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Screening For Lung Cancer: New Findings And Continued Controversy

Lung cancer screening has been an area of considerable controversy. Before today, there had been no evidence that screening patients for lung cancer, either with a CT scan or chest x-ray, saved lives.

For years, doctors have been waiting for the results of the large, randomized National Lung Screening Trial (NLST), conducted by the National Cancer Institute.

[Yesterday] it was announced that the trial was stopped early, with a bold, positive finding:

All participants had a history of at least 30 pack-years, and were either current or former smokers without signs, symptoms, or a history of lung cancer.

As of Oct. 20, 2010, the researchers saw a total of 354 deaths from lung cancer in the CT group, compared with 442 in the chest x-ray group.

That amounts to a 20.3% reduction in lung cancer mortality — a finding that the study’s independent data and safety monitoring board decided was statistically significant enough to halt the trial and declare a benefit.

Previously, only breast, colon, and cervical cancer has had the evidence back up its screening recommendations. It’s still early in the game, but it appears that lung cancer may be following in that same path. That said, there are a variety of concerns before opening up the floodgates to screening chest CTs.

First, participants in the study were limited to former or current smokers — not the population at large.

Second, there remains a concern about the risk of cumulative radiation exposure that an annual chest CT will bring. We are in the midst of an informational push to educate the public about the dangers of radiation stemming from diagnostic imaging. Will this news, sure to be played loudly over mainstream media, only increase the demand for CT imaging?

And finally, there is the concern about incidentilomas that screening CTs will bring. Incidental findings that result from a screening CT may necessitate further workup that may only confirm a benign condition. Furthermore, these tests tend to be more invasive — like a biopsy, for instance — which can put the patient at harm.

[This] news has the potential to fundamentally change lung cancer screening guidelines sometime in the future. If future studies corroborate the findings, perhaps lung cancer screening targeting smokers may be instituted within the next few years.

Until then, the first line of defense against lung cancer is to quit smoking. That message shouldn’t be lost in the hype that is sure to follow today’s news.

*This blog post was originally published at KevinMD.com*


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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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