Narrating Medicine: Let’s Talk Bedpans, And Why Doctors Should Get Good With Them

As a doctor myself, writes Dr. Anna Reisman, I was embarrassed that I didn’t know how to help a patient with a bedpan. (Michaelwalk/Wikimedia Commons)

As a doctor myself, writes Dr. Anna Reisman, I was embarrassed that I didn’t know how to help a patient with a bedpan. (Michaelwalk/Wikimedia Commons)

I was visiting my friend in the hospital and she had to pee. Walking to the bathroom was not an option: She’d been told not to get out of bed, she felt weak and lightheaded, and she was attached to an IV and a monitor.

She pressed the call button and stated her problem. A voice: They’d let her nurse know. A few minutes later, I stuck my head outside the curtain and scanned the empty hallway, feeling guilty that all I could do was share her frustration.

Then someone pulled open the curtain and smiled in at us. “I need the bedpan, we’ve already called twice,” my friend said. The woman in scrubs, who turned out to be one of the doctors, said she’d take care of it. My friend and I sighed with relief.

But the doctor slipped back out. Taking care of it meant finding someone who knew how to do it. When she returned a couple of minutes later and saw that still nobody had showed up, the good doctor offered to do it herself. She fetched a bedpan and awkwardly slid the pink plastic container under my friend, the whole time apologizing that she didn’t know which end was up.

The current U.S. nursing shortage includes licensed practical nurses and certified nursing assistants, the people who usually manage bedpans. And so hospitalized patients feeling the urge to urinate may have to wait longer than is possible.

If you’re thinking this is a minor issue, think again: Holding one’s urine can set a patient up for a urinary tract infection; the physical discomfort can be a stress on an already sick body, driving up blood pressure and pulse; and waiting with a bursting bladder is a mental stress, too.

As a doctor myself, I was embarrassed that I didn’t know how to help. I didn’t learn bedpan basics in medical school.

The alternative isn’t any better: Consider the shame and discomfort of lying in cold, wet sheets until someone can change them, plus the serious health risks that include skin breakdown and infection. For patients who already have pressure sores, these complications can be life-threatening.

As a doctor myself, I was embarrassed that I didn’t know how to help. I didn’t learn bedpan basics in medical school, or at any other time during my training. I would guess that most doctors, like me, would rather volunteer to hunt for someone else to do this than just getting the job done.

No, it isn’t rocket science to place a bedpan, but it’s easy to bumble by making a mess, leaving the patient in an uncomfortable position, exposing and embarrassing, and so on. Continue reading

Harvard Study: Shopping For Health Care Fails To Lower Costs

A new study is bad news for the push for health care shopping. (Caden Crawford/Flickr)

A new study is bad news for the push for health care shopping. (Caden Crawford/Flickr)

I hate it when there’s more bad news about the health care costs that are devouring our family, municipal and national budgets. (Latest number: $3 trillion, or 17.5 percent of America’s GDP.)

But here it is: A Harvard study just out in JAMA finds that when health care consumers use price-comparison tools, they don’t end up spending less. In fact, they may even spend a bit more, perhaps because they think higher prices mean better quality.

So much for the idea that if you just let people shop for cheaper care, prices will surely go down.

The study’s senior author, Dr. Ateev Mehrotra of Harvard Medical School, says the findings do not mean that health care price transparency mandates — which have passed here in Massachusetts and more than half of states overall — are a bad idea. Rather, he says, the message is that “It isn’t that easy just to fix this problem.”

About the study: It looks at nearly 150,000 employees at two big companies that gave their workers access to an online health care shopping tool, and compares them to nearly 300,000 status-quo employees. It found that among the employees who got the tool, outpatient spending on average went up a couple of hundred dollars, from $2,021 to $2,233.

The control group’s spending also went up slightly, but among the workers with the shopping tool, spending went up a bit more: by an average of $59 for outpatient care, including $18 out of pocket.

“Some of it is benefits design. …[And] we should also recognize that not everything in health care is shoppable.”

– Dr. Ateev Mehrotra

“Not A Panacea For High Health Care Costs,” says the headline of an accompanying editorial in JAMA. No kidding. Surely no one expected price transparency to solve our $3 trillion problem, but still, these results are also surely disappointing to anyone who hoped health care shopping might at least make a dent.

