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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Mass. Revamps ‘Confusing’ Medical Marijuana Dispensary Licensing Process

The Massachusetts Department of Public Health is “aggressively” revamping its process for licensing medical marijuana dispensaries in the state, a system the head of the department says has been “confusing and overly lengthy.”

Dispensaries will now be licensed in a process similar to that used for pharmacies, DPH Commissioner Monica Bharel announced at a Public Health Council meeting Wednesday morning.

The current process has “delayed appropriate patients from getting access” to medical marijuana, Bharel said.

Massachusetts voters approved a medical marijuana ballot initiative in November 2012. But the licensing process became bogged down after it came to light that the applicants were not thoroughly vetted before the first round of provisional approvals. Some of those applicants were then eliminated for having misrepresented claims of community support or for other problems with their applications. To date, no dispensaries have opened in the state.

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Bill Would Toughen Oversight Of Planned Hospital Mergers

Attorney General Maura Healey is pushing legislation designed to give her office stronger oversight of hospital mergers.

The bill would toughen the authority of the Health Policy Commission when considering mergers of health care providers.

The bill would allow a report issued by the commission to be considered strong enough evidence that the Healey’s office could use it to seek a temporary block of a proposed deal between health care organizations if the deal would force up health care costs.

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Predicting The Next Mental Health Crisis: Sometimes We Just Can’t Know

Chris/flickr

Chris/flickr

By Steve Schlozman, M.D.

When tragedies hit, it is in our nature to ask why. The co-pilot in the horrific Germanwings crash had serious mental health problems, according to reports. How could no one have known how serious his challenges were? How could no one have predicted this terrible outcome?  On its surface this line of questioning seems even a bit ludicrous.  After all, even in the murky face of mental illness, the potentially deliberate and fatal nose-dive of a commercial aircraft seems impossible to imagine.  Nevertheless, this is exactly the question that we’re seeing over and over in the coverage of the crash.

How could we not have known?

The fact is, however, that this particular question glosses over a profoundly uncomfortable quandary that is by no means unique to psychiatry. For all of modern medicine, predictions are surprisingly fraught with difficulty.  For all of medicine’s miracles, for all of its technological wonders and advances, medicine remains a quintessentially human endeavor.  You might even argue that phrases like “medical miracle” are indeed part of the problem.  This more we grant medicine undue and mystical prowess, the more resistant we grow to the grueling trial and error that characterize everyday medical practice.  Doctors are wrong all the time.  That’s a fact.

Nevertheless, physicians are asked to prognosticate. That’s the verb form of “prognosis.” As patients and families, we look to our doctors daily for prognostic estimates.  (Emphasis on estimates.)  These estimates are really hypotheses necessarily based on incomplete data. Rare complications and twists of fate befuddle even the best.

For psychiatry this truth can be especially hard to swallow.  A neurologist might not be able to predict every migraine, but it is the rare migraine that results in tragedy.  Still, remember that psychiatrists cannot read minds. Like all physicians, psychiatrists will try their best to understand what is the cause of suffering.  And, as with all clinicians, psychiatrists will sometimes be right and sometimes not.  Medicine remains an art even as the science continues to improve.

The fact that someone suffers a psychiatric disorder, even a recurrent psychiatric disorder, is not remarkable when compared to the rest of medicine.  The same occurs with ulcers, asthma, allergies, orthopedic injuries, sinus infections and so forth. Most medical illnesses are chronic and many are intermittent. No medical professional can predict with absolute certainty when an episode is going to occur or how severe it may be. To be fair, physicians can and do identify triggers, but the intensity of a presumed reaction is outside anyone’s ability to predict.

And this is where society gets especially flummoxed. No one would argue that the art of medicine is infallible. No one would suggest that medical practice is right 100% of the time. But faced with tragedy, we are much more comfortable as a species pretending that our predictions are foolproof and that our mishaps are exceedingly rare.

Why can’t we always know? Medicine is post-modern. We cannot know because we can’t. Continue reading

Lazarus Effect: Witnessing A Life Saved By Narcan, Opioid Antidote

An educational pamphlet and samples of naloxone, a drug used to counter the effects of opiate overdose, are displayed at a fire station in Taunton. (Elise Amendola/AP)

An educational pamphlet and samples of naloxone, a drug used to counter the effects of opiate overdose, are displayed at a fire station in Taunton. (Elise Amendola/AP)

More than two and a half times as many people die from opioid overdoses as from car accidents in Massachusetts, Gov. Charlie Baker said last week. He has appointed a task force to address the problem and held community discussions around the state.

