Comprehensive care of hemodialysis patients poses a significant challenge for nephrologists. Although protocol driven approaches by hemodialysis centers have significantly improved standardized care, significant gaps remain in overall medical care provided to hemodialysis patients. Admittedly, with improvement in care, mortality rate for dialysis patients has decreased by 10 percent from its peak in 1988; however, it still stands at a disturbing figure of 248 deaths per 1,000 patient-years. The life expectancy of ESRD patients is one-fourth to one-sixth of the age-matched general population, with cardiovascular disease being the most likely cause of death.
Diabetics on hemodialysis have even worse prognosis than other patients. Patients with diabetes and ESRD are admitted to the hospital on average 2.3 times per year, and only 27 percent of these patients will survive five years on hemodialysis. With improvement in overall care, mortality has improved in hemodialysis patient population, but perhaps not to the expected level for multiple reasons. One likely explanation is that although mortality may be less with improvement in one area of care, mortality in other neglected areas of care may negate these potential gains. It therefore remains imperative that the nephrology community does not lose sight of the fact that only comprehensive care of these patients will realize the goal of improvement in mortality and morbidity in this hemodialysis population.
Focus on Foot Care
One such area of care which remains under the radar is morbidity and mortality related to peripheral vascular disease and foot care. For the most part, at this stage, foot care attracts attention only after a problem has already arisen. There are no screening protocols in hemodialysis centers to identify the problem earlier on. As a result, preventive strategies to reduce morbidity and mortality related to this issue remain unaddressed. The magnitude of this problem is unrealized until you add to the equation that the majority of hemodialysis patients are diabetics as well. As a result, there remains a significant issue of lower extremity amputations in hemodialysis patients. Overall, 40 percent of patients in the United States starting chronic dialysis count diabetes mellitus as the primary cause of renal failure, making it the number one cause of CKD (Berman et al., 2001).
Patients with diabetes and chronic renal disease frequently present with a combination of the devastations of diabetes including: nephropathy, retinopathy and vasculopathy. The main focus of the care of these patients has been on the target organs like heart and kidneys. Therefore, early risk factors for diabetic foot complications may be disregarded, and this may lead to amputation—a failure for both the patient and physician. Diabetic foot complications, including amputation, add significantly to the morbidity and mortality of the patient with diabetes and CKD. However, of all the long-term complications of diabetes, foot complications may be the most preventable. In the United States, diabetes is the cause of 50 percent of nontraumatic lower extremity amputations and is increasing annually (Levin, 2002). The prevalence of lower extremity amputation for patients with diabetes and CKD is much greater than those without CKD. The rate of lower limb amputation for the population at large increased during a recent four-year period from 4.8 to 6.2/100 persons. During the same time frame, this rate of lower extremity amputation rose from 11.8 to 13.8/100 among persons with CKD attributed to diabetic nephropathy. The rate for patients with diabetes and CKD was 10 times greater than the diabetic population at large (Eggers, Gohdes, & Pugh et al., 1999). The cost of treating patients with diabetes is astronomical both financially and in terms of quality of life. The loss of a lower extremity or even part of a lower extremity greatly impacts quality of life. Depression after amputation is common. Leisure activities as well as employment status are altered. The mortality rate after amputation in patients with diabetes is 11 percent to 4 percent at one year, 20 percent to 50 percent at three years, and 39 percent to 68 percent at five years (Fritschi, 2001). The impact of disorganized foot care on overall morbidity and mortality in hemodialysis patients therefore can no longer be ignored. One could always argue the benefit of putting resources into such an endeavor.
Do diabetic foot examinations reduce the risk of amputation? For two decades, the United States Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) has used health promotion and disease prevention objectives to improve the health of the American people. The overall goal for diabetes in the Healthy People 2010 objective is, “Through prevention programs, reduce the disease and economic burden of diabetes and improve the quality of life for all persons who have or are at risk for diabetes” (HHS, 2000). A specific objective contained within this goal targets a 55 percent reduction in the rate of lower extremity amputations in persons with diabetes. This would amount to 1.8 lower extremity amputations per 1,000 patients with diabetes per year, down from 4.1 per 1,000 patients that occurred in 1997 (HHS, 2000). Several clinical studies in the nondialysis diabetic population have shown that coordinated programs to screen for high-risk feet and to provide regular foot care decreased lower extremity amputation rates. In a controlled study, 45 hemodialysis patients were assigned to intensive education and care management that included preventive foot care and 38 HD patients were assigned to usual care. Over the 12-month follow-up period, there were no amputations in the study group while there were five lower extremity amputations and two finger amputations in the control group. Mortality was unaffected over the short time of the study, but the morbidity benefit was obvious. Benefit from aggressive preventive care is therefore very likely if not proven through prospective randomized controlled trials.
