Random Thoughts from a Restless Mind

Dr. Darrell White's Personal Blog

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Posts Tagged ‘health’

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.


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’.


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.




Fitness as Health Marker

The human body as a machine is an endless source of fascination. Designed at this point in evolution primarily as a vehicle to carry a brain, our bodies can withstand famine, thirst, and physical stress beyond what our brains can imagine. When one part starts to fail we have a series of “fail-safe” backups in many cases that allow us to carry on. Interestingly, the greatest harm to our “vehicles” is actually excess (gluttony) and lack of physical stress (sloth).

Kinda Biblical, eh?

There is a complex daisy chain of effects that can ever be traced back to a cause when our bodies begin to break down. My own musculoskeletal system is failing me miserably, and it has taken the eventual unavoidable breakdown of one of those fail-safe mechanisms for me to finally figure out the original cause. Last month’s programming with its emphasis on our core was the last straw.

For the better part of a year I have struggled on and off with progressively worse failures of accessory muscles for mid-line stabilization. The posterior chain (gluteus maximus, hamstring, erector spinae) precisely balances your anterior chain (rectus abdominus) in maintaining a rigid core so that you can do, well, everything. Progressive movement failures in the gym (massive retrograde numbers in lifts, need for major scaling of loads) has now given way to rather plebeian challenges: spasms of the gluteus medius, priformis, and obturator (not to mention that rat bastard the extensor fascia lata) which sometimes drop me in the simplest of movements.

My initial reaction, of course, was to address what must be a weakness in these accessory muscles due to inattention. Surely this would be all that I needed to return me to my previous level of physical prowess. Naturally, since these “failures” were actually the fail-safes going down, accessory work on these muscles only worsened the problem by OVER-working the already overburdened.

How, then, did I figure it out? Well, as I noted, the chariot that rolls along carrying our brain is ever set to do its job, and eventually it sends up a signal when all of the backup systems failed. A tiny little dull ache appeared in my lower abs, an annoyance that escalated to Def-con 1 whenever I braced my anterior chain for any task whatsoever. There was no difference between a back squat or a “bear in the woods” squat–I could not use my abs to secure my midline, and guarding against the pain had shifted that burden to all of those little helper muscles.

A tiny little tear born in an area of inherited weakness turned out to be the cause. My friend the general surgeon describes the defect as “a dime with aspirations of becoming a quarter.” A half-dozen really smart folks had failed to see it, all of them equally fascinated by the epic failure of my Piriformae. And so it is that I will engage the knife as I seek relief on behalf of my accessory warriors such that they may return to their proper roles behind the front line of the midline stabilization battle.

What’s the point of all this sharing you ask? It’s pretty simple, really. Very basic. Each one of us is, or should be, engaging the CrossFit prescription of strength and metabolic conditioning aligned with proper nutrition in the pursuit of better daily function. Better, clearer thought. Stronger, leaner, faster bodies. In order to do so it is necessary that we are ever aware of those bodies, ever vigilant in our pursuit. CrossFit provides us a metric that allows us to monitor the machine that transports our brain. My performance began to suffer. I stalled, then backed up. Measurable and observable that I was failing at repeatable. To discover the root cause I eventually used the degree and manner of those failures to work back to the source. I think fitness as we describe it is best seen as a real-time marker for health. CrossFit approached properly is the thinking athlete’s fitness program, the inquisitive athletes health monitor.

Now to be fixed and resume my quest.


Another Epic Misadventure: Interlude

It’s really quite flattering, all the attention. The cynic would say that it’s all really just an attempt to keep my business, and I’m sure there’s a bit of that going on. After all, even though my surgical volume is down since my I left my original practice to start SkyVision, I still do a rather high volume of surgery at a very low cost/case. Still, the sheer number of folks, not to mention who they are, who have gone out of their way to try to make my CPOE transition go smoothly is impossible to ignore. Folks really do seem to be sincerely concerned about me as a person, someone they know and have come to like enough over many years, not just a surgeon bringing business. If only it wasn’t all so…so…useless.

