Saturday, April 14, 2012

"Eggs Benedict" and "Choosing Wisely": often the best thing to do is nothing

Years ago (OK, decades ago), when Woody Allen was a standup comic, he did a short, famous bit called “Eggs Benedict”. The narrator (let’s say “Woody”) is having pain in the chestal area (a great formulation which has long been popular in my house). He is pretty sure it is heartburn, but is worried and doesn’t want to pay the $25 to see a doctor (I told you it was a long time ago). Luckily his friend, Eggs Benedict, is having the same kind of pain. He figures if he can get Eggs to go to the doctor, he can find out what it is and save money. It works, and Eggs finds out it is heartburn. Two days later, he discovers Eggs is dead. He immediately checks into the hospital, has all kinds of tests, and discovered he has – heartburn. The bill is $110 (it was a really long time ago!) He goes to see Eggs’ mother and asks if his friend suffered much. “No,” she says, “the car hit him and that was it!”

I was thinking about this story when I was asked to call into a local radio talk show to comment on “Choosing Wisely”, an initiative of the American Board of Internal Medicine (ABIM), which calls on medical specialty societies to list 5 tests or treatments frequently performed in their specialty that they recommend not be done, or not be done on most patients. In the recently released report, 9 medical specialty societies are represented, for a total of 45 recommendations, which can be found here. The 5 for my own specialty, Family Medicine, listed by the American Academy of Family Physicians’ (AAFP), were:

1.  Don’t do imaging for low back pain within the first six weeks, unless red flags are present.
2. Don’t routinely prescribe antibiotics for acute mild-to-moderate sinusitis unless symptoms last for seven or more days, or symptoms worsen after initial clinical improvement.
3.  Don’t use dual-energy x-ray absorptiometry (DEXA) screening for osteoporosis in women younger than 65 or men younger than 70 with no risk factors.
4.  Don’t order annual electrocardiograms (EKGs) or any other cardiac screening for low-risk patients without symptoms.
5. Don’t perform Pap smears on women younger than 21 or who have had a hysterectomy for non-cancer disease.

Each is backed by the evidence, and is accompanied by a summary of the reasons. For example, for #2: “Most sinusitis in the ambulatory setting is due to a viral infection that will resolve on its own. Despite consistent recommendations to the contrary, antibiotics are prescribed in more than 80 % of outpatient visits for acute sinusitis. Sinusitis accounts for 16 million office visits and $5.8 billion in annual health care costs.” Big money for a treatment that doesn’t work, and can cause bad side effects (allergies to the antibiotics and increased resistance of bacteria to antibiotics, for two).

The talk radio hosts had questions, especially about treatment of cancer. One of the American Society of Clinical Oncologists’ (ASCO) recommendations is “Don’t use cancer-directed therapy for solid tumor patients with the following characteristics: low performance status (3 or 4), no benefit from prior evidence-based interventions, not eligible for a clinical trial, and no strong evidence supporting the clinical value of further anticancer treatment.”  That seems like a no-brainer to me, but they wanted to know “What if a patient wants treatment for cancer anyway?” I said I thought it was the responsibility of the doctor to point out that the treatment would not help, and would not only cost money but would have a lot of toxic side effects; I said that I thought most people, if they knew they were going to die from their cancer and the treatment would not help, would not wish to spend their last days and weeks nauseated, losing their hair, and being unable to interact comfortably with their loved ones.

The radio hosts also said “We are always told patients should be self-advocates. What if advocating for ourselves we say we want antibiotics for our sinusitis?” I said that self-advocacy was really important, because no one but the patient and their family could really identify what their health goals were. But this was different from deciding what treatment you wanted; going to the doctor is not going to the grocery store with your shopping list that may include both healthful and bad-for-you foods. It is critical that you identify where you want to go and work with the doctor, or other provider, to come up with a plan that is mostly likely to get you there safely and effectively.

Coincidentally, the same week I facilitated the discussion about futile treatment at the end of life for a group of third-year medical students in their medical ethics course. They had just received a lecture from a distinguished medical oncologist, who presented the four core principles of medical ethics: Autonomy, Beneficence (do good), Non-maleficence (do no harm), and Justice. They also read several articles documenting cases in which end of life decision-making did not go smoothly or well, and the article “How Doctors Die” by Ken Murray, that I have previously discussed (How people die, and how should we?, April 7, 2012). One of the cases involved a patient with terminal cancer who had already failed treatment, and for whom further treatment would be futile (although not without adverse effects). He had agreed to hospice, and to comfort care, until a relative (a physician!) came to town and demanded additional treatment for him, and convinced him to as well.

The medical students, who had  all been through clinical experiences and most of whom had been part of teams that confronted dealing effectively with dying patients, were in agreement with the physician in the article, and with each other, that the treatment was futile and would be a bad idea. However, several felt that, if the patient demanded it, the principle of Autonomy required that it be given. Others noted that this might violate the principle of Non-maleficence. I pointed out that that there were many areas in which we do not allow the patient to pick his/her treatment of choice. For example, we do not allow people to walk into a pharmacy and buy narcotic pain relievers without a prescription, no matter how much they might want them. Certainly the effects of chemotherapy poisons were at least as great.

These are not always easy decisions, but it is one of the reasons being a doctor is hard, respected, and well-paid. If everything were a simple algorithm and one could just memorize the right answer as these medical students were expected to do so often on their multiple-choice tests, it could be done by someone with much less training. Sure, it is possible that someone getting antibiotics for viral sinusitis to get better – indeed they usually do, with our without the antibiotics. Temporal association is not cause. Thus, even when you do the right thing, based on the evidence, and do not get a test or treatment, it is still possible that you will end up worse.

As Eggs and Woody discovered.

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