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Demystifying Medicine One Month at a Time

Category: medication (page 1 of 3)

Medical Marijuana: Not Up to the Standard

This year Oklahoma voters made a clear choice to legalize medical marijuana, joining thirty other states that permit cannabis for medicinal use.

Unsurprisingly, immediately in the vote’s aftermath, patients began asking me to ‘prescribe’ medical marijuana licenses, as the new law stipulates users must have as a precondition for legal purchase. The new law does not, however, specify qualifying diagnoses for which medical marijuana might be clinically indicated.

My answer thus far has been, “Not now. Likely never.”

This has not been a popular response. One patient looked at me as if I’d put a lump of coal in his Halloween bag.

I’m not a fan of medical marijuana for several reasons. The main issue is the lack of proven medical efficacy. I know there are thousands of anecdotes from people whose pain or anorexia has been diminished by marijuana–and I’m genuinely glad for them. But I’d like to see better powered controlled trials of cannabis products head-to-head with accepted therapeutic agents. Having the FDA weigh in on marijuana’s safety and efficacy would also go a long way toward legitimizing pot’s medicinal use.

Another major problem is smoking the stuff. If we had proven, standardized dosing of edibles, I’d be more supportive of medicinal use. But smoking anything–tobacco, marijuana, vapor juice–is not a healthy practice, and one I counsel patients to avoid. I hear the arguments about the purity of pot and how it’s ‘more natural’ than manufactured tobacco products. The bottom line is that inhaling burning plant matter into your lungs is a terrible idea–regardless of the herb.

If voters want to legalize marijuana for recreational use, I have no objection–provided we put in place a legal framework to make sure that people don’t get hurt. Standardized dosing and measures to assure product consistency would be integral. And we’d need adequate enforcement to make sure that people aren’t impaired when at work or in other situations in which their marijuana use could jeopardize others.

Putting doctors in the middle of what amounts to a political, legal, social, and economic debate steers the medical profession in a race to the bottom–and let’s face it–our profession has enough problems already without being the gatekeepers of grass.

Remember that marijuana is still scheduled by the Drug Enforcement Administration as a Class I narcotic, defined as having “no accepted medical use and high potential for abuse.” So even though medical weed is now legal in my state, I have no interest in violating or abetting violations of federal law.

In fact, as it turns out, since I work at a university, our legal counsel is of the opinion that no provider in our system shall recommend marijuana, since our institution has numerous federal grants and funding streams and must therefore comply with all federal rules and regulations.

Some have suggested that given our national opioid epidemic, marijuana can serve as a safer alternative for pain control. Since most cannabis is homegrown, and where legalized a tax revenue source–this does make medical marijuana a more appealing alternative to propping up the seemingly ubiquitous heroin/fentanyl drug cartels.

This argument makes pot part of a harm reduction strategy, which I’d be more supportive of if the evidence were stronger.

Right now I see the pot economy as a Wild West with hundreds of entrepreneurs and medical professionals looking to stake claims in this new quasi-legal economy.

Get back to me when we have more state/federal legal congruence and clarity on the stuff’s true medical benefits.

This essay originally appeared as a Doximity Op-(m)ed.

I Floated for NPR — To Achieve Some Inner Calm.

“Crowding,” and Other Items

The stock market is up. But the economy sputters along–it grows, but only slowly.

The health care sector has been an exception to the trend of slow growth. It continues to employ more Americans than ever before, without much sign of slowing down.

[Correction. Here’s a sign of some slowing.]

The health care industry has become so huge that it comprises nearly 1/5 of the economy. Now 1/9 American workers are somehow in health care (think medical coders, billing specialists, and various administrators). It’s astonishing. Whole cities (Hello Cleveland, Pittsburgh, etc., etc.) rely on health care as their #1 sources of jobs/income/investment.

[For a superb treatment of this phenomenon, read Chad Terhune’s piece here.]

A while back I read a great essay by a health care pundit who talked of health care spending “crowding out” other forms of public investment.

Think of it this way: a government collects taxes. If it spends an increasing amount on health care goods and services each year, there is less available for education, roads, infrastructure, etc.

It may not quite be a zero sum game, but it’s darn close.


Don’t You Just Love Those Drug Ads on TV?

I wrote new essay for NPR’s health blog, Shots, in honor of the 20th anniversary of drug ads appearing on TV in the U.S.

You can click on the box below to have a look. It ran with more great collage art by @KatStreeter.

Does Medical Marketing Work?

20140929-dollars-for-docs-300x200_1You bet it does.

