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Events, Medicine and Society, Patient Care, Stanford News

Author-physician Atul Gawande on dying and end-of-life care

Author-physician Atul Gawande on dying and end-of-life care

Dr Atul Gawande, MD, MPH, Professor, Department of Health Policy and Management Harvard School of Public Health Harvard Medical School, gives a lecture ?Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End? on Monday, March 2, 2015, at Cynthia and Alexander Tseng, Jr., MD, Memorial Lectureship at Berg Hall Li Ka Shing Learning and Knowledge Center at Stanford School of Medicine . ( Norbert von der Groeben/ Stanford School of Medicine )When Atul Gawande, MD, MPH, witnessed the untimely and inevitable passing of patients, friends and his father, the shortcomings of our medical system’s approach to dying were revealed to him. As the noted author and surgeon told an overflow crowd at Stanford’s medical school earlier this week, he became inspired to “pick up my journalist’s pen” and explore questions about life and mortality that his elite medical education hadn’t equipped him to remedy.

Headlining the eighth annual Cynthia and Alexander Tseng, Jr., MD, Memorial Lecture, the former Stanford undergrad introduced his talk on end-of-life issues with the observation that begins his New York Times #1 book, Being Mortal: “I learned about a lot of things in medical school, but mortality wasn’t one of them.”

In a highly personal, and at times moving, talk, Gawande went on to discuss how decades of modern medical advances have changed our attitudes about dying and death. As fewer diseases and injuries pose life-threatening risks due to vastly improved medications and therapies, people simply expect to live longer. Well-being has become synonymous with longer and more robust life, supported at every stage by effective medical interventions, including a growing market of “lifestyle” rather than life-saving treatments.

Gawande argued that while health and medicine advances are of course positive, one consequence is that we have “medicalized our mortality” to the point where even terminally ill patients and their families look to their doctors for life-saving answers.

“Well, I didn’t [have the answers],” Gawande said.

Gawande said that medicine’s typical approach is to trade time and quality of life in the short term for longer life in the future, but the trade-off isn’t always a good one. For example, aggressive cancer treatment can be debilitating and painful, and often fails to prolong life, merely making the end of life miserable for patients.

In contrast, the goal of palliative care is to create the best possible day for patients today, regardless of what it means for the future. Studies show that for terminally ill patients palliative care improves quality of life, including people’s sense of control and empowerment over their lives. While these positive attitudes may be expected, palliative care practices reduce unwanted medical procedures (as well as costs) and have been shown to actually increase life span – by 25 percent in one study of late-stage lung cancer patients.

“If palliative doctors were a drug, the FDA would approve them,” Gawande told the audience.

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Medical Education, Medical Schools, Medicine and Society, Stanford News

Engaging with art to improve clinical skills

Engaging with art to improve clinical skills

med students looking at paintingThe scene: A group of medical students huddled around the iconic Robert Frank photograph Car Accident – U.S. 66, Between Winslow and Flagstaff, Arizona in the Cantor Center for the Visual Arts. They’re being led through an observation exercise by Sarah Naftalis, a doctoral student in art and art history at Stanford, as part of an innovative new medical school course supported by the Bioethics and Medical Humanities Scholarly Concentration.

Naftalis asks students what they see as she gestures to the photograph, which appears to have as its focal point four people standing out in a field, looking at something under a blanket on the ground. Several students note the people, the odd lumpiness of the blanket and the reduced horizon. Second year medical student Sam Cartmell says, “Well there may be more than four people,” and points to an odd contour at the shoulder of the lone female in the photograph. Cartmell’s observation sparks a lively debate, as his fellow students take turns looking closely at the work, seeking to discern what Cartmell has seen.

The concept behind this class is so important. If medical students can grasp these observation skills, it will really serve them well in their residencies and beyond.

That moment, explains Naftalis, illustrates the “productive ambiguities of art,” as well as the benefit of engaged close looking without “rushing to assign meaning to what we see.”

The practice of engaged close looking as a means to improve observational skills is a key goal of the course, which includes gallery sessions facilitated by doctoral students from the Department of Art and Art History at Stanford paired with a clinical correlate hour where School of Medicine faculty members applied the lessons of the art gallery portion to the clinical setting. Physicians from family medicine, orthopedics, dermatology, pathology and anesthesiology led discussions on a range of topics including narrative, body in motion, skin and tone, and death.

