Tag Archives: Education

578,319….and Silence

The Red Bird by Stasys Eidrigevicius. (Screen capture)

More than 7000 physicians united through more than 40 WhatsApp groups, and suddenly silence. It is as if the global medical community with whom I have connected has become complacent, accepting of disappointment, disease, and death. Such is, perhaps, the effect of six months and more of COVID-19.

Disappointment, because in many countries, medical leaders had failed to prepare satisfactorily for a pandemic that others had predicted. Disappointment because leading medical journals with their shark tank-like editorial boards succumbed to publishing sub-par scientific material. Disappointment because we don’t know if hospitals have the necessary means to satisfactorily protect health care personnel or care for thousands of newly infected patients.

Disease is terrible because when we are ill, we are not the same as when we are healthy. We see the world differently, and for some of us, values change, and priorities are redistributed. Life takes on a different meaning, and may even lose its meaning altogether. The struggle back to a different reality is challenging, but if health is restored, everything can seem “normal” again…until next time.

Death is in the news every day, but not as loudly in the headlines (578,319 COVID-19 related deaths worldwide today, while numerous countries resume partial shutdowns1). Perhaps the medical community accepts this cruel reality, and the general public has perhaps become too complacent. Societies are radically divided, not only into rich and poor, privileged and not, but also into young and old, with the over-60 or those with comorbidities relegating themselves to self-imposed isolation. In contrast, younger generations strive to live as they used to, for life must go on, and they are the future.

With these thoughts in mind, I watched with even greater sensibility than usual, the truthfully realistic virtual exposition of the photographic-film Paris-Vilnius. The Spectacular Silence, by French/Lithuanian artist Yolita René (http://paris-vilnius.fr). Accompanied by a magnificent piano score by Dominykas Digimas and a collection of Pulitzer-prize worthy contemporary photos, the artist/author uses the painting of a masked, red bird named Coronavirus 2020, as a leitmotif that reminds us of the presence of COVID-19 in our lives today, and of the sometimes bleak but always poetic temporality of our existences. 

I am both an observer and a witness as dozens of images from The spectacular silence cross my computer screen. These stills reflect my own feelings about Absence, Solitude, Distance, Resonance, and finally, Masks. These face-covers are of all types and shapes and forms. They remind me of our natural diversity and human fragility, of our ability to love and to unite, and of our desires to connect with others in order to find greater meaning in our lives.

References

  1. https://ourworldindata.org/covid-deaths#what-is-the-total-number-of-confirmed-deaths

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Credible evidence

Avebury henge. Photo courtesy H. Colt

Here we go again. Just when the general public needs credible scientific evidence regarding COVID-19, another leading journal publishes controversial data, this time from a Noble Prize recipient. After the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) published the paper Identifying airborne transmission as the dominant route for the spread of COVID-191, the paper quickly rose to the top 5% in Altmetric’s list of papers being shared and discussed globally2. Meanwhile, a group of more than 50 leading researchers wrote the journal, describing “serious methodological errors that undermine any confidence in its findings”3,4 and requesting that PNAS immediately retract the publication.

Other leading journals, including the New England Journal of Medicine, The Lancet, and the Annals of Internal Medicine are also guilty of publishing papers with conclusions that could not be justified by the evidence5.

Health care professionals and the general public look to the scientific community for leadership and expert advice. It is in the nature of scientific inquiry to bear controversy and generate debate in the search for truth. Therein lies an assumption of responsibility and accountability that is not always equally borne by authors, editorial board members, and reviewers.

Those of us who have published widely know and understand the politics of peer-review. We know the fragility of the process, and how sometimes personal vendettas or reviews done in poor faith may prompt rejections. We recognize the unwillingness of many editors to publish studies with negative findings or papers with conclusions that might justify a contrarian position. We may not always accept the often stern and sometimes unfounded critiques of reviewers who recommend rejection. We revise papers when told that our conclusions are not justified by the results, that results are not addressed by our methods, or when our discussion overstates the study’s objectives.

The purpose of scientific peer review is, among others, to question the validity as well as style of the science presented. It is also to find errors, suggest corrections, and recommend revisions that might improve a paper’s readability. It is not always easy for reviewers to accept as valid, findings that run contrary to one’s predetermined biases, or to accept as valid a well-laid argument that puts in doubt a lifetime of one’s own work. That is, as I mentioned earlier, in the nature of scientific inquiry, and it is partly the responsibility of a diligent peer-review.

