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Category: Medical Practice

Is getting people off weight loss medications the right move?

By RICHARD FRANK

Demand for GLP-1 medications soared last year and shows no signs of stopping in 2024. Employers and health plans are understandably anxious about how long they should expect to pay for these pricey drugs. They’re itching for an easy off-ramp.

Some solutions are cropping up to pave the way. Many of them claim they can help patients reap the benefits of GLP-1s within a short time frame, and get them off the drugs within 12 months to save costs. But the data doesn’t support that promise. In fact, studies suggest some patients may need to stay on the drugs indefinitely to sustain outcomes while other patients may be able to discontinue the drugs and at least maintain their cardiometabolic risk reduction even if they cannot maintain all of their weight loss. 

A better strategy to control costs is to more accurately pinpoint those who really need the drugs—and keep those who don’t off of them from the start. Of course, there will be times when deprescribing is appropriate, and we need to clinically support patients through that process. But one-size-fits-all solutions centered on medication as a silver bullet to obesity are only setting up patients and payers for failure. Similarly, those whose sole promise is to deprescribe, don’t follow the evidence.

Prescribing GLP-1s with the goal to deprescribe is foolhardy

GLP-1s treat obesity, but they don’t cure it. GLP-1 agonists increase the body’s own insulin production and slow the movement of food from the stomach to the small intestine. The drugs help people eat less by curbing cravings and boosting satiety. Studies show that once people go off semaglutide, the cravings come back in full force—and so does much of the weight.

While GLP-1 medications produce nearly miraculous outcomes in some people, they’re no quick fix. Obesity is a complex chronic disease. Drugs alone can’t solve for genetic predisposition, behaviors, mental and emotional components, social determinants of health, and other compounding elements that contribute to obesity. In the right circumstances, drugs can give people a solid leg up in better managing those contributing factors—but they’re not for everyone.

Keto is not a sustainable replacement for GLP-1s

Highly restrictive diets like the keto diet aren’t for everyone either. Keto requires a drastic reduction in carbohydrate intake, which can be difficult to maintain long-term. Not to mention, the high-fat content of keto diets can also lead to other health issues and isn’t conducive to tapering off of GLP-1 medications. Side effects from the drugs can make a high-fat diet difficult to tolerate.

It’s good to be wary of solutions that promise an off-ramp by way of highly restrictive diets. While a keto diet may help people lose weight in the short term, studies show that weight loss is rarely sustained over the long run and may be detrimental to overhaul health. The diet is associated with many complications that often lead to hospital admissions for dehydration, electrolyte disturbances, and hypoglycemia.

Triage the right care to the right people at the right time

Obesity’s complex nature requires a personalized approach to treatment that delivers the right care to the right people at the right time. That takes a whole care team of specialized providers—like registered dietitians, health coaches, and prescribing physicians to help people at various stages of the disease. And since obesity often occurs alongside other cardiometabolic conditions like hypertension, diabetes, COPD, and more, patients need the help of specialists who understand how those different conditions interact.

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An Urgent Call to Raise Awareness of Heart Disease in Women

By KELLY CARROLL

There is a dire need to raise awareness about heart disease in women. It is the number one killer of American women, and key data points reveal a lack of cognizance among doctors and women.

An assessment of primary care physicians published in 2019 revealed that only 22% felt extremely well prepared to evaluate cardiovascular disease risks in female patients. A 2019 survey of American women showed that just 44% recognized heart disease as the number one cause of death in women. Ten years earlier, in 2009, the same survey found that 65% of American women recognized heart disease as the leading cause of female death, revealing an alarming decline in awareness. 

Recent evidence suggests that many adults don’t know the important health numbers that can help identify heart disease risk factors, like their blood sugar and cholesterol. A 2024 survey of American adults conducted by The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center found that only 35% of adults knew their blood pressure and 16% of adults knew their cholesterol levels. In comparison, the study reported that 58% knew their childhood friend’s birthday.

Heart Disease Risk Factors in Women

Women have specific risk factors for heart disease that don’t pertain to men. Nanette Wenger, M.D., a cardiologist and researcher, said in an American Heart Association (AHA) statement, “For most of the last century, heart disease was considered a problem for men, and women were believed to have cardioprotective benefits from female sex hormones such as estrogen. However, emerging evidence shows that there are a substantial number of heart disease risk factors that are specific to women or predominant in women.” Some gender-specific risk factors outlined by the AHA are early onset of menstruation, early menopause, autoimmune disease, anxiety, depression, and pregnancy complications.

