NPR Health Blog
When he was 59 years old, Greg O'Brien was diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer's disease. Five years later, he is speaking publicly about his experience, even as his symptoms worsen.Courtesy of Greg O'Brien
This is the first in a series, "Inside Alzheimer's," about the experience of being diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer's disease.
In 2009, 59-year-old Greg O'Brien was a successful journalist and writer living in Cape Cod. He was healthy and happy — he exercised every day, made a good living, spent time with his three children and wife.
But he had also started to notice changes in himself. He was forgetting things, and his judgment sometimes seemed to fail him. Meanwhile, his own mother was dying of Alzheimer's disease.
“ "There is a stereotype that Alzheimer's is just the end stage when you're in a nursing home and you're getting ready to die. And the point is no, that's not true."
And that year, he was diagnosed as well.
In the five years since his diagnosis, O'Brien has turned his writer's focus on himself and published a memoir, On Pluto: Inside the Mind of Alzheimer's.
For as long as he's able, O'Brien says, he'll continue to talk about what he's going through.
"There are millions more [people] out there who are suffering through the stages of early-onset Alzheimer's who are afraid to seek help. They're afraid to talk to people," he says. "If I could help give them that voice so maybe things get a little better for them, then that's good."Interview Highlights
On being diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer's disease
I was diagnosed in 2009. It was scary, and I remember sitting in my neurologist's office. He had all the test results and the clinical tests that I failed and the brain scan and all that, and he's sitting next to my wife. He said, "You have Alzheimer's."Additional Information: LISTEN: Father And Son
Greg O'Brien gave one of his sons, Brendan, power of attorney, which meant Brendan needed to understand the details of his father's diagnosis. "We need to talk about this," Greg said. But Brendan resisted.
Click to hear Greg recount their difficult conversation, which started a week after he told his children about his diagnosis.
So, the doctor looked at me, and he said, "Are you getting this? You have a battle on your hands. I'm talking to you as if you're terminal."
Now, I have a strong faith and I know I'm going to a better place, but I started thinking of my wife and kids. And I could feel water running down the side of my face. And they were my tears.
On telling his three children he has the disease
How do you tell your kids that you've got Alzheimer's? It sucks.
I had planned this family meeting, so all the kids were home and we're going to go out to dinner. I knew I had to talk beforehand.
So I'm in the bathroom, you know I felt a little bit like Luca Brasi in The Godfather, practicing my speech. "On the day of your daughter's wedding ...."
I could hear, "Daddy,where are you?" So I came out and I went over the fact that their great-grandfather, my grandfather, had died of Alzheimer's and my mother, which they knew. And now it's come for me.Additional Information: On Pluto
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They were stunned, they didn't quite know what to say. And then [my son] Conor cut through it and said, "so Dad, you're losing your mind." And everyone laughed; and I laughed, and I said, "You know what, that's enough talk for today. Let's go to dinner."
And that's what we did. We started talking about the Boston Red Sox and the Patriots and the Celtics, and I felt more comfortable in that.
On speaking publicly about having Alzheimer's disease
It's difficult doing interviews like this. It's like getting up for a big sporting event. You know, I say my mind is like my prized iPhone: still a very sophisticated device, but one with a short-term battery; one that breaks down easily, pocket-dials, and gets lost. So in writing, and in communicating, and in doing an interview like this, it beats the crap out of me. But I'm feeling like, in doing it, I'm beating the crap out of Alzheimer's.
There is a stereotype that Alzheimer's is just the end stage when you're in a nursing home and you're getting ready to die. And the point is no, that's not true.
Next week, on Weekend All Things Considered, Greg O'Brien will explain how his life has changed since his diagnosis.Copyright 2015 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.
The UASK app helps sexually assaulted college students in D.C. access a range of services, from rides to the hospital to phone numbers for counselors. The information is personalized to their school. Another version of the app, ASK, provides the same resources to non-students.Emily Jan/NPR
Maya Weinstein is now a happy, bubbly junior at the George Washington University. But she says that two years ago, just a few weeks after she arrived on campus as a freshman, she was sexually assaulted by a fellow student.
"It was one of those 'acquaintance rape' things that people forget about, even though they are way more common," she says.
As Hurricane Sandy passed over the Washington area, she and her friends went to an off-campus party. Upon returning, she ran into an older student she knew from around campus. By the time she ended up in his bedroom, Weinstein says, she was intoxicated to the point of passing out.
It wasn't until she woke up the next morning — in his bed, with no memory of getting there — that she realized she'd been sexually assaulted. Weinstein says she barely knew where the campus bookstore was, let alone where to go for sexual assault services.NPR Ed Enlisting Smartphones In The Campaign For Campus Safety
"Do I go to Student Health, do I walk into the ER or do I call 911?" says Weinstein. "I've always had this image of, like, walking into the ER ... that's what you do, you show up there, you're all like disheveled, and they do what they do."
Not knowing where to turn, she instead did nothing.
"I just stood in the shower and I cried," she says.
What Weinstein didn't know was that Washington has one of the most comprehensive sexual assault survivor programs in the nation. By calling one phone number — 1-800-641-4028 — she could have gotten a free ride to MedStar Washington Hospital, the designated forensic hospital in D.C. There, she would have been met by a sexual assault counselor, who would take her through the whole process.
The hospital has trained forensic nurses on-call 24/7 to provide rape kits and conduct physical exams of victims. Survivors also get emergency contraception, STD tests, antibiotics and a 28-day course of HIV medication — all for free.
And the patient drives the process.
"You do not have to report to the police to receive any kind of medical or forensic care," says Jana Parrish, nursing director of the forensic nurses program.
"Do I go to Student Health, do I walk into the ER or do I call 911?" Maya Weinstein remembers thinking after her alleged assault. An app called UASK is designed to help people who have those sorts of questions.Courtesy Maya Weinstein
The services don't get linked to the patient's medical records, either. Those working in the field say these efforts are getting more people to seek treatment, which in turn gets more rapes reported.
"We have over a 10 percent increased reporting rate every single year since 2008, since we began this program," says Heather DeVore, the medical director of the Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner Program.
She's pleased with the uptick, but says it's not enough: "It's still the tip of the iceberg ... most people don't seek care and don't get any sort of help."
Take Weinstein. A month into her freshman year, how she was to know that these services were available to her?
That scenario is what prompted a group called Men Can Stop Rape to partner with the Mayor's Office of Victims Services to put all this information into an easy-to-use app. ASK, or Assault Services Knowledge, centralizes 55 different services available to victims of sexual assault and highlights the phone number to call to access them. For college students specifically, there's UASK. The "U" stands for "university," and all nine schools in Washington participate.
"It centralizes, essentially, all of these different resources that survivors can access — everything from being able to get a free Uber ride to a hospital to finding out what your university offers," says Ariella Neckritz, president of Students Against Sexual Assault at GW.
Her group helps advertise UASK on campus. They want all students on campus to download it on their phone, so no one ever will have to wonder what to do after being sexually assaulted. The app has been around for two years, but hasn't quite caught on at these schools.
"To date, we've had over 14,000 people access both UASK and ASK, which is really great," says Rachel Friedman, the deputy director of Men Can Stop Rape.
“ "You don't want to think that you're ever going to need it. So why would you put it on your phone?"
While 14,000 people is progress, it's nowhere close to reaching everyone they are aiming for. There are almost 100,000 university students at the nine schools, and there are more than 650,000 full-time D.C. residents. The vast majority of them never have heard of the app.
On campus, Neckritz admits the universities could do a better job marketing the app. They may be hesitant to tell students (or their parents) just how useful a sexual assault app is in this day and age. But part of the problem is the students themselves.
Neckritz says her peers tend to "see sexual assault as an outside issue — as something that isn't directly affecting you, your life, your campus, your community."
Even Maya Weinstein doesn't have the app on her phone. She says her freshman-year experience has left her well-prepared, app or no app. But her classmates are a different story.
"I don't know who would download the app," she says. "You don't want to think that you're ever going to need it, so why would you put it on your phone?"
But as Weinstein can tell you, sexual assault does happen. She went on to file a no-contact order against her alleged assailant, after tracking down the Title IX coordinator's phone number and setting up an appointment.
"She was the person that I was supposed to go to," says Weinstein. "She had all the information."
That was three months after the assault. When you open the UASK app and select GW, that coordinator is the first name that pops up.Copyright 2015 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.
Leaks in a barrier between blood vessels and brain cells could contribute to the development of Alzheimer's.VEM/Science Source
Researchers appear to have found a new risk factor for Alzheimer's disease: leaky blood vessels.
An MRI study of found those experiencing mild problems with thinking and memory had much leakier blood vessels in the hippocampus. "This is exactly the area of the brain that is involved with learning and memory," says Berislav Zlokovic, the study's senior author and director of the Zilkha Neurogenetic Institute at the University of Southern California.
The study, published in Neuron, also found that blood vessels in the hippocampus tend to become leakier in all people as they age. But the process is accelerated in those likely to develop Alzheimer's or other forms of dementia.
Tightly packed glial cells (green) and nerve cells (red) surround a blood vessel to form a barrier that keeps toxins from reaching delicate brain cells.C.J. Guerin, PhD/MRC Toxicology Unit/Science Source
The finding suggests that it may be possible to identify people at risk for Alzheimer's by looking at their blood vessels, says Rod Corriveau , a program director at the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, which helped fund the research. The results also suggests that a drug to help the body seal up leaky blood vessels could delay or prevent Alzheimer's and other forms of dementia.
"This study gives patients and families hope for the future, hope that detecting leaky blood vessels early will provide the opportunity to stop dementia before it starts," Corriveau says.
The new research grew out of earlier studies of people who died with Alzheimer's disease. "We were looking at brains from autopsies and it (became) quite apparent that there is a breakdown of the blood-brain barrier," Zlokovic says.
