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I knew that!

Enhance your trip to Athens with some timely background reading

Maryalicia Post

Posted: Friday, January 11, 2019

The past is present in Athens. Perhaps it’s because the Parthenon looks down like a benevolent schoolmaster, prompting questions – who, where, when?? If your Greek history is now only a faint memory, why not brush up before you get there for the 23rd Winter Meeting of the ESCRS? A good place to start is with Edith Hall’s book Introducing the Ancient Greeks.

It’s Professor Hall’s theory that the Greeks exhibited 10 specific character traits that supported the miracle that was Greece. The character traits were: an appreciation of the sea, being wary of authority, highly individualistic, of an inquiring mind, receptive to new ideas, witty, competitive, prepared to pursue excellence, elaborately articulate and addicted to pleasure of all kinds. The book is organised into 10 chapters, each pairing one of these traits with the country’s unfolding history from 1600 BC to 400 AD. Interesting and informative, the paperback earns its place in your carry-on luggage or can be downloaded to your Kindle app.

If a visit to Asklepios is on your Greek agenda, or even if it’s not, consider Asklepios, Medicine, and the Politics of Healing in Fifth-Century Greece: Between Craft and Cult. It’s a hardback, so both weighty and expensive, but it’s an engrossing examination and comparison of the practices at Asklepios and those of Hippocratic medicine of the same period. The author, Professor Bronwen Wickkiser, is a specialist in ancient Greek history and culture, especially the intersection between religion and medicine. In a subsequent book, The Thymele at Epidaurosshe looks at performance, architecture and acoustics in a Greek healing sanctuary as they relate to music therapy .

If you’re a bit shaky on Greek mythology, now’s the time to remind yourself who was Pandora’s brother-in-law and how long Odysseus was away travelling. There’s a bit of a vogue for retelling the stories in breezy modern dialogue; one example of this approach is Stephen Fry’s book Mythosanother is Robin Waterford’s The Greek Myths: Stories of the Greek Gods and Heroes Vividly Retold. Traditionalists might prefer the classic version by Robert Graves: The Greek Myths: The Complete and Definitive Edition (Penguin, 2017). Available both in paperback and on Kindle.

And if you’d rather catch up ‘on screen’, try The Greeks: Crucible of Civilization.

Narrated by Liam Neeson and with beautiful photography of ancient sites, the 180-minute long documentary was produced by PBS.

The 23rd Winter Meeting of the ESCRS will take place in Athens on February 15-17.

Old meets new at 23rd ESCRS Winter Meeting in Athens

We take a look back at medical approaches to cataract in Ancient Greece

Aidan Hanratty

Posted: Friday, December 21, 2018

The 23rd ESCRS Winter Meeting will take place in Athens in February, 2019. This will be the fourth Winter Meeting in the city, once the centre of the ancient western world. There will be many topics up for discussion including ocular surface disease, complications in corneal graft surgery, advances in glaucoma as well as didactic courses and practical workshops.

The Hellenic Society of Intraocular Implant and Refractive Surgery will also host a symposium entitled “Advanced technology – better results?” This is an interesting question, especially in the context of the history of medicine in Greece.

The term “glaukos” was a non-specific descriptor meaning blue, green or light grey, and its use in medical terms came from the colour produced in angle-closure glaucoma. The goddess Athena was referred to throughout Homer’s Iliad as “Glaukopis Athena” for her bright or “flashing” eyes. Speaking more generally, the word “ophthalmos” was the Greek for eye, and combined with “logos” meaning word or study, it forms ophthalmology.

Writing about “The Cataract Operation In Ancient Greece” in Histoire des sciences médicales in 1982, Jean Lascaratos and Spyros Marketos describe the understanding of and methods to treat cataract in Ancient Greece.

