Friday, December 23, 2022

Decoding doctor-speak, redux

Eleven years ago, I wrote a post for my U.S. News Healthcare Headaches blog titled "Decoding doctor-speak: translations of common medical terms" that walked non-health professionals through explanations of common blood tests such as the complete blood count, basic metabolic panel, liver function tests, and low-density lipoprotein; and diagnoses such prediabetes and metabolic syndrome. It turned out to be an enduring hit; the cross-posted version on Common Sense Family Doctor has been viewed more than 11,000 times. But have I or physicians in general have gotten any better at keeping insider medical jargon out of our conversations with patients?

A few weeks ago, JAMA Network Open published a cross-sectional study that assessed the general public's understanding of English phrases that have different meanings in a medical context (jargon) than they do in everyday life. Researchers surveyed 215 adult volunteers without a history of medical or nursing training who visited the 2021 Minnesota State Fair. Of the 13 questions concerning various terms, the percentage of participants who answered correctly ranged from the high 90s ("negative" cancer test results being good news) to 20 or less ("impressive" x-ray results, NPO = nothing by mouth, occult infection).

More people believed that the phrase “had an occult infection” had something to do with a curse than understood that this meant that they had a hidden infection. Fewer than half knew that their neuro examination being “grossly intact” was a good thing, possibly because the word “gross” more often means “unpleasant” than “in general” in common usage. These terms may not necessarily be recognized by clinicians as jargon because they do not land in the commonly understood category of technical, medical terminology. However, they have been shown to be used frequently in clinical settings.

Although I now have more than twice as much clinical experience as I did when I wrote my original blog post, keeping my "doctor-speak" free from jargon remains a work in progress. It's easy to fall into the trap of thinking that patients understand what I'm saying if they are nodding or not asking questions, but as often as that may be true, it could also mean that they are too intimidated or embarrassed to admit that I've lost them. And the burden of assuring that effective communication occurs ought not to fall primarily on the patient. So I resolve to keep trying to do better.

Monday, December 12, 2022

Can prostate MRI reduce the harms of PSA screening?

Without question, PSA screening for prostate cancer in asymptomatic patients does them both harm and good; the difficulty in quantifying how much harm versus good has historically been the source of disagreements among primary care physicians and urologists over how much screening we ought to be doing, or if we should be screening men at all. In 2012, the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force took the position (which it partially reversed in 2018) that the way to prevent harm from PSA screening was to generally stop doing it. But those who believe that selective testing saves lives that otherwise would have been lost to prostate cancer argue that too much testing isn't the problem, it's too much treatment. For every potentially fatal tumor identified by PSA testing, we also "overdiagnose" numerous low-grade, indolent prostate cancers that should perhaps not be called "cancer" at all but are nonetheless treated or at least monitored, exposing patients to harm with very little likelihood of benefit.

It's instructive to compare the typical evaluation for a positive prostate cancer screening test with a positive breast cancer screening test. If breast surgeons diagnosed breast cancer the way urologists diagnose prostate cancer, they would not only biopsy the area of the breast corresponding to an abnormality on a mammogram or ultrasound, they would also systematically biopsy 12 to 20 additional normal-appearing areas of the breast to make sure that no cancer is missed. If that sounds crazy, that's because it is. Multiparametric MRI is increasingly being used for targeted prostate biopsy and active surveillance of low-risk prostate cancer, but whether MRI-targeted biopsy can safely replace systematic prostate biopsy remains an unanswered question.

Unanswered, that is, until last week, when the New England Journal of Medicine published the results of a randomized trial comparing MRI-targeted versus systematic biopsy in men with a PSA level of 3 ng/mL or higher. The researchers found that men in the systematic biopsy group were twice as likely as those in the MRI-targeted group to be diagnosed with an "insignificant" cancer (as judged by pathologists) but slightly less likely to be diagnosed with a clinically significant cancer. In other words, the cost of reducing prostate cancer overdiagnosis is that a small number of clinically significant cancers that would only have been diagnosed with systematic biopsy are missed and not caught until later in the disease course. Granted, pathology does not correlate perfectly with tumor behavior, and it may not predict clinical prognosis since many men have comorbid medical conditions that are more likely to cause death than prostate cancer. But I think these findings make sense; whether and how they will affect academic or community urology practices remains to be seen. As a family physician, would I feel more comfortable with doing PSA screening if I knew that our local urologists performed MRI-targeted rather than systematic prostate biopsies? Absolutely.

Sunday, December 4, 2022

New AAFP practice guideline sets blood pressure targets for adults with hypertension

From 1977 to 2003, seven Joint National Committees (JNC), sponsored by the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI), produced consensus multi-specialty guidelines on the diagnosis and management of hypertension. In 2013, well into the development of JNC8, the NHLBI abruptly turned the process over to the American College of Cardiology/American Heart Association (ACC/AHA). The JNC8 committee independently published an evidence-based guideline in JAMA that raised the blood pressure treatment threshold in most older adults from 140/90 to 150/90 mm Hg. Concerned about conflicts of interest and other deviations from Institute of Medicine-recommended practices for developing trustworthy guidelines, primary care groups, including the American Academy of Family Physicians (AAFP), declined to participate in the ACC/AHA guideline panel. And the longstanding edifice of hypertension guidelines fractured.

In 2017, the ACC/AHA released its clinical practice guideline, which most notably re-defined hypertension as sustained blood pressure over 130/80 mm Hg and recommending, based largely on the controversial SPRINT trial, that treatment should aim to reduce blood pressure below this new threshold. The AAFP decided against endorsing the guideline and advised its members to continue following the JNC8 report and its own 2017 practice guideline, co-authored with the American College of Physicians, that largely reiterated JNC8’s treatment thresholds for adults aged 60 years and older.

Last month, American Family Physician published an updated AAFP hypertension guideline, written by a panel of family physicians (including me), which focuses on updated evidence for optimal blood pressure targets in adults. Based on a Cochrane systematic review of randomized controlled trials that compared higher and lower blood pressure targets for primary prevention of cardiovascular disease (76% of study participants did not have preexisting CVD), the AAFP strongly recommends treating to a standard blood pressure target of less than 140/90 mm Hg to reduce all-cause and cardiovascular mortality. Since a lower blood pressure target of less than 135/85 mm Hg further reduces the risk of myocardial infarction (number needed to treat = 137 over 3.7 years) but not mortality, the AAFP recommends that clinicians consider treating to this lower target with shared decision-making. Notably, although the lower target did not increase serious adverse events compared to the standard target, it required patients to take one more anti-hypertensive medication on average and increased non-serious adverse events (number needed to harm = 33).

The AAFP guideline also applies to adults with hypertension and existing CVD, as another recent Cochrane review comparing standard to lower blood pressure targets in this population found no differences in total or cardiovascular mortality, conclusions that were unchanged from an earlier version. The AAFP guideline is mostly consistent with guidelines from the International Society of Hypertension that recommend a treatment threshold of 140/90 in office settings and lower thresholds for blood pressures obtained with home monitoring or 24-hour ambulatory monitoring.


