Assessing our nation’s control of blood pressure: A Q&A

Photo by agilemktg1

Whenever you see a physician, an assistant probably takes your blood pressure. But does she tell you what the numbers mean?

The top number, called the systolic blood pressure (SBP), measures the maximum pressure your heart exerts while beating. The bottom number, called the diastolic blood pressure (DBP), measures the amount of pressure in your arteries between beats. Both are important. High systolic and diastolic blood pressure are associated with a higher risk of heart attacks, heart failure, stroke and kidney disease.

But what is considered high enough to treat? I was recently surprised to learn that physicians are still debating the national blood pressure clinical guidelines. To learn more, I spoke with Shreya Shah, MD, a clinical instructor of primary care and population health at Stanford.”

Why have clinical guidelines for blood pressure been controversial?

“Recommendations regarding optimal blood pressure control have shifted over the past decade. In 2003, the recommendations were to target a systolic blood pressure less than 140 for most patients and less than 130 for patients with certain risk factors. In 2014, new recommendations relaxed the blood pressure goals to a SBP less than 140 for most patients and less than 150 for those 60 and above. This was a big change in recommendations and thus sparked controversy.

Newer studies, especially the SPRINT trial, point towards the increased benefits of more intensive blood pressure control. This led to the recent set of guidelines in 2017.

At Stanford, we’re working to bring blood pressures down as close to normal as possible. We are targeting a SBP less than 140 and DBP less than 90 in all patients. But for those with certain risk factors, especially increased risk for heart disease, we may recommend lowering the goal to a SBP less than 130 and DBP less than 80.”

Are these goals being met? What did your latest study find?

“Using a national database, Randall Stafford, MD, and I analyzed patterns of blood pressure control for millions of patients who were treated for hypertension in 2016.

Our study, which appears in the Journal of General Internal Medicine, found that we’re not doing a great job with blood pressure control: 43 percent of hypertension patients had a SBP of 140 or higher and 24 percent of patients had a SBP of 150 or higher.

There were also higher rates of uncontrolled blood pressure among certain demographic groups — blacks, Hispanics and patients with Medicaid. These groups may have had less intensive attention to their high blood pressure for a number of reasons, including less access to high quality care and an inability to afford some medications.”

What can be done?

“Studies have demonstrated that team-based care leads to better improvements in blood pressure when compared to traditional models of primary care. Team-based care for hypertension involves the patient and their primary care physician, as well as other health professionals such as pharmacists, nurses, dieticians, case managers and social workers. Especially for treatment strategies involving health behavior change, physicians may not be as effective as other people whose training focused on these skills.

Stanford has already implemented this team-based care model in our primary-care clinics. And we are looking at other strategies, including helping our patients to be more involved in managing their high blood pressure. For instance, I encourage patients to regularly measure their blood pressure at home. The American Heart Association has resources available with information about choosing a home blood pressure monitor and using the correct home blood pressure technique.

I also encourage my patients to adopt a largely plant-based diet, lose weight and become more physically active. These non-medication strategies can be helpful for preventing high blood pressure, but are also as an integral part of treating high blood pressure.”

This is a reposting of my Scope blog story, courtesy of Stanford School of Medicine.

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New course highlights how surgeons can serve their communities

Photo courtesy of Jecca Steinberg

Stanford medical students Jecca Steinberg and Paloma Marin-Nevarez want to spread the word that service-minded medical students can care for underserved communities by specializing in surgery. With the help of their mentor James Lau, MD, they have created an upcoming seminar series for medical students called “Service Through Surgery,” which showcases how surgeons can address health inequities.

Beginning in January, the new 10-week course will expose Stanford medical students to a diverse group of surgical leaders who are passionate about improving health equity through surgery. I connected with Steinberg, shown on the left in the photo, and Marin-Nevarez to learn more.

What inspired you to create the Service through Surgery seminar course?

Marin-Nevarez: “I emigrated from Mexico when I was 10 and settled in a low-income community in south Los Angeles. I never really considered myself disadvantaged until I went to college and experienced firsthand the shortcomings of my education system. Ever since, I knew I would make my life’s work to serve the underserved in communities like my own.

In my second year of medical school, I fell in love with surgery. However, when I thought about being a ‘community physician,’ I didn’t see how surgery would fit into that picture. The speakers in this course will show students with the same internal struggle as mine that they don’t need to compromise their values in order to pursue their dreams.”

