Inflammation and Vascular Disease

Heart, stethescopeI was privileged to hear Bradley Bale, MD and Amy Doneen, MSN, ARNP talk about the development of coronary artery disease and cerebrovascular disease in patients with low or few cardiac risk factors.  They cited American Heart Association studies looking at groups of men and women between ages 45 and 65 who have their first heart attack or stroke despite being in compliance with suggested lipid and blood pressure guidelines. They pointed out that the first Myocardial Infarct or Stroke occurred in 88% of women who met lipid guidelines and 66 % of men.  These are people who do not smoke, do not have untreated or uncontrolled lipid levels, are not diabetics and who lead an active life style.  They asked “why”?

Dr. Bale and Ms. Doneen work with the well respected cardiovascular Center of Excellence at the Cleveland Clinic program in Ohio, and believe that inflammation is the root of the problem.  They believe that soft plaque composed of lipids and other cells lurks beneath the endothelial cells lining blood vessels. In the presence of inflammatory stimulants, this soft plaque ruptures suddenly through the endothelial level into the blood stream. When it comes in contact with the blood flowing through the vessels the body believes we are bleeding and cut and chemical mediators are released that initiate the formation of a clot. When this clot occurs in a small coronary artery we have a heart attack or myocardial infarction or precipitate a lethal irregular heartbeat. When this clot occurs in the blood vessels of the brain, we have an acute stroke or cerebrovascular accident.

The key to prevention in the so called low risk patient is to detect the inflammation in advance, and treat it. They are firm believers in performing B Mode Duplex ultrasounds of the carotid arteries in the neck to look for the presence of soft plaque beneath the endothelial cell lining. This soft plaque is distinctly different from the safe but calcified plaque we can see on CT scans used for cardiac scoring studies.  They couple this imaging study with a series of complex blood tests which identify inflammation. These include a myeloperoxidase level, the Lp-PLA2 level, the urine microalbumen to creatinine ratio, a F2-IsoPs level and the cardiac specific CRP level.

These tests and studies in combination with a traditional history and exam, sugar and lipid levels and EKG can help us identify those “low risk” patients who actually are high risk for a heart attack or stroke. The cause of the inflammation is often difficult to spot and may be in your mouth with dental or periodontal disease or in your joints with inflammatory arthritis.  Patients with excellent dental hygiene and normal appearing gums may harbor specific inflammatory bacteria that put them at risk. While this seems a bit forward thinking, remember we once questioned the research that showed that bacteria (H Pylori) caused gastric ulcers and intestinal bleeding.

I have begun instituting the inflammatory blood marker panels in my practice. Labs are sent to the Cleveland HeartLab for this purpose. I will be initiating periodic carotid ultrasound studies for the appropriate patients in the coming year.

It is often difficult for clinicians to distinguish snake oil sold for profit from cutting edge science. I have tried to spare my patients from worthless but profit driven products. I am convinced the Cleveland Clinic is just ahead of the rest of us in offering these services and I will make them available to the appropriate patients and will do it in a financially structured manner that does not add out of pocket cost to the patient. It’s not about adding another profitable income stream to the practice. It’s about identifying individuals who shouldn’t have a heart attack or stroke before they do.

Remote Care for the Elderly, Choosing the Right Care Team

Senior Couple At HomeMy elderly and infirm parents live 15 minutes south of my home in an assisted living facility.  They moved there after it became apparent that they could not manage their affairs in their own home, have some degree of independence and socialization with friends and receive the care and supervision they needed to stay out of the hospital.  Their cognitive impairment and dementia made it necessary for me to be in contact with their personal physician and to be able to reach him if he is needed.

It would be far more difficult if I did not live close by.  What would I look for in a physician for my elderly parents if they did not live close by? I would want the physician to have some experience in geriatric medicine. That would include being fellowship trained in geriatric medicine or having some training and certification from the American Geriatrics Society.  A board certified internist or family practitioner with experience in caring for the elderly could do fine as well. The doctor would need to be available by phone for questions and available to see my parents on the same day that they develop a medical problem needing the doctor’s attention.  That physician should have hospital privileges at a local facility where my parents might be taken to by ambulance in an emergency so that he could follow them into an acute care hospital if necessary.

I also would prefer a doctor that had a professional relationship with a rehabilitation or skilled nursing facility so that they could be treated as they recover from an acute hospital stay in a rehab setting.  I love physicians who make house calls if the situation calls for it. While much more can be accomplished during most office visits than a home visit, sometimes the illness dictates the location where the care is provided.

