Concierge Medicine and the Pandemic

Twenty years ago I practiced internal medicine and geriatrics locally in a traditional medical practice. I cared for 2700 patients seen in 15-minute visits with an annual checkup being given a full 30 minutes. The majority of my patients were over 55 years old and many had already been patients for 10-20 years. The practice office revenue was enhanced by having an in house laboratory, chest x-ray machine, pulmonary function lab and flexible sigmoidoscopy colon cancer surveillance program. If patients needed more time, we allotted more time or, more likely, we just fell behind leaving patients stranded in the waiting room wondering when they would be seen. I had a robust hospital practice made easier by the fact that the hospital was a short walk across the street and most of my hospitalized patients came from being required to cover the emergency room periodically for patients requiring admission but not having a physician.

Much changed quickly in the early 1990’s as we approached the millennium. Insurers managed care programs kidnapped our younger patients by approaching employers and guaranteeing cost savings on health insurance by demanding we provide care at a 25% discount. In addition, mandatory ER call became a nightmare because insurers would only compensate contracted physicians to care for their hospital inpatients.

My very profitable chest x-ray machine became an albatross because that $28 x-ray reimbursement was now accompanied by a fee to dispose of the developing fluid by only a certified chemical disposal firm even though the EPA said there was not enough silver in the waste to require that you do anything other than dump it down the sink. The lab closed too. Congress enacted strict testing and over site rules which made the cost of doing business too expensive and not profitable. That flexible sigmoidoscopy went the way of the Model-T Ford when the medical community enlarged to accommodate board certified gastroenterologists certified to look at the entire colon under anesthesia not just the distal colon and sigmoid.

We tried to overcome increased costs and lost revenue by seeing more patients per day. We banded together as physician owned groups owning imaging centers and common labs but the Center for Medicare Services (CMS), which runs Medicare, and private insurers plus Congressional rules on conflict of interest thwarted those ideas. We attended seminars on becoming a member of an HMO and taking full risk for a patient’s health care and cost.

The message was clear, you could make a great deal of money if you put barriers in front of patients limiting access to care and especially in patient hospital care. The ethics of that model did not sit well with many. So, we started earlier, shortened each visit and worked later and harder. As time wore on, and our loyal patients aged, we realized that we needed to spend MORE TIME with them more frequently.  Not less time!

Spending less time with patients was the primary impetus which prompted my exploration of concierge medicine when I realized I was better off emotionally, ethically and morally caring well for fewer patients. Financially, seeing a smaller panel of patients who paid a membership fee generated similar income to maintaining a large panel of patients in a capitated system or fee for service seeing more people with shorter visits.

I discuss this now because I often wonder how I would be able to care for my large panel of patients today in the midst of this COVID-19 Pandemic.

For the most part I have been able to give my patients the time and availability they need to stay safe from Coronavirus and still keep up with the prevention and surveillance testing they need periodically. The 24/7 phone, email and text message access has allowed me to stay in touch with patients – something that would have been near impossible to do in a practice with 2700 adult patients.

I applaud my colleagues who continued in the traditional practice primary care setting despite the fact that most sold their practices to local hospital systems or large investment groups who placed administrators in the care decision-making process dictating time and number of daily visits, referral patterns and products used in the care of the patients.

As an independent physician, I have been able to continue to provide services and referrals that are the best in the area using doctors and equipment I would see as a patient and proudly refer my parents, my wife and children, beloved friends and family members. I am able to guide patients based on evidence and quality of measures not only what is most cost effective. I have no contract with a health system that requires me to see a certain number of patients per day, per week, per month or face a drop in salary or dismissal. I am proud and fulfilled at the end of the day because I can look in the mirror and know that I tried my best for the patients.

I additionally have the ability to say “no” to a potential new patient that I believe would not benefit from being in my practice for numerous reasons. Providing time to meet potential new patients gives both the patient and physician an opportunity to assess whether developing a professional relationship would be a good fit for both.

During the pandemic these meetings have become tele-health virtual meetings which are far more impersonal and less educational for both the potential patient and the doctor. It is still far better than having an administrator schedule a new patient, with no questions asked, on your schedule with the only criteria being can they pay the price?

