The Poisoner’s Handbook by Deborah Blum–Book Review

I recently read The Poisoner’s Handbook by Deborah Blum, a book about poison and forensic investigation in Jazz-age New York City. Dr. Norris and Dr. Gettler transformed death investigation from a good-old-boy coroner system to one based on science and data analysis. Blum weaves several cases into a narrative that covers several poisons used during the 1920s and ‘30s. Over time, poisoning deaths decreased due to public awareness as well as the realization that murderers were increasingly likely to get caught. Blum discusses Prohibition at length and its contribution to poisoning deaths in New York City. I found this particularly fascinating; not only were people willing to risk their lives to drink alcohol, the government tried to dissuade people from drinking by actively poisoning the supply.

Several of the reviews of this book note Blum’s lack of chemistry knowledge, and I can’t disagree. While my own knowledge base isn’t wide, even I notice a few inaccuracies (HCN isn’t a “potent” acid, for example). One must remember that Blum is a journalist, not a chemist; I tend place blame on the publisher’s fact-checker as well as the author. Because this book is about the evolution of the public perception of forensic toxicology and not just the science behind it, I could overlook the scientific stumbles.

As a laboratory professional, I loved reading about the early days of forensic science and forensic toxicology. While these professions existed in Europe well before 1920, Norris and Gettler forever changed how we treat death, murder, and justice in this country.

 

Swails

Kelly Swails, MT(ASCP), is a laboratory professional, recovering microbiologist, and web editor for Lab Medicine.

 

 

Use of Remembrances, Part Deux

So, I’d like to continue with the thread of thinking on my previous blog post about the use of remembrances–and thank you to those who have either commented on the blog or emailed me. I personally believe that using old questions that I know are questions that will more than likely be recycled on a standardized exam (which is how I define remembrances), is not for me. However, I don’t believe that using other study materials that may give you an idea of topics or styles of questions that may be asked is the same–after all, there is a whole industry devoted to the topic of study materials for specific tests. For me, it’s about the intention more so than the action because I don’t see life in terms of “black and white”. But I understand that it is often difficult to distinguish between these two and that lines may get blurred unintentionally. But writing down the questions after taking a test and using them or passing them down to one’s juniors to use to study for an upcoming version of the test is using a remembrance in my book.

To me, to cheat or not to cheat, that’s a personal choice and I don’t really judge (or honestly, feel it’s worth my effort to do so) and I think we can say we all have different definitions. But for me, the more important question is whether I choose to cheat myself. Multiple times during my medical training, I’ve felt like I’ve had to play catch-up. I think that this is because I didn’t truly take the time and effort when I should’ve to learn the material in a way that I could internalize it enough to stick–and often that may be because I was too stressed to see the “forest through the trees.” But, now I’ve begun to see the outlines of the forest.

Being more of a scientist-trained person and less of a clinical one, I still find myself having to go back and relearn a concept I should’ve learned well during medical school to carry out my resident responsibilities. And while I may internally curse myself for this, I understand that I need to do this–that I may hurt a patient if I just brush under the rug that I’m missing some knowledge, no matter how small a crumb it may be. I might be able to get by without fully understanding it, but I need to participate in their care. First, we need to be self-aware enough to even question ourselves. I believe that starts with at least making the decision to make an effort to ask these questions, which we can all do. And much of that comes from experience. But it also comes from listening to the consistent patterns that percolate throughout the feedback we have been given over time from our mentors and from identifying what characteristics we want to live up to in our role models.

I also believe that this effort should not be one-sided in that all the responsibility is on the trainee. Factors in this equation equally include our residency programs, and specifically, those who serve as our role models and mentors. Even if our attendings may not realize it, they do serve these two roles just as much as they fill the role of being our didactic teachers in their topic area. Also important is the critical thinking or analytical process that we need to learn and make our own. I’ve found that the best teachers, or at least the ones I relate to most, are the ones who lead me through the thinking process–to look first at low power at the architecture and then to move on to high power where I consider the nuclear and cytoplasmic features, chromatin texture, the company that the primary lesional cells keep, and so on, to put together the pieces of the puzzle to come to a reasonable diagnosis and differential. Same process, albeit with different pieces, when it comes to my CP rotations. And I’m slowly but surely attempting to get there.

