Exploring Cuba – Part 2

In my prior post, I discussed a trip I made to Cuba in December. In this second part I will focus on some medical aspects.

When my patients ask about foreign travel where there may be health concerns, I usually direct them to the CDC site. It’s also where I go to check for my own travel, though I look at the more detailed Clinician view.  To start off it recommends typhoid vaccination.  You have a choice of the oral or injected. The oral is a live virus that is taken every other day for 4 doses, starting 12 days before potential exposure. It gives better immunity, but should not be taken by people with a suppressed immune system, such as those on steroids. The injected form is a non-live vaccine, a single injection taken at least 2 weeks before potential exposure. The injected form is harder to find, and even pharmacies that carry it may need to order it in advance. The injection is more expensive, and neither vaccine is usually covered by one’s health insurance. There are other vaccines recommended, but typhoid was the only one I needed.

Cuba has mosquitoes that may carry Dengue Fever, and more recently Zika. I chose to travel in December because it was outside hurricane season, it was the cooler time of the year, and there are less mosquitoes around that time. Cuba does a better job than many other countries controlling mosquitoes, but I was still cautious. Due to the cost, they don’t use insecticides to fumigate buildings, but rather burn oil, as can be seen in the photo above. We checked in to one place not long after they had done their weekly spray, and had to wait 30 minutes for smoke to stop poring out the window! I sprayed much of our clothes with permethrin spray, and applied DEET to exposed skin, especially in the evening when the mosquitoes are more apt to bite.  I texted PLAN to 855-255-5606 to get periodic updates from the CDC about Zika before the trip.

Food is generally safe to eat, but we avoided street food. The tap water is not safe, however. We mostly depended on bottled water and avoided ice except at a few restaurants and bars that filtered their own water. Bottled water is kind of pricey at times. The best deals are on large (3-4 liter bottles) that you can find sometimes in stores. They often cost the same price or less than a one liter bottle that is more readily found. I also brought along a SteriPEN which sterilizes water with ultraviolet light. I didn’t have enough experience to trust it completely to replace buying bottled water, but used it to sterilize water to rinse our toothbrushes, and would have used it if we didn’t have bottled water. I also recommend bringing Imodium, and an antibiotic from your physician for traveler’s diarrhea. I’d also bring some toilet paper. Many public toilets often didn’t have any, or  you’d get a small amount from an attendant after giving a tip.

Bring sunscreen. It’s not easy to find places that sell it in Cuba, and it’s expensive.

Months before my trip I tried to arrange to visit a hospital. It so happened that the fiancée of a Cuban in the travel industry who helped with some of the arrangements was an anesthesiology resident. He told me that he would love to show me his hospital, but that unfortunately the government required a 30-50 dollar payment, despite the fact that I said I would be bringing some medical supplies. He also said I would not be allowed to tour the medical school due to, “national security!” After I arrived we talked a number of times, and ultimately he could not get government approval for me to see his hospital, even though he said everyone at the hospital wanted me to come. He said the only exceptions they made were for those with an educational visa, coming to teach basically, and even then they needed at least 3 months notice.

Although I could not tour the hospital, I had some long conversations with that doctor and learned a lot about their system. All things considered, the Cuban doctors are apparently pretty good, but they are particularly hampered by old equipment and lack of medications and supplies. The anesthesiology resident showed me photos of anesthesia equipment they currently use that are from the 1980’s. He said they don’t have air scrubbers in the operating rooms, so sometimes everyone gets sleepy!  He told me about a colleague of his who was working with a nurse anesthetist. She let her go home early because she wasn’t feeling well. Later she had to intubate a pregnant patient. Unfortunately it didn’t go well and the patient suffered brain damage. During a subsequent investigation the government argued that had she not let the nurse anesthetist go home early, maybe the patient wouldn’t have died because she would have had additional help. She was sentenced to 12-15 years in prison, and even if she gets out after 5-7 years for good behavior, she won’t be allowed to be a doctor anymore! Because physicians are held responsible for a bad outcome, Jehovah’s Witness patients are told they can’t refuse blood if needed, though they do take measures to minimize the need. Doctors are paid poorly (the resident said after he finished he would make 80 CUC (about $80) a month), often less than taxi drivers. It’s very difficult for specialists to be allowed to leave the country, even on vacation, for fear they won’t come back. If they go on medical missions they are paid better than usual, but they only pay them the bare minimum while they are abroad to encourage them to return home after the mission. I was surprised to learn that they are fairly tolerant in terms of LBGT, in part due to Raúl Castro’s daughter, and they even have doctors who do sex reassignment surgery to change gender.