The doctor should be a compassionate individual who is a great listener and who relishes the responsibility of being an advocate and champion for his patients.  It’s commonplace for the elderly to languish waiting for evaluation in the emergency department or to be put off when trying to make an appointment for a test or specialty visit.  Patients need a doctor with a staff who will help them through this process.

To find such a doctor I suggest you start by asking at the local hospital medical staff office. They know who does what and who is accepting new patients. Word of mouth is the best advertising so a testimonial from a friend familiar with the doctor and the practice is priceless.

While Internet rating services provide some information they are less valuable than a personal reference. Local and County Medical Societies are another great starting place in the search for a physician.  If you are looking for a direct pay or concierge type practice, I suggest you perform a thorough Internet search and interview any physician you are considering.

Do Routine Physical Examinations Save Lives?

Lasse T. Krogboll, of the Cochrane Nordic Center in Copenhagen, Denmark and coauthors published an article in the online edition of the Database of Systematic Reviews that suggests that routine examinations do not save lives.  The material was reviewed in the University of Pennsylvania Medical Center online periodical Medpage Today and was critiqued by a physician at the Harvard Medical School.

The study was a systematic review of 16 clinical trials involving 183,000 patients followed for a median of 9 years. The review concluded the risk of mortality in individuals who had regular checkups, compared to those who did not, was not statistically different.  “General health checkups did not reduce morbidity or mortality, neither overall nor for cardiovascular or cancer causes, although the number of new diagnoses was increased.”  “With the large number of participants and deaths included, the long follow-up periods used and, considering that cardiovascular and cancer mortality was not reduced, general health checkups are unlikely to be beneficial.”

In commenting upon the study, Doris F. Zaleznik, MD, Associate Clinical Professor of Medicine at Harvard Medical School and Dorothy Caputo, MA BSN RN admitted that “most of the trials were old, which makes the results less applicable to today’s settings because the treatments used for conditions and risk factors have changed.”  They additionally noted that one reason for the lack of efficacy of routine general checkups might be that “primary care physicians already identify and intervene when they suspect a patient to be at high risk of developing disease when they see them for other reasons.” They additionally suspect that “those at high risk of developing disease may not attend general and health checks when invited.”

The release of this online study was dramatically promoted. One must embrace evidence based data but keep in mind that there is a strong push in the USA to reduce health care spending overall as a percentage of the gross national product.  Anything that seems to say, “Do not seek evaluation “seems to garner more attention than it is due these days.

The study did not clearly define what a general health checkup includes.  I still believe that finding a good doctor and seeing that doctor annually for a benchmarking session to review your health wellness and habits by performing a thorough history and physical examination and, comparing your habits and findings to current recommended guidelines and treatments, is a worthwhile endeavor.  The general health exam does not need to include numerous and expensive laboratory and imaging studies unless the history and examination suggest the need to pursue those options.

As medical science identifies genetic and molecular mechanisms of disease, I am sure the next long-term Cochrane Review will show the efficacy of these annual general physical examination sessions in limiting disease and extending life.

 

Pharmacies, Vaccinations and Health Benchmarking

The state legislature in Florida decided it is legal and appropriate for pharmacists and pharmacies to begin administering vaccines against multiple diseases.  Their list of adult vaccines includes seasonal flu shots, pneumovax (pneumonia vaccine) and zostavax (vaccine to prevent shingles).  The rationale of the legislature is that access to doctors to receive these preventive vaccines is limited and difficult.

By refusing to administer vaccines in their office because it is time consuming and not profitable enough, my colleagues in primary care have not made my argument against permitting this any stronger. I thought prevention and administering vaccines was part of the job description in primary care.  I am not asking my colleagues to lose money, but I do believe there is a distinct difference between not making a large profit and losing money.  Isn’t it our professional and ethical responsibility to provide preventive services?

Over the years, the fall season and start of the school year have always provided an opportunity to remind patients that they were due for an annual checkup and to make positive suggestions on what other opportunities were available for them to try and prevent infectious or chronic disease. School-age children have been required to receive immunizations before entering school for obvious public health reasons.  This provides an opportunity to benchmark their growth and age goals and discuss healthy living as well. The visits came towards the end of the calendar year when most individuals had met their annual medical deductible so the out of pocket costs were not great.

As I walk into my local CVS I am confronted by ads for vaccines and same-day clinics. They remind me that physicians have lost this encounter to enhance the doctor/patient relationship and provide sound health advice for the future because administering vaccines isn’t very profitable.  Pharmacies often use vaccinations as a loss-leader to draw you in and get you to purchase other, more profitable, items.

I will continue to provide vaccines in my internal medicine office as I believe it is the professional and responsible thing to do.

