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Head Lice: FDA Approves New Treatment

Good news for parents, teachers, pediatricians, and others engaged in the ongoing battle against lice: The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) just approved a new treatment for head lice in children age four and older. Called Natroba, it’s a liquid that is rubbed into the hair and allowed to sit for 10 minutes before being rinsed off. Natroba is a useful addition to the anti-lice arsenal, since some head lice have become resistant to permethrin and pyrethrins, the active ingredients in over-the-counter anti-lice products such as Nix and Rid.

Head lice are tiny insects that go by the big name Pediculus humanus capitis. They thrive in the warm tangle of human hair, feeding off blood in the scalp and breeding with abandon. A female lays eggs called nits that she attaches to strands of hair. Nits hatch after about eight days, become adults in another week or so, feed for awhile, then begin to make more lice.

CDC photo of the stages of the life of a head louse, with a penny for size comparison.

What To Do

First off, here’s what not to do: Don’t shave your or your child’s head, or coat it with petroleum jelly or mayonnaise or anything else designed to “suffocate” the parasite. You’ll probably end up with greasy, smelly, lice-infested hair.

Current guidelines from the American Academy of Pediatrics call for the use of an over-the-counter product containing permethrin or pyrethrins as a first salvo against head lice. Shampoos and rinses made with these substances are generally effective. Most treatments for head lice need to be used twice, seven to 10 days apart, along with combing wet hair with a fine-toothed nit comb. Some lice are resistant to pyrethrin and permethrin. Stronger prescription drugs, such as malathion and lindane, also work but aren’t as safe for humans. That’s where Natroba comes in. Read more »

*This blog post was originally published at Harvard Health Blog*

Shoveling Snow? How To Protect Your Heart

After shoveling the heavy, 18-inch layer of snow that fell overnight on my sidewalk and driveway, my back hurt, my left shoulder ached, and I was tired. Was my body warning me I was having a heart attack, or were these just the aftermath of a morning spent toiling with a shovel? Now that I’m of an AARP age, it’s a question I shouldn’t ignore.

Snow shoveling is a known trigger for heart attacks. Emergency rooms in the snowbelt gear up for extra cases when enough of the white stuff has fallen to force folks out of their homes armed with shovels or snow blowers. 

What’s the connection? Many people who shovel snow rarely exercise. Picking up a shovel and moving hundreds of pounds of snow, particularly after doing nothing physical for several months, can put a big strain on the heart. Pushing a heavy snowblower can do the same thing. Cold weather is another contributor because it can boost blood pressure, interrupt blood flow to part of the heart, and make blood more likely to form clots.

When a clot forms inside a coronary artery (a vessel that nourishes the heart), it can completely block blood flow to part of the heart. Cut off from their supply of life-sustaining oxygen and nutrients, heart muscle cells begin to shut down, and then die. This is what doctors call a myocardial infarction or acute coronary syndrome. The rest of us call it a heart attack.

The so-called classic signs of a heart attack are a squeezing pain in the chest, shortness of breath, pain that radiates up to the left shoulder and down the left arm, or a cold sweat. Other signs that are equally common include jaw pain, lower back pain, unexplained fatigue or nausea, and anxiety. Read more »

*This blog post was originally published at Harvard Health Blog*

Mental Illness And The Tucson Shooting

When reports arrived that accused gunman Jared Lee Loughner had opened fire in Tucson, Arizona on January 7, journalistic first responders linked the incident to the fierceness of political rhetoric in the United States. Upon reflection, some of the discussion has turned to questions about mental illness, guns, and violence.

And plenty of reflection is required, because the connections are not at all simple. To get a sense of just how complicated they are, we invite you to read the lead article in this month’s Harvard Mental Health Letter entitled, “Mental Illness and Violence.” Strangely (for us) it was prepared for publication a month before the tragedy in Tucson. In light of the shooting, we are making the article available to non-subscribers.

I am not surprised at the outrage expressed in the news or at the impulse to blame. A quick scan of the news, however, shows there is not much agreement about whom to blame. In addition to the alleged perpetrator, one can find explicit and implicit criticisms of politicians for playing to our baser instincts; of media figures, various men and women of zeal, for their disingenuous or manipulative partisanship; of the various community bystanders (police, teachers, doctors, family members, neighbors, friends), whom we imagine could have intervened to prevent tragedy.

The political debate flowing from this incident will continue, as will the endless cycle of blame and defensiveness. But I caution all of us — and especially mental health professionals — not to make clinical judgments about Mr. Loughner. Very few people will or should have access to the kind of information that would allow such judgments. From a public health perspective, however, we should make careful judgments about policies that could reduce risk. Read more »

*This blog post was originally published at Harvard Health Blog*

“Just In Case” Heart Tests: Can They Do More Harm Than Good?

Here’s an important equation that all of us — doctors include — should know about healthcare, but don’t:

More ≠ Better

“More does not equal better” applies to diagnostic procedures, screening tests meant to identify problems before they appear, medications, dietary supplements, and just about every aspect of medicine.

