John Denver v. Cynicism

February 18, 2013 by · 1 Comment
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John Denver Best Buy TheaterWe live longer now but I don’t know that we live demonstrably better. Perhaps as a testament to my devotion, I bought tickets and brought my girlfriend to see John Denver w/band at the Best Buy theater in Manhattan. She’s a fan; I could not be described as such. The band was live, John Denver decidedly not– he having died in a plane crash back in 1997. But a video screen brought Mr. Denver back for the evening, and the band played wonderfully along in the foreground as video John Denver talked and sang– never once coming close to a dissonant note while  looking and sounding like something that could only be described as the long lost innocence of a culture past.

Maybe his act was nothing but hokhum even back then, the unabashed optimism of his Country Roads, Sunny Shoulders and Rocky Mountain Highs just something we wanted to believe about ourselves: unbridled, essentially good and not particularly complicated. But in the 70s and into the 80s until his death, John Denver sold millions of records, hosted the Grammys five times, and an annual Christmas show on television which is said to have been viewed by over 60 million people; today he would be laughed away in a maelstrom of derision.

Maybe this is just the plaint of someone whose beard has gone gray and has answered one too many emails during dinner; maybe there is nothing essentially different in this lament than what I heard as a kid when old people pined for Glenn Miller and Benny Goodman: lost youth. But it seems like something more was lost in these last few decades. Face to face with John Denver’s stark exuberance, profoundly, I was driven to tears.

And yes, I sang along.

I’m not quite ready to give up a life in the law and what I learned from Voltaire, but will note that there appears to be a correlation between cynicism, pessimism and adverse health– and a good case is made for an inverse correlation between cynicism and success. Maybe take a minute or two and click and have a listen– think about it as a moment’s analog vacation from the drivers of modernity, from data mining dossiers, writ of attainder drones and thousand page statutes. Or, for the more adventurous, an evening with the posthumous Mr. Denver is still available– but be careful, if you’re of a certain age you may find yourself , inexplicably, crying over something you hadn’t even realized you lost.


