Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Is it Bad to Have Undigested Food In Your Poop?

If food appears in the feces looking very similar to how you it was when you ate it, this means that the food has not been digested (broken down and absorbed) by the body. Believe it or not, many foods that we eat cannot be digested by the enzymes in our digestive system. An enzyme is a type of protein that helps produce chemical reactions in the body.

RECOMMENDED BOOK: Everybody Poops 410 Pounds a Year

Foods that cannot be digested by the human body usually contain a high amount of dietary fiber. Dietary fiber is a term for chemical substances in the cells of plants that cannot be digested by the human body. Dietary fiber cannot be digested by the human body because it lacks the necessary enzymes to do so. More specifically, dietary fiber is resistant to hydrolysis. Hydrolysis is a process in which a substance is broken down by splitting its chemical bond and adding water to it. Since dietary fiber cannot be digested, it passes through the body virtually unchanged and cannot be used as an energy source. Although humans cannot digest dietary fiber, some of it is broken down by bacteria to produce gas and acids.

Examples of foods that are not digested well by the human body include corn, peanuts, peas, carrots, cereals, and beans. If the bacteria in the body are successful, some of the carbohydrates in these foods may be broken down. If not, however, we will see these foods in the feces. Carbohydrates are a group of substances present in certain types of foods (such as sugar) that provides the body with energy.

Research also suggests that the more a food is cooked, the more difficult it is for the body to digest it. This is generally true of most foods. The higher the temperature that the food is cooked, the longer it will stay in the digestive system, and the more difficult it will be for the body to digest. Why does this happen? To begin with, all foods are made up of chemicals that are arranged in certain patterns. Our digestive system is generally able to break down foods that fit these general patterns. However, the chemical patterns of all foods can be changed when they are heated past a certain point. Thus, foods that are deep-fried and barbecued often have their chemical pattern changed. As a result, the body does not understand how to deal with these new chemical patterns and the food can pass out of the body undigested because the body does not have the necessary enzymes to digest it properly.
If the above reasons are not causing food to be undigested, this could indicate a problem in the digestive system. In a healthy person, it should take between 24 and 36 hours to digest food. If the food comes out of the body faster than this, this usually means that there is a build up of debris (the remains of something broken down) that is preventing the colon from digesting food.

The colon is the major part of the large intestine, that absorbs water and some types of salts from the digested material that passes through it. The intestine is a tube shaped structure that is part of the digestive tract, and is located in the belly. The large intestine absorbs moisture from the matter that is left after it is digested in the small intestine, and releases the waste from the anus (the area that feces comes out of). The small intestine is a part of the intestine that takes in all of the nutrients (healthy substances) that the body needs.

A healthy piece of feces is about one foot long. Shorter sized feces suggest that the colon is not able to process the food correctly and that the feces produced does not have the correct amount of moisture in it.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Does Your Kids’ Cereal Contain BHT or BHA – An Ingredient in Jet Fuels? Mine Did.

When examining the foods in my home, I took a look at the cereal boxes and found that the following cereals contained something called BHT: Rice Krispies, Frosted Flakes, Froot Loops, Apple Jacks, Boo Berry, Frosted Mini Wheats (three types), Raisin Brain Xtra, and even Total. The only cereal that did not have it was Grape Nuts.

So I decided to do a little research into what this BHT stuff is, especially since my kids are eating it. Turns out that BHT is an abbreviation for butylated hydroxytoluene. As someone who has a profession in the neurosciences, the word that jumped out to me was “toluene” because toluene is a solvent that can cause neurological effects when inhaled. BHT is not toluene, but the fact that it shares a chemical name with it was cause for initial concern.
Additional readings in BHT show that it is used as a component in jet fuel, rubber petroleum products, cosmetics, electrical transformer oil, and embalming fluid (the stuff they put in dead people to replace blood) and preserve the body. Anyone hungry yet?

When food is exposed to oxygen, it can spoil. When BHT is added to foods containing fats and oils, oxygen reacts preferentially with BHT as opposed to the fats and oils, which preserves the food from spoiling as fast. So, BHT is an anti-oxidant, but it is an artificial anti-oxidant.

The key question is whether BHT (or the related BHA) is harmful to human health? It depends on what you read and what your source of information is. Some will say that it is used in such small amounts (parts per million or billion) that it is most likely safe. But to me, this is not very reassuring because if someone said they were going to add a miniscule amount of jet fuel into my cereal, I would say no, not matter how small. Some will say that is an anti-oxidant, has been used to treat herpes and other viruses, and decrease cancer risk. However, others can cite information that it increases cancer risk, at least in laboratory animals given very high doses of the substance.
Tired of reading the conflicting accounts, I turned to the only objective source of information I could think of. Every commercial chemical substance that people can be exposed to needs to have a Material Safety Data Sheet (MSDS) which contains detailed information about the substance, including information on human health effects and toxicity. You can find the MSDS for BHT here and read it for yourself. I particularly focus on this section:

Special Remarks on other Toxic Effects on Humans:
Acute Potential Health Effects: Skin: Causes mild to moderate skin irritation. Eyes: Causes moderate eye irritation. Inhalation: May cause respiratory tract (nose, throat) irritation. Ingestion: May be harmful if swallowed. The clinical manifestations of acute are not well known. May cause gastritis, vomiting, hypermotility, diarrhea. May affect behavior/central nervous system (dizziness, weakness, somnolence, slurred speech, ataxia, visual and auditory hallucinations, headache, confusion, temporary loss of consciousness), respiration (respiratory depression), blood (reduced ability to clot) Chronic Potential Health Effects: Ingestion: Prolonged or repeated ingestion may affect the liver, kidneys, thyroid, adrenal gland, behavior/central nervous system and learning ability, blood (reduced ability to clot), and may cause weight loss. Ingestion or skin contact may also cause allergic reaction (dermatitis, asthma).

Special Remarks on Chronic Effects on Humans:
May affect genetic material (mutagenic). May cause cancer based on animal test data. No human data found. May cause adverse reproductive effects and birth defects (teratogenic).
Chronic Effects on Humans:
CARCINOGENIC EFFECTS: A4 (Not classifiable for human or animal.) by ACGIH, 3 (Not classifiable for human.) by IARC. MUTAGENIC EFFECTS: Mutagenic for mammalian somatic cells. Mutagenic for bacteria and/or yeast. May cause damage to the following organs: blood, liver, central nervous system (CNS).

The bottom line for me is that I personally do not want to consume products that contain BHT or BHA much less feed them to my kids. There are other tasty cereals out there that do not contain this substance, particularly in the organic food section. Some of these natural food products have found ways to use natural preservatives that do not use jet fuel ingredients. Typically, they use what are known as tocopherols -- a technical word for a totally natural substance in vitamin E.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

The SHOCKING Ingredients In a Mountain Dew

When I wrote the popular blog entry, The SHOCKING Ingredients in a McRib Sandwich, I figured that the chemicals I found were mostly limited to fast food restaurants. I then began to look at some of the foods in my home explored the ingredients. I was shocked at what I found.


