Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Save Money on Medical Costs - Get Your Old Medical Records

There are many tips to saving money on medical costs like asking your doctor only for generic medications, choosing an insurance plan with a high deductible and lower monthly premiums, going to an urgent care or retail clinic rather than the emergency room, and getting prescriptions mailed rather than go to a pharmacy.

How about getting your old medical records and having them reviewed by a primary care doctor?  It might save you from having an unnecessary test or procedure performed.

Research shows that there is tremendous variability in what doctors do.  Shannon Brownlee's excellent book, Overtreated: Why Too Much Medicine Is Making Us Sicker and Poorer , provides great background on this as well as work done by the Dr. Jack Wennberg and colleagues on the Dartmouth Atlas.  Some have argued that because of the fee for service structure, the more doctors do the more they get paid.   This drives health care costs upwards significantly.  Dr. Atul Gawande noted this phenomenon when comparing two cities in Texas, El Paso and McAllen in the June 2009 New Yorker piece.

Between 2001 and 2005, critically ill Medicare patients received almost fifty per cent more specialist visits in McAllen than in El Paso, and were two-thirds more likely to see ten or more specialists in a six-month period. In 2005 and 2006, patients in McAllen received twenty per cent more abdominal ultrasounds, thirty per cent more bone-density studies, sixty per cent more stress tests with echocardiography, two hundred per cent more nerve-conduction studies to diagnose carpal-tunnel syndrome, and five hundred and fifty per cent more urine-flow studies to diagnose prostate troubles. They received one-fifth to two-thirds more gallbladder operations, knee replacements, breast biopsies, and bladder scopes. They also received two to three times as many pacemakers, implantable defibrillators, cardiac-bypass operations, carotid endarterectomies, and coronary-artery stents. And Medicare paid for five times as many home-nurse visits. The primary cause of McAllen’s extreme costs was, very simply, the across-the-board overuse of medicine.

Doctors apparently seemed to order more tests.  Patients, not surprisingly, agreed.  After all, without adequate medical knowledge or experience, how sure would you be if a doctor recommended a test and you declined?

Would doctors do more because they get paid more or would they simply do the right thing and do tests or procedures when only medically necessary?

I recently had a 55 year old healthy woman join my practice.  She wisely had brought in her medical records and was fairly educated on the care she received.  She told me that her previous doctor had recommended a colonoscopy for this year, five years after her initial colonoscopy at age 50.


For most patients with no family history of colon cancer and a normal colonoscopy, recommendations are to repeat in ten years not five.

Did she have any abdominal pain or change in bowel habits?  No.

Did the doctor say anything about colon polyps or growths?  No.

Did she have the colon biopsied?  No.

Was there a family history of colon cancer?  No.

She was pretty sure she was to have a repeat test five years later.

I reviewed her previous doctor's chart which had her colonoscopy report.

Completely normal colonoscopy.  No polyps.  No growths.  No biopsy.

At the end of the report:  Recommend repeat colonoscopy in 5 years.

I've read news reports over the years where research has noted some gastroenterologists were doing colonoscopies more frequently than recommended by their own professional medical societies either for routine screening or follow-up of colon polyps and growths.  I assumed those stories were outliers and rare.  I would never encounter such an obvious case of overtreatment.

But this patient's report and her memory of what her doctor told her could not be chalked up to a typo or a misunderstanding.  Would doctors do more because they get paid more?  How else to explain this?

After showing my patient the guidelines from the American Cancer Society as well as the American College of Gastroenterology, she was thrilled that she didn't need to undergo the procedure for another five years.  No need to do the prep that Dr. Oz did with the gallon of laxative and the loss of a day getting ready and then recovering from the side effects of IV sedation needed for the colonoscopy.

I saved her time and money and unnecessary treatment.

You should always have a primary care doctor review your old medical record, especially if you move or switch insurance plans.  Another doctor's opinion and insight can be very important to counter this natural feeling of uncertainty.  No one wants to make a bad choice.  Patients aren't medical experts and generally don't want to be.  Doctors who choose primary care do so because they want to care for the whole patient despite the fact it is among the lowest paid specialties and least attractive to medical students.  Medical students are gravitating towards specialty care which are more procedural based and therefore have the opportunity to generate more income.

Unfortunately, this means doctors who can help patients make informed decisions and prevent overtreatment will be in limited supply at a time when we need them the most.

Want more helpful tips? Worry about whether you are getting the best medical care? Does your doctor seemed rushed? Not answering your questions? I have a solution for you!

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Colon Cancer Screening Guidelines - Colonoscopy Better Than Sigmoidoscopy? The Truth and the Myth

Colon cancer screening has a particular personal interest for me.  One of my colleagues in residency training had her father die of colon cancer when she was a teenager.

No one should lose a love one to a disease when caught early is often treatable.  Although for both men and women, colon cancer is the third most common behind lung and prostate cancer in men and behind lung and breast cancer in women, it is the second most lethal.

The problem is that patients are often confused about which test is the right one.  Is it simply a stool test?  Flexible sigmoidoscopy?  Colonoscopy?  Virtual colonoscopy?  Isn't there just a blood test that can be done? (No.)

In real simple terms, this is all you need to know. 

All men and women age 50 and older should be screened for colon cancer.  Even if you feel healthy and well and have no family history, it must be done.  Note that Oprah's doctor, Dr. Oz, arguably a very health conscious individual learned that he had a colon polyp at age 50 after a screening test.  Left undetected, it could have cut his life short.  This wake-up call caused him to abort his original second season premier on weight loss and instead show the country why colon cancer screening matters.  He admitted that if it wasn't for the show and the need to demonstrate the importance of screening to America, he would have delayed having any test done.

