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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?

 

 

 

 

Equal Pay for Equal Work: Medicine is the Perfect Laboratory

The endless debates about the “Pay Gap” between men and women in the United States drones on. Today is “Equal Pay Day”, kinda like “Tax Day”, the day when you stop paying the government and instead start paying yourself, only it’s the day when the “average” woman supposedly has to wait for before she starts to make what a man makes. It all makes for great spectacle and epic barstool arguments for the same reason that people argue about who’s greater, Michael or Elgin, Kareem or Russell, The Babe or Barry: there is no proper, standard way to measure the issue at hand. On a barstool arguing “greatest ever” you never agree on either the definition of “greatest”, nor can you account for the vast differences in historical eras.

So it is with the pay gap. No one agrees on what constitutes work, let alone equal work.

This creates the maddening situation in which we find ourselves now whenever this comes up for discussion. Absent a meaningful definition of either “work” or “equal” we are left with folks on all possible sides of the issue simply choosing whatever statistic will support their deeply held beliefs about the issue. It’s crazy, actually. I read a dozen citations today and each one was so deeply flawed that it couldn’t stand the scrutiny of the middle if you velcroed it to the  50 yard line. Work is invariably conflated with “hours worked” with no discernible effort made to investigate something like intensity, or the measurable work performed per unit of time. “Equal” work is just a quagmire of competing opinions with, again, no effort whatsoever at objective measurement. How can you have a discussion that is meant to conclude with some sort of actionable agreement when all you do is pull numbers out of the ether and throw them at each other?

While engaging in a sorta, kinda conversation about this on Twitter it struck me that I actually live and work in the perfect laboratory to investigate the issue of the Pay Gap between men and women. You see, we have reams of objective data that can be evaluated. We all, men and women, do exactly the same things if we have the same jobs. Not only that but we have a unit of measurement for that work, the RVU. If Dr. Darrell does a cataract surgery and Dr. Dora does a cataract surgery, we have both done the same job. We can even determine the “intensity” of our work, our output if you will. A simple survey of hours worked per day can generate the metric: RVU/hour. Better yet, don’t take my word for it in a survey, just look at that heretofore meaningless and useless EMR and look at the measured time Darrell and Dora took to do their work. The OR record is a precise measurement of how much work we did per unit of time.

This is powerful stuff. Work is defined. An appendectomy is an appendectomy. A Level 4 New Patient Office Encounter is a Level 4…you get the idea. You get to compare apples to apples, heck, you get to compare Honeycrisp apples to Honeycrisp apples. It doesn’t matter if you are a man or woman or transgender. White, Black, Brown, Yellow, Red (did I miss anyone?), Millennial, Boomer and everything in between, work is work and an RVU is an RVU. Heck, you could gather all of the information about the work without anyone knowing who did it until after it’s all together. We could have a big unveiling when we lift the blinders and see who did what and how much they did. Seriously, how cool is this? It would almost be like science.

Let’s do be a bit serious for a moment. Imagine what kind of information we could acquire and what kinds of questions we could ask and answer. For sure there will be very reasonable concerns about how much we will be able to extrapolate from medicine to other areas of employment (advertising, investment banking, etc.), but it’s a great place to start. The question of the Gender Gap is primary, but how about looking at work across the generations. There is a “feeling” in medicine, certainly among crusty old folks in my generation, that younger physicians of both genders work fewer hours and do less work per hour when they do work. Is that true? It sure looks like it would be easy to answer that one, too.

There are actually a number of other issues in medicine that would be clarified if we had this kind of data, at least insofar as the work done is concerned. For example, how do private practitioners stack up against salaried physicians in large groups? Is there a correlation between how those salaries are determined and the intensity of work done? We can also look at value, work done per dollar paid (again, assuming equal outcomes). Where are we getting the best bang for our buck? For that matter, with the EMR’s that never sleep we can actually look at the responsiveness of doctors to their patients in urgent or emergent circumstances. Is there one group (men vs. women, private practice vs. employed) who are more responsive?

