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April 22nd, 2015

Seriously — How Much Would You Pay for a Curbside Consult?

ron pYes, seriously.

Let me start with an email exchange I had with a PCP recently:

Hi, Paul, quick question ūüėČ This lady, 49 YO woman from Haiti, asymptomatic, totally healthy. Got TSpot done for immigration purposes, it’s¬†positive with¬†negative chest Xray. Treated with INH 6 months in 2001. She travels to Haiti annually so¬†could had been reexposed, though doesn’t report being with anyone with TB. Do I need to treat her again? THANKS!

To which I responded:

Hi Carla, unless there’s been a significant re-exposure and immunosuppression, no need to re-treat.
p.s. You know we could start getting paid¬†for these “eConsults.” How much do you think they¬†are worth?

So it’s now Carla’s turn to answer my question:

Priceless!!!! Seriously, not sure, since some questions are more complicated than others.¬†Sometimes it’s straightforward like this, and sometimes you have to review more data so that should be compensated more no?

Carla helped me out here, especially with her first response — priceless indeed. But the second part — where she suggested that this “straightforward” question¬†is worth less a more complex one — hints at why estimating the value of these consults is so difficult.

And it’s important that we figure it out, and soon.¬†With the inevitable move to¬†“value-based” insurance contracts, many ID doctors¬†are getting¬†the push¬†to formalize these clinical relationships. That’s a good thing, as¬†clearly getting advice from a¬†colleague can be a more efficient way to provide quality care than referring everyone for a formal consultation, and it¬†puts a value on¬†what previously was almost always done gratis.

Back to the question in the email — is it so straightforward? Clearly not to Carla, who as a generalist has to manage all medical problems not just ID ones, but to us brilliant ID doctors, sure.¬†An IGRA (the T-Spot) and tuberculin skin test are basically two different ways of looking at the same thing (evidence of immune response to TB), and I’ve already been asked this question (or one like it)¬†several times. Plus, I can touch-type (as I’ve bragged elsewhere, I could crank out¬†over 70 words/minute in my 8th grade typing class), and happened to be sitting at my desk daydreaming about puppies playing baseball when the email popped into my in box.

Even if you account for the distraction factor — it was hard to get that puppy image back — it still took¬†only a few minutes.

And as I’ve calculated before, if paid on an hourly basis, this comes out at a whopping $6/consult,¬†or almost enough for a couple of¬†fancy¬†coffees at Starbucks. If we believe the good news from this latest Medscape salary survey¬†that ID doctors are no longer in the basement when it comes to annual salaries — sorry, pediatricians — we’re only up to $8/consult¬†(add¬†a bagel¬†to your coffee order).

So when it comes to curbsides, if you pay by time/consult, we ID doctors could be¬†in deep trouble — the faster we¬†do it, the less time-value it has, and the less we make. It’s quite different with¬†surgeons — they get paid¬†more¬†with greater experience and efficiency.

Furthermore, though the fee-for-service model is horribly broken for ID as a specialty — no way to win on either volume or procedures — our clinical productivity is still¬†mostly¬†measured by¬†how many patients we actually see. Every curbside we do is potentially a patient visit that didn’t happen. Note again how we differ from surgeons and other procedural specialists — from a revenue perspective, they have an incentive to keep simple non-operative cases out of their clinics.

Finally, the consultant is taking on some non-zero medicolegal risk. Should that be somehow factored into the compensation? In this excellent review — which is very pro-curbside — the author states that courts have consistently concluded that there is no actual medicolegal risk to the person being curbsided provided there is no relationship between him/her and the patient. However, he also accurately states: “Of course, even in the absence of actual liability,¬†there is always a possibility that the consulted physician will¬†be sued for medical malpractice. Although such a physician¬†should ultimately prevail as a matter of law, the entire¬†process is best avoided¬†[emphasis mine].” Hard to disagree!

