Personal Health

News you can use, carefully digested and curated.


Medical Professionals Voice Their Feelings In The Abortion Discussion

Abortion became legal in America 42 years ago. And since then, the voices for and against the procedure have been strong and usually certain.

But there’s one group routinely missing from the debate: medical professionals who perform abortions — or decide not to.

Now, some OB-GYN residents from Brown University’s medical school are lending their voices to the conversation about abortion. They’ve written essays featured in the journal Obstetrics and Gynecology. One of their teachers, Janet Singer, the lead author of the article, helped start a support group for Brown residents after one particularly anguished conversation.

For more, visit this earlier CommonHealth conversation with Singer.


How Much Is That Eye Exam? Study Probes The Elusive Quest For Health Care Prices

Let’s say you’re having trouble reading this. The words are a little fuzzy. You might need glasses or a new prescription. So you call to make an appointment for an eye exam and ask how much the visit will cost. You’re going to pay for the appointment because your insurance plan has a deductible that you haven’t met.

Seems like a simple question, but be prepared: There’s a good chance you won’t get a simple answer.

“Sometimes people were downright rude,” says Barbara Anthony, senior fellow in health care at the Pioneer Institute. “Other times, staff said they weren’t allowed to give price information over the phone.” (Click the audio player above for Anthony’s interview with WBUR’s Bob Oakes.)

The Pioneer Institute called the offices of 96 dentists, ophthamologists, dermatologists and gastroenterologists (the doctors who perform colonoscopies) last month, asking for the price of five basic services.


The results show that prices vary widely. But getting the information wasn’t easy. Continue reading


Thousands Ruled Ineligible For Mass. Medicaid

Tens of thousands of people have been removed from the state’s Medicaid program during the first phase of an eligibility review, according to figures from Gov. Charlie Baker’s administration obtained by The Associated Press.

The eligibility checks, required annually under federal law but not performed in Massachusetts since 2013, began earlier this year as part of Baker’s plan to squeeze $761 million in savings from MassHealth, the government-run health insurance program for about 1.7 million poor and disabled residents.

At $15.3 billion, MassHealth is the state’s single largest budget expense.

Based on the results of the redetermination process so far, the state was on track to achieve the savings it had hoped for in the current fiscal year without cutting benefits for eligible recipients, said Secretary of Health and Human Services Marylou Sudders. Continue reading

Bristol County Suicide Spike Not Just ‘A Bump In The Road’

Bristol County is seeing a surge in suicides.

On Monday, the Bristol County Regional Coalition for Suicide Prevention and the Bristol County District Attorney’s office released data on the extent of the issue in the county.

In the last three and a half years, 171 people in the county have died by suicide.

  • 2012: 35 confirmed suicides; 25 men and 6 women
  • 2013: 44 confirmed suicides; 29 men and 15 women
  • 2014: 58 confirmed suicides; 50 men and 8 women

The rash of suicides in Bristol County has affected mostly men in their early- to mid-50s. The number of men who have died by suicide has increased 72 percent over the past three years. These men often suffer from depression and substance abuse. And when they seek help, they are unable to find inpatient residential care.

“What we have happening in Bristol Country is not a bump in the road, and what we have happening is not a pothole. We have a sinkhole happening here in this county,” said Annemarie Matulis, director of the Bristol Country coalition.

There have been 34 confirmed suicides, 22 men and 12 women, so far this year. This means the county is on track to match the 2014 statistics or potentially surpass them, the coalition and DA’s office announced Monday.

Matulis says people close to someone who has died by suicide become themselves more prone to taking their own lives.

Resources: You can reach the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) and the Samaritans Statewide Hotline at 1-877-870-HOPE (4673).


Suicide Rate Among Men Spikes In Bristol County

The number of suicides among white men between the ages of 45 and 65 spiked 72 percent from 2013 to 2014 in Bristol County, which includes 20 towns southwest of Boston and along the south coast including Taunton, New Bedford and Fall River.

The figures come from the Bristol County Regional Coalition for Suicide Prevention, which gets its data from the district attorney’s office. Among all the suicide deaths in 2014 in that county, 87 percent were men. Advocates say the male suicide rate last year was significantly higher than the state average, and the trend is similar so far in 2015.

