Pills vs. Time: The Power of Patience

Another interesting article about slowing down our rush-to-treatment healthcare mentality (see Pills & Perils below) appeared in Tuesday’s ‘Personal Journal’ section of The Wall Street Journal. This one is a lot simpler: do nothing, just wait. WSJ‘s Melinda Beck is writing less about serious afflictions than about the minor problems that plague us all; still it points once again to our cultural tendency to Do Something, whatever it is.

What cures colds, flu, sore throats, sore muscles, headaches, stomach aches, diarrhea, menstrual cramps, hangovers, back pain, jaw pain, tennis elbow, blisters, acne and colic, costs nothing, has no weird side effects and doesn’t require a prescription?

Plain old-fashioned time. But it’s often the hardest medicine for patients to take.

“Most people’s bodies and immune systems are wonderful in terms of handling things—if people can be patient,” says Ted Epperly, a family physician in Boise, Idaho, and president of the American Academy of Family Physicians.

“I have a mantra: You can do more for yourself than I can do for you,” says Raymond Scalettar, a Washington, D.C., rheumatologist and former chairman of the American Medical Association. But, he says, “some patients are very medicine-oriented, and when you tell them they aren’t good candidates for a drug they’ve heard about on TV, they don’t come back. I have colleagues who say, ‘You can take this pill and get better in two days, or do nothing and get over it in 48 hours,’ ” says Dr. Scalettar.

Of course, we know this. Most of us have some genetic strain of either the leave-it-alone-it’ll-be-better-in-the-morning or the shut-up-and-tough-it-out approach to all aches and pains. But we also have those constant messages from the TV set, and increasingly from the computer screen, that say one little pill will make it all better, right this very minute. And we are a right-this-very-minute society.

Almost all viral infections resolve on their own, unless you have a compromised immune system. As a rule of thumb, Dr. Epperly says, infections in the nose, throat, stomach and upper respiratory tract tend to be viral. Infections elsewhere in the body are likely to be caused by bacteria, and those can get worse without antibiotics. About 80% of urinary-tract infections resolve on their own, for example, but about 20% develop into more serious kidney or blood infections. And even if they don’t, the symptoms can be very uncomfortable.

Some chronic maladies follow predictable courses, according to many medical experts ,whether or not they are treated.

Colic is almost always gone in four months. Some 70% of acne is gone three to four years after it first appears. “Frozen shoulder”—a painful restriction of the shoulder joint—is typically painful for three to six months and stiff for the next four to six months, and resolves completely after one to three more months. Temporomandibular joint (TMJ) pain tends to go away by itself in 18 months. Sciatica resolves on its own in three weeks in 75% of cases.

Not many of us do pain and misery very well. As a repeat TMJ sufferer, I can promise you if I tried to wait it out without pain killers for 18 days, let alone months, my entire neighborhood block would evacuate. Pain (see Caitlin Kelly’s Broadside post a few hours ago) is in a category all its own. Actually, though it is hell to pay, sometimes it can serve a purpose. My good husband wound up in the emergency room with a gall bladder infection that would’ve had anyone else, surely including myself, shrieking in agony; he does not feel pain. That is great when you’re young and macho, not so good when you get a few years on you and could use a signal that something’s wrong.

But for the minor issues, things wrong can often right themselves without outside interference. Now… if I could only start over again with everything I should or shouldn’t have taken…

When Doing Nothing Is the Best Medicine – WSJ.com.

Palliative Care: Rush Limbaugh vs the Grannies

The patient was in four-point restraint, which means his hands and feet were tied to the bed. He was shouting over and over, in Spanish, “Help me!” but no help came. Until Diane Meier happened upon the scene.

The back story, she learned, was that the man had end-stage cancer for which he had declined treatment. After he fell at home, his adult children had found him on the floor and called 911, landing him back in the hospital. There, among other interventions that were put into play, a feeding tube had been inserted through his nose. When he repeatedly pulled it out, his hands were tied. After he then pulled it out three times with his knees, his feet were tied. You could say these treatments were being performed over the patient’s not-quite-dead-body.

“Why,” Dr. Meier asked, “is it important to have the feeding tube?” The attending physicians answered, “Because if we don’t, he’ll die.”

It was at this point that Diane Meier, M.D., F.A.C.P., already honored for her work in geriatrics and for her personal and medical skills, became a crusader for palliative care. “A light bulb went off,” she told a group of physicians and other professionals in the field today in San Francisco. “I realized it was an educational problem, and thus a solvable problem.” She saw that the doctors and nurses were only doing as they had been taught, and the results were distressing also to many of them. “All I did was say ‘It’s all right to care about your patient.'”

Meier’s pioneering efforts to shift care of critically ill patients from aggressive, often futile treatment to comfort care focusing on the patient instead led to formation of the Center to Advance Palliative Care, which she currently serves as Director. They also resulted in a MacArthur Fellowship she was awarded in September, 2008.

“The MacArthur,” says the self-effacing physician, “was in recognition of the tens of thousands of people working in palliative care.” But those tens of thousands are not enough to have eliminated the tragedies of patients such as the unfortunate man cited above. Walk the halls of almost any hospital, nursing home or similar institution in the U.S. and you will hear the incessant “Help me!” cries of people being treated over their almost-dead bodies.

Helping them with comfort care rather than aggressive treatment, though, is referred to by the Rush Limbaughs of the world as “Killing off the grannies.” It is a handy sound bite, and it is tilting the balance against sanity in our lurch toward health reform. Unless Mr. Limbaugh can convince me I’d rather be 4-point-restrained with a tube inserted in my nose than gently treated with comfort care when I encounter my next critical illness, this particular grannie would appreciate his butting out of my rights. Palliative care should be a right.

It is, unfortunately, a campaign of the political right to keep palliative care out of health reform. They will prevail, Dr. Meier said, unless voices of sanity are raised, whether Democrat or Republican. She urged her audience, representative of a wide variety of compassionate groups, to help get the message out and get the calls, e-mails and letters in. Legislators behind the three bills working their way through Congress, she said, need to hear from the citizenry.

The citizenry is unquestionably in favor of comfort, and where palliative care can be understood it is welcomed. Hosting Dr. Meier’s informal talk were the California HealthCare Foundation, the California Coalition for Compassionate Care, Archstone Foundation and the University of California, San Francisco, four of many organizations committed to making palliative care understood, available and effective.

The question of whether they or Rush Limbaugh will prevail is as yet unanswered. Having Mr. Limbaugh forming our health policy, though, is almost as scary to this granny as 4-point restraint.