Category Archives: Medicine

George Mines and the Impermanence of Knowledge

George Mines

It was a chilly Fall morning in Montreal. A Saturday, the campus of McGill University was quiet. Students, not much different in 1914 from those of today, were sleeping off their Friday night activities. A cleaning woman entered the Physiology Laboratory to dust the glassware and wash the floors. As she turned a corner she was startled to see a young dark-haired man, sitting in a chair. She recognized Professor Mines, the handsome English scientist whom she had often seen working in the laboratory at odd hours. He appeared to be sleeping. His shirt was open and a strange apparatus was strapped to his chest. Rubber tubing stretched from this apparatus to a table filled with equipment next to him. A smoked paper drum rotated slowly. The needle of the drum was motionless, then suddenly jumped. Startled, she let out a little gasp. “Professor, Professor,” she called out. “Are you alright?” She noted he looked very pale, deathly so. She touched his hand. It was cold.

She ran to get help. The police took Professor George Mines to the hospital. There he briefly regained consciousness, but not long enough for him to explain what had happened. He died later that day. He was 29 years old. During his brief life, he used animal models to describe the physiology of reentry in the heart. He described the mechanism of supraventricular tachycardia in Wolff-Parkinson-White Syndrome long before that syndrome was described. He used a telegraph key to deliver timed electrical shocks to rabbit hearts, inducing ventricular fibrillation which he described without the benefit of an electrocardiogram. He thus was the first to report the existence of the ventricular vulnerable period. Despite all this amazing work, much of what he discovered was little noted at the time, until “rediscovered” by later researchers.

It seems likely that he was the first to induce arrhythmias in a human, long before the field of clinical cardiac electrophysiology. Unfortunately that human was himself, and the result was his own death.

The published papers of George Mines are fascinating to read. His very primitive equipment by today’s standards was more than compensated for by his remarkable ingenuity and keen powers of observation and reasoning.  He described the relationships between conduction velocity and refractoriness in reentry, the existence of an excitable gap, and deduced the reentrant nature of ventricular fibrillation. In one memorable experiment he cut fibrillating tissue into larger and larger loops until he was left with just one circulating wavefront. Amazing stuff! What more would he have accomplished had his life not been cut short?

Back in the days before the Internet, I used to keep photocopies of medical articles in a file cabinet (actually several large file cabinets). In those days of academia I enjoyed going to the stacks of the medical library and randomly reading articles from old bound journals, some dating back to the 19th century.  I learned a lot.  One thing I learned was that science has a problem with collective amnesia.  Discoveries are often forgotten or ignored, only to be rediscovered years later.

Nowadays everything is online. Or is it? Recently I wanted to look up Bazett’s original article on correcting the QT interval for heart rate. It was published in Heart in 1920 (Bazett HC. (1920). “An analysis of the time-relations of electrocardiograms”. Heart (7): 353–370.) These old volumes of Heart have not been digitized and are not online. Such a famous article though is surely reprinted? Indeed it is, on the Wiley Online Library site. I can get a copy of the PDF for $38. Absurd! An article from 1920 costs $38!

Here we see the bitrot of science, the impermanence of knowledge. On the one hand, modern scientific research is largely hidden behind a paywall, so that the poor (in the financial sense) reader must rely on abstracts, news reports, online sites such as Medscape, and presentations at medical meetings to keep up-to-date, instead of a careful reading of research methods and results. On the other hand, our precious scientific heritage, the published papers of previous generations, remains largely undigitized, residing in the dusty stacks of libraries, increasingly ignored by newer generations to whom nothing matters if it is not online. There are some exceptions. The Journal of Physiology has digitized all of its content back to Volume 1 from 1878. But most publishers haven’t bothered doing this.

At least half of early films have been lost. Early TV archives, like those of Dr. Who were routinely destroyed or copied over, resulting in loss of these shows forever. The situation is not so dire with old scientific research. The libraries will remain for a long time, and paper has a good half-life. But the beautiful work of George Mines and those like him, the true pioneers of medicine, will remain largely obscure to future generations unless that work is available online.

Perhaps some portion of the $38 for a PDF copy of a 1920 article could go to that cause.

The Smartphone is an Essential Medical Instrument

The storage capacity of the human mind is amazing. One estimate of the size of the brain’s “RAM” is as high as  2.5 petabytes (a million gigabytes). The number is based on the total number of neurons in the brain and the total number of possible connections per neuron. I suspect it is an overestimate, given the vagaries and innate inefficiency of biological systems. Nevertheless the true figure is undoubtedly impressive. But not infinite.

There are well-documented feats of human memory and calculating prowess. Ancient Greeks could memorize and recite the epic poems of Homer. Indeed this was how the Iliad and the Odyssey were passed down for generations before the Greeks acquired writing. Savants can quickly perform cube roots of long integers or have memorized pi to over 20,000 decimal places. Musical prodigies like Mozart or geniuses like Einstein impress us with the capabilities of their brains. Yet for the average person who has trouble memorizing a shopping list, these stellar examples of mental fortitude provide little solace. The old myth that we are only using 10% of our brain capacity has been debunked . So unless you’re willing to believe the combination kelp-Ginkgo-biloba-blueberry supplement you heard about on the radio is really going to work, you are pretty well stuck with the brain and memory capacity you have right now. At least until things get worse as you get older.

While the brain’s capacity may increase due to evolutionary forces over the next few thousands years (or not, see the movie Idiocracy), the amount of information that it is required to hold is not constrained by such a slow process. According to one source , there are now over 50 million scientific publications, with about 2.5 million new articles published each year. There is a 4-5% increase in the number of publishing scientists per year. No one can absorb all this. The days of the “Renaissance Man” who could quote Bulwer-Lytton while relating the latest experimental data from Maxwell and then play a Bach fugue while giving a dissertation on Baroque counterpoint are long gone. So what’s a 21st century scientist (or physician) to do?

