Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Physician Heal Thyself

As a pharmacist I walk a thin line. Morally I feel obligated to offer information to patients about alternative therapies when appropriate. At the same time I feel I hold back for fear of being reprimanded by the board of pharmacy or admonished by disgruntled physicians who may not appreciate my suggestions. "First do no harm", has at times become; first protect yourself legally; and that's unfortunate.We have been forced to practice defensive medicine. Our medical system, as technologically advanced as it is, is in disarray. Thousands of MRI's, CAT scans, X-rays, blood work are being performed every day; many needlessly. Prescriptions are being handed out like candy; at times just to pacify the patient. Unfortunately these patients soon realize just how expensive the piece of paper they hold in their hands really is.

At the pharmacy I'm approached by patients all the time with various questions. In an attempt to more effectively provide them with helpful information, I usually ask brief questions about their conditions and if they had discussed their concerns with their physicians. Often time the answer is no. Excuses may range from, "I could see that he was busy, so I didn't want to bother him" or "We did discuss it, but I'm not sure I understand" or "I'm concerned about any side effects or drug interactions" or "Isn't there anything else I could take that's over the counter" or "This is too expensive, I can't afford it". In addition, many patients are seeing several doctors and often times each doctor is unaware of what the others are prescribing. In an attempt to save money the patient frequents several pharmacies in order to get the best price. All of this leads to a disorganized medical system which leaves the patient in a vulnerable position as well as their health care providers. If Dr. X isn't aware that Mrs. Smith is taking diazepam, he may write for another sedative, alprazolam. If her primary care physician prescribed the diazepam for muscle spasms and her psychiatrist prescribed alprazolam for anxiety, the patient may believe that these two drugs have nothing in common and it doesn't even occur to her to mention it to either doctor.

Time and again I see that physicians are not aware of their patient's complete drug history and even less aware of what they take over the counter. It is our responsibility as pharmacists to bring this to the doctor's awareness, but we are hindered by not having access to the patient's complete medical history, which includes other pharmacies that they go to. In these cases it seems obvious that the person most capable of resolving these issues is the patient herself, by being forthcoming with the information. I'm all for patient responsibility, but what do you do with an elderly population that has a difficult time remembering and understanding medical jargon?And what of individuals whose English is their second language and have difficulty understanding as well? By no means are these the only patients that we have to be concerned with. The population at large still sees the physician as a patriarchal figure, an expert when it comes to their health. They mistakenly assume that practitioners have an ongoing dialogue amongst each other, in which they routinely partake in conversations regarding their patients. This naive understanding of the medical system, contributes to a patient's vulnerability and less than optimal medical care. I am a strong supporter of patient responsibility--to a certain extent. They are responsible for communicating openly with all their health care practitioners and asking questions, until they are satisfied that they understand all options regarding therapy they are receiving.

However how is it possible for someone outside the medical field, to understand completely what is best for them? It seems that every nightly news show is full of contradictory research conclusions. Part of the problem is sensational headlines, whose only purpose it to captivate the audience's attention. Viewers are left with the misleading headline in their minds and aren't aware of the details in the research, which offers a more comprehensive analysis. Of course we are taking for granted that the study itself was well designed and accurate. Patients are bombarded with contradicting information on a regular basis. Even if they want to take an active role in their healing process, they are overwhelmed with questions that seem to have no end. To make matters worse, according to Dr. John Abramson of Harvard Medical School, many popular studies that have been done in the recent past have had significant flaws at best and outright fraudulent at worst. How are patients to know the difference if practitioners themselves have a hard time deciphering the good ones from the bad?

What I once thought to be research that was done impeccably, with the highest scientific standards, published in trustworthy peer reviewed journals, is no longer true. I went to college in the eighties, a time in which I was made to believe that scientific research was almost sacred in nature. Scientists were seen as objective individuals who would above all else do everything within their power to avoid any bias toward a particular outcome. Dr. Abramson explains in his book Overdosed America that we are standing on shaky ground. Research that once was done by nonprofit organizations, such as universities and hospitals, is now being done by drug companies. Our regulatory agencies which once were forbidden to take money from drug companies are now being subsidies by them. The journals that once had my full confidence, are now receiving millions of dollars from drug companies in exchange for advertisements. Physician's prescribing habits are not only being monitored by insurance companies but also by drug companies and their sales people, in order to more efficiently target marketing. In addition, practicing physicians have routinely been recruited to participate in clinical studies. They were modestly reimbursed for their time if at all; now participating in clinical research means big dollars. Not only are the drug companies doing their own research, but they are hiring their own doctors to do the follow-up clinical studies. This does not mean that all results are unreliable, but one has to question the validity of studies financed through private companies. Where are the safeguards against bias?

