Category: physician

Talking Medicine

There’s something very gratifying about talking medicine with trainees. Regardless of their level of expertise, there’s always some wisdom to be shared.  1st year medical students are completely a blank slate and any  simple clinical discussion greatly augments their expertise.  Clinical discussions with 3rd year medical students are also extremely enriching considering how their heads are usually buried in textbooks for almost 2 years. The conversations about diagnosing and treating actual patients are both challenging and invigorating.  As interns and residents in internal medicine, the conversations about patients start to get deeper. It’s no longer just about diagnosis and treatment, but understanding and applying clinical evidence towards the best course of action in patients they are completely responsible for. This is also the time where we as medical educators who spent countless hours “talking medicine” with our trainees need to start talking about the most difficult questions facing healthcare today.

These difficult questions are aren’t about arcane diseases or curious physical exam maneuvers. We are beginning to ask about how our patients function within our broken healthcare system  For example, instead of simply talking about the different treatment options for a ganglion cyst, we challenge our trainees to ask and think about why a mother would take her daughter to the ER for that same ganglion cyst; a routine outpatient problem. We delve deeper into a patient’s day-to-day existence by trying to understand the myriad of medical and psycho-social reasons behind an elderly lady’s 3 hospital admissions within 2 months in order to identify solutions that will reduce health care expenditures and protect her from the dangers of hospitalization. Instead of simply prescribing medicines that lower blood sugars, we also talk about the cultural basis of an individual’s diet to better tackle the nutritional aspects of diabetes.

These types of issues which have no obvious answer are unfortunately the exact types of questions our trainees are least prepared to tackle. We’ve created a medical education system that emphasizes building knowledge and understanding of healthcare in terms of multiple choice questions and the absoluteness that comes with selecting a one true answer. Part of my goal as a medical educator is to deconstruct this black or white approach to thinking by asking the difficult questions and exposing how truly grey the world of healthcare is. From there, I hope some are inspired to reject the status quo and pursue careers that aim to provide great patient care, while also tackling the most complex systems issues in healthcare. This is just one of the many gratifying and important aspects of talking medicine today.

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#IstandwithAhmed

      Around 1991, as a 7th grader, my fascination with science far exceeded my prepubescent fascination with girls. For that year’s science project, I decided to explore the world of energy by exploring traditional sources (i.e. fossil fuels) and looking at potential future sources (solar, nuclear etc.). I did a comprehensive report, doing most of my research at libraries (you know those buildings that housed books!). I also did a lot of reading in encyclopedia Britannica (RIP!). In addition to a comprehensive 15 page written report, my teacher suggested everyone bring something in class that could demonstrate what we had learned.
       I was impressed with what I had discovered about nuclear energy and decided to bring an orange to class to demonstrate the processes of nuclear fission and fusion. Standing in front of a class of 30 snickering and giggly teenagers, I explained how the orange was an atom and splitting it (fission) would create juice i.e. nuclear energy. Conversely, smashing together the separated pieces would also result in a citrus shower i.e. nuclear fusion. And with that explanation, I put on one of our science aprons, a pair of our chemistry goggles and aggressively smashed my orange down the middle using a knife I brought from home. 
      Those early teenage years were hard enough as it was. But I fondly remember this because it reminds me of my love for science and one of the early examples of how I overcame shyness and insecurity to stand in front of an audience. I wouldn’t have recalled this moment were it not for the story of a young Muslim teenager and science tinkerer from Irving, Texas who was arrested like a common criminal for bringing a homemade clock to school. 
    I am frightened to think what would’ve happened today if I tried to do a science demonstration by bringing a knife to class. I probably wouldn’t even had made it through the school doors because of metal detectors. The mere sight of young Muslim male with paper thin arms, wielding a butter knife would’ve resulted in a SWAT team descending upon my school to whisk me away in handcuffs. My parents and sister would be intensely interrogated and humiliated. With the rampant bigotry and xenophobia going around today, maybe my parents would think seriously about going back to Bangladesh. Or if we stayed with the stain of being a suspected criminal, would I have the courage to continue to pursue my passions or just settle into a life of acceptance of the old (and now reborn?) American reality that perhaps all men are not created equal. 
   But something terrible did happen to me on that fateful day in 1991 where I brought a knife to class. I got a “B” on my mediocre report which drew the intense ire of my parents. It was probably one of those sentinel moments that are emotionally magnified as a teenager which led me to work harder in pursuit of my goals. But what happened to Ahmed is far worse than a bad grade on a science project. I hope with the same intelligence that he uses to create, tinker and build, he is able to realize that it’s not his fault he was born in the post 9/11 world. And that regardless of how the world may view him and try to bring him down, this is still a great country where someone bright and hardworking like him will have the opportunity to become successful, make a difference and change many hearts and minds.

