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.

Women and Cardiovascular Disease – There is A Difference Between Men and Women

Front view of woman holding seedlingThe American Society of Preventive Cardiology presented an educational seminar recently in Boca Raton, Florida to educate physicians, nurses and health care providers that cardiovascular disease in women can be very different than in men.  Failure to recognize these differences has resulted in women being under diagnosed, under treated and suffering worse outcomes.

The difference is first noticeable in pregnancy when the development of elevated blood pressure, super elevation of lipids and the development of gestational diabetes predispose young mothers to earlier, more serious, cardiovascular risk later in life. The faculty noted that women of child bearing age tend to use their obstetrician as their primary care doctor.  They suggested that women with pregnancy related diabetes, hypertension and lipid abnormalities should be referred to a medical doctor knowledgeable in preventive cardiology, post-delivery, for ongoing care.

For reasons that are unclear, women are less likely to be treated to recommended guidelines for lipids, diabetes and hypertension.  Diabetic women have a far worse prognosis with regard to cardiovascular disease as compared to men. They are less likely to be treated with aspirin, which while not as effective in preventing MI in women, is apparently protective against stroke.

Women about to have a heart attack have different symptoms the weeks, to months, before the event. They are more likely to have sleep disturbances, unexplained fatigue, weakness and shortness of breath than the standard exertional angina seen in men.   When they do have a heart attack they are as likely to have shortness of breath and upper abdominal fullness and heartburn as they are to have chest pain. They are more likely to have neck and back pain with nausea than men are.  

Since women have different symptoms than men they are more likely to be sent home from the emergency room without treatment.  They are less likely to have bypass surgery than men, less likely to be treated with the anticoagulants and antiplatelet medications that men are treated with and, they are less likely to be taken to the catheterization lab for diagnosis and intervention as compared to men.

The faculty was comprised of world-class researchers, clinicians and educators who happened to be outstanding speakers as well, bringing a vital message to our community.  They pointed out the different questions and diagnostic tests we should be considering in evaluating a woman as opposed to a man.

This was my first educational seminar through the American College of Preventive Cardiology and I thank them for the message they delivered to the medical and nursing community at probably one of the finest seminars I have had the privilege to attend.

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.

Aspirin Holiday Carries Its Risks

A recent publication in the British Medical Journal looked at the risk of stopping aspirin therapy and taking a drug holiday from it if you are taking aspirin as secondary prevention for heart disease. The study, conducted from 2000 – 2007, looked at almost 40,000 participants aged 50-84 who were taking low dose aspirin (75- 300 mg per day) for secondary prevention of cardiovascular outcomes. They followed the patients for 3.2 years.

Researchers determined that individuals who stopped aspirin for 1-6 months had significantly more myocardial infarctions (heart attacks) and cardiovascular deaths than individuals who continued the aspirin.  Most of the patients who stopped the medication just stopped it on their own for no particular reason.

The study has implications for patients who have known coronary artery disease, have had a heart attack or stent placed or have survived bypass surgery. It says that if you stop the aspirin you increase your risk of having a cardiac event.

As a physician I am always faced with phone calls from patients going for minor dental work and the dentist insists on stopping the aspirin. I have patients going for elective cosmetic procedures who are required to stop their aspirin.  The message must be “is the risk of excessive bleeding from the elective procedure greater than the risk of having a heart attack?”  This is a question you should ask your cardiologist, internist or family physician before stopping the aspirin. You and they will need to ask your dentist or surgeon the same question before you stop the aspirin.

There will be times when you will have no choice but to accept that increased risk to have work done which may be necessary.  By informing your physician of the problem, and discussing it with the surgeon or dentist, we can determine if stopping the aspirin is essential and if there are other measures we can take to prevent a cardiac event.

New Suggestions for Managing High Blood Pressure in Senior Citizens

The American College of Cardiology and the American Heart Association have issued the first suggestions specifically for the treatment of high blood pressure in patients 65 and older. In the past, most research studies excluded patients 65 or older so it was difficult to extrapolate suggestions for treating younger patients to older patients.  The Hypertension in the Very Elderly (HYVET) trial changed that. It showed that when we lower the blood pressure in patients 80 years and older there is a decrease in deaths from stroke, a decrease in heart failure deaths and, decrease in death from all causes.

The consensus panel made the following suggestions:

1.  The general targeted blood pressure is less than 140/90

2.  Patients with coronary artery disease, diabetes and chronic kidney disease should aim for a BP less than 130/80 mm Hg.

3.  Lifestyle changes should be encouraged to manage milder forms of hypertension. This includes increasing exercise, reducing salt intake, controlling weight, stopping smoking and limiting alcohol to 2 drinks or less per day.  If this doesn’t work then medication treatment is indicated

The group supported the use of the “step care medication choice program” with the introduction of a thiazide diuretic as the first step in blood pressure medication usage.  They then went on to describe the appropriate usage of two medications at once, the use of beta blockers in cardiac patients and the use of calcium channel blockers.

They also supported screening patients’ urine for the presence of protein which would indicate that kidney problems need evaluation.  The group further suggested that the diagnosis of high blood pressure be made based on at least 3 blood pressure readings performed at two or more office visits.

The suggestions were not the more formal evidence based guidelines we have become accustomed to. They were a compromise agreement of a panel of experts from two organizations.  They encouraged further studies of these suggestions in the elderly so that they can accumulate the data they need to make future, firm, evidence-based guidelines.

For the average patient, nothing should change dramatically. As physicians, we will need to identify patients with elevated blood pressure and convince many of the elderly that there are significant benefits to taking medication to control their hypertension. This has been exceptionally difficult in the healthy elderly who develop hypertension in their mid to late 70’s and do not want to deal with the cost or side effect profile of taking “another pill.” Improving their lifestyle will always be the first option to control the elevated blood pressure.  However, the use of medications was strongly supported to control the pressure in those who need additional treatment.