Author Archives: Carey Goldberg

Crowdsourcing Food Poisoning; Yelping About Your Vomit

From the informatics experts at Children’s Hospital Boston who created Health Map to track local and global disease outbreaks comes another novel proposal: tracking food-borne illness through Yelp. Here’s their pitch to use social media for public health,  published on Vector, the hospital’s blog:

You just had a great meal at a restaurant. So you grab your phone and fire off a glowing review on Yelp.

Yelp Inc. /flickr

Yelp Inc. /flickr

Consider the opposite scenario: You just had a horrible meal at a restaurant. So you grab your phone and fire off a scathing review on Yelp.Now here’s one more: You had a great meal at a restaurant but woke up vomiting the next morning. Do you grab your phone and fire off a complaint on Yelp that your dinner made you sick… A report in Preventive Medicine, authored by John Brownstein, PhD, Elaine Nsoesie, PhD and Sheryl Kluberg, MSc, judges Yelp’s usefulness as a food poisoning surveillance tool. Their efforts are part of a growing trend among public health researchers of trying to supplement traditional foodborne illness reporting with what we, the people, say on social media. It’s estimated that some 48 million Americans get food poisoning every year, but that number is likely far off the mark. “Foodborne illness is under-reported, under-documented and hard to get at,” says Brownstein, who co-founded the HealthMap epidemic tracking tool and who also has a data grant from Twitter focused on foodborne illness. Continue reading

Why To Exercise Today, For Men: High Blood Pressure Hits Much Later

blood-pressure
By Alvin Tran
Guest contributor

One out of every three American adults has high blood pressure. And, whether you’re a man or a woman, your blood pressure naturally increases with age, raising your risk of health problems from stroke to heart disease and diabetes.

But there is a silver lining – at least for men with higher fitness levels, a new study finds.

The study, published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology, found that men who maintained higher levels of fitness tended to develop high blood pressure significantly later than less-fit men.

“We think improving fitness can slow the natural increased trend of systolic blood pressure with aging,” says Dr. Xuemei Sui, an assistant professor at the Arnold School of Public Health at the University of South Carolina and one of the study’s coauthors.

Sui and her colleagues’ data suggest the systolic blood pressure (the top number) of men with higher fitness levels reaches prehypertension – the level between normal and high blood pressure – at a much later age, on average: at 54, compared to an average of 46 in less fit men.

The research team analyzed medical exam records of nearly 14,000 men, ranging in age from 20 to 90, who were followed over a 36-year period. The research team divided the men into three equal groups of fitness: low (the bottom one-third), moderate, and high (the upper one-third).

Aside from the delay in the development of high blood pressure, the study also found that men in the higher fitness category had other more favorable health outcomes compared to those in the lower groups, including lower body mass index scores, percent of body fat, and cholesterol. These findings, Sui says, aren’t surprising. What was surprising, she says, was the significant delay in hypertension.

So, what should the men out there do?

“Physical activity is the primary determinant of fitness level,” Sui says.

Boston-Based Partners In Health Leaps Into Ebola Crisis

Members of Partners in Health work with representatives from Liberia and Sierra Leone via conference call to help combat the Ebola outbreak. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

Members of Partners in Health work with representatives from Liberia and Sierra Leone via conference call to help combat the Ebola outbreak. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

An advance team from Boston-based Partners In Health heads for Ebola-stricken Liberia Monday. Four doctors, including co-founder Paul Farmer, and two operations staff will lay the groundwork for an ambitious two- to three-year project that will require well over 100 volunteer doctors, nurses, lab techs and public health workers. The budget for just the first year is $35 million.

“We are at a dangerous moment with Ebola,” said Farmer as he prepared for the trip. “Even though this is a huge jump for PIH, I am confident we will succeed.”

PIH will work with two established groups, Last Mile Health in Liberia and Wellbody Alliance in Sierra Leone, to strengthen existing public health clinics and train several hundred new community health workers. In addition, PIH will open two 50-bed Ebola treatment centers in rural areas of each country.

The plan began to take shape last week, as the World Health Organization reported a near doubling of Ebola cases in Liberia and an estimate from Columbia University projects 30,000 cases by mid-October if conditions in the country deteriorate.

“There’s more doctors on a single floor of the Brigham than in the entire country of Liberia.”
– PIH's Paul Farmer

In the colorful offices of PIH, decorated with art from countries where the group works, some staffers are flashing back to 2010 and the weeks following Haiti’s earthquake. Ebola is creating another humanitarian crisis, one that is unfolding right before their eyes.

