My earliest conscious memory of disease and doctors was in the management of my atopic dermatitis. Here is Sam Shuster writing poetically about atopic dermatitis in ‘World Medicine’ in 1983.
A dozen years of agony; years of sleeplessness for child and parents, years of weeping, itching, scaling skin, the look and feel of which is detested.
The poverty of our treatments is made all the worse by the unfair raising of expectations: I don’t mean by obvious folk remedies; I mean medical folk remedies like the recent pseudoscientific dietary treatments which eliminate irrelevant allergens. There neither is nor ever was good evidence for a dietary mechanism. And as for cows’ milk, I would willingly drown its proponents in it. We have nothing fundamental for the misery of atopic eczema and that’s why I would like to see a real treatment—not one of those media breakthroughs, and not another of those hope raising nonsenses like breast-feeding: I mean a real and monstrously effective treatment. Not one of your P<.05 drugs the effect of which can only be seen if you keep your eyes firmly double-blind, I mean a straightforward here today and gone tomorrow job, an Aladdin’s salve—put it on and you have a new skin for old.
Nothing would please me more in the practice of clinical dermatology than never again to see a child tearing its skin to shreds and not knowing how long it will be before it all stops, if indeed it does.
Things are indeed better now, but not as much we need: we still don’t understand the itch nor can we easily block the neural pathways involved. Nor has anything replaced the untimely murder of ‘World Medicine’. A glass of milk has never looked the same since, either.
There is an interesting review in the Economist of the ‘Great Pretender: The Undercover Mission that Changed out Understanding of Madness,’ written by Susan Cahalan. The book is the story of the American psychologist David Rosenhan who “recruited seven volunteers to join him in feigning mental illness, to expose what he called the ‘undoubtedly counter-therapeutic’ culture of his country’s psychiatry”.
Rosenthal’s studies are well known and were influential, and some might argue that may have had have a beneficial effect on subsequent patient care. The question is whether they were true. The review states:
in the end Rosenham emerges as an unpalatable symptom of a wider academic malaise”.
As for the ‘malaise’, the reviewer goes on:
Many of psychology’s most famous experiments have recently been discredited or devalued, the author notes. Immense significance has been attached to Stanley Milgram’s shock tests and Philip Zimbardo’s Stanford prison experiment, yet later re-runs have failed to reproduce their findings. As Ms Cahalan laments, the feverish reports on the undermining of such theories are a gift to people who would like to discredit science itself.
I have a few disjointed thoughts on this. There are plenty of other considered critiques of the excesses of modern medical psychiatry. Anthony Clare’s ‘Psychiatry in Dissent’ was for me the best introduction to psychiatry. And Stuart Sutherland’s “Breakdown’ was a blistering and highly readable attack on medical (in)competence as much as the subject itself (Sutherland was a leading experimental psychologist, and his account is autobiographical). And might the cross-country diagnostic criteria studies not have happened without Rosenham’s work?
As for undermining science (see the quote above), I think unreliable medical science is widespread, and possibly there is more of it than in many past periods. Simple repetition of experiments is important but not sufficient, and betrays a lack of of understanding of why some science is so powerful.
Science owes its success to its social organisation: conjectures and refutations, to use Popper’s terms, within a community. Just repeating an experiment under identical conditions is not sufficient. Rather you need to use the results of one experiment to inform the next, and with the accumulation of new results, you need to build a larger and larger edifice which whilst having greater explanatory power is more and more intolerant of errors at any level. Building large structures out of Lego only works because of the precision engineering of each of the component bricks. But any errors only become apparent when you add brick-on-brick. When a single investigator or group of investigators have skin in the game during this process — and where experimentation is possible — science is at its strongest (the critiques can of course come from anywhere).
An alternative process is when the results of a series of experiments are so precise and robust that everyday life confirms them: the lights go on when I click the switch. This harks back to the reporting of science as ‘demonstrations’.
By these two standards much medical science may be unreliable. First, because the fragmentation of enquiry discourages the creation of broad explanatory theories or tests of the underlying hypotheses. The ‘testing’ is more whether a publishable unit can be achieved rather than nature understood. Second, in many RCTs or technology assessments there is little theoretical framework on which to challenge nature. Nor can everyday practice act as the necessary feedback loop in the way the tight temporal relationship between flipping the switch and seeing the light turn on can.
