Published by
Stanford Medicine

Category

Podcasts

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

Mental Health, Podcasts

10% happier? Count me in!

10% happier? Count me in!

harrisDan Harris, author of 10% Happier – How I Tamed the Voice in My Head, Reduced Stress Without Losing My Edge, and Found Self-Help that Actually Works (whew, now that’s a mouthful) acknowledges that he’s not a new-agey spiritual kind of guy who you’d naturally find wandering in the tranquil waters of meditation. And across the phone line, when talking to him for my latest 1:2:1 podcast, I can tell. It’s clear he’s an Alpha Male who’s risen to the top in broadcast network news (co-anchor of Nightline and the weekend editions of Good Morning America) by not being laid back. So he might just be the right guy to take the world of meditation out of the “om” and bring it to a new audience. When I told him I thought he might be doing for mediation what Richard Nixon did for China – normalizing it – he laughed and said, “I love the analogy. It’s probably more flattering than I deserve, but it’s cool nonetheless.”

The success of 10% Happier is not something Harris envisioned. As he was writing it he kept telling his wife it was never going to find an audience: “No one is going to read it.” Yet he’s managed to spin out a wonderful tale about the life of a mega-skeptical agnostic journalist finding  peace, happiness and yes, fulfillment, in the land of self-help and meditation. Well, maybe not total serenity. He did have that little spat with a New York City taxi driver last week that caused his wife to remind him that he still has more steps to climb to reach the Zen state of Fudoshin. Nonetheless, Harris is happier no matter what the percentage; you get the distinct impression that he sees a lot more sunshine out there than rain. And who wouldn’t want that?

Harris thinks his worrier gene was inherited from his father, Dr. Jay Harris who he calls “a gifted wringer of hands and gnasher of teeth.” His mother, Dr. Nancy Lee Harris, was much more in the Zen mode: “…slightly mellower about her equally demanding medical career.” (Both his parents are alums of the Stanford School of Medicine.)

Interestingly, Harris tells me he believes that emerging science linking the practice of meditation to a wide range of physical and psychological advantages may lead to the next big public-health revolution. “Say that again,” I asked. “You think that meditation will lead to a revolution?” With no lack of uncertainty he replied:

Yeah, I do. As I’ve said, the science is really still in its early phases, but the science is really compelling. It shows… that this whole, almost laughably long list of benefits from lower blood pressure to boosted immune system to reduced release of the stress hormone cortisol, and then the neuroscience is just truly sci-fi.

When we wrapped up the podcast, Harris spoke highly about the groundbreaking work being done here at Stanford by neurologist James R Doty, MD. Doty is leading his own revolution in neurology and created the Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education (CCARE), to stimulate a rigorous multi-disciplinary scientific effort at understanding the neural, mental, and social bases of compassion and altruism.

Previously: Research brings meditation’s health benefits into focus, How being compassionate can influence your health, Study shows meditation may alter areas of the brain associated with psychiatric disorders and Ommmmm… Mindfulness therapy appears to help prevent depression relapse
Photo in featured entry box by J E Theriot

Aging, Health Policy, Medicine and Society, Podcasts, Research, Stanford News

More on doctors and end-of-life directives

More on doctors and end-of-life directives

Earlier this week, my colleague wrote about a study showing that the majority of doctors surveyed said they would forgo aggressive end-of-life care for themselves. Now, in the latest 1:2:1 podcast, researcher VJ Periyakoil, MD, director of palliative care education and training at the medical school, talks in depth about the study and why doctors appear to want one thing for themselves at the end of life and quite another for their patients.

Previously: Study: Doctors would choose less aggressive end-of-life care for themselves

Neuroscience, Podcasts, Research, Stanford News

Young mouse to old mouse: “It’s all in the blood, baby”

Young mouse to old mouse: "It's all in the blood, baby"

A few days after his latest research hit the press, I sat with neurologist Tony Wyss-Coray, PhD, for a 1:2:1 podcast. He laughed when I mentioned the range of news headlines touting his Nature Medicine study (subscription required) that found blood plasma from young mice improves the memory and learning of old mice. One headline declared: “The Fountain of Youth is Filled with Blood.” Another flashed: “Vampires Delight? Young Blood Recharges Brains of Old Mice.”

Serendipitously Wyss-Coray’s paper coincided with the release of two similar studies from Harvard teams on the rejuvenating power of young blood. For the science press, it was a perfect confluence of red.

