Readers who believe that DrRich is primarily a clown, an obfuscator, a confabulator, an out-of-touch Old Fart, or just your run-of-the-mill, close-minded, middle-American, gun-toting Bible-thumper (see? DrRich DOES read all his email), might be surprised (if not dismayed) to learn that, this week, he has received an Incredible Honor.
According to ShareCareNow, a relatively new enterprise created by former WebMD Founder Jeff Arnold and Dr. Mehmet Oz, DrRich is one of the Top 10 Most Influential Online Voices In Heart Disease.
Of course, this designation has nothing to do with DrRich’s stellar work here at the Covert Rationing Blog. It is based entirely on his efforts at the Heart Health Center at About.com, which DrRich has run now for going on 12 years. His About.com site is dedicated to helping people who have heart disease, or who have loved ones with heart disease, or who are at risk of developing cardiovascular disease. He attempts to explain the basics – and even the complexities, whenever they are pertinent – of all types of heart and vascular conditions, and to clarify for his readers the continuous stream of hype and misinformation perpetrated by a largely ignorant press and the medical experts who (sometimes unconsciously) manipulate it. (In fact, he has tried more than once to change the name of his heart disease site to “Secret Cardiology,” but the people who run About.com – i.e., the nice folks at the New York Times – are against it.)
As DrRich understands it, his designation as the fourth most influential online voice on heart disease is based on a proprietary ShareCareNow algorithm incorporating some 40 objective measures. The only thing he knows for sure is that the opinions of those readers mentioned in the first paragraph of this post were obviously not incorporated into the algorithm. Which proves that not all the big on-line organizations have ready access to all our email, after all.
How comforting is that?
It is a good thing that DrRich is not the only cardiac electrophysiologist writing in the medical blogosphere. If he were, the public would no doubt believe that all electrophysiologists are arrogant, self-important, sarcastic blowhards who insist on expressing themselves in the third person. Fortunately, that DrRich is uniquely afflicted in this manner, and that at least two out of three electrologist appear to be not only brilliant but also reasonably normal people, is nicely demonstrated by the offerings of Dr. Wes and Dr. John M on their respective blogs.
Both of these relatively socially acceptable electrophysiologist bloggers have seen fit to comment on the Million Hearts Initiative, recently introduced with great fanfare in the pages of the New England Journal of Medicine by Drs. Thomas R. Frieden, M.D., M.P.H., and Donald M. Berwick, M.D., M.P.P., on behalf of the United States Department of Health and Human Services. The Million Hearts Initiative aims to prevent a million heart attacks and strokes over the next five years.
The critiques of both Dr. Wes and Dr. John M regarding the Million Hearts Initiative are insightful and well-written, and both offer cogent analyses of the shortcomings of this program. DrRich strongly recommends both for your perusal.
Dr. John M is largely sympathetic with the aims of the Million Hearts Initiative, but finds that at least some of the methods proposed by DHHS to prevent all those heart attacks and strokes are unlikely to do much good. And more importantly, Dr. John notes, the MHI manifesto entirely ignores one of the most important (possibly THE most important) measures to reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease, namely, exercise. Dr. John M is an avid cyclist, and has personal experience with the benefits of exercise. How, he asks incredulously, can you design a major program to prevent cardiovascular events and leave out exercise?
DrRich (who, being a runner for going on five decades, has himself invested much blood, sweat and tears to the proposition that exercise is good for you), also finds this ommission to be quite remarkable. But as usual, DrRich has developed a theory to explain it. Both Dr. Frieden and Dr. Berwick, judging from the string of letters trailing behind their names, are public health experts. Public health experts are known for taking snippets of data from typically flawed clinical trials and, stringing together a chain of mathematical assumptions and conjectures longer than their post-nominal decorations, calculating how many people will be saved (or killed) if this or that public policy is initiated (or withheld). Obviously, for the Million Hearts Initiative, Frieden and Berwick needed to assemble a package of policy interventions whose calculations, when properly jiggered, show that there will be precisely one million beneficiaries. By including exercise in their program (and in their calculations), they would clearly have boosted the results to some awkward and difficult-to-promote value. The “One-Point-Eight Million Hearts Initiative” would just not have had the proper flair.
Like the President says, John, it’s just math.
Dr. Wes is somewhat less charitable toward these eminent public health experts than is Dr. John. John, while criticizing their methods, attributes high motives to them. Wes, on the other hand, is quite cynical about their motives. (In fact, if it were not for his total lack of blustery, third-person-y verbosity, Dr. Wes’ post might well have been written by DrRich.)
Wes suggests that the Million Hearts Initiative is the Feds’ way of distracting the public from noticing that they are doing everything they possibly can to restrict patients’ access to cardiologists, and to restrict spending on cardiovascular medicine.
It is, in fact, striking (at least to cardiologists like DrRich, Dr. Wes, and Dr. John) that this major policy initiative to save a million hearts has no place in it for cardiologists. Cardiologists are never mentioned in the manifesto itself, except obliquely to indicate that their services will not be required. Cardiologists, of course, take care of patients who have already developed significant heart disease. So what the public health experts are telling us is that they are only interested in stopping heart attacks and strokes in people who are apparently disease-free. There’s nothing wrong with that, of course. Preventive medicine is extremely important in cardiovascular disease.
But still. It is at least arguable that the quickest way to prevent a million heart attacks and strokes would be to target those patients who have the highest risk for these events, namely, people with known cardiovascular disease. Cardiologists dedicate their lives to preventing catastrophic events in these high-risk patients – and a tremendous amount of clinical evidence suggests they’re pretty good at it. While the only thing we ever hear these days about stents and implantable defibrillators is that cardiologists over-use them (and so the DOJ is launching criminal investigations to intimidate doctors into using them less frequently), when these kinds of technologies are used appropriately – as they most often are – they are proven to save lives.
But this is most decidedly not what the government’s public health experts are trying to prove. They want nothing to do with actual doctors practicing medicine in the trenches, fighting to save patients with active disease. Rather, they are out to show that the healthcare system can do just fine without all those fancy specialists and all their expensive procedures. They are aiming to advance the Progressives’ long-term agenda of showing that all the really important stuff in healthcare can be accomplished with much cheaper public health initiatives.
As DrRich has pointed out, it is our duty as citizens to maintain our wellness, and the the Million Hearts Initiative is simply the latest initiative by which the Central Authority will help us fulfill that duty. Those who by their own shortcomings develop heart disease or stroke, despite all the wonderful preventive help they receive through programs such as this, have manifestly failed to fulfill their duty to society and will just have to get by the best way they can. And doctors such as cardiologists, who made the mistake of choosing careers dedicated to caring for such slackers, should not expect to be taken seriously, or overly respected, by the public health experts who are doing the really important work, or by any policy makers for that matter.
None of us cardiologists, nor our patients, should be surprised at being excluded from the Million Hearts Initiative. And won’t we feel bad when the results are in, and it turns out that millions of hearts can indeed be saved without any participation by the heart specialists?
So: Can the public health experts really save a million hearts with the specific steps they say they will take? Examining the strategy which Drs. Frieden and Berwick have laid out in their document, it certainly does not appear so. But, as it turns out, that result will be amenable to “tailoring,” and so the actual values they obtain in their results will be of little consequence.
The Million Hearts Initiative proposes to save a million hearts by doing the following:
A) Make “providers” report more regularly on how well they make little chits on checklists. (These are pretty much the same checklists the providers are already using; it’s the improved reporting standards that will save lives.)
B) Use electronic medical records to track and improve the behavior of providers and patients. (It is not clear exactly how this is supposed to work, though it is easy to imagine many rather spooky initiatives that might be taken, given the creation of a centralized database tracking, among many other intimate details, everybody’s long-term behavioral habits.)
C) Assemble groups of providers into “care teams,” which will somehow employ tag-team counseling efforts to get patients to improve their lifestyles. (Revealingly, it is this gang-nagging, and not novel life-saving technologies, which the public health experts refer to in their document as “clinical innovation.”)
D) Reduce smoking and second-hand smoke. (Fine, but this is merely one of the behavioral changes about which oppressed patients will be mercilessly “counseled” – see Item C.)
E) Get trans-fats out of the food supply. (DrRich has no objection here either, except to note that it was the same public health experts who, 40 years ago, demanded that trans fats be introduced into the food supply in order to crowd out saturated fats. This is one example of why, when you’re a Progressive, history has always begun just 10 minutes ago.)
And F) Institute a population-wide salt restriction. (This amounts to yet another huge experiment to be perpetrated on the population at large. With luck, after 10 or 20 years this experiment may finally reveal who’s right – the experts who say that a general, population-wide sodium restriction will reduce net mortality, or the experts who say such a sodium restriction will increase mortality. Right now there’s plenty of data to argue for either outcome.)
Will doing these things really save a million hearts? Not in real life. All these things, taken together, don’t amount to very much in terms of actually accomplishing anything useful. But in the final analysis, the public health experts will have a decided advantage. It is plain that, while proving that hearts are actually “saved” by such measures will in fact be impossible, it will be equally impossible to disprove it. This situation is entirely analogous to the one in which the Administration insisted that President Obama’s stimulus package “saved” eight million jobs – since there is no way to prove or disprove that any jobs (or hearts) would have been lost had you done the other thing, any old claim is just as good as the next. In such situations, the faction which gets to analyze the final data (in this case, those selfsame public health experts) can manipulate the statistical evidence any way they must to “prove” what they aim to prove.
Heck, they probably have their final report written up already.
Readers are advised to forget about saving a million hearts. Instead, save only one. Don’t smoke. Get plenty of exercise. And don’t eat so damned much. And should you develop heart disease despite your best efforts (which happens all too frequently despite what you’ve been told), pray that you can still find a cardiologist who has not been intimidated into withholding those expensive, modern medical therapies that really have been proven to save hearts, and lives.
Note: DrRich has issued this warning more than once before. It has always gone unheeded. He will now try one more time, with this updated and hopefully more compelling version, not because he actually believes it will do any more good than similar warnings did those other times, but because he is a humanitarian and time is growing short. American physicians will continue to ignore this warning at their own peril.
The history of Western civilization, from prehistoric times until relatively recently (so recently, in fact, that one cannot be absolutely certain the pattern has been broken), has been marked by successive waves of invasions by wild barbarians from the north. (This explains why DrRich will never completely trust the Canadians.)