Hippocrates, known as the father of western medicine, mentions the term “glaucosis”, they write, but it is believed that he was in fact referring to what we now call cataract. Galen, who came several hundred years later in the 2nd Century AD, believed that hypochyma (as cataract was then called) was a coagulation of the aqueous humour, while glaucoma was the transformation of humours existing in the eye to a sea-green colour.

Galen wrote that a treatment for cataract was discovered by accident: “That is, a goat suffering from hypochyma saw again when it fell upon a thorn that pierced its eye.”

His standard was as follows: “We pierce the cornea with a needle on the periphery until it has entered the anterior chamber. Then we pierce the hypochyma, which we push aside.” Another method described by Galen was called depression, which consisted of moving the cataract away from its original position. He also writes that some doctors tried to remove the cataract by opening the cornea, yet this was a rare, risky approach.

To think it would be some 1,600 years before Jacques Daviel successfully extracted cataracts, and another 100 after that before the advent of phacoemulsification, the Ancient Greeks deserve a lot of credit for their efforts. What they might make of the advances made today, and on show at the 23rd ESCRS Winter Meeting, we will never know.

I didn’t sign up for this!

When it comes to your own practice, ‘leadership’ comes with the job

Maryalicia Post

Posted: Thursday, November 15, 2018

Photo by rawpixel on Unsplash

There are many reasons for choosing a career in ophthalmology; for most it’s probably the blend of medicine and surgery, the appeal of the technical environment and the satisfaction of healing and helping. An interest in leading a business practice isn’t normally high on the list. Yet in real life it turns out that ‘leadership’ comes with the job. And the first task is knowing where you’re going.

Here’s how one business guru puts it: “All successful physician practices have a clear vision of their reason for existence… This can be referred to as the corporate culture or the core values of the company that clearly defines the values and preferred expectations of behaviour.”

LinkedIn recently sent out an article on ‘building a great company culture’. The piece is written by Claude S Silver, Chief Heart Officer at VaynerMedia. A ‘heart officer’ is not someone who deals with cardiac arrest in the office setting – In this case it turns out to be someone heading up what used to be called ‘Human Resources’. It’s Claude’s job to show love and empathy to the employees while monitoring their performance, thus motivating them to do their best for the team of which they are a part.

Without going so far as to employ a Heart Officer, if you’re ready to consider sharpening up your office practice, an internet search turns up an article that outlines the ‘10 hallmarks of leadership in an ophthalmologists practice’. Realistically enough, it begins by flagging up the need to find the time: “At least eight additional hours per week on top of your core job as an ophthalmologist.” And just as realistically the author points out that: “ophthalmic microsurgery is the domain of slow, cautious, 100% perfection. Ophthalmic leadership is the domain of well-intended, timely approximations of 80% perfection. Or less. … get on with it.”

The article ends with this cautionary note: “Most patients can choose from whom they receive care. Even if they love the ophthalmologist, they might go elsewhere if the office is poorly run. As a physician, you’re more than just the doctor. You must also be an effective organiser and facilitator of a large group of staff.”

Whether you have a “large group of staff” or simply one or two overworked employees, a checklist of who does what in an ideal world – an outline of the ‘five key roles in the ophthalmic practice‘ – is a useful checklist.

Hello Dolly

Initiatives that help doctors speak to patients on a human level can only help both sides of the interaction

Maryalicia Post

Posted: Tuesday, November 6, 2018

I read not long ago of an initiative that introduces doctors to ‘normal’ older people. One of these older people, a retired family therapist, mentioned a gastroenterologist who dismissed her complaints of fatigue by saying: “At your age, you can’t expect to have much energy.” Then, in her 70s, she switched doctors and learned she had a low-grade infection.

It happens.  Not long after my husband died, I’d called in to an ophthalmologist’s clinic.  For some months I’d been aware my eyes were red and didn’t feel ‘right’. Now I had time to investigate. The consultant performed his exam. “Tell your boyfriend it’s just age,” he said. That, and the bill, was the extent of the consultation.