Perhaps, perhaps not. But when and where is even more important.
Hailed as a maths prodigy at school, Shields accepted a junior position at Merrill Lynch after studying engineering, economics and management at Oxford University because the trading room floor offered him a thrilling, dynamic environment. He was not alone: of 120 engineers in his year group at university, Shields added, only five went into engineering.
I think we should be much more cautious in attempting to direct young people’s choices beyond providing them with an education. We should feel proud of their independence of mind, remembering that supply side factors will likely win out over central planning. It is the supply side that we need to deal with, not least Putts Law. The same applies to medicine.
This personal story is worth a read for other lessons, too.
The government has instructed Health Education England to consult patients and the public on what they need from “21st century” medical graduates
It won’t end well.
One-third of everyone employed in London, 1.6 million people, work at night.
In 2018, at least 8,855 people slept rough on the streets of London, a 140% increase over the past decade, with similar trends globally.
“If biology is difficult, it is because of the bewildering number and variety of things one must hold in one’s head”.
John Maynard Smith (1977).
Leo Szilard recalled, that when he did physics he could lounge in the bath for hours and hours, just thinking. Once he moved into biology things were never the same: he was always having to get out to check some annoying fact. Dermatology is worse, trust me.
I spent near on ten years thinking about automated skin cancer detection. There are various approaches you might use — cyborg human/machine hybrids were my personal favourite — but we settled on more standard machine learning approaches. Conceptually what you need is straightforward: data to learn from, and ways to lever the historical data to the future examples. The following quote is apposite.
One is that, for all the advances in machine learning, machines are still not very good at learning. Most humans need a few dozen hours to master driving. Waymo’s cars have had over 10m miles of practice, and still fall short. And once humans have learned to drive, even on the easy streets of Phoenix, they can, with a little effort, apply that knowledge anywhere, rapidly learning to adapt their skills to rush-hour Bangkok or a gravel-track in rural Greece.
You see exactly the same thing with skin cancer. With a relatively small number of examples, you can train (human) novices to be much better than most doctors. By contrast, with the machines you need literally hundreds and thousands of examples. Even when you start with large databases, as you parse the diagnostic groups, you quickly find out that for many ‘types’ you have only a few examples to learn from. The rate limiting factor becomes acquiring mega-databases cheaply. The best way to do this is to change data acquisition from a ‘research task’ to a matter of grabbing data that was collected routinely for other purposes (there is a lot of money in digital waste — ask Google).
Noam Chomsky had a few statements germane to this and much else that gets in the way of such goals (1).
Plato’s problem: How can we know so much when the evidence is do slight.
Orwell’s problem: How do we remain so ignorant when the evidence is so overwhelming.
(1): Noam Chomsky: Ideas and Ideals, Cambridge University Press, (1999). Neil Smith.
In the essay “Telling,” he describes the upsetting case of the director of a hospital who, struck down by Alzheimer’s, is admitted to his own hospital. He behaves as if he were still running it, until one day by chance he picks up his own chart. “That’s me,” he says, recognizing his name on the cover. Inside, he reads “Alzheimer’s disease” and weeps. In the same hospital a former janitor is admitted; he too is convinced that he is still working there. He is given harmless tasks to perform; one day he dies of a sudden heart attack “without perhaps ever realising that he had been anything but a janitor with a lifetime of loyal work behind him.”
My mother, a nurse, took on such imagined roles when she too was demented and in a care home.
The article is about pharma and the way its interests flit because of perceived commercial rather than clinical value. There are two phrases that should make you sit up.
The first phrase, is scary. We already know how dishonest much of pharma is. We can manage well without more perverse incentives. Short term shareholder value wins over morality every time.
The second begs the question: if the evidence is good, why do you need to flog your medicine with advertising? A collection of data sheets — with citations — is all you need. And since most pharma spends more on advertising than research, here is a simple way to reduce drug costs. (The answer is of course, that advertising sells more than research — shame on us all).
This is from the Guardian. The background is serious allergic reactions to food components, and allowing accessible information about what purchased food contains. In her phrase, ‘high-profile casualties on the high street’ she is referring to businesses; I am sure others may have read it differently.
