Category Archives: Emergency Medicine

Don’t Forget Travelers’ Health at the London Olympic Games

Photo courtesy of m.gifford (Flickr CC)

London may not be considered by everyone as exotic a locale as Beijing, but travel safety shouldn’t be overlooked across the pond. The CDC has several travel factsheets and resources for physicians and patients heading to the London Olympic Games, which start July 27  and run through Aug. 12.

Start by checking out Healthy Travel to the 2012 Olympic Games — the CDC’s rundown on basic health information for the UK, including a handy translation guide for UK health-related terms. If you’ve ever been curious about national healthcare, a mishap in London could answer a lot of questions.  Of course, so could an informational website developed by the UK’s National Health Service. The CDC also offers a link to travel tips from the U.S. State Department.

Wondering about the top travel advice for Americans headed to the games? Update your routine vaccines, including measles. “In 2011, some U.S. residents who traveled abroad got measles. When they returned to the U.S. they caused 17 measles outbreaks in various communities.” Probably the most important tip for a Yank in London: look both ways.  “Look right, look left, and look right again to avoid stepping into the path of traffic. In England, people drive on the left side of the road, not the right. Your safety is important. Road traffic is one of the leading causes of injury death to U.S. travelers in foreign countries.”

Kerri Wachter

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Preventing Youth Violence: Where’s the Research?

Photo courtesy of Thierry Geoffroy (Wikimedia CC)

Instead of focusing exclusively on risk factors for youth violence, it’s time to start looking at protective factors.  At least that’s what a CDC expert panel recommended in a special supplement of the American Journal of Preventive Medicine.

Homicide continues to be the second leading cause of death for youth aged15-24, and the leading cause of death for African American youth, according the CDC. More than 700,000 young people aged 10 to 24 were treated in emergency departments in 2010 for injuries sustained due to violence.

While identifying risk factors for teen violence is a necessary component of combating the problem, the experts recognize that it’s also important to identify factors that protect youth against youth embracing violence — such as resilience, positive youth development and community assets. “Most youth, even those living in high risk situations, are not violent and more must be learned about the factors that are helping youth, protecting them from engaging in violent behavior so that others can benefit,” the experts wrote in the supplement.

The CDC convened the Expert Panel on Protective Factors for Youth Violence Perpetration to clarify unresolved definitional and analytic issues on protective factors; review the state of evidence regarding the factors that appropriately can be labeled as direct protective, buffering protective, or both; carry out new analyses of major longitudinal surveys of youth to discover new knowledge about protective factors; an assessing the implications of research identifying protective factors for prevention programs, policies, and future research. This supplement presents the group’s work on direct protective factors — in particular identifying factors that exhibit mostly direct protective effects.

For more information about youth violence in the United States, check out a number of resources available on the CDC’s violence prevention Web page.

Kerri Wachter

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“Turning the Tide” on HIV/AIDS

In advance of the upcoming XIX International AIDS Conference, the International AIDS Society and the University of California, San Francisco, have issued the “Washington D.C. Declaration,” a nine-point action plan aimed at broadening global support for “Turning the Tide” of the AIDS epidemic.

Everyone is urged to sign the Declaration.

It calls for:

1) An increase in targeted new investments;
2) Evidence-based HIV prevention, treatment, and care in accord with the human rights of those at greatest risk and in greatest need;
3) An end to stigma, discrimination, legal sanctions, and human rights abuses against those living with and at risk for HIV;
4) Marked increases in HIV testing, counseling, and linkages to services;
5) Treatment for all pregnant and nursing women living with HIV and an end to perinatal transmission;
6) Expanded access to antiretroviral treatment for all in need;
7) Identification, diagnosis, and treatment of tuberculosis;
8) Accelerated research on new tools for HIV prevention, treatment, vaccines, and a cure;
9) Mobilization and meaningful involvement of affected communities.

Turning the Tide is the theme of this year’s biennial conference, which will take place July 22-27 in Washington.  It is expected to draw 25,000 attendees, including HIV professionals, activists, politicians, and celebrities. Sir Elton John will open the conference and Bill Clinton will close it. A large delegation of U.S. members of Congress will participate, and Bill Gates will moderate a session. An enormous “Global Village” outside the D.C. Convention Center will be open to the public. “If you haven’t been, it’s a conference like no other,” conference cochair Dr. Diane V. Havlir said at a press briefing.

