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Events, Medicine and Society

At TEDMED 2015: Behind the glitz, substantive issues

At TEDMED 2015: Behind the glitz, substantive issues

This year’s TEDMED was held Nov. 18-20 in Palm Springs, Calif. Stanford Medicine is a medical research institution partner of TEDMED, and a group of MD and PhD students who represented Stanford at the conference will be sharing their experiences here. 

TEDMED stage - Lichy HanI admit, I was skeptical heading into the TEDMED conference.

Don’t get me wrong, I love watching TED talks online, and I often listen to Guy Raz on the TED Radio Hour.

However, I’ve always viewed TED primarily as a source of entertainment, a chance to hear fascinating  personal adventures, and the popular science stories that fill us with awe. I’ve thought much less of TED as an entity that could create new knowledge, value and impact beyond storytelling and the occasional self-help guidance.

I’m happy to say that I was wrong.

TED has come under fire from some who paint it as a self-congratulatory echo-chamber of the wealthy elite that counter-productively obfuscates the missions of many speakers by burying their messages in flashy but ultimately meaningless evangelism – “things that make us feel good but which don’t work.” And while, having never attended, I couldn’t share these convictions, the curmudgeon in me could see the logic behind them.

To some extent, those concerns were realized. General admission was $5,000. Speakers were edgily rebranded as “superheroes” or “shepherds,” the kind of visionary titles that might be parodied in an episode of HBO’s “Silicon Valley.” The conference opened with a rock concert and a talk with a main takeaway that seemed to be that female baboons use their male counterparts as sexual objects. There are certainly many important issues embedded in that discussion, but the sensationalist, intentionally provocative delivery came across more Cosmo than Betty Friedan. Sex sells, it seems, even at medical conferences.

But what is it that we’re buying – and is it worth it? I believe so.

As a powerhouse of distributing ideas globally, TED has a social duty to promote not only those ideas that entertain and those that inspire, but also those that disgust, those that depress, and those that make us appreciate. With all eyes upon it, TED can bring some of the most difficult and sensitive, but necessary, topics to the forefront of the conversation.

In particular, I was impressed at the spotlight placed on mental health, an often downplayed and taboo topic that is nevertheless a core element of our profession and school, and my own experiences, friends, and hometown. Pamela Wible, MD, narrated horrifying letters of physician suicide, illustrating great failures in our medical training system. Without TED, few attendees would ever be exposed to these realities. Melissa Walker shared what it was like to have PTSD, and how art therapy could empower veterans to heal when drugs and counseling failed. The Surgeon General himself, Vivek Murthy, MD, chose to focus his TEDMED time on the importance of mindfulness and stress reduction in improving physical and psychiatric outcomes in middle school children.

Many speakers raised concerns about issues ranging from eugenics to institutional racism in healthcare, but what struck me most was how frequently “this is a big problem…” was answered immediately with “…and here’s what we’ve done to fix it…” Activist Raj Patel described how uprooting traditional gender roles was necessary to solve food shortages in Malawi. Bryant Terry recounted teaching nutritional programs to disadvantaged teens in New York. Kenneth Nealson, PhD, a USC professor, and engineer Peter Janicki described new economically sustainable methods that turn sewage and garbage into clean drinking water. All were clear to end with the message “…but there’s a ways to go.”

Is some of the TEDMED glamorization over the top? Absolutely. Are all of the ideas going to radically change the world? Maybe not. But TED has the power to bring people together to share their ideas, to collaborate on new ones, and to showcase their vulnerabilities, failures and unsolved challenges to each other and to the world. That in itself is an idea worth spreading.

Brian Hsueh is an MD/PhD student in neuroscience and bioengineering. He spends his days working on new technologies to understand and treat diseases of the brain, and his nights trying to find economically feasible ways to bring those technologies to patients.

Photo by Lichy Han

Infectious Disease, Medicine and Society, Parenting, Public Health, Research, Stanford News

California’s vaccination exemptions cluster in white, affluent communities

California's vaccination exemptions cluster in white, affluent communities


California’s measles epidemic was no fluke; between 2007 and 2013 the percentage of kindergarteners using a “personal belief” exemption to enroll in school without vaccinations doubled.

In that year, 3 percent of kindergarteners entered school unvaccinated. In some schools, the percentage of vaccinated children was so low that it threatened herd immunity, or the ability for a population to keep a pathogen at bay, according to Stanford health-policy researcher Michelle Mello, PhD, JD.

To understand the rapid increase, Mello worked with a team led by Tony Yang, ScD, with George Mason University. Their research is published today in the American Journal of Public Health.