Every few hundred years, one group of primitives or another – Scythians, Goths, Vandals, Huns, Avars, Norsemen, Bulgars, Mongols, and others named and unnamed – would sweep down upon their betters, upon the more civilized, more culturally and intellectually advanced people to the south, and by the expediencies of slaughter, rape and pillage, would take their land, possessions, freedom, and their lives. The advancing barbarian wave would eventually play itself out, and individual members of the untamed horde would simply settle in place, and over a few generations would become civilized themselves – until the next group of barbarians, in turn, would fall upon them.
It was a cycle as natural as the seasons.
What drove these irresistible barbarian movements? Historians still argue about it. Likely these violent migrations were caused by several different things – famine, plague, encroachment by even nastier barbarians from even farther north, and climate change (though this latter conjecture is now politically incorrect, since the official and proper view of the earth’s climate is that it was absolutely stable for millions of years, until Henry Ford and George Bush came along and bent the temperature curve upwards, like a hockey stick).
The reason DrRich brings all this up, of course, is: to warn his medical colleagues about the cardiologists.
Dear reader, the cardiologists are on the move. Their home turf is being encroached upon, their livelihoods gravely threatened, by the biggest, most ruthless, and most irresistible force on earth – the Feds. And in response they are gathering themselves into a great wave, and they are preparing to overrun the territories of less robust, less terrifying, more civilized (possibly more effete) medical specialists, and make themselves a new home.
Some medical specialists aside from the cardiologists are of course also predatory by nature, but for the most part their territorial incursions are predictable, localized and contained – the orthopedic surgeons and the neurosurgeons, for instance, will fight over lumbar disc surgery. Not so for the cardiologists.
DrRich is a cardiologist, and he knows that the Board Certification papers wielded by cardiologists do not read: “Certified in the practice of cardiac medicine,” but rather, “Certified in the practice of cardiovascular medicine.” Cardiologists, in other words, are officially certified not merely in the practice of heart disease, but also in the practice of any and all disorders affecting the blood vessels.
And DrRich urges his unsuspecting medical colleagues to please notice that blood vessels are prominent features of every organ system in the body. Cardiologists therefore recognize no natural limits to their rightful turf; if it is supplied by the vascular system, it is theirs. And if some other kind of specialist has traditionally claimed sovereignty over some particular organ – say, the liver – their continued success lies entirely in the fact that the cardiologists have not yet chosen to assert their rightful authority. (As it happens, hepatologists are relatively safe, as most cardiologists think of the liver as a particularly uninteresting organ, which, after all, just sits there doing nothing. Many cardiologists, in fact, persist in getting the liver and the kidneys mixed up.) Still, should it ever become convenient for cardiologists to invade the hepatologists’ space, these relatively intellectual, relatively sedentary specialists don’t stand a chance.
What all this means is that when the cardiologists are on the move, nobody is safe. And they are on the move.
Hide the women and children!
The cardiology settlements have been restless for years, continually expanding and growing, and spilling out across their borders to encroach on the turf of their nearby neighbors. They long ago began driving the formerly proud and powerful cardiothoracic surgeons into a sad state of underemployment. More recently they have usurped the formerly sovereign territory of diabetes specialists. They are currently laying siege to sleep medicine (pulmonary specialists) and bariatrics (weight loss specialists). All of these incursions can be related, within one or two degrees of freedom, to heart disease. So these are localized disputes.
But in the last year or so, cardiologists have moved from a state of mere restlessness to a state of high alarm. The ruthless Feds (a mysterious tribe arising from a dark, inexplicable cauldron of a place where even the laws of physics, economics, and human nature do not apply) have taken to attacking the cardiologists where they live – in their home turf of stents and implantable defibrillators. By conducting secret and extensive DOJ investigations as to whether cardiologists are plying their trade according to “guidelines” (a form of tribute acknowledging their state of thrall to the Central Authority), and by threatening to jail them or fine them into professional oblivion (to the point where even the ubiquitous threat of malpractice suits has become a relatively trivial concern), the Feds have forced cardiologists to recognize that it is time for them to move on. It is time to seek out new territory.
There is no telling where they will show up next. If any of you non-cardiologists think you are safe, think again.
To illustrate just how unpredictable the Great Cardiology Migration is likely to become, DrRich will review a few of their recent incursions into the territory of some of the least likely of the medical specialists – the neurologists and the neurosurgeons.
The cardiologists’ encroachment into the field of neurological medicine is not only surprising in itself (for who would have thought that such shoot-from-the-hip, action-addicted specialists would find anything interesting about the brain?), but especially surprising is its scope and its persistence. Cardiologists actually began this process several years ago, under the radar, when they took to blaming imbalances of the autonomic nervous system (i.e., dysautonomia) on mitral valve prolapse. In more recent years, and somewhat more openly, they have attempted to take ownership of migraine headaches.
And now, in recent months, cardiologists have laid claim to the brass ring of the neurological diseases – Alzheimer’s Disease. If they can wrest this common and expensive disorder away from the neurologists, a disorder which people will pay almost any amount of money to prevent or treat, they can set themselves up for generations.
The typical pattern of behavior employed by the cardiology invaders is easy enough to spot. First, they call attention to an alleged association between some cardiac condition (a condition they will manufacture if necessary), and a neurological disorder. Then, immediately, they will assert that (or at least begin behaving as if) the association proves a cause-and-effect relationship. Finally, since they have demonstrated that the neuro problem is produced by a cardiac condition, it will become necessary to refer patients who have (or might develop) that dreaded neuro problem to cardiologists, who, lo and behold, will have invented a well-paying procedure which they claim will treat it.
The best known example is mitral valve prolapse (MVP), a congenital condition in which the mitral valve partially flops open when it should be closed, thus allowing blood to flow backwards (i.e., to regurgitate) across the mitral valve as the heart contracts. (For anyone interested, here’s a brief description of the heart’s chambers and valves.) Now, significant MVP can be a serious medical problem which requires mitral valve surgery. Fortunately, however, this kind of serious MVP is relatively uncommon.
But happily for cardiologists, echocardiography (a non-invasive test using sound waves to create an image of the beating heart) has become so advanced that some degree of trivial MVP, it seems, can be found in almost anybody. According to some studies, as many as 25 – 35% of healthy individuals – people without any cardiac problems or any symptoms whatsoever – can be said to have some degree of MVP. In fact, whether you have MVP or not depends largely on what criteria the echocardiographer uses to make the call, and how badly the referring doctor wants you to have the diagnosis.
Over the years it has become customary to diagnose MVP in young, apparently normal people who have the temerity to complain about the highly disruptive symptoms of dysautonomia (such as fatigue, weakness, strange pains, dizziness, constipation, diarrhea, cramps or passing out), without supplying the kinds of objective physical or laboratory findings which, doctors insist, patients are always obligated to provide. Such thoughtless patients are now routinely sent for echocardiography, so that MVP can be diagnosed (since it can be diagnosed just about whenever it is looked for). The patient is then given the diagnosis of “mitral prolapse syndrome,” even though: a) the MVP is usually so trivial as to be nonexistent; b) the studies which claim to show an association between MVP and these sorts of symptoms are generally based on a gross over-diagnosis of MVP; and c) there is no credible theory based on actual physiology to explain how MVP – even real MVP, much less the trivial kind – might cause such symptoms.
But no matter. “Rule out MVP” has become one of the most common reasons for young, healthy people to be referred for echocardiography, and has become a stable source of income for cardiologists.
The story is similar for the association between patent foramen ovale (PFO) and migraine headaches.
In the developing fetus, the foramen ovale is a hole that is present in the atrial septum (the thin structure that separates the right atrium from the left atrium). At birth, a flap of tissue imposes itself over the foramen ovale, causing it to close. In some people, however – people with PFO – the tissue flap is still capable of flopping open. In people with PFO, the foramen ovale can open for a few moments if the pressure in the right atrium becomes transiently greater than the pressure in the left atrium, such as with coughing, or straining during a bowel movement.
In rare instances, strokes in healthy young patients have been attributed to PFO. The supporting theory is that a stroke can occur when a blood clot happens to be coursing through the right atrium at the precise moment when a person with PFO is coughing (for instance), allowing the clot to move into the left atrium, and on to the brain. And because this theory is at least plausible, in a young person who has an unexplained stroke and is then found to have a PFO, it makes at least some sense to close the PFO.
But the presence or absence of a PFO is a little like the presence or absence of MVP. Its diagnosis depends to some extent on how hard the echocardiographer looks for it, and on how much the referring doctor would appreciate the diagnosis. With modern echocardiographic equipment, at least some sign of PFO can be found in as many as 25% of normal individuals.
Being able to make this nifty diagnosis would be of little use to cardiologists if the only clinical problem it may cause is a one-in-a-million chance of stroke. One cannot make a living, or even make a decent car payment, doing echocardiograms in those extremely rare young patients with cryptic strokes. So it didn’t take long for cardiologists to draw a more useful association – this time, between PFOs and migraine headaches.
While all the things that have to happen in order for a PFO to cause a stroke are very unlikely, at least one can assemble a string of very unlikely events that, should they all occur simultaneously, might possibly produce a stroke. This is not the case with migraine. No plausible theory has been advanced to explain how PFO might cause migraines. The only reason PFO is being invoked as a cause for migraine is that when patients with migraine have been carefully studied for the presence of PFO, an increased incidence of PFO was found. (But again, when PFO is carefully sought in any population of patients, it is more likely to be found.) The only likely reason PFO has not been associated with cancer, red hair, type A personality, or difficulty in memorizing the multiplication tables is that cardiologists have not thought of looking for it (yet) in these conditions.
For cardiologists, the poorly-supported allegation that PFO causes migraine is particularly compelling, since not only can they get paid for the echocardiograms to look for PFOs in migraine sufferers, but also there is an invasive (and lucrative) procedure they can do to close PFOs, to “treat” the migraines. Studies to date have not been successful in showing that closing PFOs improves migraine headaches, but that hasn’t kept cardiologists from screening migraine patients for PFO, then offering them PFO closure as a therapeutic option.
Migraine sufferers are particularly vulnerable to this and many other unproven therapies, since they are often disabled by their condition, and in many cases medical science (or medical ignorance) offers them insufficient help. Consequently, anecdotal stories abound regarding unorthodox therapies that cure migraines. (DrRich, himself a migraine sufferer for many decades, has heard them all.) One undeniable truth is that merely performing PFO closures on enough migraine suffers is guaranteed to produce a patient here or there who will report a positive response. And despite the continued negativity of actual clinical trials so far, that’s what happened.
So, by anecdote – but not by controlled trial – closing PFOs can cure migraines.
