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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.

Pain Management And Why It’s So Personal

Most of my patients think about pain medicines in terms of the symptoms they treat. “This is my headache medicine, and this is my arthritis medicine,” they often say. Healthcare providers are more likely to categorize pain medicines by the way they work: some are anti-inflammatory, some affect nerve endings, and others influence how the brain perceives pain. But the truth is that no matter how you classify pain medicines, there is no way to know if they’ll help until you try them for yourself.

Most people don’t realize that pain management is personal. Research is beginning to help us understand why people respond to medicines so differently, and one day we will probably be able to personalize treatment plans more successfully. For now, there are several known genetic reasons why pain medicines are more or less effective for one individual over another. Genes affect:

  1. The number of enzymes that break down medicines and remove them from the body. Some people have larger numbers of these enzymes and therefore require more drug to feel its pain-relieving effects. Others may be strongly affected by even small doses of drug.

  2. Pain medicine receptor variations can make one medicine effective and another (nearly identical medicine) ineffective in relieving pain.

  3. Differences in carrier molecules that transport pain medicine across the blood stream and into the cells that are triggering pain sensations. Some people have fewer carrier molecules to bring the medicine to the site of pain.

  4. The number of “middle man” neurotransmitter molecules that pass along the pain response. Too many of these molecules can reduce drug binding and mute the pain relief effects of some drugs.

When pain is severe, prescription medications may be necessary. However, mild to moderate pain may be effectively managed with over-the-counter (OTC) medicines. I believe in the start low, go slow approach to finding the smallest effective dose of pain medicines. I always recommend that my patients read and follow all the instructions on the Drug Facts labels to make sure that they don’t accidentally overdose on active ingredients.

When I choose a pain reliever with my patients, the first thing I think about is potential side effects. Some medicines (such as non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs like ibuprofen and naproxen sodium) can be hard on the stomach lining, or cause bleeding in people who are at risk for it. Other medicines (such as acetaminophen) can harm the liver if used in excess, while prescription pain medicines can cause constipation and drowsiness. The best pain medicine to start with is one that is least likely to cause harm to the specific person.

The next thing I ask is whether or not the medicine has worked for the patient in the past. Previous experience is one of the best indicators of future success. Since I know that my patient has a unique, genetically determined number of enzymes, transporters, and receptors, previous experience with pain medicines will give me a good idea of how well they will tolerate it again, and if it will be effective.

Finally, I consider the type of pain that they are experiencing. If the pain is caused by inflammation (from an injury, surgery, or arthritis) I’ll consider a medicine with primarily anti-inflammatory properties. If the pain is caused by tension (such has headache) or complicated by fever, I may consider acetaminophen first. If the pain is coming from a nerve (such as sciatica or neuropathy) then I’ll use pain medicines that work for nerve pain specifically. If the pain is complicated by depression, I may discuss additional medicines and approaches.

Sometimes, combinations of medicines are significantly more effective than one medicine alone at treating pain (this is why some prescription pain relievers are combinations of an opioid and acetaminophen). When using more than one pain relief medicine, it is important to compare active ingredients in both prescription medications and OTC products to make sure that accidental overdoses do not occur. I also recommend consulting with a healthcare professional if there are concerns about drug interactions or if the patient is already on a significant number of prescription medications that could interact with his or her OTC pain medicine choices.

The bottom line is that science is still catching up to pain management. Perhaps one day a simple blood test will help us to determine the very best pain medicine regimen for a specific patient at a given time. But until then, adopting a strategy of careful trial and error (avoiding unwanted side effects, using the lowest effective doses, and consulting a physician when pain is severe) is the only option. Don’t worry too much about whether a specific medicine is “best” for your pain. Pain management is very personal, so you will need to discover your own best solution.

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Disclosure: Dr. Val Jones is a paid consultant for McNeil Consumer Healthcare Division.

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.

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

The Truth About Vitamins And Supplements: How To Protect Yourself

Prepared Patient Publication Logo Vitamins, herbs and other dietary supplements are sold as natural alternatives to pharmaceuticals and many people turn to them in an attempt to improve their health. Others seek supplements to lose weight or after hearing that they can help with serious medical conditions. These products are now used at least monthly by more than half of all Americans—and their production, marketing and sales have become a $23.7 billion industry, according to the Nutrition Business Journal.

What Are Dietary Supplements and How Are They Regulated?
98-year-old Bob Stewart, a retired podiatrist and senior Olympian, credits his use of supplements for his healthy aging. Writer Betsy McMillan, a mother of two now adult children, however, nearly suffered permanent liver damage due to a supplement that contained potentially fatal levels of niacin.

Unlike pharmaceuticals—which must be FDA-approved as safe and effective before they can be marketed—supplements are considered as foods by regulators and assumed to be safe until proven otherwise. Although pharmaceutical manufacturers face inspections to ensure that the right dose is in the right pill without dangerous contaminants, supplements do not undergo such intense government scrutiny.

Despite many reports of health problems, Read more »

*This blog post was originally published at Prepared Patient Forum: What It Takes Blog*

MTV Reality Show Runs More Like A Contraceptive Ad And Covers Little To No Side Effects

In this week’s episode of Teen Mom 2, Kailyn heads to her gynecologist for birth control and leaves with a Mirena IUD in her uterus.

The entire encounter, obviously edited, ran more like a commercial for Mirena than a contraceptive counseling session. Other contraceptives were mentioned generically only  -”a patch”, “a ring”, “the pill” – but when it came to the IUD, all we hear is the word Mirena – six times, to be exact, during the entire 2 and a half minute encounter with the doc.

DOC: If you don’t like the birth control pill, you do have other options. You know that there’s a birth control patch.
KAILYN: (suspiciously) Yeah
DOC: There’s a once a month vaginal ring. The ring itself is not uncomfortable. (Hands her the ring) They’re one size fits all – Right Isaac? (Baby plays with Nuvaring) They’re cool, right?
KAILYN: I just feel like me putting something in myself is all that much more room for error.
DOC: There’s also the Mirena.
KAILYN: Whaaaat is Mirena? Read more »

*This blog post was originally published at The Blog That Ate Manhattan*

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