Breast Cancer Screening DOES SAVE LIVES

Eugenio Paci, MD, of the ISPO Cancer Prevention and Research Unit in Florence, Italy working with a European breast cancer screening group, published data in the Journal of Medical Screening that clearly showed that screening mammograms save lives. The study was necessitated because of recent controversial data presented by the US Preventive Services Task Force (“USPSTF”) calling for women to wait until age 50 to begin mammograms and having them every other year rather than annually. The USPSTF recommendations were based on the belief that too many false positive tests led to too many unnecessary and expensive follow-up tests.

The European researchers found that for every 1,000 women screened from age 50 to 51, and followed to age 79, an estimated 7 to 9 lives would be saved and; an additional four cases of cancer would be diagnosed early. The screening resulted in 170 women having to have a repeat non-invasive test to rule out cancer (such as a repeat mammogram and or ultrasound of the breast) and 30 women would have to undergo an invasive test such as a biopsy.

The researchers looked at a 10 year period in Europe and expected 30 deaths per 1,000 women from breast cancer of which 19 could be prevented by screening. Their figures showed that 14 women need to be screened to diagnose one case of breast cancer and 111 to 143 need to be screened to save one life.

I will continue to recommend that patients learn how to perform a breast self exam and perform it regularly. We will begin screening our high risk patients at age 40 and others at age 50.

A thorough annual breast exam by the patient’s doctor is advised. A decision on annual mammograms versus every other year should be decided by the patient’s risk factors, family and personal health history, current examination and past mammogram findings.

Hepatitis C

The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has requested that all individuals born between 1945 and 1965 be tested for the presence of the Hepatitis C virus.   This is a clear cut change in their policy which had previously asked that only high risk patients be tested.

Hepatitis C is a viral infection usually transmitted by blood to blood transmission.  High risk patients include intravenous drug users who share needles, men and women receiving hemodialysis, patients with an impaired immune system such as HIV patients and  patients who received blood transfusions before 1992 because the system was not tested for Hepatitis C at that time. Additionally, the disease may be seen in health care workers who were exposed to blood and in life partners of infected individuals due to sexual transmission or common use of grooming items such as razors and toothbrushes. Individuals who received tattoos with non sterile equipment are additionally at risk.

During my training years we only knew of Hepatitis A and Hepatitis B.  We were aware of a third form which we named “non A, non B hepatitis.”   With improved technique and technology the “C” virus was isolated.  It is believed that there are 1.5 million baby boomers infected who have no idea that they have the illness. It is important to detect them because the virus can lead to chronic liver disease, liver failure and liver cancer – all of which can be prevented with the treatments now available.

The disease is common in baby boomers because they were the participants in the 1960’s -70’s “ free love” generation which included IV drug use and sex with multiple partners both, of which are risk factors for the disease.  Since only 1 in 10 infected individuals become acutely ill with the infection and develop fever, malaise, jaundice, darkening urine, light clay colored stool; it is highly likely that many carriers have no idea they have the infection.  We want to find those people and treat them before they become clinically ill with the stigmata of chronic liver disease.  To identify them requires a simple non fasting blood test which can be performed by a physician or the health department.

If a screening test suggests that you are infected, additional testing will be performed to determine the genetic type of the virus you have and to assess the ability of your liver to function. You will require a liver biopsy at some point.  With this data, physicians who specialize in liver diseases called hepatologists and/or infectious disease experts can tailor the treatment to your genetic type of virus.

Experts do not want baby boomers to panic over this disease.  Infected patients can interact with the public and loved ones without fear of transmission of the virus unless they are bleeding or intimate.  The Hepatitis C virus is in fact much less likely to be transmitted sexually than the Hepatitis A or B viruses are.

Low risk individuals who have donated blood recently, are not IV drug users and have not been intimate with a Hepatitis C patient have little to be concerned about. I recommend you talk about Hepatitis C screening with your physician at your next scheduled visit.

Traditional Colonoscopy vs. No Laxative CT Colon Exam

Research radiologists at the Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston evaluated the accuracy and detail of imaging the colon (a virtual colonoscopy or colonography) with no laxatives as preparation and comparing it with traditional colonoscopy.  There are clear evidence based guidelines suggesting that all low-risk men and women have a screening for colon cancer with a colonoscopy at age 50.  If that study is normal they are directed to repeat it every 10 years.  Routine screening colonoscopies are discontinued after age 80 years old.  There is no question that screening colonoscopies save lives from colon cancer.  There is no question that the laxative taken the day before to clean you out, plus the actual procedure, are reasons that individuals avoid going for colon cancer screening.

