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Medicine and Society, Medicine X, Patient Care, Technology

What makes a good doctor – and can data help us find one?

What makes a good doctor - and can data help us find one?

Ornstein panelWhile much conversation at Medicine X focused around the doctor-patient relationship, ProPublica reporter Charles Ornstein posed to conference attendees this morning a more fundamental question: How do you find a doctor? “This is trickier than you think,” he said and proceeded to discuss how data can yield helpful information for those looking for (or assessing their current) physician. He outlined some of the information – mostly involving doctor-industry relationships and physician-prescribing practices – that ProPublica has gleaned from federal databases, and he outlined questions that patients might want to ask their doctors about such things. (“So my doctor has a relationship with a company. But how is that affecting my care?” he said.)

Ornstein spent a good amount of time discussing the importance of making information – presumably not just information on negative things, such as whether a doctor appears to over-prescribe a certain medication or has ever been disciplined, but also about thoughts on physicians’ care from patients – more widely available.“We all want doctors who are good at what they’re doing clinically, and it’s time for us to stop making that a secret,” he said, before making his closing statement that “Data should be freed so we can make better health-care decisions.”

In the panel session – moderated by our own Paul Costello – that followed, several important points were made. First, Vivian Lee, MD, PhD, MBA, dean of the University of Utah School of Medicine and CEO of University of Utah Health Care, reminded the audience that the “majority of doctors are not bad apples” and can improve on things if given the chance. University of Utah makes patient-survey information publicly available, and she described the six-month period before this service was launched as a time where doctors worked to boost their level of care. Almost every doctor received at least 4 out of 5 stars by the time the rankings went online, she said.

Panelist Carly Medosch, a patient advocate who has had Crohn’s disease for 20 years, expressed support for access to physician data but pointed out that she doesn’t have time to dig through “tons and tons of research” – she not only has a regular job but a second job managing her disease. And “If I’m taken to the ER for a ruptured intestine I don’t have time to ask questions” about, for example, a doctor’s industry relationships, she pointed out. It was an important reminder that access to data alone might not greatly benefit the average chronically ill patient.

Towards the end of the session, the panelists shared their own ideas of what makes a good doctor, with Ornstein listing good clinical outcomes and empathy as two must-haves. Numerous attendees took to Twitter to express their own thoughts, including patient advocate Liza Bernstein, who offered at least 10 criteria. (My personal favorite: “What kind of PERSON are you? Yes, always, top of your field, but are you a #mensch?) Given the complexity of the issue, as outlined during the panel, I think this attendee hit the nail on the head by tweeting:

What makes a good doctor? Medicine is not a monolith. There is no simple, single answer, regardless of data availability.

More news about Stanford Medicine X is available in the Medicine X category.

Previously: Medicine X aims to “fill the gaps” in medical education, Relationships the theme of the day at Stanford’s Medicine X, Stanford Medicine X 2014 kicks off today and Medicine X spotlights mental health, medical team of the future and the “no-smartphone” patient
Photo of Ornstein (far right) and panelists by Stanford Medicine X

Medicine and Society, Medicine X, Patient Care, Technology

Relationships the theme of the day at Stanford’s Medicine X

Relationships the theme of the day at Stanford's Medicine X

Larry Chu long shot

Medicine X began today with a theatrical bang as quotes from past speakers filled the main presentation hall and flashed across on the stage against an electrifying soundtrack. In welcoming both old and new friends to the conference, Larry Chu, MD, associate professor of anesthesia at the School of Medicine and executive director of the conference, repeated a sentiment from last year’s event, saying, “You belong here with us – we all care about health care.”

Stanford’s premier conference on emerging health-care technology and patient-centered medicine, the event attracted more than 400 patients, health-care providers, technologists, researchers and entrepreneurs to engage in moon shot thinking about the future of medicine and health care. Several hundred more watched the conference webcast.

