2020 – a new blank slate

Matula Thoughts 3 January 2020

A new blank slate

2376 words

One.

 

Tabula Rasa 2020.

Optimists begin New Years with clean slates. Most people negotiate internal tension between optimism and pessimism, but the sense of opportunity that comes with a new year generally tilts the balance toward optimism and the chance to start anew with mistakes and sins of the past perhaps forgotten, if not forgiven. The blank slate, though, is only a metaphor; each year ahead will build on stories of the past – history – and the contingencies of immediate moments. [Above: Blank wax tablet.Wikipedia.]

The new year, next decade, and century ahead for Michigan Urology, may be shaped by the century that unfurled after Hugh Cabot came to Ann Arbor late in 1919, but the critical determinants of the future will be the ingenuity, industry, and success of our educational programs, research, and clinical delivery. The idea that the essential deliverable of academic medicine is patient care, while not historically prominent, is absolutely clear today. That essential deliverable, as we have said in our department of urology for some years, is kind and excellent clinical care, thoroughly integrated with education and innovation. With that, as the “North Star,” navigation becomes simple.

The Latin phrase tabula rasa originates from blank slates or waxed tablets that, after erasure of chalk or melting the wax, are available for fresh notation. Aristotle was one of the early thinkers who likened the mind to a clean writing slate and Avicenna, Thomas Aquinas, and John Locke, among many others, expanded the idea until modern neurobiology brought science to the matter. Metaphors are merely tools for thinking and communication, not absolute “true facts” that Don Coffey sought to recognize amidst the litter of contemporary information. Steven Pinker’s book of 2002,Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature, calls out the metaphor and explains that human behavior is not constructed on a blank slate, or tabula rasa, but is heavily programed. [See Pinker’s TED Talks 2008 and 2019.]

Blank Slate is also the clever name for an Ann Arbor Ice cream shop, the actual ice cream serving as a medium for an ingenious palate of flavors. Ice cream, one of the great inventions of humankind, is a delight in any season, although winter demand slackens enough for the Creamery to close up for the coldest months (above at Liberty and S. First Streets). Having borrowed the metaphor for this monthly message, I was duty bound to ask (and receive) permission from Michigan grad Janice Sigler who opened Blank Slate in July, 2014, with her husband.

 

Two.

January 1920 was an optimistic time for Hugh Cabot in Ann Arbor at a high point of his career. Modern Urology, his noteworthy 1918 textbook, capped his 15 year rise to central authority in the field. An early volunteer for the European conflict, well before American entry made it a world war, Cabot commanded a 2,500-bed general hospital on the Western Front by war’s end. His return to Boston at the end of January 1919 was front-page news in the Boston Herald, although not without glitches. Cabot’s team of doctors and nurses was blocked from leaving the train at the Boston station where a reception was waiting for them. A military authority ordered the ensemble to remain on the train and continue on the train to Camp Devon, Massachusetts and then New York City for official discharge of duties. After discussion Cabot declined the order and the entire medical team disembarked from the train to join the waiting reception and then dispersed into the crowd to resume civilian life. [Below: Boston Herald. Front page. “Harvard Surgical Unit held prisoners by error on arrival in Boston.” January 31, 1919.]

As Cabot resumed civilian life the world seemed enroute to a better future in terms of public health, geopolitics, economics, technology, and art. The devastating Great Influenza Epidemic was over, but other pandemics followed. Geopolitical solutions to WWI would pave the way to WWII and later conflicts. The economic world collapsed in less than a decade. Rapid advances of technology that seemed so wonderful in the early 20thcentury proved two-sided by century-end with antibiotic resistant bacteria threatening food safety, robots displacing jobs, computer malware holding businesses and cities hostage, identity theft via internet, and social media manipulation of public elections. The public eagerly embraces Orwellian Big Brother – reassuringly renamed Alexa, Hey Google, and Siri – with ubiquitous cameras on streets and in homes paving the way to authoritarian control of society through artificial intelligence.

 

Three.

