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Got GERD? Find Out If You’re At Risk For Esophageal Cancer

If you’re from a Western country, there’s a 10-20 percent chance that you suffer from classic symptoms of acid reflux: chronic heartburn and/or acid regurgitation.

But if you don’t have those classic symptoms you may still have acid bubbling up from the stomach into the esophagus, a condition called “gastro-esophageal reflux disease” (GERD). Over the past decade, research has suggested that acid reflux can cause atypical symptoms such as cough, hoarseness, sore throat, asthma, and even chronic sinusitis. GERD can also cause chest pain, especially if the acid causes the muscle in the esophagus to go into spasm.

As an internist and gastroenterologist, I’ve seen patients who have suffered for years with atypical symptoms of GERD get better with treatment. Although I usually prescribe acid-reducing medication, I try to avoid an approach that relies exclusively on “better living through chemistry.” In fact, my goal is to treat the symptoms with life-style adjustments alone if possible. Smoking and obesity both increase acid reflux and must be addressed. I tell my patients to limit alcohol, caffeine, chocolate, peppermint, and fatty foods (I know, basically anything that gives them even an iota of pleasure in life). I also suggest keeping a food diary to try to identify culprits such as tomato-based products or certain spicy foods. If their symptoms resolve then they can try to reintroduce the things they miss the most. Elevating the head of the bed can sometimes help.

The most serious consequence of chronic acid reflux is esophageal cancer. About ten percent of patients with long-standing acid reflux develop changes in the swallowing tube that increase the risk of developing adenocarcinoma, a deadly cancer with a 5-year survival rate of less than fifteen percent. The condition is called “Barrett’s esophagus. “Fortunately, only about one in 200 patients with Barrett’s esophagus develops cancer each year. And over the last year a treatment called ”radiofrequency ablation” has been found to be extremely effective in treating Barrett’s esophagus that is starting to show signs that it may turn into cancer.

It’s estimated that almost 15,000 Americans will die from esophageal cancer this year. Fifty years ago, more than 95% of esophageal cancers were “squamous cell” – the kind caused by smoking and excess alcohol use. As smoking has declined, the incidence of squamous cell carcinoma has dropped. But for reasons that are not clear, esophageal adenocarcinoma – the kind linked to acid reflux (and smoking) – has dramatically increased over the past forty years and now accounts for about half the cases of esophageal cancer. From 1975 to 2001 there was a 600 percent rise in esophageal adenocarcinoma. The obesity epidemic may well be playing a role by increasing the number of adults with acid reflux.

Gastroenterologists can diagnose acid reflux by slipping a thin, flexible instrument (endoscope) through the mouth and down the esophagus. It’s a lot easier than it sounds. Patients are usually given sedation and the back of the throat is sprayed with numbing medicine to avoid gagging. There’s no problem breathing because the tube doesn’t go into the breathing tube (the trachea). Biopsies can be taken from the last part of the esophagus to look for microscopic evidence of Barrett’s and inflammation (esophagitis) caused by acid reflux.

There is currently a controversy about who should be endoscopically screened to look for evidence of Barrett’s esophagus. Only a fraction of the millions of patients with chronic reflux will ever develop Barrett’s. And many patients with Barrett’s have no symptoms at all. In a study in Sweden, 1.6% of the population had Barrett’s but only about 40% had heartburn. And only about half of esophageal adenocarcinoma is estimated to be a result of reflux.

The American College of Gastroenterology recommends against screening the entire population but says it may be appropriate in certain populations at higher risk – such as Caucasian males over 50 with longstanding heartburn. That would be me. So for this week’s episode of CBS Doc Dot Com, I underwent an upper endoscopy, explained and performed expertly by Dr. Mark B. Pochapin, director of The Jay Monahan Center for Gastrointestinal Health at New York-Presbyterian Hospital/Weill Cornell Medical Center. For more information about the Jay Monahan Center, click here.

For information about GERD from the American Society for Gastrointestinal Endoscopy, click here.

