Pilgrims? Turkeys? None of the above. Today was just Honest Abe's good idea

Perhaps the pilgrims and the Indians did indeed sit down to a great feast and a peace pipe; there were probably plenty of wild turkeys around in the early days of the pre-U.S. But all of those things had nothing to do with the beginnings of Thanksgiving Day — you knew that, of course.

Nope. It was Abraham Lincoln’s effort to bring a little peace into the fractured country he found himself trying to lead, at a time about as fractured here as the world is, today, everywhere. Abe thought a little reverence and repentance would be a good thing. Here, in part, is what he had to say:

“But we have forgotten the gracious hand which preserved us in peace and multiplied and enriched and strengthened us, and we have vainly imagined, in the deceitfulness of our hearts, that all these blessings were produced by some superior wisdom and virtue of our own. Intoxicated with unbroken success, we have become too self sufficient to feel the necessity of redeeming and preserving grace…”

Poor Abe. If he thought he knew deceitfulness and intoxication, he should have seen what’s going on in health reform. And if he looked beyond our shores he might have sensed wider “punishment and chastisements in this world” and called for a global pause.

Whatever its origin — Lincoln’s formal establishment of the day was in 1863, but what would preschool be without pilgrims and cornucopias? — Thanksgiving Day still offers a nice time to pause.

Here in San Francisco a few hundred or so of us will be doing that at the 5th Annual Interfaith Thanksgiving Service, where we’ll have a group Ommmm, a Muslim call to prayer, a bunch of other prayers to Whomever has not given up on us all,  “with one heart and one voice” as Mr. Lincoln suggested we do. Then we’ll go home and eat stuffed turkey and watch ball games.

And a Happy Thanksgiving to all.

Doctors making house calls? An old idea whose new time has come

Could house calls make a comeback? It’s already happening. The University of California at San Francisco, for one success-story example, started the UCSF-Mt. Zion Housecalls Program in 1999 with a philanthropic gift. Its original goal was to teach medical students about home care, but with the exploding need for primary care for homebound elders it has evolved into filling that need throughout San Francisco — while still teaching the new generation about house calls.

In an article in the San Francisco Chronicle, staff writer Victoria Colliver details some of the many advantages that such programs have.

June Hagosian’s brain tumor has made it difficult for the 77-year-old San Francisco woman to leave her house in recent years, keeping her mostly confined to her bed.

For someone like Hagosian whose medical needs require frequent doctor visits, that would usually pose a problem. But because of a program run by UCSF, the doctor comes to her. She has had to leave her bright yellow home in the Richmond District to go to the hospital just three times in the past seven years.

“This program has been so wonderful,” Hagosian said during a recent home visit with her physician, Rebecca Conant, director of UCSF’s Housecalls Program. “I wish everyone could have it.”

Conant, who had just 15 patients when she took over the program in 2001, is one of five part-time UCSF physicians who spend all their clinical time outside the office, traveling from home to home visiting frail and elderly patients. Housecalls currently serves nearly 100 San Francisco residents and has an eight-month waiting list.The Housecalls physicians visit patients whose conditions make it so hard for them to go to the doctor’s office that they might otherwise put off seeking medical care. By then, they would be so sick they would need an ambulance and end up in a hospital emergency room. The program takes patients regardless of whether they have insurance or an ability to pay, which separates it from private practices that offer home visits as a convenience but at an added cost.

UCSF’s 10-year-old Housecalls Program is an old idea that has gained new traction. Both the House and Senate versions of the health reform bills contain proposals to examine whether home-based care improves the health of chronically ill patients and saves the government money by reducing hospitalizations and ER visits.”There’s no question there is both a medical need and substantial cost savings to the Medicare program,” said Constance Row, executive director of the American Academy of Home Care Physicians.

The Department of Veterans Affairs’ Home-Based Primary Care program, which has been operating for more than two decades, has showed a 24 percent reduction in costs for those patients, and some studies suggest savings as high as 40 percent, Row said.

UCSF’s Housecalls Programs operates on an annual budget of $300,000, almost all of which is devoted to physician salaries. That’s an average cost of $3,000 per patient, which does not include the cost of hospital care when needed. Medicare spends a national average of $46,412 per patient over the last two years of life, when patients typically have several chronic illnesses, according to researchers from the Dartmouth Institute for Health Policy and Clinical Practice.

But new technology – the ability to X-ray patients using portable machines, conduct blood tests and provide other services using mobile devices – allows doctors to offer a much higher level of care in the comfort of the patient’s home.

Conant, an associate clinical professor at UCSF, said she uses mobile devices to aid in her patient care, but she finds home visits offer other advantages like allowing her to see patients’ physical environments, meet their caregivers and better understand what kind of care they need.

