Free Choice of Physicians & Fee for Service Medicine Ending?

The Medicare Payment Advisory Commission is a panel of financial, economic and health policy advisors created by Congress to advise CMS (Center for Medicare Services) and Congress how to pay physicians, health care providers and facilities for services rendered. According to an online article on MedPage they are close to eliminating fee for service payments for health care. CMS has encouraged alternative delivery methods for years. For the most part this has resulted in hospital and health care systems buying up and employing doctors, mid-level providers being substituted for more highly trained doctors and these alternative systems covering care only with their panel of providers and diagnostic and treatment centers.

However, publicized figures have shown these Medicare alternative products actually cost more per patient per year than traditional Medicare. This particular article claimed a 1-2% savings.

We all see the ads for Medicare Advantage plans which, in addition to no co-pay and no deductible, provide for dental care, vision care, eye care and exercise and gym memberships. Apparently 50% of the Medicare population is now enrolled in such a program.

As a 69 year old individual paying into the Medicare system for the last 55 years I see the benefits and cost savings for seniors when they are healthy. What happens however, when you become ill? Clearly the Centers of Excellence for many of the ailments seniors contract are geographically and contractually outside the narrow networks and panels these private insurance companies run and the Accountable Care Organization run plans provide.

If I do not have coverage for the Mayo Clinic or MD Anderson Cancer Center or the Cleveland Clinic or Dana Farber Cancer Center or Johns Hopkins Medical Center then have I wasted 55 years of payments? Do I really want a nurse practitioner in south Florida directing my care off a protocol list of contracted providers or do I want a clinician who sees a dozen cases of this disease per week calling the shots?

I prefer the latter but may not have a choice but to pay out of pocket if MEDPACs recommendations are accepted by CMS and Congress and become law.

Statin Related Muscle Pain and Coenzyme Q 10

Statins are used to lower cholesterol levels in an effort to reduce the risk of developing cardiovascular disease. They are used after a patient has exhausted lifestyle changes such as changing their diet to a low cholesterol diet, exercising regularly and losing weight without their cholesterol dropping to levels that are considered acceptable to reduce your risk of vascular events.

Patients starting on statins often complain of muscles aches, pains and slow recovery of muscle pain after exercising. In a few individuals the muscle pain, inflammation and damage becomes severe. One of the known, but little understood, negative side effects of statin medications are the lowering of your Coenzyme Q 10 level. CoQ10 works at the subcellular level in energy producing factories called mitochondria. Statin drugs, which inhibit the enzyme HMG-CoA Reductase lower cholesterol while also lowering CoQ10 levels by 16-54 % based on the study reporting these changes.

The November 16, 2018 edition of the Journal of the American Medical Association published a review article by David Rakel, MD and associates that suggested that supplementing your diet with CoQ 10 would reduce muscle aches and pains while on statin therapy. Twelve studies were reviewed and the use of CoQ10 was associated with less muscle pain, weakness, tiredness and cramps compared to placebo. The studies used daily doses of 100 to 600 mg with 200 mg being the most effective dosage. Finding the correct dosage is important because the product is expensive with forty 200 mg tablets selling for about $25.

Since CoQ10 is fat soluble, you are best purchasing formulations that are combined with fat in a gel to promote absorption. As with all supplements, which are considered foods not drugs , it is best if they are UPS Labs certified to insure the dosage in the product is the same as listed on the label and that it contains no unexpected impurities.

Patient Safety and the Joint Commission

Two of my local hospitals just invested $3 – $4 million dollars in preparation for an inspection of the facilities by the Joint Commission on Accreditation of Hospitals (JCAHO). The cost of the inspection runs in the $10 million dollar range after the preparation costs. The inspection is a high stress situation for the administration because if you fail, or lose your accreditation, the private insurers will void their contract with you and you won’t get paid for the work done.

Medicare through the Center for Medicare Services (CMS) is preferential to JCAHO so much so that they perform 80% of the inspections of hospitals in America. When JCAHO was initially formed it was in response to poor care in small private hospitals in non-urban nonacademic centers. They cleaned that up.

The current version uses up a great deal of money, creating a legion of hospital administrators running around with clipboards and computer tablets without making any meaningful dent in mistakes and outcome results. In a recent study published in the British Medical Journal the outcomes and re-admissions rate for the same problem within 30 days of discharge were compared at hospitals which rely on state surveys of quality and safety as opposed to the JCAHO ten million dollar survey. They found that there was no statistically significant difference.

