Thursday, May 17, 2018

Few family physicians are delivering babies, and few women are having VBACs. What's stopping them?

In 2017, fewer than one in five members of the American Academy of Family Physicians (AAFP) reported providing obstetric care. In a previous Graham Center Policy One-Pager, Dr. Tyler Barreto and colleagues reported that between 2009 and 2016, the percentage of family physicians practicing high-volume obstetrics (more than 50 deliveries per year) fell from 2.1% to 1.1%. A subsequent study in Family Medicine by Dr. Sebastian Tong and colleagues found that 51% of recent family medicine residency graduates intended to provide prenatal care, and 23% intended to deliver babies; however, less than 10% were delivering after 1 to 10 years in practice.

In a recent policy brief in the Journal of the American Board of Family Medicine, Dr. Barreto and colleagues analyzed data from the 2016 Family Medicine National Graduate Survey to identify barriers faced by residency graduates who stated interest in delivering babies but did not do so in practice. Almost 60% of respondents cited the lack of opportunity to do deliveries in the practice they joined and lifestyle considerations as the most important factors. Fewer than 10% felt that inadequate training or reimbursement were major issues.

Although these recent studies did not specifically focus on family physicians who perform surgical deliveries, prior research has established that Cesarean delivery outcomes are comparable whether performed by family physicians or obstetrician-gynecologists. To support women who choose to attempt labor and vaginal birth after Cesarean delivery (VBAC), the AAFP published a 2015 guideline that was largely based on an Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality review of the benefits and harms of VBAC versus elective repeat Cesarean. I summarized the key findings of this review in American Family Physician's "Tips From Other Journals":

The risk of uterine rupture was statistically higher in women undergoing a trial of labor (0.47 percent) compared with women undergoing an elective repeat cesarean delivery (0.026 percent). Fourteen to 33 percent of women who experienced a uterine rupture underwent a hysterectomy. Maternal mortality was rare, but higher in women undergoing an elective repeat cesarean delivery (13.4 deaths per 100,000 deliveries) than in those undergoing a trial of labor (3.8 per 100,000). In contrast, trial of labor was associated with higher perinatal mortality (1.3 deaths per 1,000 deliveries) than elective repeat cesarean delivery (0.5 per 1,000). ... The evidence suggests that most of the differences in maternal and perinatal outcomes between these delivery options are statistically, but not clinically, significant.

Access to VBAC remains limited or nonexistent in many parts of the U.S., and debates continue about its safety for mothers and babies. This month in CMAJ, Dr. Carmen Young and colleagues analyzed a Canadian hospital database containing information on women with a single prior Cesarean between 2003 and 2015 and a second singleton birth at 37 to 43 weeks gestation. They found that rates of the composite outcomes "severe maternal morbidity and mortality" and "serious neonatal morbidity and mortality" were significantly higher after attempted VBAC compared to elective repeat Cesarean. However, absolute differences in these outcomes were low, with NNTs of 184 and 141, respectively.

This new study may give some hospitals and maternity care providers pause about continuing to support women who desire VBAC, and, together with the dwindling numbers of family physicians providing delivery services, could push the overall U.S. Cesarean rate of 32% higher in future years.

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This post originally appeared on the AFP Community Blog.

Monday, May 7, 2018

Top primary care research studies of 2017

In the most recent installment in an ongoing series, my family physician colleagues Mark Ebell, MD, MS and Roland Grad, MD, MSc summarized research studies of 2017 that were ranked highly for clinical relevance by members of the Canadian Medical Association who received daily summaries of studies that met POEMs (patient-oriented evidence that matters) criteria. This year's top 20 studies included potentially practice-changing research on cardiovascular disease and hypertension; infections; diabetes and thyroid disease; musculoskeletal conditions; screening; and practice guidelines from the American College of Physicians and the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force.

The April issue of Canadian Family Physician, the official journal of the College of Family Physicians of Canada, also featured an article on "Top studies relevant to primary care practice" authored by an independent group that selected and summarized 15 high-quality research studies published in 2017. Not surprisingly, some POEMs ended up on both lists:

1) Home glucose monitoring offers no benefit to patients not using insulin

2) Treatment of subclinical hypothyroidism ineffective in older adults

3) Pregabalin does not decrease the pain of sciatica

4) Steroid injections ineffective for knee osteoarthritis

The common theme running through these four studies is "less is more": commonly provided primary care interventions were found to have no net benefits when subjected to close scrutiny.

On the other hand, in a randomized trial that appeared on CFP's but not AFP 's list, adults and children with small, drained abscesses who received clindamycin or trimethoprim-sulfamethoxazole were more likely to achieve clinical cure at 10 days than those who received placebo, although the antibiotics also caused more adverse events, particularly diarrhea (number needed to harm = 9 to 11). As Dr. Jennifer Middleton explained last year, these findings challenge a previous Choosing Wisely recommendation from the American College of Emergency Physicians that states, "Avoid antibiotics and wound cultures in emergency department patients with uncomplicated skin and soft tissue abscesses after successful incision and drainage and with adequate medical follow-up." More can sometimes be, well, more.

