Friday, March 8, 2019

Let’s recognize caregivers and make it easier for all of us to do the right thing

Recently I saw a young woman in my clinic for her annual exam. As usual, I asked her if she would like to be tested for sexually transmitted infections, and then we reviewed the “menu” of options: we could collect a swab of her cervix for chlamydia, gonorrhea, and trichomonas, and a PAP smear for human papillomavirus. We could collect blood for HIV, hepatitis C, syphilis, and herpes. We discussed the pros and cons and details of testing — not everyone wants every test. But she cheerfully consented to all of it, and when the results came back positive for chlamydia, she was shocked.

“But I had no symptoms!” she exclaimed.

Like most primary care providers, I am a huge fan of screening for STIs and believe every patient should be asked at every annual exam if they would like to be tested, even if they feel fine. Why? Because most people don’t even know that they are infected.
How many people actually have a sexually transmitted infection?

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recently published its summary of reportable sexually transmitted infections in the United States over the past year, and it is not good. Rates of every reportable STI, which includes chlamydia, gonorrhea, and syphilis, have all increased significantly; all told, we are seeing a 20-year record high in the number of these cases.* What’s extra concerning is that it is the third year in a row that these rates have increased.

Chlamydia is king, with over 1.5 million cases in 2015, a 6% increase from 2014. Gonorrhea follows with 400,000 cases, a 13% increase. These infections can result in pelvic inflammatory disease, which is a major cause of infertility, ectopic pregnancy, and chronic pelvic pain. A pregnant woman with chlamydia can pass it to her baby; the baby can then develop serious eye and lung infections. The people at highest risk were young people between the ages of 15 and 24; they accounted for over two-thirds of the cases of chlamydia. This is why the CDC has been recommending that every sexually active woman under age 25 be screened.

There were 24,000 cases of syphilis, which may the most harmful of the three, and this was a whopping 19% increase. Gay and bisexual men remain at highest risk for syphilis and gonorrhea, though there were also significant increases in syphilis among women, as well as in congenital syphilis, which is spread from infected mothers to their newborns. Untreated syphilis can lead to blindness, paralysis, and dementia in adults, and seizures or stillbirth in babies. The CDC recommends that every pregnant woman be tested for syphilis, and sexually active gay and bisexual men should be tested for syphilis annually.
Barriers to preventing the spread of STIs

If someone doesn’t know that they are infected, they can’t get treated. If they don’t get treated, they may have sex with many partners, or without a condom, and spread the infection. So, screening tests like the ones we offer at the annual exam are important for the prevention of new infections.

Many people can’t access clinics like mine. They may be young people worried about what their parents may think. They may be uninsured, under-insured, or undocumented. That’s where the “safety net” comes in. These are the free or lower-cost clinics that focus on STI diagnosis, treatment, and prevention. But since 2003, there has been a slow and steady decrease in funding for these safety-net clinics, and we are paying a serious price for that now.

CDC officials blame the surge in STIs on these budget cuts: they point out that over 40% of health departments have reduced their clinic hours and tracking of patients, and at least 20 STI clinics flat-out closed in the past few years due to lack of funds.

Dr. Jonathan Mermin, director of the CDC’s National Center for HIV/AIDS, Viral Hepatitis, STD and TB Prevention, points out that, “STI prevention resources across the nation are stretched thin, and we’re beginning to see people slip through the public health safety net.”

Combine this decrease in public health clinics with the rise in popularity of dating apps like Tinder and Grindr, and ongoing inconsistent condom use, and we have a huge problem.
Keys to preventing STIs

Chlamydia, gonorrhea, and syphilis can be prevented with condoms, and cured with antibiotics. And all can present with minimal symptoms, or none at all.

Sexual education programs that include instruction about condom use have been shown to help youth to delay first sex and use condoms when they do have sex. But, only 35% of U.S. high school students are taught how to correctly use a condom in their health classes. So it’s not surprising that among teens, only about a third of males and nearly half of females reported that they or their partner did not use a condom the last time they had sex.

