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Thursday, January 19, 2017

Conflict of Interest in Medicine--Why should we care?

This weeks issue if the JAMA (Journal of the American Medical Association) reads like an expose. At least 3 of the research articles do. So exciting. I don't want medicine, my field, to be ethically unsavory, but it is sometimes. It makes me proud to see that it sometimes polices itself and that such information is published in a high profile journal.

The first article is entitled "Patient Advocacy Organizations, Industry Funding and Conflict of Interest" by Susanna Rose of the Cleveland Clinic along with colleagues of hers from the University of Chicago. It turns out that 67% of  patient advocacy organizations such as the American Diabetic Association, the Multiple Sclerosis Foundation and March of Dimes, organizations that support patients with various diseases, receive support from industry. Specifically "industry" means organizations that make money by selling products related to health. More than one in 10 of these organizations received over half of their support from industry. Nearly 8% of the leaders of advocacy groups surveyed admitted to feeling pressure to conform to the wishes of their corporate donors. Since this is a hard thing to admit, that number probably vastly underestimates the true impact.

The Institute of Medicine has written extensively on conflicts of interest and how to manage them. Financial conflict of interest occurs when the primary aim of an organization, in this case to advocate for patients' best interests, is in competition with a secondary goal such as promoting a product for a company that pays your bills. It is hard to quantify just how these conflicts of interest play out. Big drug and device companies have tremendous amounts of money, expertise and resources to strengthen an organization, but they also are primarily motivated by making money. If they wish to sell a product that is of questionable benefit to patients, an advocacy organization could be a powerful ally in marketing. Patients think of their advocacy organizations as representing their interests, sometimes in opposition to the medical establishments. There are no disclaimers for them to read such as "this organization supported by the makers of patented titanium bone screwdrivers or magic diabetes-be-gone pills."

The next article by Dora Lin and colleagues from The Johns Hopkins School of Public Health looked at the organizations and individuals who argued with the US Centers for Disease Control's (CDC) guidelines for prescribing opioid pain medication for chronic pain. Unless you have lived under a rock, you have probably observed that prescriptions for pain medication in the opiate class increased dramatically for several years, followed by all of us noticing that there was increasing numbers of patients addicted and also dying of overdose. In response to this problem healthcare advisory groups have recommended prescribing these drugs less often, at lower doses and discontinuing them sooner along with offering non-opiate options for pain control that are less dangerous and probably more effective. When the CDC's recommendations came out there were criticisms and so there was a period of invited comment before the final release. It turns out that the majority of criticisms came from organizations with ties to opiate manufacturers and none of them mentioned this in their comments. There are many reasons for the US opiate epidemic, but misinformation propagated by the pharmaceutical industry was definitely an important one.

The third article was even more concerning from a financial standpoint. In the last few years we have seen major changes in the way we treat hepatitis C and elevated cholesterol levels. Guidelines released in 2013 by the American Heart Association recommended that we extend the number of people who will be treated with cholesterol lowering "statin" drugs to anyone with a 10 year risk of atherosclerotic cardiovascular disease (heart attacks and the like) of over 7.5%. Guidelines released in 2015 for the treatment of hepatitis C, a chronic liver disease caused by a blood borne virus, suggested that we treat everyone with hepatitis C with extremely expensive drugs which, kudos to pharmaceutical researchers, can cure the disease.

The price tag is the reason that this last article (by Akilah Jefferson and Steven Pearson of the National Institute of Health and the Institute for Clinical and Economic Review) is of greatest concern. Statin drugs, which are definitely good for some people, especially those with known heart disease, are set to reach over $1 trillion in worldwide sales by 2020. The new hepatitis C drugs can run over $1000 a pill, or $80,000 and up for a treatment course and will account for about 10 billion dollars of healthcare spending in 2015. It turns out that a significant number of physicians in both of the groups who were responsible for developing these guidelines had support from the manufacturers of the drugs they directed to be used so extensively. The Institute of Medicine made some pretty clear recommendations about conflicts of interest in 2009 and neither of the organizations responsible for producing these very influential guidelines followed these recommendations.

