drives this statistic, and the death of these primarily young people has a disproportionate effect on the life expectancy statistic in which it is years lived that we are counting (and losing).

What, then, is to be done, especially in the setting here of health-conscious individuals? It behooves each of us to take a bit of personal responsibility in the discussion and pledge that we will utilize accurate nomenclature, and in turn demand that everyone else in the conversation do likewise. Health and healthcare are not synonyms. Likewise, healthcare and health insurance (itself somewhat of a misnomer) are not the same; one does not lose healthcare when one does not have health insurance, and for certain the ownership of a health insurance policy does not guarantee one access to healthcare. Indeed, because the outcome was inconvenient to the majority of entrenched healthcare interests, the landmark study of Oregon Medicaid recipients that showed no improvement in health outcomes in those with Medicaid compared with those without has been mostly ignored and purposely forgotten. We need to engage in this conversation, but do so with strict fidelity to meaningful terms.

From there we should lead in whatever way we can. This effort is not at all about the treatment of disease, at least not as far as we here are concerned, but rather one of Public Health. There are quite specific areas to be addressed if we wish to effect change. Each area must be subjected to a root cause analysis. Over-consumption of low-quality carbs is near and dear to CrossFit, Inc., and the battle against “Big Soda’s” influence has been engaged. Other influences such as agricultural subsidies should have a similar bright light shined in their direction. How is it that the dramatic reduction of drinking and driving has failed to render deaths from drunken driving a statistical anomaly? Perhaps someone can convince one of those know-better do-gooder billionaires globe-trotting in search of a trendy problem to throw money at to look a bit closer to home when they apply their famous intellect to new thinking about old problems.

As to the tragedy that is opiate overdose deaths, can we please have someone with no skin in the game be given no-risk access to any and all applicable data and just turn them loose? Some guy did a deep dive into the issue of scrubbing the internet of all vestiges of child pornography using a combination of massive computing power and an outsider’s view. Give someone like that the ability to examine the entire opiate ecosystem to uncover some of the hows and whys so that we can make some decisions of the whats of our response with more than just our typical SOP of some self-designated, conflict-of-interest-infected expert who declares that his/her solution should work because of what they are sure must be going on. This seems to be a new thing, after all, and rather young, too. Prior opiate societal infestations surely share some aspects with our present crisis, but I don’t recall the opium dens in the days of the Crusades so routinely offing their customers.

Anything that can be measured can be analyzed. Anything that can be analyzed can be altered utilizing the results of that analysis. What is needed is the double-edged sword of courage to uncover an unpleasant truth, and strength to set aside all manner of short-term personal gain in favor of a long-term solution for societal benefit.

We ought not let 40,000 lives representing hundreds of thousands of years not lived to be lost in vain.

Unshakable Belief Meets Unmovable Facts

This week I spent some time talking to a couple of folks who, unbeknownst to them, were talking about each other. Well, talking to them is not really accurate–they were having a discussion and I was having a listen. Both were talking about the effects of a particular happening on a particular person they both knew, effects that both could surely see if only they cared to remove their blinders and look.

They told wildly different stories. Their belief sets were so unshakable, so impervious to penetration by petty inconveniences like facts and reality, it was as if they wore not lenses to clarify but masks to obscure. The blind running from the blind, if you will. I’m fascinated when I see this; I see this almost every day when I am plying my trade as an eye surgeon. So much of what is “known” about medicine isn’t really known at all but “felt”. I constantly run up against an unshakable belief that is often expressed in a statement that begins “well, I think…” Indeed, I heard this from both folks telling me what was transpiring.

I’m fascinated and exasperated in equal parts by this because of how completely this unshakable belief nullifies the otherwise logical power of observable, measurable fact. If I step back and think a little more deeply about this phenomenon I am also terrified that I, too, may harbor similarly unshakable beliefs that blind me to the truths of a fact-based reality. This weekend brought me to a gathering of true experts in a particular field of my day job, one I was quite flattered to attend. There were a couple of points that I’m just convinced my colleagues got wrong, points of view it looks like I shared only with myself. Am I right? Is my insight so keen, my ability to analyze the data presented so much better, that I am just a full step ahead? Or is it rather that I am clinging to a point of view supported only by the virtual facts created by personal beliefs I am unable or unwilling to walk away from?

This simple awareness and acknowledgement–that I may suffer from “belief” bias–might be enough to inoculate me.  I certainly owe my patients (and my readers) an effort to investigate that.

