Mapping the Brain’s Genetic Landscape – New York Times piece

An NYT piece on the sheer complexity of psychiatry genetics

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What’s Love Got To Do With It? A Longitudinal Study of the Culture of Companionate Love and Employee and Client Outcomes in a Long-term Care Setting

From Administrative Science Quarterly, May 29, 2014:

In this longitudinal study, we build a theory of a culture of companionate love—feelings of affection, compassion, caring, and tenderness for others—at work, examining the culture’s influence on outcomes for employees and the clients they serve in a long-term care setting. Using measures derived from outside observers, employees, family members, and cultural artifacts, we find that an emotional culture of companionate love at work positively relates to employees’ satisfaction and teamwork and negatively relates to their absenteeism and emotional exhaustion. Employees’ trait positive affectivity (trait PA)—one’s tendency to have a pleasant emotional engagement with one’s environment—moderates the influence of the culture of companionate love, amplifying its positive influence for employees higher in trait PA. We also find a positive association between a culture of companionate love and clients’ outcomes, specifically, better patient mood, quality of life, satisfaction, and fewer trips to the emergency room. The study finds some association between a culture of love and families’ satisfaction with the long-term care facility. We discuss the implications of a culture of companionate love for both cognitive and emotional theories of organizational culture. We also consider the relevance of a culture of companionate love in other industries and explore its managerial implications for the healthcare industry and beyond.

 

Polio in Cork: Patrick Cockburn’s “The Broken Boy”, reviewed in the Guardian 09/07/05

 

A review I wrote for the Guardian 13 years ago of an oddly titled book by the son of the “84th most dangerous red in the world.” As I wrote, it is not entirely a memoir of the 1956 polio epidemic, nor is it an thorough history of the outbreak, but nevertheless it is an interesting read.

The Broken Boy
by Patrick Cockburn
320pp, Cape, £15.99

Writing about the house in which he grew up in Youghal, East Cork, Patrick Cockburn says it “owed its vigorous personality to our lack of money, which ensured that it never saw the hand of a contractor and was reconstructed piecemeal by my mother”. Cockburn’s engaging and witty book itself has a vigorous personality. It is far from the straightforward memoir of his experience of the 1956 polio epidemic in Cork suggested by the title and cover.
While being taken to see child casualties after the American bombing of Baghdad in 1998, Cockburn – a foreign correspondent – began to wonder about his own childhood experience of polio, and the epidemic about which he knew so little. Hardly any written accounts existed. In 1999, he began to interview those who remembered the outbreak, but the Chechen war and the world situation after September 11 combined to prevent him from continuing his research for some years.

This perhaps contributes to the somewhat disjointed feel of the book. Six of its 14 chapters deal with the 1956 epidemic. It begins with a six-year-old Cockburn waking with a headache and sore throat. The local doctor is called and the sensation of the stethoscope on his skin is one of the few clear memories Cockburn retains from the time. Three months earlier, in July, the epidemic had arrived in Cork city.

Cockburn was taken by ambulance to St Finbarr’s hospital in Cork city. Although terrified and uncomprehending, his memories of St Finbarr’s are sunnier than those of Gurranebraher, where children were transferred after the acute phase of the illness. Cockburn’s father, the radical journalist Claud Cockburn, wrote that children in Gurranebraher “seemed to be largely in the hands of maids – young country girls with no special training at all”. One reason for this was that female nurses, like any woman working in the public service at the time, had to resign on marriage – a glimpse of a very different Ireland from today’s.

Although Cockburn quotes doctors and physiotherapists critical of the handling of the outbreak, he himself seems curiously detached. The Salk vaccine had been field tested the year before, but was still unavailable and not entirely trusted by doctors. Quarantine was pointless, given that the majority of carriers of polio are asymptomatic. Some agitated for sporting events to be cancelled and for a form of temporary apartheid to be implemented against Corkonians – but though some politicians indulged in similar rhetoric, such sanctions were avoided.

Paradoxically, the victims of the Cork epidemic largely came from the more prosperous areas. This was because, in places where hygiene was poor, exposure to the virus was near-universal, and infants would be protected by maternal antibodies, so tended to have mild or asymptomatic forms of the illness. Improved water supply and sewage systems led to the loss of this immunity. Indeed, Cockburn argues, the outbreak could be seen as an early marker of Ireland’s later prosperity.

