Wednesday, March 16, 2011

WHO's List of Essential Medicines

The World Health Organization publishes a frequently-updated list of essential medicines, organized by type of drug and whether it's a "core" drug to treat high-priority conditions, or a complementary drug for settings with more resources and specialists. It flags drugs for which any equivalent drug in the same class is just as good, as well as those that are only for children or other subgroups. It's worth browsing if you're looking to put together an essential toolkit for a low-resource setting.

I get a little misty looking at this list. Every one of these drugs is a technological achievement, the result of years of work and centuries of scientific investigation into chemistry and physiology. We've gradually learned how the human machine works, and now we have this--a toolkit, a concise record of human smarts directed toward relief of disease and suffering. Creationists, the evolutionists you abhor use the same methods that the inventors of your blood-pressure pills did. And Luddites, take note: technology can serve the good. This list is proof.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Quitting smoking can be a warning sign of lung cancer

A fascinating study in the March Journal of Thoracic Oncology lends weight to something many of us physicians have long suspected: people who quit smoking after many years may be doing so in response to an early lung cancer, often long before they have symptoms. Here in our low-resource clinic, we already worry more about lung cancer in symptomatic patients who have a history of having randomly quit smoking in the last few years. That little point of history doesn't replace diagnostics, but it does raise our suspicions. This study suggests we have good reason.

Pain relief and opiates--or the lack thereof

Opiates like morphine or fentanyl are in short supply here in rural Indonesia. Our clinic treats patients who suffer from acute or chronic pain with a mixture of ibuprofen, acetaminophen (paracetamol), and occasionally codeine. Friends who have worked in Uganda and other developing countries tell me the situation is similar there. The lack of opiates condemns many end-stage cancer patients to a nightmare existence.

The International Narcotics Control Board, a United Nations drug organization, recently issued a report decrying the lack of availability of narcotic pain medications in many parts of the world, and argued correctly that such drugs should be considered indispensable in medical practice. Inadequate policies and regulatory constraints are among the reasons why many countries have made pain relief a low priority. One of my American colleagues once opined that that's because some cultures believe in the sanctity of suffering. I don't know enough about Islam to know if that's the case here, but Mother Theresa seems to have believed that, at least when it came to other people's.

But  the relief of suffering is at the heart of medicine. If prevention and cure fail, or when there's a delay before a treatment takes effect, there is palliation. At the very least, a health care worker ought to make a patient comfortable. I've never been as glad to have morphine in my toolbox as I was when I took care of a little kid in my ER in the US who had been severely burned and needed to be transferred to a burn center. He was fully conscious, suffering pain few of us can imagine, but we pulled him out of the depths of hell with large and repeated doses of morphine. His agony subsided even as he remained awake, and watching his transformation from tortured to calm made me feel a near-religious sense of gratitude to have been able to do that for him. I think about him from time to time and hope he enjoyed his helicopter ride, at least a little.