The call for volunteers went up on PIH’s website five days ago. More than 100 people responded within 24 hours, but it will take some time to determine if the skills of applicants fit the needs of these rural Ebola treatment and isolation units. PIH is trying to screen potential recruits quickly. It plans to send a first round to a training run by the Centers for Disease Control next week and open the centers by mid-October or early November.

“To do this right, we will depend on people who are willing to fight against this terrible crisis,” said Joia Mukherjee, chief medical officer at PIH. “The reason we will need a lot of non-Liberians, non-Sierra Leoneans — these countries simply do not have enough doctors and nurses.”

“There’s more doctors on a single floor of the Brigham than in the entire country of Liberia,” added Farmer, who is also chief of the Division of Global Health Equity at Brigham and Women’s Hospital.

He hopes to tap the medical wealth of Boston for the Ebola project, but the PIH board has demanded that a plan to treat and evacuate sick volunteers is in place before the operation begins. Farmer and Mukherjee are talking to the U.S. Department of Defense and other possible partners about transportation and care options.

A fourth doctor in Sierra Leone died Saturday, bringing the total number of health care worker deaths in Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea from Ebola to 150. Continue reading

Making Peace With My Abnormal Brain

(Andrew Ostrovsky)

(Andrew Ostrovsky)

By Dr. Annie Brewster
Guest Contributor

What you never want to hear from the radiologist: “I wouldn’t mistake it for a normal brain.”

Yet this is what I recently heard from my radiologist friend who kindly took a look at an MRI of my brain. Let me repeat: it was my abnormal brain under discussion here, and I’ll tell you, his assessment was tough to hear.

The state of my brain isn’t exactly news to me. I have had Multiple Sclerosis since 2001, and I have frequent MRIs. Moreover, as a physician at the hospital where I get my treatment, I have the dubious privilege of having complete and immediate access to my medical chart. As such, I often see the MRI images and read the reports before my neurologist does, and fortunately or unfortunately, I understand “medicalese.” (And I have radiologist friends.)

Every time I get an MRI, I devour these reports as soon as they become available on the computer, scanning optimistically for words like “stable.” I even hold onto the absurdly magical hope that old lesions will have disappeared, and that this whole diagnosis of MS has been a big mistake. Instead, I find mention of new “hyperintense foci of white matter signal abnormality” and “enhancing” lesions, “consistent with actively demyelinating MS plaques.” I fixate on words like “volume loss” and “atrophy” and in one preliminary report generated by a resident, I think I saw the word “diminutive.” Did I imagine this?

Despite the sting of these words, I am able to remain somewhat detached. As a doctor, I spend my days looking at radiology images and reading such reports.

Often — due to the formal and impersonal language that is used — it’s hard to remember that the body part being referred to is actually part of a human being. It is even harder to remember that it is part of me!

“I wouldn’t mistake it for a normal brain” penetrates deeper. I understand. My brain is under attack, and is irreparably damaged.

My first response is to mount a defense. I feel the need to tell you that my brain is still a good brain. It just has a few small blemishes. It still works! I recently passed the required ten year recertification medical boards (apparently I will never escape bubble tests), and I feel smarter than ever. I am the mother of four and the primary logistical organizer in my
household, and my (short term) memory is at least ten times better than my husband’s (no offense, honey). Furthermore, research has clearly shown that MRI findings do not necessarily correlate with clinical symptoms in Multiple Sclerosis. So there is no cause for alarm.

Also, the research is promising. Exhibit A is this massive MS conference currently underway in Boston with many great minds focusing their attention on new approaches, such as potential remyelinating therapies, to tackle the disease. (MS damages the myelin, the sheath around nerve cells, and remyelination would restore it.)

My neurologist, Eric Klawiter, at Massachusetts General Hospital, writes me this:

As a research community, we have gained a great deal of knowledge on the mechanism of remyelination and how that process can go awry in MS. There are several candidate compounds demonstrated to promote the body’s ability to differentiate precursor cells into cells that lay down new myelin (oligodendrocytes). It is yet to be established whether these candidate therapies will work best to promote immediate recovery from relapses or whether they will also be effective in the setting of remote demyelination.

Of course, any potential new therapies are years or more away and don’t do much for me right now.

So, underneath my bravado, there is vulnerability. Continue reading

When Teens Talk Of Suicide: What You Need To Know

By Gene Beresin, MD and Steve Schlozman, MD
Guest Contributors

Here’s the kind of call we get all too frequently:

“Doctor, my son said he just doesn’t care about living anymore. He’s been really upset for a while, and when his girlfriend broke things off, he just shut down.”