Many Cubans rely on natural formulations, such as herbs, they call ‘green medicine,’ due to cost or personal preference. The anesthesiologist told me that for a man to get a prescription for Viagra (sildenafil) he has to see his primary care doctor, a urologist, and a psychiatrist. Once they get a prescription, though, they are basically assured of getting it indefinitely. He said many patients research their condition and tell their doctors what prescription they want, and they often comply.

One of the most dangerous things in Cuba are the cars. They are famed for their old cars, many of which look fabulous, but they lack safety features, such as seat belts and airbags. In fact we were in a car accident. We hired a car and driver for 6 days through a contact in the travel industry in Havana. He was probably around 60-years-old, and reportedly one of their best drivers. He was very nice, funny, and knowledgeable, and arrived to pick us up in a pretty new Chinese car, a BYD (Build Your Dream). On the first day as we were driving, while my wife and daughter were sleeping in the back, the car started drifting to the left. I grabbed the steering wheel, noting the driver had fallen asleep. He quickly awakened, pulled the car to the side of the road, and got out to stretch. He came back in and apologized, saying he had gotten up early to pick the car up. The next day he said that actually he hadn’t slept well because he had witnessed a teenager, who was not paying attention listening to music, hit by a car the day before.

In the middle of the car trip I met with the doctor I mentioned above and told him about the incident. I wondered if he might have sleep apnea, though the driver had said he had never had such a problem.  He said that they don’t test for sleep apnea because they don’t have CPAP machines to treat it.

The rest of the road trip went fine until the final day. Once again my wife and daughter were sleeping in the backseat when the driver fell asleep again. This time he swerved too quickly for me to reach the wheel. We hit a guard rail, damaging the front end and side mirror and puncturing two tires. The driver said he did not know why he fell asleep and that he had been well rested. One theory I came up with is the possibility of carbon monoxide poisoning from a leak in the exhaust system. Our driver obtained another car and driver for us, who brought us back to Havana.

No one was serious injured, but my wife was seated behind the driver and her left elbow hurt immediately afterward. Back in Havana we went to a clinic that caters to foreign visitors. X-rays showed no fracture.  She was given a skinny piece of gauze to use for an arm sling (she had been using my belt up until that point). When it came time to leave they said we owed 100 CUC (about $100).

Boarding Pass

 

Cuba requires one to have medical insurance to visit the country, and they add $25 to the price of each airline ticket to cover it. Delta Airlines said to show the boarding pass if needed as proof of insurance. I showed the boarding pass, but they said it wasn’t good because it said AeroMexico on the top. I pointed out that below that is said that it was operated by Delta Airlines. They said they would have to investigate it. They gave no indication how long it would take, and given that it was the evening I didn’t think they would get an answer that night. I eventually gave up, paying the money so we could get her passport back and leave. I wrote Delta Airlines and explained the situation, sending them copies of the boarding pass and the medical bill. We were on something like their 4th commercial flight to Cuba, so I figured they would be eager to work out any glitches. I was wrong. Besides some email exchanges, they called twice at 7 am. When I pointed out the early hour I was told it was 10 am on the East coast. You would think an international airlines understood the concept of time zones! In any case, ultimately I was told we, “..must request a refund of the insurance premium directly with the Cuban insurance provider.” Really? They expect their customers to request a refund from the Cuban government?! All I was asking for was the approximately $100 I paid for the clinic. Not the taxi ride there and back, the medical costs after we got home, to say nothing of pain and suffering. Imagine someone of lesser means ended up needing much more care and being told the insurance they thought covered them didn’t. That might keep people from choosing to visit Cuba, at least on Delta Airlines.

