App-Assisted Labor: Smartphones During Childbirth Are All The Rage, But Do They Help?

When Juli Simon Thomas gave birth to her son last year, she wanted a generally low-tech environment: a midwife instead of an ob-gyn, a quiet room and no drugs. “I was bound and determined to avoid an epidural,” she said, even despite 25 hours of labor.

But Thomas had one important, technical requirement: an app on her smartphone that allowed her to precisely track her contractions.

“I use my phone for everything, and this was really helpful,” said Thomas, 35, a post-doctorate fellow in population research. “The process of labor is so variable, and what you end up hearing is how you have to ‘go with the flow,’ ‘see how it turns out,’ ‘just relax and wait’ — I can’t do that. This gave me something more concrete to focus on … Just standing around in various levels of pain while breathing wasn’t a good choice for me.”

We already date, order takeout and document supremely intimate moments on our phones. So it’s no surprise that smartphones have also permeated the realm of childbirth.

contraction timerPeople in the birthing world say labor apps have become ubiquitous — part of the landscape and akin to written birth plans, which were all the rage a decade or more ago.

Rise Of The Labor App

According to the iPhone App Store, there are at least 80 “labor apps” alone that help women time their contractions to assess how close they are to giving birth. Some are free, some aren’t. Some have advertisements for infant formula, some don’t.

Moms who’ve used them say they all operate in similar ways, usually with start-and-stop icons you press at the beginning and end of each contraction in order to record duration and frequency until you get to the magic number 5-1-1. (That means contractions are 5 minutes apart, lasting 1 minute each, for 1 hour.)

At that point, doctors and midwives pretty universally want you to call to determine if it’s time to get to the hospital, or for a home birth, get a practitioner to you.

Of course, there are also apps for pretty much every aspect of pregnancy, birth and postpartum as well: from tracking the baby’s kicks and mom’s breast milk production to documenting hours of sleep (or lack thereof) and diaper use. In 2013, ABC News reported that nearly 50 percent of total mobile subscribers using one or more health apps are using a pregnancy-related app.

Elizabeth Henry, 36, of Cambridge, Massachusetts, stood by as her husband worked out her contractions on a Microsoft Excel spread sheet when she gave birth four years ago. When she gave birth in July, she used the Full Term contraction app on her own while her husband watched their toddler. “I’m a data person, and this app kept me honest. I was trying to do last-minute things in the house and stay home as long as possible, and I didn’t think the contractions were coming so fast. But then when I looked at the screen, I saw it really was time to go to the hospital.”

Not Everyone So App-Happy

Labor doesn’t always unfold in a predictable pattern. Continue reading


Sleep Alert: Bright Screens May Be More Disruptive For Tweens and Young Teens, Study Finds

If you’re the parent of a school-age child, you are probably thinking about sleep these days. More specifically, you may be wondering how you will possibly get your child back on a sleep schedule for school after a summer of late nights and mornings sleeping in.

Here’s one tip, based on a recent study on sleep led by researchers at Brown University: Get rid of bright screens at night. Especially if your child is a young teen or tween.

(Robin Lubbock/WBUR)

(Robin Lubbock/WBUR)

The study, published online in the Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism, found that children between the ages of 9 and 15 in the early stages of puberty were particularly sensitive to light at night compared to older teens.

Researchers conclude: “The increased sensitivity to light in younger adolescents suggests that exposure to evening light could be particularly disruptive to sleep regulation for this group.”

From the Brown news release:

In lab experiments, an hour of nighttime light exposure suppressed their production of the sleep-timing hormone melatonin significantly more than the same light exposure did for teens aged 11 to 16 who were farther into puberty.

The brighter the light in the experiments, the more melatonin was suppressed. Continue reading

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


An App For That: iPhones As Medical Research Tools

WBUR’s Martha Bebinger reports that two Boston hospitals are among the first users of new Apple software that turns iPhones into tools for medical research:

Massachusetts General Hospital helped develop the tool (called ResearchKit) and is using it to study diabetes. Patients download an app that tracks the impact of diet, movement and medication on blood glucose levels.

Dr. Stanley Shaw, at MGH, says the app helps patients monitor their health while contributing to research.

“It changes from a one-sided exchange to a new culture where they are also benefiting from the study data that they’re personally contributing,” he says.

Shaw says stored data is not linked to a patient’s ID or Apple accounts.

(Kārlis Dambrāns/Flickr)

(Kārlis Dambrāns/Flickr)

Dana-Farber Cancer Institute has an app that tracks recovery rates and symptoms for breast cancer survivors. Dr. Ann Partridge is using the Apple software in an app that tracks fatigue, mood changes and sleep patterns among breast cancer survivors.

“Patients really control both what they tell us and we can measure what they’re doing through the application and their Smart phones,” Dr. Partridge, of Dana-Farber, says.

