Archive for category Evidence based guidelines

Annual Exam — not needed and may be harmful

wellnessexamDON’T GET AN ANNUAL EXAM.  The data are clear — see the recent article in the New England Journal of Medicine and the op-ed in the New York Times — perhaps you missed this counter-intuitive health advice?

aircraftmaintenanceMechanical devices need preventative maintenance.  The aircraft mechanic in the illustration prevents engine failure by checking and replacing parts before they go bad.  He knows the MTBF (mean time between failures) for the various engine components.  You would think this is how the human body works but THAT’S NOT TRUE.  You don’t take out an appendix like a spark plug just because they sometimes go bad — you fix it only when needed because surgery hurts and has complications.

One third of the US adult population get annual physical exams and primary care doctors spend 10% of office visits doing those exams.  Sound research shows the annual physical is not needed and worse yet, may be harmful because of false positives (tests that say something is wrong but later are proven wrong).  It’s the very essence of a false positive — an abnormal test in a healthy person!  You know where that leads:  “we need to do some additional tests or a biopsy” — just hope it’s not a brain biopsy.

The US healthcare system needs the wasted 10% of primary care time elsewhere.   It’s totally crazy — doctors doing unnecessary annual exams that clog up the appointment calendar and make it hard for people with actual  problems to get an appointment.  And, a large number of people have health problems who don’t see health care providers when they should (but that’s another story)!

Doctors like to do annual physicals — it’s nice to visit with patients and not have to make any hard decisions.  And, they make a lot of money doing the exams under the guise of “maintaining a relationship”.  But, the exams are not needed.

A proactive patient would make health care appointments as needed for the following:

  1. Annual flu shot
  2. Tetanus vaccination every 10 years.
  3. Cholesterol test every 5 years
  4. For women over 40 a pap smear every 3 years and a mammogram every 2 years.

Do you really need to have a health care provider tell you the following things, or is this list enough?

  1. DO keep weight in normal range (BMI below 25)
  2. DO walk 30 minutes every day
  3. DO wear seat belts
  4. Don’t use drugs or alcohol
  5. Don’t smoke
  6. DO Check blood pressure every year (automated checks are just fine)
  7. DO see a health care provider if you have a health problem.

Keep in mind this discussion is about an exam for nothing in particular — just a “check-up” — which you don’t need.  On the other hand, a patient needs visits with a health care provider to treat and monitor abnormal conditions.  You need routine visits to adjust blood pressure medications, to treat diabetes, to treat acne and to evaluate arthritis.

 

 

 

 

 

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Bleeding to Death at Nursing Homes — warfarin

NHadlsA story in Pro-Publica (7/12/15) and reproduced in the Washington Post highlights the problems with anticoagulants when given in nursing homes.  The graphic at the left shows the magnitude of the problem — lots of patients in nursing homes get these drugs.  The next graphic shows data from North Carolina pinpointing the main culprit: WARFARIN.

NHerrorsInNCWhat is going on?  Well, warfarin is a tricky drug because it changes the body’s system to make the blood clot.  Some people tend to clot too much (and get clots in the brain, a stroke, and some people get clots in the lungs, a pulmonary embolus).  Those people are at risk of death from too much blood clotting.  So, health care providers prescribe an anticoagulant to make the blood clot less easily.  Unfortunately, this creates a state where people bleed easily.  It is indeed a situation “between a rock and a hard place“.

Warfarin is one of the most common of the drugs for this purpose.  It has the advantage of an existing antidote and it is inexpensive.  But, it requires frequent blood testing to keep the anticoagulant effects in a reasonably safe range.  Providers must order the tests and must change the dose according to the results.

Thrombin inhibitors are a new class of anticoagulants which have the same bleeding risks and are expensive.  Their claim to fame is that blood testing is not needed.  They also have the disturbing quality of not having an antidote if bleeding starts.  Taking all this into consideration, most providers choose the older drug warfarin.

The reasons for excessive bleeding in nursing homes are:

  1. Prescribers (not the nursing home staff) fail to order blood testing when they should and fail to adjust the medication as they should.
  2. Prescribers fail to stop anticoagulants when the risk of falling exceeds the risk of blood clotting.
  3. Pharmacists for nursing home patients are not as connected to their patients as they should be — usually the pharmacist is the safety net for bad prescribing — sadly, they are out of the loop.
  4. RNs in nursing homes have the training to catch medication errors but function as administrators and are not on the front line of care.  Thus, like pharmacists they are not performing the safety net function they might in hospitals or doctor’s offices.
  5. Elderly patients are the most prone to adverse drug events — for them, if a side effect is possible they will likely experience it.   It there is a risk of bleeding they probably will.