Practitioners that are hesitant to recommend or merely tolerate the idea of alternative medicine should consider the issues that have arisen over the last few decades within our own medical system. Healthy skepticism is necessary when evaluating any therapy now more than ever before. Fortunately many physicians have the capacity and aptitude to thoroughly evaluate a study. Statistical analysis is now taught at most medical schools. Unfortunately, evaluating alternative therapies is a bit more complex, only because their knowledge base in these therapies is minimal. Most medical schools don't have these courses available.There are some medical school curriculums which offer courses on alternative and complimentary approaches. These are few and are most often offered as electives within the required curriculum. Some schools are on the cutting edge of training their physicians in a more comprehensive fashion. Often these opportunities are available to medical school graduates when they finish their standard training. These already established physicians chose to do a fellowship in integrative medicine. One such school is the University of Arizona Integrative Medicine Program. This program was founded by Dr. Andrew Weil a foremost expert in the field. In an attempt to educate the practitioner at large, the program also offers continuing education courses on various therapies in complimentary and alternative medicine (CAM). Educational institutions such as this one are at the forefront of a changing paradigm in medicine. They are doing much to dispel the negative stereotype that CAM approaches have received over the last forty years or so. They have taken a hard look at CAM therapies and identified those that are efficacious and beneficial.

Although the number of clinical trials being conducted on CAM therapies are growing in number, there is an undercurrent of disapproval in order to show that most of these therapies are ineffective at best and harmful at worst. It is logical that given the number of therapies available to the consumer, some will be shown not to work and some may prove to be unsafe, but the amount of negative reports in the media suggest a negative bias. There was a news report a few years ago whose headline read "Study proves that St. John's Wort is no better than placebo". In that same study they also compared the efficacy of a popular antidepressant medication. What the media didn't convey was that this antidepressant, which was widely used, was shown to be less effective than placebo. What would it mean to the drug companies if an herb was found to be effective in mild depression? Millions of dollars would be lost.It is difficult to discern credible reporting from what amounts to be agenda driven advertisement.

It is essential that we understand the obstacles that we are faced with and take it upon ourselves to unscrupulously assess the reliability and credibility of the report, whether it be conventional or alternative. We need the support and guidance of respected institutions to help us lead the way to a more holistic model of medicine. At the same time we need comprehensive resources to be easily accessible. Having these support systems in place would not only afford us the ability of providing quality care, but would simultaneously reduce our exposure to liability. According to the University of Arizona Program in Integrative Medicine (PIM), the legal issues that health care providers face when recommending or discussing complementary and alternative medicine modalities in their office are as follows:

Malpractice liability for inadequate informed consent

Licensure and credentialing

Scope of practice (the legally authorized practice boundaries for providers)

Professional discipline (discipline for professional misconduct)

These concerns are valid and one can understand the hesitancy that many practitioners have. From their perspective they would be jumping in a fire hoping to avoid getting burned. In the midst of these obstacles there are seeds of hope. We as patients and as healthcare providers must not capitulate to this challenge. We must avoid complacency and strive for a healthcare environment that is open to new thought and offers more options. PIM offers suggestions and guidelines to follow which will help in traversing these murky waters. When a patient asks about alternative therapies the following should be considered:

What is the curability rate with conventional care?

Weigh quality of evidence, invasiveness, and toxicities of each therapy.
Patient clearly understands the risks and benefits of each option and accepts those risks.It is also important to familiarize yourself with organizations that have been established, in order to demystify CAM therapies. The Consortium of Academic Health Centers for Integrative Medicine (CAHCIM) is an organization responsible for performing rigorous studies on various medical therapies in order to create new models of clinical care, these models would integrate biomedicine, the complexity of human beings, the innate nature of healing, with the diversity of therapeutic systems from all over the world. It understands that the western medical model, although superb at treating many diseases and conditions, also has limitations. At the same time it acknowledges that for millennia there have been effective medical models from around the world. Some of the academic medical centers that are members of CAHCIM include: University of Arizona, Harvard, Georgetown, Duke, and Columbia University to name a few. The following is a list of resources that are also a good place to start:

American Botanical Council

American Herbal Pharmacopoeia

Consumer Labs: Randomly test dietary supplements and release their finding to the public Extensive website with information pertaining to both conventional and CAM treatments.

FDA Food Manufacturing Practices (GMP): Sporadically monitors products off the shelf

Independent Drug Information Service (iDiS)

National Center for Complimentary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM)

National Institute of Health

National Sanitation Foundation (NSF): Dietary supplement quality verification, they use GMP
compliance standards

Overdosed America, Dr. John Abramson

Powerful Medicines, Dr. Jeffrey Avron

The Association of Official Analytical Chemists (AOAC)

The Compendium of Asian Patent Medicines

University of Arizona Integrative Medicine Program

United States Pharmacopoeia (USP): Dietary supplement quality verification they use GMP compliance standards

World Health OrganizationGiven the available resources and I'm sure there will be more to come, a practitioner who has a sincere interest in offering his patients more options, can feel more comfortable with the use of alternative medicine. It saddens me to think how the western medical community has so often disparaged and looked upon other medical models with disdain and total disregard. We don't have all the answers, far from it. All medical traditions have blind spots, strengths and weaknesses. Western medicine would benefit from a visit to the therapist, there it would hopefully have a revelation, and it would realize that it is not omnipotent. Could it be projecting onto other medical models what it is afraid to accept of itself? We bare and share the same responsibility, which is to provide the best medical care available to our patients.

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