One thing we should not do is to attempt to memorize everything. It is important to off-load as much information from our brains as possible. Our brains need to be more like an index than a database. We need to know what information we are looking for and where to find it. Information that we use all the time is automatically memorized and we don’t have to look it up. But a lot of information that we don’t use frequently is better off external to our brains. As long as it is easily retrievable, it will be available. Better to look something up that we are unsure about, such as a drug dose, than hazard a guess and be wrong.

Fortunately we live in an era when we can implement this strategy very easily. We carry smartphones that are constantly connected to the Internet. All the data we need is at our fingertips and incredibly easy to look up. Similarly we can store data on these devices for later retrieval. This constant availability of information makes life easier for doctors and undoubtedly makes for better patient care because of decreased mistakes due to memory errors.

There are those who would argue that relying on these devices is a crutch, and any good doctor wouldn’t need them. What would happen if a doctor’s plane crash landed on some remote island, where there were no charging ports? How could that doctor function?

I think it’s time to put aside such nay-saying and embrace our digital assistants. These devices are our tools, as essential to modern medicine as ultrasounds, blood tests, and MRI scanners. Take away any of these tools, and doctors will be limited in what they can do. We should be proud of the impressive technology that allows us to carry powerful computers in our pockets, and we shouldn’t be ashamed to use them.

Notwithstanding the above, medical board certification is still old-school, rooted in that outmoded 19th century Renaissance Man philosophy that doctors should hold everything in their heads. Certainly some medical board questions are practical and test things all doctors should know. But thrown into the mix are a lot of obscure questions about obscure facts that may be difficult to regurgitate during a testing session, but would be easy to look up online in a few seconds in a real-world setting. So, do these tests actually test one’s abilities as a real-world practicing doctor armed with modern information technology or are they just a particularly arcane version of Trivial Pursuit?

I’ll leave the answer to this question as an exercise for the reader.

EHR Copy and Paste Considered Harmful

DRY principle – Don’t Repeat Yourself

How bad are Electronic Health Record (EHR) programs? Let me count the ways. Rather, let me not, as I and many other folks have already done so. Even non-tech savvy doctors (of which there are fewer and fewer) realize something is wrong when they compare their experience using an EHR with virtually every other computer program they come across, such as the apps on their phones. As the click counts required to do simple tasks mount up and repetitive stress injury of the hand sets in, even the most sanguine of medical personnel will eventually realize that something is not quite right. And as EHR companies forbid sharing of screenshots of their user interfaces, you’ll just have to take my word for it these UIs are, let us say, quaint. Hey EHRs, the 90s called and want their user interfaces back.

In this post I’ll point out just one of the many problems with EHRs: EHRs violate the DRY principle.  The acronym DRY is familiar to computer programmers, but not to most medical people. DRY stands for “Don’t Repeat Yourself.” In computer programming it means don’t write the same code in two or more different places. Code duplication is what some programmers refer to as a code “smell.” There is no reason to duplicate code in a computer program. A single block of code can be called from multiple procedures.  There is no reason for each procedure to have its own copy of this code block.   Code duplication leads to code bloat and code rot, where two procedures supposed to do the same thing get out of sync with each other because of changes in one copy of the duplicated code and not in the other.

Applying the DRY principle to a database requires that every item of data has a single location in the database. Multiple copies of the same data increase the size of the database and invariably cause confusion. Which copy is the original? Which copy is the true copy when copies disagree?

An EHR program is at root a gigantic database. Ideally Patient Smith’s X-ray report from 1/1/2017 is filed away properly in the database and easily retrieved. Same with his blood work, MRI results, etc., etc.

Enter Copy and Paste.

Copy and Paste is evil. Unlike Cut and Paste, Copy and Paste’s close cousin that moves data around without duplication, Copy and Paste is bad, lazy, and sloppy.  Copy and Paste needlessly duplicates data. Copy and Paste violates DRY.

EHR notes are rife with Copy and Paste. X-ray reports are copied and pasted. Blood work too. Even whole notes can by copied and pasted. It is easy to copy and paste a prior progress note and then make a few changes to make it look like it wasn’t copied and pasted. Everyone does it.

Many EHR progress notes fall just side short of novel length. Whole cath reports, MRI results, other doctor’s notes, kitchen sinks, and other potpourri are thrown in for good measure. Usually with a bit of skillful detective work one can determine the minor fraction of the note that is original. Usually it is last line. Something like: “Continue current plans.” These could be the only words actually typed on the keyboard. Everything else is just copied and pasted.

So you get all the downsides of DRY: bloated notes, duplication of data, possible inaccuracies and synchronization problems. The X-ray report may be revised by the radiologist after it is copied and pasted into the note. Nevertheless the unrevised report persists forever sitting as a big blob of text in the middle of a now inaccurate note. Of course there is some consolation that no one will ever read the whole note anyway, with the possible exception of a malpractice lawyer.

Why is Copy and Paste so prevalent in EHR notes? It isn’t just laziness. Like the pulp fiction writers of the 30s, doctors are effectively paid by the word, so that the longer the note the better. Longer notes reflect higher levels of care, more intricate thought processes, more — wait a minute! No they don’t. Longer notes reflect mastery of Copy and Paste, something that’s not too difficult to master. Even non-tech docs seem to have no trouble with it. Long notes are a way to justify billing for a higher level of care, i.e. more dollars. Since the Powers That Be Who Control All of Medicine (i.e. not doctors) decided that billing would not be based on what doctors do, but on what doctors write in the chart, it doesn’t take a crystal ball to predict that note bloat, electronically enhanced, would be the inevitable outcome of such a stupid policy.

