Why can’t I just call for a referral?

Why, you say, do you need to SEE your doctor for a referral? It’s so stupid!

Multiple reasons:
1. Triage.
2. Scarce resources.
3. Your primary care may be able to handle it.
4. The specialist only wants to see people that they can help.
5. You may think that you and Dr. Google have it figured out, but Dr. Google sucks.
6. For physical and occupational therapy, it has to do with caution and malpractice insurance.

Let’s go through them backwards.

6. People call for a referral to physical therapy. I say I need to see them. No, I can’t make a diagnosis through the phone. Arm hurts is rather vague. The person says their insurance does not need a referral. But then the physical therapist wants one: why? Well, my malpractice outranks the physical therapists, so to speak. If the therapist sees you without your doctor examining you and something happens… yes, things have happened.

5. Dr. Google. You’ve read extensively and you know exactly what is going on and you just need the referral. No, you have not gone to medical school or residency. Every quack who can say anything even faintly convincing now has a website. Dr. Google sucks. There are very very rare exceptions to that…

4. The gastroenterologist does not want to see your bladder problem. The neurosurgeons hate seeing the people that will not benefit from back surgery, but they have to because the back pain patient doesn’t believe me, so the patient has to hear it from the surgeon. The patient thinks I am “gate keeping” them from the specialist. I’m not.

3. Primary care learns to handle a lot of things. One frequent referral is a postnasal drip, to the Ear Nose and Throat specialist. I recommend trying an acid blocker first. The person doesn’t believe me. “I don’t have heartburn.” I sigh, and do the referral. $450.00 later, the ENT has put the scope through their nose and put them on an acid blocker.

2. Scarce resources: We had 8 neurologists on the Olympic Peninsula for about 450,000 people. We are down to two. I called one for a complex stroke-that-wasn’t and had to do a series of MRI/MRA studies looking for specific things. It was a vertebral arterial bleed. Rare. I called the neurologist back and he said, “Send them to the other one. I am swamped.” He is in the larger population area and two others quit. The rule is sickest is seen first…

1. Triage. What is wrong, what are we worrying about and how sick is this person? If they are really sick I will call the specialist to ask for recommendations, or which test to do, or see if they need to be seen within a short time. I am not going to interrupt the specialist unless I think it’s really necessary! That would burn through my carefully built credit with them! And I have had a person come in for a new patient visit for a “lung problem”. I call the specialist, get him seen and he has a heart bypass….

0. And I am a specialist too. I am a Family Practice physician, board certified and board eligible, three year residency. The internist, the pediatrician, we are all specialists and all special.

Heart and brain and alcohol, 2018

For the Daily Prompt: infect. Maybe heart and brain health could be an infectious idea…..

Heart disease is the number one cause of death in the US, around 24% of deaths every year. Strokes are fifth most common cause of death at 5%, dementia sixth most common at 3.6%, data here from 2014. Accidents have beaten strokes out for fourth place because of “unintentional overdose” deaths.

I did a physical on a man recently, who said what was the best thing he could do for his health?

“Reduce or better yet quit alcohol.” is my reply. Even though he’s within “current guidelines”. I showed him the first of these studies.

Two recent studies get my attention for the relationship between the heart and the brain and alcohol.

In this study: http://www.onlinejacc.org/content/64/3/281, 79,019 Swedish men and women were followed after completing a questionnaire about alcohol consumption.

They were followed from 1998 to 2009 and 7,245 cases of atrial fibrillation were identified. The relative risk for atrial fibrillation was alcohol dose dependent: that is, the people who did not drink had a relative risk of atrial fibrillation set at 1.0. At 1-6 drinks per week the risk was 1.07, at 7-14 per week the risk was 1.07, at 14-21 drinks per week 1.14 and at >21 drinks per week 1.39. They also break it down by number of drinks per day. So why do we care about atrial fibrillation? “Atrial fibrillation (AF)/atrial flutter (AFL), the most common cardiac arrhythmia, is accompanied with a 4- to 5-fold increased risk for stroke, tripling of the risk for heart failure, doubling of the risk for dementia, and 40% to 90% increase in the risk for all-cause mortality.”

Atrial fibrillation, stroke, congestive heart failure, dementia and 40-90% increase in all-cause mortality. Want to protect your brain and live longer? Quit alcohol.

