Category Archives: Nephrology

Counties Pursue Safer Drug Disposal

New programs to make it easier and safer for San Francisco Bay Area residents to get rid of unused medications are some of the first to try this on a large scale, and may serve as models for other cities and counties.

Since May 2012, a pilot program in San Francisco has allowed residents to drop off old medications at 13 pharmacies and 10 police stations (where controlled substances must be brought). San Francisco supervisors initially considered forcing drug companies to fund the program, and instead agreed to accept $110,000 from Genentech and the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America to fund the program.

(Photo by J. Troha, courtesy of National Cancer Institute)

On July 24, supervisors in Alameda County (which includes East Bay cities such as Oakland and Berkeley) are likely to approve a Safe Drug Disposal Ordinance that would require drug companies to pay for disposal of their products or face fines of up to $1,000 per day, The Bay Citizen reports. Public agencies currently fund 25 drug disposal sites there, and the cash-strapped county wants the comparatively wealthy pharmaceutical industry to take more financial responsibility for the lifecycle of its products in order to reduce overdoses, accidental poisonings, and water pollution.

As we reported earlier this year, making prescription-drug “recycling” a cultural norm is one of five emerging public policies that could help the medical system keep opioids available while reducing the risk of addiction, abuse and accidental overdose, according to Keith N. Humphreys, Ph.D. Smaller versions have met with success, such as a drug take-back day organized by sheriffs in a small town in Arkansas (population 20,000) that brought in 25,000 pills, 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 reports having no financial conflicts of interest on this issue.

Not everyone is happy with the idea. Trade associations for the pharmaceutical industry and biomedical companies argue that there’s no evidence that these programs will reduce poisonings, and they haven’t ruled out the possibility of suing to block the Alameda County ordinance, The Bay Citizen reports. The compromise that San Francisco reached for voluntary instead of mandatory funding from the pharmaceutical industry may be a middle ground.

In an era when government agencies have less and less money for public programs, it’s probably inevitable that they’ll pursue alternative financing for programs like this.

If your community has a drug disposal program, let us know how it’s working. Will these programs succeed, and will they reduce abuse, addiction, and accidental overdoses? We’ll keep an eye on this topic, and keep you posted.

–Sherry Boschert (@sherryboschert on Twitter)

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VA Adopts Innovative Project Nationwide

An innovative medical project that we reported in April has made the big time — a nationwide pilot program in the immense Department of Veterans Affairs system, the nation’s largest integrated health care system.

Project ECHO (Extension for Community Healthcare Outcomes) has been working wonders in New Mexico, Washington State, and a few other locations to bring specialty care to thousands of people who previously had little access to this care. Created by Dr. Sanjeev Arora of the University of New Mexico, Project ECHO connects primary care physicians with specialists in weekly case-management and educational teleconferences to give primary care physicians the support they need to manage complex patients with hepatitis C, asthma, chronic pain, rheumatic or cardiac disease, HIV, substance abuse, mental illness, high-risk pregnancy, childhood obesity, and more.

Dr. Arora (center, back turned) leads a Project ECHO videoconference. (Courtesy Project ECHO)

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services awarded Project ECHO an $8.5 million Health Care Innovation grant in May 2012 to expand its operations in two states.

Impressed, the Department of Veterans Affairs cloned Project ECHO and tomorrow will launch a nationwide pilot program in the VA system that could help veterans get care in the local communities instead of traveling to specialists for treatment of heart failure, chronic pain, hepatitis C, etc. In our April 2012 video interview with Dr. Rollin M. Gallagher, deputy national program director for pain management in the Veterans Health Administration, he explains why Project ECHO is so appealing to the VA

The VA’s version, called Specialty Care Access Network-ECHO (or SCAN-ECHO), will kick off officially with a briefing by a panel of experts in Washington, D.C., that also can be viewed by Webcast (how appropriate) on Wednesday, July 11, 2012 from 10 a.m. to 11:30 a.m. Eastern time. Register here to view the Webcast.

The panel will feature Dr. Arora with Dr. Robert A. Pretzel, under-secretary for health in the V.A. system, Dr. John R. Lumpkin, director of the Health Care Group for the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, which has funded much of Project ECHO’s work, and both specialty and primary care providers from the Cleveland VA Medical Center.

With any luck, the success of Project ECHO will echo across the country as this model of care expands.

–Sherry Boschert (@sherryboschert on Twitter)

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Rock as Remedy: Band Builds Work-life Balance

Lots of good advice got dispensed at a session on work-life balance at the Society of Hospital Medicine meeting recently, including the importance of honoring your inner self, having a supportive spouse, working with your hospitalist colleagues to support each other around scheduling difficulties, even hiring a nanny. Surprising to me, nothing was said explicitly about keeping creativity and fun in your life.

