Inflammation and Increased Risk of Cardiovascular Disease

For years, experts have noted that up to 50% of men who have a heart attack do not have diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, do not smoke and are active. This has led to an exploration of other causes and risk factors of cardiac and cerebrovascular disease.

In recent years, studies have shown an increased risk of cardiovascular disease in patients with rheumatoid arthritis, in untreated psoriatic arthritis and in severe psoriasis. We can also add atopic eczema to the list of cardiovascular risk factors.

In a publication in the British Medical Journal, investigators noted that patients with severe atopic eczema had a 20% increase risk in stroke, 40 – 50% increase risk of a heart attack, unstable angina, atrial fibrillation and cardiovascular death. There was a 70% increased risk of heart failure. The longer the skin condition remained active the higher their risks.

The study looked at almost 380,000 patients over at least a 5 year period and their outcomes were compared to almost 1.5 million controls without the skin conditions. Data came from a review of medical records and insurance information in the United Kingdom.

It’s clear that severe inflammatory conditions including skin conditions put patients at increased risk. It remains to be seen whether aggressive treatment of the skin conditions with immune modulators and medications to reduce inflammation will reduce the risks?

It will be additionally interesting to see what modalities cardiologists on each side of the Atlantic suggest we should employ for detection and with what frequency? Will it be exercise stress testing or checking coronary artery calcification or even CT coronary artery angiograms? Statins have been used to reduce inflammation by some cardiologists even in patients with reasonable lipid levels? Should we be prescribing statins in men and women with these inflammatory skin and joint conditions but normal lipid patterns?

The correlation of inflammatory situations with increased risk of vascular disease currently raises more questions with few answers at the present time.

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Concierge Medicine – My 15th Anniversary

I practiced general internal medicine from June 1979 until November 2003. Immediately after training I became an employed physician of an older internist covering my employer’s patients and building my practice for two years before embarking on my own.

I saw 20 or more patients per day in addition to providing hospital care and visiting patients as they recovered in nursing homes. As managed care made its clout felt by kidnapping our patient’s and trying to sell them back to us at 50 cents on the dollar, I helped form a 44 doctor multi-specialty group with its own lab, imaging center and after hours walk-in center. The hope was that a large group might have some negotiating leverage with insurers allowing us to take more time with our patients for more reasonable fees. They laughed at us.

Three years later, my associate and I went to the bank, took out a big personal loan and started our concierge practice. We did this primarily to be comfortable providing excellent care to patients. The system was broken and no medical leader, insurer, employer or politician was going to fix the broken system.

Year after year as our patient’s survived and grew older and more complicated, private insurers including CMS (Medicare) asked us to see them quicker, in shorter visits, but be more comprehensive. The insurers essentially wanted us to place a square peg in a round hole. Switching to a Concierge practice meant I would be caring for a small group of patient’s well at the cost of finding a new medical home for 2,200 existing patients. Switching to Concierge Medicine was our response to a broken system being pushed in a direction of more money and profits for administrators and insurers at the expense of patients and doctors.

In retrospect, I should have made this change five years sooner. The financial rewards are not very different – caring for a small patient panel that pay a membership fee as compared to an enormous panel of patients. The rewards to the patients’ and the doctor for doing a job well done are priceless.

We increased our visit time to 45 minutes from 10 minutes. We set aside 90 minutes for new patient visits. We made a point of continuing to care for our hospitalized patients while all our colleagues were turning that over to hospital employed physicians with no office practices. We provided same day visits and access to the doctor 24 hours a day, seven day a week with accessibility by phone or email. We had the time to advocate for our patient’s as they weaved their way through a bureaucratic mind numbing health care system that made filling a prescription as difficult as the science of launching a rocket into space.

The results of the change are striking. There are very few emergency admissions to the hospital. Falls and trauma, which are mostly not preventable, replaced heart attacks, strokes and abdominal catastrophes as reasons for hospitalizations. There are many fewer hospitalizations. There are fewer crises because we learn about the problems immediately and see the patient’s quickly. If necessary, we help them get access to specialty services.

We have the time and staff now to battle with insurers and third party administrators to get our patient’s what they need to regain their health and independence. When they need specialty care we get them the best; the people we go to ourselves both locally and nationally. We send them equipped with all the information and questions they need to ask about their health problem.

Concierge Medicine has additionally given us the time to teach future doctors. While this stewardship of the profession and launching of future physicians is immensely satisfying, it also makes us stay current and on top of the latest literature and advances.

I look forward to this coming celebration of my 15th year in concierge medicine. I see Direct Pay Practices developing which deliver concierge services to the masses for lower fees. It is a spin-off of “boutique “medicine” or Concierge Lite” as my advisor calls it. It is an attempt by young physicians to reestablish the doctor patient relationship and deliver care in a broken health system.