The recent optimism regarding HIV/AIDS stems from major advances in knowledge regarding prevention of partner transmission with early patient treatment, pre-exposure prophylaxis, and male circumcision as HIV infection prevention (new data will be released at the meeting), all of which are viewed as breakthroughs  in the fight against HIV/AIDS. “So we have now in our hands the tools. The question is how do we combine those tools together, and how do we roll them out,” said Dr. Havlir, professor of medicine at the University of California, San Francisco, and chief of the HIV/AIDS division at San Francisco General Hospital.

Dr. Diane V. Havlir / Photo by Miriam E. Tucker

Monday’s plenary session will include an address from Dr. Anthony Fauci, head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, on “Ending the HIV Epidemic: From Scientific Advances to Public Health Implementation.” Other plenary topics during the week will include viral eradication, vaccines, TB and HIV, and HIV/AIDS in specific populations including minorities, women, youth, and men who have sex with men. On Friday, there will be a plenary talk that may be of particular interest to the primary care community, “The Intersection of Noncommunicable Diseases and Aging in HIV.”

Plenaries and other conference sessions will be webcast at http://globalhealth.kff.org/aids2012.

-Miriam E. Tucker (@MiriamETucker on Twitter)

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Do Medical Tattoos Need Guidelines?

Should medical tattoos be standardized? Should there be guidelines pertaining to their design, and where on the body they’re located? Should physicians prescribe tattoos to patients with hidden medical conditions? And if the answer to any of those questions is yes, should medical personnel be the ones doing the tattooing?

Photo by Miriam E. Tucker / Used with permission

Those were among the questions raised by Dr. Saleh Aldasouqi in a poster presentation and at a press briefing at the annual meeting of the American Association of Clinical Endocrinologists.

Some patients with diabetes and other hidden medical conditions are choosing to be permanently tattooed rather than wear a necklace or bracelet to alert emergency personnel of their conditions. This is particularly common among patients with type 1 diabetes, for whom low blood sugar can result in unconsciousness or odd behavior that can easily be mistaken for drunkenness.

“There are a lot of patients with diabetes who are getting tattoos. Just Google ‘medical tattoos’ or ‘diabetic tattoos’ and you’ll find a large number from around the world.  The problem is they’re not consulting their physicians. They could have high sugar, which can affect wound healing. …There are so many issues now being talked about with regard to medical tattooing,” noted Dr. Aldasouqi, an endocrinologist at Michigan State University, Lansing.

He believes these issues should be addressed by professional medical organizations, possibly including those pertaining to diabetes, dermatology, and emergency medicine.

As for tattoo location on the body,  the wrist would be the most logical place since first responders will always check there, he said.

So who should do the tattooing?  Tattoo parlors that are licensed under state or local laws are typically clean and use sterile equipment, and require customers to read and sign consent forms that address medical conditions and risks.  Of course, tattoo artists would need to be educated about any new standard.

But dermatologists or plastic surgeons could do it as well. “We’re not competing with tattoo artists, but at least we can collaborate with them by standardizing at their level, or make it a minor surgical procedure. In fact, this is being done to mark the skin for radiation therapy in cancer patients, and in reconstructive surgery after breast cancer. Some medical tattooing is already being done  by medical specialists. So, it’s open for discussion.”

-Miriam E. Tucker (@MiriamETucker on Twitter)

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Lessons After the Storm: Joplin Surgeon Looks Back

Take emergency weather warnings seriously, prepare a plan to triage and treat mass casualties, and consider how you would work in a worst-case scenario following a major natural disaster. These are some lessons learned by a thoracic surgeon who survived a devastating EF 5 tornado that ripped through his hometown of Joplin, Mo.

The tornado was on the ground for 32 minutes and cut a 6-mile-wide swath through residential and downtown areas. (Photos courtesy Dr. Michael Phillips)

All normal communications were down when Dr. Michael Phillips arrived at his hospital, the Freeman Health System Heart and Vascular Institute. Staff figured out they could communicate via Facebook, Twitter, and texts. There was no water pressure or clean water.  “We were on generator power only, with no ability to identify any patient and no labs or x-rays,” Dr. Phillips said at the annual meeting of the American Association for Thoracic Surgery.