“We’ve seen information technologies transform lives in so many ways; now it’s time to harness this power to improve health,” Lloyd Minor, MD, dean of the medical school, told the audience in the morning. He encouraged attendees “to think big” and to use their time at Medicine X to identify collaborators to take their ideas from concept to reality.

Collaborations and relationships were the theme of the day, with sessions focused on how engaged patients and their doctors can become the medical team of the future, how the pharmaceutical industry and patients can work together in the drug discovery and clinical trial process, how chronic-disease patients use self-trackers as a sort of partner in their care, and how developers of digital technologies are collaborating with those who might not have an obvious voice. As one Twitter user commented, “Most common words at #medx conference so far: transparent, engaged, relationships, connected.”

Medicine X continues tomorrow and Sunday. If you’re unable to attend the conference in person, you can participate in plenary sessions virtually through a high-quality streaming webcast; registration for the Global Access Program webcast is free. We’ll also be live tweeting the keynotes and other proceedings from the conference; you can follow our tweets on the @SUMedicine feed or follow the hashtag #MedX.

More news about Stanford Medicine X is available in the Medicine X category. 

Previously: Stanford Medicine X 2014 kicks off todayCountdown to Medicine X: 3D printing takes shapeCountdown to Medicine X: Specially designed apps to enhance attendees’ conference experience and Countdown to Medicine X: How to engage with the “no smartphone” patient
Photo by Stanford Medicine X

Medicine and Society, Medicine X, Technology

A call to make digital-health technologies available to everyone

A call to make digital-health technologies available to everyone

In light of my conversation last month about the “no-smartphone patient,” I found this recent Forbes piece on the need to develop culturally sensitive digital-health technologies of interest. Contributor Rob Szczerba writes:

In recent years, technologies involving smart phones and data analytics have become an essential component of how healthcare is delivered throughout the world.  Moreover, some believe these tools hold special promise for people from poor communities, seniors, and ethnic and racial minorities.  In some cases, people from these groups are more likely to have chronic conditions that can be expensive to treat in the short- and long-term.  Unfortunately, many of the innovators developing health technologies are not well-equipped to understand the special needs of these groups.

Rohit Bhargava and Fard Johnmar, co-authors of ePatient 2015, describe this problem as “multicultural misalignment.”  They warn that digital health technologies, such as mobile and wearable devices, will be much less effective if they are not optimized to account for differences in age, gender, culture, ethnicity, knowledge, and literacy.  They believe that preventing multicultural misalignment is vital, suggesting that we must work hard to ensure “health innovations benefit all segments of society.”

As a reminder, Stanford’s Medicine X conference – where this topic will be discussed – begins tomorrow.

Previously: Countdown to Medicine X: How to engage with the “no smartphone” patient

Genetics, Medicine and Society, Pain, Research, Science, Stanford News

From plant to pill: Bioengineers aim to produce opium-based medicines without using poppies

From plant to pill: Bioengineers aim to produce opium-based medicines without using poppies

Basic RGBStanford bioengineer Christina Smolke, PhD, and her team have been on a decade-long mission to replicate how nature produces opium in poppies by genetically engineering the DNA of yeast and then further refining the process to manufacture modern day opioid drugs such as morphine, codeine and the well-known painkiller Vicodin.

Smolke outlined the methods in a report  (subscription required) published in this week’s edition of Nature Chemical Biology, which details the latest stages in the process of manufacturing opium-based medicines, from start to finish, in fermentation vats, similar to the process for brewing beer.

An article published today in the Stanford Report offers more details:

It takes about 17 separate chemical steps to make the opioid compounds used in pills. Some of these steps occur naturally in poppies and the remaining via synthetic chemical processes in factories. Smolke’s team wanted all the steps to happen inside yeast cells within a single vat, including using yeast to carry out chemical processes that poppies never evolved to perform – such as refining opiates like thebaine into more valuable semi-synthetic opioids like oxycodone.

So Smolke programmed her bioengineered yeast to perform these final industrial steps as well. To do this she endowed the yeast with genes from a bacterium that feeds on dead poppy stalks. Since she wanted to produce several different opioids, her team hacked the yeast genome in slightly different ways to produce each of the slightly different opioid formulations, such as oxycodone or hydrocodone.