So it's good that we are talking about this but not good that it is happening. The problem with conflicts of interest isn't that they necessarily lead to bad decisions, but that they probably do and that we don't know. We as physicians try to do good, and we've been told in the last many years that we can do the best for our patients by following guidelines. These guidelines, we are led to believe, are based on the best of scientific evidence and, lacking the time to read all of the literature and keep up with the astounding amount of new data that comes out every year, we would do well to follow them. But if the people who create the guidelines work for the companies that stand to benefit financially from the outcomes of those guidelines, we would do better to question them. At the level of populations, the decision to recommend that all patients receive a treatment rather than a smaller group of patients who would more clearly benefit makes a huge difference. Our individual budgets as well as our nation's budget for healthcare are limited. A choice to use an expensive medication is also a choice not to do something else that might benefit us more.

Conflicts of interest are common and part of the human condition. It is not possible to entirely eliminate them in any situation. In cases such as guideline development and patient advocacy groups in which patients are vulnerable to influences which do not have their best interests as a guiding force, we should be especially sensitive. Physicians should try hard to recuse themselves from making important decisions in which they have a conflict of interest. We should honestly recognize that bias in the form of industry connections may make it impossible to be truly objective.

Friday, January 6, 2017

The 21st Century Cures Act--allowing drug companies to speed up development of drugs that may not work

Early in December Congress came together in bipartisan support of HR 6, the "20th Century Cures Act." So unusual, these days, for a "landmark bill" to pass into law without major objections by Democrats or Republicans. Perhaps something fishy was going on. Perhaps this was a chance to please special interests while making the average voter feel that, at last, congress was going to accomplish something good.

The bill was hailed as supporting the development of new drugs and devices to cure dread diseases by reducing unnecessary regulation by the Food and Drug Administration. I found the text. It is amazingly difficult to read. The legal terminology is nearly impenetrable and the actual content is pretty hard to discern. It is also full of barely related measures, some of them excellent and some of them likely to have nasty consequences. I am particularly wary of the provision that encourages use of digital medical imaging by paying less and less for tests done with older x-ray machines, the one that allows pharmaceutical companies to pay for doctors' continuing medical education and the one that excludes approved generics from calculations of average manufacturers' price for drugs. I am perplexed by the creation of a 14 person working group specifically to address Lyme disease and other tick-borne diseases.

An excellent commentary by Aaron Kesselheim MD, a primary care physician with a law degree and special expertise in the ethics of pharmaceutical research and sales, discussed the many problems with this legislation. He is particularly concerned that the shift toward haste in approving new drugs will lead to new and expensive drugs that will enter the marketplace without convincing proof that they actually work. The FDA, at its inception, was instrumental in reducing the number of quack medicines on the market and inspiring trust in newly invented products. The bill will encourage the use of data which may be less accurate than what is presently required.

We do need more and better drugs to treat the conditions that make us miserable and shorten our lives. The US has been at the forefront of the world as an inventor of innovative products that save lives, though often at astronomical prices. The US was responsible for developing anti-viral medication that has allowed us to actually cure hepatitis C, a disease that often leads to endstage liver disease. The drug manufacturers charge $40,000 for a course of these medications, and many of those who have the disease are either uninsured or underinsured. We have come up with cancer chemotherapies that are less toxic and make metastatic cancer, which was once a death sentence, into a treatable disease, but they are oh so expensive. We have also made some terrible drugs. We have produced drugs for high blood pressure that don't reduce the risks associated with it, drugs for pain that have been pushed to the extent that huge numbers of Americans have become addicted, medication for bladder urgency that makes the mouth dry, but barely changes a person's urgency or incontinence. We have produced injectable medication for cholesterol which does reduce serum levels, but is not yet known to save lives or improve health. This can cost over $10,000 per year. I don't think we want to allow pharmaceutical companies to enforce their own ethical standards.

The bill was also roundly praised for a provision that was supposed to fight the opiate epidemic. Again, I find the text of the bill to be difficult to understand, but it appears to be pretty anemic. From what I can glean, it allows insurance companies to cut off payment for drugs of addiction to patients who are felt to be at high risk of prescription drug abuse. In addition these people must receive information on drug and mental health treatment programs which are federally funded. It does not have to actually provide this treatment. Dr. Kesselheim says there is money for grants to the states to reduce opioid abuse and to reorganize mental health care delivery, but I found nothing like that in the text of the bill.

