Author Archives: Martha Bebinger

Martha Bebinger covers health care and other general assignments for WBUR. She was a Nieman Fellow at Harvard University, class of 2010.

Dartmouth Study Looks At When Doctors And Patients Clash Over ‘Unnecessary’ Care

A new Dartmouth study looked at whether or not doctors' actions are influenced by an interest in controlling health care costs. (Alex Proimos/Flickr)

A new Dartmouth study looked at whether or not doctors’ actions are influenced by an interest in controlling health care costs. (Alex Proimos/Flickr)

What happens when you want a test that your doctor thinks won’t help? Has a national campaign against high-cost, low-value care helped physicians have these tough conversations? And what drives doctors to provide care that they don’t think a patient needs?

These are the sorts of questions that researchers at the Dartmouth Institute for Health Policy and Clinical Practice sought to answer in a new study that came out Tuesday. The researchers surveyed clinicians at Atrius Health, Massachusetts’ largest outpatient care provider, with over a million patients, to determine what drives physicians to order tests they don’t think are in a patient’s best interest, and whether doctors were interested in controlling costs.

While nearly all doctors (96.8 percent) in the survey agreed that they should “limit unnecessary tests,” one in three thought that it was “unfair” to ask physicians to consider cost, and nearly one in three (30.7 percent) thought there was too much emphasis on cost. Primary care doctors were more likely to report being pressured by patients to order unnecessary tests, while surgeons were more likely to be concerned about malpractice.

Dr. Tom Sequist, one of the study’s authors, said in an interview that the researchers found a big gap between physicians’ desire to limit costly and low-value care, and their ability to do so.

“The thing that strikes me the most about this study is that over 90 percent of physicians said they were interested in reducing unnecessary cost, but only a third said they understood the role of cost in the system,” Sequist said. “It’s like saying, ‘I’m really interested in physics, but I have no idea how physics works.’ ” Continue reading

7 Things To Know About The Nation’s First Penis Transplant

Surgical team members Dr. Dicken Ko, left, and Dr. Curtis Cetrulo address the media during a news conference at Massachusetts General Hospital, Monday. (Elise Amendola/AP)

Surgical team members Dr. Dicken Ko, left, and Dr. Curtis Cetrulo address the media during a news conference at Massachusetts General Hospital, Monday. (Elise Amendola/AP)

From The New York Times to cable TV to here at CommonHealth, the country’s first penis transplant made major headlines Monday.

The patient, 64-year-old Thomas Manning, had part of his penis surgically removed four years ago after doctors found he had penile cancer. The news marked a step forward in transplant medicine, but as a resident physician and future primary care doctor, I wondered whether such an elaborate and expensive “proof-of-concept” operation would mean anything for my future patients.

The facts behind the big story:

What did the operation aim to accomplish?

The goals of this operation, according to Dr. Dicken Ko, who co-led the surgical team, were threefold: to reconstruct natural-appearing genitalia, to allow the patient to urinate normally and, hopefully, to help him regain sexual functioning.

They have achieved the first goal, and they are hopeful that Manning will be able to urinate normally in a few weeks. Finally, they did extensive reconstruction of the nerves as well, and are hopeful that he will have normal sexual function in the future.

How was this patient chosen?

For Manning, the motivation to volunteer for this experimental procedure was straightforward. “Because they cut off my penis. Very simple. Very, very simple,” he said in a phone interview. Manning volunteered for the operation and underwent extensive psychological evaluation, according to his team.

The type of injury he had was also an important factor: Because part of his penis had been surgically removed — rather than injured in an explosion — the rest of the vessels and nerves were preserved, which facilitated the operation. This was important, Dr. Ko said, because they wanted to pick a patient who was very likely to have a successful outcome to be the first to receive the transplant.

How difficult was this operation?

The main technical difficulties of the operation had to do with the vascular reconstruction involved, which is when doctors sew together the small blood vessels of the patient to the donor’s vessels.

Before the operation, they had only a vague idea if the vessels were big enough to connect. They also performed a vein graft, which is akin to a heart bypass and allows greater blood flow. That vein graft was the primary difference between the technical aspects of this operation and the first successful transplant, performed earlier this year in South Africa.

Who else could benefit from this surgery?

For now, the surgeons on this team are focusing on cancer and trauma patients, especially veterans returning with combat wounds from Iraq and Afghanistan.

