Sunday, April 22, 2018

Warning! Coffee May Cause Cancer!


Are you getting a little tired of being warned that all kinds of stuff you do is unsafe?  I wrote a post recently about Warning Fatigue with regard to our office’s Electronic Medical Record which I fear will emit a flashing Red Alert if I prescribe a patient an aspirin.

Now, I start every morning with a steaming cup of coffee.  In fact, there is one beside me right now, as I peck about my Dell keyboard to create this post.  My inner circle of intimates and those with whom I share a high percentage of DNA, are aware that I add something to the java, which is a rather atypical additive.  Curious readers may inquire further, although I cannot pledge here that I will make a full disclosure.   Persuade me to disclose, and I will give your request due consideration..

Recently, a judge in California ruled that various coffee companies, including Starbucks, must issue a cancer warning regarding a component of coffee called acrylamide  Violators would be subject to a mere $2,500 daily fine until the establishment complied.  Should Starbucks file for bankruptcy?  Or, better yet, can we sue the coffee companies if we become ill?  What about the fear of becoming ill?  Shouldn't that be compensable?

You might think that this warning could discourage sales since most folks, including me, are against cancer.  But, most folks, including me, shrug off dire warnings on substances and activities that have become part of our daily lives for hundreds of years.  And, calling something a carcinogen – which sounds scary – does not mean it is truly toxic. It may in theory pose a risk that is simply too infinitesimal to take seriously.  For example, if some laboratory rodents (the most unlucky creatures on the planet) are given the equivalent of 500 cups of coffee a day for a year, and they develop tumors, should we humans be concerned because some element of the java may be a carcinogen?

Arsenic in Disguise?


More confusing is to consider all of the putative health benefits of coffee, which even a rudimentary Googler such as myself quickly uncovered.   There are claims, for instance, that coffee can protect us against diabetes, Parkinson’s disease, dementia, depression and liver disease.  Perhaps, we should increase our coffee intake to protect ourselves.  

If we avoided every substance that an organization claimed to be risky and injurious, we would have to live in a hermetically sealed chamber receiving specialized feedings through a tube.  Doesn’t that sound like fun?

What if some organization decided that oxygen was toxic and needed to be avoided?  How long can you hold your breath?
                                                                                                                                               


Sunday, April 15, 2018

Why I Now Treat Hepatitis C Patients


In a prior post, I shared my heretofore reluctance to prescribe medications to my Hepatitis C (HCV) patients.  In summary, after consideration of the risks and benefits of the available options, I could not persuade myself – or my patients – to pull the trigger.  These patients were made aware of my conservative philosophy of medical practice. I offered every one of them an opportunity to consult with another specialist who had a different view on the value of HCV treatment.

I do believe that there is a medical industrial complex that is flowing across the country like hot steaming lava.  While I have evolved in many ways professionally over the years, I have remained steadfast that less medical care generally results in better outcomes. 



A Scouting Patrol of the Medical Indutrial Complex

There was an astonishing development in HCV treatment that caused me to reevaluate my calculus.  New treatment emerged that was extremely safe and amazingly effective.  Now, nearly all patients with HCV can be cured by taking pills – no injections – that only rarely cause side effects.  Over the past 2 years, I have had many successes treating patients who on my advice had declined prior treatment options.

If you now have HCV, how can you refuse a safe medicine that works superbly?

This has been a game changer and the pharmaceutical companies should be congratulated on these breakthroughs.  There are several outstanding drugs currently available.  Initially, a 12 week course of treatment cost about $1,000 a day, clearly a pricey option.  And, if you believe that every HCV patient in the country should be treated, which may be up to 5 million people, do a cost calculation which might crash your computer.

To those who demonize the pharmaceutical industry for sport, would such a monumental research effort have even been undertaken without the promise of a huge profit?  Would you take a huge risk in your business without the hope of realizing a robust profit?  It takes years and tens of millions of dollars to do drug development, and most of these efforts fail either along the way or after the drug has hit the market and safety concerns arise.  

I’m not suggesting that this industry is filled with Eagle Scouts.  We have all read about numerous excesses and even illegalities in the drug trade.  But, if we want real pharmaceutical breakthroughs, and not just another heartburn or hypertensive medicine, then we need to provide incentives for undertaking this research. 

Market forces have substantially lowered the cost of HCV treatment, but it is still expensive.

