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Health Care

Beyond the Ban

Call it a decisive response to a much less clear-cut problem.

While shop owners may seethe, Gov. Charlie Baker says the state’s four-month ban on selling vaping products is a necessary step while the medical community tries to figure out what’s causing a rash of pulmonary illness among e-cigarette users across the U.S.

“We do not know what is causing these illnesses, but the only thing in common in each one of these cases is the use of e-cigarettes and vaping products,” Massachusetts Public Health Commissioner Monica Bharel said. “So we want to act now to protect our children.”

On Oct. 1, the Massachusetts Department of Public Health (DPH) reported five additional cases of vaping-associated pulmonary injury — two confirmed, three probable — to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), bringing the statewide total of reported cases to 10. (Five of the cases are confirmed, and five are considered probable for meeting the CDC’s definition of vaping-associated lung injury.) At press time, 83 suspected vaping-related pulmonary cases have been reported to the DPH since Sept. 11.

“While no one has pinpointed the exact cause of this outbreak of illness, we do know that vaping and e-cigarettes are the common thread and are making people sick,” Bharel said. “The information we’re gathering about cases in Massachusetts will further our understanding of vaping-associated lung injury, as well as assist our federal partners.”

Some clarity may be emerging, however, particularly concerning the role of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), an ingredient found in marijuana. According to the CDC, 77% of the people involved in the recent outbreak reported using products containing THC. In Massachusetts, five of the 10 cases involved THC, while another four vaped both THC and nicotine; just one of the 10 reported vaping nicotine only.

Based on this recent data, CDC recommends people consider refraining from e-cigarette or vaping products, particularly those containing THC.

“CDC is committed to finding out what is causing this outbreak of lung injury and death among individuals using vaping products,” said CDC Director Dr. Robert Redfield. “We continue to work with FDA and state partners to protect the nation from this serious health threat.”

More information is needed to know whether a single product, substance, or brand is responsible for the lung injuries, the CDC noted, adding that the investigation is particularly challenging because it involves hundreds of cases across the country, and patients report use of a wide variety of products and substances.

According to the CDC’s most recent national report, of the patients who reported what products they used, about 77% used THC-containing products, with or without nicotine-containing products; 36% reported exclusive use of THC-containing products; and 16% reported exclusive use of nicotine-containing products.

In addition, the report from Illinois and Wisconsin showed that nearly all THC-containing products reported were packaged, prefilled cartridges that were primarily acquired from informal sources such as friends, family members, illicit dealers, or off the street. THC use is legal and regulated in Massachusetts.

“The main theme seems to be illegal THC products. It’s a mix of chemicals in products to sell on the street that just don’t react that well with the lungs,” Dr. Nico Vehse, chief of Pediatric Pulmonology at Baystate Children’s Hospital, told BusinessWest.

He noted that vaping has posed lung issues since it first emerged in the early 2000s. “Back then, we had a recurrence of what they call popcorn lung. If you get fatty lipids into your lungs, your lung tries to fight it like pneumonia, and that causes a lot of lung damage.”

While much of the vaping news surrounds a lung illness, Dr. Nico Vehse says, nicotine addiction remains a persistent danger, particularly for young people.

Whether the current outbreak is a similar phenomenon or something altogether different is the subject of intense study, at the national level but also in Massachusetts. In mid-September, Bharel mandated that Massachusetts clinicians immediately report any unexplained, vaping-associated lung injury to the DPH. Of the 83 suspect cases reported at press time, 51 are still being investigated, with DPH officials collecting medical records and conducting patient interviews. Twenty-two cases did not meet the official CDC definitions, while the other 10, as noted, were reported to the CDC.

Off the Shelf

Baker went a big step further when, on Sept. 24, he declared a public-health emergency and a four-month statewide ban on sales of all vaping products in Massachusetts. The ban applies to all vaping devices and products, including those containing nicotine or cannabis.

The decision generated some pushback, and not just by retailers. Shaleen Title, commissioner of the state Cannabis Control Commission, assailed the ban in a tweet, posting that it is “purposely pushing people into the illicit market — precisely where the dangerous products are — and goes against every principle of public health and harm reduction. It is dangerous, short-sighted, and undermines the benefits of legal regulation.”