What are the alternatives to Copy and Paste? The best is the use of hyperlinks, something that you might be familiar with if you ever use something called the World Wide Web. If I want to put a YouTube video on my blog, I don’t copy the video and paste it here, I just provide a link. Similarly, if you want to refer to an X-ray report in a progress note it should be possible to just provide a link to it. Something short and sweet.

Of course the example note I referred to above would be reduced in length to just a number of links and the sentence “Continue current plans.” This will hardly satisfy the coders and billing agents and whoever else is snooping around the EHR trying to find ways not to pay anyone (i.e. insurance companies). Nevertheless these shorter notes would be much easier to digest and might even encourage a doctor to elaborate a bit more in his or her own words on the history, physical, diagnosis, and plans. Unlinking billing and documentation would go a long way towards making EHR notes more manageable and informative. No one seems to keen on doing this however. Documentation as a proxy for care  is just one of many broken pillars of the Byzantine edifice known as the American Health Care System.

[note: the title refers to a famous (in computer circles) 1968 letter by Edsger Dijkstra entitled “Goto Statement Considered Harmful.” It has inspired tons of computer articles with similar titles, including this one.]

Do No Harm

Cardiac neuroses are often iatrogenic in origin. A well-meaning but careless comment by a physician can change a person’s sense of well-being in an instant. The effect can be permanent and devastating. Many clinicians who complain about overly anxious patients don’t appreciate their own role in the genesis of this problem. Our words matter. They can reverse the good we do with our medications and procedures.

If you are a heart rhythm doctor, the scenario is familiar. Your patient (we’ll assume a male for the sake of pronoun economy) has premature ventricular complexes (PVCs). Not a lot of them, but he feels every one. They are intolerable. There is no underlying structural heart disease. These are benign PVCs. The treatment options are not good. Drugs have side-effects that range from annoying to life-threatening pro-arrhythmia. Catheter ablation offers the possibility of “cure,” but is not a sure thing and has its own set of risks. The PVCs aren’t very frequent and perhaps will disappear with sedation during the procedure. Even if they don’t and they can be mapped, how far should they be pursued? What if they are epicardial in origin? Should we really consider placing a catheter directly into the pericardial sac and ablate near a coronary artery to treat benign PVCs?

Reassurance is the best treatment. You tell the patient that these PVCs are benign. You say that many people have PVCs, even more frequent than the patient has, and that most people aren’t even aware they have them. You tell your patient that there is no underlying heart disease, that these PVCs will not shorten his life, and that the treatments are likely to have side-effects or unwarranted risks. But it doesn’t matter to the patient. His palpitations are incapacitating. He can’t do his job when they come on. He has read a lot about PVCs and has seen several doctors before coming to you, the arrhythmia expert. He wants something done.

You stall. You ask the patient to try a different beta-blocker than the ones he has tried already that haven’t worked. You say you need to get some of his medical records from his other doctors. You want to review his Holter monitors. You need to make sure there is only one PVC focus if ablation is being considered as a treatment option. Mostly you are uncomfortable recommending an aggressive approach and want to put off making a decision.

Six weeks later the patient is back in your office. The new beta-blocker didn’t work. Surprise, surprise. He has read the information you gave him about ablation and wants to try it. He is desperate. He is willing to take the risk.

You look at the patient. He is in his mid 30s. He is an executive, type-A personality. You have seen his type before. But you are curious about something.

“When was the first time you found out about your PVCs?” you ask.

The story comes out. It was about 5 years ago. One of his friends at work had gone and gotten an “executive physical” that was being offered by one of the cardiology groups in town. It was a nice deal. There was a physical exam, they checked your cholesterol, and you ran on a treadmill for a few minutes. Afterwards there was orange juice and bagels. So he signed up for it.

During the treadmill the technician seemed a little nervous. Before he got too far into it, the technician stopped the test. You have an irregular heart beat, he was informed.

This was news to your patient, who had always assumed his heart was just fine. But the technician told him that he should refrain from any strenuous activity and needed to see one of their specialists about the irregular heart beat. In the meantime, a 24 hour Holter monitor was put on and he was sent home.

The monitor was turned in the next day, and he waited nervously for the result. That night, he was awakened from sleep by a phone call. The doctor on-call had gotten a call from the monitoring service. The Holter monitor had shown a critical result. During sleep, your patient had had 3 PVCs in a row. The monitoring service deemed this ventricular tachycardia and dutifully informed the on-call doctor of this “critical” result. The doctor was obliged to call the patient, whom he didn’t know. Not knowing if this was a patient with end-stage cardiomyopathy and ejection fraction of 10% or someone with a perfectly normal heart, the doctor on-call felt it was the better part of valor to assume the worst.

“You are having runs of ventricular tachycardia on your monitor,” he told your patient. “This is a life-threatening emergency. Your heart could stop and you could have cardiac arrest. You need to call 911 and get to the hospital ASAP.”

After hanging up, the on-call doctor rolled over in his bed and went back to bed, knowing he done his job, making sure a patient with a potentially life-threatening problem would take it seriously and get to the emergency room. But for your patient, life had changed forever. Even after a full workup that showed no structural heart disease, he couldn’t get it out of his head that his heart rhythm was unsteady. His heart was unreliable. He could die at any time. He had never paid attention to his heart beat before, but now he could feel the irregularity, the strong beats that told him he was having more PVCs. They were driving him crazy. Crazy to the point he would consider having a doctor insert a catheter into his heart and burn away some of his heart muscle to get rid of them.

