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Elizabeth Cooney is a health reporter for the Worcester Telegram & Gazette.
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« August 5, 2007 - August 11, 2007 | Main | August 19, 2007 - August 25, 2007 »

August 17, 2007

On the blogs: faculty diversity in science

On Nature Network Boston, scientist Deanne Taylor offers her take on why women and members of minority groups are underrepresented in academic science.

The main obstacle to increasing faculty diversity could be the habit of self-identification, says Taylor, who does research at the Harvard School of Public Health and chairs the bioinformatics graduate program at Brandeis University. By that she means feeling more comfortable with someone who seems the same and then using that familiarity as a shortcut to social interaction.

"Although there are exceptions, in my experience, we scientists are not always known for deft socialization skills, which would allow for that kind of facility in finding common ground among diverse people," she writes, stressing that this is her opinion, not the result of data analysis. "Since scientists make decisions on everything from grants to departmental resources and tenure awards on Ďbest fit,í you can imagine the consequences of self-identification could be quite predictable."

Posted by Elizabeth Cooney at 12:40 PM
August 17, 2007

Todays Globe: insurance pinch for older people, taxing tobacco, testing for warfarin, battling cancer

Older people shopping for health insurance through the state's new initiative are discovering a sobering reality: Prices for unsubsidized plans are twice as expensive if you're 60 than if you're 27, making insurance unaffordable or barely affordable for many in their later years.

To aid the nation's fight against cancer, the federal government should increase taxes on tobacco products and strictly regulate the sales and marketing of tobacco, said an advisory panel to the president.

Federal health officials are stopping short of recommending genetic tests for patients on the blood-thinner warfarin, even though they have said such screenings could prevent thousands of complications each year.

Tommy Thompson has bowed out of the presidential race, but his call to end breast cancer by 2015 deserves a long political life, a Globe editorial says.

Posted by Elizabeth Cooney at 06:44 AM
August 16, 2007

Woman suffers from flesh-eating bacterial infection

By Felicia Mello, Globe Correspondent

A 35-year-old woman has contracted a rare flesh-eating bacterial infection after giving birth by Caesarean section at Emerson Hospital in Concord, the hospital reported today.

The Massachusetts Department of Public Health said the incident does not pose a public health threat.

Necrotizing fasciitis afflicts less than two dozen people in Massachusetts each year, according to the health department, half of whom die. It can cause fever and boils and is usually brought on by a combination of genetic factors and contact with the common microbe streptococcus.

Emerson officials said the woman, whose name they did not release, was transferred to Massachusetts General Hospital for treatment Sunday.

Posted by Karen Weintraub at 06:22 PM
August 16, 2007

New physician-scientists win Howard Hughes awards

Seven Boston physicians who spent a year or more away from medical school doing research have won grants to continue their dual roles as scientists and clinicians.

The Howard Hughes Medical Institute has given Early Career Awards of $375,000 each over five years to 20 doctors to make sure they have the time and financial support for research early in their careers, it said in a statement. Their institutions agreed to allow these tenure-track physician-scientists to devote at least 70 percent of their time to research.

The winners are alumni of either HHMI's research scholars or training fellowship programs, which bring students to the National Institutes of Health or other institutions. They are:

Dr. Sarah Fortune, Harvard University School of Public Health
Dr. Aram Hezel, Massachusetts General Hospital
Dr. Farouc Jaffer,
Massachusetts General Hospital
Dr. Eric Johannsen, Brigham and Women's Hospital
Dr. Sridhar Ramaswamy,
Massachusetts General Hospital Cancer Center
Dr. Manish Sagar, Brigham and Women's Hospital
Dr. Sean Savitz, Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center

Posted by Elizabeth Cooney at 01:49 PM
August 16, 2007

What Canada can learn from US about health care

Discussions about healthcare often look north to the single-payer model in Canada. But the tables are turned, now that the Canadian Medical Association has recommended allowing private competition to enter its national healthcare system.

