Physician rating sites deserve their own “Black Box Warning”

Posted September 26, 2017 by Dr. Roy
Categories: In the news, Pediatric Insider information

The Pediatric Insider

© 2017 Roy Benaroch, MD

When a drug is especially dangerous, or even potentially-maybe-especially dangerous, the FDA requires manufacturers to put a “Black Box Warning” on the product insert. (As it happens, many of these are misleading, inappropriate, or factually incorrect – but that’s a subject for another day.) A “Black Box Warning” is supposed to very explicitly say “BUYER BEWARE”, more than just the typical list of potential side effects mumbled by Mr. TalkFast at the end of a drug ad. The normal warnings look like “ThisDrugMayCauseDrowsinessTailGrowthAnalFlameDischargeAnUnpleasantMetallicTasteOrAnInexplicableInfatuationWithSenatorJonTester(D-Montana)”. It’s easy to ignore the wordy mumbling. The Black Box, that’s supposed to get your attention. It’s doesn’t mean the drug is a bad idea for everyone, but it does mean you’d better think before you take.

I’d like to see a Black Box warning on physician rating sites, too. They’re not always wrong, and they might just be useful once in a while. But you’d better think twice before taking them at face value, or using them to make decisions about whom to see for health care.

A few recent studies illustrate some of the problems. One looked at mortality rates for 614 heart surgeons scattered across 5 states, comparing those rates to their physician ratings on several well-known rating sites. There was no correlation at all. Physicians with high death rates often had great ratings; physicians with low death rates might have very good ratings. If your goal is to survive heart surgery, those physician rating sites tell you nothing. That should be in the Black Box warning.

Another study looked at physicians in California, comparing ratings on popular sites between 410 docs who had been put on disciplinary probation versus docs in those same Zip codes who hadn’t been sanctioned. Keep in mind that medical boards do not take probation lightly – docs who’ve been nailed by their board have probably done something fairly bad, and probably more than once (although there’s considerable variability, some luck, and politics involved. Good docs are sometimes trapped by their boards, too.) Although it varied by the reason for the probationary status, for many doctors disciplined for lack of professionalism, substance abuse, or sexual misconduct there was no correlation between ratings and probation status. Looking at the overall averages, docs on probation had an average score of 3.7, compared to 4.0 for docs who had behaved themselves. Very little difference, there.

There are several reasons that these doc rating sites not reflect genuine physician competence:

  • Only people who are motivated to write ratings do so. The vast majority of patients who have a reasonably positive experience do not bother to do rate their docs. I’ve called this property of internet postings “Exaggerating Freakiness”, and it pervades social media. The internet brings far more attention to the outliers than it does to ordinary stories, and that distorts the impression we get from just about every web site.
  • How people feel about the medical care they received doesn’t necessarily correlate with whether they got good care or not.
  • It’s pretty much impossible to tell if a public posting is true. There are many reasons people write both positive (friends, neighbors, well-wishers) and negative (competitors, those with specific agendas) reviews.

Some docs (and other businesses) are using litigation to aggressively fight back against negative reviews. But that’s not always fair, either. People are entitled to their opinions, and as long as they’re not just lying about what happened, I think it’s best if the lawyers stay out of this. Still, I get the frustration that business owners feel if they’ve been unfairly targeted.

Online rating sites are here to stay, and they’ll continue to rate doctors and hospitals, and people are going to continue to use them (Google just shoves the rating down your throat when you search. There’s no avoiding this.) Just remember the Black Box warning: physician rating sites may have some use, but they can have unintended side effects. They may mislead you into making a poor decision about your doctors, and that’s not good for your health.