I know, I know, I sound a bit petulant, but I’ve watched this movie before. I know how it ends. It may sound somewhat ungrateful, what with the head of physician training, Chief of Surgery, and Head of Outpatient Surgery and local administrator among those taking an open interest in my journey. It’s just that the story only ends one way, with a great big time suck that undoes a decade and a half of ever increasing efficiency (and with it patient satisfaction) and the associated assault on my emotional well-being.

All these people walking around with lipstick thinking…hoping…maybe just one more coat and he’ll smile when the pig kisses him.


Who Talks to People Like That?

“I suppose I’m sorry I missed my appointment on Thursday. So, anyway, here are the ground rules for how this phone call is going to go and how you’re going to give me the appointment I want.”

“I know it’s been two years and the doctor said my son would need glasses for school and that it’s really busy during back to school time. Yah Yah…I get it. I don’t care that everyone with after school appointments called weeks ago. School has started and he needs an appointment RIGHT NOW. I demand to talk to the doctor.”

“What do you MEAN the doctor’s 5:00PM appointments are all filled? I told you she wants new contact lenses RIGHT NOW! 10 AM tomorrow is totally unacceptable. You tell the doctor I’ll be coming in with her in 2 weeks and you can be SURE I’m going to tell the doctor how unacceptable this is.” CLICK

Seriously, who talks to people like this? These are all near exact quotes from established patients calling to make appointments for routine, non-emergent visits. All three had received explicit instructions at the conclusion of their previous visits, and all had been sent recall reminders that it was time to make their next appointment. Remember, we are a very busy eyecare practice with 3 doctors that sees emergency patients on a same-day basis, including nights and weekends. We are not averse to working hard or seeing extra patients, and we counsel our patients that we will sometimes run a bit behind because of this ER visit policy. Philosophically it doesn’t seem right to over-book our schedule, making the conscientious have to wait longer in the office during their visit, in order to accommodate those who make little or no effort to respond to our instructions and reminders.

Let alone those who talk to my staff like these three. Sheesh. Trust me, the tone in their voices was exactly as you’d imagine it as you read it, equal parts incredulous and offended that anyone could possibly not understand how much more important THEY are than everyone else on the schedule. It got me to thinking, though. What would it be like if people talked like this in other walks of life?

For instance, you are the Registrar at, oh, how about Harvard. You pick up the phone and somebody’s Daddy is calling about Econ 101 taught by N. Gregory Mankiw. The class is full. Actually, it’s oversubscribed and there’s a waiting list with 125 kids already on it. The registration deadline was 2 weeks ago, a deadline that the young scholar just blew off and a deadline that Daddy doesn’t even acknowledge. ” You’re not listening to me. I told you that my son will be in that class. He has a spot waiting for him at Goldman Sachs and no one is going to  keep him from getting what he deserves. I demand to speak with Mankiw.” How do you think that turns out for Sonny?

Or how about this? The flight to Chicago is full, and since it’s about an hour before takeoff no more folks are coming off the standby list. Standing at the United desk is a very well-dressed professional addressing the agent. “I suppose I’m sorry that I didn’t make it to the earlier flight I was booked on. Here are the ground rules for how this discussion is going to go, and how you are going to escort me onto this flight.” I can definitely see some sort of escort coming, can’t you?

Imagine what it would be like if you could listen to a call coming to a judge’s bailiff from someone who talked to everyone like my three patients. “Really? I said I needed to get this ticket taken care of right away but I’m only available late in the afternoon. 2 weeks from now is too long to wait. 10 AM tomorrow for court? That’s just unacceptable. Why aren’t there more times at the end of the day? I will be there at 5:00 in two weeks and you can be SURE I will tell the judge what I think of this.” What would you give to see that one play out?

