A Plague on All Your Houses



I still remember a seminar I went to years ago in university. It was part of a nebulous course on ‘Health’ that some of us took as a soft route on the way to a bachelor’s degree. It was reputed to consist of essays and a true or false final examination. Also, because the class was small, it was amenable to division into even smaller numbers for several interactive sessions.

There were five of us and a teacher’s aide at the one I remember so well. We were all fresh from high school and, at least in those faraway days, used to being lectured at, rather than actually contributing to the subject matter. The topic that day was Disease, and I remember being mildly interested, but expecting only a list of the usual culprits, complete with causes and treatments -memory fodder for later regurgitation, I suppose.

“What is disease?” the TA started, as soon as we were seated around a rather small wooden table.

One of us -I don’t remember his name now- rolled his eyes and smiled. “Sickness,” he answered, rather smugly.

She smiled in return, as if he’d fallen into her trap rather too easily. “Okay, but haven’t you just used a synonym -defined it in terms of itself?”

He stared at her for a moment, obviously confused. “Well… then, how about saying disease is an abnormality of an organ or a system caused by germs -probably particular germs depending on the disease.”

Her face relaxed and her smile broadened. “Now we’re getting somewhere.” She leaned forward on the table. “Let’s get more specific for a moment. Let’s take tuberculosis… Anybody know the cause for TB?” She glanced around the room, determined to involve us all, apparently.

I looked up at the wrong moment, and she brushed my face with her question and pinned me to my seat with another smile. “Do you know the cause of TB…?” she said, locking eyes with me.

There was no escape. “Uhmm…” I felt embarrassed at being singled out, but the question seemed fairly straightforward. “It’s the tubercle bacterium, isn’t it?”

She sat back in her chair, and shrugged nonchalantly. “Is it?” She said, softly and with just a hint of gentle sarcasm. But her eyes were still sitting on me, and I could tell they meant no harm.

“Tubercle bacillus?” I corrected myself, remembering that people sometimes called it that.

“So…” she glanced around the table again, lifting the weight off my shoulders. “Would you all agree that TB is caused by a bacterium -a bacillus?” she added, looking at me once more. Everybody nodded.

“But don’t some healthy people have a positive skin test for it -the Mantoux test?” she continued.

We all nodded, most of us unwilling to show that we hadn’t known what the test was called.

“So, why is that?” She paused to see if any of us had an explanation, but when nobody said anything, she continued. “If the bacterium Mycobacterium tuberculosis is present…” she slowed down even more for effect. “… if some of us have it… and it causes TB… then why don’t those people have TB?” She straightened in her chair and leaned on the table with her elbows as she searched our faces for the answer.

But she was greeted by blank, albeit confused expressions around the table.

“If disease is caused by the acquisition of a bacterium, then what stops some people from acquiring the disease?”

This was new territory for us, and yet, her eyes stopped at me again. “Our defense mechanisms -the immune system…?” I suppose it wasn’t exactly a scholarly response -even in those days we’d all heard of vaccinations and antibody production.

She started nodding. “Okay, but what makes the immune system strong enough to resist?”

“VSG?” someone said, and immediately blushed because he had obviously taken a leap in the dark with the initials.

She smiled reassuringly. “BCG -Bacille Calmette-Guerin, to give it its full name?” He nodded, presumably relieved. But even in those days, there was some doubt as to its effectiveness, so she merely shrugged again. “But the person may never go for the skin test and so never know she has the bacterium…”

She stared at me again, for some reason. “Well, suppose they’re in good condition -healthy, I mean?” To tell the truth, I didn’t really know what I meant.

“But doesn’t ‘healthy’ mean free of disease? Isn’t that another tautology…?” She walked around the table with her eyes again, but this time more slowly. “So, might there be other causes of disease -apart from the infecting agent, I mean?”

I remember some of us looking at each other, as if we were beginning to understand where she was going with this.

“Where -or maybe under what conditions- do we see a lot of diseases like TB?”

I suppose I remember the seminar so well, because she kept looking at me when nobody else answered. “You mean if somebody’s poor, or living in unfortunate circumstances? Poverty…?” I managed to mumble, hoping that was what she was after.

I still remember her smile.

It was a seminal moment for me, and maybe one of the reasons why I eventually went into Medicine. But it all resurfaced when I happened upon an article in the CMAJ (Canadian Medical Association Journal) from January 22/18 with the rather long and certainly uninviting title, Effect of provincial spending on social services and health care on health outcomes in Canada: an observational longitudinal study: http://www.cmaj.ca/content/190/3/E66

Its thesis, was that spending on health care is escalating so significantly it will soon be unaffordable. The question then, was what to do about it. The study ‘used retrospective data from Canadian provincial expenditure reports, for the period 1981 to 2011, to model the effects of social and health spending (as a ratio, social/health) on potentially avoidable mortality, infant mortality and life expectancy.’ And after using various methods to analyze the figures that I didn’t even try to understand, like ‘linear regressions, accounting for provincial fixed effects and time, and controlling for confounding variables at the provincial level.’ decided that ‘Population-level health outcomes could benefit from a reallocation of government dollars from health to social spending […].’ Or, as they worded it more succinctly in their concluding paragraph: ‘The results of our study suggest that spending on social services can improve health. Social policy changes at the margins, where it is possible to affect population health outcomes by reallocating spending in a way that has no effect on the overall government budget.’

