Image credit: ACP

Greetings from San Francisco, where I am attending the American College of Physicians 2013 Scientific Program, their annual conference covering the latest progress in internal medicine. Though the conference is obviously geared for physicians, I’ve compiled below a half dozen points from the various lectures that I think might be of interest to patients. Feel free to skim, and if you want to learn more about any point, follow the links.

  • Ezekiel Emanuel, MD, PhD, gave the keynote address. Those unfamiliar with his biography and his work on healthcare reform can learn more by following the link. His speech highlighted the many changes anticipated in healthcare in the next few years and was intended to reassure us that physicians will be leaders in the transformation of American medicine. The specifics he discussed, however, were largely centrally planned policy directives over which physicians will have little influence. This makes me suspect that physicians will be passengers, not drivers, in the coming revolution.
  • More than one lecture mentioned the very important study a year ago that demonstrated that patients with sinus infections treated with antibiotics don’t improve any faster than on placebo. A very large fraction of all antibiotic prescriptions are for sinus infection, and as my regular readers know antibiotic use increases the risk of bacterial resistance and of Clostridium difficile infection. The latest recommendations for acute sinusitis is to use only nasal decongestants and pain relievers for 10 days after symptom onset. The vast majority of patients improve with only symptomatic treatment, either because they had a viral infection (for which antibiotics are ineffective) or because the nasal decongestants allowed drainage of the sinuses, allowing the patients’ immune system to kill the few remaining bacteria. Only patients who have not improved in 10 days should be prescribed antibiotics. This may be a difficult change both for patients and physicians. I know that despite my best efforts I am occasionally pressured by (well-meaning) patients to prescribe unnecessary antibiotics. I hope I can educate patients about this in a way that does not frustrate them.
  • The new medications for obesity were discussed by several speakers. Belviq (lorcaserin) and Qsymia (phentermine/topiramate) will be available by prescription soon for treatment of obesity. The difference in attitudes towards these medications of the different speakers was fascinating. The professor who was a general internist was hesitant to recommend them based on the absence of long-term safety data and the terrible safety track-records of prior obesity medications that were withdrawn from the market. The obesity specialist, on the other hand, seemed quite enthusiastic to prescribe these medications given how empty our armamentarium is for this serious problem. (I side with the general internist.)
  • An important study last year showed that in patients with blood clots in their legs who are treated with a blood thinner (warfarin, Coumadin) for 6 to 18 months should continue taking aspirin thereafter to prevent a recurrent clot.
  • Women with normal bone density or mild osteopenia can wait 10 to 15 years before next rechecking their bone density, with very little risk of missing their transition to osteoporosis. I really should be recommending bone density testing less frequently in these women.
  • More than one lecturer on various different topics mentioned Choosing Wisely, the partnership between the American Board of Internal Medicine and various physician specialty organizations dedicated to educating physicians and patients about tests and treatments that have no benefits. Speakers about topics from ranging from preoperative chest X rays to CT scans for acute sinusitis showed us the studies proving that the tests are worthless and mentioned that Choosing Wisely is trying to get physicians to stop ordering such tests. I remain supportive of the program’s goals but pessimistic about its effectiveness. This may be effective if enough patients become well-informed, but hoping that thousands of physicians will behave against their interests by ceasing to order high-price low-benefit services is unrealistic. This may be another reason for patients to choose physicians who have no incentive (or disincentive) to recommend any specific test or treatment.

Finally, I was pleasantly surprised to find that many of the studies that were highlighted by the professors were ones I wrote about over the year. Reviewing the literature has helped me understand the studies, and composing the posts in non-technical language has helped me remember the key points. There is no better way to learn than to teach. Thank you for reading.