That way lies disaster, Dr. Arnold S. Relman contends. The Harvard emeritus professor and former editor of the New England Journal of Medicine warns of a US-style system failure in a commentary that appears on globeandmail.com, the online partner of The Globe and Mail in Toronto.

"If Canada were so unwise as to allow privatization to grow in its health-care system, it would sooner or later experience all of the problems driving the U.S. system toward collapse," he writes. "One thing is certain: When medical care and health insurance are allowed to become private businesses, costs go up and patients with little or no resources do not get the care they need. That is the lesson Canadians should learn from the United States."

Posted by Elizabeth Cooney at 08:55 AM
August 16, 2007

Today's Globe: cough medicine warning, abortion pill, China pig virus, prairie dog ban, Alzheimer's device

Hoping to prevent a growing number of injuries to infants and toddlers, the Food and Drug Administration issued an advisory yesterday warning parents never to give cough and cold medicines to children under the age of 2 unless instructed to do so by a doctor.

Women who use abortion pills rather than the more common surgical method seem to face no greater risk of tubal pregnancy or miscarriage in later pregnancies, according to a study published today in the New England Journal of Medicine.

china piglet100.bmpA highly infectious swine virus is sweeping China's pig population, driving up pork prices and spawning fears of a global pandemic among domesticated pigs. And animal virus specialists say Chinese authorities are downplaying the gravity and spread of the disease and refusing to cooperate with international scientists.

Anyone who captures, transports, sells, or barters prairie dogs now must receive written permission from the Food and Drug Administration. But people seeking prairie dogs as pets need not apply: The FDA won't consider it.

There are robots that follow those with Alzheimer's disease around, issuing reminders; pill boxes that speak; wristwatches holding entire medical histories; and alarms in patients' sneakers to alert authorities that they are wandering the streets in confusion. Now students from Franklin W. Olin College of Engineering in Needham have come up with MindScout, a device to allow more independence to people with Alzheimer's, that incorporates some of the best features of devices that might not be affordable.

Posted by Elizabeth Cooney at 06:59 AM
August 15, 2007

Encouraging signs on drug reviews, critic says

The voices of independent scientists are more important than ever, according to a critic of drug-company influence on government regulation, and there are signs they are being heard more than before.

Writing in tomorrow's New England Journal of Medicine, Dr. Jerry Avorn of Brigham and Women's Hospital and Harvard Medical School warns that Congress's re-authorization of user-fee funding from pharmaceutical companies to support the Food and Drug Administration means unbiased outside experts are critical to proper drug evaluation. As an example, he compares the approval of Vioxx in 1999 to this year's rejection of Arcoxia. Renewed assertiveness by FDA's external advisers made the difference in reviews of the painkillers linked to cardiac risk, he writes.

"Though the quiet voice of science may often be no match for powerful vested interests or ideology, some encouraging signs may be in the air," he writes. "The same reauthorization bill, disappointing in so many respects, may tighten somewhat the conflict-of-interest rules for outside advisers."

Posted by Elizabeth Cooney at 07:05 PM
August 15, 2007

Six Mass. hospitals recognized for performance improvement

Six Massachusetts hospitals have made a consulting company's list of 100 US hospitals that have improved their performance.

Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, Brigham and Women's Hospital and Caritas St. Elizabeth's Medical Center in Boston; UMass Memorial Medical Center in Worcester; NSMC Union Hospital in Lynn and Lowell General Hospital were recognized by Thomson Healthcare for better clinical outcomes, safety, financial stability and growth from 2001 to 2005.

The unranked 2006 list appeared in last week's Modern Healthcare magazine.

Posted by Elizabeth Cooney at 08:44 AM
August 15, 2007

Today's Globe: Fernald, herbicides, diabetes drug warnings, heart-failure drug

tauro85.bmpUS District Judge Joseph L. Tauro (left) yesterday halted the state's plan to close the Fernald Development Center in Waltham, ruling that the profoundly mentally retarded residents who have lived there for decades must be given the opportunity to stay.

A dozen lawmakers have allied themselves with a coalition of environmental groups to protest the use of herbicides to control vegetation along state roadways.