Heavy-handed humour? Joke gone wrong? I felt affronted, an old-fashioned word for an old-fashioned reaction.  When I ran out of moisturiser, my eyes cleared up. I’d been allergic to it as I discovered, no thanks to that ophthalmologist.  I never did forget the insensitivity of his remark – or return to that clinic.

I was reminded of that when I read about mannequins being used in medical training.

These dolls bleed, twitch and have seizures just like real people. As no one wants to be the first patient a trainee doctor intubates, for example, it’s wonderful these dolls exist.  But on the other hand, it’s already all too easy for today’s harassed doctors to regard their patients as mannequins, or at least to forget they have feelings.

Happily, empathy skills are increasingly part of medical training, both for the patient’s benefit and the doctor’s. At the University of Houston, Texas, end-of-life conversations are already being practised on mannequins.

But what about the more common situations, like routine operations? One of the most empathetic things a doctor can do is find time to stop by the bedside to ask how the patient is feeling, answer questions, assure him or her that all went well.  So far, that can’t be practised on a mannequin, but if it were I’ll bet even a stand-in human would respond with lower blood pressure and a thumbs up.

Give me a break! (Oh no, wait, I have one)

'Femuring' is a well-known experience in the skydiving community

Maryalicia Post

Posted: Friday, October 12, 2018

As you may or may not know, snapping the thigh bone is such a common injury in skydiving that they invented the verb ‘to femur’. I didn’t know that but it was a comfort when I femured myself two months ago.

Actually, I hadn’t been skydiving, but it cheered me to think I might have been. In fact I’d been creeping downstairs in the dark in a trailing kimono when I tripped myself up and flew off the stairs to the floor.

I’ve learned a lot since then really. What it feels like to wait on queue in hospital on an ambulance stretcher (it’s hard to keep up a conversation with an ambulance driver for three hours as he waits to retrieve his property from under you), how it feels to talk to a surgeon in dawn’s early light (amusing – but that was probably due to the drugs – mine not his). And that in hospital (the one I was in anyway) it is now standard to ask for agreement before laying a hand on you..

Nurse: I’m going to take your blood pressure. Is that alright? Me: Good idea.
Nurse: I’m going to take a blood sample. Is that alright? Me: If you must.
Doctor: I am going to repair your femur, is that ok? I’ll be using a titanium pin, a metal plate and six screws. Me: Absolutely! I have no other plans for today.
Someone: We’re going to give you a spinal (something… words indistinct). Me: Be my guest.

From then on silence interrupted only by the sound of hammering seeming to come from under the table. I wanted to tell them what my father taught me when I was young: never hammer a screw.

Afterwards I discovered that the words ‘physio’ and ‘rehab’ were often said in the tone of voice once reserved by us Catholics for ‘get confession’ and ‘go on a retreat’… the tone of the first implies ‘it won’t be pleasant but you have no choice’, and the second ‘relax and get holy at the same time’.

I said no to both. I could ‘walk through the pain’ (as skydivers say in their online femur forum) – with a little help from a blue tablet (hospital) and paracetamol (home). And I did.

My femuring is almost a memory now.

But I’m careful on the stairs.

Is there life after ophthalmology?

Research shows that one-in-four retirees in Britain goes back to work either for the income or the social aspects

Maryalicia Post

Posted: Thursday, October 11, 2018

Maryalicia Post

Is there life after ophthalmology?

If you’re an opthalmologist nearing retirement age, you might be asking yourself that question. Chances are the answer’s yes… probably many good years lie ahead.  You may be looking forward to the leisure.

Or perhaps not so much. According to a 2017 study in the journal  of Ageing and Society, one-in-four retirees in Britain goes back to work either for the income or the social aspects.

I’m not an ophthalmologist.. but I did retire once. It didn’t ‘take’.

My second career, as a travel writer, is already longer than my first as a medical editor.  I’ve been a travel writer since 1992. In 2001, I began writing for EuroTimes, still my favourite readership.