The blood-brain barrier is a special layer of cells that normally prevents bacteria and toxins that circulate in the bloodstream from mixing with the fluid that surrounds brain cells. When it breaks down, toxins leak into the fluid that surrounds brain cells and eventually damage or kill the cells.
The autopsy research couldn't show whether the breakdown occurred before or after Alzheimer's appeared. So Zlokovic and his team used a special type of MRI to study the living brains of more than 60 people. The group included both healthy individuals and people with mild cognitive impairment, which can be an early sign of Alzheimer's.Shots - Health News Toxic Tau Of Alzheimer's May Offer A Path To Treatment
The researchers paid special attention to the hippocampus because it is one of the first brain areas affected by Alzheimer's. And they found that in some regions of the hippocampus, the permeability of the blood-brain barrier was more than 50 percent higher in people with mild cognitive impairment.
The finding could help explain why people with atherosclerosis and other problems with their blood vessels are more likely to develop Alzheimer's, says Corriveaux. "There's every reason to think that a lot of Alzheimer's disease does involve vascular damage," he says.
The study also adds to the evidence that amyloid plaques and the tangles known as tau aren't the only factors that lead to Alzheimer's. There are probably several different paths to dementia, Corriveau says, including one that involves leaky blood vessels.
One important question now is whether it's possible to repair damage to the blood brain barrier. That may be possible using cells known as pericytes, which help prevent blood vessels in the brain from leaking.Copyright 2015 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.
Young women these days are encouraged to lean in, to want and have it all. And national polls show the idea that a woman's place is in the home has been losing traction among young people since the 1960s.
Given the option, the majority of young men and women say they would prefer to share both work and domestic duties equally with their spouses, according to a study published in the February issue of the American Sociological Review.New Boom Millennials Navigate The Ups And Downs Of Cohabitation
So how come women are still under more pressure to leave work or switch to part time when they have kids, and still do more of the housework?
"Our work shows that most people want to have more egalitarian relationships, says Sarah Thébaud, a sociologist at the University of California, Santa Barbara, who co-authored the study. "But they may fall back on to traditional gender roles when they realize that egalitarianism is hard to achieve in the current workplace environment."
The researchers began by rounding up 330 unmarried young adults ages 18 to 32 from all over the country. They divided the participants into three groups.
The first group was asked to choose one of three options: being completely self-reliant regardless of relationship status; being the primary breadwinner in a relationship; or being the primary homemaker. In this group, men and women tended to fall back into more traditional gender roles.New Boom For More Millennials, It's Kids First, Marriage Maybe
The researchers then asked the second group the same question, but added the option of having an egalitarian relationship — and everything changed.
Sixty-two percent of higher-educated women and 59.3 percent of women without a college education said they preferred an egalitarian relationship. Among men, 63 percent of those with some college education, 82.5 percent with less education responded in the same way.
And when the researchers asked the third group to imagine a world in which all workers had access to paid family leave, subsidized childcare and flexible work schedules, even more men and women said they wanted egalitarian relationships.
The results show that people's current attitudes toward gender roles are likely a result of restrictive workplace policies, Thébaud says.
"The assumption is that you have backup support — a stay-at-home person who is helping you take care of the children," Thébaud says.
Raising children when both parents work full time at demanding jobs is very difficult, Thébaud says, which may be why women are more apt to leave work or work part time.New Boom For These Millennials, Gender Norms Have Gone Out Of Style
But this research also suggests that as workplace policies change, people's attitudes toward gender roles will shift as well, says Kathleen Gerson, a sociologist at New York University who wasn't involved in the study.
"Even what we think we want is going to be based on what kinds of options our environment offers us," Gerson says. "Right now, it's very hard in many cases for Americans to even imagine what life would be like if they could depend on the kinds of family and work support that is available in some other countries."Copyright 2015 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.
For someone who is blind, a simple click can be the sound of sight.
It's a technique called echolocation. Bats and other animals use it to see at night. And it's being used by an increasing number of people who are blind. They listen to how the clicking sounds they make with their tongues bounce off the world around them. It tells them a surprising amount about the world.
The technique was popularized by a man in California named Daniel Kish, who is the main subject of this week's Invisibilia, NPR's new show about human behavior. Here, show co-host Lulu Miller tells the story of a woman who encountered some unexpected complications when she tried to learn.
Wanna know a great trick for figuring out how to click? Just do what Daniel Kish told Julee-anne Bell.
"Imagine licking peanut butter off the roof of my mouth," says Bell. "As soon as I did that, I got my click."
Julee-anne, who is in her early 40s and lives near Brisbane, Australia, has been blind since birth. She first heard about echolocation when she was 38 and the mother of two boys. Up until that point, she had spent her whole life getting around unfamiliar places on someone's arm, because she felt too nervous to go out alone with a cane or guide dog.
Julee-anne Bell used to be afraid to venture out in the world without holding onto someone's arm.Courtesy of Julee-anne Bell
"Physically I would be like butterflies, like serious butterflies when you're about to go on stage or do something really scary," Julee-anne says.
But when she holds onto someone's arm, she feels as if the world returns.
In fact, it was her husband's arm that made her fall in love with him. His arm literally reached out and rescued her when a careless boyfriend left her alone and terrified one night in college.
And Thomas Bell loved having her there. "It was quite a nice feeling, actually, to have her on my arm. It sort of brought us closer together."
But that loving arm would eventually become a problem if Julee-anne was going to learn echolocation.
Julee-anne had hired Kish, who lost his sight as a toddler due to cancer and who developed the echolocation technique, to give her lessons after she heard about him on TV.
“ It was her husband's arm that made her fall in love with him. His arm literally reached out and rescued her when a careless boyfriend left her alone and terrified one night in college.
Kish flew out to Australia and spent a few days with her, teaching her how to click with her tongue and how to interpret what the echoes of those clicks meant. As they walked down the street and she clicked, he would ask: What was she detecting? A fence? A car? A tree? A person?
Once Julee-anne had mastered her click, Kish turned to a much more difficult thing to conquer — the fear of letting go of someone's arm.
Thomas understood that the goal was for Julee-anne to walk on her own, but it was hard for him to stand back.
"I would find myself walking very close," Thomas says. "I would sort of hover."
And it was hard for their sons Daniel and Joshua, too. "It was daunting and scary," Julee-anne says. "I was tense, he was tense. Everybody was tense."
But slowly she got better at the technique, which she uses while using a long white cane. (She now works as administrative manager for World Action for the Blind, the organization that Kish founded.)Shots - Health News Trapped In His Body For 12 Years, A Man Breaks Free
Finally she decided to do something previously unthinkable: Travel alone to California to go hiking.Shots - Health News By Making A Game Out Of Rejection, A Man Conquers Fear
She met up with Daniel Kish and a few of his friends in Los Angeles, and went hiking along a steep ravine.
Suddenly, says Kish, "We heard a slidy, soily sound."
Julee-anne had fallen off the side of a cliff. At a certain point she hit rock and started rolling — "log-rolling down," says Julee-anne.
"I lost my cane, I lost my hiking stick," she says. "And you have no idea how — how is this going to end?"
Daniel Kish uses echolocation to bike and hike.
It ended with a friend of Kish's jumping down to help her roll to a stop. Once she realized she was battered and bruised but OK, Julee-anne's first thought was of her family. "The thought I had was: They're gonna be really mad."
And they were — especially Thomas.
"I was pretty shocked and concerned," he says. "And I guess I got a bit angry."
"And of course my husband's first response was that, well, 'Daniel should have taken better care of you,' " Julee-anne says. "And I said, 'You know what, I'm a grown-up!' "
It took some time, but eventually Thomas got the message: The person he loved wanted to be let go. And he needed to let her go.
The boys spoke about this too, about how hard it was to give up being her guide. They said it made them feel proud.
“ It took some time, but eventually Thomas got the message: The person he loved wanted to be let go. And he needed to let her go.
And this became Julee-anne's strange struggle. She realized in healing herself, she was also hurting the people around her, in a way.
"And I didn't even realize at the time what I was doing by wrenching away," Julee-anne says. "And that's one of the reasons why I tend to hold his arm now."
The other reason is that in the last year, Thomas has become ill. It looks as if it might be multiple sclerosis.
So every day now, Julee-anne takes his arm and they walk. He uses a walking stick and she uses a cane. They walk side by side. "And that is part of how we still connect," she says.
"I'm not a terribly stable guide anymore," Thomas says. "She is sort of taking the lead and sort of caring for me."
To hear more about echolocation and how Daniel Kish uses it to ride a bike, listen to the third episode of Invisibilia, NPR's newest program. It explores how invisible things shape our behavior and our lives. The program runs on many public radio stations, and the podcast is available for download at NPR.org and on iTunes.Copyright 2015 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.
Anti-abortion activists participate in the annual "March for Life" in Washington, D.C., on Thursday.Alex Wong/Getty Images
House Republicans decided Wednesday night to shelve a bill that would have banned abortion at 20 weeks post-conception. But 10 states already ban abortions at 20 weeks and two others are defending such laws in court.
Activists are pushing for bans in at least three more states; a panel in the South Carolina Legislature passed one Thursday.
But under the 1973 Supreme Court decision Roe v. Wade, a woman has the right to an abortion for several weeks after that, until the point when the fetus is considered viable.GOP-Led House Drops 20-Week Abortion Limit, Will Advance Funding Ban
The laws target just a sliver of all abortions — only 1.5 percent take place after 20 weeks post-conception — but such procedures can be among the most emotionally fraught.
Six years ago, Christy Zink and her husband were thrilled to be expecting a second child. All seemed good until her ultrasound at 21 weeks, when her OB-GYN noticed something off and ordered MRI. Looking over the results with doctors, Zink was shocked to see the image of her baby's brain.
