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Planning for the End of Life: What Baby Charlie Can Teach Us

By Mark A. Kelley, MD |8/7/17
Founder, HealthWeb Navigator

Charlie Gard was a one-year-old boy who had a rare genetic disease leaving him blind, comatose, and unable to breathe on his own. This metabolic disorder can be fatal and has no known cure.

Charlie’s parents wanted him treated with experimental drugs in the hope that a miracle would happen. As reported in the press, the British medical and legal community considered this care futile and blocked it.

This sad story created a flurry of public discussion about ethics, end of life care, and patient and parent autonomy. Experts debated the wisdom of the parents’ decision. The discussion centered on whether the experimental therapy would help Charlie or make him suffer more.

These “end of life” issues have evolved during medicine’s successes over the last 50 years. Thanks to life-saving advances, premature infants have been saved. Organ transplants have given new life to patients with failing lungs, heart, kidneys, and livers. Many cancers are now curable.

However, there are limits to what medicine can do. Full recovery is rare among patients who have multiple-organ failure or advanced chronic disease. This raises the important issue of length of life versus quality of life.

As an intensive care physician, I have treated many patients facing this challenge. These situations are exceedingly difficult for everyone: patients, their families, and their medical teams. Emotions are magnified even more when the patient is young and/or cannot speak their wishes.

The major question for a critically ill patient is, “What happens next?” Sometimes, nature sends clear signals: the patient does not respond to maximum therapy, or there is no sign of brain activity. But more often the situation is uncertain. The patient may enter the twilight zone of the “chronically critically ill.” Such patients, who are often comatose, can be kept alive by machines that inflate the lungs, pump the heart, and dialyze the blood—all in the hope of a major recovery.

Research has shown that patients who need such advanced life support for many days have a grave prognosis. Those few who survive and leave the hospital usually die within one year and most never achieve full function. Physicians and families find it hard to know how aggressively to treat such patients without understanding their wishes.

This situation is preventable. While 90% of patients feel that they should discuss end-of-life plans with their family, only 27% actually do so. Knowing such plans in advance is invaluable for developing a treatment plan that respects the patient’s wishes. However, unless patients tell their families beforehand, how can anyone know?

Fortunately, progress is being made, thanks to public support and resources such as The Conversation Project. This advocacy program encourages everyone to “have the conversation“ with family when there is no pressure to make a hasty decision. The group’s website has helpful information and tools to guide the discussion. As some experts have written, we make plans for our estates—why not include our end-of-life wishes?

Charlie Gard’s parents were in a very difficult situation. They had to make a decision about his care and initially defied the medical/legal community by choosing aggressive therapy. Many supporters, including Pope Francis and President Trump, rallied to endorse the parents’ position.

That was before the medical facts became clear. According to published reports, experts agreed that Charlie’s disease had permanently damaged his brain and that he would never awaken or breathe on his own. The experimental therapy would not reverse his current state of suffering but could possibly make it worse.

Once they understood these facts, Mr. and Mrs. Gard chose to remove their young son from life support, and he died peacefully. We can sympathize with their painful and loving effort.

The Gard story has a message for us all. As a comatose child, Charlie could not speak about end-of-life decisions—but, as adults, we can. It is important to remember that the end of life is inevitable and that we will all experience it some day.

Having “the conversation” can relieve our loved ones from a responsibility that rightfully belongs to us. It may be the most important gift we can give them.

How to Effectively Manage Appointments with Your Doctor

By Mark A. Kelley, MD |7/12/17

Everyone in health care is busy these days. Most doctors have full schedules and patients often can’t afford to take time off from work.

Neither patients nor doctors are satisfied with this situation. However, once you and your doctor get together, there are ways you can make the visit more valuable.

Doctor appointments fall into two different categories:

• Urgent visits: For true emergencies, you should seek immediate medical attention. For a problem that is not an emergency but worries you,  the best approach is to contact your doctor’s office. Your doctor may be able to solve the problem by phone or work you quickly into the office schedule.

• Routine planned visits: These visits are usually for a new consultation or a follow-up for a known condition. You can get more from these scheduled visits if you do some preparation.

The New Consultation

You can take a few steps to ensure a new consultation goes as smoothly as possible.

Educate yourself beforehand: Understand the reason for the consultation from your referring doctor. Have you read up on your particular problem? Have you checked the credentials and experience of the new doctor? Is this new doctor affiliated with a hospital that you like? Does the doctor accept your insurance?

Bring your medical records, drug list, and results of any lab/radiology studies: This step can make a major difference in your first visit. Medical records provide a clear picture of your health history. The doctor can read faster than you can talk, and this written information frees up time for the doctor to have a better conversation with you. The information may also reduce the need for more tests, allowing the doctor to focus on a diagnosis and treatment plan.

Prepare a list of questions in advance: Make a list that you can share with the doctor. This conversation will help you to understand the medical issues involved, as well as help the doctor understand your concerns.

Ask a close relative or friend to accompany you on the visit: This has several advantages. Your relative may remember something about your medical history that you forgot to mention. They may also be helpful in remembering specific details that the doctor mentions. Additionally, it is always comforting to have a close companion with you to provide support.

Ask the doctor to summarize their findings and recommendations for you: Then, in your own words, repeat the summary back to the doctor. This will help you remember details and ensure that you and your doctor are on the same page regarding your problem and action plan. Don’t be shy about asking questions. Doctors want their patients to be well informed.

