Wednesday, December 28, 2011

First, do no harm: preventing elective inductions before 39 weeks

A recent article published in the Journal of the American Board of Family Medicine reported that fewer than 1 in 5 board-certified family physicians provide routine prenatal care, and just over 13 percent perform deliveries. Therefore, more family physicians are referring patients for maternity care and have less influence over troubling national trends, such as declining rates of vaginal births after previous Cesarean delivery (VBAC) and increasing rates of "late" premature delivery (between 34 and 38 6/7ths weeks gestation) due for the most part to elective inductions.

In an editorial in the December 15th issue of AFP, Drs. Michael Cacciatore and D. Ashley Hill argue that the preponderance of evidence demonstrates that infants delivered before 39 weeks gestation without a medical indication have worse outcomes than those delivered closer to term:

The baseline neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) admission rate at 39 weeks was 2.6 percent, but this rate nearly doubled for each week before 38 weeks. Another group analyzed 13,258 elective cesarean deliveries, of which 35.8 percent were performed before 39 weeks, and found that infants born before 39 weeks had a significantly increased risk of adverse outcomes. Notably, this was also true for the neonates born at 38 weeks. A retrospective review of almost 180,000 births showed that the risk of severe respiratory distress syndrome was 22.5-fold higher for neonates born at 37 weeks and 7.5-fold higher for infants born at 38 weeks compared with those born at or after 39 weeks. The risk of an early term neonate being admitted to the NICU is approximately one in 20 deliveries, compared with about one in 50 for neonates born between 39 and 40 weeks.

If elective inductions before 39 weeks gestation are apparently harmful, why are so many patients consenting to them? The authors point to a variety of reasons, including lack of knowledge, maternal discomfort, convenience, and patient and physician preference. To improve pregnancy outcomes, they recommend the universal adoption of several health system interventions shown to prevent early elective inductions. In addition, family physicians and other primary care clinicians who do not provide maternity care themselves can educate their patients and colleagues about the unnecessary harms that may result from this practice.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Screening mammography decisions are close calls

A physician reader of AFP submitted the following post.


I read with interest the December 1st Cochrane for Clinicians article by Dr. Joanne Wilkinson, "Effect of Mammography on Breast Cancer Mortality." On the first page of the article in big print is the "Evidence-Based Answer," which gives a SORT "A" recommendation in favor of mammography because of an approximate 15% reduction in mortality from breast cancer attributed to mammography screening. In small print inside are the conclusions from the Cochrane abstract, which note a 30% rate of overdiagnosis and overtreatment. The Cochrane authors write:

This means that for every 2,000 women invited for screening over 10 years, one will have her life prolonged, and 10 healthy women who would not have been diagnosed if there had not been screening will be treated unnecessarily. Furthermore, more than 200 women will experience important psychological distress for many months because of false-positive findings. It is not clear whether screening does more good than harm.

Having read this - I wonder how many women would continue to opt for regular mammography screening if told that only 1 out of every 2,000 will benefit, whereas 10 out of 2,000 will be overtreated (some presumably with mastectomy), and 200 out of 2,000 (10%) will be temporarily overdiagnosed (and subject to important psychological distress for many months) because of a false-positive mammography reading. Given these statistics, observers outside of the medical community might wonder why "primary care physicians should continue to recommend mammography every two years in women 50 to 74 years of age," as the last paragraph of Dr. Wilkinson's commentary states.

As in much that the primary care clinician does, there are pros and cons to any intervention. For patients to give truly informed consent, it is essential for us to convey to them the numerical chance for life-prolonging benefit (1 in 2,000 for women who undergo yearly mammography for a decade) versus the 1 in 10 risk of a falsely positive mammogram report, and the 1 in 200 risk of overtreatment during that 10-year period. For some women who subscribe to the "n of 1" theory, screening mammography may be worth the risk, effort and cost because of the chance that it may save their lives. Others may decide that the odds of experiencing benefit are not in their favor. Shouldn't the choice to undergo mammography be up to the patient?

Ken Grauer, MD
Gainesville, Florida

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

AFP By Topic is your 24-7 virtual Scientific Assembly

Since we first introduced AFP By Topic in June 2010, this online and mobile-friendly collection of the journal's best current content selected by AFP's medical editors has grown to include 52 topics that family physicians and other primary care clinicians commonly diagnose and treat in their patients. Recently, we compared the list of AFP By Topic collections to the most popular sessions at the 2011 American Academy of Family Physicians' Scientific Assembly in Orlando, Fla. Of the clinical subjects of 13 non-plenary sessions with an attendance of at least 500 physicians, 10 regularly rank among our most widely viewed topic collections, encompassing a diverse spectrum of acute (e.g., abdominal pain, pulmonary embolism) and chronic (e.g., diabetes, kidney disease, hyperlipidemia) health conditions.

Also at the Scientific Assembly, David T. Walsworth, MD, gave a presentation titled “Medical Applications: Finding the Right App for That." In his presentation, Dr. Walsworth discussed the utility of mobile devices and tablets, including the many uses for related apps in a family physician’s day-to-day practice. Some of the criteria he uses in appraising a medical app include asking the following questions: Does the app do something that I will use frequently? Do I trust the source? and Does the value justify the cost? Ranking highly on all of these criteria, the free AFP By Topic Mobile App not only made his personal Top Ten list, but came in at number 2!

Whether you access AFP By Topic collections on the Web or your mobile device, content links are updated continually to ensure that they remain as current and as useful as possible. The collections include pertinent AFP articles and departments, summaries of practice guidelines from major medical organizations, articles from Family Practice Management, and the AAFP's METRIC practice improvement modules. In short, we aim for AFP By Topic to be your 24-7 virtual Scientific Assembly. Please let us know how we're doing.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Managing symptoms in end-of-life care

Family physicians who care for terminally ill patients must manage a wide range of bothersome symptoms, including pain, fatigue, dyspnea, delirium, and constipation. According to a Cochrane for Clinicians article in the December 1st issue of AFP, constipation affects up to half of all patients receiving palliative care and nearly 9 in 10 palliative care patients who use opioid medications for pain. Unfortunately, a Cochrane review found limited evidence on the effectiveness of laxatives in these patients, as Dr. William Cayley Jr. comments:

For patients with constipation, especially those with opioid-induced constipation, there is insufficient evidence to recommend one laxative over another. The choice of laxatives should be based on past patient experience, tolerability, and adverse effects. Methylnaltrexone is a newer agent that may be useful especially for patients with opioid-induced constipation that has not responded to standard laxatives, but there is limited evidence of potential adverse effects. Therefore, judicious use preceded by a discussion with patients about known risks and benefits is warranted.

The Cochrane Library recently discussed this review in its Journal Club feature, which includes open access to the full text of the review, a podcast by the authors, discussion points, and a Powerpoint slide presentation of the review's main findings.

Additional resources for physicians and patients on advanced directives, hospice care, and ethical issues are available in the AFP By Topic collection on End-of-Life Care. A collection of previous Cochrane for Clinicians articles is also available online.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Universal cholesterol screening in children: what is the evidence?

New guidelines released today by the American Academy of Pediatrics and the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute recommend replacing risk-based approaches to cholesterol testing with universal screening for all children at ages 9 and 17. To inform the debate that is sure to follow, we note that AFP has previously published commentaries that review the potential benefits and harms of different screening strategies. Below is our blog post on this topic from September 1, 2010.


