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.

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Controlled Substances and Schedule Drugs

The right to prescribe narcotics and controlled substances is regulated by the Federal Government. Physicians, dentists and health care providers apply for licensing with the Drug Enforcement Agency and request the right to prescribe medication from the different “schedules.” State legislatures and state medical boards regulate this further. Most people are unaware which medications and drugs are in which schedules or categories.

Schedule I – For the most part, these are substances which have no current accepted medical usage and are easily abused.

Examples are: Heroin, LSD, Ecstasy (methylenedioxymethamphetamine), Quaaludes          (methaqualone) and peyote.

Schedule II – These are substances with high potential for abuse with a risk of physical and psychological dependence.

Examples are: Vicodin, cocaine, methamphetamine, methadone, hydromorphone (dilaudid), meperidine (Demerol), oxycodone (OxyContin), fentanyl, Dexedrine, Adderall, Ritalin

Schedule III – these are drugs with moderate to low potential for physical and psychological dependence.

Examples are: Products with < 90 milligrams of codeine per dosage unit such as Tylenol with codeine, ketamine, anabolic steroids and testosterone.

Schedule IV – These are drugs with a lesser risk for abuse and dependence.

Examples are: – Xanax, Soma, Darvon, Darvocet, Valium, Ativan, Talwin, and AmbienTramadol.

Schedule V drugs have lower potential for abuse than Schedule IV drugs and contain limited amounts of narcotics. This would include antidiarrheal medications, antitussives, and mild analgesics. Cough medications with less than 200 milligrams of codeine per 100 milliliters such as Robitussin AC, Lomotil, Lyrica and Parapectolin.

All the medications on these schedules must be reported to E-Forcse, the Prescription Drug Monitoring Program, within 24 hours of dispensing by pharmacies. They all require the prescribing doctor to check E-FORSCE before prescribing.

Artificially Sweetened Beverages, Stroke and Dementia Risk

An observational study in the Journal “ Stroke, A Journal of Cerebral Circulation” examined the question of whether there is an a relationship between consuming “ diet” beverages with artificial sweeteners and the development of a stroke or dementia using data from the Framingham Heart Study Offspring Cohort. They looked at 2888 individuals older than 45 years of age for the development of strokes and 1484 participants over age 60 for the development of dementia. They followed the group for ten years and were able to gauge their intake of artificially sweetened beverages from food questionnaires filled out at exams. After making adjustments for age, sex, education, caloric intake, diet quality, physical activity, and smoking they found that higher consumption of artificially sweetened beverages was associated with a higher risk of strokes and dementia. This was not seen in individuals drinking sugar sweetened beverages.

In a comment section, the author acknowledged that diabetic patients had a higher risk of stroke and dementia than the general public and they consumed more artificially sweetened beverages than others. While the study did not show cause and effect it does leave us wondering just how safe these diet drinks are?

Hospital Discharges and the Handoffs

Fred Pelzman, M.D. is an experienced internist who practices in the NY Metropolitan area and trains young doctors at a well-deserved renowned academic medical center. His corporate behemoth medical system tries to engage in the latest and greatest business practice models for care, using technology and staff generally unavailable to the mom and pop medical practices that once dotted America.  Meanwhile, Dr. Pelzman cares for people compassionately while training his young disciples in an ever changing and complicated health care environment. I love reading his blog posts discussing his thoughts, concerns and efforts.

This week’s article or “post” is about the difficulty and danger entailed when a patient leaves the hospital, after being cared for by hospital based physicians, and returns to their homes and the care of their outside doctor’s. I give Dr. Pelzman much credit for taking ownership of the problem and attempting to solve it. I think there is a much simpler solution to his problem than creating a fast track computer program for patients who need to be seen quickly post discharge. It is called the telephone.

