Monday, February 27, 2017

What if We Hypothesized Instead of Diagnosed?

The 19th century Romantic poet John Keats was also trained as a physician.  And it's his definition of a "man of achievement" that gives Arabella Simpkin and Richard Schwartzstein their jumping off point in a fascinating essay in the New England Journal of Medicine.  Wrote Keats regarding the necessary quality of such a person: "...when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason."

How many physicians do you know who would agree with that sentiment?

Simpkin and Schwartzstein go on to make a noble and necessary argument for the place of uncertainty in modern medical practice.  While the proposal is made for the entirety of the profession and the full span of specialties, I was struck by the applicability of the argument to chronic pain management, specifically.
Too often, we focus on transforming a patient’s gray-scale narrative into a black-and-white diagnosis that can be neatly categorized and labeled. The unintended consequence — an obsession with finding the right answer, at the risk of oversimplifying the richly iterative and evolutionary nature of clinical reasoning — is the very antithesis of humanistic, individualized patient-centered care.
This is how non-specific low back pain turns into a 15 year old work comp claim.

The authors make several recommendations, each of which targets the very heart of medical education and clinical practice culture.  We need to cease viewing uncertainty as a threat, but rather embrace it as part of the iterative nature of care.  We need to move away from multiple choice tests in medical education that require definitive answers and instead focus on evaluating medical students' tolerance for uncertainty and ability to posit based on incomplete information.

Perhaps the most daunting recommendation they make, though, is the idea of moving away from concept of diagnosis and instead focusing doctor-patient conversations on the concept of hypothesis.
We can speak about “hypotheses” rather than “diagnoses,” thereby changing the expectations of both patients and physicians and facilitating a shift in culture. This shift may entail discussing uncertainty directly with patients, intentionally reflecting on its origins — subjectivity in the illness narrative, diagnostic sensitivity and specificity, unpredictability of treatment outcomes, and our own hidden assumptions and unconscious biases, to name a few. We can then teach physicians specifically how to communicate scientific uncertainty, which is essential if patients are to truly share in decision making, and we can reduce everyone’s discomfort by reframing uncertainty as a surmountable challenge rather than as a threat.
This requires treating the whole patient.  This requires recognizing the psychological and social contributors to pain perception and tolerance.  This requires seeing through the psychotropic effects of opioids and other addictive medications to get to the root cause issues of chronic pain.  This requires not just patient advocacy, but truly shared decision making.

Of course, this would also require us to move away from the dilapidated and counter-productive world of fee-for-service billing.  This would also require payers and employers to pay for quality, a genuine willingness to pay more dollars for less care (in the traditional sense) and more shared decision making (which will inevitably lead to better outcomes).

So there's a little slice of utopia for you, this Monday morning... with a heaping side helping of reality.

On Twitter @PRIUM1

Monday, February 20, 2017

Narrative Does Matter: Self-Guided Opioid Weaning

Perhaps it's obvious.  I write blog posts with regularity, I consume news voraciously, and I've never met a microphone I didn't enjoy speaking into.  But in the event it's not readily apparent, I'm happy to share that the single most important concept in contemporary communications is this: narrative.

"Narrative" is occasionally used as an epithet in political discourse (as in "you're just choosing facts that fit your narrative") and I'm as concerned as anyone else about the balkanization of modern media (which I describe as "choose your own narrative"), but the power of well-told stories to shape, change, or at least influence thinking is undeniable.  We live in a world of competing narratives and while the ability to identify such is critical, the ability to create such can be transformative.

Health Affairs understands this.  Whenever I get a new issue, I typically flip directly to my favorite section: "Narrative Matters."  Here, public health workers on the front lines share stories of what it means when platitudes turn into policy.  It's one thing to talk in the abstract about the CDC's Ebola response... it's quite another to listen to a doctor tell the story of running an Ebola clinic in Liberia.

This month's issue contains another in a long line of compelling stories, though this one hits close to home for those of us fighting to stem the tide of prescription drug misuse and abuse.  The story comes to us from Travis Rieder, a research scholar at the Johns Hopkins Berman Institute of Bioethics.  His journey, despite his role at Hopkins, doesn't have anything to do with his role in public health.  Travis likes to ride motorcycles... and his story begins with a horrific motorcycle accident.

