Saturday, December 19, 2009

How can a psychiatrist write 100,000 prescriptions a year, and why this matters to Primary Care?

The Miami Herald is reporting an investigation of a psychiatrist who wrote almost 100, 000 prescriptions a year. Sen. Grassley and the feds have halted payment to this Miami psychiatrist who stated that "he prescribes only what is medically necessary" and "works long hours, seeing patients for 10 minutes at a time and many of his patients need four or five medications."

I have no personal knowledge, interaction, acquaintance with psychiatrist Dr. Mendez-Villamil. However, though this sounds fraudulent (which is why the fed likely pulled payment), how could this doctor personally benefit from all of these scripts? Doctors do not get paid by how many prescriptions they write (unless you count docs like oncologists who collect fees for administering chemotherapy). Drug companies are now forbidden to wine and dine doctors, so it is highly unlikely that some pharmaceutical rep is incentivizing this psychiatrist. Besides, these patients areMedicare and Medicaid, so they are likely getting generics in the first place.

So if there is no wrong doing or even an incentive to write all those scripts, is this even possible and why does it happen? If the good doctor is seeing patients every 10 minutes, and each patient needs 4-5 prescriptions (assuming an 8 hour day); that's 46 patients a day needing about 3 prescriptions on average to yield the 150 prescriptions a day that Dr. Mendez Villamil is "accused" of writing. Though this may not be good medicine, with that volume of patients, the numbers sound pretty reasonable, espescially since many chronic psychiatric patients are on multiple medicines. So it it possible that one psychiatrist sees almost 50 Medicare and Medicaid patients a day in 10 minute visits? If the psychiatrist accepts Medicare and Medicaid, then this is actually quite likely the case (and probably not the exception but the rule).

In a piece I wrote for KevinMd a year an a half ago, I described how there are two kinds of mental health care in the US: care for those who pay with insurance and care for those who pay out of pocket. The kind of care that you see in TV and movies where a patient talks to a psychiatrist and possible gets medication; that kind of care happens, but only if you are willing to pay out of pocket. In many cases fees for a regular sessions run over $200. For those paying with insurance, the experience is quite different. If a patient sees a psychiatrist, it is usually only for medication management and usually only in short (10 minute) visits. Any "talk therapy" is relegated to a psychologist or psychiatric social worker. I mean no disrespect to some of the excellent and well qualified non-physician therapist we have in the US. I am not even stating that having a short visit with a psychiatrist for medication management and counseling done by non-MD's is bad medicine. However, the public must be aware that this is how psychiatry is practiced in the US.

In the case of Dr. Mendez-Villamil, he probably is one of only a handful of psychiatrists in Miami that accepts Medicare and Medicaid. Patients probably wait months to see him. The Miami Herald makes him look like a criminal. However, think about the majority of his colleagues who only see patients who can pay $200 or more out of pocket per visit? Dr. Mendez-Villamil is probably a hero, and if he writes 100,000 prescriptions per year this should be seen not as a crime, but a sign of a broken system.

The piece I wrote for KevindMD was entitled, "As psychiatry goes, so will primary care." The reason why so many psychiatrist stopped taking insurance and the reason why those psychiatrist who accept insurance cram patients into 10 minute visits is because the reimbursement rate from insurers is ridiculously low. Many psychiatrist realized that accepting insurance just didn't make sense. The same thing is happening right now in primary care. More an more primary care physicians have stopped taking new Medicare or Medicaid patients, or any insurance altogether. Some have even gone beyond cash only, and started "concierge" practices which charge patients a retainer fee (sometimes well over the usual $1500 a year) in exchange for easy access to their primary care doctor.

Health care reform has focused on how to cover the uninsured and how to pay for this, but it has not focused on how to change the current reimbursement system that rewards "proceduralists" and punishes "congnitivists." If health legislation that covers the uninsured does eventually pass without addressing this fundamental crack in our health care system, there will likely be no primary care physicians to see all these newly insured patients (see what happened in Massachuesetts). The few primary care physicians that do accept the newly insured will likely have limited access and see more patients in less time....kind of like the good Dr. Mendez-Villamil. Whereas the typical psychiatric patient might be on 3-4 meds, the typical Medicaid and Medicare patient is on a great deal more medications. Primary care physicians, get your pens ready! 100,000 prescriptions a year will seem like nothing.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Crestor: Get Ready to Ask Your Doctor for the CRP Test.

The Wall Street Journal is reporting that and FDA panel voted 12-4 in favor of expanding its indication for treating elevated CRP levels. The FDA doesn't always follow the panel's advice, but it usually does, and probably will in this instance.

What's this about?

The FDA is reviewing the results of the JUPITER trial. I blogged about the results of the Jupiter trial a year ago. Basically this study looked at over 17,000 patients with relatively normal cholesterol levels, but an elevated CRP, which is a marker of inflammation and has been associated with elevated risk for heart attack and stroke. The study was planned for 4 years, but stopped just short of 2 years because they found a substantial benefit for patients taking Crestor. Crestor reduced the risk of heart related deaths, heart attacks, and other serious cardiac complications by 44%. These results are pretty impressive.

What's the FDA have to do with this?
Why is the FDA weighing in on a year old study for a drug that is already on the market? Because Astra Zeneca, the maker of Crestor, is asking the FDA to give Crestor and indication to use Crestor in patients with normal LDL's but elevated CRP's. Currently, all statin medications are only indicated to treat high cholesterol in order to prevent heart attacks and strokes, not to actually prevent heart attacks and strokes irrespective of cholesterol.
I have previously discussed the meaning of "indication" in a post called "An indication for change." Basically, even though Crestor has been proven to prevent heart attacks in patients with elevated CRP and normal cholesterol, the company can not share this information with doctors or advertise this information with patients until it gets the indication. You may notice that a recent Crestor commercial shows a woman over time who states that while she was building a family/career, atherosclerotic plaques were building up in her arterties. The reason this is a focus of the commercial is because Crestor recently got an indication to prevent the progression of atherosclerosis. Since it is the only statin with this indication, the company likely wants to use this as a competitive edge over other statins. It it gets the CRP indication, it will likely use this in advertising messages to doctors and patients.

What does this mean for me?
Actually, the study results have been out for over a year, so this is not really anything new. However, if the FDA does go forward with the panel's recommendations, you will likely hear more about testing for CRP, and your doctor may even recommend this test.

Should I use a statin to treat an elevated CRP?
The jury is still out. This may change though, as the Adult Treatment Panel IV (ATP4), a NIH sponsored group, will soon make its new cholesterol treatment recommendations. They will have to address the CRP issue. The US Preventative Health Task Force (the same government group that recently told younger women to stop getting mammograms) recently stated that they felt there was insufficient evidence to recommend this. This is true, because though there are numerous studies associating CRP to cardiovascular risk, only the JUPITER study shows that treatment works. That being said, the JUPITER study is a very large, randomized trial with substantial differences between treatment and placebo groups, so it should not be ignored. If you don't want to wait until the APT4 weighs in, I would discuss this with your physician. If you are very worried about heart attacks and strokes (possibly a strong family history), but have a normal cholesterol, treating an elevated CRP might be a reasonable option for you.

What do the nay-sayers say?
There are many that will come out against this, regardless of what the ATP4 decides. In addition to stating that there isn't enough data they will say:
  • "The patients in the JUPITER study taking Crestor developed diabetes". This is true, but most of the patients in the study were at risk of developing diabetes. Even though there were statistically a few more patients taking Crestor that developed diabetes, it is very unlikely that this was real, and other markers of diabetes were the same
  • "You are taking medications that have side effects." It is true that any medication has side effects. However, one interesting thing that came out of the JUPITER study was that there were really no difference in side effects between the placebo group and Crestor group. Given that the 20mg dose used in the study was a relatively high dose, this is pretty impressive. Groups like Public Citizen warned of the dangers of Crestor, but this drug has proven to be quite safe.
  • "The patients in JUPITER did not exactly have normal cholesterol levels, and their risk was high." This is a valid criticism. In order to really prove that treating elevated CRP levels with a statin prevents heart attacks, you would need to find patients with an otherwise low risk for heart disease (i.e. not pre-diabetic) and an ldl cholesterol below 100. However, the patients in JUPITER were very representative of the normal population of patients (60% of the country is overweight or obese and many a pre-diabetic) that would not usually get a statin medication.

Do I have to take Crestor to treat an elevated CRP?

