Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Media, Culture, and Half-Truths

This is nothing new.  Just warning you now, this is going to be an epically long post.  I've read about this before and I've discussed it before on this blog.  But this topic resurfaces rather frequently.  I see headlines such as:







This is a controversial topic.  There is intense debate among physicians and even residents.  It's a subject that's almost taboo to talk about.  So let's talk about a few things: Media, Culture, and Half-Truths.

Media
I took a course in scientific journalism and media in undergrad, and I walked away from that class appalled.  So much so that I was literally unable to even look at a news article about a scientific or health topic without feeling an intense pang of rage for almost half a year.  Here are some things to know:

The media skews towards catchy headlines.  Sure "Male circumcision benefits outweigh risks, US CDC says" sounds pretty neutral.  But then you have the headlines "Circumcision Guidelines Target Teenagers" and "Feds Say Circumcision Best for Boys," and suddenly those pop out.

The media also has an agenda.  You are supposedly supposed to present both sides of an article (where there are 2 sides to present), but it's almost always skewed and thus almost never balanced.  Take the NY Times article, "Circumcision Guidelines Target Teenagers."  It dedicates a measly 2 paragraphs at the very end on counter-arguments, which although valid, reads as an afterthought.  Take the TIMES article, "Feds Say Circumcision Best for Boys."  There is no mention of any counter-argument.  None.  The LA Times article, "Circumcision cited as defense against HIV in proposed CDC guidelines" is actually the most balanced of the bunch.

The media doesn't understand statistics.  Now, statistics is a difficult concept for even many medical experts to grasp.  So to be fair, the media has no chance.  When presented with numbers, the media will always take the largest numbers presented.  Again, because it's catchy.  For example here, the recurrent phrase that goes "circumcision reduces a man's chances of getting HIV by 50-60%" sounds like a huge deal!  But context is necessary.  That number reported is what's called "relative risk reduction."  What matters to an individual is the "absolute risk reduction."  For instance, let's say the average uncircumcised man's risk of getting HIV is 1 in 1000 (or 0.001%).  So if he's circumcised, his risk goes down by 50-60%, thereby going from 1 in 1000 to 0.5 in 1000 (or 0.0005%).  Well, going from 0.001% to 0.0005% doesn't sound like much of a difference for that individual, and it isn't!  But both numbers could be true.  Going from 0.001% to 0.0005% is a 50% decrease - this is "relative risk reduction," but the "absolute risk reduction" is 0.0005%.  See why the media would choose to report 50% over 0.0005%?  (Note: the average man's risk of getting HIV in the US is WAY smaller than 1 in 1000).

Culture
Culture is such a pervasive and unconscious thing that few people even realize it comes into play.  The US, given his history of higher rates of circumcision, has a cultural bias towards that procedure.  Whereas comparable Western countries (Canada, Europe, Australia) don't have this cultural bias.  This is how everyone can look at the exact same studies, the exact same medical literature, and come out with polar opposite conclusions and recommendations.

Here's an excellent article rebutting the latest AAP (American Academy of Pediatrics) guideline update on this topic: "Cultural Bias in the AAP's 2012 Technical Report and Policy Statement on Male Circumcision.

People think of medicine and science as containing immutable truths.  Yet in reality the exact opposite is true.  We must constantly challenge and question old scientific truths in order to get ever closer to the Platonic Truths.

Half-Truths
Now on to the merits of what's been discussed/argued for in the articles.  The best quote I could find comes from the LA Times article: 
"Dr. Thomas Newman, a professor of epidemiology and biostatistics at UC San Francisco, says he believes that the medical benefits of circumcision outweigh the risks but that both are small."
This is the closest thing to the truth out there.  Let's look at the arguments on the table:

