Police and Pediatrics

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As many of you know, I took a 6-month hiatus from my blog last year to write and edit a piece on policing and pediatrics. I am excited to finally share my work entitled Police, Equity, and Child Health, that was published in Pediatrics this month! AND because this is a topic of public interest and concern, I’m also excited to announce the journal has agreed to allow free access to the piece online for the entire month of February! Check out the pdf version here and feel free to share your comments below. I can’t wait to hear what you all think!

For me, this issue is personal and writing and defending this piece for the past 6 months has been incredibly emotional. But it has also been one of the most rewarding experiences of my early career and I only hope to continue to push myself and my field to consider and engage issues that uniquely and disproportionately affect the health and well-being of children and people of color. To use a line from Black Lives Matters co-founder, Alicia Garza, at its best, this piece is a love letter, and I hope those who read it feel my deep love for my people and my people feel loved and cared for by me, and by proxy, by my profession.

I also want to publicly acknowledge and thank my mother, Avis Boyd, who reviewed every word, every line, and every intention of this piece. She is the backbone that kept this piece afloat when biting critique wore at my resolve. For this and everything, she is everything.

Last year, when Walter Scott died, I pleaded in exasperation, for my colleagues and my field to consider his death and the death of other young black folks an affront to our professional commitment to promote health. But it wasn’t enough. And although these words were powerful for me to write, they will not be enough either.

So I’ve also drafted a resolution to the American Academy of Pediatrics’ Annual Leadership Forum taking place this March, where the academy sets the agenda for child health for the coming year. The resolution is #71 The Impact of Adverse Police Exposures on Child Health and it urges the academy to both advocate for community and school policing policies that place children’s health first and to research and fully articulate the disproportionate impact children of color face from adverse police exposures.

If you are a pediatrician or a student member of the American Academy of Pediatrics, click here, to comment on and support this resolution, bringing the issue of policing and pediatrics across the country and helping the academy take an important step to better serve children and families of color.

If you live in the San Francisco Bay Area and are interested in joining a local coalition seeking to understand and address how police practices and policies can protect, promote, or harm health in our community, leave a comment and I’ll add you to our email list.

Happy Black Futures Month!

When Science Fails: The Promise and Limits of Precision Medicine

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For centuries, humans have used science to explain their world. From the principles that suspend the planets in orbit to the relational pull of predator and prey, we turn to science to both examine and rationalize the experience of life. But does our reliance on science have a limit, particularly in medicine, where the “why” of disease can often escape scientific explanation?

For example, historically, medicine has poorly understood why one person gets sick and another doesn’t, particularly for complicated illnesses like cancer, diabetes, or heart disease, where multiple factors contribute to risk. Similarly, it’s been difficult to pinpoint why one medication works well for one person but not another.

And in the case of social determinants of health, medicine has yet to chart the physiology of disadvantage. That means, while we know poor people tend to be sicker, we don’t fully understand how poverty and discrimination manifest physiologically to produce disease; although there are exciting theories about stress hormones and organ function.

And so the why has evaded us, until now.

In January 2015, President Obama invested $215 million in a national Precision Medicine Initiative to use what science knows about the human genome to personalize the way doctors diagnose and treat disease.

The idea is that by using a wide range of biomedical information — including molecular, genomic, cellular, clinical, behavioral, physiological, and environmental parameters, physicians and scientists will have new tools to understand disease and determine the treatments that work best for each individual’s illness and DNA.

With such a sizable investment from the Obama administration and the partnership of trusted institutions in the scientific community including the National Institutes of Health (NIH), National Cancer Institute, and the Food and Drug Administration, this Precision Medicine Initiative promises to improve the diagnostic strength and treatment success of modern medicine. The significance of that promise cannot be underestimated.

But as we turn to science to answer the elusive why, we have to be mindful of where science has failed in the past. This is to set reasonable expectations but also to avoid repeating past mistakes. So as we move forward, here are 2 things to keep in mind.

First, as we narrow our focus from the population to the individual, it may be easy to overlook the way certain diseases are disproportionately prevalent in certain communities. If we then, limit our evaluation to the individual, their DNA, and their illness, we may miss the aggregate data that compels us to also investigate disease at the community level, where local resources and public policy may profoundly shape disease patterns and prevalence. Which is to say, while some disease is best explained from the lens of a microscope, other disease is best appreciated with a panoramic view of the environmental conditions in which that disease persists.

Second, to capture enough data to understand the human genome, the NIH and its collaborators are aiming to enroll 1 million American volunteers in the Precision Medicine research cohort. But a study published in 2014 found that non-whites account for less than 5% of clinical trial participants. More specifically, of the 10,000 clinical trials reviewed in that data, only 150, or less than 2%, focused on a racial or ethnic minority population.

So, if the Precision Medicine cohort is anything like the clinical trial cohorts from the past, women, minorities, and the elderly may be underrepresented; not to mention undocumented “non-Americans” who are generally excluded from scientific research. That means, while some patients will receive care uniquely tailored to them, women, minorities, the elderly, and the undocumented, may get care that was studied, tested, and developed, mostly for young white men. So as we endeavor to improve our understanding of human biology and disease, we have to make demonstrated efforts to enroll those science has historically forgotten.

Probing the human genome for the answers to medicine’s greatest questions will almost certainly lead to innovations and improvements in the health of our population. But as with most innovations, without careful and thoughtful execution, the impact may be limited. In Precision Medicine, we risk continued exclusion of certain populations from the benefits of science. This is when science fails, when it is unable to capture the breadth and meaning of the human experience. So if Precision Medicine does not couple its inquiry into DNA and disease with an equally rigorous examination of the biologic imprint of social stress, poverty, and discrimination, we may be no why-ser, than when we started.