Physician rating sites deserve their own “Black Box Warning”

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Be wary of infant jewelry and lead poisoning

Posted September 5, 2017 by Dr. Roy
Categories: In the news, Pediatric Insider information

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The Pediatric Insider

© 2017 Roy Benaroch, MD

A recent story reported by the CDC reminds us of a few important lessons about teething, lead, and the kind of jewelry you buy at craft shows. A mom had purchased a handmade “homeopathic magnetic hematite healing bracelet” from an artisan at a local craft show. Her 9 month old daughter wore it on her wrist, reportedly to help with teething symptoms, and occasionally chewed on it (as babies are known to do.) She was found on routine screening to have a blood lead level about 10 times the safe upper limit of safety.

Lessons to learn:

Babies really shouldn’t wear jewelry at all (they look good without it!) Some bling is probably OK (like small earrings), but you have to be sure they’re not made with lead. That’s because anything on a baby or near a baby will end up in the baby’s mouth. Seriously, everything.

This particular bracelet was triple-dangerous. Looking at the photo, it was made of little beads strung together, which apart from their poisonous lead content were a potential choking hazard. And: magnets are a very bad thing for kids to swallow, because they can glom onto each other in clusters, or even while pinching a piece of intestine. Magnets are less likely to make their own way out without causing big-time tissue damage. No lead, no beads, no magnets!

Babies should especially never wear any kind of jewelry around their necks. Even a small tug on a necklace can close off the airway and kill a baby. That includes those trendy amber teething necklaces, which are both a choking and strangulation hazard. There are media reports of deaths from those things. Look out for long cords or straps on pacifiers, or cords on window blinds or binoculars or anything else thin and round and shaped in a loop. Anything that could wrap around a neck can strangle a baby and needs to be cut to pieces or kept very far away.

And: teething. Most babies experience teething with no symptoms whatsoever – the only way you know, with most babies, is that you see teeth poking out. An occasional baby might have some fussiness with teething, and you can treat them with love and cuddling, maybe a teething ring, or some acetaminophen if needed. There is no great plague of terrible symptoms of teething that need constant treatment, especially not with dangerous things. Teething is just another thing most parents do not have to worry about.

Other dangerous teething “cures” have included “homeopathic teething tablets” which contained poison, and benzocaine-containing teething gels (now mostly off the market) that caused a potentially fatal blood disorder. The sad thing here is that none of these were ever really needed – they’re marketed based on fear of a normal, harmless condition. Don’t waste your money, or endanger your child’s health, on jewelry or potions to treat teething.

Breath holding spells —  Super Scary for parents, not a big deal for kids

Posted August 28, 2017 by Dr. Roy
Categories: Medical problems

The Pediatric Insider

© 2017 Roy Benaroch, MD

Lemelon wrote a topic suggestion: “Breath holding spells. My toddler had a cyanotic breath holding spell after a bad fall where he struck his head on concrete from a height of about 4-5 feet. I didn’t know about breath holding spells and was pretty sure he was going to die. Thought maybe other parents would like to learn about them and their prevalence. Thanks!”

Near the top of a list of super-scary things for parents to see are breath holding spells. Your kiddo, typically a toddler, bonks his head or gets really mad about something. Then he stops breathing, turns white, and collapses on the floor. And looks dead. Really. Dead. It’s quite dramatic. I can say this, calmly now, because the child of mine that used to have them hasn’t had one in over 10 years. I’m a doctor, but with your own kid breath holding spells are freaky and scary.

But they aren’t freaky and scary to the children. After a few moments, they start to breathe again, and they might be a little tearful or clingy for a few minutes, and then they’re fine. Mom and dad need a long lie-down and a few glasses of Chablis, but the kiddos, I promise, they’re fine.

So what are breath holding spells? They’re kind-of-sort-of like a faint. They usually happen in toddlers, say from 6 to 18 months of age, and usually start with either a painful stimulus or less-often a very frustrating or fearful sort of event. The child might then gasp, and stop breathing, and almost immediately turn very pale or sometimes blue. Here’s a weird thing: even though their skin can look blue, there’s still plenty of oxygen in their blood. This happens way too fast to drop blood oxygenation. They look like they’re blue and dying, but they’re not. And: breath holding spells are entirely, 100%, involuntary. These are not kids who decide to hold their breath until they pass out.

