This Is What Remarkable Looks Like

July 18, 2018

My medical school roommate would travel all the way across Durham, to North Carolina Central University, to get his haircut. “There are no barbers on this side of town who know how to cut black people’s hair,” he told me.  Now historically the city was fairly segregated, but that was no longer the case; there were plenty of African-Americans at and around the Duke campus.  In a truly free and unbiased market, businesses should have arisen to meet that demand.  But it didn’t happen.

There are far more consequential examples of such systemic racism in the healthcare system. We now have large numbers of adults living with diseases that used to kill people in childhood: cystic fibrosis, hemophilia, and of course sickle cell disease.  In the past, few adult physicians knew how to take care of those conditions, but now, a growing number of specialists serve those patients.  Except for those with sickle cell disease.  In the Twin Cities, there are almost no adult hematologists for the burgeoning number of adults living with sickle cell disease, which disproportionately affects people of color.

Fortunately, as reported on MPR recently, there are those advocating for this unmet need, especially Children’s own Rae Blaylark, sickle cell patient health advocate in our Center for Cancer and Blood Disorders and President and Founder of the Sickle Cell Foundation of Minnesota.  She knows from personal family experience the struggle to find care for adults with sickle cell disease.  Her advocacy highlights the significant disparities in care for those adults. Not only do they lack access to specialists in this community, but they face barriers and biases in the health care system as a whole.

While I lament this example of health inequity, I am so proud to have someone like Rae here at Children’s, working to address systemic racism and improve health and justice in the community. Thank you, Rae!

Happy Doctor’s Day 3/30/18

March 28, 2018


I SOLEMNLY PLEDGE to dedicate my life to the service of humanity;

THE HEALTH AND WELL-BEING OF MY PATIENT will be my first consideration;

I WILL RESPECT the autonomy and dignity of my patient;

I WILL MAINTAIN the utmost respect for human life;

I WILL NOT PERMIT considerations of age, disease or disability, creed, ethnic origin, gender, nationality, political affiliation, race, sexual orientation, social standing, or any other factor to intervene between my duty and my patient;

I WILL RESPECT the secrets that are confided in me, even after the patient has died;

I WILL PRACTICE my profession with conscience and dignity and in accordance with good medical practice;

I WILL FOSTER the honor and noble traditions of the medical profession;

I WILL GIVE to my teachers, colleagues, and students the respect and gratitude that is their due;

I WILL SHARE my medical knowledge for the benefit of the patient and the advancement of healthcare;

I WILL ATTEND TO my own health, well-being, and abilities in order to provide care of the highest standard;

I WILL NOT USE my medical knowledge to violate human rights and civil liberties, even under threat;

I MAKE THESE PROMISES solemnly, freely, and upon my honor.

Many of us recited some version of these words of the Hippocratic Oath upon entering the profession of medicine. When I read the copy hanging on my office wall, I am reminded of the awesome commitment we all make, and of the profound trust that is placed in us.  Medical education and training are not a pathway to status and wealth; they are a covenant obliging us to serve our fellow beings.  Not many physicians can live up to the example set by our colleagues in Doctors Without Borders.  But in everything we do, whether in direct practice, or doing research, or in administering the health care system, we need to ask whether we are living up to this oath.  Did I respect the autonomy and dignity of those who seek my help?  Did I treat them with compassion and authenticity?  Did I consider the health and well-being of patients first and foremost?  It would be easy to feel daunted, but instead I feel grateful – grateful for the privilege of being able to serve, and for the honor of being part of a community of individuals who share that call to service.


January 26, 2018

Quick quiz: where is an infant more likely to die, in Bulgaria or north Minneapolis?  The correct answer, sadly, is the latter.  In fact, if the black population of Minnesota were its own country, it would rank 80th in the world in infant mortality, around the same as Thailand and Croatia.  White Minnesota would be about the same as Denmark.

Minnesota children of color lag behind white Minnesota children in many measures of health.  While our state consistently ranks among the best for children overall, it also has among the biggest health disparities.  Infant mortality, immunization rates, poverty, school readiness – all are worse for children of color, in some cases by an order of magnitude.