Christy Zink, who had an abortion after 20 weeks of pregnancy, spoke at a 2012 press conference opposing a House bill that would ban those procedures.Kevin Dietsch/UPI/Landov
"It looked like, on one side, almost like splotches," she says. "Like an abstract painting. It did not look like a brain."
She says half the brain was basically missing, along with key central nerve fibers. Doctors said the baby would probably have near constant seizures and might have to live in a hospital.
"We did not feel like we wanted to bring a baby into the world whose life was going to be about pain and surgery and being hooked up to machines," says Zink.
She had little trouble getting a late-term abortion where she lives, in Washington, D.C.Shots - Health News Texas Abortion Case May Hinge On Definition Of 'Undue Burden'
But most of the 10 states that now ban the procedure at 20 weeks post-fertilization have no exception for fetal abnormalities. The few that do are written so narrowly it's not clear that Zink would have been allowed to have the procedure in those states.
By contrast, the Supreme Court has upheld a broad array of exceptions allowing abortion in order to protect all aspects of a woman's health, including "physical, emotional, psychological, familial."
Why 20 Weeks?Shots - Health News Big Question For 2015: Will The Supreme Court Rule On Abortion?
"This is a point where the humanity of the unborn child is very, very clear," says Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of the Susan B. Anthony list, which seeks to ultimately end all abortion. She says there is good reason that polls show majority support for banning it after 20 weeks.
"Brothers and sisters of a baby that's 20 weeks look at the sonogram, they see the child moving around," she says. "Mothers read WebMD and it says you should be singing to your baby at this point, that she can hear melodies, she can feel rhythms."
And Dannenfelser says the fetus can feel also pain at 20 weeks; the legislation her group lobbies for is called the Pain Capable Unborn Child Protection Act. Most research disputes the premise, though, finding that neural connections are not yet fully developed at that point.Shots - Health News As More Women Tell Abortion Stories, Both Sides Claim Advantage
"They're introducing bans in states as early as six weeks," she says. "They're introducing them at 12 weeks. And they would like us to believe that a 20-week ban is therefore then reasonable. It is not."
In a small room packed with people answering phones, the federation gets 5,000 calls a week to its abortion hotline.
Saporta says they hear from many women with no money for the procedure. They put it off, which makes their plight worse, as the later an abortion happens the more it costs, running into the thousands of dollars.
Zink says through support groups she has befriended women who've had to "think about mortgaging their retirement accounts, or having help from their parents to take out a second mortgage on their house" in order to pay for a later-pregnancy abortion.
Saporta says some women don't realize they're pregnant until late, especially teens or those with irregular menstrual cycles, and others are afraid to tell anyone.
A Vulnerable Population
"One of the patients that I saw recently had been raped continuously by her half-brother," says Dr. Warren Hern, who runs Boulder Abortion Clinic in Colorado. He says the girl was 13 and "was many months pregnant when her mother discovered she was pregnant, and they were all quite terrified."Law Supreme Court Refuses To Limit Abortion Drug's Use
Only Arkansas' ban allows someone in this situation to get an abortion after 20 weeks. The nine other states have no exception at all for rape.
Hern says other women seeking later abortions struggle with substance abuse or mental illness, or simply decide they are unfit to be a parent.
"She's not prepared for that economically, or educationally, or emotionally," he says. "She's been abandoned by her partner or she has no support from her parents. And she doesn't have the means to raise a child."
Abortion-rights advocates say banning later abortions disproportionately impacts a vulnerable population.
But "the vulnerable population that must be considered is the vulnerable child waiting to be born as well," says ban supporter Dannenfelser. She says a woman's rights should not trump those of a fetus just to make her life easier.
"This debate revolves around a group of children who have nothing wrong with them, but the circumstances in their life, beyond the womb, are very difficult for the mother," she says.Copyright 2015 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.
A scorpion fly perches on a leaf at the research farm where Lindgren studied the decomposition of human remains. Scorpion flies are among the first insects to visit a corpse.Courtesy of Natalie Lindgren
As any CSI enthusiast understands, the tiniest details can help forensic scientists figure out how and when people died. These days, investigators are taking advantage of information about microbes that live on human bodies and the insects that come to feed on corpses to crack cases.
Entomologist Natalie Lindgren spent a year watching human remains decompose at the Southeast Texas Applied Forensic Science Facility, just outside Huntsville, Texas. She set up a lawn chair and monitored corpses for insects that would feed on the tissue. Several times a day, she would visit the bodies, collect any insects she saw and document the decomposition with photographs.
Lindgren specializes in forensic entomology — using insects and their arthropod relatives (think spiders and ticks) to uncover the truth at crime scenes.Shots - Health News Could Detectives Use Microbes To Solve Murders?
The field is actually much broader than human decay. For example, a forensic entomologist might investigate how furniture got damaged and find a warehouse infested with wood-eating beetles.
As far as corpses go, researchers recognize a few common visitors. There are maggots, the larval forms of blowflies. And dermestid beetles, sometimes called skin beetles, are the same family of bugs that taxidermists use to scour flesh from bones.
Yet much of the field still focuses on two basic questions. What kinds of insects visit bodies, and what kind of evidence do the bugs leave behind? While working on her master's thesis, Lindgren tied a few more species of insects to human decomposition and showed the marks they might leave behind.
First to the scene were scorpion flies, which Lindgren said she didn't think had ever been associated with human remains. "We really care about who shows up first," Lindgren told Shots. The order of arrival for different insects can help establish how long a person has been dead. Lindgren said she was surprised when the scorpion flies hung around for at least a day and a half, outnumbering the flies she had expected to find. Now, if a forensic scientist sees scorpion flies at a crime scene, they know that the body is fresh.
A moth fly eats the algae growing on a corpse recently removed from water. Adult moth flies also mated and deposited eggs on this body.Courtesy of Natalie Lindgren
A chance discovery proved to be her most exciting finding. An unknown animal pulled off a cadaver's toenails, and blood had pooled where the toenails had been. "It looked like the cadaver had brightly painted toenails, and you couldn't help but look at the toes of this cadaver whenever you walked by," she said
One day, when she passed by this cadaver, she discovered that a caterpillar had moved in for a nibble. "It started chewing on the flakes of skin where the toenail once was," Lindgren said. Knowing that a cadaver might be missing a few bites is particularly important, because insect damage can start to look like a serious wound. Depending on how the body decomposes, Lindgren said, "these bite marks might not look anything like bite marks."
Mistaking something as small as insect bite marks for more serious evidence happens quite frequently. According to Jason Byrd, president-elect of the North American Forensic Entomology Association, it's very easy to confuse postmortem insect damage with an injury that could be crime-related. "A lot of the postmortem feeding of arthropods mimics abrasions," Byrd told Shots. "You may have a very small gunshot wound that starts to look like a very large gunshot wound." Byrd recalled one occasion when it appeared that a victim had been Tasered, and another occasion when law enforcement thought that the perpetrator had removed the victim's skin. In both cases, the damage had occurred after the victim was dead, and insects — not humans — were to blame.
For Lindgren, the toughest part of the research wasn't keeping company with corpses, but instead having to wait so long for the clues to develop. "I had so many questions," she said. "It was painful to be collecting so much data and to not have it be worked out at the time that I was collecting it."
There are plenty more questions to be answered. Every forensic entomology study is different because no two bodies are the same. "Every cadaver is an individual," Lindgren said, explaining that there are differences related to sex, fat content and cause of death. And after so much time around the dead, Lindgren is used to people who think what she studies is a bit revolting. "I think of the cadavers as people, and people aren't disgusting," she said. "We're all going to end up as cadavers one day."
Lindgren and her research colleagues wrote about their findings in the Journal of Medical Entomology.Copyright 2015 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.
One demonstrator advocates for paid sick leave at a 2013 rally outside New York's city hall. The city is now one of several in the U.S. to have passed a measure mandating paid sick days.Spencer Platt/Getty Images
In his State of the Union speech earlier this week, President Obama pitched a plan to boost what he called "middle-class economics." He asked Congress to help him make community college free, cut taxes for the middle class — and also do this:
"Send me a bill that gives every worker in America the opportunity to earn seven days of paid sick leave," Obama said. "It's the right thing to do."
Many in the business lobby aren't likely to agree with that. Lisa Horn, a lobbyist with the Society for Human Resource Management, says that businesses would prefer flexibility for workers to choose how to spend their leave — whether that means sick time or vacation. Horn asserts that the effect of a federal paid sick leave rule would be that businesses will cut back on other benefits.
"For all employers, regardless of size, they have a finite amount of resources that are dedicated to their total rewards package," she says.
Jack Mozloom, spokesman for the National Federation of Independent Business, agrees. He says the proposed mandate would create costs — not to mention some losers, too. Big firms can at least absorb the blow, he says. These companies have giant pools of workers they can shuffle around when workers don't show up. But small businesses don't have that advantage.
About 40 million workers, most of whom work part-time or in lower-wage jobs, don't earn paid sick leave. But state and local laws have been gaining ground since San Francisco mandated paid sick leave in 2006. Since then, 15 more cities and three states have passed similar measures — including Louis Lista's home state of Connecticut, in 2011.
Lista owns the Pond House Cafe, which employs fewer than 50 workers and doesn't fall under the state's new statute. Nevertheless, he has offered paid sick time for a decade.
"I don't think we've seen a huge cost impact," Lista says. "I think it's helped us a lot with the retention rate."
Besides the obvious benefit of keeping workers from infecting food or their co-workers, he says, the policy on paid sick leave also helps prevent competitors from poaching his people as easily.It's All Politics State Of The Union Primer: What President Obama Proposed Obama Urges Congress To Make Paid Sick Leave Mandatory 2 min 43 sec
Chibuzo Njeze owns Springview Pharmacy in Irvington, N.J., where local lawmakers also recently passed a bill. Njeze says he has offered the benefit for at least 16 years, and many of his employees have stayed at least that long, which saves him both time and customers.