The “blank slate” of the new year, brings to mind resolutions and the human itch for personal mastery of something – work, play, family, or hobby. Just as they were once inspired, Bach and Casals are posthumously inspiring future composers and musicians today. The cello suites have had a remarkable 300-year journey since Bach started writing them as exercises for his young wife in 1717. Casals discovered the largely-forgotten music in a shop in 1890 and mastered its performance by 1896 when he became principal cellist in Barcelona at the Gran Teatre del Liceu. [Below: Title page of Anna Magdalena Bach‘s manuscript: Suites á Violoncello Solo Senza Basso. Wikipedia.]

Casals had ups and downs, like everyone, but the worst immobilized him for two weeks in 1939 when he didn’t leave his room in Paris, exhausted from recording the six Bach suites (Casals hated the recording process) and despairing over Franco’s take-over of Spain. Casals was thoroughly burned out, although the favored terminology of the time described him as emotionally exhausted and depressed. Thankfully, he rebounded and his career reached new heights. Nearly 20 years later, at age 80, he married 20-year-old Marta Montañez y Martinez, dismissing concerns over their age discrepancy: “I look at it this way: if she dies, she dies!” [Cesare Civetta. Mar 14, 2018. “Pablo Casals sacrificed his career to protest Franco.” https://CesareCivetta.com/blog] [Below: From Encyclopaedia Britannica, Pablo Casals, 1965. Erich Auerbach, photograph, Hulton Archive/Getty Images.]

The inspiration of the suites lives on: Yo-Yo Ma was inspired by Bach’s cello suites at age 4 and today, at 64, travels six continents to perform all six suites in single sittings at 36 locations.

Combustion control has been a defining feature of our species beginning around campfires for comfort, cooking, and conversation. Heat may erase tabula rasas, but metaphoric self-combustion in modern society seems a new thing. It is not clear when burnout is a “legitimate” dysfunction or an extension of quotidian fatigue? That state of reduced personal efficacy, emotional exhaustion, and depersonalization describes the condition today called burnout, that suddenly, it seems, has become epidemic in many professions, including health care. Conferences, surveys, and editorials proliferate and  medicalize the matter. The Lancet offered a useful perspective in an editorial, Physician burnout: the need to rehumanise health systems. The wording is counterintuitive – the “rehumanization” of human health care. [The Lancet. 394: 1591, 2019.]

 

Four.

So how is it that health care became “dehumanized”– that very suggestion seems to be an oxymoron, a contradiction in terms, as René Magritte cleverly depicted in his surreal paintings such as the 1953 Wonders of Nature (©René Magritte). The dehumanization phenomenon in medicine seems linked to the systematization, corporatization, and commoditization of healthcare. Systems are necessary in modern healthcare, of course, but the displacement of what historically was called the doctor-patient relationship with checklists, guidelines, and clinical pathways distracts from the human element. The EHR-directed patient “encounters” have largely replaced the narratives of the human conditions wrapped-up in taking “the history.”. Corporate medicine is quickly replacing small practices and bringing with it tainted ideas of business management, specifically the failed ideas of Taylorism, managerial accounting, and the North Star of shareholder value.

The idea of the limited liability corporation has largely built the modern world, as human society has given corporations many special rights such as limited liability, free speech, and some special benefits that ordinary people cannot have. (Back around 2003 Julian Wan gave me a book that explains this – The Company – A Short History of a Revolutionary Idea, by John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge.) Undeclared but implicit in that Victorian innovation is a social contract that businesses exist not merely for shareholder value, but more broadly for stakeholder value – jobs, employees, benefits, suppliers, community – and for value to society-at-large, the most important stakeholder of all.

It is natural that some parts of health care are legitimate commodities, functioning optimally in a market-based economy without the necessity of an intermediary professional agent. Examples are many – flu shots, over-the counter medications, food supplements, and countless others. Other healthcare functions are complex, multilayered, and highly professional, such as renal transplantation, mental health treatment, and management of malignancy. In between these extremes are the essential transactions of visits to physicians, dental care, emergency department visits, orthopaedic care, periodic eye care, and treatment of urologic conditions – these are a mix of commodity and profession. The arbitrage of those two elements of society is an endless conversation.