The first assignment was Amsterdam. I remember reporting on a trip through the Netherland bogs in a rowboat; in the early days, I reported for ESCRS on places as diverse as the arctic circle and Zanzibar. Currently the focus is on congress destinations, including Vienna, which will host the 36th Congress of the ESCRS in September.

Most of of the articles are at Other pieces have appeared in the Irish Independent, Irish TimesIrish Examiner as well as Abroad Magazine and France. Two of my articles were included in anthologies: Travel Guide France and Travel Guide Ireland.

I embarked on my second career when my husband died of lung cancer. I’d long been involved in anti-smoking campaigns and was editor of a respiratory news letter. Suddenly I didn’t want to read or write anything more about the subject.  I was nearing retirement age anyway. So I quit.

But I missed work. I missed having a project. On the plus side, I could come and go as I pleased, be away for long periods, take risks with no one home worrying about me. I had  contacts with newspaper and magazine editors. I’d travelled a lot in my first career and being a single woman in out-of-the-way destinations didn’t bother me either.

Only a month after my husband’s death, I set off on my first travel writing assignment. A friend chided me for running away from grief. I knew that was not the whole story. Starting a second career felt as if I were ‘running towards’ something rather than running away – running towards new experiences, new friends, a new life.

The ‘second career’ has been a success. Will there be a third?  I hope to be travel writing for a while yet.

But I could write a book (couldn’t we all?)  I did write a book, After You, to track the year after my husband’s death in poetry.  Recently I discovered tanka, the Japanese five-line poem and that led on to the cherita a six-line poetry format. I’m writing in both forms now.

When the wings come off my plane – metaphorically speaking – poetry may be what holds me up.

You never know what’s next…

When travel stress comes with the job

Travel-related stress – no one wants it, everyone faces it

Maryalicia Post

Posted: Monday, September 3, 2018

Not so long ago if you told people you did a bit of travelling for work (as I do, and as many ophthalmologists do) they’d say how lucky you were. No longer. What’s changed? Travel-related stress. No one wants it, everyone faces it.

In 2016, undertook a survey to quantify the causes of travel stress, questioning more than 4,555 respondents who travelled at least four times a year. Of them, 93% suffered from stress at some point in their journey. The top three worries: missing a flight (32% of respondents), language barrier on arrival (26%) and the possibility that luggage would be lost (22%).

Oddly, my own biggest worry was way down the list – losing my passport, a concern only 18% of my fellow passengers share. Nonetheless, I’ve had mine stolen in a New York airport and again on La Rambla in Barcelona. In my opinion, no experience comes close in terms of inconvenience and, yes, stress. Now I carry a photo copy of the passport and a spare credit card separately and hang the originals around my neck the way pilgrims to Santiago once carried a scallop shell.

I don’t worry about the language barrier; there’s an app for that. I use Google Translate. There are others – for an overview:

But cancelled flights do come in second for me, ever since the frantic scramble for a seat on an onward flight after a cancellation in Catania, Sicily. I had a top-level frequent flyer card on the air-line in question, and discovered loyalty pays! I also had a membership card giving me access to a lounge where the receptionist mercifully sorted my ticket.

My own third concern – an accident abroad – didn’t figure in the survey. But when I woke up in a Boston hospital a day after being concussed by a falling roof tile (I didn’t see that coming!), I couldn’t remember where I was staying, or where my belongings were. Now I carry a card from the hotel I’ve checked into – ‘just in case’.

There’s not much you can do about the stress of lost luggage, aside from carrying essentials in your hand luggage. However, stuck without my bags in Lyon, Air France provided me with an overnight amenity kit containing a toothbrush, an oversized tee shirt, two aspirin and a condom. Now that’s one worry off my mind.

Get growing!

Maryalicia Post says greens really are good for ophthalmologists

Maryalicia Post

Posted: Tuesday, August 14, 2018

‘Earth heading for 25-hour day.’