I believe that we have become accustomed when selecting food to do so based on name brand, taste, type of food, and perhaps a glance at the nutrition label (e.g., calories, fat, salt content). If we do look at the ingredients, we may see some with some long names, shrug our shoulders, and figure they are safe. They may be safe in small quantities, but I have to wonder if consuming large quantities of artificial chemicals over time causes health problems. Most of us are busy and want food that is already prepared to speed things up. But in order for that to happen, many manufacturers also cut corners to deliver foods and drinks in mass because it is much more efficient to do so. This is why all natural products usually cost more money.

I am going to begin documenting on this blog some of the troubling ingredients in foods and drinks I have had in my house, have regularly consumed in the past, and that I have now thrown out and replaced with other natural products. Most people do not have the time or energy to research what these products are, so I will do the work for you. All you need to do is spread the word (email, Facebook, Twitter), consider the information, and make an informed decision about what you want to put in your body. Without further ado, the product I am going to begin with is…

MOUNTAIN DEW: This popular drink is known for its high level of caffeine and fruity taste. But it also contains…

1. EDTA (ethylenediaminetetraacetic acid). This is sometimes uses as a preservative in foods (under the name calcium disodium EDTA) to prevent food discoloration. I remember hearing about it in the OJ Simpson when it was discussed as chemical used in test tubes to prevent blood from clumping together. To be fair, EDTA has some positive health benefits in specific situations (e.g., treatment of lead and mercury poisoning), since it removes metals from the body. However, the chemical is known to be a persistent organic pollutant, which means that they do not naturally degrade in the environment, are capable of accumulating in living tissue, and causing negative health effects. Studies with laboratory animals have found that EDTA is toxic to cells, is slightly toxic to genes, and that consuming the material orally has negative effects on reproduction and development.

2. BROMINATATED VEGETABLE OIL (BVO): This is a perfect example of a tricky ingredient because most people will read it and thing it is not a problem since it is vegetable oil, skipping over the word "brominated." Brominated means that this is vegetable oil that contains the chemical, bromine. It is used as an emulsifier in many citrus-flavored soft drinks. An emulsifier is a substance that allows foods to mix together. It does this by thickening the oil so that it is as dense as the water in the drink. India has banned the use of BVO from its soft drinks and it is not an approved additive in Europe.

Bromine and/or forms of bromine are used in pesticides, disinfectants, flame retardants, as a gasoline additive, and for swimming pool maintenance. Its use has been limited in the U.S. but is still contained in some food products. Bromine has no known essential role in human health.

3. SODIUM BENZOATE: A food preservative that has been inconsistently associated with hyperactivity and is theorized to cause cell malfunction. In response to health concerns, the Coca Cola company is phasing it out of Diet Coke and some of its other beverages.

4. YELLOW # 5: This is a type of man-made chemical food coloring. Many companies try to avoid using it because of potential health effects. First, it is known to cause allergies, particularly among people with asthma and aspirin intolerance. It is associated with anxiety, asthma attacks, hives (fewer than 1 in 10,000 people), clinical depression, migraines, blurry vision, itching, general weakness, heatwaves, feeling of suffocation, purple skin patches, and sleep disturbance. It may also be associated with hyperactivity, irritability, restlessness, thyroid tumors, and chromosome damage. Health effects can occur even in very small doses. About 360,000 Americans are sensitive to yellow #5, which is about 0.12% of the population. Although yellow #5 is associated with the problems above, whether yellow #5 causes some of the more extreme health effects is controversial, especially among people who are not intolerant to it.

In laboratory animals, yellow #5 affects behavior, inflames the stomach lining, and affects and alters chemical in vital organs (e.g., liver and kidney). The latter is true even at low doses. In England, the Food Standards Agency called on the voluntary removal of yellow # 5 from food and drink due to concerns over possible health effects. In the U.S., the Food and Drug Administration is so concerned about yellow #5 that it mandates that it be listed as an ingredient, insists on the batch of coloring be pre-approved by the FDA, and will actually seize products that do not list it in the ingredients when they soon have or did not have the batch pre-approved. Yellow # 5 was banned in Norway, Austria, and Germany but the ban was eventually overturned.

Friday, November 11, 2011

The Rick Perry Brain Freeze Examined

If you did not see the Republican Presidential debate the other night, you have probably heard by now about candidate Rick Perry’s “brain freeze” moment during the debate. No matter what side of the political spectrum you fall on, it was painful to watch.

The point of this entry is not to examine this issue from a political perspective but to look at it from a neuropsychological perspective and present ways to prevent something like this happening to you if you need to give an oral presentation without Powerpoint slides. If you have not seen the video or do not care to, Perry was not able to name the third of three federal government agencies that he stated he would eliminate. The first was the Department of Education. The second was the Department of Commerce. And the third was…ummmm….the third was….Ooops. See for yourself here:

I have done a great deal of group presentations in my life. Most of them involve use of Powerpoint slides in my professional career, which allow you to easily reference information so you do not need to solely rely on your memory. However, sometimes you need to make the off the cuff remarks when responding to questions and other times you need to do a more spontaneous presentation of information in life (e.g., best man speech, accepting an award, presenting to a group over a teleconference).

One thing I try to (unless I know the topic in detail) is avoid citing a specific number of points that need to be made and then try to rattle off those points based purely on memory. This is because if you cannot retrieve one of the points, it will look very bad and is if you do not know what you are talking about. You lose the audience and they lose confidence in you. It looked even worse for Perry because he has a history of poor debate performances due to milder retrieval difficulties, characterized by brief but long enough pauses that they indicate he is struggling with finding the correct information he wants to say.

As alluded to earlier, retrieval of information is enhanced when the person is very familiar with the topic area. This is because brain cells form stronger and stronger connections with each other the more well-known the information is. The technical name for this is having strong synaptic connections. Synapses are the connections between nerve cells and those bridges become strengthened when learning is enhanced, improving the memory trace.

Clearly, Perry did not have detailed and specialized knowledge of this particular topic. It is possible that he may have rehearsed the information ahead of time, even many times, but sometimes pure rote rehearsal is not enough, especially when there are so many other pieces of information being rehearsed at the same time. We have all experienced this when cramming for a test. Something similar is likely the case for Rick Perry who made a last minute decision to run for the Presidency and thus had to try to memorize answers in many different areas.

There are some ways around using rehearsal as a way to improve memory efficiency and retrieval. One of the best methods is called chunking, in which you reduce lengthy pieces of information to remember into small, discrete units. An example is using an acronym. If Perry would have done this, he could have saved himself a lot of grief. For example, he could have used the acronym CEE (pronounced see) for which agencies he would like to “see” eliminated. In this case, the acronym CEE is one unit of information but it stands for three words: Commerce, Education, and Energy. These first letters basically serve as prompts for the department names.

Another technique is to make the information emotionally significant as this contextual significance improves the memory trace. Thus, if he could think of one significant example of something severely wrong with each of these three agencies (preferably personalized as much as possible) it would improve his chances of remembering the three groups.

Sometimes, you can know the material well but anxiety can interfere with performance. However, as a general rule of thumb, anxiety should decrease the more familiar one is with the task at hand. In Perry’s case, there likely was some anxiety due to his poor prior debate performances. He was intimately aware of this as he has been widely criticized in the past, spoke about it openly, and was publicly floating the idea of skipping the debates. While anxiety can lead to a word recall problem, anxiety will then increase further when the recall prolem occurs, which further interferes with coming up with the correct word. It is like a road block exists and that road block needs to be cleared before the frontal lobe (prefrontal cortex) can execute an effective search and help the medial temporal lobe access the correct information. The medial temporal lobe acts as a memory retrieval and storage center.