What should be done:

  1. State certification organizations should develop guidelines that require nursing homes and their prescribers to have a protocol for anticoagulation management — not every prescriber can be allowed to invent their own method — that’s the mess we have already!
  2. Nursing homes should use electronic means to track anticoagulants and the adherence to prescribing protocols.  This is not rocket science, those protocols (evidence based guidelines) and computer programs already exist!  So, USE THEM.
  3. Proactive patients and families should ask about the protocol that will be followed for warfarin in the nursing home — if there is no protocol SPEAK UP — show them a copy of this blog.

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Checklist for the Kidneys — a disease without symptoms

checklistIf your doctor says your kidneys are not working 100% …  is that a problem?  ABSOLUTELY!  You need your kidneys in order to stay alive and when blood tests begin to show kidney problems it means you have lost a lot of kidney function already — at least 50%.  So, the wise doctor and the informed patient need to run a checklist to do the right things.  If you wait until you have symptoms of complete kidney failure, it’s too late.

The main blood test for kidney function is serum creatinine — abbreviated Cr.  The kidneys have a large reserve capacity; in fact, a person can donate a kidney and still have the creatinine (Cr) blood test be “within normal limits”.

Many things can go wrong with the kidneys that range from the fairly simple to the terribly complex.  For instance, kidneys can be damaged simply by the bad effects of high blood pressure or by esoteric autoimmune diseases (“friendly fire” where the body’s defense against germs is accidentally directed at healthy kidney tissue).

You need to know 4 things to estimate your kidney function:

  1. Serum Creatinine (Cr) as measured on a blood sample.
  2. Your age (in years)
  3. Your race (black or not-black)
  4. Your gender (male or female)

Then you calculate another number called eGFR (estimated glomelular filtration rate) based on the items 1 – 4.  Often, this is automatically calculated by the lab — if not get the answer from many online web sites like the National Kidney Foundation eGFR calculatorThe normal value is 100 but it’s not considered abnormal until it is below 90.

STAGE eGFR DESCRIPTION TREATMENT (also see tables below)
1 90+ Normal kidney function but urine findings or structural abnormalities or genetic traits point to kidney disease. Observation, control of blood pressure.
2 60-89 Mildly reduced kidney function, and other findings (as for stage 1) point to kidney disease Observation, control of blood pressure and risk factors.
3A or3B 45-59
30-44
Moderately reduced kidney function Observation, control of blood pressure and risk factors.
4 15-29 Severely reduced kidney function Planning for endstage renal failure.
5 below 15 or on dialysis Very severe, or endstage kidney failure (sometimes called established renal failure) Dialysis or transplant.

Now to the checklist mentioned above (Clin J Am Soc Nephrol 9:1526-1535,2014.):  All is well if you have no known kidney problems, the eGFR is above 90, the urinalysis (U/A) is normal, and you have no genetic predisposition to kidney disease (like a family history of polycystic kidney disease). Otherwise, you have stage 1-4 kidney disease so check off the items below to make sure important tests and treatments are obtained.
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Slow the progression.

checked_checkbox Keep blood pressure below 140/90
checked_checkbox Check HbA1c and keep below 7% for diabetics.
checked_checkbox Every year check urine microalbumin/Cr ratio.
checked_checkbox If ratio is above 30 start ACE or ARB drugs.
checked_checkbox Work to stop smoking.
checked_checkbox Avoid NSAIDS (aspirin like products) or other toxins.
checked_checkbox Keep LDL cholesterol below 100.
checked_checkbox Get pneumonia vaccination every 5 years.
checked_checkbox Get Influenza vaccination each year.

Find and treat complications.

checked_checkbox Check hemoglobin and Iron — keep in satisfactory range.
checked_checkbox Check calcium, phosphate and PTH — keep in satisfactory range.

Referral to nephrologist.

checked_checkbox eGFR is below 30.
checked_checkbox Protein remains in urine despite initial treatment.
checked_checkbox Persistent elevated potassium.
checked_checkbox Can’t keep blood pressure below 140/90.
checked_checkbox eGFR falls by 30% in 4 months without explanation.
checked_checkbox Cause of kidney problems is unclear.
checked_checkbox Anemia needs treatment with erythropoietin stimulating drugs.
checked_checkbox Elevated phosphate or PTH.

So, this seems complicated?  TRUE.  That is precisely why a checklist is needed.  And, that is why the informed patient needs to go over this checklist with the primary care provider.  Print a copy of this post and take it with you to an appointment to start the discussion.

