Commercial Air Travel is Really Safe

For the last 25 years I have had the privilege of being a designated airman medical examiner by the Federal Aviation Administration. To earn that privilege, it required flying to FAA headquarters and taking a one week training course followed by refresher training material every three years.

The FAA grades medical examiners annually by our judgment and decision-making. The nature of the questions we are required to ask the pilot candidates, and the exam, have been dictated by the rigors of being a pilot and reflect the stresses unique to flying a plane safely. Many of them were created after a plane crash, fatality and the resulting National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) investigation revealed a health reason involved in the crash.

I attended my refresher course in Washington, D.C. this past week over a three-day period. Physicians designated by the FAA fly to the event and stay at their own expense. By law, the FAA is not permitted to pay for food, coffee or any expenses. Over 50% of the attendee physicians are pilots who fly to the conference in their own private planes. There are about 2,800 physicians performing these exams around the world and, judging by the grey hairs, and canes in the crowd; they are getting significantly older reflecting the same process in the physician population in our country.

This was the first time I attended this meeting and I saw a significant number of women physicians in the audience which makes me believe there is diversity in the physician examining population as well. The speakers on medical topics are first rate. We heard from leading doctors at the best places, all leaders in aerospace medicine and research in cardiology, neurology, psychiatry, otolaryngology, ophthalmology, fatigue and sleep medicine. I learn a great deal of general medicine to bring back to my medical practice medicine at these sessions.

Performing FAA exams for pilots is not a particularly lucrative proposition. You see 3 classes of candidates including the commercial pilots for class 1 exams, navigators for class 2 exams and general aviation or civilian private pilots for class 3.

As our pilot population continues to age, domestic airlines are now retiring them at age 65. If perfectly healthy, a class 1 pilot starts getting EKGs annually at age 39 and they are then seen every six months at a minimum. The exam and paperwork takes 45 minutes at least and must be transmitted back to the FAA by computer. If you detect a problem either by your taking a history, or performing an exam, there is a further investment of time and research to provide the FAA safety experts with the medical records they need to determine if the pilot is healthy enough to safely fly a plane.

I would say the vast majority of examiners charge only $175 or less for these exams. Try getting that time, attention and value when you go to most physicians for an exam.

The reward for being a designated airman medical examiner is being part of a team that keeps the skies safe for the flying public. Seeing accident and mortality rates decrease year after year brings an extraordinary sense of satisfaction. I get to work with extraordinarily talented and dedicated employees of the FAA, from the staff at my Regional Flight Surgeons headquarters in Atlanta, and the professionals in Oklahoma City and D.C. who read, train and study so when I fly from place to place, I arrive there intact after an uneventful flight. There you have it. Commercial air travel is really safe.

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Consumerism and Convenience Gone Wild in Health Care

I have received several phone calls in the last few weeks from young adults requesting information about their last vaccinations. They are travelling to areas of the world that suggest or require certain vaccines and do not remember if they had them or not. Others are applying for positions of employment which require travel and the employer’s human resources department needs the patient’s updated vaccination records.

When we tell them that we only have a record of the vaccinations we have given them in the office they act surprised. “You mean XXX hasn’t sent you a copy of my tetanus booster shot?” Others inquire if the travel health service they went to sends us a record of the vaccines they administered. The answer is “sometimes”.

The State of Florida instituted a website called Florida Shots for immunization records a few years back which is incomplete at best. At one time you received all your vaccinations and immunizations in the doctor’s office and a record was then maintained.

In the new world of consumer convenience first, pharmacies are paid by insurers for administering vaccines while the same shot given in your doctor’s office is not a covered service. In some cases, we have the childhood vaccination records from a pediatrician and a college health form updating us on meningitis and hepatitis A and B vaccines. Those adults out of college for more than seven years who do not have a copy of that form are just out of luck. This is a prime example of consumerism and convenience gone wild for no good reason

Another example is the creation of the BasicMed program allowing non-commercial pilots to obtain a medical certification to fly instead of going to a highly trained certified FAA Airmen Medical Examiner Physician (AME). If you have a driver’s license and pilot a plane for 6 or less passengers, which will not fly faster than 250 knots, or ascend above an altitude of 18,000 feet; you can go to any doctor with your driver’s license and be certified to fly.

Why would a pilot go to BasicMed rather than to a trained and certified and recertified physician in aerospace medicine? Probably because they are concerned that the trained physician will not pass them based on their health and the non-certified doctor will either go easier on them or just miss the problems that an AME might investigate.

 

This law was the result of lawsuits against the FAA by pilots not meeting the standards and resulted in Congress passing this private pilot friendly law. In recent years, expensive private flight schools have become the pathway for a student to eventually become a commercial airline pilot. They are replacing the previous pathway of hiring former military pilots who are more experienced, more disciplined and usually older and more mature than flight school candidates. This new breed of air transport pilot will now be sharing the skies with private civilian pilots receiving their medical clearance from less physicians with less aerospace medical knowledgeable. Is this not also convenience and consumerism gone wild?

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.

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.

Lack of Vaccination Coverage in the Medical Office

This week a patient, going on a foreign trip, was required to fill out a vaccination and immunization record to obtain a visa. To his dismay he discovered his records were not available. On further questioning he realized his vaccinations were done at retail clinics and pharmacies up and down the Eastern seaboard. Yes, he had requested a record of the vaccination be sent to the office but it never arrived.