Among measures under discussion: expanding still further the access to Narcan, a drug that, when given promptly, can counteract the effects of an overdose. Its use to reverse heroin overdoses is already up 250 percent in the first quarter of this year compared to a year ago, WBUR’s Martha Bebinger reports today. Here, a report from a medical staffer who recently saw Narcan work for the first time.

By Harold du Four
Guest contributor

“Help! Someone please help! Stay with us, Matthew, stay with us!”

The cries were coming from the parking area. In response, the charge nurse and I charged out the front doors of the Dimock Center in Roxbury, the community health center where I oversee the detox unit.

It didn’t take long to recognize the source of that distress call: a mother who had just driven from south of the city with her son, who was now slumped over in the back of their gray, two-door convertible. He was in the throes of an overdose, barely breathing, his lips so blue they were almost black.

I knew what had likely happened: The mother had been seeking to check Matthew (not his real name) in to our detox unit. While she had focused on driving into the city to seek help, her son had focused on one last hit. A half-used hypodermic needle lay on the seat next to him, having fallen from his now limp forearm, marked by the vein track scarring that bespeaks a personal history of chronic use.

While my colleague attempted to help him by loosening his winter clothing, trying to wake him, goading his sternum for signs of life, I rushed back into the detox unit to grab a Narcan kit — a naloxone nasal spray that reverses the effects of heroin and some opiate-based prescription drugs.

After quickly assembling the device, I handed it over to my colleague, a nurse with more than 25 years of experience working in the field. She then reached in to carefully – yet confidently – apply a single spray to each nostril of the young man’s nose. Mucus drained slowly down her hand. I punched in 911 on my cell phone.

The mother’s pleas to save her son became more pronounced now; my heart ached for her as she begged, “Stay with us, Matt.” We were doing all we could — but would it be enough? Continue reading

State Doctors’ Group To Meet On Addiction Crisis

The state’s growing heroin and prescription drug abuse crisis is getting the attention of the Massachusetts Medical Society.

The group representing more than 24,000 physicians will devote its annual Public Health Leadership forum to the opioid epidemic. The meeting will be held in Waltham on Wednesday with topics expected to include overdose prevention and the safe prescription of pain medication.

Michael Botticelli, director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, is among scheduled speakers.

State police reported 217 suspected heroin overdose deaths in the first three months of this year. Those figures did not include the state’s three largest cities: Boston, Worcester and Springfield.

An opioid abuse task force created by Gov. Charlie Baker met at the Statehouse last week and is expected to make recommendations later this year.

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The Checkup: ‘The Grossology’ Episode — Or, How Disgusting Can Be Healthy

Bottles of frozen human stool for fecal transplants at the nation's first stool bank, OpenBiome. (Photo: Gabrielle Emanuel/WBUR)

Bottles of frozen human stool for fecal transplants at the nation’s first stool bank, OpenBiome. (Photo: Gabrielle Emanuel/WBUR)

Warning: Things get a little messy — well, maybe even slightly disgusting — in the latest episode of our CommonHealth podcast, The Checkup.

We call this episode “Grossology,” and it’s rife with bacteria and dirt and even, to convey the smelly reality in elegant French, merde.

But it’s actually quite a heartening look at how yuck-factor stuff may be good for you, whether you’re a baby or a patient with a resistant infection. Or at least, not as bad as you might think.

“Grossology” begins with Rachel’s look at the first stool bank in the nation, launched by an MIT microbiologist. (Did you know that the great bacterial world inside your body is kind of like a rainforest?)

It also describes research into what we call the “bacterial schmear” — whether babies born by Cesarean sections might benefit from being wiped with some of the bacteria they would have picked up in their mothers’ birth canals. And it will offer some solace to parents who feel guilty about “cleaning” their babies’ pacifiers by popping the binkies into their own mouths. You know who you are.

And in case you missed our recent episodes: “Scary Food Stories” includes the tale of a recovering sugar addict and offers sobering news to kale devotees. And “On The Brain” includes fascinating research on dyslexia, depression and how playing music may affect our minds.

Make sure to tune in next time, when we present: “High Anxiety,” an episode on the (arguably) most prevalent of mental health disorders.

Each week, The Checkup features a different topic — previous episodes focused on college mental health, sex problems, the Insanity workout and vaccine issues. If you listen and like it, won’t you please let our podcasting partner, Slate, know? You can email them at podcasts@slate.com.

Harvard Study: Better Police Reports On Bike Crashes Could Save Lives

A "ghost bike" is placed in memory of Marcia Deihl, who was killed in a crash in Cambridge, Massachusetts, on March 11. (Rachel Zimmerman/WBUR)

A “ghost bike” is placed in memory of Marcia Deihl, who was killed in a crash in Cambridge, Massachusetts, on March 11. (Rachel Zimmerman/WBUR)

Last month, Marcia Deihl, a songwriter and community activist out for a bike ride on the first warm day after a brutal winter, was struck and killed by a dump truck outside a Whole Foods in Cambridge, Massachusetts. A white “ghost bike” now memorializes her death.

