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.

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Large Health System Care in the 21st Century

My 74 year old obese, poorly controlled diabetic patient with high blood pressure, high cholesterol, coronary artery disease, asthma, obstructive sleep apnea has been difficult to motivate to improve his lifestyle and his health. He is bright, sweet and caring but just not very disciplined.

At each office visit we review his medications, review his dietary habits and go through the check list of checkups for diabetic complications including regular ophthalmology exams and podiatric exams to prevent diabetic retinopathy and foot skin breakdown and infection. His spouse is always present and we discuss seeing his endocrinologist regularly and a dietitian who specializes in diabetes care all the time. To no avail, I have suggested seeing a psychologist.

Three months ago, two weeks after his last office visit, his wife self-referred him to our local community hospital Emergency Department for a small ulcer at the base of his toe. He was seen, treated and referred to that hospital’s therapy and wound care center. I was listed as his primary care doctor. He was seen by the ED but I was not called or informed of the visit. He has continued to see wound care regularly but, to date, I have received no notification of the problem, the visits, the ongoing therapy, the prognosis and/or the results.

I became aware of the situation when at the end of a long day an emergency department physician contacted me. “Dr. Reznick, we have your patient here. He was seen in the wound care center earlier today for ongoing treatment of an enlarging diabetic foot ulcer. The podiatrist debrided the wound surgically then put a bandage on it and a fiberglass cast. One hour later the patient called the wound care center complaining of shaking chills and rigors. He was told that no one was available at wound care to see him and was referred to the emergency department. He is currently running a low grade fever of 100.8 with a mild elevation of his white blood cell count and says his leg feels the way it did when he had a cellulitis infection. His blood sugar is 256. He is well hydrated. I plan to culture him up, start him on oral antibiotics and refer him back to you for follow up tomorrow if that is ok.”

I suggested he open the cast, take down the bandage dressing and observe the wound and culture it first. He told me he would call the podiatrist from wound care because he didn’t want to “mess with” the cast.

Twenty minutes later he called back, “The patient is refusing to go home. He wishes to be admitted to the private suites section of the hospital. When I told this to the podiatrist, he said he would come in tomorrow to look at the leg.” I asked the ED physician to cut off the cast and remove the bandage and I was on my way in to see the patient. I asked him if he felt the patient needed to stay. He replied, “The patient wants to be admitted and I do not want him to give me a poor patient satisfaction report, so yes he needs to be admitted. The patient satisfaction report may not be important to you private physicians but it could cost me pay and my job.”

There is nothing like assuming the care of a problem that occurred within a large health care system that is clearly interested in generating revenue for services rendered but not necessarily providing continuity of care and communication with its staff so that the patient is treated well. It is irritating and frustrating to not be included in the health care process but called in out of the bullpen after hours for something that should not have occurred in the first place.

When I arrived in the ED and went down to the patient’s room I was greeted by the patient’s wife. The cast was still on. I paged the podiatrist and reached him ultimately by cell phone. I politely made it clear that I expected him to come in now, remove the cast and take the bandage off so I and the infectious disease expert I was consulting could observe the wound, culture it and make a gram stained slide so we could choose the correct antibiotics for this situation. “Why,” he asked suggesting that the culture would show a conglomerate of multiple organisms. “Because infectious disease will want a culture and a gram stain unless they suddenly have started to operate differently and because it is good medicine.” I took a thorough history using my office notes as well and was disappointed and surprised to learn that although at each visit he confirmed that he was seeing his endocrinologist and spoke to him, he actually had not been to his office in over a year.

The admission process takes well over an hour for me. Writing an admission note and entering orders and medications on the hospitals computer order entry system is slow and cumbersome.

At the completion of the process I walked into the room and reviewed my findings and suggestions and asked if the patient had any questions. His wife had one question. “Three months ago at wound care I showed” the doctors an article about the benefits of using a product called Duoderm on diabetic foot ulcers. I asked if it would be helpful for my husband. They said it would be beneficial but it was too expensive and they were not allowed to use it.” She asked them to write out a prescription for it and she would pay for it privately if they would use it. They refused saying they were not allowed to use non formulary items. I told her I was sorry and suggested that in the future if she runs into a roadblock she should call me.

I admitted the patient to the hospital, cultured his blood and urine and asked for help from an experienced endocrinologist and infectious disease expert with his antibiotics and diabetic care. I returned several hours later to find the cast off, the wound bandaged but no wound culture obtained by the podiatrist from our hospital wound care center. I asked the nurse for sterile gloves, supplies to create a small sterile field and culture tubes when the infectious disease physician walked in and relieved me of the task. We used the gram stain of the specimen to help direct initial antibiotic choices while awaiting the culture results. A subsequent MRI of his foot revealed that the infection had spread to the base of the bone in his big toe. This will now require 6-8 weeks of intravenous antibiotic therapy to try and save the foot.