"In the pharmacy, customers are usually cantankerous," Njeze says. "They're not happy to be there; they want to go home quickly. So if you have to keep training technicians, that slows you down considerably."
This observation is typical, says Ruth Milkman. She is a sociologist at the City University of New York, where she studies both sick leave and family leave.
"With paid family leave, there was all this same sort of alarmist rhetoric about how this was going to be a disaster, especially for small businesses," Milkman says. "Actually, in that study we found that small businesses were more positive than the larger ones about the program."
Regardless, given the political divisions, the Republican-led Congress is highly unlikely to take up the issue. On this matter, both opponents and supporters of paid sick leave agree.
But Dan Cantor says that's almost beside the point. Cantor is director of the Working Families Party, a political group that campaigns on progressive issues. He says sick leave measures are not just being addressed at the federal level; they're also gaining support in state legislatures, including in Maryland, New Jersey and Oregon.
"The fight is at the state level," Cantor says. "That's why the president putting his voice behind this is so valuable. It just raises the stature of the issue tremendously."Copyright 2015 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.
An example of a human precision grip — grasping a first metacarpal from the thumb of a specimen of Australopithecus africanus that's thought to be 2 to 3 million years old.T.L. Kivell & M. Skinner
The special tool-wielding power of human hands may go back farther in evolutionary history than scientists have thought.
That's according to a new study of hand bones from an early relative of humans called Australopithecus africanus. Researchers used a powerful X-ray technique to scan the interior of the bones, and they detected a telltale structure that's associated with a forceful precision grip.
"It's clear evidence that these australopiths were using their hands and using grips that are very consistent with what modern humans did and what our recent relatives like Neanderthals did," says Matthew Skinner, a paleoanthropologist at the University of Kent, in the United Kingdom. He was part of the team that published the new work online Thursday in Science.
The human hand is capable of fine manipulation that is way beyond the capabilities of our closest living relatives, the great apes. A chimpanzee, for example, would find it impossible to hold a pencil in the way that people do. That's because the human hand has short fingers and a relatively long thumb, letting us easily press our thumb against the pads of our fingers.The Human Edge A Handy Bunch: Tools, Thumbs Helped Us Thrive The Human Edge Building A Human Body
And while chimpanzees do use tools — they might use a twig to fish termites out of a mound, for example — the use of stone tools has long been seen as a uniquely human activity. The earliest known members of the human group were named Homo habilis, or "handy man." These early humans were thought to be the first stone toolmakers; their hand bones had external features similar to those seen in modern humans.
Scientists have clear evidence of stone tool use as early as 2.4 million years ago. Recently, though, researchers made the controversial claim that they'd found animal bones from about 3.4 million years ago that seemed to have cut marks made by stone tools. That find was associated with an ancient relative of humans called Australopithecus afarensis; the discovery suggested that the precursors to humans also might have been handy.
Now, this new study of hand bones adds another bit of evidence. Skinner and his colleagues knew that bone is a living tissue that responds to the forces and stresses exerted on it. And they found that humans, but not chimpanzees, have a distinctive structural pattern inside the hand bones; it seems to be created when you, for example, forcefully oppose your thumb with your fingers.Shots - Health News Golden Arches: Human Feet More Flexible Than We Thought
What's more, the humanlike pattern was found inside the hand bones of Australopithecus africanus, suggesting that this type of grip may have been commonly used as early as 3 million years ago.
"We were very excited," says Skinner. "There are aspects of our anatomy which are very interesting and very unique and define us of a species. And what we have shown here is that some of the aspects of the hand which are so unique to modern humans have a much deeper evolutionary history than we thought previously."
(Top row) First metacarpals of the thumb in (from left to right) a chimpanzee, fossil hominins Australopithecus africanus, and two specimens belonging to either a robust australopith or early Homo, and a human. The bottom row shows 3D renderings from the microCT scans of the same specimens, showing a cross-section of the spongy trabecular bone inside.T.L. Kivell
He says it's not clear whether this species was actually using stone tools, or doing something else with their hands. But he thinks the new finding will probably prompt researchers to start looking for more evidence of stone tool use by these more remote ancestors to humans. "Because there's been a general feeling that one didn't even need to look for them, because they just didn't use them," Skinner says.
Brian Richmond, a paleoanthropologist at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, agrees that the big question is what these folks were doing with their hands to create this internal bone pattern. "It's not direct evidence of tool use," he says. "It's direct evidence of handling objects in a fairly humanlike way."
He says Australopithecus walked upright and had more or less the same hand proportions as modern humans, so it makes sense that they would be capable of using their hands to manipulate lots of things.
"But this suggests that they were actually doing it, not just that they could. There's evidence of behavior," he says. "It gives us a really high-resolution glimpse into the kinds of joint stresses that were happening in the hands, some 2 to 3 million years ago."Copyright 2015 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.
People who visited Disneyland in December were at risk of getting an unwelcome souvenir: the measles.George Frey/Landov
The measles outbreak that started at Disneyland and one other California theme park is expanding, with 59 confirmed cases in patients ranging in age from 7 months to 70 years. The California Department of Public Health has linked 42 of these cases to people who visited Disneyland or Disney's California Adventure Park.
Initially, cases were linked to people who visited the parks in mid-December, but health officials now say that other people with measles were at the parks in January while infectious and also have spread the disease.
The outbreak has spread beyond California with seven cases in Utah, Washington, Colorado and Oregon. Mexico has also confirmed a case.
Vaccination status is known for 34 of the California patients. State officials say that 28 were not vaccinated at all, one was partially vaccinated and five were fully vaccinated. Six of the unvaccinated were babies, too young to be vaccinated.
"Measles is not a trivial illness," state epidemiologist Dr. Gil Chavez said Wednesday. "It can be very serious with devastating consequences." Those consequences include pneumonia, encephalitis and even death. Before the measles vaccine was introduced in 1963, 500 people a year died of the disease nationwide. In the current outbreak, 25 percent of people with measles have been hospitalized.
“ "If you are not vaccinated, stay away from Disneyland."
In 1989-1991, a measles epidemic swept California and other places around the U.S. There were 17,000 cases in California, and 70 people died. In Philadelphia, nine children died in just three months. "The city was in a panic," Dr. Paul Offit of Children's Hospital of Philadelphia says. "I saw children die of measles dehydration ... measles encephalitis. Measles can kill you."
Chavez stressed that Disneyland was a safe place to go — as long as you are vaccinated. "If you are not vaccinated, stay away from Disneyland," he said. The problem is not with Disneyland itself, but any place where large numbers — including people from foreign countries — congregate. Chavez described Disneyland staff as being helpful and "quite concerned" about the outbreak. Five Disneyland staff members are among the 59 cases.
Measles was declared eliminated from the United States in 2000, but can still be reintroduced if someone from another country is infected and travels to the U.S., or an unvaccinated person in the U.S. travels abroad and brings the illness back.
Measles is a highly infectious, airborne illness. It starts off with fever as high as 105 degrees, followed by symptoms that resemble a cold — a cough and runny nose. The hallmark of measles is a red rash that appears first on the face and upper neck, and then spreads to the rest of the body. If someone with measles coughs or sneezes it can spread droplets of virus that can live on surfaces for up to two hours.Shots - Health News Measles Makes An Unwelcome Visit To Disneyland
On the press call with reporters Wednesday afternoon, Kathleen Harriman with the California Department of Public Health described published case reports of a person with measles at a basketball game — and people across the court became infected, "because the virus can float and hang out in the air for a long, long time," she said.
Chavez urged everyone who was not vaccinated to get immunized. The first dose of vaccine, called MMR as it protects against measles, mumps and rubella, is given at 12 to 15 months of age. The second dose is given at age 4 to 6. Most people who get the vaccine do not experience side effects, but the most common ones are fever and a mild rash.
If you were born before 1957, you are presumed to be immune to measles, because the disease was so widespread before the introduction of the vaccine. For years, only one dose was recommended; it protects 95 percent of people. The second dose was recommended starting in 1991. If you don't know your vaccine status, Harriman said you can safely get the MMR vaccine — if it's an extra dose it won't hurt you, she said.Shots - Health News Parents Who Shun Vaccines Tend To Cluster, Boosting Children's Risk
Local health officers in counties affected are busy tracing those who infected patients have been in contact with. Dr. Erica Pan, deputy health officer of Alameda County, says the county has shifted resources from Ebola preparedness to contact tracing for measles. Last year there were four cases of measles in Alameda County, she said, "but we had 400 contacts to investigate."
The measles outbreak comes after years of increases in the number of parents who refuse to get their children vaccinated. In California, the rate of kindergarten parents choosing the "personal belief exemption" to refuse vaccines doubled from 2007 to 2013. While the statewide rate of personal belief exemptions reached 3.15 percent, geographic clusters had significantly higher opt-out rates.
But that steady increase in vaccine refusals was halted with the current school year — likely due to a new California state law. This school year is the first when parents who chose to opt out needed to meet first with a health care provider to discuss vaccines and vaccine preventable illnesses. The goal is to dispel misinformation and fear of vaccines. The opt-out rate dropped from 3.15 to 2.54 percent, nearly a 20 percent decrease.
That change in vaccine refusals may be too late to make a difference in this outbreak, but state officials are nonetheless pleased. "That may change the number of people opting not to vaccinate out of pure misinformation," Chavez said.
This story was produced by State of Health, KQED's health blog.Copyright 2015 KQED Public Media. To see more, visit http://www.kqed.org/news.
What Medicare gives with one hand, it's taking away with another. Most government quality bonuses to hospitals this year are being wiped out by penalties issued for other shortcomings.
The government is taking performance into account when paying hospitals, one of the biggest changes in Medicare's 50-year-history and one that's required by the Affordable Care Act.