The extension of personal mastery in one’s subject of choice, whether by New Year Resolution or not, is self-vaccination against burnout. The enhanced personal well-being can re-humanize your medical workplace in more ways than this essay can explain. Recently, up in Flint at the Hamilton Community Health Center, Mike Giacalone, Jr., the Chief Medical Officer, was explaining Hamilton to interviewing journalists and said that for the Flint patients, “every visit is not just a medical visit, but equally so a social, economic, and behavioral visit as well.” While particularly relevant in Flint, this should be a universal aspiration in health care. The medical gaze should try to “take it all in” and triage the needs of a patient and family as best possible, in spite of the rigidity of the EHR- constrained medical encounter programmed around a chief complaint.

 

Five.

Media and messages. Whether the medium is ice cream, canvas, blank paper, musical instrument, computer screen, stage, construction site, clinic room, operating room, or learner – artistry can be performed.

Everyone is a lifelong learner, but the health care field demands special attention. Undergraduates and beginning medical students are the most impressionable blank slates and for that reason the responsibility of role models, teachers, and mentors is perhaps the greatest for them among the learners we teach. For many of the younger set their first experiences seeing a physician, nurse, or physician’s assistant at work (sometimes in instances of personal care of a UTI, stone, or surgical correction) imprints and fosters a lifelong pursuit. Whenever possible, these opportunities for shadowing or introductory teaching should be embraced. Residency training, however, is the most critical blank slate of all in medicine, fashioning the knowledge, skills, artistry, and professionalism for a career. [Images above & below from “the internet.”]

Blank slates are opportunities, but risk erasure of the past although that is necessary with wax tablets and chalkboards. Parchment and paper were a big improvement allowing durable manuscripts and books, still at risk from fire (accidental or intentional) or other forms of destruction or deterioration. The new world of digital information carried the conceit that humans could become “paperless”, but that is ultimately not only impractical but also a genuinely bad idea for free societies.

When governments, sectarian authorities, or corporatocracies control printing presses, airwaves, or other social media – society is captive to a few reigning opinions because inconvenient stories, opinions, ideas, or truths are conveniently avoided or erased. Clever memes and tweets easily subvert social groups and human ideals. One great feature of the human condition is the testing and synergism of opinions, ideas, and technologies that can build civilization for the greater good of mankind and sustainability of the planet. The central idea of free speech at the heart of civilization, is being sorely tested by the unexpected opportunities of modern technological social media.

From our parochial perspective in the art and business of health care, erasure of history is an especially unfortunate reality, but we see it with each change of technology in health records. The operative procedure notes and pathology reports from the earlier part of my career seem to have vanished with the paper records we utilized when I started here in Ann Arbor, as I have learned when trying to answer requests from people regarding, say, an exstrophy closure operative report in the 1940’s, a hospital course in the 1960’s, or thyroidectomy pathology findings from the 1970s. Those floppy discs we had in the 1980s and zip-drives of the 1990s are increasingly difficult to access as obsolete technologies disappear. No one today can ensure that the massive data in electronic records will be converted to the media of the future – it seems unlikely that the “data cloud” of 2020 will be maintained in a future data cloud or its equivalent of 2050.

When Ed McGuire brought me to Ann Arbor in 1984 my blank slates were 3×5 index cards and the newly launched Macintosh Computer. Our hospital then had separate inpatient and outpatient paper charts. The Surgery Department administrators cautioned me to not get used to my Apple Computer as UM was preparing to launch the Wang Computer System. I didn’t listen – but still have the cards (one for with every patient I saw at Michigan) and that original Macintosh (now a book end).

 

Postscript

Matula Thoughts analytics, 2019. We have no sense of the total readership of the monthly What’s New delivered by email, but the web version matulathoughts.org has levelled off at 3357 views and 2199 visitors from 78 countries as of 31 December 2019, down from 3458 views, 2226 visitors from 89 countries in 2018, probably due to personal retreat from the chair position of the Urology Department at the University of Michigan. This past year we shortened the essay from 10 to 5 numbered items and dropped the word count to 2000 or so, although still far less convenient than a 140-character microblog tweet.

