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Global Health, Medical Education, Medicine and Society, Patient Care, Public Health

Exploring the benefits of pursuing anthropology and medicine

Exploring the benefits of pursuing anthropology and medicine

3470650293_60b27d6539_zAs a PhD student in medical anthropology, and having come from a very “medical family,” pursuing an MD has been a kind of shadow-dream of mine. For a year or two in high school, I was convinced that neonatology was the path for me; now I’m a doula and research the culture of childbirth.

Some people do live the double dream, and I recently interviewed two of them: Jenny Miao Hua at the University of Chicago and Rosalind Franklin University’s Chicago Medical School, and Stanford’s Amrapali Maitra, both of whom are medical anthropologists pursuing PhD/MD degrees. (Amrapali has brought an anthropological perspective to Scope through our SMS Unplugged series.)

The two came to their joint degree from different sides: Hua was an anthropology student interested in Chinese medicine and the body, while Maitra was enrolled in medical school and became serious about understanding the social context of illness. Each intends to pursue internal medicine, and each, incidentally, has family connections in the site she chose to research. We talked shop for quite a while, and what I found most interesting was their thoughts on what anthropology brings to clinical practice:

Maitra: On the broadest level, anthropology gives you an immense empathy for your patients and allows you to see them as people. It sounds cliché, but with the focus on efficiency and evidence-based medicine that has taken over American biomedical practice, even the most kind and caring individual can lose [his or her] empathy. And the kind of empathy you get from anthropology is not just sympathizing with the person, but really understanding where they’re coming from, historically and because of their life position: why they live in a certain neighborhood or have a certain diet. It allows you to think creatively about what they’re able to do or not do in pursuing their own health.

Hua: With anthropological training, students understand the various ways pathologies are dependent on larger socioeconomic forces. As a practicing physician, the person who comes through the door is never a textbook patient, so within a very short amount of time you have to pick up on this deep history, and when you’re not careful you end up stereotyping and profiling. Anthropology brings a more nuanced way of thinking about patients: they’re not just uniform biological entities, but hybrids of biology, society, and culture.

Maitra: I’ve seen so many clinic visits where I can tell, as the anthropologist in the room, that the attending physician and patient just have completely different agendas. There are simple questions like those Arthur Kleinman has laid out, asking what about the pain bothers her, why she thinks she’s having it, what she hopes to get out of the encounter. I see some doctors use these, and their visits go so much better. They’re able to build an alliance with their patient that’s very therapeutic.

That’s anthropology on the individual level, but on another level it allows you to recognize that certain things are trends. It allows you to think systematically about different kinds of structural violence. For example, why is it that so many people whose occupation is picking strawberries come in with knee and back pain issues? Treating pain is not going to solve the problem. It’s about getting to the root of the occupational hazards of being a farm worker.

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Addiction, In the News, Myths, Patient Care, Public Health, Public Safety

“24/7 Sobriety” program may offer a simple fix for drunken driving

"24/7 Sobriety" program may offer a simple fix for drunken driving

8684229367_2826035583_zEvery now and then I read a story that takes what I think I know about a certain topic and turns it upside down. Today, my understanding of programs to reduce drunk driving were upended by an article written by Keith Humphreys, PhD, professor of psychiatry and behavioral science at Stanford.

As Humphreys explains, many people mistakenly believe that no one can overcome a drinking problem without treatment involving a professional’s help. This, he says, is a myth, and the success of the “24/7 Sobriety” program highlights the importance of exploring and adopting new ways to combat drunken driving. From the Wall Street Journal article:

Offenders in 24/7 Sobriety can drive all they want to, but they are under a court order not to drink. Every morning and evening, for an average of five months, they visit a police facility to take a breathalyzer test. Unlike most consequences imposed by the criminal justice system, the penalties for noncompliance are swift, certain and modest. Drinking results in mandatory arrest, with a night or two in jail as the typical penalty.