They found the highest resistance to vaccinations among white, affluent communities. In contrast to previous studies, however, they did not find a correlation between higher levels of education and vaccine exemptions.

“Beliefs about vaccination risk tend to be more entrenched among certain communities of mothers,” Mello said. The study didn’t investigate reasons for seeking exemption, but other studies suggest some mothers in affluent communities may believe they can adequately protect their children through “intensive parenting techniques” such as an organic diet and restricting contact with sick children, Mello said.

Although California eliminated the personal belief exemption this summer in a broad-reaching law that requires all medically eligible school students to be vaccinated, the study speaks to how other states might approach the problem of vaccine exemptions, Mello said.

Similar clusters of vaccine resistance exist elsewhere and the findings could help public health agencies refine outreach methods, she said. For example, by specifically targeting local groups and reaching out to community leaders, officials may have more success providing education about vaccine risks and benefits, Mello said.

The results are particularly striking given the history of vaccination efforts, she said. In the first half of the twentieth century, public health officials struggled to ensure vaccines reached disadvantaged communities. Now, as fear of the targeted diseases has paled, parents may be more fearful of vaccines, leaving the entire population vulnerable.

Previously: Infectious disease expert discusses concerns about undervaccination and California’s measles outbreak, Stanford researchers analyze California’s new vaccine law and The earlier the better: Study makes vaccination recommendations for next flu pandemic
Photo by woodleywonderworks

In the News, Medicine and Society, Mental Health, Public Health

Turning loss into hope for others: New website teaches about mental health

Turning loss into hope for others: New website teaches about mental health


Suicide slices close to the heart for me, and I remember well the story of Shelby Drazan, a Woodside, Calif. 17-year-old who died by suicide last year.

Now, the Drazan family is going public with their efforts to help others suffering from mental illness. A recent article in the Almanac explains their efforts:

The Drazans say they hope talking publicly about what happened to Shelby will ease some of the stigma attached to mental illness.

“A lot of people are struggling,” Stacy Drazan says, “a lot of people especially in this area. We’ve got to help get rid of the stigma so that people can seek help, and earlier.”

Her daughter Mackenzie has created an online trove of resources, Teaching Everyone About Mental Health or TEAM. “Hopefully we can lower the learning curve for everybody else,” Mackenzie said.

At the same time, Stacy Drazan is working to expand the number of adolescent beds for psychiatric patients in the San Francisco Bay area. Stanford’s Steven Adelsheim, MD, a child psychiatrist, is among those working with the family to expand local mental-health resources.

Previously: Advice and guidance on teen suicide, “Every life is touched by suicide:” Stanford psychiatrist on the importance of prevention and Stanford’s Keith Humphreys on Golden Gate Bridge suicide prevention: Get the nets
Photo courtesy of TEAM

Addiction, Cancer, Events, Health Policy, Medicine and Society, Public Health

The devil you know: Experts discuss the public-health consequences of e-cigarettes

The devil you know: Experts discuss the public-health consequences of e-cigarettes

e-cigarettesHow do we reduce health risk in the face of harm that can’t be eradicated completely? That’s the question that the medical school’s dean, Lloyd Minor, MD, presented to the audience at Monday’s Health Policy Forum on e-cigarettes — a topic about which he said “intelligent and reasonable people can disagree.”

E-cigarettes are a heavily contested subject in the public-health community. Panelists at this event debated whether the recently developed devices hold promise to help long-time smokers move away from combustible cigarettes, or whether they carry the worrisome potential to re-normalize smoking.

All panelists agreed that those under 21 shouldn’t be using any nicotine delivery devices, and they shared a goal of minimizing general use of harmful health products. They disagreed, however, on what the advent of e-cigarettes means to the accomplishment of those goals.

David Abrams, PhD, a Johns Hopkins clinical psychologist specializing in health psychology, addictions, and tobacco-use behavior, described himself as a harm reductionist. He argued that as an alternative mode of nicotine delivery, e-cigarettes pave the way for saving lives by helping addicted smokers not use traditional cigarettes.

“I do think the evidence is very solid that they are dramatically less harmful than cigarettes…because they absolutely have very low, almost undetectable levels or trace amounts of the top eight carcinogens that are found in cigarettes and they have no carbon monoxide,” he explained.

But a lack of extensive research makes Stanford’s Robert Jackler, MD, and Bonnie Halpern-Felsher, PhD, question whether vaping is actually safe — and a prevalence of candy-flavored e-liquids leaves them concerned for the potential for harm to youth.

“Let me point out that you can smoke [combustible cigarettes] for many years before you get chronic destructive lung disease,” said Jackler, who leads a Stanford research team studying the impact of tobacco advertising, marketing, and promotion. “So while I agree… that they are safer, the presumption that they are safe for teenagers to adopt as opposed to combustible tobacco, we won’t know that for decades.”

