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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.

 

Population Health v10.0

There is a certain arrogance in the academy, that vaunted group of professors who opine righteously from afar about pretty much anything they study. Add to that the well-known arrogance of youth with its inherent disregard for any and all history which transpired before the youthful reached the age of cognition and you have either a toxic combination of ignorance and impetuosity, or simply a laughably vacuous collection of paper thin pontification. Such is the case with a series of statements quoted yesterday morning from a lecture given by a young academic physician on the state of population or public health in America. He posits that there is a new movement toward moving healthcare from inpatient to outpatient. There is an equally new and heretofore unseen effort to make people healthy rather than treat them when they are not. This young doctor is calling his observations Population Health v1.0.

I’m calling it Bullshit.

The lecture in question was being live-Tweeted, but that is probably the only thing about the subject matter that can reasonably be v1.anything. Instantly available dissemination of medical information to a general audience is a truly new phenomenon. With it comes the danger of the wider audience simply accepting the information since it comes from an “expert”. However, along with the relatively naive broader audience we thankfully have a small subset that is either a) informed enough on the topic to offer a “con” opinion, or b) simply old enough to remember that there is a deep and meaningful history that predates what the young expert is proposing as new. Count me as able to check c) both of the above.

Population Health is simply a better term for what historically has been known as Public Health. While Public Health typically connotes some sort of governmental involvement, Population Health is a more inclusive, more powerful concept because it includes not only government programs but also private initiatives of all kinds. Public Health typically equates to top-down implementation of global governmental policy, whereas Population Health covers everything from large for-profit publicly traded companies to the tiniest solo-practice pediatrician. In fairness to the speaker (and in a kind of peace offering for what is to come) I do think his choice of a label is spot on. The rest of his thesis and its development? Not so much.

There is literally nothing new in the entire exposition. How can you call anything v1.0, the first iteration of something that is truly new, if everything that is used as an example is simply today’s version of yesterday’s news. Let’s start with his primary assertion, that there is a new move afoot in which healthcare is only now being provided in the outpatient, rather than the inpatient, setting. This can’t be a doctor who is taking care of any patients in the real world. It is long been the exception rather than the rule that a majority of surgeries take place in an outpatient setting. Heck, 99.9% of eye surgeries have occurred in this setting since the 1980′s. So, too, for invasive testing like colonoscopy, bronchoscopy and cardiac catheterizations of all kinds. It would be much more accurate to state that we are in the end game phase of this transition, v10.0 if you will. For crying out loud, this is such a mature part of the evolution of healthcare in America that any essence of patient-centered care that would require an admission to a hospital is dismissed outright, one more nail in the coffin of that now meaningless label.

How about the assertion that we are only now engaging in a concerted effort to improve the health of our population as opposed to simply treating various maladies? This one kills me. Really? All of a sudden the entire healthcare/government/industry axis is only now finally seeking to improve the general health of our people by preventing illness? Now, in 2016, we have population health v1.0?! That’s laughable. If our young scholar is anything like yours truly, the last stop he made before making his way to the lectern was the loo. HeLOOOoh. Indoor plumbing anyone? You can make a sincere argument that v1.0 of population health efforts occurred a hundred hears ago with the introduction of the kitchen sink and the toilet.

If we confine our discussion to matters more purely medical any reasonable view must acknowledge the tremendous life-saving effect of mass vaccinations for childhood illnesses. Smallpox, polio, and measles each killed hundreds of thousands every year before the advent of widespread vaccination programs. Even efforts which we would now condemn like the sequestration of TB patients in sanitariums must be considered a type of population health program. Despite our modern day fetish with privacy issues, the near elimination of syphilis  in the Western world through mandatory case reporting and contact notification cannot be forgotten or ignored.

When we talk of Population Health in this day and age we are typically talking about mitigating the effects of modern society. Indeed, in cases such as nutrition, we are actually talking about undoing the adverse effects of prior Population Health efforts. The U.S. government either simply got it wrong, or was led awry by a cynical effort by food producers who surreptitiously funded self-serving research. No matter. We are now in possession of a sedentary, overweight population susceptible to once less common diseases that now run rampant. There is little argument that the healthcare community should engage in the effort to keep people healthy as well as treat them when they are not. The notion that this is something truly new is a fanciful notion bred of what must be purposeful historical ignorance.

So, Population Health v1.0? Hardly. A process that arguably began with the invention of the flush toilet cannot be labeled new, no matter how good this makes a speaker, a system sound, or a concept sound. Those who fail to study history may be doomed to repeat it, though in this case there really is no need to do so. Acknowledge the past, make a sincere effort to place your idea in its appropriate slot in that history, and then make a case for your proposal. Have a little humility. There’s nothing wrong with being v10.0. Especially if it works.

