Tag Archives: traumatic brain injury

Investigation reveals abuses at brain rehab institute

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.

Bloomberg’s David Armstrong has assembled an investigation of a huge Florida center for brain injury rehabilitation with a record of serious patient abuse, and the system which has allowed it to keep running for so long.

Armstrong talked with 20 current and former patients and their families, examined criminal and civil cases, and went through “over 2,000 pages of court and medical records, police reports, state investigations and autopsies.”

Patients’ families or state agencies have alleged abuse or care lapses in at least five residents’ deaths since 1998, two of them in the last 18 months. Three former employees face criminal charges of abusing FINR patients – one of whom was allegedly hit repeatedly for two hours in a TV room last September.

But before you get lost deep in the details of Armstrong’s report, take a minute to appreciate his deft aggregation of scores of disparate resources through convenient hyperlinks and attachments. His entire work is truly integrated with the Web in way that, even today, few investigations are. Just as importantly, it’s tied to the bigger picture and what this scandal shows about extended care for Americans with brain injuries.

The complaints underscore the problems that 5.3 million brain-injured Americans are having finding adequate care. Their numbers are growing, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, as better emergency medicine and vehicle safety mean that fewer die from traffic accidents, bullet wounds and other causes of traumatic brain injuries.
The long-term ills range from memory loss and physical handicaps to the inability to control violent anger or sexual aggression. Yet because insurance benefits for rehabilitation are scarce, less than half of those who need it receive it, according to the Brain Injury Association of America.

Medical, support network lacking for returning National Guard, reservists

Pia Christensen

About Pia Christensen

Pia Christensen (@AHCJ_Pia) is the managing editor/online services for AHCJ. She manages the content and development of healthjournalism.org, coordinates social media efforts of AHCJ and assists with the editing and production of association guides, programs and newsletters.

National Guardsmen and reservists returning from duty in Iraq and Afghanistan “have been hastily channeled through a post-deployment process that has been plagued with difficulties, including reliance on self-reporting to identify health problems,” according to an investigation by graduate students in Northwestern University’s Medill School.

nat-guard-iraq

Photo by The National Guard via Flickr

Hidden Surge” found members of the National Guard must navigate disparate health care and support providers, made more difficult by the fact that many of them live in rural areas. Three of the stories were published in The Washington Post.

The reporters also found that, in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, most reservists were medically unready to deploy – an assessment made by a private contractor. “More than 2,400 Army Reserve soldiers were held back, at least temporarily, because of inaccurate assessments by the contractor, according to data provided by the Army Reserve Medical Command.”

Meanwhile, some soldiers with behavioral problems that could be aggravated by the stress of deployment and combat were improperly sent overseas.

The project, done by 10 students, was directed by faculty member Josh Meyer, who covered national security for the Los Angeles Times for 20 years. Students used video and interactive graphics to help tell the stories. A “How We Did It” sidebar says the students interviewed more than 150 people, reviewed documents and reports and traveled to nine states to do the reporting.

According to a press release, the Hidden Surge project is part of Medill’s National Security Journalism Initiative, funded by the McCormick Foundation.

Pentagon reluctant to provide therapy for TBI

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.

After a lengthy investigation, ProPublica’s T. Christian Miller and NPR’s Daniel Zwerdling found that, in their words, the “battle over science and money has made it difficult for wounded troops to get a treatment recommended by many doctors for one of the wars’ signature injuries.”

They’re writing, of course, about traumatic brain injury, a consequence of roadside bombs in Afghanistan and Iraq. Their work revolves around a method of treating TBI and rehabilitating victims that has gained wide acceptance among civilian physicians and health plans but has not been embraced by the military’s insurance provider.

During the past few decades, scientists have become increasingly persuaded that people who suffer brain injuries benefit from what is called cognitive rehabilitation therapy — a lengthy, painstaking process in which patients relearn basic life tasks such as counting, cooking or remembering directions to get home.

Many neurologists, several major insurance companies and even some medical facilities run by the Pentagon agree that the therapy can help people whose functioning has been diminished by blows to the head.

Tricare provides health insurance for about 4 million active duty and retired soldiers, and “despite pressure from Congress and the recommendations of military and civilian experts,” it still refuses to cover cognitive rehabilitation therapy for the thousands of American soldiers afflicted by TBI.