Nobody would disagree that regular foot care is standard care for every diabetic, and diabetic patients on dialysis are no exception to this standard of care. The American Diabetic Association recommends, “All individuals with diabetes should receive a thorough foot examination at least once yearly to identify high-risk foot conditions.” The ADA goes on to recommend more frequent evaluation for people with one or more risk factors and a visual foot inspection at every visit with a healthcare professional for diabetic patients with neuropathy. “Examination of the foot is an obvious, fundamental step to identifying certain foot risk factors that can be modified, thus reducing the risk of ulceration and amputation” (Mayfield, Reiber et al. 1998). Foot lesions are the single most frequently mismanaged problem of patients with diabetes mellitus and chronic kidney disease (CKD). Recommendations for improving the survival of patients with diabetes and CKD include improvement in the foot care and education of both patients and nephrology healthcare providers regarding diabetic foot complications (Ritz, Koch et al. 1999).
Improving Foot Care
The real question is: Why is it so difficult to provide much needed foot care and how best to do it? One has to take into account the fact that it is not easy for a hemodialysis patient to keep multiple subspecialty appointments. Once-a-year visits for foot examination are not very likely to identify and trigger an early referral. Yet three times a week they are available to a hemodialysis nurse for simple inspection and basic exam of feet. It is logical to think that foot care protocols would be part of patient care. It is possible that it poses some legal and monetary issues for the hemodialysis companies in an era of shrinking reimbursements for hemodialysis patients. These concerns, for the most part, are not true. Legally, it is always safer to prevent than treat an issue after it has been allowed to manifest in medical care set up. Improving care of hemodialysis patients with foot care should theoretically keep patients out of hospitals and on a hemodialysis chair for monetary gains of the hemodialysis center.
Finally, of course one cannot put cost on saving a patients from morbidity and mortality associated with poor foot care. However, planning this care would require careful insight into all practical aspects of care and caregivers. To begin with, the screening process should be very basic level, which hemodialysis nurses are comfortable with. Time spent and protocol has to be very straightforward. It should simply identify and focus on confirming a “NORMAL” exam from “NOT NORMAL” requires physician evaluation. Hemodialysis nurses should then be able to pass that information in a quick computerized manner to nephrologists triggering referrals to podiatrist, interventional cardiologist/interventional radiologists committed to his/her group preferably again by the same computerized network. Unnecessary time spent on telephone calls have to be avoided using protocol driven care and computerized network. Information then would have to be exchanged seamlessly between hemodialysis centre nursing staff, nephrologists, interventionalist and podiatrist. The whole network would have to be HIPAA compliant and be easy to learn and adapt to the needs to dialysis facility and physician groups involved. Ideally the network should be able to blend in with existing networks involved in hemodialysis care as well as communicate with subspecialty groups.
In summary, preventive foot care for hemodialysis patients is lost in efforts and time spent to provide care in other much politicized areas of care. But ignoring prevention in this area leads to significant morbidity and mortality. There are no randomized controlled trials of intensive education and care management versus usual care of feet in diabetic dialysis patients. Nonetheless, diabetic dialysis patients are likely to benefit from examination of the foot as part of the routine dialysis care. Given the fact that prevention can be easily done in hemodialysis center by hemodialysis nursing staff, there is little reason not to introduce it. Three times a week contact between hemodialysis nurses and patient is a potential opportunity to assess risks, educate and provide early intervention for foot issues in CKD population. Simple measures such as routine foot screening and education for this high risk population can prevent ulcer-initiating events and detect small ulcers when they may heal with proper intervention. Preventive strategies should include protocol based strategy for referral to specialist. Computerized network should allow this to happen seamlessly and effortlessly to benefit all involved in hemodialysis care. In this regard, all involved in medical care of hemodialysis patients can no longer afford to ignore the importance of preventive care of hemodialysis patients.
~ Renal Business Today ~
Zahid Ahmad, MD.
Dr. Ahmad is an assistant professor of medicine of interventional nephrology at the University of Oklahoma’s Section of Nephrology & Hypertension. For more information visit www.encompassnetworkpartners.com.