If anxiety or some other emotion interferes with recall, it is good to have a backup plan, such as notes. Being familiar with the notes is key because you need to remember where to look very quickly if you plan to recover form a brain freeze during a speech. Perry did not do this either because despite exploring his nodes on the podium, he could not come up with the correct word.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Why Neuropsychological Testing Is Helpful in Dementia Evaluations

If you or a loved one is concerned that dementia may be present, a neuropsychological evaluation can be critical to confirming this, specifying the exact type, and guiding treatment. Dementia is a general term referring to a significant loss of intellectual and cognitive (thinking) abilities without impairment of perception or consciousness. There are many different types of dementia, with Alzheimer’s disease being the most common. Most forms of dementia are progressive and irreversible (such as Alzheimer’s disease and fronto-temporal dementia) although some forms are non-progressive (static) and reversible. An example of a static form of dementia is dementia due to severe traumatic brain injury. An example of reversible dementia is dementia due to unrecognized thyroid disease or vitamin deficiency.

Most forms of dementia begin with memory loss but other cognitive difficulties (naming problems, getting lost) can also serve as the initial symptoms. Sometimes, behavioral symptoms are the initial prominent symptom such as the decline in personal and social conduct that is typical of fronto-temporal dementia. Usually, a person with these symptoms will initially be evaluated by a primary care physician. This typically results in sending the patient for blood tests and a brain MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) to search for reversible causes of dementia and determine if there are any visible abnormalities in the brain. The MRI may show tissue loss (atrophy), abnormal areas of tissue (known as lesions), a mass such as a brain tumor, or other types of abnormalities.

The person may also be sent to a neurologist, which is a type of physician specializing in the neurological system. The neurological exam will typically consist of a brief interview and a physical exam focusing on the cranial nerves, reflex testing, and sensory-motor functioning. There will usually be some brief testing of thinking skills. This could merely involve asking the date and/or memory for a few words but can involve the use of a brief formal screening test of thinking such as the Mini-Mental State Examination. These screening measures are broad tests of thinking skills that are designed to pick up on red flags that may prompt a referral for more detailed cognitive testing. While screening measures may detect some difficulties that support a diagnosis of dementia, these tests are fairly easy, are not meant to replace a comprehensive neuropsychological evaluation, and are not good at differentiating between types of dementia.

There are several advantages to a neuropsychological evaluation. First, a neuropsychologist specializes in understanding the relationship between brain functioning, thinking, emotions, and behaviors. This is important because there are psychological conditions that are common in the elderly (e.g., major depressive disorder) that can mimic a neurologically progressive dementia (e.g., Alzheimer’s disease). Thus, an expert in how psychological and neurological conditions present is very important and neuropsychology offers that level of expertise.

Second, neuropsychologists spend hours upon hours with their patients to understand the history, obtain and thoroughly review relevant medical records, perform a detailed clinical interview (with the patient and a close informant[if possible]) and detailed testing. This degree of detail cannot be obtained in a physician’s office due to significant time constraints.

Third, neuropsychologists apply specialized procedures to formally estimate the estimated intellectual status before a suspected dementing condition began. Additional specialized tests include measures of memory, learning new information, attention/concentration, expressive and receptive language (e.g., naming, vocabulary, command following), IQ, visual-spatial and visual constructional skills, motor and sensory functioning, information processing speed, and executive functioning. Executive functioning refers to higher-level thinking skills such as abstract thinking, multi-tasking, planning, judgment, problem-solving, and organizational skills. Test performance is compared to groups of people who are in the same age group as the patient with have no history of brain damage. Some tests are also compared to groups of normal controls with the same/similar educational backgrounds and also for gender. Some tests of personality and emotional functioning can also be administered.

Neuropsychologists review the objective information from the testing and look for areas of impairment, the degree (level) of impairment, and patterns of performance. Specific thinking and sensori-motor skills are controlled by  different areas of the brain. The neuropsychologist then integrates this information with the information obtained from the clinical interview, medical records review, behavioral observations, and knowledge of how various neurological and psychological conditions present. These results can help determine the specific diagnosis, which leads to specific treatment recommendations as not all dementias are treated identically. These recommendations not only may include medication suggestions but also include practical suggestions to improve daily functioning. Treatment is drastically different if dementia is due to Alzheimer’s disease, a reversible thyroid condition, malnutrition, or a severe psychological disorder.

It is also worth noting that neuropsychological testing may not reveal dementia but instead show Mild Cognitive Impairment, which is stage between normal aging and dementia. This is important to know as it also effects treatment and not all of these cases convert to dementia.

One needs to be careful in selecting a neuropsychologist and some guidance on how to do so is offered here.

Wednesday, November 09, 2011

Living to 106 by Eating Pizza and French Fries

As I pointed out in a prior blog entry entitled "Exercise & Eat Fruits & Veggies All You Want: You're Still Going to Die," the belief that you are going to be able to eat your way to a long wife with healthy foods and that you will die early for eating unhealthy foods does not always hold true. This is likely because genetics plays a major role in determining whether certain abnormal health conditions will develop that can lead to death.  This does not mean that the types of food you consume play no role in your health. But food choices likely interact with genetics to determine risk. If your genetics are strong enough, traditional health guidelines regarding food selection may not apply to you. Also, if your genetics are poor, what you eat may not matter much at all.

In the blog entry noted above, I discussed the death of fitness guru Jack LaLane, who lived to 96 after a life filled with exercise and healthy food. Many cite that lifestyle as the reason for his long life but as I pointed out, there was likely a genetic component to this since his mother lived to age 89. To be fair, if people are going to use Jack LaLane as a model  for how lifestyle choices can lead to a long life, they need to account for another case as well…that of Margaret Moores.

Who is Margaret Moores you ask? Well, she outlived Jack LaLane by 10 years, living to age 106 based on a diet consisting largely of pizza, French fries, sweets, salt beef, and very little water. Apparently, the only medication she takes is Tylenol for arthritis. Other favorite and preferred foods of people known to live over age 100 includes bacon, coffee, red wine, dumplings, chocolate, and honey. To read more, see this article at The Huffington Post. I’m not saying to go out and have a diet consisting largely of these foods, but the point is that traditional health guidelines regarding food clearly do not apply to everyone equally.

Monday, November 07, 2011

The Absurdity of Using Facebook to Send Real Illnesses via Mail

It’s one thing to have concerns about the possible harmful effect of vaccines and/or not vaccinate one’s children due to these fears. While the anti-vaccine community will vigorously defend their concerns and choices, other will strongly criticize the need for these fears and the decision not to vaccinate with standard vaccines.

Regardless of what side you come down on, the decision not to vaccinate is not illegal if the parent(s) cites a religious objection or health reason that contra-indicates the need for a vaccine. But it is quite another thing for parents to take vaccination fears to such an extreme that they purchase lollipops, saliva, Q-tips, or other items over the internet that are infected with chicken pox and other bacteria in an attempt to vaccinate their children against the disease.