The results have been stunning. Since 2005, the program has administered more than 7 million breathalyzer tests to over 30,000 participants. Offenders have both showed up and passed the test at a rate of over 99%.

Counties that used the 24/7 Sobriety program also had a 12% decrease in repeat drunken-driving arrests and a 9% drop in domestic-violence arrests, according to a 2013 study.

A possible reason why this program works — when attempts to help people with drinking problems often fail — is that the twice daily breathalyzer tests have immediate consequences, Humphreys explains. “It turns out that people with drug and alcohol problems are just like the rest of us. Their behavior is affected much more by what is definitely going to happen today than by what might or might not happen far in the future, even if the potential future consequences are more serious.”

Previously: Can the “24/7 sobriety” model reduce drunken disorderly conduct and violence in London?Alcoholism: Not just a man’s problem and Stopping criminal men from drinking reduces domestic violence
Photo by: KOMUnews

Behavioral Science, Emergency Medicine, Health Disparities, Pain, Patient Care, Pediatrics, Research

Blacks, Hispanics and low-income kids with stomach aches treated differently in ERs

Blacks, Hispanics and low-income kids with stomach aches treated differently in ERs

crying-613389_1280When a child arrives in the emergency room complaining of a stomach pain, appendicitis is the last thing you want to miss, says KT Park, MD, assistant professor of pediatrics.

“The question is, ‘Does this patient have appendicitis – yes or no?,” he said. It is the most common immediate emergency that could bring a child into the emergency room with abdominal pain. If not treated in a timely manner, the appendix can burst, leading to infection or a host of other serious complications.

But kids arrive in the emergency room complaining of stomach aches all the time; most with perfectly healthy appendices. And what if you’re a doctor who has seen seven kids with more minor stomach problems one day? It might be tricky to spot that first case of appendicitis.

Unfortunately, misdiagnosis happens more often when the pediatric patient is black, Hispanic or low-income, according to a study published today in PLOS ONE led by Park and Stanford medical student Louise Wang.

“Our goal in this study is getting the word out about abdominal pain and appendicitis and the importance of the decisions made in the emergency room,” Wang said.

The researchers analyzed national data from 2 million pediatric visits to emergency rooms between 2004 and 2011 complaining primarily of abdominal pain. They found that blacks, Hispanics and low-income children were less likely to receive imaging that could help their physicians diagnose serious conditions like appendicitis. These patients were also less likely to be admitted to the hospital, but more likely to suffer perforated appendicitis, a clue that perhaps they didn’t receive adequate treatment in time, Park said. For example, low-income blacks were 65 percent more likely to have a perforated appendix compared to other children.

The study was not able to precisely determine why these disparities exist, Wang said. “What is the driving influence of these outcomes? Are these kids being mismanaged in the emergency department, or are they presenting at a later time in a more serious condition?,” she asked.

She and Park have a few ideas, based on other findings and their personal experience. Minorities and low-income families are more likely to use the emergency room as a first-stop for more minor conditions, rather than visiting their primary care doctor or pediatrician.

“This is a very delicate topic,” Park said. “Physicians are humans and there is potentially some intuitive thinking that goes on about the probabilities of various diagnoses more common in certain patient groups, potentially leading to differences in how clinicians perceive the acuity of a patient’s status.”

Appendicitis can be tricky to diagnose, a task made even harder when patients are young and unable to clearly describe their pain, Park said.

“The psychology of physicians is an area needing further evaluation,” Park said. “We have internal biases that we often are not even aware of. We want to be objective, but it’s never a black-and-white decision making tree.”

Previously: A young child, a falling cabinet, and a Life Flight rescue, New test could lead to increase of women diagnosed with heart attack and Exploring how the Affordable Care Act has affected number of young adults visiting the ER
Photo by amandacatherine

Cancer, Events, Patient Care, Pediatrics

Girls’ Day Out event helps unite — and nurture — teens battling cancer

Untitled designThere are many treatments, therapies and drugs for cancer, but sometimes a day of pampering with friends is just what the doctor ordered.