But now it gets even worse for the neurologists. Any who ignored the cardiologist’s usurpation of dysautonomia, and who may have felt only a little more concern when cardiologists began to lay claim to migraine headaches, had best sit up and take notice. Because now, cardiologists are laying claim to Alzheimer’s Disease.
Recently, researchers presented a study suggesting that ablation procedures for atrial fibrillation are associated with a lower risk of subsequent Alzheimer’s disease. (Here’s some information on atrial fibrillation and its treatment if you are interested.) The study was presented as an abstract only, so we know relatively little about the specifics.
But, really. Atrial fibrillation and Alzheimer’s are both disorders associated with aging, so it is not surprising that they are associated with each other – in the same way that atrial fibrillation is associated with gray hair, cataracts, and bunions. Ablation for atrial fibrillation is a relatively lengthy and difficult procedure, whose results are relatively middling, and which carries a substantial risk of some really nasty complications. So these ablation procedures are generally reserved for carefully selected, reasonably ideal candidates – usually, the relatively young, relatively healthy atrial fibrillation patients, who are less likely to get Alzheimer’s disease over the next few years whether they have ablations or not.
So there is a lot to be cautious about in interpreting a preliminary study like this one.
But such objections are just quibbles. When this study was reported, the headlines in the typically discerning American press blared: “Ablation Procedures For Atrial Fibrillation Prevents Alzheimer’s.” Whatever the details and limitations of this study, cardiologists can now treat Alzheimer’s. Mission accomplished.
Then, just last week, the American Heart Association and the American Stroke Association released a formal scientific statement to the effect that vascular disorders are an important cause of Alzheimer’s disease. So this new statement clearly plants the flag for the AHA’s chief constituency – the cardiologists (who, DrRich reminds his readers, own vascular disorders).
Remarkably, the American Academy of Neurology, apparently failing utterly to grasp its significance, endorsed the statement. As a result, American neurologists have formally taken the knee before their new masters.
You see how this works?
Now, having for the last time, with an unerring sense of fair play, called this problem to the attention of his non-cardiologist medical colleagues, DrRich would like to finish by emphasizing an overarching point.
You can’t fight the Feds. When the Central Authority, at the point of a gun, decides to reach down into the world of the medical specialists, and dictate which medical services are no longer going to be feasible (all for the noblest of purposes, of course), the affected medical specialists have a limited range of possible responses. And fighting the Feds is NOT among these available responses. It would be more effective – and certainly safer – for doctors to fight against the change of the seasons.
So the affected specialists have only two options. They can contract their horizons, take what’s left, and try to make the best of it. Or, they can do what the Visigoths did when the people of the steppes fell upon them. Strike out against other, weaker tribes and take what’s theirs.
DrRich is not passing any judgment on his cardiology brethren here. (Would you have him judge a she-bear protecting her cubs?) He is just describing what’s happening. You who lie in their path can do with the information as you see fit.
In the meantime, DrRich remains supremely confident that his cardiology colleagues can find a nearly unlimited supply of plunder in this brave new world. They are very robust barbarians.
In an article appearing last week in the American Heart Journal, investigators concluded that if American doctors would prescribe for their patients with heart failure each of the six therapies which are most strongly recommended in current heart failure guidelines, 68,000 lives per year could be saved.
The following (for the interest of the reader, and for the convenience of any attorneys who may follow DrRich’s offerings), is an ordered list of these six proven, life-saving heart failure therapies, along with the number of American lives that could be saved each year if only American doctors would stop grossly under-utilizing them in violation of published guidelines:
The authors, of course, are careful to point out that their analysis is based on statistical methods, and thus must be counted as merely estimates of the magnitude of the benefit that would actually occur should American doctors suddenly begin managing their heart failure patients appropriately. (Their presentation of these estimates to five significant figures implies a level of precision far in excess of what can be justified, and therefore must be an oversight not only by the authors, but also by the reviewers and the editors. But still, one gets the idea. A lot of preventable deaths are being left on the table.)
Several studies have reported, over and over again, that fewer than half of American patients with heart failure are receiving all the treatments available to them that have been shown to reduce symptoms and/or prolong life. Indeed, DrRich, on his patient-oriented heart disease website at About.com, has long urged patients with heart failure to familiarize themselves with all the recommended therapies for their condition, so that when they are with their doctors at least somebody in the room will bring it up.
(Such advice, DrRich reminds his readers – all of whom are likely to be patients one day – ought to be considered generalizable for all American patients with all medical conditions, in an era when doctors are being coerced to ration healthcare at the bedside by omitting mention of sundry available medical services.)
But DrRich’s purpose here is not to address those unfortunate heart failure patients whose lives are being jeopardized by their physicians’ acts of omission. but rather, is to strategize with his colleagues who treat heart failure patients as to how they should respond to this embarrassing revelation that by failing to follow published guidelines, they are killing so very many patients.
After all, only a few months ago, when another research study showed that 23% of ICDs were being implanted outside of published guidelines (even though the large majority of those “inappropriate” implants turned out to be actually indicated, but were performed within a 40-day waiting period that the guidelines specified), not only was this violation played up on the evening news and splashed across newspaper headlines, but also the Department of Justice immediately launched an investigation to determine whether it could bring criminal charges against implanting physicians. That is, failing to follow recommended guidelines to the letter is now not merely suboptimal medical practice, but also criminal behavior.
And how much worse than implanting indicated ICDs a few days earlier than the government would prefer, is behavior that causes the unnecessary deaths of 68,000 people a year? It seems to DrRich to be quite a bit worse.
So should American doctors who treat patients with heart failure be feeding their Swiss bank accounts, changing their identities, and stocking their lean-tos in the Montana backcountry?
DrRich brings good tidings – there is no need for you to overreact. The Feds cannot possibly prosecute all deviations from all clinical guidelines. Not only would that be unfeasible, it would also be counterproductive. And deviations from the heart failure guidelines are just the kind of deviations from which the Feds are inclined to look the other way.
We must remember that the primary directive of the American healthcare system, whether it is run by insurance companies or the government, is to ration healthcare covertly. Covert rationing means withholding whatever medical services you can, from whatever patients you can, whenever you think you can get away with it. If one remembers this simple rule, one can accurately predict the response of the health insurance companies or the government to any particular guideline violation.
So: When doctors implant expensive ICDs outside of the guidelines, even when the deviation is to place an indicated ICD a few days earlier than specified, it is a potentially criminal offense. Those ICDs cost a lot of money, and worse, prevent inexpensive sudden deaths, so it is clear that steps need to be taken to prevent their usage. Enforcing the guidelines to the letter therefore is imperative.
On the other hand, when deviations of guidelines result in NOT spending money (say, on drugs, ICDs, and CRT devices), those deviations will be viewed quite differently. And when those same guideline deviations result in the premature deaths of tens of thousands of patients with chronic and expensive medical conditions (and who, had they survived for another five or 10 years, would have consumed lots and lots of extra healthcare dollars and, in most cases, Social Security payments), the last thing you would want to do is to engage in guideline-enforcement activities.
If you doubt DrRich on this point, ask yourself whether you’ve been treated to news stories over the past 10 days on how American doctors are killing 68,000 people each year by failing to follow guidelines. That story, it seems to DrRich, would be much sexier than the one that made a splash in January about ICDs being implanted too early. Yet we’ve heard next to nothing about it. These are not the kinds of guidelines violations we need to put a stop to. These guidelines violations do not fit the narrative.
Also, consider the editorial that accompanied the article in the American Heart Journal last week. It constitutes a strong apologist argument for violating the heart failure guidelines. It points out, rightly, that perhaps there were good reasons that some patients with heart failure do not receive all six of the recommended therapies, and that not all guidelines are applicable to all patients. It also points out that the number 68,000 was estimated by compounding several assumptions together, which would place large error bars around that estimate. So perhaps the guidelines deviations were not as lethal as the authors estimated. But most striking of all, the editorialist argues that it would just be too expensive to follow the guidelines for all patients with heart failure. If ICDs were used in all patients for whom the guidelines say they should be used, for instance, this alone “would divert most of the money anticipated for all heart-failure care next year to these devices.”
The editorial is correct, and it is honest. It, at least, openly acknowledges that doctors are obligated to ration healthcare, based on costs, at the bedside, and that following these guidelines would violate the imperative to ration. Current guidelines on heart failure would cost a lot of money up front, and would result in the prolonged survival of a lot of very expensive Americans. And therefore, doctors will not be held accountable for failing to follow them.
American doctors can continue deviating from the heart failure guidelines, secure in the knowledge that their activity (or inactivity) will not capture unwanted attention from the Feds. These are not the guidelines our leaders are talking about when they assure the population that they are going to make sure that doctors are doing all the things the experts specify they should be doing.
These are those other kinds of guidelines.
If you are an American patient with any kind of medical problem whatsoever, DrRich begs you to become an expert in your medical condition. The patients with heart failure who are doing so, and who are prepared to challenge their doctors on their treatment, are among the minority who are receiving all the therapies proven to prolong their survival.
In 2007, when the results were published from the COURAGE trial, all the experts agreed that this study would fundamentally change the way cardiologists managed patients with stable coronary artery disease (CAD).*
*”Stable” CAD simply means that a patient with CAD is not suffering from one of the acute coronary syndromes – ACS, an acute heart attack or unstable angina. At any given time, the large majority of patients with CAD are in a stable condition.
But a new study tells us that hasn’t happened. The COURAGE trial has barely budged the way cardiologists treat patients with stable CAD.
Lots of people want to know why. As usual, DrRich is here to help.
The COURAGE trial compared the use of stents vs. drug therapy in patients with stable CAD. Over twenty-two hundred patients were randomized to receive either optimal drug therapy, or optimal drug therapy plus the insertion of stents. Patients were then followed for up to 7 years. Much to the surprise (and consternation) of the world’s cardiologists, there was no significant difference in the incidence of subsequent heart attack or death between the two groups. The addition of stents to optimal drug therapy made no difference in outcomes.
This, decidedly, was a result which was at variance with the Standard Operating Procedure of your average American cardiologist, whose scholarly analysis of the proper treatment of CAD has always distilled down to: “Blockage? Stent!”
But after spending some time trying unsuccessfully to explain away these results, even cardiologists finally had to admit that the COURAGE trial was legitimate, and that it was a game changer. (And to drive the point home, the results of COURAGE have since been reproduced in the BARI-2D trial.) Like it or not, drug therapy ought to be the default treatment for patients with stable CAD, and stents should be used only when drug therapy fails to adequately control symptoms.
