Here’s a word cloud look at my last week, which was entirely telephone or virtual (video) visits given the COVID-19 pandemic. I took a compilation of all my notes, minus names and protected information of course. Many words did not fit, and I had to adjust the relative size of some words to include the most relevant ones.
Social distancing is strange when it hits home. The last time we had kids and grandkids over for dinner, about a month ago, we tended to hold back giving the usual hugs. Three people were in the medical profession and two lived 5 miles away from the nursing home in Kirkland that had the big outbreak. It was like an Agatha Christie whodunnit murder mystery and we were all suspects!
At work we’ve been careful to conserve supplies for quite a while, particularly to help out for the places that really need them.
When wearing a gown I couldn’t swipe my badge to log in and out of the computer as my badge was under the gown (if over then it risked touching the patient if I was examining them). I had to pull the reader to me. Face ID doesn’t work with a mask. Last month I saw a new patient, who happened to have a cold, so we both wore masks. Neither of us really saw what the other looked like. More recently most everyone wears masks.
I often check a patient’s throat when doing a routine exam, but would skip it if not really needed to avoid having to be relatively close while they may be actively exhaling in front of me. When I do a physical exam on men, I’d think twice about telling them to turn their head and cough!
We’ve quickly changed how we practice medicine. We try to screen patients to prevent potentially sick patients from coming in. It doesn’t always work. They may have already had an appointment to follow up on their diabetes, and not mentioned that they had a cough. A phone screener may have asked if they went to South Korea or Italy or had known exposure, but that doesn’t mean they didn’t have exposure to someone sick that has yet to be diagnosed, and more recently travel history no longer matters. I documented any personal protective equipment (PPE) I used (mask, mask with eye shield, gloves, gown). That way if I later find out my patient was infected, I could look at what protection I wore. Because of equipment shortages I could not wear everything for every patient I see.
I purchased scrubs for the first time a few weeks ago. When I worked in the hospital many years ago, they provided them to us. Working in the clinic it was not considered acceptable attire for doctors. Because of the pandemic, administration authorized us to wear them. When I would get home, they would go straight to the washing machine, and I would head to the shower as a decontamination routine. We never made so much use of our LG Sidekick pedestal washer!
We’re heading towards doing telemedicine in a much bigger way. That protects our patients from being exposed coming in, and it protects health care workers, and other patients, from being exposed to sick patients. Various legal restrictions and how we are reimbursed has limited this, but now the government as temporarily removed many
restrictions and the government and private insurances are starting to pay for virtual healthcare. I was 17 minutes late the first time I did a case by phone. I was waiting for my nurse to check her in before I realized that I was supposed to call her! I also quickly realized that I needed to use my speaker phone as I could not type efficiently holding the phone with one hand. I’m now set up to do video visits from work or home, but it has been a challenge for many patients. The easiest way is to use a smart phone (iPhone or Android) and download the Epic MyChart app as we use Epic as our electronic medical record
(EMR). Then we can connect on our end using the Haiku app and have a secure video conference call. But some patients don’t have smart phones, and for those that do they often don’t understand that they need to download the app, and that there are a few steps they have to do on their end to actually connect. Some try to connect through MyChart on a browser, but that often doesn’t work. A couple of people couldn’t download the app because they didn’t remember their password for the app store. Another video app we’ve used, that is preferred by our legal department, is less intuitive and I’ve only been successful with it a few times. Occasionally we run into bandwidth issues and sound or video quality is not good. I’m not sure where the problem is, but I suspect it’s on the patient end as I’m connecting to a fast internet and Wi-Fi. When it works, though, it’s generally a good experience for patients and myself. Patients can show me a rash or swollen ankle. For both sides of a video conference, it’s helpful to have a good light source from the front. If it’s from the back one’s face is in the shadows. Try just using the rearview camera to get an idea of what you’ll look like (and what’s behind you!) beforehand. Although I think visits in person tend to be best, it’s certainly safer doing it virtually. Patients appreciate that, as well as the convenience.
People generally know that this pandemic has been hard on healthcare workers. What many people probably don’t realize is that in a healthcare organization a lot of others play important supporting rolls. As I serve on an informatics committee and am a Physician Builder, I’ve had a chance to see some of what’s going on. To place an order for a brand- new test, for example, some analyst had to build the functionality into our electronic medical record. There are many new workflows that were needed, including for telemedicine, and in the beginning the analysts were told we needed them yesterday.
