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Medical Education, SMS Unplugged, Women's Health

Learning the pelvic exam with Project Prepare

Learning the pelvic exam with Project Prepare

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

This past Friday, half my class crowded into a small room in the basement of the Li Ka Shing Center. When we walked in, we saw our names written on the board, under one of the following headings: “Male Pelvic Exam,” “Female Pelvic Exam,” and “Female Breast Exam.”

It felt like a safe space to make mistakes, ask questions, and fumble a little bit – without feeling like I was in over my head

For many of us, this was our first session of Project Prepare – a 3-session, 8-hour course designed to teach medical students how to provide supportive care for patients in the area of sexual health. (The history of the program is included in this article.) The teachers in Project Prepare take the dual role of patient and educator, using their own bodies to help students learn how to perform pelvic and breast exams.

This was my first day of the course, and I was scheduled to do the female pelvic exam session with a patient-educator whom I’ll call Stacie. I had heard from other classmates who had already done this session that it was “intense” and that it took some time to emotionally recover afterwards. I’d heard from others that it was “incredible;” one classmate even said it made her to want to be a Project Prepare patient-educator herself. The many mixed messages rolled together in my mind and distilled into a single overwhelming sense of anxiety.

But Stacie made everything so easy. She didn’t beat around the bush about how awkward or uncomfortable the experience could be. The first thing she asked us was, “What have you heard about Project Prepare?” and when I said I’d heard it was “intense,” she responded, “Why do you think that is?” In doing so, she set the tone for the rest of the afternoon: gentle, filled with open-ended questions and non-judgmental responses.

Over the next three hours, Stacie guided a fellow classmate and me through the exam techniques and word choice that accompany the 5-part female pelvic exam. She pointed out nuances that would never have otherwise crossed my mind, like how saying “that’s perfect” and “great” are fine in other parts of a medical interview or exam but painfully awkward and even inappropriate in the context of a pelvic exam.

After the session, I looked up Project Prepare, curious as to how many medical schools invite the team to their campuses. I was surprised to see that only Stanford, Touro University College of Osteopathic Medicine (both in CA and NV), Kaiser, and UCSF are on Project Prepare’s list of clientele. Though I still have two sessions left, it is so clear to me that Project Prepare is a unique, effective way of teaching students the pelvic and breast exams. As a medical student, the idea of doing these delicate exams for the first time on a real patient (one who is not simultaneously a trained educator) is terrifying. I had this experience last year, at Stanford’s Arbor Free Clinic, where I performed my first pap smear, with the guidance of an attending physician. I recall how scared I felt that I might hurt my patient and somehow “mess up.” In contrast, my experience with Project Prepare felt like a safe space to make mistakes, ask questions, and fumble a little bit – without feeling like I was in over my head.

This week, I have two more sessions with the Project Prepare teaching team, and this time, my feelings leading up to the sessions are colored with excitement rather than anxiety. To the Project Prepare patient-educators: Thank you so much for sharing your time, your knowledge, and most of all, your bodies, with us, as we take this journey from classroom to clinic. Our medical school experience feels more complete because of you.

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

Previously: Reality Check: When it stopped feeling like just another day in medical school

Global Health, Pregnancy, Stanford News, Women's Health

Stanford undergrad uncovers importance of traditional midwives in India

Stanford undergrad uncovers importance of traditional midwives in India

IMG_0348Lara Mitra grew up taking regular vacations with her family in her ancestral home, the state of Gujarat in India, but those short trips barely prepared her for her first long-term stay. She says the 10 weeks she spent studying maternal delivery practices were eye opening in many ways. The work she did while there made a big enough impact that it landed her on a list of 15 impressive Stanford students featured in Business Insider last month.

During the summer between her sophomore and junior years, in 2012, Mitra secured a human rights summer fellowship through the Stanford McCoy Family Center for Ethics in Society. She worked with the Self-Employed Womens Association (SEWA), a large non-profit organization in India that helps women become economically self-sufficient, but also gathers other information about the well-being of women in the country. Mitra worked with SEWA officials to design a study looking at how often women in Gujarati villages used hospitals to deliver their newborns instead of delivering at home. Most home deliveries are carried out with the help of a dai, a village local who acts as a midwife but usually doesn’t have formal training.