Patients come to my office already informed about current HCV treatment.  Many are referred to me by physicians expecting me to treat them.   The drugs are safe and effective and approved by the F.D.A.   Although I still feel we are overtreating, my arguments for holding back have been somewhat dismantled by the new pharmaceutical developments.  Am I now at the vanguard of the Medical Industrial Complex?

Sunday, April 8, 2018

Avoiding Drug Interactions and Side Effects - Be Warned!


Eons ago, there was a television show where a non-human character would yell out, ‘Warning’, Warning’, when he sensed imminent danger.   The series was called Lost in Space where we were entertained by a set of quirky characters on a cheesy set.  We loved that stuff.  It’s hard to imagine today’s millennials and younger folks being transfixed, as we were, with the deep television dramas of our day.  Who could match the subtle allegory and nuance of shows such as Green Acres or Gomer Pyle?  Some superficial viewers regarded The Andy Griffith Show as a homespun, idyllic view of small town America.  In truth it was a biting satire on the excesses and abuses of law enforcement in the 1960’s.


Robot and Dr. Smith


I am overwhelmed with the warnings that I receive in my work and in my life.  It seems that warnings, caveats and disclaimers are so omnipresent that they have lost their impact.  As I write this, I am seated in McDonalds, sipping a cold beverage that does not quite qualify as a nutritive elixir.  Had I chosen a steaming hot ‘cup of joe’, I’m quite certain that the beverage’s container would warn me that it contains a hot beverage.  Such a warning, of course, is of great benefit to the consumer, who would behave entirely differently equipped with the knowledge that his hot coffee is actually hot. 

With some regularity, when I prescribe a medication using our office’s beloved electronic medical record (EMR), a red warning flashes indicating that there is a potentially severe interaction with one of the patient’s current medications.  The intensity of the warning would suggest that I was prescribing cyanide or rat poison.   Our EMR allows me to bypass the warning and prescribe anyway, leaving this action memorialized in the EMR and available to plaintiff attorneys who might be in a position to query me on this decision, should an adverse medical event ensue. 

Now, I take these warnings seriously and would never place a patient at risk, unless the medical circumstances justified it, and the patient was properly informed.  My point is that many of these electronic warnings are hyperbolic, if not spurious.  Many times when I call a pharmacist – a human drug professional – in the presence of the patient, I am advised that there is no material risk.  In fact, the last time I did this just a few weeks ago, the pharmacist assured me that there was NO risk of an interaction.  I always document these conversations in the record and hope that the truth would set me free, if necessary. 

I cannot explain why the EMR’s software is set so sensitively.  I suppose I could investigate raising the threshold for issuing an apocalyptic warning, but then I might miss some actual legitimate warnings.

Do you think that all of the warnings we read, hear and trip over are issued to protect us or the companies and organizations that issue them?

Sunday, April 1, 2018

The Joy of Appealing a Medical Insurance Company Denial

A few weeks ago, I saw a patient with some gastro issues.  So far, nothing newsworthy here since I am a gastroenterologist.  I ordered a CAT scan colonography, a special CAT scan that is designed to view the colon in detail.  It’s the CAT scan version of a colonoscopy.  Why didn’t I simply perform a colonoscopy, which, unlike a CAT scan, would contribute to the Whistleblower Retirement Fund?  That’s an easy one.  Care to take a guess?
  • The patient refused to undergo a colonoscopy.
  • The patient had no insurance and I don’t work for free.
  • The patient is a ‘cat lady’ and loves all things CAT.
  • The CAT scan was a better tool than colonoscopy to explain her symptoms.
Playing Cat & Mouse with Insurance Companies

I expect that my discerning readers can identify the correct choice.  I ordered the CAT scan because it was the best option for the patient, which the insurance company summarily denied.  I called the insurance company (always a fun and amusing exercise) and spoke personally to a physician reviewer and explained my rationale, but his decision was immutable.  I asked if there was additional recourse available to me, and he advised that I could request a ‘peer-to-peer’ discussion, when I could discuss the case with another physician.  My suspicion was that this doctor no longer treats living, breathing patients.  He seemed to be reading off insurance company cue cards.  He projected less humanity than is present in the ubiquitous mechanical utterances of “Your call is important to us.  Please listen carefully as our menu options have changed…”

I will summarize the conversation in the following two bullet points.
  • Insurance Company Tool:  “We can’t approve the test as you have not provided any objective evidence that there is a problem in your patient’s colon.”
  • Me: “I agree.  That’s why I am ordering the CAT scan.   If I knew in advance what was wrong with her colon, thenI wouldn’t need to order the test.  Get my point?”
He then issued Denial #2.   Had I recommended that my patient undergo a colonoscopy – not the best choice for her – it would have sailed right through.  But, for reasons I ask readers to trust me on, this wasn't the right choice for her.  This patient will be seeing me later this month and I look forward to updating her on how her insurance company’s mission is to protect her health. 

