Thursday, February 24, 2011

Who needs doctors, anyway?! Lessons from rural India.

I'll let these two important New York Times articles by Tina Rosenberg about community health workers speak for themselves: "Villages Without Doctors" and a follow-up article incorporating important comments on the factors that make or break such programs.

Curative medicine, the kind physicians are trained in, has a tendency to reach the few and the rich rather than the many and the poor. And it treats so many conditions that could have been prevented. What a poor use of resources. The world needs more simple public health initiatives and basic health care, and the vulnerable poor have a perfect right to implement them. Prevention! Prevention! Prevention! Education! Education! Education!

That health care belongs to "the people" is also the core belief of the wonderful Hesperian Foundation, of Where There Is No Doctor fame--a topic for another day.

Monday, February 21, 2011

International Family Medicine: list of core competencies

A list of the things a family practice physician needs to know will vary from country to country, but as discussed in a study published in the Middle East Journal of Family Medicine last spring, there is a core set of competencies that FPs in every country should have. The researchers surveyed FP docs around the world to see how many of these core skills are being systematically taught in their countries. Australia topped the list, teaching all 44, and Indonesia brought up the rear with only 17. The most-taught subject was "Accident and Emergency," while the least-taught was "Women's Health." (Though I was relieved to see that that was treated as a separate topic from "Obstetrics and Gynecology," that statistic is still unfortunate.)

This study is helpful for putting family practice curricular issues into a global perspective, and I recommend that anyone involved in teaching family practitioners in the developing world read it. At the very least, it provides an important checklist of the topics to emphasize in your curriculum.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

"High-touch" medicine leads to lower costs--and yet it's low-resource in its way

One of the things I admire about low-resource medicine is that, by definition, it doesn't cost much. By contrast, ER visits and hospitalizations in the high-resource American system can be tremendously expensive. And it's sobering to consider how those visits could so often have been prevented, how many of those resources are spent wastefully. We've all heard about how many trauma patients might not have been hurt if only some simple measures had been in place: helmets, handing over the car keys, wearing a seat belt. What's less obvious is that ER visits for chronic diseases could also be reduced--not with even snazzier drugs and higher-tech diagnostics, but with little things, the kinds of things that the US system isn't designed to pay for. Things like careful follow-up for outpatients, coordination of prescriptions among all a patient's doctors, and robust social supports.

One Dr. Jeff Brenner is trying to do just that in Camden, New Jersey. “Emergency-room visits and hospital admissions should be considered failures of the health-care system until proven otherwise,” Brenner told Atul Gawande in the latter's recent New Yorker article about "high-touch" medical care. Damn right.

Gawande's article examines strategies by Brenner and some like-minded colleagues to cut costs by preventing repeat ER visits and hospitalizations in the people most vulnerable to them. In any given group of patients, it often turns out that a small number of people account for a huge chunk of medical costs; these reformers scrutinize databases and figure out who those patients are. Is it the residents of a particular building, who seem to suffer a lot of injurious falls? Is it someone suffering from several overwhelming chronic diseases and not enough social support? Is it a woman who faithfully fills her ineffective ER migraine prescriptions, yet never seems to find an outpatient neurologist who will tweak them till they work?

The reformers target those patients for meticulous outpatient care--"high-touch" care that relies heavily on building trust between patients and caregivers and on locating medical care in its social context. Their methods are revolutionary and low-tech. For starters, these caregivers are organized, and they talk to each other. Doctors and nurses and social workers and lay health "coaches" hold daily team meetings about their patients, making changes to prescriptions, discussing whom to track down via relatives after a no-show or who needs a same-day follow-up for that test result. Then, they pick up the slack for patients who don't adequately care for themselves. They send nurse practitioners to do blood sugar checks and health coaches to deliver moral support. They see to it that prescriptions get filled and that patients get help taking their meds. They work with social services to get vulnerable people into better housing. They even forestall 911 calls by physically taking the patient's cell phone and entering the clinic's 24-hour number into them, since some patients don't have the number handy and don't know how to program their own phones. The result: Tailored medical regimens that actually get followed, not just prescribed and forgotten. And patients grow to believe the clinic workers really do have their interests in mind, and that trust inspires many of them to do what they can to improve their own health--they quit smoking, they lose weight, they join AA.

All the attention at these clinics reminds me of Directly Observed Treatment Short-Course (DOTS) for tuberculosis, in which health workers actually watch TB patients swallow their medications several days a week throughout the long slog of treatment, routinely traveling to patients' homes when necessary. That simple strategy turns out to be both powerful and cost-effective--much more so than simply prescribing TB meds to an unsupervised patient, a method which for various reasons often leads to treatment failures and drug-resistant TB. Prescriptions are not enough. DOTS works so well that researchers have proposed using this strategy for other difficult diseases like hypertension and type I diabetes.

Similarly, when the numbers are crunched, the high-touch clinics Gawande investigated are worth it: They prevent hospitalizations and save money. (Hospitals stand to lose patients, of course: the country of Denmark, Gawande reports, has closed half its hospitals using similar strategies to prevent hospitalization.)