Pro:
  • Circumcision reduces HIV risk by 50-60%.  Well that effect is quite small on an individual level, as illustrated above.  Plus, condoms reduces HIV risk by 90-97% when used correctly.  That "additional" 50-60% is rather meaningless.  Furthermore, circumcision offers zero benefit for those most at risk of getting HIV in the US (men who have sex with men, IV drug users).
  • Circumcision reduces HPV and other STI's.  Maybe true.  But we now have a vaccine for HPV that's 98-100% effective.  And again, condoms.
  • Circumcision reduces UTI's in boys during the first year of life.  This is actually true, however, the risk of getting a UTI is rather small to begin with.  In a healthy uncircumcised baby boy, the risk of getting a UTI is 1 in 100.  In a healthy circumcised baby boy, the risk of getting a UTI is 1 in 1000.  In girls older than 1 year of age, the risk of getting a UTI is like 5-7 in 100.  And how do we treat UTI's?  With antibiotics.  That said, there is a role for circumcision in a baby boy who gets recurrent UTI's (and usually there is some other anatomic problem as well).
Cons:
  • Risk of complications.  I love how they kind of lumped all complications together, and then say that it's about 1% if the procedure is done before 1 year of age, 9% if done between 1-9 years of age, and 5% if older than that.  I don't know about you, but a 5-9% complications rate is pretty high.  And what are these complications?
  • Infection and inflammation are a common one.  As with any invasive procedure, there is always a risk of infection.  And think for a moment, this baby's penis is healing while he's in diapers, exposed to urine and poop.  That can't be pleasant.
  • Bleeding is another common one.  Well, this could be life-threatening if a baby has a bleeding disorder (like hemophilia).  I'm sure the majority of the time no one does blood tests before the procedure to confirm that a baby does not have a bleeding disorder, and often times a family history can only get you so far.
  • Other risks not mentioned?  Adhesions, meatal stenosis, and accidental amputation are ones that probably should be mentioned.
    • Adhesions: baby's bodies heal very well.  Sometimes parts of where the foreskin is removed will reattach itself to the glans (penis head).  This can cause not only cosmetic issues, but also functional issues.  Sometimes those adhesions are so tight that erections can be uncomfortable.
    • Meatal stenosis: when the opening of the urethra (pee hole) is too small to allow urine to pass.  This problem exclusively happens in circumcised babies and requires surgical correction.  The end of the penis is not meant to interact with the outside world before puberty, and so exposure causes inflammation, which causes swelling, which causes a small hole to get smaller.
    • Accidental amputations: yes, very rare, but very very tragic when it happens.  A handful of cases happen each year and it's impossible to remove this risk entirely.  It may be a 1 in a million risk, but if that 1 in a million is you or your baby, and it wasn't medically necessary, you would probably be pissed off.
  • Also none of the articles mention studies that support the foreskin being a very innervated area of the body.  Whether those nerves play a role in sexual sensitivity and enjoyment is a topic of debate in and of itself, but logically it would make sense that more nerves = more sensation.

So you see, the full discussion is more nuanced.  And when I counsel parents on this topic, I present it as I do above.  Thankfully the area that I'm doing residency in has a low circumcision rate, so this rarely comes up.  But it does once every few months.  Most parents who do opt for the procedure are not undecided - it's like parents who're against vaccines, their minds are made up no matter what you say.  So I counsel towards less intervention, at least insofar as this topic goes.

Thoughts?  I know I'm biased, but again, no one has a truly neutral stance on this topic.  Which makes it difficult to fully "trust" the CDC's recommendations (or anyone's opinion, for that matter) on the subject.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Where in the World is Aek?

Gosh it's been a long time!  About 3 months since I last blogged!  I would say it's because I've been super busy with residency and all that, but that'd be partly a lie.  Truthfully, I've just been lazy.  Heck, I sat on this post for the better part of a month!  So where in the world have I been?

Well, I've run the gamut from the pediatric intensive care unit (PICU) to outpatient urgent care clinic.  Such a dichotomy in medicine and such different arenas, haha. 

From there I did another rheumatology rotation, but at another institution.  That was an amazing experience!  It was great just being away in a different area, working in a different system, and exploring.  It was also awkward because I felt like I couldn't perform to my full potential because I was learning the system and the hospitals.  It was almost like being a medical student again, almost.

Then I returned and did neonatal intensive care unit (NICU), which sucks as a second year resident, I must say.  You have double the patients to yourself, your patients are way sicker, and you're expected to just know how to manage things.  And on the weekend it can be just you taking care of the entire unit with the attending, which really sucks.

Currently on pediatric emergency department (ED).  It's alright.  I can see why people would want to do it - shift-based hours, sign in/out, lots of potential procedures, patients are in and out rather quick (MUCH quicker compared to adult ED), and you don't have to worry about continuity of care and the frustrations that can sometimes present.  But this is all not quite my cup of tea.  Parents sometimes bring their kids to the ED for really silly reasons.  I mean, if it's not an "emergency" you should really bring your child to his/her primary care pediatrician first . . .  I won't give examples as that may be a HIPAA violation, but if you see and hear the things I have . . .

There's a certain degree of "brain rot" that I feel as a result.  I live for the interesting cases.  The ones that make me think, that make my mind tingle.  On the flip side, as a patient you NEVER want to be "interesting" to a doctor, lol.  And when something could be rheumatic in nature, my mind definitely tingles - like it hungers and salivates for that diagnostic puzzle.

Anyway, to be totally fair, I can honestly understand why some parents bring their kids to the ED even though it's not medically justified.  There are so many factors and when it is YOUR kid, you freak out.  I get that.  I just wished that people utilized primary care as it was intended instead of the ED as their first stop.