Hurricane Sandy: Effects on Healthcare Seekers and Providers Alike

February 14, 2013 by · Leave a Comment
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NJ National Guard Soldiers_assist_residents_displaced_by_Hurricane_Sandy_in_Hoboken,_N.J.Although the madness and overt preparedness that accompanies most major storms is enough to keep most American families safe until the power returns and the roads are cleared, the ferocity of natural disasters in recent years has deprived many of the ability to reach healthcare services, as well as subjecting others to new or unforeseen health risks. As was evident in last year’s atrocious Hurricane Irene, the dangers of large scale weather events are far reaching and effect both those who are or will be in need of medical care, as well as the systems of healthcare providing and insurance.
This year’s most recent disaster, Hurricane Sandy has been no different, with at least fourteen states effected, and the death toll reaching twenty four in New York alone.  Boasting wind speeds above eighty miles an hour, and widespread flooding, millions of households across the American East have been put at risk. As citizens may require heightened healthcare needs due to the specific dangers of the storm, many individuals may face obstacles to appropriate health care, as well exposure to new dangers which may require access to health care.
With millions cut off from society due to fallen trees, flooded streets, and the dangers of fallen power lines, many individuals simply cannot travel to the nearest health care provider in a convenient manner. Due to mass telephone unavailability and overused cellular systems, many other citizens could not even signal for help in the event that they needed emergency assistance. Geographical bars to healthcare services are possibly the most expected and normal dangers that this natural disaster posed to the healthcare system. Claims of differing and unforeseen health risks have also been reported from many different areas effected by the storm, ranging from the typical flooding and structural collapses to more unusual dangers.
For example, in New York City, the “Positive Pest Management Corp” as well as other members of the scientific community have voiced concern over the viability of two less evident threats: rodents and raw sewage. While it is estimated that a large number of rats which dwell below the water level may have drowned, there have been reports of increased rat sightings as well as warnings that the large number of rats out on the street can exacerbate the risks posed by disease. Sources have also hypothesized that the flooded landscape may provide much more food for the newly surfaced rats that usually habitate in the underbellies of now-flooded urban areas; this may necessitate heightened pest-control needs in order to promote general health.
Although the rising tides may, allegedly, dilute the disease pathogens associated with rats and other disease-bearing creatures, as reported by the Huffington Post, researcher Joan Rose, the chairman of water research at the University of Michigan, was reported as saying that there is almost always an uptick in illness after a major flooding event due to the spreading of pathogens in flooded sewage waters– most notably E. Coli. This could be cause for concern in some of the more flood-afflicted portions of New York, New Jersey, and the greater eastern seaboard.
Regardless of exposure to sewage, flood waters in general may pose considerable risks to the public. For example, health officials in Atlantic City, New Jersey, are advising residents to not use water unless it is boiled. Dr. Rick Hong, an emergency medicine specialist at Cooper University Hospital asserted, “To be on the safe side, make sure you boil water first, right after an event, so you don’t get sick from the bacteria, the parasites that might be in the contaminated water.” This type of danger has pushed many residents to bottled water, as the safety of their tap water appears to be in question.
Although the everyday citizen faces increased health care difficulties created by Hurricane Sandy, the health care system as a whole is also significantly strained and damaged by the costly hurricane. For example, in its most immediate form, the hurricane itself bars emergency and health care services from running at efficient levels due to power outages, flooding, and the unreliability of phone services. As healthcare providers must struggle to meet the needs of the public, providers and insurers alike must bear the heightened cost of mitigating the health-related damage from the hurricane.
On top of the costs of meeting health needs, Sandy has also lead to the cancellation of more than 300 American Red Cross blood drives across fourteen afflicted states. These cancellations stopped approximately nine thousand lost units of blood and blood plasma from reaching those patients who are in need. This situation is exacerbated by the fact that hospitals and emergency health facilities could face heightened workloads due to Sandy before the noticeable dip in the blood supply.
Aside from risks to the everyday citizen, Hurricane Sandy also poses significant risks to the health care system at large– and will have significant economic and healthcare availability consequences in time. Hopefully, future natural disaster damages can be prevented given the knowledge gathered during this particular event.
1) “storm barrels through region, leaving destructive path.” James Barron
2) “rats add health concerns to list of new york’s problems.” Liz Kilmas.
3) “hurricane sandy hinders blood and platelet donations.” American Red Cross.
4) “health: drinking water safety after hurricane sandy.” Stephanie Stahl.
This post originally appeared on the Health and Law Blog.

Health Care Professional Ratings Tied to Efficiency

December 6, 2012 by · Leave a Comment
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The degree of effort put into selecting health care professionals varies among consumers.  For instance, many relatively young users of health care may only go through the motions of selecting a primary care physician, whom they may seldom visit, and never investigate specialists that provide more particularized care.  A recurring question, however, amongst more frequent health care consumers is “who provides the best care?”  As consumers become older, mature, develop ailments more frequently, and raise families, this question becomes asked more and more frequently.  Where is such a consumer to look for reliable information?  Yes, rating systems of health care professionals are available.  But the objectivity of such systems is often questioned because of the agenda of those developing the rating systems.  For instance, Andrew Cuomo, the former New York Attorney General, injected New York State into the practices through which an insurance company rated the health care providers in its network.  The concern identified by the Attorney General’s office was that insurance companies would rate health care providers based upon their ability to provide care cheaply, rather than on their ability to provide quality care.  This concern stemmed from the undeniable profit self-interest of the insurance company. However, was such a stance by the now Governor necessary or appropriate?  I think not.

Determining the quality of care delivered by a health care provider is an inherently subjective task.  The outcomes of individual patients will depend upon a multitude of factors, many of which are out of the control of the provider.  Different patients will react differently to different treatments because of their unique physiology.  The same ailment will have indiscernibly progressed to varying degrees in different patients.  A doctor could follow all the proper protocols, provide the care called for (i.e., satisfy the standard of care), yet a poor outcome could nonetheless result. The outcome in these instances is largely the result of the “luck of the draw” with respect to a patient pool.  Thus, trying to determine which doctors provide the best care is inevitably a limited, if not fruitless, endeavor.