That scenario is spelled out in alarming detail in the Archives of Internal Medicine. Clinicians at the Cleveland Clinic describe the case of a 52-year-old woman who went to her community hospital because she had been having chest pain for two days. She wasn’t having symptoms of a heart attack, such as shortness of breath, unexplained nausea, or a cold sweat, and her electrocardiogram and other tests were fine. The woman’s doctors concluded that her chest pain was probably due to a muscle she had pulled or strained during her recently begun exercise program to lose weight.

To “reassure her” that she wasn’t having a heart attack, the emergency department team recommended she have a CT scan of her heart. This noninvasive procedure can spot narrowings in coronary arteries and other problems that can interfere with blood flow to the heart. When it showed a suspicious area in her left anterior descending artery (a key artery nourishing the heart), she underwent a coronary angiogram. This involves inserting a thin wire called a catheter into a blood vessel in the groin and deftly maneuvering it into the heart. Once in place, equipment on the catheter is used to make pictures of blood flow through the coronary arteries. Read more »

*This blog post was originally published at Harvard Health Blog*

Top 10 Health Stories Of 2010

1. Health care reform

How could the health care reform legislation that President Barack Obama signed into law on March 23, 2010, not be the #1 story of the year?  Whether you are for or against it, the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act is nothing if not ambitious, and if implemented, it will fundamentally alter how American health care is financed and perhaps delivered.  The law is designed to patch holes in the health insurance system and extend coverage to 32 million Americans by 2019 while also reining in health care spending, which now accounts for more than 17% of the country’s gross domestic product. The biggest changes aren’t scheduled to occur until 2014, when most people will be required to have health insurance or pay a penalty (the so-called individual mandate) and when state-level health insurance exchanges should be in place. The Medicaid program is also scheduled to be expanded that year so that it covers more people, and subsidized insurance will be available through the exchanges for people in lower- and middle-income brackets. But plenty is happening before 2014. The 1,000-page law contains hundreds of provisions, and they’re being rolled out in phases. This year, for example, the  law created  high-risk pools for people with pre-existing conditions,  required health plans to extend coverage to adult children up to age 26, and imposed a 10% tax on indoor tanning salons. Next year, about 20 different provisions are scheduled to take effect, including the elimination of copayments for many preventive services for Medicare enrollees, the imposition of limits on non-medical spending  by health plans, and the creation of a voluntary insurance that will help pay for home health care and other long-term care services received outside a nursing home. Getting a handle on the complicated law is difficult. If you’re looking for a short course, the Kaiser Family Foundation has created an excellent timeline of the law’s implementation (we depended on it for this post) and a short (nine minutes) animated video that’s one of the best (and most amusing) overviews available. The big question now is whether the sweeping health care law can survive various legal and political challenges. In December, a federal judge in Virginia ruled that the individual mandate was unconstitutional. Meanwhile, congressional Republicans have vowed to thwart the legislation, and if the party were to win the White House and control of the Senate in the 2012 election, Republicans would be in a position to follow through on their threats to repeal it.   

2. Smartphones, medical apps, and remote monitoring 

Smartphones and tablet computers are making it easier to get  health care information, advice, and reminders on an anywhere-and-anytime basis. Hundreds of health and medical apps for smartphones like the iPhone  became available this year. Some are just for fun. Others provide useful information (calorie counters, first aid and CPR instructions) or perform calculations. Even the federal government is getting into the act: the app store it opened this summer has several free health-related apps, including one called My Dietary Supplements for keeping track of vitamins and supplements and another one from the Environmental Protection Agency that allows you to check the UV index and air quality wherever you are. Smartphones are also being used with at-home monitoring devices; for example, glucose meters have been developed that send blood sugar readings wirelessly to an app on a smartphone. The number of doctors using apps and mobile devices is increasing, a trend that is likely to accelerate as electronic health records become more common. Check out  iMedicalapps if you want to see the apps your doctor might be using or talking about. It has  become a popular Web site for commentary and critiques of medical apps for doctors and medical students. Meanwhile, the FDA is wrestling with the issue of how tightly it should regulate medical apps. Some adverse events resulting from programming errors have been reported to the agency.  Medical apps are part of  a larger “e-health” trend toward delivering health care reminders and advice remotely with the help of computers and phones of all types. These phone services are being used in combination with increasingly sophisticated at-home monitoring devices. Research results have been mixed. Simple, low-cost text messages have been shown to be effective in getting people wear sunscreen. But one study published this year found that regular telephone contact and at-home monitoring of heart failure patients had no effect on hospitalizations of death from any cause over a six-month period. Another study found that remote monitoring did lower hospital readmission rates among heart failure patients, although the difference between remote monitoring and regular care didn’t reach statistical significance. Read more »

*This blog post was originally published at Harvard Health Blog*

Latest Interviews

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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Caring For Winter Olympians In Sochi: An Interview With Team USA’s Chief Medical Officer Dr. Gloria Beim

I am a huge fan of the winter Olympics partly because I grew up in Canada where most kids can ski and skate before they can run and partly because I used to participate in Downhill ski racing. Now that I m a rehab physician with a reconstructed knee I…

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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.

***

Click here for a musical take on over-testing.

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Latest Book Reviews

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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