This leveling-off of Matula Thoughts recalls the Hippocratic Aphorism: Art is long, life is short, opportunity fleeting, experience hazardous, and judgment difficult. Other interpretations of the Ancient Greek vary the nuance and words, but clearly this personal essay, the first Friday of each month, is anachronistic and risky in offering personal judgments and observations. Those facts are more than balanced by the personal delight in hearing back from a handful of readers each month, thus extending these essays to dialogue and conversation, challenging facts, pointing out errors, and teaching me. Comments last month were especially appreciated. For all these, thank you.

 

David A. Bloom

Department of Urology

University of Michigan, Ann Arbor

January 5, 2018

DAB What’s New Jan 5, 2018

New year thoughts
3899 words

 

One.
Dripping icicles are picturesque winter images, although this week’s massive winter storm, Grayson, extending from Florida to Maine disrupted any nostalgic thoughts of snow and ice. The icicles photographed from my study window (above) echo the pendant spikes painted by Pieter Bruegel the Elder in Massacre of the Innocents circa 1565-67.

Bruegel’s icicles (above) look charming enough, until you view the grim larger work (below – original at Queens Gallery, British Royal Collection). One broken icicle is falling in response to men kicking in an adjacent door. The actual painting has a complex history of paint-overs transforming it from grisly slaughter of babies to the plundering of a village.

So, too, the larger work of today’s climate gives the icicle a chilling perspective, as it brings to mind the Greenland Glaciers, among other melting ice forms.

Although water’s origin on earth remains controversial, water is one of the key things astronomers seek when evaluating other planets that could initiate or sustain life. Water, so central to life, is a synonym in medicine for urine, amniotic fluid, ventricular fluid, lymphatic fluid, and other waters of our bodies. Frozen water in the form of sea ice and glaciers, more or less stable for the past 10,000 years, is melting at an extraordinary rate, threatening the delicate balance of planetary life.

A startling image from the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) website shows how little the Earth’s water  compares to the volume of the earth itself. Paraphrasing from the USGS website:

The three blue spheres below represent relative volumes of Earth’s water in comparison to the size of the Earth. In comparison to the volume of the globe, the amount of planetary water is small; oceans account for only a thin veneer of water on the surface.

The largest blue sphere represents all of Earth’s water. Its diameter is 860 miles (the distance from Salt Lake City, Utah, to Topeka, Kansas) and has a volume of about 332,500,000 cubic miles (1,386,000,000 cubic kilometers). This includes all of the water in the oceans, ice caps, lakes, rivers, groundwater, atmospheric water, and even the water in living creatures.
The blue sphere over Kentucky represents the world’s liquid fresh water (groundwater, lakes, swamp water, and rivers). The volume comes to about 2,551,100 mi3 (10,633,450 km3), of which 99 percent is groundwater, much of which is not easily accessible. The diameter of this sphere is about 169.5 miles (272.8 kilometers).
The tiny bubble over Atlanta, Georgia represents fresh water in all the lakes and rivers on the planet. Most water that life on earth needs every day comes from these surface-water sources. The volume of this sphere is about 22,339 mi3 (93,113 km3). The diameter of this sphere is about 34.9 miles (56.2 kilometers). By comparison, Lake Michigan looks way bigger than this sphere, but you have to imagine the bubble is almost 35 miles high—whereas the average depth of Lake Michigan is less than 300 feet (91 meters). [With permission, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute. Credit: Howard Perlman USGS, globe illustration Jack Cook, Copyright Adam Nieman.]

 

Two.

Dividing human moments into calendar years, we “start fresh” each new year with renewed opportunities to explore the world intellectually and geographically. The globe of the Earth is a tool and metaphor for human exploration as well as a visual remonstration to the “Flat Earth Society.” The globes shown above are displayed in a hallway in the Harlan Hatcher Library. If you work here at the University of Michigan or even if you don’t, but happen to be in Ann Arbor and want to explore the campus, “check it out,” when you have time.

Interrogation of the moment has been a uniquely biologic phenomenon. A rock is not aware of its environment even though it is affected by it. The rock cannot consider the things around it nor empathize with whatever it may roll down upon. Our human predecessors well before Aristotle thought about matters like this (they called them metaphysical) and passed these thoughts to their successors. When language and technology permitted, these metaphysical considerations were made somewhat durable in writing.

