Author Archives: Rachel Zimmerman

Blogger, CommonHealth Rachel Zimmerman worked as a staff reporter for The Wall Street Journal for 10 years in Seattle, New York and in Boston as a health and medicine reporter. Rachel has also written for The New York Times, the (now-defunct) Seattle Post-Intelligencer and the alternative newspaper Willamette Week, in Portland, Ore., among other publications. Rachel co-wrote a book about birth, published by Bantam/Random House, and spent 2008 as a Knight Science Journalism Fellow at MIT. Rachel lives in Cambridge with her husband and two daughters.

Where Baker, Coakley Stand On Health Care

Democrat Martha Coakley and Republican Charlie Baker, before a televised debate Tuesday in Boston (Barry Chin/Boston Globe/Pool/AP)

Democrat Martha Coakley and Republican Charlie Baker, before a televised debate Tuesday in Boston (Barry Chin/Boston Globe/Pool/AP)

It’s nearly half the state budget, almost 20 percent of the state’s economy and a perennial top concern for voters. The issue is health care, and so far, neither Democrat Martha Coakley nor Republican Charlie Baker has taken the lead on this topic with voters in the gubernatorial race.

“Coakley has perhaps a slight edge on the general health care issue, as well as the affordability issue, but neither campaign has really broken away” on health care, said Steve Koczela, president of the MassINC Polling Group. “It’s not like taxes, which go big for Baker. It’s not like education, which tends to go a bit bigger Coakley. It’s an issue that is still very closely fought.”

So where do the gubernatorial candidates stand on some of the key concerns in health care? Below is a summary of the candidates’ proposals for how to treat the health of the state.

On Making Health Care More Affordable:

BAKER: He argues that giving patients information about how much tests and procedures cost, in advance, will help us become informed consumers of care. We’ll spend less money, because we’ll choose to have a baby, for example, at the hospital with the lowest cost and best quality scores. As of Oct. 1, health plans in Massachusetts are required to post what they pay each hospital and doctor.

Baker would take a next step. “I’d like to get to the point where hospitals just post prices and people can see them plain as day,” Baker said. “As governor, I’m going to lean really hard on this.”

Some health care analysts say Baker’s strategy for reducing health care costs could backfire. Patients may assume that the most expensive hospital is the best even though that’s generally not true. And letting Brockton Hospital, for example, know that it is paid about half of what Massachusetts General Hospital receives for a C-section may mean Brockton Hospital demands more money, instead of MGH saying, “OK, I’m going to lower my prices to compete.” In addition, some of the expensive hospitals say their higher prices subsidize teaching and research.

COAKLEY: She argues she is uniquely positioned to tackle health care spending. She created a health care division in the attorney general’s office, issued the first detailed reports on health care costs and used her leverage to negotiate a deal that would limit the price increases Partners HealthCare could demand in the near future.

“The agreement that we have reached, to be approved by the court, caps costs and lowers costs as opposed to maintaining the status quo, which we all agree is too expensive,” Coakley said during a campaign debate on WBZ-TV. Continue reading

No Mandatory Ebola Quarantine In Mass.

A licensed clinician participates in a CDC training course in Alabama earlier this month for treating Ebola patients. (Brynn Anderson/AP)

A licensed clinician participates in a CDC training course in Alabama earlier this month for treating Ebola patients. (Brynn Anderson/AP)

Massachusetts has no plans to follow New York and New Jersey in requiring a three-week quarantine for health care workers and others who have had contact with Ebola-stricken patients.

“It’s probably a step further than we need here in the Commonwealth,” Gov. Deval Patrick said in comments provided by his press office, “but we’re prepared. It’s certainly a step further than what the CDC has recommended.”

Patrick said his counterparts, Andrew Cuomo in New York and Chris Christie in New Jersey, may have more reason to be concerned about Ebola.

“I understand why they are going to the extent they are going to, because two of the five receiving airports are in New York and New Jersey,” Patrick said.

Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn joined Cuomo and Christie Friday in imposing a quarantine on travelers who could be infected with Ebola.

A nurse placed under quarantine in New Jersey Friday described a chaotic scene at Newark Airport.

In Massachusetts, Patrick and Boston Mayor Marty Walsh have focused on calming public fear about Ebola.