Nearby St. John’s Regional Medical Center, a 360-bed hospital, “was lifted off the ground and moved four inches off its foundation.” There were 183 inpatients at St. John’s when the tornado touched down

Cars were tossed about in front of St. John’s Regional Medical Center in Joplin.

with winds approaching 300 mph on May 22, 2011. More than 70 patients, including 11 on ventilator support, “came to our hospital needing a place to stay, and we were already full. We

have a 250 bed hospital – what do you do from there?”

More than 1,000 patients were treated in the first 24 hours. There were 11 deaths in the first six hours and “I pronounced seven of them,” said Dr. Phillips, a cardiothoracic surgeon at Freeman. There were 161 deaths overall, making the Joplin tornado the deadliest on record since 1950.

“We didn’t sleep. We operated nonstop. We performed 22 operations during that time, 13 of which I performed. It was almost 30 hours before I took a break, the same thing with all the people around me,” Dr. Phillips replied. “I was really blessed by having a wonderful staff around me.”

“There were so many challenges to overcome; it’s really hard to put into words. You have to overcome that initial shock. The layperson doesn’t understand the devastation around them; you do. You have to get your arms around it and move on and deal with the situation at hand.”

A transition zone of less than 100 yards separated “completely normal from complete and total devastation.”

“One can never train enough for such an event. We have to try to be prepared as much as possible. Preparation should include all levels within the health system,” Dr. Phillips said. “Mass triage plans are critical.”

Lessons learned include taking weather warnings seriously.  “We used to blow these off and we pay attention now,” Dr. Phillips said. Take shelter when a siren sounds and review your plans for worst case scenarios.  All this advice applies to other natural disasters – including tsunamis, typhoons, and hurricanes, he said.

“These are all natural disasters that not only take life and create mass casualties, but they also take away our basic essentials of communications, food, clothing, and shelter.”

–Damian McNamara (on Twitter @MedReporter )

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Will the UK Win Gold in Public Health Preparedness?

In all likelihood, there will be no large-scale public health crises during the London 2012 Olympics. But Dr. Brian McCloskey has to prepare, just in case. That’s his job as the London director of the UK’s Health Protection Agency (HPA), the UK-government-funded yet independent public body charged since 2004 with protecting the health of the country’s population from all threats, including those from infectious disease, chemicals, violence, and anything else that may arise. The HPA also collaborates with the World Health Organization on “emergency preparedness for Mass Gatherings and High Consequence, High Visibility events,” Dr. McCloskey explained at the 22nd European Congress of Clinical Microbiology and Infectious Diseases (ECCMID), sponsored by the European Society of Clinical Microbiology and Infectious Diseases.

Dr. Brian McCloskey/Photo by Miriam E. Tucker

“Mass gatherings” are nothing new for London, which has routinely hosted large music and sporting events against a backdrop of ongoing terrorist threats. However, the Olympics represents one of the largest public health challenges yet, in terms of sheer scale and international media scrutiny, noted Dr. McCloskey, who has been with HPA since its inception and was director of public health with the U.K.’s National Health Service for 14 years prior to that.

The Olympics officially begins July 27 and ends 12 Aug. 12, followed by the Paralympics 29 Aug. 29 to Sept 9. In addition, London will also host the Olympic torch relay, Queen Elizabeth’s Diamond Jubilee beginning in May, Wimbledon in June, possibly the largest-ever gay pride festival in late June-early July, and the Notting Hill Carnival in August. “In other words, there will be one long party in London from May through September,” he commented.

In all, the Olympics will comprise 26 sports in 34 venues, with 10,500 athletes, 17,000 people living in the Olympic Village, 21,000 media and broadcasters, and approximately 180,000 spectators per day in the Olympic Park. The challenge, he said, is to plan to respond to anything that can happen without disrupting life for Londoners.

Dr. McCloskey and his colleagues have been studying experiences at previous Olympics, as well as published literature on mass gatherings such as the yearly Islamic pilgrimage, or “Hajj,” to Mecca. Indeed, “mass gatherings” is an emerging area of medicine that was explored in depth earlier this year in a series of six articles in The Lancet. There is also a WHO advisory group on mass gatherings, and even a specialty curriculum being developed, he said in an interview.

Judging by previous experience, “The most likely thing to happen is nothing at all. Most Olympic Games go off without any problems, with only minor impact on the public health service and on public health. But, we do need to think about all the things that could happen.”

Mass gatherings have been associated with both food/waterborne and airborne/respiratory infectious diseases. Yet, less than 1% of healthcare visits in Sydney during the 2000 Olympics were for infectious diseases. In the 2006 winter Olympics in Torino, Italy, surveillance for acute gastroenteritis, flulike illness, measles, and other health-related events turned up nothing unusual as compared with non-Olympics time periods.