The bill does provide better funding for the FDA, which is good, because with sequesters and budget cuts, the financial support for funding research through this agency actually went down 22% from 2004 through 2015, according to Dr. Kesselheim. The costs of this program will be paid for by selling off some of the US petroleum reserves and from cuts in the prevention and public health fund of the Affordable Care act. That doesn't sound like a good choice.

Overall, it is not clear that the Cures act actually cures anything. It will increase funding to the FDA and may streamline approval for innovations, but we will be less sure that those innovations are really useful. Congress may have passed legislation that gives drug and device manufacturers a pass to make products that are painfully expensive and may not work.

Thursday, December 8, 2016

Drugs for cholesterol and high blood pressure actually can be cheap and work

A couple of weeks ago I started taking medicine to lower my blood pressure and another to reduce my cholesterol. This was a controversial move, given my deep distrust of the practice of medicine, when it is practiced on me, and pharmaceuticals in particular.

I know that, as a woman of 55 with an very active and healthy lifestyle, no chronic diseases and most importantly as a nonsmoker, I am at very low risk for any of the conditions that high blood pressure or high cholesterol could cause to happen. I am unlikely to have a stroke or a heart attack, develop narrowing of the arteries to my legs or develop kidney failure. The blood pressure and cholesterol levels have no effect at all on how healthy I feel. But one day, while pointing an ultrasound probe at my own neck, I saw a small plaque (a thickened area) in my left carotid artery. It was very calcified, which meant that it had been there a long while, but my carotid was not pristine. It is undeniable: I have vascular disease.

Will this lead to a stroke? Does it imply that the arteries around my heart are also affected? I don't know, and I may not find out. But I do know that taking a cholesterol lowering drug helps reduce heart attacks in patients with vascular disease around their hearts and I extrapolate that it may help reduce further changes to my carotid arteries which might lead to a stroke. My blood pressure is a bit high, and bringing blood pressure down does reduce stroke risk. I don't know that it will reduce my stroke risk, however.

So it was not entirely clear that I should take either cholesterol or high blood pressure medication. A little reduction in my very low risk may not be worth taking a medication with potentially profound side effects and associated high costs.

I decided to try the medication in order to assess whether it gave me trouble of any kind. If it did not, I might have nothing to lose. The blood pressure medication, lisinopril, has been on the market for decades. It is strongly associated with reduction in the usual complications of hypertension. Its main side effects are a nasty nagging cough and dizziness. It can also cause life threatening swelling, often of the face, but this is rare. I have had no swelling, no dizziness, and though I can feel just the tiniest bit of increased tickle in my lungs, it is hardly noticeable.

Regarding the cholesterol medication, atorvastatin (formerly known as Lipitor), it, too, has been around for a long time and has been extensively tested and found to be pretty safe and effective. It can cause muscle cramps and weakness, and I have been told by some patients that it makes them less mentally acute. It can cause gastrointestinal upset and may be associated with weight gain and a risk for diabetes. I am having no trouble so far.

As for the cost, I have had to shell out nearly $5 in copays each month, with my insurance footing about $1 of the bill. This is not expensive. This is a superb deal. I get it from my local pharmacist, not even from a mail order or Walmart's $4 plan. It is cheaper than Walmart's $4 plan! In 20 years I will have spent around $1200, plus there will be the occasional blood tests to monitor my kidney function. I checked my cholesterol after being on it shy of 2 weeks, and it was dramatically lower. I, once again, am not sure that this will translate into better health, but it is not odious at all.

The moral of this blog is that not everything is terrible in the US healthcare system. I could, and will, complain about the surrounding process that leads to people like me being on medicine at all, including issues like medicalization of the healthy and blockbuster drugs being widely adopted without adequate scrutiny, but presently I will give generic atorvastatin and lisinopril a big high five.