Having a discussion that is based on hard definitions of terms and data-driven rather than belief-driven opens up a whole world of meaningful inquiry.

Once upon a time I was among the highest paid physicians in the U.S. I worked insane hours, and the intensity of my hourly output was off the charts. In a word, I earned every penny I made, and the fact that I made more than another ophthalmologist had nothing to do with the fact that I was a man. Funny thing though–I now make a fraction of what I once made because I don’t work as much as I once did. The intensity of my work is similar; I still do as much work per unit of time, and my ability to perform at this high level of intensity is still greater than 95% of my peers, I just work fewer hours. What are we to say about women who do what I do, work more hours than I do, and yet do less work? Is there a gender gap in pay if I make more money than they do? What are we to say about my ambitious female colleagues who work more hours than I and work at the same intensity? I’m firmly stating that they should make more than I do. Is that the reality on the ground?

In medicine we have the ability to answer this question in a very objective, non-ideological way. I don’t know if what we find will be something we can extrapolate to other jobs, especially if we find that pay is directly related to actual work done in a domain where work can be both defined and measured. But hey, it’s a start. And it’s way better than just playing emotional whack-a-mole with how we value what we all do.

 

Measuring Health Part 4: Fitness ‘F’

Health should be defined along the lines of individual human potential. An actionable definition would go something like “the ability to live at the limits of your fullest potential without any encumbrance now or in a foreseeable future”. Fitness as defined by Greg Glassman and CrossFit–work capacity across broad time and modal domains–should therefore be seen as “applied health”. As such, since fitness at any given time is an accurate measurement of one’s functional ability, our variable ‘F’ should have the heaviest weighting in our Health Index.

Let us begin our discussion of Fitness by reviewing and dispelling several myths and misconceptions about the interrelation between health and fitness. First, is it really necessary to review all of the date which now stares us in the face as far as the importance of exercise in health? By the same token, it should be clear to any sentient being that not only is what we eat important (although we must concede that this may differ across populations) but how much?  Simple carbohydrates, manufactured substances meant to cheaply replace real food, harmful (trans-) fats–it doesn’t matter what KIND of nutrition plan you follow, these are all BAD. As I write this I am recovering from surgery and I am not able to exercise. Does anyone believe that I will NOT gain useless weight if I maintain my pre-operative food intake? This part isn’t rocket science, folks. Coach Glassman says it as well as anyone: “Eat [protein] and vegetables, nuts and seeds, some fruit, little starch, and no sugar. Keep intake to levels that will support exercise but not body fat.”

Next up is the canard that fitness is simply being able to do something for a very long time. This view, promulgated and propagated by the likes of Outside Magazine and others, is not only insufficient but has been shown to be false as well. In the last couple of years there have been a number of very important studies showing a degradation of heart function in so-called “Ultra” athletes in any area. Decreased cardiac output and an increase in cardiac arrhythmias such as atrial fibrillation have been shown to be caused by excess endurance training. Endurance as the sole defining characteristic of fitness is as incomplete as would be strength. One need only look at the life expectancy of the strongest humans on record to see that strength in and of itself is not sufficient to produce health.

The question of what constitutes fitness is one that has been answered, at least insofar as health is concerned. It is not enough to be able to run or bike or swim long distances if you cannot also lift heavy things, including your own body. In the same vein one is not truly fit if one can deadlift or squat 3X his or her own bodyweight but cannot run a mile in under 15:00. One must have some measure of BOTH. As such the inescapable conclusion is that Greg Glassman is correct when he says that fitness equals work capacity across broad time and modal domains. You must be able to lift heavy things over a short distance when necessary, but also possess the ability to carry lighter things a longer way for a longer time as well. While I am not naive enough to expect that this will be accepted without spirited debate, when it comes to any measurements of health now available, all arguments to the contrary are not supportable. Glassman has won this battle.

