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Managing Patient Uncertainty

How comfortable are we with uncertainty? I struggle with this question every day. I treat children with abdominal pain. Some of these children suffer with crohns disease, eosinophilic esophagitis, and other serious problems. Some children struggle with abdominal pain from anxiety or social concerns. I see all kinds.

But kids are tricky, and sometimes I can’t pinpoint the problem. Trudging forward with more testing is often the simplest option since it involves little thinking. And some parents perceive endless testing as “thorough.”

The question ultimately becomes: When do we stop? Once we’ve taken a sensible first approach to a child’s problem and judged that the likelihood of serious pathology is slim, when and how do we suggest that we wait before going any further? This requires the most sensitive negotiation. It’s about finding a way to make a family comfortable despite the absence of absolute certainty. This is easier said than done. Parents can unintentionally advocate for themselves and their worries by insisting on the full-court press. Alternatively they may refuse invasive studies when absolutely indicated.

All of this is for good reason: You can’t be objective with your own kids.

Pediatrics is tricky business and managing parental uncertainty is perhaps my biggest preoccupation. As I’ve suggested before, sometimes convincing a family to do less represents the most challenging approach.

*This blog post was originally published at 33 Charts*

CDC Campaign Hasn’t Slowed Inappropriate Antibiotic Use

issue brief 2011 02 coverHigh rates of inappropriate antibiotic use continued despite a 15-year campaign by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) aimed at Michigan physicians and consumers on the dangers of antibiotic overuse.

The Center for Healthcare Research & Transformation (CHRT) released an issue brief detailing overall antibiotic prescribing for adult Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan (BCBSM) members. (The project is a non-profit partnership between the University of Michigan and BCBSM.)

While antibiotic prescribing in adults decreased 9.3 percent from 2007 to 2009, it increased 4.5 percent for children during the same time period. The studies found significant differences in prescribing patterns between rural southeast Michigan and the rest of the state, particularly for children. Children in rural southeastern Michigan were prescribed an average of .93 antibiotics per year, while elsewhere children were prescribed an average of 1.0 per year.

“The continuing high rate of antibiotic use for viral infections in children and adults — particularly outside of southeast Michigan — is of great concern, as is the increase in the use of broad spectrum antibiotics in children,” said Marianne Udow-Phillips, CHRT’s director. “Using antibiotics when they are unnecessary — or treating simple infections with drugs that should be reserved for the most serious infections — are practices that contribute to antibiotic resistance, making future infections harder to treat.”

Nearly half (49.1 percent) of antibiotic prescriptions in the study population were for broad spectrum antibiotics in 2009, compared to the national rate of 47 percent. Between 2007 and 2009, prescriptions for what the National Committee for Quality Assurance calls “antibiotics of concern” declined slightly in adults, decreasing 0.4 percent during that time period. In the same time period, antibiotics of concern prescribed to children increased 3.4 percent, from 44.9 percent to 46.4 percent.

One possible explanation for the rising rate in children is a rise in resistant pathogens in ear infections, according to the study brief. Other possible reasons are that kids get different infections than adults, and that some drugs that are used in adults are not used for pediatric patients. Read more »

*This blog post was originally published at ACP Internist*

Kids, Upper Respiratory Viruses, And Ear Infections

According to a new study published this month, more than 20 percent of young children with colds or other upper respiratory viruses will develop middle ear infections.

This finding isn’t that surprising. Eear symptoms along with a viral upper respiratory infection (URI) are common, including ear fullness and difficulty popping the ear. Although adults tend to be able to keep their ears clear by swallowing, chewing gum, yawning, or ear popping, most kids don’t know what to do when their ears feel full.

Whether in adults or kids, when the ears don’t ventilate or clear properly it can lead to ear problems including fluid buildup and middel ear infection. Why does this occur?

With a viral URI the lining of the nose swells, leading to symptoms of runny nose, nasal congestion, and sometimes nasal obstruction. This swelling doesn’t just occur in the nose, but also in the eustachian tube, which connects the back of the nose to the middle ear. When the ear “pops,” the eustachian tube opens to allow pressure and fluid to drain from the ear into the back of the nose. This is why yawning, swallowing, or noseblowing can cause an ear to pop normally.

When the lining in the eustachian tube swells up, the tube becomes blocked and prevents the ear from popping, leading to symptoms of ear pressure and fullness, fluid buildup, clogging, and often ear infections.

Read more about eustachian tube dysfunction here.

REFERENCE:

Clinical Spectrum of Acute Otitis Media Complicating Upper Respiratory Tract Viral Infection.” Pediatric Infectious Disease Journal. February 2011, volume 30, issue 2, pp 95-99.