Biology shows that humans are not unique in this capacity of interrogation, even microorganisms react and respond to their microenvironments and communicate among themselves. All biologic creatures interrogate their moments, but our species has learned to do this very well and pass along observations for future generations to consider. We do this unwittingly by epigenetic management of our DNA and purposefully through our ideas, our culture, our objects, our written language, and our sports, as seen below in interrogation of the moment by Michigan quarterback John O’Korn during Ohio State game. [From Sincock Suite. November 25, 2017. Sony 24-240 FE]

Standing at the threshold of coexistence with systems built around artificial intelligence, we are now affected by their ability to interrogate us and to increasing degrees we are transferring many decision-making powers of our human agency to these systems.

 

Three.
Imagined Expectations. It may seem premature in this calendar year to mention Abraham Lincoln. Most any month but January provides a good excuse to think about Lincoln. His birthday was in February, 1819 and next month it will be the 199th anniversary. He died in April, 1865. His most famous speech, The Gettysburg Address, was in November, 1863. What brings him to my mind just now, however, is the starting sentence of that speech on November 19: “Fourscore and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.”

Lincoln’s remarkable use of the phrase “fourscore and seven” converted a mundane metric of 87 into a poetic measure of time. He was referring to the age of our nation, but that measure of time also equates to one very fortunate human life span, although for Lincoln’s time, in the antebellum South of the U.S., the average life expectation for a white male was 38.3 and 40.5 for a white female. I couldn’t find equivalent data for other men and women of color until 1900 when it was 32.5 for males and 35 for women. All such data is a suspect approximation for reality, and means little to the particular story of any individual man or woman.

My point here, admittedly a bit strained, is that our limited personal solar cycles provide a single human the opportunity to interrogate one’s times and world, so as to navigate it well and possibly to improve it for successors. Borrowing from Lincoln, three score and ten is a more typical fortunate expectation for most of us, given the personal good luck of health, security, and opportunity that communities and governments should provide. Four score and seven is a very optimistic expectation, and for that the luck and security of health is essential.

An individual human’s expiration date hinges on genetics, luck, opportunity, choices, and the general randomness of events. For me, as a youngster growing up in the rhetoric of the Korean War, McCarthyism politics, nuclear war anxiety, air-raid drills at school, and the personal insecurity of one’s own potential and relevance, the mere idea of surviving into the 21st century seemed fanciful. Yet here we are in 2018.

 

Four.

Dee Fenner, the new chair of the OB GYN Department, is a perfect choice for Michigan Medicine (seen above with husband Charlie at autumn DEI reception). Dee is a world-renown gynecologist, a superb educator, and a first-rate administrator who has gained the respect of her colleagues at Michigan in her numerous administrative responsibilities. She also holds a joint appointment with Urology, along with 3 other members of her team. Since the days when Ed McGuire was Section Head of Urology, our departments have had a close relationship. I well remember my earliest days here when Ed and John DeLancey had a combined pelvic floor dysfunction clinic on Saturdays. Dee and I met shortly before she returned to Michigan. We were in Paris at a WHO Consensus Conference in 2001 and by coincidence found ourselves in a pen shop as the only Americans.

Words of praise are due for Tim Johnson, the outgoing chair of OB GYN and a friend of urology for the 24 years of his successive terms. Few figures in his field have generated equal respect for leadership in national and international OB GYN. His work in Ghana is legendary. Tim brought his department at Michigan into the 21st century with superb clinical divisions, excellent faculty, coveted educational programs, and worthy contributions to the knowledge of his field. Tim has been a stalwart force in the domain of women’s rights. His sense of the centrality of the essential deliverable of kind and excellent patient-centered care (if you permit me some repetitiveness) has made him a terrific colleague. His department consistently and superbly delivers its products (forgive the relevant pun).

Sad news on the recent passing of Rudi Ansbacher, emeritus professor of OB GYN and a remarkable colleague.