Faces of the J Train

It’s been about 10 months since I left New York ; the city, the state, the place of my birth. And on the eve of celebrating the 1st birthday of my daughter back where it all started, I’m thinking about all the experiences here that made me who I am, When it comes to medicine, my career in primary care started on the New York City Subways and the J train.
    One of the few largely above ground subways, The J train continues to click, clack, roll and tumble through a myriad of diverse neighborhoods in Queens, Brooklyn and Manhattan. From 1992 to 1999 (high school and college) I made the daily sojourn into Manhattan, using the hour of time to catch up on sleep, spanish homework, chapters of Homer’s Odyssey or complete assignments for organic chemistry. What I enjoyed most of this experience was simply sitting back with my AIWA walkman (Discman later) and observing the faces of the crowd. In a city so large, the faces and the stories were rarely the same.
    My trip started in a rapidly evolving middle class neighborhood in Queens. The area was in the midst of a “white flight” as caucasians slowly moved to parts further east as south asians and west indians moved in to begin their immigrant lives, struggling to fulfill their american dreams. As the train rolled west and into Brooklyn, tree lined streets gave way to boarded up apartment buildings, police sirens and general urban decay. This was East New York, a place defined by poverty, drugs and violence. The faces from here looked like any other, but they hid struggles unique to this neighborhood . Further west, the J train passed through Orthodox Jewish neighborhoods where the modern world clashed daily with religious and cultural traditions. And finally before crossing over to Manhattan, the train would pass through Williamsburg where the struggle to survive gentrification was only just beginning.
    I no longer live in NY and ride the subways. But as a physician each day continues to feel like a subway rides except now I am the conductor that’s picking up patients, helping them get to their destination.  And just like back in the day, I try to read their faces, understand their struggles by listening to their story. But as a primary care physician I recognize their struggle isn’t simply about what part of their body hurts or what disease currently plagues them. There struggles are a composite of their illness, their life stories, their backgrounds and the streets and people in their neighborhood that helped forge their identity. And healing isn’t simply about mending a broken bone, stitching up a wound or completing a course of antibiotics. Healing is about helping the patient cross the Williamsburg bridge, into Manhattan so that they can live to carry on for another day.
 

Back to the Future

    Recently, I reconnected with an old friend. We were childhood friends through college and then slowly drifted apart. Around 2001 he got married to his wife while I got engaged to medical school. Several years later, he contacted me and it’s been great reminiscing about our past lives. He has a younger brother who’s currently in medical school and remarked how he sees the same passion in his brother as he saw in me when we were younger. I chuckled thinking about what a stubborn and immature person I was in my early doctor wannabe years. Despite my ability to memorize textbook facts ( perhaps the most overrated skill for the modern doctor) my friend has a much better memory of those years. He backs his assertion that I’ve always had passion for my career by recalling a website I built in college.
    I believe I was a junior in college (circa 1998) and my efforts towards medical school were in full effect. MCATs, biochemistry and molecular biology courses, volunteer work, work-study research job and a gradually receding hairline were all happening simultaneously. In between all of this activity I became enamored with the Internet. My free college email address changed my views of human communication and connectivity. Web browsers like Webcrawler, Alta Vista and Netscape opened doors to the entire universe. With WebMD in its infancy, I began exploring health related information on the web. It was scattered and disorganized.  I saw an opportunity to build my own healthcare website that would combine my love for the internet, my desire to serve people while augmenting my medical school credentials.  I wanted a site that would provide quality information on a health topic that also appealed to the young adult crowd. So naturally, I chose sexually transmitted diseases!
   I called it “Scary Things to Discuss.” In retrospect,  it sounds cheesy but back then I thought incorporating the letters STD into the title was clever. I gathered information from both old school (library) and new school ways (online) on some common diseases such as HIV, gonorrhea and chlamydia. I also included pictures, which wasn’t easy without services like Google Images. I copied some from other websites and scanned some from textbooks to create an easy to follow and colorful page. I wasn’t a computer programming major but I did learn some basic HTML code on my own. But thanks to Netscape Navigator, they packaged website building tools in their browser for non-computer folks like me. It was a labor of love that took me several months. Once it launched, it was one of my proudest moments. I continued to swell with pride as the website gradually gained momentum with a steady stream of positive comments from all corners of the globe. I actively maintained the site for about 18 months during which time it had logged over one hundred thousand hits.
     Sadly, the website met a quiet demise. After college and working full-time I didn’t have the energy to maintain it. I regret not archiving it for posterity. I don’t even remember what company hosted the site but I do remember they went from being a free hosting service to a paid one; a deal breaker for me at that time. The website’s success was always a great conversation starter for me personally, but I actually never got to talk about it with the most important people at that time ; US medical schools. I didn’t receive any interview offers.
   Since then I still became a physician but the world has changed. I’ve become a digital health enthusiast and advocate. I see the Web 2.0 (as opposed to 1.0 back in 1998) as a critical component of modern healthcare. And I’m no longer an outlier, shouting random things about syphilis and HIV into the internet void. Rather, I’m proud to be part of an incredible movement that hopes to improve and change medicine by bringing it back to the future.