When the COURAGE results were initially published they made a huge splash among not only cardiologists, but also the public in general. So cardiologists did not have the luxury of hiding behind (as doctors so often do when a study comes out the “wrong” way) the usual, relative obscurity of most clinical trials. Given the widespread publicity the study generated, it seemed inconceivable that the cardiology community could ignore these results and get away with it.
But a new study, published just last month in JAMA, reveals that ignore COURAGE they have.
In a registry-based survey that covered over 500,000 patients treated in over 1,000 hospitals, the new article reports that there has been little change in the use of drug therapy in patients with stable CAD since the COURAGE study was published. Prior to the publication of COURAGE, only 43.5% of patients who received stents had been tried on optimal drug therapy; two years after publication of COURAGE, that number had “increased” to 44.7%. And while the increase was statistically significant, observers have agreed that it is nonetheless trivial, and that the COURAGE trial apparently has made next to no impact on the practice patterns of cardiologists.
This revelation is proving embarrassing to even the usual spokespersons for the cardiology community, the luminaries who are always trotted out to explain the nuances of their colleagues’ sometimes odd behaviors, and to explain why those behaviors, actually, are not only reasonable but commendable. This time they are at a loss.
The best they can do, according to their commentary on TheHeart.org, is to offer two speculations: a) that, sometimes and for mysterious reasons, it can take several years for the results of important randomized trials to “disseminate” down to practicing physicians, and that apparently even the highly-sophisticated cardiology community is not immune to this phenomenon, and b) the cardiologists are waiting for their professional organizations to issue updated “guidelines” on stable CAD that take the COURAGE results into account. (The last official guidelines were published in 2002.)
Regarding this first explanation, DrRich can assure his readers that the results of the COURAGE trial were not slow to disseminate to American cardiologists. The results (and their implications) were, in fact, known immediately to every one – indeed, the buzz was palpable. It was, perhaps, the biggest news in the cardiology world in several years. If any cardiologists missed this seismic event, they are among that tiny, disconnected minority that is still out making house calls and distributing foxglove leaf, and likely would not know what a stent is, let alone be using them indiscriminately.
Regarding the “guidelines” excuse, DrRich is speechless. Since when are cardiologists guilty of following clinical guidelines to a fault? If doctors, especially cardiologists, are already sticking strictly, in every particular, to sets of guidelines promulgated by committees of distant experts, even when they know those guidelines are out of date and, frankly, wrong, then (if you are an American patient) all is already lost.
DrRich does not buy either of these explanations. So what, then, is the real reason?
Is it greed? This is likely part of the explanation, and is all of the explanation for some cardiologists. (Self-interest plays as large a role in determining the actions of some practicing physicians as it does in determining the actions of those physicians whose reputations and hoped-for futures as “policy experts” requires them to denigrate the motives of practicing physicians every chance they get.) Indeed, DrRich would not be surprised to learn that some cardiologists of a certain age, realizing that the days of wine and roses are rapidly drawing to a close, are scrambling to insert every stent they can – and any other medical accoutrement they can justify deploying – as rapidly as possible, and then get the hell out.
But DrRich is certain that most cardiologists are genuinely trying to do what is best for their patients, and he believes that the failure to respond to the COURAGE trial is too generalized and too widespread to attribute entirely to greed.
Rather, DrRich believes that the results of the COURAGE trial simply fly in the face of your typical cardiologist’s world view. And while they undoubtedly understand those results intellectually, and even accept the results explicitly, they are simply having trouble incorporating those results into their conceptual framework for CAD. And since CAD is their livelihood, their philosophy, their sun, moon and stars, this amounts to an existential crisis.
When Galileo championed the Copernican view of the universe, and backed it up with sound scientific observations, he felt his views would receive approbation from the highest authority. After all, his old friend, the intellectual cleric Barberini (who had supported the publication of his book), was now Pope Urban VIII. But, while as Barberini his old friend could afford to be intellectually pure, as Pope Uban he could not. For Urban to accept Galileo’s work would formally call all Scripture into question, and seriously undermine the integrity and authority of the organization that had provided structure to western civilization for 1000 years. So Galileo had to suffer.
DrRich thinks that cardiologists find themselves in the position of Pope Urban – having the intellect to understand and accept certain surprising scientific results, but unable to put those results into practice without wrecking an entire way of life, and indeed, an entire way of looking at the world. They can either ignore (with, no doubt, some discomfort) the clear results of COURAGE, or abandon the world view that provides their sustenance and gives their lives meaning. That, DrRich thinks, is the real problem.
Regular readers will know that DrRich is not one to articulate a problem, and then simply walk away, leaving everyone to wonder what to do about it. So, as usual, DrRich has a suggestion.
The cure for the cardiologists’ existential problem is to articulate and accept a new world view, one that incorporates the results of COURAGE (and other clinical trial results that may seem puzzling under the old world view), and which places the proper usage of drugs and stents for CAD into a serviceable framework. While adopting this new world view will not be pain-free, it is one to which cardiologists can adapt – just as the Church eventually adapted to the heliocentric view of the cosmos.
And so, as a public service to his cardiology colleagues (and to their patients), DrRich will articulate a new world view on CAD. DrRich has not himself invented this new world view – most academic cardiologists, he believes, already endorse it, at least implicitly. But an explicit statement of the new world view – and an explicit rejection of the old – may help a few of DrRich’s cardiology friends to begin to accept the new “heliocentric” view of CAD, and thus to cure the existential crisis which (he postulates) is holding them back.
The Old World View
The old world view of CAD goes as follows: CAD produces localized plaques in the coronary arteries, which gradually grow out into the artery’s lumen, causing partial blockage of the artery. These “significant” plaques (generally regarded as plaques that are blocking 75 – 80% of the artery’s lumen) can produce angina (because during exertion not enough blood can get through the partial obstruction), and more importantly, can eventually cause ACS. The ACS occurs because the ballooning plaque can eventually rupture, causing a blood clot to form in the vessel, and producing sudden, high-grade occlusion of the artery.
Therefore, the cardiologist’s job is to identify these significant plaques and to stent them. Doing so will relieve “stable” angina, and will prevent ACS.
In the old world view, CAD is a localized process, that can be adequately treated with localized measures. If the location of the offending plaques can be identified (by cardiac catheterization) they can be treated. Heart attacks and death are thereby prevented.
The New World View
Whether or not CAD is producing a few localized “significant” plaques, the atherosclerosis that causes CAD is a generalized, and not a localized, process. That is, there are usually many plaques within the coronary arteries, most of which are not only “insignificant” (less than 75-80% blockages), but may even be nearly invisible during coronary angiography. Furthermore, it now appears that the majority of heart attacks (and other forms of ACS) occur when one of these “insignificant” plaques ruptures.
This is why it is not particularly unusual for somebody who has a “clean” coronary angiography to have a heart attack soon thereafter. And this is why aggressively treating stable but “significant” blockages with stents does not measurably reduce the incidence of heart attack and death.
CAD is a generalized, progressive disease. The treatment of CAD therefore inherently ought to be a medical (and not a localized, quasi-surgical) process. Ideally, one ought to use drugs that stabilize plaques and reduce the risk of rupture (statins, possibly beta blockers), along with drugs that reduce the propensity of blood to clot within the coronary artery, should a rupture occur (aspirin). And research should be aimed at identifying unstable plaques and finding better ways to stabilize them, and not at tweaking stents to render them marginally better than the prior ones.
A stent is fine to use on a significant blockage that is producing stable angina, but what it is accomplishing, one must realize, is merely to treat the symptom of angina – and not to prevent future heart attacks.
* Under the new world view as well as the old, when ACS is actually occurring – when a plaque has ruptured and acute occlusion of an artery is taking place – inserting a stent often appears to be beneficial.
Now that DrRich has entirely relieved the existential crisis all you cardiologists out there have been experiencing (you’re welcome!), all that remains is for somebody to address those few outliers among you who still haven’t heard about the COURAGE trial, or who are doggedly committed to following approved clinical guidelines under all circumstances, come hell or high water, even when they know them to be wrong, or who are just too consumed by greed to do the right thing.
While DrRich would consider it far from his method of choice for changing physicians’ behavior, and is in fact appalled by it, the Department of Justice’s new policy of conducting, Urban-like, inquisitions against physicians who are slow to adopt the Central Authority’s preferred practice patterns, and then criminally prosecuting those who are slow to comply, should work wonders in this regard.
Q: What’s the difference between a public health expert and an ax murderer?
A: Actually, there are two differences. The public health expert usually means well. And the public health expert has only metaphorical blood on his hands.
In a prior post DrRich related how public health experts, displaying every ounce of the overblown self-confidence traditionally enjoyed by the expert class operating within our Progressive institutions, have wreaked all manner of harm upon our society with their premature promotion of Low-Fat Diets, an action which, DrRich argued, is at least partly responsible for triggering our current epidemic of obesity (and therefore, according to some respected experts, global warming).
As if causing the rotundity of the American populace (and again, with less certainty, the impending destruction of our planet) was not enough, it is now beginning to appear as if another major public health initiative, an initiative with which we have all been pummeled mercilessly for over two decades, also may be based upon a faulty premise.
DrRich speaks, of course, of the long crusade which the experts have preached, and which we among the faithful have doggedly waged, against cholesterol. While nobody is talking about it, it is beginning to appear (to DrRich, at least) as if the fundamental hypothesis underlying our long war on cholesterol is far less solid than we have been assured.
DrRich is moved to describe his uneasiness with the cholesterol hypothesis at this time because, last week, yet another nail was driven into its coffin.
The Cholesterol Hypothesis
Our war on cholesterol is based on the cholesterol hypothesis, which states that an elevated cholesterol blood level is a major cause of atherosclerosis, and therefore of heart attacks, strokes and peripheral artery disease. The hypothesis goes on to describe two major species of blood cholesterol – LDL cholesterol, or “bad” cholesterol, which increases cardiovascular risk; and HDL cholesterol, or “good” cholesterol, which reduces cardiovascular risk.
According to the cholesterol hypothesis, the LDL cholesterol molecules deliver excess cholesterol to the lining of the arteries, where it gradually accumulates, leading to the buildup of the plaques that obstruct blood flow. HDL cholesterol represents cholesterol that has been removed from those plaques (so the higher the HDL level, the more cholesterol is being removed)
Therefore, it behooves every American to work assiduously to reduce our LDL cholesterol levels and increase our HDL cholesterol levels.
This, of course, has become more than merely a suggestion or recommendation. Under our new incipient universal healthcare paradigm, in which your suboptimal health habits directly affect the healthcare services which will be available to me, your failure to control your cholesterol and your subsequent utilization of precious healthcare resources amounts to attempted murder, and is therefore a grave crime against humanity.