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Medical Care — research, quality improvement and program evaluation

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It sounds like a paradox:  science studying itself.  But, that is exactly what is happening in medicine.  Basic research has led to applications of the research and the applications are studied for effects, benefits and cost.   For example:  invent robotic surgery and apply it to patients, then set it up as a program in an operating room and try to improve the technique and patient selection, and finally evaluate the program to see if it meets stated goals of quality and cost and decide if it should continue and under what conditions.

This huge simplification helps with terms doctors and hospitals often talk about:

  • Discover and apply — called research.
  • Try to improve — called quality improvement (QI).
  • Continue the effort? — called program evaluation (PE).

Patients can be subjects of research.  But, participation in research requires explicit permission since the outcome is not known and it could be bad.

If we knew what it was we were doing, it would not be called research, would it?    (Albert Einstein)

Patients are hopefully impacted by quality improvement since the purpose is to make things better and thus no patient permission is required.  As part of QI a hospital may try to make sure antibiotics are given before surgery because there is research evidence the practice reduces infection.  Quality improvement focuses on a cycle of planning, doing, study and revision.  QI has become a huge area of study with numerous books and journals on the subject.  Virtually every hospital has a quality manager who is charged with improving the care at a hospital.

Patients are only indirectly affected by program evaluation.  Clinics and hospitals constantly evaluate programs for positive or negative effects.  Whether programs continue depend on such studies.  People may read about evaluation of medical programs like care at VA hospitals and may be impacted by decisions of policy makers based on such evaluations.  PE is likewise an important and growing discipline.

The concepts of research, quality improvement and program evaluation do tend to overlap.  One could imagine using QI techniques to improve the quality of research.  And, one could imagine research to find the fastest way to do program evaluation.  However, research is mainly for the purpose the researcher decides.  Whereas QI and PE are mainly for patient care, business or institutional purposes.

Quality healthcare depends on QI and PE.  Patients often don’t see these efforts in action.  But, ineffective QI and PE are hazardous to your health.  Although doctors and hospitals don’t like the idea:   law suits are a warning flag of inadequate QI and PE.

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Accountable Prescribing — end does not justify means

gun1

Nancy Morden MD MPH with others from the Dartmouth Institute for Health Policy and Clinical Practice published a nice “Perspective” in NEJM 3694;4:299-302.    The essence of the article is the observation that published goals of treatment which don’t specify how to reach the goal lead to prescribers” jumping the gun” with strong expensive medications rather than a prudent step by step approach.

A good example from the article is controlling blood pressure.  Guidelines state the desired blood pressure goal is less than 140/90.  Prescribers tend to skip dietary management, skip lowering the salt intake, skip reducing alcohol consumption and jump right to strong blood pressure medications (with the attendant drug allergies, risks and costs).

Another criticism is stopping a medication too soon.  The example is beta-blocker medication after a heart attack.  It is not enough just to start the medication.  The medication must be continued indefinitely.  Too often the medication is stopped because the reason for starting it is forgotten.

Here are the areas the authors found problematic:

  • Blood pressure control
  • Cholesterol management
  • Diabetes control
  • Clot prevention for occlusive vascular disease
  • Lipid control for coronary artery disease
  • Long term beta-blocker after heart attack
  • Avoidance of antibiotics for acute bronchitis
  • Drug use generally in the elderly

From the patient standpoint:  if a health care provider says you have some condition or diagnosis make sure to ask for a step-wise approach to treatment.  In other words, ask for simple or less expensive things to be tried first.  Then insist on follow-up to see if the first steps work.  If the simple things work, you win.  Make sure to research the diagnosis on the internet to exhaust the simple and low cost alternatives.  Later, if the simple things are not enough move on to the next step.

There are obviously situations where a slow cautious approach is not correct.  If you are having a heart attack or a stroke or a blood clot it’s too late to do simple things.

Make sure to understand how long a medication might be needed — if it is “until something better is found” then stick to it and make sure the providers give a good reason for stopping (particularly if you change providers).

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Forcing Quality — is “big data” the answer?

eyenumbers

Today, 7/12/13, the Wall Street Journal has a front page story “Hospitals Prescribe Big Data to Track Doctors at Work” by Anna Wilde Mathews.  The past 20 years have seen numerous efforts to give performance data to doctors with the hope the doctors will change practice patterns.  Each time the efforts have failed.  The Wall Street Journal article  paints a hopeful picture that faster and more accurate data analysis will finally solve health care quality problems.

Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.                                    Albert Einstein

Clearly, collecting such data does reveal quality problems.  In fact, the first step to correcting quality problems is finding them.