In the meantime, he worries that “we’re experimenting with the lungs of teens.”

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In the News, Medicine and Society, Palliative Care, Patient Care

In the wake of passage of new end-of-life law, a call to help those who don’t want to die

In the wake of passage of new end-of-life law, a call to help those who don't want to die

end-of-lifeAs discussed here and elsewhere, the big medical-related news last week was California’s new end-of-life law. After the law was signed, Karl Lorenz, MD, a professor of medicine at the Palo Alto Veterans Medical Center, and two of his Stanford colleagues wrote in the Sacramento Bee about an aspect of end-of-life care they say wasn’t addressed in the debate over the legislation: how to improve the situation for those very sick patients who don’t want assistance dying.

After writing that “most of us want an effective treatment for pain, not a life-ending prescription,” the authors ask:

Will our legislators advocate for better end-of-life care? Will they invest in quality measures and public reporting that help us choose a good and not just a shorter end? Will they fund an electronic registry so that patients’ decisions against life-sustaining treatment are readily available? Will they make transparent the financial incentives for more efficient end-of-life care or support training in palliative care for nurses, social workers and physicians?

Such solutions represent the investment that most of us need to avoid an end that we mostly don’t want…

Previously: Stanford bioethicist weighs in on California’s new end-of-life lawHow would you like to die? Tell your doctor in a letterStudy: Doctors would choose less aggressive end-of-life care for themselvesStanford experts weigh in on spate of “right to try” laws for the terminally illOn a mission to transform end-of-life care and The importance of patient/doctor end-of-life discussions
Photo by Shutterstock

Events, Medicine and Society, Stanford News

Anna Deavere Smith explores “crossing the line” of being sick and dying

Anna Deavere Smith explores "crossing the line" of being sick and dying

ADSThe New York Times has written that Anna Deavere Smith, playwright, actress and professor, is the “ultimate impressionist. She does people’s souls.” It was Jonathan King’s soul that Smith summoned up at the Jonathan King Lecture on campus earlier this week. The lecture series, celebrating its 25th year, honors King, who earned a master’s degree and PhD in computer science at Stanford and who became an advocate for patients’ rights after his cancer diagnosis in 1989. The series was created by friends and family to honor King’s memory and to carry on his message of “walking in the shoes of your patients.”

The event opened with a video of King during his life and battle with cancer, including portions of a talk he gave to medical students in which he said, “There is a line that divides people who have passed over to the condition I am in from everybody else.”

Smith weaved those words throughout her performance, as she brought to life patients she had interviewed in the course of her research for her landmark one-woman show “Let Me Down Easy.” Those real life patients included Hazel Merritt, a diabetic patient who had compelling reasons to refuse dialysis treatment; Ruth Katz, former associate dean of administration at Yale Medical School; Ann Richards, former Governor of Texas; and Eduardo Guerro, a patient who said, “You can’t turn dying into a picnic.”

What medical professionals CAN do however, Smith said, is recognize the whole person in the patient. “Take in everything they are, and that starts when you walk in the room and touch the patient,” Smith said. She then echoed King’s advice saying, “Get as close to your patients as possible.”

Smith also addressed the “line” that King referred to. “There is a matter of, of… aloneness for those who have passed over that line, and we can do better as humans and as a society to work to get over it. We need to imagine crossing that line, because we are all human, and we are all going to die.”

In the Q&A portion of the lecture, medical student Arunami Kohli thanked Smith for her moving performance and asked her how she got patients to speak so candidly. Smith’s answer: “I have found when people are in crisis, they want to restore their dignity, and when they do, they are so eloquent, they sing. Just remember to give patients that opportunity, to restore their dignity.”

Jacqueline Genovese is assistant director of the Medicine & the Muse Program within the Stanford Center for Biomedical Ethics. The center hosts the Jonathan King Lecture.

Previously: Actor Anna Deavere Smith on getting into and under the skin of a character

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

Does medical school unfairly glamorize the medical profession?

Does medical school unfairly glamorize the medical profession?

Stanford Medicine Unplugged (formerly SMS Unplugged) is a forum for students to chronicle their experiences in medical school. The student-penned entries appear on Scope once a week during the academic year; the entire blog series can be found in the Stanford Medicine Unplugged category.

discovery walkAny Stanford student knows all too well that the immense campus, with its seemingly eternal sunshine and endless rows of palm trees, can make it difficult to want to get outside and experience the real world. When it comes to medical education, this creates a very real concern: Is it possible to experience the full diversity of our health-care system when you are living in the so-called “Stanford bubble” – an idyllic college campus in one of the wealthiest counties in the United States?

