Wednesday, November 8, 2017

How Making Consumers Happy Got Us Here

If you’ve never seen Malcolm Gladwell’s 2004 TED Talk: “Choice, happiness and spaghetti sauce,” please take a moment to check it out:


In the talk, Gladwell focuses on the work of “someone who, I think, has done as much to make Americans happy, as perhaps anyone over the last 20 years, a man who is a great personal hero of mine, someone by the name of Howard Moskowitz, who is most famous for reinventing spaghetti sauce.”

Gladwell goes on to describe Moskowitz’s key insight in coming up with chunky pasta sauce for Prego, which is that there is no single sauce that is perfect for everyone, but there is a perfect sauce for each individual consumer. As the saying goes: “The customer is always right.” Thus, the explosion from just Prego vs Ragu to different varies of Prego and Ragu to the cornucopia of choices we have for pasta sauce today.

But as the sauce went, so went everything else. We no longer have to suffer through the primitive days of ABC’s Wide World of Sports or just one cable sports channel. There’s ESPN 2 (and 3 and Classic), FS1, NBCSN, CBSSN, even channels devoted to motorsports or golf. Long gone are the days of everyone tuning in to Walter Cronkite for the day's news. Instead, everyone can find the talking head who agrees most with their personal views and never have to be inconvenienced by a dissenting view.

Online, we no longer have to be exposed to the same reality or set of facts. Facebook, YouTube, Google News, et al. make it so we don’t even have to go out of our way to search out those with similar views; these behemoths feed us stuff based on all the data they have gathered from tracking our online behavior. Of course, they’re doing this to make us happy, but what price are we paying for this sort of happiness?

Which brings us, inevitably, to the present political situation. I think it’s obvious that our current president would not be in office if not for this drive to feed consumers only what they want to see, hear, and experience. Much has been made about how the Russians took advantage of people’s news feeds to try to drive Americans further apart. However, even without foreign interference, I believe that modern America’s brand of consumerism is damaging to all Americans, young and old, left and right. It tells the consumer, “only you and what you want matters.” This kind of implicit message inevitably leads to inflated egos all around, self-selection into smaller and smaller interest groups, and less of a willingness to see things from another perspective. Not surprisingly, frustration, anger, and inability to compromise are the result when people who are used to shaping their own reality are confronted by realities determined by others with different beliefs, such as when a black president gets elected or a controversial speaker gets invited to speak at a college campus.

Is fixing our system (which I believe involves fixing our culture) even possible at this point? Once the Pandora’s Box of unlimited choice for the consumer has been opened, is there any going back to the spirit of “ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country”? In my less hopeful moments, I think that it would take some sort of unimaginable catastrophe—like the Great Depression bringing an end to the Roaring 20’s—to drive people to put sufficient effort into overcoming the centrifugal forces that are splitting us apart. Yet, as Tom Hanks said, “If you’re concerned about what’s going on today, read history and figure out what to do because it’s all right there.” I'm not sure if he was thinking about a specific historical era, but what came to my mind was what happened during the Renaissance Papacy, when the Popes became so focused on worldly riches, pleasure, and power that they lost their religious legitimacy, leading directly to the Protestant Reformation.

From the Wikipedia entry:
The popes of this period used the papal military not only to enrich themselves and their families, but also to enforce and expand upon the longstanding territorial and property claims of the papacy as an institution. […] With ambitious expenditures on war and construction projects, popes turned to new sources of revenue from the sale of indulgences and of bureaucratic and ecclesiastical offices. […] The popes of this period became absolute monarchs, but unlike their European peers, they were not hereditary, so they could only promote their family interests through nepotism.
That period of the papacy lasted roughly a century before the Reformation forced Catholicism to reform itself. Yes, there were bloody religious wars as a result of the split in Western Christianity, and peace between Catholics and Protestants took centuries to achieve in some places. And some pundits argue that the Reformation created as many horrors as it addressed. But the overall (admittedly simple) lesson I get from this history is that there are many potential Martin Luthers out there, waiting to change the world, even if inadvertently. I just hope we don’t have to wait a hundred years for that to happen.

Sunday, October 15, 2017

About That Jean Twenge Smartphone Article

Note: As you may notice, this is my first blog post in over 2 years. This blog isn’t dead, it was just resting! I’m thinking about writing a post about why I haven’t blogged in so long; maybe it'll even be done less than 2 years from now.

