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.

Free Choice of Physicians & Fee for Service Medicine Ending?

The Medicare Payment Advisory Commission is a panel of financial, economic and health policy advisors created by Congress to advise CMS (Center for Medicare Services) and Congress how to pay physicians, health care providers and facilities for services rendered. According to an online article on MedPage they are close to eliminating fee for service payments for health care. CMS has encouraged alternative delivery methods for years. For the most part this has resulted in hospital and health care systems buying up and employing doctors, mid-level providers being substituted for more highly trained doctors and these alternative systems covering care only with their panel of providers and diagnostic and treatment centers.

However, publicized figures have shown these Medicare alternative products actually cost more per patient per year than traditional Medicare. This particular article claimed a 1-2% savings.

We all see the ads for Medicare Advantage plans which, in addition to no co-pay and no deductible, provide for dental care, vision care, eye care and exercise and gym memberships. Apparently 50% of the Medicare population is now enrolled in such a program.

As a 69 year old individual paying into the Medicare system for the last 55 years I see the benefits and cost savings for seniors when they are healthy. What happens however, when you become ill? Clearly the Centers of Excellence for many of the ailments seniors contract are geographically and contractually outside the narrow networks and panels these private insurance companies run and the Accountable Care Organization run plans provide.

If I do not have coverage for the Mayo Clinic or MD Anderson Cancer Center or the Cleveland Clinic or Dana Farber Cancer Center or Johns Hopkins Medical Center then have I wasted 55 years of payments? Do I really want a nurse practitioner in south Florida directing my care off a protocol list of contracted providers or do I want a clinician who sees a dozen cases of this disease per week calling the shots?

I prefer the latter but may not have a choice but to pay out of pocket if MEDPACs recommendations are accepted by CMS and Congress and become law.

Joint Commission Inspection and Data Entry Duty for the Doctors

I received an email from our hospital Accreditation Coordinator/Quality Coordinator in a manner that wasn’t clear if it was directed to me personally or if it was sent to the entire medical staff.  It said that she was reviewing the Joint Commission Accreditation of Hospitals recent survey which found that the charts did a poor job of reflecting the patient’s “Code Status”.  The institution only received a 40% rating.

Some patients were listed as “Do Not Resuscitate” (DNR) but did not have the yellow State of Florida DNR Form on the chart.  Some charts had the DNR form but the physician, in a progress note, had incorrectly indicated that if the patient’s heart stopped beating, or they stopped breathing, that the patient was in fact a “Full Code.”   Of the 25 charts reviewed only ten were in full compliance.

For some reason I took this email very personally.  In my practice I take the time to discuss end of life issues with all my patients who are at an age, or have issues, that make one believe they may face a catastrophic cardio- respiratory arrest in the future.  When I have the discussion with the patient and family, I present them with a large yellow State of Florida DNR form. The large top half and small detachable bottom half are identical. The patient is supposed to fill both out, with the physician signing both.  We photo copy the form and scan it into the patient chart while listing DNR Status on the electronic health record face sheet for all to see.  The patient is supposed to place the large yellow upper half on their refrigerator while carrying the smaller wallet sized version in their wallet or purse.

Most of my patients get to the hospital through the emergency department by self-referral. Sometimes they call us first but most times they call 911 or go themselves.  Most situations involve unexpected falls and trauma or pain from a chronic source.

When I am called by the ER staff the patient has been registered in, insurance has been checked, medications have been reviewed, as have allergies to medication, and the patient has been evaluated by nurses and physicians.  The patient’s record is a mix of paper documents and electronic health records.  The hospital recently instituted a new electronic health record system with inadequate staff training and support (in my opinion) with decisions for financial reasons.  The result is that most clinicians are constantly searching for information and not quite sure where all of it is.  There is still a loose leaf binder type shell for some daily paper information such as the EKG rhythm strips created on the telemetry monitors.  Where a State of Florida DNR form is kept is anyone’s guess.  I took the electronic health record training course on line and the two in person events. At no time did they discuss entering a code status or show us how to enter this data.

It seems to me that the question of a patients “Code status” is something that should be asked at registration in the ER and at elective pre admission. All patients should be considered a full and complete code unless they say otherwise and can produce the documentation needed. If they are not carrying the documents with them then the document should be re-executed and signed at the registration desk by the patient or their legal health care surrogate. When their physician shows up to admit them the document should be on the chart, filled out for us to see.  I can access my office patient files at the emergency department from my iPad but, due to lack of interoperability between electronic health records in the office and in the hospital, I have no way to print out the document from my office electronic health record while I am at the hospital.

If end of life issues have not been discussed with the patient prior to hospitalization, I have no problem beginning the conversation when the medical condition they are there with has been addressed and stabilized.

It turns out that the email was addressed to the entire medical staff and not directed at me alone.  None of the 25 charts reviewed by JCAHO were mine.  If administration wishes to fix the problem it needs to make sure its employed clerical staff are trained to ask the right questions and list the answers where the doctors and nurses can easily see them and interpret them and act on them if necessary. Don’t ask caregivers to be data entry clerks for JCAHO or anyone else.

Leave us free to provide health care.

Tdap Booster Vaccinations

Several years ago an epidemic of whooping cough (pertussis) was ongoing in affluent areas of California and Arizona. Epidemiologists from the Center for Disease Control (CDC) and National Institute of Health (NIH) descended on those areas to determine the cause of the life threatening illness to very young children.

Much to their surprise, grandparents were inadvertently transmitting it to their new and not completely vaccinated grandchildren. As youngsters, these grandparents took the suggested DPT series of shots believing they were resistant to diphtheria, pertussis and tetanus for life.

Like most things, as we get older, the immune system just doesn’t work as well. The immunity to pertussis waned and adults were catching the adult version of whooping cough in the form of an upper respiratory tract infection with bronchitis. The adult version resembled a run of the mill viral upper respiratory tract infection with a prolonged barking cough. This was just the type of infection which infectious disease experts were suggesting we do not treat with antibiotics and instead let our immune systems fight off independently. Unknown to us was the fact that even after we stopped coughing, if this was in fact adult whooping cough, we could transmit the pertussis bacteria for well over a year after we stopped coughing.

The solution to the problem was to give these adults a booster shot against pertussis when they received their tetanus shot booster. It is recommended that we get a tetanus booster every seven to ten years.

Tdap, produced by Sanofli Pasteur, was the solution and an international campaign of vaccination was begun. The campaign was successful but what do you do seven to ten years later when the next tetanus shot is due? In a study sponsored by the manufacturer, adults 18- 64, were given a second dosage 8-10 years after the first Tdap shot and tolerated it very well. Blood levels for immunogenicity taken 28 days later showed the benefit of the second shot.

The data has been submitted to the CDC and its vaccination Prevention Advisory Panel for consideration for a change in the recommendations on vaccinating adults.