An immigration issue has come to my attention that I thought I would weigh in on. I wrote a piece awhile back in support of Foreign Medical Graduates (FMGs) that bent a bunch of people over at KevinMD out of shape. I guess that makes me an expert in all things foreign and medical-ly, because I was recently contacted by a reporter (Hi Alicia!) who wanted to know what I thought about admitting children of undocumented immigrants (themselves also undocumented if they were children when they came here) to medical school. Apparently there are at least 60 medical schools in the country that are doing this.
I am not a believer in penalizing children for the sins of the parents. Ever. There are tons of good reasons and very few bad ones for granting children of undocumented immigrants the right to health care, education, and the same opportunities other kids have. (I know! Bless my bloody little liberal heart!) The argument is made that denying such privileges further documental (documentary?) misbehavior on the part of people who want to come to this country to help their kids do better than they are. How’s that working out so far? The Department of Homeland Security says the population of undocumented immigrants grows by 275,000 each year (www.dhs.gov). Denying resources to kids who arguably need them most perpetuates the poverty of their families and future generations of their families. They’re coming. They’re here. Might as well help the kids, at least.
But wait, you say! How About Helping Our Own Kids!?!?! I’m not talking about a free ride through school. The same chance for federal loans that everybody else gets would be fine. Oh, did I mention? Undocumented kids admitted to medical school are not eligible for federal financial aid. So…not really an opportunity…really.
That political soapbox having been stood upon, let’s look at one of the discussions circulating around the issue of allowing the children of undocumented immigrants to go to an American medical school: The Doctor Shortage.
Ah, The Doctor Shortage. By this I assume what is meant is the lack of primary care and other services in poor and underserved neighborhoods and counties in the United States. Because if you hold your arms out and spin slowly you’re bound to hit two or three doctors here in Boston. We’re chock-a-block. The Doctor Shortage problem has been farmed out to foreigners for years. Everyone thought FMGs would fill this role. Or People Who Speak The Language Of The Community (translation: black and latino doctors). Now the undocumented.
Here’s a question for you: Why the &^%$ would the children of undocumented immigrants be any more likely to go into primary care in their communities, or remote Appalachia, than any well-documented, voting-eligible medical student? Especially if you deprive them of financial aid? Out of the goodness of their hearts? Out of concern for their paperless neighbors? Maybe some of them. But staring $200,000 in student loans in the face, especially high-interest private loans, makes plastic surgery a really attractive option, I don’t care who you are. Also remember that putting anyone, but especially a smart, ethnically or financially challenged person, into the smart-kid, high achieving environment of medical school and residency, is inevitably going to show them the options available to them. Furthermore, medical school and residency takes up most of people’s 20s. Maybe a smart, talented immigrant falls in love with neurosurgery and the co-ed (non-immigrant) OB-GYN resident down the hall. All the good intentions in the world aren’t going to convince this person that what they really want to do is take their beloved and treat colds and high blood pressure in a community in which only one of the couple feels connected. Life happens while medical school happens.
Medical students, no matter where they come from or what papers they have, don’t go into primary care and/or into underserved communities for two reasons: money and money. Medical school costs too much and primary care doctors get paid too little. (Well, one other reason – paperwork) I know! More people getting their feathers up at KevinMD! A doctor in such a community is making so many multiples more than the people they serve! Doctors are so greedy! Let me refer you here: http://www.kevinmd.com/blog/2011/04/real-life-medical-school-debt.html, or here: http://www.cbsnews.com/news/1-million-mistake-becoming-a-doctor/.
Here’s what I would suggest: children of undocumented immigrants are, arguably, lucky to be here and, if they’re smart, eager to grasp the opportunities their parents have attempted to provide them with. If such a kid wants to go to medical school, great! Provide him or her with the financial aid available to all kids, but put a binding contingency on it. All undocumented students have to commit to a certain number of years of work in their communities or in other underserved areas. And back it up with financial support. The military already does this – medical students get med school paid for if they commit a certain number of post-residency years to military service. Such a program also already exists in the private sector. The National Health Service Corps offers substantial loan repayment for professionals who sign up for a certain number of years of service in an underserved area (https://nhsc.hrsa.gov/loanrepayment/). The NHSC is, in my opinion, underutilized.
