public health

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Lately, stories about outbreaks seem to be spreading faster than the diseases themselves. An outbreak of measles in Ohio is just part of an 18-year high of U.S. cases. Meanwhile, polio continues to circulate in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Nigeria, while spreading to other countries, like Cameroon, Equatorial Guinea, and Syria, leading the World Health Organization to declare a “Public Health Emergency of International Concern” last month.

The Role of Globalization

As recent threats of H5N1, H1N1, and MERS attest, the increasingly global nature of infectious diseases presents serious risks. Foreign tourists, Americans returning home from international travel, immigrants, and refugees can all expose countries to disease.

With modern transportation shuttling people and products to nearly any part of the world in a matter of hours, the volume of these comings and goings is unprecedented. In 2008, approximately 360 million travelers entered the United States, which also takes in about 50,000 refugees annually.

It should be unsurprising, then, that the Ohio measles outbreak started when unvaccinated Amish missionaries visited the Philippines, then returned home. Infected persons spread the disease to others within their largely unvaccinated communities. The last naturally occurring U.S. outbreak of polio occurred in similar fashion: An outbreak in the Netherlands spread to Canada in 1978, then to the United States the following year, all among unvaccinated Amish populations across four states.

Compared to the United States, nations experiencing social unrest and political conflict face even more serious obstacles to preventing infectious disease.

Strife can interrupt routine vaccination campaigns, as is largely happening with polio. For example, the largest numbers of polio cases last year were in Somalia and Pakistan. Refugees and other displaced populations without health care access can create fertile settings for disease spread, especially if they’re not protected by vaccination. Health workers involved in vaccination campaigns can become targets of violence. And in some areas—Nigeria, for example—religious leaders haveconvinced their followers that the polio vaccine is a biological weaponpromulgated by the West.

For the most part, the United States doesn’t face these barriers. In America, vaccination is more of a choice. Unfortunately, some Americans are putting themselves, their families, and their communities at risk by choosing not to get vaccinated. If those who opt out of vaccination travel to areas where diseases are more common or come in contact with individuals arriving from such areas, they’ll be at risk of becoming ill from otherwise preventable diseases. Continue reading “An Outbreak of Outbreaks”

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Ashish Jha

Last year, about 43 million people around the globe were injured from the hospital care that was intended to help them; as a result, many died and millions suffered long-term disability.  These seem like dramatic numbers – could they possibly be true?

If anything, they are almost surely an underestimate.  These findings come from a paper we published last year funded and done in collaboration with the World Health Organization.  We focused on a select group of “adverse events” and used conservative assumptions to model not only how often they occur, but also with what consequence to patients around the world.

Our WHO-funded study doesn’t stand alone; others have estimated that harm from unsafe medical care is far greater than previously thought.  A paper published last year in the Journal of Patient Safety estimated that medical errors might be the third leading cause of deaths among Americans, after heart disease and cancer.

While I find that number hard to believe, what is undoubtedly true is this:  adverse events – injuries that happen due to medical care – are a major cause of morbidity and mortality, and these problems are global.  In every country where people have looked (U.S., Canada, Australia, England, nations of the Middle East, Latin America, etc.), the story is the same.

Patient safety is a big problem – a major source of suffering, disability, and death for the world’s population.The problem of inadequate health care, the global nature of this challenging problem, and the common set of causes that underlie it, motivated us to put together PH555X.

It’s a HarvardX online MOOC (Massive Open Online Course) with a simple focus: health care quality and safety with a global perspective.

Continue reading “Harvard MOOC: Patient Safety and Quality with Ashish Jha”

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Tom Frieden CDCAntibiotic resistance — bacteria outsmarting the drugs designed to kill them — is already here, threatening to return us to the time when simple infections were often fatal. How long before we have no effective antibiotics left?

It’s painfully easy for me to imagine life in a post-antibiotic era. I trained as an internist and infectious disease physician before there was effective treatment for HIV, and I later cared for patients with tuberculosis resistant to virtually all antibiotics.

We improvised, hoped, and, all too often, were only able to help patients die more comfortably.

To quote Dr. Margaret Chan, Director General of the World Health Organization: “A post-antibiotic era means, in effect, an end to modern medicine as we know it.”