Or perhaps it will, someday. I spoke with Dr. Mehrotra, an expert on consumerism in health care, about what the results mean. Our conversation, lightly edited:

How would you sum up what you found?

There’s a lot of enthusiasm in the health care system about increasing price transparency, to both help patients become better consumers and to decrease health care spending. And unfortunately, in our results, we do not find that providing price transparency decreases health care spending.

I think there’s been this general idea that, ‘Oh, all we need to do is give people high deductibles, give them prices, and magic will happen, and people will start switching their providers to lower-cost providers.’ And one main message from this is that this should temper that enthusiasm, and it’s more complicated than that.

I don’t think it’s that patients think shopping for care is a bad idea. People generally realize that prices in health care are high and they should switch. But there are other factors that are playing a role.

Dr. Ateev Mehrotra (Courtesy)

Dr. Ateev Mehrotra (Courtesy)

Some of it is benefits design. We have these really complicated health care benefits designs that people really struggle to master, and under our current benefit design you might go to such a website and say, ‘Oh, I’m thinking of having my knee operated on and I’ll pay the same amount at every hospital, so it doesn’t matter.’ And a lot of the surgeries were for things that were relatively higher cost and therefore it didn’t matter. So that’s an issue.

And also, a lot of health care is emergent: When you’re having a heart attack and you’re in an ambulance, you’re not going to say, ‘Oh, let me see where it’s cheaper for me to go for care.’ So we should also recognize that not everything in health care is shoppable. Continue reading

Sudders, Bharel Discuss Release Of 2015 Opioid Death Numbers

There is still no sign that Massachusetts’ opioid epidemic is slowing.

New numbers released Monday show that 1,379 people died from unintentional opioid overdoses in the state in 2015. And that number is expected to top 1,500 once all death investigations are complete.

The data also show that more than half of the deaths last year involved the potent painkiller Fentanyl, which is sometimes mixed with heroin.

Health and Human Services Secretary Marylou Sudders and Department of Public Health Commissioner Monica Bharel joined WBUR’s All Things Considered to discuss the crisis.

The numbers the state released provide real-time information, they told us. Bharel also said the data help officials understand who is most affected by the opioid epidemic.

Related:

Mass. Opioid Crisis Continued To Worsen In 2015

Exacerbated by the potent painkiller fentanyl, the opioid crisis in Massachusetts continued to worsen in 2015, with more people dying of overdoses, according to the latest quarterly snapshot from the state Department of Public Health.

There were 1,379 confirmed opioid-related overdose deaths in Massachusetts last year, an 8 percent increase over the number of confirmed deaths in 2014 (1,282). More alarming still, the 2014 figure represents a 41 percent increase over the number of overdose deaths in 2013 (911). Continue reading

Earlier:

Some Doctors Say Focus Of Opioid Addiction Treatment Must Shift From Medication To Long-Term Recovery

While most say medication-assisted treatment for opioid addiction improves patient outcomes, some doctors are questioning seeking a cure from the same industry they say caused the problem. Pictured here, OxyContin, an opioid, is seen in a pharmacy in 2013. (Toby Talbot/AP/File)

While most say medication-assisted treatment for opioid addiction improves patient outcomes, some doctors are questioning seeking a cure from the same industry they say caused the problem. Pictured here, OxyContin, an opioid, is seen in a pharmacy in 2013. (Toby Talbot/AP/File)

While addiction treatment providers are increasingly recommending that medication be used to help wean people off opioids, some doctors are concerned there is now too much of a focus on medication and not enough on the harder work of long-term recovery from substance use disorder.

During the annual American Society of Addiction Medicine conference in Baltimore last month, a frequently heard statistic was that every 20 minutes someone in the U.S. dies from an opioid overdose.

“Imagine if we had someone in America dying from terrorism every 20 minutes,” Vermont Gov. Peter Shumlin said. “You wouldn’t have to just take your shoes off at the airport, you’d have to take everything off.”

Shumlin became a leading political voice on the opioid epidemic after dedicating his 2014 state of the state address to the problem in Vermont. Shumlin told the 1,800 people at the Baltimore conference that the nation needs their help to reduce the 250 million prescriptions written for opioid painkillers every year.

Continue reading

Senate Votes To Increase Smoking Age To 21 In Mass.