Sadly, this horrible SARS 2 Coronavirus pandemic has made concierge internal medicine and family medicine more attractive than less. Having your physician available to discuss prevention, vaccines, testing methods and locations and treatments, if infected, is much easier in these membership practices than in a traditional practice where your phone calls are routed through an automated attendant phone system, reviewed by a non-physician provider and handled usually by a nurse practitioner or physician assistant with only the most serious and complicated situations reaching the physician’s desk.

I predict that more and more patients will seek concierge care in the next few years because patients are getting tired of fighting the bureaucracy and struggling to get the attention of their health care providers when they think they need it.  But don’t blame the providers.  It’s the dysfunctional, inefficient and profit driven corporate system that has created this situation.

Quadrapill for Blood Pressure Control

At the beginning of each patient visit I make it a habit to meticulously review with each patient their list of medications, supplements, vitamins, herbs etc. I compare their list with the lists on notes sent to me from consulting specialty physicians and then I access the pharmacy prescribing data base whenever it is available.

I am always amazed by how many chemicals we put into our body for the sake of maintaining health. How patients maintain accurate medication lists and administer daily medications is something I am in awe of. In the best interest of their care, I am always looking for a way to reduce the number of medications taken and to simplify the process if possible.

Clearly researchers in Australia feel the same way. They realize that to control blood pressure, most seniors are taking low doses of 2-3 medications. In previous years we physicians prescribed one medication and pushed its dosage to the limit before adding a second medication to gain control of blood pressure. We soon realized that at the higher dosages, patients experienced adverse effects and just stopped taking their blood pressure lowering medications.

In an intriguing study, Australian researchers created a poly pill consisting of one quarter of the starting dosage of four medications. Irbesartan 37.5 mg, (angiotensin receptor blocker), amlodipine 1.25 mg (a calcium channel blocker), indapamide 0.625 mg (a thiazide diuretic) and bisoprolol 2.5 mg (a beta blocker) were put into one pill. Five hundred ninety-one patients at ten medical centers participated in the study. Their average age was 59 years with a fair mix of men and women. They were randomly selected and blinded from knowing whether they were receiving the Quadrapill or increasing dosages of one pill. If BP stayed up amlodipine was added.

At the end of three months the poly pill group had lowered their BP by 6.9mm Hg more than the single pill group. At a year the figure stools at 7.7. millimeters mercury. There were no significant adverse effects in the poly pill group. The study clearly showed that taking a pill with multiple types of blood pressure medication, at low dosage, controlled blood pressure and was convenient and tolerable. That pill is now in development and should be presented to the FDA and European Union for review in the near future. It’s release to the public will certainly make taking medication simpler and more convenient.

Why Have Guidelines, Rules & Regulations If No One Adheres to Them & There are NO Consequences?

I live and practice internal medicine and geriatrics in South Florida. We have a substantial elderly population living both independently and in senior facilities. The Sars2 Coronavirus Pandemic has been devastating to this patient population. There are many who became ill and passed away under the loneliest circumstances of in-hospital isolation. There are those who became ill and recovered but have lingering long-term effects. There are those who have avoided infection but are just beaten down by the daily monotony of staying safe, avoiding crowded public places and subsequently forsaking the company of friends and family.

The vaccine rollout in Florida was Helter Skelter and disorganized. It was every man and woman for themselves trying to obtain an appointment to be vaccinated. For the most, part the senior community managed to get the shots.

We were all grateful and buoyed as the summer of 2021 began by the news that we could venture out without masks and start resuming our pre-pandemic lives. The Delta variant and the recent surge in infectious cases, hospitalizations and now mortality put a quick and moribund end to that for most. The disparity between the message coming out of Washington and the CDC and the message delivered by our Governor and State Legislature has made decision making for individuals far more difficult than it should be. The latest conundrum is about the need for booster COVID vaccines or not.

The State of Israel, which exclusively used the Pfizer Vaccine, announced a third shot for those over 50 beginning a few weeks ago. Germany announced it would start such a program in September.