Understand the plan and goals before the next visit: These may include any new medications, tests, procedures, or therapies. For each one, consider asking the following questions: How does this test or therapy work? Why do I need it? How long will I need it? What are its benefits? What are its risks? For a new medication, what side effects should I look for? Will it interfere with my current medication? If I have a problem, who should I contact?

Ask for a printout: Request hardcopies of any diagnosis, medications (especially new ones), or tests before you leave the office. You can also ask the doctor to send you a written summary of the visit for your records. By law, you are entitled to this information, and physicians are usually glad to provide it.

Learn more about your condition: Although you may have read about the subject beforehand, your doctor may direct you to other helpful resources. The information may come in the form of written materials or online resources. HealthWeb Navigator can direct you to the most trustworthy, independently reviewed health websites online today.

The Follow-Up

Follow-up visits are scheduled so that the doctor and patient can monitor progress together. You should expect to discuss the following issues with your doctor:

• Are you feeling better or worse?

• Are there any problems to report? If so, let the doctor know early in the visit. They can evaluate whether this issue is serious and/or related to other conditions.

• Are you taking your medicines as prescribed?

• Have you had any new tests or other doctor visits recently? The doctor may not have the results but should be able to get them quickly.

• Do you have any questions about your condition?

• Do you understand the treatment plan? Before you leave the appointment, be sure you receive written summaries and instructions.

Based on my decades of practice, this preparation makes the office visit more productive for doctor and patient alike.

Final Tip

Sometimes routine follow-up visits become “too routine.” Physicians know that patients spend a lot of time and money on medications and doctor visits. If you are doing well and everything has been under control, you may want to pose the following questions to your doctor:

• Can I cut back on any of my medicines (or even stop them)?

• Can I reduce the number of routine follow-up visits?

• Can some of these follow-ups be done by phone or email?

Physicians are modernizing their practices to suit your needs. I suspect that most are more than willing to discuss these requests.

Firearm Fatalities – What Are the Issues?

By Mark A. Kelley, MD |6/22/17

The recent shooting at a Congressional baseball practice is another example of firearm violence. When such crimes grab headlines, it is helpful to review the national statistics concerning guns and safety.

According the Centers for Disease Control, 33,000 Americans die from gun injuries annually. About 65% of these deaths are from suicides. Easy access to firearms, especially in the home, is associated with higher rates of suicide.

Because self-inflicted gun injuries are highly lethal, most suicide attempts by this method are successful. However, patients with unsuccessful suicide attempts rarely succumb to suicide later. Therefore, keeping these patients away from guns is life-saving.

The second major cause of firearm death is homicides (33%). Nearly all of these deaths are in the home or among people who know one another. Random shooting fatalities are rare.

The final cause of firearm deaths is accidental shootings, usually in the home, and often involving children. These deaths account for 2% of firearm fatalities.

Mass shootings, such as at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012, are heart-breaking tragedies. From 2007-2016, the national fatalities per year from mass shootings ranged from eight to 67 victims. Over that decade, the nation averaged 38 deaths per year, or 0.3% of the total gun-related homicides.

Firearm mortality statistics can be summarized as follows:

• The majority of Americans who die from gunshot wounds are the victims of suicide.

• Most other fatalities are due to domestic violence or among people who know one another.

• Mass shootings, while dramatic, are a very small part of this problem.

In all these scenarios, easy access to firearms increases the likelihood of a fatal outcome.

Mass shootings are a relatively new phenomenon in our country. Many hypotheses have been raised to explain this change. Among them are the expansion of social and news media, the availability of automatic weapons, and weak gun control laws.

These who commit these crimes share some common characteristics. In many cases, they do not know their victims. Most of the perpetrators act alone, have no plans for escape, and die violently, often by their own hand. Many obtain firearms legally.

Why motivates such people? Psychologists have suggested that this violence stems from rage at society because of some grievance. The result of this anger is mass casualties and usually the shooter’s own death by gunfire, often self-inflicted.

This raises several issues. Are mass shootings a form of public suicide? If so, will they occur more often? While no one has the answers, one fact is clear. The behavior behind these shootings is highly abnormal and suggests serious mental health problems as the root cause of the violence.

Our society has two problems that are closely linked—lethal weapons and mental health. Those with mental health issues and violent intent are more likely to harm themselves or others if they have access to guns. However, gun control is only a partial solution.

The major challenge is early recognition and treatment of mental illness. We need to help mentally ill patients well before their depression or rage reaches the breaking point.

Our elected officials are now considering cuts to healthcare benefits, particularly in mental health. Such cuts would be a major public policy mistake. In this era of gun violence, public safety requires that we make mental health one of our top priorities.

What Can We Expect From the Proposed American Health Care Act?

By Mark A. Kelley, MD |6/1/17

Our last blog focused on the political movement to replace Obamacare. Since then, the U.S. Senate has been busy revising a new healthcare bill passed by the House of Representatives called The American Health Care Act (AHCA). Some of the specifics of the bill have been clarified.

The Facts to Date

If the AHCA replaces Obamacare, the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) predicts the following outcomes:

• 14 million Americans would lose their coverage within the next two years. Most of them have little or no income and have serious healthcare challenges.

By 2026, over 51 million Americans would be uninsured compared to 28 million if Obamacare remained in place.

By 2020, insurance companies would be able to exclude those with pre-existing conditions. As a result, millions of sick Americans could lose their current health insurance.

The AHCA also cuts taxes for the rich, and reduces federal revenue by $700 billion over ten years. The impression is that health care is being sacrificed to help the top 1% of wage earners in the nation.

The Key Issues – Insurance Availability and Cost

Most Americans are focused on two health insurance issues: availability and affordability. There are reasons to worry on both counts.

