Primary Care Docs Outperform Hospitalists …

A study published recently in JAMA Internal Medicine looked at 650,651 Medicare patients hospitalized in 2013. It showed that when patients were cared for by their own outpatient physician they had a slightly better outcome than when the patients were attended to by full-time hospital based specialists who had not previously known them.

As an internal medicine physician who maintains hospital privileges, as well as caring for patients in an office setting, this study supports the type of medicine I have been trying to practice for the last 38 years. However, I am not naïve enough to believe it entirely.

In recent months similar studies have touted the benefit of female physicians over their male counterparts, younger physicians over older physicians and even foreign trained physicians over those trained in the USA. Based on these studies, one might conclude you should be treated by a young female outpatient physician who trained in a foreign country. While the JAMA study shows the success of the outpatient primary care physician, those in hospitalist medicine could similarly produce their own studies showing the benefit of using a hospital based physician or hospitalist.

I do believe having a familiar physician, you know and trust, adds a major level of comfort when you are ill. Having that physician consult within his or her referral network of physicians who know how that doctor expects the communication between doctors, and care to occur, is an additional benefit.

The fact that your personal physician knows what you look like in health gives them a distinct advantage in recognizing when you are ill. They know you and all about you and that helps. It especially helps patients with complex medical issues who require more time and thought. Being able to review the old records and previous specialty consultations which you were a part of seems to impart an advantage that someone just joining the care team does not yet possess.

This study does not say that outpatient primary care docs are better than hospitalists. It only points out that in a senior citizen population in 2013, patients cared for by their own primary care doctor had a better 30 day survival after a hospital stay.

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On Loss, Death and Dying

As an internist with “added qualifications in geriatric medicine” I care for a great many elder individuals. In most cases these are individuals I met 20 or more years ago and have been privileged to share their lives with them as they aged.

The circle of life is relentless and unforgiving so there comes a time when these relationships end. In some cases it comes when they can no longer care for themselves and I suggest they move out of the area to be closer to a loved one who will provide support and care. In some cases the patient moves from their home into a senior assisted or skilled nursing facility out of the area.

There have been a few situations where an adult child from out of the area shows up on the scene and transfers their loved one’s care elsewhere. These are the most difficult situations because the children are stressed and put out by the responsibility and inconvenience of suddenly having to care for their loved one. They do not have the longstanding professional relationship with me that I have with the patient. They expect quick and simple answers and treatment plans in most cases when for the most part we are dealing with complex issues involving many professionals and treating one condition fully often exacerbates another.

Then of course there are the patients who pass away. As detached as you try to be, those of us who care invest a bit of our heart and soul in each patient who comes to us for care. I see that investment made in the vast majority of my colleagues across all the disciplines and specialties. When you lose someone, even an ancient senior citizen, it takes a piece of your being with it.

I too am no spring chicken. I talk about Medicare from experience now. Morning stiffness is a shared experience, not a term in a medical textbook. Male urinary problems, once something you treated in older guys is now a way of life. My older colleagues are retiring. When making hospital rounds I notice the prevalence of younger physicians.

My beloved pets age too. For the last 16 years my Pug (Pugsly) and my mixed-breed sweetie (Chloe) greeted me at the door, took long walks with me and provided fur therapy after a stressful day. Pugsly expired a year ago. His mate Chloe left this world in November. For a clinician well versed in Elizabeth Kubler Ross’s book “On Death and Dying” and dealing with life and death daily, the loss of a beloved pet should be easier. The pain is palpable. The sadness recurs and the heaviness on the shoulders, eyelids and heart wears you down.

I have several younger patients valiantly battling against horrible malignant diseases. Their drive and courage to overcome illness and enjoy the time they have with family and friends is inspirational. They do not know it but they are my role models for how to deal with the adversity of losing loved ones, human and pet, and sharing the diminishing independence and health that my long time patients now experience.

New Non Live Shingles Vaccine Approved by FDA and ACIP

For several years the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP) has been encouraging adults to receive the shingles vaccine or Zostavax. Shingles is a recurrence of chicken pox which we had as children. The virus lives within the nerve endings near the spinal cord and recurs following sensory nerves at unexpected times producing a chicken pox like (herpetic) rash with pain on one side of your body. The lesions follow the pattern of the chicken pox with pustules crusting over the course of a week. During the rash, patients are contagious and can transmit the chicken pox virus to people not immunized against it or those people whose immunity is diminished. As the rash subsides, a large percentage of the patients continue to have pain along the path of that sensory nerve which can last forever in a post herpetic neuralgia.

Zostavax will prevent an outbreak of shingles in about 2/3 of those who receive the shot. It prevents the post rash pain syndrome in a much higher percentage of the recipients. It was this quality that made it easy for me to recommend the vaccine to my patients and to take it myself.

