FDA Approves New Non-Verbal Computerized Test for Cognitive Impairment

Many of you are used to the Mini Mental Status Test or Montreal Cognitive Assessment Test during which an examiner asks you verbal questions and there are some pictures to interpret. This week the FDA approved a new test taken on an iPad or tablet using images of animals. The test asks you to classify the pictures as either an animal or nonanimal. The advantage of using the nonverbal picture test is it eliminates bias based on level of education and culture. In addition, it eliminates a successful score on subsequent tests due to a “learning the test” effect.

The test results can be incorporated into a patient’s electronic health medical record and become a part of the patient’s permanent chart. The test was given to 230 volunteers. There were eighty individuals with mild cognitive impairment, 55 with mild Alzheimer’s Disease and 95 healthy individuals. The results revealed the test was as sensitive as current verbal tests currently used to detect early dementia.

CognICA is the name of this new test and will be available for purchase in the next few months

Blood Pressure Control Becoming Trickier & More Personalized

In the era of the COVID-19 Pandemic it’s difficult to find published research which does not deal with the Sars2-Coronavirus. There have been several articles recently about blood pressure that have been of interest. One study previously mentioned discussed the development of a polypill. This pill contained small amounts of four different classes of blood pressure medicine. The researchers noted that in the past physicians were taught to try one pill and keep increasing the dosage until the blood pressure was controlled. The unfortunate part was that as the dosage of the one pill was increased the appearance of adverse side effects took place and patients simply stopped taking their medicines.

The polypill controlled blood pressure better than a single pill and produced fewer adverse effects than a single pill at higher dosages. A separate study reviewed this week looked at the same question. Should we just keep increasing the dosage of a single medication until blood pressure is controlled or should we add a second medication that works by a different mechanism. This study agreed with the polypill study finding that adding a second pill at a lower dosage lowered blood pressure more than a single pill and compliance was better as well due to fewer adverse effects.

A recent publication in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology, published by Tara Chang MD, MS of Stanford University School of Medicine in California, added to the confusion by suggesting that there should be different blood pressure goals for prevention of different diseases. Individuals with heart attacks may do better with a higher diastolic blood pressure than individuals trying to prevent a stroke. Ideally BP would be kept at the 110-120 mm HG to protect the brain, but this range might be too low to protect against another heart attack. For those individuals with both coronary artery disease and cerebrovascular disease the decision on how low to go needs to be discussed with your primary care doctor and cardiologist.

This is clearly an evolving science with more data to come. Hopefully with more data and study it will be less confusing for patients and clinicians as well.

Medicare Part D Annual Enrollment

As of October 15, 2021 traditional Medicare enrollees are encouraged to compare available prescription drug plans under the Medicare Part D program for the 2022 year. Private insurance companies administer these programs for Medicare. The drugs they cover and the amount they cover change from year to year. What was covered this month through December 31, 2021 may not be covered at all on January 1, 2022. The result may be sticker shock when you attempt to refill your normal prescription medications and are presented with a huge bill when you go to pick them up because your insurer no longer carries that medication or covers it through their formulary of medications. The open enrollment period ends December 15, 2021. A Kaiser Foundation poll and research study found that 70% of Medicare beneficiaries do not even compare plans during the October 15 – December 7th enrollment period.

If you have a computer log onto www.Medicare.gov. You will be given a choice to look at Medicare plans as an existing beneficiary or a new one. It will then ask if you wish to sign in with an account or as a guest. Either path will take you through.

You need to then choose Medicare Part D Prescription plans. It will ask for identifying information including your date of birth, initial date as a Medicare recipient and your zip code. It will request that you choose a participating pharmacy. If you use a chain pharmacy such as CVS or Walgreens, choosing any branch will do. It will then ask you to list your medications including dosage and how many you take daily and monthly. Once this task is completed it will allow you to select a plan.

Plans available in Palm Beach County, Florida are different than plans available in Dade County, Florida or even Nassau County, New York. If you wish to have a plan with no deductible the monthly premium will be more costly.