Insurance Availability: The AHCA cuts Medicaid and threatens other forms of insurance coverage. Obamacare defined the benefits for all health insurance, including no penalty for pre-existing conditions. The AHCA offers “waivers” for insurance companies to “customize” these features to reduce cost. These waivers could include denying coverage for pre-existing conditions or any future expensive illness. In a worst-case scenario, pre-existing conditions might include common problems like hypertension, asthma, and obesity that affect many Americans.

Insurance Affordability: The AHCA may lower premiums by limiting benefits or covering only low risk patients. However, this would deny health insurance from those who need it most.

Even more worrisome is a long-standing problem of national healthcare costs. The reality is that cost inflation continues to drive higher premiums and threatens the national economy. There has been little attention paid to that major challenge.

Can we afford to cover more people when health care cost inflation continues to rise? The answer is “No”…unless we change the current status quo.

Health Care Cost Inflation – A National Problem

The cost problem can only be solved through a national system that has a budget, reliable revenue, and the tools to control costs.. The best example is Medicare, which covers the elderly. With the advantages of national price and policy controls, Medicare has begun to curb the rate of medical cost inflation.

Why is this example important? Medicare is a federal insurance plan that sets prices, controls costs, and covers its beneficiaries through taxes. Private health insurance is different. It is an industry that operates as a free market, like any other type of insurance. No country has successfully used the free market to provide health care for its citizens. The reason is that many people cannot afford to buy private health insurance. Only a government program can help them.

Obamacare was a major step forward. The law standardized benefits and offered subsidies to help cover the cost of private insurance. The result was that over 14 million Americans were newly insured.

But that plan will fail without a system that has enough predictable revenue to cover everyone and has the power to control costs. That is a task that only the federal government can manage.

We have already started down that pathway. The federal government manages, directly or indirectly, more that half of all U.S. health care expenditures: Medicare, Medicaid, the Veterans Administration, and the Armed Forces. In effect, we have a large national health portfolio supported by taxes.

Voters are becoming weary of the politics of health care. Soon they will wonder why they cannot enjoy the same benefits as their parents on Medicare. If that bandwagon gains momentum, politicians will scramble aboard.

The process may take time but as Winston Churchill quipped, “You can count on Americans to do the right thing…after they have tried everything else.”

The Affordable Care Act — Scrap or Save?

By Mark A. Kelley, MD |5/16/17

You may have noticed that we have been busy “tuning up” HealthWeb Navigator over the past few months. Based on your feedback we are expanding the number of our reviewed websites. We have also improved our review process. The details can be found in the section “Our Process” on our homepage.

Our blog will also be posted more frequently so we can update you on the current advances in medical science and healthcare policy. We encourage you to share your thoughts.

This week’s post will focus on the fate of the Affordable Care Act under the Trump administration.

The Affordable Care – What’s Behind the Politics?

The politics of federal health policy have dominated the headlines for weeks.

The House of Representatives narrowly passed a bill called the American Health Care Act (AHCA) to replace the Affordable Care Act (ACA, also known as Obamacare). The AHCA has now been sent to the Senate.

The ACA has expanded healthcare insurance to 20 million uninsured Americans. It also mandated basic benefits for all insurance plans. Among them is a law that prohibits financial penalties for patients with pre-existing conditions. The result is that many more Americans can protect their health and avoid bankruptcy from medical payments.

Critics claim that the ACA has failed. They describe higher premiums, insurers leaving the program, and excessive costs. These are real problems—but not failures. The AHCA will make them worse by reducing coverage with no significant cost savings.

The U.S. has not caught up with most other developed countries that have government-supported universal health care. These programs are funded by taxes on everyone. That policy distributes the financial risk across the population and gives everyone the same health insurance benefits.

That approach could work in the U.S. At least 50% of Americans are very healthy and have little or no health care costs. If these healthy consumers would buy health insurance (or pay taxes), we could cover the 20% of our population who consume 80% of health care costs.

But the U.S. has never viewed health care that way. There is no tax for health care (except Medicare for the elderly).

The ACA tried to fix that by requiring healthy, uninsured Americans to buy health insurance to support sicker patients. That law, called the “individual mandate,” has not worked because the government has not enforced it.

That worries insurers, who have enrolled many sick people but few healthy ones. Now some insurers are facing losses. By law, the insurers cannot charge sick people more. The ACA gave insurers temporary guarantees against losses but that guarantee period is ending.

The responses are predictable. Insurers are increasing their premiums to cover any losses. Some have left unprofitable marketplaces or exited the ACA altogether. Lacking any enforcement, millions of uninsured healthy Americans still pay nothing into the pool. Meanwhile, millions more Americans have new health insurance that they want to keep.

For universal coverage, all Americans must contribute to the costs of health care. Our taxes pay for defense, education, highways – why not health? In fact the Supreme Court ruled that the ACA is legal because the individual mandate is basically a tax that the government has the right to impose.

We already have experience with such a plan. For decades, taxes have supported Medicare for our elderly population. Medicare took years to evolve but is highly successful and popular with patients. It has survived many challenges. Elected officials have found that “messing with Medicare” can be politically dangerous.

The American public has been strongly in favor of universal health coverage, which exists in every other developed country. The ACA has been a major step in that direction. Many more citizens now have the opportunity for a healthy life and freedom from medical bankruptcy. They will not easily surrender these benefits.

The AHCA is a setback for universal coverage. The proposed law will reduce insurance for millions of Americans, and use those savings to cover a tax cut for the wealthy.