The CDC hinted at a booster program but until a NY Times article appeared on the evening of August 16th there was no official news on the subject beyond the recommendation that immunosuppressed individuals, especially organ transplant patients and cancer patients, under therapy get a third shot. Days before this announcement my patients had begun calling me, texting me, emailing me to tell me that their friends had walked into a Walgreens Pharmacy or Publix Pharmacy, showed them their Medicare ID card and their vaccine card and had been administered a third COVID vaccine shot with no questions asked. This was substantiated by multiple other patients including one couple spending the summer in the mountains of North Carolina.

Is there one set of rules for large chain pharmacies and another set for the rest of the world? What is the point of data and evidence-based recommendations if anyone can just do what they want when they want to?

At this point I will wait to hear the CDC’s recommendations on when to take a third shot and the data they used to explain why. I am thrilled that Pfizer has shown that a third shot is safe with few adverse effects. I am also buoyed by a research paper that showed that those groups who spaced their second shot at longer than the three- or four-week recommendations had a more robust immunologic response.

When my friends call me and ask me to join them on a trip to Publix or Walgreens to get the third shot now, I will hear my late mother’s voice in my brain asking that irritating question, “If all your friends decided to jump off the Empire State Building would you jump too?”

COVID-19: Bringing Back Precautions & Restrictions

We recently spoke with our Friday night Shabbat Dinner friends of 40 years and cancelled our dinner plans because of the aggressive resurgence of the COVID-19 Delta Pandemic. I remember our last dinner eating outside in early February 2020 on a beautiful evening wondering if we should all be together one last time before suspending our weekly meals together. We were joined by a physician friend and his wife visiting from Cleveland and they were poking fun at my concerns and over reaction to the “Wuhan Flu.” The proverbial “shit hit the fan” the next week and we went into lockdown.

One year later we were all excited lining up for the Pfizer and Moderna vaccine. We really thought that would be the solution. We really thought our leaders at the federal and state levels would stand up and promote vaccinations. We really expected community leaders, respected by people of color, including church leaders, community activists, respected community members would be out there championing the vaccine, helping at vaccination sites and getting the shot into the arms of the most vulnerable.

Several months ago, when things began to calm down, we started having dinner together again in our homes. The rate of positivity in the spring of 2021 was low and our friends masked and kept distance when indoors shopping for supplies. We felt comfortable enjoying our friends’ company once again outdoors at a few restaurants and in our homes. Then came the Delta surge and with it the relaxation of restrictions.

It reminds me of pictures of the start of the Oklahoma Land Rush. A gun was fired, and everyone rode off to stake their claim. In 2021 they made their plane flight reservations, bought their concert tickets, made their hotel reservations and resumed everything they did prior to the pandemic. They stopped tracking cases, and, in many states, they stopped looking for new genetic mutations and variants of the virus. They forgot to get the vaccine to poorer nations but left the air and ship travel paths open to anyone and everyone. They underestimated the ability of the virus to find a way to survive by changing once inside the bodies of the vaccinated and unvaccinated.

Yes, it’s true that if you are vaccinated and get infected with the virus you most likely will not require inpatient hospitalization and die but according to those who went through this you will feel miserable for quite awhile. Yes, it’s true that you probably can transmit it to others even though the data on that is still new and quite controversial including passing it to unvaccinated children and the immunosuppressed.

To make matters worse, our Governor thinks he’s Bob Barker screaming; “Come on Down” as he invites foreign and out of state residents to come visit our beautiful state, spend money, pick up the virus and bring it home to your locale. I bet Florida is the leading exporter of sickness, death and chronic illness in the world over the last 12 months and no one in our state capitol seems to care.

We are returning to a bunker mentality in our household. No more dinners out. No more social engagements with friends whose activities and travels we are unsure of. If our grandson is sent to his preschool my wife will stop being his nanny because she does not want to risk catching the virus.

As college and NFL football season approach, it is unlikely I will sit in a stadium with thousands of unmasked individuals to see my teams play. The same goes for the theater and for travel. It’s really disheartening and depressing but we will do what is necessary to stay healthy and we hope you will too.

Delta Variant, Breakthrough Infections & What You Need to Consider

As a primary care physician treating older adults fifty years of age and older, I am starting to be involved in the treatment of “breakthrough” COVID-19 cases in vaccinated adults. At the end of June 2021, just prior to the July 4th holiday, we were told to enjoy the summer if we were vaccinated. Many in my patient population took this to mean book flight and cruise reservations and begin travelling. Others started meeting friends to shop again, exercise together in gyms or eat lunch socially indoors.  Experts at the CDC felt it was safe to take off our masks indoors.  Then came the Delta variant – a far more transmissible virus. 