In a related report hosted by the journal Health Affairs, a review of the 1999 report of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine entitled, “To Err is Human, Building a Safer Health System” was discussed. That controversial report claimed that 44,000 to 98,000 deaths per year occur due to medical errors. They discussed the work of Linda Aiken, PhD, RN, professor and director of the Center for Health Outcomes and Policy Research at the University of Pennsylvania. Her research looked at safety at 535 hospitals in four large states between 2005 and 2016. She called the results disappointing noting improvement based on suggestions in the 1999 report in only 21% of the hospitals surveyed and worsening in 7%. Most of her work involved the staffing and role of nurses which is critical to the quality of the care an institution provides.

Staffing or the ratio of patients cared for per nurse per shift is a critical component of safe patient care. Once a nurse on a non-critical care unit is asked to care for more than four patients the time spent at the bedside nursing diminishes. You cannot recognize problems, complications or changes in your patient’s condition if you are not spending time with them.

It seems to me as a clinician caring for patients in the outpatient and inpatient setting for 40 years that the more time nurses get to spend with patients the better the patients do. Maybe it’s time for government to separate the insurer’s ability to pay hospitals and JCAHO accreditation. Maybe the millions of dollars spent per inspection would be better spent on hiring more nurses per shift plus giving them the clerical and technical support they need to spend more time and care for their patients?

Vitamin D Supplements Do Not Reduce Falls, Fractures or Improve Bone Density

Much has been written about the benefits of supplementing Vitamin D in patients. The World Health Organization sets its normal blood level at 20 while in North America it is listed at over 30. Under normal circumstances when your skin is exposed to sunlight your kidneys produce adequate amounts of Vitamin D.

Over the last few years low vitamin D levels have been associated with acute illness and flare-ups of chronic illness. The Vitamin D level is now the most ordered test in the Medicare system and at extraordinary expense. Supplementing Vitamin D has become a major industry unto itself.

The October 4th edition of the Lancet Diabetes and Endocrinology contained an article written by New Zealand researchers that looked at 81 randomized research trials containing almost 54 thousand participants. “In the pooled analyses, researchers found that Vitamin D Supplementation did not reduce total fracture, hip fracture, or falls – even in trials in which participants took doses greater than 800 IU per day.” Vitamin D supplementation did not improve bone mineral density at any site studied (lumbar spine, hip, femoral neck, forearm or total body).

They concluded that there is little justification for the use of Vitamin D Supplements to maintain or improve musculoskeletal health, and clinical guidelines should reflect these findings.

Sleep and Cardiovascular Health

Several recent publications and presentations of data on the relationship between sleep patterns and vascular disease occurred at the recent meeting of the European Society of Cardiology. The PESA (Progression of Early Subclinical Atherosclerosis) study performed by Dr Fernando Dominguez, MD, of the Spanish National Center for Cardiovascular Research in Madrid talked about the dangers of too little or too much sleep.

The principal researcher, Valentin Fuster, MD PhD, looked at 3,974 middle-aged bank employees known to be free of heart disease and stroke. They wore a monitor to measure sleep and activity. Interestingly, while only about 11% reported sleeping six or fewer hours per night, the monitor showed the true figure was closer to 27%. They found those who slept less than six hours per night had more plaque in their arteries than those people who slept six to eight hours. They additionally looked at people who slept an average of greater than eight hours.

Sleeping longer had little effect on men’s progression of atherosclerosis but had a marked effect of increasing atherosclerosis in women. Researchers then adjusted the data for family history, smoking, hypertension, hyperlipidemia, diabetes and other known cardiovascular risk factors. They found that there was an 11% increase in the risk of diagnosis of fatal or non-fatal cardiovascular disease in people who slept less than six hours per night compared to people who slept 6-8 hours per night. For people who slept an average of greater than eight hours per night they bore a 32% increased risk as compared to persons who slept 6-8 hours on average. Their conclusion was distilled down into this belief: “Sleep well, not too long, nor too short and be active.”

In a related study, Moa Bengtsson, an MD PhD student at the University of Gothenburg in Sweden presented data on 798 men who were 50 years old in 1993 when they were given a physical exam and a lifestyle questionnaire including sleep habits. Twenty one years later 759 of those men were still alive and they were examined and questioned. Those reporting sleeping five hours or less per night were 93% more likely to have suffered an MI by age 71 or had a stroke, cardiac surgery, and admission to a hospital for heart failure or died than those who averaged 7-8 hours per night.

While neither study proved a direct cause and effect between length of sleep and development of vascular disease, there was enough evidence to begin to believe that altering sleep habits may be a way to reduce future cardiovascular disease.

Shortening the Discomfort of Sore Throats

There has been a strong movement in the United States to limit resistance to antibiotics by insuring that we prescribe them appropriately for bacterial infections only and make sure we educate our patients to complete the course of the antibiotics to prevent the bacteria from surviving and developing resistance patterns. We have been taught that a “strep throat” is rarely seen in adults unless they are caring for children age 2-7 that are sick with a sore throat.