This year 1,700 hospitals, 55 percent of those graded, earned higher payments for providing comparatively good care in the federal government's most comprehensive review of quality. The government measured criteria such as patient satisfaction, lower death rates and how much patients cost Medicare. This incentive program, known as value-based purchasing, also led to penalties for 1,360 hospitals. (You can see all the bonuses and penalties here.)
However, fewer than 800 of the 1,700 hospitals that earned bonuses from this one program will actually receive extra money, according to a Kaiser Health News analysis. That's because the rest are being penalized through two other Medicare quality programs. One punishes hospitals for having too many patients readmitted for follow-up care, and the other lowers payments to hospitals where too many patients developed infections during their stays or got hurt in other ways.Shots - Health News Teaching Hospitals Hit Hardest By Medicare Fines For Patient Safety
When all these incentive programs are combined, the average bonus for large hospitals, those with more than 400 beds, will be nearly $213,000, while the average penalty will be about $1.2 million, according to estimates by Eric Fontana, an analyst at The Advisory Board Company, a consulting firm based in Washington.
For hospitals with 200 or fewer beds, the average bonus will be about $32,000 and the average penalty will be about $131,000, Fontana estimated.
Twenty-eight percent of hospitals will break even or get extra money.
On top of that, Medicare this year also began docking about 200 hospitals for not making enough progress in switching over to electronic medical records. Altogether more than 6 percent of Medicare payments are contingent on performance.
"You're starting to talk about real money," said Josh Seidman, a hospital adviser at Avalere Health, another consulting firm in Washington. "That becomes a really big driver; it really gets the attention of the chief financial officer as well as everybody else in the executive suite of the hospital."
Among these programs, the Hospital Value-Based Purchasing initiative, now in its third year, is the only one that offers bonuses as well as penalties. It is also the only one that recognizes hospital improvement even if a hospital's quality is still subpar. These bonuses and penalties are based on 26 different measures, including how consistently hospitals followed a dozen recommended medical guidelines, such as giving patients antibiotics within an hour of surgery, and how patients rated their experiences while in the hospital.
Medicare also examined death rates for congestive heart failure, heart attack and pneumonia patients, as well as bloodstream infections from catheters and serious complications from surgery such as blood clots. Medicare this year added a measure intended to encourage hospitals to deliver care in the most efficient manner possible. Hospitals were judged on how much their average patient costs Medicare, not only during the patient's stay but also in the three days before and a month after. Medicare is adding a hospital's bonus or penalty to every Medicare reimbursement for a patient stay from last October through the end of September.Shots - Health News Hospitals To Pay Big Fines For Infections, Avoidable Injuries
Nearly 500 more hospitals earned bonuses in the value-based purchasing program compared to last year. The biggest is going to Black River Community Medical Center in Poplar Bluff, Mo., which is getting a 2.09 percent increase, the analysis found. The largest penalty this year is assigned to the Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary, a teaching hospital of Harvard Medical School, in Boston. It is losing 1.24 percent of its Medicare payments.
The Massachusetts infirmary said in a statement that it was losing about $60,000 because most of its patients do not remain overnight in the hospital, and the penalties apply only to inpatient stays. The infirmary had so few of those cases that Medicare could not assess its performance on more than half the measures the government uses. Medicare's program "is a poor match for what" the infirmary does, it said.
More than 1,600 hospitals were exempted from the incentives, either because they specialize in particular types of patients, such as children or veterans, or because they are paid differently by Medicare, such as all hospitals in Maryland and "critical access hospitals" that are mostly in rural areas.
Medicare awarded bonuses to at least three-fourths of the hospitals it evaluated in Alaska, Hawaii, Maine, Minnesota, Montana, Oregon, South Dakota and Wisconsin, the KHN analysis found. Medicare penalized more than half the hospitals it evaluated in Arizona, Arkansas, California, Connecticut, Delaware, the District of Columbia, Florida, Nevada, New Jersey, New York, North Dakota, Pennsylvania, Washington and Wyoming. You can see the state tallies here:Copyright 2015 Kaiser Health News. To see more, visit http://www.kaiserhealthnews.org/.
Vapor from an e-cigarette obscures the user's face in a London coffee bar.Dan Kitwood/Getty Images
Vapor produced by electronic cigarettes can contain a surprisingly high concentration of formaldehyde — a known carcinogen — researchers reported Wednesday.The Two-Way 29 State Attorneys General Ask FDA To Strengthen E-Cig Regulations Shots - Health News Health Organizations Call For A Ban On E-Cigarettes Indoors
"I think this is just one more piece of evidence amid a number of pieces of evidence that e-cigarettes are not absolutely safe," says David Peyton, a chemistry professor at Portland State University who helped conduct the research.
The e-cigarette industry immediately dismissed the findings, saying the measurements were made under unrealistic conditions.
"They clearly did not talk to [people who use e-cigarettes] to understand this," says Gregory Conley of the American Vaping Association. "They think, 'Oh well. If we hit the button for so many seconds and that produces formaldehyde, then we have a new public health crisis to report.' " But that's not the right way to think about it, Conley suggests.
E-cigarettes work by heating a liquid that contains nicotine to create a vapor that users inhale. They're generally considered safer than regular cigarettes, because some research has suggested that the level of most toxicants in the vapor is much lower than the levels in smoke.
Some public health experts think vaping could prevent some people from starting to smoke traditional tobacco cigarettes and help some longtime smokers kick the habit.
But many health experts are also worried that so little is known about e-cigarettes, they may pose unknown risks. So Peyton and his colleagues decided to take a closer look at what's in that vapor.
"We simulated vaping by drawing the vapor — the aerosol — into a syringe, sort of simulating the lungs," Peyton says. That enabled the researchers to conduct a detailed chemical analysis of the vapor. They found something unexpected when the devices were dialed up to their highest settings.
"To our surprise, we found masked formaldehyde in the liquid droplet particles in the aerosol," Peyton says.
He calls it "masked" formaldehyde because it's in a slightly different form than regular formaldehyde — a form that could increase the likelihood it would get deposited in the lung. And the researchers didn't just find a little of the toxicant.Shots - Health News FDA Moves To Regulate Increasingly Popular E-Cigarettes
"We found this form of formaldehyde at significantly higher concentrations than even regular cigarettes [contain] — between five[fold] and fifteenfold higher concentration of formaldehyde than in cigarettes," Peyton says.
And formaldehyde is a known carcinogen.
"Long-term exposure is recognized as contributing to lung cancer," says Peyton. "And so we would like to minimize contact (to the extent one can) especially to delicate tissues like the lungs."
Conley says the researchers found formaldehyde only when the e-cigarettes were cranked up to their highest voltage levels.
"If you hold the button on an e-cigarette for 100 seconds, you could potentially produce 100 times more formaldehyde than you would ever get from a cigarette," Conley says. "But no human vaper would ever vape at that condition, because within one second their lungs would be incredibly uncomfortable."
That's because the vapor would be so hot. Conley compares it to overcooking a steak.
"I can take a steak and I can cook it on the grill for the next 18 hours, and that steak will be absolutely chock-full of carcinogens," he says. "But the steak will also be charcoal, so no one will eat it."
Peyton acknowledges that he found no formaldehyde when the e-cigarettes were set at low levels. But he says he thinks plenty of people use the high settings.
"As I walk around town and look at people using these electronic cigarette devices it's not difficult to tell what sort of setting they're using," Peyton says. "You can see how much of the aerosol they're blowing out. It's not small amounts."
"It's pretty clear to me," he says, "that at least some of the users are using the high levels."
So Peyton hopes the government will tightly regulate the electronic devices. The Food and Drug Administration is in the process of deciding just how strict it should be.Copyright 2015 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.
Scientists reprogrammed the common bacterium E. coli so it requires a synthetic amino acid to live.BSIP/UIG via Getty Images
Researchers at Harvard and Yale have used some extreme gene-manipulation tools to engineer safety features into designer organisms.
This work goes far beyond traditional genetic engineering, which involves moving a gene from one organism to another. In this case, they're actually rewriting the language of genetics.
The goal is to make modified organisms safer to use, and also to protect them against viruses that can wreak havoc on pharmaceutical production.The Salt Who Made That Flavor? Maybe A Genetically Altered Microbe
To understand what they've done, you may need to remember a bit of basic biology. The enzymes and other proteins in our bodies are all built from building blocks called amino acids. There are usually just 20 amino acids in nature. But George Church, a professor of genetics at Harvard Medical School, has created a bacterium that requires an additional amino acid, one made in the lab and not found in nature. His lab did that by rewriting the bacteria's genetic language to add a "word" that calls for this unnatural amino acid.
"So this really makes it a completely new branch of life," Church says.
These modified E. coli bacteria essentially speak a different genetic language from all other life on Earth. That means they can't easily swap genes, which bacteria often do to pick up or get rid of traits. And it also means that these modified E. coli must be fed the synthetic amino acid to survive.
"It will die as soon as you remove that essential nutrient," Church says.
The scientists say this radical re-engineering actually makes these synthetic life forms safer, because if they escape into the wild they'll die. One key question is whether these engineered bacteria can shed the traits that make them dependent on the synthetic amino acid. (Bacteria mutate all the time, picking up new traits and dropping others).
Genzyme had to halt production at its Allston, Mass., pharmaceutical plant in 2009, after bacteria used in manufacturing were contaminated with viruses.Brian Snyder/Reuters Landov
Church says that if his lab had modified just one trait, the bacteria would have a one in a million chance of getting rid of this safety feature. But by modifying several traits, he says the odds are more like one in a trillion that the bacteria can survive without the synthetic amino acid.
These modified organisms have another plus: With their altered genetic code, they are resistant to viruses that frequently attack bacteria. Viruses need the conventional DNA language in order to infect bacteria. So this is a selling point for industries that use E. coli.
