Category Archives: Good Doctoring

How To Be A Victorian Doctor: The Importance of Portent

For some time the skeptical cardiologist has been seeking information about the practice of medicine and cardiology during the Victorian era.

Why the Victorian era? Because my favorite writer, Charles Dickens, consistently portrays doctors of that era as incompetent.

And, sadly to say, as I have explored what doctors had to offer in the real world of the nineteenth century it was, in point of fact, very little.

From time to time as I gather this information on my medical forebears I will share it with my gentle readers:

To begin with, however, I present to you one of my favorite examples which is taken  from The Old Curiosity Shop.

“The doctor, who was a red-nosed gentleman with a great bunch of seals dangling below a waistcoat of ribbed black satin, arrived with all speed, and taking his seat by the bedside of poor Nell, drew out his watch, and felt her pulse. Then he looked at her tongue, then he felt her pulse again, and while he did so, he eyed the half-emptied wine-glass as if in profound abstraction.

‘I should give her,’ said the doctor at length, ‘a tea-spoonful, every now and then, of hot brandy and water.’

‘Why, that’s exactly what we’ve done, sir!’ said the delighted landlady.

‘I should also,’ observed the doctor, who had passed the foot-bath on the stairs, ‘I should also,’ said the doctor, in the voice of an oracle, ‘put her feet in hot water, and wrap them up in flannel. I should likewise,’ said the doctor with increased solemnity, ‘give her something light for supper—the wing of a roasted fowl now—’

‘Why, goodness gracious me, sir, it’s cooking at the kitchen fire this instant!’ cried the landlady. And so indeed it was, for the schoolmaster had ordered it to be put down, and it was getting on so well that the doctor might have smelt it if he had tried; perhaps he did.

‘You may then,’ said the doctor, rising gravely, ‘give her a glass of hot mulled port wine, if she likes wine—’

‘And a toast, Sir?’ suggested the landlady. ‘Ay,’ said the doctor, in the tone of a man who makes a dignified concession. ‘And a toast—of bread. But be very particular to make it of bread, if you please, ma’am.’

With which parting injunction, slowly and portentously delivered, the doctor departed, leaving the whole house in admiration of that wisdom which tallied so closely with their own. Everybody said he was a very shrewd doctor indeed, and knew perfectly what people’s constitutions were; which there appears some reason to suppose he did.”

Since reading this I have endeavored to make all my medical pronouncements with solemnity and gravity and as slowly and portentously as possible.

Portentously Yours,

-ACP

N.B. The Old Curiosity Shop was the fourth novel of Charles Dickens.  The novel was published in installments in the periodical Master Humphrey’s Clock.  The first installment was printed in April of 1840 and the last was printed in February of 1841.

 

 

A Voodoo Coronary Calcium Scan Could Save Your Life

The skeptical cardiologist received this reader comment recently:

So I went and got a Cardiac Calcium Score on my own since my cardiologist wouldn’t order one because he says they are basically voodoo.. Family History is awful for me.. I got my score of 320 and I’m 48 years old.. Doc looked at it and basically did the oh well.. so I switched docs and the other doc basically did the same thing.. I try so very hard to live a good lifestyle..I just don’t understand why docs wait so long to actually take a look at your heart.. I would have thought a score of 320 would have brought on more testing.. It did not..

I was shocked that a cardiologist practicing in 2019 would term a coronary artery calcium (CAC) scan (aka, heart scan or calcium score) “voodoo.”

I’m a strong advocate of what I wrote in a recent post with the ridiculously long title, “Prevention of Heart Attack and Stroke-Early Detection Of Risk Using Coronary Artery Calcium Scans In The Youngish“:

It’s never too early to start thinking about your risk of cardiovascular disease. If heart disease runs in your family or you have any of the “risk-enhancing” factors listed above, consider a CAC, nontraditional lipid/biomarkers, or vascular screening to better determine where you stand and what you can do about it.

Here’s what I told this young man:

If your cardiologist tells you coronary calcium scores are voodoo I would strongly consider changing cardiologists.

A score of 320 at age 48 puts you in a very high risk category for stroke and heart attack over the next 10 years.

You need to find a physician who understands how to incorporate coronary calcium into his practice and will help you with lifestyle changes and medications to reduce that risk


Let’s analyze my points in detail and see if these off the cuff remarks are really justified

1,  Changing cardiologists.

Recent studies and recent guideline recommendations (see here) all support utilization of CAC in this kind of patient. If you have a strong family history of premature heart disease or sudden death you want a cardiologist who is actively keeping up on the published literature in preventive cardiology,  Such cardiologists are not dismissing CAC as “voodoo” they are incorporating it into their assessment of patient’s risk on a daily basis.

2. High risk of CAC score 320  at age 48

I plugged normal numbers for cholesterol and BP into the MESA risk calculator (see my discussion on how to use this here) for a 48 year old white male.

As you can see the high CAC score puts this patient at almost triple the 10 year risk of heart attack and stroke.

Immediate action is warranted to adjust lifestyle to reduce this risk! This high score will provide great motivation to the patient to stop smoking, exercise, lose excess weight, and modify diet.

Hidden risk factors such as lipoprotein(a),  hs-CRP and LDL-P need to be assessed.

Drug treatment should be considered.

3. Find physician who will be more proactive in preventing heart disease

This may be the hardest part of all my recommendations. On your own you can get a CAC performed and advanced lipoprotein analysis.