To draw attention to this problem, Gov. Dayton declared January Health Equity Month.  While it’s great to raise awareness, eliminating health disparities will require action, bold action.  Only 20% or less of health outcome is related to medical care.  The remainder is affected by environmental, social, and behavioral factors.  The health disparities we see in Minnesota (and frankly the rest of the country – they’re just more marked here) are due to deep underlying issues around poverty and inequality.  Issues that are so deep it can seem impossible to fix them.  What can those of us who care for kids do?  One thing Children’s Minnesota has done is to begin to focus on all those social determinants of health in our patients.  Our Community Connect program, launched in our St. Paul primary care clinic in 2017 and now rolling out to other areas, screens patients and families not only for medical issues like immunizations and allergies, but also non-medical ones such as poverty, housing and food insecurity, joblessness, and immigration issues, all of which have a direct impact on a child’s health.  When needs are identified, we can refer families to community resources for help.  So far we have screened nearly 2000 families.  Unfortunately, insurers don’t generally see this as a billable medical expense, but our program has been generously supported by philanthropy, including grants from the Children’s Hospital Association and U Care, among others.

We also need to take a hard look at ourselves.  While social issues predominate, racial and ethnic disparities in medical care itself have also been identified.  For example, children of color with appendicitis are less likely to receive pain medication than their white counterparts.  When we saw a similar issue in our own emergency department we implemented education and guidelines to help correct it.

But just as with patient safety, we need to look at the root causes.  Health disparities arise from the same issues of historical oppression and systemic racism that underlie a host of other issues.  Referring people to food banks and educating doctors about pain protocols is like giving ibuprofen to someone with an infection; it treats the symptom, not the disease.  If our children of color are to thrive as much as our white children, we need to dig far deeper, and advocate for real change.  January is a start, but it’s going to take much more than a month.

Leading from Below

December 18, 2017

“How would you describe your leadership style?” It’s a pretty common question, almost a cliché.  Mindful of the scorn heaped on President Obama for his “leading from behind” concept by some of the more bellicose talking heads who thought it sounded weak, I hesitated.  “I’d call it leading from below.”

Let me explain. Rather than a military analogy, as Obama’s was, mine is a musical one.  For many years I had the great fortune to play tuba with a group of wonderful Milwaukeeans far more talented than I, in a brass quintet called esprit d’Brass.  The modern brass quintet features 2 trumpets, French horn, trombone, and of course tuba.  There is no conductor.  So who leads it, you might ask?  Go ahead, ask.  OK, I’ll tell you.  You might think it’s the first trumpet, which most often carries the melody, but in fact, it is the tuba.

First, we’d decide on what to play, and I was the one who had to remind everyone where in our collection of music books the piece was. Literally making sure we were on the same page.  Next, we’d tune.  And not to some nasally oboe.  In a brass quintet, as in a concert band (like the charming Minnesota Freedom Band I currently play with), the tuning note is played by…the tuba.  The rest of the band tunes to my B flat.  When my horn is cold from sitting in the car all day it’s closer to an A, but they have to tune to it.  That’s power.

Now, the tuba rarely has the melody or a solo. In many pieces, the tuba simply plays the downbeats.  But in the absence of someone waving a baton in the front, that downbeat sets the tempo.  Playing that bass part requires careful listening, so that if someone is straying a little ahead or behind, I can subtly emphasize the beat to restore the desired tempo.  Also pretty powerful.  (Of course, if I wanted to I could intentionally speed us up or slow us down too much, but that would be an abuse of power.)

Note that unlike the conductor of an orchestra, who may be familiar with how to play many different instruments, I would never presume tell the trumpet or horn how to play their instrument. I simply provide the right environment and let them do what they do well.

So, setting the direction, getting everyone on the same page, setting the tone and the tempo, and letting the experts excel. It may not sound sexy, but that’s leading – from below.