Other payment models are out there for informal consults, such as getting a flat rate¬†per consult regardless of complexity (how much?), or getting a percentage of your salary covered for being “on call” for this service (what percentage?). And of course many will still have to live¬†with the status quo of getting nothing — gratitude counts for something.

Provided, of course, it doesn’t end with (pet-peeve alert) “Thanks in advance!”¬†A simple “Thanks” is perfectly fine.

Now, how much would you pay?

How much should an ID doctor be paid for a curbside consult?

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April 15th, 2015

Does Scientific Language Come Across as Wishy-Washy?

milk toastI had the opportunity to interview author Seth Mnookin recently for a podcast on Open Forum Infectious Diseases, and it was a real treat. He‚Äôs Associate Director of the graduate program in Scientific Writing at MIT, and the author of the The Panic Virus: The True Story Behind the Vaccine-Autism Controversy.

Not surprisingly given his title, Seth thinks a lot about how language conveys information about health and science. While researching the topic of vaccine safety for his book, he discovered¬†the striking difference in how the various sides communicated their message to the public:

When you had an NIH official or a CDC official making a statement and then you had a parent, it almost seemed to me like they were talking in two different languages ‚Ķ So when a doctor or Harvey Fineberg would be on TV and say, ‚ÄúWell based on all of the evidence that we have, we‚Äôre reasonably confident that there‚Äôs no concern that vaccines cause autism that we know of at this point, etc.‚ÄĚ In science that means, ‚ÄúYeah, we‚Äôre really sure about this.‚ÄĚ But in English that means, ‚ÄúYeah we have no idea what we‚Äôre talking about and we‚Äôre about to find out that actually we‚Äôve been doing something horribly wrong‚Ķ‚ÄĚ

And the parents challenging vaccine safety? They couldn‚Äôt be more sure of themselves:

A great example of this is when Jenny McCarthy was on Larry King‚Äôs show and she was talking about her child, and she said, ‚ÄúThe story that I have about my child is science.‚ÄĚ [She also¬†said something almost exactly like this on Oprah.] A point that I try to stress is that actually the plural of anecdote is not data, and that the fact that there is a story to be told about something does not make it true.

In research,¬†we’re taught to be curious, questioning, and skeptical — but this doesn’t play well on the big stage. If the message is as clear as the overwhelming case for vaccine safety and efficacy, we have to just say it.

There’s¬†more interesting stuff in the full interview, including how he chose to tackle this tricky subject,¬†how big of a problem the hard-core anti-vaccine activists actually are right now, and when the police start to take seriously various threats on your life (not kidding about that, unfortunately).

Full podcast is here, transcript here.

April 8th, 2015

New HIV Treatment Guidelines, and the End of an Era

babe-ruth-bows-out2-jpgThe new Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) HIV treatment guidelines are out, and thanks to skillful direction by Alice Pau, it’s as usual a must-read document — all 288 pages, of course!

There are several major¬†changes, so a good place to start is the all-important “What’s New in the Guidelines” summary page.¬†Some of the biggest modifications come in the¬†“What to Start” section:

  • There’s now a more focused list of “Recommended regimens” — it’s down to just 5. Specifically,¬†TDF/FTC plus DTG or EVG/c or RAL (that’s 3), ABC/3TC/DTG (4), and TDF/FTC plus¬†DRV/r (5).
  • The regimens that are limited to patients with low HIV RNA¬†are now classified either as “Alternative” — TDF/FTC/RPV — or “Other” (ABC/3TC plus EFV, ABC/3TC plus ATV/r).
  • TDF/FTC plus ATV/r is now an “Alternative” regimen, largely due to the results of ACTG 5257.
  • TDF/FTC/EFV is now an “Alternative” regimen, largely due to issues of tolerability.

With the caveat that as a member of the Guidelines panel, I can only give you my personal perspective (not that of the committee), here are a few comments on this last one — the demotion of efavirenz from “Recommended” to “Alternative” — which seems to me a pretty big deal.