In short, high-touch clinics don't just examine and prescribe. They act as if they care about sick people, and they do whatever it takes to get the best available care into patients' hands. How interesting: That's often all we can do in a low-resource clinic here on the other side of the world. Our DOTS workers ride their bicycles to patients' houses, sit down with them, and help them take their pills; their efforts are the reason we cure most of our TB patients. It's high time the American health system realizes what low-resource practitioners already know: sometimes, it's the little things.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Online practice scenarios for trauma

Worried by their dithering the last time we had an accident victim, I just took our docs through a bit of trauma training. We don't have the materials to conduct a formal ATLS course, nor does our rural Indonesian clinic have the tools to conduct full trauma care, but we can certainly review basics. So we went over the primary and secondary surveys, as well as important concepts like resuscitation and teamwork. This is their chance to learn and practice, since they tell me that all the spots in Jakarta ATLS courses are booked till 2012.

Fun with moulage will take place in a few days (my long-suffering fellow volunteer, Dr. Bobby, will play the role of victim, with lipstick or perhaps chewed-up betel nut to denote his injuries). In the meantime, the docs asked for reading material. I wish I could find a legally downloadable ATLS manual online, but no dice. Still, there are excellent basic reviews by eMedicine and UpToDate (subscription only for the latter, alas), and this collection of interactive trauma cases online. They're free of charge, courtesy, a website dedicated to global trauma care that is well worth exploring. The cases are written in idiomatic (and very funny) English, so they might not be ideal for non-native speakers, but they do review important basics in a painless way and might make good moulage scenarios for people teaching trauma care in a low-resource environment. I plan to create teaching cases based on some of them. It should be lots of fun, though for poor Dr. Bobby's sake I don't think we'll be strictly following the "Fingers and tubes in every orifice" rule.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Neonatal incubator made of car parts

Stuff breaks.

Replace, send for repairs, or try to fix it yourself? In the developing world, choice 3 is often the only option. Unfortunately, even if you’re game to try fixing a broken machine, the parts are often all but unobtainable. And even if the parts are obtainable, modern technology has made many machines opaque.

So here's a brilliant idea: medical machinery that can be repaired anyplace where there are car parts and mechanics. The NeoNurture was invented by Design That Matters, an American NGO that creates products and services to help the poor in developing countries. This nifty incubator is made of auto components and should be transparent to anyone who understands cars. That means it can be used in remote areas (since presumably there are cars just about everywhere these days), and when it breaks or needs to be altered, it doesn't become a useless piece of junk. God knows we're glad to have our ultrasound machine and X-ray out here in our rural Indonesian clinic, but we haven't any special parts or expertise to fix them once they fail. What do we do with them then? Burn them? To borrow a quote from the New York Times, which blogged about the incubator last November:

“Every rural clinic in the developing world has a shack full of broken donated medical equipment,” said Timothy Prestero, chief executive of the Cambridge, Mass., design consultancy. 

You get it, DTM! Thank you. Can't wait to see these in production.

Check out the other ideas this firm is developing: a phototherapy device, a microfilm projector, and an IV flow controller. Their past projects sound great, too. I'd like to know more about which ones have been most successful and which ones remained at the prototype stage.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

A few cc's of public health are worth a liter of fluids

Another child with seizures, this time without a happy ending. This little girl was 40 days old, and had been sick for several days. Her parents first noticed something was wrong when she stopped breastfeeding. Soon she began to vomit.

The family visited a traditional healer. After that they took her to the local government clinic, which advised them to go to the city hospital (hours away). They decided not to go. The baby then suffered five continuous hours of seizures, after which she remained unresponsive. The following day, when she hadn't gotten any better, they brought her to our clinic, a few minutes' motorbike ride from their home.

We examined the baby. Her breathing came in slow gasps. She made no response to painful stimuli. Her pupils were dilated and didn't react to light, and when we stroked her corneas with a wisp of cotton, there was no blink reflex. Her soft spot bulged upward, indicating dangerously high pressure in the brain, and her belly was much too firm. She died a few minutes later.

We visited the family the next morning, a couple of hours after they had buried their daughter. Her mother asked us several times how this could have happened when the child had been so healthy before. Our doctors explained to her that the child may have caught a bad germ that was "very strong." (There were other possibilities, but we couldn't be sure of any diagnosis given how short a time we had with her.)

The mother berated herself for not having come to us sooner. We told her it wasn't her fault.

And it wasn't, I don't think. It's hard to know exactly whose fault it is that this woman happens to have grown up on a remote, malarial island with only occasional visits from a midwife; that she received no schooling past age 11 and her fisherman husband little more; that they just moved here a few months ago; that they didn't know how to judge the severity of this illness. Could this death have been prevented if the baby had received treatment earlier? Yes, possibly.

What can I say? When it's too late, medicine isn't enough. Strong public-health programs and education must underlie any efforts to deliver medical care.