Aspirin – Cardiovascular and Cancer Benefits

In this week’s on line edition of MedPage, a publication of the University Of Pennsylvania Perelman School Of Medicine, they summarize a series of articles published in the prestigious medical journal Lancet, which conclude that taking aspirin daily reduces your risk of cancer.

Aspirin received its notoriety after a Veterans’ Administration study years ago noted that if you took a daily aspirin and were a male over 45 years old you had fewer heart attacks and strokes. That classic study has led to the recommendation over the years that everyone over the age of 45 years old take aspirin daily to prevent cardiovascular events. No one can quite agree on the dosage of a full aspirin (325 mg), a baby aspirin (81 mg), or two baby aspirin?

As more and more people began taking aspirin for cardiovascular benefits researchers noted more frequent episodes of major internal bleeding either in the gastrointestinal tract or in the brain and head. At the same time, it was whispered among professionals that taking aspirin daily reduced adenomatous growths in the colon (pre-malignant polyps) and reduced colon cancer.   In the past few weeks several studies have tried to stratify whether aspirin use daily should be restricted to men as opposed to women, or to individuals with documented heart and vascular disease for secondary prevention of the next heart attack or stroke rather than primary prevention.  They cited the large number of bleeding episodes in individuals trying to protect themselves from their first heart attack or stroke compared to the events prevented and lives saved.

Today’s MedPage review of three Lancet articles claims that daily aspirin use reduces the risk of adenomatous cancer by 38% and cancer mortality by 15%. It reduces the development of metastatic disease by up to 15%.  These studies looked at more than 51 trials, including well over 100,000 participants, leading Dr Peter Rotwell of Oxford University in the United Kingdom to say that the papers “add to the case for the long term use of aspirin for cancer prevention in middle age.”

As a primary care physician I will continue to take my daily 81 mg enteric coated buffered aspirin (2) with food and take my chances with GI bleeding and cerebral hemorrhage.  If my patients do not have any strong contraindications to aspirin ingestion I will continue to make the suggestion that if they are over 45 years old they consider doing the same.

Statistics For Dummies: Primary Care Doctors’ Inability to Understand Statistical Concepts …

An article and editorial have appeared in the Annals of Internal Medicine demonstrating that primary care physicians do not understand simple statistical data presented to them regarding screening tests for cancer. The consequences, as outlined in an editorial written by a former chairperson of the much maligned Institute of Medicine, is that primary care doctors are over-using cancer screening tests because they do not understand the statistical ramifications and conclusions presented in the study. The editorialist recommends improving statistical courses at the medical school level and improving the editorial comments in journals when these studies appear.

As a primary care physician, out of medical school for 36 years, let me make a suggestion.  Keep It Simple Stupid.   Medical school was a four year program.  The statistics course was a brief three week interlude in the midst of a tsunami of new educational material presented in a new language (the language of “medicalese”) presented en masse in between students being used as cheap labor at all hours of the day to fill in drawing bloods, starting intravenous lines and running errands for the equally overworked interns and residents who were actually being paid to perform these tasks.

While internship and residency included a regular journal club, there was little attention paid to analyzing a paper critically from a statistical mathematical viewpoint.  I suggest applying the KISS principle to analyzing medical research papers. Make the language and definitions clear cut and understandable for the non math majors and non researchers.  We have eliminated the use of Latin, medical abbreviations and other time honored traditions of the profession in the name of clarity and safety.  It’s time to do the same with statistical analysis of research papers. Let authors and reviewers say what they mean at an understandable level. Practicing clinicians do not use this vocabulary regularly enough to master it.

It’s time for creating a “Khan Kollege” You-Tube video on statistical analysis and medical paper review that clinicians can refer to routinely to buff up their understanding of medical research papers.  If the American College of Physicians or American Academy of Family Practitioners already have such programs on their websites I apologize for not knowing where to find it.

Each year the economic advisors who freely give advice to us PCP providers have asked me to add three patients per day per year to my schedule to economically be able to stay in the same place.  Amidst that high volume and need to stay current and need to have some balance in my life I admit my statistical analysis skills have grown rusty.  I believe many of my colleagues have suffered the same fate. When the Medical Knowledge Self Assessment syllabus arrives every other year, the statistics booklet is probably one of the last we look at because not only does it involve re-learning material but you must first re–learn a vocabulary you do not use day to day or week to week.

I will make my effort to re-learn statistics to better understand the literature. It is my professional responsibility to do so. I ask my colleagues in academia to do a better job, however, of explaining and teaching the concepts so the data and the logical conclusions are understandable.

Screening for Cervical Cancer- The Pap Smear

Cervical Cancer is easily prevented and detectable by having regular pap smears performed by your obstetrician-gynecologist or your primary care physician. In many cases the physician will add the HPV (Human Papilloma Virus) test to look for the presence of a virus associated with cervical and oral cancers.

It is recommended that all women begin receiving annual pap smears at age 21 or within three years of having sex, whichever occurs first. These tests should be repeated annually.  If a woman has her cervix surgically removed as part of a hysterectomy it is no longer necessary to have pap smears.  Older women who have had normal pap smears for several years in a row and have the same monogamous sexual partner for many years or are now sexually inactive , may be able to eliminate having pap smears.  Women over 30 years old with several normal pap smears and the same sexual partner may be able to spread out the pap smears from an annual event to one every two – three years.

