A new bilingual anthology of contemporary Yiddish poetry!

Very exciting, and not just because I am represented (and helped with the translating).

"It is precisely [the] remarkable and idiosyncratic character of Yiddish, which bridges languages, cultures, 'worlds of geography and universal human spaces', that shines through this anthology of contemporary Yiddish poetry. Inspired by Peter Yankl Conzen’s poetry and his deep knowledge of the Yiddish literary tradition, Step by Step. Contemporary Yiddish Poetry brings together the voices of contemporary Yiddish poets from throughout the world."

Buy it here.


God, Doctor, and Patient: The Uncomfortable Hospital Triad

I would never pray with a patient at the bedside. What doctor has time to talk about God? And who knows whether a patient will find the suggestion of prayer offensive, helpful, or rapport-building? Most of us doctors, when we think about prayer at all, keep it as far from our work as possible. I am an observant Jew, yarmulke wearing and Sabbath observing, and I pray three times a day. But never would I mention to my colleagues a word about my daily spiritual practice. We are practitioners of our own esoteric art, which we like to pretend is uncontaminated by outside influence, and our white coats are not cassocks. Even when an appreciation of religion might be of some use, we make an extra effort to keep it at a distance. When patients are about to die, or when our care is serving only to prolong suffering, we delegate the hard questions to highly trained ethicists sharing our worldview. When there's nothing left but to commend a patient's soul to its maker, we murmur something about "medical futility."

Thus the small but growing scientific literature linking prayer to health is discussed by nobody in my circles. It's in the same category as "alternative" medicine (acupuncture, Chinese therapies, ayurvedic medicine, and the like) or, for that matter, most of psychology - areas worth dabbling in but never imagined by orthodox practitioners as primary to the profession. Once organic causes have been thoroughly "worked up" (through appropriate technologies and laboratory tests), then we are free to speculate about the psychological and spiritual realms, usually with a cocked eyebrow or an eye on the clock.

What would it mean for prayer to help the sick? It's a question linked to others great philosophers have plumbed and foundered on: the existence of evil, God's relationship to prayer, the necessity of any belief in God at all when one prays. One might think that the scientific literature shouldn't find the problem as difficult as the philosophers - just find an objective measure of "prayer" and "help." But objective measures of prayer are precisely what are lacking, as psychologists Kevin Masters and Glen Spielmans explained in a review published in the Journal of Behavioral Medicine in 2007: what the field needs are "experimental studies based on conceptual models that include precise operationally defined constructs [and] longitudinal investigations with proper measure of control variables." In other words, we're back to the same issues: what is prayer? And how do we tell what is the effect of prayer, and not merely the nonspecific warmth of human companionship?

God is most relevant to me at work for different reasons. I'm a medical resident in his final year whose routine usually involves others' tragedy. Religion in my practice is usually evident only as a wedge between what I want and what patients - and, more often, patients' families - want. Enveloped by a medical culture which is difficult to step outside, I often catch myself assuming with an unquestioning certainty exactly what should happen in a given case: this person over here is worth treating (from a "medical" perspective - that is, from the perspective of my guild), there is progress to be made here, and we should try to convince the patient and family of this; or, conversely, there is "nothing to treat here," and any protestations to the contrary are due to delusion, illusion, or "cultural differences," a common euphemism which includes religion. Often it happens that religious patients and their families want more care than we doctors want. This is frustrating for me as a religious person: what's the point of all the spiritualism if it only blocks lines of communication between doctor and patient?

As in the case of prayer and health, the issue of end-of-life care for religious patients (and their families) can be illuminated through empirical research where otherwise we might get lost in philosophical byways. In a recent issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association, Holly Prigerson at the Harvard Medical School Center for Palliative Care, together with her colleagues, published a rigorous study of patients who use religious faith to cope with a diagnosis of advanced cancer. Even after controlling for other variables, these patients with "positive religious coping" request and receive more intensive life-prolonging care at the end of life.

In an on-line interview, the authors declined to make recommendations to clinicians based on this conclusion. In the article, however, they observe "because aggressive end-of-life cancer care has been associated with poor quality of death and caregiver bereavement adjustment, intensive end-of-life care might represent a negative outcome for religious copers." This would certainlly justify doctors' bewilderment when dealing with religiously intransigent families. Such families are arguing their loved ones into more days in the ICU and a death entangled in wires and tubes.
Thinking it about it in another way, though - trying as hard as I can to think like the spiritual person I occasionally manage to be outside of work - a scrabbling after every scrap of life, even as it seems to slip inexorably away, is a perfectly religious path. For many religious people, sick or well, the question is not "Does prayer help?" but "How can I manage to pray?" Prayer has no point; its existence is enough. Similarly, I would not be surprised if many religious families viewed the question of "negative outcomes" as just another barrier thrown up to the achievement of transcendence. Life is life. Clinging on to it has no point; the clinging is enough. These days our art of medicine is always accompanied by debates about the evidence, what it is and how one introduces it into practice. While God and God's adherents frustrate me no end while I am trying to get work done in the hospital, I am vivified by those whose attachment to life is circumscribed by something other than evidence.