Maternal mortality rates in India are still alarmingly high, so government agencies have started incentive programs such as offering free ambulance service to and from hospitals for laboring mothers and paying mothers to deliver in a hospital instead of at home, and pays dais to bring laboring mothers to hospitals. In light of all these incentives, it was unclear how often women were still delivering at home. And if they weren’t, Mitra says the question was “Are these dais, these midwife figures still useful? Is there still a job for them?” Mitra was excited to be doing the critical research and says, “It was the first time I wasn’t working in someone else’s lab and designed my own study.”

She found that women were in fact taking advantage of the government programs and delivering more often in hospitals, but the dais still played a critical role. In some situations, such as emergency deliveries, dias stepped in and delivered the children before mother and child were taken to the hospital for examination. Also, unlike in Western countries, husbands don’t play as intimate a role in the delivery, so the dai served as “birth coach” at the hospital, too. Dais also helped with prenatal and post-delivery care. Out of 70 women Mitra interviewed in 15 villages surrounding the Gujarati city of Ahmedabad, 69 said dais still served a useful role.

“More significantly, the trust women had in the dai couldn’t be replicated in doctors,” says Mitra. “Dais were part of a support system for women. The dai would do informal check-ups, and could tell if a C-section would be necessary.”

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Pregnancy, Research, Stanford News, Women's Health

Stanford/VA study finds link between PTSD and premature birth

Stanford/VA study finds link between PTSD and premature birth

pregnant-silhouetteScientists have long suspected that post-traumatic stress disorder raises a pregnant woman’s risk of giving birth prematurely. Now, new research from Stanford and the U.S. Department of Veterans’ Affairs confirms these suspicions.

Women with “active” PTSD, diagnosed in the year before they gave birth, were 35 percent more likely than those without PTSD to spontaneously go into labor early and deliver a premature baby, the study found. Women whose PTSD had been diagnosed further in the past were not at increased risk, however.

The findings, published today in Obstetrics & Gynecology, are based on data from 16,344 births to female veterans. All of the women had been screened for PTSD. The researchers found that 3,049 babies were born to women diagnosed with the disorder at some point prior to delivery, and of these, 1,921 births were to women who had active PTSD.

“This study gives us a convincing epidemiological basis to say that, yes, PTSD is a risk factor for preterm delivery,” the study’s senior author, Ciaran Phibbs, PhD, associate professor of pediatrics and an investigator at the March of Dimes Prematurity Research Center at Stanford University, said in a press release. “Mothers with PTSD should be treated as having high-risk pregnancies.”

The VA has already adopted Phibbs’ recommendation for their patients and is now including a recent PTSD diagnosis among the factors that flag a woman’s pregnancy as high-risk. But the findings aren’t just for veterans, Phibbs told me. “The prevalence of PTSD is higher among veterans, but it’s still reasonably common in the general population,” he said. Nor was the PTSD-prematurity link limited to women with combat experience, he said. Half of the women in the study who had PTSD diagnoses had never been deployed.

Spontaneous premature labor, the focus of this study, accounts for about half of premature births. Phibbs’ team is now investigating the other half of preterm births: They are examining whether PTSD also influences a mother’s risk of developing medical conditions that could cause her physician to recommend an early delivery for the sake of the mother’s or baby’s health.

Previously: Maternal obesity linked to earliest premature births, says Stanford studyThe year in the life of a preemie – and his parents and How Stanford researchers are working to understand the complexities of preterm birth
Photo by Stefan Pasch

Aging, In the News, Mental Health, Women's Health

Love your body, love yourself

Love your body, love yourself

10227014165_7e464321d2_zAs someone with not much regard for my body, I can hear my nutritionist cackling with glee at the thought of this post. She’s spent months trying to brainwash me into liking it anyway. I fight back, chafing at the idea.

Now along comes Martha C. Nussbaum, PhD, a leading ethical thinker based at the University of Chicago, saying we should not just like our bodies or merely tolerate our young bodies in their prime. No, she writes in a recent New Republic essay, we should consider our bodies as “dynamic, marvelous, and, more important, just (as) us ourselves.” We should celebrate our bodies with the spirit captured by the 1970s movement Our Bodies, Ourselves, sparked by the book-turned-organization. The alternative is ugly:  Prejudice, bigotry and other social ills will surge when fueled by self-dislike.