The alarming increase in suicides in Bristol County — most of them among middle-aged men — is leading suicide prevention advocates to team up with the district attorney to get out the word that there is help. On Monday, the suicide prevention coalition and Bristol County District Attorney Thomas Quinn will release more specific data on suicide in the county. In addition, the coalition will hold a series of community forums to discuss male depression and suicide.

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A Life Filled With Promise Is Overpowered By A Complex Web Of Pain And Trauma

Jamie Neal's family -- her father Bob, mother Debbie and brother Abe -- at their church in Duxbury (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

Jamie Neal’s family — her father Bob, mother Debbie and brother Abe — at their church in Duxbury (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

When Jamie Neal was home on medical leave from Williams College in early 2010, her parents were going to great lengths to try to protect her.

“I knew she was suicidal,” says Jamie’s mother, Debbie Neal. “My husband and I decided we would do everything to keep her alive.”

Several months earlier, in August 2009, the Duxbury resident had made a suicide attempt that left her in a coma for several days.

“The last few months before she died, I had her sleep in my bed next to me,” Debbie Neal explains. “And every single day, I asked her on a [scale of] 1 to 10 how she felt and was she suicidal. And she would tell me that she was a 5 and that she wasn’t suicidal.”

In March of 2010, the 21-year-old killed herself in the family’s home. Suicide had become her desperate attempt to escape a complex web of pain and trauma: not only mental illness, but sexual assault and drug addiction — a dark journey in a life filled with so much promise.


Jamie Neal was a member of three varsity sports teams beginning her freshman year at Duxbury High School. She was recruited to play basketball at Williams College. (Courtesy the Neal family)

Like many other survivors of suicide, the Neals recall a loved one who was outwardly happy — even, in Jamie’s case, “outrageously fun.” She had a ready smile.

“Jamie was always, always smiling,” Debbie Neal says. “It kind of defined who she was. She loved other people who were struggling. And she was very kind, and she had a beautiful heart.”

There were some signs early on that Jamie might have mental health issues. A nursery school teacher noticed the normally cheerful, outgoing girl would sometimes withdraw into a sad state. And the straight-A student was a perfectionist in everything she did.

“That perfectionism drove her and motivated her,” says Jamie’s brother, Abe Neal. “On the other hand, I don’t want to say it necessarily did her in. But it was very difficult for her. You would find her at four in the morning editing some minor paper for an English class. And she was also very hard on herself as things started going downhill with herself.” Continue reading

Colleges Work To Prevent Suicide And Fight Stigma Around Mental Health On Campus

A training session for Worcester Polytechnic Institute’s Student Support Network. The group's more than 400 members are trained to intervene and help students dealing with mental health issues. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

A training session for Worcester Polytechnic Institute’s Student Support Network. The group’s more than 400 members are trained to intervene and help students dealing with mental health issues. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

As another academic year winds down, many colleges are reviewing how they raise awareness of mental health issues on campus, and what additional steps they can take to try to prevent suicide among students.

More than 1,000 college students die by suicide every year. Suicide is listed as the nation’s second-leading cause of death for people of college age, though people not enrolled in school take their own lives at a higher rate than those attending college. And research has found about 7 percent of undergraduate and graduate students seriously consider suicide.

Suicide prevention efforts vary greatly among schools. So does the rate of students seeking help from campus mental health services. According to the Association for University and College Counseling Center Directors, college mental health centers see on average about 10 percent of the student body, though mental health providers say the need is much greater. Smaller schools serve a greater percentage of their student body through campus mental health services than large colleges and universities do.

There’s also no consistency in how suicide is tracked in higher education. WBUR reached out to 10 Massachusetts colleges and universities to request information on their suicide rates and suicide prevention programs. Only two, Worcester Polytechnic Institute and Worcester State University, provided data. WPI has experienced one suicide since 2006 (in May 2011) and four in the last 18 years. Since implementing prevention programs several years ago, the school’s suicide rate has dropped below the national average. Worcester State University reports it has had one suicide in the last 10 years.