During this period, what’s basically happening is that the autonomic nervous system – that’s the involuntary, behind-the-scenes part of the nervous system that you don’t think about much – slows down the heart, and clamps down the blood vessels, and, well, shuts off the brain. The kids go limp, and collapse breathless on the floor. Sometimes, there can be just a few little muscle jerks or spasms right there at the end, too, to further freak you out.

But just a few seconds later, everything resets. The heart resumes normal beating, circulation returns, and Junior wakes up. Crazy, I know, but leave it to kids to come up with something like this. Look mom, I’m dying! Just kidding!

(If the child doesn’t wake up and start breathing within 3 minutes, start CPR and call 911. I’ve not seen or heard of that happening, and I don’t think any parent would even wait that long, but I don’t want parents to not call 911 if they’re worried!)

Breath holding spells are fairly common – they happen in 4-5% of children, maybe a little more commonly in girls. Though they typically start at 6-18 months, some babies will start younger. They usually stop by age 4 years or so, though some kids go on to have more-ordinary fainting spells from there.

Bottom line: as scary as they are, breath holding spells are harmless. The main thing is to diagnose them correctly (which is 100% entirely by the history, there are no tests or scans or anything) and to avoid a huge, expensive, painful, and misleading diagnostic odyssey. These kids do not need a bunch of tests. If the diagnosis isn’t clear from the history (say, the events are unwitnessed or atypical), sometimes a few tests can rule out other things.

There are a few off-label medicines that are rarely prescribed to prevent breath holding spells, especially if they’re happening very frequently. There’s some evidence, not great, that iron supplementation may sometimes be helpful. But that’s it in terms of medical therapy. (That, and the Chablis)

With breath holding spells, the doc’s job is to listen and get the diagnosis right, without unnecessary tests; the parents’ job is to leave the kiddo alone until he wakes up, and try not to freak out; and the child’s job is to outgrow them before Daddy has a heart attack, OK?

What happened to those pain-killing ear drops?

Posted August 14, 2017 by Dr. Roy
Categories: Pediatric Insider information

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The Pediatric Insider

© 2017 Roy Benaroch, MD

MJ wrote in about her daughter. In the past, she used to use a prescription drop called Auralgan (benzocaine plus antipyrine) for ear pain, but it’s been taken off the market. What happened to it? Was it unsafe? Can she start buying it from Canada? What other options are there?

The FDA got tough on Auralgan and several other similar ear drops – AB Otic, Aurodex, Auroto, and other brands – in 2015. To my knowledge, there wasn’t any specific incident or allegation that these products caused any problems. But they’ve never been shown to be safe, and they’ve never been shown to be effective.

For many years these and other older “grandfathered” drugs were cheerfully sold alongside other prescriptions. But all new drug applications submitted to the FDA must include proof of both safety and effectiveness – that’s been the law since 1938, though what’s passed for “proof” has varied. Many older drugs, like these ear drops, slipped though when things were less stringent. But the FDA has always had the right to ask for more proof from the manufacturers.

I don’t really know why these drops got the FDA’s attention. It is true that there’s never been any proof of effectiveness. A German study cited in the non-discontinued products’ insert showed that children given Auralgan for earache did improve – but they didn’t compare the responses with a placebo, and we know that ear aches get better on their own, anyway. There was also a study from Pittsburgh in 1997 – the authors say they showed that topical Auralgan was “likely to provide additional relief” when given along with acetaminophen. But their study showed no statistical difference in pain scores at 3 of the 4 time periods, meaning that Auralgan was equivalent to their placebo (olive oil drops.)

There’s also no science reason to even think these drops would work. The two ingredients, benzocaine and antipyrine, are not effective when applied to the skin – they only work when injected or swallowed. Benzocaine has some activity when rubbed onto a mucus membrane, like on your tongue or gums, but that’s not what’s inside your ears. And: it makes absolutely no sense to use these to treat middle ear pain (like an ear infection, or the pain you get in an airplane), because drops in your ear canal don’t get into your middle ear. That’s like treating stomach pain by pulling on a finger. OK, bad example (ref: grandpa). Anyway, you get the idea.

