Health Policy Briefs
Compiled by Benita M. Dodd
Poking around for news on health care regulations, policy, technology and biotechnology can reveal some interesting tidbits that the average newspaper reader is unlikely to uncover. For example, the potential for artificial muscles? Promising. The number of health care records breached? Alarming. The chances of catching flu from a pig? Good. You’ll find these tidbits and more in this week’s Checking Up On Health!
Nano-muscles: French researchers say they’ve managed to assemble thousands of nano-machines capable of producing a coordinated movement like that of human muscle fibers. The researchers see a multitude of applications in robotics and in the medical field for the synthesis of artificial muscles or other materials. Human muscles are controlled by the coordinated movement of thousands of protein molecules – biological “nano-machines” – which only function individually over distances on the order of a nanometer. What’s a nanometer? It’s a unit of measure. Shaquille O’Neal, a very tall basketball player, is 2,160,000,000 nanometers tall.
Big on cell therapy: A group combining government agencies and biotechnology firms have established what it claims is the first cell therapy development facility in France. The organization, the C4C consortium, says the facility near Paris is intended as a development and production hub for scaling up and commercializing cell therapies. The project received about $100 million from consortium members and almost $40 million from OSEO, France’s state innovation agency. Source: Bio SmartBriefs
Think your health records are safe? Becker’s Hospital Review ran a report on how Seattle Children’s Hospital responds to data breaches, “managing information security incidents.” How they manage is comforting, but what should set off your alarm bells is the “enormous” risk that your health records can be compromised. It says the risk of a data breach to hospitals and health systems is on the rise. ID Experts cites 498 breaches of 500 or more records and 55,000 breaches of less than 500 records since September 2009. That means more than 21 million healthcare records have been breached in the last three years. Ninety-six percent of hospitals had a data breach in 2011, and 60 percent of hospitals experienced multiple data breaches. “The potential organizational impact of a data breach incident for a hospital can be enormous.”
Don’t go kissing pigs: Researchers report that swine and human influenza A/H3N2 viruses associated with an Ohio county fair held in July make a nearly perfect genetic match, suggesting that there is almost no biological barrier to prevent such viruses from passing between humans and pigs. The authors sequenced the genomes of H3N2 viruses isolated from pigs that were exhibited at the fair and from several people who were infected with strains of variant H3N2 (H3N2v, the term for the human version) after participating in or visiting the fair. They found that the genomes were more than 99 percent the same! The human cases were among 306 H3N2v cases reported by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) since July 12 of this year. The vast majority of these occurred in young people who were involved in agricultural fairs.
Eye on innovation: There’s a new kind of in-office diagnostic test for pink eye. And that’s good, but the bigger story here is that the antibiotics your doctor prescribes may not actually help. Pink eye, or conjunctivitis, can have three causes: viruses, bacteria and allergens/irritants. A 2002 survey of physicians revealed that as many as 95 percent of them prescribed an antibiotic for pink eye, even though 58 percent of them believed more than half of the cases they saw were caused by a virus and wouldn’t be helped by the antibiotic. Adenovirus is the most common culprit for viral conjunctivitis and is extremely contagious, but very few doctors took a swab sample to be sent to a lab for confirmation, either. The new adenovirus test by Rapid Pathogen Screening is designed to identify the virus in about 10 minutes with a tear sample collected during a doctor visit. The good news is that it can prevent an unnecessary antibiotic prescription and reduce the spread of infection, according to Medcitynews.com.
Drugs of last resort: The Wall Street Journal reported recently on a little-known Food and Drug Administration program called “compassionate use” that helps patients with serious or life-threatening conditions gain access to experimental drugs if they have exhausted all other options. Last year, nearly 1,200 patients received treatment with experimental drugs through the compassionate-use program for conditions including hepatitis C, cancer and rare diseases like cystic fibrosis, the FDA says. That is up from about 1,000 patients in 2010, the first year the agency compiled data on the program. The FDA says it has been trying to increase participation, including by helping to set up a Web-based seminar that trains doctors how to make use of the program.
The agency allows manufacturers to make their drugs available, but can’t require them to do so, and some companies are reluctant to participate before their products have received marketing approval. The FDA says it has been working to win over more companies. It revised its regulations in 2009 to effectively open the program to a greater number of small drug manufacturers. Most companies that provide drugs for the program do so free of charge, but some seek to recoup their expenses, the FDA says. Health insurers generally don’t reimburse patients for the cost of the drugs.
Patients can run significant risks taking drugs that haven’t received FDA approval. The drugs typically are still in trials, may not be effective and could result in serious and unexpected side effects. The patient’s doctor must apply to the FDA to gain access to an experimental drug and must be willing to manage the drug’s use.
Regular food’s just fine: There may be some benefits in consuming organic products, but children will be just as healthy eating a balanced diet of conventionally grown fruits, vegetables, whole grains and low-fat or fat-free dairy products, the American Academy of Pediatrics said in its first official report on organic foods. It pointed out that organic and conventionally produced foods are nutritionally equivalent. Organic produce probably does reduce children’s exposure to pesticides – but if buying organic means that a family can’t buy as many healthy foods, regular produce is probably fine. Incidentally, the U.S. market for organic foods grew from $3.5 billion in 1996 to $28.6 billion in 2010, according to the Organic Trade Association. Source: Family Practice News
Unsustainable: Under what is known as the sustainable growth rate formula, physicians face a 27 percent cut to their Medicare reimbursement rates on Jan. 1, 2013, unless Congress passes a temporary fix or permanent solution. The uncertainty has caused physician practices to make drastic changes around their practices, mostly involving cost-cutting measures. The most common business decisions related to the SGR have been the delay of new clinical equipment purchases (60 percent), reducing staff salaries and/or benefits (60 percent), cutting charity care (45 percent) and reducing administrative staff members (45 percent). Source: Becker’s Hospital CEO Report
What goes around: Remember when leeches and maggots were part of a healer’s toolbox? A new study reveals that maggot debridement of wounds proves significantly faster, less painful, and less labor intensive than surgical debridement and conventional dressings. Researchers said a randomized, multicenter clinical trial found, “There was quite an amazing debridement after seven days of maggot therapy,” The phase III study findings were presented at the annual congress of the European Academy of Dermatology and Venereology in Prague.
Speaking of wormy: House Republicans from the Ways and Means Committee have been asking since May for information from the Department of Health and Human Services on its promotion of ObamaCare. By October 15 they still hadn’t received it. Now they’re threatening to issue a subpoena to get the information on the use of taxpayer dollars for public relation campaigns and contracts promoting ObamaCare.”The Department’s failure to provide a single responsive document to the Committee’s reasonable requests leave only two possibilities: Either the department is unable to keep track of the work products it buys with taxpayer dollars, or the department is trying to delay any response until after this year’s election,” according to the committee’s letter. It wants the information by October 31.
Quote of Note: “The longest-lived and the shortest-lived man, when they come to die, lose one and the same thing.” – Marcus Aurelius