Well, that instantly decreased my enthusiasm for alcohol, now down to one drink per week if that.

Here is a second study: https://www.thelancet.com/journals/lancet/article/PIIS0140-6736(18)30134-X/fulltext?code=lancet-site

In the 599 912 current drinkers included in the analysis, we recorded 40 310 deaths and 39 018 incident cardiovascular disease events during 5·4 million person-years of follow-up. For all-cause mortality, we recorded a positive and curvilinear association with the level of alcohol consumption, with the minimum mortality risk around or below 100 g per week. Alcohol consumption was roughly linearly associated with a higher risk of stroke (HR per 100 g per week higher consumption 1·14, 95% CI, 1·10–1·17), coronary disease excluding myocardial infarction (1·06, 1·00–1·11), heart failure (1·09, 1·03–1·15), fatal hypertensive disease (1·24, 1·15–1·33); and fatal aortic aneurysm (1·15, 1·03–1·28). By contrast, increased alcohol consumption was log-linearly associated with a lower risk of myocardial infarction (HR 0·94, 0·91–0·97). In comparison to those who reported drinking >0–≤100 g per week, those who reported drinking >100–≤200 g per week, >200–≤350 g per week, or >350 g per week had lower life expectancy at age 40 years of approximately 6 months, 1–2 years, or 4–5 years, respectively.”

Ok, over half a million people followed, 40K+ deaths, 39K+ heart events (heart attack, atrial fibrillation, new congestive heart failure, etc), that’s a pretty impressive study.

A 5% 12 ounce beer is 14 grams of alcohol. Here: https://www.niaaa.nih.gov/alcohol-health/overview-alcohol-consumption/what-standard-drink. Our local brewery and pourhouse usually serve pints, 16 oz, and the range is from 5% to over 9% alcohol. Two 9% pints is how many standard drinks? You do the math. Currently the recommendations in the US are no more than seven drinks per week for women (98 grams) and fourteen for men (196 grams) per week, no saving it up for the weekend, no bingeing. The UK stops at 98 grams for both men and women. The rest of Europe goes higher.

Heart and brain, how I love you! I like my brain and don’t want to pickle it. I think I’ll choose heart and brain over alcohol, long term over short term, health over escapism.

Have a great week!




I took the photograph. It reminds me of neurons in the brain.

from the mist

For the Daily Prompt: forest.

My town is a forest at sunrise and sunset. The trees take over, dark against the sky. And look,  something is rising from the mist.

Medicine is like that too. Did the epidemic of unintentional overdose deaths catch you by surprise? People, including doctors, thought opioids were safe, if taken correctly. And that we should increase them if the person still had chronic pain. But the information is still changing and taking shape from the fog.

I have worked with the University of Washington Telepain service since 2011. I can’t attend every week, but many weeks I spend Wednesday lunch in front of the computer, logged on to hear a thirty minute lecture from UW and then to hear cases presented from all over the state.

I want to sing the praises of the doctors on Telepain and the Washington State Legislature for having this program. Here is a link to a five minute King5  news program about UW Telepain.


Forty two different sites were logged on. There are also UW Telemedicine programs for hepatitis C and for patients with addiction and psychiatric problems. The advantage is that all of we rural doctors learn from one doctor presenting a patient and the panel discussing it and making recommendations. We have Dr. Tauben, head of the pain clinic, a psychiatrist, a physiatrist, a family doctor who treats opioid addiction, a psychologist and a social worker. And often a guest speaker! We have a standard form to fill out, with no names: year of birth and male or female. It is a team that can help us to care for our patients.

New information in healthcare rises out of the mist….



Mordechai, our clinic skeleton, had such a wonderful time out at dinner last month. As you can see, she is still conversing about it. We’ll have to take her out more.

For the Daily Prompt: inchoate. I’m not sure quite how inchoate relates to this. My ideas are unformed. Where to take Mordechai next?

Causes of death: which does your doctor treat?

What is the number one cause of death in the United States? The heart. You know that.

You might know the number two: all the cancer deaths put together.

Number three is lower respiratory disease: mostly caused by tobacco.

