Tag Archives: npr

With state funds gone, Okla. dental programs still serve needy

Andrew Van Dam

About Andrew Van Dam

Andrew Van Dam of The Wall Street Journal previously worked at the AHCJ offices while earning his master’s degree at the Missouri School of Journalism, and he has blogged for Covering Health ever since.

Writing for the local NPR StateImpact outlet, Logan Layden looks at how dental programs for the needy are coping in the absence of state funding. In the 2010 state budget crisis, Layden writes, “Funding for several programs, including Dentists for the Disabled and Elderly in Need of Treatment, was totally eliminated.”

Among those was Oklahoma’s D-Dent, which provides a sort of superstructure that takes care of logistics and tests in order to allow dentists to donate their work to the needy and elderly. Since the cuts, the statewide program has gone from supporting about 800 patients a year to about 600. They no longer get state funds, though they still rely on the health department for most of their referrals, as well as a little moral support.

“We here are entirely supportive of this program,” Jana Winfee, Chief of Dental Health Services the Department of Health, said. “They have our support, just no funds.”

For more on NPR’s StateImpact project and a list of current participants, check out their lab.

Project looks at problems in how deaths are investigated

Andrew Van Dam

About Andrew Van Dam

Andrew Van Dam of The Wall Street Journal previously worked at the AHCJ offices while earning his master’s degree at the Missouri School of Journalism, and he has blogged for Covering Health ever since.

The results of a yearlong joint investigation of the American autopsy system by ProPublica, Frontline and NPR show that problems in the death investigation system throughout the country have led to innocent people being sent to prison, “allowed the guilty to go free and left some cases so muddled that prosecutors could do nothing.” When autopsies aren’t done, diagnostic errors go undetected and opportunities to learn more about medicine are lost.

One story of patient rights and legal wrangling sports the remarkable headline “Why Can’t Linda Carswell Get Her Husband’s Heart Back?” It hinges, among other things, on the simple fact that “Even though the Institute of Medicine has reported that medication errors affect an estimated 1.5 million patients per year, it is not typical to conduct toxicology tests as part of clinical autopsies. They are routine in forensic autopsies.”

Another piece takes a broader view, exploring the reasons behind and consequences of the fact that autopsies are performed on only about one in 20 patients who die in hospitals when, 50 years ago, the rate was one in two.

Hospitals aren’t required to perform autopsies – the Joint Commission hasn’t included autopsy rates in its accreditation process since 1971 – and neither Medicare nor private insurers reimburse hospitals for the procedures, which Allen found cost about $1,275 each. The implications of these financial disincentives, combined with related factors such as some physicians’ confidence that new diagnostic tools such as MRIs and CT scans provide such accurate results that they obviate the need for postmortem work, are far-reaching.

Diagnostic errors, which studies show are common, go undiscovered, allowing physicians to practice on other patients with a false sense of security. Opportunities are lost to learn about the effectiveness of medical treatments and the progression of diseases. Inaccurate information winds up on death certificates, undermining the reliability of crucial health statistics.

Furthermore…

A 2002 review of academic studies by the federal Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality found that when patients were autopsied, major errors related to the principle diagnosis or underlying cause of death were found in one of four cases. In one of 10 cases, the error appeared severe enough to have led to the patient’s death.

Other stories in the project report that suspicious deaths of the elderly are rarely investigated and that the deaths of children “pose special technical challenges for forensic pathologists.”

Watch the full episode. See more FRONTLINE.

Some fear DSM update opens door for exploitation

Andrew Van Dam

About Andrew Van Dam

Andrew Van Dam of The Wall Street Journal previously worked at the AHCJ offices while earning his master’s degree at the Missouri School of Journalism, and he has blogged for Covering Health ever since.

On All Things Considered, NPR’s Alix Spiegel looks to the past and future to ferret out the potential drawbacks and benefits of the expanded psychiatric diagnoses proposed in the upcoming revision of the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual.

dsm-iv

Photo by Richard Masoner via Flickr

Spiegel begins with the forceful perspective of Allen Frances, the man who edited the last update of the DSM. From Frances, Spiegel pulls a few cautionary tales of the unintended consequences of changing DSM entries.

The first? Aspergers.

It’s a disease that needed to be diagnosed, Frances says, but it’s now massively overused because of the unforeseen “unintentional incentive” created by schools that offer greatly expanded educational resources to children diagnosed with Aspergers.