Anywho, next post I'll post pics of my adventures.  :-P

Saturday, June 28, 2014

The Fastest Longest Year


Farewell to intern year, the fastest longest year ever!  It's certainly been a crazy ride full of up and down roller coaster emotions.  And boy did the year finish with a bang!  Time to muse on a few thoughts:
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1.  Doctors incognito
I've noticed an interesting trend among us "newer" physicians: we never let anyone in public know that we're doctors.  At least not initially.  We never introduce ourselves as doctors, we never use our hard-earned titles in public, and when asked what we do for a living, we'll say something along the lines of "I work in the medical field" or "I work in the hospitals," but almost never will we say outright "I'm a resident/doctor."  Why is that?

In a twisted way, it's almost like a sense of shame or being marked.  Open your mouth and say that you're a doctor and people instantly treat you differently.  Either they ask you about your opinions on this or that (I get the "Should I get a flu shot?" question A LOT), or they ask you about homeopathic remedies, or their negative experiences with doctors comes out.  I mean, I don't go to someone who says he/she is a lawyer and say, "Man, I really hate all lawyers.  They're all scum."  Or "Are you the kind of lawyer who stands in a courtroom and all that?"

As such, I'm never offended if someone calls me "Mr." instead of "Dr."  Although, an interesting thing to note that in Britain, "Mr." is a title ascribed to surgeons whereas "Dr." is a title ascribed to physicians.
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2.  The misunderstood adolescent
I may have said this before - I'm one of the few pediatricians who actually enjoys interacting with teens.  Not all teens, mind you, but in general yes.  Anyway, this bodes well especially if I'm really intent on pursuing peds rheumatology (which skews heavily toddlers and teens).

This may be coincidence or it may be intentional, but most of the teens in my continuity clinic are males.  They're such amusing creatures.  I can get most of them to open up at least somewhat (and a handful almost way too much, lol).  I think it helps to understand where many of them are coming from.  And I may be a bit too . . . liberal in my advice to them.

Anyway, there are 3 things I always iterate to every teen guy: 1.) wash under your foreskin (most of them where I am are uncut - good for them, lol), 2.) monthly testicular self-exams, and 3.) ALWAYS USE CONDOMS.
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3.  Rising seniors
As interns we are the lowest person on the totem pole that matters (sorry med students, the hospital functions very well with or without you).  We're often abused - intentionally and unintentionally - by senior residents, attending physicians, nursing staff, etc.  It's a frustrating place to be.  But at the end of every intern year is the promise of becoming senior residents and FINALLY stepping out of the intern role.

And at the end of each intern year, it's an opportunity to reflect on the kind of senior we aspire to become.  I've had the good luck to work with one of the best and by far the most hilarious senior residents I've ever known.  Although the last month was rough, he made every day go by quickly and with enough laughter to sustain us.  I can't say I want to exactly be him, I will aspire to carry on aspects of him.

In less than a week, I'll be considered a "senior resident" and I'll have no idea if I'll be a good one or a bad one.  The best advice I've heard was, "Remember what you liked in your senior residents and do that.  And especially remember what you hated done to you as an intern and don't do that."

Saturday, May 10, 2014

Please Don't Misunderstand Me

Please don't misunderstand me, I do love seeing my patients even though for every minute I see them I have 5 minutes of paperwork and other "work" to get things done for them.

Please don't misunderstand me, if I can't make it to your bedside immediately it's not that I dislike you or am lazy, I truly am quite busy doing things behind the scenes for you or another patient.

Please don't misunderstand me, as much as I love thinking and taking care of patients, I lie here right now musing over whether I've made the right choices that can sometimes be literally life or death.

Please don't misunderstand me, if I seem beaten down it's because I've worked a 13+ hour shift for the n'th day in a row often without a single heartfelt thank you. And perhaps I was yelled at for something I did or didn't do for you.

Please don't misunderstand me, as much as I could go back in time and undo med school and residency, it is truly a profession of great privilege and honor.

Please don't misunderstand me, when I say I would not redo all this again it's not out of regret, but rather sadness of all the sacrifices I've made - the art I missed drawing, the music I missed playing, the sleep I missed getting, the opportunities for love and travel.

Please don't misunderstand me, when I discourage others from pursuing medicine it's not because I hate my job, but rather I don't want others to make the same sacrifices without truly appreciating what they'll be giving up.

Saturday, April 26, 2014

The Truth Is . . .


I attended the pediatric rheumatology conference earlier this month.  It was like a mini-vacation and I learned so much!  My mind was blown at how much there was out there (and how little I knew).  I ran into a resident who's doing her residency back where we did med school, so that was a pleasant surprise.

I just finished my clinic month, which was mostly urgent care.  It was useful and my Spanish got exponentially better (because I refused to use the translator phones after a while, and like 2/3 of the parents speak Spanish-only).  But it was really bread-and-butter and much of it didn't require much "thinking."  I hate to say it, but an NP or PA could easily do what I did this month without much difficulty.  It doesn't surprise me that NPs are trying to expand their "power" and scope of practice.