As an aside, this should once and for all put to rest the myth of the “healthy obese”. What good is it to be happy, ‘W’ off the charts, with a stratospheric ‘M’ because all of your bloodwork is perfect, to go with your BP of 120/70, if your joints will cave under pressure decades sooner than they need to? You simply cannot escape the reality that health requires physical fitness.

If fitness can be described as “applied health”, it stands to reason that it will have the greatest contribution to our eventual Health Index. As such it is especially important that our chosen tests meet the criteria outlined in Part 1, that the measurement be as broadly accessible in all ways as possible. In the purest sense we would be able to measure an individual’s “work capacity”, the totality of his or her expression of fitness as measured by many tests covering different loads, distances traveled, and time. In CrossFit we talk of this as the “area under the curve” of a graph that records Power (lbs-ft. per second) on the X axis and Time (in minutes) on the Y. In a perfect world this would be part of every individuals ongoing pursuit of health, but alas, even in the CrossFit world where a very committed everyone records everything, this has proven to be problematic. In designing a series of tests to be applied to the broadest possible swath of humanity this ideal must yield to a more pragmatic approach.

What, then, should we measure, and how? Let us first propose a couple of general characteristics of the tasks in our test and then see what fits the bill. We should test an individual’s ability to move from one place to another under their own power–running is a fundamental human trait and should be part of our evaluation. Likewise, the ability to pick something up off the ground is a pretty basic, everyday movement and would qualify as our test of strength. Lastly, in the U.S. we have a storied heritage from the 1960′s, The Presidential Council Fitness Challenge (PCFC), in which candidates are tested on their ability to perform calisthenic exercises for both speed and endurance. It would be fitting to include something that evokes this historical element.

Once again I anticipate a vigorous debate about the particular elements we include. I’ll go first. We can reward both speed and endurance by starting with a timed run in which the result is distance traveled. The most common example of this comes from athletic programs and the military: a 12:00 timed run for distance. We live in the U.S.; the unit is yards. Pick up something heavy? Sure sounds like a deadlift to me. Any deadlift you wish, standard or sumo, will do. My bias is that a lifting belt is just fine, but except in very special circumstances (e.g. one-armed subject) I would say that straps to help you grip the bar are not a good idea, especially for the very inexperienced subject.

After giving considerable thought to the exercises and format in the original PCFC I think we should simplify the test while at the same time bringing it into the modern fitness world. In the PCFC one sought a maximum number of reps in 2:00 of pull-ups, 2:00 of sit-ups, and 2:00 of push-ups. What exactly are we testing with sit-ups that reflects true fitness? I would favor swapping out sit-ups for air squats. With a nod to CrossFit and Greg Glassman’s outsized contributions to this discussion, let’s use the format made famous by the CrossFit WOD “Cindy” with a small adjustment. To test our subject’s ability to perform bodyweight movements and move quickly, repeats of the triplet of 5 pull-ups, 10 push-ups, and 15 air squats in 6:00, counting as our result the total number of repitions achieved.

There you have it. A definition of “Health” and “Healthy”. The introduction of the three variables that go into the measurement of “Health”: traditional medical values ‘M’, emotional well-being ‘W’, and Fitness ‘F’. Next I will address how we will value each of these measures, and then ultimately how they will be combined to give us a meaningful, actionable health measurement ‘H’.

 

Measuring Health Part 3: Emotional Well-Being “W”

2016 is an Olympic year. We will hear stories, as we do in every Olympic cycle, of the extraordinary physical accomplishments of Olympians in sports which require otherworldly amounts of what we in the CrossFit world would consider “Fitness”. Strength, speed, and agility. Uncanny feats of coordination and accuracy, some performed over distances and times that are so far beyond the reach of the average human as to defy credulity. Many of these athletes, certainly the ones we will meet through the intercession of NBC, will match our expectations of the happiness that must certainly accompany such outsized achievements. Mary Lou Retton, anyone? Indeed, what we will see on our screens will fairly scream “Healthy”.

But there will be others, too. And for all of their physical fitness, expressed so dramatically for our viewing pleasure and patriotic zeal, the lack of emotional health will make it obvious to anyone that they are not healthy. Bruce Jenner, anyone?