The cholesterol hypothesis is based upon two observations gleaned from clinical research. First, that high LDL cholesterol levels are significantly associated with the risk of heart attack, &c. (and that high HDL cholesterol levels are associated with reduced risk); and second, that lowering LDL cholesterol levels (or increasing HDL cholesterol levels) with drug therapy lowers that risk.
It was this second observation that “clinched” the cholesterol hypothesis for the public health experts (and most doctors). And this second observation is based virtually entirely on the statin drugs. Until the statin drugs were first developed – drugs that powerfully and reliably reduce cholesterol levels – it had never been convincingly demonstrated that lowering cholesterol levels actually did any good.
And so, according to the cholesterol hypothesis, every American is obligated to work to maintain “healthy” cholesterol levels. In general, we are urged to begin with diet and exercise, and if that does not work (and depending on the level of our cardiovascular risk) we are likely expected to begin on drug therapy.
But DrRich suggests (reluctantly, since by doing so he undoubtedly invites even more personal attacks against his intellect, honesty, personal appearance, parentage, &c.), that the cholesterol hypothesis may not be correct.
Evidence Against the Cholesterol Hypothesis
1) Despite several clinical trials showing that the kinds of lifestyle modifications which are officially recommended for the reduction of cholesterol can in fact reduce LDL cholesterol levels, it has not been shown that such lifestyle-induced cholesterol reductions lead to improved clinical outcomes.
2) Early (pre-statin) cholesterol-lowering trials (using clofibrate, cholestyramine, and gemfibrozil) were unable to demonstrate that an improvement in cardiovascular mortality accompanies a reduction in cholesterol levels, and indeed, each of these studies showed an unexpected increase in non-cardiovascular mortality with the cholesterol-lowering drugs.
3) More recently, studies showed that adding the powerful non-statin cholesterol-lowering drug ezetimibe to a statin drug not only failed to improve outcomes, but also (unexpectedly) may have led to more plaque growth than was seen with the statin alone. (Ezetimibe is marketed as Vytorin in those god-awful commercials comparing your Aunt Helen to a strawberry cheesecake.)
4) Just last week, the NIH prematurely halted a high-profile study (the AIM-HIGH trial) comparing statin to statin + niacin in patients with cardiovascular disease and low HDL levels. (This study was designed to show that increasing HDL levels with niacin would improve outcomes.) The study was stopped 18 months ahead of schedule not only because it was determined to be extremely unlikely that the increase in HDL produced by niacin would improve outcomes, but also because of an unexpected increase in strokes among the patients receiving niacin.
5) Numerous trials using statin drugs have demonstrated that these drugs can reduce cardiovascular events and improve cardiovascular mortality – without an increase in non-cardiovascular mortality – in patients who have known heart disease or who are at increased risk for heart disease. However, the mechanism by which statins provide these benefits may have little or nothing to do with their cholesterol-lowering effects. (Statins have several mechanisms of action under which they can improve cardiovascular outcomes, including stabilizing plaques, improving endothelial function, reducing intravascular blood clotting, and reducing inflammation. Each of these mechanisms can directly and immediately reduce the risk of heart attack and stroke – more directly and immediately, one must concede, than by merely reducing cholesterol levels.) So, for instance, when statins are administered during acute coronary syndromes, their benefits are seen immediately – an effect not explained by the cholesterol hypothesis. Further, the JUPITER trial showed convincingly that statins can improve outcomes even in patients with “normal” cholesterol levels, which is also not explained by the cholesterol hypothesis.
In summary, lowering cholesterol by any method other than statins has not been shown to significantly improve outcomes. And evidence indicates that the chief benefit of statins may be imparted by the drugs’ non-cholesterol-lowering mechanisms.
These observations suggest an alternate hypothesis.
The Bear Shit Hypothesis
If you are walking in the woods and you see bear droppings, your chances of being eaten by a bear are much higher than if there were no bear droppings. But if you take out your (legally registered) firearm and shoot the bear droppings, you have not improved your risk at all.
DrRich maintains that the totality of the data regarding cholesterol, as it exists today, is entirely consistent with the bear droppings hypothesis. That is, elevated cholesterol levels may (and certainly do) indicate a higher risk of cardiovascular disease, but may not themselves be a causative factor.
Indeed, the bear shit hypothesis can explain the facts as we know them much better than the traditional cholesterol hypothesis. The bear droppings hypothesis can explain why treating cholesterol with any of several methods (aside from statins) fails to improve risk. (While cholesterol is associated with atherosclerosis, it may not be a critical cause of atherosclerosis.) Since discharging one’s firearm at bear droppings might awaken a sleeping bear, the bear droppings theory is also consistent with the fact that reducing cholesterol with virtually any drug save one of the statins may actually worsen outcomes (by creating sundry “unexpected” medical problems of one variety or another).
That is, unless you are using statins (which have several important therapeutic effects unrelated to reducing cholesterol, and which in high risk patients far outweigh – statistically speaking – any side effects these drugs have), treating cholesterol levels with drugs may turn out to be a bad idea.
The Bear Shit Hypothesis, being merely an hypothesis, may not be correct, either. But it seems to fit the existing clinical evidence at least as well as – and DrRich suggests, better than – the cholesterol hypothesis. And at least DrRich admits his hypothesis may not hold up at the end of the day, and does not insist that all his fellow citizens drop what they are doing and rearrange their entire lives to comport with its implications.
Where Does This Leave Public Health Experts?
For over 20 years, the cholesterol hypothesis has been presented to the public, with all the evangelical fervor employed by the global warming experts, as settled science. There is clearly some muttering going on these days amongst the experts – in their private conclaves – about certain “anomalies” that have appeared in the clinical database over the past decade or so, anomalies which have muddied the nice, clear cholesterol hypothesis they have so forcefully promulgated for so many years. They are desperately trying to explain away these anomalies by subdividing LDL and HDL cholesterol into more and more complex “subspecies” that have “counter-intuitive” behaviors. (This latter effort has the benefit of being so mind-numbingly complex that nobody can follow it – which means that it is difficult to assert with any authority that it’s all folderal.)
In the meantime, because statins are effective at reducing cardiovascular mortality and morbidity, and because statins also (quite possibly as an unrelated side-effect) reduce cholesterol levels, the experts can continue to trumpet their cholesterol hypothesis to an unsuspecting public, with the caveat that statins ought to be the drug therapy which one should try first. They have not yet reached the point where they are willing to say that if statins are not tolerated, one should probably not attempt to reduce cholesterol levels with any of the non-statin drugs (i.e., with drugs that merely reduce cholesterol).
And so, for the second time we see that a massive public health campaign that has been whipped up by the expert class is likely to turn out to be a wrong-headed “experiment,” one which so far has been conducted on the entire population for more than two decades. This time (and in distinction to the low-fat diet “experiment”) it appears that little widespread harm has been done. But this result is fortuitous, and is most likely related to the fact that statin drugs turn out to help prevent the rupture of atherosclerotic plaques by means apparently unrelated to their cholesterol-lowering abilities.
What will the experts do if the cholesterol hypothesis finally is proved to be mistaken? It is easy to predict. They will stick tenaciously to their cholesterol hypothesis until the last possible minute, then if and when they at last find it to be utterly unsupportable, they will simply move on to the next hypothesis as if the old one never existed.
For one thing we know with certainty about the expert class is that they are never chastened. Their low-fat diet dogma simply and smoothly elides into a Mediterranean diet mantra (a diet, as it happens, with plenty of fats). Their demands that “safe” trans fats be substituted for saturated fats in processed foods simply transforms, 10 years later, into indignant demands that the trans fats be removed when it is discovered they are worse than saturated fats. The phrase “global warming” is simply dropped in favor of “climate change” when it is discovered that the planet actually has been cooling since the 1990s. In no case is there an acknowledgement that their prior expert pronouncements have been both arbitrary and wrong, and much less is there ever an apology. Being experts, and thus by definition correct, they never, ever have anything to apologize for. They simply abandon the old dogma as needed, and seamlessly adopt the new one.
For when you’re an expert within our multiplicity of institutions for public improvement, history will always have begun 10 minutes ago.
In the wake of another sudden death in a another young athlete, the question arises – as it does after each of these tragic events – whether all young athletes should be screened for occult heart disease before participating in sports. It appears, for instance, that 16-year-old Wes Leonard had an underlying heart condition which likely could have been identified with a simple echocardiogram.
The question is controversial, and accordingly, even the professionals disagree. The European Society of Cardiology and the International Olympic Committee, for instance, recommend screening every young athlete with electrocardiograms (ECGs), and if the ECG is abnormal, following with an echocardiogram. But the American Heart Association and the American College of Cardiology do not recommend screening ECGs, and advocate only a medical history and physical examination – which will notoriously miss many if not most of the occult cardiac conditions that produce sudden death in young athletes.
To DrRich, of course, sorting through the controversy is mere child’s play. Allow him to explain.
The problem in answering this question stems solely from our failure to clearly identify what we wish to accomplish in establishing such a screening policy.
Those who advocate widespread screening stress the horrific nature of sudden death in vital young people. They can fully articulate their argument simply by pointing to the awful video of young Wes scoring the winning basket to cap off a perfect season, then moments later, collapsing and dying. The scene is just too gut-wrenching to watch. Clearly, we should all want to do whatever we can to prevent such scenes from ever happening again. If Mr. Leonard had had an echocardiogram, it is likely that this tragedy might not have happened – and that should be argument enough for a widespread screening program.
For a good articulation of the alternative point of view we can begin by turning to DrRich’s colleague, Dr. Wes. Wes points to the experience of a Detroit area hospital that screened 5200 young student athletes, and identified three who had cardiac abnormalities which placed them at risk for sudden death. In finding these three individuals, the screeners not only performed ECGs on all 5200 students, but also performed nearly 1000 echocardiograms on students with suspicious ECGs, and in the process identified at least 30 students who needed even further evaluation (and possibly treatment). Evaluating these other, possibly false-positive cases not only cost money, but also subjected these young students to medical risk. Dr. Wes estimates the overall cost of this screening process at well over $600,000, and Wes is being very conservative in his assumptions. As a result of this well-intentioned effort, it appears that several kids were told not to participate in sports any more; it is not clear that any lives were actually saved.
As it happens, a report from Israel this week in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology substantiates Wes’ suspicions. According to this study, the national mandatory cardiac screening program for athletes, instituted in Israel in 1997, seems not to have reduced the incidence of sudden death in young athletes at all. The incidence of sudden death was 2.6 per 100,000 athlete-years both before and after the mandatory screening was instituted.