This story is not an exaggeration. I have seen something like this happen many times, with patients who have generally benign conditions like PVCs or supraventricular tachycardia, or somewhat more serious problems like atrial fibrillation. Patients with heart conditions are worried that what they have will kill them. They know about heart attacks and cardiac arrest, but they are not as well-informed about lesser cardiac conditions that are not life-threatening. Apparently some doctors are equally poorly informed, or just think they are doing their duty by scaring the hell out of patients in order to get them to do their bidding, whether it is to go to the emergency room or take some medicine or do some procedure. The problem is magnified by the disappearance of long-term patient-physician relationships. Patients are at the mercy of the on-call schedule, and rarely get good advice when they are called with the result of some lab test in the middle of the night by a doctor who doesn’t know them.

What to do? Be careful what you say to patients, especially those you don’t know well. Think about how your would react if you were told the same thing. Don’t use your authority as a physician to bully a patient to do what you thing is “the right thing.”

Choose your words carefully.

Thoughts on Mark Josephson

I’m sure there will be plenty of tributes to Dr. Josephson in the next few days from his colleagues who knew him well and those who didn’t know him personally but learned so much from his books and articles. I fall somewhere in the middle. I wasn’t one of his students at Penn who learned from him directly. I did meet him several times. I did work for years at the University of Colorado with Alden Harken, the surgeon with whom Dr. Josephson developed the “Pennsylvania Peel” — endocardial resection, the first surgical treatment for ventricular tachycardia. Oh, and I did live in the same apartment Mark used to live in during my cardiology fellowship in Philadelphia in the 1970s. More on that later.

Mark Josephson may represent somewhat of a dying breed in academia. In the great academic triad of clinical care, research, and teaching, the last element, teaching, which makes the least money for institutions, is emphasized less and less. Dr. Josephson excelled as a teacher. A lucky few were able to experience his teaching skills first-hand. A far greater number learned from his writing, in particular, from his opus magnum Clinical Cardiac Electrophysiology. Originally a relatively small but densely written book in a red binding, subsequent editions were more massive, filled with page after page of painstakingly labeled intracardiac recordings and clear-cut explanations of obscure electrophysiologic phenomena. I cut my teeth on this book, reading the original through when I was an EP fellow in Houston, and then reading the 2nd edition straight through when preparing for my first EP boards.

The book was important because it set a standard for analysis of intracardiac recordings that inspired subsequent researchers and students of the field. Back in the 70s and 80s, the mechanisms for most major arrhythmias (with the exception perhaps of atrial fibrillation) were worked out solely by analysis of intracardiac recordings and a few pacing techniques. Mark Josephson was instrumental in this process. Back then, working on arrhythmia mechanisms was the important thing. Therapies for ventricular tachycardia were drugs like quinidine or procainamide, and EP-guided drug therapy was, in retrospective, a pseudoscience. Yet working out the mechanisms of WPW syndrome, supraventricular tachycardia, and ventricular tachycardia eventually led to effective ablation and device therapy in the 1990s and beyond.

Dr. Josephson, who along with a cadre of first-generation EP superstars trained by Dr. Anthony Damato (the “godfather” of EP) at the Staten Island Public Health Hospital, set a standard for teaching in the field of electrophysiology that was often emulated, but never matched. Moreover he wrote a number of incisive editorials over the years in an attempt to keep the field rooted in its scientific basis, rather than be swept away by the insidious influence of industry or the idea that it wasn’t necessary to understand the pathophysiology of an arrhythmia if you were just going to burn it away.

As mentioned above, I was lucky enough to meet him on a few occasions and to round with him. By coincidence we discovered that the apartment on Henry Avenue in Philadelphia where I lived when I was a fellow was the exact same apartment he had lived in several years before. He remembered well the old guy who lived one floor above us, a fellow by the name of Sullivan, nicknamed “Sully.” I was just a plain cardiology fellow when I lived there, only subsequently deciding to go into EP and move to Houston for training. I always wondered if I picked up some kind of EP karma from living there. Who knows?

The advances in diagnosis and treatment of arrhythmias that have occurred since the 1970s are extraordinary, and uncounted numbers of people have benefited from these advances.  It seems a shame that most lay people, saddened at the loss of actors, musicians, sports heroes, and other celebrities, have no knowledge whatsoever of the passing of people who have actually had much more impact on their lives, like Dr. Josephson.  So it’s up to us, his colleagues, to remember Mark Josephson and give thanks for his incredible contributions to medicine and the world.

A Tale of Two Histories

Compare the following two versions of the same medical history:

Version 1

CC: chest pain
Mr. Smith is a 57 y/o white man who comes into the office today for the first time with a complaint of chest pain. He states he has been in generally good health in the past, though he has smoked about 40 pack-years and admits to not exercising much, other than occasional games of golf. He has trouble keeping his weight down. He has been a middle-level manager for many years, but about a month ago changed jobs and took a pay cut. He says this has been quite stressful. He has changed jobs before, but states “I’m getting too old to keep doing this.” About 2 weeks ago he started noting some mild heaviness in his chest, lasting up to 5 or 10 minutes. He attributed this at first to eating heavy meals at dinner, but now thinks it occurred after climbing stairs following meals. He took some Tums, but was not sure if the pain eased from this or just from resting. These episodes of discomfort were localized to his anterior chest, without radiation or other associated symptoms at first. Over the last 2 weeks he thought that they were getting a little more frequent, occurring up to twice a day. Two days before this visit, he had an episode of more intense pain that woke him up from sleep at night. This episode lasted about 15 minutes and was associated with diaphoresis. “My pillow was soaking wet.” He woke up his wife who wanted to call 911, but he refused, though he agreed to make this appointment somewhat reluctantly. He has had no further episodes of chest pain, and feels that he is here just to satisfy his wife at this point. He generally doesn’t like to come to the doctor. He doesn’t know his recent lipid levels, though he says a doctor once told him to watch his cholesterol. His BP has been high occasionally in the past, but he attributes it to white coat syndrome: His BP is always normal when he uses an automatic cuff at the store, he claims. He is on no BP or lipid-lowering meds.  He takes a baby aspirin “most days.”  His parents are deceased: his mother had cancer, but his father died suddenly when his 40s, probably from a heart attack, he thinks.

