Real World Health Care Blog

Tag Archives: HIV

Are You Ready to Help Stop Cervical Cancer?

National patient advocacy organizations and allies are urging American women to start the year off right by learning more about cervical cancer and prevention during Cervical Health Awareness Month this January.  Here’s what you need to know.

Paul DeMiglio

Paul DeMiglio

Although enormous strides have been made in the prevention of cervical cancer – which has gone from being the number-one cause of cancer death among American women in the 1950s to now ranking 14th for all cancers impacting U.S. women – much work remains in the fight to end this disease. Cervical cancer is still a major health concern, with approximately 12,000 women diagnosed each year in the United States and more than 4,000 women who die from the disease annually.

Cervical cancer is primarily caused by the human papillomavirus (HPV), the most common sexually transmitted virus in the U.S. impacting 79 million Americans. While HPV is most often the cause, other identified risk factors can include:

  • Smoking;
  • Having HIV or other conditions that weaken the immune system;
  • Prolonged (five or more years) use of birth control;
  • Three or more full-term pregnancies; and
  • Having several or more sexual partners.

While many of these factors don’t always lead to cervical cancer, it’s been shown that the risk of acquiring the disease can be decreased through frequent screening. Once women began regularly getting Pap tests and HPV vaccinations, for example, deaths resulting from cervical cancer decreased by nearly 70 percent in the United States from 1955-1992.

Cervical cancer is preventable because of the availability of a vaccine for HPV and effective screening tests, according to an announcement from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) of Cervical Cancer Awareness Month last year. Although highly treatable, the CDC shows that half of all cervical cancer cases occur in women who rarely or never were screened for cancer. In another 10-20 percent of cases, patients were screened but did not receive adequate follow-up care. The CDC has also issued information regarding the availability and importance of preventative HPV vaccines.

The National Cervical Cancer Coalition (NCCC) and the American Sexual Health Association (ASHA) also advocate for increased awareness of the disease. In its promotion of the event the NCCC provides numerous suggestions on how to spread the word, including:

  • Enlist radio stations to issue PSAs;
  • Share tweets and Facebook posts to educate their networks;
  • Distribute ASHA/NCCC’s news release to local media, with a guide on how to reach out to media networks; and
  • Write to their mayors or local legislative offices to recognize Cervical Health Awareness Month.

It’s also important for providers to know how to most effectively engage families with girls, according to ASHA/NCCC President and CEO Lynn B. Barclay.

“Only about 35 percent of girls and young women who are eligible for these vaccines have completed the three-dose series,” Barclay says. “Parents are strongly influenced by the recommendations of the family doctor or nurse, so we’ll continue developing cervical cancer information and counseling tools designed specifically for health professionals.“

Now we want to hear from you. How can you increase awareness about cervical cancer in your communities? What can organizations, places of employment and other stakeholders do to help heighten visibility around cervical cancer prevention strategies?

Editorial Note: At press time, information regarding expected estimates of cervical cancer rates in the U.S. for 2014 had not been released. Please note that we will include the latest statistics as soon as data becomes available.

Why We Give to HealthWell Foundation – and Why You Should Too

As the head of a communications strategy shop that helps clients in science, technology, and health care, I encounter a seemingly endless number of organizations that want to do good for society and the planet.  Why then have the WHITECOAT Strategies employees – who serve as editors of Real World Health Care (RWHC) Blog – decided that the HealthWell Foundation should be one of our two charter charities, as our firm becomes a social enterprise in 2014?

David Sheon

David Sheon

Before I answer that, just what is a social enterprise?

A social enterprise is an organization that applies business strategies to maximize improvements in human and environmental well-being, rather than maximizing profits for shareholders.

Social enterprises can be structured as for-profit or non-profit organizations, but their focus is using their proceeds to do good.

We decided that organizations seeking communications firms would like to know that revenue from their work is going to help society.  And our employees like to know that too.

When we made the decision to become a social enterprise, we thought about the impact of our work globally and locally.  And that’s how we arrived at helping CA Bikes, as well as the HealthWell Foundation.