This is actually a very important question. Currently, simivastatin is a generic cholesterol medicine and much cheaper then Crestor. Though simvastatin has not shown it can reduce heart attacks by lowering CRP, many physicians will assume a "class effect" and believe that all statins will do this. The problem is that a dose of 20mg of Crestor was used in the JUPITER study, and no amount of simvastatin will lower CRP or LDL by that much. In most studies that have measured CRP lowering with statins, it is the very potent statins that seem to work. In addition, though all statins have shown prevention of heart attacks and strokes, only the more potent statins (Lipitor and Crestor) at high doses have shown to prevent the progresssion and even shown reversal of plaque build up. This will become an even more important issue when Lipitor goes generic.

Bottom Line:
The FDA will very likely approve Crestor for treating elevated CRP levels, and you will hear about this in the media and in advertisements. Though based on one study, the results are compelling enough to discuss this with your doctor and consider CRP testing.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

How outrage over new cancer screening recommendations might positively impact health care reform

Opponents of health care reform have used the new recommendations for breast and cervical cancer screening as a weapon to derail health care reform. The argument is that a "government run system" will deny you the necessary services you need. I am sure that the Obama administration is not happy with the timing of these controversial recommendations, which is likely why Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius came out immediately and distanced the administration from supporting these new recommendations.

Over at Kevinmd.com cardiologist and blogger Dr. Joel Sherman posted an excellent piece called Informed consent is missing from Pap smears and cervical cancer screening. His post points out that many women were simply told to have a pap without discussing the potential pros and cons of doing the test or not doing the test. I was impressed, though not entirely surprised by the many comments of frustrated and angry women who felt like they have been forced to have cervical cancer screening unnecessarily, especially when the doctor mandates this as a pre-requisite to refilling birth control prescriptions. Below is the comment I posted, which I decided to put on my own blog:

"Screening for any disease, whether a pap smear for cervical cancer, rectal exam for prostate cancer, mammogram, colonoscopy etc. is a complicated decision. With the recent release of changed guidelines for cervical cancer and breast cancer, the public is now becoming more aware of this issue. The best thing for both patient and doctor is a conversation about the risk and benefits for both screening and not screening. This is now more important than ever since now there are several guidelines with very conflicting recommendations. The problem is that our current health care system reimburses quite well for procedures and diagnostic tests. It does not reimburse well for important conversations. This is why patients who use their health insurance to see their primary care physician (as most people in the US do) have only brief and what must seem like rushed visits with their doctor. True informed consent about these important matters will only happen if we change the current structure of our reimbursement system. Paying doctors to discuss the pros and cons of screening, testing, and treatment will actually save money because (especially as evident by many of the comments already posted by women angered by likely unnecessary pap smears), it will likely lead to fewer tests and procedures."

I am hopeful that the screening controversy is in the public domain, the public will start to place more value on having these conversations with their health care providers. Once people realize that the reason why these conversations are lacking is because of our broken health care system, this will move more people to help support health care reform.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Generic and Therapeutic Substitutions

I was on the local DC news today regarding generic substitution.

video

Generic substitution is when your doctor writes for a prescription medication, but the pharmacists substitutes this with a generic medication. This is perfectly legal and, in general, a good thing for patients. For the most part, and for most drugs, the generic is just as good as the brand drug. However, as the news piece points out, there are some instances where the small difference between the generic and the brand name medication may make a difference. These are usually medicines where doses are very small such as hormones (thyroid medications, birth control pills) and medicines that have to be closely monitored. This does not necessarily mean that the generic is worse than the branded medication, but that switching from one to the other could have potential adverse effects.

One of the things that I spoke with the reporter about that is not in the above video (I have control over what I say, but not what they choose to sue), and only got a brief mention by the new anchor after the video was shown was about therapeutic substitution. This is a completely different ball game and a major concern of mine.

Therapeutic substitution is when your doctor writes a prescription for a branded drug and the pharmacist substitutes it not with the generic equivalent, but with a completely different generic drug in the same class. In this case, you are getting a totally different medication. For example, let's say your doctor writes a prescription for Crestor or Lipitor, both very potent cholesterol lowering drugs. You bring this prescription to the pharmacist, but instead of getting Crestor or Lipitor, you get simvastatin, a generic cholesterol medication. The difference here is that where the brand and generic equivalent will work about the same, this is not the case with a therapeutic substitution. Simvastatin will work in many patients but is not nearly as good as lowering cholesterol as Crestor or Lipitor. Thus, if the patient got switched and needed more cholesterol lowering than the simvastatin could provide (which is why I would write Crestor or Lipitor in the first place), that patient's cholesterol levels could be too high despite medication, potentially leading to heart attack and strokes. This is just one of many examples.

The practice of therapeutic substitution is currently illegal, but this could change. In Washington, DC where I practice, there is current legislation pending that would not only allow, but might compel a pharmacist to switch patients to cheaper medication, whether or not they were the same. In the case of DC, this is designed to save the government money from the millions of dollars its spends on prescription medications for our Medicaid patients.

With health care costs so high, physicians should do their best to try and write generic medications when possible. In additions, our pharmacist colleagues can be a tremendous help in figuring out ways to lower the costs of medications by using generics, whether it be a direct generic substitution or even therapeutic substitution. Pharmacist and blogger Mr.Medsaver has been doing this for quite some time, and I routinely read his helpful posts. However, pharmacists are not trained clinicians and do not know (and can not know) all the details of the patient's history or the rationale for the doctor choosing one drug over another. Though the pharmacist's suggestions are always welcome, I do not believe the should be allowed, and certainly not compelled or heaven forbid incentivized, to switch medications within the same therapeutic class. This could be very dangerous for patients.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Stop Using Vytorin!!!!

At the American Heart Association meeting in Orlando, FL they just released the results of the ARBITER 6 HALTS study. No Vytorin was used in the study, but I am sure that all the headlines will mention Vytorin... and for good reason.

Here is the actual study published ahead of press online in the New England Journal of Medicine. Essentially, the enrolled over 200 patients from Walter Reed and Washington Adventist (right in my home town!) who had known heart disease or were at very high risk. These patient were already on a stable dose of a statin (40-50% on simvastatin -half of the Vytorin combination, and 40-50% on Lipitor) with LDL cholesterols (bad cholesterol) under 100 and HDL (good cholesterol) under 50 for men/55 for women. These patients were randomized to receive either Zetia (the other half of Vytorin) or Niacin (though you can get this vitamin over the counter, patients received the extended release prescription version, whose maker is also the sponsor of the study). They were looking to see whether or not there would be difference in progression of atherosclerosis (clogging of the arteries) over 14 months as measured by carotid intima-medial thickness (CIMT), and ultrasound of the neck arteries which seems to be a good measure of plaque buildup in the coronary or heart arteries. News broke earlier this year that the study was stopped early because there was a clear winner, but we didn't know which drug won until now.

Patients who got the Niacin had their good cholesterol raised by close to 20%. bad cholesterol lowered by close to 10%. The Zetia group lowered bad cholesterol by close to 20% but also lowered the good cholesterol too. More importantly, those patients taking the Niacin had a reduction in the plaque buildup, whereas patients taking the Zetia had no change in plaque build up. Surprisingly, and inexplicably, the more Zetia lowered your cholesterol, the more plaque build up patients had. Finally, and most importantly, only 1% of patients in the Niacin group had major cardiovascular events, compared to 4% in the Zetia groups. This was statistically significant.

This trial has broader implications than just the Vytorin issue (which I will get to in a second). It suggests that patients at high risk for cardiovascular disease may have additional benefit beyond lowering their bad cholesterol. Though the addition of Niacin was proven to show benefit, it might be possible that other drugs which raise HDL such as fish oil and fenofibrate (Trilipix) might benefit at risk patients as well.