When I hear the way people talk to folks who work in health care it makes me wonder how far they take it. Does it go so far as to extend to Church? “Listen Father, it’s football season. The Buckeyes on Saturday and the Browns on Sunday, ya know? This whole Saturday and Sunday mass schedule doesn’t line up with the season at all. I can’t believe you don’t get that! Why can’t we just move mass to Monday until after the Bowl Games and the Super Bowl. Tell you what…just forget about it. I’ll be here on Sunday and I’m going right to God on this one. You just make sure he’s in Church this weekend so I can tell him directly.” Well, we know that God is always in Church, and that He does, indeed, hear every petition a member of His flock makes. Like Danny Meyer, the great restauranteur in NYC who holds that the customer is NOT always right, but does have a right to be heard. Actually, this example gives me some comfort, some direction in how we might deal with patients who talk to our staff in such a brassy, entitled manner. We are definitely not God, or even the least bit God-like, but like Danny Meyer and God, we can always listen, as we know they do, and we will always politely offer them an answer.

Sometimes, the answer is “no”.

Three Friends

Every couple or three years comes a slew of articles on friendship, specifically friendships in adults. Thus it is that I find myself returning to the topic for the first time in awhile, having been bombarded of late with articles, books, and movies on the subject (“Of Mice and Men” is being staged on Broadway, for example). That, and my brother’s rather humorous story of having bumped into a fellow Eph with whom I was friendly in college (more on that in a bit). Much has been written on the subject, almost all of it a re-hash except one little gem, a tiny bit of research that suggests that friendship in mid-life is the strongest predictor of longevity of all.

Weird, huh? And not too positive a finding either, what with my oft-told and hard-earned experiences with how difficult it is for men to create new friendships after the age of 30. The magic number is 3. Three close friends predicts a longer life, especially for men. Sadly this usually does NOT include your wife; the overwhelming percentage of wives drifted AWAY from the men in favor of younger women, usually daughters, as they moved through adulthood. As an aside I’m now desperately hoping that Beth will have some room left over from “Lovely Daughter” Megan. (Actually, getting Beth hooked on CrossFit might be my ace in the hole)

Interesting, huh? Three close friends and you live longer. Very few folks had more than 4 or 5, an incredibly tight range when you think about it.

It’s become a kind of psychological dogma that men and women make friends in very different ways. Women, it is said, make friends through the sharing of feelings. In person two women who are friends are said to be most often facing one another, talking. Maintaining this kind of friendship is structurally rather easy in our modern age of communication. Feelings can be shared in any number of ways that do not require the friends to actually be in the same room together. Phone, text, Facebook and Twitter are but a few of the tactical and mechanical advantages to a friendship built on an exchange of feelings, and the currency required for the ongoing investment is simply time.

Men on the other hand make friendship a much more arduous affair. Many women would opine that this could actually describe many, if not most things that men do, but that’s a topic for a different Sunday. The picture most often used to illustrate men in the company of friends has them standing shoulder to shoulder, in the act of sharing an experience but not necessarily sharing any internal reaction to that experience. It makes me chuckle to think that a video of the same scene would probably also look like a portrait, nothing moving, certainly not their lips. For men the basis of friendship is the experience and the fact that both were physically present for it. Whether sitting at a Bulls game in Row J seats 11 and 12 , or working up a sweat at the Loyola Prep gym playing pick-up hoops, the friendship blooms only from the seed of the experience which is fertilized by proximity. At some point the memories of those experiences, stories re-told dozens, hundreds of times, fail to prompt growth in the friendship without the Miracle-Gro of presence. Eventually even shared “experiences by proxy”, raising similar aged children for example, fails to prevent slack from growing in those friendship ties if you aren’t physically there to tighten them.

In my mind the universe is divided into a very few groups of varying sizes. Think of your life as kind of like a bulls-eye floating through a vast space. The center of that bulls-eye comprises that small group of true friends, men and women who would drop everything should you have need, and for whom you would do the same. Friends are people you miss if you haven’t had contact for a matter of days, people whose company you actively seek. These are people you go out of your way to see and never try to avoid. Man or woman, they know how you feel. Again, an aside, happy is the couple who have overlap in this innermost circle of the bulls-eye.