The September 1 issue of American Family Physician inaugurates a new editorial feature that presents two opposing views on a controversial clinical topic and asks readers to post comments online. In this issue, Dr. Robert Gauer argues that because atherosclerosis begins in childhood, using cholesterol-lowering drugs in children with hyperlipidemia is essential to prevent coronary events and cardiovascular mortality in later life. On the other hand, Dr. Michael LeFevre contends that since only 40 to 55 percent of children with elevated cholesterol levels will have persistent hyperlipidemia as adults, and the potential benefits and harms of decades of drug therapy are unknown, physicians should demand a high "evidence bar" for instituting screening and treatment.

Since hyperlipidemia causes no symptoms, these views reflect in large part the dueling guidelines of the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) and the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF) on lipid screening in children. While the AAP recommends that screening for hyperlipidemia begin at age 2 in children with a family history of hyperlipidemia, premature cardiovascular disease, or other risk factors, the USPSTF found insufficient evidence to recommend for or against screening in any group of children. [Editorial note: the AAP now recommends universal, rather than targeted, screening.]

This leaves family physicians and other clinicians who care for children with an important clinical dilemma. Should they act now based on disease-oriented evidence and extrapolation from studies of primary prevention of cardiovascular disease in adults, or should they instead wait for patient-oriented evidence from long-term followup studies of children with elevated lipid levels? Which approach do you take in your practice, and why? You are welcome to post comments here or on AFP's Facebook page; AAFP members can also post comments on the AFP web page. We look forward to the discussion!

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Graham Center: Integrate mental health into primary care

Based in part on a positive recommendation from the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services recently announced that it will cover annual depression screenings for Medicare patients in primary care settings "that have staff-assisted depression care supports in place to assure accurate diagnosis, effective treatment and follow-up." However, as the below Figure illustrates, translating the USPSTF guideline into practice has been challenging for many primary care physicians.

A Policy One-Pager from researchers at the Robert Graham Center, published in the November 1st issue of AFP, details the obstacles that clinicians face in identifying and treating depression and other mental health problems. As Dr. Robert Phillips and colleagues observe, "Current health care policy makes it difficult for most primary care practices to integrate mental health staff because of insufficient reimbursement, mental health insurance carve-outs, and difficulty of supporting colocated mental health professionals, to name a few."

On a related note, an editorial in the November 1st issue discusses strategies for improving adult immunization rates, which have historically lagged far behind rates of immunizations in children. According to Dr. Alicia Appel, immunization registries and electronic clinical decision-support systems can complement low-tech interventions such as patient reminders and standing orders. What has been your experience with incorporating depression screening and immunizations into routine care for adult patients?

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

ACIP recommends routine use of HPV vaccine in boys

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices voted earlier this morning to recommend that boys be routinely vaccinated against human papillomavirus (HPV). With this new recommendation, the cervical cancer-preventing vaccine that the AAFP's ACIP liaison Johnathan Temte, MD, PhD has called a "cornerstone of female health" is now poised to be incorporated into the ACIP's childhood vaccination schedule for boys as well. Previously, the advisory group had taken a "permissive" stance toward HPV vaccine in boys, noting that it could be administered to prevent genital warts but not recommending it routinely.

Important AFP online content on HPV infection includes a recent clinical overview of its manifestations, testing, and prevention; and short drug reviews of the quadrivalent and bivalent vaccines. The latter review notes that the bivalent vaccine "does not protect against the two strains of HPV responsible for genital warts and is of no value in males."

What do you think of the new ACIP recommendation, especially in light of recent political controversies over HPV vaccine mandates? Have you been following the ACIP's previous recommendation to routinely administer HPV vaccine to girls, and if so, do you now plan to do so with boys? We would love to hear your thoughts.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Should ADHD in preschool-aged children be treated with medication?

A new clinical practice guideline on ADHD from the American Academy of Pediatrics is making some waves among pediatricians and family physicians for its recommendation to evaluate and treat children as young as age 4 years. Past AAP guideline statements focused on identifying and treating children between the ages of 6 and 12 years. Although the AAP recommends behavior therapy as first-line treatment for younger children with inattentiveness or hyperactivity, it includes the option of starting medications in children who do not respond to behavior therapy. "In areas where evidence-based behavioral treatments are not available," the guideline adds, "the clinician needs to weigh the risks of starting medication at an early age against the harm of delaying diagnosis and treatment." It may only be a matter of time, then, before stimulants are being prescribed to large numbers of preschool-aged children.

Although unrecognized ADHD can cause significant social problems and learning difficulties in affected children, data on the incremental benefits and harms of detecting ADHD in younger (as opposed to school-aged) children and the long-term effects of stimulant medications is limited. As you consider how to incorporate information from this new guideline to the care of children your practice, we hope that you will find the AFP By Topic Collection on ADHD to be an indispensable resource.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Family physicians and the Goldilocks principle

A recent national survey of internal medicine and family physicians published in the Archives of Internal Medicine found that 42 percent of physicians felt that their patients were getting "too much" health care, while only 6 percent thought that patients were receiving "too little." These opinions contrast with multiple previous studies showing that primary care clinicians fall short when it comes to providing guideline-recommended care; a 2007 study, for example, found that children received less than half of indicated care.

So which is it: too much care, too little, or some of both? And how can AFP help family physicians avoid these extremes and strive for the happy medium, which in other fields is known as the "Goldilocks Principle"? In addition to bringing readers the latest Practice Guideline updates, such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's 2011-12 recommendations for influenza vaccination, we provide information that allows you to evaluate these guidelines against the best design criteria previously proposed by AFP Deputy Editor Mark Ebell, MD, MS:

The best guidelines share several characteristics: they begin with a comprehensive review of the literature; they carefully assess the quality of the literature to identify the best studies; they base their recommendations on the best studies; and they tell us the strength of the evidence that supports each key clinical recommendation. In other words, they are founded on the principles of evidence-based medicine, which strives to make decisions on the best available information—“best” implying that the evidence is graded, so that one has a sense of what is good evidence and what is not, and “available” implying that the literature search is comprehensive. Transparency is the key: readers should know why each recommendation is made and whether it represents opinion, theory, or fact. Finally, guidelines should be independent of industry support (an all-too-common occurrence) and should clearly identify any potential conflicts of interest of the authors. Ideally, guideline authors should have no conflicts of interest, which can diminish the quality and validity of the guideline.

There are, of course, many reasons - financial, medical-legal, and practical, to name a few - that care may diverge from that supported by the best evidence-based guidelines. Still, we hope that every section of the journal makes it easier for family physicians to provide care that is "just right."