Remember our proposed definition of “Healthy”: Able to perform in all ways at the farthest limits of one’s potential capabilities. Health is therefore the state in which no infirmity is, or can in the future, impede this ability to fulfill a potential. It takes but a moment to think of how mental illnesses such as depression, bi-polar disease, and schizophrenia can be hidden from view when examining only physical metrics. There are examples all around us. The woman who partners with a 1400 pound horse in the rigorous, physical tasks required to compete in the three-part test that is eventing, so poised and accomplished in the arena, who retreats to solitude outside the barn because she is incapable of overcoming her anxiety around people. The outdoorsman who in his manic phase performs feats of strength and endurance others can only marvel at, and then plunges into the depths of depression from which he cannot see the noon-day sun. Much more prosaic and much more common is the individual who continually increases his or her fitness by any and all measurements due to a deeply held sense of low self-worth, perhaps even self-loathing, pursuing an unreachable ideal and always falling short.

A truly universal measurement of health must include some element of emotional well-being. Let’s call it “W”. You could certainly call it the “Happiness Factor”, and some undoubtedly will. I imagine criticism directed toward this to take the form of “Happy Face” mockery. No matter. Well-Being is a better term for this part of our equation because it encompasses more than whether or not you are happy, whatever happy may mean to you, when you are measured. Are you content with your circumstances at the moment? Do you have the ability to persevere under duress?  What is the state of your relationships? A recent study of Harvard men carried out over decades found that both happiness and longevity were tied quite closely to the quantity and quality of your relationships with family and friends. Where are you in your pursuit of your goals, your dreams, and how do you feel about that? How much stress do you perceive in your life and how are you managing that? All of these make up what one might think of when we consider Well-Being.

How, then, should we go about measuring ‘W’? Remember, all of our tests should meet the dual imperatives of being accessible to pretty much everyone, and as inexpensive as possible. We could certainly use something like the classic anesthesia “smily face” pain scale, relabeling the figures, but this feels too simplistic and too momentary to be truly applicable. Our measurement should require a bit more thought than that. I have to admit here to countless hours of internet crawling trying to find a validated test of emotional well-being that has a track record in a heterogenous group that mirrors our population; most have been utilized in very specialized populations (e.g. soldiers) with a very specific research interest. Those that might apply must typically be purchased.

John Pinto is a well-regarded consultant in the world of my day job, ophthalmology. He has long had a list of clients that spans the gamut of pretty much every measurement you could think of in a group of doctors. Men and women. Young and old. Fantastically successful doctors and those that could only be described as spectacular (if unexpected) failures. As part of his quest to better understand his clients in order to better serve them, John used a questionnaire that measured emotional well-being. He found that external measurements of success such as volume of surgeries, income, and professional acclaim did not always coincide with his clients sense of success, their emotional valuation of their professional lives. These were certainly variables that mattered, but his happiest clients were not always his wealthiest, and his least happy not always those who had less. The assessment he used is the best one that I’ve been able to find, notwithstanding the fact that it is not free.

(http://psychcorp.pearsonassessments.com/HAIWEB/Cultures/en-us/Productdetail.htm?Pid=PAg511 ).

I am not wedded to the Psychcorp assessment and would happily review any alternatives. Especially if they are free! As is the case with ‘M’, our traditional health metrics like blood pressure and serum lipids, I expect a vigorous debate as to the relative weight of ‘W’ in our final Health Index. My bias is that ‘W’ is a current factor with a greater impact on health, and it should have a correspondingly greater weight in our formula. Let me start the “bidding” with double; however the final formula shakes out ‘W’ should have twice the value of ‘M’.

Mental health is an inextricable part of health. It must be included in any serious definition and measurement of health. Our variable is “Well-Being” or ‘W’.