The computer program lists your current plan at the top with anticipated costs to you for 2022 if you keep your current plan. Underneath they list the best plans for you and the member ratings of those plans’ performance in previous years.

The process takes about twenty minutes but can save you hundreds of dollars and much aggravation. In my medical practice, we print out the data for our elderly patients who don’t have access to a computer or lack the skills to use the website.

Aspirin & Heart Disease Prevention Recommendations

In the 1950’s a research paper based on work done at a Veterans Administration Hospital found that men 45 years of age who took a daily aspirin tended to have fewer heart attacks and strokes. The VA patients were mostly male WWII and Korean War Veterans. That was the basis for most of the men in my Baby Boomer generation to take a daily aspirin.

Yes, we knew that aspirin gives us an increased risk of bleeding from our stomach and intestine. And we knew that if we hit our head while on aspirin the amount of bleeding on the brain would be much greater. It was a tradeoff – benefits versus risks.

Over the years the science has advanced to now distinguish those taking aspirin to prevent developing heart disease, cerebrovascular disease or primary prevention and those seeking to prevent an additional health event such as a second heart attack or stroke. To my knowledge there are no studies that examine what happens to someone in their 60a or 70s who has been taking an aspirin for 40 plus years daily and suddenly stops. It’s a question that should be answered before electively stopping daily aspirin.

Over the last few years researchers have hinted that the daily aspirin may protect against developing colorectal cancer and certain aggressive skin cancers. The downside to taking the aspirin has always been the bleeding risk. This data is now being questioned by the USPTF looking for more “evidence.”

The US Preventive Services Task Force was formed in 1984 with the encouragement of employers, private insurers selling managed health care plans and members of Congress to try and save money in healthcare. It is comprised of volunteer physicians and researchers who are supposed to match evidence with medical procedures to ensure that we are receiving high value procedures only.

In 1998 Congress mandated that they convene annually. Under their direction, recommendations were made to stop taking routine chest x rays on adult smokers because it didn’t save or prolong life and it took $200,000 of X Rays to save one life. They reversed their opinion decades later deciding that the math on that study wasn’t quite right and now recommend CT scans on smokers of a certain age and duration of tobacco use. I point this out to emphasize why I am not quite as excited today about their change in aspirin guidelines as the newspaper and media outlet stations seem to be.

I am a never smoker, frequently exercising adult with high blood pressure controlled with medication, high cholesterol controlled with medication and recently diagnosed non obstructive coronary artery disease. What does that mean? At age 45 my CT Scan of my coronary arteries showed almost no calcium in the walls. 26 years later there is enough Calcium seen to increase my risk of a cardiac event to > 10% over the next ten years. I took a nuclear stress test and ran at level 5 with no evidence of a blockage on EKG or films. The calcium in the walls of the arteries however indicates that cholesterol laden foam cells living in the walls of my coronary arteries and moving towards the lumen to rupture and cause a heart attack were thwarted and calcified preventing that heart attack or stroke. I am certainly not going to stop my aspirin.

My thin healthy friend who works out harder than I do told me he doesn’t have heart disease and is going to stop his baby aspirin. I asked him what about his three stents keeping several coronary arteries open? He told me he had heart disease before he got the stents but now he doesn’t. I suggested he talk to his internist or cardiologist prior to stopping the aspirin.

I may take a different path in starting adults on aspirin for cardiovascular and cerebrovascular event protection. I am certainly not going to withdraw aspirin from patients taking it for years unless they are high risk for falls and head trauma or bleeding. I suggest you ask your doctor before considering changing any of your medications.

Try an exercise by writing down all the prescription medicines and next to them list what condition you take them for. Once you have established that information, set up an appointment and talk about it with your physician. The decision-making is much more complicated than the USPTF and headline hungry media discussed and reported.

Exercising With a Mask is Safe

My daughter was trying to come to terms regarding what to do about school with our 3.5year old grandson. Her friends were applying peer pressure to send him to school citing permanent psychological and developmental damage from staying isolated at home. She signed him up for a school that does not have a vaccine mandate for teachers and staff but does require that the children wear a mask indoors and in close contact situations outside. “Don’t you know that masks are unhealthy for children. They have to breathe more carbon dioxide.” said another mom. 

