Collusion or Conspiracy?

A 67 year-old woman with a high stress job had a vigorous disagreement with her neighbors last week. She developed severe substernal chest pain and called 911 fearing a heart attack. She is thin, has never smoked, has normal blood pressure and normal cholesterol. She is not a diabetic and runs on a treadmill for two hours at five miles per hour with an elevation for two hours four times a week. She has few risks for developing heart disease.

The ER staff was quick and efficient. An EKG revealed changes consistent with a multivessel involved heart attack. Her cardiac isoenzymes were elevated and abnormal confirming muscle injury. The ER doctor called her PCP and the cardiologist on call. This experienced interventional heart specialists on call, has worked with and cared for many of the PCPs patients. He came right over, explained the options to the patient and, with her agreement and the PCPs blessing, took her to the heart catheterization lab to perform an angiogram to find the blockages and restore blood flow to the heart muscles.

To his surprise her arteries were perfectly normal with no blockages. The heart muscle was pumping weakly exhibiting the appearance of an octopus swimming through the sea proclaiming the unusual heartbreak stress syndrome known as Takotsubos cardiomyopathy. With rest, time and reduction of stress; she was projected to recover fully in days to weeks.

She was monitored overnight and observed until her heart enzymes were normalizing, her heart rhythm was normal, and; she could walk around the room easily. She was medicated with a low dose aspirin, a low dose of a beta blocker to blunt the stress induced surge of chemicals that caused the heart damage and mild antianxiety medicines. She was advised to cancel her work schedule for two weeks, cancel a cruise scheduled for the upcoming weekend and see a psychologist for stress reduction.

She opposed each of these suggestions and demanded that I call her relative’s cardiologist for a second opinion. The very type A characteristics that led to her stress, anxiety and illness was creating the request for a second opinion. The diagnosis and treatment were straight forward.

I called her cardiologist to explain the request never expecting the reaction I received. He is successful and experienced but when I brought it up he became anxious, angry and defensive. Why? He said he was leaving the case! I begged him not to and called the cardiologist she requested for a second opinion.

“We do not do in-hospital second opinions because we wish to maintain collegiality. Let her call my office when she is home and we will see her as an outpatient.” She called that office for an appointment and was told the next appointment is in six months. I called three other groups and received the same answer of no second opinions on inpatients to maintain collegiality.

As a primary care, physician my decisions are questioned and second guessed daily. Dr Google, Dr Cousin in NY or Boston, retired neighbor doctor offer opinions on my care regularly. It comes with the territory.

An anxious fit senior citizen suffering a frightening and unexpected heart malady should be able to obtain a second opinion without threatening the egos or collegiality of professionals. I called the medical staff office and hospital administration for help and was told to work it out with my colleagues.

As we examine our dysfunctional health system, we are quick to blame insurers, big pharmacy and government interference. Medical doctors are not without blame.

Keep Moving for Cardiovascular Benefits

We keep extolling the benefits and virtues of regular exercise and fitness. Some research studies have documented the intensity and duration of exercise programs with cardiovascular events and mortality. Those who do more and are fitter apparently do much better which surprises few of us.

It comes down to the “which came first the chicken or egg “question?  Are people genetically able to exercise at a high level living longer and healthier because they exercise at a high intensity and duration or vice versa?

It is quite comforting to read the recent study in JAMA by Andrea LaCroix, PhD, MPH and colleagues from the University of California, San Diego that shows the benefits of even modest movement and exercise.  The study was conducted under the umbrella of the Women’s Health Initiative and put pedometers and accelerometers on women to measure activity during waking hours.  Light physical activity was defined as less than 3 metabolic equivalents (Walking one mile in about 22 minutes expends about 3 Metabolic Equivalents of Activity).  They noted that for each hour per day increment in light activity there was a 14% lower risk of Coronary Heart Disease and 8% lower risk of cardiovascular disease.

The researchers evaluated 5,861 women with a mean age of 78.5 years. Average follow-up spanned 3.5 years with study members having 570 cardiovascular disease events and 143 coronary heart disease events. The study group was diverse with there being 48.8% Caucasian women, 33.5 % Black women and 17.6% Hispanic women.