This post first appeared on the AFP Community Blog.

Monday, November 21, 2022

How health care can break the "harm-treat-harm" climate emissions cycle

At the 27th United Nations Conference of the Parties (COP27) conference that concluded in Egypt yesterday, participants agreed that wealthy nations would provide financial aid in the form of a "loss and damage" fund to developing countries to reduce carbon dioxide emissions and mitigate climate impacts. Climate injustice, "a term used to describe the situation in which countries that contribute the least to the climate crisis nevertheless pay the highest price," is ever-present in the African continent, which has contributed only 3-4% of all emissions but suffers disproportionately from the resulting heat waves, droughts, scarcity of food and drinking water, and coastal flooding.

In an October 19 editorial that was simultaneously published in more than 200 health journals, following last year's editorial on the climate emergency, the editors-in-chief of African journals highlighted the ongoing health impacts of climate change in their countries:

Droughts in sub-Saharan Africa have tripled between 1970–1979 and 2010–2019. In 2018, devastating cyclones impacted 2.2 million people in Malawi, Mozambique, and Zimbabwe. In West and Central Africa, severe flooding resulted in mortality and forced migration from loss of shelter, cultivated land, and livestock. Changes in vector ecology brought about by floods and damage to environmental hygiene have led to increases in diseases across sub-Saharan Africa, with rises in malaria, dengue fever, Lassa fever, Rift Valley fever, Lyme disease, Ebola virus, West Nile virus, and other infections. Rising sea levels reduce water quality, leading to waterborne diseases, including diarrheal diseases, a leading cause of mortality in Africa. Extreme weather damages water and food supply, increasing food insecurity and malnutrition, which causes 1.7 million deaths annually in Africa.

The authors emphasized that the international community should not only be concerned for Africa for moral reasons, but also because "knock-on" effects of "poverty, infectious disease, forced migration, and conflict" are global in nature. "In an interconnected world," they argued, "leaving countries to the mercy of environmental shocks creates instability that has severe consequences for all nations."

As a clinically-focused journal, American Family Physician has devoted much environmental health content to what individual physicians can do in their offices to mitigate the health effects of climate change on patients and counsel them about actions that can help address the problem. In a recent position paper, the American College of Physicians went further by recommending "that the health sector must adopt environmentally sustainable and energy-efficient practices to aggressively reduce its greenhouse gas emissions." As noted in an accompanying editorial, the U.S. health care system accounts for an estimated 8.5% of national greenhouse gas emissions. Left unaddressed, these emissions cause harm that requires health care interventions, which generate more emissions that lead to more harm: the "harm-treat-harm" cycle.

What actions can clinics, hospitals, and health systems take to break this cycle? The Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality has released an evidence-informed primer for health care organizations from the Institute for Healthcare Improvement on measures and actions to reduce carbon emissions. An article in STAT News discussed energy efficiency initiatives at Boston Medical Center, the Cleveland Clinic, and Kaiser Permanente that have reduced carbon emissions associated with excess power consumption and saved millions of dollars. Notably, nonprofit hospitals are now eligible to receive renewable energy credit payments from the Inflation Reduction Act for investing in energy-saving projects.


This post first appeared on the AFP Community Blog.

Saturday, November 5, 2022

Facing the "tripledemic": RSV, influenza, and COVID-19

During the first two winters of the pandemic, social distancing and mask wearing protected many persons - particularly infants and older adults - from SARS-CoV-2 and other potentially serious viral respiratory infections. With most people having returned to pre-pandemic social interactions, the viruses are making a comeback. Children's hospitals in several states are filled to capacity with patients infected with respiratory syncytial virus (RSV)high levels of influenza-like illness are being reported across most of the South; and with waning immunity and low uptake of bivalent vaccine booster shots, many scientists predict another COVID-19 winter surge. Health officials are concerned that the combination of RSV, influenza, and SARS-CoV-2 variants may produce a "tripledemic" that could overwhelm outpatient practices and hospitals.

Prior to 2020, 2 to 3 percent of U.S. infants younger than 12 months were hospitalized for RSV bronchiolitis, and RSV was estimated to cause 177,000 hospitalizations and 14,000 deaths annually in adults aged 65 years and older. For the family physician evaluating a child with bronchiolitis, accurate risk stratification remains a key skill. Unfortunately, aside from oxygen supplementation, no other therapies offer significant benefit: bronchodilators do not improve oxygen saturation, hospitalization rate or duration; and the American Academy of Pediatrics practice guideline recommends against using systemic corticosteroids, antibiotics, nebulized hypertonic saline (unless the child is hospitalized), or chest physiotherapy. RSV prophylaxis in the first year of life with the monoclonal antibody palivizumab (Synagis) is recommended only for infants born before 29 weeks of gestation or infants with chronic lung or heart disease, neuromuscular disease, or profound immunocompromise. No vaccines have been approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to prevent RSV infections in infants or older adults.

Although not in time for this RSV season, new prevention tools are around the corner. Earlier this year, a placebo-controlled trial of 1490 late-preterm (>35 weeks gestation) and term infants reported that the monoclonal antibody nirsevimab provided reduced medically attended RSV bronchiolitis by 75 percent and hospitalization by 62 percent, with no difference in adverse events. The FDA and the European Medicines Agency are both considering approval. Several companies are also in the late stages of developing a vaccine against RSV for older adults, with two reporting positive outcomes in unpublished Phase 3 trials.

In the meantime, nonpharmacologic interventions (handwashing, avoiding sick persons, and mask wearing) remain the mainstay of preventing respiratory virus infections. Finally, to increase lagging COVID-19 and influenza vaccine uptake, the American Academy of Family Physicians has assembled an Immunizations & Vaccines web page with up-to-date clinical and patient education resources.


This post first appeared on the AFP Community Blog.

Tuesday, October 25, 2022

Imperfect prevention strategies against malaria and cancer

Two recent articles in American Family Physician highlight new prevention and detection strategies against age-old health threats. In "Malaria: Prevention, Diagnosis, and Treatment," Drs. S. David Shahbodaghi and Nicholas Rathjen review not only prescribing prophylaxis for travelers to malaria-endemic regions, but also "the first malaria vaccine approved for widespread use ... for the prevention of P. falciparum malaria in children living in endemic areas," which has already been given "to more than 1 million children in Ghana, Malawi, and Kenya." In a previous blog post, Dr. Jennifer Middleton discussed the World Health Organization's endorsement of Mosquirix and research evidence that it lowers the incidence of malaria infection, complications and death in combination with seasonal chemoprophylaxis.

A New York Times article elaborated on the financial, logistical, and trust challenges of getting an estimated 100 million vaccine doses into children's arms every year. A full series of Mosquirix consists of 4 doses administered between 5 and 18 months of age. Its limited (40%) efficacy compared to other malaria vaccines in development has raised concerns that "every dollar directed to Mosquirix now is a dollar less for developing other tools" and paying for low-tech prevention measures such as distribution of insecticide-treated bed nets.