I also believe that the American Board of Pathology (ABP) who writes our board exams, and even the American Society for Clinical Pathology (ASCP) who writes our resident in-service exam (RISE), have an equal responsibility to help us transform our culture. Pathology and diagnostics are changing at a rapid pace and both organizations need to be up-to-date and reflect this in how they construct our exams. We are (or are training to be) the diagnostics experts and we need to know not only certain facts but also understand the relevant concepts—and truly understand the importance of training ourselves to be life-long learners. If both organizations want to absolve themselves from culpability in maintaining a culture that silently endorses the use of remembrances, must not recycle old questions. Of course, this does not mean writing exams from scratch each and every year. And of course, I am not trying to belittle the efforts that these organizations do make every year on our behalf when they write these exams. I am only entreating them to make honest, focused, and deliberate efforts each year to re-examine the content of these exams and to retire those that may fall under the definition of a remembrance. We need to have these exams truly reflect the knowledge and critical thinking we need as a practicing pathologist—more case based multiple-step questions rather multiple-choice (which I’ve always called “multiple-guess”) might help.

So, fellow residents, figure out how you learn best–and in a nice and respectful way, convey your expectations to your teachers–ask questions, read more books and journal articles, step up and take more responsibility in your rotations for patient care and safety issues and don’t just do the minimum amount of work required.If you are so inclined, get more involved. Next week, I’ll talk about resident engagement in pathology organizations and my recent experience serving as the resident representative on ASCP’s Annual Meeting Steering Committee Education Working Group. I encourage all residents to at least take advantage of the FREE resident memberships from both ASCP and CAP (you get discounts on books, apply to serve on committees, etc).

And also, turn in abstracts to present at their annual meetings, both have their submission period open NOW!

CAP in Chicago, IL Sept 7-10, 2014

ASCP in Tampa. FL during Oct 8-11, 2014

 

Chung

Betty Chung, DO, MPH, MA is a second year resident physician at the University of Illinois Hospital and Health Sciences System in Chicago, IL.

Are We Cheating Ourselves Out of Our Competency?

Last October, I attended the CAP Residents Forum where I heard the President of the American Board of Pathology speak about the use of remembrances for boards studying and how it was considered cheating and a breach of the honor code. I was a bit surprised when we took a live vote via text that the majority of residents felt that the use of remembrances was not cheating. But this all goes back to the medical school culture (and maybe even before that) in which we were trained.

During my 1st year of medical school, I remember feeling that it was inequitable that some students got old exams from their assigned 2nd year “big siblings” and that others got nothing. So I did something to neutralize the playing field – before every test, I scanned the old exams I had and emailed them to the class listserv. For the few exams that I didn’t have an old exam, other classmates stepped up and scanned and emailed them out. And so we built a culture of sharing. I was very proud that my classmates did not put having a personal advantage over the concept of equity.

But unexpected and unintentional shenanigans ensued. Once a classmate emailed out what was thought to be an old exam but was later found to be a “stolen” exam as that professor purposely did not give back his exams. This required our waiting while he re-wrote parts of the exam as this was discovered only on the morning of our actual exam. And during my 1st year of PhD (I was initially DO/PhD), when my original classmates were in the midst of their 3rd year rotations, a classmate emailed some study materials they had obtained from a friend at another DO school that unbeknownst to them were remembrances from previous NBOME shelf exams.

Eventually as the year went on, my classmates began to realize that what they had were remembrances and one classmate actually stepped up and turned them into one of our deans. Since I was no longer in this class, I only heard after the fact, but our dean had called the NBOME to warn them to retire the questions in these remembrances and had also called the school from which they originated to let them know what their students had done. At that time, I was not very invested in what was unfolding as I was in the graduate school portion of my dual degree program. But I do understand the fear of others having advantages that you may not and having that thought cloud one’s thinking.

These memories flooded back into my mind as I listened to this talk at the Residents Forum and voted. I didn’t realize it then when I watched from the sidelines but do now, that the use of remembrances—whether it is considered cheating or not—is in fact cheating oneself. A Machiavellian “ends justify the means” mentality is often used to justify such actions. But in the end, what have we truly accomplished? Yes, maybe passing our boards. But what happens when we become practicing pathologists if we didn’t understand what it was that we so diligently memorized off of remembrances?

It may be slower and more difficult, but I’ve pledged to myself that I won’t take the easy road, no matter how tempting it may be (I admit I’m just as vulnerable to temptation as everyone else). I tell my M2 students when I TA their pathology small group discussion lab that if they don’t know even one word when they are reading to learn a concept…to stop immediately and look it up, even if it just means to Google. And I’ve tried to practice this as well. I still may not pick up on surgical pathology concepts (especially grossing) as quickly as I do clinical pathology concepts, but I have noticed a difference. Concepts seem to stick better in my aging brain because I have shifted how I focus my efforts. I try not to waste as much time on worrying (but I still sometimes do) that others may have an advantage over me because that is wasted effort.