“I understand that folks are anxious,” Patrick said again on Saturday. “We have worked very hard to make sure that our medical professionals have all of the guidance that we have, and that training is happening where and as it should, that public safety officials are fully briefed and prepared. From all accounts from the professionals, the risk is very, very low in Massachusetts.”

That assessment is based on the expectation that there is not much travel between Boston and West Africa right now, that Ebola does not easily spread, and that hospitals are prepared to handle any cases that may arise.

“It is obviously dangerous,” Patrick said, but “you have to be directly exposed to the bodily fluids of someone who is showing symptoms of Ebola, not someone who has been near somebody with Ebola. If people are showing any of those symptoms — nausea, high fever — they should get themselves to an emergency room quickly, and there are protocols for testing.”

Gottlieb Leaving Partners HealthCare For Partners In Health

Partners CEO Dr. Gary Gottlieb

Partners CEO Dr. Gary Gottlieb

The CEO at Partners HealthCare, the state’s largest private employer, plans to step down.

Dr. Gary Gottlieb agreed Friday to become the CEO at Partners in Health, a global health organization whose latest project is an Ebola response effort in West Africa.

Gottlieb is scheduled to make the transition on July 1, 2015. His decision comes amid acourt review of Partners’ controversial expansion plans and questions about Gottlieb’s ability to manage political dynamics outside the hospital network.

His supporters point out that Gottlieb has just begun his second five-year contract, and they say Partners board members urged Gottlieb to stay. But some current and former Partners leaders say dissatisfaction with Gottlieb’s leadership has been building for months and that the Partners in Health job offers Gottlieb a graceful way out.

He will take a dramatic pay cut, from more than $2 million a year to $200,000 a year at Partners in Health.

Gottlieb serves on the board at Partners in Health, has visited the group’s projects in Haiti and Rwanda, and calls it the most important global health initiative in the world.

“This is a singular opportunity to lead that organization at a time when it is clear that improving sustainable health care throughout the world is critical to all of us,” Gottlieb said.

Gottlieb says he began thinking seriously about moving to Partners in Health this summer, and decided to make the change earlier in the fall after hearing Partners in Health co-founder Paul Farmer describe what was happening in West Africa.

“With Ebola, maternal deaths had increased because there was no place for people to deliver babies,” said Gottlieb. “Malaria deaths had increased because there was no way to provide the appropriate care for what is a more ordinary terrible disease. The notion that building sustainable health care was essential for real social justice and real change had become even more obvious.” Continue reading

Chia Seed Alert: Superfood, Yes, But They Landed One Man In The ER

photo: Rachel Zimmerman/WBUR

photo: Rachel Zimmerman/WBUR

Confession: I eat chia seeds everyday. I feed them to my children. They make me feel full and satisfied and, yes, I’m a sucker for foods touted as “super” even though I know deep down it’s just marketing.

I may be crazy, but I’m also trendy: chia seeds are everywhere, in energy bars and smoothies, atop yogurt parfaits and at the core of crunchy kid snacks. Good Morning America called chia seeds the “it” food of 2013.

And they really are good for you: “a rich source of fiber, protein and heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids,” according to an NIH publication.

But this week, my chia euphoria took a hit. “Despite potential health benefits, chia seeds may pose a risk if they are not consumed properly, according to new research,” said the Medline headline.

A case report presented by a North Carolina GI doctor describes a scary case of chia seeds gone bad: a 39-year-old man spent several hours in the emergency room under anesthesia after eating no more than a tablespoon of dry chia seeds followed by a glass of water.

The seeds, which can absorb up to 27 times their weight in water, apparently expanded post-ingestion and completely blocked the man’s esophagus, according to the doctor who handled the case, Rebecca Rawl, MD, MPH, a gastroenterology fellow at Carolinas Medical Center in Charlotte, North Carolina.

I spoke to Rawl, and she told me the story of the chia seed blockage — believed to be the first report of its kind. She presented her poster, titled “Watch It Grow: Esophageal Impaction With Chia Seeds,” earlier this week at the American College of Gastroenterology’s annual meeting in Philadelphia. It began innocently enough, she said:

The man arrived at the hospital and said he had this feeling of pain at the top of his stomach and couldn’t swallow anything — “not even his own saliva.” Hospital staff took him in for an upper endoscopy and the imaging clearly showed the culprit: puffed up chia seeds.

What did it look like?