This is also a responsibility that ultimately resides with the reader. In my own field of Bronchology and Interventional Pulmonology, I wonder if Train-the-Trainer workshops should include sessions on critical thinking. There could be frank discussions about how to teach students to formulate hypotheses, justify scientific findings without going beyond what an honest analysis of the data provides, and credibly argue opinions. 

Well-informed readers do not need to rely on where an article is published to establish the paper’s credibility or scientific value. They are able to reject poorly designed studies, papers reporting questionable evidence, and authors who overstate their positions. It is one thing to rely on credible evidence, but it is quite another to know whether the evidence is credible.

References

  1. www.pnas.org/cgi/doi/10.1073/pnas.2009637117.
  2. https://pnas.altmetric.com/details/83863073/news.
  3. https://www.buzzfeednews.com/article/peteraldhous/mario-molina-coronavirus-face-masks-pnas.
  4. https://metrics.stanford.edu/sites/g/files/sbiybj13936/f/files/pnas_loe_061820_v3.pdf.
  5. https://retractionwatch.com/retracted-coronavirus-covid-19-papers/.

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Knowledge first

Rhodes House. Photo courtesy H. Colt

Many say we know little about COVID-19, when in fact we have learned much since the start of the pandemic. 

The abundance of contradictory and often disputed information is consistent with the nature of scientific inquiry. This is because our goals as scientists are to make observations, challenge what might be considered facts, question results, form hypotheses, and validate or reproduce findings with sufficient reliability to qualify them as credible.

Today, there is evidence for us to be hopeful when considering our approach to patients with COVID-19 infection. 

For example, we know most individuals infected with SARS-CoV-2 remain healthy or have only minor illness. There may be no signs or symptoms of excessive viremia, but whether asymptomatic or presymptomatic, people transmit the virus to others via droplets, respiratory particles, and fomites. For those who become ill, symptoms are non-specific and include, among others, fever, headache, rash, fatigue, and loss of taste or smell1

Mask-wearing, physical distancing, frequent hand-washing, and quarantines help mitigate the spread of disease2.

During a much-feared second week, symptoms are related to the immune response. Shortness of breath or hypoxemia may increase, but patients may also present with signs of kidney, heart, neurologic, and skin disorders. The most vulnerable for disease progression are the elderly, the obese, patients with heart or kidney disease, immunocompromised individuals, and those with diabetes or hypertension. A recent report in MMWR states that pregnant women are also at greater risk for severe disease than non-pregnant women3.

Moderate or severe illness may warrant hospitalization. Some patients will need intensive care treatment. For those with increasing respiratory insufficiency, intubation may not be necessary, and alternative ventilation techniques including noninvasive ventilation4 and proning can be beneficial5. Outcomes may be related to the quality of care during this stage, and several diagnostic studies such as chest radiographs, neutrophil/lymphocyte ratios, C-Reactive protein, D-dimers, and Procalcitonin levels may help determine prognosis and signal evolving thromboembolic disease, bacterial co-infection, or cytokine release syndrome6,7. Pharmacologic venous thromboembolism prophylaxis is now routinely recommended for hospitalized patients8, and a significant survival benefit was demonstrated for critically ill patients treated with dexamethasone9 or Tocilizumab10.

We also know that some people have persistent, intermittent, or recurrent symptoms such as low-grade fever, shortness of breath, and fatigue that can last several weeks. Patients discharged from the hospital as well as those recovering from infection-related symptoms warrant prolonged medical supervision, in part because of risks for thromboembolic disease (a reanalysis of the MARINER data suggests that long-term anticoagulation after hospital discharge reduces fatality by 28 percent)11.

Each week, our knowledge of COVID-19 increases, but there is still much to learn. Also, we must spread the word about all we already know. 

Not everyone has the time to peruse the medical literature or judge the quality and consistency of published evidence. I want to thank everyone who generously helps me select relevant papers for the COVIDBRONCH-LIT repository12, as well as several thousand health care professionals around the world who use this knowledge to benefit their patients.

