PLCO Data Support Protective Effect of Aspirin in Preventing Deaths

In recent months, the US Preventive Task Force has recommended adults without diabetes or documented coronary artery disease avoid taking baby aspirin to prevent heart attacks and strokes. They believe the risk of bleeding outweighs the benefit derived. They still recommend aspirin prevention in men with known cardiovascular, cerebrovascular disease and diabetes.

The Prostate, Lung, Colorectal and Ovarian Cancer Trial (PLCO) just made the decision-making much more complex. In their study, reported in this month’s JAMA Network Open, they found that taking aspirin as infrequently as 1 to 3 times per month reduced the risk of all-cause and cancer related mortality compared to no aspirin in their study with 146,152 patient participants.

Weekly use of aspirin significantly reduced the risk of mortality from both GI and colorectal cancer and all mortality endpoints irrespective of how heavy you were. When the study looked at 12.5 years of aspirin use 1 to 3 times a month, compared to none, the all-cause mortality was reduced by 16%. The results were even more encouraging when aspirin was taken three or more times per week.

The PLCO Cancer Screening Trial involved participants aged 55-74 who were randomized to a cancer screening group or a control group at 10 United States Medical Centers. This review looked at men and women 65 years or older at baseline. While this study showed a beneficial effect of aspirin in the elderly, other recent studies have been less favorable. The ASPREE study, Aspirin in Reducing Events in the Elderly, found that individuals taking 100 mg of aspirin daily were at increased risk for all-cause mortality compared to those taking a placebo.

The decision to take low dose aspirin, or not, is something you should discuss with your physician so that you can tailor the situation and risks to your personalized needs.

Medicare Advantage – Great Insurance If You Are Healthy

It is open enrollment period through December 7, 2019 for those of us 65 years of age and older who are supposed to sign on to www.medicare.gov to choose our 2020 prescription drug plan Part D. This is also the open enrollment period for insurance owned and operated by private managed care Medicare Advantage programs. These plans preceded ObamaCare, or the Affordable Care Act, and are private managed care plans. They were designed to save the government money but, in fact, year after year are more costly per patient than traditional Medicare.

Let me repeat that, according to government auditors, MEDICARE ADVANTAGE PLANS COST MORE PER PATIENT PER YEAR THAN TRADITIONAL MEDICARE! If you sign up for one you will need to abide by the managed care company’s contracted panel of doctors and facilities. You do not get to choose the best doctor or hospital for your problem – just the best on your contracted panel. These insurers tell you it’s the same as Medicare but it is not. They will provide you with an insurance ID card colored and lettered to mimic Medicare but it is not Medicare.

It is great for healthy patients until they get sick. There are few, if any, monthly costs to enrollees. Generic drugs, inexpensive vision care, inexpensive hearing and dental care are often included. If you develop a complicated health problem and want to see the best it is usually OUT OF NETWORK. If you get sick out of your home area you may well be OUT OF NETWORK. These plans are immensely profitable to insurers.

They are so profitable that seniors are bombarded with mail advertising, full page newspaper advertising and constant prime time TV advertising using celebrity spokespersons. The ads encourage seniors to travel and fund their grandchildren with the savings they will reap from joining their plan.

They don’t explain what happens when mom has a new lymphoma and cannot go to MD Anderson or Memorial Hospital or Dana Farber for diagnosis and cutting-edge care. They don’t tell you about the experience of your contracted panel doctor to treat Grandpa’s throbbing headache caused by a brain vascular malformation because the regional neuro vascular interventionalist of choice is not on grandpa’s panel.

I have an idea. How about putting the cost of all the expensive enrollment advertising done by these private Medicare Advantage plans in to better benefits for their clients?  We all know the answer to that.

Changes in Florida’s Prescribing Medication Laws

In their ultimate wisdom, the Florida Legislature has decided that all medication prescribing shall be done electronically by computer beginning in January 2020.  As of November 1st, the Florida Medical Association has not informed its members of this but it was discussed briefly at a hospital staff meeting.

We were told that most pharmacies will no longer honor paper written prescriptions.  My office electronic health record system, which slows down seeing patients remarkably, has had electronic prescribing software which we have used for several years now.  The big change is that we will now be required to order controlled substances online electronically when in the past it was not permitted.

Since the opioid crisis struck Florida, physicians have been required to create an account with the State’s narcotics hotline named E-Forsce and check out the recipient prior to prescribing controlled substances for pain.  We then issued a written prescription.

It never made sense to me why if one is trying to track narcotic prescribing it wasn’t being done on computers from the beginning?  Nonetheless, this is a change which will require prescribers to download additional software and use two methods of identification as the legitimate prescriber before you can actually prescribe for your patients.

It will give you the freedom to prescribe from your phone or tablet when out of your office which is a convenience not available in the last few years. It will however mean more time in front of the computer screen, more user names and passwords to remember and less time actually listening, talking and communicating with patients.