The study directors fed their patients a low fiber diet before the scan. The patients drank an oral contrast material that marked stool feces and allowed the radiologists to distinguish colon abnormalities from retained feces and stool.  This virtual colonography was excellent at detecting larger colon adenomas of 10 mm or larger picking up 91% of the existing lesions as compared to 95% with traditional preparation and colonoscopy. The difference between the 91% on virtual colonography and 95% on traditional prep and colonoscopy was not felt to be statistically significant.   The virtual colonography didn’t do as well at detecting the smaller growths.  Researchers pointed out that “the vast majority of polyps that impact cancer and survival outcomes are 10 mm or larger.”  They went on to say that the “the laxative free method would likely be worthwhile as a way to reach the many adults whose strong aversion to laxative bowel preparations stops them from getting screened.”

Clearly getting screened is always preferable to no screening.   The laxative free virtual colonoscopy was not as good as the traditional colonoscopy at finding smaller lesions.

The data in this research study were based on the skill and experience of three radiologists only. Previous studies have emphasized the need to have an experienced radiologist interpret these studies.  The researchers did not discuss the radiation exposure, which is significant, with the virtual colonoscopy.   They additionally did not mention the cost which many health insurance companies will not pay for at this time.

Despite these issues it is wonderful to have another tool in the fight against colon cancer especially to offer to those patients who have said they will “never” have a colonoscopy.

Narcotic Painkiller Use Increased in the Elderly

An investigative newspaper article published in the May 30, 2012 issue of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, in cooperation with online periodical MedPage Today, chronicles the increased use of narcotics for chronic pain relief in the elderly. The article highlights how in 2009 the American Geriatrics Society put together a panel of geriatric pain specialists who published geriatric narcotic pain relief guidelines that have led to the dramatic increase in use of narcotics in the elderly. There is apparently no outstanding or solid evidence that Opioids or narcotics actually work better than non-narcotic pain medications in relieving the chronic pain of senior citizens.  It is the Milwaukee Journal’s opinion that the members of the blue ribbon panel who made this decision received financial benefits from the pharmaceutical manufacturers who produce narcotic pain pills and were biased in their recommendations.  Individual members of the panel received financial rewards from the companies making the narcotic pain pills and the sponsoring organization, the American Geriatric Society, reportedly received $344,000 from Opioid manufacturers.

A study in the 2010 Annals of Internal Medicine looked at over 10,000 people who had received 3 or more Opioid prescriptions over a 90 day period. The researchers found that 51 had suffered an overdose including six deaths.  Of the 40 most serious overdoses, 15 occurred in those aged 65 or older.  A 2010 research paper in the Archives of Internal Medicine looked at 12,840 Medicare patients with an average age of 80 who had used Opioids, traditional anti-inflammatory drugs, or a class of non narcotic   prescription painkillers like Celebrex. Their findings included:

  • Opioid users were more than four times more likely to suffer a fall with a fracture than non-Opioid users
  • Deaths from any cause were 87% more likely in Opioid users.
  • Cardiovascular complications including heart attacks, strokes, and cardiac death were 77% higher in Opioid users than in users of NSAIDS.

In part, as a result of the American Geriatrics Society guidelines, Opioid use for pain relief has increased by over 32% since 2007.   Locally, we have seen the proliferation of pain clinics. These clinics, often owned by non-physicians, bear some responsibility for the proliferation of narcotic pain pills on the streets of America being used illegally.   Poorly conceived state legislation and the lack of surveillance and monitoring led out-of-state drug pushers to drive into Florida, hire individuals to doctor shop from pain clinic to pain clinic where they accumulate thousands of pills that are sold out of state on the streets illegally.  Ultimately this led to a law enforcement and statewide crackdown which drove illegal and legitimate pain specialists out of the state of Florida. It is almost impossible to find a certified pain physician in Palm Beach or Broward County who will take on a new patient under the age of 65 years old due to the legal hurdles recently imposed on them to crack down on the illegal dispensing of drugs.

George Lundberg, MD and Maria Sullivan, MD of Columbia University presented a sane and reasonable approach to pain pill management in MedPage Today in the June 11th issue.  They suggested that non narcotic pain products be tried initially. They encouraged doctors and nurses to discuss the side effects of narcotics with patients including constipation, sedation, addiction, and overdose and with long term use the risk of hyperalgesia and sexual dysfunction.

They noted the high abuse potential of short acting Opioids such as Dilaudid (hydromorphone) and Vicodin (Hydrocodone/acetaminophen) and pointed out that these drugs may be good for short term initial pain relief but not chronic use.  They reviewed the pharmacology of methadone and pointed out that it is responsible for far too many overdoses due to its basic metabolism and mechanism of action. They suggested never using it in patients who have not taken Opioid narcotics regularly.

