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January 18th, 2021

Podcast 274: Preliminary Thoughts on the 2021 ASCO Gastrointestinal Cancer Conference

(16 votes, average: 2.19 out of 5)

Apologies for the long silence. We have been off doing other things — one of which has been figuring out how to cover conferences. Last month, after much preparation, we covered the American Society of Hematology (ASH) annual conference; our second foray consists of brief coverage of the American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO) gastrointestinal cancer symposium.

We present a brief, pre-conference chat in this edition. It was conducted just before the ASCO conference began, to get a sense of our guides’ expectations. Those guides — David Ilson, Ghassan Abou=Alfa, and Axel Grothey — are interviewed here and will be interviewed again at the end of the conference. The are expert, respectively, in cancers of the esophagus; stomach, liver, and pancreas; and the colon and rectum.

In forthcoming interviews, I will share several of the interviews done with hematologists for ASH. I hope you will find them as fascinating as I have.

Running time: 19 minutes

August 29th, 2020

Podcast 273: The journals and the pandemic — NEJM

(4 votes, average: 3.00 out of 5)

Eric Rubin is editor-in-chief of the New England Journal of Medicine.

I asked him how COVID-19 has affected that journal, which has been around since the War of 1812 and seen its share of pandemics.

Listen in — it’s the first in a planned series of interviews with the editors of the principal clinical journals.

Running time: 19 minutes

NEJM’s Covid-19 resources page


Joe Elia: Welcome to Clinical Conversations. I’m your host, Joe Elia.

Dr. Eric Rubin, a specialist in infectious diseases, took over the reins of the New England Journal of Medicine as its editor-in-chief about a year ago. He had just enough time to settle in before — you know — the biggest pandemic in a century arrived.

He’s kindly agreed to take part in what’s planned as a conversational survey of the editors of the principal medical journals about their takes on COVID-19. These chats won’t focus so much on the clinical science of the pandemic as much as its broader effects.

In addition to editing the Journal, Dr. Rubin is an associate physician at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and a professor in the Department of Immunology and Infectious Diseases at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

Welcome to Clinical Conversations, Dr. Rubin.

Eric Rubin:: Thanks, Joe.

Joe Elia: These have been strange times for medical journals, haven’t they?

Eric Rubin::They sure have. I don’t have much of a basis for comparison, but as far as I can tell, this is pretty unusual.

Joe Elia: Yeah. I mean how is the journal doing? You’re all working in isolation? You’re not up in the top of the Countway Library on Shattuck Street, these days, are you?

Eric Rubin:: Yeah. That’s right. We’re all shut down, although I must say it’s worked out pretty well to have people working from home. I suspect that, like a lot of businesses, we’re going to find that we don’t have all that many people in the office when we finally do get back.

Joe Elia: I remember from years ago the kind of bustling newsroom feeling at the journal offices, and you would have these conversations in the corridor, like oh, you know, “This thing just came in, you should take a look at it,” but you really can’t do that over Zoom so readily, can you?

Eric Rubin:: Yeah, I think that’s right. It’s not as if we haven’t lost something.

Joe Elia: Yeah.

Eric Rubin:: It’s so much easier for people to walk in and out of each other’s offices with questions or ideas or “Here’s just something cool,” so we miss that, and I’m hoping that we recapture that, but on the other hand, there’s a lot of just get the work done stuff that people can do very efficiently at home, much more efficiently.

Joe Elia: Yeah. Yeah. When I was there, people would say, well, you know, “How often does the journal come out?” And I would say “Every damned week.” It’s relentless.

Eric Rubin:: That’s right. It’s kind of relentless.

Joe Elia: Yes. So, have you been inundated with research reports?

Eric Rubin: We have. I will say it’s gotten a lot better, but at its peak, we were getting more than 200 manuscripts a day, 7 days a week, for a while, just on COVID-19, on top of really a pretty normal volume otherwise.

Joe Elia: Yeah, my gosh. So, electronics have helped you distribute that workload, I guess, but that’s a lot of reviewers to find.

Eric Rubin: It is. We have to filter, before we send out for review, pretty severely, and finding reviewers is also problematic because the reviewers that we want to use are also quite busy. They’re the people taking care of the patients with COVID or setting the policy.

So, people, I think the reviewers have been very generous, but it did mean that we took a rather severe cut when things came in, thinking, you know, “This just is not likely to make it, and the authors are better off going somewhere else, where they can get a real serious look.”

Joe Elia: Yeah. You know journals have often been called universities without walls, but now, a lot of information, especially biomedical information, is being swapped around on social media, but they are kind of universities without constraints. What’s your feeling about this — this kind of swapping of information that’s going on?

Eric Rubin: You know I have mixed feelings. On one hand, I like the fact that information is being democratized and anyone can see it and comment on it, and that’s certainly true of COVID-19, where we and many of our fellow journals are making everything available immediately for free access right away, immediately, so that everyone can read the same things that the experts are reading.

When I look at social media, though, there’s a real mix. There’s really learned commentary, and there’s real misinformation, and it can be hard, I think, for people to sort out what’s real from what’s not.

Joe Elia: Can journals then offer a kind of healthy skepticism and peer review? Is that what they can bring to the table?

Eric Rubin: I think for sure. There’s no question that we make a lot of changes in every manuscript that comes to us. We work together with the authors, but the final product generally looks a lot different from what was submitted and different from the preprint that’s been posted.

And some of those changes — a lot of them — are cosmetic. A lot of them are messaging questions, making them more understandable or more accessible or being very clear about what the investigators did, but a lot of them are substantial.

For example, it’s not unusual to change the conclusions of a manuscript and sometimes change them to the opposite of what the authors had said originally, and that’s a pretty big change, and it is.

So, I think we’re still playing a role in communications that is very important, and we do that, certainly, with the very big help of our peer reviewers.

Joe Elia: So, those changes, Eric, are made with the — of course — with the consent of the authors. I mean they’re not just made and published. I just want our listeners to understand that.

Eric Rubin: Absolutely. This is a collaboration with our authors.

Joe Elia: Yeah.

Eric Rubin: When we accept a paper, we’re a little bit different from many scientific journals. We generally decide, after peer review, immediately, we’re going to take this or we’re not. It’s very unusual for us to send it back and say, “You know, if you did some more experiments, we’d reconsider.” Generally, we write a letter that says “We’d like to publish this, but as long as we can work with you to make the changes that we think are necessary,” and those are — can be — very extensive.

Joe Elia: This pandemic is an event that’s affecting culture, in some ways in the same way that the AIDS epidemic did, and by which I mean that, you know, human interactions and politics as much as creating an urge to solve the problem biomedically, but would you agree that the pandemic has become unusually politicized?

Eric Rubin: It is. It’s very strange but absolutely. I think the parallel that you point to with HIV is a good one, and back when HIV was in its heyday and treatments were not so good…not that HIV’s gone away. I don’t mean to suggest that.

Joe Elia: Right.

Eric Rubin: But back when there weren’t many therapies and there was a very strong advocacy movement, it was a very frustrating time, and that led — and people may not recall this — but that led to a lot of sort of crackpot theories that got propagated very widely in the community and were ascribed to by a lot of people, and that really undermined, I think, their confidence in the system.

Now, in the case of HIV, what brought confidence back was having effective therapies. It really was a technical fix. It wasn’t a political fix. Now, we’re in an even more difficult situation, I think, because our most effective means for controlling the virus are simple. They’re social engineering, in a way. They’re wearing masks and social distancing and all the standard sort of stuff, and yet we’re not really able to implement them, in the US at least, as widely as we should because of this politicization of the questions.

Joe Elia: You know Rudolf Virchow, back two centuries ago, said that medicine is a social science, and these simple, you know, measures that you mentioned are part of the social science — probably — that needs to be done.

Eric Rubin: Well, you know, and I think that goes back, again, back to HIV. I think it’s a really good point. In HIV, all we had originally were control measures, and those control measures meant people had to change their behavior in ways that they didn’t want to change, and it was very difficult. The uptake of that was difficult, very parallel to today, and what made the difference was actually not a social intervention but a technological fix, and I think, once again, we’ve come to rely on technology that we’re incredibly reliant, right now, on the idea that a vaccine will be successful.

Joe Elia: You know, speaking of HIV, when I was at the journal, a long time ago, at the Shattuck Street offices, we had a telephone call from Michael Gottlieb in Los Angeles in 1981, and I happened to be the senior person in the office at the time, I think Bud Relman was off on one of his trips, and he [Gottlieb] said, “Gee, I’ve got four cases of something, how soon can you publish an article?” and I said, “Well, you know, 3 to 5 months is what we’ve got.” So, I said “What is it?”