The diabetes drugs Avandia and Actos will be labeled with severe warnings about a risk of heart failure to some patients, health officials said yesterday.

Drug maker Biogen Idec Inc. said yesterday its midstage study of the drug Adentri showed positive results in heart-failure patients.

Posted by Elizabeth Cooney at 06:37 AM
August 14, 2007

This week in JAMA

Three studies by Boston authors appear in this week's Journal of the American Medical Association.

A study from Dana-Farber Cancer Institute found that a diet high in meat, fat, sweets and refined grains may be associated with a higher risk of colon cancer recurrence and death in people who had surgery and chemotherapy to treat stage III colon cancer.

Researchers from Brigham and Womenís Hospital report that people with diabetes have an increased risk of death in the first month and first year after they have a heart attack or unstable angina compared with people who have these acute coronary syndromes but do not have diabetes.

A new measure of a lipid protein ratio is no better at predicting coronary heart disease than traditional methods of measuring cholesterol, Boston University School of Medicine investigators from the Framingham Study say.

Posted by Elizabeth Cooney at 07:27 PM
August 14, 2007

Hospitals, pharma outrank insurers and HMOs in service survey

With Michael Mooreís "Sicko" in the news this summer, how did health care stack up in a national survey on service?

Hospitals finished near the top, behind top-ranked supermarkets, online search engines and computer hardware companies, and pharma ranked just below airlines, according to a Harris Poll. But health insurers and managed-care plans finished in negative territory, besting only tobacco companies and the oil industry.

Managed-care and health insurance companies' rankings have kept them underwater for most of the service pollís 10 years, but a Harris Interactive statement released with the rankings suggested Moore's documentary on health care might be a cause of this year's steep slide.

Here are how some industries scored, calculated by subtracting the percent of people who rated service badly from the percent of people who said service was good. Last yearís score is in parentheses:

Supermarkets: 84 (83)
Online search engines: 77 (67)
Computer hardware companies: 64 (64)
Hospitals: 58 (51)
Airlines: 26 (42)
Pharmaceutical companies: 21 (25)
Health insurance companies: -21 (-3)
Managed-care companies: -20 (-3)
Oil companies: -33 (-24)
Tobacco companies: -46 (-25)

The poll asked 1,010 US adults about 21 industries in a telephone survey last month. Net scores combined positive and negative opinions. For example, 78 percent of respondents thought hospitals did a good job and 20 percent said they did a bad job, yielding a score of 58 percent.

Posted by Elizabeth Cooney at 04:05 PM
August 14, 2007

On the blogs: Harvard hospital hiring, medical home

On Running a Hospital, Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center CEO Paul Levy compares the participation of other Harvard teaching hospitals in the search for a new chief of OB/Gyn at his hospital to asking Toyota, Honda, General Motors and Chrysler to sit in on Ford's hiring process for a new division manager.

"What would be odd elsewhere is the norm here at the Harvard hospitals," he writes about the search to replace Dr. Benjamin Sachs, who is leaving to become dean at Tulane Medical School. "The Harvard medical system has an odd assortment of customs and norms. One of (the) oddities surrounds the search for a chief of any of the clinical departments at BIDMC, MGH, Brigham and Women's, Children's Hospital, and the other Harvard affiliates."

On WBUR's CommonHealth, Lynn Community Health Center's Lori Abrams Berry asks what happened to the idea of medical home as the state's new healthcare law gets implemented.

"No one should ever be auto-assigned away from an existing primary care relationship," she writes about people who did not choose a plan. "That is not what healthcare reform is all about."

Posted by Elizabeth Cooney at 02:04 PM
August 14, 2007

Tufts Health Plan tops Consumer Reports survey

Tufts Health Plan tops this yearís Consumer Reports reader survey rating HMO plans, with Harvard Pilgrim Health Care and HMO Blue not far behind. Blue Cross Blue Shield of Massachusetts finished among the top PPO plans, according to the September issue.

The health plans were judged on how satisfied respondents were with the choice of doctors, care from doctors, access to doctors, primary-care doctors and billing. A perfect score of 100 means perfectly satisfied, 80 means very satisfied and 60 means fairly satisfied.