Friday, October 7, 2011

Prostate screening resources for you and your patients

According to an article in today's New York Times, U.S. Preventive Services Task Force officials have confirmed that they plan to release an updated recommendation statement on screening for prostate cancer early next week that changes their current "I" (insufficient evidence) statement to a "D" grade ("recommends against"). Our AFP By Topic collection on Cancer includes several resources that may help you explain this upcoming change in practice to your colleagues and patients:

Cochrane for Clinicians: PSA Testing Is Not Effective

Patient Education handout from Prostate Cancer

Monday, October 3, 2011

Over-the-counter drug abuse: a growing concern

Physicians who regularly treat patients with upper respiratory infections are familiar with the 2005 federal law that moved the decongestant pseudoephedrine "behind the counter" to make it more difficult to illegally manufacture the stimulant methamphetamine. Unfortunately, "meth" abuse is only the tip of the iceberg of over-the-counter medication abuse. In an editorial in the October 1st issue of AFP, Drs. Chih-Wen Shi and Margaret Bayard provide helpful tips on recognizing and treating this common problem in the primary care of adolescents and young adults:

When treating a patient for a drug overdose, it is important to screen for multiple drugs, because many OTC cough and cold medications contain more than one active ingredient. Furthermore, overdoses can occur with a combination of OTC, prescription, and illicit drugs, as well as alcohol and other substances. In such instances, toxicity may be additive. Reporting overdoses to poison control centers is crucial so that data can be collected to support policy changes, such as placing an OTC drug behind the pharmacy counter or taking it off the market.

You can find additional current AFP content on the prevention, diagnosis, and treatment of substance abuse in our AFP By Topic collection.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

For cardiovascular prevention, is this Figure worth a thousand words?

A previous AFP Community Blog post discussed challenges involved in recommending aspirin prophylaxis. Although aspirin reduces the risk of cardiovascular events in persons with no history of coronary artery disease, the absolute risk reduction is relatively small, and needs to be balanced against the inconvenience of taking a daily medication and side effects such as gastrointestinal bleeding. Family physicians who engage in shared decision-making with patients about aspirin may find it difficult to put these statistical risks and benefits in perspective.

In their clinical review "Global Risk of Coronary Heart Disease: Assessment and Application," which appeared last year in AFP, Drs. Anthony Viera and Stacy Sheridan included an easily understandable Figure that illustrated the benefits of 10 years of aspirin chemoprevention among 1,000 persons with a 10 percent 10-year global risk of coronary heart disease. However, as pointed out in a Letter to the Editor published in the September 15th issue, that Figure did not include an illustration of the potential harms of aspirin chemoprevention. In response, Drs. Viera and Sheridan have proposed modifying the figure as follows:

The pictograph shows a population of 1,000 men 45 to 59 years of age who have a 10 percent global risk of a coronary heart disease (CHD) event and who have been receiving aspirin for 10 years to reduce their risk. Green faces represent the number of men who would not benefit because they are not among the 10 percent predicted to have a CHD-related event. The red faces represent the approximate number of men who would have an event despite receiving aspirin. The yellow faces represent the men who would not have an event because it was prevented by aspirin. The reddened rectangle highlights the approximate number of people who would have a gastrointestinal bleed. The red X indicates the one person on average who would sustain a hemorrhagic stroke as a result of receiving the aspirin.

Reprinted with permission from Dr. Chris Cates' EBM Web site. Accessed May 23, 2011.

Does this figure exemplify the adage that "A picture is worth a thousand words," or does it oversimplify a complex medical decision? What do you think?

Monday, September 12, 2011

Clinical problem-solving is a strength of family medicine

Working with family physicians since 1978, I have noticed two things in particular.

First, they take great pride in their interest in relationship-based care. They talk about the value of continuity. They tell stories that describe how much they treasure relationships with patients. They tell these stories in their teaching. They write books about it. It's a powerful force that energizes their work and their career satisfaction.

They rarely, if ever, mention the power of their clinical problem-solving abilities. Why is that? The absence of mention and the seeming lack of pride (my assumption) in this area makes me wonder if FPs really believe they are effective in the area of clinical problem-solving.

From my earliest days in family medicine, I came to believe that FPs' impact as physicians was a result of their patient/relationship-centered approach that included effective communication skills, their fund of knowledge, and their clinical problem-solving skills. All three are essential; any two working alone, except in special circumstances, will not lead to the best results.

Family physicians embraced the work of Barbara Starfield, MD, MPH, who told the world that FPs, in particular, and primary care clinicians, in general, had a positive effect on population health while reducing the cost of care. When I hear FPs take pride in their relationship centered approach to care but never mention their approach to clinical problem-solving, it leads me to believe they think that continuity alone produces the impact documented by Dr. Starfield.

I put this issue to a number of colleagues and heard the following.

"Because of the variety of patients and undefined illnesses that family physicians see, they become better at development of realistic differential diagnosis than any other medical specialty." - Doug Smith, MD, Orono Family Medicine, Orono, Minnesota

Shantie Harkisoon, MD, director of the Phelps Family Medicine Residency Program in Sleepy Hollow, New York, told me that she thinks the strength of FPs is strong skill with differential diagnosis of the patient as person while sub-specialists are generally more effective at differential diagnosis of a disease.

I have been talking to a documentary film maker who wants to tell a story about family medicine and primary care innovation. In his interviews with FPs, all he hears about is the value of relationship centered care. He can't understand how the care provided by FPs costs less money. When I told him that FPs are effective clinical problem-solvers and their approach to decision making is a key piece of this story, he almost did not believe me. When he interviewed FPs, he was not hearing about this. Why do we not hear more about family physicians' clinical problem-solving prowess?

Laurence Bauer, MSW, MEd
Chief Executive Officer

Monday, September 5, 2011

Compromising the medical literature

To ensure that our clinical review articles reflect current medical literature, American Family Physician requires prospective authors to consult several evidence-based resources that synthesize the best available evidence from clinical trials and other high-quality studies. The goal of this process is to produce unbiased recommendations for primary care physicians. But what if the authors of clinical reviews are actually professional scientific writers paid by pharmaceutical companies, rather than the physicians whose names are listed as authors?

In fact, drug-company funded "ghostwriters" have been publishing articles in the medical literature for years. A study by the editors of JAMA found that from 2 to 11 percent of articles published in 2008 in six major journals (including the New England Journal of Medicine) were actually written by people who were not named as authors. While the study could not establish that these ghostwriters had been directly financed by industry, the practice of writing up a scientific study and then recruiting a lead author (usually an academic physician under pressure to "publish or perish") has been well-documented in the case of previous "blockbuster" drugs that were taken by millions of patients for common conditions but later turned out to have dangerous or fatal side effects, including Wyeth's Prempro and Merck's Vioxx.

Ghostwriting is not the only way that the pharmaceutical industry is able to influence the interpretation of evidence in its favor. A Letter to the Editor in the Sept. 1 issue points out that a 2005 Cochrane Review on medications for diabetic neuropathic pain (cited in a 2010 AFP article on this topic) unintentionally exaggerated the effectiveness of gabapentin in treating this condition due to the manufacturer's selective publication of favorable trials and suppression of unfavorable ones. In an accompanying editorial, Drs. Adriane Fugh-Berman and Jay Siwek review these and other "stealth marketing" tactics that can potentially compromise the medical literature, along with ways that readers can help correct these biases:

Distorted information, once ensconced in the medical literature, is propagated by industry and by well-intentioned authors who unwittingly cite these studies. The medical literature is a permanent record that scientists and physicians rely on for decisions that ultimately affect patient care. Although the scientific process is never linear, the self-correcting process by which evidence is continually refined can be corrupted by the infiltration of medical journals with research studies and review articles distorted by a hidden marketing agenda.

Although there is no foolproof way for readers to detect undue industry influence, readers should be alert for marketing messages that disparage older, generically available drugs or that position newer branded (or upcoming) drugs as more effective, more convenient, safer, or filling an unmet need. The last sentence of the abstract is typically where the marketing spin is inserted. Readers should alert medical journals to suspicious articles by writing letters to the editor.

