The Badass Female Project: the Woman who hates Men who hate Women

I’m starting with Lisbeth Salander because she’s the one who got me thinking about this. I liked the idea of working more with female creators as well as female characters, and I still do, but I love Lisbeth so much that I can’t leave her waiting. It took me years to start reading this series, because it seemed like a fad, like a throw-away thriller. . . but no, no, no. They’re  action-packed, yes, but also smart, creative, and thought-provoking. (There are movies, too— a Swedish triology, and an American version. They’re all pretty good, but read the books first. I’m just a book person, OK?).

First, a little background (but no spoilers): Lisbeth Salander is the protagonist of Swedish writer Stieg Larsson’s “Millenium” series, the first and most well-known of which is called The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo in English. The translation of the original title, however, is Men Who Hate Women. They should have kept it, because it’s the heart of what makes Lisbeth a badass. Not her boxing, hacking skills, tattoos, or motorbike (but those are all pretty dope). Lisbeth Salander has a solid internal moral code, and she is not cowed by anyone or anything. She will not excuse men who hate women, and she has plenty of material to work with.

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What happens when a plant-loving scientist watches What the Health

I’m not a diet absolutist or a purist, but if I had to join a diet camp and stay there, it would be with the vegans, and specifically the whole-foods, plant-based vegans. My experience and common sense tell me that this is a good way to eat. There’s some evidence that it’s healthy. There’s a lot of evidence that it’s economically and environmentally sound. Mostly vegetables, fruits, whole grains, nuts and seeds, all that good stuff. I’m for it. IMG_1435

So this week, I watched the much-discussed What the Health, since when my partner’s out of town, all I do is watch documentaries about fitness and stuff. As a person who is personally and professionally invested in health, I wanted to like it. But alas, I was thoroughly disappointed, and even a little pissed off.  Yes, I’m late to the party. But whatever. The thing is, I think the overall message is probably right– processed meat is bad for you, industrial production of  animal foods creates major health hazards, animal agriculture is an ethical and environmental abomination, and major health advocacy groups take money from corporations that promote unhealthy products, thereby creating a colossal conflict of interest. So why package this message in a bunch of evangelism, cheap tricks, and scientific misrepresentation? It’s bad for the message.

whatthehealth

indeed.

Let’s take a moment to discuss crimes against science: no credible scientific paper would ever say something like “this definitely shows beyond the shadow of a doubt that a always causes b no matter what, and this is 100% true beyond the shadow of a doubt.” Science doesn’t work that way. Evidence accumulates– with nuanced approaches and varied findings, and over time, it may start to become clear what’s likely going on. Scientists study the studies and look at patterns and trends. They create meta-analyses and systematic reviews. They build a body of credible evidence. They don’t pull a handful of individual studies out and ask why they haven’t been made into policy.

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On Alignment

What do you think of when you hear the word alignment? The wheels on your car? Your body position in a yoga pose? I bet it’s not online education. . . but hear me out.

Because I believe breakthroughs come from cross-pollination among disciplines, I’m going to borrow this concept from Quality Matters— which is a system for evaluating the quality of online courses. In this context, alignment refers to the relationships among course objectives, unit or module objectives, instructional materials, learning activities, and assessments. Are the outcomes measurable and appropriate, at both levels? Are the course components aligned with those outcomes? This sounds basic, but it can be surprisingly challenging to achieve. Mapping out these connections can be difficult– and enlightening. I’ve done it as both a course instructor and a peer reviewer for other courses, and found it enormously valuable.

So let’s distill this idea down to the basic components: set high-level goals, set smaller goals to support the big goals, and choose actions and assessments that align with those goals.

Where else can we use this simple structure to improve things?

  • Clinical management. The patient’s “big-picture” goals are surprisingly frequently absent from the conversation. But patient-centered care demands identifying goals for health and for life. A care plan that doesn’t include an assessment of goals is in peril before it even gets off the ground. And I don’t mean goals like “get A1C less than 7%”. I mean goals like “extend my healthy lifespan so that I can travel in retirement”. That might be a radical shift and it might alter management. Or it might mean the same basic management plan is perceived very differently by the patient. I’ve written about the concept of concordance in healthcare before– it’s similar. Aligning our plans to treat, follow-up, and assess our patients with our shared goals, both long-term and more immediate, is crucial to effective care.
  • Career trajectories. I recently wrote about the challenges of focus in an academic/clinical career.  What if, instead of a single-minded focus on a narrow area, each opportunity is considered in terms of alignment with “big-picture” goals? This approach allows for more bricolage (which, BTW, can make work relevant and grounded), more cross-pollination, more serendipity, more diversity– without falling into a scattered mess. I have a couple of broad interest areas and goals, and I find that rather than continue to narrow into extreme sub-specialization, I prefer to exist as a practicing member of the communities I’m a part of, and participate in projects that align with those areas.
  • Self development. This is what tools like the Passion Planner promote– making big goals, identifying smaller pieces of those goals, and taking steps to move towards them. The act of identifying goals, and identifying small steps, is enormously powerful in making progress. It takes deliberate thought and reflection, but the outcomes of small actions over time that are all aligned with a goal can be mind-blowing.