First the good stuff about EFV, which was approved by the FDA way back in 1998:

  1. In clinical trials, efavirenz has been¬†better or as good virologically than all its comparators for years and years. I still remember the shock when we learned that EFV¬†creamed indinavir — a potent protease inhibitor, who would have predicted that? — and subsequently it won or tied in numerous head-to-head studies.¬†That¬†success continued until the drug was compared to integrase inhibitors (in particular dolutegravir), but note that rates of¬†virologic failure¬†were still just as low with EFV even in this comparison. And is¬†there any agent that so consistently does well¬†in patients with high baseline HIV RNA and/or low CD4?
  2. Efavirenz¬†has such¬†a long half life that regimens with the drug are¬†remarkably forgiving, even if people forget to take it every day. It’s so forgiving, in fact, that studies suggest you can do fine¬†taking¬†it only 5 days a week, or at a reduced¬†daily dose. Not that we recommend these strategies, but still — we all have patients on EFV-based regimens who admit that they skip it periodically (usually because of side effects, but that’s a different story), yet they maintain virologic control.
  3. Although no HIV treatment is cheap, TDF/FTC/EFV is less expensive than most of the other initial regimens we use today.
  4. Efavirenz (with TDF/FTC or TDF/3TC) is the default initial treatment¬†globally, where it is widely available as a single pill taken once a day. That counts for a lot — obviously the vast majority of people with HIV in the world don’t live here.

So what’s the issue? Why then is it now an “Alternative” rather than a “Recommended” option? In my opinion, it comes down to progress we’ve made in improving side effects.¬†Many choices are available now that are¬†simply easier for patients — and clinicians, who can skip¬†the time on pre-treatment education and management of tricky side effects. Specifically:

  1. All¬†the clinical trials comparing EFV with integrase-based options demonstrate significantly lower rates of central nervous system (CNS) side effects with the latter. As already noted, in the head-to-head study against¬†dolutegravir, drug discontinuations due to adverse events led to a superior result for DTG. The same thing happened when EFV was compared to RPV —¬†in the low viral load stratum, RPV was superior¬†because it was better tolerated.
  2. Virtually everyone who starts EFV gets some sort of CNS side effect of varying severity in the first week or two. Not a good idea to¬†start the day (or even a week) before a big presentation, or travel, or some other major life event.¬†In¬†most patients, these CNS side effects diminish rapidly over¬†the first few weeks of therapy. However, a minority still have some residual weirdness going on long term — dizziness, abnormal dreams, morning grogginess. Some learn to live with it¬†and are fine, but others don’t realize how off they’ve been feeling until they stop the drug. (Brief aside — what’s up with the small fraction of¬†patients who choose to take EFV during the day? That always perplexed me.)
  3. More serious CNS side effects can rarely occur, in particular depression. In this retrospective analysis of four randomized clinical trials, patients randomized to EFV-based regimens had a more than two-fold increased risk of suicide or suicidal ideation compared with those not receiving EFV. And while the absolute risk was overall low, this is a severe enough adverse effect that one should be very cautious about using the drug in anyone with a history of depression. Although observational cohort and claims data have not shown this association, remember that this is a tricky thing to find in such data, and that in clinical practice we avoid prescribing EFV to patients with psychiatric disease.
  4. Every ID/HIV doctor has had patients who just can’t take this drug, and it’s not from depression.¬†OK, anecdote time — here are a few of mine: ¬†The guy who drives for a living who knew immediately he wasn’t as alert on the road taking EFV. The person whose dreams were so vivid that they were essentially indistinguishable from hallucinations (and not pleasant ones). The high-functioning scientist¬†who simply couldn’t concentrate at work. The person (actually a few)¬†with severe rash and fevers. Of course some of the vivid dream stories were pretty funny — my favorite was someone¬†who dreamt that her kitchen had been extensively renovated, including specific selections of cabinets and appliances. Imagine her¬†disappointment when she came downstairs to find¬†the scruffy old kitchen unchanged!