The study’s results and message was clear. Keep moving. Even modest exercise is beneficial in reducing heart attack and stroke risk.

Coffee and the Healthy Heart

Two German biologists are stating there is sufficient data to claim that four cups of caffeinated coffee is the optimal daily dosage to maintain a healthy heart. Their findings were published in Plos Biology and summarized in Inverse Magazine. The scientists cite past warnings by public health officials of the danger of caffeine when given to people with heart conditions. Quite the contrary. They believe that up to four cups of coffee per day are actually therapeutic for the heart.

In their research they noted caffeine helps a protein called “p27” enter the energy producing mitochondria of heart cells making them function more efficiently. They experimented with rats comparing the mitochondrial function of old rats and young rats. When they injected the older rats with the caffeine equivalent of four cups of coffee, their aging mitochondria performed at the level of young rats’ mitochondria. They then experimentally caused the older rats to have a heart attack or myocardial infarction. Half of these heart damaged rats were injected with the equivalent of four cups of coffee and their heart cells repaired themselves at a far more rapid rate than those not exposed to that dose of coffee and caffeine.

The researchers conclude that four cups of coffee is probably the optimal daily dosage of coffee for a healthy heart. They caution that certain patients, especially those with malignant tumors, should probably avoid that much coffee because it may promote growth of blood vessels to the tumors. They additionally caution against using caffeine pills or energy drinks because their research was done with coffee.

Coffee in moderation is probably not harmful for any human adult.

Keep in mind, this biologic evidence was obtained in rats not human beings. Fortunately, I have not seen rats breaking into my local Dunkin Donuts and Starbucks craving a lifesaving nutrient.

Coffee has been associated with preventing cognitive dysfunction, preventing diabetes and now keeping your heart healthy. If you enjoy coffee, drinking it in moderation makes sense to me.

Fish, Fish Oils and Cardiovascular Disease

Years ago the scientific researcher responsible for the promotion of fish oils as an antioxidant and protector against vascular disease recommended we all eat two fleshy fish meals of cold water fish a week. He continued to endorse this dietary addition and included canned tuna fish and canned salmon in the types of fish that produced this positive effect.

Over the years I heard him lecture at a large annual medical conference held in Broward County and he fretted about the growth of the supplement industry encouraging taking fish oils rather than eating fish. He worried about the warnings against eating all fish to women of child bearing age because of the fear of heavy metal contamination and knew that the fish oils and omega 3 Fatty Acids played a developmental role in a growing fetus and child.

I then attended lectures, in particular one sponsored by the Cleveland Clinic, during which they promoted Krill oil as the chosen form of fish oil supplements because it remained liquid and viscous at body temperature of 98.6 while others solidified. I listened to this debate only to hear the father of the science speak again and this time advocate that one or two fleshy fish meals a month was adequate to obtain the protective effect of Omega 3 Fatty acids. He felt that the supplements did not actually provide a protective effect as eating real fish did. Since I love to eat fresh fish I had no problem with this message but others are not comfortable buying and preparing fish at home or eating it at a restaurant. Supplements to them were the answer.

Steve Kopecky, M.D. examined the question in an article published in JAMA Cardiology this week. He looked at 77,917 high risk individuals already diagnosed with coronary artery disease and vascular disease who were taking supplements to prevent a second event. His study concluded that taking these omega 3 supplements had no effect on the prevention of recurrent cardiovascular events. The study did not discuss primary prevention for those who have not yet had a vascular illness or event.

Once again it seems that eating fish in moderation, like most anything, is the best choice. I will continue to eat my fresh fish meals one or two times per week, not necessarily for the health benefit but because I enjoy eating fresh fish.

I advise those worried about preventing primary or secondary heart and vascular disease to find a form of fish they can enjoy if they want this benefit. If you really wish to reduce your risk of a cardiovascular event; I suggest you stop smoking, control your blood pressure and lipid profile, stay active and eat those fresh fish meals.

