American College of Physicians Breast Cancer Screening Guidance

The American College of Physicians released four guidance statements on detection of breast cancer in women with average risk and no symptoms of breast cancer.

  1. Doctors should discuss with their patients the pros and cons of screening with mammography for breast cancer in asymptomatic women with a modest risk of disease between ages 40- 49 years. The potential risks of screening are felt to outweigh the benefits.
  2. Clinicians should screen average risk women aged 50-74 years for breast cancer with mammography every other year.
  3. Clinicians should discontinue breast cancer screening in women aged 75 years or greater with an average risk of breast cancer and a life expectancy of 10 years or less.
  4. Clinical breast examinations SHOULD NOT be used to screen for breast cancer of average risk women of all ages.

These guidance statements DO NOT APPLY to women with a higher risk of breast cancers including those with abnormal screening results in the past, a personal history of breast cancer or a mutation in the BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene.

At the same meeting, data was presented discussing the problems with supplemental whole breast ultrasound in women with dense breasts.  The concern is that all this testing leads to invasive biopsies, over diagnosis and treatment of breast cancer in 1 in 5 patients and complications and increased cost to patients and insurers.  Like most recommendations on breast cancer, and prostate cancer in men, the results and conclusions from following these guidelines will not be apparent until 10 to 15 years from now.

Today’s adult women will either benefit from these suggestions, which have even included no longer teaching adult women how to perform breast self-exam, or they will be the unsuspecting research victims of cost containment. I question the competence of physicians in examining problematic breast disease if they are not being trained how to evaluate a breast and following that with clinical exams. In surgery we usually do not feel a clinician is competent and fully aware of the pitfalls of a procedure until the surgeon has done 200 or more. We additionally know that doing the procedure frequently results in better results than performing a procedure infrequently.

How will that apply if young physicians no longer examine breasts routinely?  How many, and how often, will they need to do an adequate exam to be able to perform when there is a real issue?  Do we actually wish to create a narrow panel of breast experts only at Centers of Excellence who actually know how to examine a breast and use the available imaging modalities safely and effectively?  It seems these ACP recommendations move in that direction.

For several years now I have been a supporter and champion of our community’s Women’s’ Center associated with Boca Raton Regional Hospital. Run by astute future thinking clinicians and researchers, and stocked with state of the art imaging equipment, it provides an option to meet with a counselor, assess your breast cancer risk and enter a screening pathway most individually suited to your personalized needs.  I will continue to support that choice.

Scientific Reports, Media Reports and Ambiguity

Last week I read an article in a peer reviewed journal citing the benefits of a few eggs per week as part of a low carbohydrate dietary intervention for Type II Diabetes.  The information was so meaningful about a controversial food source of protein that I decided to write about it in my blog and pass it along to my patients.  Three days later the American Heart Association and American College of Cardiology discussed the increased risk of cardiovascular events and mortality in individuals consuming three or more eggs regularly. They talked about the detrimental cholesterol being concentrated in the yolk making egg white omelets look healthier than traditional omelets.

In the early 1970’s a VA study was published showing that veterans over 45 years of age who took an aspirin a day had fewer heart attacks and strokes and survived them better than those who don’t.  Fast forward almost 50 years and we have different recommendations for people who have never had an MI or CVA or evidence of cardiovascular disease compared to secondary prevention in individuals who have known coronary artery disease, cerebrovascular disease or diabetes. Throw in the controversial discussions of aspirin preventing colorectal adenomas from developing, aspirin preventing certain types of skin cancers and today’s report that suggests it may prevent liver cancer. Now three studies suggest that in older individuals (70 or greater) the risk of bleeding negates the benefits of cardio and cerebrovascular protection and aspirin may not actually prevent heart attacks and strokes in that age group.

We then turn to statins and prevention of heart attacks and numerous articles about not prescribing them to older Americans.  I saw articles on this topic covered by CNN, the Wall Street Journal, ARP Journal, AAA magazine and in several newsletters published by major national medical centers.  In each piece they caution you to talk to your doctor before stopping that medicine.

I am that seventy year old patient they all talk about.  I have never smoked. I exercise modestly on a regular basis, getting my 10,000 or more steps five or more days a week.  I battle to keep my weight down and find it difficult to give up sweets and bread when so many other of life’s pleasures are no longer available due to age and health related suggestions.

There are clearly no studies that look at patients who took a statin for 15 years and aspirins for over 20 years, stopped them and then were followed for the remainder of their lives.   How will they fare compared to patients who never took them?

I have this discussion every day with my patient’s pointing out the current guidelines and trying to individualize the suggestions to their unique lifestyle and issues. On a personal level, I still have no idea what the correct thing is to do even after discussing it with my doctors.  How can I expect my patients to feel any differently?