My colleague Bruce Goldman has followed Wyss-Coray’s research for several years. He’s also written about prior studies of Thomas Rando, MD, PhD, showing that the blood of young mice could stimulate old stem cells and rejuvenate aging tissue. Rando’s work laid the path for Wyss-Coray’s investigations.

Perhaps there’s something here that will be significant for human beings and actually lead to breakthroughs in treatments for a range of neurological brain disorders like Alzheimer’s. Wyss-Coray is circumspect. It’s a tall leap from mice to human beings, but he’s eager to make the jump in clinical trials.

Previously: The rechargeable brain: Blood plasma from young mice improves old mice’s memory and learning, Red light, green light: Simultaneous stop and go signals on stem cells’ genes may enable fast activation, provide “aging clock”, Old blood + young brain = old brain, Old blood makes young brains act older, and vice versa and Freshen up those stem cells with young blood

Health Costs, Health Policy, Podcasts, Stanford News

Considering the costs of treatment while making clinical decisions

Considering the costs of treatment while making clinical decisions

The headline of the front page New York Times article caught my attention: “Cost of Treatment May Influence Doctors.” The piece read in part:

Saying they can no longer ignore the rising prices of health care, some of the most influential medical groups in the nation are recommending that doctors weigh the costs, not just the effectiveness of treatments, as they make decisions about patient care.

The shift, little noticed outside the medical establishment but already controversial inside it, suggests that doctors are starting to redefine their roles, from being concerned exclusively about individual patients to exerting influence on how health care dollars are spent.

In reading further, I discovered that one of Stanford’s cardiologists, Paul Heidenreich, MD, was a c0-chair of the policy review that led to new guidelines from the American College of Cardiology and the American Heart Association. I thought it would be interesting to delve deeper in a 1:2:1 podcast with Heidenreich about why, as he told the Times, “we couldn’t go on just ignoring costs.” Did escalating health-care costs that are consuming GDP spur the action? Are these guidelines a threat to individual decision-making between a physician and patient? And, what role do patients have in these decisions? Shouldn’t they be included in potential key life-and-death verdicts?

I was also especially intrigued by a quote from the societies’ paper outlining the changes: “Protecting patients from financial ruin is fundamental to the precept of ‘do not harm.’ ” Hmm… a new take on the Hippocratic Oath that I’ve never considered.

Why the new guidelines?  Just consider for a moment the iconic rock lyrics of Bob Dylan. They say it all:

Come gather ’round people
Wherever you roam
And admit that the waters
Around you have grown
And accept it that soon
You’ll be drenched to the bone
If your time to you
Is worth savin’
Then you better start swimmin’
Or you’ll sink like a stone
For the times they are a-changin’

Previously: Personal essays highlight importance of cost-conscious medical decisions and Educating physicians on the cost of care

Global Health, Health Policy, Podcasts, Research, Stanford News

Foreign health care aid delivers the goods

Foreign health care aid delivers the goods

Eran Bendavid, MD, knows there’s a lot of debate about whether foreign aid for health care is really making an impact. So he and his colleague, Jay Bhattacharya, MD, PhD, devised a statistical tool to address a basic question: Do investments in health really lead to health improvements?

My colleague Ruthann Richter encapsulated the research in a recent article and blog entry. I followed up in a 1:2:1 podcast with Bendavid, and we started our conversation by talking about the perception that foreign aid is wasted and isn’t making significant inroads in changing the health-care trajectory in developing nations. Bendavid told me that the common perception of inefficiency was eroding confidence in foreign aid health care spending, so he decided to test it.

As Richter wrote, the researchers examined both public and private health-aid programs between 1974 and 2010 in 140 countries and found that, contrary to common perceptions about the waste and ineffectiveness of aid, these health-aid grants led to significant improvements with lasting effects over time. As Bendavid told Richter, “If health aid continues to be as effective as it has been, we estimate there will be 364,000 fewer deaths in children under 5. We are talking about $1 billion, which is a relatively small commitment for developed countries.”

Why are these dollars making an impact? Bendavid amplified to me what he told Richter: that foreign aid dollars were used effectively, largely because of the targeting of aid to disease priorities where improved technologies – such as new vaccines, insecticide-treated beds for nets for malarial prevention and antiretroviral drugs for HIV – could make a real difference.

Health aid in 1990 accounted for 4 percent of total foreign aid. It now accounts for 15 percent of all aid.

So something to cheer about when it comes to foreign aid. In health-care spending this study confirms it delivers the goods.