But Kate Nicholls, the chief executive of UKHospitality, said a law change could have a serious impact on the viability of some of the 100,000 restaurants her organisation represents. “Hospitality and particularly high street restaurants are under intense cost pressures and are struggling,” she said. We’ve had a number of high-profile casualties on the high street. Those businesses operate on tight net profit margins. And there’s no doubt some would not be able to cope with any significant change in their cost structure.”
(BTW: she thinks ‘training’ is the solution. Training and education are offered as the answer to everything…”education, education, education”. If only.)
Putt’s Law: “Technology is dominated by two types of people, those who understand what they do not manage and those who manage what they do not understand.”
Putt’s Corollary: “Every technical hierarchy, in time, develops a competence inversion.” with incompetence being “flushed out of the lower levels” of a technocratic hierarchy, ensuring that technically competent people remain directly in charge of the actual technology while those without technical competence move into management.
The following is from an advert for a clinical academic in a surgical specialty, one with significant on call responsibilities. (It is not from Edinburgh).
‘you will be able to define, develop, and establish a high quality patient-centred research programme’
‘in addition to the above, you will be expected to raise substantial research income and deliver excellent research outputs’
Leaving aside the debasement of language, I simply cannot believe such jobs are viable long term. Many years ago, I was looked after by a surgical academic. A few years later he/she moved to another centre, and I was puzzled as to why he/she had made this career move. I queried a NHS surgeon in the same hospital about this career path. “Bad outcomes”, was the response. She/He needed a clean start somewhere else…
Traditional non-clinical academic careers include research, teaching and administration. Increasingly it is recognised that it is rarely possible to all three well. For clinical academics the situation is worse, as 50% of your time is supposed to be devoted to providing patient care. Over time the NHS workload has become more onerous in that consultants enjoy less support from junior doctors and NHS hospitals have become much less efficient.
All sorts of legitimate questions can be asked about the relation between expertise and how much of your time is devoted to that particular role. For craft specialities — and I would include dermatology, pathology, radiology in this category — there may be ways to stay competent. Subspecialisation is one approach (my choice) but even this may be inadequate. In many areas of medicine I simply do not believe it is possible to maintain acceptable clinical skills and be active in meaningful research.
Sam Shuster always drilled in to me that there were only two reasons academics should see patients: to teach on them, and to foster their research. Academics are not there to provide ‘service’. Some juniors recognise this issue but are reticent about speaking openly about it. But chase the footfall, or lack of it, into clinical academic careers.
I am generally nervous about doctors or academics working for the government. Not that I think the roles are unnecessary, far from it. But what worries me is when instead of resigning from their academic role, they end up working for more than one master. So, I tire of the use of university titles when the principle employer does not subscribe to the academic ideal. I think if you have been at Stanford and you go to Washington it should be as a regular civil service post. I think the Americans get it right.
But the retiring CMO, Dame Sally Davies, in an interview in the RCP in-house journal ‘Commentary’ speaks some truths (Commentary | October 2019, p10).
I hear non-stop stories from unhappy juniors. In my day, we (consultants) made up the rotas for the juniors, but now administrators do it without understanding all of the issues. I’m told you can’t go back to the ‘firm’ structure because there are so many doctors in the system, but whenever I meet a roomful of young doctors I ask: ‘Does your consultant know your name?’ It’s rare that a hand goes up. We have depersonalised the relationships between doctors and that can’t help the workings of the medial team, or with the patients.
Your mileage may vary, but when I was a junior doctor it was us — not the consultants — who came up with the rotas. But the point she makes is important, and everybody knows this (already). At one time junior doctors didn’t work for the NHS, rather they worked within the NHS for other doctors, for good and bad. I find it hard to imagine that the current system can deliver genuine apprenticeship learning. Training and service may often have resembled a bickering couple, but there was a broader professional context that was shared. I am not certain that this is the case anymore. Whenever people keep pushing words such as ‘reflection’ or ‘professionalism’, you know — pace Orwell — that the opposite is going on. Politics is a dominant-negative mutation.
