Monday, July 25, 2016

Giving it away: philanthropy and medicine

My wife and I aim to give about 10 percent of our pre-tax income to charity each year. Much of this amount goes to our church, which struggles to make ends meet despite being situated in a rapidly gentrifying area of Washington, DC. We divide the remainder between a variety of causes, such as historical preservation efforts, summer programs for poor kids, and education and leadership programs for young family physicians. Historically, we have allocated a very small fraction of our charitable contributions to our college, graduate, and medical school alma maters (Harvard, Johns Hopkins, and NYU for me; Cornell, Cornell, and Stony Brook for her), and then generally give directly to student organizations, such as the Big Red Marching Band and the Phillips Brooks House Association. It isn't that we don't have fond memories of attending these schools or don't appreciate the education we received there, but in our view they have deeper pockets than almost every other organization that asks for our financial support.

Two recent episodes of Malcolm Gladwell's "Revisionist History" podcast provided more convincing arguments against making big donations to top ranked universities. Gladwell made headlines last year with an Twitter rant criticizing hedge fund manager John Paulson's $400 million donation to Harvard (whose endowment at that time was valued at more than $36 billion). In "Food Fight," Gladwell compared the funding priorities of Bowdoin and Vassar, two small Northeast liberal arts colleges that appear pretty similar on the surface. One notable difference is that cafeteria food at Bowdoin is gourmet dining, while Vassar's is mediocre at best. Using public information sources and interviews with staff and students at both colleges, Gladwell drilled down to a major reason for this dining disparity: Vassar devotes more of its endowment income to financial aid in order to increase the social and economic diversity of its student body. If you're a wealthy individual who wants to advance social justice, Gladwell argued, choose Vassar over Bowdoin and supporting education for poor students over serving the rich breakfasts of eggplant parmesan pancakes.

Then, in "My Little Hundred Million," Gladwell explored the phenomenon of philanthropists such as Nike's Phil Knight choosing to give hundreds of millions of dollars to private universities that educate the elite rather than public universities who reach many more students of modest means. Gladwell included excerpts from an almost comical discussion with Stanford president John Hennessy, who accepted a $400 million donation from Knight to endow a graduate program for 100 students per year, even though Stanford's endowment is $22 billion. In comparison, a $100 million donation to little-known Glassboro State College (now Rowan University) in New Jersey in the 1990s transformed opportunities for 16,000 students each year and inspired this moving a cappella tribute from students after their benefactor's death.



As I've written before, hospitals and health care organizations are similar to institutions of higher education in that both have skyrocketing costs, little transparency, and few objective measures of quality. They are also alike in that they rely on philanthrophy to supplement the income they receive from patients/students and insurers/lenders. Famous cancer centers have turned fundraising into an art form, too often relying on emotion rather than fact to attract patients and donors. But just because it may be more attractive to donate to the Memorial Sloan-Ketterings and their associated academic institutions doesn't mean that they should be receiving an outsized share of my or your charitable dollars. Especially since we know that U.S. News top ranked (and well funded) medical schools end up near the bottom of the heap when ranked according to their social mission: the percentage of graduates who practice primary care, work in health professional shortage areas, and are underrepresented minorities. Similarly, a disproportionate amount of Medicare's $10 billion per year graduate medical education subsidy goes to institutions that train few primary care physicians or clinicians who practice in underserved areas.

Dear Mr. Paulson, Mr. Knight, Mr. Buffet, Mr. Gates, do you want to improve health outcomes in America? Then write a big check to John Peter Smith Hospital in Fort Worth, Texas, #6 on the list of producers of primary care graduates that received a modest $4.5 million from Medicare in 2008. Or Banner - University Medical Center in Phoenix, Arizona, #15 on the list. (Both institutions, not coincidentally, have outstanding family medicine residency programs.) Don't worry about my alma mater NYU, whose hospitals received more than $55 million from Medicare in 2008 but ranked #156 in primary care production. Or Memorial Sloan-Kettering, for that matter, which ranked #158 out of #158 primary teaching sites with at least 150 graduates - dead last.

Saturday, July 16, 2016

The best recent posts you may have missed

Every few months, I post a list of my top 5 favorite posts since the preceding "best of" list on this blog, for those of you who have only recently started reading Common Sense Family Doctor or don't read it regularly. Here are my favorites from April through June:

2) Addressing the social determinants of pain (4/4/16)

3) From precision medicine to community vital signs (6/1/16)

4) Obstacles to stopping cancer screening in older adults (4/26/16)

5) Does convenience outweigh continuity of care? (5/23/16)

If you have a personal favorite that isn't on this list, please let me know. Thank you for reading!