The technical challenges for soldiers injured by explosions are likely to be more daunting, as the injuries are generally more extensive and their own vessels and nerves are less well-preserved. Nonetheless, the surgeons emphasized how motivated they were to work with veterans.

In a statement, Manning himself said he hoped the operation could soon be performed on “service members who put their lives on the line and suffer serious damage as a result.”

When asked about the potential for use with transgender patients, Dr. Curtis Cetrulo, a plastic surgeon and the second team leader, said it could be possible in the future. The approach, however, would have to be completely different and would require “a whole new effort” to be successful, he said. Continue reading

Related:

Cancer Patient Receives Nation’s First Penis Transplant At MGH

In this photo provided by Massachusetts General Hospital, Thomas Manning gives a thumbs up after being asked how he was feeling following the first penis transplant in the United States. (Sam Riley/Mass General Hospital via AP)

In this photo provided by Massachusetts General Hospital, Thomas Manning gives a thumbs up after being asked how he was feeling following the first penis transplant in the United States. (Sam Riley/Mass General Hospital/AP)

Back in 2012, Thomas Manning of Halifax, Massachusetts, suffered a serious groin injury when a heavy cart fell on him at work. As he was being treated for it, his doctors found an aggressive cancer growing in his penis, and amputated most of it.

“He’s really an incredible person that after that surgery, totally unprovoked, said, ‘Doc, if I can have a penile transplant, I’m your patient,’ ” Manning’s doctor, MGH urologic oncologist Adam Feldman, told reporters on Monday. “And then shortly afterward was when the program started and I said, ‘You know … there just might be something here for you.’ “

It took more than three years for all the pieces to come together, but Manning, 64, has now received the country’s first penis transplant. Surgeons in South Africa and China have performed similar operations.

The operation at Mass. General took place overnight on May 8, and lasted more than 15 hours in total. The organ came from a deceased anonymous donor whose family gave special permission for the transplant.

Continue reading

Related:

MIT Researchers Aim To Create An On-Demand Pharmacy

Students and postdocs at MIT who were part of the pharmacy on demand (a small scale pharmaceutical manufacturing unit) team. (Courtesy of MIT)

Students and postdocs at MIT who were part of the pharmacy on demand (a small scale pharmaceutical manufacturing unit) team. (Courtesy of MIT)

Hundreds of thousands of bright pink, white or blue tablets and capsules in all colors of the rainbow drop into bottles on sleek conveyors every hour in a sprawling building — somewhere. Each batch of pills may take a month or more to make.

But now, in a lab near Kendall Square, a team of MIT researchers can turn out 1,000 pills in 24 hours in a device the size of your kitchen refrigerator. It’s a whole new way of making drugs.

“We’re giving them an alternative to traditional plants, and we’re reducing the time it takes to manufacture a drug,” said Allan Myerson, professor of chemical engineering at MIT.

The Defense Department is funding this project for use in various places like field hospitals serving troops, jungles to help combat a disease outbreak, and strategic spots throughout the U.S.

“These are portable units so you can put them on the back of a truck and take them anywhere,” Myerson said. “If there was an emergency, you could have these little plants located all over. You just turn them on and you start turning out different pharmaceuticals that are needed.”

Sound simple? It’s not. This mini plant represents a sea of change in both size and operation. Continue reading

Asleep At The Wheel: Drowsy Driving As A Public Health Crisis

The National Highway Transportation Safety Administration says there were more than 72,000 documented accidents involving drowsy drivers between 2009 and 2013. But that’s just from official police reports, so experts say it’s a gross under-estimate. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

The National Highway Transportation Safety Administration says there were more than 72,000 documented accidents involving drowsy drivers between 2009 and 2013. But that’s just from official police reports, so experts say it’s a gross under-estimate. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

It’s midafternoon and I’m fighting to keep my eyes open. It’s a matter of life and death. That’s because I’m northbound on I-93, going 65 miles an hour — with many cars passing me.

Once or twice on the monotonous two-hour drive, a jolt of adrenaline surges through my bloodstream as I suddenly realize I’ve actually drifted off for a micromoment. Thankfully I get home without killing myself or anybody else.

If you say you haven’t had the same experience behind the wheel, I don’t believe you.