For the past 3 months, my most frequently-visited blog post has been my critique of Jean Twenge’s claims of a “narcissism epidemic” from 2013. Google tells me that it’s one of the top results in searches for “jean twenge criticism.” So in this post, I would like to share my views on her latest work.

I read her article for The Atlantic, “Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation?” (an excerpt from her new book iGen), the day that it came out, because as a psychiatrist who works with adolescents, it’s clear to me that smartphones have been changing their lives in ways profound and subtle. I actually like many aspects of the article, including her sympathetic portrayal of the complexity that smartphones have brought into teenagers’ already complex lives. Also, I think she presents the data well, and the data sources that she uses are nationally representative surveys that have been around a long time and are well-respected. I think she makes a rather convincing case that many teens today are living their social lives online rather than hanging out with their friends in person.

However, I do have some criticisms of Twenge’s far-reaching claims about the effects of smartphones, but first, that ridiculous title:

Thankfully, it seems the author agrees:

One criticism that others have voiced is that Twenge seems to draw conclusions based primarily on the correlation between the rise in smartphone use and increases in mental health issues in teens over the same span. While she acknowledges that many of the trends she highlights, such as adolescents taking longer to take on adult responsibilities, predate the introduction of smartphones, she sees the rising use of smartphones as some sort of inflection point. But there are so many other trends going on in our culture, including parents becoming more over-protective, rising political/racial/economic divides, etc., to pin the blame on smartphones seems overly facile. Heck, if I were being cheeky, I would point out that the sale of yoga pants has drastically increased since 2011, corresponding to increases in teen depression:

Source: Business Insider

But just because they correlate does not mean that one has anything to do with the other.

Thus, my biggest criticism stems from Twenge’s seeming certainty about the decisive role of smartphones coupled with a seeming lack of curiosity about examining deeper causes for why these trends are happening. In a recent NY Times Magazine article about increasing rates of anxiety in teens, Twenge had this to say:
“The use of social media and smartphones look culpable for the increase in teen mental-health issues,” [Twenge] told me. “It’s enough for an arrest — and as we get more data, it might be enough for a conviction.”
I’m sorry, but I think the situation is closer to her finding evidence of a crime, and possibly even a weapon, but she is nowhere near identifying—much less convicting—a suspect.

I find it vexing that Twenge seems to view each generation as a distinct and determinative entity, rather than some arbitrary line drawn by demographers, as she shows in this tweet:
That is just preposterous. She writes as though each generation somehow pops into existence with its own innate characteristics, rather than being influenced by—and reacting to—the generations that have come before. However, one of the few things I know for sure is the huge extent to which young people are influenced by their elders. For example, this recent article (also in The Atlantic, lol) highlighted just how much even 1-year-old infants learn from observing the actions of the adults around them. And what are kids observing these days?

In my own practice, I often hear from kids and teens who say that their parents are on their laptops checking work email or on their phones checking Facebook all the time. These kids are bored and lonely, so as soon as they have access to a smart device, what do they do? Twenge’s work makes it easy for parents to blame the devices and not think about how their own actions may be influencing their children. While that may protect parents’ egos and sell more books, it’s a very incomplete and misleading picture, to say the least.

I have not yet read Twenge’s new book, but I was hoping that it would take a deeper look at the culture as a whole, especially the critical role that parents can play in changing the situation. However, one look at the book’s table of contents reveals that only the last 26 pages are devoted to a chapter on “Understanding—and Saving—iGen”. This scathing review from NY Mag further breaks down the book and the motivations of the author. The reviewer takes the view that Twenge is less a scholar who investigates all aspects of a complex issue than she is someone positioning herself as a guru for marketers looking to understand the latest generation of teens.

In conclusion, while there certainly is a mental health crisis going on in today’s teens (and adults!) and pinning the blame on smartphones is understandable, I believe it will take far more than getting rid of everyone’s favorite devices to make our culture healthier for future generations.

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

The Paroxetine Study 329 Re-Write

I've not really written about GlaxoSmithKline's infamous paroxetine (Paxil) Study 329, except to briefly allude to it in a previous post. This is probably because I felt others had covered it so extensively already, especially over at the 1boringoldman blog. Another anonymous child psychiatrist has an entire website summarizing the study, and there's even a detailed wikipedia page. So go to those sites if you haven't heard of this study before. However, I wanted to write this post to share my thoughts about the re-analysis of the study's data by an independent, mostly-international team, which was accepted for publication in the BMJ.