Sleep Apnea and Cognitive Impairment

Convincing a patient to undergo a sleep analysis for obstructive sleep apnea is a difficult task. During our history taking session, we ask about excessive snoring, periods of not breathing while asleep, daytime sleepiness and we look at the patient’s body habitus, weight and height. Often, the patient’s spouse or partner has complained about their snoring keeping them up. Most of the time, when I ask about this the response is, “Why go for an evaluation if I am not going to wear that mask anyway?  I have a friend who has a CPAP mask and I am just not going to do that.”

Obstructive sleep apnea and periods of apnea (not breathing) results in the lung blood vessel blood pressure rising.  We call it pulmonary hypertension.  It is different from systemic arterial essential hypertension in that traditional blood pressure medicines do not lower the pulmonary pressures.

If you examine our heart and lung anatomy you realize that the very non-muscular right side of the heart, primarily the right ventricle, pumps blood a short distance to the lungs to exchange gases and removing wasteful gases in exchange for oxygen. That oxygen rich blood returns to the left side of the heart where the very muscular left ventricle pumps it out to the body.

When the body’s systemic blood pressure rises the left side of the heart has to work harder. The muscular left ventricle is much more suited for that task than the right ventricle is suited to pump against pulmonary vessel hypertension.  The result is the right heart fails much sooner than the left side and the treatment options and medications are far less successful.  This explanation to patients is often received, digested and dismissed as hypothetical and down the road.

This week the American Academy of Neurology received a presentation by a group at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester that showed that patients with untreated sleep apnea produced an increased amount of tau protein deposition in the brain. Tau protein deposition is associated with Alzheimer’s disease.  The researchers, led by Diego Z. Carvalho, MD, are not sure if more Tau protein accumulates in brains of people with untreated sleep apnea or if Tau protein accumulation actually leads to sleep apnea?  That research is ongoing.

The lesson is that sleep apnea is something that needs to be diagnosed and treated. I am a fan of referring patients’ to sleep evaluation centers where that is the primary disease state reviewed.

While sleep apnea is one of the abnormalities evaluated, there are many other disorders of sleep that can be recognized and treated to improve patient sleep. At home sleep monitors are available as well but may be limited in diagnosing sleep apnea alone.

If you are determined to have obstructive sleep apnea then treatment choices include weight loss, laser treatment of the uvula, dental appliances to open up your airways, adjustments to your sleep position and many types of facial and nasal CPAP devices.

Most of my patients who try a CPAP mask require 8-12 weeks to adjust to it. Once adjusted to it, their quality of sleep is so good that I rarely have to convince them to keep using it.

The Florida Legislature and Florida Medical Association Making Docs the Fall Guys

I wrote and mailed my annual $250 check to the Newborn Injury Compensation Act (NICA) fund today. In 1982-83, when there was a medical malpractice crisis and no physician could get insurance to practice, the Florida Medical Association (FMA) cut a deal with the trial lawyers and our elected officials to form NICA. Every physician, regardless of specialty, is required to pay $250 annually into this fund to cover the cost of injuries to newborns. Obstetricians pay $5,000 annually.

In exchange for making the social problems of the state the responsibility of Florida physicians alone, the legislature passed some changes to the medical malpractice laws which encouraged insurers to return to and start writing policies in Florida. Isn’t it time for the State of Florida and its citizens to assume their responsibility for providing reproductive education and prenatal opportunities to women of child bearing age nearly 40 years later? Why does it remain my responsibility as a physician to continue to fund this entity? The FMA thinks it is still a good deal and will not discuss lobbying for a change.

Recently I attended one of many continuing education courses mandated by the elected officials in Tallahassee. It was on prevention of medical errors. It’s the same course I took two years ago and two years before that. Most of the errors are surgical and do not apply to me. The others are communication issues.

I have proposed over and over to my hospital’s chief medical officer and medical staff that we form a medical staff communication committee to facilitate doctor to doctor, and doctor to staff, communication to improve patient safety and care. Time after time they turn a deaf ear to the suggestion yet they host the medical error meeting yearly.

They also host the Domestic Violence lecture yearly. It too is mandatory for license renewal in Florida. The same message is delivered every year. “If the assault is made with a knife or gun call the police because they can do something. If a weapon is not involved your only option is to recommend counseling and safe shelters.” The Legislature has done nothing to toughen domestic abuse laws but they make us sit through the lecture every two years.

I have the same message for the legislature, the FMA and the Florida Board of Medicine, “You can kiss my grits!”

Shared Decision Making. Science versus Art of Medicine.