Cockburn writes well about his Anglo-Irish childhood, the tangled lives of his mother’s forebears and what Olivia Manning called “the usual Anglo-Irish sense of belonging nowhere”. His father Claud, described by Senator Joseph McCarthy as “the 84th most dangerous red in the world”, is a benign, rather impish spirit hovering over the book. As well as the affectionate personal memories of his father, Cockburn describes the absurdly detailed file kept on his father by British intelligence. For 20 years, with dutiful pedantry, agents followed him around recording who he met, where he went and what he did there.

The title The Broken Boy is slightly mystifying, as Cockburn doesn’t seem to have thought much about his polio experience until 1998. He does refer to “emotional scar tissue from polio” that he was aware of from an early age, but the nature of this emotional scarring isn’t at all clear. Though he spent a lot of time in school reading by himself, he writes “I was not solitary and made friends easily.” In fact, this is an oddly uplifting book. It is refreshing to read a disease memoir that is far more focused on the lives of those around the author than on trying to whip up sympathy or outrage.

Theranos, hype, fraud, solutionism, and eHealth

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Anyone who has had to either give or take a blood sample has surely thought “there must be a better way.” The promise of replacing the pain of the needle and the seeming waste of multiple blood vials has an immediate appeal. If there was a technology that could

Theranos were one of the hottest health teach startups of the last decade. Indeed, their USP – that existing blood testing could be replaced by a pin prick – would have been a genuinely disruptive one.

Theranos was founded in 2003 by Elizabeth Holmes, then 19 years old, who dropped out of studying engineering in Stanford in order to start the company. In 2015 she was named by Forbes magazine as the youngest self-made female billionaire in history, with an estimated worth of $4.5 billion. In June 2016, Forbes revised their estimate to zero. What happened?

At times of writing, Holmes has been charged with “massive fraud” by the US Securities and Exchange Commission, and has agreed to pay a $500,000 fine and accept a ban from serving as a company director or officer for ten years. It is unclear if a criminal investigation is also proceeding.
At its height, Theranos had a seemingly stellar team of advisors. The board of directors has included such figures as Henry Kissinger, current US Secretary of Defence James “Mad Dog” Mattis, various former US Senators and business figure. In early 2016, in response to criticism that, whatever their other qualities, the clinical expertise of Mad Dog Mattis et al was perhaps light, it announced a medical advisory board including four medical doctors and six professors.

 

Elizabeth Holmes’ fall began in October 2015, when the Wall Street Journal’s John Carreyrou published an article detailing discrepancies between Theranos’ claims and the actual performance of their technology. This was in response to a Fortune cover story by Roger Parloff, who subsequently wrote a thoughtful piece on how he had been misled, but also how he missed a hint that all was not what it was.

 

Theranos’ claims to be able to perform over 200 different investigations on a pinprick of blood were not borne out; and it turned out that other companies’ products were used for the analysis of many samples.

 

The fall of Theranos has led to some soul-searching among the health tech stat up community. Bill Rader, an entrepreneur and columnist at Forbes, wrote on What Entrepreneurs Can Learn From Theranos:

 

     I have been watching first in awe of perceived accomplishments, and then feeling burned, then later vindicated, when the actual facts were disclosed. Don’t get me wrong, I really wanted their efforts to have been both real and successful – they would have changed healthcare for the better. Now, that seems unlikely to be the case.

 

By now, almost everyone has heard of Holmes and her company, and how she built Theranos on hype and secrecy, and pushed investors into a huge, $9 billion valuation. Now everyone in the industry is talking about this and lawsuits are flying.

Just a couple months ago, a Silicon Valley venture capitalist appeared on CNBC’s “Closing Bell” and instead of talking about the elephant in the room, he diverted to a defense strategy for the Theranos CEO.

 

He claimed Elizabeth Holmes had been “totally attacked,”and that she is “a great example of maybe why the women are so frustrated.”

He also went on to say, “This is a great entrepreneur who wants to change health care as we know it.”

 

The last statement was the strangest thing he said. Wouldn’t we all like to change things for the better? But “wanting” and “doing” are two different things.

 

 

 

Rader’s piece is worth reading for clinicians and IT professionals involved in health technology. The major lesson he draws is the need for transparency. He describes being put under pressure by his own board; why wasn’t he able to raise as much money as Theranos? It transpires that Theranos’ methods may make life more difficult for start-ups in the future, and Rader fears that legitimate health tech may suffer:

 

Nothing good has come of the mess created by Theronos secrecy, or as some have characterized, deception. The investor has been burned, the patient has been left with unfilled promises (yet again) and life science industry start-ups, like my company, have been left with even more challenges in raising much needed investment. And worse of all, diagnostic start-ups in general are carrying an unearned stigma.