“The thematic organization was meant to inspire conversation across disciplines, by putting two takes on a similar theme in proximity to each other for two hours,” explains art history doctoral student Yinshi Lerman-Tan, who helped develop the course. “Bringing medicine into the space of the museum was a great aspect of the course – simply allowing different bodies of knowledge to exist under one roof. The medical students would sometimes use clinical vocabulary or concepts to describe works in the gallery, making for an interesting range of language in our discussions.”

Cartmell said one important take away for him from the course, which is called “The Art of Observation: Enhancing Clinical Skills Through Visual Analysis,” was learning to observe without jumping to interpretation. “I was surprised at how strong the impulse was to interpret the work, before I had actually observed the entire piece,” he says. The exercises the instructors led us through, describing what we saw objectively without commentary, really forced me to slow down and really see what was in front of me, without jumping to conclusions or interpretation.”

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Emergency Medicine, Medicine and Society, Patient Care, Public Safety, Stanford News

A young child, a falling cabinet, and a Life Flight rescue

A young child, a falling cabinet, and a Life Flight rescue

ticktockLife in the air rescue business is highly unpredictable. You can spend many hours idling away the time in an obscure, basement office. But when an emergency call comes, you literally don’t have a second to grab a pen on the way out the door.

So it was on one November day, when I did a ride-along with Stanford’s illustrious Life Flight air ambulance service, the oldest in California. The team graciously agreed to let me accompany them on a flight for a story for Stanford Medicine magazine, whose current issue is focused on the role of time in medicine. Life Flight, I figured, would give me a sense of the split-second timing that can sometimes make a difference between life and death in an emergency situation. I was scheduled to fly with the crew in late October, but instead I spent that day learning about the service in what proved to be a leisurely day with no calls.

On my second ride-along day, it appeared that history was about to repeat itself when, just as my shift was about to end, the emergency call came in at 3:39 p.m. I became an eye witness to the rescue of a toddler who suffered a serious head injury when a heavy, ill-secured cabinet at her preschool crashed down on her head during naptime. The story was so dramatic that it made the local news. The school was shut down several days later by local officials because of code violations.

Things could have gone poorly for little Aeshna, the 3-year-old victim of the accident, who was left dazed, not fully conscious and vomiting as a result of her injury – clear signs of head trauma. She could have suffered significant bleeding in the brain and permanent brain damage – a prospect that was a major concern for her parents and caregivers.

The two Life Flight nurses, who have a breathtaking array of skills, and their veteran U.S. Navy pilot made it to the scene at the Fremont, Ca. preschool across the bay within 23 minutes of the call and were able to bring Aeshna back to Stanford for quick assessment and treatment.

You can read the minute-by-minute scenario of Aeshna’s rescue in the the magazine, which came out last week.

Previously: Stanford Medicine magazine reports on time’s intersection with health, Comparing the cost-effectiveness of helicopter transport and ambulances for trauma victims, Stanford Life Flight celebrates 30 years and Ask Stanford Med: Answers to your questions about wildnerness medicine
Illustration by Lincoln Agnew

Medical Education, SMS Unplugged

Why does “just doing medical school” feel like it’s not enough?

Why does “just doing medical school” feel like it’s not enough?

stethoscope on book - 560

SMS (“Stanford Medical School”) Unplugged was recently launched as a forum for students to chronicle their experiences in medical school. The student-penned entries appear on Scope once a week; the entire blog series can be found in the SMS Unplugged category.

A friend from home came to visit me a while back. I hadn’t seen this friend in years, so we traipsed off campus, to a café I love, and nursed our lattes as we caught up on each other’s lives. She told me about her recent travels, highlights from her college years, her plans for the next several months and more. And then she turned to me and asked me what I was up to these days. I described what my typical day was like – workout, go to classes, study, repeat.

When I was done, she asked – “So… outside of med school, what else are you involved in at Stanford? Start-ups? Student organizations? Research?”

I felt a slight flush come over my cheeks and found myself saying, almost sheepishly, “I’m mostly just focusing on med school.” Just. Just med school. 

We continued our chat, but when I came home later, my thoughts wandered back to that “just” and why I felt so guilty about not having many outside commitments in medical school.