Telemedicine and Acute Stroke Treatment

My community hospital is holding its quarterly physician staff meeting and one of the items on the agenda will be a bylaw change which will permit outside physicians, not credentialed or vetted by our hospital credentials committee, to perform video consults on patients within our hospital. Hospital administration is pushing this bylaw change, and since there has been a quiet coup which has transferred medical staff power from the community’s practicing physicians to the hospital employed and paid physicians, it is a foregone conclusion that it will easily pass.

The bylaw change is being requested because the hospital would like to continue to reap the benefits of being an ischemic stroke comprehensive treatment center and offering the health benefits to the community despite not being able to meet the criteria. If a patient presents to the emergency department within four hours of developing ischemic stroke symptoms they must be offered the administration of a “clot busting “drug Alteplase (t-pa). The patient must not have any bleeding tendencies and no evidence of active bleeding or a mass or tumor on head CT scan and must be examined by a neurologist within 45 minutes of arrival.

The problem is that most community based neurologists with outpatient office practices and hospital staff privileges cannot and will not drop everything they are doing and run to the emergency department to evaluate a new patient each time a stroke protocol patient arrives. When given an ultimatum by the hospital administration, that they must take call and be available within 45 minutes, our community neurologists en masse relinquished their hospital privileges.

The hospital countered by bringing in several research oriented academic neurologists and neurosurgeons to man the beautiful new Neuroscience Institute and provide coverage of the ED for the stroke protocol. Few if any of these physicians were able to develop and maintain a practice within the community and they have since left. The Emergency Department is staffed by employed board certified emergency physicians who are well qualified to diagnose an ischemic stroke and administer t-pa. They refuse to do so citing the liability of a poor outcome as the reason. Despite data indicating the benefits of t-pa administration in these situations, the 6 out of 100 chances of a bleed in the brain plus the 1 in 6 chance of death is enough to deter their participation.

You would think that since the hospital hires these physicians the logical choice would be to fire them and hire a group that will provide the state of the art care in a timely fashion. This has not occurred. You would think that the state legislature would grant the ED physicians sovereign immunity from medical malpractice suits if the patient meets the criteria for the ischemic stroke protocol and the patient is given appropriate informed consent for the procedure but this common sense legislation has not been developed or passed.

The hospital has chosen a different pathway. They are opting to hire neurologists from a university medical center who will provide video consults on ischemic stroke patients from an offsite location. Robots will actually examine the patient and televise the data back to the telemedicine center after an emergency department physician performs a brief initial evaluation. The neurologist off site will then provide the needed neurology consult to proceed with the injection of the clot buster.

I suspect the mechanism will work like this. A patient or family member will call EMS via 911 and be taken to the Emergency Department. A triage nurse will ask all the questions to qualify the patient for the t-pa protocol; a robot will examine the patient and transmit via TV the data to an offsite neurologist while an ER physician does an exam. A CT scan of the head and brain will be performed. If no bleed is discovered or tumor or mass that could bleed, t-pa will be administered by the pharmacy and nursing staff. Further intervention by an interventional radiologist and or neurosurgeon may then occur.

At no point in this protocol does it call for the patient’s primary care doctor or cardiologist or usual neurologist to be called. We will be called once the procedure is complete because neither the ER physician or the neurosurgeon or the interventional radiologist will want to admit the patient to neurology ICU. While our surgical ICU and Medical ICU/CCU are covered 24 hours per day by an outsourced hired intensivist group, the neuro ICU does not have that type of coverage.

I can hear it now, my phone ringing and upon picking it up I hear the voice of a clerk in the Emergency Department, “Hello Dr Reznick, Dr. Whateverhisorhername wishes to speak to you about patient Just Had A Stroke.” I get put on hold for five minutes and then in a flat nasal voice, “Hello Steve your patient came in earlier by EMS with symptoms of an acute ischemic stroke. They met the t-pa ischemic stroke criteria and were treated. Unfortunately, they had a major hemispheric bleed with mass effect and edema and are now unresponsive and intubated on a ventilator. We need you to come in and admit him and care for him.”