Marketplace reporter Adam Allington quotes Jeff Williams, a senior vice president of operations at Apple, saying that the key benefit of the ResearchKit is to help doctors and researchers increase the sample size in clinical studies:

“They often have to pay people to participate, which by the way doesn’t give you the best cross section of the population. But, the bigger issue is small sample sizes, sometimes 50-100 people,” says Williams. Continue reading

Deadline Extended For Mass. Residents Bedeviled By Health Connector Site

State House News Service’s Matt Murphy reports that residents who had trouble signing up for health insurance through the state’s troubled Health Connector website now have a little more time to do so:

Massachusetts residents who have had difficulty signing up through the Health Connector for unsubsidized health insurance coverage will be given an extra two weeks to enroll under an extension plan to be presented Thursday, two days after President Barack Obama announced a similar reprieve for frustrated consumers on the national level.

Sarah Iselin, the special advisor who Gov. Deval Patrick put in charge of fixing the state’s dysfunctional health insurance sign-up website, plans to discuss the change to the state’s open enrollment process on Thursday when the Health Connector board meets.

Mass. Health Connector website

Mass. Health Connector website

Residents who have had trouble completing enrollment to due technical problems with the website will be allowed to shop online for unsubsidized plans through April 15, with payment due April 23 for coverage starting on May 1.

The open enrollment deadline was supposed to arrive on Monday, but the Obama administration announced this week that those who encountered problems shopping through the federal online marketplace would be given a similar two-week extension.

Murphy also reports that the Connector has been able to eliminate a massive backlog of paper applications from residents looking for subsidized health insurance:

After starting with a backlog of 72,000 applications in February and receiving an additional 1,000 applications a day, Connector staff, with the help of hundreds of workers brought on board through the consultant Optum, cleared the remaining 21,000 applications over the past week and officials are confident they can now keep up with new requests as they arrive.

Make Lemonade: Study Finds Kids’ Active Video Games Boost Exercise, Weight Loss

Every time my kids hunker down for a long stretch of screen time, I get a tiny pang of guilt. The little good-parent-voice in my head says: They should be outside running around (or inside running around if you’re in New England, still praying for an end to this relentless winter). In any case, they should be active, not immobilized in front of a screen.

But maybe it’s OK for them to be active, and in front of a screen. A study published earlier this month in JAMA Pediatrics suggests that yes, those active video games do help overweight and obese kids boost their physical activity levels and lose weight too.

Chiew Pang/flickr

Chiew Pang/flickr

The study, with 75 kids between 8 and 12 years old, concluded that: “Incorporating active video gaming into an evidence-based pediatric weight management program had positive effects on physical activity and relative weight.”

Here’s more on the study from Reuters:

Both groups took part in the weight management program at local YMCAs and schools, but one group also received an Xbox game console and two active games.

The Xbox Kinect device captures the child’s body movements to operate the game. The games given to the kids in the active gaming group were Kinect Adventures! and Kinect Sports. (Children in the weight-loss program-only group received the same equipment and games at the end of the study).

All the children’s activity were recorded using an accelerometer, which measures movement, during the day.

At the start of the study, the children were between the ages of 8 and 12 years old and weighed between 123 and 132 pounds (lbs). About 67 percent of the kids had a body mass index (BMI), a measure of weight relative to height, that put them in the overweight category for their age groups. The rest of the children were in the obese category.

The researchers found that children in the group that received the active games added about seven minutes of moderate to vigorous activity and about three minutes of vigorous activity to their daily routines over the 16 weeks. Continue reading

New Reason To Ban TV In Kid’s Bedroom: An Extra Pound A Year

(Aaron Escobar/Wikimedia Commons)

(Aaron Escobar/Wikimedia Commons)

By Jamie Bologna
Guest contributor

We’ve known for a long time that obesity is among the greatest health risks confronting Americans.

We also know that the challenge for many people starts early. In fact, children who are overweight or obese between the ages of three and five are five times more likely to be overweight or obese as adults.

Now, there’s new research out today that adds to our understanding about one risk factor for childhood obesity: televisions in kids’ bedrooms.

Radio Boston’s Anthony Brooks spoke with Diane Gilbert-Diamond, an assistant professor of Community and Family Medicine at Dartmouth and the lead author of a new study on childhood obesity and television. The conversation, edited:

AB: Professor Gilbert-Diamond, we’ve known for some time that TV viewing is an established risk factor for childhood obesity—what further information did you uncover in this study?

We found that even after accounting for TV viewing, having a TV in the bedroom is associated with about one extra pound of weight gain a year.

About 60 percent of adolescents have TVs in their bedroom. Forty percent of kids have TVs by the age of six.

Just having the TV there, not even necessarily turning it on, just having it there?