I first read about breakthrough cases in a peer reviewed medical journal discussing the widespread outbreak of COVID-19 in Israeli citizens vaccinated with the Pfizer Vaccine. The message was clear, if vaccinated, you can still get the viral infection with the Delta variant, but you won’t require hospitalization and you have a minimal chance of dying. 

With that news many of my patients continued resuming their lives and normalizing to pre-pandemic routines without masking or distancing in public areas.  Three weeks ago, our local hospital had no breakthrough cases. Two weeks ago, there were five. All the breakthrough cases in individuals 65- years of age, or older, or with symptoms, are invited to receive the monoclonal antibody treatment which shortens the course of the illness and the severity.   Treatment should be within 10 days of first developing symptoms. The cases are so numerous this week that there is a wait of days to get treated.

In discussing the breakthrough cases with my ill patients, they all feel miserable.  They are exhausted, coughing, some febrile with high fevers and severe joint and muscle aches. Some have lost their sense of taste and smell. They say the monoclonal antibodies help, but a week later most of my patients are too weak and tired to do much beyond their necessary activities of daily living. They call daily asking how much longer this will last.  My answer is, “I just do not know.”

I also do not know If their viral load was high enough to transmit the disease to the unvaccinated, the immunosuppressed vulnerable vaccinated patients or even other vaccinated individuals.  The experts are not sure either. Will these vaccinated breakthrough patients become “long haulers” with chronic symptoms stretching to months post infection?  We don’t know – it’s too soon to tell. 

I am also getting calls from patients who were out socially unmasked with close friends and relatives and have now received a phone call that their friends have the COVID-19 infection, and they were exposed.  These patients need to be tested for the disease a few days after exposure but, with the closure of all the state-run testing sites locally, you are limited to going to your pharmacy or some walk-in clinics for COVID testing. Take my advice, get the nasal PCR test sent to the lab which takes longer than the quick test but produces fewer incorrect results.

What I do know is this is a disease well worth avoiding.  Get vaccinated if you haven’t already done so.  Wear a good N95 or KN95 mask if you must go out in public to an indoor facility, and you have no idea who is vaccinated, and who isn’t, and who might be spreading the disease prior to developing clear cut symptoms.  Yes, this is retreating and taking a step backwards into a bunker mentality.  If you don’t believe me, just ask my COVID-19 breakthrough patients. They will tell you this is more than just a “bad flu.”

New Device Helps Stroke Victims with Hand Function Difficulties

Stroke victims often lose function of a hand. The road back to recovery involves months of physical therapy and work.

Last month the FDA approved the Neurolutions IpsiHand Upper Extremity Rehabilitation System for survivors of stroke trying to regain hand, wrist or arm function.  The system uses EEG electrodes to record your brain activity and then uses these messages to move an electronic hand brace according to the intended muscle movement. It essentially delivers your brain’s intended electrical message to the brace to retrain your limb to work.

This is a sophisticated device which will need to be fitted by stroke rehab professionals and then tailored for individual patient needs so it can be successfully used.

Making Sense of the New CDC Guidelines Here in Florida

There were almost 6,000 new cases of Coronavirus illness in Florida yesterday with the positivity rate of those tested being well above 5%. Fewer and fewer people are showing up for testing or to receive vaccine here in the Sunshine State.

The Center for Disease Control (CDC) has issued new less restrictive activity guidelines last week which suggest outdoor activities in low population densities do not require a mask. This makes great sense and I am in complete agreement. They go further and say small indoor gatherings with vaccinated individuals do not require a mask. This makes great scientific sense as well. What they do not want is thousands of individuals, whose vaccination or immunity status is unknown to be packed into a venue indoors or out without being masked. They additionally don’t recommend large private gatherings indoors of individuals whose immune status is unknown. This makes sense to me as well in Florida where the infectious positivity rate remains greater than 5%.