Five of the 12 largest insurers cover the therapy, and an expert panel has recommended that the military do the same.

For its part, Tricare points to an assessment it conducted that put the effectiveness of cognitive rehabilitation therapy into doubt. I’ll let Miller and Zwerdling take it from there.

An investigation by NPR and ProPublica found that internal and external reviewers of the Tricare-funded assessment criticized it as fundamentally misguided. Confidential documents obtained by NPR and ProPublica show that reviewers called the Tricare study “deeply flawed,” “unacceptable” and “dismaying.” One top scientist called the assessment a “misuse” of science designed to deny treatment for service members.

The therapy would cost $15,000 to $50,000 per soldier, and the reporters found that, in private, Pentagon officials had expressed concerns about the massive cost of providing it to every suffering soldier. A few soldiers with political connections or ultra-motivated family members have managed to get the therapy, but its essentially off limits for most folks covered by Tricare.

Finally, a quick parenthetical mention answers a question that most health reporters are asking at this point. How did they get those internal studies and documents?

HINT: It involved finding a slightly less formal way to fulfill some of their FOIA requests.

(NPR and ProPublica obtained a copy of the ECRI reports through the Freedom of Information Act. However, Tricare denied access to reviews of the reports. ProPublica and NPR have appealed the request, but obtained copies of the reports and information on the reports from sources.)

As school starts, so do youth sports injuries

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 University of Michigan’s new Michigan NeuroSport Concussion Program seems to be cropping up everywhere, and as far as I can tell, it’s all part of a coordinated effort by the University. They already claim to have one of the only pediatric sport programs in the country, and now they’re expanding it with a clinical and research focus on “neurological sports injuries.”

In related news, the latest CDC Morbidity & Mortality Weekly Report includes an analysis of the numbers for “Heat Illness Among High School Athletes” from 2005 to 2009. The study examined 100 schools and nine sports, and found that heat-related illness was most common in football, and that August was the worst month for such afflictions.

AHCJ has a rich pool of resources for journalists looking to report beyond the press releases on stories like these, including:

Tip sheets
Concussions in young athletes
Reporting on sports injuries in school-age children
Health and education: Two intersecting beats
Health and education: Reporting resources
Blog posts
Tougher concussion rules from high school assn.
GAO evaluates youth concussion databases
Concussion more likely when hit is unexpected (Youth hockey study)
Attention focuses on football’s neurological effects
AP story: Hundreds of PTSD soldiers likely misdiagnosed

PTSD or personality disorder? It matters to soldiers

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 AP’s Anne Flaherty has put together a story that illuminates the Army’s refusal to admit that it could have misdiagnosed (and discharged) hundreds of soldiers who may have had PTSD or traumatic brain injury instead of a personality disorder. Keep in mind that a discharge for “personality disorder” means no veterans’ benefits and a lifetime of stigma. A diagnosis of PTSD or injury, on the other hand, means treatment will be covered by the government.

dentistPhoto by isafmedia via Flickr

The Army, for its part, has decided there’s nothing unusual about the following chain of events (taken from Flaherty’s story):

  1. The Army “discharged about a 1,000 soldiers a year between 2005 and 2007 for having a personality disorder.”
  2. In 2007, The Nation‘s Joshua Kors writes a cover story exposing the Army’s apparent habit of diagnosing soldiers with a personality disorder instead of considering the possibility of PTSD or traumatic brain injury.
  3. Soon after, “the Defense Department changed its policy and began requiring a top-level review of each case to ensure post-traumatic stress or a brain injury wasn’t the underlying cause.”
  4. Sure enough, “the annual number of personality disorder cases dropped by 75 percent.”
  5. At the same time, the number of post-traumatic stress disorder cases has soared. By 2008, more than 14,000 soldiers had been diagnosed with PTSD — twice as many as two years before.
  6. Army officials “reviewed the paperwork of all deployed soldiers dismissed with a personality disorder between 2001 and 2006″ and said they “did not find evidence that soldiers with PTSD had been inappropriately discharged with personality disorder.”

Concussion-related trauma masquerades as ALS

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 New York TimesAlan Schwarz reports on what he says is “the first firm pathological indications that brain trauma results in motor-neuron degeneration.” The headline behind that conclusion, of course, is that researchers say some  athletes with concussion and impact-induced brain injuries may have been misdiagnosed as ALS victims.

helmet

Photo by peterjr1961 via Flickr

In interviews, the study’s authors even speculate that Lou Gherig, who gave the disease its popular name, may have instead suffered from a similar disease caused in part by brain injuries.