The Doctor Shortage will not be solved by making people who are Not Us do the work. It will be solved by effective monetary and regulatory policies that make primary care in remote areas a viable and attractive option.
My thanks to Dr. John Mandrola of theheart.org/Medscape Cardiology for the idea for this post. Dr. Mandrola is an interventional cardiologist but I forgive him for that because he also reads the fine print and dares to question the status quo, particularly when it comes to preventive medicine.
An interesting paper came out this month in the on-line medical journal Open Heart (a branch of the British Medical Journal) about one particular area of prevention – heart attack. The researchers used data from a class of cholesterol drugs called statins, such as Lipitor, which have been shown to have a significant benefit in preventing ischemic heart disease (the study cites evidence that statins can decrease cardiovascular death by 20-30%, a number in some dispute). You can find the whole thing here: http://openheart.bmj.com/content/3/1/e000343.full#aff-1.
The researchers crunched a bunch of numbers and talked to a bunch of people, and these were the results, in part:
- 50 year old smoker with high blood pressure and high cholesterol could have his life extended by up to two years by taking a statin.
- An healthy 50 year old who starts preventive treatment with a statin at 50 can see a lifespan gain of a mean of 7 months.
- BUT, of 100 of those healthy 50 year old men, 93 will see no life extending benefit at all. The other 7 gain a mean of 99 months. 99 months!
- Starting statins later than 50 does not increase the life extending benefit. Quite the opposite.
- Of those healthy 100 50-year-olds, there is no way to tell which ones will be in the group of 7.
But here’s the most interesting part of the study – The researchers went down to the Underground (it’s a UK study) and asked around 400 people a simple question: “Which would you choose – to take a medication that would guarantee you one extra year of life or to take a medication that gives you a 2% chance of living an extra 10 years?” Then they extended the question – “How about if the medication gave you a 10% chance of living an extra 10 years?” and so on up to a 50% chance. As you might expect, as the percent chance of getting the 10 years went up, more people chose the chance option. But, there was always a significant percentage of people who never took the chance option.
So in a certain sense, taking a primary preventive medication, in this case a statin, is a game of chance. Do you choose to take the medication in the hope you are one of the 7 or do you opt out based on the probability that you’re not? How much risk are you willing to assume, all other things being equal? The answers to these questions varies greatly among individuals.
Of course, there are many other factors that go into the decision to start a medication to prevent an illness you might or might not ever get. There are considerations about side effects, cost, life-style, quality of life, etc. However, all or most of those considerations are also subject to probabilities and subjective preferences. Plus, you could die of something besides heart disease that you didn’t take a drug to prevent (or maybe you did but we all have to die of something and sometimes bad stuff just happens.) The take-home is that medicine is not an exact science and every person is different. What is an acceptable risk for one is an unacceptable gamble for another. Here’s what Dr. Mandrola says:
The point of this work is that it brings statistics, probability, and cognitive psychology to the doctor-patient relationship. When it comes to treating people with risk factors, not diseases, embracing uncertainty has always been important. But, now, as technology increasingly measures the human condition and creates more risk factors, comfort with gambling in medical decisions has never been more vital.
This week the governor of the great state of Massachusetts, my home state, signed into law a bill that puts strict limits on new opioid prescriptions, specifically a limit of a dosage sufficient for 72 hours, among other things. This of course, is in response to the opioid addiction problem afflicting the country. Many other states are taking similar measures.
I am of two minds on this.