Live And Let Die

November 8, 2017

My adult son and I watched the most recent James Bond movie the other day. The level of violence and mayhem is, of course, astounding, so it’s a bit surprising that it is rated PG-13. On the other hand, such violence has become such a part of our culture that perhaps it doesn’t even make sense to try to “shield” kids from it in our entertainment.  And one could also ask, does seeing a violent movie even make a difference given the pervasiveness of violence and guns in the America of 2017?

According to a fascinating recent study in JAMA Pediatrics, the answer to this is yes, it does matter.  Researchers at Ohio State studied 104 children ages 8-12.   All children were individually shown a 20 minute clip from one of 2 PG rated movies (The Rocketeer and National Treasure, in case you were wondering).  Half the children were randomly selected to view a clip with guns, and half saw a clip without guns.  After the movie viewing, a pair of children (who had both watched the same movie) was taken to a different room with toys, and told they could play with any of the toys while they waited.  Also in the room was a cabinet with a 9-mm handgun (modified to be unfirable).  During the 20 minute waiting period, researchers and parents monitored the child using a hidden camera.

Thanks to the randomization, there was no difference between those who watched movies with and without guns with respect to their demographics, prior media watching habits, aggressiveness, or attitudes toward guns. Overall, 83% of children found the gun, and almost half picked it up.  There was no difference between gun-watching and non-gun-watching participants in regard to finding or picking up the gun.  But children who had just finished watching a movie containing guns held the gun 3 times longer, and pulled the trigger 22 times more often, than children who saw the gun-free movie clip.  Kids who had watched the movie with guns were also more likely to point the gun at the other child in room and use threatening language.

This is a single study, with inherent limitations, but the findings are startling and provocative, albeit none too unexpected. Seeing violence begets violence, whether in real life or on the screen.  The morning after we watched 007, I read in the paper about the latest mass shooting (26 people killed in a church in Texas).  I couldn’t help but wonder about the connection.

Papa Was A Rolling Stone

October 12, 2017

It was the third of September

That day I’ll always remember, yes I will

Cause that was the day that my daddy died…

Papa was a rolling stone

Wherever he laid his hat was his home

And when he died all he left us was alone


Few issues define the cultural divide as sharply as one’s stance on family structure.  Senator Ron Johnson, for example, in a presentation I heard at Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin, placed the blame for America’s fiscal and other woes on single parent families.   (This didn’t go over so well at a workplace that is overwhelmingly female and with more than a few highly successful single parents.)  A fascinating recent article in Pediatrics may shed some light on this debate, or may simply generate more heat.

Researchers from Michigan and Princeton looked at the association between loss of a father and telomere length, a chromosomal marker of stress that is itself associated with a variety of adverse health outcomes.  (Telomeres shorten with age, and when they become sufficiently short cells die.  Thus telomere length has been called a “biological clock.”)  In this study, children who lost a father for any reason had significantly shorter telomeres than those who had not.  This effect was strongest for the death of a father, somewhat less for incarceration, and least for separation or divorce.  And it was stronger for boys than for girls.

Traditionalists might use this as evidence for the superiority of raising children in a two parent (specifically, mother and father) home.  But not so fast.  This study only examined those children who started out in a home with a mother and father, and then lost the father.  Loss and absence are not necessarily the same thing.  Also, at least for loss due to separation or divorce, nearly all of the effect (95%) is explained by lost income.  So one could as easily say this is evidence for the superiority of a living wage, and equal pay for men and women.

These findings also support the need for a change in the mass incarceration policy in this country.  The millions of men in prison – many of them men of color – are leaving behind millions of children who we now know suffer not only emotional but biological damage as a result.  This public policy crisis is creating a public health crisis.

One other tidbit in this study was intriguing.  The effect of loss of a father on telomere length was strongest among those children with a genetic variant in molecules involved in processing certain neurotransmitters.  How one copes with adverse events, like the loss of a parent, isn’t simply a matter of one’s character, or the strength of one’s support system.  Biology may not be destiny, but it sure tilts the playing field.

A rolling stone may gather no moss, but it can sure leave a lot of havoc in its wake.

