Saturday, February 23, 2013
The Agenda asks: are patients over treated and overprescribed in modern health care? The second of two programs looking at the modern realities of medicine.
Posted by Gary at 9:59 PM
Friday, February 22, 2013
I recently wrote about caregivers who experienced symptoms of traumatic-like stress, and readers responded with heart-rending stories. Many described being haunted by distress long after a relative died.
Especially painful, readers said, was witnessing a loved one's suffering and feeling helpless to do anything about it.
The therapists I spoke with said they often encountered symptoms among caregivers similar to those shown by people with post-traumatic stress — intrusive thoughts, disabling anxiety, hyper-vigilance, avoidance behaviors and more — even though research documenting this reaction is scarce. Improvement with treatment is possible, they say, although a sense of loss may never disappear completely.
I asked these professionals for stories about patients to illustrate the therapeutic process. Read them below and you'll notice common themes. Recovery depends on unearthing the source of psychological distress and facing it directly rather than pushing it away. Learning new ways of thinking can change the tenor of caregiving, in real time or in retrospect, and help someone recover a sense of emotional balance.
Barry Jacobs, a clinical psychologist and author of "The Emotional Survival Guide for Caregivers" (Guilford Press, 2006), was careful to distinguish normal grief associated with caregiving from a traumatic-style response.
"Nightmares, lingering bereavement or the mild re-experiencing of events that doesn't send a person into a panic every time is normal" and often resolves with time, he said.
Contrast that with one of his patients, a Greek-American woman who assisted her elderly parents daily until her father, a retired firefighter, went to the hospital for what doctors thought would be a minor procedure and died there of a heart attack in the middle of the night.
Every night afterward, at exactly 3 a.m., this patient awoke in a panic from a dream in which a phone was ringing. Unable to go back to sleep for hours, she agonized about her father dying alone at that hour.
The guilt was so overwhelming, the woman couldn't bear to see her mother, talk with her sisters or concentrate at work or at home. Sleep deprived and troubled by anxiety, she went to see her doctor, who works in the same clinic as Dr. Jacobs and referred her to therapy.
The first thing Dr. Jacobs did was to "identify what happened to this patient as traumatic, and tell her acute anxiety was an understandable response." Then he asked her to "grieve her father's death" by reaching out to her siblings and her mother and openly expressing her sadness.
Dr. Jacobs also suggested that this patient set aside a time every day to think about her father — not just the end of his life, but also all the things she had loved about him and the good times they'd had together as a family.
Don't expect your night time awakenings to go away immediately, the psychologist told his patient. Instead, plan for how you're going to respond when these occur.
Seven months later, the patient reported her panic at a "3 or 4" level instead of a "10" (the highest possible number), Dr. Jacobs said.
"She'll say, 'oh, there's the nightmare again,' and she can now go back to sleep fairly quickly," he continued. "Research about anxiety tells us that the more we face what we fear, the quicker we are to extinguish our fear response and the better able we are to tolerate it."
Sara Qualls, a professor of psychology at the University of Colorado in Colorado Springs, said it's natural for caregivers to be disgusted by some of what they have to do — toileting a loved one, for instance — and to be profoundly conflicted when they try to reconcile this feeling with a feeling of devotion. In some circumstances, traumatic-like responses can result.
Her work entails naming the emotion the caregiver is experiencing, letting the person know it's normal, and trying to identify the trigger.
For instance, an older man may come in saying he's failed his wife with dementia by not doing enough for her. Addressing this man's guilt, Dr. Qualls may find that he can't stand being exposed to urine or feces but has to help his wife go to the bathroom. Instead of facing his true feelings, he's beating up on himself psychologically — a diversion.
Once a conflict of this kind is identified, Dr. Qualls said she can help a person deal with the trigger by using relaxation exercises and problem-solving techniques, or by arranging for someone else to do a task that he or she simply can't tolerate.
Asked for an example, Dr. Qualls described a woman who traveled to another state to see her mother, only to find her in a profound disheveled, chaotic state. Her mother said that she didn't want help, and her brother responded with disbelief. Soon, the woman's blood pressure rose, and she began having nightmares.
In therapy, Dr. Qualls reassured the patient that her fear for her mother's safety was reasonable and guided her toward practical solutions. Gradually, she was able to enlist her brother's help and change her mother's living situation, and her sense of isolation and helplessness dissipated.
"I think that a piece of the trauma reaction that is so devastating is the intense privacy of it," Dr. Qualls said. "Our work helps people moderate their emotional reactivity through human contact, sharing and learning strategies to manage their responsiveness."
Dolores Gallagher-Thompson, a professor of psychiatry at Stanford University School of Medicine in California, noted that stress can accumulate during caregiving and reach a tipping point where someone's ability to cope is overwhelmed.
