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Tag: public health

Obesity: Global Public Health Challenge or Investment Opportunity?

Worried about the potential personal and economic costs of obesity?  Never mind.  It’s time to view obesity as a business opportunity.

As the press release for a new research report from Bank of America Merrill Lynch, Globesity—The Global Fight Against Obesity, points out:

“Increasing efforts to tackle obesity over the coming decades will form an important new investment theme for fund managers…Global obesity is a mega-investment theme for the next 25 years and beyond…The report…identifies that efforts to reduce obesity is a “megatrend” with a shelf-life of 25 to 50 years…BofA Merrill Lynch analysts across several sectors have collaborated to identify the sectors and companies developing long-term solutions.”

Given the worldwide increase in obesity, its high prospective costs, and the ever-present threat of government regulation, the report identifies more than 50 global stocks that provide investment opportunities for fighting “globesity.”  These fall into four categories:

  • Pharmaceuticals and Health Care: companies taking advantage of the FDA’s increased support for obesity drug development; tackling related medical conditions and needs including diabetes, kidney failure, hip and knee implants; making equipment such as patient lifts, bigger beds and wider ambulance doors.
  • Food: companies accessing the $663 billion “health and wellness” market and reformulating portfolios to respond to increasing pressure such as “fat taxes” to reduce sugar and fat levels.

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Mayor Bloomberg’s Soda Ban Proposal Hits the Wall

Yesterday, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced a ban on sales of sugary drinks larger than 16 ounces in restaurants, delis, sports arenas, and movie theaters.

The reactions have been ferocious, and not only from the soda industry, which placed an ad in the Times (see below).

The New York Times also weighed in with an editorial arguing that the mayor has now gone too far and should be sticking to educational strategies.

Alas.  If only educational strategies worked.  But they do not.

We know this from what it took to discourage people from smoking cigarettes.  We also know this from research on eating behavior.  This shows that it doesn’t take much to get people to eat too much.

Just barrage us with advertising, put food within arm’s reach, make food available 24/7, make it cheap, and serve it in enormous portions.

Faced with this kind of food environment, education doesn’t stand a chance.

That’s the point the Mayor’s proposal is trying to address, however clumsily.  After all, a 16-ounce soda is two servings.

Sugary drinks—especially large ones—make sense as a target for a portion size intervention.

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Save the Country with Preventive Care

We are entering the season of presidential politics, of bunting and cries of “What about the children?” and star-spangled appeals to full-throated patriotism.

So here’s mine: Do you count yourself a patriot? Do you care about the future of this country? (And while we are at it, the future of your hospital.) If so, bend your efforts to find ways to care for the least cared for, the most difficult, the chronically complex poor and uninsured.

“But we can’t afford compassion!” Wrong, brothers and sisters, we cannot afford to do without compassion. “But why should we pay to take care of people who can’t take care of themselves?” Because we are (you are) already paying for them — so let’s find the way we can pay the least.

The problem of the overwhelming cost of the “frequent fliers,” people with multiple poorly tracked chronic conditions, has always been that the cost was an SEP — “somebody else’s problem.” Now, increasingly, hospitals and health systems are finding that they are unable to avoid the crushing costs of pretending it’s not their problem, are not being paid for re-admits, and are finding themselves in one way or another at risk for the health of whole populations. They’re also facing more stringent IRS 990 demands that they demonstrate a clear, accountable public benefit.

At the same time, employers and payers are realizing that they end up paying the costs of the uninsured as well as those of the insured who are over-using the system because they are not being tracked. These costs become part of the costs of the system, and the costs are (and must be) shifted to those who do pay. There is no magic money well under the hospital.

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Conference Highlights Rapid Growth of Health Impact Assessments in the United States

According to a recent poll in Washington State, 71 percent of voters supported a bill that would require the state to consider impacts on people’s health when planning new transportation projects. This poll speaks to the growing recognition that illnesses like asthma, obesity, and diabetes, as well as injuries are shaped by the conditions in the places where we live and work. To address this, we need to factor health into decisions in fields like transportation, energy, housing, and agriculture.

The level of interest in the inaugural National Health Impact Assessment (HIA) Meeting held April 3 and 4 in Washington, D.C., highlights that this approach has become a centerpiece of community, state, and national efforts to improve Americans’ wellness. An HIA is a type of study that allows decision makers to factor health into projects like planning roads, passing agriculture policy, and siting schools. I have been using HIAs for over eight years, and until recently, I knew most of the people in the field. In organizing the National HIA Meeting, I worried that we might not find 200 people to attend. Instead, we had to close registration six weeks early: more than 430 leaders in public health, urban planning, housing, transportation, agriculture, and environmental regulation participated, and many more were on the waiting list.

The Health Impact Project, a collaboration of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and The Pew Charitable Trusts, sponsored the two-day meeting, along with The California Endowment, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the National Network of Public Health Institutes.

Keynote speaker Jonathan Fielding, the director of the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health who also chairs the U.S. Community Preventive Services Task Force, gave an overview of the fast-growing approach. “The first HIAs were done roughly 12 years ago in the United States,” he said. “There has been huge progress in this field.”

At the Health Impact Project, we are tracking this growth. Today, nearly 200 HIAs have been completed or are ongoing. In 2007, there were only 27 such studies on the books.

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Is mHealth Just Another Gimmick?

