Oxford Handbook of Clinical Medicine (IV)
In a surgical context prophylactic antibiotics are very often given to counter the risk of wound infection, especially in the gastrointestinal surgical context. The authors of the chapter don’t discuss the demerits of this approach at all, but I’ve read other people before who are critical of this way of doing things and before moving on to what the book has to say about related matters I thought I should remind you of some of the problems associated with the widespread prophylactic use of antibiotics in the surgical context – here’s part of what Gould and van der Meer had to say about this topic:
“Surgical prophylaxis is a common area of overuse [of antibiotics] as shown in many publications. Measured by total DDDs [defined daily doses], it can amount to around one third of a hospital’s total antibiotic use. This illustrates the potential for ecological damage although surgeons often ask whether 24 h or even single dose prophylaxis can really select for resistance. The simple answer is yes, but of course much of the problem is extension of prophylaxis beyond the perioperative period, often for several days in critical patients, perhaps until all lines and drains are removed. There is no evidence base in favour of such practices.” (link to further blog coverage of related topics here)
Omissions like these is incidentally one of several reasons why I did not give the Oxford handbook a higher rating than I did. With that out of the way let’s get back to the Oxford handbook coverage. They note in the surgery chapter that wound infection occurs in roughly one in five cases of elective GI surgery, and in up to 60 per cent of emergency surgery settings. Infections in surgical patients are not trivial events; they can lead to bleeding, wounds that reopen, and they can ultimately kill the patient. Another major risk associated with surgery in many different surgical contexts is the risk of deep vein thrombosis (-DVT). According to the book DVTs occur in 25-50% of surgical patients. That said, almost two-thirds of below-knee DVTs are asymptomatic and these rarely embolize to the lungs. Aside from surgery some other DVT risk factors worth knowing about include age (older patients are at higher risk), pregnancy, trauma, synthetic oestrogen (i.e., oral contraceptives), past DVT, cancer, obesity, and immobility.
As for DVTs in non-surgical contexts, I found it interesting that the book observes that “the evidence linking air travel to an increased risk of DVT is still largely circumstantial” – it also adds some additional data to contextualize the risk. For someone in the general population, the risk of DVT from a long-distance flight is estimated to be somewhere between one in 10.000 to one in 40.000, however for people in high-risk subgroups the incidence of DVT from flights lasting longer than 10 hours has been estimated at 4-6%. They argue in the book that travelers with multiple risk factors should consider compression stockings and/or a single prophylactic dose of low molecular-weight heparin for flights lasting longer than 6 hours; other ways to minimize risk include leg exercises, increased water intake and refraining from alcohol or caffeine during the flight. “There is no evidence to support the use of prophylactic aspirin.”
Even though I think a common impression is that surgeons always want to cut people open whereas internal medicine people will often think this is not necessary, ‘even surgeons’ are sometimes hesitant to cut you open. There are many reasons for this – the book covers a lot of surgical complications, but a perhaps particularly important long-term problem is this:
“Any surgical procedure that breaches the abdominal or pelvic cavities can predispose to the formation of adhesions [‘Adhesions are fibrous bands that form between tissues and organs, often as a result of injury during surgery. They may be thought of as internal scar tissue that connects tissues not normally connected’], which are found in up to 90% of those with previous abdominal surgery; this is why we do not rush to operate on small bowel obstruction: the operation predisposes to yet more adhesions. Handling of the serosal surface of the bowel causes inflammation, which over weeks to years can lead to the formation of fibrous bands that tether the bowel to itself or adjacent structures […] Their main sequelae are intestinal obstruction (the cause in ~60% of cases […]) and chronic abdominal or pelvic pain.”
Appendicitis is a lot more common than I’d thought; lifetime incidence is 6%, with risk peaking during the second decade of life; according to the book it is the most common surgical emergency. A diagnosis of appendicitis is often wrong; in up to one in five patients a healthy appendix is removed. Another very common surgical procedure is surgical repair of an inguinal hernia; more than 100.000 of these surgeries are performed in the UK each year.