She tells of a vibrant, active woman in her 60s caring for an older husband who declined rapidly from dementia. "She'd get used to one set of losses, and then a new loss would occur," Dr. Gallagher-Thompson said.
The tipping point came when the husband began running away from home and was picked up by the police several times. The woman dropped everything else and became vigilant, feeling as if she had to watch her husband day and night. Still, he would sneak away and became more and more difficult.
Both husband and wife had come from Jewish families caught up in the Holocaust during World War II, and the feeling of "complete and utter helplessness and hopelessness" that descended on this older woman was intolerable, Dr. Gallagher-Thompson said.
Therapy was targeted toward helping the patient articulate thoughts and feelings that weren't immediately at the surface of her consciousness, like, for example, her terror at the prospect of abandonment. "I'd ask her 'what are you afraid of? If you visualize your husband in a nursing home or assisted living, what do you see?'" Dr. Gallagher-Thompson said.
Then the conversation would turn to the choices the older woman had. Go and look at some long-term care places and see what you think, her psychologist suggested. You can decide how often you want to visit. "This isn't an either-or — either you're miserable 24/7 or you don't love him," she advised.
The older man went to assisted living, where he died not long afterward of pneumonia that wasn't diagnosed right away. The wife fell into a depression, preoccupied with the thought that it was all her fault.
Another six months of therapy convinced her that she had done what she could for her husband. Today she works closely with her local Alzheimer's Association chapter, "helping other caregivers learn how to deal with these kinds of issues in support groups," Dr. Gallagher-Thompson said.
Posted by Gary at 12:45 PM
A colleague and I recently got into a heated discussion over health care spending. It wasn't that he disagreed with me about the need to rein in costs; but he said he was frustrated every time he tried to do so.
Earlier that week, for example, he had tried to avoid ordering a costly M.R.I. scan for a patient who had been suffering from headaches. After a thorough examination, my colleague was convinced the headaches were the result of stress.
But the patient was not.
"She wouldn't leave until she got that M.R.I.," my colleague said. Even after he had explained his conclusions several times, proposed a return visit in a month to reassess the situation and ran so far overtime that his office nurse knocked on the door to make sure nothing had gone awry, the patient continued to insist on getting the expensive study.
When my colleague finally evoked cost – telling the woman that while an M.R.I. might ferret out rare causes, it didn't make sense to spend the enormous fee on something of such marginal benefit – the woman became belligerent. "She yelled that this was her head we were talking about," he recalled. "And expensive tests like this were the reason she had health insurance."
Face flushed, he paused to take a deep breath. "Yeah, I may be all for controlling costs," he finally said. "But are our patients?"
According to a new study in the journal Health Affairs, his concern about patients may not be far off the mark.
A growing number of initiatives aimed at controlling spiraling health care costs have been championed in recent years, aiming to replace the current model in which doctors are reimbursed for every office visit, test or procedure performed. These programs range from pay-for-performance, where doctors can earn more money by meeting predetermined quality "goals" like controlling patients' blood sugar or high blood pressure, to accountable care organizations, where clinicians and hospitals in partnership are paid a lump sum to cover all care.
Their uninspired monikers aside, all of these plans share one defining feature: doctors are to be the key agents of change. Whether linked with quality measures, bundled payments or satisfaction scores, it is the doctors' behavior and choice of treatments that result in savings, goes the thinking.
But as the new study reveals, doctors need to take into account more than just symptoms and diseases when deciding what to prescribe and offer. They must also consider their patients' opinions and willingness to be cost conscious when it comes to their own care.
The researchers conducted more than 20 patient focus groups and asked the participants to imagine themselves with various symptoms and a choice of diagnostic and treatment options that varied only slightly in effectiveness but significantly in cost. They were asked, for example, to choose between an M.R.I. or a CT scan for a severe long-standing headache, with the M.R.I. being much more expensive but also more likely to catch some extremely rare problems.
When it came to their own treatment, "patients for the most part did not want cost to play any role in decision-making," said Dr. Susan Dorr Goold, one of the study authors and a professor of internal medicine and health management and policy at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. Most did not want their doctors to take expenditures into account, and many made it clear that they would ask for the significantly more expensive medications, procedures or diagnostic studies, even if those options were only slightly better than the cheaper alternatives. "That puts doctors, whose primary responsibility is to their individual patients, in a very difficult position."
A majority of the participants refused to consider the expenses borne by insurers or by society as a whole when making their choices. Some doubted that one individual's efforts would have any real overall impact and so gave up considering cost-savings altogether. Others said they would go out of their way to choose the more expensive options, viewing such decisions as acts of defiance and a kind of well-deserved "payback" after years of paying insurance premiums.
