May 31, 2006

Washington Post Review

The following review appeared in the Washington Post on Sunday. It's perhaps a bit overstated, but positive nonetheless.

In The Denial of Aging: Perpetual Youth, Eternal Life, and Other Dangerous Fantasies (Harvard Univ., $25.95), Muriel R. Gillick whacks all the major players orchestrating the Last Dance of America's senior citizens. Medicare is misguided, she argues. Nursing homes are like prisons. Assisted living facilities are too often motivated by greed. Doctors (Gillick is a physician, by the way) are too willing to extend life at any cost. Relatives often have lousy judgment about what's best for a loved one. Even those facing their own finality are too focused on themselves.

In assessing the nation's retirement and health care institutions, Gillick is not the first to see flaws that are ruinous both for the seniors receiving aid and for those of us receiving huge bills for that aid. For example, she notes that while most people want to spend their last days at home, only a quarter of people over age 65 do so. Twice as many die in hospitals, which are so focused on keeping patients alive that they haven't mastered the art of respectfully allowing those near death to leave this world.

For those who need medical care, Gillick would deliver more of it at home, via phone calls, visits from practitioners and other simple measures that have proved effective and efficient. But don't mistake Gillick for a heartless advocate of rationed care. She wants to keep old people alive and well for however long each person can thrive. But she views many efforts to protect nursing-home residents as more of a problem than a solution. By focusing on statistics and standards aimed at ensuring quality of care for these people, she contends, the government is actually prompting these institutions to ignore quality of life.

Gillick challenges Baby Boomers to reengineer nursing homes, first into true homes where elders can thrive and, when necessary, into places providing the care they need to either recover or spend their final days in comfort. More broadly, she challenges her generation to embrace the inevitability of aging and to make the most of it. That would be quite a legacy for the Baby Boomers to leave their children.

--Tom Graham

May 23, 2006

When More is Less

Last week, Dartmouth’s Center for the Evaluative Clinical Sciences released the latest version of its “atlas” of medical care in the U.S. Since 1993, the Dartmouth Atlas Project has produced a fascinating series of studies examining the geographic variability in health care resources and their utilization. A consistent theme throughout the life of the project has been that the availability of resources drives their use: surgical rates—even for elective surgery—are higher in communities with more surgeons; hospitalization rates are higher in areas with more hospital beds. The newest report, called “The Care of Patients with Severe Chronic Illness: A Report on the Medicare Program by the Dartmouth Atlas Project” draws the same conclusions about the care for people with chronic disease (available in entirety online here)

Chronic disease—conditions such as diabetes, cancer, and heart disease—is the major health problem among Americans today, afflicting some 90 million people and accounting for 7 out of 10 deaths. The care of people with chronic illness accounts for over 75% of all U.S. health care expenditures. And most of the people with chronic conditions are elderly.

The principal finding of the Dartmouth study is that Medicare spends much more per enrollee in some states than in others. Spending for patients with severe chronic illness during their last 2 years of life ranges from almost $40,000/person in New Jersey, Washington, D.C., California, New York and Maryland, to under $25,000 in states including Idaho, Iowa, West Virginia and North Dakota. The variability is not due to higher rates of sickness in some regions. In fact, differences in illness levels are “virtually unrelated to differences in spending.” The other disturbing finding of the study is that the extra spending does not buy longer life or better quality of life. On the contrary, those with chronic illness in high spending regions have shorter life expectancies and less satisfaction with their care.

Spending on chronic illness varies by state, with those states that have greater reliance on primary care than on specialists spending less money and depending less on intensive care units. In Florida, for instance, Medicare patients who died spend an average of 4.7 days in the ICU during the last 6 months of life (a marker of the aggressiveness of care), whereas patients in North Dakota spend only 1.5 days. Academic medical centers also vary in the way they manage chronic illness: during the last 6 months of life, for example, patients who use New York University Hospital have an average of 76 physician visits, compared to 24 visits for patients who use the Mayo Clinic. In general, acute hospitals are dramatically over-used (in Hawaii, patients spend an average of 16.4 days in the hospital during their last 6 months of life, compared to 7.3 days in Utah) and hospice care is under-utilized (while in Arizona, 44.7% of dying patients are enrolled in hospice, in Alaska it is only 6.7% and the national average is 27.2%).

The authors conclude that what we need is “a population-based, community wide integrated system for managing severe chronic illness.” I agree. Specialists have no incentive to refer patients to hospice care; they do have incentives to order diagnostic tests and to use ICU care. Hospitals likewise, unless they are part of a network of care, have no incentive to enable patients to die at home; they benefit if their beds are filled. If we had a comprehensive system—and the closest that any segment of the U.S. comes to such an approach is the Veterans Administration system—Medicare would reduce its costs on patients with chronic disease by 30%, while simultaneously improving care.

May 03, 2006

Aricept Redux

Three months ago I wrote a column arguing that in the U.S. we over-use donepezil (Aricept), a drug widely touted as helpful in early Alzheimer’s disease (“Americans, Alzheimer’s, and Aricept,” February 1, 2006). In Britain, by contrast, careful review of all the available studies led to the recommendation by NICE (the independent National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence) against routine use of this medication. Now a new study suggests that donepezil may help patients with advanced Alzheimer’s disease, people who need help with basic tasks such as bathing and dressing and who have profound cognitive impairment (see B. Winblad, L. Kilanter, S. Erikkson et al, “Donepezil in Patients with Severe Alzheimer’s Disease: Double-Blind, Parallel Group, Placebo-Controlled Study,” Lancet 2006; 367:1057-65). How can this be? Are we seeing an attempt to find some use, any use, for this drug, which does not appear to be tremendously useful in early Alzheimer’s patients, the group in whom it was initially targeted?

The new study was carried out in Swedish nursing homes. Subjects were randomized to receive either donepezil or placebo and they were treated for 6 months. The treated group showed slight improvement in tests of mental function and a lower rate of deterioration in basic activities of daily living compared to controls. But before families rush to request donepezil for their relatives, we should consider the intriguing possibility raised by the study’s authors: perhaps what the donezpezil did was to counteract the negative effects of the many other medications these individuals were taking. Virtually all the people in the study (99%) were taking other medications, and 80% were on psychoactive medications intended to control their behavior. We know that the brains of individuals with dementia are very sensitive to chemicals that affect the nervous system—they are very prone to developing delirium, or an acute confusional state. Before concluding that all patients with severe dementia should be given donepezil, we need to study its effectiveness in demented persons who are on no other medications. Only then can we figure out whether we should dole out more donepezil (assuming that the “statistically significant” benefits are in fact clinically meaningful)—or give patients a drug holiday, discontinuing the many potentially toxic medicines they are currently taking.