I had been a patient at the same not-for-profit local hospital several weeks before for an inpatient urologic procedure. When I woke up from anesthesia with an indwelling urinary catheter in place, the surgeon was there to report on the procedure. “It went well “he said, “but the damn cheap products the hospital is supplying us with make it highly likely that the catheter will kink up on you and put you into urinary retention. I should have brought some supplies from my office because this doesn’t occur with the products I buy and the hospital used to buy.” The catheter did kink numerous times requiring intervention and eventually a late night visit to his office for him to change catheters and leg bag so that the urinary drainage was not obstructed. When it is kinked and urinary flow is obstructed and your bladder fills, it is very uncomfortable.

As a board certified internist with experience in geriatrics and hospital staff privileges for 38 years it is disconcerting and frustrating to see the direction of hospital medicine. It is unclear to me if using Duoderm on my patient’s foot ulcer would have prevented his failure to heal and bone infection. It is clear that his wound caregivers thought highly of the product but were clearly intimidated to write a script for it even if the patient paid for it themselves.

It is sad that the ED physician wouldn’t justify his decision to admit the patient to me by simply saying his clinical situation warrants it. To be afraid of patient satisfaction rating as the reason for suggesting he stay is disheartening. To purchase less expensive urinary catheters which the surgeons clearly know is problematic and add pain, discomfort and additional costs for physician and nursing time is inexcusable.

If this is the direction hospital care is travelling I feel sorry for our patient population. I will address these issues with hospital administration and our medical staff officers directly for whatever it is worth.

Treatment of Gastroesophageal Reflux with Magnet Device

Gastroesophageal reflux disease causes heartburn and regurgitation of food and digestive enzymes. Treatment includes weight loss, wearing loose clothing not binding at the waste, dietary restriction and medications. The main class of medications used have been the protein pump inhibitors (PPI’s) such as Nexium, Protonix, Aciphex and Pepcid. Most recently this class of medications has come under major criticism from researchers believing they may be responsible for increased risk of community acquired pneumonia, malabsorption of nutrients resulting in bone disease and even dementia and cognitive decline. Physicians have been trying to limit the use of these medications but recurrent and persistent symptoms have made that very difficult.

Last month at Digestive Disease Week, a meeting sponsored by the American Association for the Study of Liver Diseases, The American Gastroenterological Association, The American Society of Gastrointestinal Endoscopy and the Society for Surgery of the Alimentary Tract; a paper was presented demonstrating the success of a magnetic band placed with laparoscopic surgery around the lower esophageal sphincter (the juncture of the esophagus and stomach).

Reginald Bell, MD of the SurgOne Foregut Institute in Denver, Colorado along with MedPage reported that at six months post procedure, 92.6% of the patients with the magnetic device LINX, had relief of regurgitant symptoms compared with 8.6 % taking a double dose of PPI’s. Only one surgical complication had occurred and it was corrected. The research was done at 22 different locations enrolling 150 patients with moderate to severe regurgitation despite once-daily use of a PPI treatment.

The improvement numbers are dramatic and if this stands over time will change the way we treat this disease. The publication did not reveal the cost of LINX and we certainly want to observe these patients for more than six months before endorsing a new and promising treatment.

Telemedicine and Acute Stroke Treatment

My community hospital is holding its quarterly physician staff meeting and one of the items on the agenda will be a bylaw change which will permit outside physicians, not credentialed or vetted by our hospital credentials committee, to perform video consults on patients within our hospital. Hospital administration is pushing this bylaw change, and since there has been a quiet coup which has transferred medical staff power from the community’s practicing physicians to the hospital employed and paid physicians, it is a foregone conclusion that it will easily pass.

The bylaw change is being requested because the hospital would like to continue to reap the benefits of being an ischemic stroke comprehensive treatment center and offering the health benefits to the community despite not being able to meet the criteria. If a patient presents to the emergency department within four hours of developing ischemic stroke symptoms they must be offered the administration of a “clot busting “drug Alteplase (t-pa). The patient must not have any bleeding tendencies and no evidence of active bleeding or a mass or tumor on head CT scan and must be examined by a neurologist within 45 minutes of arrival.