Real Drugs are only supposed to be marketed in the USA with FDA approval, which requires proof of safety, effectiveness, and quality control manufacturing standards. For ear pain, if you want to stick with a Real Drug, acetaminophen is a pretty good choice. MJ asked about buying Auralgan from Canada – it looks like it’s still on the market up there. I found one place selling it for $142. That’s one expensive placebo.

Or, MJ could wander outside of the realm of Real Drugs. The 1997 study used olive oil as a placebo, and that’s safe – and you could use the leftovers in a salad. Or you could look in the alt-med, “alternative medicine” section of the drug store – there are ear drops there, but they’re not FDA regulated, so purveyors can sell whatever they’d like. You don’t know what you’re getting in those bottles, and there’s no reason to think they’d work any better than olive oil, pickle brine, or ranch dressing.

 

Competition can’t reduce health care costs if the prices are a secret

Posted August 8, 2017 by Dr. Roy
Categories: Pediatric Insider information

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The Pediatric Insider

© 2017 Roy Benaroch, MD

Competition often works. Competing dry cleaners or donut shops must either improve the quality of their product or keep their prices low, or customers will go somewhere else for their cruller fix. In time, the better businesses – the ones that provide tastier pastries at a lower price, – will thrive, and less-good, more-expensive businesses will go away. In the long run, all customers benefit from competition between businesses.

That’s how it’s supposed to be in the American marketplace. But the reality in health care is that it’s not a free market, and it can’t be a free market, and we cannot rely on competition to keep prices down. One big reason: health care prices are a secret.

 You know how much a donut costs. If it’s too much, you’ll take your business elsewhere. Or eat a croissant, or (God forbid) a gluten-free muffin. But can you shop around to find  better health care costs?

A quick story: I use a CPAP machine at night. (Apparently, if I don’t, I stop breathing. I’m told that’s bad.) I get billed $140 a month from the CPAP company, which is magically transformed into $42 a month on the insurance statement, which I pay towards my deductible. I called today to find out from the CPAP company what the total cost will be (it’s a rent-to-own deal, and eventually the machine will be paid off.) They wouldn’t tell me the total, but suggested I call my insurance company. Who also wouldn’t tell me the total, but assured me that if the CPAP company went over their “contractual rate”, the insurance company would stop paying. (How this helps me, I don’t know, but isn’t it nice to know that my insurance company won’t overpay? I might get hosed, but thankfully the good people at Aetna are protected from CPAP price gouging.) That “contractual rate”? It’s a secret (their computer knows, I was assured, but they can’t tell me.)

Even if I wanted to shop around for a less-expensive CPAP device, I couldn’t, because no one will tell me the price. Not that I would shop around, honestly – after those two phone calls, I’d rather poke a fork in my eye, or just stop breathing at night and let my wife shake me awake (which has always worked before. Maybe I need to start paying her that $42 a month.) Secret pricing and means that competition and comparison shopping just aren’t possible for many medical services.

There are other reasons that health care doesn’t abide by free-market principles:

Hospitals and emergency departments have to provide care to everyone, even if they can’t pay. Imagine running a grocery store where sometimes you had to give the food away. To stay in business, you’d have to jack up the prices on the paying customers to cover the non-payers. Now: emergency departments are not grocery stores, and I agree that it is morally unacceptable to turn sick people away. But someone has to pay for this. Emergency departments cannot be run like an ordinary competitive business.

The “barriers to entry” are too high to ensure competition. If a donut shop offers crappy, expensive donuts, another shop can open up across the street. But opening up a hospital is very expensive – and requires government clearance for a “certificate of need” and all sorts of other hoops. Pharmaceutical companies, device manufacturers – these are also very, very expensive companies to start up, and that stifles competition. Legal wrangling also gets in the way. There is no fair playing field to even out or control prices for the biggest-ticket medical expenses.