In the ‘old days,’ doctors were taken on junkets to sunny destinations and indoctrinated with the latest and greatest in brand name medications. The trips were paid for by the pharmaceutical firms that manufactured these drugs.

Trips like this started to become unseemly, and the public began demanding more transparency in the relationships their doctors had with drug companies. A database was created to keep track of the monies flowing to docs from drug companies.

Docs can still get a meal (as long as it’s ‘educational,’ i.e. there’s a lecture along with it) and the traditional branded pens and pads of paper for the office. Sometimes drug reps (the sales people for the pharma firms, known in the trade as ‘detailers’) bring by bagels or doughnuts to woo the staff and steal a few minutes to tell us about their latest product.

The big money comes to the select few who become ‘thought leaders,’ i.e. spokespeople on behalf of certain drugs. This can range from five to six figures. Per year.

Docs have always been a little defensive about having these relationships explored or highlighted. “No drug company influences the way I prescribe,” is a common sentiment.

“I prescribe the best products that are on the market,” is another retort — not hard to defend, as the brand name drugs create the perception (at least) of being the best.

Conventional wisdom has always held that drug companies wouldn’t spend the billions that they do on marketing if it wasn’t beneficial. Proof of that has been hard to come by, though, as there wasn’t a way to clearly demonstrate a relationship between drug company payments and the rate of prescribing brand name (i.e. heavily marketed, more expensive) drugs.

Now there is.

In a beautifully conceived and executed investigative report, the non-profit news source ProPublica has linked the pharma payment database with the Medicare Part D (which since 2003 has paid for prescription drugs for seniors) database.

You know what?

There’s a perfectly linear correlation: Docs that receive payments (in one database) prescribe more brand name drugs (from the other database).

Nothing about this is illegal. There’s no doubt that some of the doctors receiving payments genuinely believe the brand-name products they prescribe are better. It’s just that no one can claim with a straight face any longer that payments to doctors don’t influence the way we prescribe.

(Mind you, the drug companies have known this all along, but have kept this information private as ‘proprietary’ information. Trade secrets, you know.)

If you like this kind of reporting, you can listen to a story about the investigation here:

The Inflection Point(s) of Aging

A new column of mine has been posted on NPR’s website about “de-prescribing,” the art of pruning medications from older adults that take too many of them, a condition we refer to as polypharmacy.

Katherine Streeter for NPR

Katherine Streeter for NPR

It’s well-known that being on too many medications can lead to more side effects and drug-drug interactions, so anything medical professionals can do to minimize such negative outcomes is welcome. Thus we revert to our Hippocratic doctrine: First, do no harm.

Contrast that with the competing ethical imperative toward beneficence — to do good for patients. Medical science teaches us that many (though far from all) of the medications we prescribe for chronic illnesses (e.g. cardiovascular conditions) lead to fewer ‘events’ (think heart attacks & strokes), which prolong lives.

As a result, doctors wind up prescribing a lot of stuff — and decades of medical practice and now guidelines and quality metrics push us to do this even further.

One area I’d like to see science help us is in identifying “The Inflection Point of Aging,” which I define as the point in a person’s life when we can pare down ‘aggressive’ treatment of chronic conditions because it becomes counterproductive: when taking the “medically proper” action is likely to cause more harm than good.

This whole notion arises out of recent discourse: As I recently blogged, the SPRINT Trial, which was stopped early because it showed that treating blood pressure even more aggressively than we’d previously thought leads to fewer bad ‘events.’ How low, I wonder, is too low?

Also, an article in the Atlantic by medical pundit Ezekiel Emanuel titled “Why I Hope to Die at 75” emphasized this idea.

Emanuel is a known iconoclast, but I appreciate his efforts to stir up dialogue and get us talking about important issues that we are otherwise reluctant to discuss. In this case, I think his editors at the Atlantic did him a disservice, because the provocative headline of the article caused a furor and detracted from his real message, which was simply this: There comes a point where undergoing standard medical practices no longer makes sense. That point is different for everybody and is dependent on a person’s values as much as their physiology. Emanuel never said he wants to die at 75, merely that he plans to stop seeking medical interventions at that age — two very different ideas.

If you click over to the NPR column, you can see that anecdotally, we care for patients for whom physiology does change — and it therefore doesn’t make sense to keep doing the same things over and over. It’s trite to say it (and you’d be amazed at how challenging it can be to fight medical inertia), but we must think about each patient individually and truly weigh the risks and benefits of adhering to population-based norms and recommendations when goals and bodies change.

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