Artificial Sweeteners and Your Health

An article published in the online version of Primary Care brings up the issue of whether artificial sweeteners are a positive, helping people lose weight, or is there more to the story. Editor David Rakel MD, FAAFP discusses a recent article in the neurologic journal STROKE showing an association between the number of artificially sweetened beverages consumed per day and the onset of a stroke. This relationship was seen only with artificially sweetened beverages not with sugar sweetened beverages.

Dr Rakel goes on to discuss the ongoing public health concern of consuming nonnutritive sweeteners and its effects on weight gain and insulin resistance. Recent studies known as observational studies have linked high consumption of beverages with nonnutritive sweeteners with weight gain, increased visceral adiposity and a 22 % higher incidence of diabetes despite consuming less energy.

The reasons for consuming fewer calories but gaining weight are considered to be many. Sweet tasting compounds including NNS activate sweet “taste receptors” that were once thought to be only located in the mouth but are now known to be throughout the body. This activation results in release of insulin. The continued release of insulin by the pancreas, without energy producing calories present to be metabolized, may lead to insulin resistance. Insulin resistance involves insulin being released in response to food being consumed but is becoming ineffective in moving sugar into the cell where it can be metabolized into energy.

There is additional belief that supplying sweetness without calories may result in disturbances to appetite regulation and communication within the body about when we are full. Products such as aspartame, saccharin and sucralose have been found to have negative effect on the intestinal bacteria or microbiome potentially having an effect on glucose tolerance and metabolism.

We see artificial sweeteners on tables in every setting. Aspartame produces a sweetening effect 200x sugar. Saccharin produces a sweetening effect 500x sugar. Sucralose is 600x sugar sweetening and Advantame 20,000x sweeter.

A teaspoon of sugar only contains 16 calories. Portion control of products made with real sugar may be the safest and healthiest way to eat sweets as the holiday season approaches. A level teaspoon of sugar in your coffee or tea may be far healthier for you than that packet of artificial sweetener.

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Doctors of Pharmacy and Their Role in the Health Care Team

My patient, a mental health professional, was sent for an MRI of her hips and back by her orthopedic surgeon. He was in surgery when she called him for an antianxiety medication to help her get through her claustrophobia in the MRI machine.

She waited seven hours for a response and when a repeat phone call resulted in no response she called me. I asked her if she was driving herself to or from the procedure and she answered no that her husband was taking her. I phoned in a small supply of a longer acting antianxiety medication called lorazepam 0.5 mg one tablet 30 minutes prior to the procedure. It was called in at 4:00 p.m. after we first accessed the in-state narcotic prescribing line Eforsce to make sure our patient was not pill or doctor shopping.

I received a phone call at 9:00 p.m. that evening from the patient who was at the pharmacy saying they didn’t have lorazepam in stock. It was unclear to me why, if they did not have the medication in stock, no one was responsible enough to call me and request an alternative prescription? I called the pharmacy in response to the patient calling me and ordered another product. However, they did not respond to my question “Why didn’t you call me if the medicine I ordered was not available?”

This week a 63 year old woman with three days of painful urination came to my office. Her urine suggested an infection. I called her pharmacy to phone in a prescription for ampicillin until her culture and sensitivity results were known. The pharmacist said she was too busy to take the call and asked me to leave a message. I waited for the beep and left the message. Thirty six hours later I received a fax to my office telling me that they were out of ampicillin and did not offer an alternative. I immediately called the pharmacy, furious at the delay and prescribed an alternative medication. Once again, if they did not have the ampicillin then why did it take them 36 hours to inform the patient or me? Why was this done by facsimile and not a phone call? The potential for complications of an untreated gram negative urine infection is frightening and life threatening. This should never occur. Then again why isn’t a common inexpensive antibiotic available in South Florida?

This is not very different than the blood pressure medicine Valsartan recall due to production induced impurities. When the recall was announced, I searched my computer and contacted my patients taking this medication to discuss options. For those demented and cognitively impaired patients I first called the pharmacy to ask if their supply was part of the recall. Much to my surprise much of it was under recall but the pharmacy had no intention and felt no professional responsibility to inform the customers who they had sold the tainted product to.

Pharmacists continually stress their professionalism as part of the health care team. These are three recent local examples of their need for improvement.

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!”

Continuity of Care with a Primary Care Doctor Lowers Costs and Hospitalizations

The Annals of Family Medicine published an article that compared the health costs and hospitalization rates of patients who had a primary care doctor, and saw that physician regularly, as compared to individuals who did not. The study used Medicare data from 1,448,952 patients obtaining care from 6,551 primary care physicians.