Once a week I work with a family medicine resident to teach them geriatric medicine. I spoke with one last month that I wasn’t sure what was going to happen with her rotation since both I and my colleague were moving towards stopping seeing patients in the clinic. After she spoke with one of the faculty, they suggested she observe me doing telemedicine as I have a reputation for being good with computers. But how could I have her watch yet keep the recommended 6 feet of social distance? I did a test where I chatted with her over one of the apps and I was able to share the screen but then she went on vacation. I’m still trying to figure out a way that I can have a resident remotely do a video chat with the patient and myself. Not all the software we are using allows group video chats. Plus, I want it to be meaningful education for the residents.
I think this experience has brought increased camaraderie among doctors and others in healthcare, like serving together during war. Fortunately we have had less cases than expected in Washington so far, and we’ve not faced dire circumstances in my clinic.
Although it’s unpleasant to consider, on the plus side, this has finally got me to stop procrastinating and pushed me to get my estate plan and medical directive done.
The coronavirus infection COVID-19 has spread from Wuhan, China to my backyard in the Seattle area. I experienced firsthand the impact of this infection while on vacation in Hawaii over two weeks ago. The day after arriving in Honolulu, and just before traveling to Hawaii, a report came out that a Japanese tourist had been in Maui, then felt ill after arriving in Honolulu, then was diagnosed after returning to Japan. I started to see people wear masks, and friends who live there wanted to meet in a park for a picnic rather than go to a restaurant as a result.
To date 6 people in Washington State have died from COVID-19, which makes people, including healthcare workers, more nervous. We’ve already had several meetings to discuss how we will manage things. Things are still being worked out, and there are still a lot of unknowns.
As healthcare workers we are concerned about patients infecting us (and if we get sick, who will care for the patients?), or other patients. It’s a balance between asking patients not to come in if sick, and not wanting to miss other causes. It’s still flu season, and someone with a cough and fever is still more likely to have influenza then COVID-19. There are also other viruses, as well as bacterial infections that can cause pneumonia and need to be treated.
As the CDC says, the most important thing is hand washing. It’s important to not touch your face, which we tend to do often, myself included. I’ve started applying moisturizer lotion each morning as dry skin tends to itch more, which leads to touching the face more often.
I just saw a patient for hypertension and needed to start him on a medication. There are lots of choices, but for various reasons I usually start with an ACE inhibitor, such as lisinopril. That’s what I ended up prescribing, but I had second thoughts as the most common side effect is cough and I worried that people might think he had coronavirus if he developed a cough. I consider an angiotensin renin blocker, such as losartan or valsartan, but there have been frequent shortages of that class lately due to chemical contamination issues leading to recalls.
There will be lots of other things to consider as things progress. In the meantime, don’t panic, but wash your hands often. Don’t wear a mask if you’re not sick or around someone who is (it probably doesn’t help, and we need to make sure we don’t run out for those who really need it), and don’t touch your face!
Bayer began selling aspirin (acetylsalicylic acid) in 1899, and the similar salicylic acid, derived from willow bark and other sources, has been used medicinally for thousands of years. Since the 1960’s it has often been used for heart attacks and strokes. Studies showed that in patients who have had heart attacks, daily aspirin prevents another one. This is know as secondary prevention.
Doctors have assumed that it would also be good to prevent the first heart attack in patients at higher risk. This is know as primary prevention. The problem is that’s much harder to prove. Even patients at higher risk might never have one, or maybe not for many years, so a research study can take many thousands of patients followed for many years, thus costing many millions of dollars, to tell if there is a benefit. Rare side effects can take many years to figure out. There have been studies done over the years, with inconclusive and sometimes with inconsistent results.
According to a trio of recent articles (Effect of Aspirin on Cardiovascular Events and Bleeding in the Healthy Elderly, Effect of Aspirin on All-Cause Mortality in the Healthy Elderly, and Effect of Aspirin on Disability-free Survival in the Healthy Elderly), aspirin use may cause more harm than benefit for primary prevention. They looked at patients >= 70-year-old (>= 65-year-old for blacks/hispanics in the US). A low proportion of participants regularly took low-dose aspirin before entering the trial, which did not directly address whether healthy older persons who have been using aspirin for primary prevention should continue or discontinue its use. Now 2019 guidelines from the American College of Cardiology and the American Heart Association recommend low dose aspirin for primary prevention only in limited patient populations at higher risk.
