Monthly Archives: April 2012

Perhaps Watson Can Explain the Future of Health Care

By Christian Torres, Kaiser Health News

(Courtesy: IBM)

(Courtesy: IBM)

IBM’s Watson frequently had the right answer when the supercomputer competed on Jeopardy last year. Now, the nation’s second largest health insurer is hoping it will have the right diagnosis and treatment for patients.

Representatives from IBM and Wellpoint discussed their developing partnership at a Friday event on Capitol Hill. The tech company aims to make Watson useful to the health care industry, and Wellpoint believes it can help doctors practice evidence-based medicine.

The actual how-to part is still being worked out, but Watson could, for example, provide a list of likely diagnoses, or a list of potential treatments, when given a list of symptoms. Physicians and patients would remain in charge of any decisions, but Watson does have “the potential to transform health care delivery,” said Elizabeth Bingham, WellPoint’s vice president of health IT strategy. Continue reading

Steps Toward Lower Cost, Higher Quality Health Care

(Vic: Flickr)

(Vic: Flickr)

No one seems to have a problem with shopping for the best price when it comes to a new computer or a car. But there’s something about shopping for health care prices that seems different. It’s also a lot harder. Prices aren’t transparent. The L.A. Times reported earlier this month on the challenges individual patients can have in trying to find the best price.

At the same time, consumers have become more concerned about cost. According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, premiums for family coverage have more than doubled in the last ten years  — 113 percent — and the share the worker pays of the premium is up even more — 131 percent.

The cost of health care has been going up, faster than the rate of inflation. The federal health care overhaul takes aim at this problem and seeks to lower cost and improve quality of care at the same time. One program gaining traction is through focusing insurance design on value. For example, some plans reward healthy behaviors, such as quitting smoking or exercising regularly. Continue reading

Checks in the Mail: Millions to Receive $1.3 Billion in Health Insurance Rebates

By: Julie Appleby, Kaiser Health News

(Robin DeGrassi James: Flickr)

(Robin DeGrassi James: Flickr)

Millions of consumers and small businesses will receive an estimated $1.3 billion in rebates from their health plans this summer under a provision of the health care law that effectively limits what insurers can charge for administration and profits, a new study projects.

Almost one third of people who bought their own insurance last year will get rebates averaging $127, according to an analysis of state data by the nonpartisan Kaiser Family Foundation. (KHN is an editorially independent program of the foundation.)

“This alone is not going to make health insurance affordable for large numbers of people, but it is getting excess administrative cost out of the system,” says Larry Levitt, a study author.

The percentage of consumers and businesses in line for rebates varies widely by state. In Texas, for example, 92 percent of consumers who purchased individual policies are expected to get rebates because insurers spent too little of their premium dollars on medical care. But in Vermont, Rhode Island, Iowa and Hawaii, insurers are likely to owe less than 1 percent of consumers who bought policies on the individual market. Continue reading

Quick Read: Time for A Little Self-Awareness, Docs

The “Physician Compensation Survey” came out a couple days ago. Dr. Aaron Carroll was surprised that “only 11% of physicians say they consider themselves rich” despite the fact that they make, on average, six-figure salaries. The comments section is pretty good, too.


I’m still getting hate mail because of that piece I wrote on doctors “struggling to make ends meet”. Guess I can’t help myself. Here we go again. I stumbled upon Medscape/WebMD’s annual Physician Compensation Survey.

Read more at: theincidentaleconomist.com

Humboldt County – Amid Stunning Beauty, Sad Health Profile

By Richard Kipling, Center for Health Reporting

(Ben Ramirez: Flickr)

(Ben Ramirez: Flickr)

I don’t want to beat up on Humboldt County. I’ve driven through it a few times and it’s quintessential far northern California — beautiful, alluring, with Redwoods everywhere (the county motto is The Home of the Redwoods), a scenic coastline, pretty towns, friendly folk. The kind of place that sets an urban mind to wondering:  Could I live in this lush green paradise?

I’d like to spend more time there, for sure. But after a close look at the latest California Department of Public Health statistics, I might want to remain a visitor and not a resident. The county’s astounding beauty and apparent serenity disguise some truly disturbing health numbers.