I will vote in protest against this bylaw. I will lobby for recruiting neurologists who are hospital based who will actually see the patient and care for them. I will lobby for a new state law to provide sovereign immunity for ED physicians treating ischemic strokes according to the internationally recognized protocol. I will lobby for our medical and surgical residents on site and in the hospital to be permitted to administer t-pa after meeting the appropriate criteria. I will not support out of the area physicians making the final call and leaving our local physicians to deal with their results.

Patient Hand-Offs and Communication

document businesspeople 1I was finishing tying my shoes as I got dressed to take my lovely wife out to dinner for our 41st wedding anniversary. It was 7:30 p.m. after a hectic day at work and we had a wonderful dinner planned at a local restaurant.

The telephone rang with the caller ID identifying a call on my office work line. “Hello this is the Emergency Department, please hold on for Dr S.” Before I could get in a word edgewise I was put on hold. Five minutes later Dr S. got on the line. “Steve this is Pete. “Dr. Rheumatology” saw your mutual patient Mrs. T this afternoon and she was complaining of shortness of breath beginning three weeks ago. She complains of overwhelming fatigue. He sent her here for evaluation. Her exam is negative. At rest she doesn’t look short of breath. Her EKG doesn’t show any acute changes but I do not have an old one to compare it to. Her chest x ray is negative and her oxygen saturation on room air is 97 % (normal is greater than 90%). She has lupus and multiple autoimmune problems and is on many immune modulators. Maybe she has a constrictive cardiomyopathy or restrictive lung disease. I called Dr. Rheumatology and he said this isn’t his department to call the PCP (primary care physician) to admit the patient and you are the PCP. “I told the ER physician I had not seen the patient in over six months or heard from her but I would be right in to see her”.

I explained to my wife that duty calls and there was a sick patient in the ER. She was extremely understanding. On the drive to the ER I called the Rheumatologist to ask him his clinical impression because he had been seeing her every two weeks and had examined her just that afternoon. He returned my call and we discussed the clinical aspects of the situation and his thoughts. Then I told him that I thought he should have called me when he sent the patient to the ER if he expected me to assume care. If he did not call then he most certainly should have called me when the ED doctor called him to report on the findings and he said call the PCP. Hand-offs should be direct especially in an acute situation and especially if you sent the patient to the ER and do not intend to take ownership of the situation you sent the patient to the ER for.

He told me that in 30 years of practice no one had ever criticized him for this and he does it all the time. He told me he had been working long hours and did not have time to call referring physicians. I told him that was no excuse and if he was working that late maybe he needed to restrict his patient volume so he could communicate in a professional manner.

I arrived at the ER 20 minutes later and learned that the patient had been there for three and half hours already. She had been in the ER while I had been at the hospital earlier that afternoon checking on another patient. Had I known she was there I could have easily seen her, cared for her and still made my anniversary dinner.

A review of her old EKG and comparing it to the new one, plus taking a thorough history and exam, revealed the problem. She was having a heart attack. Her bouts of shortness of breath with activity with overwhelming fatigue were her equivalent of crushing chest pain.

Getting called to the hospital during “off” hours is part of a physician’s way of life. Having a colleague take your role and time for granted at the expense of the patient is disturbing and unprofessional.

All too often today physicians, both specialists and primary care, don’t take the time to communicate directly and clearly with their colleagues about patient care.  When this happens, clearly the patient is negatively impacted.

ACO’s and the Patient Centered Medical Home will not cure this. Only courtesy, respect and putting the patient first will change things.

The Business of Medicine Should Not and Can Not Replace Care and Compassion

Compassionate CareWell over a year ago I advised my 80 something year old patient and her children that due to progression of her Parkinson’s disease, and her frail nature, she needed a higher level of assistance and care if she wished to remain in her home.  She was extremely unsteady walking and several courses of physical therapy had not improved the situation. The patient was feisty and would only allow help to come for 4 hours per day despite having a long term care policy that paid for significantly more.  She lost her balance recently, fell and landed on her back. She could not get up or get to a phone or her alert bracelet and was found seven hours later on the floor by her aide arriving for work.  In the Emergency Room x-rays revealed several acute fractures of her vertebrae that accounted for her severe pain with movement and inability to stand, bear weight or walk.