Rawl said:

It was a gel of these seeds, the consistency was similar to Playdoh — not solid, but not a liquid. Continue reading

Review: ‘Ether Dome’ Play Won’t Put You To Sleep But Could Use Scalpel

Greg Balla, Lee Sellars (seated), Tom Patterson and Richmond Hoxie act in a scene from "Ether Dome." (Courtesy T. Charles Erickson/Huntington Theatre)

Greg Balla, Lee Sellars (seated), Tom Patterson and Richmond Hoxie act in a scene from “Ether Dome.” (Courtesy T. Charles Erickson/Huntington Theatre)

Ouch. That’s what I was saying during several of the graphic tooth-pulling and surgery scenes of “The Ether Dome,” a play about the origins of modern anesthesia now running at the Calderwood Pavilion in the South End through Nov. 23.

And that’s also what I said when I read this devastating but (in my opinion) perfectly on-point line in Carolyn Clay’s review of the show on WBUR’s arts blog, “The Artery”: “…it seems clear that the dramatist needs to administer some pain balm to herself, pick up scalpel and saw, and hack a few limbs off baby.”

Clay’s review begins:

BOSTON — You won’t require anesthesia to get through “Ether Dome,” Elizabeth Egloff’s relatively new play built on the introduction of ether — right here at Massachusetts General Hospital in 1846 — to alleviate the horrific pain of surgery. But neither will you be held to the edge of your lecture-hall seat (we the audience are medical-student observers in the dome). The three-act play is so diffuse, with at least four questionable protagonists, that there is really no one to root for — except, of course, the ether, which both transformed Hippocratic barbarism into a pretty smooth ride and started the medical ball rolling in the direction of big business.

As an utterly amateur theater-goer who was drawn to the show by the medical history, I humbly concur. It was a great pleasure to watch some of the grand old men of Massachusetts General, men whose names now grace the hospital’s buildings, brought to life in all their quirky, grumpy, brilliant glory. But I did wish for more of an editorial scalpel. Read the full “Artery” review here: The Huntington’s Ether Dome Won’t Put You To Sleep.

Pre-Med Stress Hits New Heights As MCAT Exam Changes Loom

By Alvin Tran
Guest Contributor

Becoming a doctor was never easy. There’s stress, there’s no sleep, there’s life and death. But now, that already tough career path will get even more complicated with the introduction of a new, far longer version of the Medical College Admission Test, aka, the MCAT.

Just ask pre-med Charles Denby, who panicked when he recently went online to sign up for the test and found all the sites in the U.S. were booked into January 2015. Why is that a problem? Well, that’s when the old, familiar four-hour MCAT takes a short hiatus and then morphs into a newfangled, nearly seven-hour version of the test that most students must take in order to get into medical school.

(Marquette University/Flickr)

(Marquette University/Flickr)

Denby, a 36-year-old consultant who is now pursuing a medical career, was not amused by the prospect of facing the new test. It’s “a curveball I wasn’t expecting,” he said in an interview from his home in Providence. Denby is hoping someone local will opt out of taking the test at the last minute so he can get a spot, though he briefly considered getting on a plane to avoid the new exam. “Germany and Israel are available for January right now,” he said.

Germany? Israel? Isn’t the MCAT stressful enough without getting on a plane and switching time zones?

Barbara Moran, a pre-med student in Brookline, who recently completed Kaplan’s MCAT prep class, was stunned to hear that her classmates were planning to travel to Indiana and South Dakota to take the exam. Moran, who took the exam Oct. 21, had reserved her seat in Boston months ago. “I suddenly realized I was sitting on the hottest ticket in town,” said Moran. “It was like having a seat to a Red Sox World Series game.”

The soon-to-be-extinct four-hour exam now tests students’ knowledge of chemistry, physics, biology, organic chemistry and verbal reasoning; and also their nerves, as they watch the clock tick down while struggling to recall obscure equations. Now they’ll have to endure that anxiety even longer: the new test is nearly seven grueling hours long.

The Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC), which administers the MCAT, approved changes to the test in 2012.

One of the most significant changes is the inclusion of the new section that tests students’ understanding of the socio-contextual determinants of health — essentially asking students to think beyond the specifics of the patient’s body, and consider how income and social status, education, home and work environments and other factors shape health outcomes. Continue reading

Study Raises Questions About Military Service Causing Chronic Suicidal Tendencies

A new study commissioned by the U.S. Army has found that the mental health of soldiers isn’t as different from civilians as the researchers previously thought.