What can we do about this? Obviously, we need to better fund our public health clinics. Anyone who is or has been sexually active needs to go get tested. We need to push for comprehensive sexual education in schools. Parents should talk openly with their kids about sex and STIs, and ensure that they have access to confidential medical care. We need to promote safe, protected sex through consistent condom use for everyone. These interventions are all cheaper and better than ongoing rampant infection.

*What about other STIs, like herpes and trichomonas? These were not included in the report, as they are not reportable in the same way. However, the CDC estimates that there are 20 million new STI cases yearly, costing the U.S. health care system approximately $16 billion. News last week about celecoxib shows how challenging it can be to understand the risks and benefits of newly developed drugs. This is particularly true when the findings of one study contradict those of past studies. And that’s exactly what has happened with celecoxib.
Anti-inflammatory medications: pros and cons

The FDA approved celecoxib (Celebrex) in 1999. This anti-inflammatory medication can be a highly effective treatment for arthritis and other painful conditions. It was developed with the hope that it would be at least as effective as other anti-inflammatory medications (such as ibuprofen or naproxen) but cause less stomach irritation. Developing a safer anti-inflammatory medication is a worthy goal, since stomach irritation can not only cause annoying pain or nausea, but it can also lead to ulcers, bleeding, or perforation. These medications can also increase blood pressure and cause kidney problems.

Celecoxib is known as a COX-2 inhibitor — that’s because it targets an enzyme (COX-2) involved in inflammation. Ibuprofen and naproxen (and many other anti-inflammatories) target COX-1 and COX-2. They’re called “non-selective” anti-inflammatory drugs. Because of where these enzymes are found in the body, the COX-2 selective medications seemed capable of dampening down inflammation while going easier on the stomach.

And that was true. Celecoxib — and other COX-2 inhibitors, such as rofecoxib (Vioxx) — did cause less stomach trouble. But soon after its approval, studies suggested other concerns: an increased risk of heart attack and stroke. Rofecoxib was removed from the market in 2004. And while the FDA allowed celecoxib to remain on the market, it required the manufacturer to issue additional warnings to patients. It also required additional study. And that’s why celecoxib is back in the news this week. The results of the PRECISION (Prospective Randomized Evaluation of Celecoxib Integrated Safety versus Ibuprofen or Naproxen) trial were released. And the news is good for celecoxib.
Results suggests lower cardiovascular disease risk — and fewer side effects — than expected

The PRECISION trial is a carefully designed and powerful study that analyzed the impact of celecoxib on cardiovascular disease. The study spanned 926 medical centers in 13 countries and enrolled more than 24,000 patients with two of the most common types of arthritis (osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis). Each study subject had a higher than average risk for cardiovascular disease due to a history of high blood pressure or high cholesterol.

Study subjects were divided into three groups who took anti-inflammatory medications every day: one group took celecoxib, one group took ibuprofen, and the last group took naproxen.

Study subjects taking celecoxib in moderate doses were

    no more likely than those taking ibuprofen or naproxen to have a fatal or non-fatal heart attack or stroke
    less likely than those taking ibuprofen or naproxen to have significant gastrointestinal problems, such as serious bleeding
    less likely than those taking ibuprofen to have kidney problems or hospital admission for high blood pressure.

What does this mean for you?

It’s rare that a single study provides a definitive answer or changes practice overnight. But this was a large, well-designed, and expensive study that is unlikely to be repeated any time soon. And, another study of lower-risk people came to a similar conclusion just last year.

Still, questions may yet come up regarding:

    The lack of a placebo group. As suggested by some prior research, it is possible that all three of the drugs used in this study increase the risk of cardiovascular problems; without a control group, it’s impossible to say.
    Dosing. Study subjects were allowed to take up to 400 mg/day of celecoxib if they had rheumatoid arthritis but only 200 mg/day if they had osteoarthritis. In real life doctors may prescribe a wider range of doses.
    Reason for treatment. This study only included people with rheumatoid arthritis or osteoarthritis. The results might be different if people with other conditions had been included.
    Other medical problems. The risks and benefits of celecoxib in people with other medical problems (such as significant kidney disease) are uncertain because this study excluded them.
    Other medical treatments. All patients in this study took a medication to protect the stomach; outside of studies, that’s not always the case.