I hustled over to the ER and examined her and called the interventional radiologist to see if he could perform a procedure called a kyphoplasty that would cement the fractures and remove the pain. It was early Friday afternoon and the traditional back specialists were unavailable until the next day.  The radiologist came promptly, was professional and very pleasant explaining that he could do the procedure but because she took a baby aspirin for prevention of stroke, he would not perform it until the aspirin wore off in 5 – 7 days because of fear of excessive bleeding around the spinal cord.  He suggested we send her home with pain medications and round the clock assistance or keep her in the hospital until the aspirin wore off and he felt comfortable performing the procedure.  He was courteous and a credit to any profession. 

Since the patient was in great pain with any movement, I chose to admit her to the hospital while we sorted things out.  I admitted her as an inpatient because she is extremely elderly and frail with medical conditions that led to this injury which an expert had just told me required surgery to fix. She could not walk or transfer to a chair or wheelchair to get food, water or get to the bathroom. She had no arrangements for additional help at home to assist her. She could not, in my professional opinion, go home safely at this point.  

The next day I was making rounds late in the day for me at noon, reviewing the situation with the patient and her son when the physician’s assistant (PA) for the back surgeons, Andy, walked in and introduced himself. They had not seen her Friday evening or Saturday morning and this was their first contact with the patient.  My consult request and phone call had been quite clear. I wanted to know how they viewed the injury and what options did they feel were best to fix the problem. I additionally asked them how their approach would differ, if at all, from the approach of interventional radiology.  I had seen Andy around the facility and said “hello” but never formally met him so it was an introduction for me as well. 

“Hi, my name is Andy, and I work for Doctors Y and Z.  We have a little problem with your insurance.  You have a Medicare Advantage plan and we are not part of that plan. Most of the time, about 95% of the time, we eventually get paid for our services but we need to know how we will get paid for performing a procedure on you to fix your back before we proceed further. In these situations we usually ask the patient to pay the bill up front ($1000 – $1200) and then we submit the charges to your insurance company. If we get reimbursed from the insurance we return the money to you.”  

I took a deep breath and wondered if maybe I was overreacting to the brusque inappropriate presentation to a groggy senior who had been given a narcotic 30 minutes before for pain and was really in no condition to listen to any presentation or sign away informed consent.  I cut Andy off in the middle of a sentence and reminded him that I had requested an opinion. The son, an attorney by trade took up the fight and reminded the PA just how inappropriate his initial remarks were and that in this case money was not a problem but the manner of dealing with an elderly confused patient was.  I played mediator at this point and got the PA to explain that his employers had done several thousand of these procedures and handled many more complications than most interventional radiologists and that their success record spoke for itself.  He outlined a slightly different approach and once we got him talking about the reasons for his invitation onto the case, justified calling his group.

I am all in favor of physicians being paid for their professional services. This could have been handled differently by calling me first and informing me that they had concerns about payment and insurance and letting me address the issues. It could have been handled far gentler by answering the questions asked first and suggesting options and then reviewing the problems with the insurance. Had the gentleman performed a history and or exam rather than rely on the ER PA’s evaluation the day before, he would have seen that the patient was not in a position to comprehend what he was saying or sign for a procedure.  

This is not a criticism of PA’s or Nurse Practitioners. It is a criticism of any practitioner who does not answer the questions asked by the referring physician or question the referring physician about payment before arriving for the consult if they have questions about getting paid for their time and expertise.

The post script is that the son wisely chose to use this group based on their talents and experience and put aside the rude and insensitive communication by the PA. The surgery went well and the patient will go home after spending three nights in the hospital. 

There is still one obstacle to overcome. The hospital ignored my written order to make her status inpatient and made her status observation which will prevent her from receiving any post-surgery therapy or care which is paid for by her insurance. I will fix that. Keeping the phone number on my phone contact list of the Office of the Inspector General who investigates Medicare irregularities opens doors in situations like this. It does not change the fact however that as practitioners we need to be much more thoughtful when we discuss financial issues before medical issues if we wish to continue to be considered a profession rather than another business.