Upon analyzing the data, the researchers discovered that those individuals who saw a primary care physician regularly and had a primary care physician who “assumed ongoing responsibility for the patient, with continuity framing the personal nature of medical care” the patient’s cost of care per year was 14.1% lower and hospitalization rate 16.1% lower than individuals who did not have primary care continuity.

In an editorial piece accompanying the study, David Rakel, MD FAAFP, noted that in 2016 America spent $3.3 trillion on healthcare. If you extrapolate out the benefits of a continuous therapeutic relationship with a primary care medical doctor the result would be a cost savings of $462 billion.

The message is clear. Find yourself a primary care physician and establish a professional relationship. If you find the care is attentive and compassionate stick with that physician. It will save you money and may save your life.

Wasting Taxpayers Money, Medicare Advantage and the RAC’s

My wife and I try to catch up on TV shows on Thursday evenings. We sit down with a cup of decaffeinated coffee on the couch together petting our dogs and watching mindless entertainment after a day at work. Now that the election is over, almost every commercial in my South Florida market is an advertisement for a Medicare Advantage Health Plan. We are nearing the completion of the “open enrollment” period between October 15 – December 7 when senior citizens can change their Medicare Part D Prescription Plan to one that covers their formulary of medicines and they can choose to leave the Medicare system and join a private health plan for a capitated Medicare Advantage Plan. These plans were initiated by the Center for Medicare Services (CMS) as a way to save money on the health care of seniors. The theory was that if they offered a product with a fixed monthly and yearly cost budgeting would be simpler and at least they would know what they are paying.

These programs are run by private insurance companies such as Humana, Blue Cross Blue Shield, and Aetna. Over the years, research has shown that they now cost the Medicare system more money per year, per patient, than the traditional Medicare system. The private insurers are probably making a great profit on this program because the money and energy spent on advertising to attract patients is relentless. I have been receiving multiple daily promotional letters in the mail for weeks now. Full page ads are run daily in major newspapers and magazines. Prime time television is filled with expensive ads with noteworthy spokespersons like basketball hall of famer Ervin “Magic” Johnson in addition to actors, actresses and former elected officials.

The insurers make their money by rationing and denying care provided by doctors and hospitals which agree to see patients in volume for a discounted fee. Patients have no deductibles; have no out-of-pocket expenses for physician care or generic pharmaceutical products if they stay in network. If they happen to get sick out of the service area, coverage is spotty and varies by program with the advice truly being “buyer beware.”

It seems to me that if these programs are actually more expensive per patient than traditional Medicare then why is CMS continuing them and allowing the millions of dollars spent on advertising to attract patients to continue? The information they need to choose a plan is available on the easy to use http://www.Medicare.gov website at no cost.

I open some non-critical advertisement mail as well. One letter from the Center for Medicare Services addressed to me personally as a patient, not as a physician, was extremely interesting. In December 2014 I was involved in a serious auto accident with my vehicle totally damaged due to the negligence of another driver. I was taken by ambulance to the local emergency room, examined, treated and released. At the time I was 64 years old and several months short of being eligible for Medicare. My auto insurance paid my medical bills. My private insurer Blue Cross Blue Shield was not billed.

The letter from CMS was a form letter saying that a claim from December 2014 had been investigated by them and although no payment was made on this claim, which was paid by Traveler’s Insurance (my auto insurer), they were now referring it to the Recovery and Audit Division for further investigation. The threatening nature of the letter suggested that if I was compensated by Medicare for this claim I would be required to pay back the money with interest and penalties. Considering I was not yet on Medicare, and considering the charges were billed by the local hospital health system, I am not quite sure why the letter was generated and forwarded to me?

Once again a government agency is spending taxpayer money on a frivolous item. How many more of these letters go out yearly at our expense?

The second letter I opened was from Social Security. It said that since I was still working and generating income, my wife and I would be required to each pay an additional fee per month for our Medicare health insurance and for our Medicare Part D prescription drug plan. This is in addition to the tax on my salary that goes directly to Medicare. I have been paying this tax on each paycheck since I started working at age 14 (I am now approaching 69). I read this letter just after hearing one of our elected officials to the Senate refer to Medicare as an “entitlement program.”

My Medicare bills now approach what private insurers charge patients for health insurance. I paid into this system for 51 years before I became eligible to use it. I hardly think the Medicare system is an entitlement.

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?