The use of cell phones by community health workers and other medical practitioners in low-income countries has been promoted as a potential revolution for health systems development. This “mHealth” revolution has been seen as an opportunity to develop diagnostic, treatment and surveillance networks wirelessly, to build mobile apps allowing remote nurses and doctors to provide higher-quality care to rural patients even in places without a hospital or well-functioning health clinic. Several foundations are now offering grants to build and distribute phone applications that will offer everything from prescription drug advice to epidemic surveillance tools. But is mHealth really going to improve health outcomes? Or is it just another technological bomb thrown at poverty and poor infrastructure?

The theory

Globally, about 3.1 billion people used mobile phones in 2007; that’s nearly half the planet. The greatest growth during the last decade has occurred in Asia, the Middle East, and Africa. In many of these continents, mobile phone subscribers outnumber fixed-line telephone subscribers, particularly as countries leap-frog over the traditional development step of planting land-lines and rely instead on building wireless communication towers and Internet-based businesses.

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Could Social Impact Bonds Help Restore Public Budgets?

Government budgets are tight during the recession, with cuts to public health budgets being announced on almost daily basis. What strategies are available to enhance revenues for public welfare programs–for the kinds of health and education expenses that won’t “pay for themselves”(at least in the short term), and therefore are often the first to get slashed in hard times? Raising tax rates among the wealthy, and introducing new taxes like a Robin Hood Tax, have been widely discussed. But some researchers have also studied entirely new revenue-generating strategies for social welfare programs that don’t rely on taxes—including a popular pay-for-performance scheme based on “social impact bonds” (SIBs).

How they work

A SIB is one of many “payment by results” plans. Just like other types of bonds (for instance, the municipal bonds we invest in to fund a local community college), SIBs involve private investors paying for a particular program that funds some social welfare operation. But SIBs are organized such that if the social welfare program is successful, there should be some net savings to the government and benefits to society.

For example, if a public health program prevents diabetes by successfully sustaining a weight loss intervention, the government should save money that would have otherwise been spent through Medicaid or Medicare on future hospitalizations caused by diabetes. As part of a SIB, the government agrees to pay a portion of these savings back to the investors who funded the weight loss program. And just like any investment, if the program fails, the investors lose money—theoretically attracting investors towards the most effective social welfare programs.Continue reading…

Using Twitter to Deliver Health Improvement Messages

I have decided to spam for public health.

Phone calls, text messaging, and even apps have been shown to help improve health and sustain behavior change, even in people suffering from profound mental illness. But when it comes to using these tools for public health, there are two problems. The first is that each message (whether via phone call or text) costs money. The second is that it’s quite hard to use those platforms for blasting messages to a whole population.

That’s how I ended up in what is probably a community of spammers. I registered at Black Hat World in order to get access to its forum on uploading bulk tweets, and didn’t realize what company I was keeping until I saw user names like popzzz and images of a neon green skull and crossbones and rolling lines of HTML.

I am now poised at the unique intersection of spamming and homelessness. Suffice it to say, there aren’t a lot of people stampeding to spam the homeless.

So how did I, a suburban soccer mom, former Shoney’s-waitress-turned-Harvard-trained-doc, end up in this precarious position?

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Is Nanotechnology the New GMO?

Food Navigator reports that UK experts are demanding public debate and regulation of nanomaterials in foods.  Without that, they warn, nanotechnology risks “facing the same fate as genetically modified (GM) foods in consumer perceptions.”

Nanotechnology is about manipulating materials on the scale of atoms or molecules, measured in nanometers (nm), one billionth, or 10−9, of a meter.

Many companies are already using nanomaterials in agriculture, food processing, food packaging, and supplements.  This is not something the public has heard much about.  Food companies often don’t know whether or not they are using these materials.

Nanotechnology science is new, and the industry is unregulated.

The FDA’s nanotechnology web page links to a quite thorough 2007 report from a task force,  but the agency’s only guidance to date tells companies how they can find out whether they are using nanomaterials.Continue reading…

Is the Foreclosure Crisis Making People Sick?

The housing crisis that precipitated our ongoing recession began with the foreclosure of 15% of US mortgages. There remains substantial disagreement, however, about whether and how public health departments should specifically address health problems experienced by the people who lost their homes in this crisis. While poor housing quality and homelessness have been statistically correlated to illness for many years, some argue that the correlation merely represents the influence of other factors that are common among people with housing insecurity: indebtedness and inability to pay for medical services, unemployment and associated insurance loss, food insecurity, mental illness, substance abuse, or family instability resulting in poor healthcare seeking or inadequate medical adherence.

As a result, it’s not obvious whether having health departments improve housing availability or quality will necessarily improve health conditions among the groups who face foreclosure. If better housing is really directly linked to better health outcomes, then health departments should expect a return on their investment in housing programs for this group. But if the statistical finding is merely secondary to other factors like indebtedness, then the money might be better spent elsewhere, for example in debt repayment programs, or in preventing the type of predatory banking practices that lead to the foreclosures. In this post, we try to answer the question: is the foreclosure crisis making people sick? And if so, what interventions have been shown to work, if any?

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Personal Liberties Versus Public Harm

David Ropeik, about whose excellent work on risk perception I have written before, recently offered some additional perspectives on the issue of vaccinations — making us think about the cost of personal liberties to public harm. He wrote this Op-Ed, entitled, “Public health: Not vaccinated? Not acceptable,” in theLos Angeles Times. The subheading is: “What should we do about people who decline vaccination for themselves or their children and put the public at risk by fueling the resurgence of nearly eradicated diseases?”

Here are some excerpts:

What does society do when one person’s behavior puts the greater community at risk? We make them stop. We pass laws, or impose economic rules or find some other way to discourage individual behaviors that threaten the greater common good. You don’t get to drive drunk. You don’t get to smoke in public places. You don’t even get to leave your house if you catch some particularly infectious disease.

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