I have posted extensively on Vytorin in the past. Most of the controversy had to do with the ENHANCE trial which I discussed in my post Vytorin and Zetia: What to do now? Briefly, whereas multiple statin trials have shown that lowering LDL with a statin led to decreased heart attacks and stroke, Vytorin only had data showing it lowered the LDL. Merk, the makers of Zocor (simvastatin), Zetia, and Vytorin (Zocor + Zetia) funded a trial that, similar to the HALT study, looked at CIMT to measure plaque buildup. It compared simvastatin to the same dose of simvastatin plus Zetia, or Vytorin. Though Vytorin lowered cholesterol more that the simvastatin alone, there was no difference in plaque buildup. Defenders of Vytorin said that ENHANCE was not an outcome study (designed to study actual heart attacks and strokes) and that there were no differences in outcomes between the two groups. Though the HALT study was also not designed as an outcome study, findings were consistent AND there was a difference in heart attacks and strokes: about triple the number in the Vytorin group. My initial recommendation was that though Vytorin was really useless, if patients couldn't reach their goal with a potent statin or couldn't tolerate the statin, then using or adding Zetia was reasonable. This is probably still the case. However, in the HALT study differences were seen in HDL (went up for Niacin and down for Zetia), and this may account for some of the difference. For patients whose HDL was low, I will probably be a little more cautious of using or adding Zetia, which may make their HDL go down in addition to their LDL.

Bottom Line: There is no good use for Vytorin, and it may even cause harm, not because of safety, but because the LDL goals achieved with Vytorin may lead to fewer heart attacks that could be prevented with a more potent statin. If you are on Vytorin, ask you doctor about considering a switch.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

The Pap Smear: A Symbol for Our Health Care System's Problems

Today the Wall Street Journal and other sources reported on a study from The Annals of Internal Medicine that showed that most US doctors don't know the guidelines of how often women should get a pap smear. More importantly, doctors were doing a lot of pap smears on women who didn't need them. In all the talk about health care reform, reducing costs by eliminating unnecessary testing has been mentioned multiple times. Thus, if we can figure out how to get rid of all of these unneeded pap smears, maybe we can find the cure for our health system's woes.

The results of the study are not surprising to me, as I have seen this in clinical practice. The more I thought about why this is occurring, the more I thought about the pap smear as a symbol of our health care system's problems. So why so many pap smears?

1. Pap smears have saved lives. Cervical cancer used to be a major killer of US women. Now it is rare to hear about a women who has died of cervical cancer. Not true in third world countries when screening is not possible. The fact that we have virtually gotten rid of a cancer with early detection is truly amazing. But the danger here is that it has set up the paradigm that this is true for all diseases and cancers. Recently, breast cancer and prostate cancer screening have come under fire for not really saving any lives. However, even with the data, patients and advocacy groups will not likely take a screen only if proven life saving approach. Breast self-examination has absolutely no data to support this practice, and in young women who are likely to find non-cancerous bumps, may actually be harmful. Yet, this practice is routinely recommended for many young women.

2. Women (and many men) want/expect a yearly physical, and most women believe that a pap smear is part of this. Similar to other types of cancer screenings, there is very little evidence that a routine check up is beneficial. This is not to say that you shouldn't visit your doctor regularly. However, many of the things doctors do during a physical have limited to no value. There are some things that have tremendous value, such as checking blood pressure and weight, and talking about diet, exercise, smoking cessation, etc. However, having the doctor check your whole body every year when your feeling just fine is unlikely to be helpful. Yet, the American public expect a full exam every year. After all, their health care premiums are quite high, so they might as well get checked out. This extends to the pap smear. It saves lives (as above), is part of my regular check up, and I am paying a lot of money for this; so therefore I expect my yearly pap.

3. Physicians have little disincentive to refuse to do a pap smear. The pap smear only takes a few minutes. Trying to take the time to explain #1 and #2 above makes little sense for the primary care physician who is not paid by time spent counselling a patient, but by how many patients she can see. In other words, talking a patient out of an unneeded test actually costs the primary care doc money, because that time could be used for seeing another patient. More importantly, if the physician refuses the pap smear, and the patient goes elsewhere to get the pap smear and is found to have cervical cancer; the physician could get sued placing her entire career in jeopardy!

If pap smears save lives, patients expect/demand them, talking a patient out of an unnecessary pap smear only costs me money and not doing the pap could get me sued, why wouldn't I do a pap smear on every women that wanted one?

4. The pap smear rep reminded me to get the test. The drug companies are not really the problem any more. Every day you read about a drug company laying off employees. This is because most drugs are or will soon go generic and there is little in the pipeline. This is not the case for devices and testing. Big labs have reps that come to physician's offices to discuss the latest fancy new test. Like the drug reps, they bring lunch too. The difference: medical devices and testing though FDA approved are not nearly has heavily regulated as the drug companies when it comes to selling to physicians. Drug reps by law are restricted to saying only what is in their label to physicians. It works a little bit differently for the lab and device reps. As newer tests and devices become available, watch for more of a focus on selling these products. Don't be surprised to see direct to consumer advertisements asking patients to ask their doctors about such and such a test.

5. The experts don't agree. It is very hard to keep up with evidence based guidelines in primary care. It's even harder when there are multiple guidelines, and harder still when they don't agree. For prostate cancer, the American Cancer Society and the American Urological Society say that doctors should test for prostate cancer. The US Preventative Health Task Force guidelines say that we shouldn't. Initially, some of the groups recommended more frequent pap smears, but recently decreased the interval due to evidence that less frequent screening was better. However, with all multiple guidelines that often differ, it is not surprising that so few primary care physicians actually knew what all the experts actually did agree upon. Another issue is that reasons behind differing guidelines have to do primary with politics and money. The Urologists want primary care docs to test for prostate cancer because they make money when the test comes back positive. The government doesn't want you to test for prostate cancer, because testing leads to more testing and treatment which costs them (you the taxpayer) more money.

6. Doctor's don't follow guidelines anyway. Even if there was one clear and definitive guideline for docs to follow, they probably wouldn't. There are likely multiple reasons. Our current Continuing Medical Education system (CME) that is supposed to keep docs up to date is horrible and funded by commercial interest. The stimulus package already gave some money for comparative effectiveness research and there will likely be more money for this in any health care reform bill that passes. However, if docs don't know the results of what is best or what actually works, then the data is not all that useful. It is unlikely that a drug company is going to fund a CME program that shows their drug is not useful. So who is going to fund the dissemination of comparative effectiveness findings? There is also no real incentive to follow guidelines. Again, docs get paid for how many patients they see, not by how beneficial their advice was to patients or whether they gave guideline appropriate care.

Since pap smears don't cost a substantial amount of money, it is unlikely that getting rid of all these unnecessary pap smears is going to put a dent in health care spending. However, the underlying reasons behind the many unneeded pap smears is a symbol of what what's right and wrong about our health care system. We should give this study's findings, and more importantly the reasons behind these findings, a critical look.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Parents: Please Keep Your Children in Booster Seats.

Yesterday, my 8 year old daughter was very upset about our demands that she stay in a booster seat when riding in a car. Her main concern was that most of her friends parents didn't make them ride in a booster seat. My family is vertically challenged, and I explained to her that she needed to be 4'9" in order to wear the belt alone. We even went to the American Academy of Pediatrics web site to show her that I wasn't making this up (she doesn't care that I am an associate professor at a medical school) and I let her try using a seat belt alone in the garage to demonstrate how the belt was practically against her neck. Regardless, she stated that this was not fair, and that even some of her friends who were as tall or even shorter than her were allowed to ride without a booster.

Coincidentally, the AAP's journal Pediatrics (not yet available online, but data via Medpage Today) released a study today updating information regarding the use of booster seats in childre 4 to 8 years old. They collected data for over 9 years including 7,151 children in 6,591 crashes. Most kids (70%) were using a seatbelt alone (no booster). The study found that serious injury including concussions, brain injuries, internal organ injuries, spinal cord injuries, and extremity fractures occurred in 1.15% of children; 1.36% of those wearing seatbelts and 0.67% of those in boosters. or double the risk of serious injury with seatbelt alone. Most of the injuries were head injuries and children wearing seatbelts alone had over double the risk of suffering abdominal injuries.

Thus, this study reaffirms the need to keep young children in booster seats until they are tall enough to wear a seat belt alone, which is at 4'9" which occurs sometime between 8 to 12 years of age. It's not that my daughter minds the booster so much. However, she feels like a "baby" when her friends are allowed to ride without a booster. Parents, (especially my children's friends parents) please keep your kids in booster seats until they are 4'9".

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Sick About Singulair

The New York Times' business section recently reported that despite a second-quarter earnings fall, hurt by lower sales of its cholesterol drugs (specifically Vytorin, see my posts on why you should no longer use this product), Merck actually beat profit forecasts due to good sales of its asthma drug Singulair. Singulair's quarterly sales jumped 16 percent to $1.3 billion. That's a lot of money! Indeed, based on pharmacy data (via drugtopics.com, thanks again Mr. Medsaver for this great resource), Singualir was the 4th most commonly prescribed drug in 2008 at a close to 26 million prescriptions! Moreover, a recent report from the WSJ Health Blog states that Merk is looking to put Singualir over the counter.