Despite a 27% decline in cancer mortality in the U.S. over the past two decades, cancer trails only heart disease as the leading cause of death, and most cancer types do not have screening tests recommended by the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF). A Diagnostic Tests article by Dr. Natasha Pyzocha discusses the Galleri test, a highly promoted blood test that is used to detect more than 50 cancer types in older adults. The test's manufacturer recently reported results of a prospective study of the test that detected a "cancer signal" in 1.4% of participants, 38% of whom ultimately had cancer confirmed after additional diagnostic testing. A much larger study currently underway in the United Kingdom's National Health Service should go a long way toward determining if this test is a "game changer" or "overhyped" for improving cancer outcomes and mortality.

Several other multi-cancer early detection (MCED) tests are in various stages of development, and the future impact of MCEDs on family physicians who may be ordering these tests in practice is uncertain. A review in the American Journal of Medicine mentioned "concerns about patient counseling, costs, frequency of testing, patient anxiety, and subsequent testing for a positive result." Similarly, the director of the National Cancer Institute's Division of Cancer Prevention wrote that "there is still a substantial level of uncertainty and many unknowns surrounding these tests," including "how best to maximize their benefits and minimize their potential harms." Until more definitive studies demonstrate that the benefits of MCEDs exceed the harms, I advise physicians and patients against ordering or undergoing any of these tests.


This post first appeared on the AFP Community Blog.

Friday, October 14, 2022

Can Amazon cure all that ails U.S. primary care?

This summer, Amazon purchased the One Medical national chain of primary care practices for nearly $4 billion. As David Blumenthal and Lovisa Gustafsson recently wrote in the Harvard Business Review, the success of the online retail giant's health care venture is hardly assured. One doesn't need to be a practicing family physician with health policy expertise to know that U.S. primary care is chronically overworked and underfunded, and as a result, medical student interest in primary care specialties has been anemic for the past two decades. As I discussed in a previous Medscape commentary, international primary care comparisons are less than flattering. The "fundamental question," asserted Blumenthal and Gustafsson, is: "Can profit-driven entrepreneurship and bottom-up innovation make the U.S. health care system work anywhere nearly as well as those in places like France, Sweden, Norway, Australia, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Germany, and Switzerland?"

A new analysis of the time needed to provide all recommended preventive, chronic disease, and acute care to a hypothetical adult primary care panel of 2500 patients produced a mind-boggling (and mathematically impossible) estimate: 26.7 hours per day, with more than half allocated to preventive care. (It's no wonder that urgent care facilities, staffed largely by primary care physicians and advanced practice clinicians, are growing like weeds everywhere.) Even in a team-based primary care model where medical assistants and nursing staff take on much of the preventive and chronic disease care and the physician only handles the really hard stuff, the authors estimated that 9.3 hours per day would be needed, with nearly one-third allocated to documentation and inbox management. How many aspiring doctors envision a future where they spend 3 hours per day on electronic health record (EHR) tasks?

Oh, but it gets even better (and by better, I mean worse). A fascinating history of time organization in U.S. outpatient medicine published in the Annals of Internal Medicine traced the evolution of physician practice from sporadic home visits or open "office hours" to appointments based on standard 15-minute blocks. As appointment schedulers migrated from individual doctors' front offices to distant call centers, personalized time allocation based on the complexity of the patient and his or her specific concerns became a thing of the past:

The centralization and standardization of outpatient scheduling have lessened the system's ability to acknowledge and accommodate the individual needs and natures of specific patients and physicians. This tradeoff creates special challenges for primary care, a field whose effectiveness relies heavily on strong relationships and trust. Without the ability to accommodate patients and physicians as individuals, health care systems risk robbing primary care of its value and losing the trust of both parties.

A commentary about primary care burnout in Health Affairs Forefront  noted that our singular talent for building relationships - frequently, the reason we are drawn to generalist specialties like family  medicine - is being wasted in the design of the current health care system:

The focus of primary care has become largely administrative, sending results electronically, clarifying and approving refills, responding to patient messages, closing care gaps, addressing billing inquiries, and, of course, documenting everything by midnight. ... The result: It is increasingly rare to have those magical moments between a primary care provider and patient in which time flies because we are listening intently to each other, bearing witness, and offering a steadfast presence and commitment to longitudinal care. Instead, exchanges are increasingly composed of a two-sentence request in Arial font (“My knee still hurts. I need a referral to ortho.”) followed by a single word response (“Done.”). Our greatest skills are in listening, connecting, and collaborating within and across highly complex systems. It is a skill we rarely get to use.

Dr. Thomas Bodenheimer, a longtime general internist and Professor of Family and Community Medicine at UCSF, argued in a recent essay that the two keys to "revitalizing primary care" are a substantial increase in the percent of health expenditures dedicated to it and building fully-staffed inter-professional teams that are able to care for large primary  care panels and reduce physician burnout. No more tinkering around the edges with initiatives like "patient-centered medical homes" and financial incentives for "transitional care" and "care management." Rhode Island and Oregon have led the way by mandating that commercial insurers increase their percentage of primary care spending. Federal action will be required to equalize the monetary value of a 30-minute office visit with a 30-minute colonoscopy (currently, the former is valued at 40% of the latter).

So can Amazon cure all that ails U.S. primary care? I imagine a customized health shopping homepage where a percentage of every purchase is funneled directly to One Medical, where vans with Amazon's distinctive emblem drop off colorectal and cervical cancer self-screening tests at all hours, where the subscription Prime channel airs a hit show starring two attractive and empathic family physicians who emphasize relationship-based care like their predecessor, Marcus Welby, MD. You won't see them spending hours in the EHR after hours. Instead, their every word will be documented by attentive scribes - either real-life or artificial intelligence-enabled versions. Medical students will clamor to be them. Family medicine departments and residency programs will perpetually expand to keep pace with demand. And our primary care system will be the envy of the world.

Sunday, October 9, 2022

Gabapentin increases postoperative risks in older adults

Although gabapentin is effective at relieving some types of neuropathic pain, namely diabetic neuropathy and postherpetic neuralgia, it is notably ineffective for treating other types, such as radicular low back pain. A 2019 editorial in American Family Physician warned of potential unintended consequences of using gabapentinoids (gabapentin and pregabalin) as alternatives to opioids for pain management. The authors observed that "as many as one in three patients taking therapeutic doses will experience dizziness or somnolence"; also, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration issued a safety communication about gabapentinoids causing serious breathing problems in patients with chronic respiratory diseases and older patients.

Illicit use of gabapentin is playing an increased role in opioid-related overdoses, according to a May 2022 report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The report found that between 2019 and 2020, toxicology results detected gabapentin in almost 10% of fatal overdoses recorded in 23 states and Washington, DC. Misuse of gabapentin occurs for several reasons: "to enhance the effects of opioids," "to achieve a 'high' when preferred substances [are] unavailable," and "to self-treat withdrawal or pain."