“We are now very close to replicating the entire opioid production process in a way that eliminates the need to grow poppies, allowing us to reliably manufacture essential medicines while mitigating the potential for diversion to illegal use,” Smolke added.

While it could take several more years to refine these last steps in the lab, bioengineering opioids would eventually lead to less dependence on legal poppy farming, which has numerous restrictions and international dependencies from other countries. It would also provide a reliable supply and secure process for manufacturing important pain killing drugs.

Jen Baxter is a freelance writer and photographer. After spending eight years working for Kaiser Permanente Health plan she took a self-imposed sabbatical to travel around South East Asia and become a blogger. She enjoys writing about nutrition, meditation, and mental health, and finding personal stories that inspire people to take responsibility for their own well-being. Her website and blog can be found at www.jenbaxter.com.

Previously: Blocking addiction risks of morphine without reducing its pain-killing effects, Do opium and opioids increase mortality risk? and Patients’ genetics may play a role in determining side effects of commonly prescribed painkillers 
Photo by Kate Thodey and Stephanie Galanie

Cardiovascular Medicine, Health and Fitness, Medicine and Society, Research

Study questions safety of excessive exercise for heart attack survivors

Study questions safety of excessive exercise for heart attack survivors

Scope runningA recent article in PsychCentral highlighted findings published in the Mayo Clinic Proceedings offering more evidence that extreme exercise for heart attack survivors could put them at a higher risk for a cardiovascular event.

Paul Williams, PhD, staff scientist for the Life Sciences Division of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, and Paul Thompson, MD, a cardiologist at Hartford Hospital, conducted a long-term study looking at the relationship between exercise and cardio-disease related death in about 2,400 physically-active heart attack survivors. The study reported on data taken from the National Walker’s and Runners’ heath studies at Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory.  From the piece:

“These analyses provide what is to our knowledge the first data in humans demonstrating a statistically significant increase in cardiovascular risk with the highest levels of exercise,” say Williams and Thompson.

“Results suggest that the benefits of running or walking do not accrue indefinitely and that above some level, perhaps 30 miles per week of running, there is a significant increase in risk.

Competitive running events also appear to increase the risk of an acute event.”

However, they point out that “our study population consisted of heart attack survivors and so the findings cannot be readily generalized to the entire population of heavy exercisers.”

On the other end of the spectrum, the journal also included research from Spain related to mortality in elite athletes. The investigation included over 42,000 top athletes, of which 707 were women, and examined the beneficial health effects of excessive exercise, particularly in decreasing cardiovascular disease and cancer risk. Senior investigator Alejandro Lucia, MD, PhD, said in the article, “What we found on the evidence available was that elite athletes (mostly men) live longer than the general population, which suggests that the beneficial health effects of exercise, particularly in decreasing cardiovascular disease and cancer risk, are not necessarily confined to moderate doses.”

With the majority of Americans still at risk for obesity, cardiovascular disease and diabetes, regular moderate exercise is still recommended by these researchers. As Hippocrates, the father of medicine, once said, “Everything in excess is opposed to nature.”

Previously: Study reveals initial findings on health of most extreme runners, The exercise pill: A better prescription than drugs for patients with heart problems?, Examining how prolonged high-intensity exercise affects heart health and Study reveals initial findings on health of most extreme runners
Photo by: Matthias Weinberger

Jen Baxter is a freelance writer and photographer. After spending eight years working for Kaiser Permanente Health plan she took a self-imposed sabbatical to travel around South East Asia and become a blogger. She enjoys writing about nutrition, meditation, and mental health, and finding personal stories that inspire people to take responsibility for their own well-being. Her website and blog can be found at www.jenbaxter.com.

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From August 11-25, Scope will be on a limited publishing schedule. During that time, you may also notice a delay in comment moderation. We’ll return to our regular schedule on August 25.