Though the book has a separate chapter specifically dealing with the topic of oncology (and palliative care), the surgical chapter of course also covers various cancers and their treatments. You’ll encounter the usual encouraging remarks about diseases with a ‘gloomy prognosis and non-specific presentation’, ‘[m]ost patients […] present with locally advanced (inoperable) or metastatic disease’ (both quotes are on the topic of carcinoma of the stomach); ‘[s]urvival rates are poor with or without treatment’ (carcinoma of the oesophagus); ‘rare, have an overall poor prognosis and are difficult to diagnose’ (bile duct and gallbladder cancers), ‘~80% present with inoperable disease’ (bile duct cancer). It’s sort of hard to find it encouraging that colorectal carcinoma, another cancer covered in that chapter, in general tend to have lower mortality than these others (“Overall 5yr survival is ~50%”) when you also keep in mind that it’s one of the most common cancers (it is the second most common cause of cancer deaths in the United Kingdom, and the third most common cancer), and so kill a lot more people overall (16.000 deaths/year). Another thing to note is that the survival rate of patients with metastatic disease in this context is still really terrible; the treated 5-year survival rate for patients with distant metastases is reported to be 6.6%, compared to e.g. a 48% survival rate in treated cases with ‘only’ regional lymph node involvement. They observe in their coverage that “[l]aparoscopic surgery has revolutionized surgery for colon cancer. It is as safe as open surgery and there is no difference in overall survival or disease recurrence.”
There are many bodily changes which take place in people as they age, and some of the potentially problematic changes only occasionally cause symptoms despite their presence in a large number of people. One example is gastrointestinal diverticula. These are outpouchings of the gut wall which are present in many people but do not always cause problems. According to the authors, diverticulosis is a term used to indicate that diverticula are present, whereas diverticular disease implies they the diverticula are symptomatic; the term diverticulitis is used when there’s inflammation of the diverticula. 30 % of people at the age of 60 living in the West are estimated to have diverticulosis, but the majority are asymptomatic – they are a common incidental finding when people have colonoscopies. Although they often do not cause problems they can cause perforation and hemorrhage (e.g. large rectal bleeds); the former complication has a high mortality, ~40%. Lack of dietary fiber is thought to be implicated in the pathophysiological processes leading to diverticulosis. Gallstones is another example of a common condition many people have without knowing it; gallstone prevalence is estimated at 8% at the age of 40. Risk is increasing in age and is higher in obese people. 90% remain asymptomatic. Smoking is known to increase the risk that gallstones become symptomatic. Renal stones are also common, with lifetime incidence estimated to be ‘up to’ (?) 15%. However males are three times as likely to get renal stones as are females, so in males in particular these things are very common. In the case of small stones (<5mm in lower ureter) ~90-95 % pass spontaneously on their own. The simplest and easiest way to lower risk of kidney stones is to drink plenty of fluids (but keep in mind that tea increases oxalate levels and thus may contribute to stone formation…). They note that calculi may be asymptomatic but do not provide estimates of how often this is the case; I assume one reason is that it’s really very difficult to get a good estimate of how often people pass stones they did not know they had – you mostly learn about these things when they cause trouble. Making a brief jump back to the topic of cancers it should perhaps be noted that although cancer is not usually thought of as a really not very worrisome asymptomatic condition, some forms of cancer actually sometimes may be just that; autopsy studies have indicated that 80% of men above the age of 80 have some form of prostate cancer.
Stress incontinence is leakage from an incompetent sphincter for example when intra-abdominal pressure rises, which it may do when people laugh or cough. It is very common in pregnancy and following birth, and it “occurs to some degree in ~50% of post-menopausal women”.
Although I didn’t think much of the epidemiology chapter, I did want to include a few observations from the chapter in this post:
“In one study looking at recommendations of meta-analyses where there was a later ‘definitive’ big trial, it turned out that meta-analyses got it wrong 30% of the time”.
“During the time it takes you to read this page, your better-connected patients may have checked out the latest recommendations of Guatemalan Guidelines on Gynaecomastia, or the NICE’S Treatise on Toxoplasmosis. Patients have time and motivation, whereas we have little time and our motivation may be flickering. This can seem threatening to the doctor who sees himself as a dispenser of wisdom and precious remedies. It is less threatening if we consider ourselves to be in partnership with our patients. The evidence is that those who use the internet to question their therapy receive a better service.” (A lot of related topics were incidentally covered in the Cochrane handbook The Knowledgeable Patient: Communication and Participation in Health – see this post for data on and discussion of these things).
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