Don't let your Crohn's win. Beat the Crohn's.

Sunday, October 23, 2016

Patient Turmoil: Trusting the Health Care System

Those that live with a chronic disease are often credited with surviving through symptoms, side effects of medications, and other health issues that come along with their illness. However, people rarely think of the stress that comes along with gaining the healthcare necessary to treat their disease and live a relatively normal life.

Many systems interact in a patient's treatment - the health care team who helps determine the best way to manage a disease, the pharmacy to fill prescriptions, and the insurance who will supposedly make all of this affordable. Even if a patient stays with the same businesses, this can get incredibly complicated if anything changes within these businesses or in the person's life.

In the past two weeks, I intimately learned the danger of systems that do not share information and may not always communicate enough to truly benefit the patient. Although I thought everything remained the same, several small changes almost necessitated hospitalization and brought forth the prospect of surgery.

Two weeks ago, I told Walgreens to refill my prescription for Ustekinumab as I always do prior to my injections (completed once every eight weeks). This started the beginning of my realization over the stress that comes from needing to trust that everyone in your team will do what's right. First, the pharmacy sent my prescription to the wrong pharmacy, but a phone call two days later fixed that. With my normal time-frame, this would not have been a problem. Three days passed; normally it takes two or less to fill my prescription through their specialty pharmacy. My husband and I spent over an hour on the phone on a Saturday to determine what was happening with my prescription.

By the end of our phone calls, we had no idea who had been paying for my medication for the last 9 months. The nurse on call at my new clinic said they could only help if my symptoms worsened to the point of needing hospitalization.

One week after I started the process, I had five days left to receive my prescription on time. I started again calling the pharmacy to determine why my prescription was rejected and asking the physician who wrote the script to talk with the insurance. At that point, we learned the insurance company required another prior authorization, although never told me I would need another so soon. We figured it could not take long since the insurance approved it at the beginning of the year. However, I learned the clinic was working with an insurance I told them to take off file in January. 

Throughout the rest of the week, my husband and I spent many hours on the phone trying to figure out what blocked me from receiving the treatment that has been the only medication to ever bring me into remission. From the clinic using my maiden name, to the pharmacy using my wrong insurance, to the insurance company saying they would pay for $1500 and leave the other $21,000 for me to pay, I thought my only option would be going to the hospital and potentially needing surgery depending on how bad my disease would become in the process.

Through all of this, I could tell certain people in each system were tired of my micromanagement. However, seeing all the mistakes made by each establishment, I no longer trusted that anyone knew what I needed or how to help me get what I needed. Every time I learned of a new mistake, my stress levels skyrocketed because I needed to contact the other systems to make sure they were not impacted by that mistake.

Thankfully, I found one person in each business who became my trusted advocate. I would only speak to that person and they kept me updated on their progress and dealt with my situation personally. They understood my distrust of the system and left messages while I attended class so I knew my situation was being handled appropriately. Without these people, I cannot imagine how my symptoms would have continued to progress and where I would even be today.

This situation exceptionally highlighted to me the trust that the health care system imposes on patients. Without a way to truly connect clinic, pharmacy, and insurance, and without a way for the patient to easily check on updates, the patient is at the mercy of people who are not personally connected to their case and may make small mistakes that have immeasurable consequences. Unfortunately, I see none of this changing until someone in power needs to deal with a situation similar to this, or until healthy people become cognizant of the constant struggles of those of us living with a chronic disease.

Until then, I implore those in any part of health care to have patience. Try to understand the constant worry and stress we have in trying to treat our disease. If we make a mistake or forget to tell you something, please remember that we have to work with everyone in our team which can include many places we need to update with insurance, medication, or personal changes. Beyond all of that, we are trying to lead normal lives while managing a chronic disease which probably causes daily strife that we must overcome. After a fight with one of my past physicians, he told me something I will never forget - he must try to remember that when he sees me, it's a normal workday for him; when I see him, I may be experiencing one of my worst days due to sickness. You may be stressed during your workday, but imagine needed to live with this every day and needing to interact with this health care system while trying to stay healthy.