In the latest installment of our series, “Suicide: A Crisis in the Shadows,” several people involved in and affected by the issue of college suicide prevention joined WBUR to share their thoughts. Below find highlights from that conversation, and listen to it in full above. Continue reading


After Cluster Of Suicides, MIT Works To Relieve Student Pressure, Raise Awareness

Student climb the steps of the Rogers building at MIT. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)

Students climb the steps of the Rogers building at MIT. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)

On a recent sunny spring day, MIT students were lined up at a table grabbing ice cream sundaes, milk and cookies, and, if they were interested, an embrace.

“Yes, giving away ice cream and now hugs,” explained MIT parent Sonal Patel, of Cambridge, as she embraced Miguel Mendez, a native of Mexico who is doing post-doctoral research at MIT.

“It’s always good to know that people around the campus actually care about you as a person,” Mendez said. “This being an institution that expects a lot from you, it can really pass a toll on you sometimes.”

The event was billed as “Stress Less Day,” a chance for people at the university that churns out many of the world’s top engineers and scientists to take a break from problem sets, exams and research.

The snack break was sponsored by the student group Active Minds, which promotes mental health awareness. Volunteers handed out flyers with facts on depression and anxiety, as well mental health resources at MIT.

Active Minds raised awareness about their group during MIT's campus preview weekend for incoming freshman. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)

Active Minds raised awareness about their group during MIT’s campus preview weekend for incoming freshman last month. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)

Following six student suicides since March 2014, Active Minds and other student groups have seen increased interest in their events designed to reduce stress, promote a sense of community and reduce stigma.

MIT is not the only higher education institution to struggle with suicide clusters. But the school and its students, widely considered among the world’s most elite, are taking some very open steps to confront the problem. Continue reading


Mass. VA Clinic, Hospital Wait Times Vary Widely

In a state that prides itself on access to great health care, wait times at Veterans Affairs hospitals and clinics vary widely, with some facilities in central and western Massachusetts delaying appointments at much higher rates than in the affluent east.

Nearly 9,000 medical appointments at VA facilities in Massachusetts – about 2 percent of the state’s total during the six-month period ending in February- failed to meet the department’s goal of completing medical appointments within 30 days.

That’s better than the national average of 2.8 percent, but nearly half the delays in Massachusetts occurred at only three of the state’s 20 facilities, according to government data reviewed by the Associated Press.

“We’re working to get the veterans into their appointments in a more timely manner. It’s a work in progress.”

– Dennis Ramstein, Central Western Mass. VA spokesman

The AP analysis of six months of appointment data at 940 VA hospitals and clinics nationwide found that the number of medical appointments delayed 30 to 90 days has stayed flat since Congress began pumping $16.3 billion dollars into the VA system in August. The number of appointments that take longer than 90 days to complete has nearly doubled.

Many of the delay-prone hospitals and clinics are clustered within a few hours’ drive of each other in a handful of Southern states, often in areas with a strong military presence, a partly rural population and patient growth that has outpaced the VA’s sluggish planning process.

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John Hancock Taps Fitness Trackers To Breathe New Life Into Insurance Industry

John Hancock Financial is the first U.S. insurer to offer discounts to policyholders who wear Internet-connected fitness trackers, like the ones pictured here. (Richard Drew/AP)

John Hancock Financial is the first U.S. insurer to offer discounts to policyholders who wear Internet-connected fitness trackers, like the ones pictured here. (Richard Drew/AP)

Could 15 minutes of exercise could save you 15 percent on your life insurance?

John Hancock Financial on Wednesday became the first U.S. insurer to offer discounts to policyholders who wear Internet-connected fitness trackers. Sign up for a new life policy today, and the company will send you a Fitbit, one of those bracelets that tracks your steps.

The more you exercise, the bigger discount you get on your insurance premium, up to 15 percent.

Company President Craig Bromley says the policy will also incentivize healthy behavior with “fun sort of rewards” to get policyholders to the gym, like gift cards, discounted hotel stays and leisure travel.

Delaying a death benefit “would obviously be good for us, but also good for them,”  TWEET Bromley said. “You know, other companies are not really helping people to live longer.”

It’s not just about customers living longer. By leveraging wearable devices and promoting wellness, the 153-year-old company is also trying to bestow a youthful glow on the aging life insurance industry.

“It’s great to be at sort of the forefront of all this technological change, which hasn’t always been the case for the life insurance industry,” Bromley said.

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