April 16th is National Health Care Decisions Day.  When a health crisis occurs, many individuals and families are unwillingly thrust into a situation where a difficult decision must be made, and the values or preferences that would guide that decision were never discussed.  Don't let this happen to you.  Take time to choose your power of attorney for health care, the one person you would trust to make decisions about your health care on your behalf if you were ever unable to express those wishes.  Let that person know that you would be honored if they would play that role for you.  Talk with them about what is important to you if you ever encounter a scenario in your own health where you cannot verbalize your wishes.  You don't even have to discuss specifics, but it may help that person if they know what type of approach you would want if you were in that situation and you had very little hope for recovery.  Then, complete the Durable Power of Attorney for Health Care form.  It can be downloaded here.  Make copies for your power of attorney, yourself, and give one to your doctor and anyone else you think should have a copy.  If you need help, make an appointment with your doctor to specifically discuss this issue.

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uesday morning on WMBI a caller asked if there was something safe that her daughter could take in her 7th month of pregnancy to help her sleep. In the midst of a busy morning of calls, I gave her a kneejerk response by recommending the antihistamine diphenhydramine, the active ingredient in Benadryl. This approach is safe, as diphenhydramine is a pregnancy category B medication (meaning that studies in humans have proven it to be generally safe for the unborn child). However, I did not take the opportunity to discuss other natural remedies, as well as behavioral strategies for sleep in the later stages of pregnancy.

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Here it is: the breakdown you've been looking for on the flu vaccines.
Who should receive them?

First- the regular seasonal flu vaccine, available now.
You should get the flu vaccine this year.
The only people who should not are infants less than 6 months, people with an egg allergy, and people with a previous reaction to the flu vaccine.

Next- the H1N1 vaccine, available in the next few weeks.
The following groups of people should get this vaccine:
Pregnant women
Children age 6 months to 18 years
Caregivers for children this age
Young adults 18-24
Health care workers
People age 25-64 with a chronic medical condition
(Examples include diabetes, asthma, COPD, and autoimmune conditions)

People age 65 and older are at lower risk for H1N1, so they are not recommended for the vaccine until the higher priority groups are inoculated.  Sometime in December or January, people age 65 and older may be recommended to receive the H1N1 vaccine.

The H1N1 vaccine will be available as a nasal spray and as a shot.  Pregnant women cannot receive the nasal spray because it contains a live virus.  It is safe for everyone else except those with a compromised immune system (as in HIV).  Children under 10 will require 2 doses about 4 weeks apart.  Everyone else will need only one dose.

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Today's article by Barbara Brotman in the Chicago Tribune gives an excellent representation of what advance care planning conversations might look like at the end-of-life. Of course, advance care planning can occur at any stage of illness, and does not always have to address things like Do-Not-Resuscitate orders or refusing other invasive measures. It could simply cover what you value when it comes to your health care, and who you want for your Power of Attorney.

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Have you heard the radio advertisements for legal firms that will send you a FREE living will? Have you heard them promise that if you call now, you can save even more money because they will include a FREE Health Care Power of Attorney? Sounds great, doesn't it? What they don't mention is that these documents are already available for free, and you don't even need a lawyer in order to complete them.

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Part of the proposed health care reform bill that I like is the idea to reimburse physicians for having an "advance care planning" discussion with their patients once every 5 years. This is something I do with my patients often, and I have wished many times that Medicare would recognize the value of this skill, and the time it takes to perform it, by offering specific reimbursement for the discussion. Unfortunately, some Republicans are saying that supporting a patient-physician conversation about goals of care and end-of-life options will "start us down a treacherous path toward government-encouraged euthanasia". I disagree.

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A caller to my Tuesday morning appearance on WMBI asked a question about chia seeds, and I had to admit that I did not know much about what they had to offer. If you're like me, the word "chia" conjures up images of pet-shaped terra cotta pottery with green sprouts. It turns out that eating chia seeds can have some positive health benefits.

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This morning on WMBI I talked about a recent study on the popular Proton Pump Inhibitor (PPI) medications and their potential to cause "rebound" acid reflux. This could lead to a dependence on these medicines. Many callers and e-mailers have questions about this. If you are on these medicines, should you stop them? If so, what is the best way to stop? Is there any risk to staying on the medicine?

The PPI medications are commonly known as Prilosec, Prevacid, Nexium, Aciphex, and Protonix. The generic names have the common ending "-prazole". These medicines block the stomach's production of acid. They are useful for people with acid reflux disease, or gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD). This class of medicines is one of the most commonly prescribed group of drugs in the world. Many doctors prescribe them the first time their patient reports symptoms of heartburn. Some of these drugs are now available over-the-counter without a prescription.

The problem that is now coming to light is this: it turns out that while these medicines are in the system, the stomach responds by attempting to crank up acid production. When the medications are stopped, the floodgates open and heartburn symptoms return, possibly in a more severe form than previous. This study actually placed people with no heartburn symptoms on a PPI medication for two months, and when the medicines were stopped, the patients with no history of GERD developed symptoms of heartburn within a few weeks.

So what are the implications? First, if you are on a PPI, there is no documented long-term risk of staying on the medicine. That being said, it is best to use these medications for the shortest time possible in order to avoid the "rebound" effect. The recommended time frame is 2-3 weeks, in order to treat a severe flare-up of GERD. During that trial, there are lifestyle modifications that should be tried. These include limiting the intake of alcohol, tobacco, caffeine, and spicy foods. Stress can also contribute significantly to GERD.

If you are already on these medicines, and you have been taking them for some time, talk to your doctor about stopping. One way to do this is to wean yourself off by cutting your dose in half, then going to every other day, then every third day, etc. Do this over the course of 4-6 weeks. What may happen, as suggested by this study, is that your symptoms may return when the dose is reduced. I would encourage you to try to ride this out over 1-2 weeks, because the stomach may re-calibrate its acid production on the new lower dose. This may need to occur over several weeks and multiple, step-down dose reductions.

For those who cannot manage their GERD through lifestyle modifications (mentioned above), another medication option is ranitidine (brand name Zantac). This medicine is available over the counter in a 75mg tablet. The maximum dose is 150mg (two tablets) twice a day. Start by taking one tablet at night, go to two if needed, and then add a morning dose if necessary. It is safe to start on the ranitidine while you are weaning yourself off the PPI's, and this may help with any "rebound" heartburn you may experience.

There is a group of patients that should be on PPI medications for life. These are people with something called "Barrett's esophagus". This occurs when the acid reflux is so severe that it causes tissue damage to the esophagus. This damage can progress to esophageal cancer and can be deadly. Barrett's esophagus is diagnosed by esophagealgastroduodenoscopy (EGD), a test in which a GI specialist passes a small camera down the esophagus and can look at or biopsy the tissue. Anyone with a positive test should stay on PPI's. For the rest of us, it seems best to limit the use of these medications.

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The recent death of famed pitchman Billy Mays was tragic (he convinced me to spend $19.95 for not one, not two, but six tubes of "Mighty Putty"). He apparently died from heart disease, but initial speculation blamed his death on a head injury he suffered during a rough airplane landing the night before. While the head trauma seemingly did not cause Billy May's death, it raises the question: what worrisome signs should I be looking for if I bump my head?

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There are many foods that are healthier than cereal bars (like fresh fruits and vegetables), and I am not endorsing Nutri-Grain products, but I am a big fan of their new ad campaign. Watch their commercial here and be inspired to make a small change today.

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