Although this may sound unbelievable, it is true. There is a Facebook page entitled “Find a Pox Party in Your Area” that allows people to connect who want to share viruses through the mail to naturally vaccinate their children. Here is what one of the messages on the page says from the administrator of the page: "Warning. The mailing of infectious items, such as lollipops, rags, etc, is a federal offense. This page is not private and can been seen by members and non members alike. You may post on the page that you have the pox and are willing to share but please keep your specifics in private messages between members.”

I’m not a lawyer, but it seems to me that the administrator is readily acknowledging that mailing these viruses are a federal crime but endorses people using the page to find others to carry out a crime. Some of the posters are charging $50.00 for infected materials. The page is not limited to people seeking natural immunity to chicken pox, however, as some posters have actively sought items tainted with measles. This is more concerning because measles is a more serious disease as it is more deadly and has more complications.

Regardless of the bacteria (or virus), no one should be sending these materials through the mail. The infected materials could contain other serious diseases that the parent is unaware of, such as hepatitis. How effectively these diseases can be transmitted is questionable, but it is possible, particularly when one proposed method is drinking another child’s saliva sent through the mail.

While social media has so many positive benefits to offer patients and healthcare providers, this is one of the negative sides. Healthcare providers need to be aware of this issue and dissuade parents from taking this route. For parents caught doing this, regardless of how correct they believe their views to be, they will likely find themselves facing serious federal charges in addition to the health hazards potentially inflicted on innocent people.

When I wrote this entry on 11/6/11, the Facebook page mentioned above was still open to the public. Later that night, it was gone, perhaps due to fears the administrators and participants had about federal prosecution.

Sunday, November 06, 2011

The SHOCKING Ingredients in a McRib Sandwich

The older I get, the more likely I am to just eat at home so I have greater control over the ingredients that go into my food. These days, the ingredients that go into some foods are downright shocking.

Just so people do not think I am only picking on vegetables, take McDonald’s McRib sandwich, which is recently making its way onto menus nationwide again and has gained a lot of media attention. I remember this sandwich many years ago and bought one. It tasted good but when I ate it, I had no idea what the ingredients were besides assuming it was rub meat. So, before buying one this time around, I looked into the ingredients posted on the McDonald’s website and report my finding below.

First, let’s start with the meat. Technically it is made of pork, but it is a "restructured meat product." This means you are not getting a pure cut of meat. You are getting a bunch of different parts mixed together, which reportedly includes pig heart and pig stomach. The meat also contains water, salt, dextrose (a type of sugar), citric acid (a natural preservative), and…

  1. Butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA): This is a preservative in food, but is also used as a preservative for food packaging, animal feed, rubber, cosmetics, and petroleum products. The National Institute of Health has listed it as a likely carcinogen, meaning that it likely causes cancer, especially in high doses with some experimental animals. In mice, it is not known to cause cancer and may even protect against cancer from other chemicals. In humans, it is not known to cause cancer when consumed in low levels. Nevertheless, California considers it a recognized carcinogen and a suspected toxin to the endocrine system, gastrointenstinal system, liver, immune system, nervous system, respiratory system, skin, and sense organs.
  1. Propyl gallate: A food preservative also used in cosmetics, adhesives (glues), lubricants, and hair products. Some rat studies have found that it may cause cancer. It can irritate the stomach and skin, cause allergic reactions that affect breathing, and cause liver and kidney problems. Some countries have banned it or only allow limited use of it.
II. The bun actually has the most ingredients. Of these, the most concerning are:

1.   Azodicarbonamide: A synthetic chemical, which is used as a food additive to flour to improving baking functionality. However, its main use is actually as an additive to make foamed plastics. It is banned as a food additive in Australia and Europe as a precaution due to unknown health effects in humans.

  1. Ammonium sulfate: This is a type of salt that is most commonly used as a soil fertilizer, explosives, and as a flame retardant.
  1. Calcium propionate: This is used to inhibit mold growth. When infused directly into rats, it causes reversible neurological changes in behavior and brain functioning.
III. The sauce contains mostly natural ingredients but does contain:

    1. Sodium benzoate: A food preservative that has been inconsistently associated with hyperactivity and is theorized to cause cell malfunction. In response to health concerns, the Coca Cola company is phasing it out of Diet Coke and some of its other beverages.
IV: The pickles contain natural ingredients but also contain:

1. Polysorbate 80: This is an emulsifier, which is a substance that allows foods to mix together. It is often used in ice cream but is also used in eye drops, to dilute flu vaccines, to stabilize for certain liquid medications, in tuberculosis cultures, and as an emulsifier for a cardiac medication (i.e., amiodarone) that stabilizes the heart beat.

My basic rule is that if I can’t pronounce the ingredients in my food, I try to stay away from it. I’m not perfect yet at applying that rule, but I’m paying more and more attention. However, if I want ribs, I definitely go to a genuine rib joint.

Suggested reading: McDonald's: Behind The Arches

Related blog entry: The SHOCKING Ingredients in a Mountain Dew.

Friday, November 04, 2011

How Exercise Can Kill You

While exercise is generally a good part of balanced healthy life style, many people do not realize that it can also be a risky and deadly activity. This is generally by taking unnecessary risks while exercising. As an example, I continue to be surprised at how many people are willing to jog on the shoulder of a road with cars speeding by at 55 to 70 mph with absolutely no physical barrier separating them from the vehicle. All it takes is one carless mistake on the part of the driver or jogger and serious injury or death can occur.  Unfortunately, I have seen many patients with severe brain injuries and/or paralysis as a result of these types of accidents.

As a recent example in the news, a man in North Carolina was recently killed while jogging along a roadway after an SUV lost control and crashed into him. A group of five joggers were recently killed when a drunk driver of a Mercedez Benz crashed into them. Sometimes, joggers make the mistake of deciding to dash across a street, are not paying attention (e.g., listening to music), and get killed by a car that crashes into them. This is exactly what happened to a young woman in Texas this month. This is why when I go for a jog, I stick to parks, residential areas where cars are going slow, and treadmills.

Another problem I see is that far too many people are pushing their body to extreme limits and trying to participate in triathalons. The result is premature death for some people. For example, a few months ago two people died after suffering cardiac arrest during triathalons. One was from the city I grew up in – Freehold, New Jersey. The ages were 40 and 64. Both died during the swimming event. The risk of dying from these extreme exercise activities is less if you are young and healthy, but the older you are, the more you risk a catastrophe like this from happening, particularly if you do these activities in extreme weather conditions such as 90 degree heat. A 2009, Minneapolis Heart Institute study that found that athletes participating in triathlons have twice the risk of sudden death.

Overall, it is important that people use common sense when exercising and not put themselves at unnecessary risk of serious injury or death. This involves avoiding exercising near 4,000 pounds of steel traveling towards you at high speeds, avoiding exercise in extreme temperatures, not jogging in the dark with dark clothes on, wearing a helmet when riding a bike, and avoiding extreme physical activity particularly if you are older. Some days, it’s better to just stay inside, relax in the recliner chair, eat some buttered popcorn, and watch a movie.

Update: See How Jogging Can Kill You.

Thursday, November 03, 2011

How Fruits and Vegetables Killed Steve Jobs

One of the themes of the MedFriendly Blog has been to combat the notion that a diet filled with fruits and vegetables and frequent exercise automatically guarantees a long, healthy life. This was explored in detail in a thought-provoking blog entry

The blog entry was entitled, “Exercise & Eat Fruits & Veggies All You Want: You’re Still Going toDie.” While all of this may seem like common sense to some people, it does not seem apparent to everyone, including people who are geniuses in other aspects of life such as Steve Jobs.