"This is Dr. Berger. He is visiting Australia to see what a modern medical system looks like."

I spent the day enjoyably. I gave a talk this morning to the folks at VMA General Practice Training, one of a number of provider training centers throughout Australia. (Recently - within the past decade or so - the Australian government has decentralized the training of general practitioners, formerly under the College of General Practitioners, in order to promote competition.) I had a feeling of being at home among people like those at the primary care program I just graduated from. Now, primary care doctors in the US are (with the addition of philosophical self-consciousness and their own advocacy organization) just like internists, while their equivalent in Australia is the GP. Australia is civilized because about half their practitioners are GPs. What struck me was how little difference there seems to be, on a brief first glance, in outlook and sensibility.

Then this afternoon and evening I have been shadowing the clinicians at Parkridge Medical Centre in Melbourne. Besides the obvious differences (namely, that Australia has a "modern medical system" with universal healthcare coverage) I noted, again anecdotally, a relative reluctance to spring first for the pharmaceutical solution, something I know I did as a resident (mere weeks ago!).



I am sorry if my Facebook account is asking you for money, poisoning your cat, writing Ranolazine prescriptions, or performing other unspeakable activity. It were hacked, I tell you! I am trying to fix things as lickety damn split as I can.

But on one foot, some fun Melbourne activities (your mileage may vary):

Eating vegetarian pizza.
Comparing kosher baked goods.
Listening to my daughter sing songs learned in her (temporary but lovely) kindergarten (which they call "kinder" here).
Playing on the beach while discussing (with various people) Yiddish poetry translation, bioethics, and an anti-realist view of scientific theories.
Appreciating the clang of the trams.


What makes it more likely for new prescriptions to be filled?

Recently, some colleagues and I at NYU looked at factors influencing first-fill adherence to new asthma prescriptions. Lower copay and oral administration were associated with greater first fill. See the abstract below and the full paper here.

Lower Copay and Oral Administration: Predictors of First-Fill Adherence to New Asthma Prescriptions

Background: Nonadherence to asthma medications is associated with increased emergency department visits and hospitalizations. If adherence is to be improved, first-fill adherence is thefirst goal to meet after the physician and patient have decided to begin treatment. Little is known about first-fill adherence with asthma medications and the factors for no-fill.

Objective: The goal of the study was to examine the proportion of patients who fill a new prescription for an asthma medication and analyze characteristics associated with this first-fill.

Methods: This retrospective cohort study linked electronic health records with pharmacy claims. The cohort was comprised of 2023 patients aged 18 years or older who sought care from the Geisinger Clinic, had Geisinger Health Plan pharmacy benefits, and were prescribed an asthma medication for the first time between 2002 and 2006. The primary outcome of interest was first-time prescription filled by the patient within 30 days of the prescription order date. Covariates examined included factors related to the patient (ie, age, sex, and ethnicity), comorbidities and utilization (ie, Charlson comorbidity index, number of office visits, number of additional medications), asthma treatment (ie, delivery route, pharmacologic class), and pharmacy co-pay amount. A logistic-regression model was used to determine covariates associated with first-fill.

Results: The overall first-fill rate for new asthma medications was 78%. First-fill rate was lower for patients with a copay above the mean of $12 (odds ratio = 0.76; 95% confidence interval, 0.58-0.99) and higher for patients prescribed oral plus inhaled medications (versus inhaled only, odds ratio = 3.91; 95% confidence interval, 2.15-7.11).

Conclusions: Several factors associated with failing to fill an initial prescription for asthma can be addressed through simple interventions: screening for difficulties a patient may have in filling prescriptions, avoiding nonformulary medications, and recognizing the barrier that high copays present. In addition, for employers and policymakers, decreasing copay may improve adherence and, therefore, asthma control.


Is medicine a Jewish profession?: quote from a talk in preparation

if it is legitimate at all to say that medicine is a Jewish profession, it is not because that medicine is "more Jewish" than it is Christian/Hindu/African-American/etc. (that would be ridiculous) but because the ethical characteristics of the physician, while universally appreciated and able to be implemented in any culture, conform well with Jewish self-understanding, i.e. that Jews should be bayshanim (humble), rakhmonim (merciful) and goymlei khasodim (performers of deeds of lovingkindness).


Department of Welcome Exaggeration, Melbourne Edition


has the pleasure of presenting one of the world's most interesting
and well known lecturers visiting from the United States


two lectures will take place in the Leo Fink Hall at the "Kadimah"
7 Selwyn Street Elsternwick at 3 pm. on the following dates

12 July 2009 - lecture .n English


26 July 2009 - lecture in Yiddish

Refreshments will be served.


Smoothing Over

problems pave
the potholes
with blacker
asphalt, so the
problems make
a swift
double bump
Not gone
Not gone