Influenza Vaccination in Adults

It is time once again to be thinking about taking your flu shot.   A recently published study by the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases (NFID) estimated that only 52% of US adults plan to take the flu shot.  Reasons for not being vaccinated include:

  • I do not believe it works (51%)
  • Concern it would cause an adverse effect (34%)
  • Concern that the vaccine would give them the flu (22%)

Health and Human Services Secretary Alex M. Azar II said, “Each season, flu vaccination prevents several million illnesses, tens of thousands of hospitalizations and thousands of deaths.  Over recent years, on average, flu vaccination has reduced the average adult’s chance of going to the doctor by between 30 – 60%.

A recent study performed by the northern California Kaiser Permanente Group, using seven years of flu season data, shows the immunity from the shot is near perfect for the first six weeks and then begins to wane. They estimate your post-vaccination chance of getting the flu, even if immunized, increases by 16% every 28 days after the shot but is near perfect for the first 42 days.

It is believed the Center for Disease Control (CDC) will recommend in future years that adults receive two flu shots each season. One will be administered at the beginning of the season and one six weeks later.  For the moment, the CDC acknowledges the flu season begins at different times in different regions of the country and suggests you receive your vaccination about two weeks before it arrives.

In South Florida, we typically see the arrival of the Influenza A virus after Thanksgiving. It peaks the last two weeks in January and first two weeks in February. For this reason, we suggest taking the shot later in the fall.

Vaccines are inactivated meaning they are not live and cannot give anyone the flu!

Sunscreen Ingredients are Absorbed says FDA

For years public health officials, dermatologists and primary care physicians have been encouraging people to apply sunscreen before going out into the outdoors to reduce the risk of sunburn and skin cancers.  We are taught to apply it in advance of exposure by about 30 minutes and to reapply it every few hours especially if we are sweating and swimming.   Living in South Florida, sun exposure is a constant problem so we tend to wear long sleeve clothing with tight woven fabrics to reduce sun exposure.  My 15-month old grandson, visiting last weekend was smeared with sunscreen by his well-meaning parents before we went out to the children’s playground nearby.

These precautions seemed reasonable and sensible until an article appeared in JAMA Dermatology recently.  An article authored by M. Mata, PhD. evaluated the absorption of the chemical constituents of sunscreen after applying it as directed four times per day.  The article was accompanied by a supporting editorial from Robert M. Cliff M.D., a former commissioner in the FDA and now with Duke University School of Medicine and K. Shanika, M.D., PhD.

The study applied sunscreen four times a day to 24 subjects. Blood levels were drawn to assess absorption of the sunscreen products avobenzene, oxybenzone and octocrylene.  The results of the blood testing showed that the levels of these chemicals far exceeded the recommended dosages by multiples. The problem is that no one has evaluated these chemicals to see if at those doses it is safe or toxic causing illness?

The editorial accompanying the findings encourages the public to keep using sunscreen but cautions that the FDA and researchers must quickly find out if exposure to these levels is safe for us?  We do know that the chemical oxybenzone causes permanent bleaching and damage to coral reefs in the ocean from small amounts deposited by swimmers coated with sunscreen. The state of Hawaii has actually banned sunscreens containing oxybenzone to protect their coral reefs.

The fact that these chemicals have been approved and are strongly absorbed with no idea of the consequences is solely the result of elected officials wanting “small government” and reducing funding to the oversight organizations responsible for making sure what we use is not toxic.  It is a classic example of greed and profit over public safety.  The research on the safety of these chemicals must be funded and addressed soon. The American Academy of Pediatrics and Dermatology need to advise parents of youngsters whose minds and bodies are in the development and growth stages what is best to do for their children – sooner rather than later.

Lung Cancer Screening is Underutilized

Dr. Jinai Huo of the University of Florida (Go Gators!) presented data to Reuters Health that primary care physicians are under-utilizing the technology available to screen for lung cancer. This is a particularly sore topic to me because my associate and I always screened smokers and heavy past smokers for lung cancer with an annual chest x-ray until the United States Preventive Task Force issued guidelines that it didn’t save lives and was not cost effective.  They said, it cost $200,000 in normal x-rays to find one cancer early and it was deemed not worth it.

We actually sold our chest x-ray unit, let go our certified radiology technician and cancelled a contract with radiologists to read our films because insurers stopped paying for chest x-rays after the USPTF ruling.  Twenty years later that same group said “woops” an error was made. The statistical analysis on that study was done incorrectly and actually screening does save lives and is cost effective.

Today we have the fast low dose CT scanner to screen for lung cancer and screening does save lives according to the data.  Who should be screened?

Current smokers or those who have quit smoking within the last 15 years who are 55 to 77 years old and have a smoking history of 30 packs or more per year (one pack per day for 30 years or 2 packs a day for fifteen years).  Screening should be done on individuals in good health so if a lesion is found they are considered well enough to undergo diagnostic tests and treatment.

Screening is also recommended in those individuals over 50 years old with a twenty (20) pack year smoking history and a family history of lung cancer or lung disease or occupational exposure to items associated with causing cancer such as radon.

I inquire about smoking at each visit and have been fortunate in that few of our patients still smoke so we spend less time on counseling for smoking cessation.  If you fall into one of the screening groups mentioned in this article, and have not been screened, please notify us so we can arrange for the testing which will be a low dose chest CT scan.

