How an investigation gave voice to people whose bionic eye implants went obsolete

Eliza Strickland                                        Mark Harris

What happens to users of cutting-edge implants when the only company that makes the technology runs out of money? That’s the question we set out to answer during a year-long investigation of the Argus II retinal implant, manufactured by a California company called Second Sight Medical Products. The investigation was published by IEEE Spectrum in February and covered in a recent Science Friday broadcast. 

Strickland had first written for Spectrum about the company back in 2011, lauding the development of a revolutionary eye implant that restored a crude kind of artificial vision to blind people involved in Second Sight’s clinical trials. That article featured a New Yorker named Barbara Campbell, who had been completely blind since her 30s because of a genetic condition called retinitis pigmentosa, but who could then make out rough shapes, figures and lights. The retinal implant connected wirelessly to a pair of sunglasses housing a low-resolution video camera. In 2013, the Argus II system was the first visual prosthesis to be approved by the FDA.

As the Argus II rolled out in the United States and around the world, many more such stories were written, typically showing users delighted to regain some vision — even if it was only flashes of light and shades of gray. Globally, over 350 people would ultimately have an Argus II implanted.

Late in 2020, Strickland revisited Second Sight to write a blog post about its latest project: a brain implant that stimulates the user’s visual cortex directly, potentially opening up its prosthetic system to a much wider group of people with vision challenges. Tucked away in that post were a few lines noting that the company had suspended production of the Argus II device and had recently suffered financial difficulties, nearly going out of business in early 2020. Strickland tried to contact the company for a status update, but didn’t get a response to her emails and phone calls. 

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Biden administration announces new Office of Environmental Justice within HHS

Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra (Photo courtesy of HHS)

The Biden administration announced its plan yesterday to establish a new Office of Environmental Justice, intended to focus on efforts to ensure all communities have access to clean air and water and to ease the effects of disruptive traffic and industry.

“The blunt truth is that many communities across our nation — particularly low-income communities and communities of color — continue to bear the brunt of pollution from industrial development, poor land use decisions, transportation and trade corridors,” said Health and Human Services  Secretary Xavier Becerra in a statement. “Meeting the needs of these communities requires our focused attention. That’s why HHS is establishing the Office of Environmental Justice.”

The HHS announcement follows a similar one from the Justice Department, which on May 5 detailed plans for its Office of Environmental Justice. The Justice Department said this new unit is intended to serve as a central hub for efforts to address violations of laws that have disproportionately affected “communities of color, indigenous communities and low-income communities,” which “often bear the brunt of the harm caused by environmental crime, pollution and climate change.”

On May 12, Glenn Thrush and Lisa Friedman of the New York Times reported on these efforts already underway within the DOJ, “Justice Dept. Tries to Shift Environmental Justice Efforts From Symbolic to Substantive.” David Nakamura and Darryl Fears of the Washington Post on May 5 covered the DOJ’s announcement, “Justice Dept. boosts focus on environmental cases that harm the poor.

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New tip sheet guides reporting on rise of medication abortion and its safety

With the U.S. Supreme Court expected within weeks to strike down the landmark Roe v. Wade case, journalists can anticipate an increased focus on abortion pills.

With that in mind, here’s a new tip sheet to aid reporters covering the patient-safety aspect of the use of this medication, also known as RU-486.

In 2020, medication abortion accounted for 54% of U.S. abortions, marking the first time it has made up the majority of all abortions, according to the nonprofit Guttmacher Institute. The institute’s report shows a slow uptick in the use of this treatment since the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), in 2000, first approved the use of the drug mifepristone, also known under the brand name Mifeprex. It’s taken in combination with another medicine, misoprostol, to end early pregnancies. The treatment interrupts the hormone progesterone that the body needs to continue a pregnancy.

State officials long have been preparing for a Supreme Court case that allows for either an outright ban or greater restrictions on abortion access, wrote Kaiser Family Foundation researchers Laurie Sobel, Alina Salganicoff, and Amrutha Ramaswamy in a May 16 report. There’s an expectation that half of states will seek to block legal abortion, they noted.

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‘A national calling’ to address child and adolescent mental health

Catherine Mok, M.A., L.M.S.W. (Photo courtesy of Alander Rocha)

The COVID-19 pandemic unleashed, but didn’t spark a relative tidal wave of demand for counseling services for children and teens.

“It had been brewing long before the pandemic,” said Catherine Mok, M.A., L.M.S.W., a clinical social worker for Austin Family Counseling, during the “Mental health for kids is falling short. What can fix it?” panel at Health Journalism 2022.

“What I’m seeing on the ground is anxiety, depression [and] suicidal ideation. Our practice has [never] seen so many parents calling in and looking for help for their children,” Mok said.

That’s because the field of pediatric and adolescent counseling, like that of adult counseling, has endured a years-long shortage of clinicians. Depending on the state, there is an average of four to 65 pediatric and family psychiatrists per 100,000 youth.

The national average is 14 psychiatrists per 100,000 young people, according to the American Association of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry’s (AACAP) most recent workforce map. The association has estimated there should be 47 psychiatrists per 100,000 youth. Also, roughly half of children and teens with diagnosable mental health disorders are getting necessary treatment, according to the AACAP.

“This is a national calling,” Mok said of the urgency to reverse a crisis that finds 70% of U.S. counties without psychiatrists who specialize in treating teens and children, according to the AACAP. The ranks of pediatric clinical social workers and psychologists are also lacking.

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Digital front doors: a deep dive into this growing health care trend

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We have all traveled through the physical entrance of a doctor’s office or hospital. But if you have scheduled an appointment or checked in for an appointment online or through a mobile app, you have participated in a newer trend — the use of digital front doors.

A digital front door is a strategy health care institutions are employing to use technology to improve patient experiences and could be defined as “all the touchpoints where providers can digitally interact with patients to drive better access, engagement and experiences across the service continuum,” said Mutaz Shegewi, research director of IDC Insights, during a recent webinar hosted by Becker’s Hospital Review.

The idea is to replace or supplement tasks traditionally performed in person or manually, such as calling to schedule an appointment, with digital offerings. Depending on a health care entity’s offerings, consumers can use digital front doors to research care options, identify new providers and manage care delivery. Some platforms also allow patients to fill out forms, pay bills, and wait in the privacy of their car outside a traditional wait room until the provider is ready. In some cases, patients can receive all services without ever stepping foot into a physical facility.

The use of digital front doors is a trend journalists covering health IT (and health care in general) should be aware of. Reporters could find interesting stories about what hospitals are providing by way of digital front doors and/or interviewing patients who have used these services. Find out if they like these services and what process has been like. 

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