I knew part of it was the knowledge that I had never been a one-task kind of girl. In high school, there was debate, science Olympiad, Indian classical dance, and more. In college, there was Camp Kesem, a fusion dance team and research. I poured hours and hours into each and every one of these activities, but something in me shifted when I came to medical school.

That mental transition was and continues to be such a difficult one for me. I know Stanford is an incredible place – with start-ups blossoming every which way and the word “innovation” being uttered somewhere on campus every minute (probably not an exaggeration). Everyone around me seems so impressive – with multiple research publications, various awards to their name, travels abroad to assist with surgeries, and so on. Don’t get me wrong, I love this passion at Stanford, this drive to change the world – it’s why I came here, and why I hope to stay here as long as possible.

But it’s also easy to look at every other person and wonder how they’re doing it all, and more than that, wonder why graduating  not only with an MD (after all, everyone in the class gets one of those!) but also a string of additional achievements, feels like the baseline expectation for med students.

In just a few weeks, my classmates and I are going to be done with our pre-clerkship years and those of us who aren’t taking one or more research years (myself included) will directly transition to clerkships. I can’t wait to spend hours speaking with patients, working in a team to figure out diagnoses, and brainstorming treatment plans. I can’t wait to experience that excitement when I realize what aspect of medicine I want to practice for the rest of my life and feel that puzzle piece slide snugly into place inside me.

And I can’t wait for the moment when I can leave out the “just,” to see that same friend and happily say, “I’m mostly focusing on med school. And I wouldn’t change a thing.”

Hamsika Chandrasekar is a second-year student at Stanford’s medical school. She has an interest in medical education and pediatrics.

Photo by Dr.Farouk

Health Costs, In the News, Mental Health, Research, Stanford News

Exploring the costs and deaths associated with workplace stress

Exploring the costs and deaths associated with workplace stress

6273248505_43d0b56424_oMany of us know that a stressful job or work environment can be hard on our physical and mental health. But what is less known – and less studied – is how work-related stress translates into deaths and dollars spent on health care. According to new research, work-related stress may be linked to more than 120,000 deaths per year and about $190 billion in health-care costs in the United States alone.

In a study submitted to Management Science, former Stanford doctoral student Joel Goh, PhD, and Stanford professors Jeffrey Pfeffer, PhD, and Stefanos A. Zenios, PhD, reviewed 228 studies to explore the relationships between ten common sources of workplace stress, mortality and healthcare expenses in the U.S.

The researchers found that a lack of health insurance and job insecurity were among the top stressors linked to poor physical and emotional health. From a recent Stanford Business story:

Job insecurity increased the odds of reporting poor health by 50%, while long work hours increased mortality by almost 20%. Additionally, highly demanding jobs raised the odds of a physician-diagnosed illness by 35%.

“The deaths are comparable to the fourth- and fifth-largest causes of death in the country — heart disease and accidents,” says Zenios, a professor of operations, information, and technology. “It’s more than deaths from diabetes, Alzheimer’s, or influenza.”

Perhaps the most surprising result, the researchers explain, was the strong effect of psychological stressors on overall health:

Employees who reported that their work demands prevented them from meeting their family obligations or vice versa were 90% more likely to self-report poor physical health, the researchers note. And employees who perceive their workplaces as being unfair are about 50% more likely to develop a physician-diagnosed condition.

The researchers acknowledge that the study has some limitations. For example, they were unable to make strong causal links between work-related stress, mortality and health-care expenses; and they only examined 10 sources of stress. The importance of the study, Pfeffer explains, is that it draws attention to the need to create positive work environments where people feel good about themselves and their work.

Previously: How the stress of our “always on” culture can impact performance, health and happinessStudy finds happy employees are 12 percent more productiveWorkplace stress and how it influences health and How work stress affects wellness, health-care costs
Photo by Bernard Goldbach

Research, Science, Stanford News

Celebrating 25 years of biomedical innovation at Stanford’s Beckman Center

Celebrating 25 years of biomedical innovation at Stanford's Beckman Center

Beckman dinner - smallInnovation in the Biosphere,” a recent symposium organized to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the Beckman Center for Molecular and Genetic Medicine, attracted a standing-room-only crowd eager to listen to leading researchers in the biosciences. The February 23 gathering was so packed at the Li Ka Shing Center for Learning and Knowledge that live streaming had to be set up to accommodate the many faculty, PhDs and guests that arrived to hear from the impressive list of multidisciplinary presenters.