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Convincing new mothers that "breast is best"

A recent report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that despite evidence that birthing environments strongly influence new mothers' feeding practices, only 3.5 percent of surveyed U.S. hospitals met most quality indicators of the Baby-Friendly Hospital Initiative, an international program that seeks to reduce obstacles to successful breastfeeding. Hospitals received low marks on items such as restricting pacifier use and supplemental infant formula, and only a minority permitted 24-hour "rooming in," which makes it easier for infants to breastfeed on demand.

Although the American Academy of Family Physicians and the American Academy of Pediatrics recommend that mothers exclusively breastfeed infants for the first 6 months of life, and supports continuing breastfeeding to at least one year of age, data from the 2004-2008 National Immunization Survey document that only 73% of U.S. women attempt to breastfeed after birth, and only 42% and 21% are still breasfeeding at 6 and 12 months of life. The percentages are even lower for Black women: only 54% attempt breastfeeding, and just 27% and 11% are still doing so at 6 and 12 months.

Family physicians can help convince expectant and new mothers that "breast is best" by applying a number of evidence-based interventions recommended by the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force. Patients should be informed that the Department of Health and Human Services mandates first dollar coverage of comprehensive lactation support and breastfeeding equipment (e.g., breast pumps) for insurance plans starting in August 2012. Recognizing that primary care clinicians have many opportunities to support breastfeeding throughout pregnancy and the newborn period, we have included related content in each of the AFP By Topic collections on Prenatal Care, Labor and Delivery, and Newborn Care.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Does aspirin prophylaxis improve health in older adults?

Every day, family physicians are confronted with the clinical question of whether or not to start a patient on aspirin for the primary prevention of cardiovascular disease. The editorials in the June 15th issue of AFP by Dr. W. Fred Miser ("Appropriate Aspirin Use") and Drs. Bailey, Smyth, and Campbell ("The Case Against Routine Aspirin Use") highlight the current difficulties in putting the 2009 U.S. Preventive Services Task Force recommendations on aspirin prophylaxis into practice. There is limited information available to inform benefit versus risk decisions regarding aspirin prophylaxis in healthy older adults. Given the significant projected growth of the elderly population, especially of older minorities, family physicians will need to address aspirin prophylaxis decisions more frequently in the future.

To address areas of uncertainty beyond the 2009 USPSTF guidelines, the ASPirin in Reducing Events in the Elderly (ASPREE) clinical trial aims to answer a simple question with significant public health relevance: Does daily low-dose aspirin use maintain longevity without cognitive and functional disability in healthy men and women age 70 years or older? Currently, recruitment of 19,000 older adults who do not require aspirin for a cardiovascular condition is ongoing at over 20 sites in the U.S. in addition to general practices in Australia. In the U.S., results from ASPREE should hopefully provide insight on how aspirin works in all older persons, including members of minority groups. In order to succeed, ASPREE will require the engagement of family physicians and other primary care clinicians. Family physicians can make a significant contribution by identifying healthy, older persons from minority communities and providing them with information about how to participate in the study. More information about the study and locations of study sites in the United States can be found at

Raj C. Shah, MD
Rush University Medical Center
Chicago, Illinois

Disclosure: The author is a co-investigator on the ASPREE study.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Autism: to screen or not screen?

The August 15th issue of AFP features a pair of editorials that stake out opposite positions in the intensifying debate about the benefits of routinely screening young children for autism spectrum disorders (ASDs). Dr. Paul Lipkin and Susan Hyman argue that the rising incidence of ASDs and studies suggesting a benefit from early diagnosis and behavioral interventions make it imperative for pediatricians and family physicians to incorporate developmental screening tools into their practices. They assert that developmental screening does not impose significant time burdens on physicians, and that false-positive screening results can be minimized by scheduling follow-up interview visits.

On the other hand, Dr. Doug Campos-Outcalt counters that screening for ASDs has not yet met several critical criteria for establishing the effectiveness of a screening test. In particular, the following important questions remain unanswered:

1) What are the sensitivity and false-positive rate of the best screening test for ASDs available in an average clinical setting?

2) How much earlier can screening tests detect ASDs compared with an astute clinician who asks a few key questions about, and acts on, parental concerns regarding a child's communication and interactions?

3) What are the potential harms of testing?

4) Does earlier detection by screening result in meaningful and long-lasting improvements compared with detection through routine care?

Although a recent systematic review published in Pediatrics found limited evidence that early intensive behavioral interventions improve "cognitive performance, language skills, and adaptive behavior skills in some young children with ASDs," it remains uncertain if routine screening leads to improved outcomes. Therefore, Dr. Campos-Outcalt recommends, "Family physicians who provide care for young children should ask parents about any concerns, be alert for the signs and symptoms of ASDs, and use available diagnostic testing tools to assist in making clinical decisions when an ASD is suspected."

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Climate change and family physicians

At first glance, the topic of the cover article of AFP's August 1st issue, "Slowing Global Warming: Benefits for Patients and the Planet," might seem out of place in a journal that aims to provide practical clinical guidance for family physicians. Past summer-themed articles have included clinical reviews of heat-related illness, medical advice for commercial air travelers, and even health issues for surfers. By addressing climate change, AFP joins other widely read medical journals such as The Lancet and BMJ in recognizing the essential role that physicians can play in mitigating the negative impacts of environmental stress on patients' health.

After summarizing the serious potential health effects of climate change, Dr. Cindy Parker recommends that primary care clinicians counsel patients regarding two lifestyle changes that are likely to improve personal health as well as slow global warming: reducing meat consumption and increasing "active transportation" (substituting bicycling or walking for short car trips). In addition, physician practices and larger medical organizations can positively affect climate change by "going green":

Medical offices and hospitals can help by recycling; using recycled items and Energy Star certified appliances and computers; minimizing waste and waste transport by replacing single-use items with sterilizable or washable items; purchasing wind-generated electricity; and reducing energy use by turning off appliances, computers, and lights when not in use. In 2008, the U.S. health care sector spent $8.8 billion on energy to meet patient needs, not including the transportation of employees or patients to and from health care facilities, resulting in 8 percent of all U.S. greenhouse gas emissions.

In an accompanying editorial, Dr. Robert Gould reviews several national and international initiatives that encourage hospitals and health systems to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, including the Healthier Hospitals Initiative and Health Care Without Harm.

Sunday, July 31, 2011

Tobacco quitlines suffer from budget cuts

An editorial in the July 15th issue of AFP by Drs. Stephen Rothemich and Scott Strayer extols the value of telephone quitlines in helping family physicians convince patients to stop smoking. Noting that many practices "lack the time and resources to provide effective counseling," the authors recommend that busy clinicians refer patients to the national toll-free quitline number (800-QUIT-NOW) to fill in these gaps. In addition, they review high-quality evidence that quitlines improve smoking cessation rates over counseling or medications alone:

The effectiveness of quitline counseling is well established. A Cochrane review reported successful cessation in patients who received counseling from quitlines (number needed to treat = 32). Quitline counseling combined with smoking cessation medications is particularly effective, with a cessation rate of 28.1 percent (more than three times the rates with minimal or no counseling or with self-help).