A recent study in Sweden, published in the British Medical Journal, confirmed that women who had regular pap smears were detected with cervical cancer much earlier than those women who were not tested, and they survived the disease at a much higher rate.  While this type of test is invasive and involves extremely private anatomical areas, the data is clear that this is one screening procedure that saves lives!

Computerized Prescribing and Pain Medications

As part of the government initiative to modernize health information recording and exchange , doctors and health care providers are encouraged (with financial incentives) to prescribe medications using the computer.  This “e-RX” system allows you to send prescriptions to the patients’ designated pharmacy right from your computer screen with a few clicks and turns of your computer mouse controls. The only medications you are not permitted to prescribe are narcotics, controlled substances and pain medications with narcotic contents.

At the same time this initiative is occurring, there is a massive crackdown in the State of Florida on prescribing medications for pain. Sloppy legislation in Tallahassee by the State Legislature led to the opening and growth of “pill mills.”   Drug addicts and suppliers from all over the country routinely travelled to Florida to obtain massive quantities of prescription medications from these fraudulent facilities staffed by criminal physicians. The medications ended up on the streets causing numerous drug and alcohol related deaths around the country.

The “sloppy” Florida State Legislature then attempted to rectify the problem by passing new rules and regulations that closed the “pill mills” with the help of the police and drug enforcement authorities but has frightened the legitimate physician population into not being willing to prescribe for legitimate chronic pain. Their actions included updating physicians’ online profile with the state licensing agency to declare whether you write narcotic scripts for chronic pain or not.  If you reply “yes” you are apparently placed on a list of “chronic pain” prescribing doctors that the public can access as well as the criminal elements looking for doctors to write scripts for cash.

At the same time legislation now requires doctors to take specific courses to prescribe some of the newer pain delivery products necessitating the physician to leave their practice to train on the use of the new medications. The result is that legitimate neurologists and anesthesiologists are shying away from seeing chronic pain patients less than 65 years of age even if they have been referred and have legitimate needs for pain medications.

This brings me back to computerized prescription ordering. If you are trying to track narcotic prescriptions, why prevent the doctors from using the computer to prescribe controlled substances?   What is easier to track and trace, a computerized order or a hand written prescription?   It would seem that computerized record keeping through electronic order entry would be the preferred method of tracking narcotic prescriptions.

Doctors

Screening Colonoscopy

A recent study proved what physicians and scientists suspected for years – early detection of colon cancer by screening colonoscopies saves lives. The current guidelines call for asymptomatic individuals to begin having a digital rectal exam at age 40. If there are no high risk situations for the patient then it is recommended that they start having screening colonoscopies at age 50. If their screening colonoscopy is negative then they can start scheduling follow-up colonoscopies for screening purposes every ten years.

Experts are now suggesting we stop performing screening colonoscopies at age 80.  At that age, the risk of a complication from the preparation for the test, plus the risk of a complication of the test (primarily perforation of the colon) make the risks far higher than the benefits. We certainly would continue to screen with annual digital rectal exams, and fecal occult blood tests, but the decision to perform a colonoscopy would be individualized based on the patients health, quality of life and expected longevity.

For high risk individuals, those with inflammatory bowel disease (Crohn’s Disease or Ulcerative Colitis), a history of polyps or a family history of colon cancer or inflammatory bowel disease the schedule is more stringent and starts earlier. The same would apply to individuals with a family history of premalignant colon polyps.  The interval of time between colonoscopies is shortened as well. For example, if a patient had a first degree relative who developed colon cancer at age 50 we would start screening that patient at age forty.

Recent studies and evaluations of screening colonoscopies have actually shown that primary care physicians are recommending colonoscopies too frequently with too short of a time interval between studies.  If you are low risk and have no symptoms you begin at age 50 and space the colonoscopies every ten years if the studies are negative.

Within the past few years radiologists have developed the CT Colonoscopy. The prep is less arduous than a traditional colonoscopy. The films, when read by an experienced radiologist, are as detailed and accurate as a fiber-optic traditional colonoscopy. The down sides are the amount of radiation you are exposed to and the need to do a traditional colonoscopy to biopsy any suspicious lesions found on the CT Colonoscopy. Cost is a factor as well with many insurance companies refusing to use this technology for screening purposes.

Antibiotic Use in Sinusitis

In the Journal of the American Medical Association researchers reported that treatment with antibiotics did not improve the speed of recovery or perceived symptoms in patients who took antibiotics.   One hundred sixty-six (166) adults were either given a course of amoxicillin or a placebo three times a day for acute rhino sinusitis. There was no difference in symptomatology at day three or day 10 between the two groups.

If a physician documented severe nasal obstruction the use of antibiotics did produce some perceived improvement in symptoms. There were no differences in the groups for any secondary outcomes, including days missed from work or school, additional health care consultation or recurrence of symptoms .   All the patients were allowed to take medications other than antibiotics for symptom relief during the study.  The conclusion is that antibiotics are not necessary for the treatment of acute rhino sinusitis.