Friday, November 18, 2016

Presidential Election 2016 and the internet--the real winner

The last year has been difficult to watch, and the last few months even more so. News and quasi-news organizations have been bombarding my email with stories about the people vying for our presidency. It has been anywhere from difficult to completely impossible to screen this information for accuracy. Lies and information taken out of context and repeated until it seems true has been part of both party's rhetoric. The whole field of potential candidates were infected with it before the primary elections.

The emotions have been high, too. By the time the election finally happened on November 8th, we had a comic book villain straight out of the Batman movies running against Satan in female form. The outcome has left people deeply sad and frightened, even people who voted for the winner. There is hope, too, and kindness and gathering together. There is huge uncertainty.

I've been alive for 13 presidential elections, and this one was really different. This is partly because of an increasing gap between rich and poor, fallout of the financial crisis of 2008 and the changing international landscape, but the biggest change has been the growth of our use of the internet and social media.

Most people like to believe that the reason for our recent presidential election results can be found in the thoughts and behaviors of human beings. It feels good, in the face of a frightening and unexpected event to imagine a way that it could have been under our control, that next time we could anticipate it and make significant changes.

As human civilization has evolved, so has our ability to communicate complex ideas. Language, then writing, then printing presses, then telegraph, radio, television and now the internet, links us and allows us to learn from each other and share ideas and feelings and events. With the internet, and now our mobile phones which are ridiculously powerful computers in our pockets, we nearly share a common brain. Even the progressively smaller portion of the population that isn't directly connected via a computer is indirectly connected if they read a newspaper, watch a TV or even talk to a neighbor.

The internet of news is a small part of the entity that is the entire internet. Items that people like to look at rise to the top of any search and appear prominently on Facebook or other sites where people share information. This could be a cute baby dancing, a way to lose weight or a delicious news story, such as a powerful person behaving poorly and getting caught. We will choose to look at these things even if they are out of context, don't work or aren't true, and they will become a larger proportion of what we see. We will be less likely to look at things that are complex, nuanced, and present more than one side of an issue. What we click on is what we get.

There is actually quite a market in made to order "news". Paul Horner was featured in the Washington Post, explaining that the lies he successfully spread via Facebook and other sites around the elections were really just satire and made to be taken as such. But readers believed that people were being recruited and paid $3500 to protest at Donald Trump rallies (he invented this and even created a fake Craigslist advertisement to back it up.) He made money on stories like this, and others such as that the Amish had decided to vote for Trump. Ads on these fake news sites make a good salary for a person with a good imagination. I won't link the stories because that would, in a small way, add to the viral nature of the stories and Paul Horner's livelihood. In fact, by posting a link to the Washington Post article, which links to Paul Horner's stories and his ads, I have contributed to his success, and perhaps the success of fake news in creating misguided popular sentiment.

Humans are amazing. We have created a way to communicate instantly with a group of friends on opposite sides of the earth. But with this we have power to make fiction nearly real, with potentially disastrous consequences. On the medical side of things, I have noticed that the ability to be completely absorbed in communication that requires nothing but small movements of the hands has contributed to an epidemic of diabetes and obesity. Although entertainment that doesn't require the use of resources may be an important aspect of life in a resource stressed world, I don't think we are ready for what we have created. We are more than what we have let ourselves become. We have abilities to connect via touch and smell and eye contact. We care for each other deeply. We have let ourselves become communication nodes made of flesh in a supercomputer which does not have our best interests in mind.

Personally I am being a bit childish about all of this. The internet has let me down. It has sucked up my free time and made my patients fat and has elected people to the country's highest office based at least significantly on information which is not true. I read that we need to take to social media to unite to fight for causes I believe in, and I am questioning that. Facebook is no longer on my phone. I think several times before clicking on links. And I realize that this is a piddly and ineffective response to a problem that is huge and unacceptable. There has been tremendous good that has come out of our ever more powerful abilities to communicate, but presently I am very angry at the internet and I refuse to play.

Monday, November 7, 2016

Suicide, psychiatric care and inadequate resources

An article released today in the JAMA sites evidence that the suicide rate in America has risen by 24% in the last 15 years associated with a significant reduction in the numbers of psychiatric beds available. The US has had a lower capacity for psychiatric patients than comparable countries in Europe for years, but in between 1998 and 2013 that number dropped even further.