The next circle is filled with friendly acquaintances, people who make you smile. When you have an opportunity to be with them in person or in spirit it makes you happy. There’s no limit on these, and a reasonably friendly character could have dozens of friendly acquaintances scattered throughout a life. This is the group from which most friends are created, and if you are fortunate someone who is no longer really in that bulls-eye drifts no further out from center than this inner ring. Just outside the circle of friendly acquaintances is the ring containing acquaintances, people you’ve met and remember but either don’t ever really spend time with or never have the chance to explore a move toward the center. My brother met a someone who has always been here, the humor in wistful remembrance notwithstanding. Your circles of friends and acquaintances drifts through a vast space filled with folks yet unmet, a (hopefully) few enemies orbiting in there somewhere as well.

We float through the universe in our circles, people drifting in toward the center (perhaps my Brother’s encounter will drive my acquaintance inward) and sadly on occasion out and away. In CrossFit we know both a definition of fitness and a way to measure it. Indeed, Coach Glassman has opined that not only is fitness the most important part of health, but in his opinion it is a precise measurement of the same. He and I disagree around the margins of that position, at least in part because of friendship and what it does for us. We may not be able to define friendship in quite as absolute terms as those we use for fitness, but I’m reasonably sure we all know what it means to be and to have a real friend. Read or watch “Of Mice and Men” if you are unsure. It’s likely that friendship itself, unlike fitness, does not have a precise metric, a measurement of volume or degree. No “friendship across broad time and modal domains” if you will. Though I continue to hold this truth, that you can never have enough friends, there is apparently a number that does have some significance. Three. Three friends, real friends, lead to a longer life. Side by side or face to face, the tipping point is 3.

No amount of time spent or distance traveled is too much for them.





Epilogue to “Mommy-Track” post on “Equal Pay Day”

In 2011 I wrote an essay in response to an article I read in the WSJ on the coming physician shortage. In short I agreed with a letter that pointed out the effect of physicians working fewer hours than they had traditionally worked. In that letter the effect of the changing demographics in medicine (more women physicians, generational shifts) was pointed out. My essay agreed with the points in the letter. My thesis is that you can’t “have it all”, in medicine or anywhere. Someone, somehow, always pays.

While reading about “Equal Pay Day”, the day on which the “average female wage earner” achieves the same amount of pay as the “average male wage earner” acquired in the previous 12 months, a couple of things strike me. First, the general thesis of my essay continues to be accurate, at least in medicine. Income is determined by the choice of specialty, as always, but beyond that it is driven much more so by the number of hours a physician works and how productive that physician is during those work hours. Work more hours, get paid more money. Perform more of your doctorly duties in each one of those hours, get paid more money. There are fewer and fewer physician jobs in which seniority on its own drives income, thereby negating any lack of seniority which may be caused by a career “pause” to have or care for children. Physician income is largely gender-blind. As an aside, the dirty little secret of physician pay is that production-based compensation is the norm everywhere, even at those institutions that claim otherwise.

The second thing that strikes me is the malignantly erosive effect of ineffectual, unnecessary external regulation on the practice of all medicine on effective physician work hours. In 2014, whether you are a man or a woman, the bureaucratic load associated with practicing medicine is oppressive, and hours that just 5 years ago may have been spent caring for patients is now spent caring for charts, bills, and other paperwork. These hours generate no real health benefits for patients, and do not produce any revenue that pays the doctors for working them. In a particularly cruel example of Murphy’s Law, or at least the Law of Unintended Consequences, the specialties that are hardest hit by this relentless onslaught of the unnecessary are those that tend to pay physicians the least. Fields like Family Practice and Pediatrics. On “Equal Pay Day”  it is particularly ironic to note that those hardest hit specialties tend to be staffed by the highest percentage of female doctors.

A final note as I read this post 3+ years after the initial writing: the choice of “Mommy-Track” to describe those women who graduate from medical school and work fewer hours than their male peers because of their choice to prioritize their families seems needlessly pejorative and provocative. I’ve left it in for this Epilogue because to edit it today seems dishonest in a way. Besides, I’m a little bit better at writing in 2014 than I was in 2011. I can be plenty provocative now without resorting to the pejorative.