As someone who works with young people, however, Vehse understands the DPH’s concern. Of the 10 reported cases in Massachusetts, five are under age 20. Even absent concern over the current lung illnesses, many vaping products have a much higher nicotine concentration than traditional cigarettes, and some public-health officials are concerned an entirely new generation of young people may be falling prey to nicotine addiction. He noted that some products use salts instead of oils, which may not cause the same kind of lung damage as the oils, but deliver more nicotine.

“They improved on the perfect delivery system for addiction — cigarettes — and made it even more potent for nicotine addiction,” Vehse told BusinessWest. “Nicotine addiction is probably one of the hardest things to quit. I’ve always said you’ll have an easier time quitting heroin than quitting nicotine. It’s the most highly addictive substance we have, legally or illegally.”

As part of its public-health emergency declaration, Massachusetts implemented a statewide standing order for nicotine-replacement products that will allow people to access over-the-counter-products like gum and patches as a covered benefit through their insurance without requiring an individual prescription, similar to what the Baker administration did to increase access to naloxone, the opioid-reversal medication.

Other health organizations praised Baker’s decision, for a variety of reasons.

“In the absence of strong federal action, especially by the FDA, states are being forced to make decisions to protect the health of children and adults from a vaping-related public-health emergency,” said Harold Wimmer, president and CEO of the American Lung Assoc.

“While no one has pinpointed the exact cause of this outbreak of illness, we do know that vaping and e-cigarettes are the common thread and are making people sick.”

“Governor Baker’s announcement reinforces the need for the FDA to clear the market of all flavored e-cigarettes in order to address the youth e-cigarette epidemic,” he went on. “While the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and state and local departments of health continue to investigate the hundreds of cases of lung injury from e-cigarettes, the American Lung Association once again urges all Americans to stop using e-cigarettes.”

Meanwhile, the Massachusetts Dental Society (MDS) also swung its support behind the ban.

“While vaping is believed to pose fewer health risks than smoking regular tobacco cigarettes — the leading cause of preventable death in the United States — it is by no means harmless,” said MDS President Dr. Janis Moriarty. “E-cigarettes still contain nicotine … which increases the risk of high blood pressure and diabetes. E-cigarettes also can have a significant impact on oral health.”

She cited a study supported by the American Dental Assoc. Foundation that determined that vaping sweetened e-cigarettes can increase the risk of cavities. “Additionally, the nicotine in e-cigarettes reduces blood flow, restricting the supply of nutrients and oxygen to the soft tissues of the mouth. This can cause the gums to recede and exacerbate periodontal diseases. Reduced blood circulation also inhibits the mouth’s natural ability to fight bacteria that can accelerate infection, decay, and other problems.”

Time to Act

The main story, however, remains the recent spate of lung illness. At press time, 805 confirmed and probable cases of lung injury associated with e-cigarette product use or vaping had been reported the CDC by 46 states and the U.S. Virgin Islands. Those cases included 12 deaths, but none in Massachusetts.

Bharel hopes her department’s reporting mandate will bear fruit in getting to the bottom of what has become a national concern.

“We are beginning to hear from clinicians about what they are seeing in their practice as a result of the health alert,” she said, adding that the mandate “establishes the legal framework for healthcare providers to report cases and suspected cases so that we can get a better sense of the overall burden of disease in Massachusetts. It also will allow us to provide case counts to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as they continue to try to understand the nationwide impact of vaping-related disease.”

In 2018, Baker signed a law that incorporates e-cigarettes into the definition of tobacco, making it illegal to vape where it is illegal to smoke and raising the minimum age to buy tobacco products, including e-cigarettes, to 21.

Still, the latest statewide data shows 41% of Massachusetts high-school students have tried e-cigarettes at least once. About 20% of them reported using e-cigarettes in the past 30 days — a rate six times higher than adults. Nearly 10% of middle-school students say they have tried e-cigarettes.

In the past year, DPH has conducted two public-information campaigns to raise awareness among middle- and high-school-aged youth and their parents about the dangers of vaping and e-cigarettes. The department promises to reprise both campaigns in the coming weeks and include resources for young people to assist them with quitting.

Vehse said it’s easier for teenagers to sneak a vape at school than to smoke cigarettes, which may contribute to their use. “It doesn’t smell; it doesn’t stay in the air. It’s completely covert. Now high schools have started to install some vaping sensors in bathrooms. As young as middle school, kids are vaping.”