That’s why nine teenage girls being treated for cancer at Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital Stanford  were lavished with a bit of tender loving care — and some quality bonding time — at the seventh annual Girls’ Day Out.

The festivities began at 8:30 on Wednesday night with a limo ride from the hospital to TOVA Day Spa in the Fairmont Hotel in downtown San Jose. At TOVA, teens that had attended Girls’ Day Out events from years before had the opportunity to reconnect, chat and welcome newcomers as they received massages, pedicures, manicures, hairstyling and a gourmet lunch. This story in the San Jose Mercury News explains:

“It’s really fun and a great getaway; it’s really nice to be with people who won’t keep asking ‘what happened to your arm,’ ” said incoming Saratoga High School freshman Simran Mallik, 14. She was left with a scar on her arm after undergoing treatment for Ewing Sarcoma, a type of bone cancer. “I feel like I connect with them more; it’s just easier to communicate.”

Tova Yaron, the owner of TOVA Day Spa, has sponsored this event for the past seven years with support from the Children Having Exceptional Educational and Recreational Support (CHEERS) program that’s a part of the 19 for Life Foundation. At the event, Yaron and her staff donate their time and expertise to create a day of fun, and free spa treatments, for the girls.

TOVA’s spa treatments are a refreshing break from the kind of treatments and therapies the teens are used to receiving as cancer patients, but perhaps the most important gift the girls receive is the opportunity to relax and be themselves among friends who understand what it’s like to be a teenager battling cancer.

“It’s interesting to see how other people are after they’ve gone through (cancer treatment),” said Vivian Lou 15, a student at James Logan High School in Union City who was diagnosed with Wilms Tumor, a type of kidney cancer, five years ago. “It’s nice because I don’t have to feel weird about it because they’ve also been through it.”

“I wish I could do more,” said Yaron. “I am honored, they are lovely girls, they have amazing attitudes, they are brave beyond belief, they are amazing. They are inspiring us with their bravery.”

Previously: Not just for kids: A discussion of play and why we all need to do itHow social connection can improve physical and mental health and The scientific importance of social connections for your health
Photo by Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital Stanford

Medical Education, Medical Schools, Palliative Care, Patient Care, SMS Unplugged

When Mr. Bailey passed away: A student’s story

When Mr. Bailey passed away: A student's story

SMS (“Stanford Medical School”) Unplugged is 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 categoryCertain details in this entry have been omitted or changed, and all names have been altered to protect the identity of those involved.

387521264_d1cd33d574_zBrief life update, since it’s been more than 3 months since I’ve last posted on SMS Unplugged:

  • I disappeared for most of April through the end of May to study for and take Step 1, which – for anyone who hasn’t heard of this test – is a pretty brutal, not to mention expensive (~$590!! One of many reasons why med students are poor), 8-hour exam that tests broad concepts of medicine (biochem, immunology, organ systems, etc.) and is widely heralded one of the most important tests for residency admission.
  • I started clerkships at the end of June, with my first clerkship being in internal medicine. The rest of this entry describes one of the most poignant experiences from my first month and a half on rotations.

It was just another call day, when all of a sudden, an overhead announcement rang through the ward: “Code Blue, respond to Room 281. Repeat – Code Blue, respond to Room 281.” Instantly, the atmosphere in our team room turned serious: We knew it was one of our patients, Mr. Bailey, there. As a group, we sprinted towards Room 281. Disorganized, panicked thoughts were running through my head – oh-my-god-what-happened-to-our-patient, thank-goodness-I’m-wearing-sneakers-and-scrubs-today-there’s-no-way-I-could-run-like-this-in-flats, oh-my-god-what-happened-to-our-patient, oh-my-god.