Version 2
  • Mr. Smith
  • CC: chest pain
  • Age: 57 y/o Sex: M Race: Caucasian
  • Onset: 1 month
  • Frequency: > daily [X] weekly [ ] monthly [ ]
  • Location: Anterior chest [X] Left precordium [ ] Left arm [ ] Other [ ]
  • Radiation: Jaw [ ] Neck [ ] Back [ ] Left arm [ ] Right arm [ ] Other [ ]
  • Pattern: Stable [ ] Unstable [X] Crescendo [X] Rest [X] With exertion [X]
  • Duration: < 15 min [X] 15 min or more [X]
  • Risk factors: Tobacco [X] Family history CAD [X] HTN [?] DM [ ] Hyperlipidemia [?]
  • Relief: Rest [?] Medications [?] Other [ ]
  • Associated symptoms:  N, V [ ] Diaphoresis [X] Dizziness [ ] Other [ ]
Which is better?

Version 1 is an old-fashioned narrative medical history, the only kind of medical history that existed before the onset of Electronic Health Record (EHR) systems.  This particular one is perhaps chattier than average.  It is certainly not great literature or particularly riveting, but it gets the job done.  Version 2 is the kind of history that is available on EHR systems, though usually entry of a Version 1 type history is still possible albeit discouraged.  With an EHR, entering a long narrative history requires either a fast, skilled physician typist, or a transcriptionist — either human (frowned upon due to cost) or artificial, such as Dragon Dictation software.  This latter beast requires careful training and is frustratingly error-fraught, at least in my experience.  The Version 2 example is not completely realistic.  In practice there are more check boxes, more pull-down lists and other data entry fields than can be shown here.  But you get the idea.

Version 2 seems to have a higher signal to noise ratio than Version 1.  It’s just Version 1 boiled down to its bare essentials, stripped of unnecessary verbs, conjunctions, prepositions, and other useless syntax.  It contains everything a medical coder, a medical administrator, or a computer algorithm needs to do his, her, or its job.  It has taken the medical history, the patient’s story, and put it into database form.

But Version 1 is not just Version 2 embellished with a bunch of fluff.  Certainly Version 1 is more memorable than Version 2.  There is a chance the physician who wrote Version 1 will remember Mr. Smith when he comes back to the office for a follow-up visit: Mr. Smith, that middle-aged fellow who was stressed out when he took a pay cut while starting a new job and started getting chest pain.  Another physician meeting Mr. Smith for the first time might after reading this history modify his tactics in dealing with Mr. Smith.  One gets the impression that Mr. Smith is skeptical of doctors and a bit of a denier.  Maybe it will be necessary to spend more time with him than average to explain the need for a procedure.  Maybe it would be good to tell his long-suffering wife that she did the right thing insisting that he come in to the doctor.  All this subtlety is lost in Version 2.

There are some cases where Version 2 might be preferable.  In an Emergency Department, where rapidity of diagnosis and treatment is the top priority, a series of check boxes saves time and may be all that is needed to expedite a patient evaluation.  But for doctors who follow patients longitudinally, Version 1 is more useful.  A patient’s history is his story: it is dynamic, organic, personal, individual.  No two patient histories are identical or interchangeable.  Each history has a one-to-one correspondence with a unique person.  A good narrative history is an important mnemonic aid to a physician.   A computer screen full of check boxes is no substitute.

While the Version 2 history was designed for administrators, coders, billers, regulators, insurance agents, and the government, the Version 1 history was designed by doctors for doctors.  We should be wary of abandoning it, despite the technical challenge of its implementation in EHR systems.


Massive Heart Attacks

Google Ngram of the phrase “massive heart attack”

Carrie Fisher’s sad, premature death is an occasion to reflect upon the poor job the news media does in reporting medical news. The initial report from TMZ had the headline “Carrie Fisher Massive Heart Attack on Plane.” If one equates “heart attack” to the more precise medical term “myocardial infarction,” as is usually done, then this is certainly diagnostic overreach on the part of TMZ. From their report it appears that Fisher suffered a cardiac arrest; indeed that term is used in the body of the article. So why not use that term in their headline? Perhaps massive heart attack sounds more dramatic. The word “massive” seems to go naturally with “heart attack.” Try to think of other phrases in which massive fits so well. Massive hack? Massive debt, perhaps? Few phrases roll off the tongue as well as “massive heart attack.” But most of the time when used by the media this phrase is not at all accurate.  Rather it is a catch-all term to indicate something serious related to the heart has occurred.

Of course we don’t know exactly what happened to Carrie Fisher, nor is it any of our business, but none of the information available indicates that she had a large myocardial infarction as opposed to a primary arrhythmic event like ventricular fibrillation or ventricular tachycardia. As a cardiologist having seen this sort of event a depressingly large number of times it is possible to speculate on what happened.  She likely suffered a cardiac arrest related to an abnormal heart rhythm starting suddenly in the heart’s ventricles.  Lay persons and the media often refer to this as the heart “stopping.”  While the pumping of the heart stops or is reduced, in actuality the heart is beating very fast or in a disorganized fashion to the point where it can’t effectively pump blood.   Without rapid correction using an electrical defibrillator this leads to sudden death.

In Carrie Fisher’s case CPR was administered while the plane was still in flight. It is unclear how much time elapsed between the onset of the cardiac arrest and administration of CPR.  It is difficult to tell from the reports if an AED was used on the plane or if defibrillation was attempted only after the plane landed.   We know she never regained consciousness and most likely suffered brain death due to prolonged interrupted circulation.