He had no answer to why the usage numbers are so high among a population that shouldn’t even be able to purchase e-cigarettes, but deferred to the simple psychology of being young.

“Maybe it’s just because you’re a teenager and want to do something you’re not allowed to do. It’s all part of the teenager feeling indestrictible,” he said. “But whether you’re cigarette smoking or vaping, both are addictive, and you’re inhaling stuff you’re not supposed to.”

In many cases, they’re inhaling products flavored and packaged in such a way to appeal to kids, he added. “They pretty much make them look like candy bars on the shelves.”

Following a report from the CDC that 27.5% of kids are using e-cigarettes and that many are initiated with flavored products, the AMA’s Wimmer said, “we also call on the Massachusetts Legislature to pass a law prohibiting the sale of all flavored tobacco products.”

For now, Baker, Bharel, and other state officials will continue to assess their most recent moves as the national effort continues to learn more about — and prevent — vaping-related lung disease.

“One of the experts said that, ‘we don’t have time to wait. People are getting sick, and the time to act is now,’” Baker said when announcing the sales ban. “I couldn’t agree more.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Health Care

Under Pressure

A changing healthcare landscape has doctors feeling stressed, unsatisfied, and burned out like never before — and that could have dire effects on patient care. That’s why the industry is focused on diagnosing the problem and prescribing remedies.

Every day, patients rely on doctors to tackle their chronic health and wellness issues and make them feel better.

But what if it’s the doctors feeling miserable? Or stressed-out, anxious, and overwhelmed? Unfortunately, that’s happening constantly.

Burnout among physicians has become so pervasive that a new paper recently published by the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, the Harvard Global Health Institute, the Mass. Medical Society, and the Mass. Health and Hospital Assoc. deems the situation no less than a public health crisis.

“A Crisis in Health Care: A Call to Action on Physician Burnout,” as the document is titled, includes a number of strategies aimed at curbing the prevalence of burnout among physicians and other care providers, including improvements to the efficiency of electronic health records (EHRs), proactive mental-health treatment and support for caregivers experiencing burnout, and the appointment of an executive-level chief wellness officer at every major healthcare organization (much more on all of these later).

But the report also details just how extensive the problem is, and why it should be a concern for patients. In a 2018 survey conducted by Merritt-Hawkins, 78% of physicians said they experience some symptoms of professional burnout — loosely described in the survey as feelings of emotional exhaustion, depersonalization, and/or diminished sense of personal accomplishment.

Physicians experiencing burnout are more likely than their peers to reduce their work hours or exit their profession. And that’s concerning in itself; the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services predicts a coming nationwide shortage of nearly 90,000 physicians, many driven out of practice due to burnout.

“The issue of burnout is something we take incredibly seriously because physician well-being is linked to providing quality care and favorable outcomes for our patients,” said Dr. Alain Chaoui, a practicing family physician and president of the Massachusetts Medical Society. “We need our healthcare institutions to recognize burnout at the highest level, and to take active steps to survey physicians for burnout and then identify and implement solutions. We need to take better care of our doctors and all caregivers so that they can continue to take the best care of us.”

Dr. Alain Chaoui

Dr. Alain Chaoui

 “We need to take better care of our doctors and all caregivers so that they can continue to take the best care of us.”

While some have pointed to the passage of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) in 2010 — the most significant recent change in the American healthcare landscape — as a stressor, the roots of the crisis date further back, the report notes. For example, EHRs, mandated as part of the 2009 Reinvestment and Recovery Act, have dramatically changed the way doctors allot time to their jobs. And the 1999 publication of the Institute of Medicine’s “To Err is Human” report, highlighting the prevalence of medical errors, directed new attention to the need for quality improvement, physician reporting, and accountability — and brought heightened pressure.

In the past, the report notes, some have proposed ‘self-care strategies’ — such as mindfulness or yoga — as a response to burnout and presented some evidence of limited success with such approaches. However, physicians typically don’t have time to fit such coping strategies into their routine. They also don’t really address root problems.

“Such an approach inaccurately suggests that the experience and consequences of burnout are the responsibility of individual physicians,” it continues. “This is akin to asking drivers to avoid car accidents without investing in repairing and improving hazardous roads. Simply asking physicians to work harder to manage their own burnout will not work.”