My 80 year old patient presented with symptoms and signs of kidney failure. I hospitalized him and asked for the assistance of a kidney specialist. We notified his heart specialist as a courtesy. A complicated evaluation led to a diagnosis of an unusual vasculitis with the patient’s immune system attacking his kidney as if it was a foreign toxic invader.

Treatment, post kidney biopsy, involved administering large doses of corticosteroids followed by a chemotherapy agent called Cytoxan. Six days later it was clear that dialysis was required at least until the patient’s kidneys responded to the therapy and began working again.

You need access to large blood vessels for dialysis, so a vascular surgeon was consulted. He placed a manufactured vascular access device in the patient’s lower neck on a Monday in the operating room. The access was used later that day for a cleansing filtration procedure called plasma exchange. The patient returned to his room at dinner time with a newly swollen and painful right arm and hand on the same side as the surgical vascular access procedure.

The nurses were alarmed and paged the vascular surgeon. His after-hours calls are taken by a nurse practitioner. She was unimpressed and suggested elevating the arm. The floor nurses were not happy with that answer since they had seen blood clots form downstream from vascular access devices. They next called the nephrologist. He suggested elevation of the arm plus heat. This did not satisfy the charge nurse who requested a diagnostic Doppler ultrasound to look for a clot. The nephrologist acquiesced and it was done quickly revealing a clot or deep vein thrombosis (DVT) in an arm vein.

I am the patient’s admitting physician and attending physician (it is unclear to me what the difference is) but I was surprised I did not receive the first or second call regarding the swollen arm. I was the first however to receive a call with the result. My first knowledge that a problem was occurring came when an RN called, “Dr. Reznick, the patient in 803 came back from dialysis with a painful swollen right arm and hand. The vascular surgeon was called but his covering nurse practitioner wasn’t concerned. The nephrologist ordered the test after we encouraged him to. There is a clot in the right brachial vein. What should we do?”

This was a new complication occurring to a frightened patient just returning from surgery, plasma exchange and hemodialysis for the first time to treat a rare aggressive disease he and his children had never heard of. One of my cardinal rules of practice is when in doubt listen to the patient, take a thorough history of the events, examine the involved body parts, look at the diagnostic studies with the radiologist and explain it all to the patient and family. I changed my leisure clothes to my doctor clothes and headed to the hospital delaying dinner, something my wife is incredibly understanding and tolerant of.

One of the perks of teaching medical students is being provided free and total access to the medical literature using the school’s library and subscription access. I searched for anything related to upper extremity deep vein thrombosis after establishing vascular access and related to his vasculitis. Three items popped up including recommendations and guidelines for diagnosis and treatment from the American College of Cardiology and the American College of Thoracic Surgeons all within the last six months. They both suggested the same things, use intravenous blood thinners for five to seven days then oral anticoagulants for three to six months or until the vascular access is removed. The risk of the blood clot traveling to the lungs is lower than in leg and pelvic DVTs but it is still 5 – 6%.

I read this while the radiologist accessed the films and reviewed them with me. Next stop was the eighth floor where the patient and his out of town visiting adult child were. I asked them what happened. They showed me the warm swollen arm and hand. I checked for pulses which were present and then color and neurological sensation which were normal. I explained that when vascular access is inserted in the large neck veins it can increase the risk of a clot forming in the arm veins resulting in arm and hand swelling. I explained that the chances of a clot traveling back to his heart and out to his lung were 5 – 6% and significantly less than DVTs in leg or pelvic veins. The treatment was explained. His nephrologist concurred as did the cardiologist. Heparin was begun.

With elevation and soaks the swelling was down by morning. He returned from dialysis that afternoon with his chin and neck all black and blue. He was bleeding profusely from the upper portion of the surgical access site. Nurses were applying compression to the area after the blood thinner was stopped and it continued to bleed. Vascular surgery was furious that heparin or any blood thinner was used for the clot.

Repeated phone calls to the vascular surgeon resulted in him angrily arriving much later placing six sutures to stop the bleeding. Heparin can lower platelet counts when antibodies to heparin cross react with platelets. His platelet count of 80,000 was sufficient to prevent bleeding. A blood test for heparin induced thrombocytopenia was drawn and he received two more units of blood products to replace what he lost. After stabilizing the patient, we realized his drop in platelets was due to the Cytoxan having its peak effect not heparin.

The patient had no further bruising or bleeding. He was dialyzed or had plasma exchange on alternating days for another week. The nephrologist wanted this done in the hospital not as an outpatient. It took one week for the reference lab to return the negative HIT (heparin induced thrombocytopenia) results clearing the heparin of causing the bleeding and bruises.