When we got to the room, there were at least 8 people there already, with more trickling in. Our patient was covered in wires, IV lines, a face mask for oxygen. My resident stepped up to the bed and began telling everyone else about our patient’s past medical history, what we were treating him for, how his clinical course had been. I stood in the back, with the single-minded goal of keeping out of everyone’s way. For the next several minutes, at least a dozen people worked to bring Mr. Bailey back to life – and when I left the room, they had succeeded.

I walked back to the team room in a bit of a haze, the relief beginning to course through me, mixed in with remaining vestiges of adrenaline. I had only met Mr. Bailey once before, as he was primarily being followed by another member of my team. From our daily morning rounds, however, I knew he was incredibly sick. We estimated that he only had a few months left. When I met him that one time, it was so clear to see that he was struggling, to breathe, to keep his state of mind. Still, I thought it would be months, not days before he passed away.

The morning after the code, I came into the hospital at the usual time, pre-rounded on my own patients, and headed back to the team room to prep my presentation and notes for rounds. As I walked back to the team room, I ran into another team member, who asked me, “Did you hear about Mr. Bailey?” “No,” I said. “He died last night.”

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Aging, Health Costs, Health Policy, Patient Care

A look back at Medicare’s 50 years

Hand in HandOn Friday, KQED’s Forum offered a look at Medicare and Medicaid to mark the programs’ 50-year anniversary. Stanford health policy researcher Laurence Baker, PhD, participated in the discussion, which covered issues such as how the programs drive the way prices for care are negotiated with medical providers, how the large population of Baby Boomers will affect the system, and how reimbursement rates affect the kind of care Medicare and Medicaid patients receive.

The panel also discussed the gaps in coverage — services like dental care are not covered by Medicare — and the challenges they create. Medicare coverage has grown from the narrow set of conditions it first covered, and Baker thinks the conditions are right to begin a new national conversation about expanding coverage:

One of the things that’s really ripe for discussion is how this country is going to handle the long-term care issues. Medicare’s got to be at the center of that. And it almost feels like the time is coming that we’re going to have to think about that much more seriously.

And when host Mina Kim asked Baker the question that’s on a lot of people’s mind — Is Medicare sustainable for the long term? — Baker noted:

The program is pretty important; it’s clearly something the country values across the political spectrum. Lots of people want to see it sustained. It may not be a pretty process. It might not be fun to watch the politics of how we work all this out, but there are lots of ways to keep the program solvent, so I’m optimistic.

Previously: Competition keeps health-care costs low, Stanford study findsWhat’s the going rate? Examining variations in private payments to physiciansCheck the map – medical procedure rates vary widely across CaliforniaMedicare payment reform shown to cut costs and improve patient care and KQED health program focuses on baby boomers and the future of Medicare
Photo by Garry Knight

Humor, In the News, Medical Education, Medicine and Literature, Medicine and Society, Patient Care

Graphic medicine takes flight

Empathy-Ian-Williams-510x438A recent blog post on Somatosphere sparked my interest in the role that comics can play in the study and delivery of health care, an emerging field called “graphic medicine.” The term was coined by UK-based Ian Williams, MD, who is an artist and independent humanities scholar as well as a physician. He recently launched a website of the same name.

The post introduces a few new books that just came out on the subject: Graphic Medicine Manifesto, a collaborative work by six health-care professionals and humanities scholars, and Ian Williams’ The Bad Doctor. It also describes how comics can open us up to new ways of seeing in ways that text alone cannot:

Comics allow us to ask how we can “orient” ourselves… toward the potentiality of images and away from the systematizing effects of text alone… [Comics use] images and imagistic thinking as a way to see a different mode of existence.

Since it’s an anthropology blog, it suggests that a “graphic medical anthropology” would be a great way to accomplish the anthropologist’s goal of “seeing structure, complexity, nuance, emergence, and multiplicity simultaneously.” We anthropologists often try to achieve this goal with complicated metaphors and theories, but perhaps the old adage about a picture being worth a thousand words holds true in this case.