 

Five.
Matula Thoughts, recap. Throughout the millennia of human history clues to predict the future have been highly prized, especially so when a given future is related to health. Entrepreneurial “healers” utilized external cues from the heavens, weather, tea leaves, or playing cards to prognosticate outcomes, although the logic of using physical evidence from patients or their byproducts was evident to early practitioners. Like most other mammals, humans share the trait of personal interest in their urine, and are particularly attentive when it is abnormal during illness. Hippocratic writings documented uroscopy, as examination of urine came to be called 2500 years ago, and over the ensuing millennia the practice attained imaginative prognostications as healers examined the gross characteristics of urine in flasks called matulas to speculate on the course of an illness. The visual image of a “piss prophet” gazing at a matula served as a main symbol of physicians until only about 200 years ago when the stethoscope replaced the flask as medicine’s badge of office.

We began this electronic journal nearly 18 years ago with a respectful tip of the matula to the essayist Michel Eyquem de Montaigne who began his eclectic personal observations around 1572 at 39 years of age. That was a turbulent time, notable in Europe for the sieges of Sancerre and Haarlem, in South America for the fall of the last independent remnant of the Inca Empire, and in the heavens for the first observation of Supernova SN 1572, that Tycho Brahe gave as evidence that stars are changeable. Montaigne was likely unaware of most big events of that year, but he was certainly acquainted with physicians and matulas, given that his father purportedly died of urinary stone disease and Montaigne himself began to suffer from them in 1578.

What impulses compel us humans to foist our personal observations and thoughts on our fellows may someday be revealed through the matula’s diagnostic successors such as the MRI and other marvels of imagination, but there is no arguing that those impulses are strong and prevalent. This monthly newsletter started in Allen Lichter’s dean’s office in 2000 as a way to interact with those among our faculty willing to consider some thoughts from a colleague. Admittedly, I wrote this column called What’s New as much for myself as any potential readers, but it became a pleasant habit to send out the first Friday of each month. Becoming chair of the University of Michigan Urology Department in 2007 the monthly column transitioned to our faculty, residents, staff, alumni, and friends. What’s New has served us well, connecting us to many of our intended audience and beyond. Some recipients kindly forward What’s New to their friends, although the extent of that particular reach is mostly unknown except for occasional readers who have contacted or commented to me as a result.

 

Six.
We began a parallel version of What’s New in March, 2013, on a website labelled Matula Thoughts. This version allows us to archive the monthly columns, thereby minimizing duplication and providing the unexpected voyeuristic capability of showing the numbers and distribution of web-version readers. Likely only some of them read this carefully, while most probably glance or sprint through it. Nonetheless, the surprising numbers and distribution are evidence of the internet’s ability to connect the world. [Screenshot below – 2017 statistics page of Matula Thoughts.]

Matula Thoughts, had over 2,300 views last year, ranging from single viewers in 24 countries, 2 viewers in 6 countries, and 3 in 11 countries. Forty-one countries had 4-85 views and the US had 2364 views as of mid-December, the map showing stats for the readership in 11.5 months of 2017. It has been enjoyable to hear from, or run into, the occasional reader of the web version.

With a new chair of the Urology Department, presumably this calendar year, What’s New may be continued or another vehicle of departmental communication may be utilized, but in either case Matula Thoughts will remain in its online form (matulathoughts.org) as long as I’m able and a readership exists. These spaces will continue to be filled by matters that catch my attention and may interest some readers.

 

Seven.
Each year has a certain cadence, whether calendar, academic, or fiscal for each of the countless social and business organizations around the globe. The success of a particular person, novice or experienced citizen, in navigating the year is partly contingent on that person’s understanding of the rhythms of work and expectations of their relevant organizations.

In a clinical surgical department, the 24/7 expectations of stakeholders set the central cadence for our essential deliverable – kind and excellent patient care. The stakeholders are patients, families, trainees, staff, faculty, referring health care providers, colleagues in other departments, and the community. Around this we build our educational conferences, work schedules, training cycles, maintenance of professional certification, peer review cycles, promotional steps, reappointment sequences, and social events such as our Holiday Party that last month hosted 400 people and 115 children who had encounters and gifts from Santa. As our department has grown large this event seems to have become increasingly treasured and is the single occasion to aggregate the greater part of our complex team.