The Ironic Illness of Izzy

     When I first met Izzy (name changed) he was a portly elderly gentlemen with an effervescent and jolly personality that lit up the clinic every time he visited. His most recognizable feature was his voice. His lifelong hobby was singing opera, as a tenor. The first time I discovered this, he belted out a few lines that echoed through our entire clinic. It was marvelous and since that moment, I always made sure my medical students and residents not just saw him, but heard him as well. He was a spectacular patient and person.
    A few years from our initial encounter, I found myself wandering the halls of the hospital with 2 medical students. They were 2nd year students looking for patients to practice taking histories and doing physical exams. Earlier that day, I received word that Izzy was admitted. Though this was unfortunate for Izzy, it was fortuitous for my fledgling doctors that such a great patient was available to talk to. And not surprisingly, despite feeling unwell, Izzy with his wife by his side, welcomed my students openly.
     I stood off to the side of the room, while my students peppered him with questions for over an hour as they tried to piece together his medical history without much experience and medical expertise to fallback on. They learned about his vocal talents and though he wasn’t well enough to sing on that day, Izzy was quick to point out how his voice swept his wife off her feet when they were in college. I thought I knew everything about Izzy from our several appointments together, but these medical students were able to illicit a entirely new story from him that even I was unaware of.
    My intrepid students were taking a travel history when they discovered his wife was originally from  South America. He reminisced about the last time they went to visit her family which was about 4 to 5 years prior. He fondly recalled staying near a seaside town, enjoying the fresh ocean air and wonderful local cuisine. The only thing he didn’t enjoy about this trip was going further inland to visit in-laws living in more mountainous areas. He recalled getting sick during that part of the trip, blaming it on some bad food and lack of sleep. His wife reminded him that he almost passed out a few times that week from feeling so unwell.
     After almost 90 minutes of questioning, doing a physical exam and sharing lots of laughs, my students and I left Izzy to go debrief on everything we had talked about. There was just an incredible amount of things to learn from Izzy. We were able to weave together his history, his physical exam, basic pulmonary physiology, and pathology to explain what had happened. I described to the students that Izzy was suffering from pulmonary fibrosis and explained some of general facets of this illness including impaired gas (oxygen) exchange and just the progressive reduction in his lungs’ abilities to perform . We reviewed oxygen disassociation curves and the effects of altitude and oxygen saturation. In light of his diagnosis, it became clear why with his reduced lung function and thinner mountain air, Izzy felt so ill on his vacation. This was probably one of the first signs of his illness until later when it became sadly obvious his opera singing days were coming to an end.
     With every patient, there’s always something to learn and Izzy’s story was no exception. For me, when I look back at his story, I began to appreciate medicine as something more than doctors treating individuals with specific diseases affecting affecting well defined anatomy through different but predictable mechanisms. Medicine, as a science has surprisingly very abstract human qualities. At times, it can be funny, or sad, thrilling, uplifting, unpredictable and often dramatic. When an opera singer that relied on powerful lungs got a relatively uncommon condition affecting those same lungs, medicine got my attention that it also has a knack for irony.