 

The Other Side of the Stethoscope: A Surgeon Undergoes Surgery

You know you have a problem when T’ai chi hurts. Quite a come down for a guy who’s been doing CrossFit for 10+ years to be so uncomfortable that this ancient Chinese exercise causes enough discomfort that I have to sit down. Oh, it’s nothing exotic or even interesting. I have a companion sports hernia to the one that was fixed 16 years ago (note for CrossFit haters: 6 years prior to discovering CrossFit) to go with a couple of inguinal hernias. A quick little visit to Dr. Google reminds me that weakness in the pelvic floor is an inherited trait. I have a very vivid memory of my Dad joining us for a golf boondoggle wearing a monstrous, medieval apparatus called a truss to hold his hernia in while he played. Again, not CrossFit-related, but definitely messing with my CrossFit Rx for health.

It’s really weird being a patient. On the other side of the stethoscope as it were. I’m not under any illusions that my experience is a run-of-the-mill patient experience. After all, I’m a mid-career specialist who is going to have surgery at the hospital where I’ve operated for 25+ years, one that is run by my own internist and good friend. My surgeon was chosen after talking with the surgical assistants who see everyone operate. They told me who THEY would let operate on themselves and their families. My pre-op testing was arranged around my schedule in a way that was most convenient for me, the patient, and not the hospital, surgeon, or system. I picked my surgical date to coincide with a planned 4-day weekend.

Like I said, not your typical experience heading into surgery.

Nonetheless, this whole patient thing is strange. As a surgeon I am accustomed to being in control of any aspect of the surgical process I care to be involved in. Whether to do surgery and what kind of surgery to do are decisions in my hands. My herniacopia surgery? Not so much. I know that my surgeon is planning laparoscopic surgery, and that both inguinal hernias will be fixed for sure. There’s no way to know the extent of their effect on my most pressing symptoms (see what I did there?), but now that I know they are present I am hyper aware of what they are doing to me in addition to my presenting symptoms. Here’s the rub: I am convinced that it is the Spygelian or sports hernia that’s messing with me, but since it is not obvious on my pre-op CT scan my surgeon is not promising that it will be fixed. There are few things more distressing to a surgeon than not being in control of surgery, and despite all of the wonderful advantages I enjoy because of who I am, what I do, and where it’s happening, this side of the stethoscope is distressing.

What’s the big deal, then? He doesn’t see a hernia he feels is worthy of attention and only does the 2 basic, standard issue inguinal hernias. Less surgery is better than more, right? Sure. Of course it is. Unless it’s not, and that’s the big deal. I had discomfort and weakness as a 40 year old due to a Spygelian hernia on the left side. That hernia was diagnosed by a classic old-school general surgeon without any fancy imaging tests. Just an eerily well-placed index finger and a loudly yelped “YES” when he asked me “does it hurt right here?”, and off to the OR. Why he didn’t fix both sides then I’ll never know, because it was only a matter of time until the right shoe dropped.

Although CrossFit did not cause any of these problems it was definitely CrossFit that let me know I had a problem. Not only that, but it is precisely my performance, both degree and detail, that has convinced me that the Spygelian hernia is enough of an issue to fix. We measure everything in CrossFit. Time, weight, reps. We compare our results with previous efforts as a way of evaluating our fitness, and to some degree to monitor the quality of our workout programming. Gradually, over the course of 12 months or so, I have lost the ability to brace and maintain my mid-line with my abdominal muscles. In a classic cascade of calamity my secondary pelvic support muscles–gluteus medeus, piriformis, obturator, and that rat-bastard the extensor fascia lata–took over and eventually began to fail. At first it was just a little discomfort, followed by a little weakness, ending up in constant cramping and pain in all of them. At this time last year I pulled a lifetime PR in the deadlift; this weekend I could barely do reps at bodyweight.

The first place I felt pain was in that tiny little area that old-school doc poked so many years ago.