 

 

 

 

 

A Quick Thought on Measuring Health

Thoughts I’m thinking while following a vacuous, arrogant, self-congratulatory, and epically ignorant of history exposition on public health over on my Twitter feed…

It seems as if the entire world is in search for the magic metric that will allow us to measure, and then manipulate, health. Frankly, I’m stuck in my own search for a metric that combines Fitness (as defined by Greg Glassman), traditional western medical measurements (serum lipids, BP, waist/hip, etc.), and emotional well-being. Wouldn’t it be something if all you needed to do was accurately measure your pulse? What if your pulse, one of the easiest things to measure there is–all you need is a second hand and the ability to count–could predict everything about your health with the exception of bad karma stuff like depression or cancer? More than that, what if you then could be told what your pulse pattern needed to be and how to effect that?

In Scandinavia a long-term study was done on men looking at specific variations in pulse. Resting, peak, speed to peak, speed to recovery and the like were all recorded, and cardiac events/deaths were then analyzed against the data. The result of this research was a proprietary algorithm, the PAI (owned by a company called Mio Global) that posits a direct association between specific pulse patterns and longevity. Indeed, they boldly state that a PAI of 100 equals up to 10 additional years of life, presumably free of decrepitude (reflecting my CrossFit-affected view of life). Imagine for a moment how earth-shaking this would be. Having an actionable metric for health, especially one that is as easily accessible as your pulse, would allow us to critically evaluate a majority of health interventions available.

Nothing is that simple of course, but it is quite easy to envision a pyramid of health, not unlike our CrossFit pyramid of fitness, with a base that consists of your PAI. Layer on whatever you please, but the smart money is that something that looks an awful lot like CrossFit’s 100 words of fitness will be in there somewhere.

I’m off to take my pulse and then do a WOD.

 

Wellbeing Is Part of Being Healthy

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 a 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 anything else 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 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 that you stopped measuring your glucose before you bolus your insulin, they are for sure gonna get in your grill.

For whatever reason, mental illnesses 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 those same symptoms as a side-effect from the medicine that quiets the dangerous thoughts in her head from Schizophrenia.

It’s not 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 Olympic 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. He looks out the window and sees his fate arrive in the front seat of a State Trooper’s car, and swallows his revolver.

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 weeks. One of them, close to my age, actually does feel a bit like that prison warden. Frankly, I am too conflicted, too aware of the external circumstances involved and not enough aware of the internal life of the deceased to offer much right now. The other one, however, 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 the cause of death in a diabetic, but it is diabetes that kills him. There is no difference here. The cause of her 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 hopeful beginning, not a tragic 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 to clue you in. 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. There ought not be any conflict or discomfort in seeking treatment.

We may stop losing so many of our loved ones when start to see emotional wellbeing as part of being healthy. When treating mental illness is as much of a non-event as injecting insulin for diabetes.

Customer Service: The Ohio DMV vs. Your Eye Doctor

It was the smile Ms. DMV Lady. No question, the smile told me that you chose to ruin my day when you had a lay-up chance to make my whole weekend, that you did it on purpose, and that it made you incredibly happy. In any other circumstances I’m sure I would have smiled back at you; that’s what other human beings tend to do when they see such unbridled joy on someone else’s face.

That trip back was my third one to the DMV, but there was no way for you to know that. You did see me on the second one, though, and you clearly remembered me. I forgot my license at home so I couldn’t do what I needed to do to transfer the title for my tiny little beater of a boat. Not only that, but there was nothing you could do to help me at that point, and I totally understood that. It was my fault entirely, so I didn’t ask anything of you on that visit because I knew that there was no way that you could help me, no matter how much you might have wanted to on that particular visit. I was really frustrated for sure, but I didn’t direct any of that at you, or anyone in the DMV.

Nope, it was the return visit where you could have made my day. My wife and I hurried home, got my ID and then hustled back. Did you notice that? Did you notice that we were both there? It’s really hard to free up two people who work full-time during your hours of operation. Definitely not your fault, that. We’d already tried to pull this off the week before and been thwarted, and here we were back for a second time with you, third time total. Now was your chance. We approached the desk with obvious relief on our faces. If we were successful this time we would still have to visit the DMV one more time (you only do titles; another location would do the license), but at least only one of us would need to take off work. You took the title transfer again–you looked at it in detail the first time and couldn’t possibly have missed this–and told us that the previous owner had filled it out incorrectly. He signed it in his name alone, instead of his name as “trustee”. That’s it; he forgot to put “trustee”.  You could have tipped us off before we went home for the license. You could have just noted it and let it pass. Nope. You said that we would have to bring it to him to fix before you could transfer the title.

