Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Martin Steinhoff plans largest itch center in the world

Today I met with Martin Steinhoff, a professor of dermatology at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF). (He's listed as a "professor in residence," but assures me he's here to stay.)

Steinhoff plans over the next 25 years to build the biggest "itch center" in the world at UCSF. Previously he led the itch clinic at Muenster, which he believes is the largest such center in Germany. An itch center is a special clinic with dedicated residents and staff, at which patients are diagnosed, treated, and observed intensively over a period of one to two weeks, and their treatment modulated to get the itch under control.

Steinhoff came to UCSF because he was impressed with the research being done in neuroscience. UCSF is a purely medical and research campus with no undergraduates--it used to be the medical school of UC Berkeley, and although not well known to the public, it is the second largest recipient of NIH funds (presumably after Johns Hopkins in Baltimore). However, he says he is the only itch specialist currently at UCSF, although he works closely with four scientists who study pain, which shares neural pathways with itch.

Steinhoff has been impressed with the can-do, entrepreneurial spirit in California. "Here you have the possibility to build a computer company like Apple in your garage," he says. "In Germany, people expect everything from the government."

However, he prefaced those remarks with ones less likely to be repeated by American politicians. He is frustrated and unimpressed with what passes for a fragmented health care "system" in the US. Because of the power wielded by insurance companies, itch patients in particular receive substandard care. "In Germany, when a patient visits [the itch clinic], they come for one week, get a diagnosis, and we get it under control," he says. Here, you are seen for two minutes--maybe 15, at a university--you get a quick diagnosis and you're told to come back in 6 weeks. There is no time. And because of money, you cannot prescribe the optimal treatment, because of insurance." [This is true for me, actually: my own insurance wouldn't pay for me to attend Steinhoff's proposed clinic.] "

"In the US, insurance wants to prescribe the cheapest topical or systemic steroid," he says, even if the best treatment would be a large dose of (admittedly expensive) nonsedative antihistamines. [A surprise to me, this; I'm not the expert, but I thought antihistamines were not effective. Maybe just the ones I've taken.] His conclusion: "You cannot help patients because of the insurance."

Whatever your political views, you'd have to agree that the point of health care is to help the patient, and from that perspective, the current "system" is broken.

I'll give a few details of Steinhoff's proposed clinic in the next post, and how he plans to work around the limitations. I'd just like to add that he's a little mystified why eczema has such a low profile in the US, while conditions such as psoriasis that, according to him, "have much less effect on quality of life," are well-known. Once he gets his clinic off the ground, it will be only one of two such centers in the US, the other one being Gil Yosipovitch's at Wake Forest University. Two centers for 240 million people in the richest country in the world.


  1. Do you know if the center is still in the works? Do you have any more details? I'd love to know more.

  2. I haven't talked to him since that interview! I don't know. I should.

    Have been run into the ground by the demands of work & family this spring. Am not sure I'll get back to blogging. It is such a commitment to keep up if you want to do it right.