I have no ill will towards Merk. It is an American company that has come up with some products that I find beneficial for patients including Fosamax (which is now generic) and Januvia, and they are the makers of two important vaccines: Gardisil and Zostavax. However, I am concerned about high sales of the asthma drug Singulair, because national guidelines state it should not be used as a first line therapy for asthma.



Facts about asthma



According to the American Lung association, in 2007, it was estimated that 22.9 million Americans currently have asthma. Of these, 12.3 million Americans (3.8 million children under 18) had an asthma attack. In 2005, there were 3,884 deaths attributed to asthma. During 2006, 444,000 hospitalizations and close to 1.7 million emergency room visits were attributed to asthma.



In 2007, the NIH released updated guidelines about asthma. Regarding treatment, the guidelines suggest that all asthmatics with persistent asthma (symptoms or rescue medication use more than twice a week) be initiated on inhaled corticosteroids (ICS). ICS's are considered first line treatment for all asthmatics, from babies to children to adults and to the elderly. The reason is based on solid evidence that these agents work the best in improving lung function and decreasing symptoms. Singulair is listed as an alternative agent. Singulair is an anti-leukotriene. Leukotrienes, like histamines, are substances released in an allergic response that cause the airways to tighten up. Thus, Singulair works in the same way that antihistamines work: by treating the symptoms. ICS's work by blocking inflammation which is what causes the release of leukotrienes in the first place. Singulair is not anti-inflammatory, ICS's are. Singulair treats the symptoms, whereas ICS's treat the problem. This is why study after study proves that ICS's are superior to Singulair, and why guidelines place ICS's as first line treatment and Singulair as alternative.





Does Singulair work?
Of course Singulair works. In order for a drug to be approved by the FDA, the drug company has to show that its product is efficacious. The problem is that it has to show that it is efficacious compared to placebo. Thus, Singulair works better than a sugar pill. However, compared to any other asthma medication, it is not as good. Even when added on to an ICS, it is not as good as other add ons, such as long acting beta agonists (LABA's).



Why do physicians prescribe so much Singulair when is not what the guidelines recommend?

This is an extremely important question. Some may chalk it up to drug company marketing. However, all the ICS and ICS/LABA making companies due their job marketing their product as well. I think the main reason has to do with fear of ICS's. Corticosteroids are different than the kind of steroids athletes take. However, they are not without side effects. Earlier studies on older medications showed some growth delay in children, which is why pediatricians may be so reluctant to use ICS's. However, more recent studies showed that for the newer agents, long term use with mild to moderate doses did NOT cause growth delay. In 2002, the NIH reviewed all the literature and determined that at low to medium doses of ICS's, there are NO SIGNIFICANT SIDE EFFECTS. This is when ICS's became considered first line therapy for ALL asthmatics.

The other issue is the convenience factor of a pill vs. an inhaler. Inhaler use is clearly not as easy as taking a pill (Singulair comes chewable for children).

The thought is probably, "it's a once a day pill that might help my patient, and probably won't hurt them, so why not give it try?" The problem with this approach, is the failure to consider the risks of uncontrolled asthma. Uncontrolled asthma leads to ER visits, hospitalizations, and possible even death. Asthma is a serious disease. For patients who have persistent asthma, following the guideline recommendations of ICS's as first line agents is the right thing to do.



What about allergies?

Singulair is also indicated for allergic rhinitis or allergies. As above, like histamine, leukotrienes play a role in allergic rhinitis, and this is why Singulair is used. I have posted about Singulair and allergic rhinitis previously. Basically, there are several treatments for nasal allergies:Non-sedating antihistamines (Claritin, Zyrtec, Allegra), Leukotriene modifiers (Singulair), inhlaed nasal steroids (Flonase or fluticasone, Rhinocort, Nasacort, Veramyst) and inhaled nasal antihistamines (Astepro). Muliple studies that show that fluticasone (Flonase) is better than Singulair, better than Claritin, and several studies that show that the combination of Singulair and Claritin is not better than either agent alone. However, in one study, though the combination of Singulair and Claritin was better than either agent alone, the individual agents were no better than placebo. An excellent review by Dr. Robert Nathan showed that "leukotriene receptor antagonists (Singulair) are sometimes more effective than placebo, are no more effective than nonsedating antihistamines (Claritin) , and are less effective than intranasal corticosteroids in the treatment of allergic rhinitis." Finally, a recent guideline from World Health Organization suggests that for patients with mild, intermittent allergic rhinitis; treatment with non-sedating antihistamines and leukotriene modifiers were both acceptable forms of treatment, but patients with more chronic or bothersome symptoms, inhaled nasal steroids should be used.

Some would argue that having both allergies and asthma together would be a reason to take Singulair. There is no question that treating allergic rhinitis may help with asthma symptoms. However, the killing two birds in one stone approach simply hasn't been proven to be the case. If you have allergic rhinitis that makes your asthma worse, you should take the most effective agent, which is inhaled nasal steroids.





What if I am taking Singulair for asthma?

Singulair has been proven more effective than placebo, and in some individuals controls their asthma and allergies. However, a recent internet survey revealed that about 55% of asthmatics have uncontrolled asthma, and many of them are on regular medications. Asthma control is the key, according to the new NIH guidelines. If your asthma is well controlled on Singulair, then it is probably OK to take. However, there is a theoretical risk that by taking Singulair (treating the symptoms without treating the underlying inflammation), that though you feel well now, your lung function will be worsening over time. More importantly, if you are taking Singulair and your asthma is not well controlled, then you should definitely switch to at least an inhaled corticosteroid, or possibly an agent combining an ICS with a long acting brochodilator (LABA) such as Advair or Symbicort. There are many ways to determine asthma control, including how much rescue medications you are taking and how asthma affects your daily life. The easiest way to determine your asthma control is by taking the Asthma Control Test

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Finally! FDA Questions Safety, Quality of Electronic Cigarettes


As reported first in the WSJ Health Blog, the FDA is finally looking into electronic cigarettes, and they don't like what they see. Here is the FDA press release and here is the full report.


I have previously posted on my concerns about the safety of e-cigarettes. These posts are some of my more popular ones, with so many readers not understanding my concern. Their points are that e-cigarettes are at least better than tobacco cigarettes, and nicotine itself is safe, since it is sold over the counter. However, the FDA seems to validate my concerns. Here's what they found.



  • In testing 19 products from two manufacturers, investigators found that the majority tested positive for tobacco impurities thought to be harmful to humans.

  • In one sample, the FDA’s analyses detected diethylene glycol, a chemical used in antifreeze that is toxic to humans

  • Half of the samples appeared to contain known carcinogens

  • Some products testing positive for nicotine even though the label said no nicotine was present.

The FDA is also concerned about the appeal of e-cigarettes and the easy availability to children:


These products are marketed and sold to young people and are readily available online and in shopping malls. In addition, these products do not contain any health warnings comparable to FDA-approved nicotine replacement products or
conventional cigarettes. They are also available in different flavors, such as chocolate and mint, which may appeal to young people

Thus, I stand by the statements in my previous posts. Electronic cigarettes are not safe and should not be used to replace tobacco products, nor as a substitute for smoking cessation agents.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Let Google Solve Our EMR problems