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Healthcare System: The Added Woes to Patients

After 13 years of dealing with a chronic illnesses, what surprises me most is that I'm still surprised at how the healthcare system manages (or doesn't manage) patients. With a year of medical school stuffed into my brain and a summer filled with strange, new symptoms, I find myself marveling over how our society deals with someone with a chronic disease.

First off, I have so much respect for people who enter healthcare for the right reasons and truly devote themselves to helping others. If you are one of those people, please know you have my deepest gratitude; you make more of a difference than you can possibly know.

For those whose job is purely a job, I only ask for more patience and perhaps a touch of empathy. For some employees, dealing with patients is an 8-5 weekday job with vacation and holidays. 

I don't receive a break from my disease. It is with me 24/7 regardless of my plans or vacations. My illness does not slow down when I have an exam coming up nor does it clock out when I travel. When I call, even if my issues deal more with quality of life, I really do need help. I am not trying to make your day harder. When I become frustrated on the phone, do not think that I enjoy the conversation any more than you do.

We say that our system tries to focus more on the needs of the patient, but this entirely depends on the clinic and individual healthcare professional. I know people may scoff and wonder what the big deal is. However, when trying to stretch every dollar and having an insurance that will only cover one specialist appointment each year, that one appointment means more than you can imagine. If you use your one appointment on a physician who has different beliefs on symptoms a patient should deal with, then that's it. No do-overs and you have another year of very uncomfortable and painful symptoms until you can try out another physician and hope that this year will not also be a waste.

As a patient, I find how different physicians code appointments for billing fascinating. I know doctors who bill for everything regardless of what the insurance will cover. Other physicians learn what insurances will cover and if it is something small, will not write down a small portion of the exam in order to save their patients some money. When I keep calling about symptoms and seeing if I can put off an appointment, I'm not trying to make your life difficult. I don't have endless income to afford several appointments and tests. Treating me as though I'm looking for free healthcare only makes me feel guilty about being sick.

What astounds me most during this time, is that physicians still exist who believe they have the right to tell patients to just deal with symptoms. After my fortune of dealing with several amazing healthcare professionals, I cannot stand a doctor who thinks they know more about my disease, my life, and how those two interact. I lived with this illness and my symptoms for much longer than any professional has learned about the disease in general, with much less time to learn about my particular illness.

In this past year, I learned that much more reform is necessary for patients to truly receive the care that we deserve as human beings. We are not cases from a textbook. We are not idiotic people who know nothing about our disease. We are more than a job.

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

The Power of One Doctor

As I make my way through medical school, I naturally look back to my own experiences. Due to recent health circumstances, I realize the immense impact of a single physician on a person's outlook on the medical profession and on their health.

In my own experience, three types of physicians exist. The ones who help you thrive, the ones you forget about, and the ones who make you worry every time you come into contact with the medical community.

My first GI doctor was the first. She challenged me to take control of my disease and to advocate for myself. During the two weeks following my diagnosis, she called me over her lunch break as the "poop patrol" to ask about my bowel movements (color, consistency, etc.), my symptoms, and what I ate. She then asked me to piece together as to how my lifestyle could affect my symptoms. Although I was 10, she forced me to quickly mature and to learn to listen to my body. Every appointment, she told me the same thing, and I will always remember it.

Although she was the one with the medical degree, she could never understand my personal disease. She told me she could only help me as much as I helped her to know what was going on in my body. No test or person could tell me what I was feeling or about the state of my health.

Every appointment she asked about my thoughts about my disease. She asked about my symptoms and what I wanted done. It didn't matter what the tests showed; she said they were a piece of the puzzle, but no where near as important as how I felt.

This physician taught me to trust in myself and my body. She taught me to understand what my body told me and how to figure out what triggered symptoms and how to try to avoid those triggers.

For several years, I had a doctor who was the last of the three described types. When I came to him, I was experiencing the most intense symptoms of my life. After going through clinical studies and finally having 25 centimeters of my intestines removed, we thought I was in the clear for awhile.

However, within a few months, symptoms reappeared in full force. My physician never thought much of my worries. It was only through determined insistence that he would alter medications. When one medicine gave me full-body, medicinally-induced psoriasis, his only response was that he hoped I could handle it and gave me a prescription for anti-itch cream.