Unfortunately, funding for quitlines has recently fallen victim to budget cuts in at least two states. In Ohio and Washington State, quitlines that were once free to all smokers now only serve patients with certain types of insurance. State officials attributed their inability to continue to fully fund the quitlines to ending of federal grants and the need to divert funds from the 1998 Master Settlement Agreement with tobacco companies to other non-tobacco-related programs.

These cuts could not have come at a worse time, as the U.S. Food and Drug Administration's new requirement that cigarette packs display graphic health warning labels by September 2012 seems to have increased smokers' interest in using quitlines. For information about any eligibility limitations on your state's quitline, you can consult the website of the North American Quitline Consortium at

Monday, July 25, 2011

Diagnosing patients who itch

In a fascinating 2008 New Yorker article, "The Itch," Harvard surgeon Atul Gawande told the story of a patient who experienced a nearly fatal complication from treatment-resistant pruritis of her scalp following an episode of herpes zoster:

One morning, after she was awakened by her bedside alarm, she sat up and, she recalled, “this fluid came down my face, this greenish liquid.” She pressed a square of gauze to her head and went to see her doctor again. M. showed the doctor the fluid on the dressing. The doctor looked closely at the wound. She shined a light on it and in M.’s eyes. Then she walked out of the room and called an ambulance. Only in the Emergency Department at Massachusetts General Hospital, after the doctors started swarming, and one told her she needed surgery now, did M. learn what had happened. She had scratched through her skull during the night—and all the way into her brain.

Although this sort of complication is highly unusual, pruritis - far from being only a "nuisance" symptom - is often associated with underlying systemic conditions, Dr. Brian Reamy and colleagues observe in "A Diagnostic Approach to Pruritis" in the July 15th issue of AFP. Clinicians should consider evaluating patients who present with generalized, unexplained pruritis for thyroid disorders, lymphoma, kidney and liver diseases, and diabetes. Many dermatoses of pregnancy can cause intense pruritis. Also, some psychiatric disorders are associated with pruritic sensations, leading to "neurotic excorations." Certain historical findings, including recent travel, exposure to animals, and constitutional symptoms such as weight loss and fatigue, can help to narrow the extensive differential diagnosis of this common and troublesome symptom.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Making informed choices about family planning and contraception

For reproductive-age women who have medical comorbidities such as epilepsy, diabetes, and hypertension, choosing a family planning method can be challenging. The September 1, 2010 issue of AFP reviewed the risks and benefits of hormonal contraceptives for these patients, based on guidelines from the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. However, the scope of that article did not include nonpharmacologic options such as barrier or fertility awareness-based methods, also known as natural family planning (NFP). Two letters in the July 1st issue of AFP remind readers that NFP is an effective family planning option for appropriately educated couples and provide helpful training resources for clinicians. As Drs. Robert Conkling and Leslie Chorun observe:

Counseling in natural methods of fertility regulation is currently being provided by a growing number of trained physicians, nurse practitioners, and allied health professionals. ... These family planning methods should not be confused with calendar rhythm method and are not dependent on the regularity of a woman's cycle. Population-based surveys have shown a significant interest in NFP—approximately 25 percent of women and 40 percent of men are interested in using NFP to avoid pregnancy, and 33 percent of women are interested in using NFP to conceive. This interest is not associated with religion, education, age, or income level.

For further reading on patient outcomes associated with various fertility awareness-based methods, family physicians can consult a clinical review published in the Journal of the American Board of Family Medicine. Also, a recent AFP By Topic collection compiles the journal's current online content on all aspects of family planning and contraception, including preconception care, the infertility evaluation, and advantages and disadvantages of hormonal and non-hormonal methods.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Eliciting patients' lifestyle habits can be difficult

A physician reader of AFP submitted the following post.


It is an unwritten law of medicine that patients tend to be less than entirely forthcoming when responding to queries regarding their intake of alcohol. I would guess that most physicians double or triple the number of alcoholic beverages patients admit to drinking daily. Similarly, when counseling patients with diabetes or obesity, I generally hear what I take to be gross underestimates of the amount of carbohydrates and total calories consumed. An individual might state with complete confidence (and often, indignation), "I eat almost nothing." He then might list his total food consumption for the previous day as "nothing for breakfast, an apple for lunch, a piece of chicken and a salad for dinner; that’s it."

I suspect that we all have an unintentional, perhaps uncontrollable, drive to appear better than we are in the presence of health professionals; we want to pass the test, so to speak. As a result, it is quite difficult to obtain accurate information regarding lifestyle habits such as diet, amount of exercise, tobacco use, substance abuse, sexual activity, etc. I congratulate patients who "come clean" and provide me with true descriptions of their daily habits. When asking them to keep food diaries, I explain that I am not grading them but, rather, collecting information about unhealthy aspects of their diet so that I can help them make adjustments.

Sometimes this approach works; often, it does not. After hearing another improbable tale of conscientious eating habits in a patient whose physical examination and laboratory tests suggest otherwise, I generally explain, “the laws of thermodynamics cannot be broken."

Bob Schwartz, MD
Chester Family Medicine
Chester, Vermont

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Advice for physicians on using social media

The Mayo Clinic's Center for Social Media recently posted a short video of prominent physician bloggers Bryan Vartabedian (a gastroenterologist), Wendy Sue Swanson (a pediatrician), and Katherine Chretien (an internist) giving advice to young physicians on the potential and perils of social media use.

The advice and additional resources these experts provide should be helpful to family physicians at all stages of training who are new to using social media tools. Dr. Chretien also writes an insightful commentary in the July 1st issue of AFP in response to the question, "Should I be 'friends' with my patients on social networking web sites?" (Short answer: no, but there are less ethically questionable ways to interact with one's patients online.) As Dr. Chretien points out, the American Medical Association has recently published guidance on professionalism in the use of social media.

We encourage family physicians to explore the health care social media landscape through posts and comments on the AFP Community Blog and the journal's Facebook and Twitter accounts, as well as by visiting our links to blogs written by and for family physicians.

Friday, July 1, 2011

Preparing for bioterrorism and other medical emergencies

In the aftermath of 9/11 and the anthrax attacks of 2001, AFP published a review article on "Recognition and Management of Bioterrorism," recognizing that primary care clinicians would be on the front lines of any future bioterrorist attack. Other critical resources for family physicians now include the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's Bioterrorism resource page, the MedlinePlus collection on Biodefense and Bioterrorism, and the American Academy of Family Physicians' Preparedness Manual for Disasters and Public Health Emergencies.

Although the unpredictable threat of bioterrorism can seem distant from day-to-day practice, Drs. Mark Harris and Kevin Yeskey remind us in an editorial in the July 1st issue of AFP that family physicians continue to play a "vital role" in protecting all Americans from the consequences of these attacks:

The first diagnosis of anthrax in the 2001 attack was in an emergency department. A salmonella outbreak in Oregon in 1984 that was later found to be bioterrorism-related was discovered after primary care physicians reported to their health department large numbers of patients with diarrhea who had eaten at two local restaurants. This type of passive surveillance is the early warning system for naturally occurring outbreaks, and for bioterrorism events. An astute physician who diagnoses a reportable illness and alerts the local health department may be detecting a bioterrorism attack, possibly saving his or her patient and many others.