On the other hand, it’s relatively inexpensive to open up another walk-in or urgent care center – that’s why there’s one on every corner. At least in wealthy neighborhoods. You’d think that would create competition and lower prices – but that won’t happen, not unless their customers can comparison shop for price and quality. (By the way: judging the quality of medical care is also fraught.)

Many people don’t pay their own health care bills. We’ve come to expect health care to be covered by insurance (though that’s changing, with more high-deducible plans and cost-sharing). Many of us don’t even think to comparison shop. But if no one cares about the prices charged, “competition” doesn’t work.

Health care is often “purchased” under duress. When you’ve got crushing chest pain, you don’t call your insurance company to find an “in-network” hospital or ambulance service. And you shouldn’t have to.

The biggest problem with health care is that it costs too dang much. Providing better access to insurance and doctors is morally the right thing to do, but – and this is important, here – better access does not control costs. Competition, alone, won’t work. We’d better come up with some better ways to get costs under control, or there won’t be any money left over for those tasty donuts.

Bedwetting in a pre-teen

Posted August 3, 2017 by Dr. Roy
Categories: Medical problems

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The Pediatric Insider

© 2017 Roy Benaroch, MD

Josh wrote in about his 12 year old daughter – they’ve tried everything, specialists and medications, and she still wets the bed every night:

We have done everything. Waking her, withholding fluids, buzzer. She has taken the highest dosage of desmopressin allowed, to no avail. She has been to an endocrinologist and tested thoroughly, seen her pediatrician many times, had abdominal X-rays and ultrasounds, and been examined for psychological issues. Nothing. The next step our doctor suggests is a urologist. She currently wears a diaper to bed, and we are very straightforward and sympathetic with her. Only positive reinforcement, but she is frustrated with herself at this point.

Josh, about 3% of 12 year olds still wet the bed, at least sometimes (though most of those are boys). It’s not crazy-uncommon for your daughter to be doing this, but I know she wants to stop. Trouble is: bedwetting happens when you’re asleep, and what you want or don’t want doesn’t really matter. Positive reinforcement won’t hurt, but it probably won’t help much, either. What might hurt is encouraging her to “try harder” – this is something that isn’t about trying or practice or rewards. It’s about neurologic maturity.

What supposed to happen: past a certain age, even while we’re asleep we can still pay attention to signals from our bladders. When it’s full, or getting full, we tighten up our pelvic muscles to hold in the urine, without waking up. A good trick, that is, and babies can’t do it, and young children can’t do it. People who are heavier sleepers find it harder to do this, too – and that makes sense. Sleeping like a rock means it’s more likely that you’ll wake up like a, well, wet rock. And there’s not much you can do to “lighten” someone’s sleep cycle.

What *might* work – and I know Josh’s daughter has already tried some of these, but just for completeness:

Drinking more in the morning I know, the usual advice is to drink less at night – but it turns out that’s really difficult to do. If you’re thirsty, you’re thirsty, and not drinking when you’re thirsty is nigh impossible. Instead: stay well hydrated the rest of the day, especially the morning, so you don’t feel like drinking in the evening.

Don’t hold urine during the day I know, some people suggest “bladder stretching” by day to hold more at night. But the problem isn’t a small bladder – it’s that the sleeping child doesn’t notice that their bladder is full. It turns out that holding by day gets the brain “used to” the feeling of a full bladder. It dampens (sorry) the nerve signals, so you don’t get as strong a feeling of a full bladder. This is exactly what you do not want. Frequent, relaxed daytime emptying can help a child stay dry at night.

Treat constipation Constipation leads to holding which leads to less awareness of a full bladder; it also inadvertently strengthens muscles you don’t want strengthened, making it difficult to empty the bladder. At 12, if bedwetting is an issue, I suggest treating constipation even if you don’t think your child is constipated. Just try it. It might work.

Consider medication Two meds have wide use to help with bedwetting: desmopressin and imipramine. Either or both are worth a try, especially if the child is concerned about this.