If insurance companies care only for profits, then they should at least have the decency to tell the truth.  Look the patient in the eye, the person who’s been paying premiums for medical coverage, and tell her that you won’t pay for the test because their box-checking process has determined that it is not medically necessary.  What would happen if the patient decided to stop paying premiums because it wasn’t 'fiscally necessary'?  Since the insurance company denied medical care to a paying customer for care that her own physician believed is necessary, then I assume that they would continue her medical coverage even if she stopped paying her premiums.  Should there be one standard at play here?  You may start laughing now.

Comments invited. 


Sunday, March 25, 2018

Hepatitis C - Silent Killer or Innocent Bystander?


For a few decades, I did not treat patients with Hepatitis C (HCV) infection, despite aggressive marketing by the pharmaceutical companies and cheerleading by academics.  I was an iconoclast as most of my gastroenterology colleagues were HCV treatment enthusiasts. They argued that if the virus could be eradicated, that there was evidence that these patients could avoid some horrendous HCV complications, such as cirrhosis, liver failure and cancer of the liver.

I’m certainly against cancer and liver destruction, but I have thought that the evidence that HCV patients who vanquished the virus would be saved from these fates was somewhat murky.  Treatment proponents would argue that the medical evidence for thes claims is solid, but I wonder to what extent their favorable bias toward treatment influenced their judgment.  We physicians know that a doctor or a drug company will seize on  particularly studies that supports their views.  Studies that challenge their beliefs may be criticized for 'study design flaws' and other defects.  I am generalizing here, but we all know how we tend to pursue confirmation bias, seeking out sources and opinions that support what we already think. This is not quite a pursuit of the truth.

Additionally, there is a well-known phenomenon called publication bias when favorable treatment results are more likely to be published than negative treatment results.  In other words, a study that shows a drug is effective is more likely to be published than a study that shows a failed result. This means that physicians like me who read medical journals may receive an over optimistic view of drugs because of this cherry picking.

In my 30 years of practice, I have never had any of my untreated HCV patients develop any measurable deterioration of their liver status.   In fact, nearly all of them were asymptomatic and felt
entirely well. 



Illustration of the liver created 100 years ago.


Consider these facts:
  • Most patients with HCV are not ill.
  • HCV is not easily transmissible to other individuals.  It is spread via contaminated blood, such as with sharing IV needles.
  • The majority of HCV patients will never develop liver cancer or liver failure.
  • The majority oF HCV patient have had the infection for decades and remain well.
  • Until recently, HCV medications had very limited efficacy and had numerous complications.
Like all of you, I harbor my own biases.  I am a very conservative practitioner, as readers know well.  I am never among the first to jump aboard the New Treatment Train.

Until groundbreaking HCV treatment emerged in recent years, I had been unable to convince myself, let alone my patients, that they should accept a complex medical regimen that included injections, that didn’t work well and would make them feel sick.   

While my academic colleagues would have accused me of nihilism, not a single HCV patient in my practice has seemingly progressed.  (Of course, my academic friends would claim that many of my patients may have 'silently progressed' even though they still feel well.)   There is always a medical argument a physician can wield to justify his or her recommendation or belief.

I'm not claiming that my view here is the only legitimate one.  I do suggest that it deserves to be heard.

In an upcoming post, I will share why I have jumped, with some reluctance, into the HCV treatment arena. 

Sunday, March 18, 2018

Thousands of High School Students Protest Gun Violence - Should We Give Them a Free Pass?


This past week high school students across the country walked out of school for 17 minutes to show solidarity with the 17 fallen Florida students and their families. There is not a human being among us who disagrees with their mission, except for a few deranged and cowardly murderers.  These kids are crying out for more restrictive gun laws.

Although I will offer a controversial view below on the walkout, let me say with clarity and sincerity that I am proud of these kids.  Since the horror in Florida, I watched them speak to us with passion, poise and eloquence.  While many of us may not agree on the best path forward, we can all agree that we have great kids in this country.

These kids are right and have a right to demand to be safe. Schools have always been an oasis for our children, places where they are to be nurtured, educated and protected.  I know that there are many teachers who would serve as a shield for their students in any situation, as they have so nobly demonstrated. 