The symposium was designed to celebrate the concept of information transfer, while acknowledging the many innovations and breakthroughs in immunology, stem cell science, chemical biology, and imaging technology through the years.

The event was conceived by National Medal of Science winner Lucy Shapiro, PhD, the Virginia and D.K. Ludwig Professor of Cancer Research and director of the Beckman Center. “I cannot believe 25 years have gone by,” said Shapiro. “We thought we knew so much.”

Shapiro, the co-organizer of the event, credited Paul Berg, PhD, Nobel Prize-winning professor emeritus in biochemistry, and others with starting the center. The Beckman Center was founded in 1989 “at a time of great expectation” to promote the exchange of ideas across diverse scientific disciplines, based on the notion that innovation transcends traditional academic boundaries. Here’s Shapiro:

What has changed so dramatically is our understanding of how the biological world codes, decodes, and uses information in time and space to create and maintain life on this planet. And almost everything we do comes down to mining information and dealing with not only vast amounts of data but very small molecules and small circuitry.

The bedrock of what it means to be a living entity is an understanding of how a cell or tissue functions as an integrated system. No longer is it enough to study the biochemistry of specific reactions. Or a specific event. Or an overall function that happens when a tissue turns into something else. We now have to understand all these parts as an integrated, logical process.

Investigators from Stanford, UC-Berkeley, UCSF, and other institutions shared their research on the design principles of cellular networks, the manipulation of genetic circuitry to re-engineer life, and the genetic circuitry that establishes the blueprint of a living cell. They explored the deep reading of the genome to mine the information in living things and in creating life from scratch.

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Imaging, In the News, NIH, Pregnancy, Research, Women's Health

NIH puts focus on the placenta, the “fascinating” and “least understood” organ

NIH puts focus on the placenta, the "fascinating" and "least understood" organ

ultrasoundLast week, the NIH announced its support for an initiative to study how new technologies can shed light on the placenta’s function and health during pregnancy. Considering how crucial the placenta is to not only the health of a woman and her fetus during pregnancy, but also to the lifelong health of both, it’s surprising to hear the NIH call it “the least understood human organ.”

Currently, doctors and scientists can only gather information about the placenta by using ultrasounds and blood tests, and by examining it after delivery. What if new sensors could track how well blood, oxygen, and nutrients are flowing to the fetus, or if new imaging technologies could assess how well the placenta is attaching to the uterine wall? What if biotechnology could assess the effects of environmental factors on the placenta, such as air pollution, maternal diet, and medications?

Better understanding and monitoring of this temporary organ promises to improve maternal and child health. Placental issues can contribute to negative pregnancy outcomes such as preeclampsia, gestational diabetes, preterm birth, and stillbirth, and they’ve also been linked to a higher risk of heart disease later in life, for both mother and child.

This is the third and largest funding announcement for the NIH’s Human Placenta Project, led by the NIH’s Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development and cosponsored by the NIH’s National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering.

Calling the placenta a “fascinating organ” and the “lifeline that gives us our start in the world” Alan E. Guttmacher, MD, director of the NICHHD, also said in an NIH press release:

We hope this funding opportunity will attract a broad range of researchers and clinicians to help — placental biologists, obstetricians, and experts in imaging, bioengineering, and other arenas… For researchers who want to apply their skills in an area of medicine that isn’t being looked at as much as both scientific opportunity and human health warrant, this is a wonderful chance.

Previously: Placenta, the video game, The placenta sacrifices itself to keep baby healthy in case of starvation and Program focuses on the treatment of placental disorders
Related: Too deeply attached and A most mysterious organ
Photo by thinkpanama

Cancer, Stanford News, Stem Cells, Videos

A look at stem cells and “chemobrain”

A look at stem cells and "chemobrain"

As many as 75 percent of cancer patients experience memory and attention problems during or after their treatment, and up to 3.9 million are afflicted by long-term cognitive dysfunction. This foggy mental state, often referred to as “chemobrain,” can also affect cancer survivors’ fine motor skills, information processing speed, concentration and ability to calculate.