The cadence of the new chair search will capture our attention. In the case of Dee Fenner and the OB Gyn Department the process took around 6 months. Dee was the natural choice and had passed up a number of other prestigious offers from other institutions in order to remain at Michigan. At this point she is the only other chair here to have a joint appointment with our department.

 

Eight.
Breakthrough of the year. Science, the AAAS journal, began a feature called Molecule of the Year in 1989, following Time Magazine’s Man of the Year that had started in 1927. Wikipedia relates that Time’s cover was originally a response to its embarrassment earlier that year in failing to put Charles Lindbergh on the cover following his trans-Atlantic flight. As the Man of the Year expanded to including all persons, as well as groups (in 1960 it was U.S. Scientists), ideas, or objects, so too did the Molecule of the Year to become the Breakthrough of the Year.

Science named the observation of cosmic convergence, a violent merger of two neutron stars on 17 August as the scientific breakthrough of 2017. Runners-up included cryo-electron microscopy observations on organic molecular function, thermoluminescence dating of early human roots, pinpoint gene editing techniques, preprint sharing in life sciences, FDA approval for checkpoint inhibitors, discovery of a new living species of Hominidae (the Pongo tapanuliensis orangutan), recovery of 2.7 million-year-old ice cores that contain ancient atmosphere (with CO2 levels under 300 ppm), and successful gene therapy for spinal muscular atrophy 1. Once again, biology dominated the main scientific achievements of the year.

 

Nine.

Disclaimer. Because of a few skunks in academic medicine, speakers at nearly every medical presentation around the world declare absence, or occasionally presence, of “conflict of interests.” Mostly these are silly declarations, and effective skunks either lie or mislead audiences with their declarations. It is easy to mislead others, because all social transactions, especially those in health care and in academia, are built on trust.

The necessary velocity and fluidity in science and medicine preclude extensive authentication and verification in real time. For example, when a colleague tells you that a serum creatinine is 0.8, you accept that as fact. Mistakes may happen in our workplaces, but they should sharpen our attention to truth and not let false facts become a way of life. Once, however, deliberate lies or plagiarism are revealed trust should never easily be restored. The cutting and pasting that has become so easy, indeed almost necessary, in the modern electronic medical record allows a very seamless slip from mistake to deceit, once a clinician starts to lose the sense of individuality of patients. When a physician loses that appreciation of the uniqueness of a patient, a history and physical for, let’s say a boy with undescended testicle, can be “generalizable.” Checking off a few boxes, or even cutting and pasting an entire H&P, is certainly more efficient than asking questions, observing the patient and family, and examining the child. This is akin to Paul Simon’s cynical song, The Myth of Fingerprints.

Another associated, yet perhaps minor, gripe I have with the EHR occurs in the operating room, when at the end of a procedure in the well-intended, but tedious “time out” I am asked to describe the blood loss. My claim of “minimal” is always rejected because the computer only allows a number. In many cases a tiny bit of red can be seen, but is it 0.5 ml or 5.0 ml? It is somewhere in that range, but unmeasurable, insignificant, and inconsequential. When I am asked to fabricate a number, my mind rebels and when I do come up with a number it feels more like a lie than a guess.

Anyway, with the start of a new calendar year I thought a disclaimer would be useful. Therefore, let me state that I seem to have no conflict of interest or conflict of commitment that would steer the comments in What’s New/Matula Thoughts to any drug, product, political party, or ideology outside of belief in liberal democracy (life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness under representational government), public education, planetary conservation, social justice, and The University of Michigan. The thoughts herein, unless authorship is otherwise specified, represent mine alone. I don’t necessarily speak for our Department of Urology, Michigan Medicine, The University of Michigan, the State of Michigan, the United States, or the United Nations.