Yes, I still have patients on EFV-based treatment who are doing great, and they don’t want to switch — that’s fine, no reason to do so. But the bottom line is that I haven’t prescribed TDF/FTC/EFV to a patient starting HIV therapy in nearly three¬†years. Too many other good options out there now.

Hey, progress is a good thing!

I did this poll before — now let’s try it again, a year and a half later:

I still frequently use efavirenz-based regimens as initial therapy.

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April 3rd, 2015

Melting Snow ID Link-o-Rama

DonAdamsA few ID/HIV tidbits to contemplate as¬†we go from slipping on¬†ice and snow¬†to dodging the¬†mud:

Hey, it’s Holy Week. Colored (sometimes green)¬†eggs and ham! Peeps! Matzo balls and brisket! Jelly fruit slices! For those of a less traditional spiritual bent, enjoy this:

H/T to Joel Gallant for the vid.

March 28th, 2015

Quick Question: Should HIV-Negative People in Serodiscordant Relationships All Get PrEP?

18480762_blogFrom a very thoughtful and experienced primary care provider came this query:

Hey Paul, quick question —
One of my patients, an HIV-negative gay man, is in a long-term relationship with one of your HIV-positive patients — my patient says his partner has been on successful HIV treatment for years. Obviously I can’t check his partner’s record to confirm this, but my patient¬†is quite¬†reliable and why should he be lying about this? He says they always¬†use condoms.
He asked me today if he should go on PrEP — should he? He seems awfully low risk, denies other sexual exposures, etc.
Feel free to suggest that I send him to see you for a formal consult.

Unless¬†you’ve been hiding under a rock (cold and damp down there, isn’t it?), you know by now that pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) works incredibly well to prevent HIV in high risk, seronegative men who have sex with men (MSM) — even better than we thought, according to the recent PROUD and IPERGAY studies presented at CROI.

Related to¬†my colleague’s query, note that¬†the USA guidelines clearly state the following is¬†an¬†indication for PrEP in¬†MSM:

Is in an ongoing sexual relationship with an HIV-positive male partner 

So end of story —¬†PrEP should be started, right?

But there are several reasons¬†why it’s not quite so obvious what to do in this exact situation — which is actually quite common:

  • Treatment of HIV is¬†all but 100% effective in preventing transmission of the virus. Remember the “Swiss Statement” that condoms weren’t even required if the positive member of serodiscordant couple was virologically suppressed? The results of HPTN 052 and observational studies (most recently this one) support this¬†prescient claim.
  • Eligible participants in the MSM PrEP studies were at “high risk” for getting HIV. In IPERGAY, for example, to be eligible a person¬†needed to report “condomless anal sex with > 2 partners within the past 6 months.” A man in¬†a monogamous relationship with an HIV positive partner on suppressive therapy — who also uses condoms — would never have been enrolled.
  • The incremental¬†risk reduction — if any — of a man taking PrEP whose sole partner is already on suppressive ART could never be justified on a “number needed to treat”¬†or cost-effectiveness basis.¬†This is pretty obvious, but is worth explicitly stating, if only so that when such treatment is prescribed, we all acknowledge that it’s done for other reasons.

So what might those reasons be? First, as my friend and colleague Raphy Landovitz puts it, “people aren’t completely honest with their providers about the¬†who‚Äôs and whats of their sexual relationships ‚Äď including as it relates to condom use.” Remember HPTN 052, and those “unlinked” HIV transmissions from outside the couple? That alone should give us pause.

Second, some patients I’ve seen understandably remain¬†very nervous about catching HIV from their partners, even if on suppressive treatment — PrEP provides them an additional layer of security. The TDF/FTC is acting here more as a benzodiazepine than an antiviral. Again, per Raphy: “It restores peace-of-mind to something that the HIV/AIDS epidemic has stolen from gay men.”