We’d have to rethink our approach to many advances in medical treatment such as joint replacements, organ transplants and cancer therapy, as well as improvements in treating chronic diseases such as diabetes, asthma, rheumatoid arthritis and other immunological disorders.

Treatments for these can increase the risk of infections, and we may no longer be able to assume that we will have effective antibiotics for these infections.

Last September, CDC published our first report on the current antibiotic resistance threat to the United States.

The report conservatively estimates that each year, at least 2 million Americans become infected with bacteria resistant to antibiotics, and at least 23,000 die.  Another 14,000 Americans die each year with the complications of C. difficile, a bacterial infection most often made possible by use of antibiotics. WHO has just issued their report  on the global impact of this health threat.

It’s a big problem, and one that’s getting worse. But it’s not too late. We can delay, and even in some cases reverse the spread of antibiotic resistance.

Continue reading “The End of Antibiotics. Can We Come Back from the Brink?”

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flying cadeuciiEver since 1969, when the IRS established the “community benefit” standard for hospital tax exemption, nonprofit hospitals have been able to achieve federal tax exemption without any precise accountability for the benefits they provided.

The ACA’s passage, however, ushered in significant changes to federal tax-exemption standards for hospitals.

The new § 501(r) of the Internal Revenue Code requires hospitals to take numerous measures, including establishing written financial assistance policies, limiting the amount charged to patients eligible for financial assistance, and limiting their use of “extraordinary collection actions” against patients.

These requirements responded to concerns about how some purportedly “charitable” hospitals treated uninsured patients and, more generally, hospitals’ lack of transparency regarding indigent care.

They stop well short, however, of requiring hospitals to provide any particular quantum of free care to patients unable to pay.

Section 501(r) also incorporates a different tack, requiring that at least once every three years, a hospital conduct a “community health needs assessment” (CHNA) and adopt an “implementation strategy” to respond to the needs identified by the assessment.

The needs assessment requirement is novel as a matter of federal tax policy, but is similar to mandates previously existing in a number of states.

As announced in the statute and fleshed out in Proposed Regulations issued by the IRS in April 2013, the CHNA requirement entails a series of steps.

In identifying and prioritizing community health needs, a hospital must take into account “input from persons who represent the broad interests of the community served by the hospital facility, including those with special knowledge of or expertise in public health.”

Once the assessment is completed, the hospital must make a report on it “widely available to the public” and adopt an “implementation strategy” to meet the community health needs it identified.

Continue reading “Health Reform and the Mission of Nonprofit Hospitals”

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flying cadeuciiI know it seems like the obvious choice, but I would not run a randomized clinical trial.

I have recently lamented the pernicious influence, within my domain of public health practice, of hyperbolic headlines proclaiming “this,” followed unfailingly by equally and oppositely hyperbolic headlines reactively proclaiming “that.”

But we are obligated to acknowledge that there are, generally, research studies underlying the headlines, however extreme the pop culture distortions of the actual findings. So to some extent, the problem originates before ever the headlines are a gleam in an editor’s eye, with our expectant anticipation of the next clinical trial, and the next, and the next.

By all means, bring on the clinical trials! They serve us well. They advance the human condition. I run a clinical research lab — my career is devoted to just such trials.

But still, I wouldn’t conduct one if my foot caught fire.

Of course, there is a very good case for running such a study, as many vitally important questions about the right response to a foot on fire are at present unanswered. What, for instance, would be the ideal volume of water? Should it be hard water, or soft? Fluoridated, or not? A controlled trial is very tempting to address each of these.

The vessel is even more vexing. What would be the best kind of bucket? What size should it be? What color should the bucket be, what composition, and what’s the ideal kind of handle? I think the variations here are the basis for an entire research career.

Perhaps the notion of running randomized, double-blind, controlled intervention trials to determine the right response to a foot on fire seems silly to you. But if so, you must be suggesting that science does not preclude sense.

That’s rather radical thinking in some quarters.

Continue reading “What I Would Do If My Foot Caught Fire”

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Robert GalloFred Shaw went to St. Martin and all he got was a painful virus called chikungunya.