The headline gave me a flutter of anticipation. We all know that ‘work expands to fill the time allotted to it’ and now at last the shoe might be on the other foot – time expanding to accommodate the pressure of work. But no. The article goes on to explain the extra hour is due to the slower rotation of the earth around the sun and won’t be ours to spend for 200 million years.

So that means the over-stretched among us – and that’s most ophthalmologists – will continue to fit 25 hours of work into a 24-hour day and look for other ways to reduce the stress, anxiety and depression that come with the lifestyle. A meta review of studies at suggests a novel approach… ‘nature therapy’… aka light gardening.

Fortunately for the city dweller, you don’t even need a garden. The main benefit comes from the interaction with nature itself; just one plant can make the difference in raising mood and reducing stress levels And not only do mood and creativity get a boost, other studies confirm that tending your aspidistra may lead to less sickness and improved attentiveness too.

An entertaining way to get started is to download the interactive Plant Life Balance app devised by RMIT and Melbourne University. Take a picture of your space with your mobile phone, choose the visual effect you’d be happy with, then follow instructions to add the appropriate potted plants. The app calculates the therapeutic benefits of your new decor. Free download at iTunes and the Google Play Store.

A residual benefit of growing houseplants is cleaner air. Even NASA weighs in on the ability of plants to remove “volatile organic compounds which lurk around the average office, in carpets and furnishings, solvents and ink”. A NASA publication, How to Grow Fresh Air: 50 Houseplants That Purify Your Home or Office, explains: “Plants emit water vapour that creates a pumping action to pull contaminated air down around a plant’s roots, where it is then converted into food for the plant.”

A TED talk , How to grow fresh air by Indian environmentalist Kamal Meattle, winnows the list down to three commonly available plants that do the job: Areca palm, mother in law’s tongue and the money plant.

Greens really are good for you..

Focusing on the task in hand

Multitasking and medicine don't mix, but sometimes there's no way around it

Aidan Hanratty

Posted: Thursday, April 19, 2018

Take a pen. Time yourself writing the words “I am a great multitasker”, followed by the numbers from 1 to 20. It shouldn’t take you too long. Now try this: on two different lines, write the letter “I” followed by 1, then “a” followed by 2, “m” followed by 3 and so on. It won’t be nearly as easy, and it will take a lot longer. This exercise, designed by Danish training and research firm Potential Project, shows up the futility of multitasking. Despite proven studies that show how ineffective and damaging multitasking can be, more and more doctors are forced into this style of work.

In a post entitled Multitasking and Medicine Don’t Mix, Hans Duvefelt MD wrote about the difficulties in trying to fit in paperwork, research, follow-up calls and more in between personal sessions with patients. Doctors end up taking this additional work home if they can’t get it done at their practice. He compares it to air travel: “Are airplanes scheduled to be in the air all the time, with refueling and maintenance squeezed in only if they happen to land ahead of schedule?”

This constant busy-ness is prevalent in ophthalmology too, in both private and public spheres. Arthur Cummings MD, Consultant Eye Surgeon at the Wellington Eye Clinic in Dublin, lists the many tasks he needs to complete: “Between patients I am taking and making phone-calls, replying to urgent emails and other messages, meeting with different members of my team to touch base with regards a patient, a letter, a prescription, an issue with a study, a device that requires attention, someone from the adjacent hospital, and so the list continues.”

He doesn’t enjoy multitasking and believes he works best when focused on a single task, especially given the attention required in his line of work: “When people make claims about how well they can multitask, I often ask them what additional task they would like me to do while I am making the capsulorhexis with surgical instruments in their eye.” Everyone always allows him to carry on.

One important and inescapable consideration is financial. “It may seem simple enough to simply cut back on the number of patients that we see but then we cannot cover our overheads,” says Mr Cummings, who is also heavily involved in studies regarding new innovations and technology, all of which takes up valuable time. “For me personally though, being energised by the innovation or study comfortably makes up for the additional burden on my stretched personal resources.”