We presume that kids with a TV in their bedrooms are watching them. But having the TV in the bedroom, no matter how much TV they’re watching, is associated with more weight gain.

Any idea about what’s behind this connection between weight gain and having a TV in the bedroom?

Our study couldn’t look at the mechanism directly, but we think that what’s going is that kids with a TV in their bedroom have more disrupted sleep. So, for instance, they may stay up later watching TV or may have poorer quality sleep after seeing the bright screen or watching exciting TV shows late at night.

Every phone, every laptop, every tablet can now be used as a TV. Is the lesson here that parents should really lay down much stricter rules about screen time in their bedrooms? Continue reading

MIT Expert: New Tech Means Bomb Amputees Could Run 2014 Marathon

“I’ll make the following claim: If a person has lost a leg in this Boston attack — if they’re motivated and generally healthy and reasonably athletic — they could, given current technology, they could walk or run across the finish line at the Boston Marathon this time next year.”

Making that bold statement is Hugh Herr, the renowned prosthetics and assistive technology expert who heads the Biomechatronics research group at MIT’s Media Lab (and is himself a double amputee). That’s what he said in response to my question about the future of the many victims who lost legs in Monday’s Marathon bombing. The current count, according to area hospitals, is 13 amputations.

What accounts for Herr’s optimism? Well, he’s already developed the world’s first powered ankle-foot prosthesis, which is being sold commercially and has been used by about 500 people. Also, Herr is a highly motivated guy: six months after his lower legs were amputated in 1982 after a climbing accident in which he got severe frostbite, he was walking — and climbing mountains again.

Indeed, Herr’s own artificial limbs are pretty powerful, with “…12 computers, five sensors and muscle-like actuator systems that able me to move throughout my day,” he told Terry Gross back in 2011.

These days, he said, speaking by phone from Spain, the long-term prognosis for patients with legs amputated below the knee, whether it’s one or both legs, “is very good.” For instance, the person will be able to “drive a car without hand controls, walk or run if they’re inclined,” he said. Continue reading

Your Kid On Video Games: Creative Outlet Or More Like Crack Cocaine?

Don’t miss Carey’s excellent radio piece this morning on how her son Tully’s intense fascination with video games — some violent — might play out as he grows up. The piece also raises important questions about whether such testosterone-fueled games actually make kids more violent, or whether they help the children become more adventurous and creative, better problem solvers and critical thinkers.

I encourage you to listen to the full piece, including current 20-something gamers speaking about the upside of playing video games as children. Here’s a bit:

Tully started playing video games when he was still in preschool, first driving games because he was obsessed with cars, and then more elaborate games of exploration and battle.

His game-playing sparked the only major parenting conflict I’ve ever had with my husband, a software developer who’s worked on games and wanted to introduce Tully to their fun challenges. As a mother, I felt all my alarms going off: too much violence, too much screen time. At one point I even played the crack-cocaine card, as in: “You’re introducing our child to the media equivalent of crack cocaine!”

But then my attitude began to shift. Tully picked up reading early because he so wanted to decipher instructions on the screen. He started to spout historical facts. And he played one particular spelling game, “Bookworm,” that was undeniably violent but also clearly educational — and I loved it. You got a grid of letters, and the longer a word you spelled, the harder you got to clobber a mythical enemy. Continue reading

Food Allergies? New Personalized Testing Device Detects Peanuts, Gluten In A Pinch

I am banned from bringing most snacks to my daughter’s first grade classroom because so many kids have food allergies — some life-threatening. So I can envision this nifty new gadget — a personalized food allergy testing device that runs on a cellphone — making its way into cubbies around the nation in the not-too-distant future.

Within one second, researchers report online in the cool sounding journal Lab On A Chip, the device can analyze a food sample and detect and quantify the allergen contamination in food products, including peanuts, almonds, eggs, gluten and hazelnuts. In the published report, researchers said they successfully detected and accurately quantified peanut levels in commercially available cookies.

The device, called the iTube, is an attachment that “uses the cell phone’s built-in camera, along with an accompanying smart-phone application that runs a test with the same high level of sensitivity a laboratory would,” researchers say.

(Photo: UCLA)

(Photo: UCLA)

More from the UCLA news release:

To test for allergens, food samples are initially ground up and mixed in a test tube with hot water and an extraction solvent; this mixture is allowed to set for several minutes. Then, following a step-by-step procedure, the prepared sample is mixed with a series of other reactive testing liquids. The entire preparation takes roughly 20 minutes. When the sample is ready, it is measured optically for allergen concentration through the iTube platform, using the cell phone’s camera and a smart application running on the phone.

The kit digitally converts raw images from the cell-phone camera into concentration measurements detected in the food samples. And beyond just a “yes” or “no” answer as to whether allergens are present, the test can also quantify how much of an allergen is in a sample, in parts per million… Continue reading