CA Bikes is a nonprofit organization founded by Chris Ategeka, a native of Uganda. The oldest of five children, Chris became an orphan and head of his household at an early age after losing both his parents to HIV/AIDS. After years of poverty and laboring in the fields, a miracle happened, as Chris says, when a woman from the United States started an organization called Y.E.S. Uganda near his village, took him in, and supported him through school. Now, Chris holds a BS and an MS in Mechanical Engineering from the University of California, Berkeley.

Many people living in rural Africa have no access to emergency medical services, and given that the nearest health clinic or hospital is often miles away, this results in needless suffering and deaths. CA Bikes builds and distributes bicycle and motorcycle ambulances to rural African villages and trains partners in their maintenance and use to provide access to life-saving care during medical emergencies. For more information about CA Bikes and to help support their work, click here.

The WHITECOAT team is honored to help Chris fulfill the mission of CA Bikes.

WHITECOAT’s history with the HealthWell Foundation dates to a discussion one of my staff members and I had over three years ago.  She told me that her best friend from college had been diagnosed with a brain tumor. He had insurance through his job, which stuck with him through the medical emergency.  His wife had been laid off of her job a month before the diagnosis.  The emotional toll of the diagnosis was awful.  I knew the couple and their children would find their own way to deal with that and there was nothing we could do. But I felt that perhaps we could do something more to find them financial support.

One call to the HealthWell Foundation was all that was needed.  After reviewing financial records and evaluating the situation, the Foundation tapped a fund reserved for medical emergencies that reimbursed not only for the co-pays associated with medication, but also for the cost of the monthly health insurance premium and related medical expenses.  This program has now transformed into the Emergency Cancer Relief Fund, which WHITECOAT is proud to help launch for HealthWell.

HealthWell has awarded more than 265,000 grants to patients in over 40 disease categories, making a profound difference to over 165,000 people faced with difficult medical circumstances in the U.S.

I hope that at this time of giving, you’ll join me and the WHITECOAT staff by donating to the HealthWell Foundation.

Categories: Cost-Savings

Get Your Flu Shot Now to Stay Healthier Later

So you think you’re too busy to get your flu shot? It’s easy to put off, but taking the time to do it sooner rather than later could prevent you from getting sick while helping to protect those you care about – during the holidays and beyond. That’s why the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), state and local health departments as well as other health agencies are raising visibility around National Influenza Vaccination Week (NIVW), from Dec. 8-14.

Paul DeMiglio

Paul DeMiglio

With the flu season beginning in the fall and not peaking until January-February, it’s certainly not too late to get your influenza shot. In fact, the CDC’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices recommends that everyone 6 months of age or older receive it, including:

  • Children
  • Seniors 65 and older
  • Pregnant women
  • American Indians and Alaska Natives
  • Those with underlying health conditions like asthma
  • Those living with conditions including chronic lung disease, heart disease, HIV/AIDS, cancer and diabetes

Although the effectiveness of flu vaccination varies each year, the CDC reports that recent studies demonstrate the evidence-based public health benefits. The Mayo Clinic agrees, calling flu shots your best defense against the flu, enabling “your body to develop the antibodies necessary to ward off influenza viruses.”

“The single best way to protect against the flu is to get vaccinated each year,” said CDC’s Anne Schuchat, M.D., Director, National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases. “Today, flu vaccines are available in more convenient locations than ever. The few minutes it takes to get a flu vaccine can save you from experiencing several unproductive days due to influenza. The most common side effects are mild and short-lasting, especially when compared to symptoms of influenza infection.  Flu vaccine cannot cause flu illness.”

Despite evidence that the influenza vaccine is an effective tool, some still fear that getting their shot might put them at risk for experiencing severe side effects. No more than one or two cases per million people vaccinated acquire Guillain-Barré syndrome, an outcome much lower than the risk of developing severe complications from influenza. From 1976-2006, in fact, estimates show that far more people died from flu-associated deaths in the U.S. (3,000-49,000) than from negative reactions to the vaccines that protect against influenza.

To build awareness and support of NIVW and encourage people to get their shots, the CDC is making a rich variety of online tools and resources available to a wide spectrum of patients, educators and providers, such as:

Partnering with Reckitt Benckiser, Inc., the makers of LYSOL® Brand Products, the CDC is also spotlighting the Ounce of Prevention Campaign, which seeks to empower consumers and professionals with practical tips and information around effective hand hygiene and cleaning habits to prevent infectious diseases like the flu.