Digital Dilemma

As the report noted, a broad consensus has formed that a major contributor to physician burnout is dissatisfaction and frustration with EHRs, which have become ubiquitous in recent years. While the goal of transitioning to electronic records has been to improve quality of care and patient communication, the results have been mixed at best.

“The growth in poorly designed digital health records and quality metrics has required that physicians spend more and more time on tasks that don’t directly benefit patients, contributing to a growing epidemic of physician burnout,” said Dr. Ashish Jha, a VA physician and Harvard faculty member. “There is simply no way to achieve the goal of improving healthcare while those on the front lines — our physicians — are experiencing an epidemic of burnout due to the conflicting demands of their work. We need to identify and share innovative best practices to support doctors in fulfilling their mission to care for patients.”

As Dr. Atul Gawande, a Massachusetts surgeon, writer, researcher, and CEO of the nonprofit healthcare venture formed by Amazon, Berkshire Hathaway, and JP Morgan Chase, recently described it, “a system that promised to increase physicians’ mastery over their work has, instead, increased their work’s mastery over them.”

That’s because the patient encounter is now dominated by the demands of the EHR, undermining the crucial face-to-face interaction that has long been at the core of a satisfying doctor-patient encounter, the report notes, adding that, “for many physicians, EHRs impose a frustrating and non-intuitive workflow that makes excessive cognitive demands and detracts from, rather than reinforces, the goals of good patient care.”

Dr. Ashish Jha

Dr. Ashish Jha

 “The growth in poorly designed digital health records and quality metrics has required that physicians spend more and more time on tasks that don’t directly benefit patients.”

In addition, the quantity of mandatory documentation imposed by EHRs — due to regulatory and payer requirements — means physicians typically spend two hours doing computer work for every hour spent face to face with a patient, including numerous hours after work. And they’re frustrated by spending so much time on administrative tasks they feel have little to do with actual patient care.

One promising solution, according to the report, would be to encourage software developers to develop a range of apps that can operate with most, if not all, certified EHR systems.

Improved EHR usability is, in fact, required by law. The 21st Century Cures Act of 2016 mandates the use of open health care APIs (application programming interfaces), which standardize programming interactions, allowing third parties to develop apps that can work with any EHR. This would allow physicians, clinics, and hospitals to customize their workflow and interfaces according to their needs and preferences, promoting rapid innovation and improvements in design.

Another promising but less-developed approach to reducing the HER burden on physicians, the report notes, is the development of artificial intelligence (AI) technologies to support clinical documentation and quality measurements.

Mind Matters

The report spends plenty of time on mental health, and for good reason.

“It is clear that one can’t have a high-performing healthcare system if physicians working within it are not well,” it notes. “Therefore, the true impact of burnout is the impact it will have on the health and well-being of the American public.”

To that end, it calls on hospitals and other healthcare organizations to improve access to, and expand, health services for physicians, including mental-health services — while reaching out to doctors and encouraging them to take advantage of such services in order to prevent and manage the symptoms of burnout.

That’s easier said than done, of course, as a stigma still exists around seeking help for mental-health issues.

“Physician institutions — including physician associations, hospitals, and licensing bodies — should take deliberate steps to facilitate appropriate treatment and support without stigma or unnecessary constraints on physicians’ ability to practice,” the report argues.

Last year, the Federation of State Medical Boards (FSMB) adopted a policy reconsidering ‘probing questions’ about a physician’s mental health, addiction, or substance use on applications for medical licensure or renewal, as the existence of such questions may discourage physicians from seeking treatment. “To the extent that such questions are included,” the report says, “those questions should focus on the presence or absence of current impairments that impact physician practice and competence, in the same manner as questions about physical health.”

The FSMB is also calling for state medical boards to offer ‘safe-haven’ non-reporting to applicants for licensure who are receiving appropriate treatment for mental health or substance use. Such non-reporting would be based on monitoring and good standing with the recommendations of the state physician health program (PHP).

Speaking of which, Physician Health Services Inc. (PHS) — a charitable subsidiary of the Massachusetts Medical Society that serves as the PHP for Massachusetts physicians — intends to reach out in a broader way to physicians and hospitals to encourage doctors dealing with burnout and behavioral-health issues to seek appropriate and confidential care.