"If you get your factory contaminated, it can be hard to clean out for a year," Church says, pointing to an episode at Genzyme Corp., a Cambridge, Mass., pharmaceutical manufacturer, in 2009. Viruses there contaminated a plant where bacteria were used to make drugs for two rare genetic disorders, Gaucher disease and Fabry disease, cutting off supplies.
And industrial uses are potentially just the start for engineered organisms.
"This also sets the stage for opening up new types of applications going forward," said Farren Isaacs , an assistant professor of molecular, cell, and developmental biology at Yale University. Isaacs left Church's lab at Harvard to start his own at Yale. He has kept pace with his former boss. He, too, has built some safety features into E. coli. Their reports were published together Wednesday in the journal Nature.
Other uses might include engineering oil-eating bacteria to use on a spill. They could be killed off when they're done by withholding the essential nutrient. Isaacs says scientists could also engineer bacteria to produce probiotics for human consumption.
It's harder to think about how this technology could be used in agriculture. Countless acres of genetically engineered crops would need to be fed this manmade ingredient, from a crop duster or by some other means. Scientists would also need to show that the synthetic protein component is safe to eat.
"I think it's commendable they're starting to design safety into genetically modified organisms," says Jennifer Kuzma, co-director of the Genetic Engineering and Society Center at North Carolina State University. "However, I don't really think it's going to affect the public perception that much or the way we have to deal with the uncertainty anyway. You may reduce the chance of spread, but you cannot eliminate it completely."
Science doesn't offer absolutes. But this technology is evolving quickly, and Church says it's important to engineer in safety features as they go.Copyright 2015 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.
Oklahoma state Rep. Mike Ritze, a Republican and a physician, plans to revive the fight against the Affordable Care Act in the 2015 legislative session.Sue Ogrocki/AP
Oklahoma state Rep. Mike Ritze is a foot soldier — one of hundreds — in a passionate war over the Affordable Care Act that is reigniting as state legislatures convene across the country.
The Republican lawmaker, a family doctor, has stood behind three anti-Obamacare bills supported by conservative groups in Oklahoma and other states. None has made it into law, but Ritze plans to pick up the fight in the 2015 legislative session that convenes in the Sooner State next month.
"We need to do everything we can to try and reverse this," said Ritze, who practices in Broken Arrow.
In Washington, D.C., there's been little consensus on modifying the health care law. But in state capitals around the country, from Albany and Columbia to Austin and Sacramento, lawmakers have been mulling over hundreds of proposals that reflect many starkly different views on Obamacare as settled law.
A Center for Public Integrity review found that more than 700 Obamacare-related bills were filed in the states during 2014 or carried over from 2013 in states where legislatures allow that. (You can read in-depth about the center's findings here.)
Some states saw 50 or more health bills each, according to data from the National Conference of State Legislatures, or NCSL. It's not yet clear how many will be reconsidered in 2015 — many states are just kicking off their legislative sessions — but few expect any substantial retreat from the battlefront.
A Bit Of Everything
Some bills seek to "nullify" the law or find creative ways to hinder its enforcement, while others are perennial filings inspired by Tea Party activists and other early foes of Obamacare, such as the John Birch Society.
Dozens of anti-Obamacare bills appear to take their cues from a handful of activist groups — some well-financed at least partly by big corporate donors, and others run on shoestring budgets.
On the flip side, scores of bills to bulk up Obamacare have also landed in state hoppers, especially last year. Most would either expand eligibility for Medicaid, the health care plan for low-income people funded by states and the federal government, or require insurers to cover more medical services.
NCSL data show that to date, pro-Obamacare forces have had the upper hand in bills actually signed into law. In all, more than 75 Obamacare-related bills were signed into law in 2014. About 50 moved the law forward, mostly by expanding Medicaid, while the rest appeared to impede its reach. But the tide may be shifting. Conservative groups that have tried to peck away at the law say they feel energized by Republican gains in state legislatures in 2014 midterm elections.
Style And Substance
Harvard University sociologist Theda Skocpol, a supporter of the law, said that some of the anti-Obamacare bills are "largely symbolic" and stand little chance of passage, but that others can put significant pressure on state governments.
Congress passed the Affordable Care Act in 2010 to help pay for health care coverage for millions of uninsured Americans. But the law leaves some key decisions on how to do so partly up to the states.
State lawmakers also are awaiting the Supreme Court's decision over the legality of subsidies paid in states that did not set up their own exchanges. A ruling in the case, King v. Burwell, is due this summer.
That would no doubt result in a new flood of proposals. But state lawmakers haven't been shy about weighing in to date.
Among the trends:
- More than 200 bills, most sponsored by Republicans, have attacked Obamacare's foundation from different flanks. At least 25 bills seek to repeal or "nullify" it, while others would offset any fines collected from people who refuse to purchase health insurance, or otherwise limit the law's reach. A "model" bill considered in at least 11 states would forbid state employees from enforcing any part of the law. Most didn't pass.
- At least 85 bills would tinker with insurance exchanges set up by the states or the federal government to sell policies. Just over half would choke off funding or inhibit exchanges by cutting off their spending on marketing or advertising. Four bills would stop insurers from taking any federal subsidies, though none passed. Most of these bills have failed.
- More than 55 bills filed in about two dozen states tried to tighten oversight of "navigators," who assist people in choosing a health plan that best fits their needs. Obamacare supporters see these bills as little more than a ruse to disrupt the law, and most did not pass. Yet six states in 2014 passed laws to tighten training standards or bar felons from getting these jobs.
- At least 26 states have taken up bills that would petition Congress to let states make health care financing decisions. Nine states have joined these health care compacts, data show. Nine compact bills were put forward in six states during 2013 and 2014, but only Kansas approved one, in 2014.
- More than 100 bills, most sponsored by Democrats, would expand Obamacare by covering more lower-income people under Medicaid or requiring insurers to cover new medical services. Most did not pass.
One high-profile group fighting Obamacare in statehouses is the American Legislative Exchange Council, or ALEC. The "free-market" group says it works to "advance limited government."
Among other initiatives, ALEC favors a "Health Care Freedom Act" that would suspend the business licenses of insurers that accept "any remuneration, credit or subsidy" paid under the Affordable Care Act. The measure was introduced in Kansas, Missouri and Ohio, but didn't pass.
ALEC has a foil in the State Innovation Exchange, which says it helps advance "progressive legislation." The group has yet to write model bills, according to executive director Nick Rathod. He expects to be playing defense over the next few years to stop "rollbacks" of Obamacare and predicts an "all-out assault" on the law.
The attacks from the right have not deterred proponents from pressing ahead with their own measures.
Most of these bills add benefits under Medicaid or insurance policies. The NCSL database logged 27 bills in nine states that would guarantee coverage for autism spectrum disorder, or study the idea of doing so. Bills to do that were signed into law in four states.
Other bills sought to guarantee insurance coverage for other medical and mental health care, such as chemotherapy and substance abuse.
Some observers predict that ideological opposition will crumble in the face of mounting pressure from the business community, including hospitals and insurers, which stand to profit from Medicaid expansions that will largely be paid for by the federal government.
Robin Rudowitz, who works with the Kaiser Family Foundation, puts the matter simply: "There's a lot of federal money on the table."
The Center for Public Integrity is a nonprofit, independent investigative news outlet. For more of its stories on this topic, go to publicintegrity.org.Copyright 2015 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.
Lou Graham prepares taxes in Connecticut and is ready to answer client questions about the Affordable Care Act.Jeff Cohen/WNPR
Are you thinking about tax day yet? Your friendly neighborhood tax preparer is. IRS Commissioner John Koskinen declared this tax season one of the most complicated ever, partly because this is the first year that the Affordable Care Act will show up on your tax form.
Tax preparers from coast to coast are trying to get ready. Sue Ellen Smith manages an H&R Block office in San Francisco, and she is expecting things to get busy soon.
"This year taxes and health care intersect in a brand-new way," Smith says.
For most people who get insurance through work, the change will be simple: checking a box on the tax form that says, "Yes, I had health insurance all year."Shots - Health News Tax Time Gets New Ritual: Proof Of Health Insurance
But it will be much more complex for an estimated 25 million to 30 million people who didn't have health insurance or who bought subsidized coverage through the exchanges.
To get ready, Smith and her team have been training for months, running through a range of hypothetical scenarios. She introduces "Ray" and "Vicky," a fictional couple from an H&R Block flyer. Together they earn $65,000 a year, and neither has health insurance.
An H&R Block flyer with fictional couples representing possible scenarios of what people might encounter reconciling their taxes under the Affordable Care Act.H&R Block
"The biggest misconception I hear people say is, 'Oh, the penalty's only $95, that's easy,' " says Smith, but the Rays and Vickys of the world are in for a surprise. "In this situation, it's almost $450."
That's because the penalty for being uninsured in 2014 is $95 or 1 percent of income, whichever is greater. Next year, it's 2 percent. Smith says the smartest move for people to avoid those penalties is to sign up for insurance before Feb. 15, the end of the health law's open enrollment period.
But a lot of people may not think about this until they file their taxes in April. For them, it will be too late to sign up for health insurance and too late to do anything about next year's penalty, says Mark Steber, chief tax officer for Jackson Hewitt Tax Services.
"They're kind of stuck," says Steber. "Quite frankly that's a very difficult discussion."
Steber's team at Jackson Hewitt is also role playing with tax advisors to prepare them for delivering bad news, in case taxpayers want to blame the messenger.
Lou Graham works at an H&R Block office in Hartford, Conn., and he is facing the same concerns. He is bracing to tell some people who got a subsidy all year long that it was actually too generous — maybe they made more money than they originally estimated. And, soon, they'll have to pay the government back.
ACA Penalties InfographicH&R Block
"I'm going to tell a client, 'I'm sorry, $300 of your return is not going to be yours.' Well, that will send them right through the roof," Graham says.
Like his colleague Smith in California, Graham is afraid some people may be completely unaware of the penalty for not having insurance.