It is time for our elected officials to get down to business and fix the ACA without threatening patients with the loss of their health insurance.

The only political “win” is assuring that all Americans have affordable health care long into the future.

When Your Doctor Doesn’t Accept Your Health Insurance Plan

By Nathan Blake | 1/17/17
Updated | 9/14/18

When I relocated from Massachusetts to Virginia, I was lucky to find a doctor I really liked. She was smart, sympathetic, had a sense of humor, and treated me like a person instead of a checklist.

But a few weeks following one of my routine checkups, I was shocked to find that the clinic had charged me nearly 3 times more than what they usually did for such a visit.

I called my insurer thinking there must have been some kind of billing error. Come to find out, that surprise bill was the result of a recent restructuring of my insurance plan. My doctor no longer worked with my employer-based health insurance and was now considered “out-of-network.” If I wanted to continue being her patient, I would have to pay the full cost for every visit out of my own pocket.

Health insurance is about as easy to grasp as quantum physics. Deductibles, out-of-pocket maximums, copayments, in-network coverage, co-insurance, accumulation periods — few people know how their health plan works, especially since plans change over time. But not knowing what your health insurance policy does — and doesn’t — cover can leave you exposed to unexpected medical costs down the road.

What do you do when your doctor doesn’t accept your health insurance? Keep reading for a few tips that might just keep you under your preferred doctor’s care no matter what your health insurance situation is.

What to Do When Your Doctor Doesn’t Accept Your Insurance

So your preferred doctor doesn’t accept your new health insurance, and you don’t want to find another provider. The first step you should take is an easy one: Ask your doctor what insurance carriers they DO accept.

Rather than finding a new doctor, you can switch to a different health insurance policy that you know your doctor will work with.

Unfortunately, Marketplace plans can only be changed during certain times of the year or for specific “special enrollment” scenarios like having a baby, getting married, losing a job, etc.

Check online to see if you qualify for special enrollment before you make any big decisions. If you’re eligible for special enrollment, this is by far the most painless solution.

But there are other options if you can’t afford the cost or hassle involved with switching policies. If you desperately want to keep your doctor, you can:

Ask your insurer to add an out-of-network doctor to their network. If your doctor isn’t in your insurer’s network, call the insurer directly to see if they’ll consider adding your doctor to their network of providers. If they refuse, ask for specific reasons why. You can also try convincing your doctor to join a particular insurer’s network. Sometimes just being determined is enough to do the trick. It may not work, but it can’t hurt to try!

•  Negotiate a discounted “cash price” with your doctor. It’s common for medical providers to limit the number of insurers they work with. The result is that patients insured through incompatible plans are forced to pay the price for medical services up-front. Thankfully some doctors will negotiate prices with patients on an individual basis, especially if there’s already a long-standing relationship. The key to these negotiations is knowing the fair price for a given health expense and working from there. Again, it costs nothing to ask, and the potential payoff is worth it.

•  Visit an urgent care center or walk-in facility. Urgent care centers and walk-in clinics are set up to treat patients with non-life-threatening illnesses and injuries like fevers or the flu, bleeding/cuts, sprains/strains, etc. They’re also good for immunizations and some diagnostic services such as X-rays and routine lab work. What’s great about these centers is that they are relatively inexpensive, don’t require appointments, and are often open seven days a week. If you can save money on “small” issues, then you may be able to afford seeing your doctor for the more serious issues that crop up from time to time.

•  Pay the difference out-of-pocket and seek reimbursement later. This one hurts. But if you have the financial resources to do so — and your doctor is too good to let go of — then you can pay for their services out of pocket and then submit insurance forms for reimbursement. It’s important to note that insurers will often apply reimbursements to your policy deductible (how much you’re expected to pay before the insurer picks up the bill) rather than give you the money outright. There’s also a good chance you will be reimbursed for only a portion of the original cost. Stay in touch with your insurer during the reimbursement process and make sure your voice is heard.

When It’s Time to Move On

Sometimes the cards just don’t play out the way you want them to. If you can’t afford to see your doctor without health insurance, and none of the above options works for you, then it might be easier to simply move on and find another doctor in your new network. Most health plans these days provide a list of physicians in their network. Call your plan directly for more information.

There are a lot of great websites out there to help you find the doctor of your dreams. Check out of collection of websites for finding a doctor in the Doctors & Hospitals category.

Being prepared for change and knowing what options are available is your best bet for making a smooth transition between providers. Comment below and let us know how your situation worked out!

What Are the Health Risks of Exercising Outside in Winter?

By Nathan Blake |1/4/17
Updated | 10/27/17

Who doesn’t love this time of year? Leaves are changing color, the breeze smells like campfire, and pretty much everything comes in “pumpkin spice” (chicken sausage, anyone?). In just a few months, you’ll be making yet another list of New Year’s resolutions.

Last year, 41% of Americans said they wanted to “live a healthier lifestyle,” while an additional 39% wanted to “lose weight.” And let’s be honest—most of us can sympathize. 40% of U.S. adults are considered obese, a record high.

But gym memberships aren’t getting any cheaper. Rising costs have inspired health buffs to develop fitness routines requiring little or no cost such as bodyweight exercises, yoga, and dancing, or incorporate old standbys like running and cycling.

What most people don’t realize is that the physical cost of cold-weather exercise can mean devastating heart and lung damage. In fact, numerous studies show that heart attack rates tend to spike in colder months, especially December and January.

Those of you who choose to brave the cold this fall and winter should be aware of the potential benefits—and dangers—that lie ahead.

