Letter from a Practical Psychosomaticist

Blogger’s Note: The word “Psychosomaticist” is clunky and I joked about it in my Cambridge University Press blog. Cut & paste into your browser URL: http://cambridgemedicine.wordpress.com/2009/10/07/whos-a-psychosomaticist/#more-212. It’s possible you might see this blog under the title “‘Letter from a Pragmatic Idealist at that site in the near future. I thought “Pragmatic Idealist” was original until I googled it, alas, after I submitted the blog to Cambridge. Since I didn’t want anyone to tie me to what I found, I then considered “The Practical Idealist”, with the same result. The same with “The Practical Psychiatrist.” All of the terms are being used and the associations don’t fit me. I’m so far unaware of anyone or any group using the term “The Practical Psychosomaticist”.  Finally, what you’ll notice is that I’m listed as working for the Dean Medical Center in Madison, Wisconsin in the aforementioned blog. That was then and this is now. I’m actually back with The University of Iowa Hospitals & Clinics in Iowa City, Iowa and glad of it, despite the obvious complaint in this blog.

I read with interest an article from The Hospitalist, August 2008 discussing the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) requirement for hospitals to submit information on Medicare claims regarding whether a list of specific diagnoses were present on admission (POA)[1]. The topic of the article was whether or not delirium would eventually make the list of diagnoses that CMS will pay hospitals as though that complication did not occur, i.e., not pay for the additional costs associated with managing these complications. At the time this article was published, CMS was seeking public comments on the degree to which the conditions would be reasonably preventable through application of evidence-based guidelines.

I have no idea whether delirium due to any general medical condition made the list or not. But I have a suggestion for a delirium subtype that probably should make the list, and that would be intoxication delirium associated with using beverage alcohol in an effort to treat presumed alcohol withdrawal. There is a disturbing tendency for physicians (primarily surgeons) at academic medical centers to try to manage alcohol withdrawal with beverage alcohol, despite the lack of medical literature evidence to support the practice [2, 3]. At times, in my opinion, the practice has led to intoxication delirium in certain patients who receive both benzodiazepines (a medication that has evidence-based support for treating alcohol withdrawal) combined with beer—(which generally does not).

I’ve co-authored a couple of articles for our institution’s pharmacy newsletter and several of my colleagues and pharmacists petitioned the pharmacy subcommittee to remove beverage alcohol from the formulary at our institution, where beer and whiskey have been used by some of our surgeons to manage withdrawal. Although our understanding was that beverage alcohol had been removed last year, it is evidently still available through some sort of palliative care exception. This exception has been misused, as evidenced by cans of Old Style Beer with straws in them on bedside tables of patients who are already stuporous from opioid and benzodiazepine. A surgical co-management team was developed, in my opinion, in part to address the issue by providing expert consultation from surgeons to surgeons about how to apply evidence-based practices to alcohol withdrawal treatment. This has also been a failure.

I think it’s ironic that some professionals feared being sanctioned by CMS for using Haloperidol to manage suffering and dangerous behavior by delirious people as reported by Stoddard in the winter 2009 article in the American Academy of Hospice and Palliative Medicine (AAHPM) Bulletin[4]. Apparently CMS in fact did have a problem with using PRN Haloperidol (not FDA approved of course, but commonly used for decades and recommended in American Psychiatric Association practice guidelines for management of delirium), calling it a chemical restraint while having no objection to PRN Lorazepam, which has been identified as an independent predictor of delirium in ICU patients[5]. Would the CMS approve of using beer to treat alcohol withdrawal, which can cause delirium?

As a clinician-educator and Psychosomatic Medicine “supraspecialist” (term coined by Dr. Theodore Stern, MD from Massachusetts General Hospital), I’ve long cherished the notion that we, as physicians, advance our profession and serve our patients best by trying to do the right thing as well as do the thing right. But I wonder if what some of my colleagues and trainees say may be true—that when educational efforts to improve the way we provide humanistic and preventive medical care for certain conditions don’t succeed, not paying physicians and hospitals for them will. I still hold out for a less cynical view of human nature. But if it will improve patient care, then add this letter to the CMS suggestion box, if there is one.

1. Hospitalist, D. (2008) Delirium Dilemma. The Hospitalist.
2. Sarff, M. and J.A. Gold, Alcohol withdrawal syndromes in the intensive care unit. Crit Care Med, 2010. 38(9 Suppl): p. S494-501.
3. Rosenbaum, M. and T. McCarty, Alcohol prescription by surgeons in the prevention and treatment of delirium tremens: historic and current practice. General Hospital Psychiatry. 24(4): p. 257-259.
4. Stoddard, J., D.O. (2009) Treating Delirium with Haloperidol: Our Experience with the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services. Academy of Hospice and Palliative Medicine Bulletin.
5. Pandharipande, P., et al., Lorazepam is an independent risk factor for transitioning to delirium in intensive care unit patients. Anesthesiology, 2006. 104(1): p. 21-6.

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