 

In this interesting piece, Christine Farr notes that the biggest biotech and health care venture capital firms did not invest in Theranos, nor did Silicon Valley firms with actual clinical practices attached. As Farr writes, the Theranos story reflects systemic issues in funding of innovation, and the nature of hype. And one unfortunate consequence may be an excessive focus on Elizabeth Holmes; a charismatic figure lauded unrealistically at one point is ripe to become a scapegoat for all the ills of an industry the next.

 

The “stealth mode” in which Theranos operated in for the first ten years of its existence is incompatible with the values of healthcare and of the science on which it is based. Farr points out how unlikely it would be that a biotech firm vetting Theranos would let their lack of peer reviewed studies pass. The process of peer review and building evidence is key to the modern practice of medicine.

Another lesson is simply to beware of what one wants to be true. As written above, the idea of Theranos’ technology is highly appealing. The company, and Holmes, sailed on an ocean of hype and admiring magazine covers. The rhetoric of disruptive and revolutionizing healthcare featured prominently, as the 2014 Fortune magazine cover story reveals:

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Perhaps a healthy scepticism of claims to “revolutionise” health care will be one consequence of the Theranos affair, and a more robustly questioning attitude to the solutionism that plagues technology discourse in general.

Clinicians and health IT professionals should be open to innovation and new ideas, but also hold on to their professional duty to be confident new technologies will actually benefit the patient.

An early seventeenth century Donegal Doctor – Nial O’Glacan of Donegal from Dúchas Thír Chonaill

On the wonderful Donegal Heritage site there is a fascinating article about an early modern doctor to Hugh O’Donnell, amongst others.

AMONG the few physicians of the seventeenth century whose names have been preserved from the stream of oblivion, is Nial O’Glacan of Donegal. Forgotten to-day, in his time he was one of the most distinguished members of the medical profession in Spain, France, and Italy, where for many years he had a long and distinguished career. Born in Donegal in the latter half of the sixteenth century, it is probable that he received the rudiments of his medical education from one of the families of hereditary physicians which at that time were attached to the Irish chieftains.

Later we read:

 

Early in life he left Ireland, and settled in Spain as early as 1602. This latter fact is inferred from his statement that he treated the great Hugh O’Donnell, Lord of Tirconnell, with a special poultice for a “venereo bubo” in the royal palace of the King of Spain. It is known that Hugh O’Donnell died at Simancas on 10th September, 1602, after an illness of fourteen days

 

Are we winning the War on Sleeplessness?

Or, as the authors of this paper put it, are we seeing the “first signs of success in the fight against sleep deficiency?”

Abstract:

STUDY OBJECTIVES:

The high prevalence of chronic insufficient sleep in the population has been a concern due to the associated health and safety risks. We evaluated secular trends in sleep duration over the most recent 14-year period.

METHODS:

The American Time Use Survey, representative of US residents ≥15 years, was used to investigate trends in self-reported sleep duration and waking activities for the period 2003-2016 (N = 181335 respondents).

RESULTS:

Sleep duration increased across survey years both on weekdays (+1.40 min/year) and weekends (+0.83 min/year, both p < .0001, adjusted models). This trend was observed in students, employed respondents, and retirees, but not in those unemployed or not in the labor force. On workdays, the prevalence of short (≤7 hr), average (>7-9 hr), and long (>9 hr) sleep changed by -0.44% per year (p < .0001), -0.03% per year (p = .5515), and +0.48% per year (p < .0001), respectively. The change in sleep duration was predominantly explained by respondents retiring earlier in the evening. The percentage of respondents who watched TV or read before bed-two prominent waking activities competing with sleep-decreased over the same time period, suggesting that portions of the population are increasingly willing to trade time in leisure activities for more sleep. The results also suggest that increasing online opportunities to work, learn, bank, shop, and perform administrative tasks from home freed up time that likely contributed to increased sleep duration.

CONCLUSIONS:

The findings indicate first successes in the fight against sleep deficiency. Public health consequences of the observed increase in the prevalence of long sleep remain unclear and warrant further investigation

Here is the American Time Use Survey which the authors used for their study.