However, finding progressive, enlightened, up-to-date preventive cardiologists can be a challenge.

We need a network of such cardiologists.

I frequently receive requests from readers or patients leaving St. Louis for recommendations on cardiologists.

If you are aware of such preventive cardiologists in your area email me or post in comments and I will keep a log and post on the website for reference.

Voodoophobically Yours,

-ACP

Enlightened Medical Management of Atrial Fibrillation: Part I. Amiodarone, Kardia And Cardioversions

The skeptical cardiologist is a firm believer in the benefit of maintaining normal rhythm in most patients who develop atrial fibrillation (AF, see here.)

Sometimes this can be accomplished by lifestyle changes (losing pounds and cutting back on alcohol , treating sleep apnea, etc.) but more often successful long term maintenance of normal rhythm (NSR) requires a judicious combination of medications and electrical cardioversions (ECV).

It is also greatly facilitated by a compliant and knowledgeable patient who is regularly self-monitoring with a personal ECG device.

My article on electrical cardioversion (see here)  was inspired by a patient (we’ll call her Sandy) who asked me  in April of 2016, “how many times can you shock the heart?”

In 2016 I performed her fifth cardioversion and last week I did her sixth.

Her story of AF is a common one which exemplifies how excellent medical management of AF can cure heart failure and mitral regurgitation and create decades of AF-free, happy and healthy existence.

A Tale Of Six Cardioversions

Sandy had her first episode of atrial fibrillation in 2001 and underwent a cardioversion at that time and as far as she knew had no AF problems for 14 years. I’ve seen numerous cases like this where following a cardioversion, patients maintain NSR for a long time without medications but I’ve also seen  many in whom AF came back in days to months.

In 2015 she saw her PCP for routine follow-up and AF with a rapid rate was detected.  She had been noticing shortness of breath on exertion and a cough at night but otherwise had no clue she was out of rhythm.

When I saw her in consultation she was in heart failure and her echocardiogram demonstrated a left ventricular  ejection fraction of 50% with severe mitral regurgitation.  She quickly went back into AF after an electrical cardioverson (ECV) and  reverted to AF again following a repeat ECV  after four days on amiodarone.

Since amiodarone can take months to reach effective levels in the heart we tried one more time to cardiovert after loading on higher dosage amiodarone for one month. This time she stayed in NSR

Following that cardioversion she has done extremely well. Her shortness of breath resolved and follow up echocardiograms have demonstrated resolution of her mitral regurgitation.

She had purchased a Kardia mobile ECG device for personal monitoring of her rhythm and we were able to monitor her rhythm using the KardiaPro dashboard. Recordings showed she was consistently maintaining NSR after her 2016 ECV

Image from my online KardiaPro Dashboard showing the date and HR of patient’s home ECG recordings leading up to the cardioversion and following it. The orange dots were Kardia diagnosed AF and following the cardioversion the green dots are NSR.

 

 

 

I’ve written extensively on the great value of KardiaPro used in conjunction with the Kardia mobile ECG device for monitoring patients pre and post cardioversion for atrial fibrillation.  Sandy  does a great job of making frequent Kardia ECG recordings, almost on a daily basis so even though she has no symptoms we are alerted to any AF within 24 hours of it happening.

Amiodarone-The Big Medical Gun For Stopping Atrial Fibrillation

The recurrence of AF Sandy had in 2016 occurred 8 months after I had lowered her amiodarone dosage to 100 mg daily.

Amiodarone is a unique drug in the AF toolkit.

It is the by far the most effective drug for maintaining sinus rhythm, an effect that makes it our most useful antiarrhythmic drug (AAD).

  1. It is cheap and well-tolerated.
  2. Uniquely among drugs that we use for controlling atrial fibrillation it takes a long time to build up in heart tissue and a long time to wear off.
  3. It is the safest antiarrhythmic drug from a cardiac standpoint. Unlike many of the other AADs we don’t have to worry about pro-arrhythmia (bringing out more dangerous rhythms such as ventricular tachycardia or ventricular fibrillation) with amio.
  4. Amiodarone, however, is not for all patients-it has significant long term side effects that necessitate constant vigilance by prescribing physicians including thyroid, liver and lung toxicity.

I monitor my patients on amiodarone with thyroid and liver blood tests every 4 months and a chest x-ray yearly and I try to utilize the minimal dosage that will keep them out of AF.

In Sandy’s case it was apparent that 100 mg was too little but with an increase back to 200 mg daily, the AF remained at bay.

In early 2017, Sandy read on Facebook that amio was a “poison” and after discussing risks and benefits we decided to lower the dosage to 200 mg alternating with 100 mg. It is common and appropriate for patients to be fearful of the potential long term and serious consequences of medications. For any patient taking amiodarone I always offer the option of stopping the drug with the understanding that there is a strong likelihood of recurrent AF within 3 months once the drug wears off.

In October, 2018 with Sandy continuing to show normal heart function and maintain SR as documented by her daily Kardia ECG tracings we decided to further lower the dosage to 100 mg daily.

Six months later she noted one day that her Kardia reading was showing a heart rate of 159 bpm and diagnosing atrial fibrillation. AF had recurred on the lower dosage of amiodarone.  She had no symptoms but based on prior experience we knew that soon she would go into heart failure.

Image from my online KardiaPro report on Sandy showing all green dots (NSR) until she went into AF (orange dots). Upon discharge from the hospital the daily Kardia recordings now show NSR (green dots).