Bethany Barone Gibbs, Ph.D., an associate professor at West Virginia University, emphasized in an email that pregnancy is a “critical window” for women’s cardiovascular health. She said, “The cardiovascular and metabolic challenge of pregnancy may unmask risk for conditions like hypertension and diabetes, but it is also possible (though not yet clear) that experiencing an adverse pregnancy outcome may independently contribute to the development of maternal cardiovascular disease.” A history of adverse pregnancy outcomes can be associated with more than two times the risk of cardiovascular disease later in life, she explained. 

Filling in knowledge gaps regarding the connections between pregnancy and long-term cardiovascular health is important to improving outcomes.

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The Long and Tortured History of Alpha-Synuclein and Parkinson’s Disease

By STEVEN ZECOLA

This study tracks the decades-long journey to harness alpha-synuclein as a treatment for Parkinson’s disease. Steven Zecola an activist who tracks Parkinson’s research and was on THCB last month discussing it, offers three key changes needed to overcome the underlying challenges.

A Quick Start for Alpha-Synuclein R&D

In the mid-1990’s, Parkinson’s patient advocacy groups had become impatient by the absence of any major therapeutic advances in the 25 years since L-dopa had been approved for Parkinson’s disease (PD).

The Director of National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS) set up a workshop in August 1995 that featured scientists with expertise in human genetics who might open novel avenues for PD research.

One such scientist, Robert Nussbaum, made the following remarks at the workshop:

“…finding genes responsible for familial Parkinson’s should be helpful for understanding all forms of the disease. Techniques now available should allow researchers to find the genes responsible for familial Parkinson’s disease in a relatively short time.”

Two years later in 1997, Spillantini et al. showed that alpha-synuclein (A-syn) was a major contributor of abnormal clusters of proteins in the brain, not only in patients with synuclein mutations but, more importantly, in patients with sporadic Parkinson’s disease as well.

As Nussbaum had predicted, progress had occurred rapidly. President Clinton in his 1998 State of the Union address, said:

“Think about this, the entire store of human knowledge now doubles every 5 years. In the 1980’s, scientists identified the gene causing cystic fibrosis. It took 9 years. Last year scientists located the gene that causes Parkinson’s disease in only 9 days.”

The NIH is Asked to Take a Leadership Role

Shortly after President Clinton’s call to action, a Senate Committee asked the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to develop a coordinated effort to take advantage of promising opportunities in PD research.

In response, the NIH and the National Institute of Neurological Disease and Stroke (NINDS) held a major planning meeting that included all components of the PD community. The group’s recommendations formed the basis of a five-year PD Research Agenda.

The Research Agenda was codified in a comprehensive 42-page report that covered all aspects of research from better understanding the disease, to creating new research capabilities, to developing new treatments, and to enhancing the research process.

Noting the “remarkable paradigm shift in Parkinson’s disease research” from the discovery of the effects of alpha-synuclein, the report stated that:

“New insights into the role of synucleins in the pathobiology of Parkinson’s disease would accelerate discovery of more effective therapies and provide fresh research opportunities to advance our understanding of Parkinson’s disease”.

NIH invested nearly $1 billion from FY 2000 to FY 2004 to implement the PD Research Agenda.  A-syn research would be funded out of the funds allocated to the categories of Genetics and Epidemiology, with both categories targeted to receive about 15% of the overall spending.

Overall, there were 19 broad categories with spending authorizations, including $32.7 million allocated to Program Management and Direction.

When the PD Research Agenda reached the end of its 5-year span, NINDS sponsored a second PD Summit which was held in June 2005.  It brought together an industry-wide consortium to assess the progress over the previous five years and to develop future directions for PD research.

The participants generated more than fifty specific recommendations.  NIH considered these plans and the unmet goals from previous efforts and developed a 3-year Plan.

A major focus of that Plan was to identify and intervene with the causes of PD.

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Patients are Not “Consumers”: My Cancer Story 

By JEFF GOLDSMITH

On Christmas Eve 2014, I received a present of some profoundly unwelcome news: a 64 slice CT scan confirming not only the presence of a malignant tumor in my neck, but also a fluid filled mass the size of a man’s finger in my chest cavity outside the lungs. Two days earlier, my ENT surgeon in Charlottesville, Paige Powers, had performed a fine needle aspiration of a suspicious almond-shaped enlarged lymph node, and the lab returned a verdict of “metastatic squamous cell carcinoma of the head and neck with an occult primary tumor”. 

I had worked in healthcare for nearly forty years when cancer struck, and considered myself an “expert” in how the health system worked. My experience fundamentally changed my view of how health care is delivered, from the patient’s point of view. Many have compared their fight against cancer as a “battle”. Mine didn’t feel like a battle so much as a chess match where the deadly opponent had begun playing many months before I was aware that he was my adversary. The remarkable image from Ingmar Bergman’s Seventh Seal sums up how this felt to me.

