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Monday, October 23, 2017

Technology is unkind to the elderly


In about 1990 we got our first computer. I say "we" because my husband and I shared a desktop which I used infrequently. I mostly used it for word processing, and the internet was very young. At the turn of the millenium, my children were using computers and they were limited to 1 hour of computer time a day, which was on a shared desktop. By 2001 I was communicating with my grandmother, then in her late 80's, by email.

My grandmother had received, probably just prior to the millenium, an email machine from her son. It was a little thing on which she could type messages to a dear friend who lived in London. She loved the ability to spontaneously send him a message and get an answer in a day or less. She was a retired reference librarian and had worked in the Bay Area school system where an exhaustive knowledge of the Dewey Decimal System allowed her to connect students to the resources they needed. We thought she would be delighted to have an Apple Macintosh. With such a thing she could query the world of data and feed her insatiably curious mind.

This gift was a failure. Nothing about it was intuitive. Scrolling, clicking, using a mouse, returning to a previous screen, all were lessons that she had trouble learning. She would call one of us or her son when the screen inexplicably looked different than it had and she couldn't find her way back to something familiar. I think she started to die a little when she couldn't make that pretty white computer work. In retrospect she just needed the email machine.

A few years ago my father, now in his 80's, gave me an iPad which he had bought and didn't use. By guess and by golly (as my grandfather would have said) we managed to navigate its passwords and get it transferred over to me. It was cute, but certainly no more useful than a laptop, and rather delicate, so I gradually broke its screen and then it was stolen when I was in South Sudan. On a recent trip, my father showed me his new iPad, which he also didn't use, which he thought I might have use for. He had been seduced into buying it at an Apple store and, likely with the help of some bright millennial, had entered a new password and the answers to some security questions. Being wise, he didn't write the password on the machine itself, since he knows how important password security is, so it is gone. Also, having had a long and very complex life, the answers to the security questions were subject to shifting interpretation. Although he and I contacted customer service, there is no remedy. The pretty iPad with the retina display is now an attractive coaster or possibly something under which to press flowers. (Those of you with a penchant for problem solving will ask about "return to factory settings" or even "jailbreaking." I will just tell you that, after trying these things for 2 hours with someone of legendary computer cleverness, Apple has those options pretty well blocked.)

Technology, by which I mean computers of all sizes including phones and tablets and the like, offers incredible potential to people as they age. Music can fill their ears, raise their spirits and help them to frame their lives as brave and glorious. They can see pictures of far off places which they might not be able to visit again, talk to children and grandchildren while seeing their faces, access reminder notes, pay bills, review bank accounts, donate to charity, play games that tweak their brains in good ways. Computers, at their best, make our worlds larger and extend the capacity of our minds. This is just what we need as we get older. But computers, with their infernal passwords and vulnerabilities to security breaches, their little bitty buttons and sometimes tiny screens, their failing wireless modems and misleading advertising, are making the old feel older.

By the age of 85, about 1/3 of people have Alzheimer's disease, per the Alzeimer's Association. This, of course, vastly underestimates the proportion of elderly people with some kind of impairment in their memory, problem solving or ability to learn new tasks. This group of people need, more than we younger folk, to have access to their medical records and to use the wealth of online resources to remain healthy or monitor diseases. It is precisely the group whose health can most benefit from computers and the internet who are left out. Almost all of the elderly patients I see in clinic decline to use the computerized patient portal. Although I think that the portal itself is pretty easy to use, it is the many steps involved in getting to the portal that are daunting, so much so that our older patients hesitate to even try.

In the UK in 2012, the Prime Minister issued a challenge to make the country more friendly to patients with dementia. This included a Dementia Friendly Technology Charter. The Challenge includes making workplaces and communities more kind to people as their brains age, but also to help them get some benefit from technology. There are quite a lot of technological solutions to the problems of dementia, especially for caregivers, but I don't think that producers of hardware such as computers and tablets are stepping up to the plate. It is perfectly possible to create an iPad that doesn't depend of remembering passwords and reduces vulnerabilities to abuse while allowing users to access music and video chatting and photos and information. The UK has made some headway toward dementia-friendliness. The United States has no such challenge in place and from my vantage point, people are just becoming more marginalized as they age.

I would like to encourage the hugely successful producers of technology to respect their elders to the extent that they create products that will welcome them. The makers of software that is useful enough to become a necessity should think twice before requiring that users have excellent memories. And until our technology becomes more friendly, companies should develop remedies so that people who develop dementia (or have brain injuries) are not effectively shut out.

Sunday, October 8, 2017

How much do we love guns?

A letter written to JAMA (Journal of the American Medical Assn.) by Robert Tessler MD and colleagues at the Harborview Injury Prevention and Research Center in Seattle presented evidence that the United States'  approach to guns has significantly increased deaths from terrorism.