The National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA) says there were more than 72,000 documented accidents involving drowsy drivers between 2009 and 2013. But that’s just from official police reports, so experts say it’s a gross under-estimate.

After all, there’s no sleep-a-lyzer test for drowsiness like the blood alcohol-level test for drunk drivers. And it’s harder for a cop to spot a drowsy driver than one distracted by a smart phone.

“Twenty to twenty-five percent of all crashes could be fatigue-related — drowsy drivers,” says Dr. Mark Rosekind, the NHTSA administrator. “We could be looking at over a million crashes and potentially up to 8,000 lives lost.”

Rosekind made those remarks during a webcast this week sponsored by the Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health and The Huffington Post. The discussion included HuffPost editor-in-chief Arianna Huffington, Harvard sleep expert Charles Czeisler, and Jay Winsten, associate dean for health communication at the Harvard Chan School.

The forum is part of a national campaign against drowsy driving that’s just getting underway.

The idea is to treat drowsy driving as the public health issue that many believe it is and to bring to the campaign the same strategies that stigmatized drunk driving. Winsten master-minded that effort 28 years ago when he coined the term “designated driver” and nagged movie and TV producers to insinuate it into their scripts.

I moderated the online discussion. Here are some highlights:

The Brain Split

Czeisler, who’s the head of the division of sleep and circadian disorders at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, says the sleep-deprived brain can split itself in two. One part goes through the motions of a “highly over-learned task” such as driving. Meanwhile, cognitive centers involuntarily transition from wakefulness to sleep.

“So it’s particularly concerning that 56 million Americans a month admit that they drive when they haven’t gotten enough sleep and they’re exhausted,” Czeisler says. “Eight million of them lose the struggle to stay awake and actually admit to falling asleep at the wheel every month.”

My powerful mid-afternoon drowsiness was typical. “It used to be thought that [drowsiness-related crashes] only happened at night, but that’s because people weren’t looking,” Czeisler says. “Most sleep-deficient driving incidents happen during the daytime because there are so many more drivers on the road.”

And there’s a physiological factor. Mid-afternoon is before the brain’s internal clock “has given us a second wind to help us stay awake in the evening,” he says.

Who Falls Asleep Most?

Three groups are particularly vulnerable to falling asleep at the wheel, Czeisler says: young people, night-shift workers, and the millions of people who suffer from sleep apnea.

“Young people think that because they’re young, they’re fit, they can do anything,” the Harvard sleep researcher says. “But actually, young people are the most vulnerable. More than half of fatigue-related accidents are in people under 25 years of age.” Continue reading

Related:

State’s Opioid Epidemic Is Vividly Seen On Boston’s ‘Methadone Mile’

On “Methadone Mile,” a one-mile stretch of Massachusetts Avenue in Boston, it is not uncommon to witness people using drugs. Here, we’ve digitally blurred this person’s face to prevent identification. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

On “Methadone Mile,” a one-mile stretch of Massachusetts Avenue in Boston, it is not uncommon to witness people using drugs. Here, we’ve digitally blurred this person’s face to prevent identification. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

The ravages of the state’s opioid epidemic are perhaps nowhere more visible than in an area of Boston known as “Methadone Mile” — a one-mile stretch of Massachusetts Avenue in the shadow of Boston Medical Center. Continue reading

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Emergency Mental Health Programs Called Into Question After Taunton Attack

Many questions remain about the mental health services Arthur DaRosa received in the day before he went on a deadly stabbing rampage in Taunton Tuesday evening.

On Thursday, the hospital where DaRosa went for help — Morton Hospital in Taunton — says it has banned the outside contractor that evaluates MassHealth (Medicaid) patients who come in with psychiatric emergencies.

State policy says emergency mental health evaluations of patients with MassHealth must be done by outside behavioral health vendors. They’re known as Emergency Service Programs.

On Wednesday, Morton Hospital called that policy “misguided.” It wants its own clinicians to evaluate all patients.

The Emergency Services Program the hospital is banning, known as Norton Emergency Services or Taunton/Attleboro Emergency Services, is actually run by the state Department of Mental Health.

Megan Wiechnik, the resource helpline director with the National Alliance on Mental Illness Massachusetts chapter, told WBUR’s All Things Considered host Lisa Mullins the system as it stands works — sometimes.