The CT scan was the second step in determining how many moves he had made, and in narrowing the uncertainty about my possible counter moves. The scan’s results were the darkest moment: if the mysterious fluid filled mass was the primary tumor, my options had already dangerously narrowed. Owing to holiday imaging schedules, it was not until New Years’ Eve, seven interminable days later, that a PET/CT scan dismissed the chest mass as a benign fluid-filled cyst. I would require an endoscopy to locate the still hidden primary tumor somewhere in my throat.  

I decided to seek a second opinion at my alma mater, the University of Chicago, where I did my doctoral work and subsequently worked in medical center administration.

The University of Chicago had a superb head and neck cancer team headed by Dr. Everett Vokes, Chair of Medicine, whose aggressive chemotherapy saved the life and career of Chicago’s brilliant young chef, Grant Achatz of Alinea, in 2007.

If surgery was not possible, Chicago’s cancer team had a rich and powerful repertoire of non-surgical therapies. I was very impressed both with their young team, and how collaborative their approach was to my problem. Vokes’ initial instinct that mine was a surgical case proved accurate.

The young ENT surgeon I saw there in an initial consultation, Dr. Alex Langerman performed a quick endoscopy and thought he spotted a potential primary tumor nestled up against my larynx. Alex asked me to come back for a full-blown exploration under general anaesthesia, which I did a week later. The possible threat to my voice, which could have ended my career, convinced me to return to Chicago for therapy. Alex’s endoscopy found a tumor the size of a chickpea at the base of my tongue. Surgery was scheduled a week later in the U of Chicago’s beautiful new hospital, the Center for Care and Discovery.

This surgery was performed on Feb 2, 2015, by a team of clinicians none of whom was over the age of forty. It was not minor surgery, requiring nearly six hours:  resections of both sides of my neck, including the dark almond and a host of neighboring lymph nodes. And then, there was robotic surgery that removed a nearly golf ball-sized piece of the base of my tongue and throat. The closure of this wound remodeled my throat.

I arrived in my hospital room late that day with the remarkable ability to converse in my normal voice.

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Stephanie Strong, CEO, Boulder

Stephanie Strong is the CEO of Boulder, which has been blazing a trail in the virtual treatment of substance use disorder. She left venture capital to start the company and has been steadily building its capabilities and reach. We talked in depth about how Boulder helps its patients, who are predominantly on Medicaid and in general tend–as you’d expect–not to have easy circumstances. One remarkable thing Stephanie has done is spearhead resistance to the DEA’s proposal to ban telehealth prescribing of the anti-addiction drug Buprenorphine. And it looks like that campaign has been successful. that alone will save many lives. Watch this interview of a young female CEO who is making a real difference, and totally impressing me in the processMatthew Holt

About That New Generation of Clinicians

By KIM BELLARD

I saw a report last week – Clinician of the Future 2023 Education Edition, from Elsevier Healththat had some startling findings, and which didn’t seem to garner the kind of coverage I might have expected.  Aside from Elsevier’s press release and an article in The Hill, I didn’t see anything about it.  It’s worth a deeper look.

The key finding is that, although 89% say they are devoted to improving patients’ lives, the majority are planning careers outside patient care.  Most intend to say in healthcare, mind you; they just don’t see themselves staying in direct patient care.

We should be asking ourselves what that tells us.

The report was based on a survey of over 2,000 medical and nursing students, from 91 countries, as well as two roundtable sessions with opinion leaders and faculty in the United States and United Kingdom.  Since I’m in the U.S. and think most about U.S. healthcare, I’ll focus mostly on those respondents, except when they’re not split out or where the U.S. responses are notably different.

Overall, 16% of respondents said they are considering quitting their medical/nursing studies (12% medical, 21% nursing), but the results are much worse in the U.S, especially for medical students – 25% (nursing students are still 21%).  That figure is higher than anywhere else. Globally, a third of those who are considering leaving are planning to leave healthcare overall; it’s closer to 50% in the U.S.

Tate Erlinger, vice president of clinical analytics at Elsevier, noted: “There were several things [that] sort of floated to the top at least that caught my attention. One was sort of the cost, and that’s not limited to the U.S., but the U.S. students are more likely to be worried about the cost of their studies.”  Overall, 68% were worried about the cost of their education, but the figure is 76% among U.S. medical students (and for UK medical students).  

Having debt from their education is a factor, as almost two-thirds of nursing students and just over half of medical students are worried about their future income as clinicians, with U.S. medical students the least worried (47%).