Number four. Can you guess? Number four is accidents. Unintentional deaths. In 2012 number four was stroke, but unintentional deaths have moved up the list, here: https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/fastats/deaths.htm. The CDC tracks unintentional deaths, here: https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/fastats/accidental-injury.htm. And what is the number one cause of unintentional death right now? It is not gun accidents. It is not car wrecks. It is not falls. It is unintentional overdose: usually opioids, legal or illegal, often combined with other sedating medicines or alcohol. Alcohol, sleep medicines, benzodiazepines, some muscle relaxants. No suicide note. Not on purpose. Or we don’t know if it is on purpose….

And does your physician try to prevent accidental death? Do they talk to you about seatbelts, about wearing bicycle helmets, about smoke alarms, about falls in the elderly, about domestic violence, about locking up guns? About not driving when under the influence? Do they talk about addiction and do they treat addiction?I think that every primary care physician should treat the top ten causes of death. I am a family medicine physician and I try to work with any age, any person. I treat addiction as well as chronic pain. I have always tried to talk about the risk of opiates when I prescribe them. I treat addictions including alcoholism, methamphetamines, cocaine, tobacco and opioids. Legal, illegal and iv opioids, from oxcodone and hydrocodone to heroin. That doesn’t mean I can safely treat every patient outpatient. People with multi drug addiction, or complex mental health with addiction, or severe withdrawal must be treated inpatient. But I have taken the buprenorphine training to get my second DEA number to learn how to safely treat opiate overuse. I took the course in 2011. I was the only physician in my county of 27,000 people who was a prescriber for two years. Now we have more, but still the vast majority of physicians in the United States have not taken the training even when it is offered free.

I don’t understand why more physicians, primary care doctors, are NOT taking the buprenorphine and recognition and treatment of opiate overuse course. Most are not trained. Why not take the training? Even if they are not prescribers, they will be much better informed for the options for patients. People are dying from opioids daily. Physicians have a DEA number to prescribe controlled substances: I think that every physician who prescribes opioids also has a duty and obligation to train to recognized and intervene and be informed about treating opioid overuse.

A large clinic group in Portland, Oregon made the decision last year that every primary care provider was required to train in buprenorphine. One provider disagreed and chose to leave. However, everyone else is now trained.

We as a country and as physicians need to get past fear, past stigma, past discrimination and past our fixed ideas and step up to take care of patients. If a physician treats alcoholism as part of primary care, they should also be knowledgeable and trained in treatment of opiate overuse.

Ask YOUR physician and YOUR local clinics: Do the providers prescribe opiates? Are their providers trained in preventing, recognizing and treating opiate addiction? Do they treat opiate overuse? Do they understand how buprenorphine can save lives and return people to work and to their families? Are they part of the solution?

For the Daily Prompt: provoke.

Illness Anxiety Disorder

“Please write something from a medical perspective about anxious people who worry every little thing is some serious disease.” — reQuest 2018

This is quite a brilliant and timely question.

Here: https://www.anxiety.org/hypochondriasis-replaced-by-two-new-disorders-in-dsm-5.

The DSM V was published on May 18, 2013. This is the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders version 5,  and it redefines various disorders. For example, opiate dependence has disappeared and so has opiate addiction. Instead, there is one diagnosis: opiate overuse syndrome. Which really combines both opiate addiction and opiate dependence and makes it a spectrum.

The DSM V drops hypochondriasis. Wait, you say, that diagnosis no longer exists? Well, yes, correct. So the diagnoses are made up? Yes, as my daughter says, “All the words are made up.” So psychiatry changes and the diagnosis definitions change and some diagnoses disappear. Medicine is like the Oregon Dunes, really. The information is changing daily. I went into medicine thinking it is like a cookbook, where I just have to learn all the recipes. Nope, sand dunes: the wind and waves and new information change the contours daily. It drives my patients nuts. “My insurance won’t cover the medicine I’ve been on for 26 years.” Um, yeah, sorry, work for single payer and shut down the insurance companies, ok? “This combination of medicines has never killed me yet.” Um, yeah, sorry, but you are in fact getting older and we no longer think that combination is safe and first do no harm: I can’t prescribe combinations that I think may kill you.

Hypochondriasis has been replaced by two diagnoses: Somatic Symptom Disorder and Illness Anxiety Disorder.