Waiting in the ER for days
This trend has resulted in atrocious treatment for people with mental illness. Because it is so difficult to find room in a mental hospital for patients with mental conditions that make it unsafe for them to return home, such as suicidal thoughts or intentions, we sometimes see these people spend days or even weeks in emergency rooms just waiting for something to open up. I never saw this a decade ago, but now it is not uncommon, even in our small critical access hospital, to see a patient in one of the little windowless and noisy cubicles of our ER for days at a time. They can't move upstairs to a more comfortable, if inappropriate, hospital bed because our hospital cannot offer psychiatric hospitalization because we have no psychiatrist on staff. Psychiatrists are rare in small towns.

Many factors led up to this
This situation is a slow motion car wreck, not an all of a sudden sort of thing. Care for people with mental illness has been spotty and often terrible in the US, but has generally had a trajectory that aims toward better care and understanding. Early in the 19th century an approach called "institutionalization" created mental hospitals which were intended to care for people with what was then untreatable mental illness for long periods of time. These institutions fostered dependence, usually did not cure or treat psychiatric disorders, made patients vulnerable to abuse and, to top it all off, were quite expensive. Some of the costs were defrayed by unpaid work required of inmates, but in 1973 a court ruled that they were owed at least minimum wage, making the overcrowded and expensive institutions even less viable. Starting in the 1960's a strong movement, led by mental health pioneers, pushed for deinstitutionalization. It was argued that most mental patients could have their needs met by community mental health centers and could live in sheltered living situations such as halfway houses. Many state mental hospitals were closed in the 1970's and 1980's, with good and bad results. The number of severely mentally ill people who are homeless did increase significantly, putting a higher burden on already stressed acute care hospitals. Drug therapy for depression, bipolar disorder and schizophrenia began to be more effective, though, which meant that some people with these diseases genuinely got better and were able to be successfully independent.

Medical insurance and mental health
There was less capacity for inpatient care of mental patients after deinstitutionalization, but for many of these people any care at all was prohibitively expensive because most insurance plans had little or no coverage for mental health issues. In 1996 the Mental Health Parity Act was passed which required health insurance companies to cover mental health costs up to the same dollar amount as covered for medical or surgical care. Insurance companies quickly circumvented this by restricting numbers of visits and numbers of days in the hospital. In 2008, as the real estate market, banks and stock market were going up in flames, a rider was placed on TARP (Troubled Asset Relief Program--otherwise known as the bank bailout) called the Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act. This was worded in such a way that mental health care is now generally covered by insurance.

It is wonderful that people with depression, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and other serious mental illness can get help without necessarily bankrupting their families. This can mean that people get treatment for these problems before they get serious enough to require hospitalization. It probably also increases the demand for psychiatrists and psychiatric beds, both of which are in short supply.

The American psychiatrist: an endangered species
Psychiatry is not a very popular specialty. Out of about 30,000 residency positions each year, only 211 were for psychiatry in 2014-15. That would translate to 211 new psychiatrists for the whole US the year they complete training, assuming all of those candidates finish the program and choose to practice in the field. Many psychiatrists are aging and retiring and there is already a critical shortage of psychiatrists to meet our present needs. Psychiatry is one of the lower paid medical specialties and is a difficult row to hoe. Successful treatment of patients is very dependent on variables over which a psychiatrist has no control, such as community support, housing and job programs.

Prisons: our new insane asylums
Prisons now house a tremendous number of people with mental illness. In 2007 the Department of Justice reported that 24% of jail inmates had symptoms of psychosis, about a quarter of people in jails and prisons had a history of mental illness and a higher percentage had symptoms of mania and depression. The total number of patients in state mental hospitals is about 35,000 and the number or mentally ill people in prison is over 10 times that number. It is very difficult for people dealing with mental problems to tolerate the stresses of incarceration, leading to high rates of injury in fights and attempted suicide.

But people with mental disorders who are at risk for injuring others or breaking the law are more likely to get a bed in a psychiatric facility than people who are simply miserable or increasingly psychotic and have not broken the law, who could really benefit from a stay in a psychiatric hospital to stabilize their medication and give them intensive treatment. It is those miserable, suicidal and psychotic to the point of inability to care for themselves people who end up in emergency rooms for days awaiting a bed.