First off, I want to be clear that I don't think the new publication's results will be news for anyone in the profession who has been paying attention. In my years of practice (which admittedly are not many), I've never seen a young patient prescribed paroxetine by a child psychiatrist. While studying for a board exam the other day, I saw this (source):



If it's been covered in a textbook published in 2010, you can be sure it's pretty common knowledge by now. In this regard, the profession has been self-correcting. However, it seems that despite acknowledging the risks of paroxetine, the profession has turned a blind eye toward the actions of the psychiatrists who had helped popularize its use in kids in the first place. None of the well-known academics whose names are attached to the study have offered to retract the paper, and as far as I know, none have suffered professionally. In fact, one of them, Karen Dineen Wagner, was just elected president of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry (AACAP).

There have been efforts to address this issue within AACAP, most notably by 2 regional child psychiatry organizations, including the Northern California Regional Organization of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry (NCROCAP). Dr. Mickey Nardo, the brains behind 1boringoldman.com and one of the authors of the Study 329 re-write, informed the AACAP Ethics Committee about the study's faults, and they initially seemed receptive.* However, those efforts went nowhere. At a recent AACAP annual meeting, I was chatting with an older child psychiatrist, who is a "Distinguished Fellow" of the organization and has been involved in AACAP affairs for decades. Somehow, the topic of NCROCAP came up. When I commented that they seemed to be an activist bunch, he replied, "Yes, probably too much so, which is not good for the group process."

Well, now we see the outcomes of this "group process." By prioritizing group harmony over doing the right thing, AACAP has invited outside intervention. This BMJ editorial accompanying the new publication, by Peter Doshi, is one of the most damning things I've ever read about institutional intransigence.* It'll be interesting to see how the organization reacts.

UPDATE: As I was finishing this blog post, I got the following email (New York Times article published around 6:30pm EST, email was sent around 6:34pm*):
Dear Members,

This week, The BMJ published a study, “Restoring Study 329: efficacy and harms of paroxetine and imipramine in treatment of major depression in adolescence,” which reanalyzes data from a clinical trial performed in the late 1990s and published in JAACAP in 2001. The conclusions of this article contradict those of the original study. Please know that the Academy has been fully aware of the pending publication of this article by The BMJ.

Research provides the foundation for child and adolescent psychiatry’s knowledge base. The Academy encourages rigorous scientific design and methodology and supports the highest ethical and professional standards. We also believe it is essential that research be conducted within a strong framework of transparency and disclosure. As an organization, AACAP has been a leader in advocating for the positive changes that have taken place in the last decade in the relationship between the pharmaceutical industry and academic and professional associations.

As the leading national professional medical association dedicated to promoting the healthy development of children, adolescents, and families, through advocacy, education, and research, our response to The BMJ publication is as follows:
  • AACAP has the utmost respect for the The BMJ and we thank them for their continued efforts to further scientific knowledge and understanding.
  • AACAP supports transparency in clinical trial reporting and welcomes the RIAT initiative, which enables publicly available primary data to be reanalyzed and published as new, potentially revised reports.
  • JAACAP is a forum for scientific reporting and scholarly discussion. The scientific process builds on itself over time through a cycle of new research, analysis, and ongoing dialog. This process stimulates debate and moves the field forward toward a better understanding of critical issues.
  • As with most medical journals, JAACAP operates with full editorial independence. AACAP does not influence or direct decisions regarding specific publications. Furthermore, the statements and opinions expressed in JAACAP articles are those of the authors, and not necessarily those of AACAP, the editors, or the publisher. Inquiries about the articles and study in question should be addressed to their respective authors.
Moving forward, we will continue to monitor any developments and keep the membership informed of relevant information as it becomes available. Please direct any questions to the Communications Department via email at communications@aacap.org.

Thank you for your continued support!

Paramjit T. Joshi, MD
President, AACAP
Like I said, this is gonna be interesting.

These sentences were added/edited after original publication for completeness.

Saturday, September 5, 2015

Who Controls the Future of Medical Knowledge? Part I

The recent discontent amongst physicians regarding the process of maintaining board certification in various specialties got me thinking about a broader question: how do doctors acquire new medical knowledge, especially after medical school? Which brings me to an even more critical question: who controls said knowledge?