And he said, “Well, you know, it’s this kind of infectious thing that’s predominantly among gay men,” and I said “Do you think it’s a public health problem?” And he said, “I do,” and I said “Go to MMWR [Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (from the Centers for Disease Control)] and submit it there.” And he did.

And the next day, Bud Relman was back — the editor of the journal in those days — and he called Gottlieb and said, “Yeah, go to MMWR and we’ll publish the whole thing later.” And we did in, I think, December, like something like 6 or 8 months later, we published his article.

So, I mean, Randy Shilts and his book “And the Band Played On” says, “Oh, you know, Gottlieb went to the journal and the journal pooh-poohed it.” But it’s not true, but it makes it…

Eric Rubin: And the journal had the first report, I have to say, in a medical journal of HIV back then. Technology is better now so that we can publish things much more rapidly, and we can get them online instead of in print.

Joe Elia: Yeah.

Eric Rubin: Like we had to do back then but that it still requires people, and that is still the resource that’s most difficult for us. We put a lot of hours into every article, and we’re still putting in the same hours. They’re just compressed into a weekend.

Joe Elia: Yeah. Early in the pandemic, the journal published a letter about asymptomatic, or yes, presymptomatic transmission, for which it was…it got some criticism. Turns out that it was correct, that the letter was correct, but that.. You’re on the firing line, a lot, aren’t you, as the editor? You can be accused of saying, oh, you know, the journal is trying to be first, and it’s not always…that’s…

Eric Rubin: Yeah. I think that’s right, and I think we should be criticized when we make mistakes, and we should act to try to rectify those. In that case, we happened to be right, and we were vindicated by subsequent studies, but you know that was a case of politics as much as anything. That was a message that people didn’t want to hear and they were very resistant to at the time.

You know it’s no surprise that the biggest subsequent issues, in general, in medical journals have been about hydroxychloroquine, which has a very faithful following, and when anything gets published, we have a lot of people who object if it…and we would have people objecting on either side if the article suggested that it worked or it didn’t, and we’re also in the position, put in the position…we get a lot of people writing, saying “Why didn’t you do this?” We didn’t actually do the study, so it’s a little hard for us to…but they’ll criticize our characterization of the study as positive or negative, and I think we’re doing the best we can, and it’s very fair to second guess us. That’s part of the interchange, but it can get a little personal.

Joe Elia: So, when you think about your role, Dr. Rubin, do you see yourself as a teacher, a referee, a ringmaster? When you think about your audience, who is it?

Eric Rubin: Well, that’s a really good question. We like to think of our audience as clinicians, as people who are taking care of patients. The truth is that we publish a range of things, some of which are aimed at practicing clinicians and are very practical. They can be the videos in clinical medicine which show you how to intubate a patient or how to do any given procedure or the CPCs, the various clinical series we have where discussants develop a differential diagnosis and come up with management plans for patients. The research articles, we try to characterize, at least in summary, in ways that anyone, that any clinician could understand the message. Now, the truth is, we do have, and we have more and more of what I guess I’d call experimental medicine, which is something that’s not yet ready for primetime.

It can be phase I studies. It can be first-in-man studies, occasionally, of new drugs or new techniques, and I still think that’s important because a clinician can see what’s coming next, what do we have to look forward to? This may or may not be a breakthrough, but it could be, and we’d like to get those out to our audience.

Admittedly, some of what we publish is very technical and is aimed at a subspecialist or occasionally really a researcher community, but we’re trying to serve everybody to some extent. Our goal is to make a difference in how people are treated, and I think we try to think of the audience that matters for making that sort of impact.

Joe Elia: If you considered yourself a ringmaster, how do you get the lions and tigers to behave?

Eric Rubin: Well, so, I guess that requires a little description of the process we go through to make decisions on manuscripts. Essentially, all the editors sit in a room, at least until we shut down the office. Everyone shows up. There are 30 people in a room, and every manuscript that’s gone through peer review and has some chance of being accepted gets presented. Actually, it’s very old-fashioned. The editor who’s handling it Xeroxes all the figures, hands them around, and then presents the papers if it’s a journal club, and then there’s a very interesting discussion where the experts in the room or the people of opinions in the room, or of educated opinions in the room, will bring up any aspect of it, was the design correct, are the statistics correct?

We have several PhD professors of statistics sitting in the room. Was it ethical? Was there equipoise? Could you do this study? Almost any aspect of it gets discussed, and at the end, we make a decision. It is kind of a strange position to be in to be the final decision-maker because so many people in that room know more than I do, but it comes to a balancing act of what do we think people really need to know, and what’s going to move the needle? And I think that gets discussed all the time. In fact, one of the key questions that comes up repeatedly is, “If we publish this, is it going to help or hurt patients? Are people going to take this incorrectly and potentially do harm, or is this really going to make a difference?” And if it’s really going to make a difference, we’ll definitely publish it. So, it’s a fascinating process. You know it’s the world’s best journal club.

Joe Elia: Well, I want to thank you, so much, Dr. Rubin, for speaking with me today.

Eric Rubin: Thanks, Joe.

Joe Elia: That was our 273rd episode. We come to you from the NEJM group. Our executive producer is Kristin Kelly, and I’m Joe Elia. Thanks for listening.

August 7th, 2020

Podcast 272: And now for something completely different… almost

(6 votes, average: 5.00 out of 5)

Dr. Paul Sax writes the closest thing that the NEJM Group has to humor. He’s serious, of course, since his blog “HIV and ID Observations” concerns all things infectious . But he sprinkles in the odd cartoon or links to … dog videos, fer cryin’ out loud.

He scours the ID literature (and we must include the social-media literature in that category) for interesting stuff to write about, seems to have a knack for summarizing whole conferences in 750 words, and often manages to give his readers a reason to smile in these fretful times.

We decided to catch up with him and ask him about his inspirations and for his advice. He doesn’t disappoint.

Running time: 10 minutes

Paul Sax’s latest “HIV and ID Observations” blog: “Carbapenems and Pseudomonas, Lyme and Syphilis Testing, a Bonus Point for Doxycycline, and Some Other ID Stuff We’ve Been Talking About on Rounds”


Joe Elia: This is Clinical Conversations. I’m your host, Joe Elia. The current pandemic is leaving its mark all over the place, and one obvious area is in medical research. Clinicians are often hearing about new findings on their car radios on the way home or on social media. The credibility of that information is key.

Our guest, this time, is Dr. Paul Sax. He’s a contributing editor on NEJM Journal Watch Infectious Diseases, Clinical Director of the HIV Program, and Division of Infectious Diseases at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, and also a Professor of Medicine at Harvard Medical School.

Globally, he’s probably best known for his lively blog, “HIV and ID Observations,” which he posts almost every week on the NEJM Journal Watch site.

Welcome, Paul.

Dr. Paul Sax: Thanks, Joe, for inviting me.

Joe Elia: I’ve been reading your most recent blogs, which I’ll remind listeners are all available at One of the most recent is titled “Reaching Out to Infectious Disease Doctors in COVID-19 Hotspots: You must be truly exhausted.”

I get the sense that you’re talking more to working clinicians than policy makers or professors like yourself. Whom do you imagine is reading your observations?

Dr. Paul Sax: Well, I actually meant it for the entire infectious disease community. Kind of, if you think back a million years ago, to March 2020, we were starting to hear about this terrible thing that was coming our way. We all knew it was coming, but we didn’t know exactly when it was going to happen, and then it happened at different times in different parts of the country. So, while we were preparing here in Boston, and New York City was getting slammed, other parts of the United States were preparing, too, but they didn’t get hit the way we did in the Northeast.

So, you know, I have colleagues in Alabama and Atlanta and Florida and Texas and Arizona, and you know, things were pretty quiet there. They did have occasional cases, and what happened was that, unlike here, where we really got hit hard (and we fortunately, at least for now, knock wood, things are very quiet, for them,) they had a period of relative quiet and then, a large number of cases. So, they’ve had to sustain this intense involvement with COVID-19 response right from the beginning. Very tough.

Joe Elia: Yeah. You’ve been at this for just over 12 years, with the stated purpose, and I’ll quote, “Commenting on interesting HIV, infectious diseases, and other medical and not-so-medical news.”

Is that still your purpose and what has the reaction been over the 12 years?