London Underground Billboard/Photo by Miriam E. Tucker

During the 2012 Olympics, the HPA will deliver a “Situation Report” each morning to Olympics organizers, describing the state of public health in England and highlighting any potential issues. Managing rumors will also be important, he noted.

Laboratory surveillance, clinical case reporting, and syndromic surveillance—based on patient complaints—will all be enhanced during the Games, with the help of primary care providers and hospitals around the U.K. Any triggers will be followed up, with a much lower threshold and greater speed than usual. In fact, most of these surveillance systems have been in place for at least a year now. “So we’re feeling very comfortable,” Dr. McCloskey said.

And these measures will last beyond the Games. “We will have at least two new surveillance systems in the U.K. as a legacy afterwards…What you get is improved public health systems but also better recognition of the importance of public health and better working relationships…Every country I’ve talked to who’s hosted the Games says we can expect that legacy. Provided nothing goes wrong. But of course, it’s not going to go wrong, it’s all in place, so come and enjoy it.”

–Miriam E. Tucker (@MiriamETucker on Twitter)

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Real World Full of Medical Ethics Challenges

There’s the ideal world, and then there’s the real world. Humans have a wonderful hubris in forever trying to get the twain to meet, and a necessary humility in examining ways that they don’t. That’s as true in medicine as anywhere else.

The Charter on Medical Professionalism, endorsed by the U.S. Accreditation Council on Graduate Medical Education and more than 130 professional groups worldwide, contains three fundamental principles: the primacy of patient welfare; respect for patient autonomy, and promotion of social justice. Who wouldn’t want that? A physician’s professional responsibility as spelled out in the charter entails honesty (including disclosure of medical error), patient confidentiality, maintaining trust by managing conflicts of interest, and much more.

Ben A. Rich, J.D., Ph.D. (SHERRY BOSCHERT/IMNG Medical Media)

Yet, more than 10% of 1,891 practicing U.S. physicians surveyed recently in seven specialities said that they had told adult patients or a minor’s parent or guardian something that was not true, Ben A. Rich, J.D., Ph.D. noted during a session on ethics at the annual meeting of the American Academy of Pain Medicine.

Results of the survey of physicians in internal medicine, family practice, pediatrics, cardiology, general surgery, psychiatry, and anesthesiology also showed that 20% of physicians had not fully disclosed mistakes to patients out of fear of malpractice litigation.

More than 33% said they do not agree that physicians necessarily must disclose all serious medical errors to affected patients, or that it’s important to disclose to patients any financial relationships with drug and device manufacturers (Health Affairs 2012;31:383-391).

More than 25% of the physicians said they had revealed unauthorized information about a patient. More than 50% had described a prognosis to a patient more positively than the clinical facts warranted.

Women were more likely than men to practice consistently within the Charter on Medical Professionalism, as were physicians from racial and ethnic minorities, the survey found.

It’s comforting to note that a majority of physicians seem to adhere to the professional principles, and perhaps we shouldn’t be too hard on those who admit their actions sometimes diverge from the ideals, said Dr. Rich, professor of medicine and director of the Bioethics Program at the University of California, Davis. The “messy facts” of real cases show the challenges that physicians face in trying to help patients while also respecting their autonomy while also being honest, etc.

One example: A published case of a 45-year-old licensed practical nurse whose license had been suspended due to her medical problems. She was being treated for migraine headaches by a psychiatric neurologist and was on gabapentin, topirimate, propranolol for prophylaxis, oxycodone for breakthrough headaches, and IM injections of meperidine and hydroxyzine for breakthrough pain. She signed a contract with her physician saying she would only take narcotic medications that he prescribed and would not seek painkillers from emergency departments (Nursing Journal 2007;29:35-40).

“She violated that contract repeatedly and with impunity and was becoming a `frequent flyer’ in the local E.D.s.,” Dr. Rich said. Her physician persuaded her to get inpatient treatment, but afterward she relapsed and continued E.D.-hopping in pursuit of pain meds. One local E.D. suggested to her physician that he be notified whenever she turned up in an E.D. Her physician suggested instead that the E.D. do what he had resorted to doing — injecting her with saline and telling her it’s meperidine.