We were equal parts dumbfounded and devastated, and it showed clearly on our faces. Here it was again, your chance to make our day. There was nothing nefarious about the prior owner’s mistake; it was a simple oversight in how he described the ownership. God, it was such an easy fix. It was right there, right in front of you for the taking. I held out my hands and pleaded softly and quietly for mercy. No disrespect toward you or your staff or your department, and no sense of entitlement or demand for action. A very simple request and a very quiet plea that we had acted in good faith. Your response? “You forgot your ID the first time, Sir.” I simply held out my ID and very softly said “but I went home and got it without saying anything, and here I am. Please, we’re really trying hard here and really could’t know.”

It’s a legal document was all you said. You had a duty to protect the State of Ohio, you said. It was then that I responded, still quite quietly mind you. I shared that the couple you had just chosen not to help were a doctor and a nurse. That we routinely put our family second as we care for patients in need. Nights, weekends…no matter. I asked if I could fill out your customer service survey, either on paper or online, explaining that I am evaluated on the care I provide and the experience that my patients have under my care. Oh my…the look on your face was priceless. Utter shock. Not once in your life, it seemed, had it ever occurred to you that it would be possible that you would be accountable to your customers. “We don’t have anything like that, Sir.”

Then came the smile.

Seldom have I witnessed such a pure, unadulterated expression of joy. You had chosen to ruin my day, and having succeeded you were not just pleased, you were infused with a visceral joy. It started in your eyes as realization crept in, and then it spread to every muscle in your face. Like I said above, it was the kind of smile that is almost always returned by another human being; we are wired to share such joy, after all. Alas, ’twas not to be for you and me. It was all I could do not to vomit on your threshold when you somehow found the strength to break through the grip of your ecstasy to wish me a nice day.

You will see me again, Ms. DMV Lady. Three times we’ve tried to get our little 1971 boat licensed, and it looks like we will need to make two more stops to accomplish that. It most certainly won’t be at your particular DMV location, though. Just thinking about that makes me nauseous all over again. No, you will see me again on my turf, as a patient. Karma, if nothing else, is imbued with a keen understanding of irony, a truly wicked sense of humor. In all likelihood it won’t really be me, personally. Even karma would find that too outlandish, an irony simply too delicious to believe. In reality you will need someone who does what I do, and you will need them in a manner and a sense that is identical to how I needed you.

I noticed that you are very nearsighted, and you have an inflammatory disease of your eyelids called blepharitis that often causes an acute type of particularly unsightly pinkeye (you are not my patient; this is not a HIPPA violation). Perhaps your son is getting married this weekend like mine. You didn’t know that, did you?  No, of course not. You broke your 3 year old glasses. Your prescription is out of date and you can’t just walk in to Lenscrafters and get a new pair, and your vision insurance only covers me. It would be a shame to have to wear broken glasses to enjoy this wonderful day. Or maybe that ugly, uncomfortable pinkeye bubbled up and there you are all red and gooey, two days before the whole fam damly shows up for the wedding. Nether one is truly an emergency, and failing to take care of either one right away will not cause you any harm whatsoever.

Let’s make it even more realistic. You know, like my return trip to your office. Let’s say it’s just before closing time, and the only way to get your glasses or your medicine is if a doctor gives the OK to see you right away. No matter what you see on the billboard, you won’t get an appointment at the Cleveland Clinic or UH. No, it will be a private doc like me. We always try to help. The Doc will know your story. How? Well, through our staff we always know the story because it always makes a difference. Would it have mattered to you that the reason I so desperately wanted that boat licensed was so that my son–the one getting married–could take his cousins and his friends out on his wedding weekend? We’ll never know; you didn’t ask.

There you will sit with your non-emergent problem that is only barely even urgent except for how much it means to you personally. Do you have any idea how easily the doctor and staff can slow-roll this even now, after you are in the office? They can follow protocols to the letter, check every preferred practice pattern box and follow every single insurance billing protocol, your chart and super bill as clean and proper as the illustration of a perfect boat title as you wait for your insurance to authorize your vision care visit, or pre-approve your expensive branded medication, and ruin your weekend.

In short, they could be you, ignoring the very real person with the very real need who stands before them asking for help. Or they can see you, hear you, and so easily choose to help you. Which, of course, is exactly what they would do. They will call the insurance company to get your Rx authorized, or they will give you samples of the medicine to carry you until you get pre-approval. Because you see, Ms. DMV Lady, that’s what every single one of us is supposed to do when we are on the other side of the desk from someone who needs our help and we are truly, safely, and easily in the position to choose to help them. It’s the decent thing that decent people do for others. When they can either make your day or ruin your day, it never crosses their mind that they even have a choice. It’s funny, when they know a little more about how meaningful it is to you that they helped, they really feel good about that.

Which is why after you have been helped, after you get what not only what you need but what you really want, you will be surrounded by people with the huge smiles of joy that come from doing the right thing. You’ll undoubtedly smile back.

Will you know why?

 

 

 

 

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