Dr. McIlraith is lead singer for The Remedies. (Courtesy Sam Hayashi/Zuma Light Works)

Dr. Thomas McIlraith knows about that last part. The chairman of the hospital medicine department for Mercy Medical Group, a large hospital medicine and multispecialty medical group in Sacramento, Calif., he’s also the lead singer and songwriter for The Remedies, a regionally popular five-member rock band that includes nephrologist Dr. David Pai playing bass and orthopedic surgeon Dr. Dan Anderson, who is the band’s sound engineer.

“My experience has been that if I don’t have music in my life, the rest of my life doesn’t live up to its potential. It’s kind of a left-brain, right-brain balance. I find that when I fulfill that creative need, I have more energy for other things,” he said. “It feeds back on itself; it pays back in the inspiration and energy you have for patient care.”

He first noticed this in medical school at the University of Wisconsin in 1992, when he ran a 15-person band called The Arrhythmias. Scheduling practices, etc. in the era before e-mail was time-consuming. “I was worried that I’d flunk out, but that’s when I got my best grades,” he said.

Scheduling for The Remedies isn’t simple either, with three physicians on board plus drummer and geologist Greg Marquis, who is gone for long stretches in the field, and guitarist and recycling worker Walt Simmons. As the chairman of his department, Dr. McIlraith’s schedule consists of the leftovers after the other 55 hospitalists have claimed shifts to fill their schedules.

“I work a lot of nights, and then work some days, so it can be a little haphazard. Before our recent show, we went three weeks straight when we couldn’t manage to fit in a practice. Then we had two, and the show went great,” he said.

Dr. McIlraith (left) rocks with Walt Simmons (center) and Dr. David Pai. (Courtesy Sam Hayashi/Zuma Light Works)

Playing in the band is fun, but so is watching co-workers let loose at the shows. It’s a work-hard, play-hard thing. “We work very, very hard on very tough issues, and when we play, it’s nice to see these people cuttin’ loose and dancing. That’s very fulfilling for me,” he said.

The Remedies play mostly covers with some original tunes thrown in, including two that Dr. McIlraith wrote specifically about hospitalist work. “The Long Ride” recalls the early difficult days of establishing hospitalist medicine. McIlraith sings,

Switching back and forth between night and day

Getting’ no respect, never getting’ our way

Stood our ground and demanded a say

That’s why we’re all here today

The lyrics specifically call out the contributions of founding hospitalists Dr. Winthrop F. Whitcomb, Dr. John R. Nelson, and Dr. Laurence D. Wellikson, as well as the Society of Hospital Medicine itself:

Come together, stay strong, and SHM will help carry you on

Gonna do more than just get by

Who would have known it would be such a long ride

The CPOE Blues” is another original tune that physicians in many specialties might relate to, singing of the “joys” of computerized physician order entry:

Now, there are a few things I’ve come to hate

Like forgetting to click on “initiate”…

Everybody’s looking ’round for clues

On how they’re s’posed to deal with the CPOE blues

Dr. McIlraith’s roles don’t end with hospitalist and rock musician. He’s also a husband and father of two children. How does he juggle all this? Through the magic ingredient that every session on work-life balance emphasizes as a key factor: a supportive spouse.

His wife works at home as an investment manager and she handles much of the home care as well. “She really takes very good care of all of us,” he acknowledged. “I’m extraordinarily blessed in that regard.”

–Sherry Boschert (@sherryboschert on Twitter)

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Keeping Endovascularists Busy

Renal denervation may be the next big thing in endovascular intervention, and not just because of the many patients it might help.

Renal denervation is a new procedure for lowering blood pressure that involves placing a radiofrequency catheter inside both of a patient’s renal arteries and zapping the tissue four to eight times on each side, gently enough not to cause trauma but firmly enough to damage the renal nerves and block sympathetic activity and the kidneys’ renin release. It remains investigational in the United States, where a 500-patient pivotal trial recently started, but it’s been available on a routine basis in Europe since 2010, and according to Horst Sievert, a German interventional cardiologist who’s done many denervations since then, it’s been taking off both in terms of the number of endovascular physicians offering it and the number of patients with drug-resistant hypertension being treated.

image courtesy Wikimedia Commons

Though still off the U.S. market, the prospect of FDA approval within the next couple of years was enough to win renal denervation a special session at ISET 2012 last week in Miami Beach. My news article on those talks is here.

An apparently safe, relatively easy, 60-minute procedure that can durably cut systolic blood pressure by about 30 mm Hg in patients who remain hypertensive despite treatment with multiple drugs is certainly very attractive. It may be even more appealing if early evidence pans out and the treatment also helps normalize glycemic control and reduce hyperinsulinemia in at least some patients.