The Massachusetts Senate voted to raise the minimum age to buy tobacco products from 18 to 21. Signs like this one may need to change if the legislation makes it to the governor's desk. (Joe Difazio for WBUR)

The Massachusetts Senate voted to raise the minimum age to buy tobacco products from 18 to 21. Signs like this one may need to change if the legislation makes it to the governor’s desk. (Joe Difazio for WBUR)

The Massachusetts Senate voted 32 to 2 on Thursday to raise the state’s tobacco purchasing age from 18 to 21, passing legislation that supporters said would cut down youth tobacco use and nicotine addiction.

The bill, compiled by the Joint Committee on Public Health based on several separate pieces of legislation, also bans pharmacies and health care institutions from selling tobacco products and prohibits the use of electronic cigarettes in places where smoking is already banned.

“This bill is also very meaningful to me,” said Sen. Cynthia Creem, a Newton Democrat. “I started to smoke when I was under 21 and I was a teenager, and it was easy. It was the thing to do, and I did smoke…I wish that I was not able to smoke, and that I was older and understood the risks.”

Continue reading

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Weight Gain, Heart Disease, Back Pain: Longer Car Commutes May Harm Your Health

The worsening traffic in Boston -- or any metropolitan area -- does not just cost drivers time. It may also cost them health. Here's early afternoon bumper-to-bumper traffic on 93 in Milton (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

The worsening traffic in Boston — or any metropolitan area — does not just cost drivers time. It may also cost them health. Here’s early afternoon bumper-to-bumper traffic on 93 in Milton (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

Four years ago, Barbara Huntress-Rather got a great job, as director of quality improvement for a health care company that serves fragile seniors. Just one problem: She lived in Lawrence, and the new job was in Lynn.

“The first day I drove to work and said, ‘Oh, Lord, what have I done?’ ” she recalls. “After having a short commute for quite a few years, I hadn’t done the commute before in rush hour traffic and I was absolutely stunned at how long it took — it was over an hour.”

A harrowing hour, or more, hunched at the wheel, watching out constantly for aggressive or distracted drivers. In the months that followed, the effects on her health were dramatic: “I gained back 40 pounds that I had lost, developed low back pain and high blood pressure,” she says.

Huntress-Rather didn’t immediately blame her commute; she blamed herself for eating too much and feeling too tired to exercise. But she hit a turning point when her nurse practitioner told her she’d need blood pressure medication.

“I had always prided myself in being in good physical shape and meditating and doing all the things that would keep me from having high blood pressure,” she says. “And I immediately made the connection between not working out, spending endless hours in the car and feeling totally stressed most of the time. I was either commuting or worrying about commuting.”

Barbara Huntress-Rather found that her long commute led to weight gain, high blood pressure and back pain. She aims to retire soon and get her good health back. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

Barbara Huntress-Rather found that her long commute led to weight gain, high blood pressure and back pain. She plans to retire earlier than she would have otherwise and get her good health back. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

Huntress-Rather is practically a textbook case of what longer car commutes can do to bodies and minds. The evidence has been mounting in study after study in recent years, adding up to strong reason to believe that the worsening traffic in Boston — or any metropolitan area — does not just cost drivers time. It may also cost them health.

Let’s begin with the No. 1 killer of Americans: heart disease. Continue reading

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Buffets One Day, Vomiting The Next — Life With A Rare GI Disease

Melissa Adams Van Houten was diagnosed with a rare GI disorder in 2014. (Courtesy)

Melissa Adams Van Houten was diagnosed with a rare GI disorder in 2014. (Courtesy)

I am going to share some pretty personal information. Not a big deal to some of you, I am sure, but to me, it is huge. I am not the kind of person who does this — or at least I did not used to be. But things have changed.

In February of 2014, I spent a week in the hospital and was eventually diagnosed with gastroparesis, a disorder that slows or stops food from moving from the stomach to the small intestine.

I am guessing most people have never heard of this; I know I had not, prior to being diagnosed.

A Life-Altering Day

My life changed in ways I could not have imagined — overnight.

One day, I was able to eat at buffets, and the next day, I was unable to tolerate all foods and liquids. I was hospitalized with severe pain and vomiting, put through a battery of tests (including one particularly terrible one where they forced a tube down my nose and pumped my stomach). Eventually, I was diagnosed, but was given only a brief explanation of my illness and its treatment before I was sent home.

For the next few weeks, I was on a liquids-only diet, and was told that I had to gradually work my way up to soft foods and (eventually) solids. I am able to eat some soft foods, these days, in tiny amounts, but it is becoming clear to me that I will likely never again be able to eat “normal” foods in “normal” amounts.