Such laws are a good idea
First of all, why are these laws targeting doctors? Well, we’re the source, at least in part, at least at the beginning. It has become a habit with surgeons to send patients home with 30 percocet after a hysteroscopy, for instance, or a knee scope. I can’t speak to the habits of other kinds of doctors, but according the the New York Times, primary care doctors prescribe the bulk of opiates in this country, so there’s habits there too for, say, back pain or a sprained ankle. (http://www.nytimes.com/2016/03/17/health/er-pain-pills-opioids-addiction-doctors.html?hp&action=click&pgtype=Homepage&clickSource=story-heading&module=second-column-region®ion=top-news&WT.nav=top-news&_r=0).
Why so many pills? For the same reason I sometimes (well, a lot of times) put pre-packaged snack bags of Goldfish in my kids lunch instead of cutting up fruit or putting baby carrots in sandwich bags. It is the habit of human nature to go with what is easier. Escalators vs. stairs, jarred marinara instead of homemade, roller bags vs. the kind you have to carry. Dishwashers. Those things guys put on their heads so they can drink beer out of a straw while watching football. Quicker and easier. The patient will not call you on the weekend for a refill. The patient will not ask for more at their next office visit. It takes a lot longer to tell a patient why they can’t have a drug than just give it to them. It’s a hassle to explain to the people who do patient satisfactions surveys why Mr. Jones sent in a bad review because his doctor wouldn’t give him what he wanted.
On the other hand, it is generally taught in medical school that pain that doesn’t go away in a timely manner should prompt an investigation into why it hasn’t gone a way. This is definitely true for acute pain. If you’ve had your appendix out, 3-5 days of a mild narcotic should get you through the post-op phase. If you’re still having pain requiring opiates after a week, the doctor will, or should, look for other causes of pain like infection or perforated bowel. So in the case of acute pain in which the source is clear, Governor Baker’s (Charlie, of Massachusetts) new law makes sense.
Plus, the doctor can tell Mr. Jones it is not her fault – blame the government.
Such laws solve nothing
Studies suggest that giving patients a short course of opioids for acute pain does not lead to addiction. Here’s Scott Strassels, a pharmacologist writing in the journal Advanced Studies in Pharmaceuticals in 2008.
“…several studies have demonstrated very low rates of addiction among patients receiving opioids for acute pain. One chart review of nearly 12,000 hospitalized patients who received opioid medications identified only 4 patients with evidence of iatrogenic [treatment-caused] addiction.” (http://www.utasip.com/files/articlefiles/pdf/2nd%20article.pdf)
Secondly, anyone who has ever met an addict knows that restricting one source of his or her fix only sends the addict to a different source, i.e, the practitioner of the unregulated open drug market also known as your local heroin dealer. If my kid wants chocolate and my answer is no, they’ll go to their dad, the babysitter, the mailman, anyone else, hoping for a different answer. This is because it is human nature to want chocolate and kids want what they want NOW. Addicts are no different. Doctors are not responsible for what people put in their mouths or how they choose to use the pills they are given.
Lastly, drug prescribing restrictions are, or can be, a trifle condescending. Here’s Dr. Sarah Wakeman, a Massachusetts General Hospital physician who served on Baker’s Opioid Working Group, according to the Boston Globe:
“We prevent diabetes by limiting exposure to foods and beverages. We prevent lung cancer by limiting exposure to tobacco smoke,” she said at the news conference. So the proposed opioid prescription limit will help to minimize excessive exposure to opioids.”
Well, no actually. We (meaning doctors I assume) don’t limit exposure to foods, we don’t limit exposure to tobacco. We can recommend that people do these things, but people do what they want. Opioid addiction is a problem because of behavior, not just opioids.
Acknowledging that many families can qualify for subsidized insurance policies with free preventive care through the Affordable Care Act, Mr. Lansberry [James Lansberry, executive vice president of Samaritan Ministries International said that most new members were not “joining primarily on price; they are joining primarily on principle.”
On principle. The same principle that Christian Healthcare Ministries of Ohio invoked when the guys in charge spent $15 million on homes, vehicles and excessive salaries out of the central fund where members had sent payments.
I hate health insurance as much as anybody. But trusting your money and your life on a principle is dangerous.