The problem is that most community based neurologists with outpatient office practices and hospital staff privileges cannot and will not drop everything they are doing and run to the emergency department to evaluate a new patient each time a stroke protocol patient arrives. When given an ultimatum by the hospital administration, that they must take call and be available within 45 minutes, our community neurologists en masse relinquished their hospital privileges.

The hospital countered by bringing in several research oriented academic neurologists and neurosurgeons to man the beautiful new Neuroscience Institute and provide coverage of the ED for the stroke protocol. Few if any of these physicians were able to develop and maintain a practice within the community and they have since left. The Emergency Department is staffed by employed board certified emergency physicians who are well qualified to diagnose an ischemic stroke and administer t-pa. They refuse to do so citing the liability of a poor outcome as the reason. Despite data indicating the benefits of t-pa administration in these situations, the 6 out of 100 chances of a bleed in the brain plus the 1 in 6 chance of death is enough to deter their participation.

You would think that since the hospital hires these physicians the logical choice would be to fire them and hire a group that will provide the state of the art care in a timely fashion. This has not occurred. You would think that the state legislature would grant the ED physicians sovereign immunity from medical malpractice suits if the patient meets the criteria for the ischemic stroke protocol and the patient is given appropriate informed consent for the procedure but this common sense legislation has not been developed or passed.

The hospital has chosen a different pathway. They are opting to hire neurologists from a university medical center who will provide video consults on ischemic stroke patients from an offsite location. Robots will actually examine the patient and televise the data back to the telemedicine center after an emergency department physician performs a brief initial evaluation. The neurologist off site will then provide the needed neurology consult to proceed with the injection of the clot buster.

I suspect the mechanism will work like this. A patient or family member will call EMS via 911 and be taken to the Emergency Department. A triage nurse will ask all the questions to qualify the patient for the t-pa protocol; a robot will examine the patient and transmit via TV the data to an offsite neurologist while an ER physician does an exam. A CT scan of the head and brain will be performed. If no bleed is discovered or tumor or mass that could bleed, t-pa will be administered by the pharmacy and nursing staff. Further intervention by an interventional radiologist and or neurosurgeon may then occur.

At no point in this protocol does it call for the patient’s primary care doctor or cardiologist or usual neurologist to be called. We will be called once the procedure is complete because neither the ER physician or the neurosurgeon or the interventional radiologist will want to admit the patient to neurology ICU. While our surgical ICU and Medical ICU/CCU are covered 24 hours per day by an outsourced hired intensivist group, the neuro ICU does not have that type of coverage.

I can hear it now, my phone ringing and upon picking it up I hear the voice of a clerk in the Emergency Department, “Hello Dr Reznick, Dr. Whateverhisorhername wishes to speak to you about patient Just Had A Stroke.” I get put on hold for five minutes and then in a flat nasal voice, “Hello Steve your patient came in earlier by EMS with symptoms of an acute ischemic stroke. They met the t-pa ischemic stroke criteria and were treated. Unfortunately, they had a major hemispheric bleed with mass effect and edema and are now unresponsive and intubated on a ventilator. We need you to come in and admit him and care for him.”

I will vote in protest against this bylaw. I will lobby for recruiting neurologists who are hospital based who will actually see the patient and care for them. I will lobby for a new state law to provide sovereign immunity for ED physicians treating ischemic strokes according to the internationally recognized protocol. I will lobby for our medical and surgical residents on site and in the hospital to be permitted to administer t-pa after meeting the appropriate criteria. I will not support out of the area physicians making the final call and leaving our local physicians to deal with their results.

Ambulatory Blood Pressure Checkups versus Clinic Blood Pressures

General internists and family practitioners have very little equipment to use in diagnosing our patients other than a light, a reflex hammer, a stethoscope, an EKG machine, a spirometer (to test breathing) and a pulse oximeter. Some offices still have an x- ray suite today but that is less common in small independent practices.

The ambulatory blood pressure cuff is a device introduced as a way to test whether patients with office-based hypertension had an isolated anxiety elevation of their blood pressure because of the physician’s “white coat” or an ongoing problem that needed to be addressed. The monitor itself is a routine blood pressure cuff with a computer device and timed inflation and deflation mechanism. It was designed to take six blood pressure readings per hour while you were awake and four readings per hour during the night.

Patients are asked to bathe and groom themselves prior to arriving for an appointment and we then placed the cuff on their arm and activated the device. They returned it the next morning and we connected the recording chip to our computer. We received multiple readings per hour and the machine calculated average blood pressure readings, made graphs and answered the question of what type of blood pressure elevation we had seen in our office.