In this recently posted California Institute for Regenerative Medicine video, Stanford physician-scientist Michelle Monje, MD, PhD, explains the role that damage to stem cells in the brain plays in the condition, outlines some of the interventions that can mitigate patients’ symptoms, and highlights efforts to develop effective regenerative therapies.

Previously: Stanford brain tumor research featured on “Bay Area Proud”, Emmy nod for film about Stanford brain tumor research – and the little boy who made it possible and Stanford study shows effects of chemotherapy and breast cancer on brain function

Behavioral Science, In the News, Patient Care, Research, Sleep, Stanford News

Watson, the narcoleptic Chihuahua, demonstrates symptoms on-air

Watson, the narcoleptic Chihuahua, demonstrates symptoms on-air

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What’s black and white (with just a few splotches of brown), understands French, and falls asleep at feeding times? A narcoleptic Chihuahua named Watson.

Watson’s becoming accustomed to the spotlight — he made his debut here at Scope, then went on to star in a KQED blog post. But today, Watson made it on air for The California Report. The segment begins – endearingly — with Emmanuel Mignot, MD, PhD, cooing to Watson in French. Mignot is Watson’s human and a sleep researcher known for the discovery of the gene that causes narcolepsy in dogs. (He also directs the Stanford Center for Sleep Sciences and Medicine).

Although Watson isn’t officially a Stanford dog — he’s Mignot’s pet — Mignot is hoping to use the slightly shy pup to help some of his patients, particularly children, who suffer from narcolepsy.

One of the symptoms of narcolepsy is cataplexy, a sudden loss of muscle control and Watson often suffers these attacks when he’s excited or spots tasty food.

“He looks at you with these eye half-closed and its almost like he’s just telling you, “Oh, I love you,” but in fact its because he’s having a sleep attack,” Mignot said.

Previously: Narcoleptic Chihuahua joins Stanford sleep researcher’s family, Stumbling upon circadian rhythms and Does influenza trigger narcolepsy?
Photo by Emmanuel Mignot

Mental Health, Parenting, Pregnancy, Women's Health

A telephone lifeline for moms with postpartum depression

A telephone lifeline for moms with postpartum depression

Van_Gogh_-_Madame_Augustine_Roulin_mit_BabyI’m currently pregnant and due in less than two weeks. It’s my second child, so I’m not as worried about caring for a newborn as I was the first time around. But one nagging worry I have is the risk of postpartum depression, sometimes called postnatal depression. I have a family history of depression and that puts me at higher risk. Luckily, it wasn’t a problem with my firstborn, but it can crop up in later pregnancies – and scientists don’t entirely understand the reasons for it.

Postpartum depression usually hits four to six weeks after delivery—though it can show up months later. It’s characterized by feeling overwhelmed, trapped, guilty or inadequate, along with crying, irritability, problems concentrating, loss of appetite or libido, or sleep problems. An estimated 9 to 16 percent of new mothers are affected by postpartum depression. Even men are known to suffer from it sometimes. PPD affects not just the mother (or father), but can have lasting effects on the child as well, so helping these parents through a difficult and isolating time is critical

Now, a study published in Journal of Advanced Nursing shows that providing a social network for new moms, via phone calls from other mothers who had recovered from PPD, could alleviate symptoms for moms in the study for up to two years after delivery. A news release summarized the findings:

For the present quasi-experimental study, researchers recruited 64 mothers with depression up to two years after delivery who were living in New Brunswick. Peer volunteers who recovered from postnatal depression were trained as peer support and provided an average of nine support calls. The average age of mothers was 26 years, with 77% reporting depressive symptoms prior to pregnancy and 57% having pregnancy complications. There were 16 women (35%) who were taking medication for depression since the birth.

I find the idea that this insidious problem could be tackled with a phone version of the ubiquitous and valuable moms’ groups an uplifting one. Compared to drug treatments, regular phone calls from a peer who’s gone through something similar is a relatively cheap treatment. Further studies are needed, but I’ll be watching to see whether this approach takes hold as a standard intervention for PPD.

Previously: “2020 Mom Project” promotes awareness of perinatal mood disorders,  Is postpartum depression more of an urban problem?, Helping moms emerge from the darkness of postpartum depression, Breastfeeding difficulties may lead to depression in new moms, and Dads get postpartum depression, too
Image by Van Gogh

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