Additionally, a mechanism is already in place to ensure that substandard doctors are not practicing.  The training to become a doctor and the required certifications to practice serves as the screening mechanism to ensure that health care providers have the requisite skill to perform their trade.  So long as doctors are meeting this minimum established by their field, patients should be led to believe in the ability of those doctors to provide adequate care.  Ranking doctors based on outcomes naturally leads consumers to believe that entry level standards are watered down such that doctors “at the bottom” are not competent to perform; which is simply not the case.

Finally, ranking doctors based upon efficiency or cost factors serves a valid societal purpose.  Firstly, putting utility aside, such metrics are readily quantifiable, accurate, and objective.  And with respect to utility, many patients want efficiency.  An efficient doctor is, it would seem, much less likely to engage in “defensive medicine.”  For a time pressed patient, as many of us are, reassurance that our time will not be wasted with unnecessary tests and precautions holds real value.  And on a societal level, it is obvious that health care costs are out of control.  I have recently been put in a position where I must acquire a policy for my family on the open market (I am leaving a secure government position with subsidized health benefits for a position as a law clerk with a small law firm, which does not extend health benefits to its clerks). My monthly contribution is currently $330 for a health plan with no deductible and $20 co-pays.  It appears as though my best option on the open market is a $1200/month plan, with a $1,000 deductible.  My family is young and healthy. Our annual doctor visits consist of well visits, totaling approximately $1,000 in total costs. With this in mind, if insurance companies can encourage the use of efficient providers (who have been vetted by their profession as proficient at what they do), then this practice should be encouraged.  A “high efficiency” network at a reasonable cost would certainly perform well on the open market, particularly among us consumers that don’t actually anticipate using their policies.  Health care is or will be a significant factor in everyone’s life at some point.   However, if we can prevent it from becoming the driving financial concern among the middle class, that would appear to be a worthy cause.

Adam Peterson is a third-year evening student at Seton Hall University School of Law. He received his B.S. in Conservation Biology from the State University of New York College at Cortland in 2007. Since that time he has worked for the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation as an Environmental Analyst, reviewing development projects for compliance with New York State environmental regulations.

Image by Ludraman.


Project Shows Substantial Decrease in Colorectal Surgery Infections

There was a time in medical science when doctors did not wash their hands prior to operating on their patients (some might say, that to a greater extent than seems possible, this is still the case among medical professionals and point to a number of recent studies as uncomfortable proof). This failure of doctors to wash hands in the medical forum led to the otherwise avoidable death of many of their patients. Up until the mid 1800s, medical science had simply not made the connection between bacteria, transference, infection and death.

Ignaz Semmelweis, a Hungarian physician who was Director of the maternity clinic at the Vienna General Hospital in Austria, made the connection after what is said to have been an extensive statistical analysis in the 1840s, and demonstrated that hand-washing could drastically reduce the number of women dying during childbirth. He introduced a rigorous hand scrubbing protocol and enough women stopped dying to earn him the honorific, “savior of our mothers.”

But as an article from the UK’s Science Museum, Exploring the History of Medicine, points out

Until the late 1800s surgeons did not scrub up before surgery or even wash their hands between patients, causing infections to be transferred from one patient to another. Doctors and medical students routinely moved from dissecting corpses to examining new mothers without first washing their hands, causing death by puerperal or ‘childbed’ fever as a consequence. As dissection became more important to medical practice in the 1800s, this only increased.

Semmelweis showing again that the common sense of one era is the uncommon brilliance of one bygone.

Which brings us to this latest study/project showing new solutions which decrease the risk of colorectal surgical site infection. According to the Associated Press in an article about the project,

“Almost 2 million health care-related infections occur each year nationwide; more than 90,000 of these are fatal.”


“Infections linked with colorectal surgery are particularly common because intestinal tract bacteria are so abundant.”


According to the press release regarding the Project,

A project to reduce colorectal surgical site infections (SSIs) saved more than $3.7 million in costs for 135 avoided SSIs. The two-and-a-half year project included seven hospitals and was directed by the Joint Commission Center for Transforming Healthcare in collaboration with the American College of Surgeons.

