Hitting a Nerve

Is it time for neurologists to manage high blood pressure?


In the Nov. 1, 2019, issue of JAMA Neurology, an editorial argues that it’s time for neurologists to start managing high blood pressure.

A health care provider monitors a patient's blood pressure. GlobalStock/Getty Images

It makes some very valid points: that targeting a systolic blood pressure of less than 120 mm Hg results in lower rates of cardiovascular events and all causes of mortality, that poorly controlled hypertension leads to debilitating neurologic conditions, and that high blood pressure is the most common modifiable risk factor for stroke.

All are strong points. I agree with them and definitely believe that more can and should be done to control hypertension.

The editorial then goes on to say that “first and foremost we are charging neurologists with actively diagnosing hypertension and prescribing medications when appropriate.”

Uh, no. I’m not going to be the one managing hypertension, nor should any outpatient neurologist.

Outpatient hypertension treatment has historically been, and should remain, the province of general practitioners, cardiologists, and nephrologists. Too many cooks, as they say, spoils the broth. I don’t want to be in a situation where two (or more) doctors are simultaneously trying to treat the same condition. On that path lies danger.

This doesn’t mean I ignore blood pressure. On the contrary, I take it (myself) at every patient visit, and put it in my note. In most cases I do nothing further, as nothing further needs to be done. On occasion, though, if it’s concerningly high, I’ll write it down for the patient and direct them to call the physician handling it. I also fax a note about it to that office, and if it’s dangerously high will call the doctor myself.

But try to manage it? No. Elevated readings definitely overlap with my world, but treating them shouldn’t.

The article says that, for some chronic patients, neurologists are their de facto internist. Perhaps for a few, but when a patient calls with concerns about a respiratory ailment, gastrointestinal problem, or other nonneurologic issue, I tell them to call their general practitioner. If they don’t have one I’m happy to give them the names and phone numbers of colleagues who practice that field, or even urgent care and emergency department information if needed. Just because I see them for their neurologic problems doesn’t qualify me to practice another branch of medicine.

Dr. Allan M. Block, a neurologist is Scottsdale, Ariz.

Dr. Allan M. Block

Beyond the dangers of having more than one doctor involved, as a specialist it’s not practical for me to know the antihypertensive medications – possibly the largest group of agents on the market, – in detail, with their mechanisms of action, side effects, and contraindications. Yes, I do keep a handful in mind, since they’re needed off label for migraines and tremors, but not in the kind of detail a cardiologist would. I have to keep track of enough medications in my specialty as it is.

I wouldn’t try to handle blood pressure any more than I’d expect a nephrologist to treat epilepsy. It’s just looking for trouble.

Even when covering the hospital, I’ll stay out of that arena. This doesn’t mean I ignore blood pressure in such serious conditions as stroke or posterior reversible encephalopathy syndrome. I’m more than happy to provide guidelines and parameters. But as far as choosing the medications and doses? No.

Like driving, we all have to share the road. We may even be focused on the same journey (or patient). But part of practicing medicine and handling traffic is knowing when to stay in your lane.

Dr. Block has a solo neurology practice in Scottsdale, Ariz.

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