Exam Room Miscommunication

In school were you ever challenged to explain to someone how to make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich using words only? It’s harder than it sounds. Similarly it’s sometimes difficult to explain to a patient what I want them to do, at times to humorous effect. If you see yourself in any of the examples below, don’t take offense. I’m laughing with you, not at you!

As I bring an exam light up to check patient’s eyes, they often open their mouth, thinking I want to check their throat.

When checking guys for hernias I tell them to turn their head and cough. Men often turn their head to the left when I check their right side, then turn to the right when I check the left. The only purpose of having them turn their head is to not cough on me! Before doing this part of the exam I tell them to drop their drawers so I can check them for a hernia. I like to then slide forward the 2-3 feet on my stool, that has rollers, but guys often take a step towards me first, then I have to make sure I don’t butt heads when they naturally bend to drop their underwear. I also like to go to their right side so I don’t have to bend my wrist back, but in an attempt to be helpful, they often turn to the right to face me, so I have to slide farther to the side, thus doing a hernia check dance.

When I have people sit up on the exam table, they often start to lay down. I just want them to sit first since I like to examine their neck and listen to their lungs first. If not doing a full physical, I usually just pull up the shirt to listen to their lungs from the back side. When I then have them lay down, patients usually reflexively pull their shirt back down, but then I have to lift it back up to listen to their heart.

When patients have pain, such as in their abdomen, I’ll ask them to tell me if it hurts as I press in various areas. In an attempt to be helpful, patients off start pushing on their stomach themselves to try to find the tender areas, and sometimes will spend a fair amount of time doing so. I usually joke that they can examine themselves on their own time, but now it’s my turn.

Ask the Doc: Human Growth Hormone

On this site I’m unable to answer patient specific questions, but as time permits, may answer questions of a general interest.

Question:

I have been working out with a personal trainer with weight training and have been doing running on my own. I have been getting much stronger although I haven’t lost much weight. I asked the trainer why it takes longer to recover from a strenuous session at age 66 than it did when I was younger. She said that as we get older we have very little HGH in our system and that a small dose of HGH would help me recover quicker and she could push me harder. Would a small dose of HGH be beneficial for training? I know that testosterone creams etc. have a lot of side effects which are not good but how about HGH?

Answer:

Human Growth Hormone, or HGH, is a hormone that regulates growth, and decreases with age, as well as from obesity. It is one of many factors why, all other things equal,  66-year-olds aren’t as strong or fast, or recover as quickly, as when they were younger. With age lung function gradually declines, the cardiovascular system is less robust, testosterone levels fall in men, etc. In one of his movies, Warren Miller said something like, “If a 40-year-old says they sky as well as when they were 20, they are either lying, or they weren’t very good when they were 20!”

Human Growth Hormone is only approved by the FDA in limited circumstances, not including the normal decline with aging, and it’s expensive. It probably does build muscle, and for this reason is banned by the Olympics and some other sports institutions. It also has potential side effects.

Getting adequate sleep, regular exercise, eating healthy, and managing stress, are the most important things you can do to boost your growth hormone and improve your endurance.

Cruise Health

As I wrote about last time, I attended the ACP Internal Medicine 2012 meeting in New Orleans. Afterwards my wife and I took a cruise on the Carnival Conquest ship that left from New Orleans and stopped at the ports of Cozumel, Jamaica and Grand Caymen.

On the first day of the cruise there is a mandatory safety briefing on deck where they discuss such things as how to board the lifeboats in the event of an emergency. The announcer appropriately discussed the importance of washing hands, but incorrectly said, “the hotter the better.” When it comes to washing your hands, cold water works as well as hot water, except that if it’s cold, people won’t wash their hands as long because it’s uncomfortable. The same is true if the water is too hot. Thus warm water is recommended.

We took an excursion to see the Mayan ruins of Tulum near Cozumel, Mexico. Before leaving the ship we were warned not drink the local water. Near the ruins in a tourist shopping center I was tempted to eat at a Häagen-Dazs ice cream stand. I figured the ice cream was safe, but I worried about the water used to clean the scoops. It was probably safe, but I didn’t want to take a chance.

Obesity is a common problem in the United States and elsewhere, and is particularly a problem in the South. This was reflected in the passengers having embarked in New Orleans. Although people understandably eat excessively on a cruise, to which I’ll take the 5th Amendment, there are opportunities to do some healthy things on a cruise. I took advantage of their gym and exercised every day, though few did. Most of the time half the people exercising were crew members.

While looking for something else, I happened to walk by an ongoing talk on Secrets To A Flatter Stomach. I sat down and listened. The speaker was a personal trainer, certified by the Australian Institute of Fitness. He was buff, which automatically makes one feel he knows what he’s talking about. In fact his advice on exercise and nutrition was sound, and he did a great job explaining things. He then talked about detox and the need to get rid of toxic water trapped around fat. They invited people to sign up for a 1 hour personal analysis and consultation at a 2 for 1 special of $35. I spoke with the speaker’s colleague, a man from Scotland, and also buff. I asked if they would be repeating the lecture as I thought my wife would enjoy hearing it. He said he would cover the same material at the consultation, and more, and do an analysis with equipment not available in the United States (this model is available in the US and seems close to the 310e V8.0 they used). I was skeptical about the detox, but the cost was pretty low so I signed up.