From a practical standpoint, here’s what I have done:
  1. See him (the HIV negative guy) alone. Or if he’s uncomfortable seeing his partner’s doctor, offer to have him see one of my colleagues.
  2. Reassure him that the discussion is 100% confidential.
  3. Tell him the pros and cons of PrEP. Efficacy, safety, and cost, of course, but also the characteristics of the patients in the studies — that they were high-risk HIV negative gay men.
  4. Inform him that PrEP has never been explicitly tested in the HIV negative partners of people on suppressive ART in a monogamous relationship — and likely never will be since the risk of transmission is already so low.
  5. Let him decide.

In my anecdotal experience thus far, some have chosen to go on PrEP, and some haven’t.

And whether those who opted in did so because they’re actually at higher risk than they’re disclosing, or for peace of mind, or some combination — does it really matter?

March 21st, 2015

ID Learning Unit: Coagulase-Negative Staph, and the “Anti-Zebra” Residents’ Report

CoNS in blood cultureAt the risk of betraying a deep streak of nerdiness, I confess to being a huge fan of¬†Residents’ Report. This infatuation goes back to my medical student days, when the occasional chance to watch the Chief Medical Resident — who seemed the smartest doctor on the planet — lead a discussion of¬†an interesting case inspired all kinds of¬†aspirations.

Alas, I was never chosen to be Chief Resident, but have been lucky enough to sit in on my fair share of Residents’ Reports over the years, including one this past week.¬†And so glad I did, as current Chief Resident Mary Montgomery¬†tried a new twist on the genre: Instead of presenting a fascinating rare case — a “zebra” — or a challenging ongoing diagnostic dilemma, she¬†chose a couple of extremely non-zebroid (that’s a word) cases that involved coagulase-negative staph (CoNS), a bug¬†that frankly most of us think is pretty ho-hum.

But you know what? It was a great report,¬†educational and entertaining, and here’s what we learned¬†about this commonly encountered (but frequently challenging) entity:

  • In the microbiology lab, a coagulase test is done on suspected staph isolates, looking for tell-tale clumping of plasma. Clumps = coagulase-positive (Staph aureus); no clumps = coagulase-negative. Watch!
  • There are over 30 species of CoNS, with Staph epidermidis the most common — but you rarely see micro reports listing Staph epidermidis, since identifying the particular CoNS species is rarely helpful.
  • Staph saprophyticus is a CoNS species that is the second most common cause of uncomplicated UTIs in young women.¬†Fortunately, it’s sensitive to most antibiotics used to treat UTIs.
  • CoNS are the most common isolates from blood cultures, and also the most common contaminants. Distinguishing true- from false-positive blood cultures can be tricky, in particular with CoNS, and¬†this home-grown study¬†provides some guidance — indeed, it’s¬†incorporated into our ancient electronic medical record. (See above image — soon to be retired, alas, in a move of EPIC proportions.) Question: Has this study been updated by anyone?
  • Clinically important infections with CoNS frequently involve prosthetic joints, mechanical heart valves, indwelling vascular catheters, ventricular shunts, vascular grafts, pacemaker or defibrillator leads, orthopedic hardware — in short, artificial ingredients!
  • Treatment of choice for CoNS infection acquired in the hospital is vancomycin, since more than 80% are resistant to beta lactam antibiotics.
  • CoNS are good at sticking to things, and have a virulence¬†factor called arginine catabolic mobile element (ACME), which they unfortunately sometimes decide to¬†transfer to MRSA.¬†I hate when they do that.
  • Production¬†of biofilms — slime, think of the stuff that makes rocks slippery in a¬†stream —¬†makes CoNS difficult to clear from prosthetic material. Here’s a whole book about biofilms,¬†great for leisure reading.
  • Among antibiotics, rifampin seems to be the best at penetrating biofilms, hence its use as adjunctive therapy for many infections involving¬†prosthetic material.
  • Around 8% of native¬†valve endocarditis is due to CoNS, and these patients have a¬†high likelihood of requiring surgery. In my anecdotal experience they have an extremely indolent course, but not when the CoNS is Staph lugdunensis.
  • Speaking of,¬†Staph lugdunensis is a particularly aggressive¬†form of CoNS, a wolf in sheep’s clothing that acts much more like Staph aureus than its wimpy coagulase negative brethren. It’s usually sensitive to beta lactams, too.