The least invasive test is a stool test.  If it is to screen for colon cancer, then the test is done at home and NOT in the doctor's office.  Either the fecal occult blood (FOBT) or the fecal immunochemical test (FIT) are available to screen for unseen microscopic blood that could be a sign of a colon polyp or cancer.  Research shows that when done annually the risk of dying from colon cancer can fall by 15 to 33 percent.  If you don't want any fiber optic cameras in the rectum and lower colon, this is the test for you.  You must do it annually.

The next two tests are similar but often confused - the flexible sigmoidoscopy and the colonoscopy.

The flexible sigmoidoscopy examines the lower third of the colon, known as the sigmoid and the descending colon.  Patients cleanse the lower colon by ingesting a small amount of laxative the day before the procedure.  If a colon growth or polyp is found, it can be biopsied or completely removed during the procedure.  The test is typically done in 15 to 20 minutes.  Patients are awake for the procedure and can go home.  Research shows this test can decrease the number of deaths due to colon cancer.  The risk of the procedure is very small with about 1 in every 5,000 patients having a small tear or perforation.  This flexible sigmoidoscopy test is done every 5 years. 

Like the sigmoidoscopy, the colonoscopy also requires cleansing of colon, however, a gallon of laxative is require to empty the entire colon.  Colon growths and polyps can be removed similarly.  Unlike the sigmoidscopy, however, the colonoscopy requires that patients be sedated.  As a result, you will need someone to take you to the appointment and drive you home.  Although the procedure itself takes about 30 minutes, it can be a few hours from arriving to going home due to the anesthesia.  Out of all of the screening tests, it is the most risky with an estimated perforation rate and cause of serious bleeding affecting in 1 in 1,000 patients.  A colonoscopy is done every 10 years.

Would checking the entire colon with a colonoscopy be better than evaluating the lower third of the colon with a sigmoidoscopy?  Evidence that colonoscopies save lives from colon cancer is lacking.  This subtle but important point is often not mentioned in media reports.  Even the NY Times perpetuated this belief that colonoscopy is the preferred test in its January 20th, 2011 article, "Why People Aren't Screened for Colon Cancer."  When family medicine doctor and lecturer in health care policy at Harvard medical school, Dr. John Abramson, wrote a letter to the NY Times editor in February 15th, 2011, noting the this fact in an unrelated article, the American College of Gastroenterology (ACG) wrote a letter indicating that a colonoscopy is their preferred test for screening.

No wonder patients are confused.

If one dissects the ACG letter carefully, we note the following language (words bolded for emphasis):

American College of Gastroenterology’s 2009 colorectal cancer screening guidelines recommend colonoscopy as the preferred cancer prevention strategy, and guidelines by the American Society for Gastrointestinal Endoscopy in 2006 also endorse colonoscopy because of its ability to view the entire colon and remove potentially precancerous polyps, reflecting a strong opinion of these experts that prevention should be the primary goal of colorectal cancer screening.

While public health experts have recently debated the exact parameters to measure the impact of these screening strategies on mortality, a clinical picture that is muddied by the many variables affecting the quality of the examination, the jury is still out. Indeed colonoscopy’s protective power may lie in a growing appreciation that the biology of precancerous polyps and cancer is different in the right compared to the left colon.

In other words, the recommendation is based on opinion.  There is no language indicating that there is evidence.  The "protective power may lie" in such and such, but hasn't been confirmed.  Examples of when doctors made opinions when evidence was lacking only to change their minds later include hormone replacement after menopause, bone marrow transplant for breast cancer treatment, and prostate cancer screening with PSA.

A study that appeared in the Annals of Internal Medicine in the January 6th, 2009 issue, researchers found that colonoscopies did cut down colon cancer deaths, but it was due to detection of the left sided colon cancers (sigmoid and descending colon) and not to the right side, of which only the colonoscopy can reach.  In other words, a flexible sigmoidoscopy would have detected the cancers as well, which has been observed in previous studies. 
Researchers reviewed health records for persons aged 52 to 90 who received a colorectal cancer diagnosis between 1996 and 2001 and died of colorectal cancer by 2003. These patients were compared to a control group who were selected from the population of Ontario and had not died of colorectal cancer.
According to the researchers, complete colonoscopy was strongly associated with fewer deaths from left-sided colorectal cancer. Conversely, the data showed that colonoscopy seemed to have almost no mortality prevention benefit for right-sided colorectal cancer.
So who do you listen to?  I typically review the guidelines from the American Cancer Society (ACS).  As a group advocating cancer screening and awareness, they should have no bias about what test to use to screen for colon cancer.  For individuals at average risk for colon cancer, ACS notes that to find colon polyps or cancer, either a sigmoidoscopy every 5 years or colonoscopy every 10 years.  Their recommendations don't say the preferred option is a colonoscopy.  The Centers for Disease Control the US Preventive Services Task Force, and the National Cancer Institute also say little about which is preferred. 

What does this mean to you?  For those at average risk and no family history of colon cancer, get screened for colon cancer at age 50.  At the bare minimum, do an annual stool test if you don't want an invasive procedure.  Know that at this time there is no evidence that colonoscopy is better than a flexible sigmoidscopy.

If people tell you otherwise ask them to show you the evidence.
And let me know.


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