Tuesday, June 29, 2021

For readers who use Common Sense Family Doctor e-mail subscriptions

If you don't receive notifications of my new posts via e-mail, please disregard the below message. Nothing should change for you.

Starting in July, I will be transitioning all existing e-mail subscriptions to Common Sense Family Doctor from Google Feedburner (which will no longer support such subscriptions) to a new service, follow.it. You should receive an e-mail directly from the service requesting to confirm your subscription. It's possible that until Google's e-mail subscription service ceases, you may receive two notifications for each post, but I don't expect that to last very long. At any rate, please e-mail me at linkenny@hotmail.com if you have any problems with this transition.

Tuesday, June 22, 2021

Reexamining prenatal care and planned community birth

The need to restrict in-person office visits in 2020 to slow the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic affected prenatal care, as some in-person visits were transitioned to virtual or visit intervals were extended. But how did the traditional U.S. prenatal visit schedule - monthly until 28 weeks, biweekly until 36 weeks, and weekly until delivery - become established in the first place? According to a recent review article in the American Journal of Obstetrics & Gynecology, the present-day schedule of 12-14 visits over the course of one's pregnancy was codified in 1930 in a booklet published by the Federal Children's Bureau, during an era when the majority of births occurred in the home. In the intervening century, the only major effort to change the frequency of prenatal appointments came in 1989, when an expert panel commissioned by the Department of Health and Human Services recommended a flexible, risk-based schedule:

Their proposed schedule included 7 visits for low-risk multiparous patients and 9 visits for low-risk nulliparous patients, with additional visits added as needed for high-risk patients based on medical and social risk factors. Interestingly, they suggested a phone visit for multiparous patients at 10 week's gestation, perhaps a first step toward what we now see as telemedicine for prenatal care.

The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) decided to reject the new schedule based on insufficient supporting evidence, even though "these recommendations implied maintaining an existing visit structure that was also not evidence-based." Then, as now, supporting evidence for prenatal interventions was limited. For example, though long endorsed by ACOG, counseling for healthy weight and weight gain in pregnancy was not officially recognized by the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force as a beneficial preventive service until last month.

A research study of the Google Trends database suggested that interest in planned community birth in the U.S. and the United Kingdom rose during the pandemic: the frequency of online search queries related to home birth increased by 239% and 53%, respectively, from March through November 2020 compared to the preceding year. According to an article by Dr. Gregory Lang and colleagues in the June 1 issue of American Family Physician, out-of-hospital births increased by 75% from 2004 to 2017, and in 2018 one out of every 61 newborns was delivered outside of a hospital. Planned community births are associated with a lower risk of obstetric interventions, including cesarean delivery, and, in "low-risk, vertex, singleton, term pregnancies in patients who have not had a previous cesarean delivery," neonatal outcomes may be similar to those in hospital settings.

In an accompanying editorial, Drs. Lawrence Leeman and Jessica Goldstein discussed ways to promote safety in community-based birth settings, including "adequate birth attendant training, access to emergency obstetric care, and careful risk assessment throughout the prenatal and intrapartum periods." The authors noted that regardless of whether they personally provide maternity care services, "family physicians play an important role in improving the safety of community birthing by offering counseling on the choice of birth setting, consultation, and collaboration during prenatal care, and by facilitating the process of maternal or newborn transfer [to the hospital] when necessary."


This post first appeared in the AFP Community Blog.

Sunday, June 6, 2021

Living, teaching, and valuing the pursuit of health equity

My younger son, who turned nine in February, had a minor health scare a couple of years ago. After a few days of a cough and runny nose, one morning he complained that he didn't want to walk because his legs hurt. We gave him some liquid ibuprofen, wondering if these were just growing pains, but the pain kept coming back. Adding to our concern, this child has a high threshold for pain; for example, he barely blinked when having a cavity filled at age three. Over the next week or so, he developed red and purple blotches on his lower legs and feet that looked like this and this.