The department recently released its County Health Status Profiles 2012, which provides a fascinating look at the leading causes of death for the years 2008-2010 for each of the state’s 58 counties. I just slalomed through 19 categories of death rates and Humboldt was a blinking neon sign. Let me take you on a tour. Continue reading

Share and Share Alike — Especially in Medical Decisions

By Eve Harris

(Caroline_1: Flickr)

(Caroline_1: Flickr)

Patients often make decisions about their medical treatment while sitting on an exam table in a thin cotton gown. But is this the best way to fully understand your options? Of course, some healthcare decisions are pretty easy. For example, if the treatment being offered is easy to use or has a long history of success with only mild side effects.

But overall, health care decisions are becoming more complex. Your doctor may offer more than one alternative. Picking among those alternatives may have as much to do with medical evidence as your own preferences. The process known as shared decision making empowers patients to collaborate with their doctors in choosing a treatment, as opposed to the doctor pointing a patient toward one choice.

“We have an ethical duty to inform our patients what their options are and get their preferences.”

It all has to do with risks and benefits. In a shared decision process doctors put more effort into explaining trade-offs, and patients must think more deeply about what matters most to them. The relationship of shared decision making to better health is still being studied, but we know that patients who are involved in making their own medical decisions often have less anxiety and recover more quickly. Continue reading

Quick Read: Time to Revisit Food Deserts

This post from the New York Times’ “Fixes” column neatly wraps up much of the public discussion, debate and research about food deserts. Be sure to read to the end (or, if short on time, scroll down to it) and the outline of the cost of food: sweets and starchy foods are one-tenth the price — on a per calorie basis — of energy dense foods like fruits and vegetables. (Unfortunately, a glitch is preventing the first paragraph of the post from appearing below. You can click on the link to read the column).

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Read more at: opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com

Doctors Fall Short in Helping Seniors, Poll Reveals

(Photo: Kaiser Health News)

(Photo: Kaiser Health News)

Medicare provides free screening on more than a dozen primary care tests, but a new poll shows that seniors are not receiving the benefit. The poll comes from the John A. Hartford Foundation and looked at Americans age 65 and older.

The Foundation was interested in whether seniors had received seven services that would support “healthy aging” including:

  • an annual medication review
  • falls risk assessment
  • screening for depression
Kaiser Health News reported details of the poll’s findings: Continue reading

Tobacco Brands Target Black Teens, Study Finds

(Mahin: Flickr)

(Mahin: Flickr)

Tobacco companies may have corporate campaigns against under-age smoking, but how does that play out on the ground — especially in low-income or minority communities? California Watch reports today on state-funded research which found that tobacco marketing targets low-income and African American teens. As the percentage of African American students at a California high school went up, so did Newport brand promotions and menthol-related advertising at nearby stores, according to the report.

While the study reviewed all cigarette advertising, it focused specifically on Newport and Marlboro which researchers say are two of the most popular brands with under-age smokers.

From California Watch:

“There is a systematic targeting (of disadvantaged communities) by the tobacco industry, which is an extraordinary public health problem,” said Lisa Henriksen of the Stanford Prevention Research Center, who presented the research at a legislative briefing in Sacramento last week. “The addition of menthol to cigarettes makes it easier to smoke and more difficult to quit.”

The University of Michigan’s Robert Lipton also presented research at the briefing showing that in the Los Angeles area, communities that tended to be dense, poor and minority had greater rates of underage tobacco sales. Continue reading

VA Adds Mental Health Clinicians

The need for mental health services among veterans has increased 35% since 2007. (Getty Images)

The Department of Veterans Affairs has announced that it will add 1,600 mental health clinicians and 300 support staff to veterans hospitals across the country to help contend with the rising demand for mental health care among returning veterans. That’s an almost 10% increase in mental health staff and is sorely needed at hospitals that can’t keep up with the requests for appointments. In some places, wait time for care is much longer than the VA’s 14 day policy, the subject of a report by the department’s inspector general to be released next week.

Northern California may be faring slightly better than the rest of the country on mental health issues. “In Northern California we have many veterans coming back. We also have a lot of staff,” said Robin Jackson, a spokeswoman for the Department of Veterans Affairs Northern California Health Care System. “We’ve tripled our mental health staff in the last 4 years. So we many be ahead of the curve,” she added. Jackson said that staff in Northern California realized that traumatic brain injury and other mental trauma would be the most common illnesses in returning Iraq and Afghanistan veterans, so they ramped up their staffing to meet the need. Continue reading