I am thankful to my patients, who took a chance and came on this journey with me. I look forward to caring for them for years to come.

Prostate Cancer, Digital Rectal Exams, PSA and Screening

The PSA blood test, to detect prostate cancer, clearly has saved lives according to numerous studies. The United States Preventive Task Force (USPTF) recognizes this but has decided that screening for prostate cancer is not a great idea in men aged 55-69. They point out the PSA can be elevated from an enlarged prostate, an inflamed or infected prostate, a recent orgasm while having sex and other causes.

Elevated PSAs led to trans-rectal ultrasound views of the prostate and biopsies of the prostate. These biopsies were uncomfortable, even painful, and often followed by inflammation and infection of the prostate. Many times the prostate biopsy was benign with no cancer detected. The USPTF felt the cost, worry, and potential side effects were a risk far outweighing the benefits of screening. They consequently came out against screening men in this age group.  Naturally this position produced a tidal wave of criticism from urologists and other.

So, the USPTF has produced new recommendations calling for patient education and making a shared decision whether or not to obtain a PSA measurement before you send it out. This is a bit confusing because we always discuss the pros and cons of a PSA before we draw it. Adult men are entitled to hear the pros and cons so they can make their own informed decision.

To complicate matters, a study out of McMaster University in Canada reveals physicians are poorly trained in performing a digital rectal exam. They cite the lack of experience coming out of school and going into training and cite numerous research studies showing a rectal exam is a low yield way to detect prostate cancer. They do not recommend performing digital rectal exams for prostate cancer screening.

This received much media hype and the blur between the efficiency of detecting prostate cancer via a rectal exam and the use of the rectal exam to detect rectal and colon disease has been lost. We perform digital rectal exams to detect prostate cancer and look at the perirectal area for disease. We test the strength and performance of the anal sphincter muscle. We feel for rectal polyps and growths and, in certain situations, test the stool for the presence of blood.

During my internal medicine training my teachers always required a digital rectal exam, stool blood test and slide of the stool as part of the exam. As trainees, we realized the invasiveness of the exam and did our best to be polite, gentle and caring. I always asked for permission first, and still do. How can you tell if something is abnormal if you haven’t performed normal exams?

Last but not least, Finesteride, a medicine used to shrink an enlarged prostate by inhibiting male hormones, has finally been shown to be protective against developing prostate cancer. A study published in the journal of the National Cancer Institute found that men taking it for 16 years had a 21 % lower incidence of prostate cancer.

Does Curcumin Use Help with Cognitive Dysfunction?

Recently, more and more patients have been adding curcumin or turmeric to their cooking to help with their memory. Curcumin is a metabolite of Turmeric and has been available in health food stores for years.

A study a few years back on Alzheimer’s patients published by J. Ringman and Associates showed no benefit in slowing the development of symptoms and no improvement in symptoms when supplied with curcumin. When they looked closely at their study, and analyzed the participant’s blood, they found that curcumin was not absorbed and never really entered the bloodstream.

Last month a study was published in the American Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry by Dr. Gary Small and colleagues. They looked at 40 patients with mild memory complaints aged 50 – 90.  Some were administered a placebo and others were administered nanoparticles of curcumin in a product called “Theracumin”. The participants were randomized and blinded to the product they were testing. The study designers felt the nanoparticles would be absorbed better than other products and would actually test whether this substance was helpful or not. At 18 months, memory improved in patients taking the nanoparticles of curcumin and they had less amyloid deposition in areas it usually found relating to Alzheimers Disease.

Robert Isaacson MD, the director of the Alzheimer’s Prevention Clinic at Weil Cornell Medicine and New York- Presbyterian, has been suggesting his patients cook with curcumin for years. Until the development of the Theracumin nanoparticles, cooking with curcumin was the best way to have it absorbed after ingestion. There is now some evidence to suggest that curcumin, in this specific nanoparticle form, may play a role in both the risk reduction and potential therapeutic management of Alzheimers Disease.

Fitness Lowers Your Risk of Dementia

Over the years I have read and passed on to my patients the benefits of exercise on quality of life and healthy aging. This hypothesis was supported by a recent publication in the journal “Primary Care” by Peter Lin, MD, CCFP. Dr Lin and colleagues followed a group of woman aged 38 to 60 years for 44 years to determine the relationship between fitness and development of dementia. They chose to follow 191 women from a group of 1462 patients and selected a balanced number of patients in each age group up to age 60. They performed a physical fitness test on the women in 1968 and then grouped them into high fitness category, intermediate fitness category and low fitness category based on their performance in the physical fitness test. The women then received neuropsychiatric evaluations in 1974, 1980, 1992, 2000, 2005 and 2009.