What would it be like...
I can only imagine how it feels to be seriously mentally ill in some of these situations. Picture being seriously depressed or anxious and being in prison, where kind words are mostly non-existent and there is nowhere to take comfort. Or schizophrenic, hearing voices that break you down, surrounded by nobody who cares. I can hardly allow myself to conceive of depression, anxiety or psychosis while homeless, exposed to the rain and the cold and vulnerable to assault. Closer to home are the patients who wait in the emergency rooms, with nothing to do, no chance to go outside, take a walk, lying on a 30 inch wide gurney covered with rumpled sheets, contemplating suicide while having no idea what is happening and when.

If we were to fix this, what steps would we need to take?

Clearly we need more psychiatrists. We also need more psychologists and they need more authority to treat, including with medications. This is a different conversation, with intrigue that I don't really understand. But we do need psychiatrists, MD trained, motivated, excellent at what they do, and we need to pay them in accordance with how vital their work is. There are already incentive programs to train as a psychiatrist and work in underserved areas, but we need more incentives.

We need more capacity to take care of patients in hospitals, for those times when things get too intense for them to survive independently.

We need systems to help take care of people with mental illness who need jobs and housing and treatment for substance abuse. We need to strengthen social networks in neighborhoods and communities. This is vitally important for keeping patients out of psychiatric hospitals and out of prison.

We need to shift people with mental illness out of the prisons, which are overcrowded, overused and dysfunctional. This will involve better and more capable staffing and better oversight along with more capacity to take care of them in psychiatric hospitals and community mental health facilities.

We need to support the families of these patients because they are often the only stable thing in their lives. Patients with mental illnesses often burn out their families which is a tragedy in so many ways. Programs to support families, including caregivers and assistants to help support patients' independence should be strengthened.

All of this will cost money, but I suspect not more money than we are presently spending on our dysfunctional systems. Shifting money towards appropriate care for people with mental health problems will not only reduce costs that go to warehousing many of them in the prison system and the cost of acute medical care for the homeless and those plagued with addiction, it might also decrease the overall national burden of misery, hopelessness and isolation.

Thursday, November 3, 2016

Recovering--a sacred time.

One day a few weeks ago, after returning from a set of seven 12 hour shifts in a hospital away from home, my husband convinced me to go to a concert. The group performing was the Deviant Septet, based out of Brooklyn, NY. They were an odd combination of instruments and they played mostly newly composed music.

The second piece in their program was by Chris Cerrone and was called "Recovering." I expected nothing, perhaps a nap even, but was completely absorbed by the music which wordlessly represented a magical period that I get to observe regularly but rarely remark upon.

Patients come in to the hospital when they are sick, and often getting sicker. They are vulnerable and place themselves in the hands of strangers. Usually they feel terrible. We do things to them to try to make them better. Often we are successful. And then something magical happens. Their faces look brighter. Their vital signs stabilize. Their eyes focus. They make jokes. It's still not over, though. There are setbacks. There is pain. They are weak and their appetites are not vigorous. But a gate has been passed through.

I don't often take the time to appreciate this transition. For me it is often filled with new concerns. What next? How can we all avoid this kind of event in the future? How much more time before this person can leave the hospital?

This piece of music took me back to the times when I was sick and finally getting better, when the world around me began to be relevant again, and sometimes beautiful. It reminded me that there is a thing that happens, this "recovering", and spending a little time noticing it will be a good practice.

Saturday, September 24, 2016

My week in ultrasound

After 5 years of doing bedside ultrasound, I'm still excited about it. Bedside, or Point-of-Care ultrasound is using an ultrasound machine during the physical examination of a patient in order to make a diagnosis. I use a pretty tiny machine that fits in my pocket. As an internist who works in the hospital and in rural clinic outpatient settings, I get to use my ultrasound all the time, and it's still lots of fun. (For more on adventures in ultrasound see this or this or this.) Those of you who have read this blog for awhile can skip the intro and go to the cool cases.