At our meeting he first had us fill out questionnaires about our health, including what medications we were taking and why. I purposely didn’t answer the question about occupation, but admitted I was a physician when he later asked. He then went on to tell me he had a BSC degree in Sports Science from the University of West of Scotland, which he said was about equivalent to a physician in the United States. It’s not. He ran a bio-electrical impedance test attaching an electrode to the ankle and wrist. Running a very low voltage and current, that you cannot feel, through the body, it calculates body fat, lean body weight, body water and metabolic rate. The calculations require the body weight, which he asked about, but did not measure (towards the end of a cruise the actual weight is likely to be significantly higher than the stated weight!). Although the equipment he used may not be available in the US, it’s similar to the Tanita bathroom scale I have at home. My device calculates body fat, though you have to do your own calculations to derive the other numbers, and the results he obtained were very similar to my results at home.

He said I needed to lose 6.1 lbs of fat, and admitted I was among the healthiest he had tested on the cruise, but that I also had  12.5 lbs of toxic water to remove. According to his handout, that put me in the level of, “High levels of accumulative toxic waste circulating the cells of the body. Damage to Liver and Kidneys apparent. Weight gain is inevitable. Degeneration of joints and muscle tissue. High Blood Pressure / High cholesterol.” He recommended a 3 month detox program for $300. Most people, “needed” a 6 month program, which consisted of two 3 month cycles, and some needed a year’s worth. They would then do a 3 month cycle every few years or so depending, less often if following a healthy diet. My credit card would be charged that day, and the product shipped the next, so we could get started on it as soon as we returned home. The products are supposed to cleans the digestive tract, kidneys and liver. They contain various herbal products, algae, plantain seeds for fiber, and a low dose thyroid product of some sort, and one is also supposed to eat alkaline forming foods. I was naturally skeptical. He claimed that his analysis showed that I needed detoxification because I had problems with my cholesterol. He said that with his device he didn’t need to do blood tests. How did he know about my cholesterol problem? Because I told him! Actually it’s not that much of a problem, but I try to be proactive.

He said that evening there would be a nutrition class, but only for those who signed up. He encouraged me to sign up for the detox, but said he wasn’t worried because they get 60 people per week to sign up. While we were talking he was interrupted by someone asking if a person could be signed up for a consultation, even though his schedule was full.  He said he would let us think about it while he took care of something. The class was later held in the gym in a glass walled off section. I counted 19 attendees. To show the legitimacy of the program, he said his company contracts with Carnival and other cruise lines to offer the program, and has been in business for years. I asked for clinical study references to support detoxification. He said he could give it to me, but not until after I signed up. I declined.

If you take a cruise, try to get in some exercise, if nothing more than some extra walking. I advise you to save your money and not spend it on a detox program, and don’t forget your sunscreen.

American College of Physicians Internal Medicine 2012

I recently attended the American College of Physicians (ACP) Internal Medicine 2012 annual meeting, held this year in New Orleans. It’s a very large meeting with thousands of physicians attending. At any one time there are dozens of courses one can attend. I try to balance learning about subjects I have a particular interest in, with those that I’m less interested, and consequently have more to learn.

Among the talks I attended was a talk on genetics issues in internal medicine by Matthew Taylor, MD, PhD.  He discussed an interesting case of a 19-year-old woman who had been in good health who had lifted weights, used a hot tub then went swimming in a lap pool and was found unresponsive in 4 feet of water in 1998. She was resuscitated but died in the hospital 12 days later. An EKG done during the hospitalization was mildly abnormal with a prolonged QT interval. This was dismissed by most cardiologists as probably or not significant when asked to review the EKG. A subsequent genetic analysis of autopsy material revealed a genetic condition associated with a prolonged QT interval, which itself increases the risk of sudden death due to an arrhythmia. Further testing showed her sister, mother and maternal grandfather were found to have the same genetic condition. Most physicians would not even consider a genetic condition as the cause of a drowning, yet making the diagnosis may prevent family members from dying due to an arrhythmia with appropriate treatment.

I attended a talk by Holly Holmes, MD on discontinuing medications. It’s much easier to start a medicine than to stop one, yet medications carry financial costs and may cause side effects. She went over some cases and discussed strategies to decrease medication use. Amusingly she pointed out that not only did she not have any financial disclosures that might cause a conflict of interest, but that no pharmaceutical company would want to pay her to recommend stopping medications!

Besides the vast number of courses, there were also hundreds of vendors from pharmaceutical companies discussing new medications, companies selling books, equipment, massage chairs and gluten free products, and many just providing free information. There were recruiters looking for doctors, and more.

There was also the opportunity to interact with colleagues from around the world. I spoke with some physicians in Canada, and one from Saudi Arabia. I usually attend the ACP national meetings every few years and always come away having learning things that will help my patients, and feeling more invigorated about my profession.