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The Whimsical Way Medical Students Learn About The Body

July 10, 2014 Anna Almendrala 0

We already knew doctors have strong stomachs. We just didn’t know how strong.

It turns out that medical education has a long and rich history of using food metaphors to describe body parts, diseases, symptoms, and everything else that students have to memorize. For instance, pus from a liver abscess looks a lot like anchovy sauce, and a particularly aggressive form of lung cancer is called “oat cell carcinoma” for its appearance under the microscope.

Dr. Ritu Lakhtakia, M.D., Ph.D., head of the Department of Pathology at the College of Medicine at Sultan Qaboos University, compiled these medical-foodie terms in a recently published article for the journal Medical Humanities in an effort to preserve a dying tradition. Because she herself was once a med student, toiling away to memorize facts and pictures, Lakhtakia has fond memories about how culinary imagery made study time a bit more fun.

“They make memorization of difficult facts child’s play,” said Lakhtakia about food metaphors in an email to the Huffington Post. “They also introduce medical graduates across the world to cuisines they are unfamiliar with.”

For instance, one of the tell-tale symptoms of von Recklinghausen’s disease are cafe au lait marks on the skin. Certain fungal skin infections produce skin scrapes that look like spaghetti and meatballs under a microscope.

Unfortunately, said Lakhtakia, the tradition is dying away in favor of what she called “more direct (and less picturesque)” language. The metaphors are also becoming unnecessary because of technological advancement. Take, for example, the task of estimating tumor size.

“Long before scale measurements came into vogue, a three-dimensional estimate of the size of tumors could be easily documented by being compared with peanuts or walnuts (if larger, lemons or oranges come in handy for sizing!),” Lakhtakia wrote in the article.

Lakhtakia is not sure why food metaphors are so prevalent in medicine, but she guesses that the universality of food gave teachers a common base with students from which to explain difficult medical concepts. And of course, there is another reason: doctors and researchers eat while working.

“A part of this curious tradition may owe its origins to practising physicians and researchers catching up on their meals in clinical side rooms or operating theatre offices, or with an inevitably cold platter eaten with eyes glued to a microscope,” she wrote in her article. “It is a wonder that, in the midst of the smells and sights of human affliction, a physician has the stomach to think of food at all!”

A wonder indeed. In honor of this quirky, stomach-churning medical tradition, Huffington Post’s own Alissa Scheller whimsically illustrated just a few of the metaphors Lakhtakia included in her articles. Be warned: links to the real thing are included in each caption, so click or tap at your own peril!


“An apple shape versus a pear shape contrasts the habitus depending on the predominant fat distribution on the body.” – Dr. Ritu Lakhtakia, Medical Humanities.


“The biconcavity of the red blood cell easily evokes craving for a doughnut.” – Dr. Ritu Lakhtakia, Medical Humanities.


“Rather dramatic and visible reddish-purple birthmarks (vascular anomalies) on the skin are colloquially called port wine stain.” – Dr. Ritu Lakhtakia, Medical Humanities.


“The delightful high that a bar of chocolate promises is negated by its likeness to chocolate cyst of the ovary, an endometriotic cyst containing dark-brown fluid from repeated cycles of endometrial proliferation and shedding with haemorrhage.” – Dr. Ritu Lakhtakia, Medical Humanities.


“The pout displayed by the rheumatic mitral valve, with its narrowed opening, thickened lips and commissural fusion is mirrored in a fish mouth.” – Dr. Ritu Lakhtakia, Medical Humanities.


“First-year medical students are inevitably taught that the kidney is bean shaped (lovers of red meat may conversely call the bean kidney-shaped)” – Dr. Ritu Lakhtakia, Medical Humanities.

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Customer Service With A Smile Comes At A Big Price

July 7, 2014 Anna Almendrala 0

Customer service with a smile is the American way, but faking it all day can take an emotional and physical toll once workers head home, according to a small but compelling new study published in the journal Personnel Psychology.

The findings should give employers pause about just how much they can fairly expect in terms of “emotional labor” — the requirement to display certain emotions or feelings toward customers, clients and others at work.

“[Employees] could smile because they genuinely like their customers or they are simply happy, and in that case they are not engaging in what we call ’emotional labor’ because they are not faking,” explained lead researcher David Wagner, Ph.D. of Singapore Management University, in an email to the Huffington Post. “When they put on that happy face but don’t really feel it — that’s when we start to have problems.”

Researchers observed 78 bus drivers who worked for one transit company in the northwestern United States. Over two weeks, the study participants answered surveys before work, after their shifts and just before they went to bed at night. They were asked about hours of sleep, their moods during and after work, and whether or not they had put on a “performance” or a “mask” that day.

Wagner found that when a bus driver wore a fake smile, he or she was more likely to suffer insomnia that night than someone who wasn’t faking it. Emotional acting was also linked to reports of feeling anxious or distressed, and also increased the likelihood of feeling emotionally exhausted at the end of the day. These people even reported more family conflict at home.

Meanwhile, people who reported behaving authentically — either by not faking smiles at all or by smiling because they genuinely felt happy — had much better sleep quality those nights.

Doug Pugh, Ph.D., chair of the Department of Management at Virginia Commonwealth University, wasn’t involved in the research, but his past research on emotional labor does appear in Wagner’s study. He praised Wagner for strengthening the study’s results by taking workers’ overall emotional stability into account when evaluating their responses, since an emotionally unstable person is more likely to report work and family distress generally.

But on a more fundamental level, Pugh thought the research was important because it accurately describes emotional labor as the difficult, draining work it is.

“The big point of all of this work on ’emotional labor’ — being friendly and pleasant and upbeat as part of your job — is that it is work,” wrote Pugh to HuffPost. “It is hard, and it drains people just like physical or mental labor might. But it is often unrecognized as ‘real’ work, so people don’t appreciate the difficult nature of this kind of ‘labor.'”

The sooner employers get on board with the notion of emotional labor as real work, the sooner they can start adequately compensating or rewarding workers for it, Pugh explained.

“Many skilled service workers take pride in their ability to use their emotions to manage and control difficult customers, much like a detective might take pride in his or her ability to use various emotion management strategies to manipulate criminal suspects,” Pugh explained. “Managers can also recognize these legitimate job demands, and the skills they require, and compensate appropriately.”

Once employers acknowledge the toll of emotional work, they can help their employees cope with simple changes like providing “offstage” areas for employees to relax and drop the mask, or training them about how pleasant behavior is a strategy that benefits them and the company.

“Good managers let employees know when it is OK to break character and drop the positive demeanor,” said Pugh. “Good managers also provide the support for employees so that the stresses of working customer-facing jobs don’t bleed over as much into the home.”

Of course, if that’s too hard, employers could simply drop the requirement to be a shiny, happy person all the time, said Wagner.

“In some countries there are no norms around faking positive displays (and those might just be the countries about which American tourists complain!), but the norm in the U.S. tends to be service with a smile,” Wagner acknowledged.

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Why Kids Don’t Need To Take Their Vitamins

June 27, 2014 Anna Almendrala 0

Contrary to popular belief, when it comes to vitamins and minerals, less is more.

A new report published by the Environmental Working Group (EWG) shows that children are overexposed to vitamins and minerals thanks to fortified, processed foods like c…