We know vaccinated individuals have a low probability of catching COVID if exposed. If they are unlucky enough to catch it (about 6,000 breakthrough cases are known in the USA with about 150 million already receiving vaccine) there is an even smaller chance of getting sick enough to require hospitalization or dying. They still are not sure if those infected can transmit it to those unvaccinated or those frail, immunosuppressed and vulnerable.

The Governor of Florida and his Attorney General have sued the CDC, NIH and Federal government demanding that they allow cruise ships to begin sailing again from Florida ports. My daughter and grandchildren depend on cruise industry revenue to pay their mortgage, feed and clothe the family and live. The cruise industry has gone to great expense to vaccinate its crews and restrict passenger access to those who can prove they have been vaccinated or prove they are not COVID Positive. They wanted a “vaccine passport” for passengers.

Florida responds by having its Surgeon General, pediatrician friend and political ally of the Governor with zero public health or infectious disease background declare if you are vaccinated you are not required to wear a mask anywhere anytime. The legislature, composed primarily of members of the Governors party, passes legislation forbidding businesses from barring individuals from their business based on their vaccine status. This comes well after they supported the Governor with legislation forbidding local municipalities from enforcing local ordinances requiring masks.

I want the ships to sail so my son-in-law keeps his job! The last thing we need is for Florida politics to permit a ship to go out to sea and become a center of infection, illness and death because Florida elected officials watered down the sensible guidelines the cruise industry developed to begin sailing again safely.

Florida is a gateway state encouraging visitors from Latin and Central America as well as US tourists. Brazil is embroiled in a COVID surge of infection and death . The poverty in Central America and the islands prevent knowing exactly what their status is. I am more concerned about the disease entering and leaving Florida via visitors and no rules than I am concerned with illegal immigrants bringing it in at the Texas and Arizona borders as the media and certain elements of the U S seem to be.

Vaccines have brought us so close to controlling the Pandemic. Why can’t we mask up and be patient for a few weeks more?

In my office we will continue to follow the CDC guidelines. We will wait to see if the relaxed mask recommendations of the CDC, plus the vaccine program, keep the infection rate down. Florida Surgeon General Scott Rivkes’ no mask for the vaccinated anywhere may be interpreted as no masks anywhere for everyone. It will take three to four weeks for the consequences of these announcements to make an impact. If the number of infected decreases, my physician associate and I will sit down and alter our approach based on the science. Until that time, we will require masks in our office!

Put on a Mask and Just Stay Home!

I listened to the Governor of my home state, Florida, declare our state the freedom state because all the businesses are open and running full tilt.  He cited his success in keeping deaths from coronavirus low while keeping the economy running and jobs available.

I bring this up because on my way to visit my fully vaccinated adult children last weekend I passed by at least 20 overhead electronic road signs proclaiming, “Miami Beach Curfew 8PM – 6 AM Causeways Closed!”  Yes, here it was springtime with Passover and Easter on the horizon and the famed Miami Beach was closing at night.  We are at a critical point in the fight against the Sars2 COVID-19 coronavirus. We are trying to vaccinate enough people quickly so that the virus does not enter a vulnerable host and mutate to a form that the vaccine is less effective against.   We are so close to controlling this pathogen but human nature and failure to be able to delay gratification, and put off travel and group activities, is leading to a potential fourth surge of COVID-19 related illness and death.

My cell phone rang twice with patient calls on the 60-minute trip southward. The first was from a patient whose adult children came to visit him. His unvaccinated eighteen-year-old grandson was with them. After spending four days together they received a phone call that the grandson’s girlfriend was sick and tested positive for COVID-9. The next two calls were from patients who had been to two different Passover seders. One was outdoors, the other indoors with 20 plus guests. Both had been exposed to a person who called the next day to say they were COVID-19 positive.

I watched the director of the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), an experienced infectious disease and critical care physician, beg Americans to wear a mask and social distance while she was brought to tears by the thought of another wave of illness, death and prolonged restrictions. I listened to the President of the United States plead with state governments to maintain mask restrictions a bit longer to save lives and control the disease. I listened to the Vatican public relations division discuss not holding an Easter Service in St. Peters Square this coming weekend and wondered what it will take to convince people that we just are not ready to resume full activities.