“Not only does that improve medical care, but it’s based in reality,” she said.

The UCSF program is not the only home-based primary care program in the Bay Area. Kaiser Permanente, for example, serves some 370 members in San Francisco as part of its 13-year-old Community Care Program, which is handled by physicians, nurse practitioners and social workers.

Reinstituting and reinforcing in-home care, considering the significantly improved care for patients and the reduced cost to the taxpayer, would seem a no-brainer. But brains are losing out to politics a lot these days.

via UCSF program shows house calls’ time returning.

New Cancer Guidelines: One Good Message

News about changing guidelines for cervical and breast cancer screening have some women cheering, a lot of women fuming, and most women feeling confused. Or betrayed, or mistreated or worse.

There is one universal message in it all: every woman has to be her own advocate.

For most of us, that is no big deal. We’ve known for a long time that no two of us (and surely no four collections of breast tissue or no two histories of sexual activity) are alike, and most of us have gotten used to asking a lot of questions. It’s unfortunate that so many changes have been announced at almost the same time, and especially that the issue has become politicized.

New York Times health writer Denise Grady summed up the latest developments, and the issues that have caused confusion and anger in a November 20 article:

New guidelines for cervical cancer screening say women should delay their first Pap test until age 21, and be screened less often than recommended in the past.

The advice, from the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, is meant to decrease unnecessary testing and potentially harmful treatment, particularly in teenagers and young women. The group’s previous guidelines had recommended yearly testing for young women, starting within three years of their first sexual intercourse, but no later than age 21.

Arriving on the heels of hotly disputed guidelines calling for less use of mammography, the new recommendations might seem like part of a larger plan to slash cancer screening for women. But the timing was coincidental, said Dr. Cheryl B. Iglesia, the chairwoman of a panel in the obstetricians’ group that developed the Pap smear guidelines. The group updates its advice regularly based on new medical information, and Dr. Iglesia said the latest recommendations had been in the works for several years, “long before the Obama health plan came into existence.”

She called the timing crazy, uncanny and “an unfortunate perfect storm,” adding, “There’s no political agenda with regard to these recommendations.”

Dr. Iglesia said the argument for changing Pap screening was more compelling than that for cutting back on mammography — which the obstetricians’ group has staunchly opposed — because there is more potential for harm from the overuse of Pap tests. The reason is that young women are especially prone to develop abnormalities in the cervix that appear to be precancerous, but that will go away if left alone. But when Pap tests find the growths, doctors often remove them, with procedures that can injure the cervix and lead to problems later when a woman becomes pregnant, including premature birth and an increased risk of needing a Caesarean.

Still, the new recommendations for Pap tests are likely to feed a political debate in Washington over health care overhaul proposals. The mammogram advice led some Republicans to predict that such recommendations would lead to rationing.

It boils down to this: every woman will need to pay close attention to her own health care. That is bad news for the less educated, the less aggressive, and those with less access to care, and not particularly good news for many older women who grew up with “The doctor knows best” excuse for not paying attention.But it’s good news for those of us, particularly older women, who have questioned what sometimes seemed too-frequent testing and screening.

Asking questions just got more respectable.

Guidelines Push Back Age for Cervical Cancer Tests – NYTimes.com.

Skip mammograms, quit breast self-exams, and maybe lighten up on 'defensive medicine' while we're at it

All those mammograms, self-exams and dutiful attention to catching breast cancer at the very first sign? Forget it. Might even do more harm than good.

As summarized by Associated Press writers Stephanie Nano and Marilynn Machione late Monday,
Most women don’t need a mammogram in their 40s and should get one every two years starting at 50, a government task forcesaid Monday. It’s a major reversal that conflicts with the American Cancer Society‘s long-standing position.

Also, the task force said breast self-exams do no good and women shouldn’t be taught to do them.

For most of the past two decades, the cancer society has been recommending annual mammograms beginning at 40.

But the government panel of doctors and scientists concluded that getting screened for breast cancer so early and so often leads to too many false alarms and unneeded biopsies without substantially improving women’s odds of survival.

“The benefits are less and the harms are greater when screening starts in the 40s,” said Dr. Diana Petitti, vice chair of the panel.

The new guidelines were issued by the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force, whose stance influences coverage of screening tests by Medicare and many insurance companies.

But Susan Pisano, a spokeswoman for America’s Health Insurance Plans, an industry group, said insurance coverage isn’t likely to change because of the new guidelines. No changes are planned in Medicare coverage either, said Dori Salcido, spokeswoman for the Health and Human Services department.