I took it upon myself to fix my disease. My physician was no longer a team player, so I educated myself as best I could. I attended conferences, spoke with doctors from around the country, and ended up learning about many different alternative medicines. I saved myself with the help of many other medical professionals, but not with that doctor's help.

About a year later, symptoms picked up and I spoke about my worries every appointment (I was on a clinical study and had monthly appointments/injections). After nine months of begging for something to be done, my physician finally said he would do something. At that point, however, any trust we had was gone. During those nine months, he told me my symptoms weren't that bad and he thought I could live with them. He thought that maybe they were in my head and several times suggested a consult with pain management because he thought my body was trained to always think I was in pain. With him as my physician, I constantly doubted myself and my body. I would leave for my drive back to school crying because I didn't know if my doctor was a jerk or if I had a psychological problem.

I switched to a new physician at the clinic who looked at my records and couldn't believe how long this had been going on. Two tests later, and we found a treatment. Those nine months didn't have to occur and none of it was in my head, but it continues to affect my healthcare.

Now, when I feel ill, the first thing I tell my fiance when he says I should call my doctor is my worry that the doctor won't believe me. I don't want the physician to think I make up stories for attention. All of the work my first physician put into me to trust my body and my symptoms was washed away by one physician who couldn't be bothered to take the time to really listen to me. Rather than talk to the physician when I'm sick, I take it upon myself to try to lessen my symptoms because I don't believe a GI will help me.

I hope patients don't allow one physician to compromise their health. We need to advocate for ourselves and I learned my lesson about getting a new physician as soon as the relationship turns sour.
For future physicians, I hope you learn the humility of realizing the patient knows more about their disease than you ever could. I hope you take the time to really listen to your patients and to help them thrive.
The relationship between a patient and physician is so critical to a patient's entire well-being. I hope that future changes in the culture of medical care allows for patient experiences to matter and to inform the doctor just as much, if not more, than the actual tests.

Friday, January 15, 2016

Learning to Say No: How I manage medical school with an autoimmune disease

Let's be honest. Most people accepted to medical school are over-achievers. Not only academically inclined, they tend to be over-involved in volunteer work, leadership positions and often have TA'ed for a pre-med course or two. Pre-med students are the first to volunteer and the last to leave.

Once I found my footing in college, I became that student. I worked 15 hours a week, volunteered 10+ hours a week, worked on independent projects and carved a name for myself among the faculty. Naively, I thought medical school would be the same. Through strict lifestyle choices, I would continue to excel in every aspect while still enjoying life.

When classes began in August, I thought for sure I would be enjoying a full plate of activities by mid-September. However, tragedy struck my family at the end of August and I needed to deal with the grief of losing my brother.

As the semester continued, I kept wondering where my time went. If I was going to continue to be active in extra-curriculars, I needed to find the time to participate. After each block of exams, I told myself I would find the time in the next block. However, each exam brought on a mini-flare and I would take time afterwards to relax and bring my body back to a healthy state.

Professors and physicians continuously tell me they hope I can overcome the challenge of having a chronic disease during medical school. I didn't understand that until recently. Although I want to be heavily involved in other activities other than academics, I need realistic expectations about what my body will allow me to do. The most important part of being a doctor is learning the information that will allow me to help my patients. My experience with Crohn's disease already taught me more than any person can about interactions with patients. Right now, I need to focus on staying healthy, and doing the best I can academically.

As much as I hate to admit it, I need to say no to many more things than I can say yes to. Thankfully, I found my way into working with the CCFA on projects and another student excited to start a young adult support group. This way, I can be involved with helping others, while still finding the support I need to overcome my disease.

In a disease that is so dependent on low stress levels, I've learned to truly plan my time and understand my capabilities. Although I'm not as involved as many of my classmates outside of school activities, I have as much on my plate as my body can handle. And I'm okay with that.

Once, I thought I would be spending these four years taking Madison by storm. Now, I'm excited to continue to learn about the human body and how to make it well, along with continuing to fight for my own health. I will survive and I will become the best physician I possibly can.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Status: Lab Rat

I have learned many disturbing things about our medical system as a lab rat.

