Monday, December 28, 2015

Appendicitis: Continuing debate about treatment

The other day on Twitter, Kenny Goldberg (@kghealth), a health reporter at KPBS News in San Diego, asked me, "Why all the stories on antibiotics vs. surgery for appendicitis? Are appendectomies inherently dangerous?" My answer was "Great question. The answer is a resounding 'No.' The complication rate is very low."

Yet the papers keep coming.

A new systematic review of all the randomized controlled studies on appendicitis found important shortcomings in all of them. Here are a few:

Bias in selecting patients was a problem in all six of the studies reviewed. Diagnostic criteria for inclusion in the studies were not standardized. Some of the studies enrolled patients with clinically diagnosed appendicitis only. Since some patients may not have had appendicitis, they would probably have improved regardless of how they were treated.

Patients were treated with a variety of antibiotics, Since most of the studies were done in Europe, open appendectomy was the more common surgical intervention. Laparoscopic appendectomy results in fewer complications and shorter lengths of stay than the traditional open procedure.

Follow-up in five of the six studies was one year with only one study following patients as long as a median of 17 months. Rates of recurrent appendicitis necessitating appendectomy ranged from 24% to 60% with an average of 35.4%. What will the recurrence rates be at 3 years? 5 years?

The authors concluded that although more evidence for treating appendicitis with antibiotics has emerged, the comparative effectiveness of that strategy is still unknown. They recommend that patients should be enrolled in clinical trials or registries to help answer this therapeutic question.

The second recent paper involves two issues I have commented about many times—research and medical reporting.

It's a study of 102 pediatric patients between the ages of 7 and 17 with uncomplicated appendicitis as judged by CT scan parameters. After informed consent was discussed, parents were permitted to choose the therapeutic arm, antibiotics or laparoscopic surgery.

Of the 629 patients who presented with acute appendicitis during the study period, only 102 (21%) met the study's inclusion criteria of whom 37 were selected for antibiotic therapy by their parents.

During the median follow-up period of 21 months, 9 (24.3%) patients initially treated with antibiotics had to undergo appendectomy.

I blogged about this study's preliminary results when they were published back in 2014. If you would like more details about its limitations, read that post.

The inadequacies of medical reporting on this paper were rather glaring. Under the headline "Not all kids with appendicitis need surgery. Antibiotics can work just fine," the Boston Globe's new website Stat News said the following:

“'Their parents began to question whether they needed surgery [for appendicitis],' said [lead author] Dr. Peter Minneci, a pediatric surgeon at Nationwide in Columbus, Ohio. Minneci decided to answer the question with a controlled study." Sorry folks, this wasn't a controlled study.

The New York Times reported: "The surgery group had more complications and two of those who chose antibiotics had to be readmitted to the hospital for appendectomies in the first 30 days." This is misleading because although 5 of 65 patients in the surgery group had postoperative complications compared to none of the 9 who eventually had appendectomies in the antibiotic group, the difference was not statistically significant (p = 1.0, Fisher's exact test).

But the most interesting thing about this paper was an entire page explaining why allowing parents to select the therapy was a better method than randomizing patients to one group or the other. It's very clever and must be read to be appreciated.

Here is an excerpt: "The patient choice design allows a therapy to be aligned with the preferences of the patient and his or her family, thereby minimizing the potential negative effects of preferences."

I don't know about you, but if I or anyone in my family had appendicitis, my preference would be for a laparoscopic appendectomy.

Monday, December 21, 2015

My top seven posts of 2015

I’ve been blogging since July of 2010. Here is a list of my most viewed posts of 2015. Thank you for reading and commenting.

How much money do journal publishers make? A lot,” a look at the highly profitable world of journal publication, was number 1. Profit margins of the top for medical publishers range from 32% to nearly 42%. It’s a good business to be in.

Next was “A shallow water blackout is a silent killer.” What can happen if you hyperventilate before swimming underwater? You might die.

How to pick the leading physicians of the world” was a humorous take on an “honor” bestowed upon me by a company that is a little careless about choosing its candidates.

