Up in Arms, Up in Smoke

20090715_japan_0671If you apply for health insurance, you may find you have to pay higher rates if you’re a smoker. Now federal regulators are trying to decide if insurers who participate in the Affordable Care Act (aka ObamaCare) exchanges can add a surcharge for those using e-cigarettes or vaporizers.  They already can for cigarettes in most states.

Some argue against this, in the name of harm reduction, the idea that if people are going to smoke, it’s better to smoke something safer. For example, Reynolds American Inc spokesman David Howard, said, “We don’t believe policies should be implemented that might deter current smokers from considering switching to smoke-free alternative products like e-cigarettes.”

Numerous studies have, shown, however,that the best way to get people to cut back on smoking, is to make it more expensive. E-cigarettes and vaporizers are cheaper than cigarettes, so paying more for insurance for all forms will encourage more people to stop smoking. No one is suggesting that those smoking alternative forms of tobacco be charged more than those who smoke cigarettes, so even if insurers charge extra for those who use e-cigarettes or vaporizers, they will not pay more than if they stuck with cigarettes, so really it won’t deter smokers from switching. People switch because it costs less, it’s more socially acceptable, or they perceive it to be safer.

In that last regard, vapor may be safer than cigarettes, but we really don’t know. Recent studies show they can definitely have known carcinogens, such as formaldehyde. Would you really want to inhale a chemical used to embalm corpses? I tell my patients that if they use e-cigarettes to help them quit smoking, which may or may not help, then I’m alright with that, but the goal should be to stop using tobacco products, and not just switch from one habit to another.

 

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Humor Down Under

Bathroom door at Kawarau Bridge, the first commercial bungee jump in Queenstown, New Zealand.

Bathroom door at Kawarau Bridge, the first commercial bungee jump in Queenstown, New Zealand.
Bathroom doors at Kawarau Bridge, the first commercial bungee jump in Queenstown, New Zealand.

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Who Are You Calling Old?

Moth on bricksA local family medicine residency program sends second year residents to rotate through my internal medicine clinic. Reviewing the note that one of them wrote, I saw that he described my 66-year-old patient as, “Elderly, ” though did note that she appeared younger than her age. I let that young whippersnapper know that age is relative, and that I doubted he would consider 66 as elderly once he reached his 50′s!

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Pierce County Medical Society Website Launch

Pierce County Medical Society LogoI’m proud to announce that today the Pierce County Medical Society (PCMS) went live with a newly redone website. I’ve been working on it for over a year.

There is a lot to see on the site. I’ve created a video that gives a tour of the site. It’s aimed at members, who see a link after logging on, but most of the content is useful for the general public, including how to use the Physician Search section to find a doctor in Pierce County.

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Tort Reform and Forced Sterilization in North Carolina

Torte - Image credit: <a href='http://www.123rf.com/photo_13722428_delicious-slice-of-home-made-sachertorte-cake.html'>digitalsun / 123RF Stock Photo</a>

In 2011 the North Carolina legislature made major changes to the law governing medical malpractice claims. This tort reform, among other things, capped non-economic damages at $500,000.

Such caps on damages do not restrict payments for financial losses, such as future income not earned due to no longer being able to work as a result of injury or death because of something a doctor did, or neglected to do. Rather it limits awards to compensate for such things as pain and suffering.

Physicians in Washington State, and elsewhere, have lobbied for tort reform. Although some physicians have been guilty of gross negligence, in many cases doctors are sued, and juries award large amounts of money, because a patient has suffered, but not necessarily because of something the physician did wrong. Because physicians worry about getting sued, they tend to practice defensive medicine, and order more tests and procedures than necessary as a result. Besides wasting money, it can cause harm. I’ve had patients who have had dozen of CT scans, because every time they go to the emergency room for abdominal pain, they get one to make sure they don’t have such things as appendicitis. The radiation from the CT scan increases the risk of developing cancer in the future. Although such scans are certainly warranted at times, I believe they are excessively ordered because of fear of getting sued.

Between 1929 and 1974, North Carolina forcibly sterilized 7600 people it deemed socially or mentally unfit. Recently the state agreed to set up a $10 million dollar fund to compensate living victims. So far they’ve identified 177, though as of 2010 the State Center for Health Statistics estimated that 2,944 victims may have still been alive. If they end up with 200 such people filing claims, they would each get $50,000. That’s only one tenth of the amount allowed in that state for non-economic damages, and one hundredth if 2000 filed claims, and infinitesimally less in a state that has no such cap. Physicians may be well off, but their pockets are not nearly as deep as a state.

