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All Physicians Should Engage In Pharmaceutical Whack-A-Mole: Please Follow Physiatry’s Lead

Medical school prepares physicians to prescribe medications for prevention and treatment of disease, but little to no time is spent teaching something just as important: de-prescribing. In our current system of auto-refills, e-prescriptions, and mindless “check box” EMR medication reconciliation, patients may continue taking medications years after their original prescriber intended them to stop. There is no doubt that many Americans are over-medicated, and the problem compounds itself as we age. Although “no-no” lists for Seniors (a tip of the hat to the American Geriatrics Society “Beers List”) have been published and promoted, many elderly Americans are prescribed medicines known to be of likely harm to them.

You may be surprised to learn that one medical specialty has taken advanced steps to address this problem. Physiatry (also known as Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation or PM&R) is a national leader in pain management education, and is the author and promoter of  the majority of continued medical education (CME) courses on reducing opioid prescribing in favor of alternative pain management strategies. But did you also know that most patients who are admitted to an inpatient rehabilitation facility (IRF) are tested on their capability to correctly administer their own medications before they are discharged home?

The MedBox test provides a validated cognitive performance assessment of whether or not an individual can correctly distribute multiple prescription medications into weekly pill boxes as directed on the containers. This is a short video of how the test works, demonstrated by some occupational therapists having a good time with it. In one fell swoop, this test checks vision, reading comprehension, pharmaceutical knowledge, manual dexterity, attention, and short term memory.

This test is very helpful in picking up potential misunderstandings in how prescription meds are to be taken, and identifying cognitive deficits that might preclude accurate self-administration of prescription meds at home. One of our main goals in rehab is to make sure that patients have the skills, assistance, and equipment necessary to thrive at home, so that they can remain hospital-free for as long as possible. To that end, we feel strongly that limiting medications to those only truly necessary, as well as making sure that patients can demonstrate safe-use of their medications (or have a caregiver who can do this for them), can reduce hospital readmission rates, falls, unwanted drug side-effects and accidental drug-drug interactions.

In addition to MedBox testing, physiatrists invite hospital pharmacists to join their weekly patient team conferences. While we discuss patient progress in physical, occupational, and speech therapies, we also review nursing assessments of medication self-administration competency, and ask our pharmacist(s) which medications can potentially be stopped or decreased that week. Rehab physicians (familiar with patient health status, goals, and current complaints) and pharmacists together come up with stop dates and taper regimens at these weekly meetings.

Part of the reason why inpatient rehabilitation has been so successful at reducing hospital readmission rates, in my view, is that we are committed to pharmaceutical whack-a-mole. “Test-driving” patient competency at medication self-administration, in the setting of responsible de-prescribing in a monitored clinical environment, is a highly valuable (though sadly under-reported) benefit of rehabilitation medicine. I hope that my medical and surgical peers will join us physiatrists in combating some of the patient harms that are passively occurring in our healthcare system designed to add, but not subtract, diagnoses and treatments.

The Costs, And Maybe Cost Savings, Of Medication Non-Adherence

A Cat Playing Whack-A-Mole

Medication non-adherence is a hot button topic in healthcare. Physicians lament patient “non-compliance” with their medical advice, and policy wonks tell us that more than half of patients do not take their medications as directed. Missed opportunities to control chronic illnesses such as diabetes, heart disease, and cancer surely do cost us untold billions of dollars and millions of quality life years lost annually in the U.S. But there is a flip side to the equation that no one is talking about. The costs of polypharmacy (over medication).

In my opinion, many Americans, especially those over 65, are taking far too many medicines. The unwanted side effects and medication interactions (both known and unknown) can be devastating. In my line of work (inpatient rehabilitation) I receive a steady stream of patients who have fallen and injured themselves or have been involved in serious accidents. An astonishing number of these incidents are related to drug side effects.

Take, for example, the elderly woman who had mild hypertension. Unbeknownst to her physicians, she was not compliant with the diuretics she had been prescribed. Each successive visit it was presumed that she was taking her medicines as directed, and that they were not sufficient to control her blood pressure. So the dosing was increased. Her husband dutifully picked up the new prescriptions from the pharmacy, and she collected them (unopened) in her desk drawer.

One day this spirited lady caught pneumonia and required a couple of days of inpatient monitoring and antibiotics at the local hospital. Her son decided to assist with her transition back home and stayed with her for a week, taking on both cooking and medication administration duty from his dad. He found all of her pills in her desk drawer and began to give them to her as directed.

Several days later the distraught son told me that his mother’s health had taken a nose-dive, and that she was hallucinating and acting uncharacteristically hostile. He took her to a more distant specialty hospital, where their initial impression was that she had advanced dementia, which had probably gone unnoticed by a son who hadn’t lived nearby for years. She would benefit from hospice placement.

The reality was, of course, that this poor woman was as dehydrated as a raisin and was becoming delirious from excessive diuretic use. Once I figured out that her son’s sudden, and very well-intentioned, medication adherence program was to blame, we stopped the blood pressure medications, gave her some water and she returned to her usual self within 24 hours.

On another occasion, I admitted a closed-head injury patient who had lost her front teeth after fainting and falling head first onto the asphalt in a grocery store parking lot. This was her third head injury in 6 months. A review of her medications revealed no less than six medications (that she was dutifully taking for various diseases and conditions) that carried a known side-effect of “dizziness.” We were able to discontinue all of them, and to this day I have not heard of another fall.

Just last week a wise, elderly patient of mine declined to take her blood pressure medicine. I explained to her that her blood pressure was higher than we’d like and that I wanted to protect her from strokes with the medicines. She smiled kindly at me and said, “I know my body, and I get dizzy when my blood pressure is at the levels you doctors like. The risk of my falling and hurting myself when I’m dizzy is greater than the benefit of avoiding a stroke. I’ve been running at this blood pressure for 80 years. Let’s leave it be.”

What I’ve learned is that although there are costs to not taking medicines, there are costs to taking them too. It is hard to say how many injuries are accidentally prevented by patient non-adherence. But we all need to take a closer look at what’s in our desk drawers, and pare down the prescriptions to the bare minimum required. I consider it a great victory each time I reduce the number of medications my patients use, and I would urge my peers to join me in the pharmaceutical whack-a-mole game that is so sorely needed in this country.

***

The American Geriatrics Society provides a helpful list of medications that should be avoided whenever possible in older individuals.

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