I’ve certainly felt the effects of the Stanford bubble, but interestingly, working with a diverse population of patients has not been my primary challenge. Stanford has a wide net of connections with the Peninsula region and larger Bay Area – from clinics serving the urban underserved in East Palo Alto to flu vaccination programs reaching a rural population in the Central Valley farmlands. Those experiences are widely accessible to anybody who seeks them out.

No, my problem with the Stanford bubble is not about the patients – but rather the doctors. Doctors are known for being overworked and stressed, right? It certainly doesn’t seem that way in our bubble, where speaking with our outstanding pre-clinical faculty about their careers brings inspiring stories of cutting-edge research achievements, clinics filled with fulfilling cases and grateful patients and many years of training bright up-and-coming doctors. On the contrary, my faculty mentors speak highly of the balance they’ve found in their professional lives – clinic one day, research the next and teaching in between.

But is this really representative of the real world? When you step outside the realm of “academic medicine,” the picture seems to change considerably. It’s not a secret that, among physicians nationwide, burnout is widespread and pervasive – afflicting 46 percent of doctors in a recent study. Burnout was defined as “emotional exhaustion, depersonalization and low personal accomplishment.” To be honest, I can’t say that I’ve ever observed anything like that in my pre-clinical years, let alone in 46 percent of our faculty. As pre-clinical medical students, burnout is something that we hear about constantly, but witness never, allowing us to convince ourselves that it’s just some abstract idea that doesn’t apply to us.

I’m constantly inspired by my teachers and mentors here at Stanford. I will consider myself incredibly fortunate if I manage to step into their shoes at some point in my career. But part of me that wonders if we’re really seeing the full picture as pre-clinical students. We’re being shielded from the “front lines” – the thousands and thousands of primary care doctors who work tirelessly under the strains that our health-care system imposes on private practice physicians. Are we being set up for an unpleasant surprise later on? How can we possibly avoid being part of the 46 percent if we don’t have a good awareness that it exists? Perhaps it’s time to start bringing these questions into the medical school bubble.

Nathaniel Fleming is a second-year medical student and a native Oregonian. His interests include health policy and clinical research. 

Photo by Norbert von der Groeben

In the News, Medicine and Society, Patient Care

Stanford bioethicist weighs in on California’s new end-of-life law

Stanford bioethicist weighs in on California's new end-of-life law

Earlier this week, California Governor Jerry Brown signed the controversial “End of Life Option Act,” which will take effect in 2016 and allow medically assisted suicide in the state. The news was the topic of KQED’s Forum yesterday, and Stanford bioethicist David Magnus, PhD, was one of the featured guests.

Magnus noted that the law is likely to affect a very small percentage of the population, and he thinks the debate surrounding it “reflects a much, much deeper problem in how we deal with communication and care at end of life. This isn’t really going to solve that problem…” Another show guest, Toni Broaddus, California campaign director of Compassion & Choices, agreed that more conversation between doctors and patients is needed, but said this can help: “We hope that what part of this law does, in addition to providing relief from those who need it at the end of life [is] create the room and the opportunity for doctors to talk with their dying patients about all of the options…”

The entire conversation is worth a listen.

Previously: How would you like to die? Tell your doctor in a letterStudy: Doctors would choose less aggressive end-of-life care for themselvesStanford experts weigh in on spate of “right to try” laws for the terminally illOn a mission to transform end-of-life care and The importance of patient/doctor end-of-life discussions

Events, Medicine and Literature, Medicine and Society, Stanford News

Medical students and physicians share their writings on “becoming a real doctor”

Medical students and physicians share their writings on "becoming a real doctor"

louisewenreading_CROPPEDThe dilemma of being a medical student on clinical rounds who wants to help patients but can’t was captured by third-year student Raymond Deng in his essay “Performing Grief,” at a recent reading held by Stanford’s Medicine and the Muse Program and Pegasus Physician Writers group.

The event, titled “Becoming a Real Doctor: Writings on Medical Education and Training,” also featured a poetry reading by fourth-year medical student Lauren Pischel, a book excerpt by Cornell physician Matt McCarthy, MD, and essay readings by Emily Liu, a second-year medical student, and Louise Wen, MD.

