Archive for June, 2013

I abhor the pinkification of our culture.


I have nothing against the color pink (for a brief time in my childhood, after wearing a princess-like peach bridesmaid dress at my aunt’s wedding, peach was actually my favorite color), but I do have a deep dislike of the culture of cancer that has grabbed pink ribbons (or pink cookware, clothes, and even garbage barrels) to raise awareness *cough* money *cough* for foundations that make a big deal out of breast cancer.


I don’t want to downplay breast cancer.  According to The American Cancer Society, breast cancer is the most common cancer among American Women after skin cancer.  It is estimated that around 40,000 women will die from breast cancer this year.  But breast cancer awareness is also a BIG money maker- turning over many million dollars per year.


I’ve yet to see this movie, but the trailer raises some interesting points.



All the pinkification and fanfare would be tolerable if the breast cancer awareness campaigning, and most importantly the mammography that it promotes, reduced the toll of breast cancer, but the reality, according to a November 2012 New England Journal of Medicine article [1], is not such a pretty picture.


Let’s cover some of the basics…


To be an effective screening tool, a modality must detect life-threatening disease at an early treatable stage.  It follows that an effective screening tool then decreases the prevalence of late stage disease.


While screening mammograms have certainly led to an increased detection of breast lesions (it has effectively doubled the rate of diagnosis), the reality is that this increase in detection has not led to a significant decrease in advanced disease.  [The NEJM abstract is here, and certainly worth a read]. Furthermore, it appears that increased detection has had, at best, only a small effect on the rate of death from breast cancer.


What the NEJM of article doesn’t cover is the psychological toll that the pinkification of our culture has had.  Women feel like they are failing themselves if they don’t start getting annual mammograms at the age of 40.  Teenage girls are being brought up to believe that their breasts are two pre-cancerous lesions… ticking time bombs.


Yes- breast cancer kills, but there are also plenty of breast lesions that women have that they would live and die with, not from, if it weren’t for aggressive screening recommendations.  I’m not a psychiatrist (and I’m not going to be), but I do wonder what the increased diagnosis (and then “survival”) of otherwise slow-growing and relatively benign cancers does to the psyche – the survivor effect.  These factors raise a number of concerns, without even bringing up any monetary issues…


Apparently the prostate cancer ribbon is blue, but men (and our culture) seem to have avoided a tidal wave of “bluification”.  Perhaps, as the gender that tends to utilize the healthcare system less, [2], men have been seen as a less lucrative target. Nonetheless, prostate cancer has fallen victim to some of the same pitfalls (abuses?) as breast cancer.


Prostate cancer is the most common non-skin malignancy and the second leading cause of cancer death in men. Prostate specific antigen [PSA] is a protein that can be detected in the blood, and until fairly recently it had been recommended that men undergo regular PSA testing as a screening for prostate malignancy.


The problem with PSA testing however, much like mammography, is that it catches many lesions that a man would die with, not from.  As with mammography, increased detection leads to increased treatment, increased surgery, increased patient stress, and increased financial burden for the patient and the system. And for what?


Many of the lesions that PSA screening catches do not negatively impact the life expectancy of the patient.  In fact, a paper published yesterday in the Annals of Internal Medicine [3] shows the opposite- that treating these lesions (instead of observing them), actually leads to a decrease in quality-adjusted life expectancy (and increased medical costs).


What does this all mean?  Should we give up on screening tests for the two big sex-specific cancers?


No- I’m not a nihilist when it comes to screening, but I do think that screening should be done with full patient awareness of the risks, benefits, and consequences.


I think the American Urological Association (AUA) is on the right track, with their 2013 guidelines that greatly limit the recommendations for PSA testing (these came after the 2012 US Preventative Taskforce recommendations, which advised against the use of all PSA screening). While the AUA made general recommendations for some populations that PSA screening is unnecessary (those with a low-risk who are young, those who are old, and those with less than a 10-15 year life expectancy), for a large group the recommendation is that men should talk to their doctors about the relative risks and benefits, and from that discussion make a decision based on their personal values and preferences.


Having a patient weigh in with his personal values doesn’t seem like a particularly groundbreaking recommendation, but in many ways it is.  A patient’s medical care should be in his hands as much as possible, and when the risks and benefits of a screening tool are unclear it is appropriate that the patient and doctor discuss the risks and benefits.  Looking back at the data on mammography over the last few years, I think it is only right that doctors start to have similar discussions with women about their personal values and preferences when it comes to mammography. [The elephant in the room, however, is that if screening tests are deemed “optional”, will insurance companies cover them?]