Click here to see if the vaccine is available in your area. To find a nearby location to get the vaccine, check out HHS’s “Flu Vaccine Finder” on Flu.gov, enter your ZIP code and share the widget to let your family members, colleagues and friends know where they can go too. HHS also provides a series of informative YouTube videos that cover prevention strategies, share tips for identifying symptoms and provide recommended treatment practices.

You can also make a powerful statement by taking the pledge to get vaccinated for the 2013-14 season, commit to taking a friend with you and in the process spread the word by clicking here. To get the latest updates on flu vaccination efforts, follow the CDC on Twitter (@CDCFlu and @CDCgov) and “like” them on Facebook.

Now tell us if you’ve gotten your flu shot. Where did you go? How long did it take? What ways could providers and health care stakeholders more effectively remind patients to get vaccinated?

Adherence Training Key to Improved Coordination of Care, Use of Specialty Drugs

I have been fortunate enough in my career to do humanitarian work in East Africa, and I have witnessed incredible health care service performed despite a paucity of resources. Conversely, one of the many health care tragedies in that part of the world is the downward therapeutic outcome spiral due to unattended simple maladies. An untreated toe could turn into a raging skin infection or worse. A simple break of a person’s leg improperly set could leave that person crippled for life.

Joel L. Zive

Joel L. Zive

In the United States, we have a different set of complex issues affecting our health care system. But there is a beacon of hope with some of the most vexing health care issues:  specialty drugs. Yes, they have annual costs that approach the length of phone numbers, but research and development costs must be taken into consideration.

Yet when one evaluates the pain and suffering these compounds alleviate – sometimes also saving money for our health care system in the areas of solid organ transplant rejection, HIV, Multiple Sclerosis and Cancer for example – real value emerges.

Despite their high expense, there are organizations, including the HealthWell Foundation, that help patients pay for access to these medications. And do not forget social workers, case managers and an army of master insurance billers in doctor’s offices and pharmacies across the country.

Yet these drugs carry with them a promise and a peril: A promise if their regimens, with high pill burden, are adhered to and the side-effects are understood. And a peril to the patient and unnecessary high cost to our health care system.

What person who deals in specialty drugs has not been brought to the brink of tears due to the frustration of non-adherence? Of a transplant patient who never told their pharmacist or transplant coordinator that he stopped taking their immunosuppressive medications and lost their transplanted organ? The efforts of the pharmacists, nurses, prescribers, surgeons, transplant coordinators, social workers that were wasted along with precious time and money are horrifying.

On the other hand, you have a patient newly transplanted or newly diagnosed with a complex disease. Frightened, scared — even angry — wondering whether they can afford medications to stave off dialysis or stay alive. In my career, I have seen first-hand examples of turnarounds in patients’ attitudes and quality of life due to these medications and adherence training:

  • A kidney transplant patient who was on dialysis for years who saw other patients go into dialysis walking, then in a wheelchair, then on a gurney before expiring.
  • Another patient at the dialysis center who announced one day, “I give up.” This individual had sufficient motivation but still needed guidance and assurance he would get his medications in a timely manner. Now, this person is rebuilding a life for himself and his family.
  • A woman tired, frail and scared lying in a hospital bed post-transplant wondering how she will live the rest of her life. With encouragement and adherence training she is now flying cross-country to see her relatives.
  • Another patient was diagnosed with relapsing remitting Multiple Sclerosis in the prime of his life. Yes, he had difficulty dealing with his insurance company and their specialty pharmacy.  But he had help and encouragement from an outside specialty pharmacy. And with patience and persistence from others he is now in graduate school.

What do these examples underscore? That although the United States enjoys an abundance of health care resources compared to Africa, what we’re missing is the coordination of care. Sometimes this is due to the health care system and sometimes this is because of the patient.

There are a couple of strategies providers can employ to improve this situation:

  • This scenario I saw first-hand in Rwanda.  If a pharmacist senses there is something not right mentally with the patient, he can contact a social worker in the clinic for further workup.
  • Another approach includes an agreement among the multidisciplinary team about what the adherence goals  should be. If the goals seem to be remiss, then the pharmacist could be notified, and he could handle the issue or direct it to the appropriate provider.