Does this mean that screening does not save any lives? No. It is certain that some individuals are spared sudden death thanks to this aggressive type of screening program – just not enough to affect the overall statistics. This result illustrates that when you are dealing with an event that has such a low incidence of occurrence, it is extraordinarily difficult to prove that your intervention is producing a statistically significant reduction in that incidence.
Furthermore, by definition, screening programs of any type (whether it’s screening for sudden death in athletes or screening for breast cancer) don’t change outcomes. All they do is identify people at some degree of increased risk. To change the outcomes, you have to find a way of treating the at-risk individuals you’ve identified with some process that is sufficiently effective, that itself does not worsen outcomes, and that the at-risk individual is willing and able to employ.
In the case of screening young athletes, to effect a reduction in the rate of sudden death you must either convince the young person to give up sports (not only organized sports, but all athletic activities), or find a way to make the underlying heart condition go away. DrRich understands that some of his readers might not have experience in trying to convince dedicated young athletes to stop what they’re doing and become bookkeepers, but the fact is that informing them of the risk is not always perfectly effective in changing their behavior. And while most of the cardiac conditions that produce a risk of sudden death in these young people can be managed to one degree or another, they generally are not “cured” or mitigated to the extent that athletic activity becomes risk-free.
So, while occasional individuals are likely to benefit substantially from these screening programs, if you look at it from the collective point of view these programs appear to do little or no measurable overall good, despite the high cost.
So this brings us back to the original question – should routine cardiac screening of athletes be performed? It seems clear, to DrRich at least, that the answer is: It depends on what you are trying to accomplish.
If you are asking the question from a collective viewpoint, wherein “society” will be paying the bills for the screening procedures, and thus will not have that money any longer to spend on other healthcare services that might yield a more substantial result, it is obvious (since there is no measurable benefit but a high cost) that such screening should not be done.
But if you are one of the individuals – or the loved one of such an individual – who is concerned about having a readily identifiable cardiac condition which places you at risk for sudden death, and would be willing to change your behavior if you are found to be at high risk, it would be entirely reasonable for you to want cardiac screening, and furthermore you should have every opportunity to avail yourself of that screening.
So what we have here is that very common circumstance, which modern medical ethicists insist never ever occur, wherein what is clearly best for an individual is equally clearly not best for the collective.
This situation, DrRich thinks, is analogous to the situation with smoke detectors. Smoke detectors clearly save lives here and there – we have all heard anecdotes about a family being aroused to safety by a smoke detector. But proving that the overall incidence of death from fire has been significantly reduced in the era of smoke detectors seems difficult if not impossible. And if it were society’s job to buy smoke detectors for every individual, then society would – rightly – determine that the cost is not worth the insubstantial benefit.
Yet, everybody has smoke detectors. Why?
Simply, everybody has smoke detectors because it is NOT society’s job to pay for them. The individual does. And the individual does not care that smoke detectors cost $1.2 million per life saved. They only care that the life saved, potentially, is theirs, and that owning the smoke detector that might just save their life does not cost them $1.2 million, it only costs them $19.99.
The issue of screening young athletes would be resolved if we made screening ECGs readily available to individuals for $10 at Walmart, and a follow-up echo (if needed) for $50, also at Walmart. Then individuals who decide that they wanted to know if they’re at risk for sudden death could do their own cost-benefit analysis, and if the potential benefit is worth a few dollars to them, they could buy the screening for themselves.
So screening young athletes for underlying cardiac conditions seems like a pretty good idea, just like smoke detectors seem like a pretty good idea. Where we go wrong is by making such screening a medical service, and therefore making it the responsibility of the collective to pay for it (if indeed it is to be purchased), and furthermore, making it next to impossible – and soon illegal – for individuals to pay for it themselves.
From the collective point of view, paying for the screening of young athletes makes no more sense than would collectively purchasing smoke detectors, carbon monoxide detectors, fog lights, back-up cameras, home security systems, and a host of other personal safety-enhancers that people will happily pay for themselves, but which would be ridiculously wasteful to pay for collectively.
Which just goes to illustrate a general rule: The more stuff we collectivize, the less stuff we’ll have.
When DrRich decided to become an electrophysiologist over 30 years ago, it was because he wanted to help figure out how to prevent sudden death. Sudden death from cardiac arrhythmias is estimated to kill over 300,000 Americans each year, and at the time, some of the more recent victims of sudden death had been DrRich’s friends or loved ones. Because cardiac arrhythmias – even the lethal ones – can virtually always be stopped if appropriate interventions are available, these deaths can be prevented, at least in theory. DrRich wanted to help turn the theory into reality.
In 1982, by virtue of being in the right place at the right time rather than by virtue of his own qualities or qualifications, DrRich’s electrophysiology shop at the University of Pittsburgh became the third institution in the world (after Johns Hopkins and Stanford) to gain access to the highly experimental implantable defibrillator. The gradual development of the implantable cardioverter defibrillator (ICD) from a primitive and often dangerous device that was suitable only for the very highest-risk patients, to the finely-tuned life-saving instrument it is today, is an amazing story in itself. Perhaps some day DrRich (who was in the thick of it for two and a half decades) will try to tell it.
But the bottom line is that today we know how to prevent sudden death. And if the evolution of ICDs were permitted to follow the path which is followed by most modern technologies, these devices could, relatively quickly, become small enough, simple enough, safe enough, effective enough, and cheap enough for the kind of widespread usage which would be necessary to actually produce a large reduction in those 300,000 deaths per year. The ICD companies all know how this could be accomplished, and for that matter, so does DrRich.
But alas, this is not going to happen. ICDs will remain extraordinarily complex and expensive devices, which can only be wrestled to ground by highly-trained electrophysiologists (EPs), and which therefore will only be available to a very tiny proportion of the people who could benefit from them. And rather than being celebrated as the typical American success story of harnessing vision, persistence, and innovation to solve a very difficult problem, ICDs instead are widely castigated (by the press, the public, the insurers, the government, and even most doctors) as a symbol of excess, as the poster child for expensive and wasteful medical technology. (And so, when the DOJ goes after ICD companies and the doctors who implant them, the press and the people cheer them on.)
While most EPs and all of the ICD companies refuse to see it, ICDs – a remarkable technology which prevents an all-too-common tragedy – have become an abomination in the eyes of our society.
There are many reasons for this. DrRich will list just three of them, in ascending order of importance.
The third most important reason ICDs are an abomination is: The Toxic Symbiosis Between ICD Companies and Electrophysiologists.
EPs were important during the initial years the ICD was being developed, since expertise regarding complex cardiac arrhythmias had to be translated into engineering language, and then packed into the ICDs, in order for these devices to work the right way. But at some point in the 1990s, ICD companies should have realized that EPs had made their contribution, and were now leading them out on a limb.
Once the fundamental problems in building ICDs were solved, the companies should have been working to make their devices simpler to use, more reliable, and cheaper, so that they could be used by more doctors in more patients. Instead, following MBA Dictum Number One, they “listened to their customers,” the EPs. And the EPs (for whom, like most medical specialists, turf protection is very high up on their priority list), unfailingly counseled the ICD companies to make these devices more and more complex, so that only EPs can understand how to use them. And so, this is what the ICD companies did.
As a result, today’s typical ICD has extra leads (wires) which add appreciably to the difficulty and the risk of implanting these devices, without adding much practical value for most patients; and they have incorporated literally tens of thousands of programming options, ostensibly so that device function can be carefully “tailored” for the individual patient, but which are seldom actually used profitably, and whose chief effect is scaring off non-EPs.
By “listening to their customers,” ICD companies have been led away from simplicity and into unnecessary complexity, and today’s typical ICD is burdened with layers of grotesque tailfins, running lights, oversized tires, and massive engines. In building their vehicles, the ICD companies should have solicited the needs of the typical commuter; instead, they consulted only with monster truck enthusiasts, and so they are producing vehicles that are not suitable for highway use.
The second most important reason ICDs are an abomination is: Government Price Controls (As Usual) Are Keeping Prices High.
The price of ICDs, fundamentally, is determined by Medicare. Way back when ICDs were first approved for use, Medicare determined that a fair price was somewhere in the range of $15,000 – $25,000. This high price was justifiable back in the 1980s, since it cost nearly that much at the time to make one of these things. But the way government price controls seem to operate, ICDs will probably remain in this price range forever.
Now, to be sure, the government does not directly determine what companies get paid for ICDs. Rather, they indirectly determine the price by deciding what hospitals and physicians will be reimbursed for implanting ICDs – and the ICD companies subsequently are paid by the hospital. Those Medicare reimbursement rates apparently vary substantially from region to region and hospital to hospital (who knows how the government determines these things?), and the various rates are not publicly available to DrRich’s knowledge. But ICD manufacturers, at worst, can impute the reimbursement rates by figuring out the top price which specific hospitals are willing to pay them for ICDs (hence the range in prices).
Having determined the top price they can possibly get paid for ICDs, the only logical strategy for manufacturers is to figure out how they can always get paid that top price for every device they sell. They do this by making ICDs specifically aimed at keeping the decision makers happy. And the decision makers, as we have seen, are the EPs.
EPs, having (so far) successfully protected their turf, most often decide which patients get ICDs, and they decide which company’s ICDs to implant. So, to be competitive among their customers, ICD companies must cater to the wants and needs of EPs, and so must produce a steady stream of new, improved ICDs whose novel features are requested by these very high-end, high-maintenance physicians (who again, are dedicated to turf protection through complexity).
Since their product therefore grows more complex with each succeeding generation, in response to the “needs” of their customers, ICD companies have been able to successfully argue to Medicare that ICD reimbursement should be maintained at high levels (and in some cases they have been successful in getting reimbursements to increase even further).
All the ICD manufacturer needs (and wants) to know is: what new geegaws do I need to add to my next generation of ICDs in order to make them even more stupefyingly complex, so as to maintain the loyalty of my EP customers, and to justify high reimbursement rates?
And this is why, despite the fact that ICD technology has been fully mature (says DrRich) for at least a decade now, which in a functional market would cause the price to plummet, the cost of ICDs remains so high. Whatever has developed in the complex interplay between ICD manufacturers, EPs, hospitals and the government, it’s not a functional market.
In fact, there are no market forces at all in play here. Furthermore, there is no evil-doing. The “players” in this scenario – CMS personnel, ICD manufacturers, and EPs – are all simply behaving logically, and are all responding as anyone would to the incentives that have been established within a system which employs government price controlls to keep costs down.