But when vascular medicine specialist Michael Jaff said at the meeting that renal denervation “could arguably be the most exciting advance in interventional vascular medicine,” and that “in the near term I’m incredibly bullish,” it was hard not to imagine that it was more than optimized patient care that made his pulse quicken.

Endovascular medicine became a medical growth industry more than 30 years ago, when it started to become a routine part of cardiology, a way to less-invasively treat stenotic coronary arteries. Since then, it’s become a major part of all vascular medicine, but in recent years the coronary part showed a definite leveling off. Just last year in a talk at ISET, Martin Leon, one of the world’s foremost interventional cardiologists, declared that endovascular coronary interventions appeared to have reached a volume plateau that would not change anytime soon. He said his early recognition of this trend was a motivation for him to turn his attention to transcatheter aortic valve replacement, which has now emerged as a new way for interventional cardiologists to ply their trade.

Renal denervation may be the next step along the same path. If the pivotal trial results and further clinical experience confirm the early findings of safety and efficacy, and especially if the very early findings of a beneficial glycemic effect also pan out, it may well fulfill Dr. Sievert’s prediction that “renal denervation will become as important as percutaneous coronary intervention.”

Important not just for patients, but for practitioners too. Busy hands are happy hands.

—Mitchel Zoler (on Twitter @mitchelzoler)

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Should Physicians Prescribe Positivity?

Scott Jordan Harris  is a U.K.-based blogger, editor, book author, movie critic, and sports writer. Remarkable, considering that he spends most of his time in bed. His primary diagnosis is myalgic encephalomyelitis (ME), also known as chronic fatigue syndrome.

In a piece he wrote last week for the BBC’s website, Mr. Harris said that keeping a diary in which he focuses on the positive aspects of his life — at the suggestion of a doctor – keeps him “sane.”

©froglegs/Fotolia.com

“My depression told me my existence was filthy and barren…. After a few months of storing up the previously unrecorded richness of my life, my diary simply disproved that. I knew from re-reading the pages I’d written that I was doing interesting things — and I began to ensure I kept doing them simply to have something to write about. The diary was better than therapy; it pushed me forward through mental pain that had been holding me back.”

He added, “Doctors unaware of the realities of the lives of the chronically ill often suggest we waste what little energy we have noting down exactly how unwell we feel each day, how much we sleep and how little we do, so that they may study the results. These doctors are to be smiled at, and nodded to, and instantly ignored.”

So should physicians advise patients with chronic conditions to keep positive diaries?  I asked two experts.  Dr. Daniel Clauw, a rheumatologist who directs the University of Michigan’s Chronic Pain and Fatigue Research Center, referred me to his associate, Afton Hassett, Psy.D.

“That was a compelling story in the BBC and it actually does reflect my clinical and research experience as a pain psychologist,” Dr. Hassett told me.

Negative and positive affect (emotions) have been well-studied  in health in general and chronic and acute pain states in particular. There are numerous studies suggesting that positive affect plays an important role in pain outcomes. While few formal studies have evaluated the effectiveness of the exact intervention Mr. Harris described, there are studies   supporting the efficacy of similar positive psychology interventions for depression, Dr. Hassett said.

“Enhancing positive affect is likely a good thing for one’s mental and physical health. Sometimes just keeping a gratitude journal like the BBC article writer noted is all it takes. I always tell people to write down three different things each day for which you are grateful. After the first week or so you really start looking for the small wonders in your life: a great cup of coffee, a kind gesture from a complete stranger, the first tiny yellow flowers of spring.”

Courtesy Wikimedia Commons/4028mdk09/Creative Commons License

But Dr. David Spiegel, a psychiatrist who heads the Stanford University Center on Stress and Health, urges caution regarding positive psychology.   “I think the drumbeat for upbeat can be a little overwhelming… I agree with [Mr. Harris] that just focusing on how bad you feel you can dig yourself into a pit, but at the same time you can’t deny your feelings. The worst thing you can do to a depressed person is to tell them to cheer up.”

However, Dr. Spiegel, who works with breast cancer patients, noted that “you can help them by saying let’s give dimension to what’s bothering you, but also put that in perspective, and see other things that are good, that are positive. So it’s not one or the other…Happiness is not the absence of sadness.”

Dr. Spiegel said that advising patients with chronic conditions to keep a diary in general is an “interesting idea,” and that there is a literature base  for the medical benefits of journaling.

He advised that physicians suggest to their patients, “See if it helps you to have a daily journal of your journey through this illness, what your problems were and what your little victories were, and what you did that helped you deal with it and get beyond it.”

