Tuesday, December 31, 2019

Why combination pills?

Almost half of the drugs marketed today are fixed combinations of two (or rarely more) drugs that are also available separately. In a very few cases, the use of such fixed-dose combination products makes sense. Examples would be many birth control pills, the urinary infection drug trimethoprim-sulfa (sold as Bactrim or Septra) or the Parkinson’s drug carbidopa-levoda. Here the two drugs help each other and work better together than does either alone.

Many more combinations are no better than using the two products separately but offer some convenience and so improve compliance – it is always easier to take one pill than two. The medical problem with many combination pills is that the doses of the two ingredients cannot be adjusted separately, and it is only by coincidence that the amounts in the pill might be correct for any given person. In the World Health Organization’s list of 240 “essential” drugs, only seven are fixed-combination products.

A major societal problem with many combination pills is the absurd over-pricing attached to the product. One horrific example is Vivimo, marketed for pain (and really being pushed hard to doctors as an alternative to narcotics). What is Vivimo? It has the anti-inflammatory drug naproxen (Aleve and others) packaged with esomeprazole (Nexium and others). The logic is simple. Naproxen, like all “non-steroidal anti-inflammatories (NSAIDs)” (ibuprofen, aspirin and numerous prescription products), can irritate the stomach. For long-term users of these products, or for people with prior stomach bleeding who still might benefit from their use, doctors may prescribe an acid-suppressor along with the NSAID. You can buy 60 tablets of naproxen, a month’s supply, for about $35, and for about the same amount get a month’s worth of an acid suppressor like esomeprazole. So, $60-65/month for the same ingredients as are in Vivimo. Vivimo was first marketed by Astra Zeneca. Horizon Pharmaceutical bought rights to the product in 2013, when it cost $57 for a month’s supply and immediately raised the price to $400. Nine price hikes later, it now lists for $1241 for a month! Why, you may ask, would anyone use this? Since Horizon is very skilled at gouging, as are most pharmaceutical companies, they use coupons to lower the out-of-pocket cost to consumers – but not to their insurance companies, which then just jack up premiums to cover the cost.

Another similar example is Zegerid, which combines the acid-suppressor omeprazole (Prilosec and others) with sodium bicarbonate (yes, baking soda) and sells this frankly silly product at a list price of $14,213 for a 90-day supply! Again, coupons lower the out-of-pocket cost to the consumer, but the cost to society and indirectly to the consumer are very high.

A group of Harvard researchers looked at Medicare spending in 2016 and found that Medicare spent $925 million more for combination drugs than would have been spent on the products bought separately. While this is a small fraction of the enormous waste in our bloated healthcare system, it should be one of the easiest to fix. Just say no to fixed combinations in most situations.

Prescription for Bankruptcy. Buy the book on Amazon

Sunday, December 22, 2019

Green - the color of relief

This post was originally going to be about the waste in the U.S. health care system, but it is Christmas and Hanukah, and who wants a downer story at the holiday season?

Serendipitously I came across a “do you believe it?” story that was much more fun to write. Several research groups, notably at the University of Arizona and Harvard, have found that exposure to green light can relieve pain. The Harvard group found that while most migraine sufferers cannot tolerate light (the medical term for this is photophobia), green light is much less annoying than other colors, and may even relieve the headaches. The group at Arizona found 2-3 years ago that rats exposed to green light were much better able to tolerate heat on their paws than rats exposed to other light or left in the dark. It has also been found that people who are surrounded by greenery are healthier than others. I assumed this reflected a generally healthier environment and lifestyle, but who knows. There is some experimental data suggesting that green stimulates the body’s own (“endogenous”) opioid system.

Dr. Mohab Ibrahim, the lead researcher at U Arizona has recently done a small study with 25 chronic migraine sufferers who had numerous headaches that interfered with their quality of life. They spent two hours daily in a dark room exposed to green lights, and all had major improvement in the frequency and severity of their migraines. Some got relief within a few days of starting while in others it took weeks. All had their usual headache pattern return when the light treatment was stopped.

Since sitting in a room looking at green light two hours a day is hardly convenient, alternatives are being studied. One (totally uncontrolled) study has found that wearing green-tinted eyeglasses has a beneficial effect on relieving chronic pain. While I am a great skeptic when it comes to “alternative therapy,” using green to help relieve pain appeals to me. It is cheap, it is totally safe, and it has just enough data behind it to be plausible.

Try it – you just may like it. Happy holidays.

Prescription for Bankruptcy. Buy the book on Amazon

Monday, December 9, 2019

What's the truth about vaccination?

A headline I should never have had to see: “Worldwide measles deaths surge, reversing years of progress.” This was ABC News on December 5, quoting a report from the World Health Organization that over 140,000 people died in 2018 from measles, most children under 5. The same week, officials in Samoa asked the public to hang red flags outside their homes if they had an unvaccinated family member living there – reminiscent of a public health measure dating back to the Middle Ages, when homes and businesses affected by the black plague were marked.

