When good algorithms fail

The thyroid’s a wonderful gland

And if everything goes just as planned

When we get the right number

With good conscience we slumber

But there’s another approach to be scanned.

Synopsis: I’m a Family Practitioner from Sioux City, Iowa. In 2010 I danced back from the brink of burnout, and honoring a 1 year non-compete clause, traveled and worked in out-of-the-way places in Alaska, Nebraska, Iowa, and New Zealand. After three years working with a Community Health Center, I went back to traveling and adventures in temporary positions. Assignments in Alaska, rural Iowa, suburban Pennsylvania and western Nebraska have followed.  I finished my most recent assignment in Clarinda on May 18.  Right now I’m in northern British Columbia, getting a first-hand look at the Canadian system. Any identifiable patient information has been included with permission.

I do a lot of lab tests and x-rays, and I interpret results in the human context. Every result pertains to a person in a psycho-social environment, a factor in a complex system where everything is related to everything, and you can’t change one thing without having an effect on everything else.  Thus the popular medical saying, “We don’t treat lab tests, we treat people.”

Hypothyroidism, where the disease stems from an underactive thyroid, a very important H-shaped gland that sits at the base of the front of the neck, stands as an exception to that truism. We treat numbers.  If we get a high thyroid stimulating hormone (TSH) value, we give a small dose of levothyroxine, T4, the same as thyroid hormone, escalating the dose by six week intervals until reaching a normal value two tests in a row.

(The higher the TSH, the more the patient needs thyroid replacement; it represents the brain’s plea to the thyroid gland for more hormone.)

The approach works well for more than 95% of the people with hypothyroidism.

The problem arises in that small segment of the population that doesn’t convert levothyroxine (a core with 4 iodines attached) to its more active degradation product, triidothyronine or T3 (the same core but with only 3 iodines). Because each T3 is worth 6 T4s.

I explained all this to a patient two days ago, who gave me permission to write what I have.

Most people with lazy thyroid glands have symptoms that can include fatigue, depression, constipation, aching muscles, cold intolerance, mental slowing, and difficulty losing weight. And the vast majority feel normal when the TSH creeps under 3.5.

But a very few patients still don’t feel right, and microscopic doses of Cytomel (the trade name for T3) can make some, not all, feel much better.

I wouldn’t know about this if my sister’s very good endocrinologist hadn’t inspired me to read further.

The problem arises that such methodology verges on what many mainstream doctors call “fringe medicine,” because of the actions of a very small number of unscrupulous doctors. I try to keep a low profile, and I ran the case by two of my colleagues.  One expressed mild surprise, the other, as it turns out, uses the same approach



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