Gaining competency means to take ownership and responsibility for one’s learning. Figure out how you learn best and make a plan to do it. And if you fail, keep trying until you make it. Really try to understand the mechanisms and not just memorize minutiae or facts. I find that I can figure out the answers this way if I had a solid foundation. And don’t take too many shortcuts, which invariably, remembrances may turn out to be. But I’d like to hear your take on the topic…is the use of remembrances cheating or not? And do you think that using remembrances cheats you out of obtaining competency as fast and as well as you might have gotten there without them?

 

Chung

Betty Chung, DO, MPH, MA is a second year resident physician at the University of Illinois Hospital and Health Sciences System in Chicago, IL.

What Does Competency Mean and Does it Really Matter?

Instead of having to deal with the sub-zero cold weather in Chicago (where my car doors froze earlier in the week and I had to tug on them for over half an hour to get into the backseat of my car to turn on the heat), I was fortunate last weekend to be in the sunny and warm wine countryof Temecula (near San Diego). I was there for a CAP Council on Education meeting where I served as their junior (resident) member. Due to confidentiality agreements, I can’t divulge specific details, but it did get me to thinking about what “true competency” means and what we need to do to obtain and maintain it after we graduate.

Residency is a transition for many (especially if you didn’t take time off to work before continuing your higher education) between two different mentalities: that of school versus employment. Ideally, there shouldn’t be a large difference between how we approach school and our job but that’s not always how it goes. In medical school, if we didn’t continually study, it was just our grade that would suffer and we could study harder for the next test to average out to a decent grade. But with residency, which is now my job, when I don’t apply myself to learn everyday (and I can’t say that I’ve perfected this yet but I keep trying), it’s really my patients, and possibly future patients, who suffer the consequences.

Pathology is the “end game.” We are the regulator of most diagnostics (both on the CP and AP sides) that other physicians use to make treatment and prognostic decisions.And so, we need to train now and develop a trainee culture that nurtures life-long learning (and truly mean more than just lip-service). We need to allow residents to participate in true “practice-based” learning (not just passive learning) and to feel the punitive consequences if we ignore our responsibilities or are incompetent. I believe in second, and even third, chances. I believe that our residency programs should remediate residents who are not where they should be in a non-threatening manner. But I do also believe that there is a minimum bar that we all need to meet within a specified time frame.

I believe that we need to be good representatives of our respective programs as graduates, and more importantly, “competent” pathologists who do not hurt our patients due to lack of important knowledge that we should possess – and of course, it’d be nice not to have to worry about malpractice issues as well. Developing this mentality starts during residency – where we should study a little everyday in order to perform as much as we can– and where we can take feedback from our attendings and work to improve our areas of deficiency while we have them around to guide us.

Some pathologists on forums that I’ve visited decry maintenance of certification (MOC) and the continuing medical education (CME) and/or self-assessment modules (SAM) as money-making measures for the organizations who put together CME/SAM material. This weekend, I learned what these and many other acronyms mean. I can see their point since it often costs money to obtain CME/SAM; also, physicians do not want to think of having to take tests once they graduate med school. However, I do think that in a rapidly changing field such as pathology, not being up-to-date may have detrimental effects on patient care, so CME/SAM are necessary. We can’t always expect that everyone in our profession will be motivated to be up-to-date without some sort of “carrot stick.” It’s sad but true. So my main point, fellow residents, is that we should develop good habits now that encourage life-long learning and an attitude that shows that we put our patients first…and we’ll probably find that without even realizing it, we have worked toward gaining competency in our profession. So what do you think about the need for CME/SAM and MOC every 10 years? There’s no “grandfathering in” for any of us, so we will have to deal with this. But do you think that this is the way to go to help our maintain competency once we’ve achieved it?

Chung

Betty Chung, DO, MPH, MA is a second year resident physician at the University of Illinois Hospital and Health Sciences System in Chicago, IL.

Hacking Pathology Residency Training

As we celebrate the Christmas season and gear up for 2014, I’ve been thinking about resolutions and things in my life that warrant change. And since I was able to go home this year for Christmas break, I’ve had some time to do something that I enjoy but haven’t been able to do in a while – watch TED videos. I recently watched this one given by a 13-year old about hackschooling at TedxUniversity of Nevada. Makes me wish I had done some when I was younger (my first aspiration was to be an artist) but of course, I was raised in a traditional Asian household that revered education and practicality (“you can do drawing as a hobby but you should be a doctor”). Don’t get me wrong, I do not blame my parents and now at this point in my life, it is my choices that will determine my future and happiness.