It’s Too Expensive to Eat Healthy Food, Right?

While I write this I am in the company of a group of women who ride horses. Some of them have nearly limitless means and the expense of owning and riding horses does not require any sacrifice whatsoever. Others, once having identified their passion, must prioritize their financial world, dropping things that others consider essential so that they can continue to pursue their equestrian goals. When we discuss proper nutrition one of the first things I hear is something along the lines of “it’s too expensive to eat well.”

I don’t buy it.

How often have you heard some version of that phrase. Whether it be Zone, Paleo, Whole 30, or just “stay out of the middle of the grocery store”, this is uttered with some degree of exasperation and oppression with a kind of mind-numbing, self-fulfilling frequency.

How so? Per the folks at Whole Foods, regularly skewered for being too expensive (seriously, they sell fancy potatoes), on average we in America spend 7% of our disposable personal income–that’s SEVEN–on food. 50 years ago that number was 16%. We now spend less than 1/2 of our after-tax income on food compared with what we spent 50 years ago.

And eating well is too expensive.

If we dig deeper into that stat alone we see that modern food production has decreased the cost of food relative to both income and inflation. The cost of producing food of all kinds has risen much more slowly than income. Why? Partly because junk, carb-laden food is cheap. High-fructose corn syrup costs a fraction of grain sugar. Corn-fed protein sources, with or without antibiotics or steroids, is grown faster and cheaper than grass-fed. Stuff like that. Less expensive to produce + incomes risen at a greater rate across the entire spectrum, top to bottom.

How then is it too expensive to eat a more healthy diet. We have 9% of our after-tax income to play with, right? Is some other necessity (shelter, transportation, medical care, etc) eating that up? What are we doing with that 9% (16-7) that we can’t find some of it to eat better? Ah, Grasshopper, now we begin to see. It’s a ‘Nando thing, it’s superficial. It’s not how healthy you are, it’s how you look, or something like that.

Some stuff might be more expensive, but the seemingly obvious culprits are actually false targets (eg. healthcare which for this audience represents only a tiny % of new cost c/w 50 years ago because of insurance, govt. programs, etc. despite all of the apocalyptic talk on SM). Nope, it’s how we CHOOSE to spend that freed-up 9% that makes it feel like we don’t have money to buy better food.

Think about that household in the 1960′s or even the 70′s. One car. One TV. One radio. Once purchased all data was free. A pair of shoes and a pair of boots. Sneaks if you were a jock. You didn’t get your hair done if you were a guy, you got a haircut. You didn’t get your acrylics touched up every 2 weeks; if you wanted long nails you grew ‘em. Stuff like that.

Fast forward to today and think about the stuff you’ve acquired, stuff you are convinced you can’t live without, stuff that costs money that you choose to spend every single day. The ratio of drivers to cars in a household is seldom less than 1.5 people/car, and it’s usually closer to 1:1. The ratio of phones to people over the age of 10 is seldom less than 1/1—everyone carries a phone. It’s not enough to have a phone, or even a phone with an unlimited text plan, nope, it’s gotta be a phone that will let you post your thoughts on today’s weather in Bimini to FB. Right now, from anywhere. If you don’t have Netflix available on each of the 4 flat-screen TV’s in the house you are considered a Luddite.

Listen, I certainly am not saying that all that stuff isn’t great, that it’s not a ton of fun and really convenient (as I type on one of the Apple products that literally litter our household, through the WiFi network at the barn, so I don’t deplete the battery on my phone by using it as a hotspot), or anything like that. What I most certainly AM saying, though, is that people who whine about how hard it is to afford to eat better almost always do so via a FB post from their iPhone 7 while sitting in the salon having their hair done, hungover from too much Bellevedere they consumed last night while noshing on Doritos smothered in Cheez-Wiz.

9 %. The stark reality is that we have let our things become more important than ourselves.

I’ll see you next week…

–bingo

Emotional Well-Being: Mental Health Deserves Equal Footing

Some time ago I wrote about creating a way to measure health. Real health. Health that encompasses every aspect of what it means to be alive and well. As a CrossFitter I definitely included Coach Glassman’s Disease -> Health -> Wellness continuum, and I also acknowledged the critical importance of his concept of “Fitness over Time”. As a classically trained physician/scientist there is clearly a place for more traditional metrics like blood pressure, serum lipids and the like, although they may, indeed, be an variable that is ultimately tied to fitness.