—Miriam E. Tucker (@MiriamETucker on Twitter)

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Bundled Dialysis Payments May Leave Some Shortchanged

It’s difficult not to equate the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services’ bundled payment system for outpatient hemodialysis with, say, handing a 12-year-old boy a $10 bill to buy lunch and telling him to keep the change.

That the 12 year old might decide to forego the healthful $9.95 veggie wrap with a side of fruit in favor of the $1 Snickers bar so he can pocket the $9 profit is well within the realm of possibility. In the same vein, should we really be surprised to learn that hemodialysis facilities might not be optimizing patient care when they are being paid a flat fee vs. separate payments for each service —  if not to make a buck, to avoid losing one? A study reported during Kidney Week 2011, the annual meeting of the American Society of Nephrology, hints at just such a scenario.

Image courtesy of Image Courtesy Wikimedia Commons/Elembis/Creative Commons

Using data from the nationally representative Dialysis Outcomes and Practice Patterns Study (DOPPS) practice monitor, investigators with the Ann Arbor Research Collaborative for Health in Michigan determined that uncontrolled secondary hyperparathyroidism has been on the rise among black hemodialysis patients since the implementation in January 2011 of the CMS’s prospective payment system for dialysis services. The system bundles payments for dialysis treatments, supplies, drugs, and lab tests. It rewards facilities for meeting or exceeding quality measures in the Medicare fee-for-service system.

Although the revised payment system is intended to “improve patient outcomes and promote efficient delivery of health care services,” in the words of CMS administrator Donald Berwick, the Ann Arbor investigators hypothesized that the increased financial constraints may lead to less use of intravenous vitamin D analogs, and thus poorer control of secondary hyperparathyroidism (SHPT). Black patients would be left especially vulnerable because they require higher vitamin D doses on average than other patients, according to lead investigator Dr. Francesca Tentori.

To test the hypothesis, the investigators examined trends in parathyroid hormone (PTH) values and SHPT in dialysis patients from July 2010-February 2011 and observed a notable increase in PTH levels overall and in severe, uncontrolled SHPT (defined as a PTH level greater than 600 pg/ml) among black patients.

Specifically, the median PTH value rose among blacks from 296 to 379 pg/ml and from 244 to 283 among non-blacks, and the prevalence of SHPT rose significantly from 16-25% among blacks and slightly, from 9-11% among nonblacks,  Dr. Tentori reported.

Based on preliminary analysis, “these changes don’t appear to be related to decreased overall use of [SHPT] treatments, as the percentage of prescribed intravenous vitamin D rose slightly in both groups, or to changes in serum calcium or phosphorous,” Dr. Tentori said. The findings warrant further evaluation to tease out the cause of the trend, particularly because untreated SHPT has been linked to increased mortality risk in dialysis patients, she stressed.

Dr. Tentori disclosed financial relationships with Amgen, Genzyme, KHK, Abbott, and Baxter.

—Diana Mahoney

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Medical Errors Hurt Doctors, Too

Doctors and nurses make mistakes, some of which hurt patients. To err is human. In fact, that’s the name of a 2000 Institute of Medicine report aiming to decrease errors in health care.

Calcium chloride photo by Markus Brunner (Wikimedia Commons)

The Institute for Safe Medication Practices (ISMP), a non-profit that focuses the bulk of its work on improving patient safety, also recognizes that a patient injured by a medication error isn’t the only one hurting after the mistake. A recent newsletter and press release draw attention to the so-called “second victims” of medication errors — the healthcare workers who are involved in the error.

Healthcare workers may react with feelings of sadness, fear, anger, and shame, and be haunted by the incident. They may lose confidence, become depressed, and even develop PTSD-like symptoms.

A case in point: Kimberly Hiatt, a pediatric critical care nurse with 27 years of experience, made a mathematical error that resulted in an overdose of calcium chloride in a fragile infant. The baby died. Hiatt’s life went into a tailspin. She felt consumed by guilt. She lost her job and, despite obtaining extra training, she was unable to find work. Seven months later, she committed suicide in April 2011.

The ISMP says a culture of silence and lack of support surrounds medication errors in healthcare, and it points healthcare workers to resources to change that culture. For example, you can watch a free webinar about the second victims of medical error, produced by the Texas Medical Institute of Technology. A toolkit for building a support program for clinicians and staff is available from the Medically Induced Trauma Support Services.

If you’re a healthcare worker, what’s it like at your institution when medication errors happen? Does anyone ever hear about them? Are there mechanisms in place to learn from mistakes? Is there any structural support for healthcare workers who make a mistake?

Have you ever had to deal with a medication error or other medical error of your own? How did you cope?

Leave a comment and let us know.

—Sherry Boschert (on Twitter @sherryboschert)

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