Nussbaum mourns the loss of body-embracing spirit: “I fear that my generation is letting disgust and shame sweep over us again, as a new set of bodily challenges beckons.”

Flaccid muscles, graying hair, foreheads creasing with wrinkles. Not yuck, not gross, do not withdraw, do not hide in shame, she writes:

[The poet Walt] Whitman knew that we will not be able to love one another unless we first stop hiding from ourselves—meaning our bodies…

As we age, we are yielding to all the forces we tried, back then, to combat: not only the forces of external medical control, but the more insidious force of self-loathing. Whitman knew that disgust was a social poison. Psychologists studying the emotion today confirm his intuitions about its link with prejudice and exclusion.

If you don’t like yourself, your body, then what must you think of others, Nussbaum questions. Worth pondering, I’ll concede.

Previously: Ask Stanford Med: Director of Female Sexual Medicine Program responds to questions on sexual health, Blogging may boost teens’ self-esteem and Tai chi linked to mental-health boost, but more study is needed
Photo by Jennifer Morrow

Clinical Trials, Health Policy, NIH, Women's Health

A look at NIH’s new rules for gender balance in biomedical studies

A look at NIH’s new rules for gender balance in biomedical studies

In May, Francis Collins, MD, PhD, director of the National Institutes of Health, co-authored a Comment piece in Nature, outlining new requirements for biomedical researchers that made balancing the sex of animals and cell lines in studies much more important than they have been in the past. The first changes were set to be implemented this month. But, as Scientific American reported earlier this week,  the NIH isn’t likely to implement the changes as quickly as previously thought:

Funding rules, however, have yet to change, with only one week left in the month. Instead, the agency is gathering comments from researchers about which research areas need sex balance the most and the challenges scientists face in including male and female subjects in their studies. Officials have set aside $10.1 million in grants for scientists who want to add animals of the opposite sex to their existing experiments. The NIH is also making videos and online tutorials to teach scientists who are new to studying both sexes how to design such studies. Meanwhile, [Janine A. Clayton, director of the NIH’s Office of Research on Women’s Health] “can’t say” when new funding rules will take effect. “Details about the policy and implementation plans will roll out during the next year,” she says.

Scientists rely heavily on male animals, rarely using females, and the changes would require some drastic changes for researchers seeking funds from NIH. More from Scientific American:

Once in place and codified, the requirement would be a major shift for the nation’s biomedical labs, many of which study mostly or exclusively male animals. One estimate found that pharmacology studies include five times as many male animals as female ones, while neuroscience studies are skewed 5.5:1 male-to-female.

Scientists assumed biology findings that held in males would apply just as well to females, but a growing body of research has discovered this is not always true. Female and male mice’s bodies make different amounts of many proteins, for example. Men and women have differing risks for many health conditions that are not obviously sex-based, including anxiety, depression, hypertension and strokes. Yet those diseases are still predominantly studied in male animals. Scientists who study sex differences think the mismatch might be the reason women suffer more side effects than men do from drugs approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Pharmaceuticals that researchers test mainly on male animals may work better for men than for women.

When the NIH does begin to implement these changes, the first steps will be training staff and grantees on what these changes mean for experimental design. And it should be noted that this isn’t the first time that NIH has encouraged sex balance. In 2013, its Office of Research on Women’s Health started a program of supplemental grants for currently funded researchers to add enough animals for gender-balanced study results.

Previously: Why it’s critical to study the impact of gender differences on diseases and treatments, Large federal analysis: Hormone therapy shouldn’t be used for chronic-disease prevention and A call to advance research on women’s health issues
Photo by Mycroyance

Cancer, Events, Genetics, Imaging, Stanford News, Surgery, Women's Health

Don’t hide from breast cancer – facing it early is key

Don't hide from breast cancer - facing it early is key

cat_hiding-pgMy cat suffers from acute anxiety. Although she and I have lived together for more than 12 years, and the worst thing I’ve ever done to her was cut her nails, she’s terrified of me. (She’s also very smart – she runs from the sound of my car, but not my husband’s). During trips to vet, Bibs hides her eyes in the crook of my elbow.

It’s a strategy that’s only minimally effective. After all, what I can’t see, or don’t recognize, can still hurt me.