When it comes to medical treatments, it’s pretty much always a question of balancing benefit versus risk and cost. For aspirin, cost is pretty much not an issue. Although studies may look at thousands of patients, people are not homogenous, and any particular study may not apply to a particular patient. The guidelines listed above state that aspirin might be considered for primary prevention in adults age 40 to 70 at higher heart risk but who do not have a higher bleeding risk. They do not recommend it for routine use for those over 70-years-old. Note that it still may be warranted in some because of higher risk, and it’s still recommended for most older patient if they have known heart disease.
I think these new recommendations will eventually lead to less patients taking aspirin to prevent a first heart attack. This will lead to less bleeding, but it may increase other problems For example, aspirin may decrease the risk of colon and other cancers. It may help prevent deep venous thrombosis (DVT) blood clots in the legs, which could lead to a more serious pulmonary embolism (PE), so long distance air travelers may be at higher risk of a clot if they stop taking their aspirin. They could just take it before a trip, but will they remember? The FDA just added a block box warning for Uloric (febuxostat), a medicine used for gout, because of recently appreciated increased risk of cardiovascular disease. Surely there will be patients on that medication on aspirin for primary prevention who will stop aspirin, as a result of reading in the media that they should, but will then go on to have a heart attack because either they didn’t discuss it with their physician, or they did but their doctor didn’t know or appreciate the increased heart attack risk with Uloric. That medicine, by the way, should also be judged on benefits versus risks and alternatives, and is still appropriate for some patients, though not as many people as the drug reps would have had doctors believe. They’ve stopped promoting it as it’s almost generic, but that’s another story.
Although the practice of medicine has existed for thousands of years, it substantially improved with the implementation of the scientific method. Experiments and research studies improved diagnosis and treatment. Now so much information is published that no person can read everything unless, possibly, it’s limited to an extremely narrow subspecialty. In addition, different studies can come up with opposing results, and it can be difficult to make sense of all the available information.
To remedy that, various groups have published guidelines to help clinicians decide what to do. For example, new guidelines for high blood pressure were recently published. The American Diabetes Association just updated their guidelines for Standards of Medical Care in Diabetes.
So how does one find out about existing guidelines, other than doing a web search or coming across it in a journal? Well in 1998 the National Guideline Clearinghouse was created. It formed a collection of guidelines that met minimum quality criteria. By June 2018 there were more than 2000 guidelines listed that could be searched by specialty. In July of 2018 all of that information became unavailable on the website because of federal government budget cuts.
The website was originally created by the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ), in partnership with the American Medical Association (AMA) and the American Association of Health Plans (now America Health Insurance Plans).
In the last year of operation, the National Guideline Clearinghouse’s budget was about $1.2 million dollars. This is only about 1% of the money spent globally on developing guidelines, and an even much lower percentage of the cost of medical care. The guidelines can improve care and save money, but only if people can find them. Both my company’s electronic health record and my county medical society’s website have the National Clearinghouse Guidelines integrated to reach them with a click. I’m sure we’re not the only ones who routinely used it.
Perhaps a better repository can and will be built, but in the meantime I think the government should fund the National Guideline Clearinghouse and bring it back online. This was not a case of trimming fat from the national budget, but a self-inflicted stroke where the government cut off the blood flow (money) to a portion of our collective brain. We’re the worse for it.
Whether your mother taught you, or you learned it in medical school, chances are you’ve been told that 98.6° F (37° C) is the normal body temperature, and greater than 100.4° F (38° C) is a fever. It turns out it’s more complicated than that.
Those numbers came mainly from the work of Professor Carl Wunderlich. In 1870 he published an enormous study of over 1 million temperatures taken from about 25,000 patients. The thermometer he used was calibrated differently than modern thermometers, and he took temperatures in the axillae (armpit), which varies from oral (under the tongue) or tympanic (ear) measurements. He found that temperatures tended to be higher in the morning, and higher in women.A study published in JAMA in 1992 looked at patients 18 to 40-years-old who were hospitalized for a vaccine study. Prior to getting the vaccine, their temperatures were check 4 times a day for 2 ½ days. They found the upper limit of normal to be 98.9° F (37.2° C) in the early morning, and 99.9° F (37.7° C) overall.