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This post first appeared on the AFP Community Blog.

Wednesday, May 2, 2018

Obstacles to stopping cancer screening in older adults

I recognized a glitch in my electronic medical record's decision support software when it prompted me to consider prostate and colorectal cancer screening in a 93 year-old man, who, though remarkably vigorous for his age, was unlikely to live for the additional 10 years needed to benefit from either test. Although deciding not to screen this patient was easy, determining when to stop cancer screening in older patients is often more challenging. In a 2016 article in American Family Physician, Drs. Brooke Salzman, Kathryn Beldowski, and Amanda de la Paz presented a helpful framework for decision making in these clinical situations, where population-level guidance derived from studies of screening younger patients "generally do not address individual variations in life expectancy, comorbid conditions, functional status, or personal preference."

The authors recommended that clinicians take into account not only average life expectancy at a given age, but also significant variations in life expectancy linked to functional impairment and comorbid conditions, using one or more validated prognostic tools. Although the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF) found insufficient evidence about screening mammography in women 75 years or older, modeling studies suggest that women with projected life expectancies of greater than 10 years may still benefit from this test - with these important caveats:

Although the sensitivity and specificity of mammography increase with age, overdiagnosis also increases because of reduced life expectancy and an increased proportion of slower-growing cancers. In other words, women with breast cancer diagnosed at an older age are more likely to die of something else, compared with younger women. In addition, treatment of breast cancer in advanced age is associated with greater morbidity, including an increased risk of postoperative complications and toxicity from chemotherapy.

Similar considerations apply to screening for colorectal cancer, which the USPSTF made a "C" grade recommendation (small population-level benefit, use individual decision making) for adults 76 to 85 years of age and recommended against screening adults older than 85 years, when the harms clearly exceed the potential benefits. Nonetheless, surveys have found that 31% of adults age 85 years and older, and 41% of adults with a life expectancy of less than 10 years, received screening colonoscopies. To discourage overuse of cancer screening without alienating patients, the authors advised: "It is important to convey that a decision to stop cancer screening does not translate into decreased health care. Rather, discussions can focus on health promotion strategies that are most likely to benefit patients in the more immediate future, such as exercise and immunizations."

A qualitative study in JAMA Internal Medicine explored the reluctance of primary care clinicians to explicitly incorporate long-term prognosis in the care of older adults. Most study participants relied on their own clinical experience, rather than validated tools, to estimate a patient's life expectancy, and were reluctant to stop screening in relatively younger patients even with limited life expectancies. Barriers mentioned by participants included inadequate training, time constraints, concern about negative patient reactions, competing practice incentives, and fear of lawsuits. Readers, how should we communicate with older adults whose age or life expectancy warrant stopping cancer screenings because harms outweigh benefits?

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This post first appeared on Common Sense Family Doctor on April 26, 2016.

Wednesday, April 25, 2018

How can medical educators support students' well-being?

Even twenty years later, I remember well the pervasive despair that engulfed me for much of my first two years of medical school. Even with a personal support system that included my family and several former college roommates and friends who lived in the same city, I struggled to find my bearings, academically and emotionally. Now that I spend much of my time teaching first-year medical students, I have wondered if the learning environment that I and other faculty provide contributes negatively or positively to their well-being.

A 2016 systematic review in JAMA examined the self-reported prevalence of depression, depressive symptoms, and suicidal ideation in medical students from 43 countries who were surveyed from 1982 to 2015. Longitudinal studies showed that students' mental health worsened significantly after starting medical school, with a median absolute increase in symptoms of 13.5%. On average, 27 percent of students reported depression or depressive symptoms, but only 16 percent of those students sought formal treatment. In contrast to my own experience, which was feeling much happier once I began third-year clerkships, there was no significant difference in depression prevalence between the preclinical and clinical years. Most alarmingly, 11 percent of students in these studies reported having suicidal thoughts during medical school.

A second systematic review examined associations between learning environment interventions and medical student well-being. The evidence base was limited: only 3 of 28 included studies were randomized trials, and most studies were conducted at a single site. Interventions that appeared to be effective in improving students' well-being included pass/fail grading systems, increased time with patients during the preclinical years, mental health programs, wellness programs including mind-body stress reduction skills, and formal advising/mentoring programs. In an accompanying editorial, Dr. Stuart Slavin observed that the educational culture of some medical schools is often an obstacle to implementing these kinds of reforms:

When signals of problems involving student mental health arise, the reaction in medical education has commonly been failure to recognize that the main problem is often with the environment, not the student. The response has often been limited, such as advising students to eat well, exercise, do yoga, meditate, and participate in narrative medicine activities. These approaches ... may distract educators from recognizing that the learning environment is at the core of the problem, and more must be done to improve it.