Some E.D. physicians gave her medications just to get her out the door. Others refused to give her any narcotics for her pain because of her addiction and violations of her contract. All the healthcare providers in the medical group of one emergency department signed a letter to the patient telling her that if she came there for treatment, she would be evaluated and treated with non-narcotic medications recommended by her treating neurologist but she would no longer be given narcotics.

Which, if any, of these approaches pass ethical scrutiny? What would you do if you were her neurologist or saw her in pain in the emergency department?

The group that sent her a joint letter was “at least trying a collaborative approach and putting her on notice about how she would be treated if she continued to present there,” Dr. Rich said.

The lengthy Ethics Charter of the American Academy of Pain Medicine lists many physician duties, including this “intriguing” one, he noted: Any reports to law enforcement of attempts to acquire pain medications illegally should be based on confirmed firsthand information.

“Some of my colleagues at UC Davis are working on a manuscript right now where we’re finding it’s not as clear as one might hope” when deciding whether you have a duty to report a patient to law enforcement or a duty not to report to law enforcement because reporting the patient may infringe upon patient confidentially, not to mention potentially violating the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA), he said.

The messiness of real life doesn’t diminish the importance of standards, it just reinforces the need for ideals to guide us as we muddle our way through the real world.

Dr. Rich has been a consultant to KOL, L.L.C.

–Sherry Boschert (@sherryboschert on Twitter)

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Seeking Global Accord on Allergy

Four major professional allergy organizations have launched a new effort to raise worldwide awareness of allergic diseases.

The International Collaboration on Asthma, Allergy, and Immunology (iCAALL) is a project of the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology (AAAAI), the American College of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology (ACAAI), the European Academy of Allergy and Clinical Immunology (EAACI), and the World Allergy Organization (WAO). The leaders of each group announced the new initiative at a press briefing held during the AAAAI’s annual meeting in Orlando. An editorial introducing the initiative is online and will be published in the April issue of the Journalof Allergy and Clinical Immunology.

“The world has experienced a tremendous increase in the prevalence of allergic diseases and asthma over the last 50 years,” EAACI president Dr. Cezmi Akdis said, noting that asthma currently affects 8%-12% of the developed world, and allergic rhinitis, approximately 20%-25%. Asthma care costs more than 20 billion Euros today and is expected to jump to 200 billion Euros in 2050. Yet, current research funding is only about 2%-3% of that devoted to diseases such as cancer and HIV/AIDS.

“We need better treatments and tailored care. We need more and more research … I am confident that iCAALL will result in a greater awareness about allergies, asthma, and immunologic diseases all around the world, resulting in prevention, cure, and better patient care, which is only possible by increased allocation of resources for research,” Dr. Akdis said.

According to WAO president Dr. Ruby Pawankar, “Allergies and asthma are no longer diseases of just the developed world … It’s a huge problem in the industrializing and the developing world.” She pointed out that allergic disease has been absent from the recent World Health Organization/United Nations focus on noncommunicable diseases (NCDs), highlighted by a high-level meeting last September.

“The WHO and UN have made efforts toward giving more attention to NCDs. However, the area of allergy and asthma and clinical immunologic diseases needs to get to the stage to be represented at the WHO and UN.” To that end, WAO has issued a White Book on allergic disease with reports from 62 member countries, Dr. Pawankar said.

Dr. Wesley Burks described the iCAALL centerpiece initiative, a series of International Consensus (ICON) reports. The first ICON, on food allergy, is already online. It includes breastfeeding in the first 4-6 months as a key recommendation for reducing the risk for allergic disease. Food allergy is rising worldwide; in China, for example, food allergy has almost doubled from 3.9% 10 years ago to 7.7% today. “In a country thought not to have a lot of food allergy, that’s a significant change,” said Dr. Burks, president-elect of AAAAI.

Dr. Stanley Fineman, ACAAI president, outlined the plans for dissemination of upcoming ICONs: One on pediatric asthma is to be released at the EAACI Congress  in June in Geneva; the next, on angioedema, at the ACAAI meeting in November in Anaheim, Calif.; and then one on eosinophilic disorders at the WAO’s International Scientific Conference in December in Hyderabad, India.

Dr. Dennis K. Ledford, outgoing AAAAI president and iCAALL chair, said that other initiatives will incorporate additional means for disseminating research and increasing support for research. “It’s an evolving collaborative, happening as we speak.”