Thus, her amiodarone was increased and a sixth cardioversion was performed. We could find no trigger for this episode (unless the  bloody mary she consumed at a  Mother’s Day Brunch 2 days prior was the culprit.)

Medical Management With Antiarrhythmics Versus Ablation

Many patients seek a “cure” for atrial fibrillation. They hear from friends and neighbors or the interweb of ablation or surgical procedures that promise this.  Stopafib.org, for example,  promotes these types of procedures saying “Catheter ablation and surgical maze procedures cure atrial fibrillation”

In my experience the majority of patients receiving ablation or surgical procedures (Maze procedure and its variants) ultimately end up having recurrent episodes of atrial fibrillation. Guidelines do not suggest that anticoagulants can be stopped in such patients. Often, they end up on AADs.

I’ve prepared a whole post on ablation for AF but the bottom line is that there is no evidence that ablation lowers the AF patient’s risk of dying, stroke, or bleeding. My post will dig deeper into the risks and benefits of ablation.

There is no cure for AF, surgical, catheter-based or medical.

In the right hands most patients can do very well with medical management combined with occasional cardioversion.

Who posseses the right hands?

In my opinion, most AF patients are best served by a cardiologist who has a special interest in atrial fibrillation and takes the time to read extensively and keep up with the latest developments and guideline recommendations in the area. This does not need to a be an electrophysiologist (EP doctor-one who specializes in the electrical abnormalities of the heart and performs ablations, pacemakers and defibrillators.)

I have a ton of respect for the EP doctors I work with and send patients to but I think that when it comes to doing invasive, risky procedures the decision should be based on a referral/recommendation from a cardiologist who is not doing the procedure.

In many areas of cardiology we are moving toward an interdisciplinary team of diagnosticians, interventionalists, surgeons and non-cardiac specialists to make decisions on performance of high-risk and high-cost but high-benefit procedures like valve repair and replacement, closure of PFOs and implantation of left atrial appendage closure devices.

It makes sense that decisions to perform high-risk , high-cost atrial fibrillation procedures also be determined by a multi-disciplinary team with members who don’t do the procedure.

This is a rule of thumb that can also be applied to many surgical procedures as well.  For example, the decision to proceed to surgical treatment of carotid artery blockages (carotid endarterectomy) is typically  made by the vascular surgeons who perform the procedure. In my opinion this decision should be made by a neurologist with expertise in neurovascular disease combined with a good cardiologist who has kept up with the latest studies on the risks and benefits of carotid surgery and is fully briefed on the latest guideline recommendations.

Unbenightedly Yours,

-ACP

Is An Unneeded Beta-Blocker Making You Feel Logy?

The skeptical cardiologist saw a patient recently who  had undergone stenting of a 95% blocked right coronary artery. Mr Jones had presented  a year ago to our ER 2 days after he first began experiencing a light pressure-type discomfort in his left shoulder and scapular region. This pain persisted, waxing and waning, without a clear relationship to exertion or position or movement of his shoulder.

Upon arrival in the ER, his ECG was normal but his cardiac enzymes were slightly elevated (troponin peaking 0.92), thus he was diagnosed with a non-ST elevation myocardial infarction (MI).

He’s done great since the stent procedure fixed the coronary blockage that caused his infarct and chest pain, but during our office visit he related that since his hospitalization he had been feeling “logy.” 

Being a lover of words, my ears perked up at this new-to-me adjective, and I asked him to describe what he meant by logy. For him, loginess was a feeling of fatigue or lacking energy.

Indeed, the online Merriam-Webster dictionary defines logy as sluggish or groggy. It is pronounced usually with a long o and a hard g.

The origin is unclear but has nothing to do with rum:

Based on surface resemblance, you might guess that “logy” (also sometimes spelled “loggy”) is related to “groggy,” but that’s not the case. “Groggy” ultimately comes from “Old Grog,” the nickname of an English admiral who was notorious for his cloak made of a fabric called grogram – and for adding water to his crew’s rum. The sailors called the rum mixture “grog” after the admiral. Because of the effect of grog, “groggy” came to mean “weak and unsteady on the feet or in action.” No one is really sure about the origin of “logy,” but experts speculate that it comes from the Dutch word log, meaning “heavy.” Its first recorded use in English, from an 1847 London newspaper, refers to a “loggy stroke” in rowing.

Fatigue is a common, nonspecific symptom that we all feel at times. It is more common as we age and it can be challenging for both patients and physicians to sort out when it needs to be further evaluated.

Occasionally, fatigue is the only symptom of a significant cardiac condition, but more frequently in the patient population I see it is either noncardiac (low thyroid, anemia, etc.) or iatrogenic

When a patient tells me they are feeling fatigued I immediately scan their med list for potential logigenic drugs.

In this case, my patient had been started on a low dosage of the beta-blocker carvedilol (brand name Coreg) after his stent, and I suspected this was why he had felt logy for the past year.

In cardiology, we utilize beta-blockers in many situations-arrhythmias, heart failure, and heart attacks to name a few, and they are well-known to have fatigue as a common side effect. There was a really good chance that Mr. Jones’s loginess was due to the carvedilol.

It’s important to review all medications at each patient visit to check for side effects, interactions and benefits, and in the case of Mr. Jones’ carvedilol, loginess.