   

Health Insurance ; A prerequisite to the American Dream

The American dream is alive and well. We still live in the land opportunity where hard work is the ticket to endless opportunities. On the contrary, bad health poses a major impediment towards fulfilling that dream. Besides the physical toll of an illness, the financial cost of an illness can make the American dream impossible to achieve. Millions of people without health insurance everyday face the spectre of their dream becoming a health care nightmare. Recently I got some great news about a family member who immigrated to the U.S a few years ago. A middle aged man with a wife and 2 kids, he came ready to do whatever it takes to secure a future for his family. An educated man, he struggled to find employment. He latched on to several different jobs that helped continue to build his skills but was given no health care benefits. He didn’t qualify for Medicaid and couldn’t afford private health insurance. Just like many Americans in this situation, his health took a backseat. But recently, he was finally able to secure a job that offered benefits including health insurance. He now had the security that seemed like a natural prerequisite towards pursuing his own American Dream. He took this opportunity to finally seek out world class healthcare. From a distance, I began to get caught up with what was happening with his health. Fortunately, he didn’t have too many medical problems besides benign prostatic hyperplasia (BPH). It was significant enough that he was referred to a urologist. He felt lucky to find a local well renowned urologist with many positive reviews (both online and word of mouth) that also took his excellent new health insurance. After 1 visit, it seemed like he was appropriately placed on some medications to try to alleviate his symptoms. What was surprising is that he was also placed on brand name testosterone replacement. Immediately, skepticism towards testosterone replacement therapy began to engulf my thoughts. I began to wonder if my family member was another victim of the “Low T” marketing campaign. Furthermore, I was shocked to find out that within weeks of seeing this doctor, he was being offered greenlight laser prostatectomy. Granted I am looking at this case as an outsider. But without trying various types of medical therapy at optimal doses and for significant periods of time, the recommendation for surgery seemed very premature. Since then, my family member has been directed to a second opinion.
Health insurance is an extremely high priority issue for most Americans. It is the sensible thing to attain, whether it is to ensure wellness or treat illness that might otherwise derail a lifetime of hard work. But my family member’s reward for obtaining health insurance wasn’t good health but rather a glut of potentially wasteful and dangerous medical care. As we continue to expand health insurance in an attempt to cover all Americans and provide them access to care, we have to continue efforts towards curtailing health care that is not evidence based, wasteful and only serves to fulfill the American dream of providers and drug companies while taking advantage of hard working naive citizens. 

Don’t hate the Anti-Vaxxer

     It’s easy and convenient nowadays to take a few minutes to rally against the “Anti-Vaxxer” movement. With the recent measles outbreaks, there’s no shortage of articles, memes, jokes and cartoons to share on blogs, Facebook, Twitter etc. But I’m going to throw a very small teeny tiny microscopic bone to the Anti-Vaxxer camp. I will do so with the disclaimer that as a primary care physician I think vaccines are an extremely important part of good health. Anyone that doesn’t see their value, is misguided and perhaps misinformed.

    Having said that, there’s no denying that the Anti-Vaxxer  movement  is real and unfortunately seems to be growing. They have quietly become a significant part of the general population. The reason for their growth is multifactorial, but the easiest targets are probably defrauded scientists, celebrities and politicians with dubious opinions. But the target that’s probably hardest to identify is the one looking right back at us in the mirror.  When a problem afflicts society, the easiest thing to do is blame others. The introspective route asks us to look within to identify causes and offer solutions.

     How did we let this happen? The Anti-vaxxer movement is just another example of the growing mistrust and lack of faith in our doctors and healthcare system. There are many reasons for this. When it comes to vaccines, why aren’t we, the trusted physicians able to educate and change their minds? Perhaps we are not living up to the true latin meaning of the word “Doctor” which is “to teach.” Perhaps the modern doctor,  gathered and taught in traditional (antiquated?) methods are struggling with modern informed patients who challenge and question rather than accept paternalistic physician decision making. Perhaps we simply just don’t have time to have a decent conversation with our patients about the importance of vaccines.
    Whatever the reasons, we need to figure out better ways to connect with this subset of our patients whose beliefs about vaccines post significant individual and community health risks. What we don’t need to do is further alienate this population by kicking the proverbial horse while it’s down. The amount of  seemingly joyous vitriol pouring from the medical community against anti-vaxxers is disappointing and at times bordering on classless. Social media is teeming with derogatory descriptions of this population.  I think this only furthers many people’s views of rampant intellectual elitism in our doctors. The most disappointing stance on this issue is when doctors proclaim they will refuse to see patients who don’t believe in vaccines. Hey genius, if you don’t see that patient, then they definitely don’t stand a chance of getting a vaccine!
   The anti-vaxxer type of population is something that has always existed in most medical practices. They represent a group of people who don’t believe in the gospel you are preaching. I have patients who don’t believe in cancer screenings, statins and a whole host of other great evidence based ideas. They can be frustrating and time consuming.  But they are still my patients and I will continue to respect them and care for them with the confidence to know I will eventually change some of their minds.