“And so kids who previously might have been considered on the boundary, eccentric, socially shy, but bright and doing well in school would mainstream [into] regular classes,” Frances says. “Now if they get the diagnosis of Asperger’s disorder, [they] get into a special program where they may get $50,000 a year worth of educational services.”

Another cautionary tale? Bipolar disorder. The last DSM revision made it a far easier diagnosis to get. In essence, this easier diagnosis opened a gaping door in medicine, one which pharmaceutical companies quickly muscled through.

“Drug companies got indications for treating bipolar disorder,” Frances says. “Not just with mood stabilizers, but also with the newer antipsychotic drugs. And they began very intensive ubiquitous advertising campaigns. So the rates of bipolar disorder doubled. And lots of people got way too much antipsychotic and mood stabilizing medicines. And these aren’t safe drugs.”

For the other side of the story, Spiegel spoke to a psychiatrist who argued that broadening diagnoses means that fewer of the mentally illl go undiagnosed, and that diagnoses are delivered earlier than they would be otherwise. Furthermore, he believes that adding illnesses to the DSM will spark research and investment toward treating those ilnesses.

UK’s Dartmouth-esque atlas yields familiar results

Andrew Van Dam

About Andrew Van Dam

Andrew Van Dam of The Wall Street Journal previously worked at the AHCJ offices while earning his master’s degree at the Missouri School of Journalism, and he has blogged for Covering Health ever since.

Writing for NPR’s health blog, Christopher Weaver looks at the NHS Atlas of Variation in Healthcare, which is similar to our Dartmouth Atlas. While they don’t have an interactive map up yet (they promise one will come next year), it has generous helpings of maps and graphs. The full PDF comes out to 100 pages and 19mb.

The most and least surprising thing about the NHS atlas? That, despite vastly different health care systems, it yields much the same results as the American version. I’ll let Weaver explain:

Before you blame … inconsistencies on America’s money-driven health system, take a look at Britain’s effort to anglicize the Dartmouth work: Doctors in some areas such as the college town of Oxford do one type of hip replacement at rates up to 16 times greater than in places like London, according to a November atlas by the National Health Service.

The British atlas is surprising because “doctors are not by and large paid on a fee for service basis in the NHS,” Angela Coulter, director of global initiatives for the Dartmouth Atlas-associated Foundation for Informed Medical Decision Making, said at a Salzburg Global Seminar session this week. “It illustrates the fact… that doctors tend to favor the treatments they’re trained to provide,” even when money isn’t a factor. Most British doctors get salaries rather than payments for each procedure like their American colleagues.

Related

For more European health news, see AHCJ’s Covering Europe initiative.

Boomers line up for Medicare Part D plans

Andrew Van Dam

About Andrew Van Dam

Andrew Van Dam of The Wall Street Journal previously worked at the AHCJ offices while earning his master’s degree at the Missouri School of Journalism, and he has blogged for Covering Health ever since.

In a Morning Edition piece, NPR’s Kelley Weiss manages to hit all the highlights of this year’s Medicare Part D open enrollment period. With millions of Baby Boomers hitting the system and reform provisions shaking up Part D and Medicare Advantage, it’s one of the livelier open enrollments in recent years. Also, one of the most confusing. If you prefer text, see the Kaiser Health News roundup of open enrollment coverage, which emphasizes previews and explainers.

Open enrollment, or the period during with the over-65 set can make changes to their Medicare plans, began Nov. 15 and ends Dec. 31. As you’ll learn from Weiss, the period has pushed seniors and caregivers into a sudden six-week crash course in federal insurance policy.

NPR explores the right to at-home care for disabled patients

Andrew Van Dam

About Andrew Van Dam

Andrew Van Dam of The Wall Street Journal previously worked at the AHCJ offices while earning his master’s degree at the Missouri School of Journalism, and he has blogged for Covering Health ever since.

When it comes to summarizing the NPR news investigation “Home or Nursing Home,” you really can’t do much better than its tagline: “America’s empty promise to give the elderly and disabled a choice.”

The package is anchored by Joseph Shapiro’s wonderfully written profile of the family of a young woman who lives at home, despite the need for 24-hour intensive care. She’s 20, and Illinois Medicaid will stop covering her care as soon as she hits 21. Why?

It’s expensive to care for Olivia at home: nurses cost about $220,000 a year. Still, that’s less than half the cost of what the state counts as the alternative — having her live in a hospital. The Welters figure they’ve saved the state millions of dollars by keeping her at home.