Aspiring photojournalist Christopher Weigl, just 23, was also killed in a bike accident: Wearing a helmet, and traveling in the bike lane near Boston University, Weigl collided with a 16-wheel tractor trailer when the truck made a wide right turn in the winter of 2012.

And less than a year before that, MIT graduate student Phyo N. Kyaw sustained fatal injuries when his bike collided with a truck in a busy Cambridge intersection.

These deaths happened close to home: where I work, shop, ride with my kids. And they underscore two truths: There are more cyclists on the road, and more of them are getting hurt in accidents, some fatal. The number of commuters who bike to and from work rose about 62 percent nationwide from 2000 to 2013, one report found. With those numbers comes added risk: 726 bicyclists were killed and 49,000 bicyclists injured in 2012, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

As a driver, you don’t need a research study to tell you that bikes are everywhere, whether you’re in Boston, New York or Seattle. But you do need research, and data, to help fix the problem — that is, reduce the number of accidents and deaths.

(Source: National Highway Traffic Safety Administration)

(Source: National Highway Traffic Safety Administration)

Cities, towns, planners and private businesses can’t move forward building safer cars and safer bike environments until they learn more precisely how bike accidents happen. Is a truck’s wide turn to blame? A taxi door opening at the wrong time? These seemingly small details of crashes are critical, says Anne Lusk, a research scientist in the Department of Nutrition at the Harvard School of Public Health.

That’s why Lusk and her colleagues have issued a blueprint of sorts for improving bike-vehicle crash reports produced by the police; their findings are published this week in the journal Injury Prevention.

After studying hundreds of hopelessly low-tech police reports used to record bike accidents, Lusk and her colleagues are making a nationwide plea: They’re calling on police in all states to step into the modern era and improve reports on crashes involving vehicles and bicycles. Currently, Lusk said in an interview, the details on crashes are handwritten and drawn by police on paper, with few bicycle-specific codes or diagrams.

Lusk offered one example: Currently, a crash report from Massachusetts shows “two vehicles” drawn. One of the “vehicles” is then coded as a “pedal cyclist” but there is no drawing on the template of a bicycle to show which side of the bike was hit.

Police have been recording bike crashes since the introduction of the bicycle in 1890, researchers note.

Now it’s time for a major upgrade. Lusk says police should “use electronic tablets with dropdown menus that have specific vehicle/bicycle codes, for instance, whether the bicyclist was riding inside a painted bike lane when hit, or whether the cyclist crashed into a driver’s open car door. The dropdown menu would also include other specific data like a coded vehicle picture and a coded bicycle picture. This information could then be automatically loaded onto spreadsheets for later analysis, Lusk said. Continue reading

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Hundreds Gather At Final Public Hearing On State’s Opioid Abuse Crisis

Two to three men and women in Massachusetts will die today from heroin or other opiate overdoses, according to current death rates.

“There were three times as many deaths associated with opioid overdoses last year as there were automobile accident deaths,” said Gov. Charlie Baker, speaking at the fourth and final hearing yesterday of a task force he appointed to vet the state’s drug abuse problem. “That’s really all you need to know to understand that it’s in fact a crisis.”

The task force is expected to make its recommendations on how to deal with the statewide drug crisis by next month. Ahead of that deadline, hundreds of people turned out at the State House Thursday to relate their stories of addiction and recovery.

WBUR’s Martha Bebinger joins Morning Edition with a report on what was said during Thursday’s hearing.

To hear the full report, click on the audio player above.

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Gov. Baker Adds Voice To Hundreds At Opioid Hearing

Hundreds turned out for the final public hearing before Gov. Charlie Baker’s opioid abuse task force to share their stories of addiction and recovery as the administration plots a course forward to combat what Baker has called a “crisis” in Massachusetts.

Baker joined Health and Human Services Secretary Marylou Sudders and Attorney General Maura Healey, both leaders of the task force, for the fourth and final public listening session on Thursday as the task force prepares to issues recommendations to the governor in May.

“There are plenty of opportunities for us to do everything that we need to do to make sure people have the access that they need and they deserve to pain medication, but we need to be open and honest with ourselves about the way we all, as a society, think about pain meds with respect to all sides of those issues,” Baker told the audience, which had crowded into the State House’s Gardner Auditorium.

The Massachusetts State Police this week reported that there had been 217 fatal opioid overdoses in the first three months of 2015, not including data from the state’s three largest cities of Boston, Worcester and Springfield.

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