Dr. Paul Sax: Well, it’s been really gratifying — and gratifying in a way that I never could have imagined. You know, I’ve always kind of imagined myself someday becoming a writer. I’m a frustrated comedy writer. Never quite made it to Hollywood, but I went to medical school and I went into this fascinating field, and I thought, you know, “Why not write about infectious diseases?” And I’ll tell you, my inspiration for the format really were some of the great blogging in the early 2000s, mid-2000s, where writing just exploded on the internet and I thought, “Wow, all this great writing available for free. Let me try my hand at it,” and I’ve got to thank Matt O’Rourke at NEJM Journal Watch for giving me the opportunity to do it.

Joe Elia: Well, in the not-so-medical department, you’ve been known to sprinkle in cartoons and lately, dog videos: “Olive and Mabel,” two Labradors. I’ll just say it’s British genius comedy, but what’s that got to do with infectious diseases, Paul?

Dr. Paul Sax: Well, you know, there’s this strategy that every infectious disease doctor does when you’re talking to patients — is you ask them about their exposures, and one of the ways we ask about exposures is you ask about pets, and of course, I wouldn’t probably be so fixated on the dog videos if I didn’t have a dog myself, which I truly love, but there is this sort of funny aspect of infectious diseases where you ask someone about their pet, and then they look at you like, are you out of your mind.

I remember one unfortunate person who had a motorcycle accident and we got to the point where we were asking about pets and he then acknowledged that, yes, he did have a new parakeet, and then our infectious disease fellow I was working with said, “What’s your parakeet’s name?” And he told us: Fruit Loop. And I thought, that’s a very funny name. Of course, it had nothing to do with his motorcycle accident, or why we were seeing him, but there are times when it is highly relevant, and you know, there have been many times when we’ve seen people, and for example, they’ve acquired an infection from their pet and sadly, sometimes it is their beloved dog.

Joe Elia: Now you’ve confessed, already in this interview, to wanting to be a comedy writer, perhaps, and maybe even a standup comic when you were younger. What deflected you from that noble cause and was there a book or an experience, an infection or something that deflected you?

Dr. Paul Sax: So, yeah, well, probably the thing that deflected me the most, and I’m going to say this because I’ve acknowledged this on the site, is my father. My father, who is a physician himself, comes from a long line of physicians, and his attitude, essentially, was, if you’re okay in science, then you become a doctor. And he could not understand why his son, who was okay in science (that’s me) would consider doing something like comedy writing. He basically said, “Just go to medical school and then after that, if you still want to be a comedy writer, see if you can make it work.”

So, thanks, Dad. I mean I really love my field. I find infectious diseases fascinating from A to Z and beyond, and it’s always challenging, never more so than today, and you know, I get to do somethings that are sort of vaguely related to comedy writing.

I do want to also say, that in college I had some truly outstandingly talented friends who became professional comedy writers and frankly, I don’t have their chops.

Joe Elia: You can drop some names if you’d like.

Dr. Paul Sax: Yes, well, he was very kind t let me interview him about his own experience with a life-threatening disease, but one of my friends was Andy Borowitz. Andy Borowitz, of course, is a prolific writer writer now for the New Yorker mostly, political satire, but he’s just an extraordinarily talented person. And then another brush with greatness is Conan O’Brien. Conan O’Brien was a college friend of mine, and his father actually is an infectious disease specialist, so it all comes round, eventually.

Joe Elia: Now you serve as a kind of medical-cultural reporter on rather mysterious viral infections — HIV and COVID-19. Information on these diseases — and especially now, COVID-19 — comes at us unremittingly. Is it a hopeless task to try to keep up, or is it essential to try to keep up, and how do you, as a reporter, keep up for other clinicians?

Dr. Paul Sax: Well, I would say it’s essential to keep up and the way that we keep up is different from the way it used to be. You know, it used to be, you would get your journal mailed to you every week or every month, depending on the frequency, and you would pore over the table of contents, and read the abstracts, and the interesting papers. You’d read the methods, et cetera, and then the results.

Now, rapid fire medical information comes at you really quickly. I want to say that there are some good things about Twitter. Twitter actually is a great place to see medical information very quickly, but it’s not adjudicated, so the next step, after seeing that information, is to try to look at it critically

And I think a really good example of that is the dexamethasone treatment for COVID-19. The first I head of that was, of course, on Twitter. This group in Britain was promoting their results and it was very exciting that they had a press release showing a randomized clinical trial had improved survival with dexamethasone, and I kind of made the point after seeing their summary, that it should become standard of care for people with COVID-9 and met the criteria that used in their trial. And as a result, practice-changing. Their study was practice-changing and now it has been given the blessing of the New England Journal of Medicine, and I think we can say without much risk of bias that that is very high praise indeed, to be accepted as a paper in that journal.

Joe Elia: Yes. I think you’re right. And finally, as a reporter yourself, is there a question you wished I’d asked that I didn’t?

Dr. Paul Sax: Well, you know, one thing I do on my blog, is I try to write in my own voice, and that is something that I feel like medical journals could use a bit more of, and if I were to give some feedback to some of the medical journals, it would be this, it would be that there is a role for the human beings voice in the august pages of these journals. It doesn’t all have to be edited to fit the house style. So, that’s one pitch for that.

Joe Elia: Okay. That’s good advice, I’ll pass it on.

Dr. Paul Sax: Please do. To my good friend, Dr. Eric Rubin.

Joe Elia: Thank you, Dr. Sax, for talking with us today.

Dr. Paul Sax: Thanks, very much, Joe.

Joe Elia: That was our 272nd episode. All of which are available free at Our executive producer is Kristin Kelley, and we come to you from the NEJM Group. I’m Joe Elia. Thank you for listening.

August 5th, 2020

Podcast 271: Checking back in with Florida — 4 months later

(4 votes, average: 4.00 out of 5)

Back in late March (people often tell me that, these days, 4 months ago might as well be 4 years ago) we talked with emergency physician Julian Flores, who was working out of Broward County. Covid-19 cases were modest in number but threatening to get worse, and indeed they did.

The county’s cases jumped 100-fold, from about 600 to over 50,000. Just south of Broward, Miami-Dade has double that caseload.

We revisit Dr. Flores (who was sheltering from the rains of a coastal near-hurricane in his car). He confesses bewilderment and counsels skepticism — especially of one’s biases — in evaluating this thing we’re facing.


Running time: 16 minutes


Other interviews on Covid-19 in this series:

  1. Dr. Anthony Fauci (NIAID, Bethesda, MD)
  2. Dr. Susan Sadoughi (Boston, MA)
  3. Dr. Matthew Young (suburban Delaware)
  4. Dr. Julian Flores (Broward County, FL)
  5. Dr. Kristi Koenig (San Diego, CA)
  6. Dr. Renee Salas (Boston, MA)
  7. Drs. Andre Sofair and William Chavey (New Haven, CT, and Ann Arbor, MI)
  8. Dr. Comilla Sasson (volunteering in New York City)
  9. Dr. John Jernigan (Centers for Disease Control, Atlanta, GA)
  10. Dr. Ivan Hung (Hong Kong)
  11. Dr. Steven Fishbane (metropolitan New York)
  12. Dr. Michael Gonzalez (Houston, TX)


Joe Elia: 

Welcome to Clinical Conversations. I’m your host, Joe Elia, and I’m joined by co-host, Doctor Ali Raja, of the Mass. General Hospital, and Harvard Medical School.

Back in March, Ali and I interviewed an emergency medicine physician, from Broward County, Florida. Back then, Broward had just over 600 cases, and as of this afternoon, August 2nd, confirmed cases there stand at nearly 100-fold higher. It’s some 58,000, with some 750 dead.

So, we’re checking back in with Doctor Julian Flores, who is still working there, in Broward County, as an emergency medicine physician.

Welcome back, Julian.

Dr. Julian Flores:

Hi, guys. Thanks again, for having me.

Dr. Ali Raja:

Hi, again, Julian. Thank you for chatting with us today, especially on your day off. How are you doing? What are you seeing clinically there, right now?

Dr. Julian Flores:

So, I’m seeing a resurgence of cases, of COVID-related complications. Also, essentially, paired up with just volume of ER patients, in general, and you know, it is in the background of us, as a state, in Florida, pulling back the restrictions that, essentially we were, quote unquote, forced to put in the first place, after we were delayed, related to the rest of the country, in doing so, which makes it that much tougher to deal with.

Essentially, both situations, right? Because you know, you can only increase your staff, or your resources, or just sort of, your energy, so much, right, to meet those multiple needs. Hindsight’s 20/20, but it’s kind of hard to imagine the alternative, when we’re just so early, still, relatively, even if it’s been — what? since around January — that we’re dealing with this? It’s still relatively early for us to know what trend the virus is going take, as a virus in general, us as a society, the other things that are inevitably altered, as well, economics, the schooling system, familial structures, et cetera.