Tufts scored 85, a jump up from 79 and 11th place two years ago. The magazine said adding doctors to its plan translated into higher scores on choice of doctors and access to care.

The other local plans did about the same as in 2005. Harvard Pilgrim came in 10th with an 82; HMO Blue was in 12th place with a score of 80; and Blue Cross Blue Shield ranked sixth with a score of 81.

Overall, 67 percent of the 37,000 readers who replied said they were completely or very satisfied with their plan, an uptick from 64 percent in the last poll, the magazine said. Thatís lower than the 84 percent of people who had an auto insurance claim and were happy with their planís service.

The magazine polls its readers every two years on how satisfied they are with their managed-care health plans. Readers are asked about the 100 largest insurers in the country, based on the number of subscribers. To be ranked this year, a health maintenance organization had to receive at least 11,800 replies and a preferred provider organization had to get 25,560. A total of 34 HMOs and 46 PPOs made the cut this year. Smaller Massachusetts plans such as Fallon Community Health Plan, Health New England and Neighborhood Health Plan were not included.

Posted by Elizabeth Cooney at 10:45 AM
August 14, 2007

Doctors becoming 'knowledge navigators,' Halamka says

Like presidential candidates, Google and Microsoft have plans to improve health care, a story in today's New York Times says.

Their proposals to combine better Internet search tools, the vast resources of the Web and online personal health records promise to accelerate a shift in power to consumers in health care, just as Internet technology has done in other industries, the story says.

jhalamka85.bmpDr. John D. Halamka (left), the chief information officer at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center who serves on the 24-member Google Health Advisory Council, told the Times giving much more control to individuals is inevitable.

"Patients will ultimately be the stewards of their own information," he said. "The doctor is becoming a knowledge navigator. In the future, health care will be a much more collaborative process between patients and doctors."

Posted by Elizabeth Cooney at 10:42 AM
August 14, 2007

Today's Globe: Biotech Council chief, off-duty EMT rescue

coughlin150.bmpThe Massachusetts Biotechnology Council yesterday chose as its new president a former state legislator with limited experience on Beacon Hill and in the life sciences sector. Robert K. Coughlin, (left) 38, undersecretary of business development in the Patrick administration since January, is a former state representative from Dedham who worked for an environmental cleanup firm and at an investment firm overseeing start-ups.

crispin mccay150.bmpCrispin McCay (right), an emergency medical technician, had just finished an uneventful 12-hour shift at the annual Dominican Festival in Franklin Park Sunday evening and was on his way home to Dorchester when he heard a voice crackling over his radio. Someone had just been shot about a block away on Columbia Road. He raced to the scene and saved a young woman's life, said Richard Serino, chief of the city's Emergency Medical Services.

Posted by Elizabeth Cooney at 06:56 AM
August 13, 2007

Antioxidants no magic bullet for heart disease, study says

Antioxidant pills do not protect high-risk women from cardiovascular disease, a Harvard study has found, adding to growing evidence that supplements canít duplicate a healthy diet and lifestyle.

Taking vitamin C, vitamin E and beta carotene alone or together did not protect the women overall from heart attacks, coronary artery disease or stroke, Dr. JoAnne E. Manson of Harvard Medical School and colleagues report in todayís Archives of Internal Medicine.

"Antioxidants are clearly not the magic bullet for heart disease prevention," she said in an interview. "Supplements do not replace the more difficult lifestyle modifications that have been proven to lower the risk of cardiovascular disease, such as regular exercise, a heart-healthy diet, not smoking, and managing high blood pressure and high cholesterol."

The study of 8,171 women was the first large-scale randomized trial to look at the impact of vitamin C on the risk of cardiovascular events, and it was also the first to examine vitamin C, vitamin E and beta carotene individually and in combination, Manson said.

Previous randomized trials of antioxidants have been disappointing, failing to duplicate the promising results found in observational studies following people who ate high amounts of antioxidants in their food. Antioxidants have been the subject of much research because of the hope that they could limit the harm caused by compounds called free radicals.