But when she turns 21, the state changes how it measures cost. For an adult, the state says the alternative is no longer a hospital — it’s a less expensive nursing home.

At 21, Olivia and thousands like her around the country enter an uncomfortable gray area rife with lawsuits, acts of government and supreme court decisions. In fact, families like hers have lately been suing states – and winning. Shapiro explains how.

In 1999, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled, in Olmstead v. L.C., that under the ADA, people with disabilities often have the right to live in the community rather than in institutions. Since then, other federal laws and policies have said that states have an obligation to provide more home-based care. The new health reform law is filled with incentives for the states to spend more.

But federal law is contradictory. An older federal law, the 1965 law that created Medicaid and Medicare, says states have an obligation to provide nursing home care. Home care programs are still optional.

Also not to be missed: Shapiro’s profile of a patient advocate that doubles as a seamless history of how the system reached this point. A timeline and interactive graphic round out the package.

Days numbered for UK’s arbiter of comparative effectiveness

Andrew Van Dam

About Andrew Van Dam

Andrew Van Dam of The Wall Street Journal previously worked at the AHCJ offices while earning his master’s degree at the Missouri School of Journalism, and he has blogged for Covering Health ever since.

While comparative effectiveness research in the United States is booming thanks to the stimulus, a United Kingdom bastion of the discipline may be on the way out. Over at the NPR health blog, Joanne Silberner reports that the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE), which publishes guidelines on treatments and medical devices based on their cost and effectiveness, could be gone by 2013.

At a drug industry trade group meeting in London earlier this week, Health Minister Lord Howe, Under Secretary of State for Quality, said NICE has become “redundant,” and that it should focus on setting quality standards rather than evaluating individual drugs.

Meanwhile, the Cameron administration has disregarded NICE advice on several cancer drugs, and Howe reports that the government is working on a new “value-based pricing system.”

Related

For more European health news, see AHCJ’s Covering Europe initiative.

Everyone reacts to Avandia roller coaster

Andrew Van Dam

About Andrew Van Dam

Andrew Van Dam of The Wall Street Journal previously worked at the AHCJ offices while earning his master’s degree at the Missouri School of Journalism, and he has blogged for Covering Health ever since.

First, the background: Avandia, also known as rosiglitazone, is an anti-diabetes drug that helps patients control their blood sugar. It made billions of dollars for GlaxoSmithKline until it became associated with higher risks for cardiovascular issues. On Sept. 23, the FDA and European regulators issued their verdicts on the drug. In America, it will still be available, though with much stronger restrictions than before. In the European Union, regulators are looking to stop sales entirely and steer patients toward alternatives.

If you’re looking for the official lines and basic news, start with CardioBrief, where Larry Husten recapped a few of the highlights and then provided each agency’s press release, as well as the official take of Avandia maker GlaxoSmithKline.

Then, it’s time for the reactions. On the NPR health blog, Richard Knox examined the dueling story lines that have emerged since yesterday’s announcements. This larger framework makes all subsequent reactions a little easier to contextualize.

Speaking of other reactions, The Hill‘s health blogger, Julian Pecquet, rounded up the thoughts of some Washington heavy hitters involved in the Avandia debate, from the omnipresent Sen. Max Baucus to the consumer group Public Citizen. Another key player, cardiologist and Avandia critic Steven Nissen, spoke to The Wall Street Journal‘s Alicia Mundy.

In terms of the big regulatory picture, Avandia is the 30th drug which has been restricted under the FDA’s risk evaluation and mitigation strategy provisions since they began in 2007. Merril Goozner says that the FDA has created a new class of drugs. “They are not exactly safe, but not so dangerous that we would deny them to physicians or patients who really want to have them,” he wrote. Five years ago, he said, Avandia would have been pulled from the market. Now, it just gets restricted. It remains to be see how effective those restrictions really are.

Finally, Pharmalot’s Ed Silverman brings us the thoughts of cardiologist and Yale professor Harlan Krumholz, who you might remember from his recent star turn in Forbes. His take emphasized a principle well-known to health journalists: Marketing matters, and often it matters even more than regulation does.

“The company has announced it will no longer promote the drug,” Krumholz wrote, “and the practical result in Europe and the US may be a lot more similar than the decisions at first appear. Usage will stop in Europe and new use should virtually stop here.”