Previously: Foreign aid for health extends life, saves children, Stanford study finds and PEPFAR has saved lives – and not just from HIV/AIDS, Stanford study finds

Podcasts, Research, Science, Stanford News

Stanford researcher Roger Kornberg discusses drive and creativity in Nobel Prize Talks podcast

Stanford researcher Roger Kornberg discusses drive and creativity in Nobel Prize Talks podcast

kornberg on phoneNobel Laureate and Stanford Professor Roger Kornberg, PhD, discusses the importance of language, the benefits of frequent failure and how he developed the art of focusing deeply on a problem in the latest edition of the Nobel Prize Talks podcast series.

The conversation was recorded during last month’s Nobel Prize Inspiration Initiative, a global program that brings Nobel Laureates to universities and research centers to inspire and engage young scientists, the scientific community and the public. During the event, Kornberg participated in a panel discussion on how to create an innovative environment and delivered a lecture, entitled “The End of Disease.”

The podcast is available for free on the Nobel Prize website and iTunes. In the interview, Kornberg talks about the stage in his life when he came to terms with the reality that he would not be able to tackle several large scientific problems at once. Although he majored in English Literature, Kornberg had a strong desire to be an expert in a range of fields so he studied mathematics, chemistry, government and other subjects at the graduate level. But when he entered graduate school he decided to take a more focused approach. He said:

It was very apparent to me that I was entering another world. I would have to choose one thing and do it with all the capacity I could bring to bear, and it troubled me. But I recognized the necessity to do that in order to succeed and I did it almost immediately and in a single-minded manner. It didn’t bear fruit immediately. It took some years before I had an original idea of significance. But it finally came and I am convinced it was a result of this complete absorption in the problem.

Kornberg won the 2006 Nobel Prize in Chemistry “for his studies of the molecular basis of eukaryotic transcription.”

Previously: Nobel laureate: Biomedical research is an economic engine
Photo, of Kornberg on the morning he won the Nobel Prize, by L.A. Cicero

Addiction, FDA, Health Policy, In the News, Podcasts

E-cigarettes and the FDA: A conversation with a tobacco-marketing researcher

E-cigarettes and the FDA: A conversation with a tobacco-marketing researcher

The FDA announced today its plans to regulate e-cigarettes. The news comes as little surprise to many, including Robert Jackler, MD, chair of otolaryngology at Stanford Medicine, who studies the effects of tobacco advertising, marketing, and promotion through his center, the Stanford Research Into the Impact of Tobacco Advertising. I asked Jackler this morning what he thought of the FDA’s plan, and he had this to say:

While I welcome the FDA proposal to deem electronic cigarettes as tobacco products under their regulatory authority, I’m disappointed with the narrow scope of their proposal and the snail’s pace of the process. Given its importance, I’m particularly troubled by the FDA’s failure to address the the widespread mixing of nicotine with youth-oriented flavorings (e.g. gummy bears, cotton candy, chocolate, honey, peach schnapps) in electronic cigarettes products.  Overwhelming evidence implicates such flavors as a gateway to teen nicotine addiction [which] led the FDA to ban flavors (except for menthol – which is presently under review) for cigarettes in 2009.  Give the lethargic pace of adopting new regulations, a generation of American teens is being placed at risk of suffering the ravages of nicotine addiction.

In a podcast last month, Jackler spoke in-depth about the rise of, and problems with, e-cigarettes. If you haven’t yet listened, now is a great time to.

Previously: E-Cigarettes: The explosion of vaping is about to be regulated, Stanford chair of otolaryngology discusses federal court’s ruling on graphic cigarette labels and What’s being done about the way tobacco companies market and manufacture products

Aging, Genetics, Neuroscience, Podcasts, Research, Stanford News

The state of Alzheimer’s research: A conversation with Stanford neurologist Michael Greicius

The state of Alzheimer's research: A conversation with Stanford neurologist Michael Greicius

My colleague Bruce Goldman recently wrote an expansive blog entry and article based on research by Mike Greicius, MD, about how the ApoE4 variant doubles the risk of Alzheimer’s for women. I followed up Goldman’s pieces in a podcast with Greicius, who’s the medical director of the Stanford Center for Memory Disorders.