It’s worth noting that 60% are already worried about their mental health, and the future is daunting: 62% see a shortage of doctors within ten years and 64% see a shortage of nurses. Globally, 69% of students (65% medical, 72% nursing) are worried about clinician shortages and the impact it will have on them as clinicians.

Where it gets really interesting is when asked: “I see my current studies as a stepping-stone towards a broader career in healthcare that will not involve directly treating patients.” Fifty-eight percent (58%) agreed (54% medical, 62% nursing). Every region was over 50%. In the U.S., the answer was even higher – 61% overall (63% medical, 60% nursing).

Dr. Sanjay Desai, one of the U.S. roundtable panelists, said: “I know this might evolve as they go through their education, but 6 out of 10 in school, when we hope that they’re most excited about that career, are looking at it with skepticism. That is surprising to me.” 

Me too.

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Joanna Strober, CEO, Midi Health

Women’s health in their mid-life has been very poorly treated. No one has been managing all of women’s health, and almost no one has been delivering hormone replacement therapy since a now debunked 2002 study. Midi is a new company with protocols for many conditions, and it has been training NPs to deliver the care (because no one has been training them!). CEO Joanna Strober explained how Midi is providing care in 14 states now and will be in all 50 next year, and how Midi is delivering virtual and comprehensive care to women–many of whom do not have access to any other type of regular care. They just raised another $25m from GV (Google) & others–Matthew Holt

Robin Berzin, CEO & Founder, Parsley Health

Robin Berzin used to work with me at Health 2.0 , as well as combining her medical training with lots of media production and other work. Fast forward a decade and Robin has left the rest of us in the dust. She’s now the Founder and CEO of Parsley Health, which is a really innovative primary care++ clinic that is based on the foundations of functional medicine, and is having tremendous success treating and transforming the lives of thousands of patients who were not getting what they needed from the traditional health care syste,. Now Parsley is aggressively moving into the employer market. I caught up with Robin at the recent HLTH conference.–Matthew Holt

Fay Rotenberg, CEO, Firefly Health

Fay Rotenberg is CEO of Firefly Health, which is an advanced virtual primary care group (a bastardized phrase she hates). That means they are both providing virtual care, with an integrated care and health plan coverage model, and are also a risk-bearing medical group working with other payers. They adjust the model using health guides, MDs, NPs, etc. and they help their patients manage their in person experience with specialists, labs, imaging, etc. — they have 1900+ partners nationwide who will actually know the patient is coming, and is integrated into Firefly’s model. Clinical outcomes are great, and costs are 12-15% lower, yet they have 5,000 members per MD. Maybe it really is the 21st century Kaiser?

“Doomscrolling” – Call the doctor!

by MIKE MAGEE

Exactly 1 year ago, mental health experts alerted the medical world to their version of an assessment scale for yet another new condition – “doomscrolling.”

As defined in the article, “Constant exposure to negative news on social media and news feeds could take the form of ‘doomscrolling’ which is commonly defined as a habit of scrolling through social media and news feeds where users obsessively seek for depressing and negative information.”

No one can deny a range of legitimate concerns. Faced with continued background noise from the pandemic, add global warming, renegade AI, and the Republican Congress. And now, the devastating attacks on Israel and growing instability in the Middle East. It is no wonder that we can’t turn off the Instagram feed.

With real challenges like these, our troubled world needs her doctors and nurses to stay focused more than ever on their primary professional missions – managing health and wellness, sickness and disease, fear and worry, and yes, now “doomscrolling.”

John J. Patrick PhD, in his book Understanding Democracy, lists the ideals of democracy to include “civility, honesty, charity, compassion, courage, loyalty, patriotism, and self restraint.” The 4.2 million registered nurses and 1 million doctors in America are agents of democracy.

Regrettably, they are already being drawn away from patients by three powerful forces.

  1. Corporate Dislocation – To assure maximum reimbursement, doctors and nurses are routinely asked to prioritize time and contact with data over time and access to patients.
  2. Health Technology and AI Substitution – Rather than engineering solutions to expand real-time patient contact, most innovations are further distancing patients from healthcare professionals.
  3. Legislative Intrusion – Complex medical decisions, long entrusted to the patient-health professional relationship to negotiate, are being transferred to ultra-conservative legislators.

We live under a constitutional and representative democracy, as do two-thirds of our fellow citizens in over 100 nations around the world. The health of these democracies varies widely. The case for democracy emphasizes its capacity to enhance dignity and self-worth, promote well-being, advance equal opportunity, protect equal rights, advance economic productivity, promote peace and order, resolve conflicts peacefully, hold rulers accountable, and achieve legitimacy through community-based action.

One of the challenges of democracy is to find the right balance in pursuing “the common good” which has dual (and often competing) arms. One arm is communitarian well-being and the other, individual well-being.

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