It made me wonder, though, why, if I learned the same thing many years ago, did it still need investigation? Were we so wrong back then? So naïve…?










Ever since I was a little knicker I had a dog, or a cat, or both. It was part of growing up –playing with the dog in the park, avoiding the cat’s claws as it grabbed for the piece of wool dangling temptingly in front of it. And then there were the times sitting curled up in the dog house just to see what it was like to live there, or sharing my ice cream cone with it because it looked hungry. Being licked in the face was also easier than washing before dinner… Memories, no doubt aggrandized with time, but nonetheless part of the mythology of childhood. My childhood; my mythology.

But I had somehow assumed that it was just a part of la Belle Époque for people of my age; something that the younger generations had long since abandoned for fear of contagion or changing perceptions of what a child should be allowed to do -or want to do. We live in a much more heterogeneous, sanitary society than we used to: a cultural melange that often accords animals a different role in our lives. Whether this is an advancement or merely a change in outlook didn’t much concern me: I’ve already had my past, lived my childhood.

But several months ago I happened upon a review article in the Canadian Medical Association Journal http://www.cmaj.ca/content/187/10/736.full on ‘Reducing the risk of pet-associated zoonotic infections’ and it got me thinking about my pregnant patients and their unintended risks. Of course, every health care provider –every woman, it seems- knows about not cleaning out the kitty litter in pregnancy (Toxoplasmosis) –and even avoiding the other end of the cat (Cat-scratch disease: gram-negative bacterial infections)- and yes, or the perils of eating some types of raw fish sushi too frequently (Mercury contamination). These all seem to be part of a societal mythos to which we are so often exposed, that one almost wonders if there is a gene that the placenta activates whose sole job is to send avoidance signals to the pregnant brain.

And yet the article outlined many more diseases that animals can transmit to humans (zoonoses) that are more quietly under the radar –multidrug-resistant bacteria as an increasingly worrisome emerging threat, for example. So, in the interests of patient safety, I thought it incumbent upon me to add animals to my list of questions. There was no spot for them on the prenatal form, so I kind of slipped it in under ‘other’. Along with ‘occasionally’, I find that ‘other’ is one of the more important categories of words that I like to use.

One woman, Lorraine, seemed to find the questions objectionable however. It was almost as if she felt I was accusing her of uncleanliness, or maybe petophilia, or something.

“I’ve never owned a cat, doctor,” she said with a bit of a huff in her voice. “I’ve always thought they were dirty animals,” she added, as if to justify her vehemence. “They eat vermin when you’re not around.”

“Sometimes that’s a good thing,” I said, hoping to calm her down a little.

She pinned me to my seat with needles from her eyes. She obviously resented the inference of suboptimal conditions where she lived. I left it lying fallow.

“We do have a dog, however –my husband insists on having one,” she admitted with a little reluctant shrug, obviously wary of my reaction. “But it is only allowed on the rug in the kitchen –far away from the food preparation area- and it sleeps in the garage.” She stared out the window behind me, this time avoiding my eyes. “And he takes it to the vet all the time for its vaccinations and flea medication. Costs him a fortune, what with the price vets charge nowadays.” Her eyes flitted around the room, obviously tallying the cost of the pictures on the wall, and even the knickknacks on a little oak table that patients had given me. Obstetricians were clearly not immune to price-gouging –although in Canada with our healthcare system, the extortion was presumable aimed at the government.

Then she waxed reflective. “I had a dog when I was young, though. Boots was his name and he used to follow me to school –I lived in a small town with not much traffic,” she was quick to explain, lest I think she was careless about its safety. “We used to share everything, I remember.” She risked a quick, guilty glance at my face to see if she had transgressed, even at that age.

“And then I got parasites –cryptosporidium­. My mother made me memorize the word; she says I got it from being licked in the face by Boots. I remember I had terrible diarrhea and cramps, but I also remember her telling me that there was no treatment for it and that because of what I let the dog do, I was going to have parasites for the rest of my life… She had a drinking problem at the time, though, so she soon forgot about it… I didn’t.” She sighed somewhat theatrically and continued. “After that initial attack of diarrhea I never had the problem again, so like about so many other things, maybe she was wrong about that.”

I nodded reassuringly. “People with intact immune systems seem to be able to restrain it –keep it in check. And besides, how certain were they of the diagnosis back then?”

She shrugged. “It was just something my mother told me…”

A sudden look of panic attacked her face. “The immune system is dampened in pregnancy isn’t it?” But before I could explain what that meant, her eyes opened like she’d seen a ghost. “Am I going to give it to my baby?”

The answer, of course, is probably not –especially if the condition is not active during the pregnancy- but using a ‘probably’ would only inflame her anxiety. I find when there is a heightened level of concern that actually looking it up on the computer as they sit and watch, is very reassuring: I am then au courant. So I Googled the Center for Disease Control website for ‘infections in pregnancy’ (http://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/disasters/infections.html) and printed it out for her. It wasn’t much, but it seemed to help. It didn’t do anything to foster a more tolerant attitude towards dogs, however…

That night, as I sat reading in the living room in front of a crackling fire and my own dog lay dreaming near the fireplace, I got to thinking about my own life with dogs. Was I at risk? But then, when I stirred in my chair and one of his eyes opened and stared at me curiously, I realized it didn’t really matter. The risk was worth it.

Umm, I did wash my hands this time after he wandered over and licked them, however; but I think he was just telling me not to worry about him


A Pink Elephant in the Room?

You could see her waiting in the wings, peeking around the curtain, anxious for her debut on the public stage. And what a buildup; the opening acts pretty well guaranteed her a receptive audience -one that would assume that anything less than a full symphonic orchestral introduction and a dais at centre stage would be discrimination. Gender imparity. No, her time was already too long delayed; everybody had come to see Ms Pink Viagra perform –maybe even out-perform what had come before.

Well, okay, I understand the problem –I even suspect I understand the parity issues: it seems unfair to help the man with sexual dysfunction (read erectile dysfunction) while appearing to believe that any problem in the woman is just psychological… Or his fault. Beyond the Pale, in other words. The current situation is a vexing one to be sure and the answer is clearly not an easy one. But I’m hoping that we don’t merely end up prescribing medication alone for an issue that is almost certainly multifactorial.

There was a helpful, albeit preliminary, article on the subject in the Canadian Medical Association Journal this December: http://www.cmaj.ca/content/early/2015/12/14/cmaj.150705.full.pdf  At the time of publication, the American FDA had recently approved a drug (flibanserin) for the treatment of ‘acquired, generalized hypoactive sexual desire disorder’ in premenopausal women. The concern, in the Canadian context at least, was whether any company approved to market it would be able to adhere to Canadian law in advertising it: ‘direct-to-consumer advertising is not allowed in Canada, but direct-to-consumer information campaigns are legal’. One of the problems is the quality of evidence for the information supplied. For example, in the USA, the company selling it claims that ‘hypoactive sexual desire disorder affects as many as one in three women in the US’, whereas ‘reliable and independent scientific data show that only about 1 in 10 women experience distress as a result of their low desire and thus have the condition’. Suggesting, of course, that low desire does not always need to be treated; and therefore the corollary that low desire in either partner is not necessarily pathological…

I’m also concerned about the drug’s promulgation in the cause of equivalency. Fairness. If information about a product is what is allowed by law, surely neutral presentation of all that information is what was intended -expected, if not required. As the article suggests: ‘Bias is introduced if emotive campaigns that are not linked to strong evidence underpin the provision of information.’  And it goes on to say, ‘What about asking the more pertinent questions of whether the existing evidence can tell us if the condition really exists or whether drugs are the only response to a “dysfunctional” level of sexual desire?’ Indeed, perhaps the entire subject of sexual dysfunction in either sex requires a more critically based analysis.

I have to admit that, as a general gynaecologist, I have always felt very uneasy and ill-equipped for dealing with the subject of sexual dysfunction. It’s not that I find that it is embarrassing -I don’t (although the patients usually do); and I don’t mind that it is time consuming (my accountants not withstanding); it’s not even that it contains an undercurrent –often well disguised and overtly denied- of recrimination, blame, or guilt (although it can be all of those). No, I suspect that it is rather that the solution to the problem is seldom straightforward or easily solved. And, unlike an infection, it may require more than a pill to cure. It seems to me that the answer often lies with both parties –and each comes to the table with different perspectives. Different interpretations… Different appreciations of the issue, for that matter. Occasionally it may respond to empathetic listening, and the provision of impartial information along with counselling; more often it requires a multidisciplinary approach , or at least an expertise beyond that of the average practitioner, however well-intentioned. And that may be difficult to obtain in a timely fashion.

But as with depression, for example, it is often so much easier for the uncomfortable and busy practitioner to reach for a prescription pad after a brief hearing, and a subsequent cursory analysis of the complaint. And even if the medication, in the cool, reasoned glow of retrospect, turns out to be more of a placebo than a targeted and specific cure, well, that’s better than nothing… Isn’t it?

Maybe it is, but is it an example of critical thinking? Evidence-based medicine? Is it really the result of an honest and respectful consideration of the problem? If the condition is indeed often multifactorial, shouldn’t the treatment be that as well? I’m sure that the directions on the probably-pink package will make that perfectly clear, though… Right?







Hurtful Scents

I realize that to comment on odour is to confront a two edged sword –none of us journeys without a scented trail- but apart from those occasional inadvertent and indelicate smells, the time has probably arrived when we should be wary of artifice. Well, at least in those areas where there is no escape; where the air is as imprisoned as the nose; where the vulnerable may be subject to harm: the hospital.

Now, to be clear, I am not advocating the abandonment of deodorants, nor am I exculpating the voluntarily unwashed. I am merely suggesting that artificial scents may have unintended consequences, as an editorial in the Canadian Medical Association Journal points out: http://www.cmaj.ca/content/187/16/1187.full  And it would seem that, ‘According to large surveys of the general public, about 30% of people report having some sensitivity to scents worn by others. Twenty-seven percent of people with asthma say their disease is made worse by such exposures. There is emerging evidence that asthma in some cases is primarily aggravated by artificial scents. This is particularly concerning in hospitals, where vulnerable patients with asthma or other upper airway or skin sensitivities are concentrated. These patients may be involuntarily exposed to artificial scents from staff, other patients and visitors, resulting in worsening of their clinical condition.’ One has only to take the long journey to a distant floor on an elevator to know how uncomfortable odour can be.

And this danger is particularly applicable to health care facilities because: ‘Federal and provincial human rights acts require accommodation for employees who are sensitive to scents in the workplace, but not for patients in hospitals or clinics.’  As the editorialist points out: ‘Many public places promote a scent-free environment. Some hospitals also do so. But it is not policy in all Canadian hospitals, and it is not required in hospital accreditation standards. [italics mine]’ In this respect at least, the truly vulnerable are not being adequately protected.

But we all need protection; odour is one of those modalities that we have been taught to sublimate –or at least not bring to the owner’s attention lest it be misconstrued. In fact, the perpetrator may have long since been habituated and therefore be blissfully unaware of the effects of the smell on others. Or worse perhaps, wants to inflict it on the rest of us in the naive belief that it enhances their identity –or enforces it. There is a fine line between self and not-self, I think; the boundaries are subtle. How far do we extend? At what range is another person an intruder? Given that personal zones –comfort zones- are often culturally established it would seem to be a labyrinthine problem only soluble by sensitivity and, probably, trial and error.

It certainly works like that in my office.

I don’t like to characterize people –especially patients- as difficult, but sometimes I can’t help it; it is forced on me. One vicious peck from their eyes on my attire, or a facial attack on my beard and I can feel my cervical hair standing at attention… On guard, really. I’m not sure what it is about non-verbal criticism that is so difficult to take, but perhaps it is its unexpectedness, its lack of specificity that doesn’t allow for rebuttal. Whatever it is, it makes subsequent rapport more difficult to achieve.

Sometimes the office is a brutal affair with patients and complaints lined up like laundry hanging from a clothesline on a cloudy day. Even patches of sun are welcome diversions, and I had just seen a young woman who had biked across the city for her appointment. Sweating profusely but obviously proud of her achievement, her humour was a needed distraction from the long line still hanging in damp anticipation in the waiting room and I smiled fondly when she left. A flash of colour for my day.

But Elspeth, one of the last patients of the morning, was a mature lady who seemed to eschew colours, however. A large black bag sat beside her chair and she had a dark grey coat resting on her lap like a sleeping child. Her long black skirt topped with a pure white blouse complete with frilly cuffs would not have stood out in the waiting room ordinarily, but the way she wore her hair would. It was pulled so tightly off her forehead into a little raggedy tail at the back of her neck that it looked painful -her skin screaming in silent agony. Her expression mouthed the same feelings; she was not a happy person.

She stood to follow me into my office –reluctantly, I sensed- and I could feel her eyes burrowing into my back as we walked. Even in the office, her guard was up and her eyes tense and menacing.

I smiled to reassure her that I meant her no harm, but she ignored me and began to inspect the room suspiciously. She started with the walls, progressed to the various statues and plants in the corners, and finished with my desk and its contents. I wasn’t sure whether she was appraising their worth or my taste, but when she finally examined me like she was itemizing my clothing, I realized it was neither.

“There is a disturbing smell in here, doctor,” she said through her teeth.

How does one respond to that? “I… Uhmm…”

“And it’s not just in here,” she continued, “I first noticed it when I entered the waiting room.” Her eyes were angry. Mistrustful. “I thought perhaps it was somebody’s failed deodorant or a cover-up perfume so I tried sitting in several places, but it was the same everywhere.”

“I’m sorry Elspeth…”

Mrs. Trudle please, doctor. I don’t call you by your first name.”

“Sorry.” It was all I could think of replying.

“You of all people should know about the safety hazard of injurious odours and their effects on susceptible clients.”

Patients, Mrs. Trudle; I do not have clients! I am not a lawyer, nor a beautician.” I shouldn’t have said that –I don’t like the power implications inherent in the word ‘patient’- but I couldn’t resist. I felt attacked.

The effect, however, was almost immediate. The skin on her forehead rose briefly –perhaps to relieve the pressure- and then the ghost of a smile trickled across her face. “Touché, doctor,” she said and then chuckled. “I’m sorry if I was rude, but I’m terribly sensitive to smells nowadays. I find they give me headaches.”

I’m a gynaecologist, not an otolaryngologist, but her insistence that there was a disturbing odour in the office was worrisome –not least because nobody had commented on it before.

“Is it as bad in here as in the waiting room?” I asked, hoping it wasn’t my deodorant.

She thought about it for a moment before answering. “No… No I don’t think it is, although I can still detect it.”

“Any idea what it might be?” I wondered if it might be somebody’s perfume, or perhaps a chemical residue from the cleaning staff. We no longer had any carpets, so it couldn’t be unvacuumed dust or mold in the fabric.

“Well, many things seem to set me off… But here it was feet,” she said simply. I must have looked surprised, because the smile on her face grew larger and she sheathed her eyes.


She nodded her head to interrupt me. “But there were only three other women in the waiting room -I know that. They must have thought I was demented to keep moving to different seats, but my headache was getting so bad I was afraid I was going to gag.” She slumped in her chair and closed her eyes for a moment. She looked uncomfortable. “Maybe it’s not the smell of feet so much as shoes…”

I just stared at her. I couldn’t make people take their shoes off at the door.

She shrugged and shifted uneasily in her chair. “I haven’t had a period for over two years, so I’m wondering if all of this is related to the menopause.” Her eyes scanned my face for some reassurance. “I’ve got an appointment to see a neurologist this afternoon, but I was hoping it was something simpler… more easily fixed.”

I smiled but I’m not sure my silence comforted her.

She sighed, and looked at me as if she felt she was wasting my time. Then she gathered up her coat and purse. “Hope is sometimes naïve, isn’t it?” She stood, started to walk towards the door and then stopped, but didn’t turn around. “Even ‘Lilies that fester smell far worse than weeds’, I guess…”

I recognized it as the ending of one of the more enigmatic of Shakespeare’s sonnets and I had the uncomfortable suspicion that she’d rehearsed it for just such an occasion.

Just as she left, she turned her head and smiled a sad smile. “I’m sorry,” she managed to whisper, and then disappeared through the door.

I was sorry as well… And all I could think of to respond was what Shakespeare’s King Lear says to Gloucester: Thou know’st the first time that we smell the air we wawl and cry… But I said nothing. Air was a continual surprise for Elspeth; and she was certainly not mad…


The Black Sewing Box

I love mysteries, and if they involve finding buried treasure, so much the better. Thoughts of treasure chests used to conjure up maps and pirates hiding valuable things in faraway and largely inaccessible places. I suppose that shows my age, because nowadays, the more likely proxy for a treasure chest in the popular imagination is a flight data recorder –a black box- submerged beneath thousands of meters of ocean or buried under rocks on the side of a faraway mountain. Hidden wealth for sure.

The myth of faraway, or at least elusive, treasure is an ancient one; think of the Greek myth of Jason in quest of the Golden Fleece -the golden wool of a ram which symbolized authority. There is something enticing about that which we do not have, but might obtain with sufficient diligence. And information seems to be the treasure most prized in the modern era. Information is Power. Information is Knowledge.

And yet, despite the cache of data contained in the almost magically endowed black box, and despite its reputation as the only solution to an otherwise insoluble problem, we forget its other, earlier, and less forthcoming incarnation –its perhaps even more obscure aspect. In computational and engineering models, a black box is something we can use, but don’t understand. For every input, there is an output, but like a magician’s sleeve, we don’t know why. The brain is still a black box. You and I are, for all intents and purposes, black boxes. And that is what is so appealing to me: that none of us are completely knowable. Predictable. We are all magician’s hats…

A short article in an August 2015 Canadian Medical Association Journal stirred the coals of my easily invoked imagination: http://www.cmaj.ca/content/187/11/794.full  It likens the measured parameters in an aviation ‘black box’ to a research project involving operating rooms at a Toronto hospital. ‘The technology involves several cameras and microphones, along with sensors to document physiological data and key aspects of the environment, such as temperature.’ But this foray into the sacred chambers of the OR is not merely another frivolous time-and-motion study, so beloved of factories and corporations everywhere. No, as the article puts it: ‘The intent of the new technology is to enhance health team performance, pinpoint errors and missteps (human and otherwise), and subsequently identify ways to prevent and address those issues.’

Having spent a good part of my career as a surgeon in the OR, I appreciate the need to improve performance and prevent mistakes. In a teaching hospital, much of our time in surgery goes to passing on our skills and honing the competence and judgement of the resident doctors in the program. We become the monitors. But, as hinted in the old fable of mice deciding that the best way to detect the approach of a cat would be to hang a bell around its neck, who will bell the cat? In other words, how do we know that the surgeon –or whoever- is not passing along bad habits? Faulty techniques in need of improvement?

One way tried in recent times, has involved having another surgeon in the OR as an observer. A later meeting to debrief and discuss opportunities to modify identified issues then helps to improve performance. Unfortunately not all of us are open to suggestions about our skill-sets, and other opinions are sometimes seen as criticisms. Ego and the fear of loss of reputation likely figure prominently in the equation even though the findings are kept private. Only if this practice of observation and subsequent discussion were made universal would it have a chance of thriving as a learning tool, however.

Another, although for some, equally uncomfortable method of improving performance in the OR, would be the practice of having a more junior surgeon, say, scrubbing with another more experienced colleague as part of a mandated hospital policy for quality assurance -much as hospitals now require yearly performance and outcome reviews for hospital reappointment. Personally, I like this approach. It is an easy way to learn and see new techniques in a less stressful environment than if I were in charge of the case. And I think we can also learn from the residents we are teaching who have studied in other hospitals and with other surgeons. There are many ways to improve our skills if we don’t allow ourselves to become encased in habit and focussed only on our own clothes. As Isaac Newton might have put it, ‘If I have been able to see as far as others, it is by standing on the shoulders of colleagues.’ Well, okay, perhaps he said it better, but our options to improve seem to be either carrot or stick.

There is a trend creeping into public media of assessing and rating doctors on their outcomes. How many patients benefitted from the surgery? How many had complications? How many surgeries has the doctor performed? What about her colleagues? The publication of these data sets may seem reasonable, but unfortunately they leave many contributing factors in the shadows –or even unreported. Unconsidered. For example, perhaps the surgeon in question has a high complication rate because, as the most experienced, she gets the most difficult cases -maybe the ones that have failed other treatments.

All things considered, perhaps the black box approach has more compelling merit than first meets the eyes. If the public were assured that procedures were monitored and recorded this might go a long way to assuaging their suspicion of incompetence or malpractice. And as the article suggests, ‘Data recorded by the black box system could well speak for patients unable to speak for themselves because they were under anaesthesia or unfamiliar with hospital procedures and protocol.’ Let’s face it, ‘black box’ monitoring certainly helps to instill a level of confidence in airplanes: just knowing that after a difficult or problematic flight, experts could discover what actually happened and correct it for the future.

There is a problem with the black box method, however –an obvious one for surgeons: ‘the data in an operating room black box could be used as evidence in medical malpractice suits unless precluded by legislation — in much the same way morbidity and mortality assessments made by hospitals and staff for the purpose of quality assurance and improvements are exempt from being used in court.’ We all learn from our mistakes –and from the mistakes of others. We must, otherwise the errors will be repeated. And most of these issues are not the result of malpractice or incompetence. They are potentially teachable moments, if you will.

In fact, one lawyer commenting on the black box idea, felt that ‘the data could also help surgeons who are being sued. “With the black box, critical procedures and techniques could be objectively assessed by peer surgeons when a poor outcome occurs. From the surgeon’s point of view, the data would be confirmation that all was done right but the poor outcome was beyond their control.”

So, in a way, it’s prudent to swallow unsweetened medicine now to ward off disease down the road. In the words of Tolkien, ‘It will not do to leave a live dragon out of your plans, if you live near one.’

Staying in Touch

In the endless dark of night, belief that there will be a morning is sometimes all that sustains us. Hope springs eternal in the human breast, as Alexander Pope declared in one of his essays -and that is occasionally all there is. When Medicine fails, the understandable temptation is to turn to alternatives; when inductive reasoning seems insufficient (compilation and collation of observations to arrive at a tentative conclusion) then perhaps the converse might be helpful: deductive reasoning (start with a conclusion and then look around for supporting evidence). The Scientific Method tends to use more of the former than the latter to test hypotheses, although to be honest, it is often a melange. But to start with a conclusion and then to attempt to prove it can be a recipe for failure –or worse, deceit.

Alternative Medicine appears to be guilty of the latter -although whether by intent or naivete can be argued, I suppose- but it does seem to attract a certain edge of the population. I, for one, am not a believer, but to set the stage, perhaps a definition of alternative medicine would be helpful. The description in Wikepedia (sorry!) is as good as any I’ve seen: ‘Alternative medicine is any practice that is perceived by its users to have the healing effects of medicine, but does not originate from evidence gathered using the scientific method, is not part of biomedicine, or is contradicted by scientific evidence or established science. It consists of a wide range of healthcare practices, products and therapies, ranging from being biologically plausible but not well tested, to being directly contradicted by evidence and science, or even harmful or toxic.’

In this essay, I don’t intend to debate the merits or harms of alternative strategies for health, but merely to illustrate the pitfalls that can result when they are espoused too vigorously -when hope triumphs over experience. When, to paraphrase Macbeth, Physic is thrown to the dogs.


I really liked Loretta; I could tell that as soon as I saw her in the waiting room chatting to her neighbours. A slender young woman barely grazing her twenties, she had short brown hair and was dressed in jeans and a yellow tank-top. Her face was all smile –or, rather, all teeth and tongue, with large, brown eyes occasionally mobilized to emphasize some point or other. The whole room seemed alive with laughter and focussed on her every word, her every gesture –and there were a lot of those. Her body was in constant motion, sometimes pointing with a ring-laden hand, then gesticulating with her arms as her bracelets clinked and ran up and down her forearms like beads on an abacus; even her legs were integral as she swung them back and forth to illustrate a point with her dainty sandal-clad feet – an actress playing to an adoring audience. I almost felt embarrassed as I crossed the room to lead her offstage. She actually waved to them as she left; I half expected her to blow kisses.

She sat on the edge of her chair in my office clutching a backpack in one hand and a phone in the other as if to relax was anathema to her. “You seemed quite popular out there,” I said, nodding towards the corridor that led to the waiting room.

Her smile broadened at the compliment. “I like to stay in touch with everybody… and everything,” she added, as if it were a necessary addendum, then filled the time between our words with safaris into the uncharted depths of her pack. “I’ve come here for a pap smear,” she said as she saw me scrolling on the computer. “That’s what my GP says, but it’s really because he doesn’t know what to do with me…” She let the sentence dribble to a close without a firm indication she was finished with it. Like it was still a work in progress. So I waited. A text arrived on her phone and she blinked at me and proceeded to thumb a rapid, practiced reply almost as if she was scratching her leg without thinking about it.

Still she said nothing, but instead inspected the room, starting with the pictures on the wall and then progressing to the the plants on my desk, inspecting them one by one, perhaps thinking I was going to quiz her about the office. “What is it that concerns your GP, Loretta?” I felt I had to say something.

She shrugged goodnaturedly and her eyes migrated to my face. “I suspect she thinks I’m too self aware…” She giggled at the thought, then noticed the puzzled expression that I had tried to disguise. “I like to be on top of things…” She immediately blushed and corrected herself. “You know, like my health and stuff.”

I smiled to encourage her to explain.

“Like, you have to be careful about what you put in your body. I mean they’re putting additives in everything. Bodies need help getting rid of all the toxins that build up: detox regimes.” I grimaced inwardly, but maybe she saw the shadows. “My GP said that was nonsense, too, but I know I feel better after a cleanse,” she said, momentarily dropping the smile and folding her arms across her chest with the bracelets following close behind for emphasis.

I tried to disguise a deep breath. “I see…” –but actually I didn’t– “Is there any reason he felt that a gynaecologist could be of some help?”

“Help?” she said with a sharp intake of breath, as if I had really not understood a word of what she’d been telling me.

“You know,” I quickly added, “Help with something that you’ve been unable to deal with using your…” I hurriedly rummaged around in my head for an appropriate word –one that wouldn’t seem to insult her, yet wouldn’t suggest acquiescence either. “…Your strategies.” I thought that sounded neutral and not overly critical. I wanted to keep her on my side to see if there really was anything I could do to help. She could sort out the knowledge base for herself later.

Before she could respond, another text arrived, prompting yet another seemingly mindless flurry of thumbs to resolve the issue. She didn’t apologize and I realized that this was just part of the background in her life -like traffic noise, or maybe someone bumping into her in a crowd. She found time to shrug at me again, but whether to acknowledge the text she had just answered or as a way of answering my question was hard to tell. “I’ve been getting a lot of yeast infections lately, so I tried another cleanse.”

Her eyes jumped onto mine to see if I needed any clarification, and rested there when my face didn’t light up sufficiently with comprehension. We live in different worlds they said.

Toxins,” she added, like she was talking about the elephant in the room. “The bowel walls get encrusted with stuff and overgrowth of candida is one of the crusts.” She smiled innocently, almost as if she was going to admit to sneaking a cookie between meals. “I tried dietary modifications for months: fruit fasts, fiber-only diets… but no matter, I still got itching down there. So I tried a coffee enema once a week for a month. Then a probiotic one for almost three months.” She jangled her bracelets again as she thrust her arms upwards to suggest what else could she do. “Nothing worked, so finally I tried an enema using an antifungal solution that my girlfriend told me about. Jeez, try to keep one of those puppies inside for 15 minutes! I only managed 8…” She noticed the horrified expression that I’d tried desperately, but unsuccessfully to camouflage. “Eight minutes, doctor –not eight enemas!” She shrugged again –it was another form of speech for her, evidently. A sort of body text, I suppose. “But when I told my GP about it, he got really mad. “Of course there’s yeast in the bowel; we all have yeast in our bowels, he said… No he yelled that at me,” she added after thinking about it for a second.

“So I told him about the enemas they’re using nowadays for –I forget the infection…”

Clostridium difficile,” I added helpfully, and also to show that I was still listening.

“Those are special fecal enemas, he yelled back at me, and only for a special problem!  Anyway, you can’t get rid of vaginal yeast with those silly health-product enemas, he added. Not even the probiotic ones. He said ‘probiotic’ more softly, though, as if maybe he wasn’t so sure about that one.” Her face perked up again as the indignation faded and the verbal catharsis revived her spirits. “The yeast down below isn’t so bad right now –it seems to come and go. But no thanks to him -none of his prescriptions helped…” She shrugged a text at me. “That’s why I tried colonics dead last. I mean I believe in probiotics, and I hate enemas.” She studied my face for a moment. “Hey, I was desperate.” Another jingle from her arms. “There’s gotta be another way to go. Despite what all my friends say, I still think enemas are unnatural, don’t you?”|

