Primary Care Docs Outperform Hospitalists …

A study published recently in JAMA Internal Medicine looked at 650,651 Medicare patients hospitalized in 2013. It showed that when patients were cared for by their own outpatient physician they had a slightly better outcome than when the patients were attended to by full-time hospital based specialists who had not previously known them.

As an internal medicine physician who maintains hospital privileges, as well as caring for patients in an office setting, this study supports the type of medicine I have been trying to practice for the last 38 years. However, I am not naïve enough to believe it entirely.

In recent months similar studies have touted the benefit of female physicians over their male counterparts, younger physicians over older physicians and even foreign trained physicians over those trained in the USA. Based on these studies, one might conclude you should be treated by a young female outpatient physician who trained in a foreign country. While the JAMA study shows the success of the outpatient primary care physician, those in hospitalist medicine could similarly produce their own studies showing the benefit of using a hospital based physician or hospitalist.

I do believe having a familiar physician, you know and trust, adds a major level of comfort when you are ill. Having that physician consult within his or her referral network of physicians who know how that doctor expects the communication between doctors, and care to occur, is an additional benefit.

The fact that your personal physician knows what you look like in health gives them a distinct advantage in recognizing when you are ill. They know you and all about you and that helps. It especially helps patients with complex medical issues who require more time and thought. Being able to review the old records and previous specialty consultations which you were a part of seems to impart an advantage that someone just joining the care team does not yet possess.

This study does not say that outpatient primary care docs are better than hospitalists. It only points out that in a senior citizen population in 2013, patients cared for by their own primary care doctor had a better 30 day survival after a hospital stay.

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On Loss, Death and Dying

As an internist with “added qualifications in geriatric medicine” I care for a great many elder individuals. In most cases these are individuals I met 20 or more years ago and have been privileged to share their lives with them as they aged.

The circle of life is relentless and unforgiving so there comes a time when these relationships end. In some cases it comes when they can no longer care for themselves and I suggest they move out of the area to be closer to a loved one who will provide support and care. In some cases the patient moves from their home into a senior assisted or skilled nursing facility out of the area.

There have been a few situations where an adult child from out of the area shows up on the scene and transfers their loved one’s care elsewhere. These are the most difficult situations because the children are stressed and put out by the responsibility and inconvenience of suddenly having to care for their loved one. They do not have the longstanding professional relationship with me that I have with the patient. They expect quick and simple answers and treatment plans in most cases when for the most part we are dealing with complex issues involving many professionals and treating one condition fully often exacerbates another.

Then of course there are the patients who pass away. As detached as you try to be, those of us who care invest a bit of our heart and soul in each patient who comes to us for care. I see that investment made in the vast majority of my colleagues across all the disciplines and specialties. When you lose someone, even an ancient senior citizen, it takes a piece of your being with it.

I too am no spring chicken. I talk about Medicare from experience now. Morning stiffness is a shared experience, not a term in a medical textbook. Male urinary problems, once something you treated in older guys is now a way of life. My older colleagues are retiring. When making hospital rounds I notice the prevalence of younger physicians.

My beloved pets age too. For the last 16 years my Pug (Pugsly) and my mixed-breed sweetie (Chloe) greeted me at the door, took long walks with me and provided fur therapy after a stressful day. Pugsly expired a year ago. His mate Chloe left this world in November. For a clinician well versed in Elizabeth Kubler Ross’s book “On Death and Dying” and dealing with life and death daily, the loss of a beloved pet should be easier. The pain is palpable. The sadness recurs and the heaviness on the shoulders, eyelids and heart wears you down.

I have several younger patients valiantly battling against horrible malignant diseases. Their drive and courage to overcome illness and enjoy the time they have with family and friends is inspirational. They do not know it but they are my role models for how to deal with the adversity of losing loved ones, human and pet, and sharing the diminishing independence and health that my long time patients now experience.

New Non Live Shingles Vaccine Approved by FDA and ACIP

For several years the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP) has been encouraging adults to receive the shingles vaccine or Zostavax. Shingles is a recurrence of chicken pox which we had as children. The virus lives within the nerve endings near the spinal cord and recurs following sensory nerves at unexpected times producing a chicken pox like (herpetic) rash with pain on one side of your body. The lesions follow the pattern of the chicken pox with pustules crusting over the course of a week. During the rash, patients are contagious and can transmit the chicken pox virus to people not immunized against it or those people whose immunity is diminished. As the rash subsides, a large percentage of the patients continue to have pain along the path of that sensory nerve which can last forever in a post herpetic neuralgia.