Additional free AFP online resources to help physicians prepare for a variety of natural and man-made medical emergencies include a clinical review of emergency preparedness in office practice and a Curbside Consultation on professional training for emergency situations.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Aspirin for primary CVD prevention: the continuing debate

In 2002, the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF) strongly recommended that primary care clinicians discuss preventive aspirin use with adults at increased risk of cardiovascular events. Four years later, the National Commission on Prevention Priorities (NCPP) ranked counseling for aspirin use the number one priority on its list of the most effective clinical preventive services. According to the NCPP, if the percentage of eligible patients using aspirin (then estimated to be about 50 percent) increased to 90 percent, 45,000 additional lives could be extended each year.

At that time, the benefits of aspirin use in men and women were assumed to be the same. However, an updated USPSTF recommendation statement published in the June 15th issue of AFP indicates that aspirin use actually prevents heart attacks in men, but ischemic strokes in women. In addition, physicians and patients must weigh the benefits of reduced cardiovascular risk with the risk of gastrointestinal bleeding events, and use shared decision making when these risks are closely balanced.

To further complicate matters, a 2009 meta-analysis published in the journal The Lancet questioned the value of aspirin for primary prevention, concluding that for patients who without a history of cardiovascular disease, "aspirin is of uncertain net value." In response, family physicians and USPSTF members Ned Calonge and Michael LeFevre wrote an editorial that concluded, "There is not a simple message for aspirin prophylaxis as a primary preventive strategy, and we need to consider gender, age, and the associated balance of potential risks and benefits to provide the best advice and preventive care for our patients."

We pick up the continuing debate with two thought-provoking editorials in the June 15th issue. Alison L. Bailey and colleagues caution that routine aspirin use is not justified for primary prevention in adults at low risk of CVD. On the other hand, W. Fred Miser asserts that the main issue regarding aspirin for primary prevention continues to be underuse in appropriate-risk patients. Finally, a Putting Prevention Into Practice case study applies information from the USPSTF recommendation to a sample patient scenario.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

FP Blog Roundup: Remembering Barbara Starfield

The recent passing of legendary primary care researcher Barbara Starfield, MD, MPH was the subject of many Family Medicine blog posts this week. At Medicine and Social Justice, Josh Freeman, MD called Dr. Starfield "the pre-eminent scholar on health workforce policy." At Family Medicine Rocks, Mike Sevilla, MD posted a video of her receiving the Family Medicine Education Consortium's Lifetime Achievement Award and commented on the surprising silence from family medicine organizations about Dr. Starfield, who, though a pediatrician by training, "gave this specialty [of family medicine] a voice." Finally, at The Singing Pen of Doctor Jen, Jennifer Middleton, MD, MPH pondered, "With all of the national chatter about [unsustainable] heath care costs, why hasn't the media broadcasted the message of primary care's cost-saving and health-prolonging benefits?"

Through her research, Dr. Starfield did more than perhaps any other individual to establish the essential role of family medicine in improving population health outcomes in the U.S. and abroad. In a 2009 interview for AAFP News Now, she observed:

The thing that is wrong with our current health care system is that it is not designed to produce the best effectiveness, efficiency and equity in health services because it is too focused on things that are unnecessary and of high cost rather than arranging services so that the most needed services are provided when needed and with high quality. [This] is the case because the country has not put sufficient emphasis during the past 50 years on a good infrastructure of primary care. Primary care everywhere in the world is most of the care, for most of the people, most of the time. We have done a reasonably good job at making subspecialty care available, but a lot of subspecialty care is not necessary if you have good primary care. So we end up with a very expensive system that does things unnecessarily. If we followed what the evidence shows, we could do a whole lot better with a much better infrastructure of what we call primary health care.

Earlier that year, in a provocative editorial published in Family Practice Managment, Dr. Starfield had argued that the timeless principles of family medicine - first-contact care; comprehensive care; person-focused care over time; and care coordination - should be driving practice reforms such as the Patient-Centered Medical Home, rather than the other way around. To honor Dr. Starfield's career, Health Affairs is offering free access until June 28th to four landmark articles that she previously wrote in their journal.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Evaluation and management of heat-related illness

Last July, a record-breaking heat wave affected most of the Northern Hemisphere and led to many cases of heat-related illness in the U.S. and abroad. As the summer of 2011 approaches, Drs. Jonathan Becker and Lynsey Stewart from the University of Louisville, Kentucky present an updated review of the evaluation and management of heat cramps, heat exhaustion, and heat stroke in the June 1st issue of AFP. In addition to using the suggested evaluation algorithm, family physicians should also be aware of the many conditions and substances that may increase the risk of heat-related illness. As the authors note, heat stroke is a true medical emergency that requires immediate assessment and lowering of core body temperature, preferably through cold water immersion.

Monday, May 30, 2011

Addressing family medicine's "Top 5" list

Last week, the journal Archives of Internal Medicine published "The 'Top 5' Lists in Primary Care," a physician-authored consensus statement that recommended five activities each for the specialties of family medicine, internal medicine, and pediatrics to pursue to reduce waste and improve quality. Here is the top 5 list for family physicians, together with related online resources from AFP By Topic collections:

1) Don't do imaging for low back pain within the first 6 weeks unless "red flags" are present.

2) Don't routinely prescribe antibiotics for acute sinusitis.

3) Don't order annual ECGs or any other cardiac screening for asymptomatic, low-risk patients.

4) Don't perform Pap tests on women younger than 21 years or in women status post hysterectomy for benign disease.

5) Don't use DEXA screening for osteoporosis in women under age 65 years or in men under 70 years with no risk factors.

As a reminder, AFP By Topic is also available as a free mobile app in the Apple Store and the Android Market.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Autism spectrum disorders: increasing prevalence or diagnosis shift?

A physician reader of AFP submitted the following post.


The recent editorial “The Changing Prevalence of the Autism Spectrum Disorders” in the March 1st issue discusses many of the challenges surrounding autism and the apparent increase in prevalence of this diagnosis. Having spent 30 years as the medical director of a private residential facility for children with developmental disabilities, I have some additional observations to add.

Many years ago, the most common diagnosis at our school was “mental retardation.” Subsequently, this diagnosis fell out of favor and was replaced by “static encephalopathy.” I seldom see these admitting diagnoses any more from referring neurologists and developmental pediatricians. Instead, some children are labeled as having “global developmental delay,” but virtually all children are also diagnosed as being on the autism spectrum. I am convinced that a great deal of what we are seeing in this population is a shift in diagnosis rather than a real change in prevalence.

In the past, children with known genetic disorders such as Down syndrome, Fragile X syndrome, or tuberous sclerosis were excluded from the diagnosis of autism. Now, autism is usually the second or third diagnosis. In my mind, this is like diagnosing a patient with a broken leg as having a gait disturbance. Although it may be technically true, it adds little to the diagnosis. Children with developmental disabilities typically have difficulties with social interaction, communication and behavior. Although some of these behaviors may be similar to those of children with autism, I believe that the supplemental diagnosis is not helpful.

A wide variety of services, including medical assistance, early intervention, and wraparound services, are available to children with autism which are not available to the same children if the diagnosis is mental retardation. I have often encountered parents who insist on the diagnosis of autism for their child even if I believe that the child does not fit in the autistic spectrum, because they want their children to have access to the benefits and services that accompany this diagnosis.