The Reality of Skilled Nursing Home Stays

The online journal Medscape published a Reuter’s article on Skilled Nursing Facilities and post hospital stays.  They discussed the often-lengthy time span between hospital discharge and the patient being seen by a physician or “an advanced care practitioner”.

Older, more infirm and cognitively impaired patients tend to be seen later than other patients. Apparently the later you are seen, the more likely it is that you will be sent back to the acute care hospital and be readmitted.  The study was conducted by Kira Ryskina of the Perlman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. The researchers looked at Medicare claims from nearly 2.4 million patients discharged from acute care hospitals. Her data indicated that when patients were seen by doctors at the facility soon after discharge they tended to recover more often not requiring acute readmission to the hospital for the same problem.

The author went on to say that most families confronted with a family member requiring post hospital rehabilitation at a skilled nursing home do not know what to expect from a skilled nursing facility (SNF).  The truth is, most doctors who practice in the inpatient setting or in surgical and medical specialties have no idea what to expect. They have never gone into one, unless it is for their own recovering family member, and they have never cared for a patient on a daily basis in one.

My first month as a private physician in 1979, my employer took me to the local facilities to meet the administrators, charge nurses and social workers at the facilities. The medical director was a young internist who had no private outpatient office or practices just a nursing home practice at five institutions he called on.  I was told that the law required me to see new patients within 24 hours of arrival, examine them and write a note and review all orders and either approve or change them.  I was surprised that facilities were staffed with only one registered nurse per 40 patients. The RN was required to pass the medications each shift, with most patients being on multiple medications so that most RNs had little time per shift to do much else but pass the medications.

When a patient had a complication or problem the nursing staff called the family member and the doctor. The volume of calls was so immense that the young facility medical director could not find any physicians who would agree to cross-cover with him on the weekends so he could get some time off.  In most cases, even if I decided the phone call related medical problem could be dealt with at the facility, the family decided otherwise and wanted their loved one transported to the ER. Those of us who cared for patients at these SNF’s joked that the protocol for caring for a problem was to call 911 and copy the chart for transfer.

It used to disturb me that EMS services were being diverted to these facilities for non-critical issues taking them away from true emergencies, and delaying response times, but they seemed to like it.  The more trips they were called on, the more evidence they could present for a larger share of the city or county budget.

At some SNFs there was always an EMS bus or ambulance sitting in the parking lot outside.  The patients were insured by Medicare guaranteeing bill payment so the receiving Emergency Department and staff were happy as well.

We were required to see the patient monthly and write a note. I saw sicker and less stable patients more often than monthly.  Progress in rehabilitation was discussed at mid-day care planning conferences that the physicians were rarely made aware of.  My goal for discharge was when the patient could safely transfer from the bed to a walker or wheel chair, get to the bathroom and on and off the toilet safely and; get in and out of a car. If the family could convert their home into a “skilled nursing facility” the patient could go home as well.  Often the patient was sent home by the facility “magically cured” when their insurance benefits ran out.

Most of the work at the facilities is performed by lower paid aides. In my area of practice most of the aides are men and women of color from the Caribbean who have little in common with the mostly Caucasian elderly population they care for. The work is hard and the pay low with the employee turnover rate extraordinarily high annually at most institutions. The patients are elderly, chronically ill, often with impaired cognition, hearing, and vision. Their family’s vision of what should be done is vastly different from what can be accomplished.  I believe most of the staff are caring and well-meaning just under staffed and under trained.  Administrations concerns about liability from medical malpractice, elder abuse and other issues is well founded based on the plethora of ads on prime time TV, newspapers and the sides of travelling public buses touting law firms seeking elder care cases.

It is now harder and harder to actually see patients at these facilities even if you wish to.  While community- based physicians with local hospital privileges were once welcomed and encouraged to attend to their patients at the facility, now the facilities require doctors to go through a lengthy credentialing process – as if you were applying for hospital staff privileges.   When you actually show up and care for your patients you rarely see a physician colleague. Most of the care is assessed and provided by nurse practitioners and physician assistants working for physicians who rarely, if ever, venture into the facilities. They may supervise the care plan on paper but rarely lay eyes or hands on the patient.

These facilities serve a vital role in the post-acute hospital care of patients. According to this study and article, Medicare spent $60 billion dollars in 2015 on this care. When a hospitalized patient has a frail spouse or no spouse at home, with no local nuclear family able to provide home care, the SNF is the only real option.

I suggest families visit the potential choices first. Speak to patients and their families about the care and services.  Review online state inspection and violations records. Ask about the transition from the hospital to the SNF. Who will be responsible for caring for them at the facility?  Meet them and talk to them. Make sure you are on the same page. If you can find a facility that has an onsite physician team with a geriatrician as the chief medical provider.  It may be the best option.

For these transitions to work and save money by stopping the revolving door form hospital to SNF to emergency room for every medical question, the SNF’s need some form of sovereign immunity from frivolous lawsuits if their services and care meet the legally required standards. The recent post- hurricane heat-related tragedy at a Hollywood, Florida nursing home underscores the need for vigilant inspection and regulation of this industry. The good homes need to be identified and need to be given the support and latitude required to care for this ever increasing portion of our American society.