The post notes that drawings can provide an experience of self-reflection for the artist, and can inspire readers to readily and easily respond with their own experience, making the work more of a dialog. They can introduce “theoretical orientations” in ways that are more accessible, and can expose power relations in ordinary lived experience. Ordinary lived experience is particularly well conveyed by comics; they showcase the mundane and make it meaningful. They can take those “ordinary, chronic and cruddy moments” and convey what it’s like to be part of our society.

Previously: Cancer Ninja fights patient misinformation, one cartoon at a time, Using graphic art to understand the emotional aspects of disease, A comic look at 12 medical specialties, Economist to explain health reform through graphic novel, and Webcomic xkcd gets medical
Illustration by Ian Williams, “Autography as Auto-Therapy: Psychic Pain and the Graphic Memoir.” Journal of Medical Humanities 2011, reposted from Somatosphere

Addiction, Emergency Medicine, Health Costs, Patient Care, Research

Questionnaire bests blood test at identifying patients with risky drinking behaviors

Questionnaire bests blood test at identifying patients with risky drinking behaviors

3144132736_9de39a590d_zAs many as half of the patients who visit the emergency room with traumatic injuries have alcohol in their bloodstream, and roughly 10 percent of these patients will return to the ER within a year. Today, many emergency rooms use blood alcohol tests to screen for patients with risky drinking behaviors. Yet a new study by researchers from Loyola University Medical Center suggests that a questionnaire may be a better way to identify at-risk patients.

In the study, researchers reviewed 222 records from patients 18 years of age and older that were admitted to Loyola University Medical Center’s level I trauma center between May 2013 and June 2014. Each of the patients in the study had a blood alcohol test and had answered the World Health Organization‘s 10-point questionnaire, called the Alcohol Use Disorders Identification Test (AUDIT). The research team compared the results of the blood test to that of the AUDIT test and found that the questionnaire was 20 percent more effective at identifying at-risk patients with dangerous drinking habits than the blood test.

As the researchers explain in their study, blood alcohol tests only provide “a snapshot of the patient’s recent drinking behaviors” by measuring of the amount of alcohol in the patient’s system at the instant the test is taken. In contrast, the questionnaire assesses the patient’s overall drinking behaviors by asking questions such as, how often they drink, how much they drink per day and if they have feelings of guilt or remorse after drinking.

These findings are significant because blood alcohol tests are often the only tool used to assess at-risk drinking behavior in ER patients. Their findings call this common practice into question and suggest that the AUDIT questionnaire may be a better way to identify, and ultimately prevent, potentially dangerous drinking behaviors.

Previously: Alcohol-use disorder can be inherited: But why?Could better alcohol screening during doctor visits reduce underage drinking? and How to make alcoholics in recovery feel welcome this holiday season
Via: Business Wire
Photo by: Julie °_°

Patient Care, Pregnancy, Women's Health

“The Mama Sherpas”: Exploring the work of nurse-midwives and their collaborations with doctors

"The Mama Sherpas": Exploring the work of nurse-midwives and their collaborations with doctors

baby feetAs a doula, I’m pretty tapped into the birth community, and I’ve definitely noticed a trend toward midwifery care and low-intervention births. Indeed, a 2012 study showed that more babies than ever before are being delivered by midwives.

Now, a new film is documenting how midwives and obstetricians are increasingly teaming up to offer great maternity care. “The Mama Sherpas,” directed by Brigid Maher and produced by Ricki Lake and Abby Epstein (the same people behind the well-known “The Business of Being Born“), showcases the growing popularity of Certified Nurse Midwives (CNMs) in hospital births.

CNMs are registered nurses who have a master’s degree in midwifery and who adhere to the “woman-centered” Midwives Model of Care. According to the film, collaborative care between CNMs and obstetricians can lead to decreased C-section rates, increased VBAC rates (vaginal birth after cesarean), far lower health-care costs, and mothers who are more satisfied with their birth experience.