There was a time when physicians actually picked up the phone and called their colleagues and discussed the transfer of care before initiating it. During my internship and residency at the University of Miami Jackson Memorial Program; when a patient was being transferred, the receiving physician received a page resulting in a phone call from the transferring physician to discuss “the case.” The transferring physician wrote a transfer summary in the chart to be reviewed by the receiving physician. When patient’s went home, especially non-private patient’s, the handoffs were inadequate since often there was no receiving physician to communicate with.

After finishing my training and entering private care in a suburban community, the transfer of care was quite simple because most physicians cared for their own patients in the hospital and in the community so the transfer of care was smooth and seamless. This changed with the institution of “managed care” run by insurers at the request of employers and by the development of hospitalist physicians.

Employed hospital based physicians were the idea of Robert Wachter, M.D., the father of hospitalist medicine and the current director of hospital physician training at University of California in San Francisco. When he was completing his training in internal medicine he noticed that general internists in private medicine were not being paid very well in the field. He also noticed that his academic teachers, who were required by Medicare and insurers to actually spend time taking a history, doing a physical exam and writing a progress note on each patient on their teaching service if the facility was going to get paid for their care hated actually interacting with patients. They preferred to be in their research labs or teaching students and future doctors.

Hiring someone to do that work and creating a specialty gave them the freedom to go back to what they wanted to do. It also gave administration a certain amount of control over the tests ordered, medications ordered, length of stay and costs. At the same time this was occurring, “administrative and management experts” were out in the community, convincing private physicians that the solution to their low reimbursement was to stay in the office and see more patients and give up caring for hospital patients. It was deemed inefficient to cancel or delay patients in your office or clinic so you could run to the hospital or emergency room to see an acutely and seriously ill patient.

As hospitalist medicine took hold, medical and surgical specialties decided it was more efficient to use their services than to take the time to admit the patients with issues they were best trained to care for. Orthopedic surgeons stopped admitting patients to the hospital with fractures that needed surgical repair. They asked the hospitalist to do it. Oncologists stopped admitting patients with fevers and infections and abnormal blood counts as a consequence of their cancer or treatment of cancer. They asked the hospitalist to do it. Gastroenterologists stopped admitting acute gastrointestinal bleeders who needed endoscopy and cardiologists stopped admitting acute heart failure and pulmonary edema and heart attacks. These specialists preferred to be “consultants” and let the hospitalists perform the tedious medication reconciliation, admitting orders and mandated quality metrics forms and the deep vein thrombosis prevention forms. The hospitalists became their interns and medical students performing the time consuming , bureaucratic, labor intensive low paid administrative work so the specialist could arrive like the cavalry and just do their procedure and leave.

The problem is that the hospitalist didn’t know the patient. The referring doctor never called the hospitalist or ER physician to send the records and explain why the patient was coming and there was little if any communication. The same occurs when the patient leaves the hospital and is sent for post hospital care. No one coordinating care in the hospital contacts those responsible for the patient’s outpatient care to discuss a care plan. The fault lies with both the inpatient and outpatient physicians who don’t take the time to communicate.

Above anything else, the patient must come first. Picking up the phone and calling the receiving physician and discussing the nuances of the necessary care and creating a plan which is explained to the patient is in the patient’s best interests. All care givers need to remember this and create local environments, climates and systems that encourage communication between hospital-based physicians and community physicians.

Fish, Fish Oils and Cardiovascular Disease

Years ago the scientific researcher responsible for the promotion of fish oils as an antioxidant and protector against vascular disease recommended we all eat two fleshy fish meals of cold water fish a week. He continued to endorse this dietary addition and included canned tuna fish and canned salmon in the types of fish that produced this positive effect.

Over the years I heard him lecture at a large annual medical conference held in Broward County and he fretted about the growth of the supplement industry encouraging taking fish oils rather than eating fish. He worried about the warnings against eating all fish to women of child bearing age because of the fear of heavy metal contamination and knew that the fish oils and omega 3 Fatty Acids played a developmental role in a growing fetus and child.