That said, Krumholz raises some interesting questions, any one of which could form the basis of a follow-up story or two. I’ll paraphrase:

  • A long series of fortunate coincidences lined up to produce the evidence that led to Avandia’s delayed near-demise, which begs the question: Why are we relying on luck when it comes to spotting danger in major pharmaceutical products?
  • “Why does the FDA believe that the barriers to prescription in new users should be stronger than those for current users? There are no studies that indicate that the excess risk dissipates over time.”
  • Will the FDA really be able to effectively implement the regulations and guide physician/patient behavior, especially when it comes to a blockbuster such as Avandia?
  • Have we done anything to prevent the next Avandia? How do we even go about doing that?

Update: The European Association for the Study of Diabetes weighs in

Military slow to treat mild traumatic brain injury

Andrew Van Dam

About Andrew Van Dam

Andrew Van Dam of The Wall Street Journal previously worked at the AHCJ offices while earning his master’s degree at the Missouri School of Journalism, and he has blogged for Covering Health ever since.

ProPublica‘s T. Christian Miller and NPR‘s Daniel Zwerdling have found unpublished military documents which indicate that tens of thousands of soliders who suffer from mild traumatic brain injury have gone undiagnosed.

dentistPhoto by isafmedia via Flickr

These are in addition to the 115,000 soldiers known to suffer from such injuries, many of which are inflicted by shock waves caused by roadside bombs. They write that the lack of concern shown by top brass for mild traumatic brain injuries was “a reflection of ambivalence about these wounds at the highest levels.”

“It’s obvious that we are significantly underestimating and underreporting the true burden of traumatic brain injury,” said Maj. Remington Nevin, an Army epidemiologist who served in Afghanistan and has worked to improve documentation of TBIs and other brain injuries. “This is an issue which is causing real harm. And the senior levels of leadership that should be responsible for this issue either don’t care, can’t understand the problem due to lack of experience, or are so disengaged that they haven’t fixed it.”

After a thorough review, one not helped by a top medical official’s early attempts to prevent local medical commanders from responding to the reporters, the duo distilled their findings into three bullet points:

  • From the battlefield to the home front, the military’s doctors and screening systems routinely miss brain trauma in soldiers. One of its tests fails to catch as many as 40 percent of concussions, a recent unpublished study concluded. A second exam, on which the Pentagon has spent millions, yields results that top medical officials call about as reliable as a coin flip.
  • Even when military doctors diagnose head injuries, that information often doesn’t make it into soldiers’ permanent medical files. Handheld medical devices designed to transmit data have failed in the austere terrain of the war zones. Paper records from Iraq and Afghanistan have been lost, burned or abandoned in warehouses, officials say, when no one knew where to ship them.
  • Without diagnosis and official documentation, soldiers with head wounds have had to battle for appropriate treatment. Some received psychotropic drugs instead of rehabilitative therapy that could help retrain their brains. Others say they have received no treatment at all, or have been branded as malingerers.

Read the full investigation at ProPublica or NPR. It’s some of the deepest work on the subject we’ve seen thus far, and includes incredible quotes such as “What’s the harm in missing the diagnosis of mTBI?” as well as graphics and an explanation of why the numbers are so fuzzy.

Medical groups voluntarily tighten ethics rules

Andrew Van Dam

About Andrew Van Dam

Andrew Van Dam of The Wall Street Journal previously worked at the AHCJ offices while earning his master’s degree at the Missouri School of Journalism, and he has blogged for Covering Health ever since.

Writing for NPR’s health blog, Maggie Mertens reports that while recently passed reform legislation includes the “Physician Payments Sunshine Act” (PDF) that will require companies to report any payments or gifts to physicians over $10 in value starting in 2012 (and reported and made available in a public database in 2013), some groups are getting a jump on the rules and voluntarily tightening their own conflict of interest policies.

Take, for instance, the recent decision by a bunch of medical specialty groups to stop taking industry money when coming up with guidelines for treatment. The Council of Medical Specialty Sciences, representing groups like the American College of Physicians, the American College of Cardiology and the American Society of Clinical Oncology, unveiled new rules on conflicts of interest last week. Thirteen of the member groups have adopted them so far, with the others saying they aren’t far behind. The rules also require that all funding from pharmaceutical and device-making companies to board members or groups will be publicly disclosed. Swag at medical conferences becomes a no-no, although big drugmakers had said a few years back they were going to stop the giveaways of medicine-branded pens, logoed tote bags and that sort of thing anyway.

For a discussion of the challenges reporters face when investigating conflicts of interest, read Elizabeth Bahm’s AHCJ article about a related panel at the recent Health Journalism 2010 conference, and this related article by John Fauber.