A new book on Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson details some strange health habits he had which were clearly guided by false beliefs. To begin with, Jobs would consume a diet consisting only of a certain fruit or vegetable for weeks at a time, such as apples and carrots. The only reason I can think of that Jobs would do this is because he was told that apples and carrots were good for him and so he decided that if this was all he ate for a long period of time, that would be even better. However, while these foods have some positive qualities, they are not supposed to be the sole source of a diet.

For example, while apples are a good source of vitamin C, vitamin A, and fiber, they barely contain any protein or fat and most of the calories come from sugar. No fat is a good thing you say. Not true if you have a diet that completely excludes fat because your body needs to use fat for energy storage. Not having enough protein is a major problem as well because proteins also provide energy, supports the growth of muscles and body tissue.

Jobs reportedly also believed that his fruit, vegetable, nut, seed, and grain diet rid his body of toxins that would cause body odor. Thus, he felt there was no need to shower or wear deodorant regularly. Coworkers strongly disagreed. The irony of all of this is that the lack of certain proteins in a diet can interfere with detoxification and cause more bodily odor.

No one can ever say for sure whether this type of extreme dieting contributed to Jobs developing pancreatic cancer but once he did develop pancreatic cancer, he again turned to diet and other alternative medicine techniques to treat the condition rather than conventional surgery that can offer a cure. These alternative techniques included the same type of diet noted above, acupuncture, online herbal treatments, and psychic consultations.

Once the tumor grew, Jobs finally gave in and decided to have the surgery 9-months later. But it was too late. After consuming hundreds and thousands of carrots, fruits, nuts, and seeds, Steve Jobs is dead…at only 56-years-of age. According to Harvard medical doctor, Ramzi Amri: “'Given the circumstances, it seems sound to assume that Mr. Jobs' choice for alternative medicine has eventually led to an unnecessarily early death.'

The moral of the story is not to be extreme with your diet, eat sensibly, treat yourself once in a while, and if diagnosed with a serious medical illness, use common sense and mainstream science to guide treatment not unproven methods (such as treating Alzheimer’s disease with coconut oil) that lack peer-reviewed scientific support.

Wednesday, November 02, 2011

Even More and More EXTREME Body Images: Part 3

Back by popular demand, I am happy to bring back one of the most popular features of the MedFriendly Blog…EXTREME BODY PARTS. This is the third installment of this feature. For other extreme body parts, see the original article here and part 2 here. And now, without further ado, here is the…

WORLD’S LARGEST EYES: This is Kim Goodman. It’s not how she normally looks, but she contains an amazing ability to pop her eyes out about half of an inch. 

  1. LONGEST EAR HAIR: This is Radhakant Bajpai of India, who has 5.19 inches of ear hair. Looks like he actually styles it. 

  1. STRETCHIEST SKIN: This is Garry Turner of England, who can stretch his skin 6.25 inches. This is due to a rare condition of the connective tissues, known as Elhers-Danlos syndrome.

  1. WORLD’S HAIRIEST CHILD: This is Supatra “Nat” Sasuphan. Seeing is believing.

  1. WORLD’S MOST FLEXIBLE MAN: This is Daniel Browning Smith who hold many world records for incredibly flexible poses like this one:

  1. WORLD’S LARGEST BICEPS: This is Gregg Valentino, who had 28 inch arms.

  1. WORLD’S LARGEST PALMS: This is the palm of Leonid Ivanovych Stadnyk, believed to be the largest in the world.

  1. LARGEST COLLECTION OF BELLY BUTTON LINT: This is the only one that actually gave me chills for some reason, probably because it is just so bizarre. This is a 26 year collection of belly-button lint! The collection is from Graham Barker of Australia. 

Monday, October 31, 2011

Trick or Treat! Dentists say its better to Gorge on Halloween Candy

From a strictly oral health perspective, dentists are reported to be advising people that it is better to gorge on Halloween candy rather than eating a little bit each day. The reason is that frequent intermittent candy snacking keeps the teeth covered acid that wears down the enamel of the teeth. The acid is produced after bacteria feed off of the sugar and carbohydrates in the mouth. Wear down the enamel enough and cavities result. Dentists also say it is better to eat a lot of candy at once because people are more likely to brush their teeth at this point than if they are frequently eating sugary snacks.

While this advice is interesting, gorging on Halloween candy is not exactly good for your weight or cardiovascular health. In my opinion, the best solution is not to gorge on Halloween candy or eat a bunch of candy throughout the day but to eat a little bit of Halloween candy here and there and keep the teeth clean regardless of what is eaten.

I remember about 10 years ago when I moved to a different state and the dentist told me I had a lot of cavities. I had drank soda throughout the day and figured that was the likely culprit. After getting the cavities filled, I began carrying a bottle of water with me almost everywhere I went, so I was frequently cleansing my mouth and washing away a lot of the sugar throughout the day. I have rarely had a cavity in nearly 10 years of using this approach. So, enjoy Halloween, enjoy the candy, but eat it in moderation, keep your teeth clean, and encourage your kids to do the same.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Five Ways to Evaluate Suspicious Medical Treatment Claims

There has never been a shortage of people proposing miracle medical cures for various ailments, conditions, and diseases. In the 19th century, women would line up to buy vegetable compounds to treat hormonal symptoms, people would buy swamp roots to treat kidney problems, and hippopotamus fat was used as an ingredient to treat baldness.

Medical compounds with questionable effectiveness were known as nostrums or patent medications, even though most were never actually patented. Some patent medications actually worked but had toxic/negative side effects, such as slow death from mercury poisoning when mercury was used treat syphilis or addiction from treating colicky infants with opium. After 100 people died from a drug tainted with an untested solvent in 1937 (known as the Elixir Sulfanilamide tragedy), Franklin Roosevelt signed the Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act, which increased regulation over medication, required pre-market testing of all new drugs, and banned false therapeutic claims in drug labeling.

These days, suspicious claims of supposed miracle medical cures still exist. The people most vulnerable to trying these treatments are those who are faced with an incurable disease that modern conventional medicine cannot effectively treat or those who have not responded to curable diseases via conventional medicine.

These supposed treatments can now be easily discovered with a quick internet search, but how are consumers supposed to evaluate their effectiveness and how should healthcare providers respond to patient questions about these treatments? Below I will offer some tips on how to do this by using a modern example: the claim that Alzheimer’s disease can be effectively treated or reversed by using coconut oil. This is based on the theory that coconut oil will provide the brain with an alternative source of energy (ketones) due to an impaired ability to use its usual energy source (glucose).

STEP 1: SEARCH THE PEER-REVIEWED MEDICAL LITERATURE: The best place to search the medical literature for peer reviewed scientific research is PubMed. All searches are free, most results contain a summary of the findings, an option to read the entire article (for free or purchase), and contact information for the authors to request a copy of the article. Peer-review acts as a quality control. Articles that have not been peer-reviewed and are merely published on a blog or a website only, have less credibility because they lack peer review. There are no articles on PubMed researching coconut oil as a treatment for Alzheimer’s disease. However, there was an article published by Granholm and colleagues in 2008 showing that a diet high in hydrogenated coconut oil (which contains harmful transfats not found in organic coconut oil) in rats can profoundly impair memory and the structure of the hippocampus (the main part in the brain responsible for memory). Strike 1 against coconut oil, at least the hydrogenated type. See the articles on Lucky Strike cigarettes and Oxydendrine for another discussion of the importance of Step 1.