References

  1. https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/hcp/clinical-guidance-management-patients.html.
  2. https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jama/fullarticle/2765665?utm_campaign=articlePDF&utm_medium=articlePDFlink&utm_source=articlePDF&utm_content=jama.2020.7878.
  3. https://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/volumes/69/wr/mm6925a1.htm?s_cid=mm6925a1_w.
  4. https://www.acpjournals.org/doi/pdf/10.7326/M20-2306.
  5. https://www.thelancet.com/pdfs/journals/lanres/PIIS2213-2600(20)30268-X.pdf.
  6. https://labtestsonline.org/diagnosing-covid-19-testing-essential.
  7. https://responsebio.com/procalcitonin-and-d-dimer-in-patients-with-covid-19/
  8. https://www.acc.org/latest-in-cardiology/articles/2020/04/17/14/42/thrombosis-and-coronavirus-disease-2019-covid-19-faqs-for-current-practice.
  9. https://www.medrxiv.org/content/10.1101/2020.06.22.20137273v1.
  10. 10.https://journal.chestnet.org/article/S0012-3692(20)31670-6/pdf.
  11. Post-Discharge Prophylaxis With Rivaroxaban Reduces Fatal and Major Thromboembolic Events in Medically Ill Patients. J Am Coll Cardiol 2020;75:3140-3147.

12. https://drive.google.com/drive/folders/17adnJE8G0V9hKZZebq82h5m98LmRpnT9.

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We need to wear masks

Photo, H. Colt

The curve flattened across California. Many stores and restaurants reopened. Folks who had been trapped indoors for months flocked to the beach with their families. But now in Orange County, where I live, the number of people infected with SARS-CoV-2, the respiratory virus responsible for the COVID-19 pandemic, is increasing, hospital beds are being filled, and public health officials (those who are courageous enough) are sounding the alarm. 

It’s a second wave, but it’s one we can prepare for, with common sense.

While the situation is fluid, we have a greater understanding of Coronavirus than we had at the start of the pandemic. We know transmission occurs mostly by large droplets, like ones that can be stopped by wearing a mask. We also know transmission occurs from fine aerosols, which is why health care personnel use special N95 masks and other protective gear. Transmission occurs from contact with contaminated surfaces, which is why we use disinfectants, alcohol-based hand sanitizers, and practice physical distancing.   

So, with all we know about spreading the virus, I was surprised to see that most people in my town, both locals and visiting tourists, are not wearing masks. I wrote a brief letter that was published in our local paper1. In it, I shared the following story:

“My mask protects you, and your mask protects me,” I said to one young couple standing next to me by the ice cream shop. 

“Chill,” they said, not in a mean way as they pulled their masks up from below their chins to cover their faces.

I thanked them and explained how older people like myself were at a higher risk of becoming severely ill if we catch Coronavirus. I share this statistic with Blacks, Native Americans, and Hispanics, as well as with those who have heart disease, chronic kidney disease, or diabetes. In fact, care fatality rates increase with age and number of comorbidities2.

The last thing we want is to see our health care facilities overburdened with a surge of critically ill patients.

Wearing a mask3 when we are near others is a generous act of kindness that might be the most effective way to protect against COVID-19 infection. 

An increasing number of scientific studies help support this proposition. Both the CDC and WHO now recommend face-masks to the general public4. The WHO reversed its position regarding mask-wearing based on a meta-analysis of 172 papers by Chu et al4. Mitze et al.5 concluded that masks might reduce daily growth rate in the number of infection by more than 40%, and Stutt et al., in their mathematical models, note that when masks are used by the public all the time, the effective reproductive number, Re, can be decreased below 1, leading to mitigation of epidemic spread6.

‘My mask protects you, your mask protects me,’ may be the secret to surfing the second wave of this pandemic safely.

Addendum: Since this writing, the Governor of California and the California Department of Public Health issued guidelines mandating face coverings in “high-risk” situations (https://www.cdph.ca.gov/Programs/OPA/Pages/NR20-128.aspx).