A study that looked at 18,630 individuals from 20 to 98-years old showed women’s temperatures ran 0.3° F higher than men, and temperatures tended to decrease with age, with a 0.3° F difference between the youngest and the oldest.
An article published 13 August 2018 used an iPhone app called Feverprints. They looked at 11,458 oral temperatures recorded from 329 healthy adults and found an average normal temperature of 97.7° F, and that a fever started at 99.5° F.
I’ve often had patients tell me that a temperature we would normally consider within normal limits is high for them. That’s a good observation. There is a certain amount of normal variation in temperature by individual and time of day. It doesn’t necessarily mean it’s something that should be treated, but it may be a sign of infection and should be considered accordingly.
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.
Aspirin is often used to prevent heart attacks and strokes. Patients usually take an 81 mg (baby aspirin) or 325 mg (regular strength) pill. It also comes in plain, enteric coated, or buffered. Enteric coated aspirin is often recommended to decrease the risk of ulcers, the idea being that it doesn’t dissolve until it gets past the stomach, though there is limited evidence that it really makes a difference.
Another concern over the past decade is that some patients may be resistant to aspirin, and perhaps needed to be on more expensive medications, such as Plavix (clopidogrel), which recently went generic, though is still pricier than aspirin.
Now a new study from the University of Pennsylvania, published in the magazine Circulation, questioned the idea of aspirin resistance, and said that some patients who did not respond to the coated aspirin did respond to plain aspirin. But that does not mean you should conclude that taking coated aspirin may put you at increased risk for a heart attack.
This study looked at 400 health volunteers and gave them a single 325 mg dose of aspirin, either plain or coated, and measured the chemical cyclooxygenase-1 to see if it worked. If they appeared “resistant” then they gave one week each of coated 81 mg aspirin and clopidogrel. Although 49% of the volunteers did not respond to the single aspirin, they all responded to the daily dosing.
So the bottom line is if you take a coated aspirin every day, you probably don’t need to be concerned about it not working. If you don’t regularly take aspirin, but experience chest pain, after you call 911, take a plain aspirin, and preferably chew it to speed absorption. If you only have coated aspirin, it should work just as well if you chew it. Coated aspirin, made by Bayer and other manufacturers, are a little more expensive than plain aspirin, but are still fairly inexpensive.
I have a confession. Last year I went to a chiropractor for the first time. I had been having some neck and sacroiliac pain. I went to a massage therapist a few times. Although it felt good, especially for the neck, it didn’t seem to last more than a few weeks at most. Anti-inflammatory medications only gave temporary relief. Thus I was interested in trying something else, particularly when I started having some acute left sacroiliac pain that made it difficult to move around at times. I also had intermittent low back pain, left trochanteric bursitis, knee pain and plantar fasciitis. In Timothy Ferriss’s interesting book, The 4-Hour Body, he recommended active release techniques and a Functional Movement Screen (FMS), which I was curious about and thought might help. When I looked into it more, I found that these were pretty much only offered by chiropractors.
Physicians are trained to be scientific, and tend to dismiss what is called alternative, complementary, or allopathic medicine, including homeopathy, naturopathy, chiropractic, and traditional Chinese medicine. I wanted some relief from my symptoms, and I was also curious about what chiropractors do, so I decided to go there, rather that to physical therapy. Patients often ask me what I think about going to a chiropractor, but I had no personal experience. I justified to myself that it would be like a journalistic endeavor, which it sort of is, now that I’m blogging about it.
I purposely chose a clinic about 12 miles from my office. As I pulled into the parking lot I had second thoughts. I felt like I was breaking a taboo. Even though I figured it was unlikely I would be seen by a patient or anyone else I knew, I looked around before getting out of the car. That evening I told my wife not to tell anyone that I had gone to see a chiropractor.
Fifteen minutes after my scheduled appointment time the chiropractor came out to the waiting room, addressed me by my first name, and said she would be out shortly after reviewing my chart. She was young and attractive and had graduated about two years earlier. She came back and said, “I guess I should be calling you Dr. Ginsberg”. We went back to an exam room and she took a thorough history of the various pains I had. She asked about duration, severity, onset, exacerbating factors and prior injuries. She asked if I’d ever been to a chiropractor before and I said no. She said I was her first also (physician patient)! She asked me about my practice. When I complained about the paperwork, she pointed to her desk and said she has the same problem. Like a lot of doctors fresh out of school, she also had a lot of debt.