The audience of medical students, physicians, residents, nurses and community members listened attentively as Deng described what it can feel like to be a medical student:

For a year or two, you will inch your way on the tightrope towards white-coated authority from diligently reproduced sham. What you lack in clinical knowledge, you will compensate for with the appropriate attire. Be meticulous. Put on your requisite, freshly-pressed white coat. Hang your stethoscope across the nape of your neck. Cram the pockets of your white coat so full of notes and reference guides that they sag. Ignore the nagging incongruence: the fact that you’re not a doctor but you look like one. You want to help patients, but will settle for watching… You will feel like a cardboard marionette, dancing to the steady rhythm of acting competent and acting ignorant of your acting.

For Wen, it was acting against the rules of eating in the area of clinical care that afforded her the opportunity to connect with her patient, Sara, on a personal level:

Hey doc, here’s a treat for you, I know you guys work hard… Here, try some Afghani bread.” She looks up, eager to connect, and my own yearning to know this women beyond her illness swells within my chest. I can recite numerous details and data points about her medical history and hospital course, but her life as a human being is a gaping void.”

Eating the homemade bread, with “the inside as soft as pillowy sponge cake,” led to a sharing of photographs of Afghanistan and a filling of the void for Wen.

Continue Reading »

Medical Education, Medicine and Society, Stanford Medicine Unplugged

Learning how to learn medicine

Learning how to learn medicine

Stanford Medicine Unplugged (formerly SMS Unplugged) is a forum for students to chronicle their experiences in medical school. The student-penned entries appear on Scope once a week during the academic year; the entire blog series can be found in the Stanford Medicine Unplugged category.

A few weekends ago, I saw a patient with bloated shins at our school’s free clinic, and I marked in my notes that she exhibited “peripheral edema,” an esoteric phrase that means little to those outside of the medical community. That experience only highlighted the tendency in medicine to inflate common bodily functions into opaque medical jargon. Its use can be frustrating for patients who are trying to understand their illness — and at times even for the uninformed medical student who is trying to learn about his patient.

As medical students, we feel as if we’re training to become glorified breathing-and-walking medical dictionaries

It doesn’t help that the list of jargon is endless. Itchiness becomes pruritus. Listening to the body’s internal noises condenses into auscultation. When you urinate, you’re really micturating, and if you have trouble doing so, you also have dysuria. Having a rash turns into having erythema. An abnormally large liver translates to hepatomegaly. An unhealthy level of cholesterol is labeled as hyperlipidemia. Chest pain is referred to as angina. Even the simple act of sweating is termed hidrosis. For vast majority of the first two years of medical school, we spend our time learning this vast and complex language that seems to have a word or phrase for every single bodily event — health and unhealthy, normal and abnormal.

But that is what medical training and much of medicine are — making observations of the human body and noting them with memorized jargon. And once we have acknowledged all the relevant observations, we connect the dots to form a story. If we’re astute and lucky enough, that story will end with the name of the disease along with its possible treatments and cures.

One would think that in order to provide adequate treatment to our patients, our education would possess more depth into the mechanisms behind drugs and diseases. But we only graze their physiological and molecular basis. It isn’t a reflection on our lack of curiosity. Rather, unfortunately, medicine is still limited by our dearth of knowledge. Despite the trillions of dollars poured into research, our advances in human genomics, and the fancy gadgetry, the human body remains a stubborn black box. Most of the time, all we can do is look at the inputs and outputs. Take aspirin, for example. Cardiologists recommend patients with a history of cardiovascular disease to take a baby aspirin every day to reduce their chances of a heart attack. But how this drug — first discovered by the ancient Egyptians — leads to decreased risk of death still remains a mystery.

These days, patients can sequence their entire genomes at a speed and price that was unimaginable a decade ago. They can scan their entire bodies to produce images with unprecedented detail. But in a unexpected twist, in order to confirm a diagnosis, physicians may still resort to the primitive practice of taking a gross piece of tissue from the patient and viewing it under a compound microscope, a contraption invented nearly half a century ago. Our expensive technology has been only able to expand our ability to observe and has done little peel back the veil covering the underlying mechanisms of human diseases.

But that is not to say that we should lose faith in medicine and underestimate the importance of labeling our observations. For the patient, putting a name on an abnormality, even if there may be no treatment available, can be comforting and give hope for recovery. For the caretaker, being able to identify an important physical finding can point to a set of suspect diseases. For my patient, leg swelling strongly suggested that he might be suffering from congestive heart failure.

As medical students, we must feel as if we’re training to become glorified breathing-and-walking medical dictionaries. Make no mistake — we are. We’re learning to make observations, note them down, and make sense of them down the road. And we shouldn’t underestimate the power of this process. It is at the core of the scientific process, and it’ll be how we ultimately serve our patients.

Steven Zhang is a second-year medical student at Stanford. When he’s not cramming for his next exam, you can find him on a run around campus or exploring a new hiking trail.

Photo in featured entry box by Patrick

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