A recent cohort study in JAMA Internal Medicine examined gabapentin use in the perioperative period (within 2 days after major surgery) and in-hospital adverse events in nearly 1 million patients aged 65 years or older. More than 3 in 4 patients underwent orthopedic surgeries. Overall, 12.3% were prescribed gabapentin perioperatively. Those patients were statistically more likely to experience delirium, receive a new prescription for an antipsychotic drug, and develop pneumonia than gabapentin non-users. In persons using gabapentin, the risk of delirium was higher with chronic kidney disease and a high burden of comorbidities.

An accompanying commentary pointed out that the study results "are consistent with what is now a growing body of literature suggesting that gabapentin may not be the windfall medication for perioperative pain management that surgeons hoped it might be for decreasing opioid use," particularly in older adults:

We need to unwind the automaticity of gabapentin use in the perioperative period. For example, in this study, 80% of gabapentin users received gabapentin on the day of surgery, suggesting that it was started prior to any patient report of pain, representing an opportunity to de-escalate gabapentin use for some patients. Second, engaging patients and caregivers in their care could allow us to better manage expectations for pain control in the perioperative period. A multimodal approach needs to be patient centered and flexible. Finally, aside from swapping out one potentially problematic medication for another, nonpharmacological techniques that might be used to treat pain should be considered.

This post first appeared on the AFP Community Blog.

Sunday, September 25, 2022

The evidence is in: WIC improves maternal and child health

Food insecurity is increasingly recognized as a modifiable social determinant of health. The American Academy of Family Physicians has endorsed "sustained funding for evidence-based policies and programs to eliminate disparities in healthy food access, including ... the Special Supplemental Nutritional Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC)." In a 2019 editorial about interventions to reduce maternal mortality, Drs. Katy Kozhimannil and Andrea Westby recommended postpartum screening for food insecurity. But how strong is the evidence that WIC improves maternal and child health?

Since 2012, American Family Physician's Implementing AHRQ Effective Health Care Reviews feature has summarized dozens of primary care-relevant systematic reviews from the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality's Effective Health Care Program with accompanying clinical commentaries. A team of investigators in this program recently reviewed maternal and child outcomes associated with WIC and published a synopsis of their report in Annals of Internal Medicine. Investigators identified 82 studies that examined associations between WIC participation and maternal, birth, infant, and child health outcomes.

Based on direct evidence from 49 studies, they concluded that WIC participation likely reduces the incidence of preterm birth, low birth weight, and infant mortality. Lower strength of evidence suggested WIC is associated with less inadequate gestational weight gain and alcohol use and better diet quality during pregnancy, and it may increase child preventive care visits and immunizations. WIC was not associated with differences in breastfeeding rates or premature (before 4 months) introduction of solid foods. Children of families receiving WIC had better diet quality, increased household purchasing of healthy foods compared to less healthy foods and beverages, and higher cognitive development than WIC-eligible children not receiving benefits. There was insufficient evidence that WIC reduced childhood obesity or affected health status or risk of hospitalization.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) found that food insecurity in households with children declined to its lowest rate in two decades in 2021, despite the negative impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the economy. The nonpartisan Center on Budget and Policy Priorities observed:

About 10.2 percent of U.S. households were food insecure in 2021, meaning they struggled to afford enough food for an active, healthy life year-round. That the rate held steady during the pandemic — when accounting for statistical noise it’s not significantly different from the 10.5 percent rate for 2019 and 2020 — is a testament to robust relief measures policymakers enacted. These include Economic Impact Payments, an expanded Child Tax Credit, improved unemployment insurance, and expanded food assistance, along with [the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program]'s built-in ability to respond to increased need.

On the negative side, food insecurity increased from 2020 to 2021 in households without children and for women and older people living alone. Households headed by Black, Hispanic, and American Indian / Alaska Native persons were more likely to experience food insecurity than other households. Finally, the expiration of temporary pandemic emergency relief measures, such as free meals for all children attending public schools, may worsen food insecurity in low-income families.


This post first appeared on the AFP Community Blog.

Thursday, September 22, 2022

Malcolm Gladwell on trust in medicine and the devaluing of primary care

This week I'm back in Washington DC, attending and presenting educational sessions at the American Academy of Family Physicians FMX (Family Medicine Experience), the first in-person version of this conference since 2019. For me the highlight of this conference is usually the invited celebrity speaker, someone with an inspirational story outside of medicine: past speakers have included political pundits Mary Matalin and James Carville and Aron Ralston, who survived a canyoneering accident in which he had to cut off his own arm to save his life. But this year's speaker, the author and podcaster Malcolm Gladwell, topped them all. I've been a huge Gladwell fan since I read The Tipping Point, avidly listen to his Revisionist History podcast (and featured a past episode on philanthropy on this blog), and couldn't wait to hear what he had to say yesterday to an audience of family physicians who have spent the past two plus years fighting pandemic misinformation.

The theme of his talk was that the decline in trust in medicine and public health that has manifested as tenacious resistance to Covid vaccination among certain demographics and/or areas of the country may have less to do with true anti-science sentiment and more to do with people having a hard time adjusting to strange new things. He shared several examples of this phenomenon in other fields: focus groups panning pilots of television sitcoms that ended up becoming classics (e.g., the Mary Tyler Moore Show, All In The Family, Cheers, and Seinfeld); the near rejection of the prototype of a mesh office chair that ended up earning billions of dollars for its inventor; and the Marines transforming its service from the misfits of the U.S. military to "the Few, the Proud" elite branch that we know today. Gladwell noted that trust in a profession doesn't always correlate with its effectiveness, and that pouring billions of dollars into amazing technological solutions to the pandemic (vaccines and antiviral treatments) while neglecting to support the family doctors whose job it is to persuade patients, based on preexisting trusting relationships, to accept these medical innovations was "nuts." (I made a similar point in an editorial in the Annals of Family Medicine last year). It's no wonder that many of our patients turned to the well established - but totally ineffective - drugs hydroxychloroquine and ivermectin instead.

Public health holds many stories of initial mistrust in effective interventions. Gladwell talked about how despite clear evidence showing that supplementing water or salt with iodine eliminated goiter, there was widespread public resistance to the idea ("I'll take my chances with the goiter"). The same thing happened when health officials proposed adding fluoride to water to prevent dental caries. This time, though, one official got clever and announced that fluoride would be added to the municipal water supply on a certain date, then when numerous people experienced adverse effects from drinking water on that date, mentioned that he had actually delayed the date but forgotten to tell anyone. So there is reason to hope that one day, receiving annual flu and Covid-19 vaccines will be less about one's partisan allegiances and more about following your doctor's common sense recommendation to protect yourself and others against severe illness and death.

Monday, September 12, 2022

Neurosyphilis, ocular syphilis, and otosyphilis are don't-miss diagnoses

When a patient with a history of migraine headaches presents with a "severe frontal headache and left-eye blurred vision and pain," neurosyphilis is unlikely to be foremost in the differential. Even after she mentions a two-month history of a diffuse maculopapular rash, clinicians may feel reassured because it doesn't involve the palms and soles. But syphilis, the great imitator, was in fact the eventual diagnosis in this patient, the subject of a case report published in Cureus.