The participating hospitals were able to reduce superficial incisional SSIs, which affect skin and underlying tissue, by 45 percent and all types of colorectal SSIs by 32 percent. The average length of stay for hospital patients with any type of colorectal SSI decreased from an average of 15 days to 13 days. In comparison, patients with no SSIs had an average length of stay of eight days.

The press release further notes that

Colorectal surgery was identified as the focus of the project because SSIs are disproportionately higher among patients following colorectal surgeries. Colorectal surgery is a common procedure across different types of hospitals, can have significant complications, presents significant opportunities for improvement, and has high variability in performance across hospitals. The project addressed preadmission, preoperative, intraoperative, postoperative and post discharge follow-up processes for all surgical patients undergoing emergency and elective colorectal surgery, with the exception of trauma and transplant patients and patients under the age of 18. Project participants studied the potential factors that contribute to all three types of colorectal SSIs – superficial incisional, deep incisional and organ space SSIs, which affect organs and the space surrounding them.


The AP article:

Solutions included having patients shower with special germ-fighting soap before surgery, and having surgery teams change gowns, gloves and instruments during operations to prevent spreading germs picked up during the procedures.

Some hospitals used special wound-protecting devices on surgery openings to keep intestine germs from reaching the skin.

The average rate of infections linked with colorectal operations at the seven hospitals dropped from about 16% of patients during a 10-month phase when hospitals started adopting changes to almost 11% once all the changes had been made.

The AP article further notes the timely nature of the Project’s benefits:

Besides wanting to keep patients healthy, hospitals have a monetary incentive to prevent these infections. Medicare cuts payments to hospitals that have lots of certain health care-related infections, and those cuts are expected to increase under the new health care law.


Drug and Alcohol Addiction, Costs and Lack of Care

October 22, 2012 by · 2 Comments
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Interesting article in the Washington Post/ Kaiser Health News I stumbled across in our sidebar; it discusses both the cost of addiction, with emphasis given to drugs and alcohol, and the absolute dearth of doctors trained in addiction medicine.

The article states that

“Of the 985,375 practicing physicians in the United States, only about 1,200 are trained in addiction medicine….”

And notes that

A recent comprehensive report by the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse (CASA) at Columbia University found that most doctors fail to identify or diagnose substance abuse ‘or know what to do with patients who present with treatable symptoms.’

Which is problematic, given that the report is said to have found that “Only about 10 percent of the 22 million Americans with a drug or alcohol problem receive treatment,” “addiction [including nicotine] is linked to more than 70 diseases or conditions and accounts for a third of inpatient hospital costs. The press release from the report, “Closing the Gap between Science and Practice,” also notes that “Costs to federal, state and local governments amount to 11 percent of total spending; 95 cents of every dollar pay for the consequences and only 2 cents go to prevention and treatment.”

And rather ominously, the WaPo/Kaiser Health News article reports that “The federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration estimates that up to a third of the 30 million Americans who may gain health insurance under the Affordable Care Act have a substance abuse or mental health problem.”

There’s some math to be done here regarding costs, and I won’t suggest that I know what percentage the total spending should be for prevention- but I’ll guess that 2% for prevention and treatment is not ideal. And the thought that “most doctors fail to identify or diagnose substance abuse ‘or know what to do with patients who present with treatable symptoms,’” is less than comforting.

But, as someone with a rather large personal stake in all this- in recovery for nearly two decades- what is somewhat comforting is that if, as the report suggests, there is a gap between the science and practice (actually, the more you look, “chasm” seems more fitting a description), a closer look at the science shows some remarkable advances in medical science’s understanding of addiction-especially as it regards the  neurobiological processes, focus on the brain’s “reward circuitry,”  neuroadaptations maintained by former drug users long after drug use has stopped, with particular attention on the mesolimbic dopamine system, and, more generally, addiction as a disease of bio-psycho-social etiology.

Armed with this knowledge and the prospect of the newly insured and afflicted making their way to emergency rooms and court houses all across America, perhaps this next decade can be about implementation- always difficult, but surely the fruit of hard won knowledge. And if you have any doubts about the actual costs of drug and alcohol addiction- tallied in lives and families ruined- or to get a sense of just how important implementation is-I would highly recommend you find your way to an Al-Anon or Nar-Anon meeting, and just listen.


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