Where my thoughts on defining and measuring health seem to depart from most current trends is in the recognition that mental health–emotional wellbeing—is as much a part of being healthy as any other thing we might examine.

Think about it for just a moment. Most of what we would classify as mental illness has as many outward signs that we can see as diabetes and hypertension. Which is to say, none. Yet we—all of us, not just CrossFitters—see nothing but the good in treating diseases like diabetes openly and aggressively. There is no stigma attached to seeking care for your hypertension or your elevated LDL. To the contrary, if someone who loves you discovers you quit measuring your glucose before you bolus your insulin, they are for sure gonna get in your grill.

For whatever reason, mental illnesses, including addiction, are looked at quite differently. No one is asking the person with chronic depression whether she is taking her life-saving medication, for example. We might notice an insulin pump on a friend or family member, but then it’s quickly forgotten. Everyone seems to be very uncomfortable around the young man who has very obvious hand tremors from the life-saving medication he takes for his Bipolar disease. We all seem to be so much more understanding when we have to wait for a response from someone suffering from Parkinson’s Disease than from the young women who has the same symptoms as a side-effect from the medicine that quiets the dangerous thoughts in her head from Schizophrenia.

It’s not even necessary to look only at these kinds of severe mental illnesses when we are examining the importance of mental or emotional wellbeing as an integral part of being healthy. What good does it do to have a 5:00 mile, a 500 lb. deadlift, and a 1:59 “Fran” if it was self-loathing that drove you in the gym to get there? You may be quite accomplished, the envy of your peers, at the peak of whatever life mountain you wished to climb, and yet you cannot feel joy. How is it possible to be healthy without joy? I look at Usain Bolt and what I see is quite possibly the healthiest man alive. My friend Tim, the writer, tells me that Justin Gatlin has nearly everything that Bolt has—youth, fitness, wealth—but the combination of failure to knock off Bolt, and the public disapproval reigned on him as boos from the Rio stands has left him emotionally broken. It’s subtle, but if you look at his face in the blocks of the 100M Final it’s there.

Our complex and conflicted attitudes and feelings about mental illness are especially evident when the topic of suicide comes up. Just typing the word makes me uncomfortable. Even how we describe suicide is fraught with hidden meaning that reflects our discomfort: someone has “committed suicide”. Right? Someone committed an act that we simply cannot fathom, one that leaves the survivors completely without any understanding whatsoever. How could someone DO that? It’s as if every suicide is the same as the suicide of the crooked prison warden in The Shawshank Redemption when he looks out the window and sees his fate arrive in the front seat of a State Trooper’s car.

In reality most of the time it’s simply not like that at all. Nothing about it is simple at all.

The outer walls at the periphery of my world have been breeched by suicide twice in the last couple of months. One of them actually does feel a bit like that prison warden. Frankly, I am too conflicted, too aware of the external circumstances and not enough aware of the internal life of the deceased to offer much right now. The other one, however, just stopped me in my tracks when I heard. The loss was profound.It has also introduced to me a new vocabulary that I truly believe provides a starting line from which we can change how we think about not only suicide, but all of mental illness. A friendly acquaintance lost his wife when she was killed by suicide.

We don’t need to know all of the details of the story. Suffice it to say that in the face of a child’s illness she suffered quietly. Too quietly to be noticed. Perhaps she didn’t realize how badly she was suffering, or maybe she was like so many of us and couldn’t bring herself to see her illness for the life-threatening entity that it was. No one will ever know. What is clear, though, is that this was not anything about commitment. Kidney failure may be cause of death in a diabetic, but it is diabetes that kills him. There is no difference here. The cause of death was suicide. Her disease, her depression is what killed this young woman.

Each of us has a very few moments in our lifetimes that forever change us. On the second Tuesday of July in 2006, unbeknownst to me, one of those moments was transpiring in a lonely, dark corner. Joyfully, the moment was a beginning, not an ending. Regardless, once learning of the moment I was changed forever. Now I knew. You cannot see any marks from mental illness, no swollen appendage or insulin pump. But it is there all the same, and it must be acknowledged and accorded the same degree of care as any other disease that may take our loved ones from us. Mental illnesses are real, and they can be deadly. There ought not be any conflict or discomfort in treating them.

We may stop losing so many of our loved ones when start to see emotional wellbeing as part of being healthy.

 

Why Private Practice Survives

“I’m surprised these kind of places are still open.” –Physician employed by World Class Medical Center

“And yet, here you are, bringing your mother in for a visit.” Technician checking in mother.

