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

When The Vegetative Patient May Be Able To Communicate

By Judy Foreman
Guest Contributor

One of the most vexing emotional and ethical issues in all of medicine is the decision by family members to “pull the plug,” that is, to take a severely ill, non-communicate relative off of the life-support systems keeping him or her alive.

What makes this decision so hard, of course, is, absent a really clear statement ahead of time from the patient about end-of-life wishes, family members basically have to guess. But there may be – not yet, but someday – a way to make this agonizing guesswork a bit easier, thanks to a stunning series of recent experiments by Adrian Owen, who holds the prestigious Canada Excellence Research Chair in cognitive neuroscience and neuroimaging at the University of Western Ontario.

(Digital Shotgun/flickr)

The recent work by Owen, and others, using fMRI brain scanning technology shows that some patients diagnosed as being in a persistent vegetative state may actually have some degree of consciousness and be able to communicate, that is, by sheer thinking, be capable of answering comparatively simple questions such as “are you in pain?” (Obviously, that’s a much simpler question than “do you want to die?”)

The particular patient generating the latest excitement is 39-year old Scott Routley who, 12 years ago, had a car accident that left him with a severe brain injury. By standard tests, doctors thought he was in a persistent vegetative state, or PVS. Continue reading

Reuters: Controversial GMO Measure May Be Killed By Big Food

A controversial question on the California ballot may have a major impact on the foods you eat — no matter what state you live in. The question, known as Proposition 37, is whether labeling should be required on foods that have been genetically modified.

While the measure appeared to have solid support as recently as last month, opposition by big food companies may kill the proposal, Reuters reports. If passed, it would be the first such law in the nation.

(Timothy Valentine/flickr)

Still, as goes California, so goes the nation so it’s worth considering:

Major food and seed companies appear to be on the verge of defeating a California ballot initiative that, if passed on Tuesday, would create the first labeling requirement for genetically modified foods in the United States.

In a campaign reminiscent of this summer’s successful fight against a proposed tobacco tax in California, opposition funded by Monsanto Co, DuPont, PepsiCo Inc and others unleashed waves of TV and radio advertisements against Proposition 37 and managed to turn the tide of public opinion. Continue reading

Painless, Quick-Release Medical Tape Reduces Infant Skin Injuries

Pain-free bandages? I’ll take ‘em.

Researchers from Brigham and Women’s Hospital and MIT report today that they’ve invented a quick-release medical tape that will minimize injuries for delicately-skinned newborns.

Here’s the Brigham news release:

Commercial medical tapes on the market today are great at keeping medical devices attached to the skin, but often can do damage—such as skin tissue tearing—once it’s time to remove them.

A research team from Brigham and Women’s Hospital has invented a quick-release tape that has the strong adhesion properties of commercial medical tape, but without the ouch factor upon removal.

The team was led by Jeffrey Karp, PhD, BWH Division of Biomedical Engineering, Department of Medicine, senior study author in collaboration with The Institute for Pediatric Innovation which defined the need and requirements for a new neonatal adhesive based on national surveys of neonatal clinicians.

The study detailing the tape design will be electronically published on October 29 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The research was conducted in collaboration with Robert Langer, PhD at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

The tape which achieves strong adhesion when securing medical devices to skin, but could also easily peel off safely, utilizes a three-layer design approach that sets a new paradigm for quick-release medical tapes. Continue reading

Toward A More Emotionally Astute Machine

Read this great story in The New York Times today by CommonHealth contributor Karen Weintraub on the future of affective programming, or teaching machines to read facial expressions and emotions. Here’s the lede:

In a Cairo school basement, two dozen women analyze facial expressions on laptops, training the computers to recognize anger, sadness and frustration.

At Cambridge University, an eerily realistic robotic head named Charles sits in a driving simulator, furrowing its brows, looking interested or confused.

And in a handful of American middle school classrooms this fall, computers will monitor students’ emotions in an effort to track when they are losing interest and when they are getting excited about lessons.

All three are examples of an emerging approach to technology called affective computing, which aims to give computers the ability to read users’ emotions, or “affect.”

People are good at understanding one another’s emotions. We realize quickly that now is not a good time to approach the boss or that a loved one is having a lousy day. These skills are so essential that those without them are considered disabled.

Yet until recently, our machines could not identify even seemingly simple emotions, like anger or frustration. The GPS device chirps happily even when the driver is ready to hurl it out the window. The online class keeps going even when half the students are lost in confusion. The airport security system can’t tell whether someone is behaving as if he were concealing something or is just anxious about flying.

The piece details work by Rosalind Picard, founder and director of the Affective Computing Research Group at MIT’s Media Lab. Picard and her colleagues are developing technology to measure emotional arousal through skin sensors, something that might ultimately provide a kind of lifeline for people with autism or similar disorders who have difficulty making social connections and communicating emotions: Continue reading