To watch my upper endoscopy, click here:


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Richmond, VA – In an effort to simplify inpatient medical billing, one area hospitalist group has determined that “altered mental status” (ICD-9 780.97) is the most efficient code for use in any patient work up.

“When you enter a hospital, you’re bound to have some kind of mental status change,” said Dr. Fishbinder, co-partner of Area Hospitalists, PLLC. “Whether it’s confusion about where your room is located in relationship to the visitor’s parking structure, frustration with being woken up every hour or two to check your vital signs, or just plain old fatigue from being sick, you are not thinking as clearly as before you were admitted. And that’s all the justification we need to order anything from drug and toxin screens, to blood cultures, brain MRIs, tagged red blood cell nuclear scans, or cardiac Holter monitoring. There really is no limit to what we can pursue with our tests.”

Common causes of mental status changes in the elderly include medicine-induced cognitive side effects, disorientation due to disruption in daily routines, age-related memory impairment, and urinary tract infections.

“The urinalysis is not a very exciting medical test,” stated Dr. Fishbinder. “It doesn’t matter that it’s cheap, fast, and most likely to provide an explanation for strange behavior in hospitalized patients. It’s really not as elegant as the testing involved in a chronic anemia or metabolic encephalopathy work up. I keep it in my back pocket in case all other tests are negative, including brain MRIs and PET scans.”

Nursing staff at Richmond Medical Hospital report that efforts to inform hospitalists about foul smelling urine have generally fallen on deaf ears. “I have tried to tell the hospitalists about cloudy or bloody urine that I see in patients who are undergoing extensive work ups for mental status changes,” reports nurse Sandy Anderson. “But they insist that ‘all urine smells bad’ and it’s really more of a red herring.”

Another nurse reports that delay in diagnosing urinary tract infections (while patients are scheduled for brain MRIs, nuclear scans, and biopsies) can lead to worsening symptoms which accelerate and expand testing. “Some of my patients are transferred to the ICU during the altered mental status work up,” states nurse Anita Misra. “The doctors seem to be very excited about the additional technology available to them in the intensive care setting. Between the central line placement, arterial blood gasses, and vast array of IV fluid and medication options, urosepsis is really an excellent entré into a whole new level of care.”

“As far as medicine-induced mental status changes are concerned,” added Dr. Fishbinder, “We’ve never seen a single case in the past 10 years. Today’s patients are incredibly resilient and can tolerate mixes of opioids, anti-depressants, anti-histamines, and benzodiazepines without any difficulty. We know this because most patients have been prescribed these cocktails and have been taking them for years.”

Patient family members have expressed gratitude for Dr. Fishbinder’s diagnostic process, and report that they are very pleased that he is doing everything in his power to “get to the bottom” of why their loved one isn’t as sharp as they used to be.

“I thought my mom was acting strange ever since she started taking stronger pain medicine for her arthritis,” says Nelly Hurtong, the daughter of one of Dr. Fishbinder’s inpatients. “But now I see that there are deeper reasons for her ‘altered mental status’ thanks to the brain MRI that showed some mild generalized atrophy.”

Hospital administrators praise Dr. Fishbinder as one of their top physicians. “He will do whatever it takes to figure out the true cause of patients’ cognitive impairments.” Says CEO, Daniel Griffiths. “And not only is that good medicine, it is great for our Press Ganey scores and our bottom line.”

As for the nursing staff, Griffiths offered a less glowing review. “It’s unfortunate that our nurses seem preoccupied with urine testing and medication reconciliation. I think it might be time for us to mandate further training to help them appreciate more of the medical nuances inherent in quality patient care.”

Dr. Fishbinder is in the process of creating a half-day seminar on ‘altered mental status in the inpatient setting,’ offering CME credits to physicians who enroll. Richmond Medical Hospital intends to sponsor Dr. Fishbinder’s course, and franchise it to other hospitals in the state, and ultimately nationally.

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