Benefits of Cold Weather Exercise

It’s a myth (more like a half-truth) that chilly weather means greater weight loss. Unless you’re noticeably shivering and expending more energy than usual, your winter workout won’t burn more calories than usual.

That’s not to say athletes should hibernate until spring.

Want to improve your mood? Exercise helps combat the symptoms of seasonal affective disorder, a form of depression affecting 20% of Americans. Additionally, more sunlight exposure increases endorphin levels, putting the “sunny” in “sunny disposition.”

Some research even suggests that 45 minutes of running in cold weather can reduce flu-risk during the winter months by as much as 20-30%.

You may be able to up the intensity of your workouts in the cold, too, since hot weather has been shown to negatively impact physical performance. Factor in the lack of humidity and the invigorating wind chill, and all of a sudden colder climes don’t seem so bad for training.

But as with life in general, moderation is key.

Now for the Dangers (and How to Prevent Them)

Don’t fall into the trap of thinking you’re capable of doing the same activities in winter as you could in summer without a hitch. If you’re in excellent health, you probably won’t experience any major issues exercising outside this winter—barring accidents, of course.

However, if you have a history of heart, lung, or circulation issues, you’re putting yourself at risk for increased discomfort, injury, and even death.

Here’s what you need to be on the lookout for if you want to stay well and fit this winter.

Muscle TearsWhen temperatures drop, our bodies overcompensate to perform tasks that would be easier in milder weather. Our muscles and tendons lose more heat, which causes them to tighten up and become less flexible. This leads to muscle soreness or damage like strains and tears.

What You Can DoTake time to warm-up properly before exercising, but save the stretches for your post-routine cool-down. Ease into your workout with some light cardio instead. Brisk walking, for instance, is great for raising your core temperature and increasing blood and oxygen circulation. Common problem areas include your hamstrings, chest, shoulders, and quadriceps. Show them some extra love!

Asthma: Ever hear of exercise-induced asthma? Coughing, wheezing, chest-tightness, shortness of breath, excessive fatigue. Winter athletes frequently report these symptoms even though they may never experience them in other seasons. Cold, dry air and exercise both aggravate asthma individually. Combined, they’re downright dangerous.

What You Can Do: Cover your mouth with a mask or scarf to warm the air you breathe. If you use an inhaler, use it 15-30 minutes before exercise to open your airways, and carry it on your person at all times. You can also drink extra water, which thins the mucus in your lungs and helps your body move more efficiently.

Heart Attack: Cold temperatures can cause vasoconstriction, or narrowing of your blood vessels. As these passageways constrict, blood pressure rises, which reduces oxygen supply and blood flow to your heart. The result is your heart works harder than it would under normal circumstances. People with heart conditions are inviting additional cardiovascular strain that may result in angina or, potentially, a full blown heart attack.

What You Can DoPeople with a history of high blood pressure and/or heart disease should consult a doctor before starting a new exercise routine. Begin physical activity slowly, and give your body a break every 15-20 minutes. If you begin to feel chest pain, or pain that radiates down your left arm, call 911 immediately or visit the nearest emergency room.

Frostbite: Frostbite occurs when the body’s skin and underlying tissues begin to freeze. As blood flow slows, ice crystals form inside your cells, killing them in the process. People with frostbite will immediately notice numbness and skin discoloration in localized area(s). Left untreated, the resulting skin tissue death can result in gangrene and amputation.

What You Can Do: Limit your exposure to cold, windy, wet weather. Keep an eye out for signs of frostbite like red or pale prickling skin, and stay dry (wet clothes increase heat loss). Dress in layers; aim for clothing that is comfortable, loose, and light; and make sure your outer layer is both windproof and waterproof. If you do notice signs of frostbite, don’t rub or aggravate the frostbitten area. Instead, find shelter as soon as possible, and treat the affected area using either warm—not hot—water or body heat.

Hypothermia: Prolonged exposure to cold weather causes the body to lose heat through the skin and lungs faster than it can be produced. A dramatic drop in body temperature (generally recognized when core temperature falls below 95 degrees Fahrenheit) slows brain function, heart rate, and breathing. Soon, confusion, fatigue, and organ failure set in.

What You Can Do: Layer up, and wear a hat, scarf, and mittens to conserve body heat. Stay dry, being especially mindful of your feet and hands. Avoid alcohol and caffeine, both of which stimulate heat loss. Seek medical attention immediately if you notice any symptoms of hypothermia. In the meantime, remove any wet clothing and wrap yourself warmly in a blanket or other covering. However, do not immerse yourself in hot water. This can lead to shock.

Even though the above scenarios may sound dire, it never hurts to be prepared when it comes to your health. Stay warm this winter, but enjoy the chill. Your body will thank you come spring.

Choosing Your Primary Care Physician

By Nathan Blake |12/19/16
Updated |7/3/17

When my partner and I moved from Virginia to Massachusetts, neither of us had any idea what we would do once we got here. Those days we were scraping by without: an apartment, jobs, state driver’s licenses, a local bank, and health insurance.

Fortunately we were able to cross off everything from that list within a month. But the last item — getting health insurance — was only the first step in health maintenance. I knew eventually I would want a medical professional I could trust to help me make my healthcare decisions, both big and small.

What I was needed was a primary care physician, or PCP.

What’s a Primary Care Physician?

Primary care physicians (also called “primary care doctors”) provide general medical services to specific patient populations.

A pediatrician manages the health of infants and children. Internists provide care to adults, diagnosing the nonsurgical treatment of diseases. A gynecologist specializes in pregnancy, childbirth, and the postpartum period. Each is a primary care physician, just with different specialties.