Joe Elia:

Back in March, I remember you telling us that although you were working Broward County — and I understand you’re also working in Miami, as well, now — you were living in Miami’s Financial District, and you told us that you saw many groups of people, together in the street, without masks. I’m guessing, and hoping, that things have changed, since then.

Dr. Julian Flores:

Yes. It’s essentially, it’s not the stark opposite of that. I’d say something at least in the middle of those two scenarios, right? Of no mask, versus everyone with masks. I will say that Miami-Dade County has implemented what I believe, a fee of sorts, or some sort of penalty, if you are seen in public, without a mask. We, at least, collectively, have seen that as an important measure, against, at least, the exposure to the virus, or you know, giving it to someone, and transmitting it.

Dr. Ali Raja:

That makes a lot of sense, and like the rest of the country, I think we’re seeing that shift. Let me take you back to March, again. When we spoke, you were using one N95 mask, per shift. So, what about now? What’s the availability of masks, of gowns, of other PPE, in your experience?

Dr. Julian Flores:

Well, because I feel like, or rather, I know that even as a country, in most states, we’ve seen sort of, I would say almost a bimodal peak, in that we saw a surge…speaking of ER volume, in general, we saw a peak of COVID-related cases. We then saw, generally speaking, a dip in just ER volume, in general, from what you can infer, most people just being scared to be at all associated with an environment that, in any shape or form, can expose you to a virus, just by you physically being there, to now, a resurgence of truly related, both primary complications, and secondary complications of COVID, with just volume, in general.

Thankfully, I feel like that sort of dip in volume, and in resource utilization has allowed us to, in a way, catch up, with PPE, at least, I can say, in my hospitals, and you know, speaking for other hospitals in the area, as well. So, I can say that the resources in the two shops I work for are thankfully there, but I can’t speak, you know, for every hospital in Florida.

Dr. Ali Raja:

That makes sense, and you just spoke about the hospitals. What about the hospitals, in total? How are ICU beds doing? Have they started bringing elective procedures back, or are they still holding out on them?

Dr. Julian Flores:

That’s also, from what I know, sort of, a hospital-by-hospital scenario. I know that as a state, that’s not a sort of, a uniform, now, limitation. My hospitals are allowing that to happen. Of course, there’s always, I can imagine, that back thought, in an interventionalist’s mind, that if it doesn’t need to happen now, and it doesn’t harm the patient, then maybe in the spirit of just limiting exposure in general, that it can be delayed, somewhat. At the very least, that’s being allowed to happen.

Joe Elia:

Do you have enough ICU beds? I mean, are…

Dr. Julian Flores:

Yeah. That’s also regional, when thinking about Florida. There are some ICUs that I know are at easily 90-something percent capacity.

Joe Elia:

Yeah. Okay.

Dr. Julian Flores:

And if not that, at the very least, we are holding more patients, in general. That’s something I feel like I can more easily generalize, to the state of Florida, that there are just more patients being held in the ER, secondarily, to just folks either in an ICU setting, or in what we call a PCU setting, taking a little bit more time to be discharged.

Joe Elia:

Okay. How are you keeping informed? There’s so much information, just bouncing off the walls about these things, and I don’t think that hydroxychloroquine was an issue, when we first talked. But I mean — and we don’t need to talk about that — but there are lots of advisories out there, and you had mentioned a private Facebook group, in our earlier chat. Are you still active in that, and finding it useful?

Dr. Julian Flores:

Definitely. I’m still a part of those, a couple of Facebook groups — private groups — I mentioned before, one of them being EM Docs, and the other one being the COVID-19 Physician Alliance. You know, there’s always going to be a lot of mixed messages, and comments that could be … in a way, you can say, they’re true. But there could also be another truth that’s mutually acceptable, right?, because as we all know, data can be presented — consciously, or subconsciously — how we want it to be presented, without altering numbers, or methods, as to how we acquired the data points, to begin with.

So, and of course, it’s hard to divorce the emotional sort of, drive, to be presenting that data, to begin with, right?, and to come up with a conclusion, whether you’re, you know, pro, or anti anything, really, in general, especially in regards to the pandemic, and how we’re handling it, and how the virus is going to be projected to continue affecting us.

Essentially, at least, what I do, is every time I look at, sort of, even a study that was well done, I try to think of if, in any way, the alternative could be true, right?, and if I’m already biasing myself pre-meditatedly, before I’m reading the study, because that’s going to color how I see it, going through. That’s going to color how I’m going to be spreading it to my colleagues, and to my friends, and family.

Again, we’re relatively pretty early into COVID-19. You know, and because of that, as much as you would like to, you can’t always make a study as diverse as possible, or as extrapolatable as possible, right? You can only do so much, when you’ve been in a pandemic for what?, eight months, or so, right? So, they may all come from a good heart, or a good, sort of, intention in mind, but I always try to read the opposite viewpoint, or a journal that would refute that.

So, you know, in many ways, in regards to things like hydroxychloroquine, or certain other related medications, sometimes the safer thing, I think, going into it, is to just have no opinion on it, because sometimes, we just don’t know, and we can’t apply every single patient, every single demographic, every single hospital to that end point, because I mean, for any study in general, for any medication, the number of days that you use it matters. If you use it at the beginning, during, or after, the height of, the peak of symptoms, et cetera.

So, it’s tricky, and I feel like we all, you know, reflexively want to have an answer, and we’re not going to convey it, always, that unambiguously, especially if we have an emotional drive to put that home.

Joe Elia:

Or a political drive, as well.

Dr. Ali Raja:

It could be either.

Joe Elia:

Yeah. Yeah.

Dr. Julian Flores:

And those are mutually not exclusive, either, right?

Joe Elia:

That’s true. That’s true. We want to believe what we want to believe, and so, I think we all face that, as human beings.

Have you been hearing from colleagues who haven’t faced a surge yet? There aren’t too many places in the country that aren’t, but have you heard from any, and do you have advice for them? We interviewed you in March, and now, here we are in August. And what was the big lesson that you’ve learned, over those months, if you had to give one?

Dr. Julian Flores:

Yeah. I would say to my colleagues, that haven’t been dealing with COVID-19 related symptoms, or complications, as much as the rest of us, to just keep your eyes peeled, because it’s hard to say that a specific ER, or a specific region, within Florida, or within any state, is going to be inherently immune to it, when we’re still allowing transportation within the state, across the states. And conversely, folks that have been dealing with only COVID-19 related, you know, pulmonary symptoms, or other organ system complications, not everything is COVID-19 related, either, right?

We’re still going to have our strokes that are just related to a vascular complication, independent of COVID, or heart attacks, or trauma-related complications. So, I think in either extreme, we just always have to, in these times, remember to just keep our eyes peeled.

Dr. Ali Raja:

That is a great way to look at things, and a good reminder for all of us. Let me ask you, Julian, we’ve been asking all the questions. So, do you have any questions that you wish that we had asked? Or, a point that you’d like to make, that we haven’t gotten the opportunity to do, yet. What’s on your mind, that we haven’t yet covered?

Dr. Julian Flores:

I have a lot of opinions, and ironically, on a lot of COVID-related topics, and the conclusion, in those opinions of mine, is that I have no opinion — if that makes any sense.

Joe Elia:

It does.

Dr. Julian Flores:

Or, no. I have no, sort of…I can’t say with legitimacy, or with, you know, pure confidence, that it’s one way or another, especially something like this virus, that again, is a specific strain of coronavirus. As we’re coming to know, it’s not only pulmonary-related complications. It sort of, evokes all your organ systems, and any of them could be altered short term, or long term, at any given time. We’re still, you know, trying to figure that out. And with the mindset of always trying to see what the opposite team is saying, it has sobered me quite a bit, when coming to terms with what I think I know, or what I want to know, and what I want to convey to the general public, all while trying to keep a word choice, a spirit of, per se, it doesn’t have to be the end of the world, and at the same, this is not something we’ve dealt with before, at any level that you want to talk about it.

At the medical level, at the societal level, political level. It’s just, it’s not, and I think we’d be lying to ourselves to say that it is, in either way.

And everything is relative. That’s a main point I would want to drive home, and we have to see what terms we’re talking with, what truth we’re believing, before we speak, and are we allowing room for that alternative explanation to be said? Because there’s a lot of common ground, that can be found, and sometimes, it can feel weak, or it can feel, sort of, in a way, insulting, especially to us physicians, or healthcare-related folks, that are the main, sort of, proponents to driving home knowledge, of any kind of sort, to sort of, quote unquote give in to the other side, and again, because these points touch on a lot of things besides just logic, right?

