Everyone’s mind jumps right to end-stage renal disease and dialysis when kidney disease is mentioned, even among clinicians. By the time a patient needs dialysis, pathology has been smoldering, sometimes for prolonged periods of time. Nephrology gracefully manages later-stage kidney disease, but it seems the incipient cases remain in the shadows. In general practice, kidneys are often ignored.

What I want to know is this: How can we effectively forge a path between nephrology and primary care — take the reins and together harness the epidemic, starting early while the pathology of the disease may be more easily addressed?

Too many patients and too many of their primary care providers are simply unaware of renal status. The staggering number of stage 3 chronic kidney disease (CKD) cases dramatically dwindles by stage 4, and CKD exacerbates so many underlying pathologies. Morbidity leads to mortality, often without recognition of underlying kidney damage as the prominent culprit. With the worldwide nephrologist shortage, and clearly with the high cost of end-stage care, it may well be time to expand the renal education and early/moderate CKD clinical savvy in primary care.

Build CKD recognition

As a physician, I recognize pharmaceutical options as a small part of longitudinal CKD care. The point of early diagnosis is assisting patients with the arduous and necessary journey to lifestyle change. Primary care has embraced this supportive role for other diagnoses, such as cancer, diabetes, heart disease, etc. This type of synergistic/collaborative care — reinforcing specialist input, following each person with his or her myriad issues — is the perfect fit for CKD.

How do we communicate to make our generalist and specialist intent merge into one clear target — enhanced patient quality of life? How can we make this work — to commence having a serious problem-solving conversation?

The literature suggests early nephrologist involvement improves long-term outcomes. Proactive primary care offers longitudinal guidance for making the enormous lifestyle changes in diet, exercise, stress management, hydration, sleep and toxic exposures, while offering psychological counseling that is required to achieve such changes. The cross-over benefits for patients’ other diagnoses is well known.

This concept of primary care nephrology could unfold into clinical reality as a professional, collaborative cooperation. With the diagnostic refinement of the nephrologist, a primary care physician can guide patients with CKD with the balancing act of comorbidities, medication management and optimal kidney lifestyle.

Likewise, what this family physician recognizes as critically useful from the consulting nephrologist is the expert focus on pathology with a diagnosis and back-up. We must agree that things like diet, exercise, sleep, stress and toxins have longitudinal importance for our patients with CKD — important enough for the primary care physician to make time with motivated patients to assess and co-discover actionable adaptations. Comorbidities with time will certainly guide the process. The success of this requires supportive enthusiasm from the specialist.

Vision of collaboration

Here is an example: A 46-year-old perimenopausal working single mother, with a history 12 years prior of pregnancy-induced hypertension and diabetes, has moderate proteinuria and a creatinine of 1.2. A nephrology consult will crystallize her individual needs. A primary care plan will address medications, CKD lifestyle needs and illuminate the notable overlap of benefits for her other diagnoses.

During the course of four visits looking at her stress, relationship to food and exercise needs, she exhibits admirable motivation, paying attention to what and how she eats and enjoying a lunchtime walking program. Reinforcing these successes while addressing medications, diet, sleep, etc. every 3 months offers an opportunity to protect nephrons and proceed further in the adaptations needed.

At this time, nephrologists cannot assume this is taking place in all primary care settings. Primary care providers, guiding patients with CKD safely through commonplace medical scenarios — like infectious illnesses, traumatic injuries, surgeries, travel and stress — need to grasp a breadth of nephrology basics. Our patients with CKD are at increased risk of acute kidney injury. Astute protection means we save nephrons. This author would welcome renal rotations at all levels of medical training, with a facet of focus on longitudinal outpatient, early and moderate CKD care. This vision of collaboration, with a commitment to early diagnosis and intervention, offers the opportunity to learn how to guide patients to a less inflammatory lifestyle.

The urgency is there. Can we talk?

For more information: Robin Rose, MD, is a semi-retired family physician with a long-time interest in chronic illness and the role of lifestyle, with an interest in incipient and moderate CKD as a current focus. She lives in Molokai, Hawaii. Disclosure: Rose reports no relevant financial disclosures.