Many children who were previously diagnosed as having minimal brain dysfunction or being emotionally disturbed (or even just considered “odd”) are now rightfully recognized as belonging in the high functioning end of the autistic spectrum. Once again, I believe much of the increase in prevalence we are seeing is diagnosis shift.

Richard G. Fried, MD
The Camphill Special School
Glenmoore, PA

Monday, May 16, 2011

CME that makes a difference in patients' lives

Surveys of American Family Physician's readers and website visitors have consistently reported that the journal contains useful, evidence-based information that is applicable to daily practice. But as valuable as AFP is for providing continuing medical education to clinicians, does it actually save patients' lives? That's the question that primary care researchers from Sweden asked about a specific CME intervention in this month's issue of Annals of Family Medicine. Dr. Anna Kiessling and colleagues conducted a randomized trial comparing long-term outcomes in patients with coronary heart disease who received care from generalist physicians who attended repeated case-based trainings in the management of hyperlipidemia, or received usual care. Ten years later, the results were clear: the overall mortality rate in the intervention group (22%) was half of the mortality rate in the control group (44%).

The editors of AFP would like to believe that our online collections of selected content on topics such as hyperlipidemia, hypertension, and coronary artery disease have similar lifesaving benefits for your patients, but the truth is, we don't know. So how can we find out? As recently reported in AAFP News Now, journal CME quizzes for content published after the July 1st issue must be submitted online only, in order to meet new AMA requirements regarding CME credit. Although this will be a change for many readers, it presents an opportunity to think about how we might redesign CME content to better meet physicians' needs and improve measurable outcomes for their patients. If you have any thoughts or suggestions, please post them in a comment or send an e-mail to

Thursday, May 12, 2011

Can inappropriate MRI use be stopped?

A physician reader of AFP submitted the following post.


I enjoyed reading and cannot agree more with the editorial in the April 15, 2011 issue on the appropriate use of magnetic resonance imaging for evaluating common musculoskeletal conditions. In many ways, the overuse of MRI is like the overuse of antibiotics for viral syndromes. Everyone knows we shouldn’t do it, but nobody seems to be able to stop.

Almost every specialist I refer to orders an MRI, often requiring them before they will even schedule a consult. Patients come in demanding an MRI after watching a professional sports event in which the sideline reporter let folks know what the MRI showed on the star who was injured during the game.

I’ve had many patients come in letting me know that their personal trainer, therapist, or next door neighbor as well as their neurologist, chiropractor or other health care professional had advised them to come in and request an MRI.

The radiologists where I practice review all MRI requests for appropriateness based on the clinical history and reported physical findings. This review process has significantly cut down on the number of MRIs that are being done at our facility, although the number of complaints has risen. In contrast, there are no financial disincentives to performing inappropriate MRIs in fee-for-service health systems.

William T. Sheahan, MD
Orlando VA Medical Center
Orlando, Florida

Monday, May 9, 2011

Screening colonoscopies performed more often than necessary

According to guidelines from multiple expert groups, including those of the American College of Gastroenterology and the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force, the appropriate interval between colonoscopies for colorectal cancer screening is 10 years. But a study published today in the Archives of Internal Medicine found that nearly 1 in 4 Medicare patients who had a normal screening colonoscopy examination from 2001 to 2003 underwent another colonoscopy within 7 years with no other medical indications. This study confirmed previous reports of endoscopists advising patients to return for repeat colonoscopies at substantially shorter intervals than those recommended in current guidelines.

Overuse of screening colonoscopy provides no additional health benefits to patients, but increases the risk of adverse effects, causes unnecessary medical expenses, and diverts resources that might otherwise be available to assist the nearly 40 percent of eligible Americans who are not up-to-date on colorectal cancer screening. Although more adults are being screened today than ever before, much work remains to be done, as family physician Doug Campos-Outcalt wrote in a previous editorial in AFP:

Although [colorectal cancer screening] trends show improvement, significant disparities persist. Racial or ethnic minorities and those with no health insurance, low incomes, or less than a high school education have significantly lower rates of use of colorectal cancer testing. There are several hypothesized reasons to explain low adherence to recommendations. These include lack of a medical home, lack of health insurance, lack of awareness of the need, and failure of physicians to recommend screening. Family physicians can address the last two issues; policy makers need to address the first two.

Fecal occult blood testing and flexible sigmoidoscopy are also recommended options for reducing colorectal cancer mortality in adults 50 to 75 years of age. However, evidence suggests that colonoscopy has become the colorectal screening cancer test of choice for many family physicians. What has been your experience with referring patients for screening colonoscopy? Has your practice observed excessive colonoscopy use for patients without indications other than screening?

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Redefining Alzheimer's dementia: for better or for worse?

Two weeks ago, the National Institute on Aging and the Alzheimer's Association published new criteria for the diagnosis of Alzheimer's disease that include biomarker measurements in addition to traditional clinical criteria. The rationale for the new guideline was that more sensitive criteria were needed in order to test interventions to prevent Alzheimer's disease; by the time symptoms are obvious, proponents argue, it is likely too late to alter the patient's prognosis. However, the downside to creating a new category of "pre-symptomatic Alzheimers" is that many otherwise healthy adults could now receive an Alzheimer's diagnosis when there is no effective treatment - a label that leads to no health benefit and possible psychological harm. Therefore, experts recommend that this category only be used for patients who are enrolled in clinical trials of Alzheimer's prevention.

In the May 1st issue of AFP, Drs. Carla Perissinotto and Victor Valcour review the numerous gaps in the evidence for preventing dementia that complicate public health strategies for reducing the rising incidence and morbidity from this chronic disease. They argue that current knowledge supports a tertiary prevention strategy:

It is reasonable to look to prior public health campaigns as models for our educational and prevention efforts for dementia. Educational efforts should first focus on ensuring that the public understands that a diagnosis of dementia represents a spectrum of cognitive impairment, and that Alzheimer disease is only one of several subtypes. Until strategies targeting primary and secondary prevention emerge, our greatest impact may be in tertiary prevention—in the prevention of dementia morbidity. Such work may require early recognition, in which strategies targeting home and financial safety have a clear impact on those at highest risk.

Family physicians have always played an important role in caring for patients with dementia and their caregivers. For more current information on the diagnosis and management of the various forms of dementia, see our AFP By Topic collection.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Should pharma have unrestricted access to your prescribing profile?

For many years, it has been a common practice for pharmaceutical companies to use individual physicians' prescribing profiles to tailor their marketing and sales strategies. For example, if a drug rep had access to data showing that a particular family doctor was prescribing more of a competitor's anti-hypertensive drug, he or she might make a point of dropping off a batch of samples to change that doctor's prescribing practices. As explained in a previous AFP Journal Club, this strategy is often very effective for the drug company, but ends up increasing patients' out-of-pocket expenses in the long run.

Recently, state legislatures in Vermont, Maine, and New Hampshire have passed laws that restrict access to a physician's prescribing profile for marketing purposes. Drug companies and other groups argue that these laws violate the First Amendment, equating a doctor's prescribing data to constitutionally protected "free speech." A news article in yesterday's New York Times reported that the Supreme Court will hear arguments this week in a lawsuit brought against Vermont's confidentiality law by prescribing data collection companies and the industry group Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America.