Don’t make this about trying or not trying I said this before, but let me repeat it: kids don’t wet the bed because they want to wet, and don’t stop wetting the bed because they want to stop. Josh mentioned looking into psychological contributors, which may be a good idea, but don’t create a bigger problem by blaming or by implying that kids can solve this problem by trying harder. That’s not fair and won’t be helpful.

See a urologist At some point, I think it’s a good idea – to rule out very rare anatomical issues, and make sure all medical contributors have been addressed.

And, finally: Focus on the positive. I agree, Josh’s daughter has every right to be upset about this and to want it to stop. And it will stop. I’d pursue some (or all) of the ideas above, while at the same time keeping the conversation positive, non-blamey, and focused on things she does well.

Just because a chemical is present doesn’t mean you have to worry about it

Posted July 31, 2017 by Dr. Roy
Categories: Guilt Free Parenting, In the news, The Media Blows It Again

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The Pediatric Insider

© 2017 Roy Benaroch, MD

Advocacy groups have been busy lately with their fancy-pants chemicalz detection science instruments, and their press releases have made it into the news. But is there news here, and are these chemicals something parents really need to worry about?

First it was a big lead from the New York Times called “The Chemicals in your Mac and Cheese.” The article started:

Potentially harmful chemicals that were banned from children’s teething rings and rubber duck toys a decade ago may still be present in high concentrations in your child’s favorite meal: macaroni and cheese mixes made with powdered cheese.

Oh noes, not high levels! The chemicals they’re talking about are from a family called “phthalates,” which sounds scary and difficult-to-pronounce. (Words shouldn’t start with four consonants. On this we should all agree.) Phthalates have been in wide use for over 80 years in plastics and other compounds. Though they’re not added to cheese, they’re on the coatings of tubes and platforms and whatever else is used in the machinery to make Magic Orange Cheese Powder. Foods with a high surface area (like a powder) are going to come in more contact with it, and a teeny bit of a trace of a few molecules are going to transfer over.

Important point: these chemicals have been in our food for many, many years. What’s changed is that we’ve now got fancy equipment to measure it. The Times story is quoting a kind of press release – not a medical study, or even anything published in the medical journal. It’s a “study” done by a consortium of food advocacy groups. It’s being promoted by an organization called “KleanUpKraft.Org” (Cutesy misspellings are at least as bad as starting words with four consonants, K?) And their “high levels” are in tiny parts per billion, at levels that are very low compared to amounts that cause adverse effects in animal studies.

Just because you can detect a chemical as present doesn’t mean there’s enough of it to hurt you. Mercury and arsenic are part of the natural world around us, and any food tested with equipment that’s sensitive enough will find at least traces of these and many other chemicals. It is not possible to get the values of phthalates or arsenic or many other chemicals down to zero in our foods.

Speaking of chemicals, this week another food advocacy organization announced that they’d found traces of an herbicide (glyphosate, found in Round-Up) in Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream. And in every flavor tested, too, except Cherry Garcia, which is kind of nasty-tasting anyway (I’m sticking with Chunky Monkey, which wasn’t even tested.) But: their press release didn’t even reveal the levels that they found, only that they found it. Maybe it was one part in a zillion. Who knows? But: Do you think if the value were genuinely high they’d hide it like this? No way. It’s there in some kind of teeny amount, and they’re trying to scare you.

Don’t fall for all of this “The Sky is Falling, There’s Chemicals in My Food” hype. Just because something is hard to pronounce doesn’t make it dangerous, and just because something is present doesn’t mean it’s going to kill you. We’ve all got enough to worry about without being scared of Mac and Cheese and Ice Cream. In fact, a little comfort food in these troubled times would probably be good for all of us. Maybe even the grumps at KleanUpKraft.org.

By the way, I don’t disagree with one thing – homemade Mac n Cheese is at least as good as that boxed orange stuff. Though sometimes, I won’t deny it, the orange stuff sure does hit the spot…