If a physician inadvertently sterilized a patient while treating them for something else, they could be sued for large sums of money for depriving them the chance of procreating. If states can cap non-economic damages for doing the same, isn’t it only fair that limits be placed on non-economic damage for malpractice for physicians who were trying to do the right thing? Although that’s true in about 30 states, the Washington State Supreme Court ruled such caps unconstitutional in Sofie v. Fiberboard Corp., 112 Wn.2d 636 (1989). Although that was not a medical malpractice case, the reasoning goes against the decisions made by a majority of other states, and ignores the fact that resources are limited. No caps in theory means a jury could bankrupt an individual or company, no matter how large, and no matter how many hurt if that happened, all in the name of “justice” to benefit one person, and their legal team of course.

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Prostate Cancer – A Fish Tale

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Have you heard that fish oil supplements cause prostate cancer? The news items come from an article published online July 11, 2013 by Brasky et al. in the Journal of the the National Cancer Institute, “Plasma Phospholipid Fatty Acids and Prostate Cancer Risk in the SELECT Trial.

This study looked at 834 men diagnosed with prostate cancer, and compared them with 1393 men, matched for age and race, that did not have prostate cancer. They then looked at the amount of omega-3 in their blood and compared the groups.

They found that those with the highest omega-3 levels had the highest risk of prostate cancer, 44% higher over all. This study followed up on one published earlier by the same group that suggested increased risk from fish consumption. The levels of omega-3 in the highest group were fairly modest, equivalent to eating an oily fish, such as salmon, twice a week.

Before jumping to the conclusion that men should not take fish oil or consume much fish, there are a number of things to consider. First of all, association does not imply causation. What does that mean? Just because two things occur together, it does not mean that one caused the other. If you look outside on a rainy day, you will see many people carrying umbrellas. But you would be wrong to conclude that carrying umbrellas caused it to rain.

It could be that it wasn’t the omega-3 in fish, or fish oil supplements, that caused prostate cancer, but rather something else in the products, such as mercury or other toxins in the fish. If you ate fish raised in places low in pollution, or consumed ultra-filtered fish oil, then perhaps it would not be a problem. This study does not answer that question.

Even if eating fish or taking supplements increases the risk of prostate cancer, studies have shown it decreases the risk of cardiovascular (heart) disease, which is far more common.

This study was not the preferred double-blind, placebo controlled study, and the conclusion may just be wrong. After all, other studies have shown that fish consumption decreases prostate cancer. For example, one in the Lancet showed decreased risk of prostate cancer in those who ate moderate or high amounts of fish. Also consider that Japanese men consume much more fish then American men, yet have far less prostate cancer.

So until I see more convincing evidence, I’ll continue to take my fish oil capsules, and enjoy eating salmon.

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Medication Small Print

WhenSolu-Medrol_crop I give a cortisone injection, I have to document it in our electronic medical records. I’ve always included the dose, how administered (intramuscular), and the lot number. This week my company added the requirement that we include the NDC number, as insurance companies wanted the information.

It’s just one more administrative requirement, but what really makes it bad is trying to read the number off the bottle. As you can see from the photo, the font is very small! I suggested the policy was age discrimination, but that didn’t get far.

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A New Target for Food Companies

Image credit: <a href='http://www.123rf.com/photo_14942511_mature-satisfied-chef-smell-the-aroma-of-his-food-while-cooking-at-restaurant.html'>rido / 123RF Stock Photo</a>

Food companies use sophisticated science and psychology to get people to buy their food. Using combinations of salt, sugar, and fat, among other things, they entice us and cause actual addiction. Although many people are rightfully concerned given the levels of obesity, diabetes, and other health problems, I think they’re missing out on a segment of the population that might actually benefit from their craft.

Not infrequently do I see patients, often elderly, who have a problem many of us could only wish for. They have a poor appetite. This may be due to many factors, including diminished smell and taste, poor vision, and dry mouth. What they need is food meant to appeal to them.

One of the tricks used to sell us more food is vanishing caloric density. Foods like Cheetos, that quickly melt in the mouth, fool the brain  to think there are less calories than there really are, so people eat more of them. If you’re malnourished, that might be a good thing. The food engineers should create foods that people with a poor appetite will actually want to eat. Throw in some vitamins and fiber, and just maybe they would get physicians to recommend them.

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Mystery Photo

mystery_photo

I’ve been slow to write because I recently returned from a vacation to France. Above is something I saw there. I’ll leave it to my readers to guess what this is, and where it came from.

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Health in China

The Chinese are less concerned about safety than American. We worry about health risks, perhaps obsessively at times, but from my perspective it’s less of a concern to them. As I wrote, I thoroughly enjoyed a recent trip to China, but now want to discuss some observations on medical issues in China.

Smokers at tables flanking a no smoking sign in a Beijing restaurant.

Smokers at tables flanking a no smoking sign in a Beijing restaurant.

They smoke much more, and allow smoking in many more places. No smoking signs are often ignored.

In some of their cities, they breath in much more pollution. The Chinese government publicly posts measurements of the air quality, but it’s often significantly less than the United States Embassy measurements. Here are readings I recorded during our trip.