References

  1. Colt HG. Stu News, Laguna Beach, June 17, 2020
  2. https://bestpractice.bmj.com/topics/en-gb/3000168/prognosis 
  3. https://www.fda.gov/medical-devices/personal-protective-equipment-infection-control/n95-respirators-surgical-masks-and-face-masks
  4. Chu DK., et al. Physical distancing, facemasks, and eye protection to prevent person-to-person transmission of SARs-CoV-2 and COVID-19: a systematic review and meta-analysis. The Lancet. June 1, https://doi.org/10.1016/S0140-6736(20)31142-9.
  5. Mitze T et al. Face masks considerably reduce COVID-19 cases in Germany: A synthetic control method approach. Institute of Labor Economics, June 2020. ZA DP No. 13319.
  6. Stutt ROJH et al. A modeling framework to assess the likely effectiveness of facemasks in combination with “lock-down” in managing the COVID-19 pandemic. The Royal Society Publishing, May 2020. ROJHS, 0000-0002-1765-2633.

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The ritual of hand washing

(Photo courtesy H.Colt)

In religion, the arts, and many forms of symbolic gesturalisation, rituals represent the values of a community. In medicine too, there are rituals: solemn moments deep with meaning, significance, and tradition. 

For most societies, rituals are transformative; a time for bonding, enhanced communication, and even gift-giving. It is during rituals that members of a community renew their trust in one another. Some rituals instill confidence, others reward positive actions. 

Rituals are also used to gain strength in the face of challenges. They are crucial in times of mourning, and in times of loss. They help relieve anxiety, and they reduce feelings of uncertainty. Often, they help gain a sense of control over what might appear to be uncontrollable1.

If some rituals are staged, others seem almost natural, as if they were genetically hardwired into our DNA. They can be learned, adopted, or created. They can also be neglected and forgotten.

In 1847, the Hungarian physician, Ignaz Semmelweis, was ridiculed when he proposed hand washing with chlorinated lime solution to reduce the spread of Puerperal fever in the obstetric ward of the Vienna General Hospital2. Eventually, hand-washing was adopted by the surgical community. The scrubbing ritual became a solemn act that protected patients and professionals from infection around the world.

Hand-washing was less practiced on medical wards, however, and it took decades before soap, hand-sanitizers, and sinks were installed in front of and within every patient room, as well as in the hallways, nurses’ stations, waiting areas, and examination rooms. Still, I have often witnessed health care personnel neglect one or more of The World Health Organization’s Five Moments of Hand Hygiene (before touching a patient, before performing an aseptic or clean procedure, after potential exposure to body fluids, after touching a patient, and after touching a patient’s surroundings)3.

Wet, Lather, Scrub, Rinse, and Dry. These five steps to proper hand-washing are advocated by infection control experts everywhere4. But I have had physicians and nurses lay their hands on me without first using sanitizer or soap. I have seen doctors wipe their hands on their hospital coats and scrubs. I have watched professors avoid the hands-free dispensers, and I have cringed when junior doctors ran their fingers under cold water, forgetting that soap was an obligation. 

Hand hygiene is the least expensive way to reduce the rate of transmissible infections from health care personnel to patients. Yet, even with the use of alcohol-based handrub compliance is low, and there are many disparities in global practice5. Perhaps, this is why the United States Joint Commission advocates hand hygiene programs with “surveyors” to help ensure compliance6.

It seems there are problems related to the duration, frequency, locations, and techniques of hand hygiene protocols regardless if one uses soap and water, the CDC 3-step protocol (apply alcohol-based handrub to the palm of one hand and rub hands together, cover all surfaces, and continue rubbing until hands are dry), or the WHO six-step technique (apply a palmful of alcohol-based handrub in a cupped hand, cover all surfaces, and rub 6 different aspects of the hands)7.

Before going into the operating room, surgeons discuss operative techniques and engage in casual conversation during the scrubbing ritual. The favorable impact of similar ritualistic compliance with hand hygiene protocols in nonsurgical settings during the era of COVID-19 is undeniable.

References

  1. https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/why-rituals-work/
  2. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK144018/
  3. https://www.who.int/gpsc/5may/tools/9789241597906/en/
  4. https://www.cdc.gov/handwashing/when-how-handwashing.html 
  5. https://www.beckershospitalreview.com/quality/why-does-low-hand-hygiene-compliance-still-plague-healthcare-4-reasons.html
  6. https://www.infectioncontroltoday.com/hand-hygiene/behavior-modification-key-boosting-hand-hygiene-compliance-avoiding-survey-deficiencies
  7. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/27050843/

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The Coming Storm

(Clouds over New York City. Photo courtesy C. Lehr)

The COVID-19 pandemic is not over. If that sounds like news, it is. I am not fooled by the hundreds of people walking around my town without masks, nor by the now neglected practice of physical distancing. I am not fooled by the reassurances from Nursing Home directors and hospital administrators who say the virus is controlled, and I am not listening to government officials from any nation who neglect to keep us informed of a possible increase in numbers of deaths.