Rising carbon dioxide levels produce a reaction to breathe, which is a good thing. So, I searched the literature to find something that provides evidence that masks are safe.

Matthew Kampert, D.O. and colleagues from the Cleveland Clinic performed exercise stress tests on active young men wearing no mask, wearing a N95 mask and wearing a cloth mask with a charcoal filter. Their results were published as a letter in one of JAMA’s online forums.

These men each exercised until they were exhausted in three scenarios. Without a mask they exercised for a mean duration of 591 seconds versus 548 seconds with a cloth mask and 545 seconds with an N95 mask. They all felt that breathing resistance and humidity was higher with either mask.

There were no arrhythmias nor were there ischemic EKG changes. Their conclusion, based on the small difference in time exercising, is that wearing a mask did not limit physical exercise capacity.

Thus, wearing a mask does not adversely affect your ability to exercise or participate in activities.

Some Health Issues Should Not Be Evaluated in the Office

I received a phone call from an elderly gentleman who was closer to ninety years of age than 80, was taking an aspirin and had just suffered a fall and hit his head. He did not know why or how he fell. He asked for an appointment the same day to “check me out.” 

My staff asked all the pertinent questions and immediately brought the information to me.  After reviewing it, I felt for his safety his best course of action was to immediately call 911 (or have us do it) and go to our local emergency department for evaluation. The patient takes daily aspirins to prevent a second heart attack or stroke.

The antiplatelet action of the aspirin, plus his age and the head trauma necessitate an immediate and thorough evaluation with imaging. I do not have an X Ray unit, CT Scan unit or MRI unit in my internal medicine office. If I bring this gentleman into my office, he must transport himself, wait until I have time later in the day and probably will then have to wait to be scheduled by an imaging facility for a non-contrast CT scan of the brain to make sure doesn’t have a bleed between his brain and skull or a bleed in the brain. The delay in evaluation can threaten his survival and recovery. 

The patient was quite angry at the suggestion – quoting my concierge practice contract that says we will bring you in for a visit same day for an acute condition. The non-stated content is that we will bring you in same day for a condition that is appropriate for evaluation in an office setting. The same can be said for someone calling with acute substernal chest pain which could be a heart attack or sudden inability to breathe.  Add in excessive bleeding that does not respond to compression or loss of consciousness as conditions that are best evaluated and treated in an emergency department. These are all conditions that require a call to EMS via 911 and an immediate evaluation in an Emergency Department where the equipment exists to quickly evaluate and treat these problems safely. 

The patient was worried about the wait in the ED and COVID-19 exposure. Both concerns are understandable despite little transmission of Covid recorded in ED visits or in patient hospitalizations.

This patient has emailed me twice now demanding a full refund of his membership fee due to violation of the contract. The reasoning and concern have been explained to him several times already. My concern is that his new onset short temper and grumpy demeanor are the result of the fall and head trauma which still has not been evaluated.

Patients need to know that there are times a health issue requires evaluation and treatment in an emergency department.  It has nothing to do with a contract.  It has everything to do with making the right clinical recommendation for the patient.

Concierge Medicine and the Pandemic

Twenty years ago I practiced internal medicine and geriatrics locally in a traditional medical practice. I cared for 2700 patients seen in 15-minute visits with an annual checkup being given a full 30 minutes. The majority of my patients were over 55 years old and many had already been patients for 10-20 years. The practice office revenue was enhanced by having an in house laboratory, chest x-ray machine, pulmonary function lab and flexible sigmoidoscopy colon cancer surveillance program. If patients needed more time, we allotted more time or, more likely, we just fell behind leaving patients stranded in the waiting room wondering when they would be seen. I had a robust hospital practice made easier by the fact that the hospital was a short walk across the street and most of my hospitalized patients came from being required to cover the emergency room periodically for patients requiring admission but not having a physician.