Why Are Primary Care Doctors Important?

PCPs, unlike many other health specialists, get to know their patients intimately and over a longer period of time. The ongoing nature of the PCP-patient relationship means the doctor can better assess what’s considered “normal” (and what isn’t) for each patient.

But those aren’t the only benefits of having a primary care physician.

The PCP often serves as a patient’s go-to medical resource. No more Dr. Google — with a primary care physician, you can talk about all of your health concerns with an expert you trust. It’s the primary care physician’s job to provide the patient with the very best care available, whether that care is in-house or through a referral to another specialist.

Primary care physicians and patients engage in what is called “continuity of care,” which means building a personal relationship that develops year after year. Keeping a close watch over a patient’s health allows PCPs to better intervene with disease prevention, patient education, health maintenance, and the diagnosis and treatment of both acute and chronic illnesses.

Lastly, the ease of access and communication involved with visiting a primary care physician is unrivaled. Longstanding doctor-patient relationships afford patients the opportunity to truly understand and participate in decisions that affect their health.

Once I settled down in Massachusetts, I knew I would need a primary care physician in my corner if I wanted to stay on top of my health. Turns out I had no idea how to actually go about choosing a primary care physician.

How Do I Choose a PCP?

Choosing a primary care physician is sort of like dating: there’s a large pool to choose from, and finding the right fit may take some trial and error.

Here are some tips I picked up that may help you find the doctor who best fits your personal needs. Let us know in the comments if they help!

Understand your insurance plan: Contact your health insurer or check your policy’s benefits to find out which doctors are considered “in-network.” Doctors in your insurers network will offer you discounted rates negotiated in advance by your health plan. Doctors considered “out-of-network,” on the other hand, often require patients to pay for their services up-front and in full.

It’s almost always a good idea to choose a PCP who is willing to work with your health insurance. We have an entire post focused on how to work with a doctor who doesn’t accept your health insurance.

Ask people you trustConsider asking for recommendations from friends, family, and coworkers. Most people feel more comfortable visiting doctors who have been recommended by someone they trust. Another benefit is that other people (or websites if you’re looking online) can help you pinpoint exactly what you want in a healthcare provider.

Are they male or female? Old or young? Laid-back or over-serious? The more you know about a doctor increases the chances that you’ll find one you like.

Keep an eye out for compatibilityMany patients schedule preliminary interviews with potential doctors to determine “fit.” Imagine the first visit as a trial run, and don’t rule out your gut-feeling.

Does the doctor explain things clearly? Do they listen without interrupting? Is the doctor relatable or more formal than your liking? Can you tell if the doctor prefers aggressive treatment or a more prolonged “wait-and-see” approach? All of these questions will help you in your search for a primary care physician.

Plan logisticallyIf you have a specific health condition like diabetes, you should choose a PCP who has specialized training or experience in endocrinology to receive the best care for your needs.

Other logistical considerations include the distance required to travel to the doctor’s office, schedule flexibility, and whether or not the doctor can understand you preferred language.

Make a list of your “wants” and “needs,” which you can then use to narrow down the list.

Know their availabilityNot all primary care physicians accept new patients. Even doctors with availability may have hours that conflict with your schedule. Some PCPs have dozens of patients, and those with more responsibilities require longer wait times to schedule an appointment.

Reach out to the doctor to get a better idea of their availability before you commit. You may be able to find someone who is a better fit for your schedule.

Check for qualifications:  A doctor is tasked with matters of literal life and death. Of course you’re not going to take advice from someone who isn’t qualified to give that advice. You want your health advisor to be an authority in their field, with an education and professional background that reflects expertise.

Check online or through the doctor’s office to see if the doctor is board-certified in the field(s) that you are visiting them for.

Are you ready to choose a primary care physician? Check out our “Doctors & Hospitals” category to browse resources we recommend for locating doctors online. Happy hunting!

Crohn’s and Colitis — Common but Misunderstood

By Nathan Blake |12/7/16

The first week of December marks the fifth annual Crohn’s and Colitis Awareness Week. These two conditions affect the digestive tracts of nearly 1.6 million Americans each year, although many more remain undiagnosed and deal with persistent pain and discomfort on a daily basis.

If you or a loved one has been diagnosed with either of these conditions, it is important to educate yourself about them in order to best manage the symptoms and reclaim a sense of normalcy.

What are Crohn’s and Colitis?

Crohn’s and colitis are among the most common forms of inflammatory bowel disease (IBD). IBD refers to a family of conditions that causes prolonged inflammation of parts or all of the intestinal tract. IBD and its various forms are known as invisible illnesses, referring to chronic conditions that impair a patient’s day-to-day activities yet show no outward signs.

Crohn’s disease is an inflammatory condition that can affect any part of the digestive tract from mouth to anus. The lining of the digestive tract becomes swollen and develops deep, open sores called ulcers, which can manifest in multiple areas including the esophagus, stomach, small intestine, colon, appendix, and in rare cases the skin and joints. Commonly, there are healthy portions of the intestine between inflamed areas that remain unaffected.

Ulcerative colitis is also an inflammatory disease, although its effects are specific to the superficial tissues of the colon and anus. With ulcerative colitis, ulcers develop on the inner lining on the large intestine. These ulcers may bleed and/or produce pus. Ulcerative colitis generally begins in the rectum and spreads upward to the first part of the colon.

Both diseases often appear gradually and then worsen with time, though many patients report periods of remission during which symptoms disappear for weeks or months. Periods of painful inflammation, on the other hand, are called flare-ups.