I would argue that next to our ability to listen to and empathize with patients, the other most valuable aspect of the medical profession is our knowledge. Ever since the days of Hippocrates, medical knowledge has been transmitted from one doctor to another in essentially the same way. In medical school and residency, we attend lectures, read textbooks, study cases, answer Socratic questions posed by more experienced clinicians, and most importantly, learn by seeing numerous patients and accumulating experience. After graduating medical school, it seems that most doctors learn by conferring with one another, reading journals, and attending conferences.

But the more information there is, the more time it takes to access and acquire new knowledge, and the harder it becomes for individual physicians to keep up.

You can be sure that corporations are well aware of this. On the patient side, of course, Dr. Google already provides incredible ease of access to knowledge and profits handsomely from selling ads to consumers. Pharmaceutical companies know more about my prescribing practices than I do, which fuels their targeted marketing efforts. More ambitiously, IBM's Watson Health Cloud promises to "bring together clinical, research and social data from a diverse range of health sources, creating a secure, cloud-based data sharing hub, powered by the most advanced cognitive and analytic technologies." And as much as I panned athenahealth's advertising in an earlier post, the electronic medical record companies will certainly find clever ways of profiting from the vast troves of health care data that they accumulate. And doctors are paying for the privilege of providing that information to them!

At least SERMO ("the most trusted and preferred social network for doctors") pays doctors for completing surveys, but you can be sure that they're in the same game. They keep their service free by monetizing the attention and knowledge of doctors: "Organizations seeking physician expertise, such as pharmaceutical companies, medical device firms, and biotechs, underwrite the market research and sponsorship opportunities within our site."

So what options are available for doctors who want to share their knowledge with each other free from the confines of a data mining operation? Of course, we can still consult with colleagues the old fashioned way, either in person or by phone. But after having these conversations, the knowledge still resides in the brains of people, not easily accessible to future doctors who may run into similar situations. Our professional associations post practice guidelines that hardly anyone reads, and at annual meetings, there are opportunities to meet with expert clinicians to discuss cases, which seems terribly inefficient. What about higher-tech options? There are numerous subscription services that provide summaries of research studies, but I believe that the patients doctors see do not necessarily resemble those who sign up for clinical trials. There are electronic mailing lists in which doctors can discuss cases, and which allow members to search through previous conversations. And there's wikidoc, a free wikipedia for doctors. However, these options are used by very few doctors and are paltry efforts next to the commercial ambitions of Big Data.

With all these business interests aiming to aggregate and profit from the knowledge of doctors, is there anything that the medical profession can do to avoid having our knowledge become some company's proprietary intellectual property?

I don't claim to have the answers, but I will explore some ideas in Part II. Stay tuned…

Friday, August 28, 2015

The Old Man: A Story

Part I

The first time I met the old man was during my residency interviews. He was spry and looked younger than his age, and why not? He was at the top of his game: head of a department, boatloads of research funding, one of the most well-known psychiatrists around. Another psychiatry department chair who had interviewed me previously hinted that the old man was quite a businessman and enjoyed cozy relations with industry.

As he asked me his first question, the old man practically winked: "So, are you single, in a relationship, or married, or what?" That was my first hint that he might not be the most ethically-inclined individual. I had been told by my medical school before interview season that such personal questions were definitely off limits. Yet he made his greeting seem like the most natural and friendly thing in the world.

Part II

The old man was fuming. He was supposed to be giving a talk on depression treatment, but what seemed to preoccupy his mind was a just-published study from Irving Kirsch suggesting that antidepressants were not better than placebo for mild to moderate depression. Our speaker seemed deeply and personally offended. After many words assailing Kirsch's motives, he concluded: "Even if it's no better than placebo, it doesn't mean we shouldn't treat the patient!" Almost sounded like advice from Allen Frances, but twisted.

Part III

By random chance, I saw the old man again recently, when I was going out to dinner in the city where he lives. There he was, walking down the sidewalk with his wife, right past where I had just parked my car. He was wearing a sweatshirt with the name of his university employer on it. I'd never seen him out of a suit before. I thought he seemed older, frumpier, humbled. Or perhaps that was just my wishful thinking?

A lot has happened since the last time I saw him. He was no longer the department chair, replaced by someone known for work related to ethics. I briefly considered going up to him and saying something, but what? "Thank you for being an example of what not to aspire to?" Or, "That's a very plain-looking sweatshirt; did all your industry funding dry up?" Poor sportsmanship and too passive-aggressive. I briefly imagined following him down the sidewalk, yelling: "Shame, shame, shame!"  But he probably would've mistaken me for a Scientologist or something.