The patient should have a fever, swollen glands in the neck and an exudate on the tonsils or oropharynx. This constellation of findings and symptoms represents “Centors’ Triad” which conveys a high probability that a quick streptococcal assay or culture will be positive. For all other sore throats we are taught to treat it with lozenges, warm fluids and time. There is a definite and distinct effort to train doctors to not prescribe an antibiotic or a “Z Pack” for these non-beta hemolytic streptococcal sore throats.

It is with this background or preamble that I report on an article out of the October 17, 2018 International Journal of Clinical Practice that discusses the use of an experimental throat lozenge versus a placebo throat lozenge. The experimental troche contained a small dose of an antibiotic, tyrothricin plus benzalkonium chloride and benzocaine (an anesthetic). Tyrothricin is an antibiotic used overseas to treat gram positive organisms. It is incorporated into lozenges designed for children with non-streptococcal sore throats. This antibiotic has not demonstrated any issues with bacteria developing resistance yet.

In a clinical trial, patients 18 years of age and older with a painful sore throat which was not due to “strep” were randomly assigned to the study drug or placebo. The results were striking with more relief of pain at two hours in the study group than placebo, less difficulty swallowing and more resolution of symptoms at three days with the study drug than a placebo.

The medication used in the study is not currently available in the USA. If it is as successful as this study implies then when will it be introduced in the USA for symptomatic relief of those uncomfortable non-strep sore throats?

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.

Allergies Worsening Due to Climate Change

The American Academy of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology and the World Asthma Organization just concluded their joint congress in Orlando, Florida. One of the topics of concern is how climate change is making everyone’s allergy symptoms much worse.

We read about more powerful hurricanes and cyclones, seasonal tornadoes occurring out of season, horrible beach erosion and flooding due to large volume rains, lack of rain causing poor harvests leading to waves of migration for survival for animals and humans. Climate change also exacerbates allergy symptoms. Nelson A. Rosario, MD, PhD, professor of pediatrics at Federal University of Parana (Brazil) discussed longer pollen season and increased allergens caused by fallen trees and ripped up plants, mold growing following flooding and irritants in the air due to wildfires. An international survey in 2015 found that 80% of rhinitis patients blamed their symptom exacerbations on climate change items. Pollen seasons have more than doubled in some areas.

The argument should not be about whether climate change is due to cyclical planetary changes or man-made pollutants. It should be about what we can do as a society to maintain economic growth while limiting man made contribution to adverse climate changes. The health and survival consequences of not addressing this issue will ultimately involve our survival as a species.

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.

How Much of Yourself Can You Give to Others?

I have been practicing general internal medicine for over 35 years in the same community. I have many patients who started with me in 1979 and are now in their late eighties to early nineties.  Predictably and sadly they are failing.  Not a week goes by without one or two of them moving from general medical care to palliative care, very often with the involvement of Hospice for end of life care.   Medicare may now compensate for discussion of end of life issues but anyone practicing general internal medicine or family practice has been discussing end of life issues appropriately for years with no compensation. It just comes with the territory.

Most of us still practicing primary care thrive on being able to improve our patient’s quality of life and our major compensation can be hearing about their interactions and social engagements with family and friends.  It is an accomplishment to see you’re 90 year old with multisystem disease for years, dance at her great grandchild’s wedding.  No one who cares for patients longitudinally for years is that dispassionate that they do not give up a piece of their heart and soul each time they lose a patient or have one take a turn for the worse.   When I lose a patient, if time permits, I will attend the funeral or family grieving gathering during the mourning period.  Everyone gets a personal hand written letter. Completion of the circle of life and then moving on is part of the process.

I think physicians’ families take the brunt of this caring and I am sure mine does. As much as you want to have time and patience and sympathy and empathy for your loved ones, the work truly drains your tank and reserve. When you answer the questions of the elderly and their families over and over, often the same questions, it drains you.  Unfortunately, I believe my elderly failing mother is cheated the most by this process. Last weekend when making my weekly visit she was complaining again about the same things, asking the same questions that have repeatedly and compassionately been addressed by my brother and I. My wife interjected that I sounded angry and annoyed. I was. I told her that unfortunately all the compassion and understanding in me had been drained already today and I needed time to recharge.

I saw the widow of a patient who expired last month in his nineties. I had offered to make home visits and they were declined several times by the patient and his spouse. His last week of life he asked to receive Hospice care and they assumed his care.  I called the surviving spouse and wrote what I considered a personal letter of condolence.  His wife told me she was disappointed in me for not coming up to see him one last time. I apologized for not meeting their needs but wondered inwardly, how much can I give and still have something left for myself and my loved ones?