As a result, ICDs remain extraordinarly and unnecessarily expensive.
And the number one reason ICDs are an abomination is: Sudden Death Is Good Public Policy.
A well-known and often-repeated assertion is that 75% (or some similar high proportion) of all healthcare expenditures are consumed during the last six months (or some similar brief interval) of life. Whenever this assertion is made, the clear implication is that some means ought to be found to stop wasting all those healthcare resources, once that six-month clock is found to have started. The debates as to how to go about doing this (since the initiation of the six-month clock can really only be determined retrospectively) often become very nasty, very quickly.
In this light, consider sudden death. Sudden death has the virtue of being completely unexpected – and therefore very cheap. Victims of sudden death will not have spent the last six months of their lives selfishly consuming all our healthcare resources. Likely, they will have spent that time earning money, consuming goods, and paying taxes. These patriots are doing what every healthcare policy expert agrees we should all do – to go directly from being productive citizens to six feet under. For sudden death is free, and if everyone did this we wouldn’t have a healthcare crisis at all.
Furthermore, consider the kind of patient who receives ICDs. Some of these, of course (probably less than 10%) are young individuals with some sort of genetic propensity for sudden, lethal arrhythmias. But by far, most people who get ICDs are older folks, generally in their 60s, who have underlying cardiac disease. These are people who, if their sudden deaths are prevented, will go on consuming large amounts of Medicare dollars for the maintenance of their sundry significant medical conditions, who will go on collecting monthly Social Security payments, and who, when the end finally does come (possibly a decade or more into their ICD-extended life) will do so in the classic American manner – in an ICU, supported by incredibly expensive machines, drugs, and medical professionals. And thus, thanks to their ICDs, 75% of their lifetime healthcare expenditures will also be gobbled up during their last days.
Consider also that there is no constituency for “sudden death.” There is a constituency for breast cancer; a constituency for HIV-AIDS, a constituency for muscular dystrophy; a constituency for autism; and even a constituency for flatulence. But there is no constituency for sudden death. People who die suddenly (all 300,000 of them per year) generally have no idea that they are likely to become victims of arrhythmic death, and don’t care one way or the other if the means are available to prevent this unfortunate event. Until, perhaps, the last five seconds of their life, they are entirely unaware that sudden death is even a remote possibility.
So the path is open to demonize ICDs and those who build or implant them, and to hound them into curtailing – if not stopping entirely – their counterproductive activities.
While ICDs are indeed too expensive and too complex, the chief reason they are an abomination is that they prevent the very kind of death that every health policy expert understands is the ideal. And they convert that ideal death into a years-long orgy of entitlement-consumption, capped off by a typically American, very non-ideal, very expensive kind of death. Small wonder that ICDs are being specifically targeted by the Feds.
Because of what they do, and not because of their cost, the use of ICDs must be curtailed. ICDs would be targeted even if they were as simple, cheap and reliable as DrRich thinks they could and should be.
ICDs would be targeted even if they were FREE.
Heck, the very concept of an ICD is an abomination.
Two weeks ago DrRich wrote about the abuse of implantable defibrillator guidelines, as illustrated by a recent JAMA article claiming that over 22% of ICD (implantable cardioverter defibrillator) implantations are “non-evidence based.” The abuse of the guidelines, DrRich showed, was perpetrated less by ICD implanters, and more by the authors of that article. That fact being interesting but irrelevant, DrRich went on to speculate that perhaps the Feds would rouse themselves to take this issue to the next level.
It certainly did not take long. Indeed, just a days after DrRich’s post (which ought to completely absolve him of having any direct impact on the Feds’ action), it was revealed that the Department of Justice had already launched an investigation of ICD implants, as related to “proper guidelines for clinical decision making.”
This revelation was made on the website of the Heart Rhythm Society, the professional organization of electrophysiologists (EPs). HRS went on to say that it (HRS itself) had “agreed” to assist the DOJ in an advisory role in its investigation. Furthermore: “Because this is an ongoing investigation, HRS Staff or Leadership is not available for further comment. HRS will communicate additional information to its membership when permitted to do so by the DOJ.” (Emphasis DrRich’s.)
So here’s what we know:
1) The DOJ is actively investigating ICD implantations.
2) Their investigation has to do with the “proper use of guidelines” in selecting patients for ICDs.
3) HRS, the professional organization to which EPs pay huge dues each year in order that it might represent their interests, most especially their interests in Washington, has been preemptively co-opted by the Feds, and indeed has been gagged, so that any further communication to its own membership regarding the investigation is forbidden until further notice.
What will HRS tell the DOJ? It hardly matters, since the important thing has already been accomplished, i.e., effectively silencing the sole organization which represents the interests of EPs in Washington. But, while the HRS statement indicates that the organization is “assisting” the DOJ with “information that does not include either identifiable patient or facility level data,” and while DrRich has no doubt that this is the sincere intent of HRS, DrRich also believes it to be a sure thing that, at the end of the day, HRS (if it wishes immunity from any liability it might find itself subject to, regarding the advice, statements, educational materials, &c., it might have produced over the years, relating to clinical guidelines, or to any other matter of interest that might surface during the DOJ’s open-ended investigation), will tell the DOJ Anything It Wants To Know.
DrRich’s fellow bloggers who are also electrophysiolgists, Wes Fisher and John Mandrola, quickly noted the HRS statement on their respective blogs, and each expressed a certain amount of concern as to the implications of the DOJ’s investigation. But Larry Husten, who writes the excellent Cardiobrief blog, offers a calming voice: “I doubt that the DOJ is gearing up to tackle the vast majority of “reasonable” off-guideline implants. I think they will be going for the real outliers, and when and if they reveal the details of their case there will be little sympathy for their targets.”
Some of DrRich’s readers, who not inappropriately consider him to be a bit paranoid about the Central Authority, may find it surprising that, fundamentally, he agrees with Larry on this matter. He does not think the DOJ will round up large numbers (or even moderate numbers) of EPs who have been practicing basically sound electrophysiology, and who likely have reasonable explanations for any off-guideline ICD implantations they may have committed. DrRich agrees that the DOJ instead will go after a few outliers, figures who – very specifically – will garner little sympathy amongst the public, and indeed, who can be held out, with good effect, for public castigation. Preferably, these figures will be individuals about whom the marketing departments of one ICD manufacturer or another will have generated a few embarrassingly glowing e-mails, celebrating the sheer number of sales these doctors have produced, and discussing strategies – offering speaking engagements in exotic locations, putting on pig roasts, &c. – to keep the ball rolling.
In other words, it is likely at the end of the day the DOJ will produce a few doctors who are truly abusing the system, and harming patients to boot, and who will actually deserve what they will get.
There is no guarantee about this, of course. DrRich has written about how he himself, in his pristine innocence, was once the target of a federal investigation of ICD implants. And while he had on his side the virtues of good medical practice, truth, justice, the American Way, ethics, and even the law, and while he eventually was extricated from his situation with an entirely clean record, it was a close thing, and his escape was based more on luck than on being right. More recently, when DrRich had the “opportunity” to testify under oath in a DOJ investigation on another matter (which he is not yet at liberty to discuss, but regarding which, happily, he was only a witness this time, and not a target), DrRich was required by the DOJ to answer several questions about this very blog and its content, which (as far as DrRich could tell) had nothing whatsoever to do with the matter at hand. By this means DrRich was led to know that the Feds are either among his very great fans (Hi, Fellas!) – or something else.
DrRich’s paranoia, you see, is hard-won, not to mention evidence-based.
So it is indeed possible for innocents to get drawn into such matters – collateral damage is always unavoidable when one is at war – but odds are it won’t be You, or You, or You, so like Larry says, not to worry. They are looking for true evil-doers.
DrRich also agrees with Larry that this DOJ investigation is not a direct response to the JAMA article. The JAMA article appeared a mere week or two before HRS made its announcement – and its announcement obviously was so carefully lawyered-up that it must have taken weeks if not months to negotiate just that one detail with the DOJ. This has all been in the works for a while. But DrRich does not believe for a moment that the DOJ was unaware that the JAMA article was coming out, or that its content, and the subsequent media attention it would create regarding the widespread ICD abuses being perpetrated by EPs, would dovetail nicely with the subsequent revelation by HRS of the DOJ investigation.
ICDs, and their implanters, have long been a target of the payers – both government payers and insurers – and this new enterprise is merely the latest battle in a long war.
As it happens, DrRich spoke at a certain investigators’ meeting just this past weekend, which was attended by a score or so of prominent electrophysiologists. He can report that the JAMA article (which defined off-guideline ICD usage as bad medicine and harmful to patients), followed by the intense publicity in the media this article generated (also emphasizing bad medicine and harm to patients), followed by the DOJ investigation related to the “proper use of guidelines” in ICD implantation, followed by the co-opting and the gagging of the EPs’ own professional organization, is having a delightfully chilling effect on the profession. DrRich thinks it is unlikely that very many off-guideline ICD implants will be performed for the foreseeable future, no matter how much individual patients might benefit from them, at least while this investigation continues. In fact, while the investigation is ongoing, DrRich suspects that even referrals to EPs for ICD implants will drop off. Because, until then, it will remain an open question just how rigorously one must stick to the letter of the guidelines in order for the DOJ to give one a pass, and to not be considered as guilty of crimes against humanity. The profession is duly intimidated.
Whatever the final outcome of this investigation, it has has already had its intended effect. DrRich respectfully suggests that the DOJ might just as well take its time with it, and let the effect percolate to perfection.
Note: Further evidence came this afternoon (January 24) that the effect the Central Authority had in mind is being realized, when Wells Fargo Securities downgraded St. Jude Medical from Outperform to Market Perform. The downgrade was based on WFS’ assessment that ICD implants will be reduced by 10% in 2011, thanks to the DOJ investigation. That reduction doesn’t quite do it, of course, but it’s a start.
Last week the newswires hummed with reports that doctors from all over America are grossly over-utilizing implantable cardioverter-defibrillators (ICDs), much to the detriment of patients themselves (whose persons are being physically violated by avaricious and/or ignorant physicians), and to the hard-pressed Medicare budget (ICDs being so incredibly expensive).
These reports were based on a study appearing in the Journal of the American Medical Association, which analyzed data from the National Cardiovascular Data Registry (NCDR) in an attempt to determine the proportion of ICD implants in the US which constitute deviations from government guidelines. CNN put it like this: “Of more than 100,000 people who received ICDs, almost 23% did not need them according to evidence-based guidelines.” As the lead investigator of the JAMA study told CNN, “It’s a lot of people who are getting defibrillators who may not need them.”