Genetics, Humor, Medicine and Society, Science, Stanford News

Using epigenetics to explain how Captain America and the Incredible Hulk gained their superpowers

Using epigenetics to explain how Captain America and the Incredible Hulk gained their superpowers

When I was kid I used to watch the Incredible Hulk on TV and wait for Bruce Banner to fly into a rage, his muscles inflating like balloons, pants torn to shreds while his entire body turns green as he transforms into the Hulk. As I grew up, and learned more about the advances in genetics, it never occurred to me that cutting-edge genome-editing techniques could explain the scientific principles behind the Hulk’s metamorphosis or his fellow Marvel Comics star-spangled hero Captain America. In a recent Stanford Report story,  Sebastian Alvarado, a postdoctoral research fellow in biology, creatively applies the concepts of epigenetics to illuminate the process by which average Joes become superheroes.

As Alvarado notes in the piece and above video,  over the past  70 years scientists have developed tools for selectively activating and deactivating individual genes through chemical reactions, a process termed epigenetics. Similar to flipping on a light, switch gene expression can be “turned on” or “turned off. “We have a lot of genome-editing tools – like zinc finger nucleases, or CRISPR/Cas9 systems – that could theoretically allow you to epigenetically seek out and turn on genes that make your muscles physically large, make you strategically minded, incredibly fast, or increase your stamina,” he said.

In the case of Captain America, the process of deliberately switching on and off genes could offer a real-world explanation as to how scrawny Steve Rodgers gained extraordinary, strength, stamina and intelligence after being injected with “Super Solider Serum” and then blasted with  “Vita-Rays.” When it comes to Bruce Banner, a little more creative license is required. Alvarado’s theory is:

First, when gamma radiation hits DNA, it breaks the molecule’s double-stranded, ladder-like helix, a process known as chromothripsis. Your body can repair a few breaks without significant loss of function.

If many breaks occur – say, if you were caught in a giant gamma explosion – the repairs can become sloppy, and new instructions can be keyed into the genetic code. Alvarado suggested that it’s possible that when Banner’s DNA reassembled after the initial blast, it now included a handful of epigenetic switches. Instead of the switches being activated by light, however, the hormones produced when Banner is angry might flip the genetic switches to reconfigure his DNA to transform him into the big, green Hulk.

As for the Hulk’s skin turning green, anyone who has suffered a nasty bruise has firsthand knowledge of the process that might be behind this transformation. When you bruise, red blood cells at the point of injury die and the oxygen-carrying molecule on their surface, hemoglobin, begins to break up. One of hemoglobin’s metabolites, Alvarado said, is a molecule called biliverdin, which can make the blood appear green and is responsible for the avocado hue at the edge of a bruise.

Giant gamma explosion and epigenetics aside, there’s one question that has scientifically stumped Alvarado: How do the Hulk’s pants stay on after every transformation?

Jen Baxter is a freelance writer and photographer. After spending eight years working for Kaiser Permanente Health plan she took a self-imposed sabbatical to travel around South East Asia and become a blogger. She enjoys writing about nutrition, meditation, and mental health, and finding personal stories that inspire people to take responsibility for their own well-being. Her website and blog can be found at www.jenbaxter.com.

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From August 11-25, Scope will be on a limited publishing schedule. During that time, you may also notice a delay in comment moderation. We’ll return to our regular schedule on August 25.

Ethics, Genetics, Medicine and Society

Film documents rise and fall of a genome matching service – and poses tough ethical questions

Film documents rise and fall of a genome matching service - and poses tough ethical questions

Jesse_01When I think of “science fiction,” I picture three-eyed aliens with purple-and-gold tentacles — not the disturbing demise of a man, and a company, depicted in the film “The Perfect 46.”

Nor do I expect to ponder the ethics of a company that strives to produce genetically “pure” children.

Yet this is precisely the type of science fiction filmmaker Brett Ryan Bonowicz dished up to a sold-out Stanford crowd last week. Following the film, an all-star panel of genetics experts fielded questions.

