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: The CDC tracks unintentional deaths, here: 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.


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:

“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.


Also here:

Another one is sarcoidosis: 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:
This site: 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.

hypertension: The 2017 Clinical Guidelines

A visual guide to the new hypertension guidelines:
In writing:
I don’t watch television news, so I always hear about these things from patients first. “What do you think of the new hypertension guidelines?”

“Haven’t heard about them yet, so I don’t know.” Seems pretty embarrassing really, doesn’t it? Shouldn’t I be alerted as a doctor before it hits the news?

First of all, these guidelines are NOT JNC 9.

What is JNC 9, you ask?

One of the messy complications of medicine for people in the US and in the world, is that there is not ONE set of guidelines. There are multiple sets of guidelines. Take mammograms, for example. The US Preventative Task Force* said that the evidence in their review could not differentiate between yearly and every other year mammograms. They said you could do it every other year. The American Cancer Society and the Susan Koman Foundation yapped and had different guidelines, do it yearly. So as a physician I have to not only pay attention to the guidelines but know who is putting them out. The radiologists wanted yearly mammograms too, surprise, surprise.

And do you think some of it is driven by money? Well, it’s the US.

JNC 8 is the Eighth Joint National Committee and put out guidelines in 2014. Their job is to review all of the big hypertension studies since JNC 7 and put out new guidelines. JNC 8 took over a year, was multidisciplinary, and the final document was 400+ pages.

They said that if a patient was over 60, their blood pressure should be taken standing up, and the goal was under 150/90. Under 60, sitting, goal under 140/90. Normal is 120/70 and below.

Then there are pages and pages of recommendations about which medicines to use and in special circumstances, that is: diabetes, kidney failure, heart disease, atrial fibrillation, etc, etc.

The cardiologists promptly started yelling about how JNC 8 is wrong and they put out a huge study saying that people have less heart attacks if their blood pressure is 125/80 or below.

But… the heart is not the only organ in the body. My patients are 77% over age 50 and 48% over 65. Once a person hits 80, their blood pressure may drop when they stand up. Most do. And low blood pressure, well, it’s bad for the over 80 crowd to get poor blood flow to the brain or to the kidneys or to faint and break things. That is why JNC 8 is multidisciplinary: because we need geriatrics and psychiatry and ortho and family medicine to be part of the guidelines.

So these NEW and IMPROVED guidelines. Well, who is putting them out? American Heart Association, American College of Cardiology, and a bunch of other mostly heart related organizations. And they are comparing it to JNC 7, not JNC 8. JNC 8 is being ignored. This document is a mere 192 pages, with the “short” version being 112 pages.

It says that blood pressure 130/80 to 140/90 is stage I hypertension, not prehypertension, and that we should treat it with lifestyle changes. Drugs are still to be recommended at anything over 140/90, though honestly, I start with lifestyle there too. Over 180/120 is now “hypertensive crisis”, consult your doctor immediately. 140-180/90-120 is stage II hypertension.

How will this change my practice? I am still thinking about the new guidelines and who has skin in the game. The AAFP (American Academy of Family Practice) put out a link to the guidelines and then a cautious comment to the effect of “We are studying how we should respond to this.”

Before this came out, I would tell people the JNC 8 goals. I do stand the people over 60 up, most of the time. I also tell people that the cardiologists want their blood pressure lower. And then that the cardiologists mostly ignore hypertension and cholesterol guidelines anyhow. If I follow the guidelines and then the patient sees a cardiologist, the cardiologist usually changes something. Guidelines be damned.

It comes down partly to a patient’s goal. I have people come in and say, “I don’t want to die of dementia!!” I see that as an opening. “What DO you want to die from?” People have different ideals. Some say, “I don’t want to die!” but then many do think about it. Sometimes this changes their ideas about what they want treated and what they don’t want treated.

Not everyone’s blood pressure drops in their 80s. Some people develop hypertension in their 90s. I tell them. They say, “I’m not taking a drug!”