STEP 2: EVALUATE THE QUALITY OF PEER REVIEWED RESEARCH: Although peer reviewed research is generally higher quality than non-peer reviewed research, there are many peer reviewed articles than contain significant design flaws, limiting the conclusions that can be drawn. The best research evidence comes from studies in which patients were randomly assigned to treatment groups, in which neither the treater or patient are aware of the specific treatment (this is known as being double-blind), and in which one of the treatments was a placebo (a substance containing no actual medication). The less the study contains these features, the less confidence you should have in the results. 

STEP 3: RESEARCH WHO IS PROMOTING THE TREATMENT: It is important to evaluate the person or group of people promoting the supposed treatment to determine if there are reasons to cause suspicion about the accuracy of the claims being made. Examples can include a financial conflict of interest, desire to help a loved one with the proposed treatment, or anger towards conventional medicine. Coconut oil treatment for Alzheimer’s is mainly promoted by a single person (a physician) whose husband has Alzheimer’s disease. This doctor is selling a book based on the claim and has published comments on a website taking personal credit for outsmarting drug companies along with apparent antipathy towards those companies that make “monopoly profits.” This is not to say that family of sick loved ones cannot come up with useful treatments for uncurable conditions. In fact, Augusto and Micheala Odone did exactly that when they discovered that very long chain fatty acids from rapeseed and olive oil can treat adrenoleokodystrophy (a rare and deadly genetic metabolic disorder). The difference, though, is that there is peer reviewed research to support this treatment. Overall, strike 2 against coconut oil.

STEP 4: BE SKEPTICAL OF SUSPICIOUS CLAIMS: As a general rule, if it sounds too good to be true, it usually is. One example is a claim that you can cure obesity by allowing people to eat whatever they want, such as in this 39-Year-Old Obesity Fraud. Or, claims that the treatment can cure just about anything such as Pink Pills for Pale People, the Electric Chain Belt or The Tapeworm Diet. Another good example is a claim that an incurable disease can be cured with the proposed treatment. The fact is that Alzheimer’s disease is incurable and causes progressive degeneration of brain tissue, yet the claim is being made that coconut oil can reverse Alzheimer’s disease and totally halt brain atrophy. These claims are partly based on the doctor observing changes in her husband after using the coconut oil, which leads to a subjective investment in believing the treatment will work. This is not the standard by which medication effectiveness is judged and is very far from the randomized, double-blind, placebo controlled studies mentioned above. Strike 3 against coconut oil.  

STEP 5: RESEARCH WHAT RESPECTABLE ORGANIZATIONS DEVOTED TO THE CONDITION SAY ABOUT THE TREATMENT: If the supposed treatment is not mentioned on professional organizational websites or medical literature devoted to the condition, that is reason to be suspicious. If the treatment is mentioned and discredited, this is even further reason for suspicion. Here is some of what the Alzheimer’s Association says about coconut oil treatment: "A few people have reported that coconut oil helped the person with Alzheimer’s, but there’s never been any clinical testing of coconut oil for Alzheimer’s, and there’s no scientific evidence that it helps." Coconut oil is an ingredient in a medical food marketed for Alzheimer's disease known as Axona, but the official position of the Alzheimer’s Association is that there is no evidence that medical foods help treat this condition. Strike 4 against coconut oil.

In the end, always be cautious and skeptical and be careful about what home remedies you use to treat a loved one, because you may actually cause more harm than good.

Suggested reading: A Brief History of Bad Medicine

Friday, October 28, 2011

Attack of the Salmonella Pine Nuts

While I fully support people eating a healthy diet, people need to realize that eating traditionally healthy foods is not always risk-free and can sometimes be dangerous. In yet another story documenting the potential harms of eating traditionally healthy foods, such as bean sprouts and cantaloupes, is a story out of the Northeast that Turkish pine nuts sold in bulk at Wegman’s supermarket stores were contaminated with salmonella. Salmonella is a dangerous type of bacteria that can cause food poisoning (fever, diarrhea, stomach cramps), hospitalization, and even death (usually in the elderly and people with poor immune systems). Although 40 people have been sickened (since 8/20/11) and two have been hospitalized from these contaminated pine nuts, none have died to date and Wegman’s has recalled the pine nuts. Pine nuts are actually edible seeds from pines. They are an important ingredient in pesto.

The pine nuts story comes on the heels on another story earlier this month of 3,000 bagged salads and spinach blends from Taylor Farms Retail that were recalled due to possible salmonella contamination.

The full story on the pine nuts is presented below, which comes from Ben Dobbin at The Associated Press.

Turkish pine nuts sold in bulk at Wegmans, an upscale grocery-store chain, have been linked to a salmonella outbreak that sent two people to hospitals and sickened 40 others in five East Coast states and Arizona.

Wegmans Food Markets Inc. said Thursday it has recalled 5,000 pounds of pine nuts imported from Turkey by Sunrise Commodities of Englewood Cliffs, N.J. They were sold between July 1 and Oct. 18 at its stores in New York, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Virginia and Maryland.

The Rochester, N.Y.-based chain said the recall applies only to Turkish pine nuts purchased in bulk. Wegmans placed automated calls to just over 13,000 customers who bought the nuts using the company's Shoppers Club discount card, spokeswoman Jo Natale said.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that 26 people were sickened in New York, eight in Pennsylvania, four in Virginia, two in New Jersey and one person each in Arizona and Maryland. The Food and Drug Administration said it is investigating.

The CDC said people began getting sick Aug. 20 and two patients were hospitalized in undisclosed locations. No deaths have been linked to the outbreak.

Federal officials said Wegmans has cooperated in all aspects of the recall and investigation.
Salmonella bacteria can cause diarrhea, fever, and abdominal cramps. In some cases, the diarrhea may be so severe that the patient needs to be hospitalized.

Some Turkish pine nuts were eaten as an ingredient in prepared foods, such as Caprese salad or asparagus with pine nuts, according to the CDC. The median age of those who were sickened is 43 years.
Wegmans, a 96-year-old, family owned business credited with helping pioneer "one-stop shopping," has 79 supermarket stores in New York, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Virginia, Maryland and Massachusetts.

The pine nuts were not sold at Wegmans' new store in Northborough, Mass., and possibly other stores with small bulk-food departments, Natale said. "On average, the quantity purchased by individual customers would have been somewhere between an eighth of a pound and a quarter of a pound," she said. "Not everybody who bought the nuts used a Shoppers Club card, but the vast majority are represented by those 13,000-plus people we called."

Wegmans has carried Turkish pine nuts from the same supplier since May 2010. "We are very sorry for the worry and inconvenience this (recall) may cause our customers," it said in a statement.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Little Johnny is Obese: Political Correctness Interfering with Medicine

Political correctness and “sensitivity training” are interfering with medicine and healthcare. In a recent article published in the journal, Pediatrics, a group of researchers published their findings regarding parental perceptions of the terminology that doctors use to describe childhood obesity (ages 2 to 18). The researchers found that it was undesirable to use the term “fat,” "obese" or “morbidly obese” because they were stigmatizing, blaming, and the least motivating to lead one to lose weight. What should be used instead? The term “weight” and “unhealthy weight” were rated as the most desirable. The term “overweight” fell in the middle of the pack.