While these issues are valid, I think this study does provide a significant measure of reassurance regarding the cardiovascular risks of celecoxib. And it may encourage doctors who thought the drug was too risky to prescribe it more often.

This new research shows in a dramatic way why “more research is needed” is not just a tagline at the end of so many medical news stories. And in the case of celecoxib, the result of the additional research is good news indeed. Since 2003, the Movember movement has been raising public awareness of testicular and prostate cancer. The common theme that links cancers of all types is that early detection tends to lead to better outcomes. Because cancer often has no symptoms in its early stages, screening for cancer has been an integral part of primary care routine visits.
I go for an annual physical every year. Do I really need to do self-examinations?

Although routine screening by a health care provider is critical, it does not alleviate the need for self-examinations. In terms of gender-specific cancers, breast cancer is one that receives a great deal of attention due to its prevalence, as one in eight women will develop breast cancer during their lifetime. It is the most commonly diagnosed form of cancer in women, and the second leading cause of cancer death in women. As with any form of cancer, early detection is critical, and the importance of routine breast self-examinations cannot be stressed highly enough. For these reasons, multiple foundations and even the National Football League promote awareness.
What is the deal with men’s health?

Far fewer people know the facts about prostate and testicular cancer. Regarding prostate cancer, about one in seven men will be diagnosed during their lifetime. It most often affects men over the age of 65, and it is the second leading cause of cancer death in men. Although there is no proven way to do self-exams, a digital rectal examination (DRE) performed by a health care provider is a useful screening tool in the detection of prostate cancer. During a DRE, a healthcare provider uses a gloved, lubricated finger inserted into the rectum to feel the prostate gland.

Testicular cancer is fortunately much less common than prostate cancer, as about one in 263 men will be diagnosed during their lifetime. Unlike prostate cancer, testicular cancer is a disease of young and middle-aged men, with about 7% of cases occurring in teens and young boys. Although the number of deaths from testicular cancer is far lower than breast or prostate cancer, it is estimated that about 380 men will die of testicular cancer in the U.S. in 2016. Early detection is critical, and we must stress the importance of routine testicular self-examinations.

Prostate and testicular cancers, especially when not detected early, can lead to difficult treatment, sterility, and potentially a lifetime of hormone replacement therapy. Men tend to be less likely in general to access the health care system, particularly for routine care, which further punctuates the need for awareness. Many men find the thought of a DRE or a testicular examination embarrassing, but such embarrassment can be lifesaving.
 Why is a neurologist so interested in prostate and testicular cancer?

A few years ago, I met a colleague who was similar to me in many ways, a relatively young physician and father of two with no health problems. That is, until he discovered a small nodule on one of his testicles during a self-exam. Follow-up tests confirmed testicular cancer. Fortunately, with early intervention, he was cured after the surgical removal of one of his testicles.

So when I heard about the Movember movement, I felt compelled to do my part to raise awareness.
So here are some of my Movember experiences…

For the past few years, I have grown out a full beard in October, and then shaved it down to a mustache on November 1. For a man who never wears a mustache to suddenly have one is very much an attention grabber. I fondly recall my daughter who is now 4 saying, “Papa, you look like Super Mario with that mustache.” Fortunately, some of the comments I received have been a little more flattering. After sharing the story of Movember with some coworkers, one of the nurses said, “That mustache reminds me of Tom Selleck’s mustache. The only difference is, he is Magnum P.I., which I guess makes you Magnum P.M. (my initials).” During Movember, I begin every patient encounter explaining why I have a mustache, the importance of prostate and testicular cancer awareness, and how early detection can be lifesaving. It has always amazed me how many patients reply with a personal story of their own about a brother, uncle, coworker, etc. who was diagnosed with prostate or testicular cancer.

I fondly recall one such patient, a woman in her 70s, later changing the subject by saying, “Dr. Mathew, do you know that it tickles very much to kiss a man with a mustache?” I replied with a big smile while shrugging my shoulders, “I wouldn’t know (implying that as a heterosexual married man, I have never tried to kiss a man with a mustache),” One of my most rewarding Movember experiences occurred when I had a female patient in the medical field ask me how to perform a testicular exam. I was initially shocked by the question, but then later elated that my mustache served its purpose and then some. Not only did I raise awareness of testicular cancer, but this woman may actually help detect a case, and save someone’s life.

