Monthly Archives: June 2012

Turning Health Data Into Information

Healthcare is not a science problem; it’s an information problem. Thomas Goetz,  TEDMED 2010

Todd Park speaks at the Commonwealth Club in SF. (Photo:

Bank and airline customers rely on sophisticated systems that allow them to personalize and track complex data. But consumers of the services and products that comprise modern health care –  the patients — currently are offered much more rudimentary data handling. Faxed prescriptions, paper medical charts and X-rays on film — though not uncommon — are examples of outdated methods of recording and sharing data.

The forces needed to improve patient information systems are gaining momentum, said Todd Park, US Chief Technology Officer (CTO). Speaking June 18 at The Commonwealth Club in San Francisco, Park acknowledged the movement is in its infancy but said the nation’s healthcare information system is “light years ahead of where it was two years ago.”

Park’s trademark enthusiasm was also evident as he talked about the campaign to provide newly-authorized access to government data to software developers and entrepreneurs. The federal Health Data Initiative seeks to provide Health and Human Services (HHS) data to the public, free and with no strings attached, in effort to trigger the creation of health-related applications.

The campaign has precedent in other government bodies. For example, The Weather Channel exists because National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) data was made public. Location-based services such as real-time driving directions rely on GPS, a system of satellites also owned by the government.

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Beverage Companies Blur Line Between Philanthropy & Marketing

Some soda companies have begun using cause marketing to curry public favor in the face of criticism. (La Piazza Pizzeria/Flickr)

If you were watching the Superbowl in 2010 when the Packers beat the Steelers, you may have noticed that Pepsi commercials were absent from the ads that were vying for the attention of millions of viewers. Instead, Pepsi announced Pepsi Refresh, a project to take the $20 million dollars it would have spent on Superbowl advertising and give it to a good cause. They used a vast social media campaign to involve the public in voting for which cause would get the money.

Pepsi’s good deed did put $20 million dollars into the hands of organizations working to solve global problems, but Pepsi got something back too — loyal consumers. The campaign was a splashy example of a new strategy called “cause marketing” that plays off a growing trend of corporate social responsibility. But this money comes directly out of Pepsi’s brand marketing budget, not their philanthropy arm.

“There are some really revealing statements in the industry literature from executives at Pepsi saying very explicitly what they were trying to do,” explained Lori Dorfman, Director of the Berkeley Media Studies Group. “And one of the things they were trying to do is get the attention of and favorability of millennials,” she added.

Dorfman and her colleagues have been digging into the nitty-gritty of the beverage industry to draw comparisons between the marketing strategies of big tobacco and those of soda companies, who have recently come under attack for the role their sugary product is playing in rising obesity rates.

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Loneliness is Bad For the Elderly

By Alvin Tran

There is a 45% increased risk of death in people who are lonely compared to not lonely, according to a UCSF study.

There is a 45% increased risk of death in people who are lonely compared to not lonely, according to a UCSF study. (Photo: Getty Images)

Do you feel left out? Isolated? Or lack companionship? Answer ‘yes’ to any of these questions and you may be at risk for adverse health outcomes, says Carla Perissinotto, MD, an Assistant Clinical Professor at UCSF.

Perissinotto’s latest study, which found a link between loneliness and serious health problems among the elderly, was the main topic of Wednesday’s Forum with Michael Krasny.

The study, published this week in the Archives of Internal Medicine, followed over 1,600 elderly individuals for six years. These individuals completed surveys that measured whether they felt left out, isolated, or lacked companionship — all of which are components of loneliness.

“We cannot continue to ignore the psychosocial distress that our patients are experiencing. It is, in fact, just as important as traditional medical risk factors.”

“We demonstrated that [loneliness] is also a risk factor for poor health outcomes, including death and multiple measures of functional decline,” said Perissinotto. “[There is a] 45 percent increased risk of death in people who are lonely compared to not lonely.”

Perissinotto says medical professionals also need to put more emphasis on the role of psychosocial distress on health. “We cannot continue to ignore the psychosocial distress that our patients are experiencing,” Perissinotto said. “It is, in fact, just as important as traditional medical risk factors.”

According to Perissinotto, medical schools currently emphasize the role of traditional medical risk factors such high blood pressure, cholesterol and obesity and pay less attention to factors such as social support and loneliness. “There needs to be a slight shift where we don’t ignore the traditional medical risk factors but we also incorporate things like loneliness into the general assessment of our patients,” Perissinotto urged.

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Quick Read: PTSD in Heart Attack Survivors More Common Than Realized

The emotional effects of heart attacks may be more severe than anyone realized. More heart attack survivors developed post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), than doctors previously realized. Survivors report a lack of faith in the body, paranoia about minor chest pain, sleeplessness and anxiety.

The emotional toll of a heart attack can be so severe that an estimated 1 in 8 patients who survive the experience develop post-traumatic stress disorder, a condition that doubles the risk of dying of a second heart attack, according to new research.

