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Sunday, March 27, 2016

What's up with people who are in the hospital a very long time?

I just finished reading a very delightful "A Piece of My Mind" essay in JAMA (The Journal of the American Medical Association.) The JAMA is primarily a research journal, filled with new scientific or semi-scientific studies and comments on those, plus reviews of the literature and editorials on science or politics. There are also letters and announcements and educational sections for doctors or patients, even poems, but the part I like to read all the way through is called "A Piece of My Mind." These essays are almost always stories about something that has made a profound impression on the writer. The most recent title was "A Place to Stay," written by Benjamin Clark, an internist at the Yale New Haven Medical Center. He describes a patient who is stuck in the hospital probably for the rest of his life due to a medical condition whose treatment requires management that can't be done anywhere else. It's lovely, and true (even if the details are not, and I'm guessing they aren't) and I won't describe it more fully because it is available in full at the link.

It made me think about the vast diversity of patients I've known who have stayed in the hospital for way too long.

The “Piece of My Mind” story was about a well-educated and deeply lovable person with a bad disease that was in no way his fault. Most of the patients we end up taking care of for very long stretches are not this way. This sometimes makes them less appealing. Still, all of them are people with whom we become intimately familiar, knowing their families and their prospects as well as their everyday quirks, preferences and routines. We fuss and connive about how we might move them out of our hospitals and eventually, for most of them, this happens. They don’t usually die with us. 

During their stays we feel frustration and experience dread as we repeatedly fail to do our job as hospitalists which is to get them better and get them out. As the days pass we adjust medication and perform diagnostic tests, consider and try new approaches and eventually manage expectations.

We feel that these cases are failures because we can’t get the patient well as fast as we think we should. This is partly because of the ways hospitals are paid to take care of people. For decades we have been urged to reduce the number of days patients stay in the hospital. This started decades ago when healthcare costs were first starting to be alarming to payers, especially Medicare. Patients who remained in the hospital for many days often were getting complications, pneumonia, other hospital acquired infections, confusion, and these extra days were costing insurance companies and the government lots of money. Payment models were changed and we were paid flat amounts for a given diagnosis. Because of this, our hospital made more money if a patient was cured more quickly than expected. This can be good all around. Patients don’t usually want to be in hospitals and often get sicker if they stay, and hospitals don’t want to foot bills that are made larger by more days and more tests and treatments. This method of payment gave us financial incentives to cure patients rapidly. They also left us no room in our hearts or minds for the outliers who take a long time to be ready to leave.

Beside the patient in the “A Piece of My Mind” story, who are these patients?

We just discharged a patient who had been in our hospital for over a month. She had been heavy all of her life, but after having children her situation became dire. She had a gastric bypass and lost 100 pounds, which brought her down to a manageable 300 pounds. Job changes resulted in gaining most of that weight back, and then a divorce made her even less active as she turned to alcohol for comfort. She finally sought help when she was 600 pounds, couldn’t get out of bed and was so swollen that half of her skin was oozing, some of it covered with infected wounds. When she got to our emergency department it was difficult to maintain her oxygen level. She could barely breathe and was so heavy and weak that she could only just move her arms. Her chronically low oxygen levels had led to severe pulmonary hypertension and so much of her weight was retained fluid. We began the process of giving her diuretics to remove extra fluid, cleaning and dressing her wounds, using mechanical lifts to be able to lift the skirt of fat and fluid to care for the skin underneath. She was horribly malnourished, since her diet was terrible and her gastric bypass made her unable to absorb nutrients well. She was depressed with horrible self esteem, and was surprised to learn that we thought this was a problem. Over the course of 5 weeks she was able to lose nearly 200 pounds of primarily water weight, with daily attention to replacement of rapidly depleted electrolytes. Physical therapy worked with her daily and by the time of discharge she could climb stairs and walk the halls alone. She will get further rehabilitation which should allow her to cook and bathe and even drive independently. During the 5 weeks we all got to know her well and discussing her success became a high point of all of our day. There was no point during those 5 weeks that she could have successfully left the hospital.

Another patient arrived with high fevers and back pain. He had been in recovery from heroin abuse but had relapsed. He had Staph aureus growing on one of his heart valves and had been throwing little infected blobs to his spine, his spleen and his kidneys. He was treated with the proper antibiotics, but ended up with abscesses in his brain, which made him confused and difficult to handle. He had a long term central intravenous catheter (PICC line) that we placed in hopes that he might be able to get antibiotics as an outpatient, but his parade of misfortunes made it impossible for him to survive outside of an actual hospital and the temptation to inject heroin into his pristine PICC if he were on the outside made it unwise once he stabilized. Nursing homes do not like young drug addicts because they assume that they won’t play well with their primarily ancient clientele. He needed at least 6 weeks of intravenous antibiotics. He was ours. No other options. After he stopped being a complete pain in the rear he was like a family member.