Then came the difficult part … showing this woman how to perform a testicular exam. My mind quickly scrambled, and after scanning the room, I noticed an Angry Bird toy from a Happy Meal that my daughter did not want. As I picked up the rotund bird, and used it as a teaching prop, she seemed to grasp the concept perfectly. I then put the Angry Bird down, and I could not help but feel that one just flew over the cuckoo’s nes. I walked out of the doctor’s office, overwhelmed and paralyzed. My daughter had just been diagnosed with multiple food allergies from nearly all fruits, numerous vegetables, seafood, nuts, soy, wheat, and more. We headed straight to the grocery store to figure out what she could eat without wasting away from malnutrition, or so I thought.

Two hours later, we were still in the grocery store, reading every label.

You would think I would know what to do. After all, I am a doctor. But that day, I was simply a mom and a caregiver.

My problem was simple in the big scheme of things. Many years later, we figured out what my daughter can and can’t eat, how to go out to dinner, have friends over, and basically return to normal everyday life.

But for many of the more than 40 million caregivers in the USA today, it’s not so easy.
The costs of caregiving: health, time, and money

Fully 32% of family caregivers provide at least 21 hours of care per week with the average of 62.2 hours, according to a June 2015 AARP and National Alliance on Caregiving research report, Caregiving in the U.S. Those who provide caregiving 14 hours per week or for two or more years doubled the risk of developing cardiovascular disease and significantly increased the risk of developing high blood pressure and depression.

And it’s not just the time burden and health risks, but there’s also the expense.

A just-released AARP study, Caregiving and Out-of-Pocket Costs: 2016 Report, concludes that “family caregivers are spending roughly $7,000 in 2016 on caregiving expenses which amounts to, on average, 20% of their total income.” Some groups, including Hispanic/Latino, African American, and those caring for someone with dementia experience higher than average out-of-pocket expenses.

Many caregivers are forced to cut back on their own personal spending, reducing leisure spending or retirement savings, to accommodate caregiving costs.

When I think back to the day our family life changed, I am struck by how little doctors seem to know about the impact of our recommendations to our patients. My problem was minor — just changing grocery shopping habits and recipes.

But think about a new diagnosis of diabetes. It’s not just the recipes and grocery habits, but more trips to the pharmacy, tracking blood sugars, and follow-ups to doctors. According to a Harvard Medical School study, it takes two hours on average for one doctor visit for travel, waiting time, and visit. Even more time is spent if one needs public transportation or to arrange a ride.
Maybe it’s time to contemplate new measures for health care delivery

What if doctors and health systems were measured by how much they reduced the time, money, and the overall burden of care that patients, family, and caregivers need to follow recommended care? What if we told our patients, their families, and their caregivers not only what they “should do,” but “how to” with the least disruption to their everyday lives?

We need to make it easy to do the right thing.

Doctors care about having meaningful time with their patients. So, every time a new guidance or documentation rule is mandated, physicians understandably complain about the new time burden to incorporate the new tasks into the workflow of their practice.

Similarly, every time we give our patients and caregivers new recommendations to follow, we are disrupting the “workflow of their lives.” Is it any wonder that compliance is challenging for our patients? Do we address the daily changes that will be needed in everyday living? The Lasix prescription that means figuring out where all the nearest bathrooms will be when the fluid reduction pill takes effect. Or the cost of dressings, bandages, tape, and time to manage wound care at home? And the anxiety of not knowing if one just broke sterile technique at home? What a steep learning curve we expect from our patients following each visit!
A thank you from health care providers to caregivers

November is National Family Caregivers Month. Kudos to all family and friend caregivers, not only for “care taking” — ensuring your loved one is safe, taking the correct medications at the right time, preventing falls, making the right meals, and helping with bathing — but also for “care giving” – the giving of love, compassion, and care. You are spending your precious hours and your own money to do what you do best: sharing your love to your parent, your spouse, your children, or your friends. You are making a difference to our patients (your loved ones). It’s time we clinicians pay tribute, recognize, and thank you for being a caregiver, and not just a caretaker.

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