Common Symptoms of IBD

Because Crohn’s and colitis affect similar parts of the body, diagnosing these two diseases can be difficult. Their symptoms are often indistinguishable and can vary from person to person. Inflammation of the gastrointestinal tract often leads to the following symptoms, many of which are common for people dealing with Crohn’s or colitis.

• Diarrhea

• Rectal bleeding

• Urgent bowel movements

• Constipation

• Abdominal cramps/pains

• Fatigue

• Unintended weight loss

• Fever

• Night sweats

• Loss of appetite

What Causes Crohn’s and Colitis?

The intestine’s absorptive area spans over 4,300 square feet, making it the single largest surface in the human body, including the skin. Previously, diet and stress levels were implicated as the main determinants of IBD, but today they are seen as aggravating factors and not the actual cause.

While researchers are still unclear as to the exact causes of Crohn’s and colitis, many agree that they likely originate from a combination of factors.

Individual genes: People with a family history of IBD are 10 times more likely to develop the condition than those with no history.

Immune system: It is possible that Crohn’s and colitis appear in response to a viral, bacterial, or fungal infection of the intestinal tract, where the immune system produces an inflammatory response in the intestines to fight off the foreign agent(s). However, people with IBD often have inflammation even when no infection is present, leading researchers to believe that the patient’s immune system may be attacking the body itself. This phenomenon is known as an autoimmune response.

Environmental factors: Clinical and experimental evidence indicates that IBD may be associated with a range of seemingly unrelated environmental influences including cigarette smoking, diet, stress, use of hormones, vitamin D levels, and geographic/social status, among others.

Complications in IBD

Though these two diseases are rarely life-threatening, if left untreated, Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis can result in several serious complications deserving of immediate medical attention.

Fistulae: When ulcers extend completely through the intestinal wall, they create fistulae, or abnormal fusions between different parts of the body. The most common site for IBD fistula formation is the tissue surrounding the anus, where the fistula creates a connection between the rectum and the skin. Fistulae can occasionally become infected and form a life-threatening abscess—a localized pocket of pus—if left untreated.

Bleeding: Blood often appears in the stool of people with IBD, caused by inflammation, ulcer formation, and anal fissures. Some even pass blood alone in the absence of stool. Bleeding in the rectum is more common in ulcerative colitis than Crohn’s, but will vary depending on the area(s) affected.

Anemia: People with IBD have difficulties absorbing important nutrients from food, especially iron, which is absorbed in the small intestine (an area commonly affected by IBD). As a result, nearly half of people affected by Crohn’s or colitis do not receive adequate levels of vitamin B12, iron, and folic acid, all of which are necessary for the creation of new red blood cells. Patients with low levels of red blood cells develop anemia, resulting in headache, fatigue, chest pain, and weakness.

Treatment and Management

The goal in treating Crohn’s and colitis is to achieve and maintain remission, and mostly involves drug therapy to reduce the inflammation that causes IBD’s signs and symptoms. Immunosuppressants and anti-inflammatory drugs called aminosalicylates and corticosteroids have proven to be helpful in improving or completely stopping the symptoms of IBD. Biologics are a more recently developed therapy, created out of biological antibodies rather than chemical medications. Biologics also suppress the immune system but offer a distinct advantage in that they target specific proteins in the IBD patient rather than affecting the whole body.

However, there is currently no cure for Crohn’s disease, and ulcerative colitis can only be cured in the most severe cases when the entire large intestine is surgically removed.

Fortunately there are several ways that people with IBD can manage their symptoms. If you or a loved one has been diagnosed with IBD, consider the following strategies in conjunction with a physician’s oversight to help alleviate symptoms of the disease.

Manage stress: Many patients report an intensification of symptoms in times of stress. Consider adopting a meditation, yoga, or acupuncture routine to reduce symptoms, and get plenty of exercise, preferably daily.

Stay hydrated: Inflamed colons do not absorb water and electrolytes properly, resulting in diarrhea, increased bowel movements, and dehydration. Keep yourself hydrated with distilled water in order to combat this increased fluid loss, and monitor your urine to determine whether or not you are drinking enough liquids.

Limit “trigger” foods: Foods that cause flare-ups depend on the individual, but some are more commonly associated with intensified symptoms than others. They include fatty, spicy, and high-fiber foods; alcohol; coffee; carbonated drinks, nuts and seeds; raw fruits and vegetables; and red meat.

Get your vitamins: IBD flare-ups can negatively impact nutrition due to the increased bowel movements, loss in appetite, fatigue, etc. When the small intestine becomes inflamed, the body is unable to absorb nutrients from food. Coupled with a reduced appetite, IBD can easily lead to malnutrition. Patients can avoid malnutrition by eating smaller, well-balanced meals throughout the day. Your doctor may also recommend vitamin supplements as well.

What Does Medical Science Say About Fish Oil Supplements?

By Nathan Blake |11/23/16

A recent survey of over 11,000 consumers revealed that fish oil is currently the second most popular nutritional supplement on the American market today, with annual spending exceeding $1.2 billion for over-the-counter fish oil pills and related supplements.

Fish oil has long been touted for its supposedly positive effects on a variety of bodily functions including lowering blood pressure, triglycerides, and cholesterol levels; preventing heart disease; inhibiting the formation of cancer cells; combatting depression and mood disorders; reversing the effects of macular degeneration; and countless others.

But what does medical science have to say about these claims? Is fish oil the cure-all it’s advertised to be, or would consumers be better off spending their money elsewhere?