But, there are three fatal flaws in thinking that telling doctors about their own quality problems will really help patients:

  1. Studies of errors happening with complex tasks show the best human performance is an error rate of 1 – 10 errors  per 100 tasks.  Meaning, no matter how much you flog doctors with data there is a human limit to performance.  Patients want performance in the range of 1 error per million which requires computers and systems.
  2. By looking at errors as a personal failing instead of a system failure innovation is inhibited.  People tend to say “try harder” rather than “try something new”.
  3. A data driven focus on past problems actually blurs the view of new solutions and new treatments.  Decision support can assist physicians to adopt new methods and treatments.  Currently it takes about 15 years for proven treatments to enter routine practice — big data does not move that forward.

The electronic medical record (EMR) solves many of the problems (this is not big data but something called decision support). The big data approach is to tell doctors they failed and to try harder in the future.   Instead, decision support shows doctors choices at the point of making a decision. For example, as the physician is using the EMR with a patient in the room these messages could show up:

Mammograms: the EMR tells the physician that mammograms will be ordered every year unless you check here [ ].

Tetanus vaccination: your patient has not had a tetanus vaccination.  Give the vaccination now? [ ]yes [ ] no

Asthma medications: Refill data suggests the patient is not taking enough controller medication. What is the reason? ___________________.

Chlamydia screening: Your patient (age 16-24) has not had screening. Do it today? [ ]yes [ ] no

Bronchitis treatment: Treatment guidelines for acute bronchitis do not include antibiotics. Is the diagnosis correct?.   Consider other agents like cough suppressants or bronchodilators.

Diabetes & blood sugar. Guidelines suggest checking A1C hemoglobin every 3 months for diabetics taking insulin.   Order A1C now? [ ]yes [ ]no

 Conclusion:  It is important to collect data on individual doctors and on hospital systems.   That data can tell whether quality improvement efforts are working.  But, doctors  need computer driven decision support at the time of ordering treatment or tests, not criticism days or months later.  Patients benefit immediately from decision support but only later, if at all, from big data.

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Diagnostic Errors — symptom to treatment disconnect

DX Doc

Making a diagnosis is difficult.  And, doctors sometimes get it wrong.  “Wrong” is often harmless, usually expensive,  and sometimes deadly.

An article about incorrect diagnosis appeared this month in the British Medical Journal Quality and Safety which has been widely reported, including by the Wall Street Journal.  Dr. Tehrani and his co-authors  correlated health insurance claims (diagnosis) with malpractice suits.  They found “diagnostic errors appear to be the most common, most costly and most dangerous of medical mistakes.”

One might think the errors happen because the underlying problem is very rare.  On the contrary, the bulk of errors happen with common conditions.

Another article this month in JAMA Internal Medicine  by Dr. Singh and co-workers reported on common types of diagnostic errors — many of which were common in primary care:  (italics are blog examples)

  • Pneumonia
    • no chest x-ray for cough and high fever
  • Decompensated congestive heart failure
    • no BNpeptide checked
  • Acute renal failure
    • no check of basic metabolic panel for fatigue
  • Cancer
    • ignoring Mammogram findings or blood in sputum
  • Urinary tract infections
    • not checking urinalysis or treating soon enough

The flaw in the process that contributed to the wrong diagnosis included:

  • Inadequate patient encounter (too short or not focused on problem)
  • Not seeking referral when needed (like not getting a cardiology consult for chest pain)
  • Patient related factors (not returning for follow-up)
  • Not taking risk factors into account (like family history of colon cancer)
  • Losing track of test results (urinalysis report filed but not viewed)
  • Not getting the right test (not getting a chest x-ray for shortness of breath)

Problems at the time of patient encounter are a major contributor:

  • Poor history taking (provider did not listen or ask questions)
  • Inadequate examination (provider did not examine problem area — like a breast nodule)
  • Inadequate testing (not considering a colonoscopy for blood in the stool)

When a person has a health problem the whole idea is to connect the dots …problem…diagnosis…treatment.  If the diagnosis is not correct then good treatment is disconnected.

Providers often do not consider enough possible causes for abnormal findings.  Those possibilities are called the “differential diagnosis”.  There are books and several free sites on the Internet that provide such lists.  One such site is DiagnosisPro.  If you like other sites leave a comment please.  Some electronic record applications include a differential diagnosis automatically — nice feature which should always be installed.

So, what is the solution?  Most experts agree, the quality of the provider-patient interaction must improve.  Providers need to follow known guidelines plus use differential diagnosis aids.  Patients need to look out for themselves by using the Internet or books to  understand symptoms and test results.  The best solution is a stronger partnership between patients and providers.  See earlier posts in this blog about shared decision-making and patient centered care.

Can all errors be prevented?  NO.  To err is human.  The point is to minimize the errors, and there is obviously a lot of room for improvement.

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