What role can diversity play in overcoming health inequities?

Steinberg: “Low-income, minority communities continue to receive inadequate surgical services and bear unconscionable health burdens. Research has demonstrated that increasing diversity among physicians improves healthcare access and outcomes for traditionally disenfranchised communities, but surgery continues to trail behind other medical specialties in racial, socioeconomic and gender diversity. So the surgical workforce represents an underutilized resource for decreasing health inequities and improving the health of our communities.”

Marin-Nevarez: “A more diverse workforce leads to better outcomes for the underserved because minority patients are more likely to seek care from and be more comfortable with physicians from diverse backgrounds. And physicians from diverse backgrounds are more likely to treat patients of color in underserved communities.”

What causes surgery to be less diverse than other medical specialties?

Marin-Nevarez: “Because of unequal opportunities — especially for communities of color — surgeons are not as diverse as they should be. Because of this lack of diversity, there is a lack of mentorship that then perpetuates the cycle.

Mentorship can make a huge difference in recruiting people into a field. For example, James Lau, MD, is an amazing mentor — he was the first person to make me believe that being the first surgeon in my family may be an attainable goal. Those who ‘make it’ without mentorship most likely had access to extra resources or had to work much harder than their counterparts, or both.”

How will your seminar course inspire change?

Steinberg: “Our seminar course will create an opportunity for Stanford medical students to meet and form relationships with accomplished physicians who have combined their passions for diminishing inequities and surgery. It will show the incredible impact surgeons can make on their community. For example, Matias Bruzoni, MD, will talk about a Spanish clinic he created from scratch to improve the surgical experiences and outcomes of Spanish speaking patients. And Sherry Wren, MD, will provide her perspective on serving veterans domestically and populations around the world, exploring the adversity she faced in dedicating her career to social service.

When students connect with role models like these with a similar background and passions, they are more likely to follow in the trajectory of that role model and consider careers that might have previously seemed unattainable. We hope this seminar will provide that initial connection.”

This is a reposting of my Scope blog story, courtesy of Stanford School of Medicine.

Stanford undergraduates tackle health inequity in the emergency room

Photo by Sloane Maples of SHARED volunteers Nathan Pan-Doh, Josh Bloomstein and Kyle Lin

When I think of the emergency department, I think of patients in crisis from a heart attack, traumatic injury, overdose or other medical emergencies. However, physicians are now recognizing that the underlying drivers of these health crises are social, economic, political and structural inequalities that physicians can’t solve alone.

In order to help reduce health inequity, Jennifer Newberry, MD, JD, a clinical assistant professor in emergency medicine at Stanford, started Stanford Health Advocacy and Research in the Emergency Department, or SHARED. SHARED provides an opportunity for Stanford undergraduates to screen patients and connect them to local resources and programs.

SHARED consists of two programs. It started in 2012 with the Stanford Alcohol Screening and Brief Intervention program, which aims to identify and reduce high-risk alcohol use. Stanford undergraduate volunteers administer electronic screening questionnaires and provide patients with information on alcohol safety, and then high-risk patients are able to meet briefly with a social worker.

SHARED then expanded to develop the Help Desk, which screens emergency department patients for social and legal needs — such as problems with health insurance, food insecurity, homelessness and employment. The undergraduate team identifies patients’ unmet needs, eligibility of support and the appropriate community resources during the ER visit. They also follow up by calling the patients every two weeks to provide further assistance with accessing resources.

“So many patients and families carry the stress and anxiety of food insecurity, impending evictions, or even potential deportations, without anyone to hear their story. Our students listen and provide compassionate support amidst the chaos of an emergency department,” Newberry said.

Volunteer Josh Bloomstein said he joined SHARED in 2016 to make a difference in the lives of underserved patients.

Bloomstein’s Spanish skills have come in handy at the Help Desk during his two-hour shifts twice per week. For instance, he told me about his experience with an uninsured Spanish-speaking patient:

The patient was concerned that I was working with the billing department and was also hesitant to answer questions about immigration. I assured her that the purpose of the Help Desk is to assist patients with social needs and that all topics remain confidential. Together we found a primary care physician and a dentist who offered discounted services near her home. She was also grateful for the information we provided her on Covered California insurance, JobTrain skills training classes and the immigration advocacy organization Libre.

This is a reposting of my Scope blog story, courtesy of Stanford School of Medicine.