The film’s premise is simple, and alluring. People can send their sequenced genome, along with their partner’s,  in to a company called The Perfect 46 and allow its proprietary algorithm to figure out if their children will be born genetic-defect free — or not.

“Jesse [Darden, the company’s CEO] wasn’t going to cure the diseases, he would just breed them out. It made a lot of people uncomfortable,” said one of the characters in the film.

So uncomfortable, in fact, that the company, and its leader Jesse Darden, played with a standout performance by actor Whit Hertford, unravels quite thoroughly – with Darden’s painful personal and professional demise forming the meat of “The Perfect 46’s” somewhat-tortured plot.

For me, the ethical quandary is a no-brainer: perfect – what fun is that? My husband and I are both far from perfect, and if we had a perfect child, it certainly wouldn’t be anything like us.

More seriously, however, the film poses thorny questions about the future of consumer genetics, a boom-and-bust field that’s both promising and terrifying. “The Perfect 46” doesn’t answer these questions, but the post-screening panelists delved into some of them.

During the talk, the experts made  it clear the technology featured in the film isn’t there – yet. Right now, if scientists sequence a genome , they don’t know the meaning of the many versions, or allele , of the gene that pop up. “Often, we don’t know if it’s disease-causing or not,” said panel member Michael Snyder, PhD, Stanford professor and chair of genetics.

Although the film takes place in the “near future,” corporations that provide basic genetic screening are already available, the experts said. And corporations may not be providing adequate counseling for potential parents, panel member Sandra Lee, PhD, a senior researcher at the Stanford Center for Biomedical Ethics, pointed out.

The Stanford-heavy audience seemed to dig the movie, but I thought the film would be more effective if its lessons were a little subtler and its pace a bit quicker.

Still, the questions it asks are real, even pressing, and not science-fictiony at all.

Becky Bach is a former park ranger who now spends her time writing, exploring, or practicing yoga. She’s currently a science writing intern in the medical school’s Office of Communication & Public Affairs.

Previously:Stanford patient on having her genome sequenced: “This is the right thing to do for our family”, Stanford geneticist discusses genomics and medicine in TEDMED talk, New recommendations for genetic disclosure released and A conversation about the benefits and limitations of direct-to-consumer genetic tests
Screenshot of movie courtesy of Clindar

From August 11-25, Scope will be on a limited publishing schedule. During that time, you may also notice a delay in comment moderation. We’ll return to our regular schedule on August 25.

Ethics, Events, Health Policy, Medicine and Society, Public Health, Transplants

Stanford Health Policy forum on organ-donation crisis now available online

Stanford Health Policy forum on organ-donation crisis now available online

The latest Stanford Health Policy Forum, which focused on ways to end our country’s organ-donor shortage, is now available online. More than 100,000 Americans currently need organ transplants, and the panelists discussed a variety of solutions for solving the problem. Among the ideas brought to the table was a compensation system for donors – an option that was also the focus of an article in today’s San Francisco Chronicle.

Previously: At Stanford Health Policy Forum, panelists dig into the issue of organ donationHow can we end the donor organ shortage?, Stanford visiting professor and founder of kidney-exchange program wins Nobel economics prize and One gift saves three young lives 

Medicine and Society, Podcasts, Public Health

The vanishing U.S. surgeon general: A conversation with AP reporter Mike Stobbe

The vanishing U.S. surgeon general: A conversation with AP reporter Mike Stobbe

surgeon general drawing - small

There is currently no U.S. Surgeon General. Like everything else in Washington today, a confirmation vote by the U.S. Senate on President Obama’s choice, Harvard physician Vivek Murthy, MD, has been squashed by politics. Last spring, White House press secretary Jay Carney said that the administration was “recalibrating and assessing our strategy on moving forward with the nominee.” In March, The Hill newspaper reported that up to 10 Senate Democrats signaled they would oppose Murthy’s confirmation after the National Rifle Association made it clear Murthy’s support for bans of certain types of firearms and ammunition purchases made him an unthinkable choice.