Of course I could go on and on about this last bug¬†— we ID doctors adore¬†Staph lugdunensis, which is both fun to say and is one of those factoids that separates us from the mere mortals out there who can’t be bothered to remember this arcane stuff.

Here’s a tip for you non-ID doctors: ¬†You can really impress your ID specialist friends by bringing up¬†Staph lugdunensis¬†when discussing a case, or even just in casual conversation:

Non-ID doctor: Hey, have you watched the new House of Cards season yet?
ID doctor: No, am waiting until I have time to binge-watch it.
Non-ID doctor: Makes sense. By the way, Staph lugdunensis.
ID doctor: Impressive!

Yes, I know. Time to get a life.

March 8th, 2015

Measles Vaccine Videos and the Challenge of Changing Someone’s Mind

measles-cases-by-year jpgI suspect most of you¬†have already been treated to this highly¬†amusing video about the measles outbreak¬†from Jimmy Kimmel — a comedy segment featuring real-life doctors, imagine that. Not your typical late-night comedy show performers, but they forcefully (and obscenely) get their message across.

If you have¬†just returned from a¬†tropical island where the internet connection was¬†iffy, however, here it is for your entertainment:

Probably fewer of you saw this next one, which is quite well done and pretty accurate scientifically. It also differs dramatically in tone:

My question for you: Which one is more likely to change the views of a person with an anti-vaccine stance, and why?

Which one of the videos will be more likely to alter the views of someone who opposes vaccination?

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March 1st, 2015

Really Rapid Review — CROI 2015, Seattle

croi2015_w280x100For the 3rd time in its illustrious history, the Conference on Retroviruses and Opportunistic Infections (CROI) returned to Seattle this past week for it’s 22nd meeting. For¬†those of us living in the North Pole,¬†50 degrees and¬†drizzle¬†never felt so wonderful!

(See image below for graphic representation — that’s my dog Louie wondering what happened to his world. Click on image for full impact.)

With 4000 attendees (capped at that number to keep it relatively “intimate”) and almost half¬†of them from non-U.S. countries, CROI remains a dynamic, incredibly interesting¬†meeting — in my opinion our very best HIV research gathering, guaranteed to make you sleepless while trying to cover it all. (Good thing we were in Seattle.) Where else can we get clinical, basic, translational, and behavioral researchers all together?

So on we go to a¬†summary, a Really Rapid Review‚ĄĘ of some of the most interesting studies at the conference (at least from one perspective). Links are to the conference website (excellent this year), abstract #’s in brackets, and many of the oral presentations are available for webcast here. List is organized roughly by prevention, treatment, complications, cure, and miscellaneous cool stuff; please list¬†in the comments any important studies I’ve missed!

Now, about Seattle. I first visited this city in the early 1980s, and it has of course boomed since then, with many more sensational restaurants, high-rises, more traffic, hipsters (though increasingly priced out of living there), and encouragingly much greater access to it’s¬†beautiful waterfront. A spectacular city, with a terrific convention center.

And it’s of course the home of Boeing, Microsoft — Bill Gates gave a talk at CROI in 2002 — and Starbucks, and if if you’re used to the generic Starbucks on your street corner, in your strip mall, or in your hotel lobby, they have some Starbucks in Seattle that look like coffee museums.

We’ll see you next year in Boston, my home town. And let the record show that there has never been a CROI in Boston that was in any serious way¬†hampered¬†by the weather.

Fingers (numb though they might be) crossed.

February 21st, 2015

Fusobacterium, Pharyngitis, and the Limits of Limiting Antibiotics

A paper on pharyngitis in young adults, just published in the Annals of Internal Medicine, is creating a bit of¬†a controversy in the intersecting worlds of primary care and Infectious Diseases. The first author is Robert Centor, of the famous Centor criteria¬†that assess the likelihood of group A strep. He’s been writing about our need to expand diagnostic considerations in sore throat for several years, starting with this excellent editorial.