In the August issue of American Family Physician, Dr. Jennifer Jones-Vanderleest reviewed detection and treatment of neurosyphilis, ocular syphilis, and otosyphilis, which can occur at any stage of syphilis regardless of immune status. Early neurosyphilis (within the first few years of infection) can present with "headache, dizziness, altered mental status, cranial neuropathies, motor and sensory deficits, meningitis, or stroke." Neurosyphilis is diagnosed with the combination of neurologic signs and symptoms and reactive syphilis serology and cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) tests. The 2021 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Sexually Transmitted Infections Treatment Guidelines recommend that patients with neurosyphilis be treated with 18 to 24 million units of aqueous crystalline penicillin G per day for 10 to 14 days, administered as a continuous infusion or 3 to 4 million units intravenously every 4 hours. These patients should be tested for HIV and be offered HIV preexposure prophylaxis if HIV negative. After treatment, normalization of the serum RPR titer predicts normalization of CSF parameters; thus, repeated CSF sampling is not needed unless the patient is HIV positive and not receiving antiretroviral therapy.

As I discussed in a previous post, the incidence of syphilis in the U.S. has been rising steadily for the past two decades (beginning in my third year in medical school and continuing throughout my family medicine residency and practice) due to stagnant health department funding for contact tracers and the recent impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. Far from being ancient history, "in 2020, 133,945 cases of all stages of syphilis were reported, including 41,655 cases of primary and secondary syphilis," according to the CDC. Although a disproportionate number of cases occur in men who have sex with men, rates in women have increased sharply since 2016. A current review of the epidemiology, natural history, diagnosis and treatment of syphilis is available in the Journal of Lancaster General Hospital.

A draft recommendation statement from the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF) reaffirmed the importance of screening adolescents and adults at increased risk for syphilis infection. The USPSTF also recommends that all pregnant patients be screened for syphilis as early as possible in pregnancy. The American Academy of Pediatrics and the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists recommend rescreening women at high risk for syphilis at 28 weeks of gestation and again at delivery to prevent congenital syphilis.


This post first appeared on the AFP Community Blog.

Wednesday, August 31, 2022

Hot topics in health policy

Last night, in a short talk to medical students and residents on "Health Policy in Family Medicine," I outlined three paths to become involved in the health policy space as a family physician, paralleling the ways that policy has intersected with my own career:

1. Clinical guidance and practice guidelines. How do research findings make their way into clinical practice recommendations? Where evidence is lacking or inconclusive, how are the judgment calls made and who gets to make them? Examples include my experiences as a medical officer for the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force, a guideline panelist for the American Academy of Family Physicians and collaborating specialty groups, and a member of the HHS Secretary's Advisory Committee on Breast Cancer in Young Women.

2. Advocacy for patients and population health. Advocacy can take many forms: interpersonal (e.g., lobbying local, state, or federal officials), writing opinion pieces, or serving as a source for a news story. I consider Common Sense Family Doctor and my Twitter account to be my main advocacy platforms, though on occasion I've written editorials in high-profile publications such as JAMA. During the COVID-19 pandemic, I spent a good deal of time pushing back against vaccine hesitancy and anti-vax sentiments in my community and online.

3. Advocacy for health professionals and primary care. While at Georgetown, I directed a health policy fellowship that trained recent family medicine residency graduates in research that demonstrated the value (and financially undervalued nature) of primary care. I continue to support the Robert Graham Center's work by publishing an ongoing series of Policy One-Pagers in American Family Physician.

Health policy isn't an abstract subject for me. In my medical career, I've seen firsthand the benefits to patients of the 2003 Medicare Modernization Act (which provided prescription drug coverage to millions of older adults), the 2010 Affordable Care Act (which extended access to affordable health insurance to tens of millions and provided consumer protections and guaranteed preventive services to all), and this year's Inflation Reduction Act, which allows Medicare to negotiate the prices of a limited number of expensive drugs, caps Medicare patients' out-of-pocket insulin costs at $35 per month and their total prescription out-of-pocket costs at $2000 per year. In addition, the IRA extended enhanced health insurance marketplace subsidies that were set to expire this year through 2025, which will preserve the affordability of private plans for lower-income patients who are self-employed or work for small employers that don't offer health care benefits. This legislation will make a major difference in many of my patients' lives by making it easier for me to provide them with the best care possible.

Friday, August 19, 2022

Diabetes is an increasingly common pregnancy complication

My clinical experiences suggest that more pregnant patients have been developing diabetes over the past several years, and it turns out this is a national phenomenon. A recent report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention documented a precipitous rise in the rate of gestational diabetes in the U.S. from 2016 to 2020, based on data collected from birth certificates. In 2020, gestational diabetes affected 7.8% of all pregnancies, reflecting a 13% increase since 2019 and a 30% increase since 2016. Prevalence increased with increasing age (2.5% in patients younger than 20 years and 15.3% in those aged 40 or older) and increasing pre-pregnancy body mass index (BMI). Both factors are likely driving the overall rise in gestational diabetes; the median age at which U.S. women gave birth reached an all-time high of 30 years in 2019 and only 2 in 5 women with a live birth in 2020 had a normal BMI prior to pregnancy.

The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF) recommends screening for gestational diabetes in asymptomatic pregnant patients at or after 24 weeks of gestation. Although the USPSTF did not identify a preferred test, a previously discussed study suggested that the two-step approach (a non-fasting 50 gram oral glucose challenge test followed by a fasting 100 gram glucose tolerance test if the first test is positive) "produces equivalent benefits, and fewer harms, than the one-step approach."

Adverse outcomes associated with gestational diabetes include gestational hypertension, preeclampsia, shoulder dystocia, macrosomia, and Cesarean delivery. Gestational diabetes also confers a 7-fold greater maternal risk of developing type 2 diabetes later in life and 1.5 times greater risk of the child being overweight in childhood or adolescence. Management of gestational diabetes begins with glucose self-monitoring and lifestyle modifications, followed by oral medication or insulin if target blood glucose levels are not achieved.

Prevention of gestational diabetes includes counseling on appropriate weight gain goals based on pre-pregnancy BMI, which can generally be achieved by averaging "350 to 450 calories per day above the previous intake (e.g., two slices of bread with half an avocado, ¾ cup of Greek yogurt or 1 cup of blueberries with two hard-boiled eggs)." Additionally, "patients should be encouraged to engage in moderate aerobic activity most days of the week for at least 20 to 30 minutes at a time, for a total of at least 150 minutes per week." The USPSTF recommends offering behavioral counseling interventions for healthy weight and weight gain in pregnancy; effective interventions generally started at the end of the first trimester and varied in duration and intensity (from 15 to 120 minutes and from 1 to more than 12 total contacts).


This post first appeared on the AFP Community Blog.