We cannot deny that sometimes, subconsciously, or consciously, there is a political side-motive. There is an inherently, sometimes, again an emotional cord that’s being strummed in some way or another. So, I would just like to advocate for us all, sort of, being honest with ourselves with what we’re reading, what we’re deciding to read, what we’re coming out of, you know, getting from these articles, from these posts, from the news channels. And are we leaving room for the alternative explanation? If so, are we deciding to paint one picture, or another, based on something else besides just the facts at hand of COVID-19.

Joe Elia:
Julian, we’re very grateful to you, for doing this with us, today, and we want to extend our best to you, and your colleagues, and especially, to your patients. Thank you.

Dr. Julian Flores:

Thank you so much, and you know, as I finished, I believe, the last podcast we enjoyed, and collaborated in, together, you know, keep the hope. Keep the positivity. I think that’s, at least, what drives me, to keep reading, to keep wanting to know more for myself, and my peace of mind, and for our patients.

Trying to leave, you know, pride aside, and collaborating with, and you know, coming to terms with what could be the alternative of what we thought of, to now, in this, and just in medicine in general, because again, they’re not mutually exclusive, right? Especially in this sort of, wave of the virus where, especially as ER doctors, where we can’t afford to just see one thing, or another. I mean, we’re rolling the dice with every patient, with every, you know, clinical presentation. So, collaboration is what’s gotten us even this far.

Dr. Ali Raja:

That’s a great way to end this, Julian, to remind us, all of us, who are seeing patients right now, in this unprecedented time, to keep an open mind, and to be willing to collaborate, even when we might have initial doubts. That’s how we’re going to really move the treatment of this disease forward. So, thank you for that really important reminder.

Joe Elia:

That was our 271st episode. All are available, free, at We come to you through the NEJM group, and our executive producer is Kristin Kelley. I’m Joe Elia.

Dr. Julian Flores:

I’m Julian Flores.

Dr. Ali Raja:

And I’m Ali Raja. Thanks for listening.

July 14th, 2020

Podcast 270: Is healthcare privacy possible if “all data are health data”?

(1 votes, average: 5.00 out of 5)

Don’t expect HIPAA regulations to protect your “digital health footprint” from prying eyes.

Every time you swipe your card to buy goodies at the supermarket (are you risking diabetes with all that ice cream?), or binge-watch that kinky series (how’s your mental health these days, really?), or let your step-tracker show you’ve fallen off the pace (can you afford those extra pounds?), there’s another little distinguishing feature added to your footprint.

This weeks’s guest, Dr. David Grande, and his associates asked a group of experts what they thought about all this accumulating personal data that’s outside HIPAA’s purview.

Listen in.

(Running time: 20 minutes)

Dr. Grande’s paper in JAMA Network Open

Franklin Foer’s Atlantic essay on the downside of Big Data’s help in the pandemic

New York Times‘s privacy project


Joe Elia:  You’re listening to Clinical Conversations. I’m your host Joe Elia. This week’s chat isn’t about COVID-19 (or maybe it is really, but we’ll get back to that).

What we’re pursuing here is this: You know all that data you’re constantly contributing to what we call the “digital realm”?  You know, your Whole Foods discounts from your Amazon Prime account to your Netflix records from all that binge watching, the GPS navigation stuff? Well, who’s guaranteeing the privacy of all those data points? Not HIPAA. They’ve got your medical records covered, but what about the other stuff that points at your health status? The groceries, the streaming selections, the places you visit in your free time.

Our guest this week has concluded that you’re creating what he calls a “digital health footprint” with all that data — that, in fact, all data are health data. Dr. David Grande is the first author on a recent JAMA Network Open paper on all this. In it, his team surveyed a couple of dozen experts on privacy and data mining to gauge their thoughts and their concerns.

Dr. Grande is a physician at the Leonard Davis Institute of Health Economics at the University of Pennsylvania and in the Division of General Internal Medicine at the Perelman School of Medicine there. Welcome, Dr. Grande.

Dr. David Grande: Thank you.

Joe Elia:  I hope I didn’t overstate or sensationalize your conclusions in the introduction. What got you interested in this whole question?

Dr. David Grande:  You know going back years I’ve been interested in some of the ways in which marketing to doctors happens, marketing to patients happens; and what’s really happened over the last 10 years is all of that’s become supercharged by data. And a lot of it, when you’re talking about patients and consumers these days, marketing in health and healthcare is becoming supercharged by all those digital footprints that people are leaving behind. And while we may not necessarily think about our trip to the grocery store or the things we post on social media as being things that are fundamentally about health, when you talk to data scientists they’ll tell you oh it’s very much about health. Our ability to make inferences about health from all of that is extremely powerful today.

Joe Elia:  Can you tell us briefly how you went about interviewing a couple of dozen experts, as I’m recalling, and why you undertook the study?

Dr. David Grande:  Sure. Well, I think everybody — at some high level consumers have some level of awareness now of kind of the fact that people are being tracked in various ways. But frankly, it’s really hard to understand every time you sign up for something or use a new piece of technology it asks you to turn things on and off and you really don’t know what to make of it. And so we really wanted to talk to experts in the field to try to understand what is going on in the technology industry. And the data scientists and people who understand regulation and whatnot, like, how should we understand what’s going on out in the world in terms of data mining and the collection of people’s digital footprints?

And not surprisingly, you know, what we heard is it’s everywhere. It’s what we expected to hear to some extent.

But then the second part of that conversation was really focused on two things. One is, is it possible anymore to draw a line between health and non-health or has that become an artificial distinction? And then second, what are some of the, like, key big problems and challenges that we see that may need to be addressed by regulators? What is unique about this space? And that really was the focus of our conversation.

Joe Elia:  And you interviewed a variety of people. Can you give us a sense of what fields they came from?

Dr. David Grande:  Yeah. They’re certainly people who have been in the area of kind of thinking about privacy law and ethical issues around privacy. But then we also talked to people who are involved in digital technology and designing products in various ways. And trying to understand some of the decision-making that goes on and how those products are designed and engineered and where data comes into play. We talked to people who do sort of like predictive analytics in healthcare and how that world’s kind of vastly expanding now in terms of thinking about all the data inputs that go into predictive algorithms. We see that in healthcare delivery, but then of course we certainly see it in consumer products and advertising. So we tried to go pretty broad to really, you know, get a lot of perspectives.

Joe Elia:  So you talked with people dealing with ethics as well as data mining, so you got a wide range of expertise there. Having done all of that interviewing what were the principal conclusions that you arrived at?

Dr. David Grande:  Sure. So, that first question that I mentioned about can we draw a line anymore between health and non-health data? It was interesting. So even these experts in the field that we talked to, we actually had them answer some questions and kind of rating different kinds of sources of data and say how do you think about this one? Does it sound very health-related or not very much so? And actually [they] did rate some very high and some very low. So things like your Fitbit or food you buy at the grocery store people could say yeah I can see that’s health-related. And then, other things like your E-ZPass in your car or your other things with your travel habits or maybe things about your email or texting habits and things like that people were like “Maybe that’s not as health-related.”

But then when we actually dug into the conversation almost everyone we talked to was like “You really can’t draw a line.” I mean, when you think about modern data science today it’s really not about a single piece of data anymore. It’s not about just exactly what your language was on social media. But it’s linking that to a whole range of other things, which creates very powerful predictive capabilities. I mean now, we hear a lot of people talking about being able to make clinical diagnoses, you know? And so, I think one of the people said something like taking consumer grade data and turning it into a medical grade diagnoses and seeing that that’s quite possible now with a lot of data that people don’t really think of that way.

And so that was really an interesting part of the conversation. Again, I think if you ask consumers the same thing they would probably say yeah I can see these things as very health-related or not very health-related. But then again when you really look under the hood it’s really an artificial distinction.

Joe Elia: Let’s do a thought experiment. If I had enough data points, if you had enough data points about me and you knew my dietary habits, my exercise habits from my bicycle odometer, you had access to my travel through E-ZPass, et cetera, and you were a hospital administrator in the marketing department and you said “You know this guy Joe Elia? I’ve looked at his CVS records he’s not on any antidiabetic drugs, he’s sort of fallen off on his bicycling and he’s tending to drive himself places now. Maybe what we could market to him is a kind of a screening exercise for type 2 diabetes.”

And before I knew what was going on I’d have an email from David Grande saying “Joe, why don’t you come in for free screening?” I mean, that’s quite possible isn’t it?