“Many PHPs in other states have expanded their outreach,” the report notes. “Hospitals and other healthcare institutions should complement and support this effort by acknowledging physicians’ concerns with seeking mental healthcare and clearly identifying avenues and opportunities to receive confidential care, particularly for residents and trainees, who are at a vulnerable stage of their careers.

Finally, the report calls for the appointment of executive-level chief wellness officers (CWOs) at all healthcare organizations. “CWOs must be tasked with studying and assessing physician burnout at their institutions, and with consulting physicians to design, implement, and continually improve interventions to reduce burnout.”

“Patients do not like being cared for by physicians who are experiencing symptoms of burnout, which is significantly correlated with reduced patient satisfaction in the primary-care context. Evidence further suggests that burnout is associated with increasing medical errors.”

The key responsibilities of the chief wellness officer, in addition to acting as an advocate and organizational focal point, may include studying the scope and severity of burnout across the institution; reporting findings on wellness and physician satisfaction as part of institutional quality-improvement goals; presenting findings, trends, and strategies to CEOs and boards of directors; and exploring technological and staffing interventions like scribes, voice-recognition technology, workflow improvements, and EHR customization to reduce the administrative burden on doctors, just to name a few.

CWOs could benefit physicians not just in hospitals, the report continues, but across health systems, and in affiliated practices. “Departments, units, and practices can survey for burnout, begin to identify their areas of focus and barriers to success, and collectively develop solutions. The CWO can help lead this process and provide best practices and other supports.”

Lives in the Balance

In the end, physician burnout is a problem with many triggers, which is why the authors of “A Crisis in Health Care” encourage a multi-pronged approach to counter it. But it’s also an issue with many potential consequences, not just for doctors and their employers.

“Patients do not like being cared for by physicians who are experiencing symptoms of burnout, which is significantly correlated with reduced patient satisfaction in the primary-care context,” the report notes. “Evidence further suggests that burnout is associated with increasing medical errors.”

Dr. Steven Defossez, a practicing radiologist and vice president for Clinical Integration at the Massachusetts Health and Hospital Assoc., said hospitals in the Commonwealth place a high priority on the safety and well-being of patients, so combating burnout will continue to be an area of focus.

“In particular, we recognize the need to further empower healthcare providers and support their emotional, physical, social, and intellectual health,” he said. “This report and its recommendations offer an important advance toward ensuring that physicians are able to bring their best selves to their life-saving work.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Opinion

Opinion

By Robyn Alie

This summer, the Massachusetts Medical Society (MMS) will launch a multi-year campaign to promote public awareness of the link between the health of the environment and the health of our patients. 

Recent polls have shown stark differences between the public’s understanding and scientists’ understanding of the relationship between humans and the environment. They also show that the public’s understanding is heavily influenced by politics. 

For example, while studies show that 97% of scientists believe global warming is occurring and related to human activity, a Gallup poll conducted in March found that only 64% of the public believes this. Among Democrats polled, 89% agreed with scientists, compared to 35% of Republicans. Overall, however, a record-high percentage of Americans — 45% — think global warming will pose a serious threat in their lifetime, and 43% — including 91% of Democrats — report being fairly or greatly worried. 

The upcoming campaign is a directive of the MMS house of delegates, which adopted policy recognizing the “inextricable link between environmental health, animal health, and human health, and the importance of scientific research in informing policies that protect human health from environmental toxins.” Delegates directed the society to initiate a public-health campaign promoting public awareness of pollutants and their impact on human health.

The MMS committee on public health recommended the policy, noting recent federal actions. These actions included heavy cuts to the federal programs that study and monitor potential environmental toxins, and legislation that would promote industry representation on environmental advisory boards and limit the types of scientific research, including epidemiologic studies, that could guide EPA policy.

The campaign is an opportunity for physicians to help clarify the issues and promote safer policy and behaviors, said Dr. Louis Fazen, a member of the MMS committee on public health. It will primarily use the MMS Facebook and Twitter channels and website as a cost-effective means of disseminating simple information designed to raise awareness of the links between environmental health and human health. Physicians and others can find more information and a link to the campaign at massmed.org/environment. u

Robyn Alie is manager of Health Policy and Public Health for the Massachusetts Medical Society. This article first appeared in Vital Signs, an MMS publication.

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