This is not to say I am not pleased. I am relieved the pandemic has not caused as many deaths as originally predicted. I am delighted that most of the people I know who are over the age of sixty, or those with past medical histories such as heart disease and diabetes are choosing to wait and see, rather than attend public gatherings and eat in restaurants. 

I am glad that some health care personnel have taken responsibility for their own safety and well-being, rather than trust all decisions to an all too often incompetent, hierarchal leadership with different agendas. But I am sad that according to at least one recent report, more than 600 health care workers in the United States have already died from SARS-CoV-21

The US Centers for Disease Control says that in California, where I reside, about 6% of all hospital beds are occupied by patients with COVID-19. Overall, patients with and without COVID-19 occupy only 64% of ICU beds2. This leaves our hospitals with a small safety margin in case a second wave strikes in the next weeks.

SARS-CoV-2 is transmissible by individuals who are ill, presymptomatic, or totally without signs of disease. Viral load depends on frequency, duration, and type of exposure (droplets, respirable aerosols, and fomites). Recent events and the opening of our economies create opportunities for infection. If many medical scientists and public health officials advocate physical distancing and mask-wearing, it is because their concerns for public safety are free from most of the constraints placed on politicians, economists, and social policy-makers responsible for the public good.

As health care professionals, we have a responsibility to do no harm. However, to advocate physical distancing adversely affects the economy. To advocate social isolation adversely affects mental health and puts a strain on family dynamics. To advocate precautionary measures in the workplace and not follow our own advice outside makes us hypocrites.

References

1. https://khn.org/news/exclusive-investigation-nearly-600-and-counting-us-health-workers-have-died-of-covid-19/
2. https://www.cdc.gov/nhsn/covid19/report-patient-impact.html

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Where is the light?

(Photo bruno-van-der-kraan-v2HgNzRDfII-unsplash)

There is an expression that there is light at the end of the tunnel. While this provides hope, the expression also means you are still in the tunnel, and therefore, your problems are not over.

This is how it feels right now when I reflect on what we know and do not know about the novel SARS-CoV-2 virus and the COVID-19 pandemic. Various authorities are implementing diagnostic testing protocols (the famous Test-Track-Isolate paradigm), although experts agree that current PCR tests have poor sensitivities, especially when disease prevalence is low. Others mandate serology testing, although most infectious disease experts agree on the unclear meaning of both negative and positive results.

Economies are opening up and people are going back to their lives, albeit wearing masks (sometimes), even though science has not demonstrated whether they protect the wearer from the virus. Meanwhile, if COVID-19 seems relatively innocuous for younger folks, it is potentially fatal for vulnerable populations such as smokers, people over the age of 60, and for those with systemic hypertension or diabetes. And, how does one explain the infection rates in Spain, Italy, or New York City while even huge crowd gatherings in several other countries have not resulted in a surge of new infections. 

In regard to treatments, there are even more questions.  Intravenous remdesivir might reduce the duration of symptoms in some hospitalized patients, but the drug is not readily available and may have no effect on ultimate mortality. What was purportedly a miracle medicine, Hydroxychloroquine with or without a macrolide, is being flogged even as it is administered to thousands of patients and health care providers around the world. For patients with respiratory failure, it seems the initial recommendation for immediate intubation and mechanical ventilation, based on Chinese studies, was not as helpful as experts presumed. 

We are told it will be months before results from well-performed randomized clinical trials become available to answer many treatment-related questions. Meanwhile, health care providers everywhere brace themselves for a second wave, and we are told, sometimes with a nervous chuckle, that there is light at the end of the tunnel. 

References

  1. https://drive.google.com/drive/folders/1qiMWPqo3spLsHNfob_CW0Xbi0_ocKHC4
  2. https://www.microbe.tv/twiv/twiv-621/

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Burton Rose MD (1942-2020)

(Screenshot of Burton Rose M.D)

On April 24, 2020, Medicine lost one of its great innovators and educators. Burton Rose passed away at the age of 77, a victim of SARS-CoV-21. A graduate of Princeton University, he went to Medical school at New York University and served on the faculty at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, and Harvard.In 1992, Dr. Rose created UpToDate®, a computer-based online medical resource now including 25 specialties, and used by more than 1.9 million physicians from 197 countries.