So there you go. Take a simple principle, and see how powerful it can be in different contexts. Think about how Atul Gawande used a checklist strategy from aviation to improve surgery, and think about what big ideas might disrupt your regular practices.

From hard targets to risk models: Who are we helping?

There’s something appealing about a threshold-based approach to treatment: if your cholesterol is over 200, it’s high. If your blood pressure is over 140, it’s high. If you A1C is over 7, it’s high. It’s clean, easy to understand and easy to communicate. But is it helping to improve meaningful outcomes, and is it doing so equitably? Does 140 for me create the same problem as 140 for you? Is 141 worlds away from 139? These aren’t easy questions to answer. It complicates the already complicated conversations around taking medications for prevention.

We’re starting to see evidence across different conditions that risk-based approaches to treatment, i.e. those that treat based on aggregation of multiple risk factors into a predicted risk of some adverse outcome, might be better. The first major test-case for this was lipid guidelines, but recommendations for other conditions are starting to change too:

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Women’s Health: Beyond the Bikini

Health is complex. Women are complex. Women’s health is complex. So why does “women’s health” so often refer to reproductive issues alone?

The American Heart Association and the American College of Obsetricians and Gynecologists did something smart. They looked at the past few decades of progress in women’s cardiovascular health and asked “why are women still under-informed about their risk of heart disease. . . and why are we still not better at lowering risk?”

Those of us who practice primary care day-in, day-out could probably tell you a lot of reasons: competing priorities, limited time, siloed care— leaving a void for a big-picture assessment of health and health risks. This is a problem for all kind of patients and providers, but it’s particularly acute in women’s health, where issues of reproductive health often take center stage (especially in younger women). A well-woman visit is an opportunity for more than pap smears and birth control! This might be in a primary care practice or a gynecologist’s office (where many young women get their only care). What are we telling women when they come for a well woman visit, and what are they telling us? Are we communicating well, or are we checking boxes on the EHR and making sure we get reimbursed fully? I had a well woman visit myself this year, and I heard a lot about pap tests and nothing about blood pressure or depression.  This is not unusual, but it’s not good.

There’s mounting evidence about sex (biological and physicological) and gender (sociocultural) influences on cardiovascular health and disease. Cardiovascular disease was first identified, studied, and treated in men. Our entire paradigm of the disease is based on men. Yet women’s disease is different, women’s response to disease is different, and the healthcare system’s treatment of women is different. Still, we too often fail to appreciate how these differences matter, and that undermines our efforts as health professionals to address risk.


The million dollar question: How do we identify, communicate, and mitigate women’s cardiovascular risk effectively?

One approach? Treat women’s health as a holistic issue rather than just focusing on the parts covered by a bikini.

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Advice beyond “focus” for academics

I’m an early-career academic and clinician. As such, I need– and receive– a lot of guidance. I have mentors, I have bosses, I have colleagues. Everyone says to focus. Which is nice, but is it helpful? Certainly focus is critical to build a solid and impactful program of scientific research. Does it capture the goals of a long career for someone like me, with varied interests and broad educational preparation? Does “focus” give me the opportunity for impact across different areas or on different levels? Does this idea of “focus” get me to a place where I want to be? The use of the term is so pervasive, it got me thinking. I’m not a photographer, so forgive any technical errors, but what if we thought about an academic career with a more nuanced set of variables?

  • Depth of field. Can you have multiple objects in focus, even if they aren’t right next to each other? If you adjust the aperature, you can let in more or less light, and along with changing the exposure, this can make your focus shallow or deep. Often in a PhD world, you are compelled to bring sharp focus to a tiny part of an image (big aperture) and blur the rest. This can be a good thing, but it’s not the only way. Say, hypothetically, that you want a career with research and clinical practice both, and you also want to be a policy voice. Change the aperture to a smaller size and see— multiple object can be in focus at once. It’s not better or worse, but it brings a different quality to the image.
  • Shutter speed. So you’ve adjusted the aperture— to keep the exposure right, you need to think about how long the shutter is open. A smaller aperture means you need more time. That’s OK, but you have to be aware of it. You want more things in focus? You need to spend a little longer letting light in.
  • Composition. What’s in your shot? How is it framed? Is it a close-up, or a landscape? Is your subject in the center, or are you more interested in a rule-of-thirds kind of thing? The key here is that THERE ISN’T A RIGHT WAY. It’s all about what you want to show and how you want to show it.  That said, some institutions like certain kinds of images more than others. Does your picture fit into their album?
  • Frame rate. Are you shooting a single, perfect image, or a series? Do you want a smooth, seamless progression through a moment, or do you want to capture discrete pieces over time?

varied interests

you want me to pick just one??

So, what’s the upshot? Should we just throw out the advice to “focus” when it doesn’t suit us? No. . . but I do think we should consider it in a broader context and check to see whether our goals are aligned. I may not want to get on a rocket ship to the moon– I might rather be on a cruise ship through different ports.  Well, now that I’ve thoroughly mixed my metaphors, I suspect it’s time to sign off. What are your thoughts on the ups and downs of focus?