I began the conversation by asking about the state of research for Alzheimer’s: essentially, what do we know? As an aging baby boomer, I’m interested in the differences between normal, age-related cognitive decline versus cognitive declines that signal an emerging disease. Greicius said people tend to begin losing cognitive skills around middle age:

Every cognitive domain we can measure starts to decline around 40. Semantic knowledge – knowledge about the world – tends to stay pretty stable and even goes up a bit. Everything else… working memory, short term memory all tends to go down on this linear decline. The difference with something like Alzheimer’s is that the decline isn’t linear. It’s like you fall off a cliff.

Greicius’ most recent research looks at the certain increased Alzheimer’s risk ApoE4 confers on women. As described by Goldman:

Accessing two huge publicly available national databases, Greicius and his colleagues were able to amass medical records for some 8,000 people and show that initially healthy ApoE4-positive women were twice as likely to contract Alzheimer’s as their ApoE4-negative counterparts, while ApoE4-positive men’s risk for the syndrome was barely higher than that for ApoE-negative men.

In addition to the increased risk of Alzheimer’s for women with the ApoE4 variant, I asked Greicius how he advises patients coming into the clinic who ask about staving off memory loss. At this point, he concedes, effective traditional medication isn’t really at hand. “Far and away our strongest recommendations bear on things like lifestyle and particularly exercise,” he said. “We know, in this case from good animal models, that physical exercise, particularly aerobic exercise, helps brain cells do better and can stave-off various insults.” So remember, a heart smart diet along with aerobic exercise.

One last question for Greicius: What about those cognitive-memory games marketed to the elderly and touted as salves for memory loss – do they have any benefit? He’s riled now: “I get asked that all the time, and smoke starts coming out of my ears.” He says the games are nothing more than snake oil.  His advice when he gets asked the question: “Give that money to the Alzheimer’s Association or save it and get down on the floor with your grandkids and build Legos. That’s also a great cognitive exercise and more emotionally rewarding.”

Previously: Having a copy of ApoE4 gene variant doubles Alzheimer’s risk for women but not for men, Common genetic Alzheimer’s risk factor disrupts healthy older women’s brain function, but not men’s and Hormone therapy halts accelerated biological aging seen in women with Alzheimer’s genetic risk factor

Genetics, Podcasts, Stanford News

Whole genome sequencing: The known knowns and the unknown unknowns

Whole genome sequencing: The known knowns and the unknown unknowns

A few years ago, when I spoke with Euan Ashley, MD, associate professor of medicine and of genetics, about the promise of genomics for diagnosing and treating diseases he agreed that the field was in the wild, wild west. Now, in my latest 1:2:1 podcast with him, I asked how would he describe this moment in time, when so much has changed so quickly in whole genome sequencing (WGS). First, he said, the costs of sequencing the genome have plummeted. “At the point we spoke we were just coming off the $20,000 genome,” he told me. “Which seems remarkable, because we’d just been at… $200,000, and before that at the $2 million genome. In looking around in science… in medicine, I have not seen a technology that has changed that much.”

Euan AshleyAshley recently published a paper that my colleague, Krista Conger, has written about; in it, Ashley and his fellow researchers, Michael Snyder, PhD, professor and chair of genetics, and Thomas Quertermous, MD, professor of medicine, analyzed the whole genomes of 12 healthy people and took note of the degree of sequencing accuracy necessary to make clinical decisions in individuals, the time it took to manually analyze each person’s results and the projected costs of recommended follow-up. Quite clearly, Ashley says, the study shows “there are still some challenges, not that these are non-solvable problems.”

Ashley often cites an infamous quote that Donald Rumsfeld, former Secretary of Defense, said when he was asked about the lack of evidence of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, as he thinks the questions that Rumsfeld raised about WMDs are analogous to the field of genetics today. Ashley told me:

There are really a number of things that we really know that we know, because they’re genetic variants we’ve seen many times. Also, there are a number of known unknowns… which are genes that we know are a problem but maybe variants we haven’t seen before, so they look pretty suspicious… There [are] the complete unknowns, the unknown unknowns… Many genes about which we really do not know very much at this point in time.

Who would have thought Rumsfeld was laying out the future of WGS and not just WMD’s?

Previously: Assessing the challenges and opportunities when bringing whole-genome sequencing to the bedside, Coming soon: A genome test that costs less than a new pair of shoes, Stanford researchers work to translate genetic discoveries into widespread personalized medicine, New recommendations for genetic disclosure released, Ask Stanford Med: Genetics chair answers your questions on genomics and personalized medicine and You say you want a revolution
Photo of Euan Ashley by Mark Tuschman

Stanford Medicine Resources: