Atul Gawande1writing about useless medical care for the New Yorker:

One major problem is what economists call information asymmetry. In 1963, Kenneth Arrow, who went on to win the Nobel Prize in Economics, demonstrated the severe disadvantages that buyers have when they know less about a good than the seller does. His prime example was health care. Doctors generally know more about the value of a given medical treatment than patients, who have little ability to determine the quality of the advice they are getting. Doctors, therefore, are in a powerful position. We can recommend care of little or no value because it enhances our incomes, because it’s our habit, or because we genuinely but incorrectly believe in it, and patients will tend to follow our recommendations.

Interesting, in an otherwise thoughtful and well-written essay (as always), Gawande never once mentions fear of medical malpractice as a component that is driving useless healthcare utilization. His best anecdotal examples come from surgeons and proceduralists, who in private practice have an incentive to operate. The family doc, on the opposite end of the spectrum, doesn’t have a direct monetary incentive to order non-indicated radiological exams.

He also never mentions the “patient as consumer” either. Keeping private paying patients happy is the only real monetary incentive most providers have. The argument he references above is that doctors have the power and are (inherently?) inclined to over-test and over-treat. But anyone who has tried to not give antibiotics to someone with a viral URI knows that patients often go to the doctor to get what they want, not to find out what they need.

How I read NBME/USMLE questions

From a reader:

What’s your step by step process when answering questions on the NBME shelf exams? I have been reading the question first while highlighting the key words and then reading the answer choices (often glancing back at the words I highlighted to confirm that the answer choice I chose is correct.) With this method, I am sometimes pressed with time and tend to rush towards the end. Could you talk a little about your approach to questions on the shelf?

In the past, I’ve written about some of the ways I break down NBME and USMLE questions, but I haven’t actually written about how I really read one. That may be because the answer is relatively anticlimactic, but here I’ll talk a little bit about my focus on flexibility and speed over rigidity when it comes to approaching Step questions (with a few examples from the 2014 official sample questions). As always, this isn’t necessarily what you should do; it’s just my take. When I used to teach Kaplan MCAT, part of the “method” placed a lot of emphasis on using passage mapping as a consistent approach. If time management isn’t a problem for you, there’s no reason you can’t start/continue using these more involved strategies. But if you don’t have a big system and feel left out when you’re friends are fervently highlighting and using answer-choice first schemes etc, you’re not alone. Continue reading

Explanations for the 2014-2015 Official Step 2 CK Practice Questions

Here are the explanations for the updated 2014 (effectively 2014-15) official “USMLE Step 2 CK Sample Test Questions,” which can be found here.

Overall, there are only three new questions when compared with last year’s set (#90, 95, and 104), which I’ve marked with asterisks below. The explanations for the earlier 2014 set (effectively 2013-14) set can still be found here (the question pdf is still available online) and are largely identical (though in completely different order).

Continue reading

America’s Doctor

From Julia Belluz’s portrait of Dr. Oz in Vox, now apparently America’s most famous and most trusted physician:

This setback didn’t slow down Oz in his study of alternative medicine — or his embrace of fame. In the early 2000s, he worked with a reiki healer named Raven Keyes. She told me recently, “My reiki master is the archangel Gabriel. All I have to do is ask Gabriel to activate all the angels, and everybody’s angels come to life.” In the operating room, she said, she’d perch on a stool behind the anesthesiologist and transfer her good energy. “I’m connecting with the divine light within me and allowing myself to absorb the divine light in myself so it expands outward.”

Dr. Oz embodies the tension between personal freedom and professional responsibility. If one-way communication via a television or radio show doesn’t qualify as medical advice or constitute a physician-patient relationship, then how do we define it? Because anecdotes are apparently not uncommon about people who trust Oz via TV more than their actual physicians:

One reported that her dad had a heart attack and five stents placed in his heart, which required him to take aspirin and Plavix to prevent blood clots. “He was watching Dr. Oz, who said Plavix was not necessary, so he stopped taking it. About a month later, he had another massive [heart attack] and coded and had to be shocked back to life.” She continued: “My dad admitted to following Dr. Oz’s advice and not asking his own cardiologist.”

When a personality like Oz speaks about health and is a physician, he or she is essentially doling out medical advice. But right now, we wouldn’t even consider holding them accountable. Oz doesn’t even need to disclose his COIs when it comes to fat busting green coffee bean extract or other natural miracles.

Update: John Oliver weighs in on the most recent Oz controversy, as Oz responds to his critics who want him off Columbia’s faculty.

And if you haven’t already seen it, Oliver’s awesome original Oz segment.