The Physician’s First Watch summary of the new paper was spot-on, so I’ll just quote them here (bolding mine):

Some 310 young adults (aged 15‚Äď30) presenting with pharyngitis at an Alabama university clinic underwent polymerase chain reaction testing for bacteria in throat swab specimens; 180 asymptomatic students were also tested. Fusobacterium necrophorum was identified in 21% of patients with pharyngitis (and 9% of asymptomatic students), while group A streptococcus was found in just 10% of patients (and 1% of asymptomatic students). Clinical presentations were similar for F. necrophorum and group A strep.

From the perspective of patient management, there are two interpretations circulating about¬†this paper¬†— one¬†that¬†it encourages¬†antibiotic prescribing, the other that it¬†does¬†no such thing.

The controversy is nicely encapsulated in this comment¬†on a listerv (remember those?) for pediatricians, which was shared with me from a very reliable source (she didn’t write the comment):

OMG! So if it is cultured [sic] from the throat, it is the cause of the infection,right? So now everyone who has this in their throat and doesn‚Äôt feel well needs antibiotics, right?¬†

Allow me to take both positions:

Pro Antibiotics:¬†Some really terrible exudative pharyngitis in young adults is group A strep negative. This study shows that fusobacterium is more common than strep in this age group. We know it can cause¬†peritonsillar abscess and, even worse,¬†septic jugular vein thrombophlebitis (Lemierre’s syndrome), both of which are¬†preceded by sore throat — and both of which are more common than acute rheumatic fever. If we treat the really sick teenager and young adults who are group A strep negative with an antibiotic with activity against fusobacterium — penicillin and other beta lactams, please, not azithromycin — not only will these youngsters get better faster, but we can prevent potentially life threatening complications.


Anti Antibiotics: Most pharyngitis is causes by respiratory viruses. There is no way to¬†detect fusobacterium as a cause of pharyngitis in clinical practice, so¬†if most cases get treated “empirically”, this will be massive unnecessary¬†treatment. Detection of the organism by¬†polymerase chain reaction in the study does not prove that fusobacterium is the cause of the pharyngitis, especially since it’s found in a not insignificant proportion of asymptomatic individuals (9%). There is furthermore no proof that treatment of fusobacterium will hasten symptom improvement or, more importantly, prevent Lemierre’s.

The latter position was nicely articulated in an accompanying editorial in the Annals written by my colleague Jeffrey Linder — a primary care physician who has published extensively on this subject¬†and admittedly¬†a much more reliable expert on the topic than I.

But let me risk taking a position slightly¬†different from Jeff and, I’m sure, many of my ID brethren, one that I confess is rooted not so much in data but in experience caring for several young adults with Lemierre’s. Importantly, Jeff and I don’t disagree — it’s more a matter of emphasis.

Remember this —¬†patients with Lemierre’s are often critically ill. They frequently require ICU care, have high spiking fevers with¬†staggeringly high white blood cell counts, and invariably have multiple septic pulmonary emboli with potentially¬†other metastatic sites of infection, including the brain. It’s a terrifying illness — these are most commonly¬†previously healthy high school and college-age kids, so the stakes are high.¬†No, we don’t know that treatment of severe pharyngitis “caused” by fusobacterium will prevent Lemierre’s, but doesn’t that¬†make biologic sense?

So let’s go with the pediatricians’ common-sense approach to clinical care, and make a decision about antibiotics based on that sixth sense of “is the kid really sick?” If so, go with some penicillin — especially if at the first encounter they didn’t get treated, and then they come back a few days later even worse.

Or, if you prefer, listen to the guru of pharyngitis himself, Dr. Centor, and his interpretation of national guidelines:

We believe that following the American College of Physicians/Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines endorsed by the American Academy of Family Physicians would decrease the risk of Lemierre syndrome in adolescents and young adults. Using these guidelines, physicians can choose to prescribe antibiotics for patients with a pharyngitis score of 3 or 4 (three or four of the following: fever, absence of cough, tender anterior cervical lymph nodes, tonsillar exudate).