-Miriam E. Tucker (@MiriamETucker on Twitter)

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U.S. Military Gets Modern Pain Management

When Col. Chester “Trip” Buckenmaier III, MC, USA, first went to Afghanistan as an anesthesiologist with the U.S. Army, the only pain medicine at his disposal was morphine. If wounded soldiers got morphine but were still in pain, they’d get “more phine,” he said. Those were the options for pain control. No spinal or epidural analgesia.

It’s better than downing a glass of whiskey and biting on a bullet, I suppose, but you’d think that in an age when satellites can pinpoint an enemy from space and unmanned drones conduct precise bombing raids, the military might have better ways of easing the agony of injured human fighters.

Col. Chester "Trip" Buckenmaier III, M.D. (Sherry Boschert/Elsevier Global Medical News)

By 2006-2007, the military was beginning to see a link between increasing rates of soldier and veteran suicides and pain issues. They noticed that symptoms in troops with chronic pain were the same symptoms associated with posttraumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury. “How could we really diagnose those very important issues if we didn’t have a good handle on pain?” he said.

The military was ripe for new ideas for acute pain control, and in 2009, Dr. Buckenmaier became part of a task force to create a comprehensive pain-management strategy. “We were using words like ‘holistic” and ‘multidisciplinary’ and ‘multimodal’ and not snickering. That was a big change. Just a few years ago if you used the word ‘holistic’ in military medicine, people would kind of smile at you and then you would sit alone in the lunch room. That’s not the case any more,” he said at the annual meeting of the American Academy of Pain Medicine.

The task force report in 2010 established guidelines for state-of-the-art acute pain medicine services in combat zones prior to air evacuation of casualties to their countries of origin, a document that the U.S. military had never had before, he said. Before this, pain was always thought of as something else — the consequence of having a leg blown off, perhaps — and the military approach was to try and fix that other medical issue and assume that the pain would then take care of itself. Today, there is greater understanding that pain itself “is a disease process and that acute pain, if not managed well, can lead to the devastating disease process of chronic pain,” Dr. Buckenmaier said.

An Acute Pain Medicine Service in Afghanistan seems to have made a drastic difference in the war zone, he reported. Data from April to July 2009 showed that 160 of 392 surgical trauma patients (including 61 Afghans) were managed by the Acute Pain Service (41%). Another 40% were too wounded — paralyzed, sedated, or on a ventilator — for the service to be useful, and the rest were soldiers with minor problems that didn’t need the service, such as ankle sprains and basketball injuries.

When first seen by the Acute Pain Service, the patients rated their pain level as 5  (severe pain) on a Visual Analog Scale. Within 24 hours, the average rating dropped to 0.7, Dr. Buckenmaier reported.

In a survey of 64 military health professionals including 26 physicians and 32 nurses who were asked to rate the Acute Pain Service on a scale of 0 (not at all helpful) to 10 (extremely helpful), respondents gave the Service an 8 for satisfaction, an 8 for being beneficial, and 8.5 for the importance of deploying the Acute Pain Service.

Seventy-four percent of respondents said that patients got greater levels of pain relief from the Acute Pain Service, and 65% said the patients reported decreased levels of pain. Overall, 74% said the Acute Pain Service had a significant impact on patient outcomes.

The military personnel needed for Acute Pain Services already exist in other roles and can be tasked with becoming the medical officer, chief nurse, and ward pain nurse champions that make up an Acute Pain Service, Dr. Buckenmaier said.

That way, there may be more outcomes like that of a British soldier who got his left foot blown off. A tourniquet was not well placed, and he had bled out by the time Dr. Buckenmaier saw him as the trauma anesthesiologist. As he put the soldier under, Dr. Buckenmaier told him, “Don’t worry. When you wake up, you’ll be pain free.” After surgery and transfusions and Dr. Buckenmaier’s ministrations wearing his Acute Pain Service hat, Dr. Buckenmaier looked in on the soldier later in the recovery room.

The young man was sitting up, talking on the phone. “Mum, I had to give ‘em a foot,” he said, “but I’m okay and I’ll see you in a few weeks.”

Dr. Buckenmaier thought, ‘That’s the standard that we should be achieving.”

He reported having no financial disclosures.

–Sherry Boschert (@sherryboschert on Twitter)

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Recycle to Reduce Drug Overdoses

Recycling and prescription drug overdoses have something in common.