I have to say it was hard not to roll my eyes. I realized I had a chance to convert her to our side of the fence if I was careful. And tactful. “I agree with you about probiotics, Loretta.” She smiled and nodded her head at my unexpected response. “The idea, of course, is to adjust the biota –the bacterial flora of whatever organ- to be able to suppress other unwanted organisms. But you can’t just use off-the-health-food-shelf probiotics –one type doesn’t do all jobs, just like one antibiotic doesn’t fit every occasion.” I glanced at her face to see if she was listening or playing with her phone again. She was listening. Staring at me in disbelief, actually. But in this Google age, I knew I had to be careful -I could only remember one article I’d read and that might already be outdated. For that matter, I couldn’t even recall where or when I’d seen it –the Canadian Medical Association Journal, maybe. But then again, she probably didn’t really have a yeast infection anyway…

“And the other thing is that good studies in this field are hard to find.” I hesitated a moment for effect -timing is everything. “I seem to remember there are a couple of probiotic regimes that have undergone scientific investigations. They were published a few years ago in…Ahh, the Canadian Medical Association Journal. You can look it up, I imagine.” The long-winded, but welcome news had forced her back into the chair, her phone into her pack, and the pack onto the floor. Then a look of concern replaced the incredulous rictus. “But how are the new bacteria going to be able to compete with all that toxic stuff in the area now? It might poison them, or overwhelm them before they even get a chance to set up a new colony.”

It was my turn to look concerned –well, at least curious. I’ve never understood the toxin theory promulgated by many of the alternative medicine practitioners. “How do you know there are toxins, or whatever, in the area, Loretta?” I sat back in my chair, convincing myself I had her.

Her eyes rolled as her hands reached into the pack at her feet in response to a muffled text. I assumed she was reacting to the disturbance, but suddenly realized it was me they couldn’t believe. She closed them slowly, patiently, in a slow motion blink and then opened them again, this time filled with all the sure and certain knowledge of youth. Her body texted me before any words left her mouth. “How do I know there’s still stuff living there now after months of using my colonic ‘strategies’ as you put it? Ever had a retention enema, doctor?”

Vehicular Obstetrics

Here I am in New Zealand, land of narrow roads, one lane bridges, and at least for us North Americans, the necessity of switching our cultural allegiance from the right to the left hand side of the road. Personally, my greatest struggle is remembering to get into the car through the correct door. Everything seems mirror-imaged, including the controls on the dashboard –you can tell tourists at a crossroad because their windshield wipers start up before their turning signal.

But of course, that’s what I love about the country; I drive a lot when I come here, so traffic always is in my mind, if not in my heart. The ever-distracting scenery seems to require more attention than back home, despite the smaller population .

It all reminds me of a Canadian study reported in the Canadian Medical Association Journal (CMAJ) of July 8/14  http://www.cmaj.ca/content/186/10/742.full  which  ‘compared the risk of a serious motor vehicle crash during the second trimester to the baseline risk before pregnancy.’  It was a large study which used the women themselves as their own controls before and during pregnancy. Interestingly, the relative risk of motor vehicle accidents rose by 42% in the second trimester of pregnancy. As the authors state: ‘The increased risk extended to diverse populations, varied obstetrical cases and different crash characteristics. The increased risk was largest in the early second trimester and compensated for by the third trimester. No similar increase was observed in crashes as passengers or pedestrians, cases of intentional injury or inadvertent falls, or self-reported risky behaviours.’

In other words, there seems to be something, not so much about pregnancy per se, as about the second trimester. It’s obviously only one study and more research has to be done to substantiate the findings, but there is some corroboration mentioned in a Commentary on the report in the same issue: ‘A population-based study from North Carolina found that the highest risk of a motor vehicle crash during pregnancy occurred at 20–31 weeks’ gestation, with a marked decline in the risk of a crash thereafter,3 which is similar to the current study’s results.’  http://www.cmaj.ca/content/186/10/733.full

Pregnancy has long been coloured by reports of altered memory, concentration, sleep deprivation and fatigue, but why does the second trimester seem to be the time of greatest risk? The authors recognized the difficulties and used an interesting set of criteria to help explain it: ‘with all observational studies, it is difficult to make causal inferences. In this article, we assess the associations shown in the study in light of the criteria proposed by Hill:2 temporality, consistency, biological plausibility and evidence of a dose–response effect.’ In other words, do the study findings satisfy these conditions? By and large, they feel they did, with reservations you can address through the links.

As an obstetrician of many years, I can’t remember being asked about the act of driving while pregnant. About being more careful, yes; about where to position the seatbelt, yes; and even about whether or not to report to the hospital if there is a relatively minor accident –more of a bump than a crash. If asked, I’m sure I would have pointed out the altered anatomy and how it might not fit as comfortably behind a steering wheel as pregnancy advanced, but I don’t think I would have singled out the second trimester as being the time of greatest concern. So I’m intrigued by the findings.

The authors have been diligent in pointing out the limitations of their study –such things as distance travelled, frequency of travel, and that after an accident, a pregnant woman might be more likely to report to a hospital because of worry about her foetus even if she weren’t injured herself. It still doesn’t explain the seeming preponderance of risk in the second trimester, however.

I shall certainly be watching for any further analysis of the data, or any follow-up studies this engenders. And with my now heightened curiosity piqued, I may even include a warning to my pregnant patients to be extra careful behind the wheel. I’ll  certainly be more careful if I see one of them get into a car…