Clare Quigley MD, who is currently based at Sligo University Hospital, finds it impossible to avoid multitasking. That said, there is a division of labour made for the benefit of the operating surgeon: “In theatre my trainer and I split the cataract list, with one of us operating and rescrubbing for the next procedure, while the other does all the other necessary peri-procedural tasks; admitting and blocking patients, fielding queries about the theatre list, typing and signing the post-op notes, and admitting the next patients.”

It gets busier outside the operating room, however, as doctors see casualty patients while fielding calls from GPs, referring hospitals and so forth, as well as queries from other medical teams in the university hospital. “I find it helpful to schedule incoming emergency appointments while allowing for some sort of lunch or dinner break,” adds Dr Quigley.

Ultimately, it’s all about finding the time to do everything, however hard that may be. It’s all we have, so make it count.

Robotics in cataract surgery

What does the future look like for technology and cataract surgery?

Aidan Hanratty

Posted: Friday, March 16, 2018

© 1951 – Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation

Robots have a mixed history in popular culture. From the giant Gort in The Day the Earth Stood Still (above) to the terrifying Daleks of Dr Who, from Ted Hughes’s Iron Man to Futurama’s Bender, they have been at turns terrifying, menacing, compassionate and comical. In the real world, their history is more mundane. While we may think of robots as being humanoid in appearance and nature, that’s not necessarily a given.

An editorial in the Paris Innovation Review defined robots as such: “[They] have a material existence inasmuch as they are endowed with perception (via sensors), can make decisions (via appropriate use of processors) and can undertake physical actions (using integrated motors).” The key example of a robot that has made inroads into the everyday is that of robotic vacuum cleaners like the iRobot Roomba or Dyson 360 Eye, and we can see the onset of driverless cars in our media and television.

Automation has led to greater efficiency in the areas of manufacturing, agriculture and communications, to name but a few. Such advances, however, are happening at different paces across the healthcare sphere. In some places, computers and iPads have replaced front-end staff, allowing patients to check-in digitally. In surgery, things are not quite there yet.

In a recent Eye Contact interview, Dr Richard Packard was asked if he saw robotics coming into the area of cataract surgery. He doesn’t see it happening any time soon.

“When you’re dealing with cataracts and the patients, patients are patients. And you can’t necessarily predict the way that their tissues are going to behave. We also know that there’s a significant cohort of complex patients out there that robots will simply not be able to deal with. The other issue is that if there is a problem during surgery, even if you’re a robot, your ability to adapt to the situation that you find yourself in is going to be quite difficult.”

Other doctors are more wary. Sorcha Ni Dhubhghaill MD believes that surgeons live under the same threat of automation as those in other industries. “If I think long term, I believe that a sophisticated diagnostic algorithm will eventually replace the clinician’s diagnosis just as a sophisticated robot will replace the surgeon.”

She believes that the current technical limitations, as envisaged by Dr Packard, will be overcome in time by improvements and refinements. “I don’t think it is unreasonable to think that a robot will ultimately be able to perform every move a surgeon can, but better, with no tremor and no need for a lunch break.”

Where next for the surgeon, so? Dr Ni Dhubhghaill believes a pivot is necessary. “While the robots are seeking to perfect the established techniques, the humans will have to innovate and introduce new ideas.” Human-robot co-operation will ensure the value of each working towards an enhanced patient experience.

“I would envision a robo-surgeon and innovative ophthalmic surgeon working as a team. The robot to provide the best results technically and the ophthalmologist to push the boundaries of the technology.”

Where the patient fits in remains to be seen. Would automated surgery be cheaper than the current standard? Would such a robot have automated colleagues, such as robot anaesthetists and nurses?

O brave new world, that has such… machines in ‘t!