Thinking About Food — Always

At first, I told myself that I would not let this stupid disease define or control me — it simply would not be the center of my life. But as time passed, I began to see how foolish this was. Every single day, every second of every day, I think about food. I see it; I smell it; I cook it and feed it to the other members of my household; but I cannot have it myself. Continue reading

At Least 40 Students With Mumps, Harvard Reports

Harvard University's campus in Cambridge, Mass. Several students have recently been diagnosed with the mumps. (Elise Amendola/AP)

Harvard University’s campus in Cambridge, Mass. Several students have recently been diagnosed with the mumps. (Elise Amendola/AP)

Harvard University officials report 40 cases of mumps at the school.

Lindsey Baker, spokeswoman for Harvard University Health Services, said six of those cases were reported on Friday.

Baker said health officials at the school are worried there could be an even larger outbreak before commencement next month, because the virus lies dormant for two to three weeks after a person is exposed.

Since the illness is quite contagious, students who have tested positive for mumps are put into isolation for five days, she explained.

At least 12 students are in isolation as of Tuesday for suspected or confirmed infections in the wake of the outbreak.

A Death, And A ‘Changed Life’: Traumatic Births Take Toll On Health Workers Too

Sarah Jagger and midwife Stephanie Avila were together when Jagger's son suffered a brain injury during labor that led to his death. Here, about a year later, in 2013, Jagger and Avila share a moment of gratitude after the safe arrival of a healthy baby girl. (Courtesy of Orchard Cove Photography)

Sarah Jagger and midwife Stephanie Avila were together when Jagger’s son suffered a brain injury during labor that led to his death. Here, about a year later, in 2013, Jagger and Avila share a moment of gratitude after the safe arrival of a healthy baby girl. (Courtesy of Orchard Cove Photography)

Everything seemed fine until the little boy was born.

He wasn’t breathing, but his heart was strong, recalled Stephanie Avila, the midwife attending the baby’s birth at a Rhode Island hospital back in 2012. But it soon became clear that the boy had suffered a brain injury during labor.

Eleven days later, after an MRI confirmed the severity of the injury and the family withdrew life-support, the child died. His official diagnosis: hypoxic ischemic encephalopathy, a brain injury caused by oxygen deprivation.

“I was prepared to stand by the family through this trauma,” Avila said in an interview. “But I fully expected I’d get sued — and it was going to get ugly, or uglier.”

Of course, the little boy’s family was devastated. “I just went into my own world,” said his mother, Sarah Jagger, speaking about the loss of her son.

But Avila suffered too. “I was a wreck,” she said.

Immediately after the birth, Avila said, she remained on call overnight at the hospital, Women & Infants, in Providence. “I retreated to the call room and curled up in the fetal position and prayed that no other people in labor would show up. I cried, had the worst headache I’ve ever had in my life, and felt like I’d vomit. For days I felt emotionally and physically terrible. I’d be walking down the street and suddenly could no longer move.”

At the time, Avila had two small children of her own. “And whenever my 2-year-old would do this cute thing, I’d think, their baby will never walk around in his mother’s high-heeled shoes. I’d get these terrible thoughts and I’d never know when it would strike.”

The Psychological Toll

After a traumatic birth — or any traumatic medical event — attention, rightly, turns to the grieving family. But research has been mounting in recent years that health care providers, sometimes called “the second victims,” also sustain long-lasting emotional damage following such a trauma.

A new study published by Danish researchers underscores the phenomena: Midwives and obstetricians who experienced a traumatic birth — one involving severe injuries or death — report that the psychological toll of such an event is deep and long-lasting.

More than one third of those surveyed said that they always would feel some sort of guilt when reflecting on the event, researchers report. Nearly 50 percent agreed that the traumatic birth had made them think more about the meaning of life. “This tells us that health care professionals are affected, not only professionally, but also at a personal and even existential level,” said Katja Schrøder, the study’s first author and a Ph.D. fellow at the University of Southern Denmark.

‘Changed My Life Forever’

This was indeed the case for Avila. “I feel as though that day — even to this day — changed my life forever in many ways,” she said. And while the “acute” nature of the trauma has passed, she said, the enormity of it continued to grip her, sometimes unexpectedly and at random times.