So where does that leave us.   


Screening MAY catch an early cancer, but it may also catch a lesion that you would die with not from.  It can lead to extensive testing, stress, expenses, and surgery.  I’m not saying we shouldn’t screen, but I’m saying that the medical community (and the organizations that profit from cancer-awareness) need to be honest about the reality of our testing modalities.


I also think this is a call to arms for scientists.  The screening tests we have are not meeting our needs.  While the tests above can tell us about potential lesions, they tell us little about the malignancy of the lesions.  We need tests that can more accurately tell us what is going on in our bodies.  Those tests are coming- in the forms of mRNA and protein assays, but until they get here I think we ought to have more informed discussions about what screening tests are really doing today.


1.            Bleyer, A. and H.G. Welch, Effect of three decades of screening mammography on breast-cancer incidence. N Engl J Med, 2012. 367(21): p. 1998-2005.

2.            Bertakis, K.D., R. Azari, L.J. Helms, E.J. Callahan, and J.A. Robbins, Gender differences in the utilization of health care services. J Fam Pract, 2000. 49(2): p. 147-52.

3.            Hayes, J.A., D.A. Ollendorf, S.D. Pearson, M.J. Barry, P.W. Kantoff, P.A. Lee, and P.M. McMahon, Observation Versus Initial Tretment for Men with Localized, Low-Risk Prostate Cancer: A Cost-effectiveness analysis. Annals of Internal Medicine, 2013. 158(12): p. 853-860.

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OK- enough (for now) of the photo documentation of my past month of explorations!  While I am keen to write more about the environment, wildlife, and general experience of my last month in Utah, it’s time for me to get back to the reality of a med student and think (and write) about medicine.


A number of schools (and programs) offer Wilderness Medicine electives for medical students, but I chose (and was fortunate to get a spot in) the elective offered by UMass Medical School.  A few things drew me to this program.  First- it has been running for 20 years, so I initially suspected they were doing something right.  Second- many Wilderness Medicine courses are taught in classrooms with field trips and forays “into the wild” for practical experiences.  The UMass course is taught in the wild. With the exception of our first day of lecture, conducted in a hotel meeting room, all our lectures were done outside on snow, in boats, on beaches, or sitting in the desert.  Thirdly- we got to experience three different environments in the course of three weeks.  A few other courses are taught in the wild, but they are taught in a single environment.  Utah gave us access to three, very different, environments (as shown in my previous posts: alpine, river, and desert).


This was our main classroom in the alpine section.  We'd just arrived and are taking a quick break before setting camp, but this area was left open and we would congregate here for lectures.

This was our main classroom in the alpine section. A classmate snapped this shortly after we arrived when we were taking a quick break before setting camp, but this area was left open and we would congregate here for lectures. 


When I initially described this course to friends and acquaintances, many suggested that this course was basically Outward Bound for doctors.  The answer, I suppose, is yes and no.  There was certainly a lot of medical learning done in this class, but we also gained life skills that will not only help us in future endeavors in the wild but will also give us confidence as we go forward in our medical careers.  Broadly, it taught us to have confidence in our decisions and to use what we have available to do the best that we can.  I’m unlikely to ever have to improvise a splint in the Emergency Room, but knowing that I can, and having that confidence, will carry me and my classmates a long way as we progress to interns, residents, and one day attending physicians.


As you might expect, the medical topics that we covered were married to the environments and activities we were doing.  Before heading out on our first big trek we had a thorough lecture on blister pathophysiology, prevention, and treatment. Once in the alpine, we promptly learned about hypothermia, and how to create a hypowrap to help someone with hypothermia.  We learned about frostbite and non-freezing cold injury, as well as thermal burns, sunburns, and sun blindness.  While in the mountains, we also discussed various problems that occur at high altitude.


A lot of injuries in the wild are orthopedic, so we had multiple sessions on splinting, immobilizing, and caring for these injuries.  We also learned various lifts, rolls, and carries, utilizing minimal equipment- since you don’t always have a backboard and a team of people to help you.  Along those lines, we learned just how difficult it is to litter carry someone out of a bad situation (you need about 18 people to go 1 mile, and it will take you a LONG time).