Do All Patients Post-Revascularization or Post-MI Need To Take Beta-Blockers

Beta-blockers (BBs) are frequently started in patients after a stenting procedure or coronary bypass surgery, and continued indefinitely. However, the evidence for their benefit in such  patients with normal LV function long term is lacking.

If any post-revascularization population benefits from BBs, it is those, like Mr. Jones who have had a myocardial infarction (MI, heart attack) prior to the procedure, however the smaller the infarct, the less the benefits.

And with the widespread use of early stenting to treat MI, infarcts are much smaller and dysfunction of the left ventricle (LV) less likely.

In those patients with minimal damage and normal LV function, the benefits appear minimal. For this reason in the last 5 to 10 years I’ve been stopping BBs in this population if there are any significant side effects.

An “Expert Analysis” published in JACC in 2017 noted that:

A 2015 meta-analysis of 10 observational acute MI studies including more than 40,000 patients showed that beta-blockers reduced the risk of all-cause death  However, the benefit of these agents was not found in all subgroups and seemed confined to the patients with reduced LVEF, with low use of other secondary prevention drugs, or NSTEMI.

In a study of almost 180,000 patients post MI with normal LV systolic function in the UK between 2007 and 2013 there was no difference in mortality at one year in patients discharged with or without beta-blockers.

The only way to answer this question definitely would be with a randomized controlled trial and, to my surprise and delight, such a study (CAPITAL-RCT (Carvedilol Post-Intervention Long-Term Administration in Large-scale Randomized Controlled Trial) was published in PLOS One in August of 2018.

I’ll save readers the details, but the bottom line is that patients treated with optimal contemporary therapy for acute MI, whose LV function was not significantly impaired, did not benefit in any way from treatment with carvedilol, the beta-blocker my patient was taking.

It’s rare that we get such definitive evidence for a change in treatment that reverses what is in current guidelines. This has the potential to affect tens of thousands of patients and improve their quality of life. It should be trumpeted far and wide. The cynic in me suspects that if it were a study demonstrating the benefits of a new drug, physicians would be bombarded with the new information.

Helping Patients Feel Less Logy

We will be ordering an echocardiogram on Mr. Jones, and if his LV function is normal we will stop his carvedilol and see if he feels significantly better.  

I feel like stopping a drug that is not beneficial and that is causing a lifetime of loginess is an incredibly important intervention a cardiologist can make. It’s not as life-saving as stenting for acute MI, but saving quality of life is something this non-invasive cardiologist can do every day for every patient.

Skeptically Yours,

-ACP

N.B. The summary of the recent CAPITAL-RCT:

STEMI patients with successful primary PCI within 24 hours from the onset and with left ventricular ejection fraction (LVEF) ≥40% were randomly assigned in a 1-to-1 fashion either to the carvedilol group or to the no beta-blocker group within 7 days after primary PCI. The primary endpoint is a composite of all-cause death, myocardial infarction, hospitalization for heart failure, and hospitalization for acute coronary syndrome. Between August 2010 and May 2014, 801 patients were randomly assigned to the carvedilol group (N = 399) or the no beta-blocker group (N = 402) at 67 centers in Japan. The carvedilol dose was up-titrated from 3.4±2.1 mg at baseline to 6.3±4.3 mg at 1-year. During median follow-up of 3.9 years with 96.4% follow-up, the cumulative 3-year incidences of both the primary endpoint and any coronary revascularization were not significantly different between the carvedilol and no beta-blocker groups (6.8% and 7.9%, P = 0.20, and 20.3% and 17.7%, P = 0.65, respectively). There also was no significant difference in LVEF at 1-year between the 2 groups (60.9±8.4% and 59.6±8.8%, P = 0.06).

 

 

 

 

Is Your Doctor’s White Coat (Or Tie Or Hand Shake) a Threat to Your Health?

The patients of the skeptical cardiologist have probably noted that over the last 10 years he has transitioned from wearing a tie to not wearing a tie and from always wearing a white coat to rarely wearing a white coat.

I wrote about this in 2015  in a previous post entitled “The Tie, The White Coat and The Fist Bump“:”

“My role models and mentors during my medical training taught me what I considered to be the proper appearance and demeanor of the professional  physician.

The male doctor wore a dress shirt and a tie. The doctor wore a white coat over his/her regular clothes. The more senior the doctor was in the medical hierarchy the longer the white coat and the more impressive the words written on the coat.

Presumably, this professional appearance of the doctor increased the confidence that the patient had in the professionalism of the doctor.

Upon encountering a patient in the hospital room or office exam room, the doctor extends his right hand, greets the patient and smiles and shakes hands.

I wore a tie and a white coat and shook hands consistently during the first 20 years of my practice but gradually these markers of a good doctor have fallen under scrutiny.”

A major issue with all three of these, I pointed out , is transmission of bacteria and viruses.

Now Aaron Frakt at The Incidental Economist has summarized the concerns about the doctor’s white coat in particular in a great article originally published in the New York Times entitled Why Your Doctor’s White Coat Can Be a Threat to Your Health | The Incidental Economist.

It’s a good short read I highly recommend.

Don’t be surprised if the next time you see me I am sans tie and white coat and do not offer a handshake.

Casually Yours,

-ACP

In Flight Medical Emergencies: This Doctor Is Now Ready To Heed The Call

In a previous post the skeptical cardiologist wrote about the reluctance  of doctors to “heed the call” , i.e., to respond to an in-flight medical emergency (IME) when the flight crew requests assistance from qualified medical professionals.