Recycling has become second nature in many parts of America. Bins and containers to collect excess paper, bottles and cans are ubiquitous. Yet, only a few a few decades ago, recycling seemed foreign, was not convenient, and took some effort and resolve on an individual’s part.

Keith N. Humphreys, Ph.D. (Sherry Boschert/Elsevier Global Medical News)

That same evolution has to happen in the way that we handle leftover medications, Keith N. Humphreys, Ph.D., told physicians at the American Academy of Pain Medicine annual meeting. There’s an epidemic of opioid overdose deaths in the United States, and the most common source of misused opioids is leftover medications obtained from friends and family.

He’s talking about a huge cultural shift – with consumers going from saving and sharing costly medications that can be hard to come by in the current health system to recognizing their potential for harm and routinely returning leftover drugs on “take-back days” organized by law enforcement or even depositing them in specialized “recycling” bins.

The number of opioid prescriptions dispensed by U.S. retail pharmacies increased from 76 million in 1991 to 210 million in 2010, according to a report by the National Institute on Drug Abuse. And since 1990, the rate of drug overdoses has tripled, increasing approximately from 4 per 100,000 people to 12 per 100,000 people, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report.

As someone who worked in hospices for a decade, Dr. Humphries knows the valuable role that opioids can play in relieving pain. So, how do we make opioids available but reduce the risk of addiction, abuse and accidental overdose?

There is no policy framework that will eliminate the tension between these two goals, but some policies will help avoid it, said Dr. Humphreys, acting director of the Center for Health Care Evaluation, Veterans Health Administration, Menlo Park, Calif., and a professor of psychiatry at Stanford University. He recently served as senior policy adviser at the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, and  reports having no financial conflicts of interest on this issue.

Here, he said, are five emerging public policies, codes of practice, and cultural norms that “most people can agree on” while working toward harder-to-implement options like expanding addiction treatment programs:

1) Build prescription monitoring programs (PMPs). The idea is that physicians could check to see if a patient has received another opioid prescription recently before handing over a new prescription, to prevent drug-seeking patients from “doctor-shopping” to get more opioids. Thirty-six states have PMPs, though most are early versions that are slow, clunky and virtually worthless. Fourteen states and the District of Columbia have enacted legislation to create PMPs, and two states have no PMP plans.

PMPs “may be resisted and resented by many professionals, but they’re inevitable” and deserve support to quickly improve, Dr. Humphreys said. Plus, there’s a bonus for prescribers: In some states, checking with the PMP before prescribing an opioid gives physicians presumptive immunity from legal liability.

2) Lock doctor shoppers into one prescriber. Every week, a West Virginian dies of a drug overdose while holding prescriptions from five or more health care providers. Public and private insurers could tell patients who have opioid prescriptions from multiple providers that they must get all prescriptions from a single provider if they want their insurance to cover costs.

Recycling bins at the Palm Springs (Calif.) Convention Center, where the AAPM met. (Sherry Boschert/Elsevier Global Medical News)

3) Make prescription “recycling” a cultural norm. Legally, opioid narcotics can be returned to any Drug Enforcement Agency law enforcer, though some states also allow pharmacies to take back leftover drugs. When sheriffs in one small Arkansas town (population 20,000) organized a drug take-back day, residents brought in 25,000 pills, Dr. Humphreys said. A physician at the meeting from Santa Maria, Calif., said a drug take-back day organized by sheriffs there was so successful that they installed a permanent drop-off box outside the sheriff’s office. Dr. Humphreys urged physicians to promote drug take-back days in their communities.

4) Make abuse-resistant medication approvals easier. Currently, developing an abuse-resistant version of an addictive medication requires a new drug application, engendering a lengthy approval process and potentially hundreds of millions of dollars in costs. Government regulators should find a way to ease this massive disincentive for pharmaceutical companies to develop safer pain medicines, he said.

5) Change opioid-related medical practice. A potpourri of short- and long-term strategies could improve practice, he suggested. Patients should be told that sharing opioids is dangerous and illegal. Both patients and physicians need to learn that opioids are not the only response to pain. Emergency physicians should break their habit of automatically writing prescriptions for 30 days’ worth of a drug, and write for shorter time lengths when appropriate. Health care workers need to get better at recognizing addiction, and more attention should go toward ways of preventing “iatrogenic” addiction caused by the health care system itself.

Physicians need to lead the way in these efforts. “Who else?” he asked.

–Sherry Boschert (@sherryboschert on Twitter)

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