From the Mayo Clinic website: https://www.mayoclinic.org/medical-professionals/clinical-updates/psychiatry-psychology/diagnostic-statistical-manual-mental-disorders-redefines-hypochondriasis.

“Patients with illness anxiety disorder may or may not have a medical condition but have heightened bodily sensations, are intensely anxious about the possibility of an undiagnosed illness, or devote excessive time and energy to health concerns, often obsessively researching them. Like people with somatic symptom disorder, they are not easily reassured. Illness anxiety disorder can cause considerable distress and life disruption, even at moderate levels.”

“To meet the criteria for somatic symptom disorder, patients must have one or more chronic somatic symptoms about which they are excessively concerned, preoccupied or fearful. These fears and behaviors cause significant distress and dysfunction, and although patients may make frequent use of health care services, they are rarely reassured and often feel their medical care has been inadequate.”

So, subtle difference. Broadly, the illness anxiety disorder people are sure they have SOMETHING and are worried about ALL THE SYMPTOMS. The somatic symptom disorder people are worried about A SPECIFIC SYMPTOM OR SYMPTOMS and WHY HAVEN’T YOU FIXED ME.

Some of the people complaining of weird symptoms do have a medical diagnosis that has not been sorted out. Take multiple sclerosis for example. The average time from the start of symptoms to diagnosis is 4-5 years.

Here: http://biketxh.nationalmssociety.org/site/DocServer/Facts-about-MS.pdf?docID=54383).

Also here: https://www.nationalmssociety.org/Symptoms-Diagnosis/Diagnosing-Tools.

Another one is sarcoidosis: https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/sarcoidosis/symptoms-causes/syc-20350358. It’s hard to diagnose, can affect different parts of the body, and it’s still pretty mysterious. Add to that list chronic fatigue, fibromyalgia, chronic pain, and numerous other diagnoses.

With multiple sclerosis, you may be thinking, well, if they had just done the brain MRI sooner, the diagnosis would be made. Not necessarily. I did find a patient with a bunch of MS brain lesions: made the diagnosis. She had had a brain MRI 3-5 years before because of suspicious symptoms during pregnancy. At that time her MRI was entirely normal.

The DSM V does not have a diagnosis called psychophysiological disorder. This is an ongoing discussion:
1. https://pdfs.semanticscholar.org/7f7f/21a9b524fb677d575428bea11aab4c8d70c5.pdf
2. https://thoughtbroadcast.com/2011/01/21/psychosomatic-illness-and-the-dsm-5/
This site: http://www.stressillness.com/ is my current favorite about psychophysiological disorders. I heard a lecture from the physician who runs the site. He is at OHSU in Portland and gets the gastrointestinal patients where “they can’t find anything wrong” from all over the state. He is really good at this. He and I are in agreement: the symptoms are real. However, the symptoms may come from emotional suffering and from emotional trauma in the past and present.

It is clear that fibromyalgia is a “real” disorder: functional MRI of the brain shows the pain centers lighting up more with a standardized pain stimulus than “normal” patients. PTSD is “real”. It is interesting that there is more stigma surrounding fibromyalgia and chronic fatigue than PTSD: is that because the former two are more often diagnosed in women, and the latter is legitimate (finally) for male (and a smaller number of female) veterans?

And what do I, your humble country doctor, think? I think that chronic fatigue and PTSD and fibromyalgia and illness anxiety disorder and the others all may be variations of the same thing. Our body will handle and “store” or “stuff” emotions that we cannot handle or are not in a safe situation to handle it. Eventually our body decides that we are now safe enough and will notify us that we have to handle the emotions. Currently our culture is terribly unsupportive of this and there is huge stigma attached to dealing with it. We are all supposed to just be nice.

In the end, we can’t judge how a friend feels or whether they are well or not. We have to treat them with respect and kindness.

The photograph is me on my grandfather’s lap. He became a psychiatrist and I am a family physician. Taken in 1962 or 3. We are at cabins in Ontario, Canada. What a pair of grubs, but happy…..

Make America sick again: diabetes

The trend in diabetes treatment is clear: keep Americans sick.

The guidelines say that as soon as we diagnose type II diabetes, we should start a medicine. Usually metformin.

A recent study says that teaching patients to use a glucometer and to check home blood sugars is useless. The key word here is teach, because when I get a diabetic transferring into my clinic, the vast majority have not been taught much of anything.

