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Health Highlights: Aug. 19, 2007

Here are some of the latest health and medical news developments, compiled by editors of HealthDay:

Medicare No Longer to Pay for Preventable Hospital Errors, Injuries or Infections

Medicare is changing its coverage so that it will no longer pay for hospital incidents that could have been prevented, according to the New York Times.

These conditions were caused by negligence or improper medical practice, the Times reports, and the Bush administration has decided that Medicare will no longer pay the additional costs for treating them. Included are conditions and infections such as bedsores (pressure ulcers), injuries caused by falls in circumstances where they could have been prevented, and infections resulting from use of catheters for long periods.

Private insurers, too, are considering following Medicare's lead, which may cause hospital officials to place emphasis on reducing staph infections and medical errors and replacing health workers who are neglectful of patients' needs.

According to the Times, figures from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show that almost 100,000 people a year --about 270 a day -- die in U.S. hospitals from improper treatment or neglect.

Some of procedures have been termed "serious preventable events," such as leaving a sponge in a patient during surgery or giving a transfused patient the wrong blood type. Medicare says it will no longer reimburse hospitals for these mistakes, the newspaper reports.

"If a patient goes into the hospital with pneumonia, we don't want them to leave with a broken arm," Herb B. Kuhn, acting deputy administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, told the Times.


Nail Salon Workers' Mental Functioning May be Affected By Chemicals They Use, Studies Say

Are the 300,000 nail salon workers in the United States -- many of them Asian -- being negatively affected by the chemicals they use on their customers?

According to the New York Times, two recent studies indicate that the danger does exist and may affect mental acuity, both in those who work in nail salons and those whose mothers did.

A Wayne State University study found that prolonged work in nail salons was associated with poor performance on a variety of tests to determine a person's attention acuity, mental processing speed, memory and verbal learning, the Times reports. And another study by University of Toronto scientists found similar problems in children who were prenatally exposed.

"The intensity of exposure for salon workers is 1,200 times what it would be for the average American," Sonya Lunder, a senior analyst for the non-profit Environmental Working Group, told the newspaper. "Immigrant women often don't understand the safety information."

Three compounds long used in nail salons -- toluene, formaldehyde and dibutyl phthalate -- are on the denagrous list, the Times reports. Toluene is a colorless solvent, formaldehyde helps harden nails and dibutyl phthalate makes nail polish flexible. One company that makes the chemicals, OPI Products, has said it would begin removing toluene and dibutyl phthalate from its product list, the newspaper said.


New Mexico Medicinal Marijuana Law Put on Hold

Having no guarantee of protection against federal prosecution, New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson Friday stopped short of ordering implementation of a state-run production and distribution system for marijuana to be used for medical purposes, the Associated Press reports.

But Richardson did order the state Health Department to go ahead with planning the operations of the program, which includes growing and distributing the drug.

So far, Congressional efforts to keep federal law enforcement officials from prosecuting New Mexico health workers have failed. State Attorney General Gary King warned Friday that New Mexico health department employees could face federal prosecution for implementing the law, which became effective in July, the A.P. reports.

State health officials want to make sure that the cannabis meets the standards for medical treatment. Marijuana is often used by those suffering from diseases that cause pain, and also by those whose treatment brings about nausea and depression.

The New Mexico law specifically mentions approved marijuana use for cancer, glaucoma, multiple sclerosis, epilepsy and HIV-AIDS, and also by some patients in hospice care. "The long-term goal is that the patients will have a safe, secure supply that doesn't mean drug dealers, that doesn't mean growing their own," Reena Szczepanski, director of Drug Policy Alliance New Mexico, told the A.P. in July.

But medicinal marijuana use is illegal under federal law, and so far, no acceptable remedy has been found to keep U.S. agents from raiding New Mexico-run marijuana farms and arresting state employees.


FDA Cancels Plans to Close More Than Half Its Field Labs

It could have a been a response to the Bob Dylan song, "The Times They are A-Changin'."

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has canceled plans to close more than half its field laboratories because its watchdog role over imported food has increased greatly in recent months.

Ironically, the lab reduction was originally planned to streamline the agency's food testing program, the Associated Press reports.

But a spate of incidents during the spring and summer involving possible contamination of imported ingestible items ranging from fish to toothpaste has caused the regulatory agency to put its reduction plans on hold.

A presidential panel is developing recommendations on how the FDA and other U.S. agencies can better guarantee the safety of imported foods and other items, The A.P. reports. A Congressional subcommittee is also looking into the impact the field laboratory closings would have, the wire service says.


Genetic Test Spots Patients at Risk From Viral Infections

A genetic method of identifying patients most likely to develop life-threatening complications from SARS, bird flu and other dangerous viral infections has been discovered by Canadian researchers.

They analyzed blood samples from 40 people infected with SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) during the 2003 outbreak in Toronto. They found that patients with one kind of interferon gene-expression pattern recovered quickly, while those with another pattern became seriously ill or died, the Toronto Star reported.

Interferons -- proteins produced by white blood cells -- are the body's first-line defense against viruses. SARS patients with abnormal interferon patterns didn't produce enough antibodies to fight the virus, the study found. It was published Thursday in the Journal of Virology.

The findings provide new insight into how the immune system responds to SARS and could help doctors identify which patients with severe viral infections require specialized treatments, the Star reported.


Depression Over-Diagnosed, Psychiatrist Says

Many people diagnosed with depression are actually just unhappy, says an Australian psychiatrist who contends that the clinical threshold for depression is too low, BBC News reported.

Professor Gordon Parker of the University of New South Wales wrote in the British Medical Journal that almost all people experience symptoms such as "feeling sad, blue or down in the dumps" at some time in their lives. However, that's not the same as clinical depression.

He conducted a 15-year study of 242 teachers and found that more than 75 percent of them met the current criteria for depression. Parker described depression as a "catch-all" diagnosis driven by clever marketing, BBC News reported.

"Over the last 30 years the formal definitions for defining clinical depression have expanded into the territory of normal depression, and the real risk is that the milder, more common experiences risk being pathologised," Parker wrote.

However, the same issue of the British Medical Journal featured an article by another psychiatrist who contradicted Parker's opinion. Increased diagnosis of depression has helped prevent suicides and reduced the stigma of mental illness, Professor Ian Hickie wrote.


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Posted: August 2007