Next she did a very thorough musculoskeletal and neurological exam, other than checking cranial nerves and cerebellar function. Her range of motion and testing of strength and sensation reminded me of what I used to do as a medical student and intern, but now often shortcut. She discussed active release techniques then did some, including the Graston Technique. She asked if I was willing to have adjustments and I expressed some hesitation, particularly having it done to the neck. She said had no I had no red flags and that she did did this maybe 20 times a day. I initially agreed to let her adjust my back. After twisting me like a pretzel and throwing on her weight, causing a not unpleasant popping sensation in my back, she told me, “You just had your first adjustment.”
She then did more active release technique on my back, using a special table that moved, making my back flex and extend. Then she did an adjustment on my mid and perhaps upper back. She asked if I wanted to have my neck done, and reminded me of the decreased range of motion I had on one side. I thought about my patients who refused medications for their cholesterol or diabetes for fear of side effects, despite my recommendations, so I reluctantly agreed to trust her expertise. I was a bit nervous and she had to tell me me to relax. It was not especially uncomfortable when she twisted my head suddenly, but I had visions of a farmer breaking a chicken’s neck and I hoped I would not becoming a quadriplegic. Thankfully that did not come to pass.
We talked a little about the traditional distrust physicians have of chiropractors. She said some people just need a quick adjustment, but admitted that 75% of people come in with problems that are due to underlying muscle weakness or imbalance, and that they won’t fix the problem without addressing the issue. She said unfortunately some chiropractors don’t deal with this and only do adjustments. She knew one who had the same patient penciled in for every Friday at the same time for a year.
She said to return, preferably within 3 to 5 days, though I made it a little later due to my schedule, to have another treatment and a Functional Movements Systems evaluation.
I couldn’t really tell a difference after the first session. She warned me I might be sore at first, but I was not. Although massage may help various body aches and pains, I suspect many people like it for the therapeutic touch. I was surprised that chiropractic was similar, and I suspect that’s part of the reason for its popularity.
I later returned for another appointment. I underwent their own functional performance exam with one of the trainers. They said it was more thorough then the Functional Movement Screen. I later found out that FMS is a widely marketed system, for which chiropractors and others pay a lot to get certified, but that’s a different story. In any case, the trainer said that I did pretty well, but was particularly weak in my medial glutes, which surprised me. He recommended at least setting up an appointment to set me up with a home exercise program as I said coming in for regular treatments would be difficult.
Next I had another session with the chiropractor. She again did Active Release Techniques and adjustments. She was unable to adjust my neck as I involuntarily tensed up. I asked her why insurance companies require referrals for physical therapy but not chiropractic. She said it’s because chiropractors can make diagnoses.
I returned one more time to work on various exercises. Although I’ve exercised at the gym for decades, I started incorporating some of the exercises the trainer taught me, and I’ve had very little sacroiliac pain since then.
So what do I tell patients now about chiropractors? For neck and back pain I still preferentially refer patients for physical therapy. If patients ask about getting chiropractic treatment, I am now less likely to object, assuming they don’t have a medical condition that would make it riskier, but I caution them about getting neck adjustments. Just like physicians, not all chiropractors are equally skilled. A good chiropractor probably does a better job evaluating back pain than most primary care physicians, but watch out for those who over treat. Most importantly don’t take the lazy approach of just getting, “adjustments,” but do the work to correcting muscle weaknesses that often cause the problem.
A recent study showed that cataract surgery helps prevent hip fractures. It looked at a sample of Medicare patients with cataracts who did or did not have cataract surgery. Those who had cataract surgery had a 16% less change of subsequent hip fractures than those who did not have the surgery, though the absolute difference between the groups was small, because hip fractures were not that common in either group.
The design of this study was not optimal. It would have been better to randomly assign patients to get cataract surgery or not, to eliminate possible biases, but such a study is not practical.
We treat osteoporosis with medications such as Fosamax (alendronate) and vitamin D, but that just decreases the risk of a fracture. It’s still important to prevent the fall. There are various things that can help, including physical therapy to improve gait (walking), good lighting, good shoes, lack of loose rugs, canes, and more. Add to the list cataract surgery for those affected. Not only will such patients improve their vision, but they may save themselves from a hip fracture that at best will lay them up for a while, and at worst kill them from complications of pneumonia or a deep venous thrombosis (DVT or blood clot) and pulmonary embolism (blood clot to the lungs).