On an island stop during his Caribbean cruise vacation, Mr. Shaw was infected with the mosquito-borne virus that causes a severe fever and an arthritis-like condition in people, similar to dengue fever.  After infection, the virus still may cause long periods of fatigue and incapacitating joint pain.

Writing on Facebook, Mr. Shaw said, “The fever, leg rash and swelling were bad enough, but then followed by months of headache, joint pain and malaise, I finally have gotten over it (I think).”

Chikungunya virus was first described during an outbreak in Tanzania in 1952 and was subsequently discovered in other parts of Africa and Asia. The name ‘chikungunya’ is derived from a local phrase that means ‘that which bends up’ and describes the stooped appearance of sufferers with joint pain.

In late 2013, chikungunya was found for the first time in modern history on islands in the Caribbean. Based on our research and the evidence we have observed, it is likely that the virus is on its way to the U.S.

Vector-borne viruses—which are transmitted to people by an animal or insect—threaten half the world’s population and are responsible for millions of human infections annually. Various mosquitoes and ticks transmit a subgroup of these viruses that are called arboviruses.

There are over 100 known arboviruses that infect humans and can cause neuroinvasive diseases like encephalitis, febrile illnesses and hemorrhagic fevers.  Except for yellow fever, tick-born encephalitis and Japanese encephalitis, there are no commercially available vaccines for most arboviral disease.

As the world becomes flatter and the globe opens to new opportunities for international trade and travel, viruses that used to be confined to “over there” are increasingly coming “over here,” and they are arriving sooner rather than later.

Continue reading “Are We Prepared For The Next Viral Disease Threat?”

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In their best-selling 2013 book Big Data: A Revolution That Will Transform How We Live, Work and Think, authors Viktor Mayer-Schönberger and Kenneth Cukier selected Google Flu Trends (GFT) as the lede of chapter one.

They explained how Google’s algorithm mined five years of web logs, containing hundreds of billions of searches, and created a predictive model utilizing 45 search terms that “proved to be a more useful and timely indicator [of flu] than government statistics with their natural reporting lags.”

Unfortunately, no. The first sign of trouble emerged in 2009, shortly after GFT launched, when it completely missed the swine flu pandemic. Last year, Nature reported that Flu Trends overestimated by 50% the peak Christmas season flu of 2012. Last week came the most damning evaluation yet.

In Science, a team of Harvard-affiliated researchers published their findings that GFT has over-estimated the prevalence of flu for 100 out of the last 108 weeks; it’s been wrong since August 2011.

The Science article further points out that a simplistic forecasting model—a model as basic as one that predicts the temperature by looking at recent-past temperatures—would have forecasted flu better than GFT.

In short, you wouldn’t have needed big data at all to do better than Google Flu Trends. Ouch.

In fact, GFT’s poor track record is hardly a secret to big data and GFT followers like me, and it points to a little bit of a big problem in the big data business that many of us have been discussing: Data validity is being consistently overstated.

As the Harvard researchers warn: “The core challenge is that most big data that have received popular attention are not the output of instruments designed to produce valid and reliable data amenable for scientific analysis.”

The amount of data still tends to dominate discussion of big data’s value. But more data in itself does not lead to better analysis, as amply demonstrated with Flu Trends. Large datasets don’t guarantee valid datasets. That’s a bad assumption, but one that’s used all the time to justify the use of and results from big data projects.

Continue reading “Google Flu Trends Shows Good Data > Big Data”

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If Obama’s nominee for the position of Surgeon General, Vivek Murthy, is not endorsed by the Senate because Senate Democrats from conservative states are too scared to vote for him for fear of losing votes from a population, egged on by the National Rifle Association (NRA), that passionately supports firearms, the first words that come to mind are ‘unfortunate,’ ‘tragic’ and ‘daft,’ although not in that particular order.

Words that do not come to mind are ‘surprising’ or ‘unprecedented.’  This is the natural result of decades of actively encouraging science to mix with politics.

In an ideal world, or I should say reasonable world, noting that perfection is not a pre-requisite to being reasonable, it would scant matter what Murthy thought about firearms.

He would be judged on his (impeccable) credentials, (unmistakable) leadership, and (imaginative) entrepreneurship not to mention his gumption in standing up for what he believes.

It would, of course, be utterly naïve to believe that in the real world his politics do not matter.