Only 20% of physicians in my (very unscientific) poll would respond to such requests.

I pointed out that:

“In 1998 Congress passed the Aviation Medical Assistance Act, which tries to protect medical Good Samaritans who heed an airplane call. The act protects physicians, nurses, physician assistants, state-qualified EMTs and paramedics:

“An individual shall not be liable for damages in any action brought in a Federal or State court arising out of the acts or omissions of the individual in providing or attempting to provide assistance in the case of an in-flight medical emergency unless the individual, while rendering such assistance, is guilty of gross negligence or willful misconduct.”

but I and other physicians  had concerns beyond medical liability, as I detailed in my post.

Physicians Who Prefer Not To Head The Call

At the time I wrote that piece, to be honest, I was in the camp of physicians who would prefer not to heed the call.

I tended to agree with Dr. Winocour on Larry David’s  Curb Your Enthusiasm who justifies his failure to respond in flight with two comments:

“Give it a minute. He’s gonna be fine.” and

“Have you ever been part of an emergency landing? Is that what you want, Larry? To spend the night in Lubbock, Texas, at a Days Inn with a $15 voucher from Cinnabon? Think about it.”

Although Winocour was correct that the vast majority of in-flight medical “emergencies” resolve without any specific intervention it is still helpful for a physician to attend on such patients and assess the situation.

And it is true that if he had attended on a patient with a serious non-transient medical problem he would suddenly find himself having to make an incredibly difficult and life-deciding decision on whether or not to  divert the plane or make an emergency landing with insufficient diagnostic tools and inadequate information.

But somebody has to make that call and the physician heeding the call will have the assistance of experts in the field on the ground.

Qualified Physicians Should Be Prepared To Heed The Call!

After pondering the issue for a few years and reading an excellent review on the topic in a recent JAMA I have changed my stance and am now completely ready (almost eager)  to heed the call.

Leslie Nielsen as Dr. Rumack in Airplane! He heeded the call.

In fact, I am currently writing this while en route from frigid and
snowy St. Louis to sunny and warm San Diego on a Southwest Airlines flight and I’m considering pre-identifying myself as a physician in case an IME develops. (The only thing stopping me is that it seems a little pretentious and likely unnecessary, perhaps if I just put wear my stethoscope constantly that will be enough.)

I have in my backpack several items that will assist me in handling cardiovascular emergencies should they arise:

  1. AliveCor Mobile ECG-With this and my iPhone I will be able to rapidly ascertain the stricken passengers heart rate and rhythm-crucial information to help diagnosis and proper treatment. (I also have my Apple Watch 4 for the same purpose.)
  2. Qardioarm BP cuff-Rapid, efficient assessment of BP without tubes, or wires.
  3. Stethoscope-a good one with which I can hear heart murmurs and lung sounds. Although the FAA-mandated emergency medical kit on board should have both a BP cuff and a stethoscope , I have no confidence they will be either accurate or functional.
  4. Sublingual nitroglycerin. The kit on the plane should have these  along with 325 mg aspirin tablets, IV atropine, and injectable glucose, epinephrine and lidocaine.
  5. An epinephrine auto-injector. For the stricken passenger who is suffering anaphylaxis from the mixed nuts being served across the aisle.

Should there actually be a cardiac arrest I’m completely up to date on Advanced Cardiac Life Support (ACLS) and CPR training and there should be an AED on board to defibrillate if appropriate.

I’ve also decided that despite my reluctance to bring attention to myself, it is highly likely that I will be the most qualified person to rapidly diagnose and treat any serious cardiovascular condition that arises on my flight.  As a doctor, I believe, I should be striving to provide assistance to those suffering whenever and wherever I can, be that in the air, on the sea, in the hospital or in the office.

Call-heedingly Yours,

-ACP

N.B. One (of many) of the newly-minted wife’s favorite Airplane! lines  comes from the doctor who heeded the call.

  • Rumack : You’d better tell the Captain we’ve got to land as soon as we can. This woman has to be gotten to a hospital.

    Elaine Dickinson : A hospital? What is it?

    Rumack : It’s a big building with patients, but that’s not important right now.

Why We Need To Replace Hippocrates’ Oath And Apocryphal Trope

The skeptical cardiologist has never liked the Hippocratic Oath and so was quite pleased to read that it is gradually being replaced by more appropriate oaths with many medical graduates taking an excellent pledge created by the World Medical Association.

Here’s the first line of the Hippocratic Oath

Asclepius with his serpent-entwined staff, Archaeological Museum of Epidaurus

I swear by Apollo the Healer, by Asclepius, by Hygieia, by Panacea, and by all the gods and goddesses, making them my witnesses, that I will carry out, according to my ability and judgment, this oath and this indenture.

Much as I enjoy the ribald hi jinx of the gods and goddesses in Greek mythology and appreciate the back story behind words like panacea and hygiene* I just don’t feel it is appropriate to swear an oath to mythical super beings.

Let Food Be Thy Medicine-The Apocryphal Hippocratic Trope

Hippocrates is often cited these days in alternative medicine circles because he is alleged to have said “let food be thy medicine and medicine thy food.”

I’ve come across two articles that are well worth reading on the food=medicine trope which is often used by snake oil salesmen to justify their useless (presumably food-based) supplements.