The shot’s major drawback was that it involved receiving an attenuated or modulated live virus. This prevented individuals on chemotherapy or with a weakened immune system from receiving this vaccine.

To address that issue Glaxo Smith Kline developed Shingrix which is a non-live, recombinant subunit vaccine injected into the muscle on two occasions. It is touted to prevent shingles in 90% of the recipients over a four year period. It will replace Zostavax as the shingles vaccine of choice. For those of us who already received Zostavax they are recommending that we boost our immunity by receiving this new vaccine as well.

I have always been quite conservative on recommending new pharmaceutical products until they have been on the US market for at least one year. With the decreased funding of the FDA, I will wait at least a year until I see what adverse reactions occur in the US population. In the meantime I will price the product and try and learn if private insurers and/or Medicare will pay for its administration.

Scientists Develop Rapid Susceptibility Tests for Urinary Tract Infections

In my geriatric patients, recurrent urinary tract infections and conditions mimicking them pop up frequently. Patients young and old find it inconvenient to come to the office to provide a specimen to analyze whether or not an infection has occurred and what is causing it. You often need to send the specimen off to the lab to culture the offending bacteria and then wait further for the lab to determine what antibiotic if any will work against that invader. As clinicians, if we suspect an infection and the in-office or clinic urine specimen looks infected, we treat with the antibiotics most likely to cure until we actually get the official reports back from the lab.

An esteemed panel of health care experts has recommended something different -suggesting that when symptoms of a urinary tract infection develop patients be prescribed a three day course of antibiotics without an exam or urinalysis or pre-antibiotic treatment urine for culture and sensitivity. This is all part of the 21st Century movement for less costly, less time consuming, more convenient self-diagnosis and care using your high tech apps to diagnose and treat your problem.

In my patient population many of the elderly patients use so many antibiotics so many times for presumed urine infections that we are often dealing with multi drug resistant bacteria requiring intravenous treatment with complex medications to cure the problem.

Scientists announced recently in the journal, Science Translational Medicine, that they have developed a rapid 30 minute DNA test that will allow us to determine the susceptibility of the offending organism quickly. The successful study has led to the beginning of developing a commercial variety of the test expected to be available in three years. If it works and is affordable it will make outpatient treatment of urinary tract infections far more accurate and efficient.

Why the Medicare System Can Not Stay Solvent

My spry 90 year old patient decided she had a urinary tract infection two weeks ago. She had difficulty urinating and the constant urge to void with no fever, no chills, no back pain, no bloody urine. She was advised to come in for an appointment the same morning but this didn’t suit her. The alternative choice was to see her urologist who made time available that same day. She decided this was not convenient either. I called her and took a history and attempted to negotiate a visit but she declined strongly. She chose to void into a sterile container she had at home, put it into the refrigerator for storage and start to take some ampicillin that had been prescribed for her last urinary tract infection weeks before. One day into the ampicillin therapy she had her full time aide drop the urine off at the office for a culture and analysis (It came back negative for an infection several days later). That night she could not void. She called the urologist and the covering doctor suggested she drink more water. She complied even after she developed nausea and vomiting which continued into the early morning hours. Her aide called 911 and EMS brought her to the emergency department.

This frail elderly woman has not been eating well for months. As her total protein drops and her activity diminishes decreasing her leg muscle tone, her lower extremity peripheral edema or swelling increases. Her veins drain less efficiently than in the past contributing to the swelling. She suffers from a chemical electrolyte regulatory abnormality with chronic low serum sodium. Vomiting electrolyte rich material and replacing it with electrolyte free water further diluted and lowered her serum sodium. Upon arrival in the Emergency Department, the ED physician noticed the swelling in her legs and reflex ordered a Congestive Heart Failure (CHF) lab panel. The government (CMS) has made such a big deal about recognizing CHF that physicians and hospitals are afraid to not recognize it and not treat it. If you don’t treat it there are financial penalties for the docs and the institutions. The CHF panel consists of expensive and sensitive heart muscle enzymes that elevate in a heart attack, a lipid profile and a BNP which elevates in CHF. The problem is that the heart enzymes and BNP elevate in a host of chronic conditions seen in the elderly unrelated to heart failure.

I was called into the hospital to evaluate and admit the patient in the middle of the night. A Foley Catheter was now inserted into her bladder and draining fluid. Steps had been taken to slowly correct her sodium abnormality. A urine culture was sent with the initial catheterized urine and the evaluation of her heart based on “indeterminate” heart enzymes was completed. She did not have a heart attack. She was not in heart failure. Her serum sodium rebounded slowly with a treatment called fluid restriction. Three days later she was voiding without the catheter, ambulating with her walker and aides assistance and ready to go home under the care of her aide and two daughters. She was scheduled to see me in 72 hours with the urologist to follow.