I doubt Murthy would have advanced so precociously, let alone been nominated for the position of Surgeon General, if he were a second amendment absolutist, an implacable limited government advocate or had written extensively about the role of free market in healthcare, all things else being equal.

We applaud him for standing up for his convictions not just because of his standing up but for the nature of his convictions.

This is not to suggest that Murthy’s worldview is expedient. There’s no reason to doubt its sincerity. It’s to suggest that a certain weltanschauung is incompatible with progress in academia and beyond.

That’s because despite living in an age of unprecedented reason we have been unable to render unto science what is unto science and render unto politics what is unto politics, a distinction our species has made little progress in making in the last two thousand years.

Continue reading “Mixing Politics and Science Is Injurious to Public Health”

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In a recent column, security expert Bruce Schneier proposed breaking up the NSA – handing its offensive capabilities work to US Cyber Command and its law enforcement work to the FBI, and terminating its programme of attacking internet security.

In place of this, Schneier proposed that “instead of working to deliberately weaken security for everyone, the NSA should work to improve security for everyone.” This is a profoundly good idea for reasons that may not be obvious at first blush.

People who worry about security and freedom on the internet have long struggled with the problem of communicating the urgent stakes to the wider public. We speak in jargon that’s a jumble of mixed metaphors – viruses, malware, trojans, zero days, exploits, vulnerabilities, RATs – that are the striated fossil remains of successive efforts to come to grips with the issue.

When we do manage to make people alarmed about the stakes, we have very little comfort to offer them, because Internet security isn’t something individuals can solve.

I remember well the day this all hit home for me. It was nearly exactly a year ago, and I was out on tour with my novel Homeland, which tells the story of a group of young people who come into possession of a large trove of government leaks that detail a series of illegal programmes through which supposedly democratic governments spy on people by compromising their computers.

I kicked the tour off at the gorgeous, daring Seattle Public Library main branch, in a hi-tech auditorium to an audience of 21st-century dwellers in one of the technology revolution’s hotspots, home of Microsoft and Starbucks (an unsung technology story – the coffee chain is basically an IT shop that uses technology to manage and deploy coffee around the world).

I explained the book’s premise, and then talked about how this stuff works in the real world. I laid out a parade of awfuls, including a demonstrated attack that hijacked implanted defibrillators from 10 metres’ distance and caused them to compromise other defibrillators that came into range, implanting an instruction to deliver lethal shocks at a certain time in the future.

Continue reading “Computer Security as an Exercise in Public Health”

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Jennifer Anyaegbunam is a Fellow at The American Resident Project. Her post appears on THCB as part of The Health Care Blog’s  partnership with ThinkWellPoint.  Stay tuned for more. Follow the American Resident’s Project on Twitter @Amresproj.

I’ve spent the past four weeks learning about primary care on my Family Medicine rotation. A significant portion of patient care in this setting is focused on “health maintenance” or disease prevention.

Physicians can provide their patients with evidence-based recommendations for various screening tests and vaccinations, but it is ultimately up to the patient to decide what services he or she will receive.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the best way to prevent influenza, more affectionately called “the flu,” is to get vaccinated each year. During flu season, which extends from October to May, many primary care physicians offer their patients the flu shot as a routine part of their health maintenance.

Over the past month I’ve had a number of interesting conversations about the flu shot that have allowed me to evaluate my role as an educator. How do you assess patient understanding? How hard do you need to drive certain points? Will patients perceive you as bossy or overbearing?

I respect my patients’ right to choose, but sometimes I’m concerned that they make choices based on fiction rather fact. It’s been quite a challenge learning how to debunk misconceptions, without seeming too pushy.

This week I helped care for an elderly woman named “Ms. Jade.” She visited the office for a follow up visit to manage her hypercholesterolemia, or high cholesterol. After discussing her chronic condition, I took the opportunity to assess her health maintenance and check if she was up-to-date with all the assessments recommended for a woman of her age.

Ms. Jade was on track with everything from her annual vision screening to her colonoscopy. The only preventive health maintenance item she was missing was the flu shot. Her chart read “flu shot advised 2012, declined,” meaning that she was offered the flu shot last year and opted not to take it.

Continue reading “The Flu Shot and a Patient’s Right to Choose”

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