When I write reports for patients and other healthcare providers, I always try to avoid use of casual terminology and stick to medical terminology. It looks more professional that way because the terms have a scientific basis. While the word “fat” is a colloquial term, the words “obese” and “obesity” are not. They have specific scientific meanings in the medical community. Don’t believe me? Grab a medical dictionary. I just looked up the terms “fat” and “obese/obesity” in the two most popular medical dictionaries: Mosby’s and Stedman’s. Mosby’s does not even have an entry for the word “fat’ as a descriptive term and Stedman’s only briefly noted that it is a common (i.e., colloquial) term for obese. However, both dictionaries contain extensively detailed scientific entries on obesity. Neither dictionary contains the term “unhealthy weight” which is vague since it can also apply to people who are underweight.

So, while I agree that we should avoid using colloquial terms that can feel degrading, we should not abandon the use of scientific terminology because someone does not like the stigma attached to it. The problem that emerges when we start to substitute euphemistic phrases for scientific terminology is that we start to de-emphasize the seriousness of the problems. For example, for people who do not like the stigma of being called “anorexic” should we just say that they are “too skinny.” Some people do not like the stigma of being a cancer patient. Should we just say they just have “really bad cells?” What about people who don’t like the stigma of major depressive disorder? Should we just say the have “the blues?” Should we tell patients they have “unhealthy sugar” instead of telling them they have diabetes mellitus? Where does it stop?

The terminology is becoming so diluted that I have even heard that some overweight people are being referred to as “persons of size.” That term means absolutely nothing since everyone is technically a person of size.

I do not doubt that the parents in the study feel the way they reported, but I would like to see some evidence that less stigmatizing terminology makes a difference in terms of the actions people take to reduce weight, as there was no such evidence of this cited in the above study. A good study would be to divide patients into two groups, call one “obese” and say that the other has “unhealthy weight” during appointments, prescribe a weight loss routine, and see who loses the most weight after controlling for other variables between the two groups that could contribute cause difference between the two groups. If the obese group loses more weight than the unhealthy weight group, then that is what really matters in the end. Sometimes, people need to feel that something bothers them in order to be motivated to really make a change.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

What you NEED to know about Mesothelioma

Do you live in a house or work in a building that was built before 1990? Do your kids go to a school built before 1990? Do you or anyone you know work as an electrician, boilermaker, construction worker, pipefitter, plumber, carpenter, machinist, mechanic, or shipyard worker?. Were you or anyone you know near the 9/11 disaster in New York City? If so, you need to know about mesothelioma, which is a type of deadly cancer that is almost always caused by asbestos exposure. Asbestos is a type of mineral that is very heat resistant and is often used as an insulating material. The fibers are so small that they can easily be inhaled or ingested, causing them to penetrate tissues of the lung or other organs, triggering the onset on a deadly form of cancer that usually has a life expectancy of less than three months. This is why you need to be very careful during home remodeling projects and the type of safety precautions taken at work.

MedFriendly has just entered the most comprehensive single page entry on mesothelioma on the internet, following up on the same type of entry for asbestos that was recently posted about a month ago. Please take the time to check out these articles and/or send them to a family member or friend. Decreasing exposure to asbestos decreases the risk of mesothelioma. You do not want your lung to wind up looking like the one in the picture above.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Top 10 Ways to Lose Your Patients

As a neuropsychologist, I have the chance to talk to patients throughout the week in detail about their medical histories, supplemented by a comprehensive medical records review. Part of this involves discussing which provider the patient has seen and if the provider was changed, why. Sometimes, a provider is changed for a benign reason, such as a move or an insurance change but other times there are significant complaints. Granted, there are always two sides to every story but when I consistently hear the same or similar story from different patients year after year, the stories gain credibility. Then, when I start to notice the same problems during my own doctor visits, I know there are some serious problems that can be fixed. So, listed below are my top 10 ways for doctors to lose patients from their practice. If you have others to add to the list, please do so.

10. Not accepting lists of signs, symptoms, or timelines from patients:

If you see patients, you know they range on a continuum from poor historians who have no idea why they are there to see you and those who arrive with carefully constructed histories that they are eager to give you as soon as you walk in. Just about the worst thing you can do when this happens is to tell the patient that you don’t want the list and do not even want to look at it. That connotes a dismissive attitude to the patient and it makes them feel like all of their work was for nothing – work that was done in the hopes it would help you figure out what was wrong. You may have very good reason at the time not to look at the list such as time pressure, but at least take the list and say you will later take a look at it. It will likely provide you some useful information.

9. Asking patients choose what type of medication they want to take:

When a patient has a medical condition in need of medical treatment, the physician is looked to provide their advice as to what medication to take. They don’t want to be given a list of three possible medications, told to research them at home, and come back with a decision. From a patient’s perspective, this is why the doctor went to medical school, not me.

8. Long wait times AND no apology and/or rushing the patient once coming in

While no patients want to wait long, they will generally accept the wait time if they are pleased with the care you provide, or if it the initial visit, know that you have a good reputation. However, if the patient waits long and you then walk in and do not acknowledge the wait, explain why there was a wait, and apologize for the wait, it will significantly aggravate the patient. Rush the patient after a long wait and no apology and it will worsen the situation further.

7. Not following the Golden Rule:

This is an easy one and has been addressed extensively by others, but don’t do things such as repeatedly looking at the clock, repeatedly interrupting patients, focusing more on you than the patient, talking rudely, making poor eye contact, etc. Follow the Golden Rule and you will easily establish rapport the majority of the time.

6. Not being responsive to challenging questions

Provided that a patient is being respectful, there is no reason to become upset when a patient asks questions challenging a diagnosis or course of treatment. Most patients are generally accepting of your expertise but they may have heard or read something that has given them legitimate questions. Your answers can help reassure the patient that your diagnosis and treatment is correct. Patients are also usually more impressed when you tell them you have no problem with them seeking a second opinion rather than demanding they only accept one point of view and/or becoming overly defensive. Also, patients (or families) sometimes come up with questions that can lead you to entertain an idea you did not previously think of that can improve care. Don’t shy away from this. Embrace it.

5. Disrespectful staff

While the patient may like the care you provide, there are a host of other people they need to interact with before and after the appointment. This includes the receptionist, billing staff, nurses, and others. If these individuals are rude and disrespectful, the patient will likely switch to another provider whose friends and family say have better ancillary staff. It is like owning a restaurant with good food but a terrible hostess and waitress. Many people will just choose a different restaurant. Train your staff to treat your patients they way they would want to be treated (and teach them how to manage patients who are rude) and you will have a happy client base.

4. Drab and dreary office space

No one likes to go to the doctor. Take some time to make it a more enjoyable experience. Have comfortable seats in the waiting area and waiting room, put some nice art up on the walls (geared towards children if it is a pediatric office), have a TV on with cable (with cartoon options for children), soft music, etc. Whether right or wrong, offices that are bare, uncomfortable, and cold looking convey a message that the patient perspective is not being considered. 