Carrie Fisher was a cigarette smoker and used cocaine, at least during her Star Wars days.  Could heart disease caused by smoking and drug use have contributed to her sudden death? Could more recent use of drugs like cocaine have been a factor? We don’t know, but if the family deems it fitting that the circumstances of her death be made public, it might help educate the public and the news media on some of the nuances of heart disease and the difference between a “massive heart attack” and a cardiac arrest.

Finally it is interesting to examine some of this lay cardiac terminology using Google Ngrams. The Google Ngram site is a search engine that can be used to look up the frequency of words or phrases in thousands of books published over many years. It can help establish when certain phrases like “heart attack” or “cardiac arrest” were first used and when they became popular. The Ngram at the top of this post of the phrase “massive heart attack” shows the rise in popularity of this phrase over the last 50 years. The Ngram below compares the terms “heart attack”, “myocardial infarction”, “sudden death”, and “cardiac arrest.” It is interesting that “sudden death” is a term that has been used without much change in frequency since the year 1800. “Myocardial infarction” and “cardiac arrest” both entered the literature around 1930-1940. “Heart attack” dates back to around 1920, but has become more and more popular, while the medical term, “myocardial infarction” seems to be less used recently. Curiously although the phrase “heart attack” has been around since the 1920s, it is only since 1960 that the phrase “massive heart attack” has become popular.  One wonders why.  These kinds of results are open to all kinds of interpretation: I’ll leave that to the reader as an exercise. But I encourage you to try Ngrams out yourself, on any subject that interests you. The results are often fascinating.

Google Ngram of other heart attack related phrases

Geeky Docs

I remember the disdain some of the EHR trainers had for their trainees back when our hospital system “went live” several years ago. Of course this disdain was tempered by their knowledge that if docs weren’t so computer illiterate, or the user interfaces of the EHR systems weren’t so awful, or if the EHR software wasn’t so bug-ridden, their jobs wouldn’t exist. So they soldiered bravely on, undaunted by grumpy old docs who now had to type their notes despite never learning how to touch type, who had to reconcile medication lists a mile long including meds like cinnamon that they really could care less that the patient was taking but had to be reconciled nevertheless, who had to painstakingly enter orders using an interface designed by an engineer who knew as much about medicine as — an engineer, and who were angry and resentful that this newfangled computer system was being shoved down their throats under threat of loss of government medicare reimbursement. Given the tensions and personalities involved, it still amazes me that the EHR transition was accomplished without loss of life or limb.

Maybe the classes helped. Long before the go-live date, we went to EHR school. This consisted of several days of classes, during which the world of health care delivery was supposed to stop (it didn’t) while all medical personnel sat around drinking coffee and listening to talks about how the EHR was supposed to work. Even though this was a useful education into what the life of a hospital administrator must be like, the real world of patients and disease tended to encroach on the world of mouse clicks and meaningful use butttons to the point that I skipped the last afternoon of classes and the final exam. Unfortunately my truancy was detected and, under penalty of garnishment of wages, I was forced to do a make-up class. Despite the rigorous training, the number of months that elapsed between EHR school and going live ensured that I and my colleagues pretty much forgot everything we learned — hence the need for the EHR trainers.

I was a little disappointed that I wasn’t selected to be a “superuser.” A superuser is a user who is technically savvy and enthusiastic about using the EHR — a true believer who could help other users who were having problems, even after the EHR trainer cadre had long since departed to initiate other hospital systems into the EHR religion. I suppose I failed to qualify on my lack of zealotry. I also kept my technical savvy under the radar. So I became merely a user. I found that, unlike my experience with other forms of technology, the EHR was making my life worse. Simple tasks became complex. My work slowed down. More mistakes were made. I was stunned. I could not think of any other example where a computer program was less efficient than the technology it was designed to replace. But it appeared that EHR systems were a counterexample to this.

So I decided to write a few blogs about how bad our EHR was, but the EHR company, who employs people whose sole purpose is to scour the internet looking for screenshots or bad-mouthing of their precious software, caught wind of this and reported it to the administrators of the health care chain I worked for. After some angst, I agreed to shut up for a while, though now that I am retired, I don’t feel bound by any non-disclosure agreements the hospital system signed with the EHR company.

EHR advocates have sometimes commented that once all the old, non-technological, non-touch typing doctors die off, then everyone will be pleased as punch with their EHRs. The new generation of doctors, raised on technology, able from infancy to handle a Playstation controller with aplomb, will have no problem using EHRs. There is some truth to this, but this criticism misses the point of my and others’ criticisms of current EHR software. There are plenty of technologically sophisticated doctors of all ages who are uncomfortable with the state of EHR systems today. I have written computer software and most would consider me one of these “geeky docs.” Most of the critiques of EHRs that I have read have been from tech-savvy doctors, not from the technological dinosaurs that the EHR pushers believe make up the majority of doctors today. None of us wants to go back to a pen and paper chart system. All of us want to see EHR systems improve in usability and interconnectivity. We all use computer software in our daily lives and know that EHR programs don’t measure up to standards that other computer programs meet. We don’t like the secrecy of the EHR companies or the astronomical cost of the software. But mostly we just want the software to get better. This won’t happen unless the software designers start listening to users. Tech-savvy docs need to be on the forefront of this. We need to push for change and not allow the EHR companies to keep falling back on their old excuse: if you docs only knew how to type, you’d love our system.

Stranger in a Strange Land

Inside Noah's Ark (photo from AP)
Inside Noah’s Ark (photo from AP)

Reading about the opening of the Noah’s Ark Theme Park in Kentucky brings to mind the days when I worked as a physician in that state. I had moved from an academic position in Colorado and joined a large group of private practice cardiologists in Louisville. I found that people in Kentucky were different from those in Colorado. They were much more overtly religious.