Who pays for all of these hospital days? It varies. In actual fact, we all do. Hospitals eat some of the costs and pass them on to other payers if they are to remain solvent. All of us who work, pay taxes, buy insurance or use medical services pay in some way.

So what do we do about patients like this, ones who can’t go home? We struggle. We stew. We blame ourselves and them. Discharge planners shake their heads and make more telephone calls. We dread our daily visits in which there is nothing much to say that we haven’t all said before. At our best we finally come to peace with the fact that these patients and their epic hospitalizations are part of what is real about our job and not just inconvenient outliers.


Sunday, March 20, 2016

Why most published research findings are false, and why you usually can't read them anyway--the pioneering work of Dr. John Ioannidis

In 2005 Dr. John Ioannidis, a Greek researcher and professor of health policy at Stanford University, best known for his critiques of the science of medicine, published a paper entitled "Why Most Published Research Findings are False." This was not from the point of view of a science denier--actually closer to the opposite. Ioannidis loves good science, but points out that the vast majority of scientific studies today are biased, often asking the wrong questions and making the wrong inferences. In the case of medicine, this often means that claims of the effectiveness of a treatment or diagnostic test are exaggerated and often just plain wrong. This stems partly from the fact that positive and exciting results lead to further funding for the researcher involved and that the sources of this funding are often entities such as drug companies that stand to benefit from a certain outcome.

Recently Dr. Ioannidis published a new article, much more accessible than the first, entitled "Evidence Based Medicine Has Been Hijacked: A Letter to Dr. David Sackett." The first was very much based on math and statistics. He observed that most studies, when repeated, came up with different results. This was particularly true of studies with smaller numbers of subjects and ones where the effect sizes were small. Such studies were more likely to come out of fields in which there was money to be made out of a positive result and ones in which the field of study was particularly hot and there fore several groups were competing to get results.

The second and most recent article is a conversation with one of Ioannidis' most important mentors, a man named David Sackett who was possibly the first person to introduce the concept of evidence-based medicine. By this he meant combining understanding of science and research with clinical judgment and experience. This idea was inspiring to John Ioannidis and his relationship with David Sackett (physician and founder of the Center for Evidence-Based medicine at Oxford University) was profoundly influential in his career. David Sackett died in May of 2015. He was apparently not only a wonderful clinical teacher but a great and appreciative listener. Dr. Ioannidis has been explaining his hopes and frustrations to the David Sackett who remains very much alive in his mind, and in this article Dr. Ioannidis shares with his internal Dr. Sackett his frustration with what has become of evidence based medicine. It is a delightful article and well worth a read. In it he laments the growing body of crappy and biased research upon which much of our advice to patients is now built.

This article is important for all practicing physicians to read and yet, when I tried to find it, the journal in which it was published asked that I part with around $32 to see it. This felt a bit ironic. The article by the man who champions truth and transparency was guarded by trolls who wanted $32 a pop. But then, when I checked it a few days later, it became free, and if you click on the link above, you will be able to read it. I'm not sure there is a moral to this part of the story, but I'm guessing that the irony was noted by Dr. Ioannidis who told the journal editors that they could do whatever they wanted with the rest of the content of their issues, but they could jolly well make his article available for free. Still, in addition to the bias present in medical studies, lack of free access to the original articles further dilutes any truth to be found in them. Any scientific study that is likely to be "click bait"--that is to say interesting enough to readers that they will click on a link to read more about it--is described in the secondary literature by a journalist who strips it of any actual detail and spins it in any way that will engender further clicking behaviors. I venture to say that the vast majority of learning about clinical research by practicing physicians is through articles written about articles. These are produced by companies such as Medpage Today whose entire mission is to make money through advertising based on the number of times we click on their headline news. Their articles on articles appear to us to be a vital service, though, because most research articles are not free to us in their entirety and keeping up on the breadth of medical knowledge by subscribing to a vast number of journals is neither efficient nor affordable.

These are fascinating things to think about. My present distilled words of wisdom are:
1. Read Ioannidis' article while it's still free, before the journal changes its mind.
2. Don't take what passes for science too terribly seriously, especially if the effect is small or it goes against common sense and what you know about human physiology.
3. Really don't base your practice off of news releases about articles you haven't read or thought about.
4. Agitate for free and open access to important scientific research so you can read it critically for yourself.