In this election year, with so many choices to be made between so many totally insane and completely unqualified applicants, I think it would be helpful to remember how totally insane and completely unqualified any of us are when it comes to making decisions, political, occupational, medical, or otherwise.
Most people don’t know what they want.
We have to see things in context and comparison. What we see tends to change depending on what things are next to each other and how we judge each. My car looks great next to that old jalopy but it looks like a bucket of bolts compared to the Jaguar on the other side. Nursing looks great next to my high school friend working at Starbucks, but maybe doesn’t look so great next to your other friend who is transplanting hearts.
What other people think also has a great impact on what we think we want. When somebody says “You’re so smart. You should go to med school”, they are imposing their judgements, values, and stereotypes on the decision. But you’ll care about what they think, and as I said above, it will influence how you decide.
Another problem with knowing What You Want is the relationships we have with past present, and future. Knowing What You Want means that you have to be able to anticipate how you will feel if you choose different options, which in the case of health care is very difficult to do. And the ability to accurately predict how you will feel is even more important when the thing being chosen, as in medicine, is years away from actually happening.
Here is how Kent Greenfield, in his book The Myth of Choice, puts this:
“Our ability to make anything close to a good decision in the present depends not only on our judgements about what we want, think, and feel right now but on our memories of what we wanted, thought, and felt in the past and our predictions about what we will want, think, and feel in the future.”
A classic example of this is in food shopping. When we go to the store we are buying in the present things we think we will eat in the future, because we liked them in the past. If we buy something that is new, we are predicting that we will like it in the future and that when the future becomes the present we will eat it, because we liked similar things in the past. When it comes time to actually choose something to eat, we might or might not like the things we bought.
Most people know what they want.
This is why a simple list of pros and cons doesn’t work when it comes to these kinds of decisions. Gut feeling is a powerful indicator of what we really want. Most of the time our gut is drowned out by social structures and expectations, but it is a very important piece to pay attention to. For example, if you are making a decision about whether or not to buy a new car you might make a list of all the good things and bad things about buying a new car vs. keeping the old one. What you might not factor in is the gut feeling that says “I want a new car. Now.” So you end up buying one even if your list concluded it wasn’t a good idea. We are not completely rational creatures.
You have to get this step right. No amount of information will help if you don’t know yourself and what you want. Not just what you think you want, or what you think you should want, or what someone else tells you is the right thing to want.
The latest in the “Of Course All Women Are Irresponsible Idiots” category of health care.
Women all over Massachusetts, where clearly new mothers are all selfish, drunk, and lazy, are now being informed, through the haze of hormonal blizzards, the fog of sleep deprivation, and the blinding realization “Oh, S#$@*, what have I done to my life!” that putting their newborn infants in the nursery for a few hours is, well, not allowed. Here’s the Boston Globe: (http://www.bostonglobe.com/lifestyle/health-wellness/2016/02/06/nurseries/Ur4Xi846SPStbUx5PhxQtJ/story.html)
Women seeking a few hours of rest after hours of labor or a caesarean section often are surprised to learn that Massachusetts hospitals are increasingly restricting nursery access or, in some states, have closed the nurseries altogether. In Boston, Boston Medical Center began widespread “rooming-in’’ years ago, Mass. General followed suit more recently, and Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center is taking similar steps. They collectively deliver more than 11,000 babies a year. Brigham and Women’s Hospital also expects to move in this direction.
And why is this new trend being imposed upon consenting adults? Budget cuts? Lack of infant nurses? Bankruptcy of the company that makes those little plastic bassinets on rollers? Too many episodes of “Switched at Birth”? Did we run out of pink and blue stocking caps?