I reply, “Let’s talk about strokes.”

They usually are not afraid of sudden death, but they don’t want the disability of a stroke. Many choose medicine after all.

One of the issues with guidelines is complexity. I could spend 20 minutes with a patient just talking about hypertension guidelines and choices of drugs and side effects and why they should be on an ace inhibitor or ARB if they have diabetes…. and there are guidelines for EVERYTHING. Sometimes conferences feel like all the specialists yelling: only half of diabetics are controlled, only one third of hypertensives are controlled, family doctors aren’t screening for urinary incontinence enough, osteoporosis, lung cancer, stop smoking! And then what my patient really needs is to talk about their adult child, in jail for addiction, and how frightened they are about overdose and the grandchild and the future…..

JNC-8 flowchart:
*lots of guidelines:


I took this in 2011, as a Mad as Hell Doctor, traveling around California talking about single payer.

We are losing more and more physicians. Our three counties, 450,000 people, are down from 8 neurologists ten years ago, to 2. The last one standing in the county of 350,000 says that he is really tired.

Single payer, medicare for all….. because I dream of other countries, civilized countries, countries where there is one set of rules, I can take care of any person who comes to me, I know what is covered and what is not, and I actually get paid….


Not quite acculturated

And she was unsympathetic
That doctor
That immigrant doctor
I heard she told a patient
“You’re too fat.”
This was whispered
In accents of pleased shocked horror

She came to dinner
That unsympathetic doctor
Southeast asian
Told a little of her story
To my wide eyed children

When she was 10
They were boat people
Pirates caught them
Real pirates
“They weren’t so bad,” she said
“We were about to die from lack
of food and water
Though we heard other stories
that were very bad.”

My daughter could imagine the boat.
She moved to my lap.
The pirates were too real.

Perhaps plenty is not always taken
for granted
And sympathy is a matter of degree.


previously posted on in 2009 and here too, though I have not figured out how to find it….

for the Daily Prompt: enlighten.

Luminous night of the soul:


Make a difference

In medical school I made a difference.

I was with two women and two men from class. We’d had a lecture on rape that day. One of the guys piped up, “If I were a woman and I was raped, I’d never tell anyone.”

“Man, I don’t feel that way.” I said, “I would have the legal evidence done, have the police on his ass so fast his head would spin and I would nail his hide to the wall.”

He looked at me in surprise. “Um, wow. Why?”

I took a deep breath and decided to answer. “You are assuming that you would be ashamed and that as a woman, it is somehow your fault if you were raped. I was abused by a neighbor at age 7. At age 7 I thought it was my fault. I thought I might be pregnant, because I was a bit clueless about puberty. I made it stop and tried to keep my sister away from the guy. When I went to the pediatrician the next time with my mother, I decided that since he didn’t say I was pregnant, I probably wasn’t. When I started school that year, second grade, I thought sadly that I was probably the only girl on the bus who wasn’t a virgin.

In college, I heard a radio show about rape victims, how they blame themselves, often think they did something to cause it, are often treated badly by the police or the emergency room, and feel guilty. All of the feelings that I had at age 7. I realized that I was 7, for Christ’s sake, I wasn’t an adult. It was NOT my fault.

If I walk down the street naked, I’m ok with being arrested for indecency, but rape is violence against me and no one has that right no matter WHAT is happening.

And child sexual abuse is one in four women.”

The two guys looked at the three of us. After a long pause, one of the other women shook her head no, and the other nodded yes.

The guy shook his head. “I never believed it. I didn’t think women could be okay after that.”

“Oh, we can survive and we can heal and thrive.”

We had the lecture on child sexual abuse a few months later. My fellow student talked to me later. “I thought about you and — during the lecture. I thought about it completely differently than before you talked about it. I would deal with a patient in a completely different way than I would have before. Thank you.”


previously posted on in 2009

for the Daily Prompt: release