Needless to say, situations like this are terribly frightening for parents. Kids break up with girlfriends and boyfriends all the time; how, parents wonder, could it be so bad that life might not be worth living? How could anything be so awful?

For clinicians like us who work with kids, these moments are at once common and anxiety-provoking. We know that teenagers suffer all sorts of challenges as they navigate the murky waters of growing up. We also know that rarely do these kids take their own lives. Nevertheless, some of them do, and parents and providers alike must share the burden of the inexact science of determining where the greatest risks lie.

Suicide has been in the news lately with a flurry of new research and reports and, of course, the high profile death earlier this summer of Robin Williams.

But suicidal behavior among teenagers and kids in their early 20s is different and unique.

So let’s look at a couple of fictional — yet highly representative — scenarios.

depressed

Charlie, a 16-year-old high school junior was not acting like himself. In fact, those were his parents’ very words. Previously a great student and popular kid, Charlie gradually started behaving like a different person. He became more irritable, more isolated and seemed to stop caring about or even completing his homework. Then one morning, just before before school, he told his mother that he wished he were dead.

Myths: Common But Distorted 

There are countless other examples. Sometimes kids say something. Sometimes they post a frightening array of hopeless lyrics on Facebook. And most of the time — and this is important — kids don’t do anything to hurt themselves. Morbid lyrics and even suicidal sentiments are surprisingly common in adolescence. Still, this does not mean for a second that we take these warning signs lightly. In fact, there is a common myth that asking about suicide perpetuates suicide. There is not a shred of evidence in support of this concern, and in the studies that have been done, the opposite appears to be true. Kids are glad to be asked.

We have to ask. It’s really that simple. But, we ask with some very basic facts in mind. Suicidal thinking, and even serious contemplation of suicide, is, as we mentioned, very common among high school students. In the Center for Disease Control Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance Survey distributed every two years to about 14,000 high school kids in grades 9-12, students are queried about a range of high-risk behaviors, including suicide.

The Underlying Mood Disorder

In 2013, 17% of teens reported seriously considering suicide, and 8% made actual attempts. Each year in the United States, about 15 in 100,000 kids will die by suicide, making suicide the third leading cause of death in this age group. Additionally, we have no idea how many deaths by accidents (the leading cause of death) were, in fact, the product of latent or active suicide.

The greatest risk factors for a teenager to die by suicide include the presence of some mood disorder (most commonly depression), coupled with the use of drugs, or other substances, and previous attempts.

Although research suggests that girls attempt suicide more often, boys more often die from suicide. Add these risk factors together, and it turns out that Caucasian boys are at highest risk.

Some of this is also driven by a still immature brain. Impulsive behavior is notoriously common in teens, and in many cases, it looks as if the act of suicide was the result of a rash and sudden decision. Continue reading

Tackling Autism In Babies? Small Study An ‘Absolute Miracle,’ Says Mom

Megan says the experimental trial she participated in with her daughter Isabel was "an absolute miracle," transforming the child from a troubled baby who looked headed for autism to a typical, happy preschooler.

Megan says the experimental trial she participated in with her daughter Isabel was “an absolute miracle,” transforming the child from a troubled baby who looked headed for autism to a typical, happy preschooler.

Research out this week suggests that it’s never too early to begin therapy to treat some of the defining symptoms of autism. Karen Weintraub reports on the promising new findings in USA Today under the headline, “Study: Autism Signs In Babies Can Be Erased.”

Karen expands on her report here:

In a small pilot study — the first to look at starting therapy in babies this young — researchers at the University of California Davis’ MIND Institute, began treating 7 babies who showed symptoms likely to turn into autism later. By their third birthdays, five of the children no longer exhibited any symptoms of autism, and a sixth was diagnosed with mild autism.

Because the study was so small, and autism cannot reliably be diagnosed in infancy, the researchers stopped short of calling the treatment a breakthrough. But they said they will be following up with a larger study, which they hoped would confirm the results.

One mother involved in the trial described the treatment as “an absolute miracle” for her daughter, Isabel. The mother, Megan, asked not to be fully identified, but talked openly about the trial and its benefits for her family.

At nine months old, Isabel wouldn’t turn her head when someone walked into a room calling her name. She never babbled, Megan said. She was physically delayed in fine and gross motor skills, and didn’t seem to know how to play with toys. All those are signs commonly seen in children who go on to be diagnosed with autism.

Megan heard about the trial through her pediatrician and the family – including Isabel’s dad and her older brother – moved from the Seattle area to Sacramento, so they could participate in the study.