I first met Dr. Rose in the early 1990s, shortly after he decided to expand his novel UpToDate® computer-based educational programs to include topics on Pulmonary Medicine. At first, the program was available on 3.5-inch floppy disks. If I recall, back in 1995, having a PC with a 1-gigabyte hard drive was cause for celebration, and a Mac LC-500 was an educator’s dream, with its all-in-one desktop design, 14-inch CRT display, and built-in CD-ROM. 

Dr. Rose’s colleague in Boston, Professor Steven Weinberger (former Executive Vice-President and CEO of the American College of Physicians), served as Editor-In-Chief of UpToDate®’s new Pulmonology and Critical Care Medicine (a position currently held by Peter Barnes, Talmadge King, and Polly Parsons). I had the honor of authoring several chapters and serving as an editor with my friend, Praveen Mathur, who sadly passed away a few years ago. We were delighted when the leadership team approved our request to start an Interventional Pulmonology Section, and it is with pleasure and pride that I continue to serve UpToDate® as an author and section editor, sharing the IP editorial role now with Professor David Feller-Kopman.

Burton Rose was amazing. In addition to being a brilliant physician, medical writer, and dedicated teacher, he had the entrepreneurial instinct to recognize that physicians thrive on evidence-based medicine. By creating UpToDate®, he designed an easy-to-access program that allowed health care professionals to query the text with questions as well as by disease. Beginning with a proof-of-concept using his own specialty, Nephrology, he moved on to Primary care Medicine and all subspecialties. UpToDate® quickly became a leading resource for point-of-care medical practitioners and students everywhere.

According to a short video on the UpToDate® website, the program is accessed more than 1 million times and contributes to 300,000 medical decisions each day. This makes it an essential element of health care practice3. Subscriptions are available to individuals as well as institutions, and UpToDate® generously provided affordable subscriptions to trainees and hospitals in countries with low financial resources. 

The greatest key to the program’s success, of course, is the accuracy and timeliness of its content. Material is constantly reviewed and updated by a team of professional editors, deputy-editors, writers, contributors, and peer-reviewers4. Quality is of the utmost importance. This has not changed since UpToDate® was bought by the global provider of professional information and software solutions, Wolters Kluwer in 2008.

Doctor Burton Rose was a true believer in the democratization of knowledge. He did all he could to provide information to medical practitioners around the world, and he assembled a team of dedicated individuals who made his mission their own. He will not be forgotten. 

References

  1. https://www.legacy.com/obituaries/BostonGlobe/obituary.aspx?page=lifestory&pid=196075793
  2. https://www.statnews.com/2020/04/25/remembering-uptodate-creator-burton-bud-rose/
  3. https://www.uptodate.com/home/uptodate-story
  4. https://www.uptodate.com/home

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Reader Beware

(Photo Research Hub, Winona University)

With the number of scientific articles about COVID-19 increasing, it seems we have entered a new era where our mantra must be “Reader Beware.” For reasons known only to their editorial boards, even reputed medical journals are falling prey to the temptation of publishing studies plagued with poor methodology, incomplete information, or conclusions that are not always justified by a careful analysis of the data.

Many classification schemes offer scientists help in judging the reliability and generalizability of study findings, as well as the value of conclusions authors draw from their study results1. Different types of research questions are answered by different types of research studies. Various levels of evidence, also known as a hierarchy of evidence, are assigned to studies based on their design, validity, and applicability to specific experimental or clinical scenarios.

In philosophy, the study of knowledge is called epistemology, which most agree requires three conditions: truth, beliefs, and justification. Even published statements, guidelines, and recommendations are rendered epistemologically more reliable when authors explicitly identify how both facts and opinions contribute to their conclusions. Evidence can be graded, and opinions themselves can be described, for example, as evidence-based, personal preference, as a result of consensus or compromise, or as grounded in conventional wisdom or moral convictions.

The value we attribute to such opinions often depends on their generalizability, as well as on whether they reflect feelings intrinsically shared with others. In this regard, they may be considered secure, vulnerable, or debatable. They may be based on graded factual claims, reasonable projections, or erroneous assumptions. They will also be viewed through the lens of culturally diverse populations, biases, presumptions, and experiences.