In my day job I am an ophthalmologist, an eye doctor who takes care of medical and surgical diseases of the eye. Our practice, SkyVision Centers, is an independent practice, what is often referred to as a “private practice”. As such we are neither connected nor beholden to either of the large organizations here in Cleveland, both of which have large ophthalmology practices with offices near us. The mother in question was originally seen on a Sunday in my office through an ER call for a relatively minor (but admittedly irritating) problem that had been ongoing for at least a week.

That is not a typo; an ophthalmologist saw a non-acute problem on a Sunday.

Now Dr. Daughter swears that she tried to get her Mom in to see a doctor all the previous week. “She” even called our office (more in a moment) and was told all of the doctors were booked. Strictly speaking, the staff member who answered the phone was absolutely correct in noting that our schedules were full (actually they were quite over-booked in the pre-Holiday rush), and that we would not be able to see a patient who had never been to our office. Dr. Daughter works for a massive health system that advertises all over town–on billboards, in print, on the radio and online–that anyone can get a same-day appointment with any kind of doctor in the system, including an eye doctor. In fact, we saw several dozen existing patients that week for same-day requested ER or urgent visits with the urgency determined by the patient, not our triage staff.

What’s my point? Dr. Daughter never made a single phone call. She had one of her staff members call on behalf of her mother; neither I nor my staff is responsive to proxy calls from staff. I know Dr. Daughter and much of her extended family. Over 25 years practicing in the same geographic area and populating the same physician panels she has sent me barely a handful of patients, even though I care for a substantial majority of that extended family. Despite that my staff would have moved Heaven and earth to find a spot for Mrs. Mom if Dr. Daughter had called either my office or me personally.

I know what you’re thinking: Mrs. Mom would get in because her daughter is a doctor. Nope. Not the case. I may have taken Dr. Daughter’s phone call for that reason, sure, but Mrs. Mom gets an on-demand ER visit despite it being our busiest time of the year because she is the family member of other existing patients. We treat family members as if they are already SkyVision patients; we just haven’t officially met them yet.

Now you’re thinking “what does this have to do with private practice?” Without meaning to be either too snarky or self-congratulatory, this is precisely why private practice continues to not only survive, but in many cases thrive. We have the privilege of putting our patients first. Really doing it. Same day urgent visits? No need to put it up on a billboard; we just answer the phone and say ‘yes’. Lest you think we are simply filling empty slots, or that we have open ER slots we leave in the schedule just in case, let me assure you that this couldn’t be further from the truth. We. Are. Booked.

Well, it must be that we are so small that the personal touch is easy. Surely if we were huge we couldn’t get away with this. Sorry, wrong again. A bunch of my buddies are orthopedic surgeons in a massive private group on our side of town. Like 15 docs massive, with all of the staff you’d expect to go along with that many doctors. Got an orthopedic emergency? You’re in. You may not get the exact doctor you’ve seen before on that first visit, but you won’t be shunted to either an ER or an office an hour away, either. The staff members making appointments for a particular office are right there, sitting up front. The same goes for the enormous Retina practice that spans 4 counties here in Northeast Ohio. Ditto for the tiny little 3-man primary care practice up the street from me, lest you think only specialists do this.

The private practice of medicine survives because the doctors go to work for their patients, and they don’t leave until the work is done. Private practice docs bend their own rules on behalf of those patients. Every day and every night. You know what happens when private practices are acquired by massive medical groups like the two 800 lb. gorillas in Cleveland? All of those rules get made by people who don’t really take care of patients at all, and they never bend a single rule ever. Those former private practice doctors become shift workers beholden to an institution, no longer working for their patients at all.

That family doctor or specialist who was routinely asked on a daily basis if someone could be squeezed in is not only no longer asked, she doesn’t even know the question was there in the first place. Everything is handled by the institution’s call center, somewhere off in a lower rent district, with no sense of what is happening at that moment in the clinic. Your doctor might have a cancellation and a spot open to see your emergency. Indeed, if she’s been your doctor for a long time she would probably rather see you herself because that would make for better care.  But there are now someone else’s rules to follow, efficiencies to achieve so that they can be touted, and institutional numbers to hit.

“I’m surprised these kind of places are still open.”

“And yet, here you are, bringing your mother in for a visit.”