I am a firm believer in the recommendation of the CDC, American College of Physicians and Advisory Council on Immunization Practices. Their literature is displayed in my office and available as a resource to my patients. I find it abhorrent that CMS, through its Medicare Part D program, will pay for the shingles shots (Zostavax and Shingrix) and the pneumonia series (Prevnar 13 and Pneumovax 23) at the pharmacy but not at a doctor’s office. The pharmacies use these vaccinations as loss leaders to get individuals into the store hoping that they will buy additional items while there.

As a general internist and practitioner of adult medicine, I too use these vaccinations as a “loss leader.” When patients call for a vaccination and have not been seen in a long while we encourage an appointment. We check on prevention items recommended by the ACP. the AAFP and the USPTF and make sure the patients are current on mammograms, HPV or Pap testing, colonoscopies, eye exams, hearing evaluations, skin and body checkups and other essential health items. We make little or no money on vaccinations or immunizations but like the idea that once a patient is here we can provide a gentle reminder about those health tasks we all need to follow up on with some regularity.

I like the idea of making vaccinations and immunizations more convenient for patients. I just believe the same payment should be made if the patient is in your office or in the pharmacy. In addition, the law should require the pharmacy to send a record of the vaccination to the patient’s physician so we can have immunization records readily available.

The ACP, AMA, American College of Physicians and American Academy of Family Practitioners should be using their influence to encourage the Center for Medicare Services (CMS) to pay for these vaccines in doctors’ offices as well as in pharmacies and retail clinics. If encouragement doesn’t work then legal action is appropriate.

More on Shingrix, the Shingles Vaccine

Recently, the FDA approved a new shingles vaccine called Shingrix. It is a two shot series with the suggestion made that the second shot should be taken 2 – 6 months after the first one. Shingrix will replace the original shingles vaccine Zostavax. Shingrix is recommended in all patients over 50 years old.

For those of you who have had the original shot, Zostavax, the new vaccine is still recommended. It is covered by Medicare Part D which means you must take it in a pharmacy or walk in center not in your doctor’s office. While this makes NO sense, it is the rule. If you have had shingles it is still recommended you take the new vaccine (Shingrix).

Shingles is a skin rash and painful skin condition caused by the chicken pox virus Varicella. When you have chicken pox and complete the infection course you are immune but the virus remains alive forever, living in sensory nerve endings along the spinal cord. One third of adults will have an outbreak of this varicella virus which will appear along the path of a sensory nerve or dermatome on one side of your body. It will go through the full cycle of rash, pustule and then scab that the chicken pox did. A significant number of patients will continue to have pain over the involved skin for prolonged time periods in what we call post herpetic neuralgia. The pain is described as severe as an eye scrape, passing a kidney stone or going through labor and delivery.

The original shingles vaccine, Zostavax, protected against the rash 51% of the time and against post herpetic neuralgia 67% of the time. This efficacy dropped to about 30% after four years. The new vaccine, Shingrix protects against the rash over 90% of the time and against the pain syndrome 85-90% of the time while lasting for more than four years.

Only five percent (5%) of patients receiving Shingrix develop side effects. The most common are fever, myalgia and chills. In view of this, I am suggesting to my patients we allow the vaccine to be on the U.S. market for a year to see the adverse event profile and, if safe, we then start the series of shots.

Globalization, Corporate Control and Shortages of Medication

One of my online medical information websites carried a letter from the head of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) trying to explain why there is a shortage of standard intravenous fluids to administer at hospitals and medical clinics in the United States. The author cited an extremely busy influenza season causing patients to use Emergency Departments in record numbers plus a loss of manufacturing capabilities due to damage to a production facility in Puerto Rico during a seasonal hurricane. No more, no less.

Doctors, nurses and patients are expected to believe that there is only one production center for our intravenous fluids nationally located in Puerto Rico. If it is unable to produce and ship product then health care as we know it has to change?

If this is in fact the truth, and the only reason for the lack of available IV fluids, what exactly does it have to say about our planning and leadership at the level of the FDA and CDC? Might it in fact indict the corporate model of efficiency and productivity? Is there not a Plan B and C for supplies of intravenous fluid if one source cannot supply our needs? If this is in fact the only production source then why wasn’t it a post storm FEMA national priority similar to if the NORAD intercontinental ballistic missile system had been damaged due to Hurricane Irma or Maria and we could not monitor North Korean launches?

At the same time we have a shortage of intravenous fluids, we have a shortage of injectable narcotics for pain relief. Morphine and dilaudid are in short supply. My hospital pharmacy committee and chief medical officer are now limiting injectable pain medications to immediate post-surgical cases.

Pain elsewhere in the institution should be treated with the oral pain pills we read about causing the opioid epidemic and crisis in America. There apparently is no shortage of injectable heroin on the streets of Palm Beach County, Florida. The Mexican cartels have found a way to meet the demand of its customers unlike organized healthcare which seems unable to do so.

I do not know who is responsible for insuring that we have enough materials and medications available to care for our nation. I do know they are doing a very poor job of it and would love to know who is responsible.