The combination of vitamin C and vitamin E did appear to reduce the risk of stroke by 30 percent, but Manson, who is also chief of preventive medicine at Brigham and Womenís Hospital, said this result warrants further study before making a recommendation.

"Itís not ready for prime-time," she said. "People should not be going out and buying vitamin C and vitamin E for the express purpose of preventing stroke."

They shouldnít throw away their multivitamins, either, if they take them to make up for not eating a balanced diet, she said. The trial used doses much higher than can be found in multivitamins.

"Everyoneís looking for a simple pill you cold pop that will improve health or lower the risk of heart disease," she said. "Any widespread use of these vitamins for cardiovascular disease prevention is just not warranted."

Posted by Elizabeth Cooney at 04:29 PM
August 13, 2007

Wong's Texas state of mind

wong in houston150.bmpStephen Wong (left), the bioinformatics leader who left Harvard for Houston and took nearly two dozen lab colleagues with him, talks about his new role in a Houston Chronicle story.

"Texas is a whole change in mind-set," Wong, 49, told the Chronicle. "We want to do something new. The whole idea is, we don't want to do something small. And this is the place to come and do that."

The exact place, as in lab space, is significant, too, according to the story:

"For decades, Houston has been known for its leading-edge heart research. Yet, it is a clear sign of the times that Wong, a star recruited by The Methodist Hospital from Harvard University earlier this summer, will claim a large chunk of the hospital's two floors of lab space formerly used by legendary heart surgeon Dr. Michael DeBakey."


Posted by Elizabeth Cooney at 10:28 AM
August 13, 2007

Today's Globe: autism triggers, plastic warning, diabetes and bones, bridge inspections, palliative care mission, cystic fibrosis drug deal

Researchers now believe that autism can be caused by genes in combination with environmental triggers. The question is, what are those triggers?

A federal panel of scientists concluded last week that an estrogen-like compound in plastic could be posing some risk to the brain development of babies and children.

As medicine struggles to halt the nation's diabetes epidemic, scientists have found a potential new weapon in the most unlikely place -- the skeleton.

bridge inspection100.bmpIt's a question that's been on a lot of commuters' minds over the last two weeks as they drive over area bridges (left, an inspection last week in Fitchburg): Why didn't engineers know that the Interstate 35 west bridge in Minneapolis was so close to disaster?

dr. bob buxbaum150.bmpMortality can only, at best, be delayed -- whether from cancer or anything else. So Dr. Bob Buxbaum (right) has devoted himself to palliative care, meaning he helps make a patient's life better once that life is coming to an end.

james bond100.bmpAlso in Health/Science, a stomach drug might have brain impact, do body-fat scales work and what's the difference between shaken and stirred?

In Business & Innovation, the Cambridge biotechnology firm FoldRx Pharmaceuticals Inc. will receive $22 million from the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation to develop and commercialize drugs aimed at treating the fatal genetic disease, a disorder of the lungs and digestive system that afflicts 70,000 people worldwide.

Posted by Elizabeth Cooney at 06:56 AM
August 13, 2007

Nantucket's only surgeon sees it all

nantucket150.bmpAs Nantucketís surgeon, medical examiner, school physician, football team doctor, Lyme disease expert, identifier of excavated Indian bones and occasional Dr. Doolittle, Dr. Timpthy Lepore has pretty much seen it all, according to a story in Sunday's New York Times.

"I treat the natives and the washashores," Dr. Lepore said. "It can be a little like Lourdes on occasion, although usually I donít have people on crutches outside."

Posted by Elizabeth Cooney at 06:12 AM
August 13, 2007

In case you missed it: insurance delays, no pregnant pause

The number of people seeking state-subsidized health insurance has overwhelmed the offices processing applications, forcing some of the uninsured to wait months to get coverage, according to state officials and healthcare advocates, in Saturday's Globe.

A fitness trainer sees no cause for a pregnant pause, in the Sunday Globe's City Weekly section.

Posted by Elizabeth Cooney at 06:06 AM
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