Meh. Tough spot, for me or any other patient. I’m not bringing unrefereed information from the internet to the game. I had this same thing 16 years ago, and I have objective data from my CrossFit gym that supports my contention. How best to present this to my surgeon? In this regard I am little different than anyone else with pre-op questions. At our initial visit together I laid out my symptoms and my history. During our post-CT phone call I reiterated my concern about not fixing the Spygelian hernia, however small it might be on direct visualization. Not gonna lie, the thought of having the surgery and continuing to have the same issues when I exercise makes me nauseous.

What’ll I do? Well, I guess this is the place where I really am just like everyone else when it comes to being on this side of the stethoscope. I will just have to have confidence in the surgeon I chose that he will do everything that needs to be done to solve my problem. After all, just like anyone else, I’ll be asleep while it’s going on. Kinda tough to have any input right then, ya know? It will be weeks before I will be able to really test out my results, and those weeks will likely be filled with all sorts of exotic physical therapy exercises geared toward strengthening my abs and accessory muscles, and getting my gluteus maximus to start firing again. Turns out my pain in the ass has actually been a pain in the ass…your glutes turn off in response to losing the ability to brace with your abs.

I am SO ready for this to be fixed, and I’m thinking I feel pretty good about how it’s all going to turn out. If not, well, I’m sure I’ll at least be able to enjoy pain free T’ai chi. My surgeon will undoubtedly take my concerns to heart when he is doing my surgery. After all, we will still share the same side of the stethoscope after the surgery is done.

Measuring Health Part 2:The Traditional Metric ‘M’

Any measurement of health must provide some sort of predictive value with regard to the likelihood that one will remain healthy. While the entire idea of screening tests is fraught with controversy–both false positives and false negatives bring with them real risks–there are still a number of health measurements in the realm of traditional medical care that have a proven value when trying to predict downstream adverse health events. The trick, of course, is to decide which ones matter, filter that group to come up with tests that are as close to universally available as possible, and then decide how much weight each particular test in the group of survivors should receive in the single cumulative metric that is then created. This measurement, call it “M”, will be one of the variables in our calculated health measurement.

Let’s start with the simplest of all medical inquiries, a medical history. More specifically, let’s include a brief family history in our calculation of M. While it is becoming increasingly easy to obtain a very accurate genetic profile that identifies very specific health risks, these genetic tests are both controversial and expensive. Until the very real societal issues of knowing your exact genome and the risks it includes have been worked out by both ethicists and elected government, we should take a simpler and more narrow approach and ask two very simple questions: Has anyone in your family died from heart disease? Has anyone in your family died from cancer? Equally simple follow-up questions (How young were they? What kind of cancer) would allow us to add risk (reduce M) or ignore the historical note since the disease is not hereditary.

From here we move to an equally spartan individual medical history. Again, just two questions in this part: Do you smoke? Do you drink alcohol? The negative effect of smoking on an individual’s health, both in the present and future tense, must be accounted for in any measurement of health. It weighs so heavily on what we know about future risks that we will see it as a negative integer in M. Too many studies to count exist pointing out the deleterious effect of excess alcohol consumption to count. One compelling study, The Eight Americas Study in PloS One, found alcoholism to be the single most powerful lifestyle variant after smoking when predicting the life expectancy of groups studied. A recently published study of Harvard men found that alcoholism was the greatest second greatest influence on the happiness of the men studied, just behind the presence of loving friendships. Unlike smoking, however, there is a volume component to alcohol consumption. Indeed, a modest intake actually INCREASES longevity, while no intake DECREASES longevity. So M will see a small bump from moderated alcohol intake, an equally small decrease for teetotalers, and a dramatic negative effect from heavy alcohol intake.

So far we’ve managed to obtain some variables underlying M through the use of simple inquiry, costing only the time it takes a subject to fill out a questionnaire. At least two other variables are as accessible and inexpensive: blood pressure (BP) and a measurement of body habits. Once upon a time you had to visit a doctor or hospital to get your blood pressure checked. Now? Heck, for $20 you can buy a reasonable accurate BP monitor and take your BP at home! Minute Clinics in pharmacies, health clinics in the workplace, and coin-operated machines in the local Mall now make it easy to get a BP without visiting a doctor. While there is ongoing controversy in the medical world about what constitutes Hypertension it is safe to say that health risks are higher with a systolic pressure >140 and a diastolic >90. Above or below these levels is our toggle for M, positive or more healthy for lower and the opposite for higher BP.