I called her the next day and she was doing fine. The next morning when I called she was constipated so we instituted a program which using over the counter medications corrected the problem. At 3 PM the next day she called my office and left a message that she wanted to speak to me. My nurse asked her if she was sick and she just repeated the need to talk to me. I called her when I finished with patients and she told me, “I am dying. I am very sick. I feel like I have to pee and I cannot. I have called 911 and I am on my way to the hospital.” When I tried to determine what the definition of “very sick” meant she couldn’t elaborate. She was not febrile. She had no chest discomfort or shortness of breath, she just couldn’t void. I called the ED and spoke to the head nurse and physician and reviewed her recent clinical course and findings. One hour later they called me to tell me she was in urinary retention and her bladder was overloaded. They placed a Foley Catheter in her bladder and ¾ of a liter of urine emptied relieving her discomfort and very sick feeling. The problem was that the ED physician saw her leg edema and sent off the CHF Lab Protocol again. This was a different ED physician than the week before. This time the Troponin I cardiac enzyme marker was in a higher in determinant range. “Steve,” he said, “her EKG is abnormal. I think she is evolving a myocardial infarction and needs to be readmitted.” I reminded him that we had completed this exercise last week with her long time cardiologist and her heart was fine. He told me he didn’t care. The risk medical legally was too high to send her home. The costs and hospital stay now start again.

This patient had daily 24 hour care by an experienced aide. Both her college educated adult children were with her. She had my office phone and cell phone as well as access to the very flexible urologist. She still chose to do it her way relying on EMS and Emergency Departments due to fear, anxiety and having no financial skin in the game. The urologist wondered why she didn’t just call him and he would have reinserted the catheter in his office. I wondered why she just didn’t call earlier so we could see her before my staff left for the evening. It didn’t matter if we were capitated, being paid for quality metrics or if the fee for service system was abolished. This strong willed independent complicated ancient senior citizen was determined to do it her way. The system runs on algorithms and protocols and generates information routinely that requires a common sense interpretation based on the clinical setting and issues. The risk of medical malpractice despite government funding this care plus the risk of government sanctions based on chronic disease protocols makes intelligent and compassionate care which is affordable almost impossible.

A Clinician’s View of the Opioid Crisis

“Do Not Get Caught.” seems to be the real rule of the law in S. Florida, where I live.

I was trained to limit the use of controlled substances, narcotics, hypnotics and sedatives. Their use can affect consciousness, ability to drive a car and work.  More severe consequences include respiratory depression and overdose from too high of a dosage or mixing too many medications and over the counter items.

The Joint Commission on Accreditation, medicine’s good housekeeping seal of approval authority, along with major medical organizations have accused clinicians of under treating pain. “Pain” is the fifth vital sign, they said.

This was accompanied by professional society leadership and academic researchers receiving grants from pharmaceutical companies touting the newer longer acting pain medications which “have very little addictive potential”. We were then informed we would be receiving evaluations and scores of our treatments of pain which would influence our reimbursement if we under treated pain.

In my current concierge medical practice I see 10 or fewer patients per day. In my previous general practice I saw 2- – 30 patients per day. I could go days without prescribing a narcotic pain medication. In most cases when I wrote out a script for a narcotic pain medication it was for a patient with a severe chronic pain problem, seeing a specialist for that problem, and requiring a pain pill because there were few effective alternatives. The patient visits to doctors and physical therapists and massage specialists and other alternative pain therapies were well documented in the medical record and mostly unsuccessful in attempts to relieve the pain.

This contrasts markedly with the opening of pain clinics in nearby counties with their own in-house prescribing pharmacies. One or two physicians wrote thousands of pain pill prescriptions per day. Patients lined up around the block to see these employed physicians of the pain clinic with many arriving in cars from other states. The cash flow generated was so vast that the clinics needed private security to protect the profits. Many of the security hired were off duty city and county police officers trying to supplement their income.

It’s hard to imagine that law enforcement and the DEA, were unable to recognize the difference between pill distributing centers and legitimate practices prescribing medications on a limited basis to individuals with documented needs. City, County and State governments gladly accepted the tax benefits, occupational license fees and pharmaceutical license fees from these sham clinics while drug dealers drove in and out of our state to obtain prescription pain medications for sale in their home towns. Of course the blame for this was placed on the doctors and dentists.

The State of Florida tightened up its laws and somehow law enforcement was given the tools to see and eradicate what was occurring right under their very noses. As prescription drugs dried up, the Mexican drug cartels got smart and flooded the market with cheap strong heroin. It was obviously the fault of the physicians and legitimate pharmacies that white working class people were buying plastic bags full of dope and inserting needles into their veins to avoid the pain of life.