In order to balance the sometimes deleterious effects of aggressive drug marketing, AFP provides numerous online resources to support our readers in decision-making about prescriptions. These resources include a systematic eight-step approach to prescribing and individual reviews of new drugs that utilize the STEPS (Safety, Tolerability, Efficacy, Price, and Simplicity) approach. Are there other ways that we could help you and your patients make informed drug choices?

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

AFP By Topic now available for iPhone and Android

Last year, we launched "AFP By Topic: Editors' Choice of Best Current Content" to provide readers with easily navigable collections of our best current information on conditions that they regularly encounter in clinical practice. Now you can take AFP By Topic with you on the go by downloading a free app available for the iPhone and Android. For more information on what's included in the topic collections and how to navigate the app, please see the Inside AFP column in the April 15th issue.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

The future of house calls

Although house calls remain a part of family medicine residency training, the proportion of family physicians who perform them in practice has been declining for years. One notable exception is Steven Landers, MD, MPH, medical director of the Cleveland Clinic Home Health Agency. In previous commentaries published in the Annals of Family Medicine and JAMA, Dr. Landers has called home care "a key to the future of family medicine" and "the other medical home," distinct from office-centric Patient-Centered Medical Home initiatives supported by the American Academy of Family Physicians and other primary care groups.

American Medical News
recently reported that the 2010 health reform law gave house calls a boost by mandating "Independence at Home," a Medicare demonstration project that will offer financial incentives to primary care teams performing house calls in selected high-cost areas of the U.S. starting in 2012. A similar program sponsored by the HealthCare Partners Medical Group in California, Nevada, and Florida led to a 20 percent drop in hospital use over its two years of existence, saving $2 million per year for every 1,000 members.

In addition to reductions in hospitalizations and costs, house calls produce other benefits for clinicians and patients, including improved continuity of care and new patient referrals, as family physician Samantha Pozner, MD argued in a 2003 article published in Family Practice Management.

As house calls appear poised to make a comeback, the April 15th issue of AFP delivers a timely, updated review of their effectiveness, essential elements (including a sample house call checklist), and practice management details such as current billing codes for house calls and domiciliary care.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Evaluation of a child with "failure to thrive"

"Failure to thrive is a term used to describe inadequate growth or the inability to maintain growth, usually in early childhood," begins an updated review of this topic in the April 1st issue of AFP. Accurate identification of failure to thrive should rely on a combination of anthropometric criteria, using the 2006 child growth standards established by the World Health Organization. According to Drs. Sarah Cole and Jason Lanham, 5 to 10 percent of children in primary care settings in the U.S. have failure to thrive, with the vast majority presenting before 18 months of age.

The diagnostic evaluation of failure to thrive includes "a detailed account of a child's eating habits, caloric intake, and parent-child interactions," as well as observations of breast or bottle feeding technique. Unless the child presents with one or more red flag signs or symptoms suggesting a non-behavioral cause of failure to thrive, routine laboratory testing is not recommended. Treatment usually consists of nutritional counseling and supplementation to achieve catch-up growth, with frequent follow-up visits to monitor progress.

As a previously published AFP Curbside Consultation has illustrated, however, diagnosing a psychosocial cause of failure to thrive is often challenging. The difference between neglect and parental ignorance of appropriate feeding habits may not be clear, especially when parents delay seeking medical attention for a child with apparently obvious signs of malnutrition and growth delay. When you recognize a child with failure to thrive in your practice, under what conditions would you consider referring him or her to a child protective services agency for investigation of parental neglect?

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Prostate-specific antigen screening is not effective

According to the Cochrane for Clinicians summary in the the April 1st issue of AFP, a review of five randomized, controlled trials with more than 340,000 participants found no statistically significant effect of prostate-specific antigen (PSA) screening on mortality from prostate cancer. An independent meta-analysis published last year in BMJ also concluded that routine screening had no measurable health benefits and could not be recommended. On the other side of the ledger, Drs. Nathan Hitzeman and Michael Molina point out that

Established harms of PSA testing include excessive worry over false-positive results and morbidity from interventions, including infection, bleeding, pain, long-term sexual dysfunction, and urinary incontinence. A recent analysis showed that PSA testing does not attain the likelihood ratios necessary to qualify as a screening test, regardless of the cutoff value used. The inventor of the PSA test said the test's popularity has caused “a hugely expensive public health disaster.”

Despite the preponderance of evidence that this test is not effective, and frequently results in harm to patients, data from the National Health Interview Survey published earlier this week in the Journal of Clinical Oncology demonstrate that PSA screening is becoming more common in the U.S., not less. 45 percent of men age 70 to 74 years, and 25 percent of men age 85 years or older, report being screened.

The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force and the AAFP recommend against screening for prostate cancer in men age 75 years or older, due to their limited life expectancies and the high likelihood of death from a cause other than prostate cancer. Nonetheless, clinical practice remains far out of step with the evidence. What approach do you take to discussing prostate cancer screening with your patients?

Monday, March 21, 2011

Selected new AFP content now open to all

Unlike most medical journals, AFP has always had a fairly liberal online access policy, with no restrictions or charges on accessing content 12 months after the date of publication. (Content published within the past 12 months is freely available to members of the American Academy of Family Physicians and to other health professionals with subscriptions.) While our primary concern is to serve the journal's 170,000 regular readers, we also recognize that having immediate access to some new content would be valuable to others in the primary care community and our patients. Therefore, starting with the March 15th issue, the following sections of the journal will now be freely accessible online, regardless of publication date:

Graham Center Policy One-Pagers
U.S. Preventive Services Task Force statements
Pro/Con Editorials (only members and paid subscribers can post comments)
AAFP News Now
Close-Ups: A Patient's Perspective
Patient Handouts

These sections of the journal were selected because they are intended for our patients or the wider medical community, and most are freely available on other sites.

We hope that AFP's new "selected open access" policy will benefit family physicians and their patients by allowing the journal to reach a wider online audience, while continuing to reserve continuing medical education-associated content to members and paid subscribers.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

New health maintenance and preventive care resources

The March 15th issue of AFP features a two-part article summarizing important health maintenance issues in school-aged children. Part One focuses on surveillance, screening, and immunizations; and Part Two addresses counseling recommendations. An accompanying editorial by David Ortiz, MD outlines strategies to improve the delivery of preventive services to children, ranging from immunization reminder or recall systems to parent-response developmental tools that can be filled out prior to office visits. Dr. Ortiz concludes by encouraging family physicians to work collaboratively with allied health professionals and office staff to achieve prevention goals:

Although achieving widespread adoption of system-wide changes is a daunting task, family physicians can begin by taking small steps to improve the preventive and well-child care services they provide to their patients. By using chart review or abstraction and identifying key measures to improve (e.g., immunization rates, anticipatory guidance on select topics), family physicians and their staff can assess how well they currently deliver these services, then set improvement goals. Family physicians and their staff can also work together to use well-studied quality improvement techniques, such as the PDSA (plan, do, study, act) cycle, to identify and develop practice-specific ways to improve well-child services.

Since preventive care guidelines for children and adults are updated frequently, we are pleased to provide two new AFP By Topic Collections on Health Maintenance and Counseling and Immunizations. In addition to cutting-edge clinical content, be sure to check out valuable Improving Practice articles from Family Practice Management on subjects such as the recent Medicare preventive services expansion, working with behavioral health specialists, and coding sports physicals.