Monday, August 8, 2022

Preventive services mandate can be improved, but eliminating it isn't the answer

Over the past 12 years since the Affordable Care Act became law, individuals, business groups, and state officials who object to one or more of its provisions have filed a lengthy list of mostly unsuccessful lawsuits seeking to have part or all of it declared unconstitutional by the courts. The latest legal challenge involves the requirement that private health insurers cover without patient cost-sharing all evidence-based preventive services, defined as more than 100 services recommended by the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices, the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force, Bright Futures, or the Women's Preventive Service Initiative. When I went to my family doctor last month and received screening tests for colorectal cancer, high blood pressure, and cholesterol, these tests were all covered under the ACA's preventive services mandate. When I take my kids to receive their school-required vaccinations, those shots are fully covered too. The same goes for the costs of clinicians counseling pregnant patients about healthy weight and weight gain to prevent complications such as gestational diabetes, and similar counseling for to midlife women (aged 40 to 60 years) to maintain weight or limit weight gain to prevent obesity.

Why would anyone have a problem with requiring insurers to cover preventive services? Some employers have religious or ideological objections to paying for birth control and sterilization, preexposure prophylaxis for HIV prevention, or testing for sexually transmitted diseases. Others might oppose the increased employer or government contribution to insurance premiums that may result from mandating that these services be covered, though in reality the types of health care that drive up premiums tend to be pricey procedures and medications such as the Alzheimer's drug Aduhelm, whose initial projected price of $56,000 per year drove the highest-ever increase in Medicare premiums from 2021 to 2022.

Ensuring that patients can afford preventive services is only the first step toward getting them done. Only about two-thirds of eligible adults are up-to-date on colorectal cancer screening, for example, and a much lower percentage of current or past heavy smokers over age 50 have been offered or received lung cancer screening. Behavioral health preventive services such as screening for depression, intimate partner violence, and unhealthy alcohol use can be difficult to fit into clinical practice workflows that rely on dysfunctional electronic health records (systems that are optimized for billing rather than patient care).

The narrow focus of the ACA's preventive services mandate on health care services also leaves out other private and public programs that can have large benefits on disease prevention and care. For example, the final report of the National Clinical Care Commission included population-level diabetes prevention recommendations involving the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Food and Drug Administration, the Federal Trade Commission, and the Department of Housing and Urban Development. A related analysis article in Health Affairs bemoaned the fragmented state of US health care and policy that has stalled progress in preventing and controlling type 2 diabetes:

At the population level, fragmentation and lack of shared population health goals across stakeholders mean that there is no ownership for large segments of the population who are at risk for or have diabetes. Payers carry the liability for the health service costs of their beneficiaries and can track utilization. Enrollee churn reduces payers' incentives to take on long-term responsibility or investments in higher-quality preventive services for which returns are only realized in the long term. ... Similarly, the movement of people between health systems undermines incentives for long-term, high-value care.

So you'll get no pushback from me if you observe that there are lots of flaws and loopholes in the preventive services mandate (beginning with the fact that it doesn't even apply to half of Americans who are either publicly insured or uninsured). But getting rid of it is throwing the baby out with the bathwater: an exceedingly dumb and harmful proposition that would result in more preventable illness and poorer quality of life for millions of Americans.

Thursday, July 28, 2022

Mismeasuring quality in primary care

After several years of doing family medicine commentaries for Medscape as part of a collaboration with Georgetown University Medical Center, I recently wrote my first commentary as a clinician and faculty member at the Lancaster General Hospital Family Medicine Residency Program about my mostly unsuccessful pursuit of elusive "quality" bonuses and the problems with current metrics used to judge care provided by primary care physicians. Here's an excerpt that discusses another notable perspective that inspired me to write about this topic: 

In a recent commentary, Drs. Christine Sinsky and Jeffrey Panzer distinguished "solution shop" from "production line" work in primary care and argued that though the medical training physicians receive makes us uniquely qualified to do the former, we end up spending most of our time and energy on the latter. Similarly, they observed that "most quality-improvement efforts have focused on improving production line–type measures and not on improving the conditions for sound medical decision-making and relationship building." Being able to correctly diagnose and treat patients who come in for chest or abdominal pain, for example, counts less (or not at all) toward my quality score compared with the percentage of patients who receive lead screening or diabetic eye exams.

Saturday, July 16, 2022

Peanut allergy: prevention and treatment advances

People with severe peanut allergy are at risk of life-threatening anaphylaxis from unintentional ingestion of small amounts of peanuts. A new drug review in American Family Physician discussed oral immunotherapy with peanut allergen powder, which increases tolerance for ingesting the amount of peanut protein in a single peanut by 63% but has important downsides: 1 in 10 patients need to use epinephrine after administration (compared to 1 in 20 in a placebo group); common short-term adverse effects include abdominal pain, throat irritation, and oral pruritus; and a price of approximately $3000 annually.

Although it was once believed that children should not consume peanuts early in life, a United Kingdom randomized trial in infants 4 to 11 months of age at high risk of developing peanut allergies found that early consumption of peanuts reduced the risk of developing peanut allergy by age 5 years by 80% (absolute risk reduction=14%, NNT=7). This finding led the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases to recommend in 2017 that peanut-containing foods be introduced into the diet of infants with severe eczema, egg allergy, or both at 4 to 6 months of age. In 2021, a consensus document on the primary prevention of food allergy from three North American professional allergy societies recommended introducing peanut-containing products to all infants around 6 months of age, regardless of their risk of developing peanut allergy.

A similar change to infant feeding guidelines in Australia occurred in 2016, recommending that all infants be introduced to peanuts before age 12 months. A recent study in JAMA evaluated changes in feeding practices and the prevalence of peanut allergy across two population-based cross-sectional samples recruited in 2007-2011 and 2018-2019. Although infants in the later sample were much more likely to have consumed peanuts before 12 months than infants in the earlier sample (86% vs. 22%), overall there was no statistical difference in peanut allergy prevalence. Noting that East Asian ancestry is considered a risk factor for peanut allergy, the authors hypothesized that the increased representation of infants with parents from East Asia in the later sample may have contributed to finding no effect. Another possible explanation is that early introduction of peanut-containing foods does not significantly modify peanut allergy development in infants not at high risk.

In a previous paper on identifying and using clinical practice guidelines, Dr. David Slawson and I observed: "The ultimate test of a good guideline is whether or not it has been prospectively validated; that is, has its adoption been shown to improve patient-oriented outcomes in real-world settings?" Based on the JAMA study, infant feeding recommendations to prevent peanut allergies have not yet passed this test. On the other hand, an accompanying editorial argued that "given the potential for benefit and the low risk of harm, the [study results] should not dissuade clinicians from following current consensus guidance that recommends early peanut introduction for infants." The challenge of identifying children at increased risk for peanut allergy (as noted in the consensus document, definitions have varied across studies and guidelines) and the inherently artificial nature of previous guidance restricting what an infant would otherwise naturally eat make this a reasonable course of action in the face of imperfect evidence.


This post first appeared on the AFP Community Blog.