The first , entitled “Hey, Hippocrates: Food isn’t medicine. It’s just food” comes from  Dylan Mckay, a nutritional biochemist at the Richardson Centre for Functional Foods and Nutraceuticals, He writes:

Food is so much more than medicine. Food is intrinsically related to human social interactions and community. Food is culture, love, and joy. Turning food into medicine robs it of these positive attributes.

A healthy relationship with food is essential to a person’s well-being, but not because it has medicinal properties. Food is not just fuel and it is more than nutrients — and we don’t consume it just to reduce our disease risk.

Seeing food as a medicine can contribute to obsessing about macronutrientintake, to unfairly canonizing or demonizing certain foods, and to turning eating into a joyless and stressful process.

People tend to overvalue the immediate impact of what they eat, thinking that a “super food” can have instant benefits while undervaluing the long-term effects of what they consume over their lifetime.

The Appeal to Antiquity

The second article is from the always excellent David Gorski at Science-based Medicine entitled let-food-be-thy-medicine-and-medicine-be-thy-food-the-fetishism-of-medicinal-foods.

Gorski notes that just because Hippocrates is considered by some to be the “father of medicine” and his ideas are ancient doesn’t make them correct:

one of the best examples out there of the logical fallacy known as the appeal to antiquity; in other words, the claim that if something is ancient and still around it must be correct (or at least there must be something to it worth considering).

Of course, just because an idea is old doesn’t mean it’s good, any more than just because Hippocrates said it means it must be true. Hippocrates was an important figure in the history of medicine because he was among the earliest to assert that diseases were caused by natural processes rather than the gods and because of his emphasis on the careful observation and documentation of patient history and physical findings, which led to the discovery of physical signs associated with diseases of specific organs. However, let’s not also forget that Hippocrates and his followers also believed in humoral theory, the idea that all disease results from an imbalance of the “four humors.” It’s also amusing to note that this quote by Hippocrates is thought to be a misquote, as it is nowhere to be found in the more than 60 texts known as The Hippocratic Corpus (Corpus Hippocraticum).

Gorski goes on to point out that:

this ancient idea that virtually all disease could be treated with diet, however much or little it was embraced by Hippocrates, has become an idée fixe in alternative medicine, so much so that it leads its proponents twist new science (like epigenetics) to try to fit it into a framework where diet rules all, often coupled with the idea that doctors don’t understand or care about nutrition and it’s big pharma that’s preventing the acceptance of dietary interventions. That thinking also permeates popular culture, fitting in very nicely with an equally ancient phenomenon, the moralization of food choices (discussed ably by Dr. Jones a month ago


We’ve learned a lot about medicine and nutrition in the last 3 thousand years. We can thank Hippocrates, perhaps, for the idea that diseases don’t come from the gods but little else.

It’s time to upgrade the physician pledge  and jettison the antiquated Hippocratic Oath.

We now have real, effective medicines that have nothing to do with food for many diseases. It’s important to eat a healthy diet.

But the food=medicine trope is just too often a  marker for pseudo and anti-science humbuggery and should also be left behind.

Hygienically Yours,

-ACP

*From Wikipedia, an explanation of the Gods and Goddesses mentioned in the Hippocratic oath

Asclepius represents the healing aspect of the medical arts; his daughters are Hygieia(“Hygiene”, the goddess/personification of health, cleanliness, and sanitation), Iaso (the goddess of recuperation from illness), Aceso(the goddess of the healing process), Aglæa/Ægle (the goddess of the glow of good health), and Panacea (the goddess of universal remedy).


The Physician’s Pledge

  • Adopted by the 2nd General Assembly of the World Medical Association, Geneva, Switzerland, September 1948
    and amended by the 22nd World Medical Assembly, Sydney, Australia, August 1968
    and the 35th World Medical Assembly, Venice, Italy, October 1983
    and the 46th WMA General Assembly, Stockholm, Sweden, September 1994
    and editorially revised by the 170th WMA Council Session, Divonne-les-Bains, France, May 2005
    and the 173rd WMA Council Session, Divonne-les-Bains, France, May 2006
    and the WMA General Assembly, Chicago, United States, October 2017

  • AS A MEMBER OF THE MEDICAL PROFESSION:

  • I SOLEMNLY PLEDGE to dedicate my life to the service of humanity;

  • THE HEALTH AND WELL-BEING OF MY PATIENT will be my first consideration;

  • I WILL RESPECT the autonomy and dignity of my patient;

  • I WILL MAINTAIN the utmost respect for human life;

  • I WILL NOT PERMIT considerations of age, disease or disability, creed, ethnic origin, gender, nationality, political affiliation, race, sexual orientation, social standing, or any other factor to intervene between my duty and my patient;

  • I WILL RESPECT the secrets that are confided in me, even after the patient has died;

  • I WILL PRACTISE my profession with conscience and dignity and in accordance with good medical practice;

  • I WILL FOSTER the honour and noble traditions of the medical profession;

  • I WILL GIVE to my teachers, colleagues, and students the respect and gratitude that is their due;

  • I WILL SHARE my medical knowledge for the benefit of the patient and the advancement of healthcare;

  • I WILL ATTEND TO my own health, well-being, and abilities in order to provide care of the highest standard;

  • I WILL NOT USE my medical knowledge to violate human rights and civil liberties, even under threat;

  • I MAKE THESE PROMISES solemnly, freely, and upon my honour.

 

 

What is the Significance of a Borderline Stress Test and What Is The Value of a Coronary Calcium Score after a Stress Test?