Specifically the new study shows that a full 22.5% of patients receiving ICDs in the US from 2006 to 2009 received them outside of guidelines sanctioned by CMS. Furthermore, patients receiving “non-evidence-based” ICDs had a significantly higher rate of in-hospital mortality (0.57% vs 0.18%, p<.001), and of post-procedure complications ((3.23% vs 2.41%; p<0.001). Notably, ICDs implanted by non-electrophysiologists were significantly more likely to be non-evidence-based than ICDs implanted by electrophysiologists (24.8% vs. 20.8%).
The lead author stressed this latter point to theHeart.org: “Electrophysiologists — who do these procedures day in and day out and are more likely to be more familiar with the guidelines and the evidence that supports ICD use — were significantly less likely to use these non-evidence-based devices.” And an accompanying editorial in JAMA, also written by a couple of electrophysiologists, says that the results of this study indicate that the “intensive training” which electrophysiologists undergo “may improve both the preoperative evaluation of patients as well as the operative and immediate postoperative care of patients undergoing ICD implantation.”
So this study purports to tell us several things: A) Doctors who implant ICDs are surprisingly poor at following clear-cut, evidence-based guidelines; B) As a result, patients are receiving unnecessary medical devices, and suffering unnecessary harm; and C) At least one mitigation for this problem would be to make sure all ICD implantations are conducted by electrophysiologists. Further, ominously implied in some of the news stories regarding this study is the notion that, perhaps, so clear-cut an abuse ought to be looked into by federal prosecutors, similar to cases we have heard of lately involving the abuse of coronary artery stenting.
To all this, DrRich has a few observations:
1) Guidelines are No Longer Guidelines. “Guidelines” implies, literally, a guide, a signpost, a general set of factors that one ought to take into account when making specific decisions regarding specific individual patients. Guidelines are a strong set of recommendations which (all other things being equal) one ought to follow in the majority of cases, and when one chooses not to follow them, one ought to have a good reason for making that choice.
When the use of clinical guidelines is considered in view of this now-quaint notion, one does not expect 100% compliance. After all, patients being patients, they bring to the table lots and lots of special considerations one ought to take into account when deciding how to apply guidelines. Depending on the level of evidence upon which a certain set of guidelines were established, and considering the array of variations on the mean which patients still insist on bringing to a doctor’s notice, the optimal applicability of a given set of guidelines to a given population of patients ought to look something like a bell-shaped-curve. It is not immediately obvious, for instance, that a rate of compliance with a set of guidelines of 77.5% is simply too low. Indeed, a rate of compliance with your typical clinical guidelines well north of that number might imply, when one fully considers the matter, an abrogation of the physician’s duty to make informed clinical decisions based on ALL available evidence, including those introduced by an individual patient’s specific circumstances.
As a matter of fact, the very guidelines regarding ICDs which doctors are now accused of abusing admit that “the ultimate judgment regarding care of a particular patient must be made by the physician and the patient in light of all of the circumstances presented by that patient.”
In this light, a very striking feature of this new report is its baseline assertion that the strict following of guidelines is “evidence-based” practice, while any deviation is “non-evidence-based;” that is, by implication at least, it is good medicine vs. bad medicine. And so, “only” 77.5% of ICD implanters are practicing good medicine, and that is clearly a major concern – one for which urgent solutions should be sought.
It is one thing for the government to insist that doctors follow their guidelines to the letter, or face fines or worse; it is another for physicians themselves to internalize the same paradigm. Where does that leave patients who are relying on their doctors to use their clinical judgment for their own, individual benefit?
Anyway, guidelines are no longer guidelines; they are directives. Even the doctors agree with this.
2) Most of the Patients Who Received “Non-Evidence-Based ICDs” In This Study Actually Were Indicated For ICDs. News reports of this study, and public pronouncements from the authors themselves, imply that patients in this study who received ICDs outside of the guidelines were getting devices that were unnecessary; that their ICDs, which are deemed “non-evidence-based ICDs,” should never have been implanted. This is a misapprehension.
In the large majority of cases, the deviation from the guidelines was simply in the timing of ICD implantation. Patients received their indicated ICDs earlier than the guidelines specify. CMS guidelines say that patients who are indicated for ICDs should not receive them for 40 days after a heart attack, or three months after the diagnosis of heart failure. Most deviations occurred when patients who were supposed to get ICDs got them during the 40-day (or three-month) window.
So the doctors who violated the guidelines were deciding that, for one reason or another, their patients who needed ICDs would be better off receiving their potentially life-saving devices now rather than two or three months from now.
DrRich will leave aside for now the relatively weak evidence upon which CMS based its recommendation to delay ICD implantation following a heart attack or heart failure diagnosis, and simply assert that it is probably the least evidence-based portion of the ICD guidelines, and in fact, the language in the guideline’s supporting documentation, provided by CMS itself, admits to a certain amount of aribitrariness here. (Perhaps DrRich will discuss in detail in a future post the very “interesting” process CMS followed in establishing these ICD guidelines in the first place.)
But even if you buy the notion that the delay prescribed by the guidelines is fully legitimate, there are still many good reasons one might choose not to wait. Perhaps the patient also needs a pacemaker, and implanting a pacemaker now, and subsequently removing it and replacing it with an ICD (which also functions as a pacemaker) in less than 40 days makes little sense. Perhaps the patient will soon be losing her health insurance (not an uncommon situation these days). Perhaps there are features suggesting that the heart failure is particularly unlikely to improve during the next 3 months. Perhaps there are features that imply that a patient has a particularly high risk of sudden death in the near term.
Whatever. The point is that this study does not show that 22.5% of ICD implants are unnecessary. It shows that sometimes ICDs which everybody agrees are indicated are being implanted a few weeks earlier than the Central Authority would like. The NCDR database the authors used to determine guideline compliance did not allow them to assess the legitimacy of the doctors’ decisions to implant them earlier than CMS prescribes.
Back in the 1990s, when the enlightened idea of “medicine by guidelines” was first being promulgated, it was taken as a basic tenet that, after sufficient training and education had been accomplished regarding a set of guidelines, if deviations from the guidelines still exceeded expectations, then it is necessary to consider that there may be something amiss about the guidelines themselves, and the rationale behind the guidelines ought to be formally revisited. But that was back when guidelines were still guidelines, and not directives.
3) The Important Outcome Is Conspicuously Absent In This Study. One can surmise that the main reason doctors implanted ICDs earlier than the guidelines recommend, 22.5% of the time, is that they thought their patient might experience sudden death during the waiting period. That is, they wanted to protect their patient from sudden death now, instead of two or three months from now. Maybe they were just being obstinate, or stupid, but that was their rationale.
This being the case, the critical information we would want to know is whether the early implantation of ICDs might have led to an overall difference in survival. But alas, that critical information is also not available in the NCDR database. So we know (because the authors were quick to point out) that patients who received “non-evidence-based” ICDs had a worse in-hospital mortality (a difference of roughly 0.4%), and a worse post-procedure complication rate. But what was the difference in survival at, say, one year? Did the early implantation of ICDs increase overall mortality (which is the impression the authors and the newswires leave us with), or did it reduce overall mortality by offering extended protection from sudden death? An overall reduction in mortality was, after all, what the physicians intended when they selected a subset of patients they thought would benefit from not waiting for their ICDs. And it is entirely possible that their decisions did just that.
It seems to DrRich that we might want to know this information, before we castigate too severely (or submit for prosecution) the physicians who judged that “early” ICD implantation would be the best approach in a certain proportion of their ICD-indicated patients.
4) Electrophysiologists Can Be As Self-serving As Anyone Else. This last observation saddens DrRich, himself an exceedingly humble and self-effacing electrophysiologist, as his many thousands of great admirers will attest.
The authors of this study – and the editorialists who wrote in the same issue of JAMA – are all among DrRich’s brethren electrophysiologists. All of them seem to conclude from their analysis that ICDs ought to be implanted by electrophysiologists pretty much exclusively, since we EPs are demonstrated to be (thanks to this study) more likely to follow the guidelines, presumably because we are more “familiar with the guidelines and the evidence that supports ICD use,” by virtue of our “extensive training,” our vast experience, &c.
But once again, the majority of guideline “deviations” which were seen in this study were in the timing of ICD implantation, and not in the fact of ICD implantation. In effect, therefore, the authors are arguing that electrophysiologists are simply better at counting to 40 than those other kinds of doctors. DrRich does not find this a compelling argument for instigating an amendment to the guidelines aimed primarily at protecting the electrophysiologists’ turf.
Furthermore, DrRich suspects that the better compliance with the guidelines evidenced by electrophysiologists has less to do with their superior guideline-following prowess, and more with the fact that there tends to be a built-in delay when EPs implant ICDs. Patients with fresh heart attacks and recent heart failure diagnoses are under the care of non-electrophysiologists (many of whom can implant ICDs themselves, whenever they think they ought to), while patients seen by electrophysiologists generally have to first be referred – a process that introduces a fortuitous delay, and thus, of better guideline “compliance.”
Indeed, when one considers this built-in advantage enjoyed by EPs, one must wonder at the fact that, even for patients implanted by electrophysiologists, nearly 21% still received “non-evidence-based” (i.e., “early”) ICDs. This value, statistically-speaking, may indeed be significantly less than the overall value of 22.5%. But practically speaking it is pretty much the same rate of non-compliance. Which leaves one wondering: Why are electrophysiologists – who suggest that they alone ought to be doing these procedures – themselves so lousy at following the central directives?
Perhaps they, too, need remedial counting lessons. Or perhaps they, with their superior intellect and experience and so forth, actually agree with their non-EP colleagues that delaying ICD implantation in all patients with recent heart attacks and heart failure diagnoses may sometimes (roughly a fifth of the time) be counterproductive.
But no matter. Guidelines are guidelines, which is to say, they’re directives. Following them to the letter is good. “Interpreting” them is bad. It is now apparent that even sophisticated physicians, who should know better, have completely bought in to this new paradigm on guidelines favored by our Central Authorities, and appear less concerned about the implications of this paradigm on their patients and on the practice of medicine, than about how to turn it to their own, narrow advantage.
DrRich hates to be so darned prescient. On January 19, it was revealed that the Department of Justice has launched an investigation regarding ICD implants, as related to “proper guidelines for clinical decision making.” DrRich tells electrophysiologists, and other ICD implanters, what to make of this rather scary prospect, here.