When I talk about it, most people who haven't already heard me wax eloquent say, "you mean you look at babies?" Ultrasound has been used as a bedside tool for looking at pregnant wombs for a very long time. It is extremely useful for that, since you can see if the baby is alive, about how old it is, whether their are two, what position it is in and a number of other useful things. I would never give up the chance to look at a baby if my patient were pregnant and willing, because they are so cute, but since I am not an obstetrician, I look mostly at other things. I can see whether the heart is failing, whether there is extra fluid in the lungs or belly, whether the kidneys are blocked, whether the bladder empties. I can see pneumonia and broken bones, tell whether a swelling is full of fluid and whether a lump is solid or a cyst. I can see disease in blood vessels and stones in gallbladders. Combined with talking to a patient and doing my usual physical exam, I can determine whether a patient is dehydrated or the opposite and can often be more accurate about diagnosing blood clots or sepsis. It's cool. Yes indeedy it is.

This week I worked as an outpatient doctor in clinic and also in the hospital, admitting and taking care of sick patients. I use the ultrasound nearly every time I examine a patient and it always helps, but there were some cases in which it was more spectacularly useful than in others.
  1. A patient in clinic had pain in her head and cheek and teeth on the right side 3 weeks after getting a cold. She had a long history of allergies and sometimes used a nose spray or an antihistamine, but this was worse than usual. On exam there were polyps in the nose and maybe a little bit of tenderness in the right side of her face. It is possible to use the ultrasound on the sinus bones behind the cheek to see if there is fluid, because fluid transmits ultrasound and you can see the back wall of the sinus only if there is fluid in it. I could see the back wall on the right, the side with symptoms and not on the left. I diagnosed a sinus infection. She will try nasal steroid spray and washes to see if things can open up and drain, and if that doesn't work, she has a "pocket prescription" for an antibiotic which she can fill and take. I also looked at the teeth on the right with the ultrasound and found no evidence of an abscess, which was reassuring.
  2. Another patient in clinic had stubbed his toe pretty hard. It had swollen and then swollen some more and he was concerned about an infection. The clinic does not have an x-ray machine and is a pretty long drive to the closest one. Beside the cost, it takes an hour of a patient's time to wait, fill out papers and then have an x-ray done, plus I will usually then wait another hour for results and the patient will then be difficult to contact. I was able to ultrasound the toe, find a non-displaced fracture at the point where he was tender and give an explanation plus an appropriate set of recommendations.
  3. At the hospital I had a patient who had been admitted with low blood pressure and likely pneumonia along with blood enzyme tests suggesting a possible heart attack. He responded well to antibiotics and fluids and, due to having lots of chronic medical problems, wanted to avoid being transferred to a larger hospital to see a cardiologist. I knew from previous visits what his heart looked like with ultrasound and could tell him that it looked no worse, which meant that an emergent visit to the cardiologist was not necessary. I was able to use the ultrasound of the heart at the time of our conversation to help guide our shared decision-making about whether to get in a helicopter and head far away from family and friends.
  4. Another patient had severe pancreatitis, an inflammation of one of the nastiest and most caustic organs in the digestive system. He was 80 years old and drank too much whiskey on a daily basis, which caused the pancreas to become angry. After a day or so he developed an acute alcohol withdrawal syndrome, trying to crawl out of bed, anxious and with an elevated heart rate. We treated him for the alcohol withdrawal, but his heart rate remained elevated. Was he dehydrated? None of the other labs gave me the information I needed, but ultrasound of the inferior vena cava showed that he had been adequately hydrated and that, as expected in severe pancreatitis, there was some fluid in the belly and at the base of the lungs, so more fluid would make things worse rather than better. I was able to repeat the ultrasound daily to determine how much intravenous fluid to give.
  5. A young man, with a history of longstanding intestinal inflammation and several operations in the past, presented with abdominal pain. X-ray was pretty normal, but can be hugely misleading. A CT scan would have been helpful, but is associated with a high radiation dose. He had undergone many CT scans in his life and the possibility of his developing cancer on the basis of his radiation exposure was already significant. I was able to look for fluid in the belly or fluid filled loops of bowel which would suggest obstruction and feel pretty confident that a non-surgical approach to his problem was safe. 
It was a good week. Nobody died. I felt competent. Patients were happy. Bedside ultrasound was terrific.