The finding was not unexpected, given that ALS seemed to occur at much higher rates in concussion-heavy populations like athletes and soldiers.

Schwarz’s summary of the study:

Doctors at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Bedford, Mass., and the Boston University School of Medicine, the primary researchers of brain damage among deceased National Football League players, said that markings in the spinal cords of two players and one boxer who also received a diagnosis of A.L.S. indicate that those men did not have A.L.S. at all. They had a different fatal disease, doctors said, caused by concussionlike trauma, that erodes the central nervous system in similar ways.

It’s in the emergence of that second disease that really seems to have attracted Schwarz’ attention. It behaves similarly to ALS, but shows a distinct protein pattern that only seemed to emerge in patients with a history of head injury. There is not, however, a 1:1 relationship. Other factors seem to also be at play, Schwarz writes.

Gary Schwitzer of HealthNewsReview.org examines the story more closely and concludes that, while this is an “important and fascinating area of research,” the story “did not exhibit the best of health/medical/science journalism.” He lists seven points of criticism and includes comments from one of the site’s medical editors.

John Gever of MedPage Today offers more scientific coverage of the study and points out that there was no mention of Gehrig in the study but that “a New York Times reporter coaxed McKee into suggesting that Gehrig may have been among those misdiagnosed – even though, as a first baseman, he did not routinely experience violent collisions. (He was, however, beaned at least twice during his 14-year career with the New York Yankees.)”

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.

KQED profiles those who live with disease, 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.

This month’s edition of Health Dialogues, part of KQED’s California Report, focuses on living with disease. In the report, KQED reporters talk to folks living with chronic disease, the effects of traumatic injury and other conditions that can have lasting effects on a person’s quality of life.

wheelchair
“Healed?” By swingnut via Flickr.

To provide insight into the life and routine of someone coping with chronic disease, reporters profile a music programmer ‘coping’ with diabetes, an activist who stumbled upon a forgotten childhood diagnosis of hepatitis B and a cellist with multiple sclerosis. They also talk to a couple dealing with cancer and two sisters on opposite ends of an organ donation chain.

In addition to cancer and disease, KQED reporters also explore how the lasting effects of traumatic injury can shape your life. Pieces include a KPBS reporter talking about his own traumatic brain injury and the story of a surfing-based physical therapy program for veterans.

House holds hearing on brain injuries in NFL

Pia Christensen

About Pia Christensen

Pia Christensen (@AHCJ_Pia) is the managing editor/online services for AHCJ. She manages the content and development of healthjournalism.org, coordinates social media efforts of AHCJ and assists with the editing and production of association guides, programs and newsletters.

The House of Representatives is holding a hearing on “Legal Issues Relating to Football Head Injuries” that is being webcast on C-SPAN.org.

The witness list includes NFL commissioner Roger S. Goodell as well as the director of the players association, team executives, doctors, neurologists, retired players, families of former players and safety advocates.

Related

The New York Times: NFL Data Reinforces Dementia Links

War injuries advance treatment of brain injuries

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 three-part package published this month, the Los Angeles Times‘ Melissa Healy explains recent advances in the diagnosis and treatment of traumatic brain injury, with special focus on the United States armed forces.

  • Treating traumatic brain injuries: Anecdotes from an Army National Guard medic and an equipment officer show how much lives can be changed by traumatic brain injury, an ailment that doesn’t even show up on CT scans or MRIs, and how a simple accurate diagnosis can provide patients with hope and understanding.
  • War injury leads to advances at home: Healy writes that while combat veterans with traumatic brain injury are receiving the lion’s share of the attention, they’re just the tip of the iceberg. The “silent epidemic” has hit about 2 percent of the civilian population as well, which totals up to about 11 million since the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan began.
  • Treating brain injuries on the sports field and battlefield: Finally, after tackling diagnosis and prevalence, Healy moves on to treatment. She walks through every step, from prevention to diagnosis to treatment, examining the latest in medical science along the way. It’s the longest piece in the package, and the best to start with if you’re looking for a better technical understanding of traumatic brain injury.