In 12 weekly sessions, lead researcher Sally Rogers coached Megan and her husband John as they played with baby Isabel. Where most children will smile or giggle when happy, Isabel’s facial expressions didn’t change much; where others might cry if scared by a loud sound, Isabel rarely reacted to anything in her environment. But Rogers showed them that Isabel might glance over quickly when she was interested or look at her hands when something was too loud or overwhelming – cues that Megan and John could take to do more or less of whatever they were doing.

Once they learned to “speak” Isabel’s language, Megan said she and John were able to react to her and engage with their baby for the first time. Eventually, through this interaction, Isabel learned that she could communicate – and have fun doing it. That primed her to learn even more, Megan said.

Megan said she and her husband would never have figured out what to do without the coaching. Continue reading

How Mass. Plans To Re-Enroll 450,000 Residents In Health Insurance

All of the estimated 450,000 Massachusetts residents who get health insurance through the Health Connector or MassHealth — some of whom have been in a confusing phase of temporary coverage this year — will soon begin the process of applying for coverage for 2015.

If the state’s new health insurance website is up and running — which the Patrick administration promises it will be — then residents will be able to beginning applying online Nov. 15. If the website still isn’t working, or using a computer isn’t convenient, then you’ll have to fill out a paper application.

Either way, you might want to keep a copy of this timeline handy through January. There are several different deadlines that may be tricky to remember. Here’s an explanation:

(Click to enlarge)

(Click to enlarge)

The key on the bottom left of the chart describes each diamond. Pay close attention to the red diamonds — these are the working end dates for your coverage. I say “working” because these dates assume insurers and the federal government grant the state’s request for extensions.

The state is seeking the extensions so it can spread out the re-enrollment period to avoid overloading members or the system. All the plans through the Connector and MassHealth are currently set to end on Dec. 31, but your coverage may be good for a few more weeks if the extensions are approved. Make sure to look for the coverage end date on any letters you receive.

If you have a commercial health plan through the Connector, find the gray QHP (qualified health plan) box on the top left of timeline and follow the timeline across. Look for your open enrollment package in the mail in early November. Your coverage ends on Dec. 31.

If you had a Commonwealth Care plan last year that has been continued this year, then look for the gold box. The state hopes to extend your coverage through January, so you’ll have two-plus months to review your coverage options.

If you have temporary coverage through MassHealth, then you will be reminded to re-enroll in waves based on when you signed up. You’ll fall into the purple, blue or green boxes above. According to this timeline, your coverage is expected to end sometime between Jan. 15, 2015 and Feb. 15, 2015. But again, the state does not yet have approval for that extension.

The Patrick administration is also waiting to hear if the federal government will give Massachusetts another $80 million to build the new health insurance website, or the $18 million requested to fund outreach, ads and other enrollment efforts.

Related Coverage:

Surprise In Mass. Primary: 21 Percent For Single-Payer Candidate Berwick

Note to politicians: Backing “Medicare for all” is looking less and less like electoral poison. If, deep in your heart, you believe American health care would be better off with a Canadian-style, single-payer system, you might now consider coming out of the closet. (In Democratic primaries in blue states, at least.)

That’s my suggested takeaway from the striking Massachusetts Democratic primary showing of Dr. Donald Berwick, who rocketed from near-zero name recognition among general voters to 21 percent at the polls. Catch him saying forcefully in the video above: “Let’s take the step in health care that the rest of the country hasn’t had the guts to take: single payer. Medicare for all.”

Now, Vermont not only has a mainstream politician who backed a single-payer system — Gov. Peter Shumlin — it’s actually translating the idea into practice as we speak. But let’s put it this way: This seems to be the first time that a candidate in a mainstream political party in a state that is not a verdant utopian duchy has run on a single-payer platform. And though he did not defeat the longtime familiar faces, he did surprisingly well.

“The term I’ve used, and it’s a bold term, but it’s confiscation.”
– Dr. Donald Berwick

Of course, we knew that Massachusetts voters tend to like the idea of single payer. As recently as 2010, 14 fairly middle-of-the-road districts voted in favor of a non-binding ballot measure calling for “creating a single payer health insurance system like Medicare that is comprehensive, cost effective, and publicly provided to all residents of Massachusetts.”

Analysts projected that the results meant a statewide majority in support of a single-payer system. The single-payer idea had polled well in non-binding ballot measures before, as well. But now we’ve seen that sentiment translated into support for a candidate.

Other politicians, including President Obama, have backed the general idea of a single-payer system, but they always add a “but,” said Dr. Steffi Woolhandler, who helped found Physicians for a National Health Program.