Maybe, just maybe, a clearer look at breast cancer screening could be accompanied by a good look at a little of the other possibly unnecessary and extraordinarily pricey “defensive medicine” going on around the country. What a fine way that would be to hold down costs and save a lot of time and angst. In another recent article (November 5) published in the San Francisco Chronicle, Associated Press reporter Steve LeBlanc wrote of how the costs of “defensive medicine,” along with malpractice insurance and lawsuit awards, are adding significantly to the soaring costs of health care.

LeBlanc illustrates the issue with a story that rings sadly true:

Dr. James Wang says he tries to tell his patients when medical procedures aren’t necessary. If they insist, though, he will do it – not so much to protect their health as his own practice.

After being sued for allegedly failing to diagnose a case of appendicitis, Wang says he turned to what’s known as “defensive medicine,” ordering extra tests, scans, consultations and even hospitalization to protect against malpractice suits.

“You are thinking about what can I do to prevent this from happening again,” he said, adding that he did nothing wrong but agreed to a minor settlement to avoid a trial.

We have, LeBlanc explains, doctors battling malpractice premiums and lawyers saying malpractice suits discourage bad medicine — meanwhile, the costs of it all add up to some ten percent of health care expenditures.

We the public, healthy and sickly alike, are caught in the middle. Could we not somehow declare a truce? We’ll quit rushing to sue, lawyers back off from chasing ambulances, doctors go about the business of practicing medicine according to patient need rather than fear of consequences. Seems like a good idea to me, but I’m not holding my breath.

I’m also not having any more mammograms any time soon.

New advice: Skip mammograms in 40s, start at 50 – Yahoo! News.

Doctors oppose abortion cuts in health bill

The San Francisco Medical Society has come out in opposition to removal of abortion coverage in the health reform bill, pointing out the potential danger to women’s lives if they are denied access to such care. Charles Wibbelsman, MD, President of SFMS, writes in today’s San Francisco Chronicle that the board of directors will urge congressional representatives to find a compromise.

It is a shame that such a complex issue as health care reform has been hijacked in the form of the Stupak amendment, which would ban all public funding for abortion (“Amendment to House bill reignites abortion debate,” Nov. 10).

Experience has shown that denying coverage of abortion does not stop or even curtail it, but rather shifts the costs elsewhere, and threatens to delay a woman in seeking and obtaining this medical procedure, thus potentially endangering her.

The San Francisco Medical Society’s board of directors has voted to urge our elected officials, particularly Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer, to find a compromise that will not ban such funding and keep women with unwanted pregnancies safe.

Women’s lives should not be held hostage to politics.

At last, a ray of sanity from the medical community. I, for one, am proud of SFMS for standing up for the uncounted thousands of women, most of them poor and disadvantaged, who will suffer harm from denial of access to care should the conservatives and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops win the day on this matter.

via Stupak amendment hijacks health care reform.

Abortion, health reform and me: who is making our choices?

Am I the only person around who is squirming — make that fuming a little — over the concessions made to the anti-choice guys before the House passed its health reform bill? Does no one else find it offensive to turn from reading on page one of today’s New York Times about this sad state of events to page 14 for a large photo of President Obama shaking hands with Cardinal Sean O’Malley? They were meeting at the funeral for Senator Ted Kennedy in August, where reportedly the good clergyman told the president that the Congress of Catholic Bishops really wanted to support health reform ——– oh, but only if everybody caved to their wishes that abortion remain unavailable.

It is not as if we weren’t forewarned. I posted a brief note in this space a few days ago (see Abortion Foes Winning Health Concessions, 11/4, below) and tried to resume a position of calm.

It is hard to remain calm. Somewhere the lines about separation of church and state have to fuzz themselves back into reality. I believe in the right of the U.S. Congress of Catholic Bishops to tell Catholics how to behave (despite the fact that of my many Catholic friends I know almost none who pay any attention in matters of personal choice.) I even believe in the right of the Pope to tell the Bishops to tell their parishioners how to behave. I even believe in the responsibility of all individuals, including my Presbyterian self, to behave according to their conscience and their faith. I just hate being governed by someone else’s faith.

This is not a small distinction. My own church, admittedly starting with a small group here in woo-woo San Francisco, passed a fairly strong national resolution denouncing our country’s torturing folks and seeking justice. As far as I know, no one threatened the president about withholding support for these occasionally immoral wars we keep fighting unless the instigators of torture-in-our-name were sent to jail. However strongly I would like to see the latter happen, I believe there are limits to what faith communities should do.

I had personal experience with back-alley abortion, in the dark days pre-Roe v Wade. It was not pleasant. Is there any way a celibate Catholic bishop could even remotely understand the horrors to which he is condemning poor, desperate pregnant women with the relentless push to make abortion totally unavailable? No. I wish there were.

We still have got to have health reform. But what prices we are paying.

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