In both cases, there is feedback among the health care team. In the area of specialty drugs, adherence training can fill and highlight these gaps to the patient’s benefit.  As my colleagues in East Africa have told me, “We admire your health care system.”

We have many issues to be worked out and negotiated in the weeks, months and years ahead.  But let’s use adherence training to give my colleagues overseas something they can aspire toward and emulate.

What other strategies can providers employ to improve coordination of care? How can hospitals, government and health care industry stakeholders coordinate to become part of the solution when it comes to more effective adherence training?

Kaiser Permanente Gives Providers Evidence-Based Tools to Increase Adherence

At an industry conference years ago, I met an HIV-positive patient. We spoke about her treatment as well as her adherence program. “Who takes care of you?” I asked. “Kaiser Permanente,” she responded. Afterward, I did a little research and discovered this was one of the first HMOs created in the United States that takes care of millions of patients. Based in Oakland, California, their goal is “supporting preventative medicine and attempting to educate its members about maintaining their own health.”

Joel L. Zive

Joel L. Zive

Adherence remains a capstone in caring for patients after medications are dispensed and is an especially important issue for indigent populations. But now with implementation of health care reform fast approaching, patients will be required to take even more responsibility for their health, including adherence to medication regimens. Although no integrated health care structure is perfect, Kaiser’s integrative model fascinates me and allows its health care teams to implement successful adherence strategies.

For example, a Kaiser physician at the South San Francisco Medical Center conducted a hypertension study (“Improved Blood Pressure Control Associated With a Large-Scale Hypertension Program”) that compared their program’s results to those at the state and national level. The outcomes are startling:

  • The Kaiser Hypertension control rate nearly doubled, skyrocketing from 43.6 percent in 2001 to 80.4 percent in 2009.  
  • In contrast, the national mean of hypertensive control went from 55.4 to only 64.1 percent during the same time period.

One aspect of this program included using single pill combination therapy, which has been shown to boost adherence. In a slightly different approach to adherence in hypertension, Kaiser Permanente Northern California and UC San Francisco were recently awarded an $11 million grant to fund a stroke prevention program by targeting and treating hypertension among African Americans and young adults.

By Googling “Kaiser Permanente adherence” the Kaiser Permanente Division of Research appears. Their published research draws from Kaiser Permanente units throughout their network, collaborations with academic institutions nationwide, and the HMO Research Network – a consortium of 18 health care delivery organizations with both defined patient populations and formal, recognized research capabilities. These resources provide clinicians and pharmacists with a plethora of study designs and disease states from which to choose and evaluate.

In the study “Determination of optimized multidisciplinary care team for maximal antiretroviral therapy adherence,” for example, a multidisciplinary care team was assigned to patients with new antiretroviral drug regimens. Because this model translated to improved adherence rates, clinical teams around the country now use some variation of a multidisciplinary approach, enabling each discipline’s area of expertise to benefit the patient.

Another article from Kaiser — “Health Literacy and Antidepressant Medication Adherence Among Adults with Diabetes: The Diabetes Study of Northern California (DISTANCE)” – demonstrates that adherence is multifactorial.  This study’s conclusions underscore the importance of health care literacy components, simplifying health communications for treatment options, executing an enhanced public relations campaign around depression and monitoring refill rates.

In my experience, if someone with mental health issues does not take his or her medications, then regardless of disease state, the patient’s treatment falls off the track. I approach these difficult situations by drawing on the conclusions of the above studies:

  • First, is there a different message I could give the patient? Or am I reaching the patient at a level of health care literacy he could understand? For example, I had a deaf patient who found it tiresome writing messages back and forth to me. When I realized he “speaks” to people via a teletype machine, I began communicating with him via word processing software. This made our communications less cumbersome. And this improved adherence to his regime because he was less frustrated.
  • Next, the multidisciplinary approach is quite powerful. When I served HIV-positive patients in the South Bronx, if anything occurred that affected adherence, the prescriber, nurse, social worker or case manager immediately were made aware. Sometimes we would discontinue the regimen and other times we would tweak the regimen and get the patient back on treatment.

The real adherence tragedy for indigent patients is not whether they receive medication, but whether they have access to the tools, education and knowledge they need to take their meds as prescribed. Leveraging articles from resources like Kaiser’s Division of Research may be the solution to reversing the trend of low adherence.