China Air Quality Shanghai - Official Reading

China Air Quality Shanghai – Official Reading

China Air Quality Shanghai - US Consulate

China Air Quality Shanghai – US Consulate

This score of particulate matter was created by the Environmental Protection Agency and goes up to 500, which was supposed to be the scale maximum. Recently readings in Beijing have been as high as 755. According to China’s Ministry of Environmental Protection, less than 6% of vehicles in the country meet the highest environmental standards, and there is particularly a problem with the tiny particles known as PM2.5, thought to be particularly toxic. Most of this is generated by older cars and trucks.

Bicycle and motor scooter riders don’t wear helmets. In 3 days of driving around Beijing our guide never wore seat belts, even on the highway. The driver only wore it one time briefly.  Eighty percent of car sales are to first time buyers, and many of them have little experience. Pedestrians do not have the right of way. One evening we drove past a man crumpled up on the street, with a man standing next to him talking on the phone, and no ambulance in sight. I can’t be certain, but I believe he was hit by a car trying to cross the street. Shortly after leaving our hotel in Shanghai on the way to the airport, our bus was temporarily stopped in traffic after a motorcyclist was hit and was laying on the ground. If we saw two people hit in 8 days, imagine how often it must occur.

They seem to be less germaphobic than most Americans. Their tap water is not potable unless you’ve lived there long enough to have developed resistance.  They eat family style sharing multiple dishes, but do not give serving utensils, so everyone dips their own chopsticks into the common food.

According to an article in the 11/14/12 China Daily newspaper, obesity is becoming more common in Shanghai.  It said that roughly 40 percent of adults in Shanghai are obese or overweight. A survey released at the end of 2011 showed the average weight of male residents had increased by 2.9 kg (6.4 lbs), and weight circumference had increase 2.3 cm (0.9″) since 2000. Certainly they have much less obesity than we do in the United States, but it’s likely to get worse. They are less physically active, with motor bikes more common than bicycles, and their diet is getting more westernized. I saw many McDonalds, Haggen-Daz, and Starbucks in Beijing and Shanghai.

Another article in the same issue said the number of people in mainland China with diabetes has doubled in the past decade to about 9.7% in those 20-years-old and older, and that only 40% of them have been diagnosed. Because of the increase in chronic illnesses there, pharmaceutical company Eli Lilly & Company plans to expand in China to increase sales of their drugs for diabetes, the heart and cancer.

We went to the China Academy of Chinese Medical Sciences at the Science and Technology Center (www.china-tcm.com). While our feet soaked in a tub of tea, someone came and talked about the center.  It was started in 1955 under the direction of Mao Tse Tung. It mostly serves the government leaders. He said none of them have heart problems, cancer or high blood pressure.  He said only Chou Enlai had liver cancer in 1976 when they were 20121109_SF-China_0420less developed. Next students massaged our feet while a doctor examined me, then my wife, while a woman translated. He felt the pulse with 3 fingers check on each side. He said I had problems with blood pressure and fatty liver and said I should lose 5-6 kg. I’ve not had problems with the first two, but wouldn’t argue with the last. He also asked if I had an eye problem. I actually have had some problems with eye inflammation, but perhaps he looked in my eyes and noticed the affect of a combination of air pollution and jet lag. He recommended 2 medicine, each ¥650 (about $100) for a month supply and said I needed to take it for only 1-2 months. He said I would be amazed at the difference. When I hesitated he asked if my patients take their medicine when I prescribe it. I ended up buying a one month supply for myself as I felt a little guilty they had spent all the time on us, and it was place that didn’t seem to get many foreigners. I figured if for nothing else, it would make a good blog post. In my n-of-1, non-blinded, non-placebo controlled study, I found no difference after taking the medications for one month. Well actually I did lose about 3 lbs, but I suspect that was from following my New Year’s resolution with more exercise and an even better diet. Considering that I felt the same, despite being a month older, maybe it did do something.

Although I joke about it, I suspect some herbal medicines are effective. After all, some pharmaceutical medications in use today are derived from plants. Before taking such medications long term, one should be concerned about not only effectiveness, but safety, including the risk of contamination with lead and other chemicals.

I was going to try acupuncture, but our guide couldn’t find a place she felt comfortable recommending (sterile needles, etc.).

Prior to the trip I obtained a hepatitis A vaccination. That’s the one viral hepatitis that can be transmitted by contaminated food, which although it doesn’t caused a chronic infection, can definitely put a damper on your vacation.

China seems to be moving in the right direction in some areas related to health and the environment, which I hope they sustain. They don’t need to adopt all the practices of Western society, nor would I wish them to do so, but the Chinese people shouldn’t needlessly suffer from from such things as traffic fatalities, pollution, and smoking, and those things should minimized as much as possible.

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