They discussed the need for patients to keep controlled substances in a secure and locked place to prevent theft of the medication.

For those practitioners who prescribe Opioids for chronic pain they suggested having a chronic pain narcotic protocol including a medication contract with the patient that outlines its correct use. Psychological evaluation for abuse potential should be considered in all chronic pain patients prescribed narcotics. Urine toxicology screening periodically should be performed to look for abuse.  There are clinical interview screening materials such as the SOAPP (Screening and Opioid Assessment for Patients with Pain) form which helps identify individuals with a high risk of abuse.  Stratifying your pain patients into low, medium, and high risk individuals may help distinguish the level of surveillance necessary to safely treat the patients.

It would make great sense for the state of Florida and the Florida Medical Association to develop a common sense pain management course for practicing providers to take prior to renewing their state medical licenses.  The course would cover the newer pain protocols and medicines and review the safe and monitored use of Opioid narcotics.  We must treat and eliminate or reduce pain. We just need to do this in a safer manner.

Screening for Cervical Cancer- The Pap Smear

Cervical Cancer is easily prevented and detectable by having regular pap smears performed by your obstetrician-gynecologist or your primary care physician. In many cases the physician will add the HPV (Human Papilloma Virus) test to look for the presence of a virus associated with cervical and oral cancers.

It is recommended that all women begin receiving annual pap smears at age 21 or within three years of having sex, whichever occurs first. These tests should be repeated annually.  If a woman has her cervix surgically removed as part of a hysterectomy it is no longer necessary to have pap smears.  Older women who have had normal pap smears for several years in a row and have the same monogamous sexual partner for many years or are now sexually inactive , may be able to eliminate having pap smears.  Women over 30 years old with several normal pap smears and the same sexual partner may be able to spread out the pap smears from an annual event to one every two – three years.

A recent study in Sweden, published in the British Medical Journal, confirmed that women who had regular pap smears were detected with cervical cancer much earlier than those women who were not tested, and they survived the disease at a much higher rate.  While this type of test is invasive and involves extremely private anatomical areas, the data is clear that this is one screening procedure that saves lives!

A Physician’s Call for Help – Rewarded by the Best Payment of All

My wife and I were sitting down to an uncharacteristically late dinner for us Friday at a local eatery when my cell phone rang. Caller ID identified it as Dr David Rosenberg, a family physician practicing concierge medicine about one hour north of my home in Jupiter, Florida.  We had not spoken in months and after some pleasantries and catching up he said, “Steve I just saw a story on the TV News that there is a back to school community fair in Pearl City in your community tomorrow morning and the doctor they had counted on to perform the required school exams for new students had cancelled due to a personal crisis.

Dr. Rosenberg wanted to know if I would join him for a few hours at the Wayne Barton Learning and Community Center and perform the physicals. He told me he had phoned fifty physicians and no one had yet agreed to come. He was prepared to do them himself.  I gave my wife that “duty calls” look and she nodded back approvingly and I told him it would be my pleasure. I agreed to meet him at 10 a.m. at the center.

Wayne Barton is a former City of Boca Raton police officer who is now a community leader and activist. He created a nonprofit agency and, with generous philanthropic support, has built an educational and community center for students from poor homes. He provides year-round learning and tutoring for students and has an annual “Back to School Jam” where new students receive the required school physical plus receive backpacks filled with school supplies that their working parents have great difficulty affording.

Mr. Barton greeted me at the entrance as I walked in and thanked me for coming on short notice. The regular physician who cancelled due to a family crisis has been volunteering for years and is my personal friend, mentor and is my patient. Trying to fill in for him is a tall order and made the experience even more special for me. Dr. Rosenberg, who organized this last minute physician participation, was there as well and with him were two other concierge physicians and a wonderfully warm physician’s assistant.

For the next several hours, with the help of a large dedicated volunteer staff, we saw numerous lovely children with their families. A mother and her high school age daughter and son, who had escaped the ravages of the earthquake in Haiti, were among the first.

A young woman and her two children who had escaped Communism and Castro’s Cuba nine months ago came through my station.  I saw a young man with lead poisoning requiring treatment and follow-up and another lad who wanted permission to play football despite the jaundice in his eyes tipping me off to his history of sickle cell anemia that he had conveniently left off his form.  I was able to stay for three of the four hours and I received the best payment of all – beautiful smiles, blessings from several and a thank you from all.

The degree of appreciation coupled with the level of need leads me to believe it’s time to discuss with Mr. Barton a regular free clinic at the center.

Once last thought, I couldn’t help but notice that the physicians who responded to the call for help were all practicing in a concierge medicine model.