The Wall Street Journal reported today that Google was going to launch their own operating systems for PC's competing with Microsoft's dominant Windows platform. Google seems to continuously creating new, innovative and useful products. This very blog is hosted on blogger, which is now a Google product. Since they seem to be doing such a good job, why not let them solve the electronic medical records problem?
EMR's are a big part of President Obama's health care plan. I certainly value the use of EMR's. They provide me the data I need when I need it. They allow me to communicate more effectively with my staff. Using e-Prescribing in our EMR I am able to fill prescriptions faster and more accurately for my patients. Finally, through our EMR, patients can communicate directly with their physicians. (We use Touchworks by Allscripts. I have no vested interest in the product or company)
However, I do not believe that EMR will really save a lot of money. Time is money, and EMR's do not save time. EMR's do improve quality of care. They allow you to do more in a given amount of time, but do not save time., and in fact may add time because you can do more. The best example I can give for non-EMR users is that just in the way that your email and Blackberry have not saved you any time from the days when you relied on phone calls and the US postal service (have they not instead created more work?), EMR's do not save time. Politicians point to cost savings in preventing duplicate work. There might be a few duplicate tests or procedures prevented, but likely not that many and not nearly enough to call investment in EMR's a cost-reducer.
In my post $19 Billion For Health IT-Money Well Spent? I also call into questoin how the stimulus package is funding health IT. Looks like that money went to hospitals to improve exsiting systems, and not to help the primary care physician offset the HUGE cost of implementing an EMR in his or her practice. The software, hardware and support needed for most EMR's cost far more than the average physician practice can afford.
The real issue with EMR's is interoperability. The are many companies that make many products and not too many systems talk to each other. In our hospital alone, we now use up to eight different computer systems to store and retrieve patient information. Your primary care doctors EMR should be able to talk to the Pharmacy's computers, the lab's computers, the hospital's computers, the radiologist's computers, the specialists consulant's computers, etc.
Regardless of whether you support a single payer system or a tax rebate for patients to purchse their own health care; wouldn't it make sense to have one really good EMR that every doctor could use? Wouldn't it be great if this was on a web based platform, meaning that all you would need is a computer (or netbook, or web based mobile phone) and a high speed internet connection and you could have access? Most docs already have that. Wouldn't it be great if interfaces could be created so that all parties "spoke" to each other? Wouldn't it be great if this system could include functionality so that patients could communicate with their physicians, request appointments, and see their lab results?
Who better to create this EMR than Google? The interoperability/interface issue stems from the fact that there are so many proprietary systems. Each company that makes an EMR wants its EMR to be used by everyone. Just throwing money at all of these companies is not going to solve the problem or make EMR's more affordable or usable. The goverment already has a pretty good EMR used in the VA. It works well inside the VA, but doesn't talk to others. Even in a single payer, government run health care system, would you have the goverment re-vamp the VA EMR? Why not go to the pros at Google? They have already started the process with Google Health, though this is a personal health record and not an EMR. They good create a Google Medical record (GMR) that interfaces with their existing Google Health platform. Sure, they would have a monopoly, but in this case the benefits to the public, patients and doctors far outweight the risks. If the Google EMR was supported by the goverment, then you could create restrictions to limit any of their profit.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Lantus and Cancer- A Closer Look Is Not Reassuring

Kevin MD brought up the issue of Lantus and cancer on his blog, linking to both my original post which stated that patients should be concerned, as well as a post from Amy Tenerich at Diabets Mine who takes a more conservative approach, like the ADA and AACE. ( I do question the motivations of these groups in my recent post on this matter: Lantus Causes Cancer! Why Doesn't Anyone Seem Care? ). Some responders to my inital post felt that I had not read the studies correctly. Therefore, below is my detailed interpretation of the four studies recently presented which caused the controversy.

The first study was a German study of 127,000 patients, which 20,000 were treated with Lantus. Most of these patients had Type 2 diabetes. Overall, this study found a correlation with all insulins and cancer, but no difference between the analogue insulins. However, because patients on combination analogue and human insulin were excluded in the study, the dose of lantus was much lower than the other analogues. The researchers then adjusted for insulin dose, and they found a dose dependent relationship of cancer and Lantus. The magnitude of this effect was such that 1 cancer might be caused for every 100 patients taking Lantus for a year. One of the limitations of the study was that it was not possible to break the analysis down by types of cancers caused. Given this and other possible limitations, the editors of the journal decided not to publish this study until these results could be replicated in other studies/countries, especially considering the importance of the findings if corroborated.


Since then 3 other studies were performed, and subsequently all four were published together.



The second study was a Swedish study matched a national cancer database and a national diabetes database looking for a connection. This study included over 120,000 patients of which about 6000 were on Lantus. They found no increase in risk for cancer with Lantus when taken with other kinds of insulin. These patients were younger, and more likely to have type 1 diabetes. However, analysis of patients who took Lantus alone, most of whom had type 2 diabetes, showed a doubling of breast cancer, which was highly statistically significant (though no increase in other types of cancers).


A third Scottish study used national database registeries similar to the Swedish study and they found exactly the same thing. The patients who took Lantus with other insulins, who were generally younger type 1 diabetics had no increased risk of cancer with Lantus compared to human insulin (actually had lower rates) but the patients on Lantus without other insulins, mostly older type 2 diabetics had a higher risk of cancer. There was also similarly an increased risk of breast cancer in women taking Lantus alone, which was about the same magnitude as the Swedish study.



The fourth study looked at cancer risks associated with a range of insulins. This retrospective UK study looked at over 62,000 adults that were started on oral agents and/or insulin. Diabetes developed in adulthood, so these were mostly type 2 diabetics. In general, the study found no difference between human insulin and analogue insulins like glargine (Lantus). However, the study did find that metformin use is associated with a lower risk of cancer, and seemed to abolish cancer risk. Also, only 10,000 patients in the study were on insulin, and only 2000 on Lantus. Plus, it was not clear who was taking meformin plus Lantus. Thus, given the very small number of patients on Lantus, some of who may have been taking metformin, this negative finding is not all that reassuring.

Taken together, in my opinion, these 4 studies strongly suggest a link between new cancers in adult type 2 diabetics who are taking Lantus alone. Now, we can't say that Lantus actually causes cancer. In fact, it is unlikely that Lantus actually causes cancer alone, because it takes years to develop most cancers. However, it is more likely that Lantus causes existing cells to grow and divide more rapidly. Usually, the body's own natural cancer fighting abilities take care of these cells. In other words, though Lantus may not cause cancer, adult type 2 diabetics taking Lantus seem to develop clinically apparent cancers at much higher rates (double for breast cancer) then those not on Lantus. Though whether or not Lantus is causative of cancer is an interesting academic discussion. However, from the patient's standpoint if taking Lantus increases the likelihood they will develop cancer, that's all they need to know.



Large observational studies are far from perfect. The can detect differences (i.e. adult type 2 diabetics taking Lantus were more likely to get cancer), but can detect the reasons for these differences. The only way to show actually causation would be a very large, randomized control trial conducted over years. However, this will take years to complete. The Europeans are suggesting meta-analysis of even larger databases to find out sooner.

Until we know for sure, given a possible risk for Lantus increasing the rate of cancer development, I would suggest it would be prudent to stop taking Lantus if you are a type 2 diabetic, especially if you are not taking other kinds of insulin. Detemir insulin (Levemir) is a reasonable alternative. Though it has not been studies as extensively, its effect on the IGF-1 receptor (the purported mechanism of the cancer association) if much, much less than Lantus.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Lantus Causes Cancer! Why Doesn't Anyone Seem Care?

The answer is probably money, but more on that later.

I recently posted on the Lantus/cancer connection in my post A New Problem With Insulin: Cancer. The concern was triggered in a press release about a recent European report based on one earlier and three new studies which show a link between Lantus, a long acting insulin, and cancer. As I mentioned, I though it was interesting that more alarm has not been raised, particularly here in the US. Nissen's poorly done Avandia study got major press, and people stopped taking the drug (He was recently proven wrong- see here fore more info). Yet, for Lantus, the report is not about one study, but four studies that show similar findings that Lantus increases rates of cancer. In addition there are some biologically plausible reasons (more later) and a clear dose response. If you look at the criteria for causation, the Lantus/cancer connection seems to ring true. Yet, there seems to be not that much in the press and little public outcry to pull the medication from the market. This may be in part to the fact that the news cycle is now 24/7 Michael Jackson, but other medical stories, like the FDA and Tylenol, seem to be getting some attention, so this can't be the entire reason.

What do the experts say? The Europeans are making "an urgent call for more research". Yet, the US response is much more subdued. The official response from the American Diabetes Association (ADA) stated that findings from these research papers are conflicting and inconclusive, and cautioned against over-reaction until more information is available. A similar response can be found from The American Association Of Clinical Endocrinologists (AACE), the smaller but more academic group of diabetes specialists.

Where is the media attention on this? Where is the warning to patients? Why doesn't anyone seem to care?
MJ aside, here are some reasons:

1. The US experts don't want to say too much because of their ties to the drug companies. Both the ADA and AACE receive huge amounts of money from corporate sponsors, specifically the drug companies. In fact, back in 5/07 the experts issued a joint statement that had similar comments on the Avandia scare (which turned out to be correct). Sanofi-Aventis, the maker of Lantus, gives money to both of the ADA and AACE, and their members are unlikely to bite the hand that feeds them.