“And the ‘but’ usually has to do with the political situation,” she said. “But it’s actually important to say what’s the right thing to do and to really work toward the right solution, and that’s what Don [Berwick] has been willing to do, to say, ‘We need single payer and skip the ‘but,’ let’s just say we need single payer and that we need to start working toward it.’”

Will Berwick’s strong showing change the playing field for other candidates? Dr. Woolhandler says yes: “Politicians understand votes. Unfortunately, they also understand money. But they do understand votes, and I think other politicians will see that voters are behind the idea of single payer.”

I asked Dr. Berwick about the reaction to his single-payer position in his many campaign-season travels, and he said the biggest surprise was how positive the response had been from voters who would likely not call themselves progressives. They either already agreed with the idea, he said, or responded instantly after one sentence of explanation with, “That sounds right to me. Let me tell you my story.”

“I remember a carpenter in Hingham,” he said. “I don’t think he would have said he was a progressive — he was a somewhat older carpenter struggling to make ends meet, sitting on a sofa at a gathering, a meet-and-greet, and I started talking about this, and I guess — embarrassingly, to me — I was expecting some pushback. But he immediately said, ‘I’ve got to tell you a story.’ And he told me about his struggle to get health insurance.

“He very carefully went through the policy options, he had picked one that had a maximum deductible that was pretty stiff, and he was ready to swallow it. And he did, he signed up for that plan. And then, the problem was that he had three major illnesses the following year. And he discovered — to his dismay — that the deductible did not apply to the year, it applied to each separate episode. So this guy, who’s working with his hands and trying to just get through and have his family’s ends meet, suddenly found himself tens of thousands of dollars in debt, because of the complexity [of health insurance.] And he said, ‘Enough of this!’ He immediately understood and was fully on board, and that kind of experience has been pretty constant for me.”

Overall, Dr. Berwick said, “The response has been extremely positive beyond anything I would have anticipated. Continue reading

Study: Bullying By Siblings May Double Risk Of Depression, Self-Harm

(Wikimedia Commons)

(Wikimedia Commons)

By Nicole Tay
CommonHealth intern

When I was growing up, I used to complain about the loneliness of being an only child. “I want an older brother like Mandy!” I would plead to my parents. I just wanted an older, cooler playmate; I never considered the potential downside.

Now, at 22, I’ve heard my share of horror stories; the sibling bullies who called my friends “butt face” or “stupid” or “brat;” the burnt Barbie dolls; the bag of caterpillars dumped on my poor friend’s head.

Is sibling bullying just a harmless rite of passage — or can it actually entail developmental repercussions?

A new study published today by the American Academy of Pediatrics targets that very question. After surveying more than 6,900 young people in the UK, researchers found that victims of frequent sibling bullying were twice as predisposed to depression, anxiety, and self-harm in young adulthood as non-bullied controls. This British-based study comes on the heels of similar findings in an American study last year. From the paper:

Of the 786 children who reported that they had been bullied by a sibling several times a week (55.3% female), depression was reported by 12.3% at age 18 years, self-harm occurred in 14.1%, and anxiety was reported by 16.0%.

And from the abstract: Continue reading

Mass. Study: Limited Health Insurance Networks Save Money, Cause No Harm

Jonathan Gruber of MIT (Courtesy MIT)

Jonathan Gruber of MIT (Courtesy MIT)

Most patients, myself included, do not like to be told, “You can’t see that doctor or go to that hospital.” But the message is becoming more common as we, patients, or our employers choose what are known as “limited” or “narrow” network plans (note the not-so-subtle name change).

These plans are often cheaper than other options because they cut out expensive hospitals and because insurers negotiate better prices with hospitals and doctors who are promised our business.

But there’s a backlash that’s both real and hyped. Some of the hype is refuted by a study out today.

It looks at a broad movement toward limited network plans in Massachusetts in 2011, when state employees got a three-month “premium holiday” if they switched from more traditional coverage to the lower-cost option.

State employees who chose to switch reduced their health care spending by 36 percent.

“Clearly, this was a big cost-saver for the state,” says study co-author Jon Gruber.

The savings, says Gruber, occurred because patients with limited network coverage relied more on primary care and less on specialists. There is no sign that patients received lower quality care or that their health deteriorated.

Gruber, who had a hand in creating both the Massachusetts coverage law and the Affordable Care Act, claims the political implications of this Massachusetts limited network experiment are profound.

“There’s a lot of discussion about ObamaCare leading to more ‘limited’ choices,” says Gruber, and “isn’t that a shame.” But Gruber says people in these plans “don’t appear to be suffering.” Continue reading