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PCPs facing increased patient demand for knowledgeable menopause care


In 2017, a survey of 20 U.S. residency programs in family medicine, internal medicine, and ob.gyn. showed that only 6.8% of residents felt they were being adequately prepared to manage menopausal patients effectively, including how to use hormone therapy (HT).

Of the 177 residents who responded to the survey, 102 (56%) were in either family medicine or internal medicine.

“My guess is that there has been no substantial evolution in medical training to this day,” said lead survey study author Juliana Kling, MD, MPH, professor of medicine, chair of women’s health internal medicine, and dean, Mayo Clinic Alix School of Medicine, Scottsdale, Ariz.

The survey showed that overall 98% of residents thought it was important to know about menopause. However, 34% said they wouldn’t recommend HT in a severely symptomatic woman with no contraindications, and 60% said they wouldn’t recommend HT until at least the natural age of menopause in a prematurely menopausal woman. Some even recommended against it.

“Hormone therapy is effective, and for most healthy women younger than 60, the benefits are going to outweigh the risks,” said Dr. Kling. “We need to be comfortable, even in internal medicine, with prescribing hormones for the right women.”

The researchers concluded that “residual ambivalence about [hormone therapy] on the part of educators” may have played a role in curriculums that didn’t acknowledge the clinical relevance of menopause or include current evidence on the use of HT. Physicians should be taught to recognize menopausal symptoms, know the risks and benefits of HT and the alternatives, and how to select suitable candidates, they said.

Up to 80% of women in the United States are affected by menopausal vasomotor symptoms, but only one in four receive treatment, Dr. Kling pointed out. “Women will spend about a third of their lives after menopause, so being prepared to manage the consequences of menopause, such as bone health, vaginal dryness and painful intercourse, and increased cardiovascular disease risk, is critically important to all of us caring for women,” she emphasized. “These aren’t just ‘bothersome symptoms.’ ”

It is estimated that by 2060, there will be 90 million postmenopausal women in the United States. “Given the number of women who will experience symptoms of menopause and the considerable associated burden to their health and to the health care system, it is important to invest in educating future clinicians to provide evidence-based, comprehensive menopause management,” said Dr. Kling and coauthors in a February 2023 review of menopause treatments.

HT is the standard for the treatment of hot flashes and night sweats, and is highly effective for the prevention of bone loss and managing genitourinary syndrome of menopause. Among the alternatives to HT, the nonhormonal pharmacologic fezolinetant (Veozah) was approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration last May.

Following the early negative reports from the Women’s Health Initiative study of HT in 2002 and 2004, however, steep declines in HT prescription rates were seen among internists and family medicine practitioners. By 2009, only 18% of all HT prescriptions were written by primary care providers, and today, many remain wary about prescribing HT, despite evidence of its clinical value and safety.

“I think there’s a whole generation of family physicians who were taught that [hormone therapy] is dangerous and still feel very uncomfortable about using it to treat menopausal symptoms,” said Santina J.G. Wheat, MD, MPH, associate professor of family and community medicine at Northwestern University, Chicago. “These are the physicians educating the next generation of physicians,” said Dr. Wheat, who is program director for the McGaw Northwestern Family Medicine Residency Erie Humboldt Park.

Heather Hirsch, MD, an internist who specializes in menopause medicine in Columbus, Ohio, estimates that there are 300 internists among the 1,000 or so health care providers currently certified in menopause medicine through The Menopause Society (formerly the North American Menopause Society or NAMS). With 63 million women in the United States between the ages of 34 and 65, “that adds up to one doctor for several million patients,” she pointed out.

“In my opinion, the impact on menopausal care is profound,” said Jennifer T. Allen, MD, associate professor of obstetrics and gynecology, and director of menopause and midlife health at the Medical College of Georgia, Augusta. “If a physician was not exposed to menopause medicine in medical school or residency and does not choose to learn about menopause after training, then the opportunity to fully care for perimenopausal and postmenopausal women is extinguished.”

Not everyone agrees. “There’s no question that women’s health in general and menopausal issues specifically are a critical part of health care that is typically covered in most family medicine curriculums,” said Neil S. Skolnik, MD, professor of family and community medicine at the Sidney Kimmel Medical College in Philadelphia. “In family medicine, we really do attend to women’s health – particularly women’s health around menopause – as an important part of resident physician training,” emphasized Dr. Skolnik who is also and also associate director of the family medicine residency program at Abington Jefferson Health in Jenkintown, Penn.

"Family physicians are in a unique position to offer female patients effective care at perimenopause and beyond," added Karen L. Smith, MD, a family physician from Raeford, N.C., who is a board member of the American Academy of Family Physicians.*

Even so, many primary care physicians remain unsure about the use of HT, according to William E. Golden, MD, an internist and geriatrician, and professor of medicine and public health at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences, Little Rock.

“On the whole area of hot flashes and vasomotor instability, I think we’re in a state of significant flux and confusion,” Dr. Golden said in an interview. “For a long time, a lot of doctors told patients, ‘It’s okay, you’ll age out of it.’ Then the data started showing that the vasomotor symptoms continued for years so physicians began to reevaluate how to manage them. Now, the pendulum has swung back to giving estrogen.”

Many family physicians have been left to their own devices to figure out how to manage menopausal patients, said Dr. Wheat. “When there are significant changes to clinical management – or in the case of HT, a real reversal in how menopausal symptoms are managed – getting information out to physicians can be challenging.”

Meanwhile, patient demand for answers to their questions about menopause and the use of HT is changing the conversation, where it’s taking place, and with whom.

Some media-savvy doctors have taken to TikTok, where a lot of women started educating themselves about menopause during the pandemic. Dr. Hirsch is one of them. She uses the social media platform to talk about menopause and FDA-approved HT, but warned that for every clinician who is certified in menopause medicine “there are five more selling snake oil.”

Mainstream media has also jumped on the menopause bandwagon. The New York Times was one of the first, declaring that “menopause is having a moment.” On Feb. 1, the newspaper stormed the gates of the medical establishment with an article asking why more doctors weren’t offering HT to women experiencing hot flashes, sleeplessness, and pain during sex. The headline: “Women have been misled about menopause.”

On April 5, “The Menopause Talk” was posted to Oprah Daily, along with a menopause curriculum to give viewers “the tools to stay firmly in the driver’s seat as you navigate perimenopause and then menopause.” Popular topics included how to get your sex life back, premature menopause survival, and ways to work with insurers so that treatment is affordable.

“There’s been a sea-change in the culture that’s being driven by patient demand,” said Dr. Kling. “The conversation, colloquially, in the media, and with our patients, is evolving. Menopause is no longer such a taboo topic, and our patients are really demanding that we have answers for them. Clinicians are recognizing that they need better training in menopause and seeking that out.”

Last June, “Transforming Women’s Health” – the Mayo Clinic’s annual CME program held in partnership with The Menopause Society – had record physician attendance. “We’re going to make sure that our trainees are learning the up-to-date recommendations, not the ones from 20 years ago when the initial WHI reports made everyone fearful of hormones,” said Dr. Kling.

Dr. Kling disclosed that she is a medical editor for Everyday Health, and has a relationship with Evolve Medical Education. Dr. Skolnik reported relationships with numerous pharmaceutical companies. He is an MDedge Family Medicine board member. Dr. Golden is an MDedge Internal Medicine board member, and Dr. Wheat is an MDedge Family Medicine board member. Dr. Allen reported having no potential conflicts of interest.

* This story was updated on Sept 18, 2023. The quotation is attributable to Dr. Smith, not Dr. Skolnik.

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