Using the Global Terrorism Database from 2002-2015 they found that, compared to Canada, Europe, Australia and New Zealand, The US has a considerably higher percentage of terrorist attacks that used firearms and firearm related terrorist attacks were more deadly than any other method, including bombs. Of the 2817 attacks in that time period, only a bit over 9% used guns, but these attacks were responsible for more than half of the fatalities.

It's not just terrorism that is more lethal using guns. Suicide attempts are much more successful if they are made with a gun. In fact, over 80% of suicide attempts made with a gun are effective compared to only 1.5% with drug or poison ingestion. Over half of suicides in the US are achieved with a firearm. Suicide is the second leading cause of death for Americans between the ages of 15 and 34.

Gun ownership is considerably higher in the US than in any other country in the world. We have 112 guns for every 100 people. The next runner up country is Serbia with 58 guns per 100 people and Tunisia has the fewest guns at 1 per 1000 people.

Citizens of the US appear to love their guns. Not everyone, but as a nation we are clearly very enamored. Our second amendment, standing right behind the first which grants us free speech,  allows for "A well regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, and the right of the people to keep and bear arms." This was interpreted by the Supreme Court in 1939 to mean that there was a collective right to bear arms, as would be required to have a state militia, and so a law to make sawed off shotguns illegal was felt to be constitutional. In 2008 the Supreme Court interpreted the second amendment to mean that people had an individual right to bear arms and struck down a Washington DC law prohibiting ownership of handguns. Since that time states have expanded gun rights including, in some, the right to carry a concealed weapon without a permit.

There are federal laws that limit gun ownership, preventing some criminals, drug abusers, spouse abusers, children and felons from obtaining them, but state laws are spotty and many people who use guns to commit crimes obtain them legally. There are classes of weapons that people are restricted from owning, based on the idea that there is no reason for a law abiding citizen to need a machine gun or rocket launcher. The strictest of laws which prohibit gun ownership in some countries would be found unconstitutional in the US, but most Americans support some sort of increased restrictions on gun ownership. Taking peoples' guns away is neither practical or legal, even if a majority of citizens felt like it was a good idea.

People who love guns do so for various reasons. The primary quintessentially American reason is that we feel like it is important to have some physical way to prevent our federal government from controlling a helpless population if that government ever goes over to the dark side. I'm not sure this is really realistic given the very advanced weapons systems and surveillance that the military has at their disposal, but I suppose we could strategically make trouble in a guerrilla warfare sort of way.

There are hunters who like to have rifles of various sorts for sport. There are gun enthusiasts who just think that guns are incredibly cool and love the technology. There are civil war re-enacters who love their classic weapons. There are people who live in dangerous areas who believe that having a gun could deter an intruder. There are people who live in Alaska who very realistically know that a grizzly bear is probably watching them when they hike and may decide to eat them. There are also criminals and violent gang members who want to have guns so they can shoot and kill people.

For dozens of reasons, people in the US love their guns. Because of this we have lots and lots of guns and the guns get used to kill children, concert goers, rivals, wives, husbands, lovers, innocent bystanders, congressmen, police officers, the unfairly and fairly accused, newlyweds and so on. We may love our guns, but most of these deaths are intolerable tragedies. Do we really love guns so much that we are able to tolerate the over 36,000 deaths per year due to them? It appears that, since we have so many guns, people tend to use them. (Go figure.) Do we really need so many guns? We seem to have agreed that certain dangerous people should not own and carry guns. Can we just enforce those laws more effectively?

Seattle, according to an article I just read, has enacted a tax on guns and ammunition. This is a creative and constitutional way to address the sheer numbers of guns in circulation. They charge $25 in taxes per gun sold and 5c per round of ammunition other than 22 gauge which is only 2c. This has been repeatedly challenged in court and has so far stood up. We have also done this with cigarettes (which are responsible for over 10x as many deaths, but usually after protracted and ugly illnesses) with some success. Taxing guns may make ownership go down and perhaps even feed back to production to reduce that. It seems like a reasonable approach and could spread.

It seems like we should step away from partisan politics where guns are concerned and decide to engage in moderation. We did that 50 years ago with cigarettes when the surgeon general told us that they caused cancer. We should do it with sugar as well, as our population is becoming fatter and more diabetic. It is never easy to give up that thing we think we love that is really bad for us, but we need to think, as a nation almost perpetually in mourning over some shooting incident or another, if it isn't just about time.

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

Physician Burnout and Suicide

Physician burnout and physician suicide has been getting more attention in the last several years. Suicide among physicians is horribly tragic, and maybe moreso because of several factors. Suicide is the quintessentially most preventable fatal event. In order to prevent suicide, the person killing him or herself needs only not do it. To anyone who knows the victim/perpetrator it seems that if only the right words had been spoken, the right sentiment expressed, comfort offered, their death would not have happened. Among the family and friends of a suicide, this is one of the agonies that is added to the pain of loss. Physicians have a huge number of close contacts, patients and coworkers, who have a pretty intimate connection with them, all of whom mourn their loss and many of whom question whether they might have had something to do with it. Beside the emotional impact of the loss is the very real fact that physicians are responsible for some part of the care of potentially thousands of people who are left stranded by their abrupt departure. There is the very sad fact that someone whose job it was to help people was unable to get the help they needed.