Friday, July 1, 2022

Race-based medicine and routine PSA screening in Black men

Five years ago on this blog, I asked whether routinely screening African American men for prostate cancer was warranted when evidence suggested that harms exceeded benefits in the general population. Even though many experts felt that it was, I disagreed:

What troubles me about this position is that race is as much a social construct as it is a biological one. Much of the disparity in prostate-cancer mortality between African-American and Caucasians can be explained by lower access to and quality of care, rather than a genetic predisposition for more aggressive and/or lethal cancers. In contrast to national data, studies of equal-access healthcare systems in the U.S. such as the Veterans Health Administration and the Department of Defense found no differences in prostate cancer mortality between Black and White men.

Since that time, the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force partially reversed itself and now states that "for men aged 55 to 69 years, the decision to undergo periodic prostate-specific antigen (PSA)-based screening for prostate cancer should be an individual one." Individual decision-making relies in part on assessing risk factors for potentially fatal prostate cancer, but aside from family history, the only other known risk factor is Black race.

Race-based medicine's drawbacks have become increasingly evident, however, and groups across the spectrum of medicine have been working to eliminate the inappropriate use of race from clinical decision-making. In this context, a group of urologists and oncologists recently updated a 2009 analysis of the effects of PSA screening in the U.S. and concluded that the benefit to harm ratio of screening over the past 3 decades was considerably more favorable in Black men than in the American population as a whole.

So was I wrong about not approaching Black men differently in PSA screening? Or as the title of the accompanying editorial asked, "Should recommendations for cancer screening differentiate on race?" Drs. Gil Welch (who authored the original analysis of PSA screening) and Adewole Adamson observed that assuming that the effectiveness of PSA screening or the harm of overdiagnosis are not substantially modified by race, then the higher prostate cancer death rate in Black men suggests that they would be more likely to benefit from screening than men of other races.

On the other hand, they argued, "in the context of addressing health disparities, cancer screening is a massive distraction. ... Cancer-associated health disparities not biased by early detection are related primarily to unequal treatment after diagnosis, not screening." All but a small fraction of the increased risk of lethal prostate cancer in Black men is likely to be mediated by social determinants of health and structural racism rather than genetics. Shockingly, "in Black men, the median age of prostate cancer death is 76 years, 4 years older than their average life expectancy [emphasis mine]," which is a strong argument for devoting more resources to improving the lives of the >95% of Black men who die from something other than prostate cancer (e.g., heart disease, lung cancer, chronic kidney disease).

I will continue to inform Black and multiracial patients in the age group highlighted by the USPSTF about population-level risks and the (increasingly inexcusable) paucity of empiric data on the benefits and harms of PSA screening in Black men. Some will choose to be screened, some will not. But I continue to believe that race-based screening for prostate cancer - i.e., screening a man only because of the color of his skin - is the wrong approach.

Friday, June 17, 2022

Podcasting in medical education: a review and example

A recent scoping review in Academic Medicine examined the published literature on the use of podcasts in undergraduate (medical school) and graduate medical education (GME; residency). The researchers identified a total of 62 articles; 44 studies reported descriptive outcomes and 38 reported educational outcomes. The latter group assessed learner reaction and attitudes, knowledge retention, and behavior change; no studies reported on system change or patient outcomes. Medical podcasts appeared to communicate knowledge as well as traditional teaching methods; are valued by learners for their portability, efficiency, and entertainment value; and measurably improved skills in documentation and selected clinical practices.

If you are new to medical podcasts, you can check out some of my favorites or a family medicine-specific list compiled by residents and faculty at the University of Arizona College of Medicine Phoenix Family Medicine Residency Program, which produces the American Family Physician podcast.

During the 2018-2019 academic year, I created two episodes of a podcast for a first-year medical course in health policy as my project for an interdisciplinary Technology-Enhanced Learning (TEL) Colloquium for Georgetown faculty. Below is an excerpt from my final report describing the project.


I created an audio podcast to provide an overview of the U.S. health system in spring 2019. The podcast episodes replaced a 90-minute lecture from the previous year, enabling better integration between the background health system content and two small group sessions during the same week on the patient-centered medical home and implications of the Affordable Care Act for patients and physicians.

During the TEL colloquium, I read about using podcasts for teaching in publications identified in PubMed and utilized resources on the Gelardin New Media Center website. Then, I became familiar with the recording and editing software program Audacity by viewing a tutorial on, accessed through the Georgetown University library. I posted finished podcast episodes on the P3 Canvas webpage and, through the podcast hosting service Libsyn, made them available on popular podcast directories, including Apple ITunes, Google Play, and Stitcher. I wanted to give students the option of listening to the podcast on their commutes or during workouts, rather than sitting at a desk or a library carrell.

Listening to and reflecting on the podcast episodes was not a stand-alone assignment, but instead incorporated into preparation for the small group sessions. I adjusted my teaching strategies in several ways. First, in the absence of a live audience, I switched to a less lecturing, more conversational tone of voice when recording. Although I posted a few key visuals (e.g., pie charts of insurance coverage types, percentages of national spending on various health services) from the previous year’s lecture slide set on Canvas for students to view during or after the podcast, most of the slides containing text simply weren’t necessary to reproduce. It was a little humbling to realize how much “slide reading” I must have been doing the year before.

My originally stated goal in joining the 2018 TEL Colloquium was to develop a blended learning project to “help me and course faculty engage in new and deeper ways with future [GUSOM] classes to better prepare them to be well-rounded physicians who are prepared to advance and advocate for their patients’ health outside of medical settings.” My two major objectives were to reduce course didactic time and to integrate online / asynchronous and in-person learning activities. I didn’t change my overall goal or specific objectives as the Colloquium progressed, but I did change the timing of the project in response to feedback from CNDLS faculty and peers. I originally envisioned the podcast beginning during the October intensive course week, continuing through the months in between, and concluding during the March course week. I fairly quickly realized that this timing was impractical, as students would not have time or motivation to listen to P3 podcasts while they were taking other courses with tests. So I instead decided to focus on the March course week, where the U.S. health system overview lecture was most amenable to being converted into a podcast because 1) I was the assigned lecturer; 2) the content had been identified by past students as being too much to digest in a single sitting.

Were students able to better absorb and engage with this material in a podcast versus a lecture? It’s hard to say for certain. Unfortunately, I did not think to add a specific question or questions about the podcast to the student course survey, and none of the free text comments from students thus far mentioned the podcast. Anecdotally, several students in my own small group of 10 said that they found the podcast to be informative and easy to digest, and course faculty e-mailed some encouraging comments about it:

“I definitely think you should write this up as an innovative way of teaching!”
“Your podcasts are excellent!
“I think it is so nice for them to get this info via a different medium than lectures or reading.”

I came into the TEL Colloquium with the prior experience of having blended learning (specifically, team-based learning exercises) not having gone particularly well in the past – a lot of time and effort invested, but mostly negative feedback. In contrast, the podcast was fun to create and seemed to have a positive, or at least neutral, effect on the faculty and student experience. Although I don’t have any specific plans to integrate podcasts into my other teaching roles, I certainly would consider doing so if an opportunity arises.