In the Danish study, published in Acta Obstetricia et Gynecologica Scandinavica, a journal of the Nordic Federation of Societies of Obstetrics and Gynecology, more than 1,200 Danish obstetricians and midwives responded to a survey on the aftermath of a traumatic birth. Of those respondents, 14 were selected for a followup interview.

Many of the providers spoke of not being able to shake the trauma, whether they were blamed for the bad outcome or not. “Although blame from patients, peers or official authorities was feared (and sometimes experienced), the inner struggles with guilt and existential considerations were dominant,” researchers report.

From the paper:

One mid-wife explained that even now, 12 years after the event, she would still think about that particular mother and child when passing through their town…

Most participants described having spent many hours agonizing and wondering whether they could have prevented the adverse outcome. One midwife said that her sense of guilt would never disappear because she knew that the parents would have to live with the consequences of her handling of the delivery.

Still, the researchers found that for many providers, “the traumatic childbirth had given rise to personal development opportunities of an emotional and/or spiritual character …for instance by achieving a more humble and profound understanding of both professional roles and of life as a whole.”

A Meaningful Meal

About a month after her infant son’s death, Jagger did something unusual: She asked Avila to meet for lunch. Up until then, the two women had been in touch — Avila had called to check in often, offering to help out and attend followup medical appointments with Jagger.

But the lunch date marked a turning point, the women agreed. First, it became clear that Jagger didn’t blame Avila for the boy’s death, and did not want to focus on the tragedy going forward.

“We had this little boy who had a such a short life,” Jagger said. “I didn’t want his life to be clouded in anger. I wanted his life to be about love…and not focus on the horrible part.”

But the meeting also underscored the growing bond between the women. When it was over, they walked outside and Jagger posed a question: “I said to her, ‘If I have another baby, would you deliver it?’ And I think she was horrified. But I think because I trusted her so completely, through the birth, and his death, and her calls and the followup, I felt like she was there with me, like this was our loss, it wasn’t just my loss.”

The Danish research paper quotes Donald Berwick, a pediatrician who served in the Obama administration and is also a patient safety guru of sorts. In a 2009 interview published in the Journal of Patient Safety, Berwick speaks about those “second victims”:

Health care workers’ egos can be big. But believe me, their superegos are a lot bigger. You carry into work — as a nurse, or doctor, or a technician or pharmacist– the intent to do well. And when something goes wrong, almost always you feel guilty, terribly guilty. The very thing you didn’t want to happen is exactly what happened. And if you don’t understand how things work, you feel like you caused it. That creates a victim. My heart goes out to the injured patient and family, of course. That’s the first and most important victim. But health care workers who get wrapped up in error and injury, as almost all someday will, get seriously hurt too. And if we’re really healers, then we have a job of healing them too. That’s part of the job. It’s not an elective issue, it’s an ethical issue.

In the past decade or so, various institutions and nonprofits have emerged with tools and systems to better support medical professionals who have endured a traumatic event.

One of those groups, MITSS, or Medically Induced Trauma Support Services, based in Massachusetts, provides trauma tool kits used around the country.

Linda Kenney, the founder of MITSS, was herself the victim of an anesthesia error that nearly killed her. She said that for her, connecting with the anesthesiologist who caused her injury (he called her afterwards to express his regrets) and creating the nonprofit to help others, helped her heal.

But for health care providers, sometimes talking to peers at a hospital, or others in the institution, isn’t enough and can actually feel isolating, Avila, the Rhode Island midwife, said. Because of the omnipresent fear of lawsuits, and also due to patient privacy laws, she said, “there are very few environments where we can freely discuss what happened.”

A Second Chance

In 2013, a few days shy of what would have been her son’s first birthday, Jagger went into labor with her second child, and she called on Avila to attend the birth. By that time, Avila was no longer working for the same midwifery group, but the practice arranged for her to have insurance during the birth, and Avila left a family gathering on Block Island to get to Providence on time.

Jagger’s little girl is now a healthy 2-and-a-half-year-old who considers Avlia her “auntie.”

“It was this amazingly cathartic experience for all of us,” Jagger said.

Avila is now a family nurse practitioner and attends births less frequently as part of her work. These days, she and Jagger are extremely close: They’ve vacationed together, bake each other birthday cakes and talk almost daily.

“I never would have expected our relationship to evolve to this point,” Avila said. “But despite how close we are now, I would sacrifice it in a moment if I could change the outcome of that first birth.”

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