3. Being unavailable when needed during routine business hours

When the answering service repeatedly picks up the phone during normal business hours, it is extremely frustrating for patients. Same with staff not returning phone calls or being absent for 1.5 hours during lunch time. Patients need to have access to staff during normal office hours to make appointments and ask questions.

2. Cancelling/rescheduling appointments too often

Patients are understanding when a doctor needs to cancel or reschedule but not if it happens too often. This was highlighted in the recent trial of Dr. Conrad Murray, whose former patient testified that after two follow-up appointments were cancelled he felt that the doctor blew him off. The patient never followed up with Dr. Murray again.

1. Making decisions that cause patient harm that were easily avoidable

While patients will sometimes give doctors a second chance, they won’t be inclined to do this if harm occurred to the patient or a family member that could have easily been avoidable. This is especially true if the harm happened to a child. As a personal example, I recall repeatedly explaining to my pediatrician that my child’s cough and wheezing was persistent and affecting her breathing, only to be repeatedly told that it was only allergies, despite the fact that she was cleared by an allergist and was not improving with allergy medications or a nebulizer. Finally, and only by pressuring the physician to do more, was a chest x-ray ordered. Diagnosis: double pneumonia and a week long hospital stay. Totally avoidable. The new pediatrician is very responsive and we have been very pleased for many years. 

Friday, October 21, 2011

Man vs Vile: Surviving a Trip to a Public Restroom

If I had a penny for every time I walked into a public bathroom and found spots of urine on the toilet bowl lid, I would be a millionaire. Men are the main culprits and I really feel bad for women who have to deal with this in unisex bathrooms that only have a toilet bowl. For guys using the toilet who only need to urinate, this is not a problem. For women though, there is really no choice but to wipe off someone else’s urine, squat above the bowl (but who wants to do that?), or try to find another bathroom (not always an option, especially in emergencies). If a man needs to defecate, he will be in the same predicament.

Sometimes, you will walk into a public bathroom and actually find one that looks relatively clean, although doing so often feels like you won the lottery after looking in a about eight consecutive stalls with urine covered toilets or bowls filled with brown water and/or feces. I don’t know if women have the same issues in their public bathrooms, but men’s public bathrooms can be absolute total nightmares to deal with.

If you do happen to come across one of those rare clean looking public toilets, don’t be fooled because germs are likely still there that can be harmful. Don’t believe me? Don’t take my word for it. Scientists at the University of Florida’s College of Medicine recently tested public bathrooms for two months and in several restrooms found that there were so many organisms present that they could not even count them all. All sorts of things are present on these toilets from salmonella to e. coli. This is not because people are rubbing raw pieces of steak and chicken meat over toilet bowl seats but because people who have these bacteria in their system defecate in the toilet, wipe (hopefully), get the bacteria on their hand and then begin transferring it wherever they touch.

That means the toilet seat, the flusher, the sink, the hands dryer, and the door handle on the way out. This is why you really should have a small hand sanitizing gel container with you so that you can clean yourself after you leave the bathroom. After all, what is the sense of washing your hands well and then getting contaminated by the door when leaving?

I also highly suggest doing things to put a barrier between yourself and other people’s disgusting bathroom habits. If you have to sit on a public toilet, put down a layer or two of toilet paper. Drop some toilet paper in the bowl before you flush it so that you create some layer of protection between yourself and public toilet water being misted upwards onto your body. Open the water spigot and the door with your sleeve if you have one. Don’t touch the inner surfaces of sinks since they contain large areas of germs. Use paper towels instead of hand dryers. Try to only touch the towels and not the box that the towels are contained in. Your immune system will ultimately help you out most of the time anyway, which is why we have one, but these extra steps can help protect you even further.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

How to Find a New Doctor

These days, it is not uncommon for people to need to find a new doctor. The most common reasons include a) moving to a new city, b) dissatisfaction with your former doctor, c) your old doctor no longer accepts your new or old insurance, or d) you were diagnosed with a new medical condition and need specialized treatment. Often, people go to their insurance company website or provider book, search for a doctor, and see a list of names in their area with contact information (and perhaps a brief biographical sketch). This narrows the choices down more than the phone book would, but now what? If insurance is not a limitation, the list of doctors to choose from will be even longer.

There is an old saying that word of mouth is the best form of advertising. This is one of the best ways to find a new doctor, provided you are getting the information from a source you know and trust. While friends and family can be good sources to ask about which doctors they use and like, it is also a very good idea to ask a friend (or friend of a friend) who works in a local hospital or health care setting. Here’s why.

First, healthcare providers know who provides good healthcare in their area. They know this because they read the reports of doctors they refer patients to, hear patient feedback on their experiences with the doctor, and may work in the same setting which allows them to have inside knowledge as to whether there are any problems with the doctor that may not be more commonly known to others. When I needed to find an endodontist to perform a root canal last year, I first asked my regular dentist for a list of names. He gave me a list of endodontists who accepted my insurance and said all were good. Still, I wanted to base my choice on something more specific than using eenie-meenine-miney-mo. Problem is, I don’t have any friends or family members who are dentists. But I did know someone who had a relative who was a dentist in the area. I asked the person I knew about the names on the list, he asked the relative for me, and later he told me who I should see based on reputation in the dental community. The root canal worked out very well and I could not have been happier.

Another thing to do is look at the doctor’s credentials. First, check if the doctor is board certified since this gives you the highest probability that you will be provided competent specialized services. The best place to check is the website for the American Board of Medical Specialists (ABMS) which contains board certification status in 24 specialty areas. For psychology, see the American Board of Professional Psychology (ABPP), which contains board certification status in 14 different areas of psychology. Please note that there are good doctors who are not board certified and bad doctors who are board certified but you increase your chance of finding the former by choosing one who is board certified. Other credentials to look at are where the doctor went to school and completed training. This can be found by either calling the doctor’s office or doing an internet search.

An internet search is another good way to research a new doctor as you may discover news articles that a doctor was interviewed for, which may give you more confidence in the doctor’s expertise. Be careful, however, of doctor review websites because they tend to be skewed towards people who had a negative experience versus a positive experience and thus may not tell the entire story. Be sure to check the website for your state’s licensing board as this can tell you if there are any disciplinary complaints pending against the doctor.

One other idea some people have is to “interview” your potential doctor. Basically, this involves asking the doctor some important questions during an initial consultation such as how are emergencies handled, what are the after-hours policies, how can you get a prescription refill, do you actually see the doctor or a nurse practitioner, etc. Based on the answers to these types of questions and the personal feel you get based on interacting with the doctor, you can get a sense of the doctor is a right fit for you. While good rapport with the doctor is important, also consider how the office staff treats the patients. Are they friendly and courteous or do they seem to be rude and cut people short? Does there seem to be frequent infighting amongst the staff and is the doctor yelling at staff in front of patients. If so, these are bad signs. You need to deal with a competent office staff as well as a competent doctor to manage your health care needs.

One last point: If you get a letter from your doctor saying they will no longer be participating with your insurance as of a certain date due to a contract dispute, see this as a call to action. Contact the insurance company to complain and have others you know do the same who see the particular doctor. If enough pressure is brought to bear, you may not have to make a switch at all as the insurance company and doctor may then make a new agreement. This just happened to me recently, actually.