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Coaching Program Makes Exercise Fun For Kids

By Lyssa Mudd Rome

Todd Whitehead has become a mentor figure in addition to helping kids have fun while exercising. (Photo: Coaching Corps)

On a recent afternoon at BAHIA, a bilingual after school program in Berkeley, a small group of elementary school kids ran around breathlessly. They were playing “wolves and bunnies,” a tag game that takes some of its rules from basketball. Their coach Todd Whitehead played along, occasionally giving directions and stretching his hand out for a high-five. “Todd makes basketball seem fun,” said nine-year-old Kaydie. But this is about more than having fun. It’s a way for these kids to get the exercise they need.

Whitehead is a post-doctoral scholar in public health at U.C. Berkeley who has been coaching at BAHIA for three years. “My main goal,” he says, “is for the kids to have fun, get healthy, and get exposed to activities that will keep them healthy as they grow up.”

The Center for Disease Control (CDC) recommends that children get at least an hour of physical activity a day. But for many kids, that isn’t happening. Budget cuts in California have meant there often isn’t enough money for schools to offer PE or include sports in their after school programs. On top of that, low-income neighborhoods frequently lack parks or other safe places to play. Organized sports activities are limited.

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Court Challenge Could Result In Medicaid Cutbacks Instead Of Expansion

By Phil Galewitz, Kaiser Health News

Medi-Cal patients in California stand to lose a lot if Medicaid shrinks. (David McNew/Getty)

The future of the nation’s largest health insurance program — Medicaid — hangs in the balance of the Supreme Court’s decision on the 2010 health law.

The state-federal program which covers 60 million poor and disabled people would be greatly expanded under the health law, adding 17 million more people starting in 2014.

But if the entire law is struck down, states for the first time since 2009 would be free to tighten eligibility and make it more difficult for people to apply. The law had barred such changes.

And under another scenario — if the justices declare unconstitutional just the law’s expansion of Medicaid — the entire program enacted in 1965 as part of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s Great Society agenda could be threatened, health experts say. Twenty-six states had challenged the expansion, arguing it was “unduly coercive” because they would lose all of their federal Medicaid funding if they refused to expand the program. Continue reading

County Effort Fights Teen Dating Violence

By Grace Rubenstein

(Adam Foster: Flickr)

(Adam Foster: Flickr)

We think of domestic violence as something that happens among adults. But as some young survivors from Contra Costa County recently told me, abuse is also alarmingly common between teen boyfriends and girlfriends.

Evidence has been growing that it starts even younger than we previously imagined. A study published in March surveyed more than 1,400 seventh graders of diverse races. More than one in three reported being psychologically abused by a boyfriend or girlfriend within the past six months. Nearly one in three reported experiencing physical dating violence within the same timeframe.

Their average age? 12.

The study was commissioned by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and Blue Shield of California.

Revelations like that are slowly making the long-hidden problem of teen dating abuse more visible – especially at schools, ground zero for teen romance. Shocking events like the murder of 17-year-old Cindi Santana, stabbed by her ex-boyfriend on campus at her Los Angeles high school last September, have put the issue more on the radar. Continue reading

Quick Read: Diabetes May Affect Brain Function in Older Adults

Almost a third of the U.S. population over the age of 65 has diabetes, about 11 million people. A study out of UCSF notes a strong association between declining brain function and diabetes in older adults. The study suggests that aggressive management of blood levels in midlife may be even more important than thought before.

A new study adds to growing evidence that the complications of diabetes may extend to the brain, causing declines in memory, attention and other cognitive skills. The new research showed that over the course of about a decade, elderly men and women with diabetes – primarily Type 2, the form of the disease related to obesity and inactivity – had greater drops in cognitive test scores than other people of a similar age.

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Teenagers, Love and Abuse

By Grace Rubenstein

(AllenSkye: Flickr)

(AllenSkye: Flickr)

This is not the stuff of puppy love.

When Madhuri Malhotra was a younger teen in Richmond, it was normal for her high school boyfriend to call her a b—- and cuss her out.

“He would cheat on me, and he would make it so that I was in the wrong. I would feel bad and I would be the one saying sorry,” she told me recently. “Everywhere I went I was so depressed, because I felt like I was doing something wrong,”

When she finally learned the definition of verbal and emotional abuse, “I was mind boggled,” said Malhotra, who is now 18. “I tried to get out of it, but then my heart wouldn’t let me, so then I’d go back in it.”

The same kinds of violence that we see in abusive adult relationships … also commonly happen between teens.

Malhotra’s epiphany about abuse was lucky, almost serendipitous. While job-hunting via a Richmond city agency, she found part-time work as a youth peer educator with the nonprofit STAND! for Families Free of Violence, based in Concord. The job training opened her eyes.

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Quick Read: Consumers Stuck With Murky Sunscreen Labels Another Summer

This month sunscreen companies were supposed to role out new labels that follow strict guidelines on the claims companies can make about their products. Now consumers will have to wait until next summer. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has delayed the deadline for clearer labeling until December.

Anyone who’s gone to the drug store knows that the labels on sunscreens can be confusing. The sun protection factor, or SPF, numbers are all over the place. Some say “sunblock” others says “sunscreen.” What’s the difference between “water-proof” versus “water-resistant?”

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