Dr. David Grande: Oh, absolutely. I mean, again, there’s not a lot of transparency behind a lot of what’s going on in the companies who aggregate this data and use that to generate ads. But people are seeing it, you know, the output of that has become more evident, I think, to a lot of consumers. They say, “Hey it’s kind of weird I went on the internet yesterday, you know, looking for X, Y or Z and gee-whiz like suddenly I’m being approached today.” How else would that have happened? So, it’s becoming much more commonplace, I think, for people to have the experience that you just described.

I think what’s really hard to know is the accuracy of those analytics and those predictive models that are happening these days. We have some examples in research where people have validated ways of, for example, making a diagnosis of clinical depression. But we know very little in the advertising industry about how exactly they’re crunching data and deciding that you, Joe, have progressive diabetes or maybe a new diagnosis of diabetes. We don’t really know. All we know is that sometimes something shows up on a webpage you’re browsing or in your email inbox and you have to try to deduce why that happened.

Joe Elia:  One of your experts said something, commented something that I circled because I thought, “Oh this is so true.” And the quote is that “it would be very odd if someone followed you around making notes of everywhere you went and how much money you spent, and what you saw and who you interacted with. We would call it stalking, right? but in the digital world that’s accepted behavior.”

Dr. David Grande: Yeah, it’s commonplace and it is odd, right? You know there’s a level of surveillance in the marketplace now that I think no one ever would’ve dreamed was possible a decade or two ago. And I think if someone had told you that that’s what would be happening in the year 2020 — if we had this conversation in the year 2000 — they wouldn’t have believed you, probably, and secondly they would’ve said that’s outrageous we would never let that happen. But instead what we have seen happen is, because it’s so baked into all the things we use in the world it’s unavoidable now. Like, you would have to disconnect yourself from modern society at this point to really not be contributing data in this way. It’s not really a choice that consumers have anymore.

Joe Elia:  Yeah, it’s Orwellian. It’s actually infra Orwellian or super pro-Orwellian.

Dr. David Grande: Yeah.

Joe Elia:  We’ve gone beyond good old George.

And thinking back only seven years to the Snowden revelations in 2013 about how the government was, you know, it had access to all of our communications.

Actually, Snowden had a recent interview in which he said COVID-19 actually might be another way, another goad for the high tech companies to have more information about you. And in fact a couple of the high tech companies are getting together and saying “Yeah we’ll help contact tracing.”

Well, wait a minute. Okay, so when the pandemic goes away we’re going to have this method of tracing people’s contacts? And in a free society that’s not a problem. In the repressive society, and I’m thinking of you know facial-recognition technology in use in China, you know, North Korea, other places that can be dangerous. And so how is it that we can say okay you can use it for this purpose, for contact tracing in a pandemic, but you can’t use it for contact tracing politically?

Dr. David Grande:  Yeah, that’s a great question. I mean, I kind of look at this question and say that what we’re allowing to happen now in the private sector is complete Wild West. Like, the technology companies right now, at least in the American context, are largely unfettered — they can do almost anything. We really have no strong privacy regime around these questions in America. On the other hand we do apply a fairly, we apply a lot more scrutiny around these issues where government may be involved in some way that could actually have immense social benefits. So if we take COVID as an example I tend to believe that if we use these technologies responsibly we can make an enormous difference in the impact of the pandemic.

Now, the question is how do you avoid “mission creep”?, which is I think what you’re really asking. And I think for that to happen you need to write some pretty ironclad regulations about how you’re going to use these technologies so that they do get turned off.

Now, again, you have to maintain the kind of political energy when push comes to shove to actually turn them off. But you know what Google and Apple have done, and we can speak separately about what their motives might be for doing this, but what they have done is they’ve put forward a model that involves far more privacy protections around these COVID uses than what would be routine with other uses of technology.

So specifically, they are just making changes to their operating system and they are saying that for this to work a public health entity has to layer an app on top of that technology.

So the phone itself, there’s no app operating in the background of your iPhone that’s doing contact tracing. A public health agency has to put an app on top of that functionality in the operating system. But then they’re also saying we are not going to allow your phone to actually automatically transmit your personal information to the public health authorities it stays locally on your phone. And actually public health officials are not happy about that. Because one of the ways that contact tracing works is that you actually notify the public health authorities and you share data.

So there’s almost an odd paradox here but the world hasn’t faced a health crisis like this in a very long time. We have these digital tools that are now very powerful and it’s really public health that we’ve decided to take a firm stand on privacy about as opposed to all these other commercial applications where we seem to be a-okay with the status quo. So it’s a fine line to balance because, again, you get back to the mission-creep issue and it’s hard to turn that stuff off once you turn it on, but there are probably ways to do it.

Joe Elia:  Yeah. Well, you would think that there would be legislative ways to do it, except that the legislators are subject to lobbying. And so if you have the companies that are at risk from this legislation writing or helping to write the regulations then there could be backdoors left open. I mean, I don’t want to sound totally paranoid, but a little paranoia is a good thing, I think.

Dr. David Grande:  I do think though, back to that, I think the bigger issue of what’s going on is whether or not these technology companies are hopeful that by being seen as altruistic and responsible in some way that it will leave them in a better place in terms of what kinds of regulations they may face in the future. And that would be a mistake, like, we shouldn’t use a little bit of responsible behavior during the COVID pandemic to justify not taking actions at a later point.

Joe Elia:  So what would you like to see happen, Dr. Grande, as a result of your raising these issues?

Dr. David Grande:  Well, again, I’m actually not a legal expert by any means. But in talking to a lot of the folks that we did, I mean certainly the European Union has blazed a trail in this space. You know some of the people we interviewed who are really experts on international law and policy in this space talked about how the US really stands out in the world by taking this very sector-specific approach to privacy. So we have HIPAA, right, and we have GINA that protects genetic information. There is no place in the US federal government where anyone’s thinking about these issues across the economy.

You know, we’ve got people who think about health privacy at the Department of Health and Human Services, but it’s not the Department of Health and Human Services that can ultimately address this issue. And I think a lot of other countries around the world do specifically have privacy officers, agencies and whatnot to really come up with a more holistic way to think about these issues. Because we’ve moved far past, as I mentioned earlier, the idea that like health privacy can all be addressed through a health agency because it really is ubiquitous now.

And I think for many people and I think a lot of consumers — I don’t know this for sure — but I think if you asked them and said, “What do you worry more about, like, the privacy of the last blood pressure reading in your doctor’s visit or the social media posts and whether they reveal something about your mood?” And I think people would be more worried about their social media posts and their mood and people using that information in ways that they would rather not. So we have a lot to learn from the EU. I think we’re still seeing how that it’s relatively new, seeing how it’s going to play out in terms of the behavior of these companies. But we certainly need to start taking a similar direction here in the US.

Joe Elia:   And speaking of behaviors have you modified any of your own behaviors over time? Have you thrown away your GPS or your cell phone? Or have you stopped using Netflix or Amazon or going to Whole Foods?

Dr. David Grande:  I’ve tried. But I go back to my earlier point, which is it’s become almost impossible to be a modern day consumer and not leave these footprints behind. Even if you think about the basics of using a smartphone these days, God forbid you turn off all this functionality. Your phone’s going to tell you pretty much every day that you know you need to turn this thing back on or it won’t work properly. You know it’s like do you want to allow it once? Do you want to allow it always? And then when you know you allow it once is it really once? Is the app still operating in the background? You really have to become a computer scientist now to even interpret what you’re saying yes or no to anymore. And I think it’s asking a lot of consumers, but I’ve tried. I certainly have tried, but it’s a frustrating endeavor.

Joe Elia:  Well, I want to thank you, Dr. Grande, for talking about your work with me today.

Dr. David Grande:  Oh, absolutely, my pleasure.

Joe Elia:  That was our 270th podcast. They’re all available free at We come to you from the NEJM Group and our executive producer is Kristin Kelley. I’m Joe Elia. Thanks for listening.

July 6th, 2020

Podcast 269: The pandemic in Texas is like a “slow-rolling level 6 hurricane”

(1 votes, average: 2.00 out of 5)

We interview Dr. Michael Gonzalez, a Houston-based emergency physician, who describes the situation there as “an ongoing, slow-rolling, level 6 hurricane that just isn’t gonna go away and, more importantly, isn’t gonna tell us when landfall is coming and when it’s gonna be over.”

How are his patients reacting to this surge? What does he do to prepare himself for a shift in the emergency department? Is there enough PPE to go around?

Listen in.