The patients within the high fitness group showed an 88% reduction in dementia rate compared to those with medium fitness. Those in the lowest fitness group had a 41% increase d risk of dementia compared to the medium fitness group. Those patients in the high fitness group who developed dementia showed symptoms 9.5 years later on average than the patients in the medium fitness group.

The message for young adults is simple. Stay fit at a high level doing something you enjoy and you may reduce your risk of developing dementia by up to 90%.

End of Life Decisions Are Tougher Than We Think

As an internist and geriatrician I deal with elderly patients all the time. We always end up talking about end of life issues such as “Should I be resuscitated if my heart stops and I stop breathing?”. “Do I want a feeding tube or gastrostomy tube if I stop eating and require nutrition?” “Should I be kept alive on machines and for how long if there is no reasonable hope of recovery?” “When should we refuse tests for diagnosis and subsequent treatments due to frailty, age and quality of life.” These are all immensely difficult decisions for patients and their loved ones. We have documents available such as living wills and medical directives and we appoint health care surrogates to carry out our wishes when we cannot direct care ourselves due to health reasons. Despite this, disagreement often happens between family members and loved ones when the time comes to institute the plans outlined by the incapacitated patient. There are different interpretations of “living”, “terminal condition”, “life prolonging treatment”, etc. Is having a heartbeat and a spontaneous respiration truly living if you cannot eat by mouth, walk to the bathroom, recognize your loved one?

I faced these decisions as a caregiver and co-healthcare surrogate earlier this year and, despite being a professional, felt the decision making was extraordinarily painful and difficult. I share decision making with my brother who lives out of state but will hop on a plane at a moment’s notice to help out. He is an extraordinary son to my chronically ill mom. Widowed a few years back, and suffering from severe and chronic lower extremity issues, she became wheel chair bound and incontinent in the last year. Mom has been living in a highly rated senior facility with its own on-site medical staff in a complex supported by a religious philanthropic organization. Her doctor is a “fellowship trained geriatrician” from an Ivy League institution supported by a team of nurse practitioners. For this reason I decided to interact strictly as her son, not her doctor. Since dad passed away several years ago, she became withdrawn, angry and stopped participating in facility functions. The care team brought in psychiatrists who prescribed medications that left her calmer but clearly hallucinating frequently.

With isolation came increasing cognitive dysfunction with poor decision making and extremely fuzzy thinking. Four months ago she complained to me about having foot pain. I reported it to the nurse rather than undress her and examine her. The LPN reported it to the nurse practitioner. She was seen by a podiatrist several days later and several hours after that visit a nursing aide called my brother in NYC to ask permission to apply betadine (iodine solution) to an infection on her toes. He granted it. Several weeks later while visiting her I smelled decaying flesh. I noticed that when she moved her feet under her sheets she grimaced. I walked over and lifted the sheets and gasped. I was looking at seven gangrenous toes with a blue cool foot and absent pulses in both feet. No one had told my brother or me that mom had vascular insufficiency with gangrenous feet and toes. I called in the nurse and she called the nurse practitioner. The nurse practitioner had no answer as to why no one had told my brother or me that mom had a serious vascular problem going on for months. We had participated in the monthly team telephone conference calls where we listened to social workers, dietitians and therapists discuss her eating habits, socialization and participation. No one discussed gangrene.

Mom had a living will and a State of Florida DNR form. At best she enjoyed holiday trips to my home for family dinners, reading a book and watching TV. Injuries to her hands from repeated falls had made reading a book difficult. Sensitivity about wearing adult diapers and having an accident while visiting my home or out to a restaurant had made those trips a thing of the past. No one at the facility or care team discussed gangrene, evaluation and care for it or the option of palliative care. The Nurse Practitioner said that they hoped the iodine applied to the toes would stem an infection and the bloodless toes would just fall off.

I had numerous discussions with my brother about asking Hospice to intervene and provide comfort measures only at that point. My thinking was colored by my experiences as a resident at a big city hospital where a man with a gangrenous leg chose not to amputate it for religious reasons. We treated his infection but packed his gangrenous leg in ice so the decaying tissue would not rapidly deteriorate and to reduce the horrible odor. I did not want my mother to become that gentleman dying a horrible death, packed in dry ice while caregivers avoided her room due to the horrible odor.