After consultations with our family doctor and other physician friends and family, he was diagnosed with Henoch-Schonlein purpura, a relatively rare condition that, fortunately, resolves spontaneously in most but can cause kidney disease in up to half of affected patients. For the next few weeks, his legs continued to hurt off and on as the rash slowly faded, but his kidney function remained normal, and the only medical bills we received were from a single clinic visit and some outpatient blood tests covered by our health insurance. We were lucky, not only because my son avoided complications, but because we had the advantage of being well positioned to obtain further care for him had they occurred.

Adjusted U.S. ESRD incidence rates, 2000-2015

Every year, I lead a team-based learning exercise for the first-year class at Georgetown University School of Medicine on disparities in kidney (renal) disease. Not only are some racial and ethnic groups more likely to suffer from end-stage renal disease (when kidney function has deteriorated to the point that dialysis or a kidney transplant is often needed), but this unequal burden is unevenly distributed geographically, reflecting disparities in socioeconomic status. The graphic below, showing much higher rates of end-stage renal disease in the majority-African American northeast and southeast quadrants of Washington, DC, coincides with my years of practicing in these areas and noticing clusters of fast-food chains and dialysis centers around primary care clinics.

End-stage Renal Disease in Washington, DC

Similar large disparities in mortality and life expectancy are present nationally. In a 2006 paper, Dr. Christopher Murray (profiled in Jeremy Smith's "Epic Measures") described "Eight Americas," collections of U.S. counties defined by a mixture of race, geography, socioeconomics, and population density that demonstrated striking differences in mortality patterns. In a more recent analysis, Dr. Murray and colleagues concluded that geographic disparities in life expectancy have worsened over the past three decades: "Compared with the national average, counties in Colorado, Alaska, and along both coasts experienced larger increases in life expectancy between 1980 and 2014, while some southern counties in states stretching from Oklahoma to West Virginia saw little, if any, improvement over this same period."

Observing well before the COVID-19 pandemic that overall U.S. life expectancy had been falling after decades of steady improvement, a 2019 editorial in the Annals of Internal Medicine called on health research funders to "honestly recognize the interactive roles of biology and the socioeconomic and political environment ... [and] align health research resources toward an integrative model of science that seriously investigates the socioeconomic and political determinants of health alongside the biological ones." Reducing disparities in HIV/AIDS, for example, will require not only more clinical resources and affordable drugs, but more studies of policy interventions to improve social and living conditions that increase the risk of acquiring HIV infections in the first place. This means going beyond meeting individual-level social needs to changing the conditions that make people sick in communities and populations (including the Eight Americas).

As "value-based" health care payment models rapidly expand, based on the argument that we ought to be paying for good health outcomes rather than the volume of health services, we are recognizing that social determinants put some populations at a health disadvantage that effective interventions, such as increasing primary care physician supply, cannot fully overcome. As a result, physicians and health systems who serve underserved populations may be judged as providing "poor quality" care (and paid less) simply because their patients' outcomes were so much worse to begin with.

What can be done about this? Dr. Krisda Chaiyachati and colleagues have argued for a "disparities-sensitive frame shift" in value-based payment:

The health care industry cannot ignore true instances of poor quality, but it also should not worsen health care for at-risk populations. To address this tension, value-based payment models should ... integrate measures of equity into hospitals' financial calculus, incentivizing hospitals to tackle the disparities challenge without losing sight of quality. ... Concurrently, we should start paying hospitals to reduce disparities directly.

Similarly, Dr. Christopher Frank observed that "value-based payments will only work when we decide that health equity is an important value to reward."

Make no mistake: I'm happy that my son got well and stayed well. I'm not happy that it is inherently more difficult for other children to have the positive outcome that he experienced. Reducing these disadvantages and pursuing health equity informs my clinical practice, teaching in population health, and writing projects.


This post first appeared on Common Sense Family Doctor on February 19, 2019.