It is not clear that physicians commit suicide at a higher rate than people in other professions, according to a report by the CDC last summer, and although it is the number one cause of death among male medical residents per a study that was released this year, their suicide rate was lower than average for their age group. Although burnout is clearly increasing among physicians, I have not seen any data that shows that suicide is increasing.

I have been a witness to the kinds of stresses that lead to suicide in physician colleagues. So far, knock on wood, none of the doctors who work closely with me have committed suicide. I have, however, been around some pretty spectacular cases of burnout. According to a Medscape poll, 40-60% of physicians show signs of burnout. Surprisingly, the major problem they complained about was the excessive bureaucratic tasks that they had to do. It was not the stress of making life or death decisions but the grinding demands of the computer, the paperwork, satisfying insurance companies, convincing organizations that monitor quality that they were delivering it. Other frequently mentioned complaints included extended work hours and feeling like they were just a "cog in a wheel." My experience is that it takes more than a bad job to push a person over the edge, though. But life is pretty good at offering that little bit more. The breakdown of a marriage, a child with troubles, an illness can take a person who is competently holding on with her fingernails and plunge her into failure. Alcohol and drugs provide respite and destroy that last pretense of being able to do the work. The colleagues I've seen go through this usually step away from practice and may or may not return.

My worst times were early on in my career. During my first year in medical school, I comforted myself with the thought that if things got too bad I could just jump out of the tenth story window of my dorm. After awhile I replaced that with deciding that I would  just go live with my sister and cook for her. The first year was bad because there was just too much stuff to learn and if I stuffed my head full of it, as I needed to if I was going to pass my tests, I couldn't sleep. If I couldn't sleep I couldn't stuff more information into my head so I walked around gripped by fear of failing. Occasionally I was distracted from my misery by some of my really excellent teachers and was eventually saved by a prescription for sleeping pills. These I hoarded and doled out by the fragment so I wouldn't have to ask for more. A boyfriend and increasingly close friendships helped make the second year almost imperceptibly better. By the third year the opportunity to interact with real patients and be of use cured me. Training continued to be stressful, but there was always something rewarding that came back to me from grateful patients or collegial professors which gave me the joy I needed to make the process sustainable.

After completing my residency, I took some time off to find the right job. I got a house with the man who would eventually be my husband and a big yellow dog. The position I finally found was good, though demanding, and I enjoyed learning from other physicians at my work who had different skill sets than I did. I was able to keep up and felt I did a good job. Burnout threatened when my workload increased and I felt like I couldn't keep up. There was always more that I needed to do at work but home needed me too. Having a baby actually helped because the woman who we hired to help take care of her was wonderful and made me feel like home was well taken care of.

Six years ago I transitioned from a pretty sustainable to a very sustainable lifestyle, doing shift work as a hospitalist. My children have fledged and I no longer need to help them with their homework after work or worry about childcare if they get sick. I still do some outpatient medicine, but have not been sucked up into the complexity of documenting for merit based payment or pay for performance systems. I did go through the growing pains of adopting several computerized health records, both inpatient and outpatient, and have experienced first hand how that can make everything seem impossible.

I can see that in a clinic system where an employer was pushing the physician to see more patients in an hour and patients were pushing back to get what they need, administrative tasks could be a big part of burnout. The recipe, I think, for burning out is one cup of impossible and maybe conflicting demands and several tablespoons of feeling like something terrible will happen if you don't meet those demands. When the demands are from both home and work, things get pretty grim pretty fast. If the work is not rewarding, as it would tend not to be when you can't do it properly, then there is no joy to counteract the stress.

Medical offices and hospitals right now are in a time of transition, which makes things particularly bad. We are moving toward making computers do the work that humans find tedious, but the interaction of computers and people is still awkward. We end up doing lots of the work that the computers eventually will be able to do themselves, keeping track of nearly endless and very complex data, remembering schedules invented and tweaked by organizations charged with optimal care for chronic diseases. We are wrestling with computers instead of doing the human job of reading people and helping them solve their problems.

It is not entirely our jobs which lead us to the brink of suicide and beyond. We are humans with sadness and stories and connections which can be difficult or even crushing. But we can make the job part of this much easier. We need to allow computers to do what they do best and have doctors do doctoring. We need to figure out how to unhook a doctors monetary compensation from how many patients we see, so we can keep those patients healthy and out of our offices and hospitals where they belong. We need to not take on more than we can do well, even if that means saying "no" to the person who writes our paychecks.