Fish Oil’s (Not So) Secret Ingredient

Fish oil capsules contain concentrated amounts of omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids. Omega-3 fatty acids are necessary for human health, playing a crucial role in brain health and the regulation of inflammatory responses. There are three main types of omega-3 fatty acids, two of which can be found in fish oil capsules.

Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) is absorbed into the body by eating oily, coldwater fish like salmon, menhaden, sardines, mackerel, albacore tuna, halibut, and herring. EPA is also found in edible strains of seaweed as well as human breast milk.

Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) is an important structural component of the human brain and is essential for its proper functioning. It also plays a primary role in maintaining the health of the eye, cerebral cortex, skin, sperm, and testicles. The human body can produce a small amount of DHA on its own, but like EPA, we get the majority of our DHA from cold-water ocean foods. DHA can also be found in organ meat, poultry, and egg yolks, though in small amounts.

Cardiovascular Health

The positive effects of fish oil on the human cardiovascular system have well been established, but that’s not to say no controversy exists. After evaluating the potential benefits of fish oil supplements for patients with multiple pre-existing cardiovascular disease factors, scientists concluded that DHA and EPA had neither a positive nor a negative effect on cardiovascular health. However, an early meta-analysis of fish oil studies revealed a possible correlation between fish oil supplementation and lower blood pressure. Further, scientific data indicates that fish oil consumption can reduce the risk of coronary heart disease, decrease mild hypertension, and prevent certain cardiac arrhythmias. Other studies show that fish oil capsules can be effective in the prevention of primary and secondary cardiovascular disease. In multiple clinical trials, fish oil supplements have been linked to the suppression of major coronary events. The most conclusive benefit of fish oil supplements seems to be that fish oil capsules are effective in lowering triglycerides in the blood. One study found that a prescription dose of EPA + DHA (2x the normal amount) lowered patients’ triglycerides by 27%.

Mood Disorders

Fish oil is not considered to be an effective replacement for mental health treatments, but when used in conjunction with other therapies, fish oil seems to provide beneficial effects to patients diagnosed with borderline personality disorder, unresponsive depression, and schizophrenia. EPA in particular has been studied for its possible use in regulating mood disorders, and researchers found that EPA-heavy omega-3 supplements appear to be effective against primary depression when used alongside prescription medications and other treatment. There is some evidence, however, that fish oil supplementation does not improve mood when tested against a placebo.

Alzheimer’s Disease

In a double-blind study spanning 26 weeks, researchers found that neither high nor low doses of fish oil had an observable effect on cognitive performance in patients age 65 and older. A much longer study, however, found that fish oil intake is associated with lower rates of Alzheimer’s disease. That being said, in a study of 174 Alzheimer’s patients, fish oil supplementation was not shown to reduce cognitive decline in patients with mild or moderate Alzheimer’s disease, though some positive effects were shown in a small group of patients with very mild Alzheimer’s. Other trials confirmed these finding that omega-3 supplementation is beneficial only for patients with mild cognitive impairment. While it’s still too early to make firm recommendations regarding the potential benefits of fish oil intake, daily DHA supplementation in excess of 180 mg is associated with a 50% decrease in dementia risk.

Eye Health

Regular consumption of EPA and DHA fatty acids significantly reduces the risk of developing age-related macular degeneration in women. Other findings suggest that increased omega-3 intake via fish oil capsules can prevent age-related macular degeneration in all subjects, sometimes by an estimated 22%. While the precise role of omega-3 fatty acids in eye health is unclear, there is some evidence that suggests DHA supplements can prevent cell damage and eye stroke injury in the retina.

Inflammation

A study of 250 patients with neck or back pain revealed that fish oil supplements are an equally effective but safer treatment for reducing arthritic pain compared to NSAIDs like ibuprofen and aspirin. Some studies suggest that EPA, independent from DHA, is a potential therapeutic treatment for arthritis-related inflammation in mice, and that EPA has a stronger anti-inflammatory effect than DHA. While another study’s findings suggest that fish oil supplements are not as effective in reducing chronic low-grade inflammation in obese men compared to weight reduction, multiple studies seem to suggest that omega-3 fatty acid supplements can decrease inflammation in patients, particularly those diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis or ulcerative colitis.

Cancer

Some evidence points to the benefit of fish oil’s anti-inflammatory effects on reducing the overall number of cancer cells in the colon. Another investigation found that EPA + DHA are good candidates for primary and secondary breast cancer prevention due to their abilities to reduce inflammation. Strangely enough, one recent study has shown a correlation between elevated levels of omega-3 fatty acids and an increased risk for developing aggressive prostate cancer; men with the highest DHA levels were 2.5x more likely to develop high-risk prostate cancer, though similar studies proved inconclusive. Further, other studies revealed opposite findings, that fish oils are actually helpful in reducing the risk of prostate cancer in healthy individuals, as well as preventing colorectal and breast cancer formation.

The Last Word

Ultimately, the health benefits of fish oil supplements are still unclear. Studies surrounding omega-3 supplements, as we have seen, are conflicting at best, contradictory at worst. That being said, multiple organizations agree that the potential benefits of fish oil capsules outweigh the potential risks for generally healthy people, though more evidence is needed before making a definitive claim.

Continue taking fish oil capsules if they have been prescribed to you by a physician. If you are planning to begin a fish oil regimen, consult with your primary care physician beforehand to make sure you are healthy enough and that they will benefit you. General consumers should be aware that while many of the findings referenced above are interesting, it’s entirely possible you may not be receiving the benefits you’ve been paying for.