Now if you’ve forgotten there even is a position called the U.S. Surgeon General post, think C. Everett Koop, MD, or Joycelyn Elders, MD. Koop and Elders were two recent appointees who used their bully pulpit to raise a national discussion about AIDS and teen pregnancy. (Both were  lightening rods within their respective administrations – Koop in Reagan’s and Elders in Clinton’s. Elders was eventually dismissed by the White House after wading into too many contentious issues.)

Does the position even matter anymore? Associated Press medical reporter Mike Stobbe thinks it does. He’s written a fascinating book (Surgeon General’s Warning, University of California Press) about the history of the position and those who served. The book explains how the surgeon general became the most powerful and influential public health officer in the country and how those powers were later stripped away. An excerpt from Stobbe’s book appears in the current issue of Stanford Medicine magazine, where he catalogs the ups and downs of the individuals who held the position. The strong ones and the weak ones. Those who made a difference and those who faded away in controversy or without making a mark on the nation’s public health dialogue.

He writes, “Surgeon generals have played that crusader role better and more often than any other national public health figure. Absent such a crusader, the public’s health is prey to the misinformation and self-interest of tobacco companies, snake-oil salesmen and other malefactors.” Listen to my 1:2:1 podcast with Stobbe to hear more of his thoughts.

Illustration, which originally appeared in Stanford Medicine, by Tina Berning

Events, Medicine and Society, Stanford News

On death and dying: A discussion of “giving news that no family members want to hear”

On death and dying: A discussion of "giving news that no family members want to hear"

The standing room only crowd at the Stanford Humanities Center had come to hear physicians read their own writing about the most difficult of topics: “I Am Afraid I Have Bad News: Death and Dying in Medicine.” The enthusiastic response to the topic demonstrated the interest in and need for such a forum. “This is a topic we just don’t talk about enough, in medicine and in society,” said Ward Trueblood, MD, a member of Stanford’s Pegasus Physician Writer’s group who curated the event.

Trueblood’s own experiences as a trauma surgeon, particularly during the Vietnam War, affected him deeply. “When I went to medical school, they didn’t teach you about death and dying,” he explains. Trueblood has found writing to be a powerful way to process his experiences. His memoir, Blood of the Common Sky: A Young Surgeon in Vietnam, will be published this year, and his book of poetry To Bind Up Their Wounds is available on Amazon. Trueblood appreciated being able to give fellow physicians an opportunity to share their experiences with death and dying through personal poetry and essays.

Gregg Chesney, MD, a critical care fellow, read two poems, including “Lost in Translation”:

In trying to explain how “she hit the floor with a thud”

now means “she never woke up

and never will,” something was lost.

Yes, that is her heart tracing its beat across the monitor, but that swollen tangle

of blood, wrapped and knotted at the base of her brain

has pressed the leafless stalk of her medulla and left her

brain dead.  There is no one-more-test, no

chance-for-recovery, but at 2am, rendered in secondhand Mandarin,

that point might be missed, or left to dangle precariously,

soured and unplucked,

as he works out how to raise a 3 year-old on his own.

As Chesney finished the poem, his six-month old son cooed in his mother’s arms. The irony of the moment was not lost on the audience, as they contemplated the fate of the young father in Chesney’s poem.

Bruce Feldstein, MD, Stanford’s hospital chaplain, read “At My Father’s Bedside,” in which he shared what he had learned from his patients with his dying father:

The moment itself is peaceful, I’m told. No fear. Simply letting go. Smooth, like a hair being pulled from milk… You know, we human beings have been dying for a long time. Your body has a natural wisdom built right in for shutting itself down. The body knows just what to do. And there are medicines along the way to keep you comfortable.

During the Q&A session, an audience member asked Feldstein if there was anything he wished patients knew about their physicians. “Yes, how much doctors care,” Feldstein responded. “And that this effects them too. How difficult it can be to be the medical professional in that instance, giving news that no family members want to hear about their loved one.”

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