No, ladies. We need to be taught, schooled if you will. Left to our own devices we would all be terrible mothers, our children would all have attachment disorder, and they’d all be on the Short Bus because of the alleged evils of formula. Oh, and all the kids have Fetal Alcohol Syndrome because the world hasn’t, as the CDC recommends, banned half the world population from drinking alcohol between the ages of 21 and 50 (but that’s another story). Apparently,
The shift is part of a national movement designed to promote breastfeeding, bonding, and parenting skills by having mothers and healthy newborns room together around-the-clock, attended by nurses who look after their needs. Many postpartum specialists now believe that nurseries, long a life raft for recovering mothers, is not the best, or most natural, way to provide care.
Ok, yes, let’s do this. Since we’ve already decided that women shouldn’t make choices about breast vs. bottle, abortion or childbirth, drinking or not drinking, let’s also take away their choice to not drown in the wonderful, horrible, crazy sea of new motherhood. Because we really can’t be trusted to choose the best way for ourselves and our children.
You know what’s “natural”? Having a baby squatting in a field, wrapping the baby in your headscarf, and going back to the harvest. You know what’s “natural”? Women being pregnant non-stop for 40 years. You know what’s “natural”? Sending the first twelve kids to work the farm while you “bond” with the thirteenth.
The world, mercifully, at least in the US, is different now. Women now have the choice to earn money while squatting in the fields and nursing and being pregnant. Except for the vast majority of women, it’s not a choice. You know what promotes breastfeeding? Paid maternity leave. You know what promotes bonding? Paid maternity leave. You know what promotes good parenting skills? Paid maternity leave.
But, sure, take away the nursery. I’m sure the Postpartum Specialists know best.
Hey everyone, I’m back! It has been awhile since I posted here. Aside from the inescapable fact that life goes on while I’m trying to live my life, one of the the reasons I haven’t written is that nothing health-care related has outraged me recently. And I definitely write better when agitated about something. Of course, I have plenty of disgust for much of what is going on in the world. Guns? Outraged. Syrian refugees? Outraged. ISIS. Outraged. Donald Trump? Please. Healthcare? Meh.
Except for one thing. Health is more than doctor visits and pharmaceuticals. One could most definitely say that a person killed by a gun is not healthy. But how about a Syrian refugee? Is she really healthy? Or the ISIS fighter. Is he healthy?
Back in 1948 the World Health Organization defined health in this way: (http://www.cdc.gov/hrqol/pdfs/mhd.pdf)
Health is a state of complete physical, mental, and social well-being – not merely the absence of disease or infirmity
And here’s the CDC in 2000:(http://www.cdc.gov/hrqol/pdfs/mhd.pdf)
Some of the variables generally considered to be the domain of health include premature mortality and life expectancy, various symptoms and physiological states, physical functions, emotional and cognitive functions, and perceptions about present and future health.
Everything that involves humans is health-related. But that’s too big, right? Health as the sum of a person’s well-being in all parts of life. We have trouble dealing with such a broad definition. So we restrict it. We decide that, well, health is the sum of a white person’s well-being, or an American’s well-being, or the well-being of a certain demographic group. And we further restrict ourselves to things we can easily define and treat: high blood pressure, diabetes.
The mass shooters in California, for instance. Those two were employed, legal, presumably tax-paying citizens with, apparently, no chronic health problems. Healthy.
The Syrian refugees. If you believe, as I do, that the refugees are upstanding citizens of what used to be a functioning society, and assuming, for the sake of argument, that they are physically healthy (or were), they would be healthy except for the part about social well-being. Specifically, they are homeless and stateless. But they are foreign, unknown, part of a demographic group with some very violent outliers, so their social ill-health is not our concern.
ISIS fighters. Generally young and healthy, no symptoms of illness, normal physical functioning, no diagnosable mental or emotional problems. (Radicalization is a social process, not a mental disease.) They are not homeless or stateless. Healthy. Except for being surrounded by a society that can’t provide jobs or positively directed meaningful work, being constantly in contact with violence and being fed a steady diet of extremist rhetoric. That part in the CDC definition of health about perceptions of present and future health? Yeah, they definitely have a problem there. They are not so healthy, maybe, but they are also foreign and plus they kill people, so their health is not our concern either.
Until it is.