A reader asks me the following question:

I’m 35 years old male and was positive for myocardial ischemia during stress test. The cardiologist said that my result was borderline. I’m not sure what does he meant by “borderline”. Also does it help if I do CAC score since my stress test already came out with positive MI?

Good questions.

First off, to understand what any stress test means we have to know the pre-test probability of disease. For example, in 35 year old males without chest pain the likelihood of any significantly blocked coronary artery is very low. This means that the vast majority of positive or borderline tests in this group are false positives, meaning the test is abnormal but there is no disease.

Even if we add exertional chest pain into the mix the probability of a tightly blocked coronary in a 35 year year old is incredibly low (but there are some congenital coronary anomalies that occur.)

The accuracy of stress tests varies depending on the type. The standard treadmill stress test with ECG monitoring is about 70% sensitive  and 70% specific. Adding on a nuclear imaging component improves the sensitivity (it makes it more likely we will pick up a blockage if it is present) to about 85% however, in the real world, the specificity (chance of a false positive) is still quite high. Accuracy varies a lot depending on how good the study is and how good the reader is.

Borderline for either the stress ECG the stress nuclear (or stress echo) means that the test wasn’t clearly abnormal but it wasn’t clearly normal. It is in a grey zone of uncertainty.

Given your low pre-test probability of disease it is highly likely your “borderline” test result is a false positive. Whether anything else needs to be done at this point depends on many factors (some from the stress test)  but most importantly, the nature of the symptoms that prompted the investigation in the first place.

If there are no symptoms and  you went for more than 9 minutes on the treadmill likely nothing needs to be done.

Would a coronary calcium scan add anything?

A very high score (>let’s say 100 for age 35) would raise substantial concerns that you have a coronary blockage.

A zero score would be expected in your age group and probably wouldn’t change recommendations .

A score of 1 up to let’s say 100  means you have a built up a lot more plaque than normal and should look at aggressive modification of risk factors but likely wouldn’t change other recommendations.

So the CAC might be helpful but most likely it would be a zero and not helpful.

Medical Emergencies On Airplanes: Should Doctors “Heed The Call”?

In a recent episode of Larry David’s hilarious HBO series,  Curb Your Enthusiasm, (“Accidental Text on Purpose”), Larry, (after giving up his aisle seat to a woman with a supposedly overactive bladder) finds himself sitting next to Dr. Nathan Winocour. When a call for medical assistance for a stricken airplane passenger is issued, Larry is perturbed that the doctor fails to “heed the call.”

Winocour justifies his inaction with two comments:

“Give it a minute. He’s gonna be fine.” and

“Have you ever been part of an emergency landing? Is that what you want, Larry? To spend the night in Lubbock, Texas, at a Days Inn with a $15 voucher from Cinnabon? Think about it.”

He’s correct that the vast majority of medical “emergencies” resolve without any specific intervention.

And if he had attended on a patient with a serious non-transient medical problem he would suddenly find himself having to make an incredibly difficult and life-deciding decision on whether or not to  divert the plane or make an emergency landing with insufficient diagnostic tools and inadequate information.

Dr. Winocour is not alone in this failure to heed the call. Many physicians are conflicted about identifying themselves as a physician in medical emergencies-on planes or elsewhere.

Last year, a British physician was described in an article as having assisted in 3 medical emergencies while on American Airlines flights in the previous year. This man is so eager to assist in in-flight emergencies that he “pre-identifies” himself as a physician as he boards the plane.

I wondered how many physicians enthusiastically pre-identify themselves as ready to heed the call, so I posted a poll in 2017 on the physician social media site, SERMO.

Most Physicians Don’t Want To Assist In Medical Emergencies In Flight

A majority of physicians indicated that they were not interested in assisting in medical emergencies in flight.

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Only 3% would pre-identify (with another 2% agreeing to pre-identify if they were upgraded to first class). Another 19% would not pre-identify but would respond it there was a call for a physician.

Medical Liability Issues

In 1998 Congress passed the Aviation Medical Assistance Act, which tries to protect medical Good Samaritans who heed an airplane call. The act protects physicians, nurses, physician assistants, state-qualified EMTs and paramedics:

“An individual shall not be liable for damages in any action brought in a Federal or State court arising out of the acts or omissions of the individual in providing or attempting to provide assistance in the case of an in-flight medical emergency unless the individual, while rendering such assistance, is guilty of gross negligence or willful misconduct.”

Despite this apparent protection, many physicians left comments like the one below on SERMO indicating they would not heed the call due to concerns about medical liability:

Yes, I am aware of good samaritan docs trying to come to the rescue but were sued anyway. The standard of care still applies to doctors rendering care, whether they are acting as a good samaritan or not- thus we are held to a much higher standard of care than any bystander would be rendering aid. Good samaritan laws in several states note that doctors remain bound to the physician standard of care whether charging the patient or not. Even if it is a life threatening situation involving a complete stranger, the doctors are held to a higher standard of care that permits the patient or their families to sue you. In Florida, there are no caps on malpractice, therefore you can be held personally liable for all your assets, with the exception of those held in “tenancy in entirety”. Therefore I never identify myself as a doctor when coming on a scene to help anyone outside my office, and never give my name if rendering aid.

Other Factors Limiting Heeding

Other physicians noted the lack of appropriate medical supplies on airplanes and the hassle factor.