2. Though not all endocrinologists think alike, based on national and international diabetes recommendations, the expert guidelines recommend the use of insulin in type 2 diabetes much sooner than I would recommend. I have blogged in the past that I believe the endocrinologist making these recommendations may have a conflict of interest in that they have an incentive to make recommendations that will lead more patients toward insulin is because insulin use in type 2 diabetics is how they make their living. It is possible that the endocrinology experts are cautious about scaring the public about Lantus, because this may cause concern about all insulins, which they believe is the best treatment for diabetes.

3. The reason why Avandia drew more attention is because Dr. Nissen and some Congressmen were the ones making the noise, not the specialty societies. The Nissen meta-analysis on Avandia, from the data analyzed, to the publication, to the media frenzy had political motivations, whereas the Lantus studies do not. (See a timeline of the politics of the Avandia study in my post Diabetes Conspiracy )

What now?
Thanks to a comment on my previous post, I looked into the matter a little more. One of the problems with insulin is that is that it is related to insulin like growth factor (IGF-1) which has been shown to stimulate tumor growth. Regular human insulin has some affinity for the IGF-1 receptor, but Lantus has a much greater affinity, which is the likely reason more cancers were seen. There happens to be another long acting insulin on the market called Levemir that has very little affinity for the IGF-1 receptor (less than even human insulin) and is as effective as Lantus. In 2008, Lantus just missed the top 25 most commonly prescribed branded drugs at #26 with over 10.25 million prescriptions that year. Levemir came in at #170 with only 1.3 million prescriptions. Though I doubt this is public knowledge, I would guess that Novo Nordisk (the company that makes Levemir) is not giving nearly as much to these organizations as Sanofi Aventis (makers of Lantus), but I could be wrong. Since Levemir is a newer drug, is was not included in these studies and one can not rule out potential harm. That said, its low affinity for IGF-1 is reassuring. Thus, upon further reflection, I think that all diabetic patients who are on Lantus should talk to their doctor about insulin use, and if they need it, ask their doctor to consider switching them to Levemir.


Update: Via Med Page today, FDA just announced they were going to look into this. Not sure how much press this will garner. Certainly more valuable use of their time then trying to take down Tylenol.

Monday, June 29, 2009

A New Problem With Insulin: Cancer.

Followers of this blog will note that my approach to the management of Type 2 diabetes is different then currently recommended guidelines. Unlike current recommendations which seem to push insulin after the failure of two older oral agents (which are known to fail), I recommend that multiple agents be used, reserving insulin as a last resort. I have blogged before about my concerns with insulin (The Problem With Insulin , The Problem with Insulin- Part 2 ). While life-saving for all type 1 diabetics and many type 2 diabetics, insulin causes many problems including the need to frequently monitor finger stick glucose, costs, inconvenience, weight gain, and hypoglycemia which can lead to death.

However, a new concern regarding glargine insulin (trade name Lantus) seems to be emerging. This press release best explains it. In summary, a recent study confirmed earlier findings between increased rates of cancer in diabetes taking glargine insulin and regular insulin, in particular, a doubling risk of breast cancer.

Why might this be true?
Human and even porcine insulin has a long track record of safety. However, glargine insulin is different in that it is not "natural" but a manufactured insulin, specifically modified to last longer. While insulin has been used for decades, glargine has only been used since 2000. Other reasons to consider this more than just a concern include that the findings are reproduced in multiple studies of tens of thousands of people, and that the finding seem dose dependent. In other words, the higher the dose of glargine one takes, the higher the risk of cancer. In order to know for sure, we need a randomized, controlled trial of thousands of patients to prove this is the case. This is exactly what the European Diabetes Association is calling for. However, those findings will not be available for years.

Why be concerned?
Most guidelines for type two diabetes recommend that long acting insulins be started first, and most clinicians usually start with the synthetic, glargine type of insulins. In fact, the preferred regimen for insulin in type 2 diabetics by most endocrinologists is a combination of a long acting insulin like glargine given once a day with very short acting insulins (lispro) at meal times. This approach, called basal-bolus, is supposed to mimic what the pancreas naturally does. Though I am glad that the European endocrinologists have raised concern and are calling for more data, I find it interesting that more alarm has not been raised, particularly here in the US. One very poorly done study which has now been proven to be false, caused so much uproar that people simply stopped taking Avandia. Yet, study after study shows a compelling and dose responsive relationship between glargine and cancer, and there seems to be little in the press.

What should you do?
If you are on Lantus, don't stop!!!! Please discuss this with your doctor first. There are other options other than Lantus, and even with an increased cancer risk, Lantus still may be the best option for you. If you are diabetic, but not yet on insulin, first do everything you can to avoid this. First and foremost, diet and exercise are key and critical. If that doesn't work, in addition to lifestyle changes, consider using multiple pills before resorting to insulin. If injections are needed, talk to your doctor about the incretin mimetics, like Byetta as alternatives to insulin. Studies of shown that in patients who failed diabetes pills, Byetta performed similarly to glargine in controlling diabetes but with less hypoglycemia and weight gain.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Why aren't medical students taught about health care policy?

Happy to have been interviewed by and mentioned in this very timely article at Slate.com which asks the question "Why aren't medical students taught about health care policy?"

There is so much to cram into 4 years of medical school, it's hard to imagine that we could teach students more. However, some basic understandings of health care policy are needed. Students need to know a little about policy because:
1. The way medicine is practice is (for the most part) dependent on how health care is paid for, which comes from health care policy. In primary care, we need to rush and see patients in 15 minute slots not because we want to, but because we have to see that many patients to make ends meet. The medical home is one of many policy solutions that might fix this.
2. Policy makers listen to physicians, especially when we tell them what is good for patients (and not just our own interests). Having a voice is really not that hard. Through minimal participation in medical societies, like the America College of Physicians for Internal Medicine (my specialty), you can get behind those who share your opinions and can go up on the hill and fight for you.
3. Students in particular need to know about policy that regards to work force issues. Though we have a shortage of physicians, with calls to expand medical school class size, there is not likely going to be an increase in residency slots. This means that it is going to be much harder for students to get into the lucrative specialties they might desire.

I am very proud of some the initiatives we have taken at our institution, including bringing the entire 3rd year class to the Hill. However, we need to do more to incorporate policy into the current curriculum (and we will0>

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

The Avandia Scare: Why it Matters, Who's Responsible, and What to Do

We now know that Avandia is not associated with increased cardiovascular risk.

I have blogged quite a lot regarding Avandia. You might ask why would I so strongly support and blog about a drug/medication that, even if it doesn't seem to cause heart attacks, is expensive and is known to have other side effects, like congestive heart failure and bone fractures?


Here's why:





Why it matters?


1. Patients, doctors and the public were unnecessarily scared. You only need to recall the story of the boy who cried wolf to know why false alarms can be problematic. There were many patients who were unnecessarily worried that the medication their doctors prescribed might be killing them. Similarly, physicians were worried that a medication they thought they were giving their patients to help them, might have caused harm. The reaction can be seen in the precipitous drop in Avandia sales. However, it wasn't just that patients stopped taking Avandia and switched to its competitor Actos. Though there are now far many more prescriptions written for Actos than Avandia (was about 50/50 before the Nissen article), the entire class of TZD medications declined. Also, though there were increases in other drugs like metformin, many patients simply stopped taking their diabetes medications, and many of those patients did not tell there doctor about this. (We have documented this in our large, academic faculty practice and are in the process of publishing the results).




In addition, the Avandia scare was probably one of the key events that prompted the FDA to start warning the public about issues they were looking into BEFORE their analysis was complete. I blogged about this in March, 2008 in my post More FDA warnings should not be cause for worry. Thusfar, all of these "early warnings" have not panned out, and have undoubtedly scared more than a few concerned patients. Spiriva and Stroke? Doesn't' seem to be associated. Singulair and Suicide? Well the FDA just released their findings and though the label to Singulair was changed, the data does not seem to support a major concern, and the FDA's concerns were significanatly downgraded from the original warning. In other words, asthmatic and COPD patients on these drugs would have never needed to worry about these "warnings" if it wasn't for the Avandia scare.