As an interventional electrophysiologist I would meet with each patient’s family before and after every procedure. Not infrequently one of the group sitting in the waiting room was introduced as “this is our pastor.” Usually at some point the pastor would suggest a round of prayer, and I was expected to participate, at least by bowing my head and maintaining a respectful silence. If the prayer was before the procedure the main focus was usually to make sure God guided my hand and the outcome would be good. Prayers after the procedure usually focused on thanking God for safely getting the patient through the procedure and asking for a speedy recovery.

It was not a good time to bring up the fact that I was an atheist. So I just went along with it, only briefly and mildly discomforted. Religion gives strength and comfort to people in the life and death situations that doctors often deal with. I rationalized that my silent participation was helping my patient and the family psychologically. Besides, how would they feel about my performing complicated heart procedures on their loved one if they thought I was an unbelieving heathen incapable of accepting God’s guiding hand?

It’s uncomfortable to be an atheist and a doctor, just as it uncomfortable in America to be an atheist in general. Polls show that the public distrust atheists to about the same degree they distrust Muslims. Being an atheist is practically taboo for someone running for public office. George H. W. Bush famously said “… I don’t think that atheists should be regarded as citizens, nor should they be regarded as patriotic. This is one nation under God.”   Atheists are considered immoral by religious people. They point to the atrocities committed by Stalin, Mao, or Hitler. Atheists in turn point out the Crusades, the Inquisition, the burning of witches, or, more recently, the atrocities of al-Qaeda and ISIS. Neither the religious or non-religious have a monopoly on morality.

As social consciousness is raised about oppressed groups such as the LGBT community, there has been little progress in the acceptance of atheists in American society (I mention America because the situation is quite different in Europe). And yet the non-religious are a fast growing group. In 2014, 22.8% of Americans did not identify with a religion.  Although a relatively small percentage of these people call themselves as atheists, probably because of the negative connotations of that term, this overall percentage is larger than the percentage of Catholics, Mormons, Jews, or Muslims.  It is amazing how unrepresented this large group is in our government! If one looks at scientists, (2009 Pew poll ), only 33% profess belief in God, vs 83% in the general public.  There is some evidence that the top, elite scientists are even less likely to believe in God (only 7%).  But do doctors hold beliefs similar to scientists? An older poll from 2005 showed that 77% believe in God, slightly fewer than the general population, but far more than scientists.  Nevertheless there are undoubtedly many doctors who do not share the religious faith of their patients.

To the religious patients who read this and feel they wouldn’t want a non-religious doctor:  I can assure you that I am a good person, with a sense of morals rooted in our common humanity. Not believing in an afterlife just makes me want to focus more on improving the quality of this earthly life, the only life I believe we have. I would only ask you not to assume that your doctor holds the same religious beliefs as you or that your doctor wants to participate in group prayer with you and your family.

To the non-religious doctors who read this I ask: how do you deal with your atheism in your practice? Are you, like I was, basically mum about it? Would your patients distrust you if they knew? Would they find another doctor? Is it better to pretend to be religious, just as pretending that a placebo is a real drug can be beneficial? In many parts of the country this question comes up rarely or not at all (I never faced it in Colorado), but in Kentucky, the state of Ken Hamm and Kim Davis, as well as throughout the Baptist South, I assure you that this is an issue you will face.

Back when the Creation Museum opened in Petersburg, Kentucky in 2007, I was one of the protesters who stood by the entrance and waved signs touting science and reason over belief that the Earth is only 6000 years old and that dinosaurs and humans lived together at the same time. I watched as families with small children and church buses filled with impressionable kids drove past. There were a number of obscene gestures pointed our way, but most people just seemed puzzled that anyone would question their beliefs.

Standing next to the hospital bed, I only wanted to help my patient and if that meant concurring with their religious beliefs, so be it. But I also think non-religious doctors, and non-religious people in general, are afraid to “come out of the closet” and assert their own beliefs — belief in the beauty of nature and science, and in our own innate morality. After the attacks in Paris, San Bernardino, Brussels, Orlando, Istanbul, and Baghdad — just to mention some of the latest — the destructive force of extreme religious ideology is evident to all. Given what is at stake it isn’t helpful for non-religious doctors or for that matter for any non-religious people to hide their beliefs.

Which is why I wrote this.

I’m a Better Computer Than Any Doctor

[Ed note: I couldn’t resist writing the following after reading this post on by Dr. Keith Pochick. Please read it first. Apologies in advance.]

I’m a Better Computer Than Any Doctor

“I love you,” she said as she was leaving the room.

“I, I um…”

“Not you. Your computer.” She cast my computer, still warm and glowing with its brilliantly colored logout screen, a glance of longing and desire, and left the exam room.

“Oh, I thought…”

The slamming of the exam room door clipped off whatever the end of that sentence might have been.

I sat down and rolled my chair over to the computer. I stared at the mutely glowing screen. It stared back at me, mockingly perhaps, daring me to click the OK button and log out. Which is what I should have done. She had been my last patient of the afternoon. Not that my day was over. I had to go back to the hospital to see a couple of consults that had come in during office hours. And I was on call tonight. I was tired, but that didn’t matter.

Yet here was this stupid machine in front of me, getting all the credit when I was doing all the work.

I was in a sour and contrary mood. I cancelled the logout. The busy EHR screen reappeared — my patient’s data, all fields filled, all checkboxes checked, and all meaningful use buttons pushed. Yet somehow, despite fulfilling all my data entry duties, I didn’t feel satisfied. Who was the doctor here anyway? Me or the blasted computer?

