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Health Report:

Benefits of a Full Drug Coverage Plan for Medicare Patients?

Parent-Teen Conversations About Sex

Soy (Genistein) & Prostate Cancer



"A critical weekly review of important new research findings for health-conscious readers..."


By, Robert A. Wascher, MD, FACS


Photo of Dr. Wascher

Last Updated: 3/16/2008


The information in this column is intended for informational purposes only, and does not constitute medical advice or recommendations by the author.  Please consult with your physician before making any lifestyle or medication changes, or if you have any other concerns regarding your health.

BENEFITS OF FULL DRUG COVERAGE FOR MEDICARE RECIPIENTS AFTER HEART ATTACK?

Patient compliance with medications following a heart attack has been shown to improve survival.  However, recent studies (please see my column for 3-2-08) have pointedly confirmed that many patients stop having their heart medications refilled within a year or two of their heart attack.  With an estimated 47 million uninsured people in the United States, and many millions more with inadequate healthcare insurance, it is not surprising that many patients decide to stop taking costly medications.  A new study in the journal Circulation has examined the potential benefits (in terms of additional years of quality life added and costs associated with the treatment of cardiovascular disease) of eliminating out-of-pocket medication costs for Medicare beneficiaries. 

Using complex statistical modeling, the researchers considered the potential benefits of providing 100% drug coverage for the following types of  cardiac medications:  aspirin, beta-blockers, ACE inhibitors and blockers, and statins.  When considering the current Medicare Part D medication coverage plan, patients enrolled in this plan at the time of their heart attack were projected to live, on average, an additional 8.21 quality-adjusted life-years, while incurring an average of $114,000 in medical treatment-related costs.  However, based upon a hypothetical 100% drug coverage model, which assumes that all patients will take their medications as prescribed (i.e., because out-of-pocket costs for drugs are eliminated), additional quality-adjusted life-years following heart attack was estimated to rise to 8.56, while total costs associated with medical treatment was estimated to be $111,600 per patient.  Thus, based upon this statistical model, switching to a 100% drug coverage benefit for Medicare patients, following a heart attack, might be expected to both extend lives and decrease the cost of medical care for individual patients (although the anticipated increase in lifespan, with the addition of 100% medication coverage, would actually nullify any significant overall cost savings, according to the results of this study).

Of course, it is one thing to try and hypothetically estimate the costs and benefits that might arise from a change in existing drug benefits coverage, but the reality would almost certainly be a bit more complicated.  First, and foremost, the high cost of medications is not the only factor that has been linked to poor patient compliance with medications.  Medication side effects and the inconvenience associated with taking multiple medications are also well-known significant impediments to patient compliance.  It is unlikely that compliance with medications will ever reach 100% in any substantial population of patients, even with a 100% drug benefit.  Additionally, the administrative costs associated with transitioning to this enhanced drug benefit plan, were it ever to be enacted, might further siphon off some of the individual patient savings projected by this study.  Finally, as a physician who treats a large volume of patients from socioeconomically depressed communities, I have to wonder if physician prescribing patterns might also change if patient co-pays were no longer required for medications.  In my own case, when presented with the option of several equally effective drugs for patients, I try to select older, generic medications for my patients, in order to reduce their out-of-pocket expenses.  If co-pays were completely eliminated, I wonder how many physicians would then adopt a “sky is the limit” approach to prescribing medications.

Despite my reservations regarding this study’s projected benefits from implementation of a full drug coverage plan for Medicare patients, there is no doubt but that the skyrocketing costs of medications, and mandatory patient co-pays for these medications, cause many patients to stop refilling their prescriptions.  Undoubtedly, the elimination of patient co-pays would indeed significantly improve patient compliance with their prescribed medications.  On the other hand, the Medicare entitlement plan is projected to become insolvent if current and predicted expenditures are not radically reduced.  Unfortunately, there is no easy answer for the inherent conflict between limited healthcare budgetary resources and spiraling healthcare costs.  From a purely clinical perspective, however, I would strongly favor 100% medication coverage for the poor and elderly, as these are the patients who would benefit the most from such coverage.


