Category Archives: Medical Care

The Latest ACC/AHA Cholesterol Guideline: A sea change

Cholesterol check

Photo Credit:  Stuart Miles/freedigitalphotos.net

The American College of Cardiology/American Heart Association published their latest cholesterol management guideline last month. It is a complete change of the prior American guidelines that aim at a particular cholesterol target.

First of all, it recommends treatment for the 4 groups of patients:

1. All who already have heart disease, stroke or peripheral blood vessel disease (“cardiovascular diseases”)

2. Everyone with diabetes between 40-75 years of age

3. Those with an LDL (bad) cholesterol of 190 mg/dl (5.0 mmol/l) or more

4. Those with a calculated 10-year risk of cardiovascular disease of 7.5% or more.

Secondly, they suggest using only statins, and no other cholesterol-lowering medication.

Thirdly, they recommend stopping the routine monitoring of cholesterol levels after treatment, because of the lack of evidence.

Lastly, they place far less emphasis on additional screening tests such as hsCRP, a mark of inflammation in the body and cardiovascular risk

Since then Dr Nancy Cook and Dr Paul Ridker had published an article in the New York Times that call into question the calculator used, unusally before their critique paper in the journal Lancet has been published. Cook and Ridker pointed out that the calculator overestimates the cardiovascular risk in their own data set of patient population. Dr David Goff, co-chair of the guideline committee, explained that the population set used by Cook and Ridker are more recent and those patients have reduced risk probably because they are volunteers, and might have already taken statins and so their risk became lower. Interestingly, Goff was also puzzled by Ridker’s lack of comment in 2012 when the guidelines were sent to Ridker, and revealed that Ridker’s suggestion to use hsCRP in the risk calculation was rejected. Ridker receives royalties as co-holder of patent on hsCRP, which is a blood test used for risk-stratification for cardiovascular risk.

Hmm. I had not seen a guideline critique being so personal before. Previously, lead authors exchange disagreements in the journals, in an usually courteous manner.

The American Association of Clinical Endocrinologists had just rejected the guideline. They disagree with removing the cholesterol targets, the out-dated risk calculator, and the omission of medication other than statins in lowering cardiovascular risk.

Do we doctors agree on anything now about cholesterol? Well there are:

1. High cholesterol is associated with blood vessel blockage (atherosclerosis), heart attacks and stroke.

2. Lowering cholesterol generally lowers that risk. Most studies were done on statins, but other studies on other medication, such as niacin,  fibrates and Vytorin, had also shown benefits before.

3. The relative benefits are rather constant. So patients with high risk benefit more. For example, if a patient has a 50% risk of having a heart attack in 10 years, lowering the cholesterol can reduce the risk to 25-30%. So 1 in 4 patients are saved. But for a low risk person with 1% risk of having a heart attack in 10 years, lowering the cholesterol reduce the risk by 0.4-0.5%. So 200 people needs to be treated before one is saved.

4. All cholesterol-lowering medication has a small risk of side effects. Muscle ache, increased liver enzymes, and diabetes are the commonest.

Ultimately, it is best that you discuss with your doctor whether you need treatment. You should ask about the benefits and the risks of taking the drug.

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2 Hour wait at Singapore Specialist Clinic

ImagePhoto credit: Ambro

A poor patient has been made to wait at the specialist’s clinic for 2 hours for every visit in a government hospital in Singapore. She did not even dare to go to the toilet for a break because she was afraid that she would miss her turn. The writer quite kindly pointed out that the doctors and nurses at the clinic were doing their best, just that there were way too many patients.

As a doctor I understand the doctor’s point of view, but I had also brought my wife to see her doctor before and we had to wait for 1-2 hours at that same hospital. That was despite the fact that the gynecologist and I were friends (we were made to wait just like everyone else and I thought that was the absolute right thing to do).

How long is too long? One should of course see what other countries are doing. Well researched data are however only readily available for America, where the average wait was 21 minutes. Patients described their wait as about 2 hours in Germany.

Patients feel disrepected when they are made to wait too long and that is the primary reason they would not recommend their doctor. It has gotten so bad that in America, a frustrated patient sued a doctor after waiting for 4 hours and won $250 in a small court.

There are many reasons of long waiting times. The primary reason is of course high demand (many patients) and low supply (lack of doctors/funding/doctors sick). This kind of problems can only be resolved by having more doctors and funding which many governments are reluctant to do because it means higher healthcare spending.

Sometimes patients are late for their appointment. When they arrive later, the doctor is already seeing other patients and they have to be “squeezed in” and this causes longer waits for everyone. On the other hand, it is difficult to expect patients to be on time when doctors make them wait…

Sometimes new medical problems occur. This happens when an appointment is booked for a routine visit lasting 15 minutes, but the patient has a new problem that needs to be addressed. Of course the doctor would need to tend to that problem as well, making other patients wait.

However, another reason is the practice of overbooking. Some patients do not turn up and do not have the courtesy to inform the clinic. To avoid letting the clinic and doctors left idle, it is a common practice for clinics to overbook their patients. However, that creates a long wait when everyone actually turns up. While we can ask patients to tell us early if they decide not to come, technology may be the solution. Most patients usually stick to their appointments, but some don’t. By analyzing past patient behavior, they can predict the total patient volume accurately 95% of the time. Hopefully this will let us manage our resources better and cut down on waiting time for patients.

H1N1 in the news in Singapore

Child receiving Vaccine

Image courtesy of  David Castillo Dominici / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

It has just been reported that 6 children in 2 kindergartens have come down with the H1N1 virus (used to be called swine flu). The H1N1 first came to news in 2009 when it killed many people in Mexico. Fortunately the virus had turned out to be much milder than it first appeared, and all the current influenza vaccines protect against the H1N1 virus.

The Singapore’s Health Promotion Board provides useful information on the seasonal influenza virus.

How to avoid the flu? Frequent washing of hands is important. People who are sick should rest at home, and when they go out, they should wear a mask and cover their mouth with tissue paper when sneezing. However, the best protection is to get vaccinated.

I am going to vaccinate my children tonight. Hope they are not going to be too cranky after that.

The Magic of Singapore Healthcare

Myth Or Magic - The Singapore Healthcare System

The Singapore Healthcare is generally admired to be of high quality at ridiculously low cost. Singapore spends 4% of her GDP as compared to 17% in America, with better outcomes. In the Undercover Economist, Tim Harford had openly admired the healthcare system of Singapore back in 2008: http://econlog.econlib.org/archives/2008/01/singapores_heal.html

Recently, some opinion leaders had explored learning from the Singapore system: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/08/29/most-efficient-healthcare_n_3825477.html

I am a doctor in Singapore and am proud of our system.

However, people who advocate learning from the Singapore system would do well to read Dr Jeremy Lim’s Myth or Magic: the Singapore Healthcare System. He detailed what the government had to do to make our healthcare system so efficient. A lot of government intervention is required. The government controls the whole system, including the supply, the demand and the prices. Then the free market is allowed to function for the efficiency.

Whether this system can be replicated elsewhere is not something I can answer. Readers of this book can decide whether this is possible.