To be sure, maximizing student well-being is not the only or even the most important goal of medical education. But just as it is possible to create positive practice environments that protect clinicians from burnout, educators can prepare students to practice medicine competently in learning environments that are least likely to harm their mental health.

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This post first appeared on Common Sense Family Doctor on December 19, 2016.

Sunday, April 15, 2018

Keep your options open - become a family physician

One of the persistent fallacies that I hear from medical students at my institution who are trying to decide between residency programs in internal and family medicine is that by choosing internal medicine, they can "keep their options open" to either become a generalist or to specialize, while choosing family medicine will close off all options except practicing traditional office-based primary care. In fact, nothing could be farther from the truth. If you choose an internal medicine residency, I counsel these students, the odds are overwhelmingly high that you will end up as a subspecialist (-ologist) at a tertiary care medical center. In contrast, the options available to a family medicine residency graduate are nearly limitless. Among my family physician colleagues are hospitalists, infectious disease and HIV experts, urgent care and team physicians; those who perform C-sections, colonoscopies, and appendectomies in the U.S. and throughout the world; teachers, researchers, guideline gurus, health system leaders, and public health officials; those who are comfortable practicing in rural areas, urban areas, and in every community size in between.

I often characterize my own career in family medicine as atypical, but that implies (falsely) that there is a "typical" path. I usually spend Monday mornings blogging or editing papers written by others, then precept family medicine residents in the afternoon. Tomorrow, I will actually be seeing my own patients in clinic all day, but the next five Mondays after that illustrate many of the options available to an academic family physician:

Monday, April 23
AM: Give the "What Is Family Medicine?" lecture to the new clerkship students. It's late in the 3rd year, but perhaps one or more can still be persuaded to "keep their options open" and fall in love with my specialty.
PM: Attend a multidisciplinary panel meeting for the American Academy of Otolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery clinical practice guideline on epistaxis (nosebleeds).

Monday, April 30
Travel to Leawood, Kansas for a two-day American Family Physician editors meeting. Never in my wildest dreams as a medical student could I have imagined that I would become Deputy Editor of the second-largest medical journal (by print circulation) in the world, and the most monthly website views of any medical journal.

Monday, May 7
Attend the Society of Teachers of Family Medicine Annual Spring Conference in DC, where I am a co-presenter on two seminars and a scholarly poster.

Monday, May 14
Travel to Lancaster, PA, where the following morning I will present Grand Rounds at my alma mater (Lancaster General Hospital Family Medicine Residency).

Monday, May 21
Attend Georgetown's 2018 Teaching, Learning and Innovation Summer Institute as a member of this year's Technology-Enhanced Learning Colloquium for faculty across all university campuses.

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

Guest Post: Growing family medicine means changing med school admissions

- Larry Bauer, MSW, MEd

One of the things that I’ve always enjoyed about working with and supporting family physicians was the sense that I was helping not only the underdog, but one of the only groups within the house of medicine that could demonstrate its value in terms of improving the health of the population while reducing the cost of care; doing more with less.

I’ve also encountered elitism in medicine as an educator, as a faculty member, as a family member whose relations have encountered elitism and its effects, and as a patient myself. I want the underdog to lead the charge to reform the U.S. health care system. We would all be better off if family medicine and primary care led.

In Dr. Lin's description of remedies to the problem of too few family physicians, I think he left out the critical element. Our nation’s medical schools are becoming a playground for children from families of special means. Research clearly shows that a very disproportionate number of students admitted to our medical schools are from families with high and exceptionally high income expectations.

Children from families with limited means are disproportionately not making it over the hump. We know from 30 years of research that if more children from first generation to college families were admitted into our medical schools, and if those who have been out for a few years (not only a "gap year") were admitted to our medical schools, and if those from rural backgrounds were admitted to our medical schools, we would have more graduates choose family medicine and primary care, and probably general surgery and psychiatry as well.

This literally is the elephant in the room. I find that very few in family medicine and none outside of family medicine are willing to consider this issue.

I was on the forefront when I was on the faculty in the Department of Family and Community Medicine at Penn State University, as we collectively fought to increase family medicine faculty's teaching of students from first year to fourth year. We invest extraordinary faculty time and energy into teaching in most medical schools in the U.S. Family Medicine faculty are stretched thin because they want to increase students’ exposure to family physicians throughout all years of medical school.

But unless we address the core issue - the monolithic socioeconomic backgrounds of the students our medical schools are admitting - all of this additional expenditure of faculty time (which by the way is a very scarce and valuable resource) is not likely to change the picture. It’s time to focus on this issue. This can not be done by Family Medicine alone. It’s going to take a coalition of people within the medical school and in the larger community.

And a comment on AAMC’s response: the issue is not changing the interview process to address the “personal” side of the candidate. The issue is who is being interviewed in the first place. The second issue is who does the selecting. If basic science and non-clinical faculty continue to make up a large proportion of admissions committees, nothing will change.

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Larry Bauer is CEO of the Family Medicine Education Consortium.