I won't retell the story (you really should read it for yourself), but to summarize: Travis ended up deeply dependent on opioid painkillers.  Knowing he needed to stop taking them, he initiated his own weaning protocol (that was, in retrospect, far too aggressive - even thought it was suggested by one of his doctors).  He lived in agony for days, then weeks.  But he stuck to his plan.  At one point, it got so bad, he contemplated suicide.

Where were his doctors, you ask?  He found the medical profession to be some combination of afraid, inept, reluctant... perhaps all of the above... to assist in the weaning of his opioids.  And this was a motivated patient, asking to be weaned.  A highly educated, white collar academic who was begging for help... and got none.  "How could it be that my doctor's best tapering advice led to that experience?" Travis asks, "And how could it be that not one of my more than ten doctors could help?"  And think: this story found its way to Health Affairs because Travis is a known author in the field of bioethics.  How many non-bioethicists out there are suffering in this same opioid purgatory?

As my colleague Mark Pew has written about extensively, we've arrived at the hard work cleaning up the mess.  He even created a hashtag for it (#cleanupthemess), not because we're trying to score marketing points, but because we needed an organizing principle for the combined and coordinated effort its going to take to accomplish our collective goal.

Travis's story highlights the fact that the clean up may be harder than we imagine.

On Twitter @PRIUM1

Monday, February 13, 2017

We're Skipping the Simple Steps in Chronic Pain Management

"Take deep breaths.  Drink lots of water.  Get some extra sleep."

This is the prescription I tend to apply, at least initially, to all complaints of illness emanating from my three children.  I find it's effective approximately 90% of the time.  For the 10% of the time it's not effective, we escalate to mom... and occasionally from there, we head to the doctor.  Nothing special here, just basic triage for childhood illness.  

The problem I see is that adults often skip a step or two (or three) in this process.  And there's a lot of scientific data to support the reliance on these initial steps in the management of chronic pain.

Take Deep Breaths
There's ample evidence to suggest that relaxation techniques and mindfulness exercises can significantly influence chronic pain management.  This study, among dozens of high quality studies available (and hundreds more of lower quality), showed a >50% decrease in Total Pain Rating Index for 50% of the patients involved in the study.  Granted, small sample... but really compelling results.  Why did I pick this study to highlight?  It was published in April 1982.  This isn't new, folks.
An outpatient program in behavioral medicine for chronic pain patients based on the practice of mindfulness meditation: Theoretical considerations and preliminary results.

Drink Lots of Water
The link between dehydration and chronic pain is a little more recent, but still compelling.  A recent study from the journal Psychophysiology linked hypohydration (not as severe as dehydration, but still not healthy... essentially, most of us are walking around hypohydrated) with lower pain sensitivity thresholds.  We also know that the discs in the lower back require proper hydration for optimal functionality.  Getting enough water also effects are immune system response.  We've been told since we were kids to drink lots of water, it's just that none of us actually do that.
A preliminary study on how hypohydration affects pain perception

Get Some Sleep
Sleep hygiene is among the most overlooked elements of chronic pain management.  This topic is admittedly made complicated by the 'chicken and egg' nature of problem - to manage chronic pain, one needs to get more sleep, but sleep is often inhibited by chronic pain symptoms.  This nasty cycle is often addressed by sleep aid medications which are not indicated for long term use (and, as we well know, that doesn't stop them from being used long term).  One way off of this hamster wheel is ensuring that relaxation and hydration are incorporated into daily habits.  Along with mindfulness techniques, one must also incorporate a simple set of sleep management tips that are hard for people to come to grips with: going to bed and waking up at the same time every day, no television or other electronic devices in the bedroom, no alcohol or caffeine assumption.  How many Americans, in chronic pain or not, can pull of that bedtime routine?
Pain & Sleep: Information from the National Sleep Foundation

No, not all chronic pain can be managed by taking deep breaths, drinking lots of water, and getting plenty of sleep.  Some chronic pain has to be escalated to the care of medical professionals and these patients deserve the best, evidence-based care available.  But far too often, chronic pain is diagnosed and immediately treated with surgery and/or medications without an attempt at patient self-regulation based on simple principles of mindfulness, proper diet, and good sleep hygiene - all three of which, when missing, significantly contribute, even exacerbate, chronic pain.

Take deep breaths.  Drinks lots of water.  Get some sleep.

On Twitter @PRIUM1