Earlier:

Health Care And Civic Leaders Launch Serious Illness Care Coalition

Dr. Atul Gawande, a co-chair of the Serious Illness Care coalition, is a surgeon at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and a professor at Harvard Medical School and the Harvard School of Public Health. (Courtesy)

Dr. Atul Gawande, a co-chair of the Serious Illness Care coalition, is a surgeon at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and a professor at Harvard Medical School and the Harvard School of Public Health. (Courtesy)

A group of health care and civic leaders meets at the Kennedy Library Thursday morning with a mission: ensuring that Massachusetts residents live their final weeks or months as they choose. They’re launching a new statewide effort called the Serious Illness Care coalition.

The aim of the group is to encourage patients, doctors and family members to talk about what type of care they want when facing a serious illness — the kind that could lead to death within a year.

Continue reading

Earlier:

Opinion: Pediatrician Asks, Why Can’t I Talk To You About Guns In The Home?

A Seattle public health official demonstrates the use of a gun lock box during a news conference on Jan. 21. (Elaine Thompson/AP)

A Seattle public health official demonstrates the use of a gun lock box during a news conference on Jan. 21. (Elaine Thompson/AP)

Here’s a conversation I was in on recently between a pediatric intern and the parents of a healthy, 1-day-old baby. It occurred in the Yale-New Haven Hospital well baby nursery.

“Your daughter’s physical exam is perfect,” the intern said. “She’s eating well, peeing and pooping well. I want to talk to you a little about how to help you keep her safe and healthy.”

Next came a standard discussion about the baby’s sleeping position and whether she’s got a car seat. Then, the next question:

“Do you have any guns in the home?”

Suddenly, the genial tone changed.

“I don’t think you should ask that question,” said the child’s father.

“Should I take that as a ‘yes’?” the intern pressed.

“I just don’t think you should ask.”

“Sir, we ask because we want to make sure that your baby is as safe as she can be, making sure you keep any guns locked up and away from her.”

“It’s none of your business.”

Continue reading

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Opinion: Pending Mass. Paid Leave Bill Targets An Issue Of ‘Human Dignity Violated’

Author Kate Mitchell with her newborn son, Mateo (Courtesy)

Author Kate Mitchell with her newborn son, Mateo (Courtesy)

Ten days after giving birth to my son, Mateo, I was able to walk, but not much more than a few careful steps from couch to bathroom.

I was still bleeding. I was fighting mastitis, a breast infection that delivered a high fever and the worst chills I have ever experienced. Did I mention I was breastfeeding nearly every 45 minutes around the clock? I was totally in love, and completely exhausted.

Luckily for me, I didn’t have to go back to work right after Mateo’s birth. But the same is not true for far too many American women. In fact, about one quarter of mothers in the United States have no choice but to return to work within 10 days of having a baby — many of them still bleeding, still trying to establish breastfeeding, completely exhausted, and often traumatized by leaving their newborns at a time when they need their mothers most.

“At times I feel deeply disappointed that I couldn’t manage to fight harder for what every mother, including me, deserves: time and space to heal and to bond with her new baby.”

– Katey Zeh

In an effort to learn more about the issue, I put together an informal survey that I shared on Facebook and Twitter. One respondent, Katey Zeh, a maternal health advocate with the United Methodist Church, shared her story of lacking access to family leave: In 2014, she gave birth on a Monday, returned to work emails on a Friday, and fully returned to work the following Monday.

Paid parental leave is “partially about economic justice, but it’s also about my parenting — and my family — being affirmed by our society,” Zeh said. In a blog post, she describes in a bit more detail what the lack of leave meant to her:

Now that my daughter is six months old I look back on that time with a lot of regret. If I couldn’t advocate for myself, what kind of advocate was I anyway? If I couldn’t advocate for my kid, what kind of mother did that make me? At times I feel deeply disappointed that I couldn’t manage to fight harder for what every mother, including me, deserves: time and space to heal and to bond with her new baby.

Another respondent, a Catholic school teacher from Ohio who asked that her name not be published, said she loved her work but knew she would not be ready to return to its long hours only four weeks after giving birth — the amount of partial pay leave her employer offered. She also knew that her husband’s work would not allow him to share the home responsibilities, as his job required even longer hours and offered no paternity leave benefits. She left the job she loved. Continue reading