When the medical literature provides us repeatedly with questionable studies, it forces us to doubt the reliability of future publications. It mandates that we apply critical thinking, and not rely only on abstracts or potentially sensational sentences written into a well-composed conclusion. It reminds us also that complementing clinical training with learning elements of scientific writing, critical reading, and ethical research publication should be an essential part of professional training2.  

In times of crisis, however, critical thinking may be neglected because of a rush to hope. Sometimes, experience suggests that what is best for a population of patients may not be what is in the best interests for a specific patient3.  Furthermore, in a hierarchy built on tradition, some medical readers and practitioners may not share their doubts in the written word. Journals may not publish critical commentaries or provide explanatory retractions, and a herd mentality can prompt practices that potentially harm rather than help colleagues and patients alike.    

References

  1. Lokker C. et al. A scoping review of classification schemes of interventions to promote and integrate evidence in to practice in healthcare. Implementation Science 2015;10:27.
  2. Eastwood S. Ethical Scientific Reporting and Publication: Training the Trainees. In, Ethical Issues in Biomedical Publication (Jones AH and McLellan F eds). Johns Hopkins University Press, NY, 2000, pgs 250-275.
  3. Brody H. Patient ethics and evidence-based medicine-the Good Healthcare Citizen. Cambridge Quarterly of Healthcare Ethics 2005;14:141.

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Truth and Responsibility

Photo by The Climate Reality Project on Unsplash

Medical professionals are traditionally identified as purveyors of truth. In fact, truth-telling has become a cornerstone of doctor-patient relationships. In recent years, the patient’s right to autonomy seems to have trumped the doctor’s ethical obligations to beneficence and nonmaleficence1

In a recent Gallup poll2, nurses were considered the most trustworthy and ethical of all professionals for the 18th year in a row (followed by engineers, doctors, and pharmacists). It seems that patients expect the truth, and it is because health care workers such as nurses and doctors usually comply with this demand, that the profession garners the general public’s respect and admiration.

The COVID-19 pandemic, however, has thrust many health care professionals into a role that is different from that taken in the doctor-patient dyad. Many, by the nature of their profession, are called upon to provide “expert” commentary on news outlets and social media. They are asked to educate, inform, and sometimes convince a trusting public with their opinions on widely different issues such as triage policies for patients needing ventilators, best medical treatments, population-based testing for signs of SARS-CoV-2, and potentially coercive public health interventions such as quarantine or social distancing.

The potential dilemma is obvious. Cognizant of having the public’s trust, yet soulfully aware they may not possess the communication skills or critical expertise necessary for a truly informed opinion, “medical experts” on the public stage must negotiate a minefield. Frequently, there is a lack of evidence to justify their positions convincingly. Furthermore, there is a wealth of misinformation, contradiction, and uncertainty circulating in scientific as well as mainstream and social media. Scientific backgrounds are diverse, and not everyone can be everything: a competent patient care provider, a well-published intensivist, a knowledgeable public health official, credible virologist, and judicious medical ethicist. 

Thrust onto the stage of public deliberations, colleagues who, whether by choice or obligation must comment on such diverse issues have a responsibility to tell the truth. Of course, relevant factual information includes evidence-based arguments as well as judgments based on an assessment of likelihoods and societal values. Ideally, there should also be discussions about guidelines and peer-reviewed evidence complemented by remarks about critical thinking and considerations about the ways and means of medical science3.

But many truths are ever-changing. Therein lies the challenge in the pursuit of truth itself. Each time we learn more about COVID-19, we may need to refute or revise what was considered truth in the earlier days of the pandemic. Such is the nature of the scientific endeavor. “Truth is made,” wrote 20th-century philosopher and psychologist, William James, “just as health, wealth, and strength are made, in the course of experience.”4

References

  1. Swaminath G. Indian J Psychiatry. 2008 Apr-Jun; 50(2): 83–84.
  2. https://news.gallup.com/poll/274673/nurses-continue-rate-highest-honesty-ethics.aspx
  3. www.ama-assn.org/delivering-care/ethics/ethical-physician-conduct-media.
  4. William James, Pragmatism’s conception of truth. In Pragmatism: a new name for some old ways of thinking (Longmans, 1907), 197-236.

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