As drug addiction soared, City and County Governments found it in their hearts to sit as zoning boards allowed drug rehabilitation centers to open up in the heart of their communities. There was little or no effective investigation of who was running these clinics and or their previous experience, methods and or success rates. If you want to read about where the soaring number of narcotic overdoses occur in our community – follow the zoning board’s placement of rehab centers and sobriety houses. What better way to increase your drug overdoses than to encourage unsuccessful addicts to come to your community and leave their money and their family’s money to improve the tax base and create new headaches for EMS and police officers?

Somewhere there should have been a higher level of thought by our elected and appointed officials about the consequences of bringing hundreds of drug dependent individuals into our area before they permitted these facilities to open.

Last week my advanced pancreatic cancer patient with severe back pain tried to purchase a controlled substance prescribed by his oncologist to relieve his suffering. Six pharmacies no longer stocked the product due to their fear of liability. It took hours to find a pharmacy that would order the medication for the patient. Physicians, pharmacists and law enforcement accessing our state narcotic registration website clearly can see that this patient only uses his medications as prescribed by one physician. This patient, and others like him, are victims of the government legitimizing of pain pill mills and drug rehabilitation centers in their communities.

As a physician we all have our failures in this area as well. I painfully recall the doctor’s wife I sent to a disciplined pain doctor to wean her off narcotics prescribed by a rheumatologist, urologist and gastroenterologist for legitimate reasons documented by tests and biopsies. I refilled the prescriptions for her convenience and ease never dreaming I was contributing to her problems.

I feel for my colleagues in the Emergency Department and in orthopedic offices having to daily differentiate acute pain requiring intervention with controlled substances as opposed to individuals with drug seeking personalities. This being said, the opioid crisis was caused by the most trusted members of the academic medical community in cooperation with the medical inspection and certifying agencies in concert with public officials and law enforcement looking the other way. They all made a great deal of money at the expense of the public. Now as they struggle to clean it up they give us medical and recreational marijuana.

Inflammation as a Cause of Heart Attacks and Strokes

Years ago I attended a series of lectures sponsored by the Cleveland Clinic to promote its proprietary lab tests that were geared to detect previously undetectable causes of heart attacks and strokes. A cardiologist at Cleveland Clinic, along with a research nurse out of Emory University Hospital and Medical Center, noted that 50% of the men having heart attacks and strokes were within the recommended life and health guidelines. They didn’t smoke, their blood pressures were controlled, they had lipids within the recommended guidelines and their weight was appropriate – as was their activity level.

They unofficially dubbed it the Supermen study and showed that by reducing “inflammation” they could reduce the number of heart attacks and strokes. They concentrated on periodontal disease and rheumatologic diseases as sources of inflammation. They believed that angina and heart attacks and strokes did not occur because a blood vessel gradually narrowed much like a plumbing pipe clogged with hair and debris. They felt that soft lipid plaque under the surface in vehicles dubbed “foam cells” ruptured through the blood vessel wall into the lumen through the endothelial lining under the direction of inflammation in the body.

This breakthrough into the blood carrying portion of the blood vessel was perceived as a fresh cut or wound which was bleeding. The body’s natural response was to try and stop the bleeding by creating a clot. This clot occurred quickly in a small vessel and every living item downstream, not supplied by a collateral blood vessel, died from lack of oxygen and fuel to function. They treated the identifiable inflammation and felt that statin medications (Lipitor, Zocor, Pravachol, Crestor , Livalo and the generics) had an of- label quality that reduced inflammation as well as lowered the cholesterol.

I bought into that theory and incorporated these blood tests into the patient population most at risk and the appropriate age where prevention would make a major difference. Tests like hsCRP, Myeloperoxidase, Apo-B and others were used for screening. Finding the inflammation and treating it for men who met the definition for entry into the Supermen study was far more difficult. The whole theory of inflammation causing acute cardiac and cerebrovascular events was treated much like climate change, genetically modified foods and even vaccinations with a large degree of community doubt.

Last week at a major European Cardiology meeting the CANTOS (Canakinumab Anti-inflammatory Thrombosis Outcomes Study) showed that by administering an anti- inflammatory medicine for three plus years at an appropriate dosage, we could reduce the number of heart attacks and strokes significantly. Using a monoclonal antibody, “Canakinumab” at 150 mg every third month they treated inflammation and reduced the number of events. The downside was the annual cost of this medicine currently stands at about $200,000 per year making it unavailable for most of us.

The surprising and startling finding was that it reduced lung cancers by 70% and other malignancies as well. The true finding in this study may be its use as a cancer weapon in the future. The study truly opened the door for research into new and less expensive approaches to treating inflammation. It validated inflammation as a pathway to vascular disease. Now we need to find a way to make that treatment affordable to all.