On Ferguson: A Call to Medicine

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There is little to say once you’ve said this before. Although the sadness brings fresh tears, they are also old tears. The grief becomes familiar and so too the inevitable resumption of everyday life. The pain bores to the soul but settles in the subconscious, where it rests, privately born and quietly hidden, lest frustration and bitterness mire the work we do – trying to forget, but ever-reminded. So although there is nothing new to say, perhaps there is something new to do.

Here, I am looking squarely at you, my fellow physicians. We, who deal in health and disease must think critically and act effectively to address the issues raised by the death of Michael Brown and those who came before him. We are the trusted public servants charged with protecting the populations in our care, to promote health and prevent and treat disease. But are not health and disease simply the crude boundaries of life and death? Then, how will we move to protect the lives of black and brown youth that are threatened by violence? How will we confront the reality that the #1 cause of death for black males aged 10-24 is homicide? What are we doing about the death rate for young black males that is the highest among all adolescents in America? Black male teenagers are 37% more likely to die than any of their peers. And according to the CDC, because these deaths are secondary to external injury, they are by definition, preventable.

So I will ask again, what are we doing about it?

Because, despite the vaccines given to ward off the threat of disease, and the medications prescribed to prevent seizures, kill cancer, and treat infections, black males may not make it out of adolescence alive if we don’t address the violence.

In preventative medicine, we talk about risk factors to identify patients who may suffer from an illness in the future, and prevent it, before suffering and/or death could ever occur. In oncology, we talk about getting to the diagnosis and treatment early, so that in cases where it makes a difference, everything that can be done, will be done. And yet, as black youth die in the streets because of where they live, and how they dress, and the volume at which they listen to their music, we are silent. We, as a collective field, say nothing and we do nothing.

Black lives matter because all lives matter and no one gets that more than we do. So as young black bodies line our streets without reason or recourse, we must start asking what that means for all of us. We must start changing the way we teach and practice medicine. Because if we fail to protect these youth, because we don’t understand their music, or we don’t like the way they dress, or we don’t feel comfortable with the way they speak – whatever the because – then we fail ALL of our youth. We fail to do service to the highest honor of our profession, to protect the lives we care for.

Now, this issue is complicated and deeply rooted in the legacy of discrimination that defines American history and continues to inform America’s present. And you may even avoid talking about it in your personal life, let alone your clinical practice. But your, or my, discomfort does not make it any less our responsibility.

So let’s start dealing with it. I’m talking about poverty. I’m talking about racism. I’m talking about structural inequality. I’m talking about the gender wage gap, the academic achievement gap, and the housing equity gap so wide whole generations fell in and got lost. It is time to engage these topics as legitimate and enduring parts of medical education, public health messaging, and clinical prevention strategy.

No excuses.

If you don’t have the faculty to teach this material, call upon our colleagues in the social sciences to share their expertise. If you don’t know how to address community violence, reach out to non-profits who have made this struggle their life’s work. And if you shy away from the institutional failings that underlie the policies that contribute to the disparities, then call on your local, state, and federal policy makers to change the law.

There is literally no time to waste. Every faceless, nameless brown child who drops dead in the streets could have and should have been prevented. Let this issue not settle in the subconscious recess of our field while children suffer. Because in the end, it is not about Ferguson, it is not about Michael Brown, it is not about the countless others who met a similar fate, it is about what we are doing to ensure that all lives matter, regardless of the color of that life’s skin.

What an Oreo can Ad to Medicine

OreoHow do you prepare for something that doesn’t exist?

In medicine, what tools will be required to build a better future for providers, patients, and the many advocates who work to make health realized?

Like our predecessors before us, embracing an unknown future will likely require solutions that are part rigorous methodology and part instinctual art. I am confident that the rigorous methodology that makes science unique among fields of scholarship will continue to advance discovery in health and disease management. But how can modern-day physicians and health advocates use the art of our practice to increase health literacy, connect the dots between health and society, and optimize our relationships with complementary fields?

When I saw the Oreo Super Bowl ad, I knew. This is what medicine should be doing. Not pushing sugar sweetened products, but utilizing moments to capture national attention around a singular idea – health.

For those of us interested in the exciting opportunities new technology offers the field of medicine, Oreo taught us that capturing national attention may be as simple as fostering thoughtful application of new media; media that for all said purposes, is free (although the thoughtful application part definitely requires a significant investment…more on that in future posts).

It is clear that consumers are now making decisions in the context of an online network of peers where they collectively share cultural experiences and discuss trending topics in news and popular media. This is an incredible opportunity to key into consumers who are looking for health information, information that data suggests some are using to make health decisions. Interacting with patients on their timetable, moderated by their thoughts and comments, and based on their personal priorities, allows medicine to have a greater impact beyond the confines of our offices and medical centers. And I’m not just talking about e-visits (although this is an interesting and potentially great idea), I’m talking about engaging a national audience in a conversation about health, identifying partners in this work, and aligning all of our interests to reach a common goal – health.

Part of preparation for any unknown outcome is recognizing opportunities to take steps in the right direction. New technology, like that promoted by incubators like Rock Health and thought leaders like Wendy Sue Swanson, MD and Bryan Vartabedian, MD, will definitely define the future of our field; a future that I hope is rooted in simplicity, transparency, and good old customer service.

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