Much changed quickly in the early 1990’s as we approached the millennium. Insurers managed care programs kidnapped our younger patients by approaching employers and guaranteeing cost savings on health insurance by demanding we provide care at a 25% discount. In addition, mandatory ER call became a nightmare because insurers would only compensate contracted physicians to care for their hospital inpatients.

My very profitable chest x-ray machine became an albatross because that $28 x-ray reimbursement was now accompanied by a fee to dispose of the developing fluid by only a certified chemical disposal firm even though the EPA said there was not enough silver in the waste to require that you do anything other than dump it down the sink. The lab closed too. Congress enacted strict testing and over site rules which made the cost of doing business too expensive and not profitable. That flexible sigmoidoscopy went the way of the Model-T Ford when the medical community enlarged to accommodate board certified gastroenterologists certified to look at the entire colon under anesthesia not just the distal colon and sigmoid.

We tried to overcome increased costs and lost revenue by seeing more patients per day. We banded together as physician owned groups owning imaging centers and common labs but the Center for Medicare Services (CMS), which runs Medicare, and private insurers plus Congressional rules on conflict of interest thwarted those ideas. We attended seminars on becoming a member of an HMO and taking full risk for a patient’s health care and cost.

The message was clear, you could make a great deal of money if you put barriers in front of patients limiting access to care and especially in patient hospital care. The ethics of that model did not sit well with many. So, we started earlier, shortened each visit and worked later and harder. As time wore on, and our loyal patients aged, we realized that we needed to spend MORE TIME with them more frequently.  Not less time!

Spending less time with patients was the primary impetus which prompted my exploration of concierge medicine when I realized I was better off emotionally, ethically and morally caring well for fewer patients. Financially, seeing a smaller panel of patients who paid a membership fee generated similar income to maintaining a large panel of patients in a capitated system or fee for service seeing more people with shorter visits.

I discuss this now because I often wonder how I would be able to care for my large panel of patients today in the midst of this COVID-19 Pandemic.

For the most part I have been able to give my patients the time and availability they need to stay safe from Coronavirus and still keep up with the prevention and surveillance testing they need periodically. The 24/7 phone, email and text message access has allowed me to stay in touch with patients – something that would have been near impossible to do in a practice with 2700 adult patients.

I applaud my colleagues who continued in the traditional practice primary care setting despite the fact that most sold their practices to local hospital systems or large investment groups who placed administrators in the care decision-making process dictating time and number of daily visits, referral patterns and products used in the care of the patients.

As an independent physician, I have been able to continue to provide services and referrals that are the best in the area using doctors and equipment I would see as a patient and proudly refer my parents, my wife and children, beloved friends and family members. I am able to guide patients based on evidence and quality of measures not only what is most cost effective. I have no contract with a health system that requires me to see a certain number of patients per day, per week, per month or face a drop in salary or dismissal. I am proud and fulfilled at the end of the day because I can look in the mirror and know that I tried my best for the patients.

I additionally have the ability to say “no” to a potential new patient that I believe would not benefit from being in my practice for numerous reasons. Providing time to meet potential new patients gives both the patient and physician an opportunity to assess whether developing a professional relationship would be a good fit for both.

During the pandemic these meetings have become tele-health virtual meetings which are far more impersonal and less educational for both the potential patient and the doctor. It is still far better than having an administrator schedule a new patient, with no questions asked, on your schedule with the only criteria being can they pay the price?

Sadly, this horrible SARS 2 Coronavirus pandemic has made concierge internal medicine and family medicine more attractive than less. Having your physician available to discuss prevention, vaccines, testing methods and locations and treatments, if infected, is much easier in these membership practices than in a traditional practice where your phone calls are routed through an automated attendant phone system, reviewed by a non-physician provider and handled usually by a nurse practitioner or physician assistant with only the most serious and complicated situations reaching the physician’s desk.

I predict that more and more patients will seek concierge care in the next few years because patients are getting tired of fighting the bureaucracy and struggling to get the attention of their health care providers when they think they need it.  But don’t blame the providers.  It’s the dysfunctional, inefficient and profit driven corporate system that has created this situation.