That means Graham may have to deliver two pieces of bad news. First, he'll tell them they owe a penalty for 2014, and then he'll tell them it's too late to sign up for 2015. "So they're going to get stymied twice," he says.
Graham says he also hopes to guide people to some good news. A lot of people may not know that they're able to get an exemption from the law's mandate to get insurance, and it's his job to pull it out of them.
A client could say to him, for example, "'I didn't have insurance for six months, but you know what? I had got a notice that my electricity was going to be cut off.' Well, you fall into a hardship case," says Graham. "Those things need to be explored and not many people want to bring that forward."
Bringing it forward it important. Tax preparers like Graham can only help if tax filers seek them out, and most people don't - not this early, at least, he says. "People don't really start thinking about tax work until they get their W-2s in their hands."
That presents a real crunch. Most people won't get those W-2s until the end of January. That gives them just two weeks before the Obamacare clock runs out on them on February 15.
This story is part of a reporting partnership with NPR, WNPR, KQED and Kaiser Health News.Copyright 2015 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.
Although vaccines are among the safest, most effective ways to protect children from major communicable diseases, some parents still doubt this. As a result, some choose immunization schedules that defy science or refuse to vaccinate altogether.
If these parents were distributed randomly, their decisions would be less likely to harm others, especially babies too young for vaccination. But parents who use personal belief exemptions to avoid school vaccination requirements often live in the same communities, studies have found.
And parents of children too young to go to school do, too, according to a study published Monday in the journal Pediatrics. These younger children face the highest risk of dying from whooping cough and other vaccine-preventable diseases.
The study has come out as California is grappling with a measles outbreak linked to people who visited Disneyland in mid-December. So far, the state has reported 41 cases, including in people who didn't visit the theme park, and seven cases have been reported in other states and Mexico.Shots - Health News Measles Makes An Unwelcome Visit To Disneyland
The researchers knew that places like Marin and Sonoma counties had higher rates of personal belief exemptions. But those parents probably refused vaccines some years ago, says Dr. Tracy Lieu, director of Kaiser Permanente's Division of Research, who led the study. Her team hoped to spot clusters of refusals earlier, when recommended vaccines are due, so they could take steps to ward off outbreaks.
Communities at higher risk
To look for at-risk communities, Lieu and her colleagues analyzed the medical records of 155,000 children in Kaiser's system who lived in 13 Northern California counties and were born between 2000 and 2011. They were looking both for children who had received no vaccines and for children who had been "under-immunized," meaning they had missed one or more shots by age three.
Researchers then matched these children's vaccination records to their addresses, to see if these children were clustered geographically.
Across the 13 counties analyzed, the proportion of children who'd missed one or more shots increased from an average of 8 percent at the beginning of the study period to 12.4 percent at the end.Shots - Health News How Vaccine Fears Fueled The Resurgence Of Preventable Diseases
But that's a broad geographic range. When the researchers drilled down to the county level, they found pockets of even higher rates of under-immunization, ranging from 9.2 percent in Santa Clara County to 17.9 percent in Marin County between 2010 and 2012.
Five hot spots stood out, including a 1.8-mile area in Vallejo, where 22.7 percent of kids were under-vaccinated. More than 10,000 toddlers lived within the five clusters.
The team also identified five clusters where all vaccines were refused for the babies and toddlers in the study:
- 10.2 percent of children in an area from El Cerrito to Alameda
- 7.4 percent in northeastern San Francisco
- 6.6 percent in Marin and southwest Sonoma counties
- 5.5 percent in northeastern Sacramento County and Roseville
- 13.5 percent of kids in a small area south of Sacramento
Altogether, nearly 9,000 young children lived in these clusters.
In nearly every case, vaccine-refusal clusters overlapped with large areas of under-immunization.
When Lieu's group analyzed vaccination against specific diseases, they found that under-vaccination rates for the MMR vaccine – which protects against measles, mumps and rubella – were 1.69 times higher for children living in Marin and Sonoma counties compared with other areas.
"These are early signals," says Lieu. "These kinds of clusters can be associated with later epidemics."
Measles cases on the rise
The Disneyland measles outbreak is a stark reminder that pathogens can gain a foothold where vulnerable people congregate. That's why states require children to be fully vaccinated before entering kindergarten.
"Not surprisingly, areas that are under-immunized directly correlate with those areas at greatest risk of infections when they occur," says Dr. Paul Offit, who directs the Vaccine Education Center at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia and was not associated with the study. When enough people stop vaccinating, he says, measles and whooping cough, among the most contagious diseases, rapidly exploit holes in community, or herd, immunity.
Last year, when a record number of California parents claimed personal belief exemptions, health officials reported the most measles cases seen here since 1995 and the most whooping cough cases since 1947.Shots - Health News Debunking Vaccine Myths Can Have An Unintended Effect
Marin, Napa and Sonoma counties — where Lieu and her team found under-immunization clusters ranging from 17.5 to 18.1 percent — had the highest rates of whooping cough in the state in 2014. During the same time, a review of state immunization records shows, vaccination rates for whooping cough at nearly two-thirds of Marin schools, a third of Napa schools and 37 percent of Sonoma schools fell below targets to halt disease spread.
In another study, Prof. Saad Omer at Emory University found that clusters of personal belief exemptions contributed to the 2010 California whooping cough epidemic that killed 10 babies. Omer says that by using electronic medical records, Lieu and her team have developed a tool that can estimate risk earlier, without having to wait until children enter school.
The main problem with this clustering behavior, says Omer, is that every child's risk for disease depends on what others do. That's because no vaccine is 100 percent effective, so even a vaccinated child could get sick if exposed. (In the Disneyland measles outbreak, at least four of the cases had been vaccinated.)
Children on chemo or who have other genuine medical reasons for exemption are particularly vulnerable when they interact with unvaccinated people, whether at school or places like Disneyland.
"I don't know how many Make-a-Wish Foundation kids were (at Disneyland)," Omer said in reference to the foundation that grants wishes to children with life-threatening illnesses. "But parents of kids with all sorts of illnesses like to give them an opportunity to have fun like other kids. ... And they depend on herd immunity."
How risky is it?
Some parents think measles isn't such a big risk, Offit says. And compared to the pre-vaccine days, he says, when every year millions of children got sick, 48,000 were hospitalized and 500 died, that's true. But as a veteran of the 1991 Philadelphia measles epidemic that infected 1,400 and killed nine children who weren't immunized, Offit cautions that playing the odds is a dangerous game.
But creating rules that make that game safer is challenging in a society that cherishes individual rights. "We're open-minded in the U.S.," Offit says, "even to the point where we let parents hurt their children."
But increasingly, pediatricians, including Offit's wife, Bonnie, refuse to help parents do that.
The alternative is to sit back and let parents make bad decisions.
Not long ago, a one-and-a-half-year-old boy was admitted to Offit's hospital. He'd been seen at the hospital's outpatient clinic at two, four, six and 12 months — all the times when kids get the pneumococcal vaccine. But his parents chose not to vaccinate and the staff didn't push it, Offit says. "He came in with pneumococcal meningitis," and then suffered a devastating brain herniation, Offit said. "He will never see, walk or speak again and probably won't live past five. It's not OK."
Liza Gross is an independent science journalist based in the San Francisco Bay area who writes frequently about science and society. A version of this story appeared in State of Health, KQED's health blog.Copyright 2015 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.
Dr. Stephen Teach helps Jeffery Ulmer listen to his daughter Alauna's asthmatic breathing at Children's National Medical Center in Washington, D.C. Alauna's mother, Farisa, holds her. The District has one of the highest rates of pediatric asthma in the country.Jahi Chikwendiu/Washington Post
Asthma affects children regardless of where they live and whether they are rich or poor. But scientists have long thought that living in poor urban neighborhoods adds an extra risk for this troublesome lung inflammation. A new study suggests that's not necessarily the case.
Asthma is often triggered by something in the environment, so in the 1960s, scientists started looking for places where asthma was especially bad.
"Researchers started noting that people living in inner cities like New York, Chicago and Baltimore, had rates of asthma in general and they seemed to have very high rates of hospitalization and emergency room visits," says Dr. Corrine Keet, a pediatric allergist at the Johns Hopkins Children's Center.
Keet and her colleagues realized that nobody had ever taken a sweeping look to see if what was true in those cities applied nationwide. So they did that study to check those assumptions. Their surprising findings appear in the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology.Shots - Health News The Power Of Suggestion Could Trigger Asthma — Or Treat It
"We found that living in an inner-city area was actually not a big risk factor for having asthma," she says.
Absolutely, lots of children in these poor neighborhoods had asthma.
"But we also found that even more children had asthma in some poor suburban and medium sized towns in other regions of the country," she says. What's more, for children outside of the Northeastern states, "living in the inner city didn't seem to a risk factor at all for having asthma."
When they dived in to isolate the actual risks, they found that poverty itself was an overwhelming factor, along with African-American or Puerto Rican heritage. There's apparently a genetic component to asthma, though it's tough to tease out. Genetics may help explain why Hispanics from places other than Puerto Rico generally have lower rates of asthma, regardless of their income levels.Shots - Health News Early Exposure To Bacteria Protects Children From Asthma And Allergies
"Where we used to conflate inner city with poverty, now we're see even more concentrated poverty in suburban areas and smaller towns," Keet says.
This means that the environment right outside your door doesn't matter nearly as much as what life is like in your home.
According to Dr. Rosalind Wright, a professor of pediatrics at Mt. Sinai Hospital in New York, there's plenty of evidence that bad housing, beset with cockroaches and mold, can increase the risk of asthma.
"This can also be true in non-urban areas, of course," Wright says. "If you live in lower-quality housing, you may have similar types of risks."
Second-hand smoke is also a risk for children, and poor people tend to smoke more. And people in poverty, no matter where they live, also experience day-to-day stress.