PARENT-TEEN CONVERSATIONS ABOUT SEX

Every parent I have ever known has dreaded having “The Talk” with their teenage son or daughter about the birds and the bees.  It is no secret that many parents find the topic embarrassing and uncomfortable to discuss with their progeny.  At the same, the pressure on teens to engage in sexual activity has never been greater than it is in our current sex- and body-obsessed culture.  Recent studies have suggested that as many as 1 in 4 teenage girls have already become infected with sexually transmitted diseases in the United States, and in certain inner city and minority populations, the incidence of sexually transmitted diseases in teenage girls may actually be as high as 50%. 

A great deal has already been written about the best approach to having this critically important discussion with your son or daughter, although most of us parents already understand that there is simply no perfect way to actually go about it.  However, a new study in the journal Pediatrics does provide some helpful clinically-based evidence about how to talk to your teenager about sexual topics.

In this study, 312 adolescents, and their parents, participated in a randomized, controlled clinical research trial involving structured interventions in parent-teen communication about sexual topics.  The teens completed surveys at the beginning of the study, and then at additional specified intervals after the interventions were completed.  At each survey, teen respondents had to report the extent (if any) of parent-teen discussion of each of 22 specific sex-related topics.  The study’s two primary endpoints were the number of times that parents and teens engaged in discussion of sexual topics, and the number of times that each specific topic was discussed. 

Based upon the surveys completed by the teens, repeated discussions of sexual topics with their parents were associated with a closer relationship between parents and their teens, and a higher level of communication between them (both in general and in terms of discussing sexual topics).  Teens who reported that they did not have repeated discussions with their parents about sexual topics reported a much lower level of feeling close to their parents, and a lower level of openness between them and their parents in discussing sex-related themes.  Those adolescents who reported discussing the greatest number of specific sex-related topics with their parents also reported a significantly greater sense of openness of communication with their parents than did the teens who reported that fewer specific topics were discussed. 

While the results of this study appear rather intuitive, they nonetheless reinforce the importance of repetitive discussions, between teens and their parents, about sex-related topics.  In this clinical study, both repetition and increased breadth of discussion appeared to be associated with an enhanced teen-parent level and openness of communication, both with respect to discussing sex-related topics and in general communication as well.  While these sensitive but very important discussions can leave both parents and teens feeling a bit uncomfortable initially, an open, honest, and repetitive approach to such discussions appears to work the best.

SOY (GENISTEIN) & PROSTATE CANCER

The effects of so-called “natural products” on disease prevention is an area of great interest to me, and to millions of other health-conscious people.  An area of particular interest to me is the prevention of cancer through lifestyle modification, including dietary habits and natural supplements.  (Estimates by public health experts have suggested that up to 80% of all cases of cancer might be prevented by lifestyle changes alone.)  At the same time, the dietary and “nutritional” supplements industry, with its multi-billion dollar annual sales, continues to promote its products as having significant disease preventing properties, even though the scientific evidence for such claims is often weak, or altogether absent.  With these facts in mind, one must be very careful to maintain a healthy level of skepticism about the myriad claims made by the manufacturers of many of these supplements, or by enthusiastic supporters of such products.  With these cautionary statements in mind, an interesting new prostate cancer research study appears in the current issue of the highly respected journal Cancer Research. 

Genistein, which is found in soy-derived foods and products, has been the subject of intense cancer-related research.  A member of a class of plant-derived substances known as isoflavones, genistein has been found to have antioxidant properties, as well as weakly “estrogenic” effects, which mimic the effects of the dominant female hormone estrogen.  Additional research has also shown multiple other biological effects for genistein, as well. 

A great deal of genistein research has been directed at the two human cancers that are most closely linked with exposure to female and male sex hormones: breast cancer and prostate cancer, respectively.  Unfortunately, as is very common in clinical research, the findings of many of these studies have often provided contradictory results.  In this new study, human prostate cancer cells were implanted into immune-deficient mice, and the effects of dietary genistein supplementation in these mice was then studied.

The mice were divided into two groups: one group received genistein supplements and the other group was fed only standard “mice chow.”  Blood levels of genistein were measured, and the mice receiving genistein were confirmed to have circulating blood levels of genistein comparable to those seen in men taking genistein supplements. 