Running time: 25 minutes

Other interviews on Covid-19 in this series:

  1. Dr. Anthony Fauci
  2. Dr. Susan Sadoughi
  3. Dr. Matthew Young
  4. Dr. Julian Flores
  5. Dr. Kristi Koenig
  6. Dr. Renee Salas
  7. Drs. Andre Sofair and William Chavey
  8. Dr. Comilla Sasson
  9. Dr. John Jernigan
  10. Dr. Ivan Hung
  11. Dr. Steven Fishbane


Joe Elia:

You’re listening to Clinical Conversations. I’m your host Joe Elia.


Here we are still swimming in the sea of numbers generated by the COVID-19 pandemic: numbers of confirmed cases, numbers of tests, fatality rates per 100,000 population, et cetera.


With so many numbers you’d think your high school math teacher would suddenly appear and solve the equation — but there is no equation, only patients and clinicians. And that’s what Dr. Ali Raja, my cohost, and I are going to focus on this time. We’ll avoid numbers if we can.


We’ve invited a Houston emergency physician, Dr. Mike Gonzalez, to talk with us. As you’ve doubtless heard Houston and Texas in general have achieved the dubious achievement of being a new hotspot for COVID-19.


Welcome Dr. Gonzalez.


Dr. Michael Gonzalez:

Thank you. Great to be with you.


Dr. Ali Raja:

Hi, Mike. As a native Houstonian with lots of family still in town, I’ve got to ask, how are y’all doing down there?


Dr. Michael Gonzalez:

Yeah, thanks for asking. It is a challenge.


We are in the unfortunate position of sort of living the reality — of seeing the manifestations of what you know many of our colleagues, family members, brothers and sisters have gone through in other parts of the country. And you know it is disheartening to know that we’ve had months and months to prep, to learn and to now find ourselves in the situation of living through the very same problems.


So, you know, for a while there we were, I’ve got to tell you, somewhat optimistic that maybe we weren’t going to have the surge that everybody saw, that many of parts of the country kind of lived through. There was a lot of very hopeful optimism but many of us and I will fully admit to being one of the very sort of pessimistic “Hey we need to keep an eye on this and it’s not time to celebrate.”


So I think professionally, to break your question up into two parts, professionally I think like most emergency physicians who feel like, you know, we were built for this and this is our time to face the challenge head-on. My teams are ready. They have, you know like I said, been watching, waiting, learning, preparing. Professionally, I think we’re in about a good a place as we can be. Personally, for mostly the reason that I worry more about my family, friends, neighbors who are not medical and who have a really hard time, I think, parsing out the difference between what we know is the reality inside the four walls of the hospital and what they see on the news and what they hear in the community and what they see on the street. And I think one of the biggest struggles personally that I’ve faced is trying to get all of those things to align. And to really sort of get people to understand that this is serious, this is lethal, and it has longstanding implications that I think the world is still struggling with.


Dr. Ali Raja:

Right, we’re still figuring all this out. You mentioned being an emergency physician, and obviously you and I have known each other for a very long time. In addition to being an emergency physician you’re also an educator of other physicians, of paramedics, of EMTs. Can you tell us what it’s like for new residents, new paramedic students, new EMT students who are just starting in the journey? Can you tell us what it’s like for them — the ones you’re teaching right now?


Dr. Michael Gonzalez:

So I think I’ve honestly found that I pull, honestly, from my military training and really do sort of emphasize that this battle in many ways is fought on the front of preparation, and there is bedside care that we can certainly deliver optimally. Make sure we’re resuscitating, make sure we’re doing all the clinical things that as emergency physicians, like, as I said this is what we were built for and this is what we were trained for. But in many ways this battle, this virus is really confronted in all of the steps leading up to that in the form of the PPE that has, you know, become one of the major concerns, in terms of getting the rooms ready, in terms of getting enough hospital staff, enough, you know, equipment, enough gloves.


Like, all of those things that we for so long took for granted in the civilian world we are now facing. And the reason I say military training and from deployments where it was not an assumption that we had enough IV starting kits. It was not an assumption that we had the appropriate antibiotics. So all of that sort of training and background is really stuff that I had, in many ways, hoped to not face again [they] are right back on the forefront. And so for most of the time that I’ve spent with trainees at various levels it really is sort of reinforcing those lessons of preparation, right? And preparation, you know, in many clinical settings is one of the important P’s that we always emphasize, right?


Dr. Ali Raja:



Dr. Michael Gonzalez:

But in this setting it really is true and it’s down to the bedside level of “Do you have everything you need before you go in the room?” For the nurses, “Do you have all of your IV blood tubing starts, everything that you need before you walk in? Because you can’t come out again.” And so really I find myself, you know, going back to lessons that I learned way too long ago and really kind of reemphasizing basic important things like preparation and equipment.


Joe Elia:

Dr. Gonzalez, in this turmoil that you face it probably feels different now than it has recently. So has your routine changed over the past few weeks? How do you prepare for the clinical day?


Dr. Michael Gonzalez:

That’s a good question, Joe. I think that my routine probably hasn’t changed substantially in terms of getting ready for work. Getting ready is really, you know, unchanged I think for me. I think the only thing that probably has changed is, like for many of us, instead of wearing my own scrubs I change into hospital scrubs upon arrival in the clinical setting because I don’t want to take those things home. And so I find myself kind of, you know, still wearing scrubs generally into the department, but changing upon arrival. And then, again, kind of reminiscing back to military training and background in deployments, you know, I find myself [asking] “Do I have my scrub cap? Do I have my goggles?” And all those things have to be in place before I kind of get ready to go, you know, in the box or in the room or on the floor, depending on which part of the unit I’m working in.


And so I think a lot of that, again, is sort of familiar, to me at least, and for me it’s almost a warm blanket of “I know how to do this.” And I think I’ve heard it repeatedly from military colleagues that you know this is a very familiar setting in terms of facing an enemy that sometimes you can’t see, you don’t know where they’re coming from and it could be anywhere. It’s a sort of familiar feeling. The biggest thing, I think, is really afterwards. After a shift it is, you know, in a non-COVID time that you know I find myself sort of talking about now nostalgically, even though it was really only months ago. It’s really, you know pre-COVID you know you would get off shift, change quickly sometimes and go directly to meet family or friends for dinner, for a beer, or whatever the case might be. And now it’s truly sort of a more extended process.


And again I link it back to the checklist sort of mentality of, you know, “Did I take all that equipment off?” I’ve got my shoes off, I’ve got my scrubs off, I changed into you know whatever I wore into the hospital. In the car or once I get home certain things come off as I’m getting into the house. If my family members are awake, which I tend to work kind of a nightshift, you know, so that I don’t always cross over with my family — and that was even pre-COVID. So I don’t get a lot of the immediate need for hugs at the door, which I love, but in this time of COVID I think it’s really nice that I don’t have to deal with that. I get the dog barking sometimes when I get home, but otherwise it’s really more of I can kind of sneak into the house, get everything off and get immediately into the shower.


And then even before I get into the shower it’s a matter of getting the clothing bundled up separated from my family’s clothing so that I can make sure that we’re maintaining as many boundaries as we can from this thing. And again because having lived through a completely different world and a different environment it feels very much like the pre- and post-flight checklist of a previous world that I’ve done before and I can do. And I know, like, for me I know I can do it I’ve been through it. I see the struggles personally on my family and my spouse who is also a physician, but who is not in the emergency department.


And my kids, especially, like it’s really starting to wear on them. You know “Why can’t we go X, Y, Z? Why can’t we go to the movies? Why can’t we go to the arcade?” Like, that is getting hard.


Joe Elia:

This isn’t the question about whether you read the New England Journal of Medicine, so that’s not what we’re asking here. What I’d like to know is — and the information about this virus is changing all the time — is there a place that you’d go to just too brief yourself occasionally on “What’s the new stuff I should know about?”


Dr. Michael Gonzalez:

You know that’s a great question, Joe. I honestly read a variety of journals, the New England Journal one of them of course, and a couple of different emergency medicine sources. But really, honestly, lately because this has been moving so fast and, really, seems to be there was a period of time where I felt like it was changing by the hour, that honestly this is one of those times that social media has really come to the forefront. And I’m one of those people that’s fairly active on it. I absolutely have a group of trusted colleagues that we have formed both a public as well as a private discussion group to kind of update each other, follow-up on what’s going on and also provide the support that I think is just becoming more and more important as this thing seems to just morph and go from one area of the country to another. And I’m certainly hoping that we don’t, you know, send it back to other parts of the country but I have real fear and an anxiety about that, that this is going to just bounce back and forth as the fall and winter and more traditional infectious-like illness season comes back.