The Governor of Florida is correct. Deaths are down due to vaccinations and the elderly staying home. I suspect if he tracks the cell phones of the tourists and spring breakers to their home states and countries three weeks from now, he will see an increase in hospitalizations and deaths.  Florida’s economy may boom but we certainly are maintaining it at the cost of illness and death elsewhere.

An Oral Medication To Stop Coronavirus?

Researchers have produced a pill that, taken twice a day at the 800 mg dosage for five consecutive days, seems to stop SARS-CoV-2 virus from multiplying and causing clinical symptoms. The work is quite early and needs to proceed through stage 2 and 3 clinical trial phases before it can be presented to the FDA for emergency utilization authorization.

The drug is called molnupirvir. It could be taken in the first few days of infection to prevent advancement to severe disease much like Tamiflu is used with influenza. In initial human trials, the virus was eliminated from the nasopharynx of 49 infected individuals.

Wendy Painter, MD, of Ridgeback Biotherapeutics presented the data at the Conference on Retroviruses and Opportunistic Infections. The drug works by interfering with the virus’s mode of reproducing and mutating – overloading the virus with replication and mutation until the virus burns itself out and can no longer make effective viral copies.

Their method of testing the drug was to administer it, or a placebo, to humans who were infected and in the early stages of symptomatic disease. They used three different dosages and swabbed the participants’ nose and cultured for the virus at different times during the experiment.

At day 5, after the onset of symptoms, there was no detectable infectious virus in the nasopharynx of participants who were treated with molnupiravir. Dr. Painter reminded everyone that the next test will be given to patients who are actually sick with COVID-19 and see if it works. This preliminary data should encourage us that when scientists are given the time and resources, they solve problems. Imagine in the near future a vaccinated society that has at its disposal accurate and reliable quick tests for COVID-19 and the availability of a pill taken twice a day, for five days, to prevent the disease from becoming severe and requiring hospitalization.

Obstructive Sleep Apnea Surgery vs. CPAP? Daytime Anti-Snoring Device?

Obstructive sleep apnea is now epidemic in a population where it runs hand-in-hand with obesity, which is also an epidemic. The consequences of untreated sleep apnea include daytime somnolence, cardiovascular, neurological and endocrine complications.   One of the hallmark signs of obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) is snoring. 

The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recently approved an oral device to be worn during the daytime to reduce and/or eliminate snoring. The device is called eXciteOSA made by Signifier Medical Technologies.  The device is a prescription item which will be used by sleep specialists, dentists and ENT physicians.  It has four electrodes that deliver a series of electrical stimuli to the tongue with rest periods in between. The stimulation over time improves tongue function preventing the tongue from collapsing backward into the airway and obstructing it during sleep.  The device is used for 20-minutes once a day, while awake, for six weeks and then once a week thereafter. It is designed to be used in adults 18 years of age or older with snoring and mild OSA. Think of it as physical therapy for the tongue.

The device was tested on 115 patients, 48 of whom had mild obstructive sleep apnea plus snoring. The others were all snorers. The snoring was reduced in volume by more than 20% in 87 of the 115 patients. In the group of patients with the diagnosis of OSA and snoring, the apnea-hypopnea index score was reduced by 48%

It is recommended that a thorough dental exam be performed prior to trying this device. The major side effects noted from its use were excessive saliva production, tongue discomfort or tingling, metallic taste, jaw tightening, tooth filling sensitivity.  No mention of the cost was included in the printed review.

The online journal Practice Update reviewed a JAMA Otolaryngology publication on the use of surgery to treat Obstructive Sleep Apnea versus using a CPAP machine. There are many patients who just can not wear the CPAP mask which is the first-line “gold standard” for treating OSA.  Most patients who spend 90-days adjusting to the mask sleep far better and look forward to using the device to obtain a restful night’s sleep. The study looked at patients who were at high risk for not being able to adhere to a CPAP use regimen. Soft tissue surgery to the uvula was found to reduce the rates of cardiovascular, neurological and endocrine systemic complications compared with prescriptions for CPAP in patients less likely to adhere to or use the CPAP mask. 

The takeaway message is clear. When a patient is unlikely to adhere to CPAP mask use offering soft tissue oral surgery should be offered early while treating the disease.