Take This Job and Shove It

October 2, 2017

This song about burnout on the job was quite popular in 1977 (original version by Johnny Paycheck; subsequently also recorded by Dead Kennedys). While many of you are not old enough to have been assaulted by the recording on AM radio, the sentiment probably isn’t at all foreign.  The phenomenon of burnout among medical professionals has been the subject of both serious research and discussion in the lay press.  A 2012 study in JAMA Internal Medicine revealed high levels of self-reported burnout among physicians, especially in “front-line” specialties such as family practice and emergency medicine, where over half of physicians reported some form of burnout.  (Fortunately, both primary care pediatrics and pediatric subspecialties had below average rates, although a recent study among pediatric emergency physicians was concerning.)  Also, physicians had higher rates of burnout than the general population.  (There are studies showing similar statistics for nurses, but I haven’t been able to find any studies specifically dealing with burnout among advanced practice providers.  I think we can assume it’s fairly similar.)

Burnout is defined as “a syndrome characterized by a loss of enthusiasm for work (emotional exhaustion), feelings of cynicism (depersonalization), and a low sense of personal accomplishment.”  Effects of burnout include symptoms of depression and/or anxiety, loss of empathy and objectivization of patients and co-workers, unprofessional behavior, high rates of error, and turnover or leaving the profession entirely.  It can also lead people to leave the profession.  Thus, burnout is a problem for the providers, for their patients, and ultimately for the system.

While a good bit has been written about the prevalence of burnout, there seems to be little data on what can be done to prevent it.  Burnout doesn’t appear to correlate strongly with hours worked, income, or satisfaction with work-life balance, but data are limited.  Consistent with what has been described, an internal survey of physicians at Children’s Minnesota revealed two overarching themes.  The first is dissatisfaction with the conditions of work themselves – things that make it difficult to do a job, everything from lack of staff to cumbersome electronic health records to dealing with insurance companies.  But the more important is dissatisfaction with the one’s ability to influence the conditions of work.  This includes lack of input into decisions, as well as the feeling that external forces – changes in the nature of healthcare – are inexorable.

For example, a commonly cited factor contributing to burnout is the electronic health record.  We physicians have been complaining about paperwork and charting since well before Epic and Cerner were a glimmer in anyone’s eye.  And honestly, even a digital non-native like me, with a bit of advance prep, is able to complete an EHR record in no more time than I could a written one, certainly when adjusted for quality and completeness.  So is the computer really the problem?  It seems to me what is different is that I have less control over the EHR.  With a written chart, I could decide how thorough to be, and what format to use.  But now a bunch of bureaucrats, administrators, and Millennial programmers determine what we need to document, and how, without seeming to care when it doesn’t make sense.

There’s good news and bad news here.  The good is that both of these themes can be addressed.  The conditions of work can be ameliorated – the EHR can be modified, scribes hired, staffing needs addressed.  And those doing the work, including physicians and other clinical staff, can be empowered to participate in decision-making.  At the same time we have to recognize that health care has changed and will continue to, in fundamental ways.  As the cost of health care now consumes almost one-fifth of the entire US economy, resources will be more limited, forcing us to make hard choices about those conditions of work.  Scribe, or clinic nurse, or staff to screen for social determinants of health?  Unlike in the past, we can no longer afford all three.  And no matter how much providers participate in making those choices, the locus of control has moved away from physicians.  Many of us came up in the era when the doctor had the final word.  When no one would ever question his (and it was usually his) productivity.  Accepting that decisions are made at least multilaterally, and increasingly by patients and families as consumers, is in my opinion a key underlying factor driving dissatisfaction and burnout.  Whether this will be as true for the newer generation, which doesn’t have the same inherent expectations of command and control, remains to be seen.

Burnout is real. There are many proximate causes, and we should try to address those to the extent possible.  But the root causes are related to the fact that being a health professional doesn’t mean what it used to.  At least not in the way we deliver health care.  Doctors have neither the status nor the authority nor the autonomy they once did.  Yet the mission of improving the health of those we serve hasn’t changed.  It’s still health care, and we do.  Anecdotally, keeping that front and center has kept me and many of my colleagues this side of shouting Johnny Paycheck’s lyrics at the top of their lungs in the clinic.  Perspective matters.  So if you need a little pick-me-up, watch this

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