Vaccination against infectious diseases is one of the great triumphs of medicine. It can be dated back to 1796 when William Jenner, an English country doctor did his now-famous experiment. Country wisdom and his own observations found that milkmaids who suffered from cowpox, a disease that caused blistering on cows’ udders and which caused a mild illness in humans, never developed smallpox. Smallpox was a very serious illness: 30% of those infected died, and many of the survivors were left blind or disfigured. Jenner inserted pus from a cowpox pustule into a cut in eight-year-old James Phipps’ arm and later inoculated James with smallpox and the boy did not get ill. He repeated this with other children, including his own 11-month-old son, with the same results. Vaccination against smallpox was rapidly taken up across Europe.

Vaccines are now available to prevent many once-deadly diseases, including polio, diphtheria, measles, tetanus, yellow fever, typhus and hepatitis. Over the past two decades, with the memory of these diseases fading from our daily consciousness, we have seen the growth of the “anti-vaccine” movement that threatens to undo much of this life-saving progress.

There has always been objection to vaccination. After Jenner’s vaccination became widely adopted, many opponents claimed it was repulsive and ungodly to inoculate someone with material from diseased animals. The widespread awareness of such dread diseases as smallpox overcame these objections, as the vaccine clearly worked, and everyone knew friends, relatives and neighbors who had died. When I was a child, polio was still a dread disease, and the public welcomed first Salk’s and then Sabin’s vaccines. By the late 20th Century, memory of most dreaded childhood diseases had faded, leading people to underestimate the severity of the harms that vaccines prevent.

Much of the current “anti-vax” movement can be traced to a paper by Andrew Wakefield in The Lancet, a British medical journal, in 1998. He and 12 coauthors claimed to have investigated a “consecutive series” of 12 children referred to the Royal Free Hospital with chronic enterocolitis and developmental disorders, including autism, which they linked to MMR vaccination. The General Medical Council of Britain found that the children were carefully selected and that the study was funded by lawyers representing parents suing vaccine manufacturers. In 2010, the editors of The Lancet retracted the paper, apologizing for published a clearly flawed paper, but the damage had been done.

Autism is a serious life-long developmental disorder, whose cause remains unknown. It has a strong genetic component, and even though it may not manifest until early childhood, researchers feel the underlying pathology is present at birth. Parents want an answer, and vaccines provide an easy answer. Multiple studies have been done that strongly repudiate any link between MMR vaccination and autism. Three large studies, in Denmark, the U.S. and Britain have found less autism among vaccinated children than those not vaccinated.

Just as the proliferation of clearly biased news presentations have left all-too-many of us in our own silos politically, those who oppose vaccination can find all the support they want in chat groups and Facebook, science be damned. The problem with letting parents decide is that it is not only their children who are harmed, but the general public. Just as courts have decided that parents cannot let their own beliefs allow them to refuse life-saving medical treatments for their children, parental objections should not allow them to refuse vaccination for their children. A small number of children with immune deficiencies are at risk from vaccines and should be exempt. They will be safe if the large majority of healthy children receive the vaccines, as this makes epidemics very unlikely. Parents who refuse are not “bad” people, but they are seriously misinformed, and should not be allowed to harm others if their minds are closed to evidence.

Prescription for Bankruptcy. Buy the book on Amazon

Sunday, December 1, 2019

Death at an early age

There are many ways to gauge the health of a population, whether a nation or some specific portion of it, but the commonest and broadest measure is the average life expectancy: the number of years a child born will live on average. Life expectancy in developed countries has increased for most of the past century, as antibiotics decreased deaths from infectious diseases and better sanitation became universal. US life expectancy began to lag that of most other developed countries in the late 1980s and by 1998 had fallen to a level below the average among OECD (the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development) countries. Average life expectancy in those countries has continued to increase every year but stopped increasing in the US in 2010 and since 2014 has fallen, even though we pay almost twice as much per capita as do those countries on health care. Why is this?

Death rates among those 65-84, while obviously high (the biggest risk factor for most diseases is old age!), have fallen substantially between 1999 and 2017, while the death rates for those 25-64 reached a low in 2009 and have risen since. The death rates have risen significantly among those 25-44, as deaths from suicide (usually by gun), opioid overdose and alcohol-related liver disease – diseases of despair - have all jumped. Infant mortality rates have fallen slightly in the US over the past 20 years but remain well above those in other developed countries and are improving at a slower rate than theirs.

Differences in life expectancy are clearly related to factors other than health care expenditure. Researchers have shown dramatic differences in life expectancy among people living in zip codes less than 10 miles apart, sharing access to the same hospitals but having very different household incomes. Increased stress, including economic, has been linked to higher heart attack rates. Rising unemployment or under-employment probably explains the much higher suicide and opioid-related death rates in the industrial heartland, Appalachia and northern New England. Maternal death rates are 5-fold higher among African-American women than whites.

The solution to our discouraging health statistics is not more health care spending. Rather it lies in reining in our excessive and wasteful spending and re-directing this money to such areas as vocational education, improving social support, providing better access to healthy foods and increasing minimum wages. A living wage is the best medicine available for most conditions.

Prescription for Bankruptcy. Buy the book on Amazon