Hoping you are comfortable with these statements, I invite you to peruse, delete, comment upon, or forward What’s New (the email version) or Matula Thoughts (the web-site version) this new year of 2018. What’s New is a hint that we offer some news from our academic department and health center. Matula Thoughts is a term that hinges on an ancient symbol of the medical profession that was a transparent flask used to examine urine, one of the few clues to disease that ancient caregivers had available. The matula was replaced by Laennec’s invention of the stethoscope in 1816 in Paris, but both tools reinforce the threatened idea that physicians should look at and listen to their patients.

 

Ten.

 

The new year, 2018, began with Michigan’s appearance at the Outback Bowl in Florida four days ago and many red moustaches and haircuts in support of the Chad Tough Campaign for brain tumor research.

Alon Weizer is Acting Chair of our department for the next three months. This cycling of our associate chairs has been healthy for the department and for me. During this time I’ll be working on the UMMG Bylaws, helping re-activate our Michigan PAC, laying out plans for our centennial, and continuing some development efforts, and remaining active with the Hamilton Community Health Center and its board.

Some people have queried the administrative structure of our department. Our basic backbone is the Senior Clinical Management team, composed of our division heads, our residency program director, and our peer-review quality officer. The associate chairs have responsibilities that transcend divisions, for example the research portfolio, faculty affairs, operating room distribution, in-patient clinical operations, and ambulatory care management. Our ultimate responsibility, day-in and day-out, is the essential deliverable of kind and excellent patient care. Michigan Medicine, our other departments, the community, referring physicians, and the University of Michigan depend on our ability to do this very well. This essential deliverable is also our primary financial engine, as we defend and expand our markets. It should go without saying that these markets are clinical, educational, and academic markets.

We have been fortunate over the past 2 decades of Jim Montie’s and my terms in delivering our particular essential deliverable and in defending and expanding our markets. Few could find major deficits in those regards, as our external review by Mark Litwin, Ed Sabanegh, and Bradley Leibovich pointed out recently. However, the waters ahead will be turbulent and we will need a steady and resourceful hand who enjoys the support of our faculty.

This winter, a search committee convened by our deans is in the process of finding candidates for leadership for our department. Having experienced one disastrous change of leadership for Urology after Ed McGuire left us for Texas in 1992, we are aware of the risks of change, but our deans and the search committee at hand give us confidence in a good outcome. With superb division heads and associate chairs in place we have a very strong and deep bench. If there is a better external candidate on the planet, good for us, but it would be hard to beat our bench.

I don’t think I’ve left too many administrative problems for Alon, after all we have finished our main work of the cycles of reconciliation of FY 17 and planning for FY 19, on-boarding of new faculty, academic promotions, and residency recruitment. Alon will oversee the daily operations and occasional crises inherent to any business with several hundred employees, clinics at 16 sites, surgical teams at 9 locations, training of 28 residents and fellows, six separate investigative teams, etc.

Our new relationship with West Shore Urology in Muskegon has energized us and created a new reach to the west side of the state. The growing relationship with Mid-Michigan and with Metro Hospital also offer great opportunities. Our efforts with the Hamilton Community Health Network in Flint continue as well, and I’m especially grateful to members of our urology department and a few other UM departments who have participated in this important connection.

A busy year and a half lies ahead. In February we should hear the names of the new resident trainees to join our department. Our Departmental Retreat, April 14, will take stock of where we stand and where we are headed. The Teeter Symposium, May 4, will survey our work with bladder cancer. The Nesbit Alumni Reception at the AUA will be held on Sunday May 20 in San Francisco. During the Art Fair Season the Chang Lecture on Art and Medicine July 19 will inaugurate a new residency training season. The next day Hadley Wood of the Cleveland Clinic and Rosalia Misseri of Riley Children’s Hospital in Indianapolis will be the Duckett and Lapides Lecturers. The biennial Dow Health Services Research Symposium will take place September 13 and 14. Our own alumnus, Toby Chai of Yale University, will be Nesbit Alumni Visiting Professor September 20-22. The Montie Uro-Oncology Lecture is planned for early 2019, and later that year we will begin our Urology Centennial Celebrations to transition into the second century of urology at the University of Michigan, under improved new management, by then.

 

Thank you and Happy New Year from the Department of Urology of the University of Michigan.

 

David A. Bloom
University of Michigan, Department of Urology, Ann Arbor