What is the goal for your blood sugar? They don’t know.

What is normal fasting? What is normal after you eat? What is the difference between checking in the morning and when should you check it after a meal? What is a carbohydrate? What is basic carbohydrate counting?

I think that the real problem is that the US medical system assumes that patients are stupid and doesn’t even attempt to teach them. And patients just give up.

New patient recently, diabetes diagnosed four years ago, on metformin for two years, and has no idea what the normal ranges of fasting and postprandial (after eating) are. Has never had a glucometer.

When I have a new type II diabetic, I call them. I schedule a visit.

At the visit I draw a diagram. Normal fasting glucose is 70-100. Borderline 110 to 125. Two measurements fasting over 125 means diabetes.

After eating: normal is 70-140. Borderline 140-200. Over 200 means diabetes.

Some researchers are calling Alzheimer’s “Type IV diabetes”. The evidence is saying that a glucose over 155 causes damage: to eyes, brain, kidneys, small vessels and peripheral nerves.

Ok, so: what is the goal? To have blood sugars mostly under 155. That isn’t rocket science. People understand that.

Next I talk about carbohydrates. Carbohydrates are any food that isn’t fat or protein. Carbohydrates range from simple sugars: glucose and fructose, to long chain complicated sugars. Whole fruits and vegetables have longer chain carbohydrates, are absorbed slowly, the body breaks them down slowly and the blood sugar rises more slowly. Eat green, yellow, orange vegetables. A big apple is 30 grams of carbohydrate, a small one is 15, more or less. A tablespoon of sugar is 15 grams too. A coke has 30 grams and a Starbuck’s 12 ounce mocha has 62. DO NOT DRINK SWEETENED DRINKS THEY ARE EVIL AND TOOLS OF THE DEVIL. The evidence is saying that the fake sugars cause diabetes too.

Meals: half the small plate should be green, yellow or orange vegetables. A deck of card size “white” food: grains, potatoes, pasta, whole wheat bread, a roll, whatever. A deck of card size protein. Beans and rice, yes, but not too much rice.

For most diabetics, they get 3 meals and 3 snacks a day. A meal can have up to 30 grams of carbohydrate and the snacks, 15 grams.

Next I tell them to get a glucometer. Check with their pharmacy first. The expensive part is the testing strips, so find the cheapest brand. We have a pharmacy that will give the person a glucometer and the strips for it are around 4 for a dollar. Many machines have strips that cost over a dollar each.

I set the patient up with the diabetic educator. The insurance will usually cover classes with the educator and the nutritionist but only in the first year after diagnosis. So don’t put it off.

For type II diabetes, the insurance will usually only cover once a day glucose testing. So alternate. Test 3 days fasting. Test 1-2 hours after a meal on the other days. Test after a meal that you think is “good”. Also after a meal that you think is “bad”. I have had long term diabetics come in and say gleefully “I found a dessert that I can eat!” The numbers are not always what people expect. And there are sneaky sources of carbohydrate. Coffeemate and the coffee flavorings, oooo, those are REALLY BAD.

For most of my patients, the motivated ones, they have played with the glucometer for at least a week by the time they see the diabetic educator. I have had a person whose glucose was at 350 in the glucose testing. The diabetic educator called and scolded me for not starting metformin yet. The diabetic educator called me again a week later. “The patient brought their blood sugars down!” she said. “She’s under 200 after eating now! Maybe she doesn’t need the metformin, not yet!” Ah, that is my thought. If we don’t give people information and a tool to track themselves, then why would they bother? They eat the dessert and figure that the medicine will fix it or they can always get more medicine.

Type I diabetes has to have insulin. If a type II diabetic is out of control, high sugars, for long enough, they too will need insulin. The cells in the pancreas that make insulin are killed by prolonged high blood sugars.

I went to a lunch conference, paid for by a pharmaceutical company, at the AAFP conference in September. The drug company said start people on metformin at diagnosis and if they are not in control in 3 months, start a second medicine, the drug company’s new and improved and better and beastly expensive medicine!!!

Yeah, I don’t think so. All of my patients are smart and they all can figure it out. Some get discouraged and some are already on insulin, but they are still all smart.

Fight back against the moronization of US citizens. Keep America healthy, wealthy and wise.