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Emergencies and the Rational For Our Treatment Algorithm

We are a primary care medical office that tries to deliver personalized attentive care. We define emergencies as chest pain, significant breathing difficulty and loss of consciousness, uncontrolled bleeding or pain, sudden change in mental status and behavior or major trauma. In these situations, my office staff receiving a phone call interrupts me so I can speak with you and determine whether or not to advise you to call 911. We do this because we know with life threatening situations time is of the essence.

Emergency Medical Services at 911 can arrive within 5 minutes. They are all Advanced Cardiac Life Support (ACLS) trained and carry the equipment and medications to provide life sustaining care while you are transported to a hospital Emergency Department that has the staff, medications and equipment to keep you alive while we diagnose the problem and create a plan to rectify it.

The office staff is trained in Basic Cardiac Life Support. We do not have a defibrillator. We do not maintain and store medications to correct low blood pressure – cardiac arrhythmias. We do not have endotracheal tubes to intubate you and breathe for you. In the past, when we tried to maintain these supplies, they became outdated due to infrequent use and were expensive to replace. Since we do very few resuscitations day to day we are not as experienced or efficient as EMS and emergency department personnel are.

I realize the wait for care and institutional care settings are not pleasant. We sacrifice that for the best chance to keep you healthy. Trust me, it is no fun cancelling a scheduled patients to run to the ER and then return already behind. We do it for your comfort and security and safety.

In the recent past patients with chest pain resembling heart disease, trouble breathing and excessive bleeding have refused to call 911 and were upset when we did not bring them into the office. We do this for your health and safety not our convenience. If you would like to discuss this feel free to contact the office.


Globalization, Corporate Control and Shortages of Medication

One of my online medical information websites carried a letter from the head of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) trying to explain why there is a shortage of standard intravenous fluids to administer at hospitals and medical clinics in the United States. The author cited an extremely busy influenza season causing patients to use Emergency Departments in record numbers plus a loss of manufacturing capabilities due to damage to a production facility in Puerto Rico during a seasonal hurricane. No more, no less.

Doctors, nurses and patients are expected to believe that there is only one production center for our intravenous fluids nationally located in Puerto Rico. If it is unable to produce and ship product then health care as we know it has to change?

If this is in fact the truth, and the only reason for the lack of available IV fluids, what exactly does it have to say about our planning and leadership at the level of the FDA and CDC? Might it in fact indict the corporate model of efficiency and productivity? Is there not a Plan B and C for supplies of intravenous fluid if one source cannot supply our needs? If this is in fact the only production source then why wasn’t it a post storm FEMA national priority similar to if the NORAD intercontinental ballistic missile system had been damaged due to Hurricane Irma or Maria and we could not monitor North Korean launches?

At the same time we have a shortage of intravenous fluids, we have a shortage of injectable narcotics for pain relief. Morphine and dilaudid are in short supply. My hospital pharmacy committee and chief medical officer are now limiting injectable pain medications to immediate post-surgical cases.

Pain elsewhere in the institution should be treated with the oral pain pills we read about causing the opioid epidemic and crisis in America. There apparently is no shortage of injectable heroin on the streets of Palm Beach County, Florida. The Mexican cartels have found a way to meet the demand of its customers unlike organized healthcare which seems unable to do so.

I do not know who is responsible for insuring that we have enough materials and medications available to care for our nation. I do know they are doing a very poor job of it and would love to know who is responsible.

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.

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.