Dr. Ali Raja:

Let me ask. Taking it back a little bit to social media, because you and I have talked about this on Twitter and other places, you mentioned PPE recently and how it’s become a concern and you just talked about that. I understand that there’s a lot of connotations and background here, but let me just ask do you have enough PPE for your staff? And even if you do what’s the situation like in Houston? Are hospitals having to reuse it yet?


Dr. Michael Gonzalez:

I thank you for the question, Ali. I think that there has been a lot of work that has gone into making sure that we have the equipment that we need across multiple fronts, agencies, hospitals. I think that we, for now, and I always say that with excruciating care and in every meeting and every chance I get to express a concern or voice about this topic it’s always “for now” because it’s an important caveat that we are looking at what the numbers are doing. And they are constantly changing and they are looking worse than ever and so for me it is a constant. I do feel like as one of the leaders in various organizations, I do feel like that is my job. That is my responsibility to sort of speak up, make sure that people know that I really want to know what models are you using?

Because if you’re looking at a trend from the last two weeks that’s not going to work.


We’re in a completely different place now and so our modeling, our structures in terms of our supply chain, I think have been worked out. The single biggest thing that I worry about and this is true that we’ve heard from colleagues all over is the N-95 mask. I think we are good in terms of other very equally vital components but the N-95, as you know, is our unique sort of last line of defense before we inhale this virus. And so it is exceedingly important and I do worry that we are only okay in our supply status because of the reprocessing programs that are going on all over the country. And I certainly appreciate the people that worked that out and demonstrated it could be done safely. But I do have some anxiety and worry for my team about an instrument that was, as everybody knows, never designed to be reused. It was never designed to be reprocessed and so if you ask me about a single thing that keeps me up at night that’s it.


Dr. Ali Raja:

What about bed space? And I say that because earlier today I heard that, I don’t know if it’s level two or surge level two, but I’ve heard that Houston’s in the situation. I keep up with this because as I mentioned my parents live in town and if they get sick they’re going to need an ICU. I’ve heard that now you’ve reached ICU capacity and you’re starting to get creative around making new ICU space at least citywide, if not individual hospitals. How are things looking in terms of ICU and floor bed capacity?


Dr. Michael Gonzalez:

Yeah, we have attracted a lot of attention nationally and regionally for all the wrong reasons. I think that the bed capacity situation has certainly been on the radar for both myself and a variety of other leader’s way above me, right? And so this is something that we are closely monitoring for sure. The phases have been something that has been developed by the leadership out of the TMC organization that I don’t have direct links to. So it has been interesting to watch their messaging and how that has been perceived and understood or perhaps misunderstood. I do think that at a more local level and speaking to colleagues we are absolutely seeing adjustment inside the hospital of both elective surgery patterns, outpatient procedures, to make space available. As an emergency physician, right, we want our patients to get — once we’ve stabilized them —  diagnosed or at least [having] gotten the diagnostics done and we can hand off to our in-the-hospital colleagues. We want those patients to go upstairs as quickly as possible.


Because as has been well documented over multiple years of research and well proven that the single biggest obstacle of ED throughput is boarding time and how many patients are waiting. And so we, for the most part in the City of Houston, have hospitals that operate pretty darn efficiently. And so our board times are pretty limited in most facilities. We certainly have challenges here and there and you know different events, different periods of time where maybe due to staffing upstairs that there may be obstacles, but this is the first time that we’ve really been faced with a complete regional attack on those resources. And all of those resources are being demanded everywhere at the same time. So even during the closest other example is Harvey, which is not that long ago, and we had hospitals that were completely taken offline because of plumbing problems or disaster flooding — people couldn’t get in there or out.


But even then we are fortunate in the region to have 40 plus hospitals that we were able to flex and move patients around so that, for the most part, there was only a couple of days where certain facilities were really pushed to the limits on capacity. This as many of our colleagues from all over the country have already faced this, as you know better than anyone, right, this is an ongoing, slow-rolling, level six hurricane that just isn’t gonna go away. And more importantly, isn’t gonna tell us in advance when landfall is coming and when it’s gonna be over. And so, you know, there’s a dire need for the resources across the entire community. I know that many of our hospital partners and hospital colleagues all over the city are absolutely being creative in terms of freeing up existing bed space, both ICU, step-down, floor beds and freeing that space up from other procedural-type settings. And they are also looking at creating additional capacity.


So everyone in the medical community knows that capacity is one of those really difficult things to define because of how many patients move back and forth ICU to IMU, IMU to ICU and that is not always predictable. So I totally understand how difficult it is to put numbers — especially numbers reported to the public — around something that is so complicated. But at the same time I also feel like the public deserves to know that we are doing everything we possibly can and now including cancelling or postponing elective procedures to make room where I think there may have been some perceived resistance to do that from some of the hospitals in the Houston area.


Joe Elia:

Dr. Gonzalez, tell me about your patients. For instance, are they older or younger than you imagined that they would be and what’s their attitude? Do they come in surprised to find themselves in this “hurricane”?


Dr. Michael Gonzalez:

Yeah. So let me give you a little perspective on that, that early on I think there was a lot of surprise, so I’m talking very early April, May there was surprise: “I’ve heard about this and didn’t know it could happen to me.” And that was predominantly older, let’s say, over the age of 50.


And I think that, that has really dramatically changed to we are seeing a wider swath of age groups that are coming in because they feel terrible. And largely the people that we are seeing in the emergency department are not coming asking to be tested; they are coming because they feel awful.


And overwhelmingly, most of those people have now, at this stage in the past month, they know or they have an idea of where this came from. Either in the form of I’ve heard now that, “That person that I was with was positive” or “I went to this event, this party, this thing and it’s two weeks later or 17 days later and here I am. And I worried about it but I did it anyway.” I’ve heard it repeatedly and I can tell you that it is of course always an honor to take care of our patients and try and do the best we can to treat them medically, comfort them.


But this thing and because of the way this virus works it is a challenge to provide the same level of what I think all of us want to do. Because sometimes all you can is hold their hand and although we do that, we continue to do that, sometimes looking people in the eye, holding their hand, patting their shoulder and particularly not having family members available to help in the comfort and sometimes even, you know, providing just reassurance that we’re doing everything we can has been a real challenge. And that, I think, is taking a huge toll on healthcare providers all over and we are just sort of uncovering this raw nerve of we are really putting ourselves out there emotionally further than, I think, we’ve ever been asked to do because family members can’t be at the bedside. And so, back to your question, I think yes for sure we’re seeing a slightly skew younger over the past two weeks, let’s say, I’d use that as a timeline. But it is absolutely people come in who feel just awful and scared and you can see it in their faces when they arrive.


Dr. Ali Raja:

So, Mike, this is a really tough time but we know that like all things this will pass. And whether it’s a temporary lull or whether or not we finally get a handle on this we’re going to have a time at some point, weeks, months from now where things are better. Have you promised yourself a little bit of a reward after this? A new bicycle, a vacation in remote Canada far, far away from large medical centers? What are you going to do when all this calms down?


Dr. Michael Gonzalez:

I have given myself pause and freedom to think about that only because it has become a frequent topic around the dinner table. I told you my family and my kids have really sort of been struggling with this and as I have mentioned on social media I have become a Fortnite player with my kids.


Dr. Ali Raja:



Dr. Michael Gonzalez:

Terrible, terrible, subpar they would tell you, Fortnite player. But that has been one of the things that you know we introduced them to, hesitantly, but now we enjoy playing together. And so that has been one of the joys of this thing, one of the small victories. They’ve admitted me to their team, so that’s a nice little…


Dr. Ali Raja:

That’s a win. That’s a dad win right there.


Dr. Michael Gonzalez:

Yes, exactly, a dad win. Exactly. But I think to your question, yes, we are really looking forward and are actively discussing and exploring options all the time about a vacation. And you know I am very mindful of my colleagues who both, you know, every team member in the hospital. And so I want to make sure that they’re obviously taken care of before I even think about taking my own time off. But there will be a long vacation at some point at the end of this, on the other side of this, let me say. And I am very optimistic, Ali, yes we will all get there.


Joe Elia:

Dr. Gonzalez, thank you very much for speaking with us today and good luck in the coming weeks.


Dr. Michael Gonzalez:

Thank you both. Thanks so much for giving me a chance to share our experience in Houston.


Joe Elia:

Of course.


That was our 269th podcast and they’re all available free at We come to you from the NEJM Group and our executive producer is Kristin Kelley. I’m Joe Elia.


Dr. Ali Raja:

And I’m Ali Raja. Thanks for listening.

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