One of the mantras of psychometrics 101 is that you cannot have validity without reliability. People expel this phrase, like others equilibrate after eating curry and nan-breads with too much gassy beer. In truth, the Platonic obsession with reliability diminishes validity. The world of science and much professional practice, remains messy, and vague until it is ‘done’. The search space for those diamonds of sense and order remains infinite.
Many years in the making, DSM-5 appeared in 2013, to a chorus of criticism; Harrington summarises this crisply (Gary Greenberg’s 2013 Book of Woe gives a painful blow-by-blow account). Harrington suggests that the proliferating symptom categories ceased to carry conviction; in the USA, the leadership of the US National Institutes of Health pivoted away from the DSM approach—“100% reliability 0% validity”, as Harrington writes—stating they would only fund projects with clearly defined biological hypotheses. The big players in the pharmaceutical industry folded their tents and withdrew from the field, turning to more tractable targets, notably cancer. For some mental health problems, psychological therapies, such as cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT), are becoming more popular, sometimes in combination with pharmacotherapy; as Harrington points out, even as far back as the 1970s, trials had shown that CBT outperformed imipramine as a treatment for depression.
Biological psychiatry’s decline and fall | Anne Harrington, Mind Fixers: Psychiatry’s Troubled Search for the Biology of Mental Illness, W W Norton (2019), p. 384, US$ 27·95, ISBN: 9780393071221 – ScienceDirect
Tobacco killed an estimated 100 million people in the twentieth century. Without radical action, it is projected to kill around one billion in the twenty-first.
I used to use the phrase — with apologies to Freud — ‘eppendorf envy’ to describe the bias in much medical innovation whereby useful advance pretended it owed its magic to ‘basic’ science. Doctors wore white coats in order to sprinkle the laboratory magic on as a veneer. But I like this cognate term also: innovation theatre.
To be fair to the banks, they weren’t the first institutions to recognise the PR value of what Rich Turrin has dubbed innovation theatre. Many institutions before them had cottoned on to the fact that it was a way to score easy points with the public and investors. Think of high impact campaigns featuring “the science bit” for L’Oréal’s Elvive shampoo or Tefal appliance ads: “We have the technology because we have the brains”.
The financial sector has seen enough innovation theatre | Financial Times. The orignal reference is here.
At the same time, there has been a growing “pull” from the UK and other richer nations for doctors and nurses from Africa, as their own health systems have struggled to train and retain sufficient local healthcare workers while demand from ageing populations continues to rise.
I am aware of the issue but keep being pulled back to the claims about how expensive it is to train doctors (in the UK or other similar countries). Yes, I know the oft wheeled out figures, but I am suspicious of them.
Nice few words about Charles Handy in the Economist who has been recovering from a stroke. He has had to relearn walking, talking and swallowing.
As far as Mr Handy was concerned, the point of his hospital stay was to allow him to recover as fully as possible. That meant he needed to be up and about. In the view of the nurses, that was a potential problem; he might fall and hurt himself. Their priority was to keep him safe. In practice, that required him to stay in bed and keep out of trouble.
He mused on some themes all too familiar, namely how the organisational obsession with efficiency often results in organisations not being effective.
The purpose of education is to prepare children for later life, but all too often the focus is on getting the children to pass exams.
He saves some special words for Human
As it is, there is a temptation to try to turn people into things by calling them “human resources”. Call someone a resource, and it is a small step to assuming that they can be treated like a thing, subject to being controlled and, ultimately, dispensed with when surplus to requirements.
(The most egregious example of the above is how NHS management refer to preregistration doctors as ‘ward resources’ rather than doctors who are apprenticed to other doctors.)
Sadly his knowledge of the type of modern corporation we call ‘universities’ is out of date.
Indeed, Mr Handy argues that most organisations whose principal assets are skilled people, such as universities or law firms, tend not to use the term “manager”. Those in charge of them are called deans, directors or partners. Their real job is best described as leadership rather than management. And one of the primary functions of leadership is setting the right purpose for an organisation.
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A relative of Nye Bevan, the founder of the NHS, died after serious mistakes by two hospital trusts meant his lung cancer went from treatable to incurable…
(Image courtesy of Alun of Penglas).
