A frank talk about Diabetes: part one


We are going to switch gears a little bit today.  Instead of our usual discussions relating to surgery, surgical procedures and medical (surgical) tourism – we are going to spend some time talking about Diabetes in a series of posts.

In my role as a nurse practitioner, I became surprisingly familiar with diabetes.  I say surprisingly because as an acute care nurse practitioner specializing in surgery, I never expected to have to fill the role of family doctor or family practitioner.  However, the prevalence of diabetes in this country (USA) is so incredibly pervasive, particularly undiagnosed diabetes – that every health care provider should become well-versed in the treatment of diabetes, and diabetes related conditions.

Diabetes = Coronary Artery Disease!

Working in heart surgery also means that patient education is critical for diabetics, particularly newly diagnosed diabetics[1].   Now one of the things that complicates the issue significantly is providers’ hesitancy to label people as “diabetics” due to insurance implications and all sorts of other issues.  So a lot of primary care providers are dancing around the issue, soft-pedaling the news and generally ignoring or under treating this disease.   As someone who treats the complications of these decisions everyday, (heart attacks, ischemic limbs, infections, etc.) I vehemently disagree with this strategy.

 How can I get my patient to take this seriously, and treat their diabetes aggressively, if I don’t?

Some of the things we need to do to treat Diabetes effectively are:

1. To detect it (estimates place the number of undiagnosed Americans at greater than 17 million people)

The best way to detect Diabetes is to use the newer generation of tests, specifically the hemoglobin A1c.  This test looks at the average glucose levels over several months.  This helps to rule out false elevations from acute illness, injury or surgery.  It also prevents under diagnosing from the tendency to ‘ignore’ one or two abnormal glucose readings.  “Oh, his glucose was 160; we’ll check it again in three months.”  That’s three more months that the patient goes untreated.  (Despite being abnormal, many of the older guidelines ignore readings of less than 180, and require two or more readings for diagnosis.  (Normal glucose is 70 -105 or 110, depending on source.)

2.   To treat it – using SAFE and effective medications.

Many people would be surprised to know that the best drugs for treating Diabetes are the older (cheaper) medications such as metformin (Glucophage) which has been used since 1977.  It’s readily available on many $4.00 pharmacy plans.

Many of the newer, fancier drugs (Avandia is the best known) have been linked to serious complications such as myocardial infarctions (or heart attacks).  Many of the other new drugs have no side benefits[2].  A good prescriber finds the best combination of medications to have the most beneficial effects, limited negative side effects and is cost effective.  Why treat five problems with twenty drugs (expensive with multiple drug interactions) when you can do it with four medications?

3. Finally – and most importantly, lets do more to prevent it.  Let’s all stop soft pedaling, and speak frankly and truthfully with our patients.  Diabetes is a horrible disease, so let’s stop pretending it isn’t.

Instead of trying to be the good, likable provider who turns a blind eye to health destroying behaviors – we need to be direct, and address these issues.  A glucose of 200 isn’t ‘good enough’.  Testing glucose once in a while isn’t ‘good enough’.    You may not like me when I tell you to absolutely, completely stop drinking soft drinks[3] (NEVER drink another soft drink), or to get out and start walking, (or a myriad of other things we’ll talk about) but if that helps reduce your risk of diabetes, prevents diabetic complications and ultimately lengthens and improves your quality of life – then that is a trade-off I am willing to make.


[1] In my previous practice, all patients had a hemoglobin A1c as part of their pre-operative laboratory work-up.  Up to 25% of the patients having heart surgery were found to have elevated A1c levels, and were undiagnosed diabetics.

[2] Just as medications have side effects – many drugs such as metformin have side benefits.   One of the side benefits of metformin is the protective blood vessel effect – patients that take metformin have fewer amputations than patients on other anti-diabetic drugs. Metformin has also been shown to be an important tool in the treatment of certain cancersSeveral research studies show that the use of metformin has been linked to decreased tumor growth in breast cancers.

[3] I am planning for a future article to discuss this in-depth, and present the research.  Please contact me if there is other Diabetes related content you would like to see.

Pre & Post-operative Surgical Optimization for Lung Surgery


Update: 18 April 2011 – USAtoday published a nice new article on Shannon Miller (former Olympic gymnast) and how she’s using exercise to help recover from cancer.  The article really highlights some of the things we’ve been talking about here.