Safe in School

Some public and private schools have  authorized the demonstrations, assuring the kids that no disciplinary action against them would be taken.  Moreover, Yale, MIT, Dartmouth, UCLA, Harvard and other colleges have announced that no high school protester’s college application would be adversely affected by their participation. 

Many high schools have differing views on the propriety of the protest.  Here’s my concern.  If colleges and high schools are taking a permissive stance on this protest, because they support the cause, have they opened a door that will allow future students to walk through?

My personal view is that students should not be permitted to leave the school during school hours without permission in accordance with established school policy.   Students, like the rest of us, are free to protest and express themselves when school is not in session.  Why must the demonstrations occur during the school day?  If school policy is violated, then violators should be prepared for the consequences, which should already have been codified and known by all those concerned.  Many students opted to protest and were prepared to be held to account.

What if the students' message was not for more gun control?  Would we expect equal treatment?

How would high school administrators, school boards, teachers, students, parents and colleges react to the following protest themes?
  • Students walk out demanding that teachers be armed.
  • Students walk out demanding that an NRA spokesman be permitted to address the student body during assembly.
  • Students walk out protesting against teachers who have been advocating for stricter gun control during class time.
  • Students walk out to express their pro-life view and demand abstinence education.
  • Students walk out demanding an end to standardized testing alleging they are racially biased.
  • Students walk out demanding changes in the curriculum reflecting a more multicultural approach.
  • Students walk out protesting the FBI and law enforcement who missed so many opportunities in Florida to intervene and prevent a horror. 
I don’t think we should have an elastic policy that stretches when we support a cause but contracts when we oppose it.  True fairness is when we have the same tolerance regardless of the content.  Free speech, for example, doesn’t mean free speech only when we agree with it. 

How do you think the Academy, high school leadership and the press would have reacted if high schoolers poured out during the school day carrying signs and shouting in unison, Build That Wall!  Do you think that colleges and universities would be racing for the microphones to give these kids encouragment and a free pass?


Sunday, March 11, 2018

Insurance Company Denial of Emergency Care - Part 2

Last week, I opined about a decision by Anthem to deny paying for Emergency Room (ER) care that it deemed to be non-emergent.  My point was that insurance companies should not be obligated to pay for routine, non-emergent care, recognizing that we need a fair and reasonable method to define a medical emergency.   In my view, payment should not be denied to a patient who reasonably believes he needs ER care, even if the symptoms are (hopefully) found to be innocent after a medical evaluation.

For example, if a patient develops chest pain at 10 o’clock p.m., and is worried about an acute cardiac issue, he should call 911.  If the ER determines that chest pain is simple heartburn, it would not be reasonable for Anthem to deny payment for this ‘non-emergent’ condition.   We’re all a little smarter after the fact once we know the outcome.

Some medical complaints, however, are never medical emergencies.  If you want ER care for a runny nose, a cough or a sore knee, and you proceed to the ER, explain why you think your insurance company should pay for this. 



Coronaviruses Cause the Common Cold 
True Emergency?

Emergency Rooms must accept every patient who seeks care there by law.  A patient cannot be turned away regardless of how trivial the medical issue is.

One approach would be for every ER to have two tiers of service – Tier 1 for true emergencies and Tier 2 for all the rest.  Some ERs have such a system, but I think this should become the standard of care.  The Tier 2 facility could be equipped to provide efficient, low cost care for appropriate medical issues.  ER personnel are already highly skilled in triaging patients and could direct incoming patients toward the correct Tier. 

Here are the benefits.
  • Patients with minor complaints would be seen without waiting for hours while ER personnel attended to truly ill individuals.
  • Tier 2 facilities would be designed to provide lower cost care.
  • Tier 1 could operate more smoothly since patients with routine medical issues would be siphoned off.
  • There would likely be an overall cost savings to the health care system.
Ohio legislators are already threatening legislation to attack Anthem’s ER denial of care policy.  As a gastroenterologist, this craven political grandstanding nauseates me.  Politicians, who spend a career spending other people’s money irresponsibly, aim to lecture a private company who wants to exercise reasonable cost restraints.  Give me a break.

Would Anthem and her sister companies cover Tier 2 care?  Could they assert that since the patient was determined in the ER to have a non-emergent condition that the care should be on the patient’s dime?  I’m not answering this question, I’m merely posing it.  I do think that the present system when a patient expects or is entitled to any ER care being covered needs to be reformed.

When insurance companies pay millions of dollars for unnecessary care, guess who’s really paying for it?

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