Medical students have higher rates of depression, suicidal ideation, and burnout than the general population and greater concerns about the stigma of mental illness. The nature of medical education seems to contribute to this disparity, since students entering medical school score better on indicators of mental health than similarly aged college graduates. Roughly half of students experience burnout, and 10% report suicidal ideation during medical school
This is from the US, and I do not know the comparable figures for the UK. Nor as I really certain what is going on in a way that sheds light on causation or what has changed. By way of comparison, for early postgraduate training in the UK, I am staggered by how many doctors come through it unscathed. I don’t blame those who want to bail out.
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An economist may have strong views on the benefits of vaccination, for example, but is still no expert on the subject. And I often cringe when I hear a doctor trying to prove a point by using statistics.
There were some critical comments about this phrase used by Wolfgang Münchau in a FT article. The article is about how ‘experts’ lose their power as they lose their independence. This is rightly a big story, one that is not going away, and one the universities with their love of mammon and ‘impact’ seem to wish was otherwise. But there is a more specific point too.
Various commentators argued that because medicine took advantage of statistical ideas that doctors talked sense about statistics. The literature is fairly decisive on this point: most doctors tend to be lousy at statistics, whereas the medical literature may or (frequently) may not be sound on various statistical issues.
Whenever I hear people talk up the need for better ‘communication skills’ or ‘communication training’ for our medical students, I question what level of advanced statistical training they are referring to. Blank stares, result. Statistics is hard, communicating statistics even harder. Our students tend to be great at communicating or signalling empathy, but those with an empathy for numbers often end up elsewhere in the university.
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I have removed the name of the institution only because so many queue to sell their vapourware in this manner
Precision Medicine is a revolution in healthcare. Our world-leading biomedical researchers are at the forefront of this revolution, developing new early diagnostics and treatments for chronic diseases including cancer, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, arthritis and stroke. Partnering with XXXXX, the University of XXXX has driven … vision in Precision Medicine, including the development of a shitload of infrastructure to support imaging, molecular pathology and precision medicine clinical trials…… XXXXXX is now one of the foremost locations in a three mile radius to pursue advances in Precision Medicine.
And He declared to them, “It is written: ‘My house will be called a house of prayer. But you are making it ‘a den of robbers.'” Matthew 21:13
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”A lot of patients are still having open surgery when they should be getting minimal access surgery,” said Mr Slack, a surgeon at Addenbrooke’s Hospital in Cambridge. “Robotics will help surgeons who don’t have the hand-eye co-ordination or dexterity to do minimal access surgery.”
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Now I’m the one contemplating a permanent departure. My health is fine, but my stamina is pretty much gone. Our health care system is not kind to the chronically ill and marginally insured, and it is not particularly kind to their doctors, either. Our patients are condemned to an unending swim against a hostile tide. Doctors can head for shore.
Moving On | NEJM. | Beautifully written piece by retiring US physician, Abigail Zuger, M.D.
Last week I was talking to somebody who was not a doctor, but who had ‘gone off the grid’ and was commenting on how many ‘professionals’ were bailing out, often in their late 30s, looking for something their professional career was not giving them. As they say, fish do not know what water is, but when you head for land, things seem different.
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‘The Socratic slogan- “If you understand it, you can explain it’, should be reversed. Anyone who thinks he can fully explain his skill, does not have expert understanding’.
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GlaxoSmithKline is to reintroduce performance-based bonuses linked to the number of prescriptions written for its medicines, reversing a company ban on the practice following a bribery scandal in the US….
The company was fined $3bn in 2012 after it admitted bribing doctors to write extra prescriptions for some products. As part of the settlement with US authorities, the drugmaker agreed it would no longer pay reps according to the number of prescriptions generated. That agreement has since lapsed.
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Mr Kapoor’s co-defendants were Michael Gurry, Insys’s former vice-president of managed markets, Richard Simon, former national director of sales, and former regional sales directors Sunrise Lee and Joseph Rowan. Michael Babich, former chief executive of the company, and Alec Burklakoff, former vice-president of sales, had already pleaded guilty.
The defendants face up to 20 years in prison. Andrew Lelling, US attorney for Massachusetts, said it was “the first successful prosecution of top pharmaceutical executives for crimes related to the illicit marketing and prescribing of opioids”.
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