Using body habitus is controversial, mostly because the measurement that is routinely utilized is so inadequate. The Body Mass Index, or BMI, is wildly inaccurate when it is applied to the fit. 4-time winner of the CrossFit Games Rich Froning, arguably the fittest man on the planet, would be deemed obese at 5′ 10″ and roughly 195 pounds with a % body weight fat of around 4%. Ridiculous, huh? The temptation, of course, is to use % BW fat as the preferred method of measuring body composition risk, but measurements that are accurate enough to be useful tend to be very expensive and difficult to access. On the other hand, all you need to determine the waist/hip ratio is an 89 cent paper tape measure and a calculator. A waist/hip ratio of >1.0 is associated with an increased risk to health from myriad metabolic illnesses including diabetes and heart disease, especially in men. Greater health in M for measurements under 1.0, and progressively less as that number increases.

It is impossible to utilize all that modern medicine has to offer when it comes to measuring health without spending a little bit of money. Several simple blood tests can be obtained with or without the input of a physician. The presence or control of diabetes can be ascertained with a HbA1c and a fasting glucose level. In the presence of a normal HbA1c an elevated fasting glucose may indicate a problem with insulin sensitivity, so it is important to include both. While it is far from settled whether or not it is cholesterol itself which is responsible for heart disease there is simply too much evidence that serum lipids can help predict cardiac events to leave them out of any health measurement. Our basic health index should therefore include the basic measurement of total cholesterol, HDL, LDL, and triglycerides, and M should reflect the negative effect of elevated Total Cholesterol, LDL and triglycerides and the positive effect of a high HDL.

How should we put all of these together to come up with our traditional health variable, M? This one is fairly simple; there are a number of “risk factor” measurements online that are good models. I envision a rather simple form on which one would add up weighted values for the measurements above, arriving at a straight forward mathematical sum. The final formula is being developed with the assistance of cardiologists at my medical school alma mater, the University of Vermont.

 

Measuring Health Part 1: Rationale, Definitions and Background

In 2010 I had a bit of an epiphany. At the time I was a bit over 4 years into my CrossFit journey. It became painfully obvious that the genius that Greg Glassman had applied to physical fitness–a definition of fitness that invited measurement, and in turn the critical evaluation of the efficacy of different fitness programs–was nowhere to be seen in the fields of health and medicine. Indeed, an informal survey carried out in person by my friend Dr. Kathy Weesner and I made it clear that the majority of physicians couldn’t come up with an actionable definition for health despite the fact that we are charged as professionals with helping our patients become “healthy”.

At around this time Coach Glassman published a theory that health was precisely defined as “fitness over time”. In CrossFit Fitness is work capacity across broad time and modal domains. Fitness over years could be depicted as a 3-dimensional graph with axes time, work, and years. As I thought about his thesis, that a backward looking view of an individual’s fitness as defined by CrossFit was a proxy for health, I found myself with the feeling that the definition was intriguing but incomplete. In response I took it upon myself to develop a broader definition of health, one in which fitness was a primary, but not the sole marker or metric. That April I submitted a draft of my definition of health along with a new, broader base of proposed tests that would generate the data that could be used to measure an individual’s health. Over the years it has become clear that Greg and I are more in agreement than not, but a key CrossFit employee at the time had a fundamental disagreement with my thesis, and consequently the article was rejected by the CrossFit Journal. I published my draft here on Random Thoughts later that year.

For almost 6 years I have been mulling this over, threatening to return to the problem of defining and then measuring health in much the same way that Coach Glassman defined and then measured fitness. The quest was derailed by all of the usual time sinks of mid-life. In a humorous irony, the majority of my real, true free time was consumed by the task of helping my sons run their CrossFit Affiliate gym. It is time, now, for me to finish what I started in 2010 if for no other reason than to establish the provenance of the theory.

