Hoisting Another White Flag: Generic Medications
The great Dick Lindstrom recently posted an editorial on the challenges faced by doctors in a world that is focused solely on the cost of medication, one in which pressure is brought to bear on both doctor and patient to use an inexpensive generic at all times. Dr. Lindstrom reaffirms his career-long position that only one factor matters in the complex decision making process that is medicine: what is best for my patient’s health is my sole concern. Indeed, it is important for each physician to fight for this outcome, to fight for the person who sits before us in the exam chair or beneath us on the operating table. When a clinical difference exists between the expensive branded medicine and the cheaper generic we are honor and duty bound to prescribe and support the better medicine.
Sigh. It’s just all so tiresome, this battle. We physicians certainly did not choose this fight, and frankly most of us have no dog in the fight other than the best interests of our patients. I wrote PREVIOUSLY that the notion that pens, penlights, and candlelight dinners prompt doctors to become shills for pharmaceutical companies is farcical and offensive. Come on…I’m gonna look for a reason to prescribe some new eyedrop because someone dropped off a couple of pens? That’s all silly enough, but the battle has escalated with the entry of insurance company and government programs that automatically switch to a less expensive “therapeutically equivalent” medication and then require doctors to personally run the gauntlet necessary to “justify” their clinical decisions.
We are on the receiving end of the same kind of stuff that big companies use to defeat smaller foes in court: we are bombed with paperwork. Not only that but it’s carpet bombing, indiscriminate deluges of time bombs meant to bludgeon doctors into submission. There’s collateral damage, just like in carpet bombing, only the casualties are more subtle. Forcing doctors to be a part of this irreparably damages the doctor-patient relationship, making it more of a commercial interaction as doctor becomes ombudsman for patient.
As Dr. Lindstrom exhorts, I’ve been fighting the good fight. Dr. Lindstrom doesn’t need this fight. He’s a living legend who has earned the right to stand aside from these types of petty issues and to choose to put his considerable gravitas to work on stuff that has to be more fun. Yet he willingly takes on this battle and I’ve followed his lead. Standing my ground and insisting on newer branded meds when they are superior to older, cheaper generics. It’s getting to me, though. I’m tired. My staff is tired.
I surrender. Up goes another white flag.
I’m going to surrender in the battlefield of Glaucoma. Why Glaucoma and not cataract surgery for instance? I’m tired and beaten up, but I’m neither a hero nor a coward, not a sentient nor an idiot; I don’t need to be a seer, some kind of morbid Karnac the OK, to know the outcome for either cataract or Glaucoma. I’m declaring right up front what is going to happen, how it will affect my patients, my staff, and me, and what the ramifications will be for American healthcare. I’m surrendering in Glaucoma because I can, continuing to fight in cataract surgery because I must.
In my 27 years as a physician only one paperwork/government regulation/billing issue has ever resulted in better care of my patients: the requirement to do an extended Review of Systems for a particular kind of visit resulted in the identification of major side effects from glaucoma eyedrops. Indeed, this was a total surprise and led to a rapid change in the way we took care of Glaucoma patients. Older medications, effective or not, were replaced by newer medications or laser because the newer treatments were both more effective and freer of side effects. What will I find this time?
Timoptic (topical Timolol) was introduced in the early 1980′s. It was a Godsend. Nothing less than a miraculous savior of vision, keeping legions of patients out of the operating room and saving thousands and thousands of people from certain blindness. It’s been off patent for decades but is now no more than a third line treatment. Why? Tons of side effects, some subtle (decreased exercise capacity, erectile dysfunction) and others less so (my friend essentially killed his very first Gaucoma patient in year one of the Timoptic era by prescribing Timoptic and causing 1st degree heart block). It’s really cheap now, but who can write this Rx and look themselves in the mirror, white flag or not?
We know that the Lipid class of Glaucoma eye drops is the most effective group of pressure lowering medications. The original, Xalatan, dethroned Timoptic in less than 2 years. Lower eye pressure and no systemic side effects and a new treatment paradigm was nigh. The worst side effect was a permanent darkening of the iris in 9% of patients, the price to pay to save your vision. Xalatan is now available as a generic (latanaprost). There are 3 newer, stronger, more effective Lipid medications, all of which are branded and all of which are 2-4X the cost of latanaprost. They all reduce eye pressure on average 2-3 points more than latanaprost.
I’ll start here. Starting next week every new glaucoma patient who opts for medical treatment will start on latanaprost. On top of that I will change every patient on a branded lipid to latanaprost if they risk losing insurance coverage for their drop. I will not respond to any insurance company challenge. If pressure reduction is inadequate I will follow my standard protocol and I will offer a second medication or glaucoma laser treatment, both of which are standard of care. If a second medication is chosen I will write for the generic second line Rx, an alpha-agonist. The generic and the brand alpha-agonist have equal efficacy; the generic has a 35-40% unacceptable side effect rate compared with the brand’s 10-12%. The generic cost is ~1/4 of the brand.
My staff and I will take the time necessary to inform my patients of these side effect issues, a time investment that will be a laughably small fraction of the time it takes us to fight the paperwork wars for Brand coverage. I will document this up the wazoo, noting every treatment failure and every last little side effect, jotting down every incidence of patient non-adherence. I will gear up for more glaucoma surgery, both laser and incisional, because I remember how much more of both I did in the days when Timoptic was king, in the days when version 1.0 of today’s medicines was so hard to take due to side effects. I will have this all on hand when we start to read of the new golden age of Glaucoma surgery.
I will be ready to answer the critics who accuse eye doctors of doing too much Glaucoma surgery.
This entry was posted on Friday, July 6th, 2012 at 10:42 am and is filed under Health Care, Healthcare Economics. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.