*This blog post was originally published at Fauquier ENT Blog*

Ear Infections: To Treat Or Not To Treat?

Ear infections used to be a devastating problem. In 1932, acute otitis media (AOM) and its suppurative complications accounted for 27 percent of all pediatric admissions to Bellevue Hospital. Since the introduction of antibiotics, it has become a much less serious problem. For decades it was taken for granted that all children with AOM should be given antibiotics, not only to treat the disease itself but to prevent complications like mastoiditis and meningitis.

In the 1980s, that consensus began to change. We realized that as many as 80 percent of uncomplicated ear infections resolve without treatment in three days. Many infections are caused by viruses that don’t respond to antibiotics. Overuse of antibiotics leads to the emergence of resistant strains of bacteria. Antibiotics cause side effects. A new strategy of watchful waiting was developed.

Current Medical Guidelines

In 2004, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) and the American Academy of Family Physicians (AAFP) collaborated to issue evidence-based guidelines based on a review of the published evidence. Something was lost in the transmission: The guidelines have been over-simplified and misrepresented, so it’s useful to look at what they actually said. There were six parts:

1. Criteria were specified for accurate diagnosis.

  • History of acute onset of signs and symptoms
  • Presence of middle ear effusion (ear drum bulging, lack of mobility, air-fluid level)
  • Signs and symptoms of middle ear inflammation: Either red ear drum or ear pain interfering with normal activity or sleep

They stressed that AOM must be distinguished from otitis media with effusion (OME). OME is more common, occurs with the common cold, can be a precursor or a consequence of AOM, and is not an indication for antibiotic treatment. Read more »

*This blog post was originally published at Science-Based Medicine*

The Problem With Casual Medical Advice

It’s happening more frequently: Requests for medical advice by email. The more I do, the more people I meet. The network grows and friends of friends learn about what I do.

So junior has a little pain and shows at the local ER where the requisite CT shows a little thickening of the ileum. Someone suggests that the family drop me a line. Here’s the problem: There’s more to this than digital correspondence will allow.

While the statistical reality of this child’s situation is that this finding represents a little edema from a virus, the differential is precarious: Crohn’s disease, lymphoma, tuberculous ileitis, eosinophilic enteropathy.

A case of this type requires the thorough exploration of a child’s story and a compulsive exam that takes into consideration the problems in the differential. Worrisome considerations need to be framed and discussed in the context of the child’s total presentation and real likelihood of occurrence. The sensitive dialog surrounding our diagnostic approach to this child requires a relationship. And the various approaches require an element of negotiation with the family. All of this takes time, emotional intelligence, and good clinical judgment.

Children are complicated creatures. Parents are more complicated. Loose, off-the-cuff advice based on shotty information shortchanges both parties.

Of course the easiest response to these regular queries is that my employer, malpractice carrier, and the Texas State Board preclude offering medical advice without an established relationship or the maintenance of a medical record available for peer review. Everybody understands legalese. Few, however, understand the complexity of a properly executed medical encounter.

*This blog post was originally published at 33 Charts*

Latest Interviews

How To Be A Successful Patient: Young Doctors Offer Some Advice

I am proud to be a part of the American Resident Project an initiative that promotes the writing of medical students residents and new physicians as they explore ideas for transforming American health care delivery. I recently had the opportunity to interview three of the writing fellows about how to…

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How To Make Inpatient Medical Practice Fun Again: Try Locum Tenens Work

It s no secret that most physicians are unhappy with the way things are going in healthcare. Surveys report high levels of job dissatisfaction burn out and even suicide. In fact some believe that up to a third of the US physician work force is planning to leave the profession…

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Latest Cartoon

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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Click here for a musical take on over-testing.

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The Spirit Of The Place: Samuel Shem’s New Book May Depress You

When I was in medical school I read Samuel Shem s House Of God as a right of passage. At the time I found it to be a cynical yet eerily accurate portrayal of the underbelly of academic medicine. I gained comfort from its gallows humor and it made me…

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Eat To Save Your Life: Another Half-True Diet Book

I am hesitant to review diet books because they are so often a tangled mess of fact and fiction. Teasing out their truth from falsehood is about as exhausting as delousing a long-haired elementary school student. However after being approached by the authors’ PR agency with the promise of a…

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Unaccountable: A Book About The Underbelly Of Hospital Care

I met Dr. Marty Makary over lunch at Founding Farmers restaurant in DC about three years ago. We had an animated conversation about hospital safety the potential contribution of checklists to reducing medical errors and his upcoming book about the need for more transparency in the healthcare system. Marty was…

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