This is not to say that we shouldn't take adverse effects of drugs seriously. Vioxx taught us that lesson. The Vioxx scare made everyone take a careful look at drug safety including the reporting and approval process. However, the Avandia scare added unnecessary fuel to the fire to the point of hysteria. Now, many patients will question the necessity of every medication a doctor prescribes. This itself is not inherently bad (an activated, inquistive patient is a plus), but it's the fear that causes this questioning that is problematic.





2. We need Avandia (and medicines like it)
Most diabetics are not able to be controlled on only one pill. In fact, of the two older, generic pills; we know that most patients on these medicines will eventually fail therapy. Analysis have shown that though both metformin and sufonlyurea lower blood sugar; about half of all patients taking either of these medications lost diabetes control by three years, with the vast majority losing control at 9 years.




Avandia, was the first medicine to show that it could keep patients' diabetes under control. The ADOPT trial showed that Avandia, a thiazolidinedione or TZD, substantially reduced loss of diabetes control compared to both metformin (Avandia 32% better) and sufonlyurea (Avandia 63% better). TZD's work by reducing insulin resistance, and also can improve beta cell dysfunction. Both effects were seen in ADOPT. The recent RECORD trial has now also showed this effect. Actos, another TZD, also seems to do this as well. Finally, some of the newer DPP4 medications like Januvia and (hopefully) soon to be available saxagliptin (Onglyza) have shown to preserve pancreas beta cell function in animals and human studies are only now just getting under way.



The point is that though the older medications are needed, they are not enough. Newer medications like Avandia have value, most importantly keeping blood sugar under control and preventing the need for insulin.


3. Patients were harmed.



The damage done to patients from the Nissen publication is hard to quantify, but in addition to unnecessarily worrying patients, patients were definitely harmed by this poorly done study and the subsequent media frenzy. As mentioned, many patients simply stopped taking their medications. It is not known what ill effects this might have caused. More importanly, those doctors who stopped using the TZD class altogether likely started prescribing more and more insulin. We now know from both RECORD and BARI 2D that not using TZD's like Avandia can double to triple the amount of patients needing insulin. Though the exact number from RECORD is not published, based on the what was presented at the ADA, I calculate that it takes at most 10 patients treated with Avandia for 5 years to prevent at least one patient from needing insulin. Put another way, for every 10 patients who stopped Avandia, one likely needed to go on insulin. Based on pharmacy data (via drugtopics.com, thank Mr. Medsaver) , there weree 11,331,000 prescriptions for Avandia and 11,329,000 for Actos in 2006. In 2008, that dropped to 3,103,000 and 12,518,000 respectively. Assuming that both Actos and Avandia prevent the need for insulin, and assuming that about every 6 scripts written represents one individual patient, over one million diabetics likely stopped taking Avandia or Actos, and thus the Avandia scare likely caused over 100,000 type 2 diabetic patients to need insulin, which could have been avoided.



Patients don't like insulin. There is the cost of not only the medications (most doctors are using the newer, expensive insulins, not the older ones), but also the strips and the machines to check blood sugar. In addition, patients fear low blood sugar, or hypoglycemia, which can be fatal. I have blogged about The Problem With Insulin (as well as The Problem with Insulin- Part 2)



4. The entire approach to the way diabetes is managed has forever changed.



Dr. Nathan, an endocronologist from Harvard, is basically the current architect of the ADA's guidelines for the management of type 2 diabetes. In a Perspective piece in the New England Journal of medicine , he shows that he does not like new diabetes medicines stating that newer diabetes drugs like Avandia and Januvia , "are generally no more potent, and often less effective in lowering glycemia, than the three oldest classes (insulin, the sulfonylureas, and the biguanides), all of which are more than 50 years old. Moreover, the newer classes are uniformly more expensive and are associated with adverse effects."



Despite the results of ADOPT, in an early guideline, Nathan stated that TZD's were merely a secondary option. In the newer consensus statement, mostly because of the Avandia scare, he further pushes for the older medicines (metformin, sulfonylurea, and insulin) as the preferred medications to use, leaving Actos as only a second line alternative, and taking Avandia and Januvia off the map. Though not all endocrinologists necessarily agree with this approach, many primary care physicians follow what the ADA recommends. In addition to TZD benefits presented at the recent ADA meeting, there are other examples of gains for diabetic patients, specifically saxagliptin, which is now proven to show no cardiovascular side effects and may even prevent strokes, and once weekly exenatide (Byetta). This insulin before newer medications approach, which is promoted by Nathan and the ADA is, in my opinion, not good for patients.


5. It is now much harder for ANY new diabetes medications to be availble for patients.




The Avandia scare had another MAJOR impact. Because of this supposed risk of increased heart attacks, the FDA now requires ANY new diabetes medicine to prove that it doesn't cause heart attacks. I talk about this in more detail in Rough Times for New Diabetes Drugs: The Diabetes Conspiracy Part III. This finally came to fruition several months ago when allogliptin got it's approval delayed. (This is somewhat ironic since alloglipitin's maker is Takeda, who also makes Actos, Avandia's competitor. Takeda was banking on alloglipitin more than GSK was counting on Avandia for it's future, so even though many docs switched from Avandia to Actos, it is possible that in the long run, the Avandia scare will hurt Takeda far worse than GSK).




6. The false alarm was motivated by politcs, ego and greed. Not all false alarms are bad. However, there is a difference between someone yelling "fire" when they smell smoke, and the school boy pulling the fire alarm to get an earlier recess. Prior to the Nissen meta-analysis, no one thought that Avandia would cause heart attacks. In fact, if anything, the thought was that TZD's like Avandia might actually prevent heart attacks. In fact, in one of Nissen's own studies Actos (a competitor to Avandia) was shown to decrease the progression of plaque build up. (Yes, this might be a conflict of interest if Nissen is attacking a drug whose competitor funds his research). To further describe those who may have less than pure motivations, see below.




Who is to blame?



1. There is no questio n that cardiologist Dr. Steve Nissen is in part to blame. He is very smart and an excellent researcher. He knows that some of the techniques he used in his analysis were not up to par, such as excluding any Avandia study where there were no heart attacks from him analysiss. There are many flaws and critics of the this meta-analysis, as well as an alternative analysis that found completely different results.





2. The New England Journal of Medicine is also to blame. This is one of the most prestigious medical journals. To ensure the studies they publish are of the highest quality, they use a process of peer review. This means that when a study comes into a journal for publication, the editors first look at this to see if it is of interest to the journal and if so, sends it out to several experts in the field. These experts comment on the study, and based on these comments, the journal chooses whether or not to publish. Before publication, the author needs to address the comments by the peer reviewers and re-submit to the editor. This process generally takes several months. The New England Journal released the study to the public in just 3 weeks after Nissen submitted it. It seems impossible to me that The New England Journal followed it's own policies, especially with such an important, confusing and flawed study. The study was so confusing that one of the reviewers contacted GSK to make sense of the data (this was a major no-no, and the doctor got a lot of negative publicity about this move, but the point is that one of the experts could not make sense of a study that was published in just 3 weeks). Had the peer review process been followed strictly, the study may never have been published or the results would have been modified and likely gotten much less publicity.





3. An FDA insider. Until the Nissen publication, Avandia had known potential problems with heart failure, but no one was thinking about risk for heart attacks, and if anything possibly preventing heart attacks. Even if Nissen has combed through all of GSK's data on his own, now publicly available thanks to Eliot Spitzer, finding heart attacks with Avandia would be like finding a needle in a haystack. The only folks who knew about the problem were the FDA, and they decided not to release the data to the public, because other data was contradictory. The fact that 42 studies (not all the same) were used in both the Nissen and FDA meta-analysis seems more than just coincidental. I have no actual knowledge of any communication, but I strongly suspect that someone inside the FDA tipped off Nissen to the data that GSK submitted to the FDA, because they did not agree with the head of the FDA's decision not to make this data public.





4. The FDA in general.

The FDA made the right decision to hold off on any conclusions regarding GSK's surprising meta-analysis, since it knew DREAM and ADOPT would soon be published and there was no problems with RECORD study currently underway. When the Nissen paper was published in the NEJM , the FDA could have come out strongly stating it's reasoning for not acting on GSK's meta-analysis, and because by this time ADOPT and DREAM were published and showed no increased cardiovascular risk, the FDA could have clearly shown why their decision was right. In addition, another opportunity for the FDA to make a strong statement reassuring the public came the following week when the RECORD interim analysis also showed no increased cardiovascular risk. Instead, the FDA just bent over and took the criticism from the media, bloggers, Congress and others.