In “Narcotics addicts can sue doctors and pharmacies for ‘enabling’ them,” we learned of a ruling by West Virginia’s highest court that spells trouble for both patients and physicians.

Antibiotics for appendicitis? No thanks” was a critique of a Finnish randomized prospective trial of antibiotics vs. surgery in uncomplicated appendicitis. I had some serious concerns about the way the study was done and interpreted.

Do surgeons still do postop care?” was a guest post by a medical hospitalist who felt that surgeons were no longer interested in taking care of their patients after operating. It drew a number of comments.

The seventh most-read post was “So you want to be a radiologist,” written by a radiologist who I asked to respond to an email I received from a pre-med student. It was a nice discussion of the pros and cons of the specialty.

Monday, December 14, 2015

Appendicitis and shared decision-making

Staying with the current theme of appendicitis on my blog, here is a summary of recent developments. A JAMA Surgery Viewpoint suggested that because of the findings of a Finnish randomized trial, surgeons now should give patients with appendicitis a choice between an appendectomy or treatment with antibiotics.

The paper acknowledged my criticisms of the Finnish study which found that simple appendicitis could be treated successfully with antibiotics in almost 75% of patients.

I respect the authors of the JAMA Surgery article and am happy they referenced the blog post noting my concerns about that Finnish trial: the trial compared antibiotics to open appendectomy—an operation with more complications than the more commonly performed laparoscopic appendectomy; the antibiotic used in the Finnish trial is not a first line choice in the United States; patients were followed for only one year.

The JAMA surgery paper answered three questions I posed in a previous post. One, the Viewpoint authors consider antibiotic therapy for appendicitis mainstream. Two, surgeons must assume that patients might opt for antibiotics despite at least a 25-30% chance of suffering a recurrence of appendicitis. Three, an informed consent discussion now should include a mention of antibiotics as an option.

I disagree with the Viewpoint authors’ assertion that antibiotics are as safe and effective as surgery for treating appendicitis. Based on one flawed study, antibiotic therapy cannot yet compare to the many years of excellent results of laparoscopic appendectomy.

Here are some other problems.

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

On the shoulders of giants

The following was sent to me by a professor who sits on the admissions committee of a medical school in the United States. Here’s what he asks prospective students during interviews.

Sir Isaac Newton said, “If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.”

If you want to become an astronaut, I’ll bet you know who Neil Armstrong is. If you want to become a rock-star, you likely know who the Beatles were or who the Rolling Stones are. If you want to become President of the United States, you know who Barack Obama is. But you want to become a doctor, right? That’s why you’re here.

So, who are those giants of medicine? What famous scientists or doctors who have advanced the science of medicine can you name?

The following would not be acceptable:

Mehmet Oz, MD
Sanjay Gupta, MD (Medical reporter)
Phillip McGraw (“Dr. Phil”)

Here are some names that would count: Drs. Watson, Crick, and Franklin

You wouldn't believe the answers I get. For example:

Thursday, December 3, 2015

My blog cited in JAMA Surgery paper: Progress for bloggers

About a year and a half ago, I blogged that a medical student on Twitter used a blog post of mine as evidence. In January, the Canadian Journal of Anesthesia published an article I wrote under my pseudonym called “Why I blog and tweet.”

Last month, medical blogging took another step toward legitimacy. A JAMA Surgery Viewpoint formally cited my post critiquing the Finnish randomized trial of antibiotics versus surgery for the treatment of acute appendicitis.

Here is the first page with the portion of the piece discussing what I had written in the blog post.

Click on figure to enlarge.

Here is how citation appears in the JAMA Surgery article.

If you haven't read my entire post about the randomized trial, click here.

Last year I said this: “Journals may have to adapt and become more like blogs. In the future, medical information may be disseminated by blogs and comments rather than journal articles and letters to the editor.”

We have already seen prominent publications such as the New England Journal of Medicine starting online forums and the BMJ hosting blogs (at least 36 so far) and rapid responses to published papers.

The sea change in the way medical research is disseminated may be happening sooner than I thought.