Supplement Toxicity on the Rise

VitaminsIn a report in MedPage Today, the medical newsletter of the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine, researchers attending the meeting of the American Association of the Study of Liver Diseases reported a striking increase in the number of severe liver injuries reported in supplements between the years 2004 and 2012. They reported the number of cases increased from 7 – 20% and blamed the vast proportion of those cases on dietary and herbal supplements.  Particularly disturbing was the number of injuries in young people involved in bodybuilding.

Mary Rinella, MD of Northwestern Memorial Hospital in Chicago moderated a discussion group on the topic and mentioned what a large problem it is; “It’s made worse by the popular belief that such supplements are harmless, which leads patients to omit mentioning them when they are in a clinic or doctor’s office.”  She went on to say that, “We don’t know what’s in the products or even what’s in the bottle.” Rinella said.  “Dietary and herbal supplements are not considered drugs and so escape oversight by the FDA.”

Warren Kupin, MD, FACP of the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine division of nephrology delivered a similar message on the epidemic of kidney disease in young adults being caused by the contents of common herbs and supplements sold on our shelves with pleasant healthful sounding names. He raised the red flag on products produced in India and Asia or products containing materials from those areas which contain high levels of heavy metals such as mercury, cadmium, arsenic and others. The target market is young women of child bearing age and they expose their partners and children to these products.  He took a commonly sold supplement, opened the bottle and said that the aroma escaping contained so many heavy metals that if this was produced in a US factory OSHA would require the workers to be wearing respirators in that type of toxic environment.

Consumers need to read labels and ask questions of their doctors before they add an herb or supplement to their daily regimen.  Women of child bearing age need to be especially vigilant and discuss these supplements with their obstetricians and pediatricians before considering ingesting them. The National Institute of Health maintains a very objective website on alternative and complimentary medications at nccam.nih.gov/health/whatiscam that is a great resource and location of factual material.   

I always suggest that when you visit your doctor you bring all your medications, vitamins, minerals, herbs and supplements in a plastic bag with you so that the doctor can read the labels with you.  Accepting the advice you receive on the Internet or from the sales personnel at a vitamin and mineral store is not the most accurate way to learn the truth.  The public is injuring and maiming themselves by consuming too much of the wrong things and there is little or no government oversight and regulation of these products. Protect yourself and ask your doctor for assistance!

 

Electrical Stimulation May Improve Sleep Apnea

Sleep Apnea v2Patrick Strollo Jr., MD of the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center presented preliminary data on the use of a surgically implanted neurostimulator to improve sleep apnea symptoms. The device was implanted to stimulate the hypoglossal nerve. The participants in the study were 124 patients who could not tolerate the CPAP mask treatment or who were never before treated. After implantation they were treated and followed for one year. The participants were mostly men (83%) in their mid-fifties (mean age 54.5 years old), Caucasian and overweight (mean BMI 28.4 kg/m2). Thirty eight percent of the participants had hypertension, 9% were diabetic, and 5% had COPD. Interestingly, 18% had undergone previous surgery on the uvula called uvulopalatopharyngoplasty which was felt to be an effective alternative to wearing a CPAP mask for sleep.

At 12 months all the parameters to assess the effects of sleep apnea had improved dramatically. Interestingly enough, some of the study participants were allowed to continue treatment while others were randomized to stop the neurostimulation. Those who stopped the treatment were followed and their scores regressed.

Like all treatments there were some adverse effects such as tongue pain and mild to moderate infection in 1%.

This is very preliminary data. The study must be presented to a peer review journal, evaluated and published before this treatment becomes acceptable. We recognize sleep apnea as a dangerous disease that leads to pulmonary hypertension and right heart failure if not treated. CPAP masks work well but are cumbersome, awkward and difficult to travel with. The epidemic of sleep apnea is being fueled by a worldwide epidemic of obesity. The current preliminary work at the University of Pittsburgh holds out hope for a future solution that may be easier to live with.

Who Says Concierge Practice Is Unjust For Patients And Doctors Alike?

Medscape Medical Ethics published an article in August 2011 written by Art Caplan, PhD., Professor of Bioethics and Philosophy at the University of Pennsylvania claiming that Concierge Practice Is Unjust For Patients And Doctors alike.  A PDF of the article is attached for your review.  Concierge Practice Unjust For Patients and Doctors Alike by Art Caplan, PhD.

I am in disagreement with Mr. Caplan’s article.  Below is my perspective.

Like the shots fired at Concord and Lexington in 1776, concierge medicine and direct pay practices are the initial shots fired by concerned primary care physicians in the revolution against health care systems which limit access to physicians and destroy the doctor / patient relationship. Concierge medicine arose as a result of government, private insurance, and employer intrusion into the health care field destroying primary care and a physician’s ability to spend the time required with patients to adequately and comprehensively prevent and treat disease.

The only thing that is unjust or unethical about concierge and direct pay practices is that they had to be formed to begin with. They formed after 30 years of:

  1. Primary care doctors lobbying unsuccessfully for adequate compensation for evaluation and management services and for protesting the widening gap between cognitive services and procedural specialty practices.
  2. Going through channels protesting the unfair bureaucratic and administrative burdens placed on primary care practices by Medicare, Medicaid and private insurers.
  3. Warning that the population is aging and their chronic health care problems are far more complex requiring more time with a physician rather than less.
  4. Primary care physicians leaving medical practice for early retirement or for paid jobs with pharmaceutical companies, medical device manufacturers and hospital administrations where hard work and achievement were rewarded without having to deal with system imposed overheads of up to 65 cents on the dollar.
  5. Legislators providing no relief from frivolous lawsuits which makes seeing complex patients in 5-10 minute sessions for “single problem directed visits” a legal liability.
  6. Medical students realizing that the time and financial commitment to the practice of primary care medicine didn’t cover the bills essentially directing them toward more lucrative procedure dominated specialties.

Physicians also left after salaried academic physicians, who never took risk and invested a cent of their own money in building a practice, pontificated and moralized in peer journals supported wholeheartedly by biased pharmaceutical company ads that generating passive income through shared labs and imaging centers was a kickback.

If we look at the data accumulating on care from concierge and direct pay practices, we find that despite a sicker patient population these practices generate fewer visits to emergency departments and fewer acute emergent hospitalizations saving the system money.  These practices provide coordinated care for their patients steering them through a complex and confusing health care system riddled with inappropriate advertising and claims and, get the patients to the best people to treat their problems.

Concierge physicians have more time to spend with their patients thus, achieving unheard of levels of retention and patient satisfaction while giving pro bono scholarships to patients who cannot afford their membership fees but were with them prior to their conversion to a retainer model.

After years of being on the conveyor belt of having to see more patients per day, every day, to stay abreast of system generated overhead cost increases and declining payment for services, concierge physicians now have time to teach students, volunteer at health fairs and screenings and participate in the stewardship of what remains of their profession.

If anything is unjust and unethical it is salaried academic non-physicians writing articles about morality and justice about issues they have no hands-on experience practicing. As a primary care physician for 32 years, I feel like a chameleon having to change colors and practice style every few years based on new rules imposed by private insurers, employers and government programs. At no time were these new rules designed to improve the patients’ access to care or total care.  In each case the new rules were designed to save money and do nothing else.

Concierge and direct pay medicine is the first volley in a revolution to take outstanding care of a smaller panel of older sicker patients on a long term basis.  Its proponents have worked hard for decades to change the system through channels. Failure of legislators, government bureaucrats, health insurers, employers and professional associations such as the AMA and the ACP to react and fix the inequities has generated these practices which cost less than a cup of Starbucks grand latte per day to be a patient of and provide comprehensive care and access.