pH Testing For GERD May Save Money

HeartburnHeartburn and dyspepsia are common conditions exacerbated by being overweight, eating too much, eating certain types of foods (red sauces, berries, alcohol, fatty foods, caffeinated beverages, chocolate) reclining after eating, wearing constrictive clothing at the belt line and a host of other items. The heartburn is supposed to be due to the reflux of acidic digestive juices from the stomach into the gullet or esophagus. There is no true physical barrier between the stomach and the lower esophagus like a trap door but there are a group of muscles known as the lower esophageal sphincter. These muscles are supposed to recognize that the stomach contains food and acidic digestive juices and contract and prevent the stomach contents from kicking back up the esophagus and producing heartburn symptoms.

The treatments of choice are; avoiding those foods that produce the heartburn, wearing less constrictive clothing and, medications. The gold standard of medications is the PPI’s or proton pump inhibitors. These would be medicines like Prilosec, Nexium, and Prevacid. The product inserts suggests we take these medications for eight weeks and no longer. Most patients continue to take the medications long after the recommended eight weeks.

In an interview in MedPage, the online journal of the University Of Pennsylvania School Of Medicine, David Kleiman, MD of Weill Cornell Medical College in New York City proposes that at eight weeks patients be given a pH test or what used to be called the “Bernstein Test”.

With the pH test, a thin plastic tube is inserted through the nose and placed so the tip is at the lower portion of the esophagus adjacent to the stomach. You then sample and test the fluid for acidity by measuring its pH. The test costs under $700 and is fairly accurate and safe.

According to Dr. Kleiman, he examined patients with GERD who continued to take PPI’s beyond eight weeks and almost 1/3 of them did not have any signs of acidic material refluxing into the esophagus. When looking at the lower dose PPI’s sold over the counter, versus the prescription items, the average weekly cost of PPI’s varies from $29 to $107. This translates to a cost of between $2000 and $7,300 a year on medicines not needed.

While the idea of inserting a tube to measure acidity as a way to distinguish who should continue PPI’s has its merits, the practical question is “How available is the test and who is doing it?”.

It is always a good idea to discontinue medications you do not need – especially expensive ones. The availability of the testing in local communities may preclude this approach.