Zostavax will prevent an outbreak of shingles in about 2/3 of those who receive the shot. It prevents the post rash pain syndrome in a much higher percentage of the recipients. It was this quality that made it easy for me to recommend the vaccine to my patients and to take it myself.

The shot’s major drawback was that it involved receiving an attenuated or modulated live virus. This prevented individuals on chemotherapy or with a weakened immune system from receiving this vaccine.

To address that issue Glaxo Smith Kline developed Shingrix which is a non-live, recombinant subunit vaccine injected into the muscle on two occasions. It is touted to prevent shingles in 90% of the recipients over a four year period. It will replace Zostavax as the shingles vaccine of choice. For those of us who already received Zostavax they are recommending that we boost our immunity by receiving this new vaccine as well.

I have always been quite conservative on recommending new pharmaceutical products until they have been on the US market for at least one year. With the decreased funding of the FDA, I will wait at least a year until I see what adverse reactions occur in the US population. In the meantime I will price the product and try and learn if private insurers and/or Medicare will pay for its administration.

Scientists Develop Rapid Susceptibility Tests for Urinary Tract Infections

In my geriatric patients, recurrent urinary tract infections and conditions mimicking them pop up frequently. Patients young and old find it inconvenient to come to the office to provide a specimen to analyze whether or not an infection has occurred and what is causing it. You often need to send the specimen off to the lab to culture the offending bacteria and then wait further for the lab to determine what antibiotic if any will work against that invader. As clinicians, if we suspect an infection and the in-office or clinic urine specimen looks infected, we treat with the antibiotics most likely to cure until we actually get the official reports back from the lab.

An esteemed panel of health care experts has recommended something different -suggesting that when symptoms of a urinary tract infection develop patients be prescribed a three day course of antibiotics without an exam or urinalysis or pre-antibiotic treatment urine for culture and sensitivity. This is all part of the 21st Century movement for less costly, less time consuming, more convenient self-diagnosis and care using your high tech apps to diagnose and treat your problem.

In my patient population many of the elderly patients use so many antibiotics so many times for presumed urine infections that we are often dealing with multi drug resistant bacteria requiring intravenous treatment with complex medications to cure the problem.

Scientists announced recently in the journal, Science Translational Medicine, that they have developed a rapid 30 minute DNA test that will allow us to determine the susceptibility of the offending organism quickly. The successful study has led to the beginning of developing a commercial variety of the test expected to be available in three years. If it works and is affordable it will make outpatient treatment of urinary tract infections far more accurate and efficient.

Inflammation as a Cause of Heart Attacks and Strokes

Years ago I attended a series of lectures sponsored by the Cleveland Clinic to promote its proprietary lab tests that were geared to detect previously undetectable causes of heart attacks and strokes. A cardiologist at Cleveland Clinic, along with a research nurse out of Emory University Hospital and Medical Center, noted that 50% of the men having heart attacks and strokes were within the recommended life and health guidelines. They didn’t smoke, their blood pressures were controlled, they had lipids within the recommended guidelines and their weight was appropriate – as was their activity level.

They unofficially dubbed it the Supermen study and showed that by reducing “inflammation” they could reduce the number of heart attacks and strokes. They concentrated on periodontal disease and rheumatologic diseases as sources of inflammation. They believed that angina and heart attacks and strokes did not occur because a blood vessel gradually narrowed much like a plumbing pipe clogged with hair and debris. They felt that soft lipid plaque under the surface in vehicles dubbed “foam cells” ruptured through the blood vessel wall into the lumen through the endothelial lining under the direction of inflammation in the body.

This breakthrough into the blood carrying portion of the blood vessel was perceived as a fresh cut or wound which was bleeding. The body’s natural response was to try and stop the bleeding by creating a clot. This clot occurred quickly in a small vessel and every living item downstream, not supplied by a collateral blood vessel, died from lack of oxygen and fuel to function. They treated the identifiable inflammation and felt that statin medications (Lipitor, Zocor, Pravachol, Crestor , Livalo and the generics) had an of- label quality that reduced inflammation as well as lowered the cholesterol.