And so I’ve been thinking about my education, both personally and professionally. In terms of nurturing my creative side, I realize that I need to set aside some “me time” where I engage in my previous interests (though probably not during PGY-2). And for my social justice/service side, I know that I will eventually return to my community activities when I can consistently have time to give, although I still watch from the sidelines and contribute when I can. But in terms of my chosen profession, I often wonder if there is a way to “hack” our residency training to make it both more creative and effective and to be proactive rather than reactive?

Tying together some themes I have previously blogged about (competency evaluation and transforming our profession), I’d like to address some issues I see. Pathologists need to be more engaged, both within the system and within society or be left behind. With healthcare reform, gone will be the days when a physician can continue to practice the way s/he was trained – there will be a constant drive for life-long learning, both in terms of knowledge and utilization of new technologies, especially disruptive or exponential ones, than is present currently. I’m not going to argue for or against the finer points of the ACA or the recent cuts in pathology codes in the new physician fee schedule except to say that the landscape we residents will inherit will be vastly different than the one our attendings, or even we, now currently train.

But competency needs to be more than a checklist. We need to learn how to navigate and show our worth within the value-based systems where we will most likely work. First, of course, we need to learn our material well. We cannot interpret data, educate non-pathologists, or advocate for specific decisions if this foundation is lacking. But how do we residents take ownership and accomplish this in addition to the training we may or may not receive in our residencies? And how do we learn to be a patient advocate rather than just a reporter of results?

I will leave you these questions to ponder until my next blog where I will elaborate on some of my observations and ideas on this topic. For those of you who attended Eric Topol’s keynote at CAP ’13, I will leave you with similar talk by Dr. Daniel Kraft given at TedxMaastrict about 2.5 years earlier – http://www.ted.com/playlists/23/the_future_of_medicine.html– and hopefully, it’ll spark some ideas.

I hope everyone has a prosperous year in 2014!

 

Chung

Betty Chung, DO, MPH, MA is a second year resident physician at the University of Illinois Hospital and Health Sciences System in Chicago, IL.

Pathologist and Pathologist-in-Training Engagement as Patient Advocates

I’m used to being surrounded by people who are passionate about transforming systems. I’ve spent many years involved in organizing grassroots movements, health advocacy, and health equity campaigns in the minority and immigrant communities. And the year before I started residency, I studied for a masters degree in public health where I focused on these same issues,  along with more scientific training in molecular and infectious disease epidemiology. But as a resident, I have had to make some tough choices.

Even though I am back in Chicago where I attended college and first got involved working with minority and immigrant health issues, my community organizing, for now, will take a back seat to my education and service duties. And even though I sometimes reminisce about and miss the electrifying momentum involved in pushing toward such social change, I know that once I’m finished my training that I can return to contributing to these movements again on a more personal level. So I’m fine with the decisions I’ve had to make. We all have to make choices about what is most important at that specific time in our lives.

And so as a resident, I’ve focused my thoughts and efforts on how to create a movement within pathology to question our role on the clinical patient care team and to engage those in our profession to respond to this question – reasons why I got more involved with ASCP and CAP. With the gradual implementation of portions of the ACA since 2008 that is now moving into a more palpable phase, pathologists, tech staff, and residents have an opportunity to show our worth to the health care team. We have the opportunity to show that we are the experts in data interpretation and that in terms of more complicated testing such as flow cytometry, cytogenetics, or molecular tests, that the pathologist would be the best person to order the most appropriate tests.

No one knows better that we do what are the costs, indications, and limits of specific tests and despite what non-pathologists may think, we were trained just as they were in how to work up a patient and differential diagnosis. So who better to choose the right test for the right patient at the right time? I know that pathologists have the reputation of being not the most vocal or interactive doctors so how do we engage not just our leaders but also pathologists in general to take more ownership of patient care decisions and to speak up? How do we train our next generation to also see this as the big picture?

In grassroots organizing, strategy requires an understanding of the power dynamics and forces involved in decision making within the system one wants to change. So what drives pathologists and pathologists-in-training and how do we light a fire within our profession not to waste this opportunity that has been provided by health care reform to redefine our role within the patient care team? How do we nurture true patient advocates? I’ve been a little frustrated with these thoughts lately so please leave a comment with suggestions on how you think that we can accomplish these goals.

 

Chung

Betty Chung, DO, MPH, MA is a second year resident physician at the University of Illinois Hospital and Health Sciences System in Chicago, IL.