Earlier this year, researchers said that soldiers, who were surveyed at different times during their Army careers, had higher rates of mental disorders before they enlisted than the rates of mental illness in the general population.

Continue reading

Uber Pilots Program To Bring Flu Shots To Your Door

In this April 3, 2014 photo, a smartphone is mounted on the glass of an Uber car in Mumbai, India. Riding on its startup success and flush with fresh capital, taxi-hailing smartphone app Uber is making a big push into Asia. The company has in the last year started operating in 18 cities in Asia and the South Pacific including Seoul, Shanghai, Bangkok, Hong Kong and five Indian cities. (Rafiq Maqbool/AP)

A smartphone with the Uber app is mounted on the glass of an Uber driver. (Rafiq Maqbool/AP)

If you used Uber in Boston today, you may have noticed a new feature. The car service company was offering what it calls UberHEALTH to bring free flu shots to users’ doors.

The service was part of a one-day pilot program in Boston, New York and Washington D.C., the company announced on its blog.
Continue reading

Outbreak Deja Vu: Rumor, Conspiracies, Folklore Link Disease Narratives

A licensed clinician participates in a CDC training course in Alabama earlier this month for treating Ebola patients. (Brynn Anderson/AP)

A licensed clinician participates in a CDC training course in Alabama earlier this month for treating Ebola patients. (Brynn Anderson/AP)

By Jon D. Lee
Guest Contributor

Nearly five years ago, during the peak of the H1N1 — swine flu — pandemic, a joke appeared on the Internet based on the nursery rhyme “This Little Piggy.”

The joke (clearly for public health insiders) was intended to comment on the similarities between swine flu and avian flu, and it concluded this way:

And this little piggy went “cough, sneeze” and the whole world’s media went mad over the imminent destruction of the human race, and every journalist found out that they didn’t have to do too much work if they just did “Find ‘bird’, replace with ‘swine’” on all their saved articles from a year ago, er, all the way home.

The punch line makes an important point about the recycling of stories. But for all of its insight into this phenomenon, the joke doesn’t end up taking the lesson far enough.

Because it’s not just the media that recycles stories — it’s all of us.

In “An Epidemic of Rumors: How Stories Shape Our Perceptions of Disease,” I conducted an extensive study of the narratives — the rumors, legends, conspiracy theories, bits of gossip, etc. — that circulated during the H1N1, SARS and AIDS pandemics.

The results showed that all three pandemics were rife with rumors that, though created decades apart, had striking similarities. Every disease had a story claiming a government conspiracy or cover-up. Every disease had a list of surefire cures and treatments “they” don’t want you to know about. Every disease had false and inaccurate stories about where it had spread to and who was infected. Continue reading

Colleges Are Inconsistent In Handling Athlete Concussions, Harvard Study Finds

Colleges remain inconsistent in the way they handle athletes’ concussions, according to a Harvard University study that comes more than four years after the NCAA began requiring schools to educate their players about the risks of head trauma and develop plans to keep injured athletes off the field.

In a survey that included responses from 907 of the NCAA’s 1,066 members, researchers found that nearly one in five schools either don’t have the required concussion management plan or have done such a poor job in educating their coaches, medical staff and compliance officers that they are not sure one exists.

West Virginia's Terrell Chestnut is examined by medical staff during an NCAA college football game against Baylor earlier this month. He later left the game with a concussion. (Chris Jackson/AP)

West Virginia’s Terrell Chestnut is examined by medical staff during an NCAA college football game against Baylor earlier this month. He later left the game with a concussion. (Chris Jackson/AP)

“Collectively, the institutions without a concussion management plan are responsible for the well-being of thousands of college athletes each year,” according to the study co-written by Harvard researcher Christine Baugh and published this week in the American Journal of Sports Medicine. “For stakeholders to follow an institution’s concussion management plan – or to have confidence that others are following the plan – they must first know that it exists.”

The findings in the study reinforce the images fans have seen in stadiums since the problem with concussions became more widely known: Wobbly players are sent back onto the field without proper medical clearance as coaches remain ignorant to their injury – perhaps willfully. The authors recommend that the NCAA bolster its 2010 policy to require schools to make their plans public, to better educate coaches about concussion symptoms and to require that schools not only come up with plans but actually apply them.

Continue reading