The findings in this animal model were rather dramatic.  Although the implanted tumors in the mice receiving genistein supplementation continued to grow just as much as they did in the mice not receiving genistein, the spread of tumors to other organs in the mice receiving genistein was reduced by an astounding 96% when compare to the mice that did not receive this isoflavone supplement.  

These results are very intriguing as prostate cancer, as with most other types of cancer, causes death primarily as a consequence of tumor spreading throughout the body (also known as metastasis).  Although genistein supplementation did not appear to reduce the growth of the implanted primary prostate tumors in these mice, a nearly 100% reduction in tumor metastasis was observed.  Whether this effect is long-lasting or not cannot be determined from this clinical study.  Just as importantly, this study cannot tell us whether or not similar beneficial genistein-associated effects will also occur in humans with prostate cancer.  However, ongoing and recently completed human clinical research trials will, hopefully, provide important answers to these and other important clinical questions.


 
Disclaimer:  As always, my advice to readers is to seek the advice of your physician before making any significant changes in medications, diet, or level of physical activity.


Dr. Wascher is an oncologic surgeon, professor of surgery, a widely published author, and the Director of the Division of Surgical Oncology at Newark Beth Israel Medical Center

http://www.sbhcs.com/hospitals/newark_beth_israel/mservices/oncology/surgical.html


Send your feedback to Dr. Wascher at rwascher@doctorwascher.net
 


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Copyright 2008.  Robert A. Wascher, MD, FACS.  All rights reserved.


Dr. Wascher's Archives:


3-9-2008:  Flat Colorectal Neoplasms & Cancer; Health Risks after Stopping Hormone Replacement Therapy (HRT); Television, Children & Obesity


3-2-2008:  Medication & Risk of Death After Heart Attack; Hormone Replacement Therapy (HRT) & Mammogram Results; Selenium: Cancer, Heart Disease & Death


2-23-2008:  Universal Healthcare Insurance Study; Glucosamine & Arthritis


2-17-2008:  Exceptional Longevity in Men; Testosterone & Risk of Prostate Cancer; Smoking & Pre-malignant Colorectal Polyps


2-10-08:  Thrombus Aspiration from Coronary Arteries; Intensive Management of Diabetes & Death; Possible Cure for  Down's Syndrome?


2-3-2008:  Vitamin D & Cardiovascular Health; Vitamin D & Breast Cancer; Green Tea & Colorectal Cancer


1-27-2008:  Colorectal Cancer, Esophageal Cancer & Pancreatic Cancer: Update from the 2008 American Society of Clinical Oncology's Gastrointestinal Cancers Symposium


1-20-2008:  Testosterone Levels & Risk of Fractures in Elderly Men; Air Pollution & DNA Damage in Sperm; Statins & Trauma Survival in the Elderly


1-12-2008:  Statins, Diabetes & Stroke and Obesity; GERD & Esophageal Cancer


1-7-2008:  Testosterone Supplements in Elderly Men; Colorectal Cancer-- Reasons for Poor Compliance with Screening Recommendations


12-31-2007:  Minority Women, Hormone Replacement Therapy & Breast Cancer; Does Health Insurance Improve Health?


12-23-2007:  Is Coffee Safe After a Heart Attack?; Impact of Divorce on the Environment; Hypertension & the Risk of Dementia; Emotional Vitality & the Risk of Heart Disease


12-16-2007:   Honey vs. Dextromethorphan vs. No Treatment for Kids with Night-Time Cough, Acupuncture & Hot Flashes in Women with Breast Cancer, Physical Activity & the Risk of Death, Mediterranean Diet & Mortality 


12-11-2007:  Bias in Medical Research; Carbon Nanotubes & Radiofrequency: A New Weapon Against Cancer?; Childhood Obesity & Risk of Adult Heart Disease


12-2-2007:  Obesity & Risk of Cancer; Testosterone Level & Risk of Death; Drug Company Funding of Research & Results; Smoking & the Risk of Colon & Rectal Cancer 


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