Blog | Friday, October 16, 2015

Marketing medicine and the treatment of high blood pressure


I just read a disturbing article about a recently completed study on treating high blood pressure. The SPRINT (systolic blood pressure intervention) trial was conducted at around 100 locations in the U.S. and Puerto Rico, comparing treating blood pressure intensively to usual care.

According to recently adopted guidelines, we now treat blood pressure with the goal of reducing the top number, the systolic blood pressure, to below 140 for adults younger than 60 and below 150 for those 60 an over. The goal for the bottom number, the diastolic blood pressure, is below 90. We recommend lifestyle changes, encouraging exercise, weight loss and reduction in salt intake, and use medications when the blood pressure stays too high.

In the SPRINT trial, a comparison group was treated with blood pressure medications, sometimes 3 or more different types, to lower the systolic blood pressure below 120. The patients in the comparison group (more intensive treatment) apparently did better, with a 30% reduction in heart attacks, heart failure and stroke, and 25% reduction in risk of death.

The SPRINT study only looked at patients 50 years of age or older with other risk factors for cardiovascular disease, including heart disease, kidney disease and a calculated risk of cardiovascular events of greater than 15% in the next 10 years. The data still hasn't been released in a way that we can really understand it, and there may be important caveats, such as subgroups who have particularly better or worse outcomes with intensive management, and other beneficial or terrible effects of the interventions. The news so far is just in the form of a press release, with an actual scientific article eventually to be published.

What bothers me is that now a whole group of people who think they are actually well will be encouraged to take medicine, with associated significant side effects, and will identify themselves as vaguely sick and needing medical attention. Also those patients who already are treated for hypertension and have “good control” will be started on yet more medications with drug interactions, high costs and potentially dangerous side effects. It will be difficult to lower the blood pressure below a systolic of 120 without causing symptoms of dizziness and fainting in some patients, and there will be an increase in the number of doctors “failing” to treat high blood pressure adequately and patients “failing” medications.

Already, at our present definition of high blood pressure (hypertension) 1 in 3 adults has it. Three out of 4 patients 75 years of age or older has hypertension. The CDC (Centers for Disease Conrol) estimates that treating hypertension costs over $46 billion per year. According to data from various randomized trials, at least 100 people must take blood pressure medications for 5 years to avoid 1 heart attack. This number varies significantly depending on a person's age and overall risk for heart disease, so more than 500 fifty year old women must be treated for 5 years with anti-hypertensive medications to avoid a heart attack, whereas 65 year old men can expect more of a benefit, with a “number needed to treat” of 101. If we lower the target blood pressure to 120, essentially every adult, with a few exceptions, will be on pills for their blood pressure, and the vast majority of them will see no benefit.

The side effects of treating high blood pressure, besides the cost of medications and doctor visits, which aren't trivial, include life threatening electrolyte imbalances, kidney failure and facial swelling as well as annoying dizziness, swelling of the feet and a cough. A sizable portion of the people who are treated with blood pressure medications, or would be, will experience side effects and no actual benefits.

Treating everyone with an elevated blood pressure with medications and defining them as having a medical condition was a huge expansion of the scope of medical care. The first effective anti-hypertensive medications were released in about 1958 and now there are hundreds of them, varying in mechanism, price and effectiveness. Hypertension was really the first symptom-free condition to be widely treated and marked a transition in doctors' roles to include more care that was focused on preventing actual disease than treating it. Most of us like the sound of that, but it means that one in three adults “needs” a doctor for their hypertension, and if hypertension is redefined at a lower number, virtually everyone will be under medical care.

There is a complex interplay of values going on here, and it is strongly influenced by the fact that medicine, as an economic entity, successfully markets itself and expands its markets by identifying conditions that increase risk for actual misery. These conditions then become targets for treatment, which increases doctor visits and medications prescribed. Treating high blood pressure has been perfect in this regard because the need is real in many cases and the outcomes have often been gratifying. People with significantly elevated blood pressure, especially those in whom it is persistent, do develop devastating strokes, heart attacks and kidney failure and treatment to lower the blood pressure, if taken regularly and over long periods of time, really does reduce their risk. Still, vast numbers of people are treated for high blood pressure who experience high costs, significant side effects and medicalization with no benefits, at huge costs to society in general.

Research shows that the vast majority of blood pressure measurements are taken in such a way that blood pressures may be artificially elevated. One way to narrow the scope of treatment would be to measure blood pressure more accurately, either by actually having patients rest for 5 minutes before taking blood pressures or by using ambulatory monitors which take blood pressure throughout the day during a person's regular activities. Both of these methods would serve to focus our efforts on people who might actually benefit from them.

What would be a good direction to move with treatment of hypertension that would help reduce overtreatment and increase benefits of treatment? Research focused on truly identifying who needs antihypertensive medication would be great. If 500 people like me need to be treated for 5 years to avoid one heart attack, that means that too many people are being treated. Research could help determine which of those 500 people actually need treatment, if it was designed to answer that question. The SPRINT trial was designed in such a way that it will likely increase both the number of patients in treatment and the number of drugs prescribed. That is not what most of us want. It is, however, the kind of research that grows medicine's market share.

If the treatment of hypertension was focused on patients who would truly benefit, and the intensity of treatment was proportionally higher for those with the greatest need, quite a bit of the tens of billions of dollars spent on hypertension might be liberated. The money not spent on medications and doctor visits could go to other interventions that would reduce cardiovascular disease. The amount of money that goes into overtreatment of hypertension could buy cooking classes and exercise rooms, swimming pools and dance classes. Unlike doctor visits and medications, this type of preventive medicine also makes us happier and helps make our lives richer.

Janice Boughton, MD, ACP Member, practiced in the Seattle area for four years and in rural Idaho for 17 years before deciding to take a few years off to see more places, learn more about medicine and increase her knowledge base and perspective by practicing hospital and primary care medicine as a locum tenens physician. She lives in Idaho when not traveling. Disturbed by various aspects of the practice of medicine that make no sense and concerned about the cost of providing health care to every American, she blogs at Why is American Health Care So Expensive?, where this post originally appeared.