I bought into that theory and incorporated these blood tests into the patient population most at risk and the appropriate age where prevention would make a major difference. Tests like hsCRP, Myeloperoxidase, Apo-B and others were used for screening. Finding the inflammation and treating it for men who met the definition for entry into the Supermen study was far more difficult. The whole theory of inflammation causing acute cardiac and cerebrovascular events was treated much like climate change, genetically modified foods and even vaccinations with a large degree of community doubt.

Last week at a major European Cardiology meeting the CANTOS (Canakinumab Anti-inflammatory Thrombosis Outcomes Study) showed that by administering an anti- inflammatory medicine for three plus years at an appropriate dosage, we could reduce the number of heart attacks and strokes significantly. Using a monoclonal antibody, “Canakinumab” at 150 mg every third month they treated inflammation and reduced the number of events. The downside was the annual cost of this medicine currently stands at about $200,000 per year making it unavailable for most of us.

The surprising and startling finding was that it reduced lung cancers by 70% and other malignancies as well. The true finding in this study may be its use as a cancer weapon in the future. The study truly opened the door for research into new and less expensive approaches to treating inflammation. It validated inflammation as a pathway to vascular disease. Now we need to find a way to make that treatment affordable to all.

Extreme Exercise Tied to Gut Damage

I was out doing my morning two mile trot on an unseasonably cool late spring morning in South Florida. The crispness of the day, coupled with unexplained lack of my normal warm up aches and pains made me particularly frisky. I had walked the dog for a few miles slowly, then engaged in my normal pre-run stretching routine and felt unusually energetic and fluid. I was enjoying the outdoors and weather, while listening to music on my play list and struggling to stay within the parameters of speed, pace, and target heart rate appropriate for a 67 year old man. The inner competitor within me was screaming, “You feel great, go for it.” Moderation and common sense are always the great traits to keep exercising and not injured. The inner stupid competitor in me said pick up the pace. I did pick up the pace. I completed my course far quicker than usual. I performed my cool down and stretching routine and was feeling pretty cocky about doing more than I should when I heard that rumble in my gut and saw the distention begin. The distention was followed by cramps, gas and profuse uncomfortable loose stools for several hours. My gut was sore and my appetite was gone.

I mention this after reading an article review in MedPage Today about a publication in the journal Alimentary Pharmacology and Therapeutics published by Ricardo J.S. Costa, M.D., of Monash University in Victoria, Australia. He and his colleagues showed that exercise intensity was a main regulator of gastric emptying rate. Higher intensity meant causing more disturbances in gastric motility. High intensity exercise at a rate you are not used to for a period of time longer than you usually exercise leads to gut problems including all the issues I experienced. Low to moderate physical activity was found to be beneficial especially to patients, like myself, suffering over the years from irritable bowel syndrome.

The researchers found that ultra- endurance athletes competing in hot ambient temperatures running in multi stage continuous 24 hour marathons were far more likely to develop exercise associated GI symptoms than individuals running a less intense half marathon. The results are fairly clear for us non ultra-endurance athletes. There is great wisdom in regular moderate exercise to keep your effort within the parameters your physician and trainer recommend based on your age and physical training. Even if it’s a cool crisp day and you feel that extra surge of adrenaline and competitiveness, moderation is best for your health and your gut. I hope the competitor in me remembers that the next time the urge to push the limit pops up.

Coffee Consumption Lowers Mortality Risk

The online edition of the Annals of Internal Medicine, July 11, 2017 edition published an article from MJ Gunter using data from the European Prospective Investigation into Cancer and Nutrition that concluded that coffee consumption lowered patient mortality. The study looked at more than 520,000 patients from 10 different countries that were followed for 16.4 years. In a side study they looked at a group of 14, 800 patients and examined the correlation between coffee consumption and biomarkers of liver inflammation, function and health.

Patients who drank the most coffee had statistically significant lower all-cause mortality than individuals who did not consume coffee.  Patients in the highest group of coffee consumption tended to have significantly lower risk for mortality related to digestive diseases. Women coffee drinkers had a lower risk for cerebrovascular disease mortality and circulatory disease mortality but were at higher risk for ovarian cancer related mortality.

The researchers concluded, “Coffee drinking was associated with reduced risk for death from various causes.”

I will enjoy my coffee even more now. If only I could lay off the bagels and donuts that go with it.