Monday, July 11, 2016

A family physician's favorite podcasts

Four days out of the week, my round-trip commute to my academic or clinical offices averages between 60 and 90 minutes (the other day I typically telework). That's between 4 and 6 hours I previously spent listening to the same songs over and over on the radio, until I belatedly discovered podcasts. Aside from a few sports and television-themed podcasts, most entries on my regular listening list relate to topics covered on Common Sense Family Doctor, and occasionally provide inspiration for future posts.

History

BackStory with the American History Guys
The Civil War (1861-1865): A History Podcast
Radiolab Presents: More Perfect
Revisionist History

Health policy and current events

Health Affairs: Events
Intersections
POLITICO's Pulse Check
This American Life
Wait Wait ... Don't Tell Me!
Vox's The Weeds

Prevention and fitness

Human Race
The Runner's World Show

Clinical and academic medicine

Academic Medicine Podcast Series
AFP: American Family Physician Podcast
Hidden Brain
Public Health Behind the Scenes
Signal

Sunday, July 3, 2016

New USPSTF colorectal cancer recs may risk overscreening

In 2008, the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force recommended routinely screening adults aged 50 to 75 years for colorectal cancer using fecal immunochemical testing (FIT), flexible sigmoidoscopy, or colonoscopy. At that time, it did not endorse two newer strategies, computed tomographic (CT) colonography and fecal DNA testing. But data from the National Health Interview Survey indicated that in 2013, only 60 percent of non-Hispanic white adults in the target age group was up-to-date on one of the three recommended colorectal cancer screening tests, with lower percentages for ethnic and racial minorities. Proponents of CT colonography and fecal DNA testing argued that more widespread insurance coverage of these "noninvasive" tests could potentially increase screening rates.

Last month, JAMA published a USPSTF-commissioned systematic review of more recent studies and an analytic modeling study that compared the effects of different screening tests and strategies. The Task Force's updated recommendation statement said to screen adults aged 50 to 75 years, but expressed no clear preference about the "best" test or tests. A Figure that accompanied the statement showed that assuming perfect adherence, each screening strategy produces a similar number of life-years gained, with a colonoscopy-first strategy predictably leading to more total colonoscopies and procedure-related harms. Rather than recommending that eligible patients undergo a specific test, the USPSTF advised:

Given the lack of evidence from head-to-head comparative trials that any of the screening strategies have a greater net benefit than the others, clinicians should consider engaging patients in informed decision making about the screening strategy that would most likely result in completion, with high adherence over time, taking into consideration both the patient’s preferences and local availability.

Shared decision making is all well and good, but I am concerned about the communication challenges of expanding my standard discussion of colorectal cancer screening options from FIT versus colonoscopy (since physicians in my area no longer perform flexible sigmoidoscopy for colorectal cancer screening) to choosing between FIT, fecal DNA, CT colonography, and colonoscopy. I wish that the Task Force had provided more practical guidance about how primary care physicians can help individual patients select the "best" test for them.

Surprisingly for a group that typically has required the highest degree of evidence to justify an "A" rating, the USPSTF did not emphasize stool guaiac testing and flexible sigmoidoscopy, the only screening strategies that have reduced colorectal cancer deaths in randomized controlled trials. Earlier this year, the Canadian Task Force on Preventive Health Care did not recommend screening colonoscopy because it had not met that standard. (As Dr. Rita Redberg wrote in an editorial published in JAMA Internal Medicine, "It would be interesting to know how many patients would undergo colonoscopy if they knew that there were no data to suggest that this procedure results in longer life.")

Finally, although the USPSTF reiterated that it "does not recommend routine screening for colorectal cancer in adults age 86 years and older," it omitted its previous "D" (don't do) recommendation against this unnecessary and potentially harmful practice. I think that this was a mistake. Plenty of octo- and nonagenarians still receive colorectal cancer screening tests; in a 2015 editorialAmerican Family Physician editor Jay Siwek related his 90 year-old father-in-law's complications from a "routine" colonoscopy as an example of the harms caused by overscreening. The best test isn't only the one that gets done, but gets done in a patient who has a chance of benefiting from that test.

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This post first appeared on the AFP Community Blog.

Friday, June 24, 2016

Should divided guideline panels publish minority views?

When I give presentations on the guideline development process of the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force, a question I'm often asked is how many votes of the 16-member panel are needed to approve a recommendation statement. The answer is a two-thirds majority, with a minimum of 10 votes in favor in case of absences or conflict-of-interest recusals. In reality, though, during the four years I attended Task Force meetings, I can't recall a statement passing without overwhelming (15-1 or 14-2) or, more commonly, unanimous support. The feeling among members seemed to be that the lack of a strong consensus on a recommendation suggested that there was something missing about the way they were approaching the evidence.