Makes sense to me.

February 15th, 2015

Should Antibiotics be Part of End-of-Life Care?

There’s been some truly outstanding work done recently¬†on¬†end-of-life care, and how we deal with it — or more accurately, how we typically¬†don’t deal with it until the very last moment, at which time often many¬†unfortunate decisions and¬†events occur. Here are three I can strongly recommend:

  • Roz Chast’s Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant?¬†is probably the most widely read book among my circle of friends right now, as many of us¬†have parents of a certain age.¬†Chast is a cartoonist best known for her distinctive squiggly cartoons in the The New Yorker — here’s one of my favorites —¬†and¬†is already familiar¬†to many ID doctors because of her morbid fascination with dreadful diseases, some¬†of them infections. But this extended memoir about her aging parents is a remarkably ambitious book, by turns funny (of course), moving, and ultimately heartbreaking, especially when touching on the fraught relationship she had with her mother.
  • If drawings¬†aren’t your thing, then give Atul Gawande’s Being Mortal a shot. In his usual clear prose — which miraculously reads¬†neither overly technical to the lay public or overly simple to health care providers — he deftly lays out what¬†many of the challenges¬†are in the care of both the elderly and the terminally ill. For example, how can we negotiate¬†the conflict between personal freedom versus¬†safety in our loved ones who have such a limited time to live? If 90-year-old Uncle Milton with severe congestive heart failure¬†wants to eat pickles, but pickles contain too much salt for his diet, should we stop him?¬†The recent Frontline¬†about Atul (we’re on a first name basis, brush with greatness) and his book make me hope that his sensible¬†voice will lead to¬†progress¬†in this difficult part of health care.
  • Finally, if you’re looking for a terrific podcast, check out this Radiolab piece called Dead Reckoning.¬†The first part is about surviving rabies — good stuff for ID doctors, and yes, we’re that bizarre¬†— but the piece¬†finishes in more familiar territory, dealing with medical options at the end of life. In a section called “The Bitter End”, it cites a now¬†famous study done of Hopkins med school graduates, demonstrating that doctors say they would¬†forego end-of-life treatments if they had an incurable brain disease (something akin to dementia) — a big contrast with the people interviewed on the street, most of whom want¬†all this stuff. The¬†end-of-life treatments these doctors considered are shown in the figure below:


Note the ninth one on this list — antibiotics — and consider a scenario that no doubt will be familiar to doctors and nurses the world over, and not just to ID doctors: The patient who has metastatic cancer, or advanced dementia, or irreversible advanced heart or lung disease, and the decision has been made to withhold CPR, mechanical ventilation, tube feeding, and dialysis.

But antibiotics? They often remain an option to the very end, frequently¬†in the face of other conditions with terrible prognoses and little chance for reversal. Those recurrent urinary tract infections, aspiration pneumonias, infected pressure sores, and other indignities¬†of our failing bodies can be treated with antibiotics (though with progressively less effect) — but to what end?

So read the case, take the poll, then listen to the Radiolab piece.

A 94-year-old woman with advanced dementia is referred to the hospital from her nursing home because of¬†fever and a change in mental status. At baseline, she can sit in a chair but cannot walk, feed, or bathe herself; she can respond to simple questions, but has little spontaneous speech. She has an existing DNR order — no CPR or intubation. There have been two admissions to the hospital over the past six months¬†(pneumonia, urinary tract infection), after which she returned to the nursing home. In the emergency room, her evaluation is notable for a fever and somnolence. The urinalysis shows 50-100 WBC. The health care proxy, who lives in another state, is unavailable.

Should antibiotics be given?

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HIV Information: Author Paul Sax, M.D.

Paul E. Sax, MD

Contributing Editor

NEJM Journal Watch
Infectious Diseases

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