What should be done?

Because the Avandia scare caused unnecessary worry for doctors and patients, harmed patients, forever changed the way diabetes is managed, and made it more difficult for new diabetes medicine to be approved; because we need medicines like Avandia; and because the motivations behind the Avandia scare may not have been in the best interest of patients; something must be done. I believe a full investigation is in order, starting with the FDA. I would like to know whether Nissen communicated with anyone inside the FDA that leaked confidential information. I would also like an investigation into the New England Journal of Medicine. Though we do have freedom of the press, medical journals must be held to a higher standard, since doctors use information published in these journals to make life and death decisions. If the New England Journal has policies in place to ensure only high quality data is published and they did not follow these policies when publishing Nissen's study, they too should also be held accountable. I have sent emails to the Department of Health and Human services. I hope they respond.



Sunday, June 7, 2009

Comparative Effectiveness Can Be a Win for the Drug Companies

One of the Obama administration's major initiatives as part of health care reform is comparative effectiveness. Currently, the drug and device companies do almost all of the research. NIH and other government agencies don't often compare which treatments work best and the industry usually only sponsors studies that it knows will make their product come out on top. Thus, it is not surprising that many drug companies do not support this comparative effectiveness. However, their position may be misguided.

A great example of comparative effectiveness was just presented this afternoon at the American Diabetes Association and simultaneously published ahead of press in the New England Journal of Medicine. The trial is called BARI 2D and is a 5 year comparative effectiveness study in over 2,000 type 2 diabetics sponsored by the good old USA (via NIH). In this case, the drug companies won not just once, but twice!

1. Drugs beat interventions. BARI 2D was designed to look at two things. First, in patients with type 2 diabetes who have atherosclerosis (blocked heart arteries), do they do better with interventions like surgery (coronary artery bypass) or percutaneous coronary intervention (where the cardiologist goes in with a catheter to open up a blocked artery with a balloon, often leaving a stent in place) or no interventions and just medications. Previous studies had shown no difference between medical therapy and intervention for stable patients, but the question remained whether or not this would hold true for type 2 diabetics, who are at even higher risk for heart related events. However, the same results were seen. Optimal medical management (think lots of pills) is better than angioplasty and bypass surgery. If I was the head of a drug company, I would be pretty happy with these results.

2. New medicines beat (sort of) old medicines. The second question BARI 2D tried to answer was whether the greatest benefit in this very high risk group of type 2 diabetics would come from insulin providing medicines (insulin, sulfonylurea-which are older drugs) or insulin sensitizing medicines (metformin, and thiazolidinediones or TZD's, which are newer). Again, there was essentially no difference in the primary outcomes of death or major cardiovascular events.

Having the old drugs show no difference then then newer drugs might at first seem like a loss for the drug companies. However, severe hypoglycemia was more frequent among patients assigned to receive insulin provision than among those who received insulin sensitization.This is important, because severe hypoglycemia is bad, and can be life threatening. Even more important, at the 3-year follow-up, the most frequently used drugs in the insulin-provision group were insulin (60.7%) and sulfonylurea (52.0%); in the insulin-sensitization group, the most frequently used drugs were metformin (74.6%) and a thiazolidinedione (62.1%- of which most (55%)was rosiglitazone or Avandia). Specifically, the use of insulin was double in the insulin providing group. If you can achieve the same results without using insulin why wouldn't you? My patients don't like taking insulin. The strips are expensive, checking your blood sugar frequently has been proven to reduce your quality of life, and I already mentioned severe hypoglycemia. This is a loss for those drug companies that make insulin products, but a real win for those drug companies that make pills and other newer insulin sensitizing products. Finally, more than half of the patients in the insulin sensitizing group took Avandia and virtually none took it in the insulin providing group. Guess what? In this group of type 2 diabetics who were at extremely high risk for death and heart attacks, there was absolutely no difference. Thus, BARI 2 D trial confirms what the RECORD trial clearly showedjust the other day: there is no cardiovascular risk associated with Avandia. This is a win for GSK (makers of Avandia) and Takeda (makers of Actos, another TZD).

BARI 2D represents comparative effectiveness at work. It tells us that we should be using medicines (even if some of them are expensive) instead of doing angiography and surgery (even more expensive) in certain patients who are commonly using the later. BARI 2D also shows us that newer (even if some of them are expensive) insulin sensitizing drugs provide equal cardioprotective benefits, but less hypoglycemia and less need for insulin which has many costs associated with it. The drug companies should re-consider their stance on this issue. If they are making novel and useful products, comparative effectiveness will likely be a win for them.

ADDENDUM- In the middle of writing this post, the Wall Street Journal published Diabetes Study Questions Expensive Treatments on this exact same issue. However, they got it wrong on Avandia and Actos. These medicines were shown to provide better sugar control, less hypoglycemia, and less need for insulin. It was indeed disappointing that there was not a statistically significant reduction in death or cardiovascular events. It is possible that longer studies would be needed to show this effect. However, even with no difference in the primary outcome; better glucose control, less hypoglycemia and less use of insulin is a win for these medications, not a loss.

Friday, June 5, 2009

For the RECORD, Avandia does not cause heart attacks.

Those people who know me would probably agree that I am not one to say "I told you so," but in this case I will make and exception.

The RECORD study, as I described the other day, was just presented and the results are GOOD. Dr. Home, the lead author of the study (from Med Page Today), stated, "in terms of overall cardiovascular risk, the drug is safe. There's no increased risk, no decreased risk. And that includes the heart failure element."

I told you in one of my first posts that the Nissen article was likely a lot of media hype.

I told you when the VADT trial came out that Avandia had been vindicated, and did not cause heart attacks.

I told you all about the flaws of the Nissen study and how politically motivated the entire Avandia scare really was, outlined in my post Diabetes Conspiracy

I told you before the results were presented in my post Get Ready for RECORD the likely outcomes of the study, which I also warned that the naysayers would be out in full force (more below)

Here's the actual results which can be found in The Lancet
- For the primary outcome of combined cardiovascular hospitalization and cardiovascular death- they were exactly the same
-for cardiovascular death alone, no difference (avandia slightly favored)
-for heart attack - no difference
- for stroke no difference (avandia slightly favored)
-diabetes was also better controlled in the avandia group (though we don't know by how much...yet.
-the only bad thing was that heart failure causing admission to hospital or death occurred in 61 people in the rosiglitazone group and 29 in the control group. However, this is not unexpected, since heart failure is a known risk for the drug. In fact, it is comforting to know that even with a double risk of heart failure, there was no overall increase in risk of hospitalization or death from cardiovascular causes in the study- which was the whole point of the study to begin with.

As mentioned, it should not be surprised that certain people are going to try to raise doubts about the study. Dr. Steve Nissen, whose meta-analysis is essentially completed refuted by the study claims that it is still unresolved is whether rosiglitazone is associated with an increased risk of myocardial infarction stating, "In The Lancet manuscript, the authors don't reveal the number of patients who were still taking Avandia by the end of the study. Obviously, it is impossible to assess the safety of a drug when patients are not actually taking it."

Guess what Dr. Nissen? At the end of the study, 1,344 patients 61% of the Avandia group were still on the drug, while 1,131 patients, or 51% of the control group, remained on their medicines (from Forbes). In other words, there was high and similar drop out in both groups. It is actually surprising that even more patients didn't drop out, given your study unnecessarily scared the socks of these folks!

Dr. David Nathan is another likely naysayer, given that his newest guidelines recommend that Avandia shouldn't be used.

From MedPageToday: Although the data released today showed no associated risk of overall cardiovascular morbidity or mortality, Dr. Nathan noted that the study still doesn't put to rest the concerns about the drug
This should not come as a surprise from someone who believes we need no more new diabetes medicines.


If you are still skeptical, I encourage you to read all my diabetes posts, particular the Diabetes Conspiracy, as it outlines how flawed and political the whole controversy is.

In addition, please consider that gold standard of science is not a meta-analysis, but large, randomized controlled trials designed to answer a specific question like RECORD. Given RECORD, ACCORD, ADOPT, DREAM and VADT there have been randomized, controlled trials of 26,000 patients that have been studied over 4 to 5 years, of which more than 15,000 patients took Avandia and showed absolutely no difference in heart attacks .