We have performed hundreds of these procedures on patients and it is extremely rare to see a report of a sustained or average elevation of the systolic or diastolic blood pressure in a range that requires the use of medication. We only use the ambulatory monitor on patients who took their blood pressures at home and said it was normal but always had a dramatic elevation while in the doctor’s office.

I was entirely surprised to read the article in Circulation which looked at employees of the State University of New York at Stony Brook and Columbia who had ambulatory blood pressures compared with “clinic” blood pressures. 893 individuals wore the ambulatory monitor and were compared to 942 who had clinic blood pressures taken. These were all young healthy individuals with none taking blood pressure treatments.

They found that the ambulatory monitor readings were higher (average 123/77) compared to clinic readings which averaged 116/ 75. The average BP was 10 mm higher in young healthy adults with a normal body mass index. This elevated ambulatory blood pressure was found to be most pronounced in young healthy individuals with the difference being less apparent with increasing age.

While the result was surprising it still supports the use of the machine in our older population of individuals who come in with a story of elevated blood pressures in the doctor’s office but normal blood pressures at home. We will continue to use the machine for just that purpose.

New Common Cold, Alzheimer’s and Influenza Vaccines on the Horizon

On a regular basis I see patients miserable with symptoms from a viral upper respiratory tract infection or common cold. They run fevers, are chilled, ache all over, have painful burning throats, runny noses, sinus congestion and just feel miserable. Our therapeutic options include only rest, warm fluids, throat lozenges, cough medicines and aspirin type medications. Antibiotics do not work against viral illnesses.

Researchers at Emory University have developed a vaccine for the common cold. It contains 50- 100 of inactivated Rhinoviruses. Rhinoviruses cause 60-80% of our common colds. Rhinovirus is the most common pathogen exacerbating infections in patients with asthma and emphysema.

The initial work on this vaccine began 60 years ago but the sheer number of different Rhinoviruses, coupled with the limited technology of that time period, prevented progress. With today’s technology researchers have been able to administer 50 or more inactivated Rhinovirus variants to mice and monkeys producing neutralizing antibodies and preventing these infections. Human trials are scheduled to begin shortly with the expectation that a vaccine may be available in two years. The initial recipients will be high risk patients with COPD and asthma but all others will be able to receive the vaccine as well. They believe the immunity will last for two years and then a booster will be required.

There is a new vaccine for influenza prevention in adults 65 years or older being produced which will cover all four of the common viral influenza variants. Currently Fluzone is the senior high dose vaccine recommended to prevent the three most common A viruses. There is a B1 virus seen in the spring that is not in that product. Younger adults receive a Quadrivalent flu vaccine that includes the B1 virus. Within the last four weeks Flublok has been approved by the FDA and released as a high dose vaccine which contains the three A viruses in inactivated form plus the B virus. It will be the vaccine of choice in the 2017 fall flu season. This new vaccine was produced with new DNA technology which allows it to be egg free and received by individuals allergic to egg products. Most other vaccines are grown in egg cultures and individuals with egg sensitivity cannot receive them.

Researchers in the United States and Australia have developed a vaccine to prevent and treat early and late Alzheimer’s disease. It targets the proteins found in the brains of Alzheimer’s disease in the early and late stages. The vaccine has met with success in early animal studies and is beginning formal Phase I studies this winter. They believe this vaccine can reverse some of the symptoms seen with the disease. While the early results are encouraging, this product is a minimum of seven to eight years from being available as a commercial product.

Water versus Diet Drinks for Dieting and Weight Loss

Water and many diet beverages quench your thirst and are listed as providing no energy or calories to your daily intake. With this in mind, researchers at the University of Nottingham in the United Kingdom set up a definitive study to assess the effect of water on weight loss after a meal versus a diet beverage’s effect on weight loss.

Ameneh Madjid, PharmD and associates looked at 81 overweight and obese women with Type II Diabetes Mellitus. Members of the group were either asked to continue drinking diet beverages five times per week after lunch or substitute water for the diet beverages. The researchers found that over a 24 week period, the water group had greater decreases in weight, body mass index, fasting plasma glucose, fasting insulin homeostasis and two hour post-meal glucose readings compared with the diet beverage group.

A similar study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition looking at 89 obese women found that after six months the water group had lost an extra three pounds compared to the diet beverage group.

As a clinician, the idea of putting water into your body as opposed to diet drink chemicals makes great sense. There have been some researchers who felt that diet beverages eliminated calories in soft drinks but that users consumed more dietary food and calories when drinking diet beverages as opposed to water.

I will suggest to my patients that they try water instead of diet beverages but remind them that an occasional diet beverage probably will not hurt their long term goals.