I then attended lectures, in particular one sponsored by the Cleveland Clinic, during which they promoted Krill oil as the chosen form of fish oil supplements because it remained liquid and viscous at body temperature of 98.6 while others solidified. I listened to this debate only to hear the father of the science speak again and this time advocate that one or two fleshy fish meals a month was adequate to obtain the protective effect of Omega 3 Fatty acids. He felt that the supplements did not actually provide a protective effect as eating real fish did. Since I love to eat fresh fish I had no problem with this message but others are not comfortable buying and preparing fish at home or eating it at a restaurant. Supplements to them were the answer.

Steve Kopecky, M.D. examined the question in an article published in JAMA Cardiology this week. He looked at 77,917 high risk individuals already diagnosed with coronary artery disease and vascular disease who were taking supplements to prevent a second event. His study concluded that taking these omega 3 supplements had no effect on the prevention of recurrent cardiovascular events. The study did not discuss primary prevention for those who have not yet had a vascular illness or event.

Once again it seems that eating fish in moderation, like most anything, is the best choice. I will continue to eat my fresh fish meals one or two times per week, not necessarily for the health benefit but because I enjoy eating fresh fish.

I advise those worried about preventing primary or secondary heart and vascular disease to find a form of fish they can enjoy if they want this benefit. If you really wish to reduce your risk of a cardiovascular event; I suggest you stop smoking, control your blood pressure and lipid profile, stay active and eat those fresh fish meals.

Cleaning Is Hazardous to Your Lungs and Overall Health

In an article published in the American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine it was shown that women who regularly clean homes show a marked decline in pulmonary function. The study looked at 6,230 persons participating in the European Community Respiratory Health Survey over a period of 20 years.

Normally lung function declines as we age but women who were professional home cleaners, and who used cleaning sprays, declined at a far faster rate than women who did not clean at home or professionally. For unclear reasons in this study cleaning did not appear to effect the measurements on men. The study authors were quick to point out that there were very few men in the study making their conclusions on men less meaningful.

The authors looked at two main parameters, Forced Vital Capacity (the maximum amount of air exhaled after a maximum inspiration) and Forced Expiratory Volume in one second. They noted that decrease in Forced Vital Capacity is associated with decreased long term survival in patients without known pulmonary disease. They additionally noted a slight increase in the development of asthma in the home cleaners.

The authors postulated that cleaning products were “low grade irritants” and chronic exposure could lead to remodeling of the airways and resultant decline in pulmonary function. While reading this article I thought about how infrequently we read labels on the products we use to clean our homes, cars and elsewhere before using them. How often do we actually follow the health advice listed on the bottle? Should we be wearing N95 respirator type masks when using cleaning sprays and working in sparsely ventilated areas? What about children and their exposure? Should we be using these products around them and or our pets? Is it the actual spraying that exposes cleaners or does the products effects linger well after use?

These are all questions that few, if anyone, looks into or answers but certainly need to be addressed now that these findings have been published.

Cigar and Pipe Smoking Significantly Increases Mortality Risk

My male patients express to me on a regular basis their desire to continue to smoke a few cigars per day. They are quick to point out that they do not inhale the smoke like cigarette smokers do. They also point out that their use of cigars is far fewer in number than cigarettes. They all discount the risks of the smoke, its byproducts, carbon monoxide, etc.

The Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) has just published a research project which looked at that subject. They followed cigar and pipe smokers from 1985 until 2011 looking at the mortality rate and the cancers they sustained. Of the 357,420 participants in the study, 51,150 died. The death rate of cigar and pipe smokers was much higher than nonsmokers and those who never smoked. There was also a much higher likelihood they would sustain a tobacco related cancer such as lung, throat, esophagus, oral cavity and bladder cancer which would eventually kill them.

It was clear the risks were higher for cigarette smokers than pipe and cigar smokers. As a physician, I will continue to encourage smoking cessation of all tobacco products.

Tobacco smoking ruins your health and kills people. Let there be no confusion about that fact.