Underlying all of these comments was the belief that cost was synonymous with quality. Even when the focus group leaders reminded participants that the differences between proposed options were nearly negligible, participants continued to choose the more expensive options as if it were beyond question that they must be more efficacious or foolproof.
The study's findings are disheartening. But Dr. Goold and her co-investigators believe that public beliefs and attitudes about cost and quality can be changed. They cite the dramatic transformation in attitudes about end-of-life care as an example of how initiatives to improve understanding can lead people to make higher quality and more cost-effective decisions, like choosing hospices over hospitals.
"We need to begin to talk about these issues in a way that doesn't turn it into a discussion pitting money against life, and we need to find ways of getting people to think about not spending money on things that offer marginal benefit" Dr. Goold said. "Because it's going to be tough otherwise trying to implement any cost-saving measures, if patients don't accept them."
Posted by Gary at 12:44 PM
In an effort to change entrenched medical practices, 17 major medical specialty groups recommended on Thursday that doctors greatly reduce their use of 90 widely used but largely unnecessary tests and treatments.
This list of "don'ts" builds on 45 recommendations made last April, under a broad initiative by the American Board of Internal Medicine Foundation, in partnership with the magazine Consumer Reports.
"As you look through the lists, a lot of these were mea culpas," said Dr. Eric Topol, chief academic officer of Scripps Health, a health care provider in San Diego. Dr. Topol was not involved in creating the new recommendations. "The literature had supported these recommendations, but until now they were not sanctioned as no-no's by the professional groups," he said.
Some of the recommendations reinforce existing guidelines, but others aggressively go after procedures that have little evidence of benefit and may cause harm, yet are still practiced on a daily basis.
For example, the American Society of Echocardiography recommended against using echocardiograms before or during surgery for patients with no history or symptoms of heart disease; doctors routinely perform this test. The Society of Nuclear Medicine and Molecular Imaging urged physicians not to perform routine annual stress testing using a nuclear heart scan after coronary artery surgery. This is also a routine test, and it exposes the patient to radiation equivalent to 2,000 chest X-rays.
"Many of these tests are wasteful, and they could put patients in danger of harm without any benefits," said Daniel Wolfson, executive vice president of the American Board of Internal Medicine Foundation. "The goal is to begin to change attitudes both from the public side and the physician side that sometimes less is better."
Each medical specialty society participating in the foundation's initiative has offered up five procedures that patients should question. "That's a key point. I don't think they'll have any impact unless patients get activated," Dr. Topol said.
The new list includes recommendations against inducing labor or performing a Caesarean section before a woman's 39th week of pregnancy, unless it is medically necessary. Scheduled Caesareans and inductions are commonly performed for convenience, but delivery before 39 weeks is associated with increased risk of learning disabilities, respiratory problems and other risks to the baby.
The American Academy of Pediatrics urged doctors not to automatically use computed tomography, or CT scans to evaluate children's minor head injuries. According to the report, approximately 50 percent of children who visit hospital emergency departments with head injuries undergo a CT scan, exposing them to radiation. Other groups also called for reductions in the use of CT, PET and M.R.I. scans for a variety of ailments.
Several physician groups recommended against prescribing antibiotics for common respiratory illnesses, including sinusitis, sore throat and bronchitis. The vast majority of these illnesses are caused by viruses, not bacteria, making antibiotics pointless. The pediatrics group also said not to treat children under 4 years of age with cough and cold medicines. Studies have shown that these products have little benefit and may cause serious side effects in children.
The American Geriatrics Society recommended against using feeding tubes in patients with advanced dementia. These patients should be fed orally. Tube feeding is associated with agitation, increased use of physical and chemical restraints and pressure ulcers.
Other notable recommendations include:
· Don't use opioid or butalbital treatment for migraine except as a last resort. Frequent use of these drugs can worsen headaches.
· Don't routinely treat acid reflux in infants with anti-reflux therapy. There is emerging evidence that it may be harmful to infants in certain situations.
· Avoid routine preoperative testing for low-risk surgeries without a clinical indication. Most pre-op tests turn up nothing unusual and don't lead to better outcomes.
· Avoid using medications to achieve tight control of glucose levels in most adults aged 65 and older with Type 2 diabetes. Moderate control is generally better.
· Don't use benzodiazepines or other sedative hypnotics in older adults as a first choice for insomnia, agitation or delirium. Studies consistently show a doubling of risk of car accidents, falls and hip fractures in older adults taking these medications.
· Don't perform annual Pap tests in women 30 to 65 years of age who are not at high risk for cervical cancer. The Pap test should be performed every three years in women aged 21 to 30, and every three to five years for women aged 30 to 65.
Posted by Gary at 12:43 PM