Currently, I'm on my second clinical study; when no other options exist, clinical trials can feel like a godsend, especially if the medication works.

No one tells you what it's like to be on a study when you need more help than purely receiving the drug. After finishing my undergraduate career, I will move to another state. Months ago, I asked the nurse on the clinical study about switching to a closer clinic. Her original response was that it wasn't possible. Thankfully, my boyfriend said that you can usually transition and I pushed. Finally, she gave me a website and told me I needed to look up whether the clinical study was offered near my medical school. I was flabbergasted. As a health care professional, was it not her job to help me? I called a nurse I trust, and she helped me locate other sites.

The clinical study nurse then checked into that site and told me I was unable to participate in a clinical study there. She said I could continue going to the same clinic I've attended - four hours away from my medical school. For monthly visits in which I would need to miss class, this option seemed unacceptable. She said I could call the insurance company and see if they would cover this experimental drug - I have now been talking with the insurance company for over an hour, and still have no answer.

To many people, this situation may seem reasonable. The nurse has done her job and now it's time to do my part. I don't know how to fully explain how difficult this situation is. After 10 years of never achieving remission, I have now been on a drug for over 2 years that, for the most part, keeps me out of the ER and reasonably healthy. However, that doesn't matter to the clinical study. I understand that data collection is important for the scientific process, but that doesn't make my life any easier. At what point are patients treated as people who deserve health just as much as anyone else? The coordinator has treated me as an expendable lab rat that has completed her time.

Even if I can convince the insurance company to help pay for this drug, I have no idea what dosage I'm on, or even how often I receive this drug. And although I will have to go off the clinical study, they will not release any of my personal information to me to help the transition. I will need to start from scratch with 2 possible dosages and 2 possible time frames. They will put me on the low dosage to start, but who knows if that will work. The danger of going off-label is that some people start a flare-up, become sick, and then potentially the drug stops working.

This system holds no compassion for patients. When I've spoken with people who work on the study and insurance companies and mention the importance of staying on a medication and dose that works for me, they don't even apologize. Their response is, "Oh well, we can't do anything for you."

I don't feel as though my health is important to these people - I know it's not them in particular; they're just doing their job. We have a broken system that doesn't help the people who truly need it.

As a lab rat, I've learned that science, over health and all else, is most important.

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

I Can

Recently, a friend told me her theory that people age themselves by telling themselves they're too old to do something. Rather than enjoying life, people let their age define them.

"I can't"

This seems like a simple phrase, but it has the power to stop a person in life. Many of us fall victim to these two words. For the last year, I have let Crohn's use these words to define my life. 
In November 2013, I reached my first non-surgically induced remission. I ate healthy and exercised every day. I never felt so alive. Then, a study abroad program (which I'll never regret), caused my disease to spiral out of control. As symptoms worsened, I allowed myself to eat whatever I wanted (telling myself that anything would make me sick). As the binge-fest continued, I became more fatigued and symptomatic; the summer of 2014, I rarely worked out.
The fall of 2014 became the worst time for me. At 21, I needed to wear adult diapers. I never exercised. I had pain all the time. I told myself I couldn't work out. I couldn't eat healthy because it wouldn't help.
Then, I switched physicians and my new medical team helped me find a new treatment plan. By January 2015, I started to feel better. However, months later, I'm still trying to find the perfect treatment plan, causing me to still have regular symptoms.
Although I've felt better these last few months, I've let "I can't" rule my life. I can't run as fast or far as I used to - I'm easily fatigued. I can't lift as much as I used to. I didn't want to do anything because I knew I couldn't participate in activities for the same length of time, or at the same intensity.
Then, I thought about what it meant to age oneself. By telling myself I couldn't, I didn't go to the gym. Obviously I wouldn't become stronger by sitting around in my dorm room.

"I can"

The start of this attitude has helped give back so much of my life. Rather than saying how much I can't do in an exercise, I tell myself what I can do. I can go outside and run until I'm tired. I can try higher weight sets. I can try.
With this attitude, and the help of family and friends, I can slowly feel my strength returning. I have set many new goals and stopped looking at what I used to accomplish. I have more important goals for my future that only present me can start achieving.