Take breast cancer. It terrifies most women. And if you don’t look for it, you won’t find it. But if you do look, and find it early, you might save your life and your breast, says Amanda Wheeler, MD, a Stanford breast surgeon. She joined other Stanford breast cancer experts at a recent public program sponsored by the Stanford Women’s Cancer Center called “The Latest Advancements in Screening and Treatment for Breast Cancer.”

“One of our biggest challenge is women are scared of breast cancer, but[we have to get] the word out that we have such great advances, we’ve just got to catch it early,” Wheeler said.

She pointed to a tiny dot on a screen. At that size, Wheeler said, breast cancer is almost 100 percent curable. She performs a small lumpectomy. If it’s a little bigger, she can still probably save the nipple.

And if the entire breast must be removed, surgeons like Rahim Nazerali, MD, come in. Nazarali explained the importance of choosing a reconstruction surgeon carefully: The doctor should be accredited by the American Society of Plastic Surgeons and have experience with microsurgery, preferably on the breast. There are different ways to remold a breast and doctors can use either a synthetic implant or a patient’s own tissue, from their abdomen, hips or thighs, Nazerali explained.

All of Wheeler and Nazerali’s artistry depends on expert imaging performed by specialists like Jafi Lipson, MD, whose message at the event was simple and encouraging.

Thanks to many new developments, mammography isn’t the only way to detect nascent breast cancers, Lipson said. Her team can employ 3-D mammography, or tomosynthesis, to reveal a layered look at a breast. And genetic screening, particularly for those with a history of breast cancer in the family, can provide the earliest warning signal of all, the breast cancer team said.

Women no longer need to hide their eyes from the risk, the experts emphasized. Women should take a peek – there’s help coping with what they may find.

Previously: Screening could slash number of breast cancer cases, The squeeze: Compression during mammography important for accurate breast cancer detection, Despite genetic advances, detection still key in breast cancer, NIH Director highlights Stanford research on breast cancer surgery choices, Breast cancer awareness: Beneath the pink packaging and Using 3-D technology to screen for breast cancer
Photo by Notigatos

Cancer, Genetics, Medicine and Society, Research, Stanford News, Women's Health

Screening could slash number of breast cancer cases

Screening could slash number of breast cancer cases

dna-163466_1280Should every newborn baby girl be genetically screened to prevent breast cancer? Obviously, that isn’t cost-effective — yet. But if it were, would it be worthwhile?

A previous study said no. But research published today in Cancer Epidemiology, Biomarkers & Prevention by Stanford researchers suggests otherwise.

Led by senior author Alice Whittemore, PhD, the team examined 86 gene variants known to increase the chances of breast cancer. They created a model that accounted for the prevalence of each variant and the associated risk of breast cancer. Each possible genome was then ranked by the likelihood of developing breast cancer within a woman’s lifetime.

“It was quite a computational feat,” Whittemore told me.

Working with Weiva Sieh, MD, PhD; Joseph Rothstein, PhD; and Valerie McGuire, PhD, the team found that the riskiest top 25 percent of gene combinations predicted 50 percent of all future breast cancers.. Those women would then have the opportunity to get regular mammograms, watch their diets and make childbearing and breast-feeding decisions with the awareness of their higher risk. Some women might even select, as Angelina Jolie did quite publicly, to have their breasts removed.

“The main takeaway message is we can be more optimistic than previously predicted about the value of genomic sequencing,” Whittemore said. “But we still have a way to go in preventing the disease.”

“Our ability to predict the probability of disease based on genetics is the starting point,” Sieh said. “If a girl knew, from birth, what her inborn risk was, she could then make more informed choices to alter her future risk by altering her lifestyle factors. We also need better screening methods and preventative interventions with fewer side effects.”

“We want to focus on those at the highest risk,” Whittemore said.

Previously: Despite genetic advances, detection still key in breast cancer, NIH Director highlights Stanford research on breast cancer surgery choices  and Breast cancer awareness: Beneath the pink packaging 
Photo by PublicDomainPictures

Cancer, Stanford News, Videos, Women's Health

The squeeze: Compression during mammography important for accurate breast cancer detection

The squeeze: Compression during mammography important for accurate breast cancer detection

After nearly 30 years of reluctantly enduring the pain of mammography, I finally understand why I shouldn’t complain. In fact, I think I should embrace the pain and ask the technician to squeeze my breasts even more tightly between the shelves of the mammography machine.