"Certainly people who live with lower incomes have many more challenges to deal with and psychological stress, and this can affect your immune system," Wright says.
Scientists really want to track down the root causes of asthma, so it's helpful to replace the vague observation about life in the inner city with more specific threats that can trigger asthma attacks.
Wright has been chipping away at this problem for years, but she doesn't think we'll end up zeroing in on just a few specific factors.
"The problem is it's not the same environmental factors that might be most relevant or important, if you're talking about the Upper East Side of New York City versus East Harlem versus rural Michigan or something like this," she says.
Wright says what we need now are studies that don't simply survey the landscape but that get down to the nitty-gritty, so scientists can understand how environmental factors and genes interact to trigger this common and occasionally deadly disease.Copyright 2015 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.
When a woman had gallbladder surgery at a Massachusetts hospital in 2013, doctors noticed something suspicious on a CT scan that they thought could be ovarian cancer. But the recommendation that she get a pelvic ultrasound fell through the cracks. Months later, she was diagnosed with stage 3 ovarian cancer.
Normally, this type of medical mistake could mark the start of a protracted malpractice lawsuit. But a recently enacted state law establishes a process and time frame for discussing mistakes designed to benefit patients, doctors and hospitals. The woman in this case used the process, according to her attorney who recounted the basic facts in an interview but declined to provide identifying details.
The law mandates that people give health care providers six months' notice if they intend to sue. The woman's lawyer notified the hospital of the mistake. Hospital officials, who had 150 days to respond, determined that their actions hadn't met the standard of care. The hospital arranged a meeting between the woman and one of their physicians to talk about why the error occurred and the measures being taken to make sure it won't happen again. The physician apologized, and soon after the woman accepted a financial settlement from the hospital.
The whole process took about a year, far less time than a drawn-out legal battle would have involved, says Jeffrey Catalano, the Boston attorney who represented the woman.
"The hospital did the right thing," he says. "My client felt really good about it. She felt like she was heard."
Traditionally, medical liability reform has often focused on laws that set caps on the dollar amount that plaintiffs can receive in damages. But interest in non-traditional types of medical liability reform has been growing.
In 2010, the Obama administration awarded $23 million in planning and demonstration grants around the country as part of a patient safety and medical liability reform initiative.
Boston's Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center and the Massachusetts Medical Society received a planning grant for $274,000 to develop a road map for a statewide communication, apology and resolution system.
Communication and resolution programs are gaining in popularity. Advocates emphasize moving quickly when a medical error is made to discuss it with the patient and the patient's family, apologize and, if the standard of care hasn't been met, offer compensation.
In Massachusetts, six hospitals joined a pilot project to implement the model. Medical, legal and consumer groups that had participated in developing the road map formed a health care alliance to exchange information and develop best practices, and provide support for the hospital pilot projects.
In turn, that law bolsters the alliance's efforts to change how medical injuries are addressed. In addition to the six-month cooling off period before a suit can be filed, the law requires that patients be told when medical mistakes are made that result in unexpected complications and allows providers to apologize for unanticipated outcomes without fear their words will be used against them in court.
The broad-based Massachusetts' effort is modeled after the University of Michigan's communication and resolution program. Since the program began in 2001, medical malpractice costs have declined as have the rates of claims and lawsuits, according to a 2010 study published in the Annals of Internal Medicine.
Saving money shouldn't be the primary motivation for adopting a program, says Richard Boothman, the chief risk officer for University of Michigan Health System and the man who pioneered their program. Patient safety is the goal.
"The very best risk management is to not hurt anybody in avoidable ways, and the second best [strategy] if we do hurt someone is not to do it again," he says.Copyright 2015 Kaiser Health News. To see more, visit http://www.kaiserhealthnews.org/.
For most of her life Fran Friedman struggled with compulsive eating. At 59 years old she was 5 foot 2 and weighed 360 pounds. That's when she opted for bariatric surgery.
The surgery worked. Friedman, who is now 70 and lives in Los Angeles, lost 175 pounds. "It was a miracle," Friedman says, not to feel hungry. "It was the first time in my life that I've ever lost a lot of weight and was able to maintain it."
Friedman kept the weight off for almost 10 years. But then to her dismay she started to gain it back. "I thought I was cured," she says. "I thought I could eat like regular people."
She's not alone, says Dr. Rabindra Watson, Assistant Clinical Professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, Division of Digestive Diseases.Shots - Health News Bariatric Surgery Cuts The Risk Of Death Years Later Shots - Health News Bariatric Surgery Can Keep Pounds Off For Years
About one in three patients regain significant amounts of weight a few years after surgery to reduce the size of the stomach pouch. Bariatric surgery shrinks the stomach to about the size of an egg, so people feel full from eating very little food. The problem is that over the years the stomach stretches, and when that happens, Watson says, "Patients are able to eat more at one sitting and they feel hungrier more often."
At the same time, hormonal changes that reduce the appetite and take effect immediately after the surgery begin to decline. Watson says we don't know for sure, but it's possible the body begins to adapt to those changes, which is why the weight loss is reversed over time.
For Fran Friedman, it meant a 20-pound weight gain and a bout of depression. "The reality hits," she says. "Do I want to go back to where I was or do I want to maintain this level of quality of life?"
So Friedman opted for a less invasive procedure to make her stomach smaller again. It's called Transoral Outlet Reduction – or TORe for short. It's one of several procedures designed to help people maintain the benefits of bariatric surgery. This procedure involves inserting an endoscope through the mouth into the stomach while the patient is under anesthesia. It costs $8,000 to $13,000 and insurance coverage varies.
If the stomach pouch has stretched, new sutures are put in place to once again reduce the size of the stomach. After the surgery, Watson says, patients report feeling fuller and less hungry and they ultimately gain greater control over what they are eating. And research conducted over the past decade suggests it works. There are no significant side effects to the surgery, and patients can return to work the day after they have the procedure.
For Friedman, it did the trick. She has lost 30 pounds since her second surgery. And now, she says, with the help of a support group she is recommitted to watching what she eats and how much she exercises. She wants to lose another 20 pounds. And more importantly, she wants to keep the weight off.Copyright 2015 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.
fromKQEDAmy Standen Listen to the Story 3 min 48 sec
Dr. Paul Abramson is no technophobe. He works at a hydraulic standing desk made in Denmark and his stethoscope boasts a data screen. "I'm an engineer and I'm in health care," he says. "I like gadgets." Still, the proliferation of gadgets that collect health data are giving him pause.
Abramson is a primary care doctor in San Francisco and lots of his patients work in the tech industry. So it's not surprising that more and more of them are coming in with information collected from consumer medical devices — you know, those wristbands and phone apps that measure how much exercise you're getting or how many calories you're eating.Shots - Health News Will A Pedometer Get You Off Your Duff?
The "wearables" market is growing fast. Credit Suisse estimates it's already worth between $3 billion and $5 billion. Add to that nearly 50,000 health apps, and you have a booming new digital health industry aiming to transform health care in the same way Amazon took on publishing.
Abramson says all the information these devices collect can be overwhelming. One of his patients arrived with pages and pages of Excel spread sheets full of data — everything from heart rate to symptoms to medications. Abramson says he didn't know what to do with it all.
"Going through it and trying to analyze and extract meaning from it was not really feasible," he says.
To Abramson, the spreadsheets just didn't say all that much. "I get information from watching people's body language, tics and tone of voice," he says. "Subtleties you just can't get from a Fitbit or some kind of health app."
Despite this reluctance on the part of doctors, technology startups are actively trying to insert their products into the doctor's office.
“ "We can't make the leap that just because this data is coming in digitally that it's accurate."
Doctors get pitches from entrepreneurs almost daily, says Dr. Michael Blum, a cardiologist at the University of California, San Francisco. "Their perspective is, 'You old doctors have kept things the same as they are for 50 years. We've got new technology and it's going to disrupt health care,'" he says.
Don't get him wrong. Blum thinks health care needs an update, for sure.
The problem is, just because a device looks shiny and new doesn't mean it's useful. FitBits and Apple Watches aren't regulated by the Food and Drug Administration. In fact the FDA doesn't intend to regulate what it calls "low-risk devices" that are only intended to promote general wellness, like weight loss, physical fitness or stress management. Only medical devices that are intended for use in the diagnosis or treatment of disease need FDA approval.All Tech Considered For Wearable Tech, One Size Does Not Fit All
Blum says, "We can't make the leap that just because the data from these low-risk devices is coming in digitally doesn't mean that it's accurate." He says validation studies are needed.
Often that task falls to doctors and hospitals. At UCSF, Blum now heads an entire new department created to sort out which technologies are game changing and which are dead ends.
Other health care groups are following suit, running pilot studies that give devices to people with certain illnesses to see whether they help.
Bret Parker is taking part in one such study for Parkinson's disease. He's 46 years old, lives in New York City and has blogged about his illness. "When I heard there was a trial that involved a wearable that would help me better manage my symptoms and my condition, I said to myself, 'Well, that's a pretty cool thing. I've got to try that.' "
Bret Parker went skydiving in 2013 to raise money for the Michael J. Fox Foundation. Parker participated in a study earlier this year about whether a wearable tracker could effectively measure the severity of tremors caused by Parkinson's.Courtesy of Bret Parker
Parker enrolled in a pilot study to see whether an activity tracker made by Intel would be useful to track the severity of his tremors. It creates a digital diary showing how tremors respond to minor changes in diet, sleep patterns or what time of day Parker takes his medication.
Parker says in the early stages of his disease, he didn't pay close attention to those kinds of details. But as the Parkinson's progresses, he believes he'll have to change his approach.
"This is going to be a battle between me and Parkinson's in the years to come," he says. "As it advances, it means I've got to be better and smarter at my role in it."
He hopes the wearable will help him do that.Copyright 2015 KQED Public Media. To see more, visit http://www.kqed.org/news.