Friday, November 14, 2014

Health Discrimination

"If we wish to avoid being numbered amongst the oppressors, we must be prepared to rethink even our most fundamental attitudes" (Peter Singer "All Animals are Equal").

Some people argue that feminism is the last discrimination left for us to conquer. However, as Singer points out in his paper, we should never feel comfortable saying no forms of inequality still exist. In my Biomedical Ethics course, I realized there is a very real discrimination against those that live with a disease. I doubt this occurs intentionally; rather, people are ignorant that certain issues for which they argue display an underlying belief in the inequality between the healthy and those with an illness.

In the future, genetic selection can become a possibility for those considering to have a child. In this, doctors would create several viable embryos. At the eight cell stage, physicians study the genetic make-up of one cell. Then, a genetic map shows parents the risks of each potential child for developing  various diseases, or other superficial qualities such as eye color. Parents may choose which child comes into existence.

Some philosophers argue that this technology brings an obligation to the parents to genetically select all their children. "Couples who decide to have a child have a significant moral reason to select the child who, given his or her genetic endowment, can be expected to enjoy the most well-being" (Savulescu and Kahane "Procreative Beneficence). In a debate on this topic, Savulescu argues that society would overall experience less suffering in the world should less illness exist.

Without a further look, this reasoning seems to make obvious sense. However, one must remember that this argument is to genetically select people before they come into the world. Imagine someone inserting race, gender, religion, etc. into this reasoning. Overall, males enjoy a better quality of life, therefore we should genetically select only for that gender. Society would then experience a decrease in suffering. Intuitively, we know this reasoning does not add up. I challenge you to see similar discriminatory qualities in the argument when you replace gender with health qualities. By selecting against specific illnesses, parents boldly state that people living with that disease are not worthwhile and do not wish to bring another person with that illness into the world.

A non-identity problem also occurs. An advocate for disability and disease, Elizabeth Barnes, writes, "Why choose negative selection? It can't be to prevent local harms, because it only makes sense to prevent local harms to a specific individual. But there is no individual that you are preventing harm to" (Barnes "Disbility, Minority, and Difference"). Take into consideration, genetic selection does not increase overall quality of life for any person (perhaps the parents, but I think it is unfair to discriminate so the parents can have less medical bills). Selection does take child x with disease x and then give you child x without the disease. Rather, parents choose to bring child y into the world. Implicitly, the parents have chosen child y because they believed child x with disease x would not have as good of a life. We can see that no benefit occurs to child x because child x does not exist. As well, child y does not benefit because child y had no disease in the beginning.

We run into many issues at this point. Savulescu's argument stated that parents should genetically select for healthy children because they would experience better lives. However, we see that no one experiences an overall better life. Some argue that the better life occurs throughout society. They say the world would experience less suffering, so genetic selection would ultimately benefit everyone.

I hope everyone can see the problem here. This states that by not having people exist that have an illness, the world would overall be better. People that believe genetic selection would decrease suffering wish those with illnesses out of existence. Child y makes the world better than child x. Most of us know at least one person managing an illness that is an inspiration to us or even to a large population of people. Could you imagine had genetic selection been possible centuries ago and we selected out the people who we assumed to have "less good" lives? Abraham Lincoln who was believed to have depression, Isaac Newton who is thought to have some form of autism, and many people that we admire today that manage illness. I think most people would agree that society would not have been better should these people not exist.

Savulescu states we should select children with the best possibility for a good life. Although this author argues we do not know enough about genetics to make this decision, people exist today that think selecting against illness(es) will better the lives of their children. This belief shows deep ignorance on the effects that illness has on one's life and is deeply insulting to those that manage a disease. Having a disease does not increase overall suffering in the world. Rather than taking measures to stop people with illness from existing, the medical field should focus efforts on cures for diseases. Then, child x can exist without disease x.

We can only stop discrimination by educating those that do not understand how their beliefs are offensive or show an inequality between people. If you, or someone you know, lives with a disease, spread the word that the world is better because we exist!