Prior to discharge I reviewed the long term oral anticoagulation recommendations of the American College of Cardiology and Thoracic Surgeons with the patient, nephrologist, cardiologist and hematologist. The nephrologist was comfortable with administering a kidney failure lower dose of eliquis. The vascular surgeon and cardiologist felt it was not necessary. The hematologist initially agreed then changed his mind. I asked each of the naysayers to explain to me how this patient differed from the patients in the many studies who comprised the data for the recommendations? They said he did not. They said they had a feeling and discussed “the art of medicine in addition to the science”.

In a rare vasculitis disease which few of us have seen frequently, I prefer the data in multiple studies to one’s clinical intuition. At discharge, I prescribed the oral blood thinner. I reviewed the pros and cons of the drug. The patient and daughter told me that based on the ambivalence of the hematologist he would stick with his aspirin rather than the oral anticoagulant.

Shared decision making appropriately allows patients to decide for themselves. If the patient develops pleuritic chest pain coughing up blood with shortness of breath from a pulmonary embolus, I will be called to provide care not my colleagues because specialists don’t admit.

Coffee and the Healthy Heart

Two German biologists are stating there is sufficient data to claim that four cups of caffeinated coffee is the optimal daily dosage to maintain a healthy heart. Their findings were published in Plos Biology and summarized in Inverse Magazine. The scientists cite past warnings by public health officials of the danger of caffeine when given to people with heart conditions. Quite the contrary. They believe that up to four cups of coffee per day are actually therapeutic for the heart.

In their research they noted caffeine helps a protein called “p27” enter the energy producing mitochondria of heart cells making them function more efficiently. They experimented with rats comparing the mitochondrial function of old rats and young rats. When they injected the older rats with the caffeine equivalent of four cups of coffee, their aging mitochondria performed at the level of young rats’ mitochondria. They then experimentally caused the older rats to have a heart attack or myocardial infarction. Half of these heart damaged rats were injected with the equivalent of four cups of coffee and their heart cells repaired themselves at a far more rapid rate than those not exposed to that dose of coffee and caffeine.

The researchers conclude that four cups of coffee is probably the optimal daily dosage of coffee for a healthy heart. They caution that certain patients, especially those with malignant tumors, should probably avoid that much coffee because it may promote growth of blood vessels to the tumors. They additionally caution against using caffeine pills or energy drinks because their research was done with coffee.

Coffee in moderation is probably not harmful for any human adult.

Keep in mind, this biologic evidence was obtained in rats not human beings. Fortunately, I have not seen rats breaking into my local Dunkin Donuts and Starbucks craving a lifesaving nutrient.

Coffee has been associated with preventing cognitive dysfunction, preventing diabetes and now keeping your heart healthy. If you enjoy coffee, drinking it in moderation makes sense to me.

The American Cancer Society and Colorectal Cancer Screening

Colorectal cancer is the fourth most common cancer with 140,000 diagnoses in the nation annually. It causes 50,000 deaths per year and is the number two cause of death due to cancer.

Colorectal cancer screening guidelines have called for digital rectal examinations beginning at age 40 and colonoscopies at age 50 in low risk individuals. An aggressive public awareness campaign has resulted in a marked decrease in deaths from this disease in men and women over age 65.

The same cannot be said for men and women younger than 55 years old where there is an increased incidence of colorectal cancer by 51% with an increased mortality of 11%. Experts believe the increase may be due to lifestyle issues including tobacco and alcohol usage, obesity, ingestion of processed meats and poorer sleep habits.

To combat this increase, the American Cancer Society has changed its recommendations on screening suggesting that at age 45 we give patients the option of:

  • Fecal immunochemical test yearly
  • Fecal Occult Blood High Sensitivity Guaiac Based Yearly
  • Stool DNA Test (e.g., Cologuard) every 3 years
  • CT Scan Virtual Colonoscopy every 5 years
  • Flexible Sigmoidoscopy every 5 years
  • Colonoscopy every 10 years.

Their position paper points out that people of color, American Indians and Alaskan natives have a higher incidence of colon cancer and mortality than other populations.  Therefore, these groups should be screened more diligently. They additionally note that they discourage screening in adults over the age of 85 years old. This decision should be individualized based on the patient’s health and expected independent longevity.

As a practicing physician these are sensible guidelines. The CT Virtual Colonoscopy involves a large X irradiation exposure and necessitates a pre- procedure prep. Cologuard and DNA testing misses few malignancies but has shown many false positives necessitating a colonoscopy. Both CT Virtual Colonoscopy and Cologuard may not be covered by your insurer, and they are expensive, so consider the cost in your choice of screening.

I still believe Flexible Sigmoidoscopy must be combined with the Fecal Occult Blood High Sensitivity Testing and prepping.  Looking at only part of the colon makes little sense to me in screening.

Colonoscopy is still the gold standard for detecting colorectal cancer.