On her way out, after impatiently waiting while her mother thanked me profusely for seeing her when she was uncomfortable, Dr. Daughter extolled the virtues of her employer. Fixed hours. Minimal to no evening or weekend call duty. A magnificent pension plan that vests rather quickly. I should join up, she said. She was sure that World Class Medical Center would love to have me.

I smiled and wished her, her Mom, and the extended family a Happy Holiday Season. As I turned, shaking my head a bit, my technician put her hand on my arm.

“If you did that, who would take care of her Mom?”

Musings on “Exercise as Medicine”

The “exercise is medicine” movement is kind of a confusing thing. On the one hand we in CrossFit are the uber example of how exercise as an independent variable can enhance health. On the other we have the “Big Sugar” industry funding research and promoting the notion that exercise is all that you need, that there is no effect of nutrition on health. Train your way out of any kind of diet, if you will. This has led to the toxic effect of “BS” industry money supporting academic research that is in effect little more than marketing for their products. (Visit TheRussells.CrossFit.com for details). Indeed, the soda industry in particular has come in for some very pointed criticism which includes being accused of acting like the tobacco industry ( https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/food-matters/if-soda-companies-don-t-want-to-be-treated-like-tobacco-companies-they-need-to-stop-acting-like-them/ ). Pretty harsh, but probably deserved.

Here’s the rub: exercise really is a medicine equivalent for a very large number of medical problems. Heck, if it were only to work for cardiovascular health and Type 2 diabetes it would be considered, or should be considered, a miracle treatment. Not only that, but exercise very well might work independently of diet. While exercise should not be used as an excuse to consume a poor, dangerous diet, you may actually be able to at least partly out-train a poor diet to at least some degree.

In 2009 a study was published in the International Journal of Epidemiology (http://m.ije.oxfordjournals.org/content/39/1/197.full) examining the effect of aerobic exercise on longevity (hat tip to Michael Joyner, MD at Mayo). Mind you, the study was enrolled prior to the creation of the CrossFit fitness program (completed in 2003), so the definition of fitness (aerobic health) will be viewed as incomplete by CrossFitters since it includes only aerobic fitness. In addition, what is defined as an unhealthy diet would only partially pass muster here; we would agree that simple carbohydrates (sugars) are unhealthy, but there is a plethora of more recent data that strongly suggests that red meat and healthy fat do not render a diet worrisome in the least.

A careful reading of the study revealed a couple of nuggets that should not surprise even a little bit. Eating the unhealthiest diet was associated with a 40% increase in all-cause mortality in comparison with the healthiest diet. Those who ate that worst diet and reported that they did moderate or greater levels of exercise had a 13.5% decrease in mortality. That group of bad eaters who exercised and were proven on a modified cardiac stress test to actually have greater aerobic fitness levels had a 55% decrease in mortality. Let that sink in for a minute: people who ate a shitty diet who exercised to the degree that they were fit by the testing criteria in the study were half as likely to die in any period than those who were unfit.

Boom.

Frankly, I don’t care who funded this study. Eating a shitty diet that is high in sugar increases your risk of death by 40%. Proof. Exercise that produces improved fitness, even fitness that I would view as partial or incomplete, reduces all-cause mortality in people who eat a diet high in sugar by more than half. Proof. Yeah, sure, I get that this could be used to justify or excuse eating that way, but the reality has always been that most people don’t exercise at all. Nada. Bupkis. Those who do certainly don’t achieve much in the way of any kind of fitness because they don’t exercise effectively—saying you exercise only got you a 15% decrease in mortality, after all. These results only apply if you get fitness results, and let’s face it, working hard at exercise is not the default setting in the developed world. By comparison eating better is a breeze.

Studies such as this one are mint, man. Especially to people like me, people who follow the CrossFit Rx and other programs that ask you to work hard. It’s exercise AND nutrition. Says so in the study. Sure, we can pick at this one if we want, like I did above, but my bid is that we use studies such as this one as talking points to prove that our worldview is the gold standard by which all public health initiatives ought to be compared. We can turn the cynical “exercise is medicine” campaign of “BS” on its head and use their own data against them. Eat like a CrossFitter (protein, nuts and seeds, little starch, no sugar). Exercise like a CrossFitter (functional movements performed at relatively high intensity). Seek ever-higher levels of fitness (work capacity across broad time and modal domains) like we do.

“Exercise is medicine” is just fine as long as we continue to call BS on “BS”. Health requires both exercise AND nutrition. People who are fit, especially physicians, are just the right people to tell that story.

 

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