Hammers and nails

I'm sure you've heard the old saying that,

To a man with a hammer, everything looks like a nail.

It couldn't be truer than in heart procedures (the man with the hammer) and heart disease (the nail).

What does it take in 2008 to become an interventional cardiologist trained in all the techniques of angioplasty, stenting, intracoronary ultrasound, etc.? Start with your undergraduate degree (4 years), then medical school (another 4 years), then training in internal medicine (3 years), then general cardiology taining (3 years), then an additional year in interventional cardiology. Each step along the way also involves competing for these spaces, a process that requires much time, money, and sweat.

The total time investment is 15 years after high school. Many if not most college students graduate with debt. Pile on the substantial cost of medical school. Training after medical school pays a modest salary, enough for a single person. Many trainees by then have spouses and a family, would like to buy a house, have bills to pay. (I managed to buy my first house for $69,000 in Columbus, Ohio and paid my mortgage by sleeping only every other night and moonlighting on my off nights.)

By the time the interventional cardiologist-in-training finishes his/her 15 years, they are hungry for a hefty increase in income. After such a time and money investment, I do believe that there is at least some justification for generous income for the years of work involved.

Back to our hammer and nail metaphor. Not only do we now have a man or woman with a hammer, but a really expensive hammer that required a substantial amount of effort to obtain. Now, our hapless hammer-bearer is desperate to see everything in sight as a nail.

You're seen in consultation by this fresh interventional cardiologist in practice for only a few years. Guess what he/she advises? Go straight to the catheterization laboratory, of course. Throw in the fact that insurance reimbursement is most generous for heart procedures, far more than for consulting in the office, doing a stress test, or other simpler, non-invasive tests, and the incentives are clear.

The system, you see, is set up to follow such a path. The path to the cath lab is heavily incentivized, paths in the other direction discouraged, disparaged, or just ignored.

My message: Don't get nailed.

Comments (4) -

  • Anonymous

    2/28/2008 7:15:00 PM |

    Yup.  "Hammers and nails"!

    I am 65 years old.  I had a stent inserted in the "widow-maker" artery (80% blockage) a year ago.  I had passed out a couple of times (heart rate dangerously low - 30s).  I rode to the hospital in an ambulance.  Tests revealed short LBBB episodes; mild mitral regurgitation, mild tricuspid regurgitation. Catherization showed 3 vessel CAD. I was told that a medicated stent was absolutely necessary given the situation; regardless, I have to accept that.   A pacemaker was installed to prevent bradycardia and keeps heart rate from dropping below 60.   I have 20% L distal main blockage and 90% lesion of the high first obtuse marginal at the takeoff.  The right coronary had 60% posterior lateral branch stenosis.  

    Since then I have reduced TG from 360 to 60,  LDL from 89 to 82 (although a few months ago it was in the mid-70s), and increased HDL from 30 to 46.  I went from 365lbs to 190lbs and hope to eventually get to 180lb this Spring.  I did it by progressing from walking to trotting (slow run) and dietstyle changes (low-GI veggies, fruits, etc.) .

    On a recent visit the cardiologist said the the LDL needs to be 70 or below to "freeze" the 90% blockage and gave me a prescription for Lipitor.  I asked if there were alternatives, like diet, supplements, etc.  He admitted that he did not know about those alternative but did know Lipitor.   When the only tool you have is a hammer then everything is a nail.  I understand that the 90% blockage is important but will not take the Lipitor to achieve the 12 points reduction.  Seems like an overkill.  

    I asked him if there was a way to evaluate my current condition.  I was told there was no way.  Basically, if I have no symptoms, good.  If I have symptoms then it will have to be evaluated.  Death could be the only symptom.   I swear he was about to say bypass surgery ($$$$$$!) was inevitable.  Something is wrong with this "fly-in-the-fog-and-hope-you-don't- hit-a-mountain" approach. Hope is not a strategy!

    I am confident that I can reduce LDL to below 70 based on eliminating wheat-products in my diet plus increasing oat bran in my diet.  I also take fish oil daily (EPA/DHA-2g).  I am looking for a new cardiologist.  I just recently purchased your book and find it very instructive.  In the meantime I have an appointment with my primary care physician to discuss implementing the Track Your Plaque program.  I realize that the one stent will skew the scan numbers but can be used as a baseline number.

    Anyway, onward . . .

  • mike V

    2/29/2008 4:49:00 PM |

    As an ancient engineer, I often use your aphorism.
    Your publicly expressed viewpoint must earn a lot of criticism from your colleagues, and undoubtedly there have been financial and other sacrifices on your part.
    I would like to offer heart felt appreciation for what you do.
    I assume that many colleagues share your point of view. Are there others who have the 'cojones' to speak out?  Is there any degree of cooperation?

    I would like to know something of your perspective on potential solutions for cardiology in particular, and healthcare in general. In fact, on the whole "medical-pharmaceutical-insurance-government complex" (to paraphrase the warnings of Dwight Eisenhower).
    I grew up under British socialized medicine, and while the delivery to the people is more even, it is not a  solution. Do you foresee some kind of compromise as workable? Should the solution be patient driven? Business driven? Govt. driven?
    I recall that in the UK, doctors and the system tend to be viewed as almost god like in their authority, although a few individual Dr. rebels such as. Malcolm Kendrick come to mind.

    Yes, I know. This is far too big a topic for your blog, but with the elections coming up, my curiosity just got the better of me!
    Note: I promise not to ask any more difficult questions until next Feruary 29!

  • Anna

    3/2/2008 8:50:00 PM |

    I'd like to echo the comment by Mike V.  The current health care situation in the US is so "unsustainable", to borrow an agricultural phrase, yet having a good view of the UK's NHS (I have English in-laws) doesn't inspire me to wish all of that on myself or the US public, either.  My in-laws in Norway seem to have it better in many ways, but I see some dangerous aspects creeping in over there, too.  We need better options for our nations's healthcare, but I only seem to hear about how well our current system works (for some people) with all the costly high-tech procedures and diagnostics or else warmed-over versions of the UK and Canadian systems, which has some serious flaws, too.

    I want healthcare that takes prevention and health promotion into account, not just "disease care" that catches disease "just in time".  I don't want "checkbook science" or "concensus science" dictating what options I have or what information is available to me.  I don't want a "nanny" nor do I want my care determined by healthcare industry lobbyists.  

    There must be something better, that does a better job of balancing promotion of good health with treatment of disease, with balancing good intentions without nannyism, with balancing  access to care without over treatment.  We need a system that allows medical personnel to make the best decisions for each individual patient, with a better way of managing the associated costs and compensation for all participants.   It is very hard for physicians to "buck the trends" these days.

    As an insider with an insightful view from the trenches of the healthcare industry, I'd love to read more of your thoughts on these issues in future posts, Dr. Davis (your busy schedule allowing, of course).  How can we reform healthcare without pushing the pendulum too far into another harmful direction, in a way that it beneficial to all - patients, medical personnel, medical institutions, medical research, etc?

    And then, how do we make it happen?

  • Anonymous

    1/1/2010 8:05:29 PM |

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