Friday Five: Non-fatal illness, Medicare, gay blood donors, e-cigarettes, infographic

Each Friday, I use five sentences to summarize and comment on five important, interesting, or just plain amusing health stories from the week. Q: What’s the most prevalent form of non-fatal illness in the world? A: Mental illness and substance abuse disorders. That’s right—mental and emotional issues such as depression, anxiety, drug abuse, and schizophrenia account for 22.8% of all non-fatal illnesses. This isn’t just in the US, but across 187 countries and 30 years. It’s time to stop pretending these disorders don’t exist. The authors of the study presenting these findings say it best: In view of the magnitude of their contribution, improvement in population health is only possible if countries make the prevention and treatment of mental and substance use disorders a public health priority.

Doctors still take Medicare beneficiaries Rumor has it that in light of the Affordable Care Act’s changes to Medicare reimbursement, doctors are fleeing the system and leaving seniors without medical care. But a report from the Department of Health and Human Services showed that in 2012, 90.7% of doctors accepted new Medicare patients, compared to 87.9% in 2005. Furthermore, more doctors are accepting new Medicare patients than are accepting those with private insurance. If you have Medicare, nearly all doctors will accept you. ACA myth debunked.  

Banned4Life wants the FDA to allow gay blood donors Men who have sex with men cannot donate blood. The FDA reasons that because gay men comprise 2% of the US population but in 2010 accounted for 66% of all new HIV infections, and because HIV goes through an “undetectable” period just after initial infection, keeping gay men out of the donor pool maintains the safety of the blood supply. The newly formed Banned4Life group seeks to change this policy. Banned4Life is urging the FDA to consider sexual behaviors, rather than sexual preference or orientation, when deciding who cannot donate blood. Life-threatening illnesses, gay rights, and government regulations can rile up lots of people, and I hope the FDA looks carefully at its policy and is transparent about the decision it makes.  

E-Cigarettes are getting popular among teens Combining two of their favorite things, rebellion and new technology, teens are adopting the newest form of nicotine on the market, electronic cigarettes (or e-cigarettes). Nearly 10% of high schoolers have tried them, doubling the rate from 2011 and far exceeding the 6% of adult smokers who have given e-cigarettes a puff or two. This finding from the CDC raises some interesting questions: are e-cigarettes safer than regular ones? Are the anti-smoking campaigns aimed at teens intended to be anti-cigarette or anti-addiction? Hypothetically, if e-cigarettes carry no risk of disease, would it be okay for teens to use them? Will indoor smoking bans apply to e-cigarettes? These will be crucial questions to address as e-cigarettes gain popularity.

Just how imperfect is US health care, anyway? This colorful, informative, and slightly dizzying infographic from the MPH program at George Washington University shows us how not-so-well our health care stacks up to the rest of the world. Interesting points to consider:

  • 79% of Americans use some kind of contraceptive, one of the only times we’re mostly ahead of the pack, trailing only Russia, the UK, and Canada.
  • Ghana, Algeria, Mexico, and many more countries have higher measles vaccination rates among one year olds.
  • There is 1/3 of a general practitioner for every 1000 Americans, while there is just over two specialists for every 1000 people (87.5% of practicing doctors are specialists).

US vs World Infographic

Friday Five: withdrawal, Amanda Bynes, gluten-free labels, vaccine rates, urgentrx

Each Friday, I use five sentences to summarize and comment on five important, interesting, or just plain amusing health stories from the week. Pulling out is surprisingly popular

A study that will be published in the September issue of Obstetrics & Gynecology shows that 31% of women aged 15-24 used withdrawal as the primary form of contraceptive at least once. The study also found that 21% of those women became pregnant, compared to 13% of women who used other methods. I was pretty outraged to learn that so many young women rely on their partners to pull out, so I consulted the Kinsey Institute site Kinsey Confidential to compare different forms of contraceptives:

Method Typical Effectiveness Theoretical Effectiveness
Withdrawal 81% 94%
Male condoms 85% 98%
Oral contraceptives 92% 99.9%
Intrauterine Device (IUD) 99% 99%
Implant 99.01% 99.01%

Whelp, turns out the much-touted condoms don’t fare much better in preventing pregnancy than withdrawal, but IUDs and implants are far better. Advocating for more extensive use of IUDs and implants would help more women learn about their effectiveness and safety, and could play a major role in reducing the number of unplanned pregnancies. (FYI: condoms protect against some STIs, so keep using them, okay?)

Now we know what’s ailing Amanda Bynes

After publicly unraveling, actress Amanda Bynes has been placed on psychiatric hold and reportedly diagnosed with schizophrenia. Schizophrenia is a debilitating yet treatable disease that can lead to delusions, hallucinations (including hearing voices and smelling odors that don’t exist), and cognitive issues, among other symptoms. I sincerely hope that her family and doctors help her find the right treatment so she can find relief from her suffering. This story is playing out all over the gossip mills, and we can learn from this: erratic behavior requires intervention. In an open letter, her former co-star Nick Cannon also taught us an important lesson about how provide compassion:

So I say to my sister Amanda Bynes you’re not alone. I’m here for you. I understand. I care and I appreciate you, because that’s what family does and that’s what family is for. I also extend this to anyone else in my life, past or present that may find themselves in hard times. I’m here! Call me! Because I truly believe, the hand you’re helping up today may be the one you’re reaching for tomorrow.

Side note: take a look at this fantastic Atlantic article with Dr. Christine Montross titled “How well do we really understand mental illness?” for more insight into the hows and whys of treating severe mental illness.

Gluten-free labels, now with accuracy!

People with celiac disease, those with gluten sensitivity/intolerance, and dieters can all rejoice because this week, the FDA standardized the label “gluten-free.” The limit is 20 ppm, the lowest amount of gluten detectable in a food product. Foods such as fresh fruit and eggs can carry the label “gluten free” because they naturally contain no gluten. Regulations like this help consumers make informed choices. Considering more than two million Americans cannot digest gluten, having consistent, effective labels is the right thing to do for their health.

State-by-state vaccine rates tell us about exemptions

Each year, the CDC analyzes vaccine rates among the 50 states, Washington DC, five cities, and eight other US jurisdictions that receive federal funding for immunizations. This year, Mississippi topped the list, with 99.9% of kindergarteners receiving full doses of MMR, DTaP, and varicella (chicken pox). Overall, median exemption rate for the country was 1.8%; Oregon had the highest, with 6.5% of kindergarteners not meeting the vaccine standards. Interestingly, Mississippi does not allow religious or philosophical exemptions for immunizations. Removing religious and philosophical exemptions altogether wouldn’t be appropriate, but perhaps the success Mississippi has with getting children vaccinated will spark a conversation about strengthening the requirements for getting an exemption.

UrgentRx: alleviating upset stomachs, potentially saving lives

Forbes just published its list of what it deems the 25 most innovative consumer and retail brands of the year. An over-the-counter medication company, UrgentRx, made the cut. The company produces powders of common treatments for headaches, allergies, and digestive issues, along with plain aspirin intended for use during a heart attack. UrgentRx powders can be taken without water, meaning that you can give yourself a hit of heartburn medicines whenever you need it. The implication for potentially life-saving doses of aspirin are immense: a study in the American Journal of Cardiology, as reported by Harvard Medical School, showed that chewed aspirin worked faster against heart attacks than swallowing it whole or taking a liquid version. For a person with heart disease, carrying around a powdered dose eliminates the need to chew and provides the benefits of aspirin as quickly as possible.