I had the chance to attend an advance screening, sponsored by the Nurse-Midwives of Monterey Bay, last week, and I was particularly impressed by the footage of the births of the women chronicled. While highly graphic, it provided beautiful portraits of calm and powerful vaginal births, a life-saving caesarian, and even a vaginal breech birth – which I and many in the audience of birth workers had never seen before! Afterwards, the panel of CNMs and obstetricians from hospitals in Santa Cruz and Davis called for more obstetricians to be trained in vaginal delivery of breech births, and in turning breech babies by performing external versions, so that those options can be offered to women.

Previously: In poorest countries, increase in midwives could save lives of mothers and their babiesA reminder that prenatal care is key to a healthy pregnancyUnneeded cesareans are risky and expensive and Tensions high in debate over safety of home births
Photo by Bridget Colla

Patient Care, SMS Unplugged

An anthropologist on the wards

An anthropologist on the wards

SMS (“Stanford Medical School”) Unplugged is 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.

As my third year of clinical rotations comes to an end, I’ve been reflecting on the ways in which I use my training as an anthropologist on the wards. One patient comes to mind, a recent immigrant from South Asia who came into the hospital after an accident where he was bicycling and got hit by a car. He was scanned from head to toe for any injuries, and though his bones were intact and organs whole, a few spots lit up on his chest imaging. Because he was uninsured and had a high risk of not following up, he was admitted for a few nights for a workup to rule out cancer.

His first night in the hospital, he lay in his bed, back aching where the blood had congealed, hunger gnawing at his belly. The nurse had handed him a meal card with the Stanford Hospital dining options — but he wouldn’t call to make his order. By the time I got to know him, he had already been in the hospital more than 24 hours without eating anything.

He felt that in being his advocate, I was an angel sent to take care of him. In reality I had played the role of the anthropologist…

I had the fortune of understanding one of the languages he spoke, and he started to tell me his story. Before me, various doctors had come and gone to ask him the details of the accident (How fast was he riding his bike? Was he wearing a helmet?), and he had answered them in broken English, anxiously. It was only by speaking with him in Hindi that I understood his deep financial fears. He was worried that he would be held at fault for the accident, although it was the automobile driver who had hit his bike. He didn’t understand why doctors were asking so many questions instead of examining and treating him. And, he refused to eat because he was terrified that he would be charged an exorbitant price for the food, when he could not afford to pay for this hospitalization at all.

I clarified that either way he would not be made to pay. Stanford Hospital had options in place for those who could not immediately cover their medical bills. And besides, the food came with the cost of admission — if he did get charged for his stay, the food would be included in that price whether he ate or not. He agreed to have a chicken and rice bowl with some fruit, and fell into a fitful sleep.

The next day we talked more. His back still emitted a dull throb, but otherwise he felt fine. “But what about those lesions they saw?” he asked me. “Am I going to die?” He put his rough hand on mine and started to cry. He explained that his wife and child were back home. He was a policeman in his home country. He had come here a few years ago to earn money, and worked long hours at a gas station — often through the night. He worried about his safety. Every screech, every car that slid up while he was on his shift, set his nerves alight.

I asked him if he had a chance to speak with his wife, and he said he was afraid because he didn’t know how to explain what was happening to him.

At rounds, we discussed this patient as our mystery case: mediastinal lymph nodes on chest CT in a previously healthy male who lived abroad. Could this be reactive tuberculosis? Lymphoma? We stood in a circle outside his room, throwing around diagnostic options, citing papers, making a list of tests to order and consultants with whom to confer. All of this without needing to see his face.

Another day passed. When I saw him again, he had moved to a positive pressure isolation room, behind two sets of doors, and nurses went in and out wearing thick blue masks. When I walked in to see him, also wearing the mask, he looked tense. “Why am I in here?” he asked.

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