Let’s be Clear on ClariSpray

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Bayer, the maker of Claritin, has a new product, ClariSpray. This is a good product, but with a confusing name. It has nothing to do with Claritin, other than they are both used for allergies (allergic rhinitis).

It’s actually fluticasone nasal spray, the same ingredient as Flonase, a prescription product, but now available over-the-counter.

Their website does takes pains to explain this, but there are some things things they don’t mention. They don’t say how it compares with Flonase or Nasacort. Although there are slight differences, and some people may prefer one over the other, they are basically similar, and just a matter of personal preference. Bayer’s website also doesn’t tell you that you shouldn’t take ClariSpray if you are taking Flonase or Nasocort, or one of the other nasal steroid sprays only available by prescription.

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!

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.

Aspirin – Coated or Naked – Does it Matter?

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.

Dangers of a Transparent Medical Record

Over the years there has been a push to allow more patient access to their records. Patients in our system that have signed up for MyChart with our electronic medical record Epic, can see most of their test results shortly after they are back, even if not yet reviewed by the physician who ordered them.

To avoid patients misinterpreting or reacting badly to the results, certain tests, such as HIV and pathology, are not automatically released. Although releasing the results automatically acts as a safeguard for abnormal results that may have been missed by the physician, it also opens the possibility of patients inappropriately acting on the results.

I’ve had patients make changes in their medications after seeing their results, and without even discussing it with me until their next visit. One patient who saw that his sleep study showed he had sleep apnea, borrowed a friends extra CPAP machine, adjusted the settings based on his research on the internet, then tried it out for 2 weeks!

As the saying goes, a little knowledge can be dangerous. Patients should use the information in their charts to inform them, and help ask educated questions, but not to replace their physician. There is often a lot more to making a diagnosis and deciding on a treatment than just looking at test results.

Chiropractic Care

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.

Scientific data showing the benefit of chiropractic care for back pain is sparse. Recently an article showed benefit in chiropractic care for neck pain, but another showed potential risk.

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.

FDA and Generic OxyContin

As recently reported in the Wall Street Journal, the pain killer OxyContin is set to go generic next year, and Purdue Pharma is trying to postpone it.

A funny thing often happens before a drug goes generic. Close to that time the manufacturer comes up with a new indication, formulation or dose. They claim it’s an improvement in the product, but it often has the appearance of coincidentally coming out close to when they would lose exclusive rights to sell the product. And wonder of wonders, they often get the market to themselves for a longer period of time because of it.

As someone who treats a lot of patients with pain, from my perspective OxyContin is a fairly good drug. Because it’s timed release oxycodone, it often gives better pain control, has a lot of dosing flexibility, and probably has less potential of causing addiction than immediate release oxycodone. Less is not none, however, and it’s still a frequently abused drug, whether swallowing the pills, or more illicitly, snorting or injecting it.

OxyContin has a new formulation containing polyethylene oxide that makes it harder to crush or inject. Although it’s not yet clear how effective it will be, the street price has decreased, suggesting it is a less desirable drug for someone wanting to get high. So Purdue Pharma is arguing that no one should be allowed to sell timed release oxycodone that does not have the protection they have, which of course is itself patented until 2025. Purdue Pharma is being sued for allegedly previoulsy making false claims to doctors, minimizing the risk of addiction. That has bearing on their new claim that it’s the new and improved version that has the low risk.

Besides that the improved safety is still not certain, their logic is false. From the perspective of controlling drug abuse, supply will meet demand. People will find better ways to process the new OxyContin pills to make them easier to abuse, or they will use substitutes.

From the perspective of a clinician treating pain patients, the cost of the pills and insurance formularies often dictate what doctors can prescribe. I often don’t prescribe OxyContin now, even when I want to, because of this, and have to prescribe controlled release morphine (which used to be sold as the brand MS Contin), methadone, which is a tricky drug to prescribe with a higher risk of accidental overdose, or use other alternatives.