But the most brutal truth is: if I could go back in time, I would NOT do med school and residency.  This is not worth it.  As much as I love my patients, as adorable as my toddlers are, as amusing as my teens are; the hours, the hospital politics, the paperwork (oh god the paperwork!) is not worth it.  I daydream of what I've given up to become a doctor.  It's not a career I'd recommend anyone pursuing.  And that's the most brutal truth.  Perhaps I'll elaborate on this more later.

I came across the following coming out video and the way the person spoke, the honesty and anxiety in his voice, really resonated with me.

Apologies that this post is all over the place.  I'm on call tomorrow (again, yay) and have to do yet another 13-hour shift.  At least I'm on with good residents who I admire and respect.  The day should hopefully not be too painful.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Right Place and Time


There is something to be said for being in the right place and time.

There's a phrase my mom says: 这个是天规定的.  The translation is basically, "This is mandated by heaven."  The concept of a "heavenly mandate" is an ancient one.  Heaven decrees that certain things are meant to be, and certain events happen at certain times for a reason.  How we interpret that and what we do with it is up to us.  It's not exactly fate or destiny, but is along a similar line of thought.

I did my pediatric rheumatology rotation last month and pretty much loved it.  Towards the end of the month, one of the rheumatologists told me that he received an email with an application for a resident to apply for an award to attend this year's peds rheum conferences essentially for free!  How could I pass this opportunity up?  Imagine my joy at receiving the award, and I'm off to Orlando for the conferences next week!

If I didn't do that rotation that month, and if I hadn't heard about the application, I wouldn't have the opportunity to attend these conferences.  Right place and right time.  On a larger scale, matching in California for residency is probably meant to be (though it doesn't always feel like it).  And perhaps dating and finding "the one" (out of many possible "ones") is a matter of time and place as well.

That's not to say that this concept means I should be passive about things, like destiny or fate.  But rather, when the right time and place produce an opportunity, I must not let it slip.  For who knows where it could lead?

Thursday, March 6, 2014

In Other News . . .

So what's up with me otherwise?  A quick summary:

I passed USMLE Step 3!  Woohoo!!  Really, the odds of me passing were vanishingly slim but you always worry on test day.  I was amused that I did worse as the patients in the questions got older.  Definitely affirms my training in pediatrics, lol.  Also my highest sections were Behavioral/Emotional, Musculoskeletal, and Immune/Infectious Diseases.  Fascinating, because it leads me to . . .

I'm like 95% sure I'm going to pursue fellowship in pediatric rheumatology.  It's definitely one of the least "sexy" subspecialties because: 1.) there aren't many procedures, 2.) it pays less, and 3.) it's not well understood.  But I find it fascinating.  It commonly affects joints (as you'd expect), but it can really affect almost any organ in the body.  And I seem to be one of the few peds residents who kinda likes (or at least doesn't mind) teen patients.  It's also a rather "rare" subspecialty, there only being 26 fellowship programs in the country (for about 60ish spots).  There's an estimate of about 1/2 the number of peds rheumatologists in the country as there needs to be.  As one senior resident described to me, doing this fellowship is basically a golden ticket to practice anywhere in the country that I so desire.  Yeah, I'll make less money.  But to echo one of the peds rheumatologists that I worked with, "I didn't come from money.  So this pay is pretty good to me."

It's astounding how stress and sub-optimal nutrition leads to weight gain!  I seriously gained like 15 lbs in residency so far.  No bueno!  I just started working out and slowly ramping things up.  I'm woefully out of shape, but that's what I get for being on inpatient rotations for 5-6 months in a row, working on average 6 days/week, and up to 80 hrs/week.  Where in there is there time for working out, much less healthy eating?!  For the first time in many months, I have the time and there wherewithal to realign my health to where it should be.  I've been a poor example for my patients.

Today I was eating lunch outside with one of my co-interns.  And she remarked how nice it felt to have the wind blow on her face, how normal it felt, and how sad that she was thinking that in the moment.  But it IS sad.  This residency thing is not something I'd wish on someone else.  Fuck that, if I could re-do things, I wouldn't re-do this.  But I've already come this far and I'm going to see it to the end.  Because at the end of it all, I have a chance to regain normalcy.

Recently got into a new show, Looking.  It centers around 3 gay friends in SF.  It's entertaining.  About halfway through like the third episode, I realize that one of the main characters, Patrick Murray (played by Jonathan Groff), is basically me in a lot of ways.  He wants to have a good sustainable relationship, but sucks at it.  He's conservative in his actions and tends to thinks before he acts (sometimes too much).  Anyway, a good show to check out.  :-)