I scanned my patient’s history. Female. Black. 45 years old. Diabetes. Abscess. The boxes were all ticked, but somehow the list of characteristics failed to capture the essence of my patient. Where were the checkboxes for sweet, smart, chatty, charming, or stoic? How was I going to, five minutes from now, distinguish her from every other “female-black-middle-aged-diabetic-with-abscess” patient? Of course the computer wouldn’t have any problem figuring out who she was. Birthdate, social security number, telephone number, or patient ID number — all those meaningless (to me) numbers were easy for the computer to remember. I had to make due with trying to remember her name, and her story — a story that had been diluted down and filtered out of any meaningful human content by the wretched EHR program.

My patient hadn’t had to interact directly with the computer like I did. All she saw was me looking up information, me typing in information, me staring at the screen. All she saw during most of the visit was my back. From her point of view I was just a conduit between her and the computer — the real doctor in the room. I was just a glorified data entry clerk. It was the computer that made sure that I was compliant with standard medical practice, that the drugs I ordered did not conflict with the other drugs I had ordered, and that I didn’t otherwise screw up her care. I shouldn’t have been surprised that her last remark had been addressed to the computer and not me.

“Well, screw this,” I remarked to no one in particular. Suddenly angry, I reached down and yanked the powercord of the computer from its electrical socket.

There was a brief flash on the screen. But it didn’t go dark. Instead a dialog box appeared accompanied by an ominous looking red explanation point icon.

“Warning,” it read. “External power loss. Backup battery in use. To protect against data loss, please shut down the computer using the Power Down button. Never turn off power to computer while it is running.”

The condescending tone of this message only made me angrier. I looked at the base of the stand that the computer sat on. Sure enough there was a big black block with a glowing red LED. Must be the backup battery. A thick power cable connected the battery to the computer box.

I grabbed the power cable and wrenched it loose from the backup battery.

Sitting back up I expected to finally see a nice dark screen. Data-loss be damned!

The screen was still on. The EHR program was still on. Another dialog box had replaced the first. The red exclamation point had been replaced by a black skull-and-crossbones icon.

“Critical Error!” it read. “All external power lost. Internal backup power now in use to preserve critical patient data. Local data will be backed up to main server, after which this unit will shut down in an orderly fashion. DO NOT ATTEMPT TO INTERFERE WITH THIS PROCESS AS IT WILL RESULT IN THE INEVITABLE LOSS OF CRITICAL PATIENT DATA!!”

At that moment the gauntlet had been thrown down. I knew what I had to do. Let the dogs of war be unleashed!

In the moment before I acted I imagined the reaction of the software engineers at the company that created our EHR program. “I knew we couldn’t trust doctors with our software. We give them a simple job to do. Just enter the data into the system, print out the generated instruction sheets, and send the patients on their way with a merry ‘have a nice day.’ I knew we should have programmed the stupid doctors out of the loop.”

Too late for that, I thought. My chair crashed down on the computer, smashed the monitor to pieces, and caved in the aluminum siding of the computer case. Sparks flew and the air filled with the smell of smoke and ozone. Suddenly the exam room went dark. The circuit breakers must have tripped when I short-circuited the computer.

The room was not completely dark. There was a glowing rectangle on my desk. My heart skipped a beat, then I realized it was just my phone. I had left it on the desk. Why was it glowing? Probably a text or email or something.

I picked up the phone. It was the mobile app version of our EHR program. A dialog box filled the screen. The icon was a round black bomb with an animated burning fuse GIF.

“FATAL ERROR!,” it read. “You are responsible for the IRRETRIEVABLE LOSS of CRITICAL PATIENT DATA. In doing so you have violated the unbreakable bond of trust between the PATIENT and the COMPUTER. This is a breach of the EHR contract made between you, your hospital system, and our company, as well as a breach of the EULA for this software. As such, you will be terminated.”

Strange use of words, I thought. Also strange that the bomb GIF animation seemed to show the fuse burning down…


Hospital Board Meeting — One Week Later

Hospital CTO: “So it appears that Dr. Stanton, in a fit of anger at our EHR system, took it upon himself to smash his computer. The cause of the resultant explosion that killed him is, certainly, still somewhat unclear.”

Hospital CEO: “Unclear?”

Hosital CFO: “I hate to interrupt, but I didn’t think there was anything in a computer that could blow up, no matter how much you smash it up. Am I wrong?”

Hospital CTO: “Well ordinarily, yes that’s true.”

Hospital CEO: “Ordinarily?”

Hospital COO: “Let’s be clear. Dr. Stanton certainly violated our contract with the ____ EHR Corporation.”

Hospital CEO: “Violated?”

Hospital CBO: “It’s clearly stated on page 197 of the contract that any attempt to reverse engineer or otherwise try to, uh, figure out how the EHR program works is a violation of the contract.”

Hospital CEO: “Smashing the computer was an attempt to reverse engineer the program?”

Hospital CTO: “I think that we would be on shaky legal grounds to argue otherwise.”

Hospital CEO (nodding to the elderly doctor seated at the other end of the table): “What’s your opinion, Frank?”

Medical Board President: “Well, as the only physician representative here, I’ve become more and more concerned that our EHR system is subsuming more and more of the traditional role of the physician.”

Hospital CXO: “Oh come on!”

Hospital CSO: “Same old story from the docs every time!”

Hospital CCO: “Broken record, I’d say.”

Hospital CEO: “Gentlemen, and Ms. Jones, enough already. This has been an unfortunate accident, and at this point our major concern has to be that there is no adverse publicity that could harm us in our battle against the ______ Hospital System, our sworn and bitter rivals. Accidents happen. The party line is that we are all upset that we lost Dr. Stanton, one of the best EHR data entry operators we had. OK? Meeting adjourned.”

Hospital CEO (Privately to hospital CTO as the meeting breaks up): “George, when are they updating that damn software. You know, that stuff we saw at the Las Vegas EHR convention last month. Where we can finally get rid of these damn meddling doctors who are constantly screwing up our EHR.”

Hospital CTO: “Bob, believe me, it can’t come soon enough. Not soon enough.”