A kind vascular surgeon in the area with excellent credentials offered to see her and offer an opinion. He said that without a diagnostic angiogram he would recommend an amputation above the knee on one side and below the knee on the other. I could not see amputating two legs. Had mom been rational and competent she would not have wanted that. Hospice seemed like the rational decision but that decision required two health care surrogates to reach agreement. “Steve I called her on the phone yesterday and the nurse brought her the phone. We had a wonderful conversation about your nephew and your kids. She seemed with it.” Grandchildren called her and had rational conversations with her. There was resistance to calling in Hospice within the family and their concerns created seeds of doubt in me. I am not blaming my relatives at all. I never stood up to them and strongly said, “She is infirm, with a miserable quality of life and no hope of improvement and you are all crazy for wanting to intervene.” So she went for an angiogram and they opened up three arteries in the right leg and then two on the left. The vascular doctor recommended amputating the gangrenous toes while the circulation was good and creating a clean margin of tissue receiving blood. That procedure took about an hour and was done right after the angiogram. All looked well when I saw her back in her room and snuck in a forbidden corned beef sandwich and kosher pickle. One week later the pain returned to the left foot. It looked dusky and pale. Noninvasive vascular studies showed the arteries that had been opened were now closed. The vascular surgeon recommended above the knee amputation. During this period of time my brother had made multiple trips back and forth from NYC to visit Nana. Our children had flown in from out of town to rally her and support her. They saw her deterioration. They saw her go from recognizing them to confusing them for our wives and her mother and sister. The decision to call Hospice this time met with no family resistance. Hospice arrived as Hurricane Matthew bore down on this area. We went home to prepare our homes for the storm and mom died during it.

Her death clearly relieved her of suffering with a horrible quality of life. That fact is comforting. Losing a mom is an irreplaceable loss. Should I have been more forceful in demanding palliative care earlier? I am still not sure. I am very comfortable with the effort to restore blood circulation to her feet to relieve pain and suffering. I would make that decision again. Other families and clinicians might not have decided that was the best course of action for their loved ones. I will say I had no guidance or help from her medical care team. I think patients and families need guidance at times like these because the choices are not black and white. There is much grey and much pain and many life experiences and emotion coloring your decisions.

I still sit down with my patient’s families and review the end of life options. We talk more about what “living” actually means to their loved ones. The decisions are never easy.

How Tightly Should We Control Blood Pressure in the Elderly?

A recent publication in a fine peer reviewed medical journal of the SPRINT study proved that lowering our blood pressure to the old target of 120/80 or less led to fewer heart attacks, strokes and kidney failure.  There was no question on what to do with younger people but to lower their blood pressure more aggressively to these levels. Debates arose in the medical community about the ability to lower it that much and would we be able to add enough medication and convince the patients to take it religiously or not to meet these stringent recommendations?

There was less clarity in the baby boomer elderly growing population of men and women who were healthy and over 75 years of age. The thought was that maybe we need to keep their blood pressure a bit higher because we need to continue to perfuse the brain cells of these aging patients.

A study performed in the west coast of the United States using actual brain autopsy material hinted that with aggressive lowering of the blood pressure, patients were exhibiting signs and symptoms of dementia but their ultimate brain biopsies did not support that clinical diagnosis. In fact the brain autopsies suggested that we were not getting enough oxygen and nutrient rich blood to the brain because of aggressive lowering of blood pressure.  Maintain blood pressure higher we were told using a systolic BP of 150 or lower as a target.

A recent study of blood pressure control in the elderly noted that when medications for hypertension were introduced or increased a significant percentage of treated patients experienced a fall within 15 days of the adjustment in blood pressure treatment.  This all served as an introduction to a national meeting on hypertension last week during which the results of this same SPRINT (Systolic Blood Pressure Intervention Trial) strongly came out in favor of intensive lowering of blood pressure to 120/70 to reduce heart attacks, strokes and mortality in the elderly and claimed even in the intensive treated group there were few increased risks.   On further questioning however by reclassifying  adverse events in the SPRINT trial to “ possibly or definitely related to intensive treatment, the risk of injurious falls was higher in the intensive vs conventional treatment group.”

What does this mean in the big picture to all of us?  The big picture remains confusing.  It is clear that lowering your blood pressure aggressively and intensively will reduce the number of heart attacks and strokes and kidney disease of a serious nature.  It is clear as well that any initiation or enhancing of your blood pressure regimen puts you at risk for a fall. You will need to stay especially well hydrated and change positions slowly during this immediate post change in therapy time period if you hope to avoid a fall.  Will more intensive control of your blood pressure at lower levels lead to signs and symptoms of dementia due to poor perfusion of your brain cells?  With the SPRINT study only running for three or more years it is probably too early to tell if the intensive therapy will lead to more cognitive dysfunction.