Chances are good that most readers have had personal experience with appendicitis. Appendectomy is the top inpatient surgery for kids and it far outpaces all other pediatric surgeries. Also, appendicitis is the most frequent reason adults make it to the emergency room. When people worry about their healthcare, appendicitis may seem like small change, mundane compared to big worries like chronic or debilitating conditions, and easily fixable by having your appendix surgically removed. Then it’s over.
However, the sheer volume of the surgery, done routinely and automatically in most of America, against new data that point to equivalent efficacy and a lower complication rate with antibiotic medical management for uncomplicated appendicitis make it an interesting case study of how medical paradigms change.
The tide has shifted in Europe towards using antibiotics as first-line, but probably because national health insurance programs use science much more to guide matters of the public health. In the United States, paradigm shifts towards less use of surgery come slowly and with a great deal of resistance from those threatened by the shift.
An Emblematic Case in Point
I became keenly aware of how uninformed most patients are when a friend over 70 years-old called me from the emergency room on a spring Saturday afternoon, telling me a surgeon wanted to operate on him in an hour for uncomplicated appendicitis. My initial reaction was to tell him to wait a minute because I remembered recent journal articles, notably a Finnish randomized trial suggesting antibiotic therapy had a good shot of curing the appendicitis, without the risks of surgery and an extended recovery. Appendicitis can recur in a minority of patients after antibiotic therapy, but carefully managed, one year out, there is usually no recurrence.
My friend, a skeptical medical writer to boot, had indicated that he wanted more information before he was shooed into surgery. I will say nothing more about his story because he has promised a blog post and will let him tell his story. Suffice it to say that he went the antibiotic therapy route and I am pretty darn sure that it would not have entered the picture if we hadn’t suggested it.
Decision Aid Research: Enter PCORI
This week, I received an announcement from the Patient Centered Outcomes Research Institute that they were funding research into testing a decision aid to help parents figure out what to do when their child has appendicitis. It’s a step in the right direction, but its ultimate value will depend on how widely it is used in the real world.
Decision aids purport to present the options to patients and/or caregivers so that patients can make the decisions that best suit them, based on their personal preferences, the science, and the uncertainties. In the past, they have been introduced when procedures are widely used, costly, when a paradigm shift in medicine is emerging, and when the best strategy seems debatable. Decision aids have been used for things like deciding what to do in the face of a diagnosis of prostate or breast cancer or whether or not to have joint (hip or knee) replacement.
Decision aids have been linked to more satisfactory outcomes, but I hardly think that they will provide the nexus of change in appendix care. I have seen no evidence that they are even used in the institutions that develop them. Nonetheless, they are a start.
A hellufa lot more public education will likely be needed to shift medical practice. I am sure that Rose Kushner and the women’s movement had more impact on reducing unnecessary total mastectomies than decision aids would have, but all is valuable.
The Decline of Surgery: A Moving Target
Robert Colgrove, MD, Division of Infectious Diseases, Mount Auburn Hospital, and Assistant Professor of Medicine, Harvard Medical school, captured the full measure of the shift towards treating appendicitis with antibiotics, rather than surgery.
“Having most of these managed medically means hundreds of thousands of operations averted in the US alone,” he said. “Along with the demise of routine tonsillectomy, it represents a huge reduction in the fraction of otherwise well children who get an operation.”
It’s not just appendectomies that are likely to decline going forward, but other surgeries are also declining as we move ahead, because medical management is showing advantages in lower complication rates, shorter recovery time, and cost.
But change will be resisted. Take gall bladders. “The most definitive way to manage cholecystitis (an inflamed gall bladder) is with cholecystectomy (removal of the gall bladder), a well validated procedure with over a century of experience to back it up,” Colgrove told me. “The best way to manage it now is very much an open question and a moving target. Classically, most people with acute cholecystitis would go on to have recurrent and/or chronic cholecystitis, so the argument has been that you might as well just go ahead and take it out.”
Colgrove begs to differ. “As medical management improves, though, it is not at all clear that that is true any longer. Current data suggest that most people with uncomplicated cholecystitis do well with non-surgical management, but it will take a few more years before we really know the long-term implications. This is a big deal, representing a huge change in the management of one of the most common surgical procedures, so it is natural that the medical culture is taking some time to absorb it.”
From my vantage point as a public observer, it bothers me that my friend in the emergency room was set to be routed directly to surgery. When will patient safety people be available to consult with patients, some of whom might have fewer risks with an antibiotic course of action?
There are numerous other issues worthy of public discussion tied to appendicitis in kids and adults, too large for a blog post here.
My computer went belly-up this morning and I wanted this out before my short vacation. I regret the lack of links on this post, more comprehensive attention to the latest research, and the role of excessive imaging in evaluating appendicitis – topics covered previously here.
Please share your point of view in the comments below. We need a movement to move practice rationally forward.