I hope the FDA does not accept Purdue Pharma’s argument. They should either allow generic OxyContin, with or without the polyethylene oxide contained in the new pills, or allow generic manufacturers to use other similar methods of deterrence.

Exam Room Miscommunication

In school were you ever challenged to explain to someone how to make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich using words only? It’s harder than it sounds. Similarly it’s sometimes difficult to explain to a patient what I want them to do, at times to humorous effect. If you see yourself in any of the examples below, don’t take offense. I’m laughing with you, not at you!

As I bring an exam light up to check patient’s eyes, they often open their mouth, thinking I want to check their throat.

When checking guys for hernias I tell them to turn their head and cough. Men often turn their head to the left when I check their right side, then turn to the right when I check the left. The only purpose of having them turn their head is to not cough on me! Before doing this part of the exam I tell them to drop their drawers so I can check them for a hernia. I like to then slide forward the 2-3 feet on my stool, that has rollers, but guys often take a step towards me first, then I have to make sure I don’t butt heads when they naturally bend to drop their underwear. I also like to go to their right side so I don’t have to bend my wrist back, but in an attempt to be helpful, they often turn to the right to face me, so I have to slide farther to the side, thus doing a hernia check dance.

When I have people sit up on the exam table, they often start to lay down. I just want them to sit first since I like to examine their neck and listen to their lungs first. If not doing a full physical, I usually just pull up the shirt to listen to their lungs from the back side. When I then have them lay down, patients usually reflexively pull their shirt back down, but then I have to lift it back up to listen to their heart.

When patients have pain, such as in their abdomen, I’ll ask them to tell me if it hurts as I press in various areas. In an attempt to be helpful, patients off start pushing on their stomach themselves to try to find the tender areas, and sometimes will spend a fair amount of time doing so. I usually joke that they can examine themselves on their own time, but now it’s my turn.

American College of Physicians Internal Medicine 2012

I recently attended the American College of Physicians (ACP) Internal Medicine 2012 annual meeting, held this year in New Orleans. It’s a very large meeting with thousands of physicians attending. At any one time there are dozens of courses one can attend. I try to balance learning about subjects I have a particular interest in, with those that I’m less interested, and consequently have more to learn.

Among the talks I attended was a talk on genetics issues in internal medicine by Matthew Taylor, MD, PhD.  He discussed an interesting case of a 19-year-old woman who had been in good health who had lifted weights, used a hot tub then went swimming in a lap pool and was found unresponsive in 4 feet of water in 1998. She was resuscitated but died in the hospital 12 days later. An EKG done during the hospitalization was mildly abnormal with a prolonged QT interval. This was dismissed by most cardiologists as probably or not significant when asked to review the EKG. A subsequent genetic analysis of autopsy material revealed a genetic condition associated with a prolonged QT interval, which itself increases the risk of sudden death due to an arrhythmia. Further testing showed her sister, mother and maternal grandfather were found to have the same genetic condition. Most physicians would not even consider a genetic condition as the cause of a drowning, yet making the diagnosis may prevent family members from dying due to an arrhythmia with appropriate treatment.

I attended a talk by Holly Holmes, MD on discontinuing medications. It’s much easier to start a medicine than to stop one, yet medications carry financial costs and may cause side effects. She went over some cases and discussed strategies to decrease medication use. Amusingly she pointed out that not only did she not have any financial disclosures that might cause a conflict of interest, but that no pharmaceutical company would want to pay her to recommend stopping medications!

Besides the vast number of courses, there were also hundreds of vendors from pharmaceutical companies discussing new medications, companies selling books, equipment, massage chairs and gluten free products, and many just providing free information. There were recruiters looking for doctors, and more.

There was also the opportunity to interact with colleagues from around the world. I spoke with some physicians in Canada, and one from Saudi Arabia. I usually attend the ACP national meetings every few years and always come away having learning things that will help my patients, and feeling more invigorated about my profession.