In contrast, since the vacancy created by the death of associate justice Antonin Scalia, the Supreme Court of the United States has issued several evenly split decisions, with their most recent tie effectively affirming a lower court decision that blocked President Obama's 2014 executive order to shield some undocumented immigrants from deportation. In this case, the Court issued no opinion at all. However, when majorities have decided other cases, the Court provided justices in the minority the option of publishing dissenting opinions, whose legal reasoning sometimes informed future decisions.

Minority opinions rarely accompany medical guidelines. In an unusual case, after the JNC 8 committee published its guideline for management of high blood pressure in adults, five former panel members who disagreed with the guideline's target systolic blood pressure of 150 mm Hg in persons aged 60 years or older formally published their minority view. Even then, this dissenting report appeared some time later, in a different journal than the original guideline.

In a recent article in Mayo Clinic Proceedings, Dr. Daniel Musher, a professor of medicine and infectious diseases at Baylor College of Medicine, made the case for regularly publishing dissenting opinions in medical guidelines. He cited his experience as a member of the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP) working group that recommended the use of 13-valent pneumococcal conjugate vaccine (PCV13) in adults 65 years and older, despite his strong disagreement. As is standard process for the ACIP and most guideline panels, he did not have the opportunity to voice his dissenting opinion and rationale in the text of the guideline. His view did not see publication until more than 18 months later, after the new recommendation had been largely implemented into clinical practice. Dr. Musher wrote:

The perceived problems with publishing dissenting opinions are that this practice would (1) cause confusion within the medical community and (2) diminish the force of the recommendations. Regarding the former, the current situation, in which dissent is not included but in which subsequent articles dispute the formal recommendations or different professional societies publish divergent guidelines, is amply confusing—witness the differing guidelines for screening for breast, lung, or prostate cancer. It defies reason to believe that every member of the American Cancer Society's committee thought that breast cancer screening should begin at age 40 years, whereas all who participated in the US Preventive Services Task Force agreed that screening should wait until age 50 years. Inclusion of dissenting opinions in the final version of published guidelines may well have reduced polarization and confusion by bringing dissent into the recommendation process.


I can't testify to the presence or absence of internal discord on the panels that produced the 2015 ACS or 2016 USPSTF guidelines on breast cancer screening, but my best recollection of the July 2008 meeting where the USPSTF first voted to recommend routine mammography starting at age 50 is that, contrary to Dr. Musher's suggestion, there was no minority view. When there is one, I agree with him and the Slow Medicine bloggers that making a forum available to describe conflicts that occurred within the guideline narrative (including all of the various options that were considered and later discarded) could reduce the intensity of second-guessing and better inform clinicians about the guideline's nuances and potential limitations. Now that I have experience as a voting member of American Academy of Family Physicians guideline panels, though, I wonder if the explication of dissents belongs in the guideline itself, rather than as a separate stand-alone perspective.

Would the airing of minority views within medical guidelines provide useful perspectives for patients, clinicians, or policymakers, or are conflicting guidelines from different organizations already confusing enough as it is?

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Steroids for severe community-acquired pneumonia: ready for prime time?

A generation ago, one of the major controversies in treatment of infectious diseases was whether or not to prescribe early adjunctive corticosteroids in addition to antibiotics for AIDS patients with presumed pneumocystis pneumonia. Advocates of steroids argued that they would improve outcomes by reducing the body's damaging inflammatory response, but opponents expressed concerns that further suppressing an already impaired immune system could increase the risk for other opportunistic infections. The advocates turned out to be right, as summarized in a 1990 National Institutes of Health consensus statement and this more recent FPIN Clinical Inquiry based on a Cochrane review of six randomized controlled trials that showed decreased mortality in patients receiving steroids.

The debate occurring today is whether steroids benefit patients with severe community-acquired pneumonia (CAP) from other causes. Commenting on a 2015 meta-analysis of 12 trials published in the Annals of Internal Medicine, Dr. Marcos Restrepo and colleagues asserted that it was "time to change clinical practice" and routinely use steroids in patients with severe CAP, with the major research question being how to identify these patients accurately and efficiently. On the other hand, the authors of the Medicine By The Numbers on this topic in the June 1st issue of American Family Physician felt that the supporting evidence was less definitive:

No large, multicenter, methodologically rigorous trials on this topic have been published, making results inconclusive. Small trials like the ones included [in the
Annals review] have significant potential to exaggerate effects, suggesting that large, well-designed trials have the potential to override the findings.

In exchange for 1 in 29 patients developing transient hyperglycemia due to steroids, 1 in 20 avoided mechanical ventilation, 1 in 16 avoided acute respiratory distress syndrome, and there was a nonsignficant trend toward mortality reduction. Drs. Jonathan Fu and Gary Green concluded that "improvements in two patient-oriented outcomes, and no major patient-oriented harms established thus far suggest it may be reasonable to use corticosteroids in patients with CAP while awaiting further data."

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This post first appeared on the AFP Community Blog.