I’ve responded several times. The last time was when the plane hit an air pocket and the drink cart came down on a flight attendant’s foot. I needed an Ace bandage. Opened the small kit–lots of stuff but no Ace. Opened the big kit to see the contents list. I could have run a code or taken out a GB–but nothing for a compression dressing. Finally wrapped her foot with her panty hose and put an ice pack on it. Then they insisted I fill out a raft of forms about opening the kits, although nothing had been touched. They had my name and address but didn’t bother to say thanks. I did hear from the flight attendant–her foot was fractured.
Never fill out those damn forms unless they agree to pay you for it. And take your own ace bandage.

One MD expressed concerns that failure to heed the call could lead to legal consequences:

I don’t think the risk is zero (in the US) if no other passenger identifies himself/herself as a physician in the event of a flight emergency. For example, if a passenger dies en route and it was later discovered you were on that flight and that had you intervened you might have saved a life, the family members could come after you.

Hm. Now I have another reason to wear ear plugs and close my eyes when flying; can’t be dinged when I did not hear/see the announcement for a physician.

This urologist’s comments are typical of those who have volunteered, but feel like they didn’t help too much and were inadequately thanked or compensated for their time and effort.

I assisted on a flight from Ireland back to the states. Woman had a vasovagal episode and passed out. Spent about 15 minutes and only thanks I got was asking me for my name and license number “just in case.” It was United Airlines. Will never offer my services again unless someone needs a foley.

Dr. Winocour’s failure to heed the call ended up costing him dearly. When he desperately needed a joke for a speech he was giving,  Larry refused to heed the comedian call.

How do you feel? Should physicians heed the call in the air?

Airobatically Yours,

-ACP

Are Physicians Influenced By Pharmaceutical Gifts?

The Skeptical Cardiologist stopped giving talks for pharmaceutical companies 5 years ago and stopped accepting lunches from pharmaceutical reps because he wanted to be certain that he was not being influenced by them in his writing or patient care.

I made an exception 6 months ago and consumed panang curry provided by a pharmaceutical representative who was promoting the blood thinner Pradaxa.

He enthusiastically extolled the virtues of Pradaxa throughout the lunch and made some excellent points supporting the use of the drug. Shortly thereafter, when I was considering which of the newer blood thinners to prescribe for a patient , Pradaxa was foremost in my mind.

The scientific data that Boehringer Ingelheim wanted me to be aware of entered the crowded marketplace of ideas in my head that day but I prefer the data that enters my consciousness come from unbiased sources.

A new study from Georgetown University, published in PLOS One provides support for physicians eschewing pharmaceutical gifts.

The authors point out in their introduction that gifts are important:

Gifts, no matter their size, have a powerful effect on human relationships. Reciprocity is a strong guiding principle of human interaction. Even gifts of small value, such as “modest” industry-sponsored lunches, may foster a subconscious obligation to reciprocate through changes in prescribing practices. DeJong et al has shown that a meal with a value of less than $20 can increase the prescribing of branded statins, beta-blockers, ACE inhibitors, and antidepressants.

The study found:

Physicians who received small gifts (less than $500 annually) had more expensive claims ($114 vs. $85) and more branded claims (30.3% vs. 25.7%) than physicians who received no gifts. Those receiving large gifts (greater than $500 annually) had the highest average costs per claim ($189) and branded claims (39.9%) than other groups. All differences were statistically significant (p<0.05).

The conclusions of the study:

Gifts from pharmaceutical companies are associated with more prescriptions per patient, more costly prescriptions, and a higher proportion of branded prescriptions with variation across specialties. Gifts of any size had an effect and larger gifts elicited a larger impact on prescribing behaviors. Our study confirms and expands on previous work showing that industry gifts are associated with more expensive prescriptions and more branded prescriptions. Industry gifts influence prescribing behavior, may have adverse public health implications, and should be banned

Michael Joyce has written a detailed and insightful analysis of this paper at the excellent website, HealthNewsReview.org.

He points out the limitations of this and all observational studies:

Although the study cannot definitively establish cause-and-effect between a provider receiving such gifts and any subsequent upturn in their prescribing, it does make a significant contribution to a growing body of literature documenting how drug company largesse is clearly linked — either consciously or otherwise — to the way in which health care providers prescribe.

And the article quotes Daniel Goldberg, an expert on bioethics:

“First, in situations when the evidence is imperfect, and the decisions are subtle, as is so often true in medicine. In these ambiguous situations the evidence clearly suggests that gifts can sway doctors in one direction, even if there’s no evidence to support that as the best decision. Second, it frames decisions in pharmaceutical terms, even when there may be other options — proven to be better — that have nothing to do with drugs.

Drugs are just one tool. But we have ‘pharmaceuticalized’ health care to a point where many patients are conditioned to equate health with access to drugs.”

Since I consumed the panang curry, I’ve gone back to bringing in my own lunch. Thus, my lunch/breakfast typically consists of Trader’s Point full fat plain yogurt with lots of blueberries and raspberries, and perhaps some ground up flaxseed and/or almonds (although today I’ll be bringing in leftover-meatloaf and roasted root vegetables.)

It’s not as tantalizing as the curry, but it leaves my crowded brain free to ponder the multitude of unbiased data from scientific papers, rather than the talking points a pharmaceutical representative would prefer I ponder.

The end result, I hope, is unbiased blogging and prescribing-better information for readers and better care for patients.

-ACP