It’s only a brief moment of pain, after all, but it can make the difference between a breast cancer detected and a breast cancer missed. In a recent video on the topic, Stanford Health Care’s Jafi Lipson, MD, an assistant professor of radiology, explains the very important reasons for women to step up and take the squeeze without complaint. It will only take 30 seconds of your time – and it might save your life.

Previously: Despite genetic advances, detection still key in breast cancer, NIH Director highlights Stanford research on breast cancer surgery choices and Breast cancer patients are getting more bilateral mastectomies — but not any survival benefit

Cardiovascular Medicine, Men's Health, Mental Health, Research, Women's Health

Examining how mental stress on the heart affects men and women differently

Examining how mental stress on the heart affects men and women differently

stress_womanPast research has shown that stress, anger and depression can increase a person’s risk for stroke and heart attacks. Now new findings published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology show that cardiovascular and psychological reactions to mental stress vary based on gender.

In the study (subscription required), participants with heart disease completed three mentally stressful tasks. Researchers monitored changes in their heart using echocardiography, measured blood pressure and heart rate, and took blood samples during the test and rest periods. According to a journal release:

Researchers from the Duke Heart Center found that while men had more changes in blood pressure and heart rate in response to the mental stress, more women experienced myocardial ischemia, decreased blood flow to the heart. Women also experienced increased platelet aggregation, which is the start of the formation of blood clots, more than men. The women compared with men also expressed a greater increase in negative emotions and a greater decrease in positive emotions during the mental stress tests.

“The relationship between mental stress and cardiovascular disease is well known,” said the study lead author Zainab Samad, M.D., M.H.S., assistant professor of medicine at Duke University Medical Center, Durham, North Carolina. “This study revealed that mental stress affects the cardiovascular health of men and women differently. We need to recognize this difference when evaluating and treating patients for cardiovascular disease.”

Previously: Study shows link between traffic noise, heart attack, Ask Stanford Med: Cardiologist Jennifer Tremmel responds to questions on women’s heart health and Study offers insights into how depression may harm the heart
Photo by anna gutermuth

Cancer, Genetics, Stanford News, Videos, Women's Health

Despite genetic advances, detection still key in breast cancer

Despite genetic advances, detection still key in breast cancer

Just a few years before the launch of the first national breast cancer awareness month, I found a small lump in my left breast. I still remember the cold chill that ran through me – and stayed with me until several days later when a surgeon discovered that the lump was not a tumor. His parting words have never left me: “Remember how you’ve been feeling.” He wanted to make sure I would go on to have regular mammograms.

Spreading the word about the disease and the importance of detecting it in its early stages was – and is – the point of the national awareness campaign. In the almost 30 years since that first campaign, advances in imaging technology have enabled earlier detection of breast cancer, genome sequencing has identified some of the mysteries behind the development risk, and selecting the most effective surgery and chemotherapy is more and more of an individualized choice.

Stanford has a powerful team of physicians addressing all aspects of breast cancer science and care. On Oct. 16, breast-imaging specialist Jafi Lipson, MD, assistant professor of radiology, and breast cancer surgeon Amanda Wheeler, MD, clinical assistant professor of surgery, will give a free lecture, “The Latest Advancements in Screening and Treatment for Breast Cancer,” at the Sheraton Palo Alto. And throughout the month, Stanford Health Care will post short educational videos and infographics on a variety of breast-cancer topics, including types of breast cancer, options in surgical reconstruction, and why enduring the pain of compression in mammography is worth the effort. Today, Stanford Health Care kicks off the month with a video featuring Stanford breast cancer expert Alison Kurian, MD, explaining the role that genetics play in disease development (above).

Because one in eight women will develop breast cancer in her lifetime, I would urge all of us to keep in mind the reality of this disease – and to honor those we know who have survived, or not, by paying attention.

Previously: NIH Director highlights Stanford research on breast cancer surgery choicesBreast cancer patients are getting more bilateral mastectomies —  but not any survival benefitBreast cancer awareness: Beneath the pink packaging and At Stanford event, cancer advocate Susan Love talks about “a future with no breast cancer”

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