Monday, June 13, 2022

Supervised injection sites prevent overdose deaths, improve public safety

In a fortuitous alignment, the medical journals with the three largest print circulations (JAMA, American Family Physician, and The New England Journal of Medicine) each recently published editorials or features making the case for opening supervised sites for injection drug use in the United States as a form of harm reduction for patients with substance use disorders.

A news feature in JAMA observed that these sites come in many varieties depending on agency resources and patient needs: 

Supervised consumption sites can be as modest as a social service agency restroom stall, the door shortened at the bottom to make it easier to spot an unconscious person, or as expansive as Vancouver’s trailblazing Insite, which averaged 312 injection room visits per day in 2019 and offers detox rooms with private bathrooms, transitional housing for people in recovery, and other wraparound services.

In the U.S., a legal statue forbidding the operation of establishments where illicit drugs are consumed has generally forced these sites underground. Nonetheless, a research report on the outcomes an unsanctioned site located in an undisclosed U.S. city reported that over 5 years, 33 overdoses were successfully treated with naloxone administered by trained staff, with no patients requiring transfer to an outside medical institution. Advocates of supervised consumption sites argue that they do not "enable" substance use; rather, they relocate use that otherwise occur without medical supervision, often in public places, and prevent deaths from overdoses. The JAMA article quoted Sam Rivera, executive director of a nonprofit organization that operates two sites in New York City, as saying: “Every person who walks in has tried treatment and detox. We want them to be able to try again when they're ready, and in order to do that they have to be alive.”

An editorial in AFP by Drs. Jorge Finke and Jie Chan cited abundant evidence demonstrating that supervised injection sites improve health outcomes for persons who use illicit drugs and the surrounding community:

One study found a 26% net reduction in overdose deaths in the area surrounding a supervised injection site in Vancouver, Canada, compared with the rest of the city. A supervised injection site in Barcelona, Spain, was associated with a 50% reduction in overdose mortality from 1991 to 2008. People who inject drugs are significantly less likely to share needles if they regularly use supervised injection sites. ... Supervised injection sites can also reduce the number of publicly discarded syringes, and they improve public safety. ... One study in Vancouver, Canada, observed an abrupt, persistent decrease in crime after the opening of a supervised injection site.

In addition, modeling studies predict that opening supervised injection sites could be cost-saving "by preventing HIV, hepatitis C, hospitalizations for skin and soft-tissue infections, overdose deaths, ambulance calls, and emergency department visits and by increasing uptake of addiction treatment."

NEJM Perspective article asserted that the Biden administration should take action to "[make] it clear that the federal government won't stand in the way of organizations or state or local governments that want to establish overdose-prevention centers," given that the Department of Justice under the Trump administration asked courts to block the opening of a sanctioned site in Philadelphia in 2019. Arguably, Section 856 of the Controlled Substances Act (also known as the "crack house statute") was not intended to limit the operations of public health facilities, but continued legal ambiguity makes it difficult for state health officials to gain support for supervised injection sites. In a related NEJM Perspective, two clinicians at a primary care and buprenorphine clinic in Chicago emphasized that these sites are desperately needed to save people's lives:

We hand out naloxone, distribute cookers and syringes, and counsel our patients on safer injection practices — such as not injecting alone — but this work isn’t enough to keep them safe. In the clinic, we use a low-threshold model for prescribing buprenorphine to reduce harm and increase access to lifesaving medications for opioid use disorder, offering same-day buprenorphine initiation, van-based outreach, telehealth appointments, and recovery-support services. It still isn’t enough. Our patients continue to die in the largest numbers we’ve ever seen.

The largest numbers we’ve ever seen. The Centers of Disease Control and Prevention reported that in 2021, more than 107,000 people died of a drug overdose, a 15% increase over the previous record high in 2020 and "roughly one U.S. overdose death every 5 minutes." By publishing pieces that provide compelling rationales for opening supervised injection sites, the top three journals in medicine have made a statement that these effective public health interventions should be employed widely to reverse this terrible trend.


This post first appeared on the AFP Community Blog.

Monday, June 6, 2022

Monkeypox: catching up with the next viral outbreak

The World Health Organization (WHO) has been tracking an outbreak of monkeypox in 27 non-endemic countries that, as of June 2, included at least 780 laboratory confirmed cases, including 17 confirmed cases in 9 U.S. states. This outbreak is highly unusual because many infected persons do not have a history of travel to an endemic country or contact with infected animals. During the only other large U.S. outbreak (involving 77 individuals) of monkeypox in 2003, patients contracted the virus through contact with infected prairie dogs purchased as pets; a case-control study found that case patients were more likely than controls to have cleaned cages and bedding of a sick animal or touched a sick animal. Although no patients died, 19 were hospitalized. In July 2021, monkeypox was diagnosed in a Dallas, Texas emergency department in a traveler returning from Nigeria. This patient was hospitalized for one month, and no secondary infections developed in any of the 223 identified U.S. contacts.

Monkeypox is a zoonotic double-stranded DNA poxvirus that causes clinical disease in humans that is similar to, but less severe than, smallpox. It is endemic to western and central Africa, particularly the Democratic Republic of Congo. The virus was originally isolated from a monkey in 1958, and the first human case was identified in 1970. African rodents are believed to be the virus's natural reservoir. Transmission occurs through contact with bodily fluids, skin or mucosal wounds, respiratory droplets, or contaminated objects. The usual incubation period is 7-14 days, and symptoms resolve within 14-21 days. Infected persons are considered to be contagious for one day before and 21 days after the onset of symptoms. 

Since routine smallpox vaccination ended in the U.S. in the 1970s, a large proportion of the population is susceptible to monkeypox infection. JYNNEOS, a live, nonreplicating vaccine that is recommended by the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices for prevention of smallpox and monkeypox in persons at occupational risk aged 18 years or older, may be given for post-exposure prophylaxis within 4 days from the date of exposure to prevent disease and is preferred over the older smallpox vaccine (ACAM2000) due to a lower risk of adverse effects, though 100 million doses of the latter have been stockpiled in the event of a widespread bioterrorist attack.

Early reports from the current outbreak suggest that it has been causing minimal prodromal symptoms (fever, chills, lymphadenopathy) and that the rash is first appearing in patients' genital or perianal areas before progressing to the extremities, rather than more typically beginning in the mouth and face. Although monkeypox is not considered a sexually transmitted infection, many of the initial confirmed case patients are men who have sex with men. It remains unclear if, or to what extent, human-to-human transmission of monkeypox is occurring. "Given the current unfolding outbreak," advised two physicians from the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, "clinicians seeing patients with new onset of febrile illness and rash should consider monkeypox, especially if lymphadenopathy is also present."

Along with SARS-CoV-2, monkeypox is another example of the potential of increasingly frequent interactions between humans and wildlife to spread infectious diseases. As this latest viral outbreak continues to evolve, it underlines the importance of physicians and veterinarians taking a One Health approach to optimizing the health and well-being of humans and animals.


This post first appeared on the AFP Community Blog.