Now we want to hear from you. If you’re a patient, has your doctor or pharmacist worked with you to improve med adherence? If you’re a provider, what resources have you found to be useful when helping patients understand why they should take meds as prescribed? Share your stories in the comments.

Categories: Access to Care

New Drug Delivery Options that Help the Medicine Go Down

David Sheon

David Sheon

The water cooler talk for us at RWHC is frequently about improving treatment adherence (a patient’s ability and willingness to take his or her medicine consistently, as directed).  OK, so we don’t have the most exciting water cooler discussions.  But this happens to be important – for all of us because when patients stay on treatment, they get better faster.  This is almost universally true, regardless of the therapeutic category.

In some cases, improving adherence not only saves the life of the patient, but it can benefit an entire community.  In HIV, for example, taking antiretrovirals not only helps the patient to manage his or her viral load (the amount of HIV circulating in the blood), but it also lowers that patient’s ability to transmit the virus to someone else.

Sometimes, adherence can be improved by using a different delivery system.  This is the first post in a series on how drug delivery helps adherence.

Remember the first time you took a breath strip that dissolved on your tongue? The technology was invented in the 1970s, but only since July 2012 have pharmaceutical companies been able to win marketing approval to put a drug on the strip.  Two products have been cleared by the FDA.

Zuplenz (ondansetron) oral soluble film is an anti-nausea and vomiting product used by cancer patients who experience nausea and vomiting as a result of receiving chemotherapy and/or radiation as well as for the prevention of postoperative nausea and vomiting.

“We know from market research that patients who are nauseated don’t necessarily like swallowing pills or using suppositories and that sometimes taking pills with water contributes to their nausea,” said John V. Aiken, M. Ed., Vice President, Corporate Operations, Marketing, and Training, Praelia Pharmaceuticals, Inc.  “Since launching the product in December 2012, a number of doctors are telling us that their patients prefer the dissolving strip.”

The second drug now available on an oral dissolving strip is Suboxone (Buprenorphine and Naloxone), from Reckitt Benckiser Pharmaceuticals Inc.  For more information on this product, click here.

If the dosing is standardized and absorption is as good as more typical drug delivery methods, we see only an upside in terms of patient adherence to oral dissolving strips.  Please tell us what you think.  Also, if you know of a new drug delivery option that you’d like to see us cover, let us know!

Express Scripts Provides Roadmap to Improve Health Care, Reduce Costs and Streamline Delivery of the Medicine Patients Need

You might be in a “utilization management program” and not know what that means or why it matters to your health. Offered by a variety of employers across industries, utilization management programs are designed to help patients evaluate their health care options and make decisions about the type of services they receive.

So how do these programs impact the delivery of specialty medications for cancer, HIV, inflammatory conditions, multiple sclerosis, and more?

MedAdNews.com reports that a new study from Express Scripts demonstrates how such programs can increase efficiency by ensuring that more patients who need safe, affordable and effective medications can access them.

As spending on specialty drugs continues to increase (18.4 percent in 2012, up from 17.1 percent in 2011), finding the most effective ways to improve the delivery of patient care, reduce cost and eliminate waste is more important than ever. Combining innovations from CuraScript and Accredo, Express Scripts draws upon Health Decision Science – which integrates behavioral science, clinical science, and actionable data – as a springboard to achieve just that.

Building upon this scientific, results-driven approach, Express Scripts provides care targeted to specific areas of patient need through Accredo’s Therapeutic Research Centers as part of its Specialty Benefit Services. Here, a broad array of health care providers integrate pharmacy and medical data to offer what Express Scripts describes as comprehensive patient care that strengthens coordination of services, boosts transparency, and produces solutions.

“It’s really about appropriateness and the right thing for a patient who really deserves safe and effective and affordable medication and ruling out waste. What our plans are most interested in is continuing to be able to afford to provide a benefit. This again was a great example of by doing the right thing that patients were able to save a significant amount of money and again preserve affordability,” said Glen Stettin, M.D., senior VP, clinical research and new solutions at Express Scripts.

Does your employer use a multiple cost management program for specialty drugs? If so, what type? If not, do you think your employer should? What might be some advantages or disadvantages?

Categories: Access to Care