It's not what you would do in a hospital setting, but how do you get someone with a potential cervical-spine injury free after you’ve just dug them out of an avalanche slide? Stabilize their neck with their arms and drag them! (And kudos to our instructors.  Not only did they dig a deep snow cave for us to locate with avalanche beacons, but one of the brave residents agreed to be buried down there for one of our “scenarios”. I wish I could have seen the look on my face when we realized there was a person 5 feet under the snow!)

It’s not what you would do in a hospital setting, but how do you get someone with a potential cervical-spine injury free after you’ve dug them out of an avalanche slide? Stabilize their neck with their arms and drag them. (And kudos to our instructors. Not only did they dig a deep snow cave for us to locate with avalanche beacons, but one of the brave residents agreed to be buried down there for one of our “scenarios”. I wish I could have seen the look on our faces when we realized there was a person ~5 feet under the snow!)



The slope that we dug our patient out of- the instructors made the scenarios very realistic while keeping everyone safe.

The slope that we dug our patient out of- the instructors made the scenarios very realistic while keeping everyone safe.


Injuries in every settings... here I’m sporting a mid-humeral splint fashioned out of a camping chair (in the rain and on the river).

Injuries in every settings… here I’m sporting a mid-humeral splint fashioned out of a camping chair (in the rain and on the river).


A number of dermatologic conditions occur in the wild, so we discussed their various etiologies.  We also discussed methods of wound management, including wounds caused by snakebites, insect stings, and mammalian injury.  (On that note, during our time in the desert our group spotted rattlesnakes, scorpions, and a black widow spider.)


A trio of beasties spotted on our trip.

A trio of beasties spotted on our trip.


Many of the topics we covered are much more likely to be encountered in the wilderness than in a clinical setting, but some topics are ever-present in any setting.  Anaphylaxis and allergies can occur at any time, and while you may acquire tick-borne illnesses or infections diarrhea in the wild, the incubation time for many of these mean that they frequently present at a primary care office.  Nonetheless, these were topics we covered on this course, frequently harking back to the “bible” of wilderness medicine: Wilderness Medicine written by Paul Auerbach.


Thus far I’ve mainly focused on the didactic portion of the course, but much of the learning took place in “scenarios”.  I’ve never participated in simulation medicine, save for the standardized patients we get on our OSCE (Objective Structured Clinical Exam) at the end of most clerkships. While at first it can be awkward to “practice” medicine on people that you know are acting, once you get into the part it is a wonderful way to learn.


The beauty (and perhaps the terror?) of our scenarios was that our instructors would let us “play it out” in the field.  In clinical settings, while students may participate in discussions about patient care, they are never in the driving seat.  In our wilderness scenarios we were allowed to make the decisions and deal with the consequences.  At times this was frustrating (can’t I just ask the Wilderness Fellow standing over my shoulder what I should do), but it also allowed me to make mistakes that will stick with me for years to come.  For example, if a “helpful” stander by hands your patient some food, make sure they’re not allergic to it before they take a bite (that’s how a painful case of sun blindness can progress into life threatening anaphylaxis).


The scenarios also allowed (or I should say made) students make decisions about evacuation. Do we evacuate the patient? How? Can they walk? Do they need a litter? Do they need cervical-spine protection? Do we leave now or hunker down for the night and head out tomorrow? What’s the best evacuation route? Could a rescue team get a helicopter in here? A snowmobile? Maybe we should send runners to a ranger station? Where’s the closest location we can get cell phone reception?


The scenarios progressed with our wilderness medicine knowledge, as well as our knowledge of Incident Command Structure (ICS).  There were twelve medical students in our class, and when we had a scenario with one patient, it would be easy to have “too many cooks in the kitchen”.  On the other hand, when we had three patients, we could quickly run out of hands as people were relegated to “safety officer”, “equipment”, “communications”, and if the scenario necessitated it “runners” leaving the scene to make contact with civilization.


All in all, the medical education side of this course was excellent.  Some of the medicine was a review, but it was a much-needed review and one that frequently found we students (who are trained to practice medicine in well-stocked hospitals with multiple imaging modalities at our fingertips) asking “what do we have that we can use” and “how can we do what we need to get done”.


Medically, this class was a reminder of quite how much we’ve learned about medicine in the last few years.  It also emphasized that frequently there is no “right way” to handle a situation and your best guess and best efforts may save the day. We were also reminded of the reality that sometimes there is nothing you can do to save a life… and that is an important lesson to learn as well.



Not a bad place for a lecture...

Not a bad place for a lecture…

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