In order to effectively address any issue whatsoever it is first necessary to have a clear understanding of the definition of terms that may be important to the discussion. I made a similar statement in one of my earliest posts on the importance of understanding the difference between health, healthcare delivery (medicine), and healthcare finance. Here again I fall back on the genius of Greg Glassman: just as one cannot evaluate either fitness or fitness programs without first defining what it is that you are discussing when you say “fitness”, one must first have a definition of “health” before one can begin to measure it. What exactly is “health”? What does it mean to be healthy?

Let’s return for a moment to the physician survey that Dr. Weesner and I did in early 2010. During face-to-face meetings we asked groups of physician colleagues to give us their definition of “health” or “healthy”. The majority of the answers couldn’t have been less inspiring or more disappointing. Indeed, the most common answer was “I don’t know”! Not very comforting, that. The second most common answer was as anticipated: health is the absence of disease. In our American medical system of “disease care” this is an understandable response, of course, but as the basis for the development of a true measurement of “health” it is obvious on its face that this definition has never translated into any actionable metric. Why? Well for one it fails entirely to take into account the very real importance of “fitness”, the expression of health. More specifically, like fitness as a proxy for health, “absence of disease” also fails to address a key requirement for any measurement of health: there is no forward-looking predictive value to simply stating that you have no disease today.

A measurable, actionable definition of health is one that takes into account the degree that disease is present or absent at any given time. It must address physical fitness; to be without a named disease but to be unable to walk up a flight of stairs should not ever be construed as “healthy”. Of equal importance to these factors, any definition of “health” that will generate a meaningful metric must have a predictive value. Your Health Value should provide some measurement of your future likelihood of being disease free and fit. Our little survey of our physician peers did produce just such definitions. Given these requirements I propose that the following are actionable definitions that can be used in healthcare to create measurements in precisely the same way that Greg Glassman’s definition of fitness is used in that realm:

HEALTH: The state in which no infirmity of any kind suppresses, or has the possibility of suppressing the ability to express the full extant of an individual’s potential capacities.

HEALTHY: Able to perform in all ways at the farthest limits of one’s potential capabilities.

With these definitions we can move on to developing a “health metric”, one that can not only assess our present degree of health, but can also predict to some degree our ability to remain healthy. I believe this metric has three component parts: physical fitness as defined by CrossFit, well-being or emotional health, and a factor that addresses traditional or standard medical factors such as blood pressure, cholesterol, genetics and the like. Furthermore, I predict that these three variables are as evident and as logical for “health” as Coach Glassman’s definition is for fitness.

One can have an otherworldly degree of fitness as defined by CrossFit, but what good is it to have a 500 pound deadlift and the ability to run a 4:00 mile if your physical achievement is driven by self-loathing? By the same token, in addition to having a normal result in every conceivable medical test your countenance is as sunny as an 8 year old on vacation, your disposition so Zen-like that the Dali Lama himself wishes he were as happy and serene, but you can’t walk a mile. This surely cannot equal healthy. You are a world-champion long-distance runner, and yet you drop dead from a heart attack, unaware that you have a cholesterol of 800. Fit for sure, but hardly healthy. Fitness, well being, and modern health metrics all have a role in an actionable Health Measurement. Vigorous debate will be necessary to parse the relative weight given to each of these factors, but as I first proposed and wrote in April 2010,all three are clearly necessary components.

In short order I will offer follow-up posts that delve more deeply into each of these three components. I will include suggestions for what and how to measure them. I will conclude with a re-statement of my proposal for a single measurement of health with my suggestion as to the relative weight of the three variables, hopefully inciting the above-mentioned vigorous debate. By doing so I wish to document the originality and timeline of my proposal, acknowledge the intellectual debt owed to Greg Glassman for inspiring me, and reassert my contention that healthcare cannot reach its fullest potential without first agreeing on both a definition of health and how to measure it.

 

 

 

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