As most of my patients from my native Virginia can attest; pre & post-operative surgical optimization is a critical component to a successful lung surgery. In most cases, lung surgery is performed on the very patients who are more likely to encounter pulmonary (lung) problems; either from underlying chronic diseases such as emphysema, or asthma or from the nature of the surgery itself.

Plainly speaking: the people who need lung surgery the most, are the people with bad lungs which makes surgery itself more risky.

During surgery, the surgeon has to operate using something called ‘unilung ventilation’. This means that while the surgeon is trying to get the tumor out – you, the patient, have to be able to tolerate using only one lung (so he can operate on the other.)

Pre-surgical optimization is akin to training for a marathon; it’s the process of enhancing a patient’s wellness prior to undergoing a surgical procedure. For diabetics, this means controlling blood sugars prior to surgery to prevent and reduce the risk of infection, and obtaining current vaccinations (flu and pneumonia) six weeks prior to surgery. For smokers, ideally it means stopping smoking 4 to 6 weeks prior to surgery.(1) It also means Pulmonary Rehabilitation.

Pulmonary Rehabilitation is a training program, available at most hospitals and rehabilitation centers that maximizes and builds lung capacity. Numerous studies have show the benefits of pre-surgical pulmonary rehabilitation programs for lung patients. Not only does pulmonary rehabilitation speed recovery, reduce the incidence of post-operative pneumonia,(2) and reduce the need for supplemental oxygen, it also may determine the aggressiveness of your treatment altogether.

In very simple terms, when talking about lung cancer; remember: “Better out than in.” This means patients that are able to have surgical resection (surgical removal) of their lung cancers do better, and live longer than patients who receive other forms of treatment such as chemotherapy or radiation. If you are fortunate enough to have your lung cancer discovered at a point where it is possible to consider surgical excision – then we need you to take the next step, so you are eligible for the best surgery possible.

We need you to enhance your lung function through a supervised walking and lung exercise program so the surgeon can take as much lung as needed. In patients with marginal lung function,(3) the only option is for wedge resection of the tumor itself. This is a little pie slice taken out of the lung, with the tumor in it. This is better than chemotherapy or radiation, and is sometimes used with both – but it’s not the best cancer operation because there are often little, tiny, microscopic tumor cells left behind in the remaining lung tissue.

The best cancer operation is called a lobectomy, where the entire lobe containing the tumor is removed. (People have five lobes, so your lung function needs to be good enough for you to survive with only four.(4) This is the best chance to prevent a recurrence, because all of the surrounding tissue where tumors spread by direct extension is removed as well. Doctors also take all the surrounding lymph nodes, where cancer usually spreads to first. This is the best chance for five year survival, and by definition, cure. But since doctors are taking more lung, patients need to have better lung function , and this is where Pulmonary Rehab. comes in. In six weeks of dedicated pulmonary rehab – many patients who initially would not qualify for lobectomy, or for surgery at all – can improve their lung function to the point that surgery is possible.

Post-operatively, it is important to continue the principles of Pulmonary rehab with rapid extubation (from the ventilator), early ambulation (walking the hallways of the hospitals (5) and frequent ‘pulmonary toileting’ ie. coughing, deep breathing and incentive spirometry.

All of these things are important, where ever you have your surgery, but it’s particularly important here in Bogota due to the increased altitude.

One last thing for today:
a. Make sure to have post-pulmonary rehab Pulmonary Function Testing (PFTs, or spirometry) to measure your improvement to bring to your surgeon,
b. walk daily before surgery (training for a marathon, remember)

c. bring home (and use religiously!) the incentive spirometer provided by rehab.

ALL of the things mentioned here today, are things YOU can do to help yourself.

Footnotes:
1. Even after a diagnosis of lung cancer, stopping smoking 4 to 6 weeks before surgery will promote healing and speed recovery. Long term, it reduces the risk of developing new cancers.

2. Which can be fatal.

3. Lung function that permits only a small portion (or wedge section) to be removed

4. A gross measure of lung function is stair climbing; if you can climb three flights of stairs without stopping, you can probably tolerate a lobectomy.

5. This is why chest tube drainage systems have handles. (so get up and walk!)