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Kids shouldn’t be having kids

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By Stacy Beller Stryer, M.D.

Bristol Palin hasn’t said anything new or different than the other teen moms I have met. When asked, every teen mom I have spoken with has said that she loves her child but it has been very difficult and, if given another chance, she would never have had a baby as a teen. All would have waited until they were much older. Bristol Palin says 10 years older. When I worked on the Navajo reservation, I did a program at a local high school where I invited teen moms to come in and speak to the students. They spent quite a long time talking about how difficult it was to have a child and how their lives, as they knew it, were gone forever. These teen moms advised every student to wait as long as possible.

During her recent interview, Bristol commented on how she is no longer living for herself and how her new life is not “glamorous” at all. And, although her son is not even two months old yet, Bristol has decided that she wants to become a spokesperson for the prevention of teen pregnancy. This teen mom thinks that merely telling a teen to be abstinent is not realistic.

Although the teen birth rate had been decreasing steadily for over a decade, the most recent national data, compiled in 2005 and 2006, documented a 3% increase in teen births from 40.5 to 41.9 births per 1,000 girls ages 15 to 19. This increase was seen in almost every age and racial group. During a similar time period, teens surveyed in schools nationwide more frequently reported being sexually active and less frequently used contraception, when compared to the previous decade. Experts in the field have speculated as to why these numbers have begun to increase again. Possible reasons include societal changes, recent high profile teen pregnancies (such as Jamie Lynn Spears and, yes, Bristol Palin), positive display and lack of consequences when sex and teen pregnancy occur in the media, fewer educational programs available, and changing policies within the nation (such as teaching abstinence only as the only alternative).

Bristol is lucky because she has a lot of family support, both emotionally and financially. However, most teen moms don’t have much help, and they face extreme financial difficulties. Teens, who are used to following their own schedule and thinking mainly about themselves, must deal with being awakened multiple times a night and basically being at their baby’s beckon call. They can no longer shower when they want, sleep when they are tired, and eat on their own schedules. Teen moms must also deal with the increased risk of medical problems in themselves and their children. They are less likely to have adequate prenatal care, their babies are more likely to be born early, at a lower birth weight, and to die in the first year of life.

In terms of education, it becomes difficult for teen moms to even finish high school. Only 40% of teen moms graduate from high school, compared to 75% of those who don’t have kids.  Plus, teens are more likely to live in poverty, as greater than 75% of unmarried teen moms go on welfare within 5 years of having a baby.  Their children also suffer.  About 78% of them live in poverty, compared to 9% born to married, women over age 20 who have graduated from high school.  These children are also more likely to do poorly in school and drop out before graduating high school.

Unlike other high profile teen parents, Bristol is speaking out. She is telling teens to wait to have kids. And she is telling adults that teaching abstinence is not enough. We need to be discussing these topics at school AND at home. We need to know where our teens are when we’re not home. And they need to know about sexually transmitted diseases, teen pregnancy and contraception before they have a sexual relationship. They must be prepared.

Adults are contributing to Teens’ Stress

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By Stacy Beller Stryer, M.D.

I attended a school meeting last night – the second in two nights for my daughters, who are entering middle school and high school, respectively. My younger daughter will be entering a magnet school, while my older daughter, who is graduating in June from the same magnet school, will be starting an accelerated program within her local high school. Let me add that we live in one of the most rigorous, high-achieving counties in the United States. I am excited for both of them and, obviously, academics are stressed within our family. I want them to be excited by their studies and to push themselves to succeed.

Yet I worry about the stress that surrounds this type of environment – stress which is initiated by all – teachers, parents and the students themselves. The meeting last night included a panel of students in the accelerated high school program, each discussing various aspects of their academic and extracurricular lives. What struck me most were two things. First of all, by the time they graduate, these students will have taken an average of almost 10 AP (advanced placement) classes – classes where they can take a test to get college credit. Last year, two students had taken 13 AP classes in high school. The majority of the classes they took which were not AP were either honors classes or courses which were accelerated in some other way. The second thing that struck me was the sheer number of extracurricular activities some participated in on top of their academic schedule. When did they have time to eat or sleep? When I asked them how many hours they slept each night, the program director quickly brushed off my question and moved on to the next.

Stress in teens has become a great concern in society today, particularly for girls who not only want to succeed academically, but also in sports, social settings, and with regards to their physical appearance. These days many teens are not satisfied with just doing a good job, but they want to do the best job. So if somebody is taking 9 AP classes, they want to take 10. They don’t just want to be on the tennis team, but they want to be the captain of the team.

Stress takes its toll on teens. It increases irritability, anger, moodiness, feelings of hopelessness, inability to concentrate and sleep. It also increases physical complaints, such as stomachaches and headaches. Lack of sleep causes similar problems, plus decreased school and motor performance. It can also lead to school resentment, school burnout, and experimentation with alcohol or drugs to cope with the stress.

How do we stop this steep incline? We certainly want our children to succeed, and I am no different from the next parent. We are proud of our children when they have drive and ambition – and when they do well. After all, these are characteristics which are important and helpful in becoming successful adults. Yet, as adults, both parents and teachers need to know when to put on the brakes and slow our kids down. We need to find out how stressed our kids really feel, how much they actually sleep, and whether they are able to find time to relax for awhile each week. Perhaps we can encourage our children to take an elective rather than that 11th AP course, or to go out with their friends on a Saturday rather than spend the entire weekend studying. We don’t only want our kids to be successful, but we also want them to be happy. Don’t we?

When Fraud Isn’t Fraudulent: RAC And The Spanish Inquisition

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Dr. Rob Lamberts does an admirable job explaining why physicians are worried about the Recovery Audit Contractor (RAC) approach to identifying Medicare fraud. Complying with Medicare coding and billing rules is so difficult that physicians regularly resort to undercharging for their services, just to avoid the perception of fraudulent practices. Any medical practice that bills more than average is potentially subject to RAC audit, and the auditors themselves are paid a commission for finding “fraud.” In many cases, the “fraud” amounts to insufficient documentation of appropriate and necessary work performed by the physician.

Dr. Rob writes:

The complexity of E/M coding makes it almost 100% likely that any given physician will have billing not consistent with documentation.  Those who chronically undercoded (if they are still in business) are at less risk than those who coded properly.  Every patient encounter requires that physicians go through an incredibly complex set of requirements to be paid, and physicians like myself have improved our coding level through the use of an EMR.  This doesn’t necessarily imply we are over-documenting, it simply allows us to do the incredibly arduous task of complying with the rules necessary to be paid appropriately.

Have I ever willingly committed fraud?  No.

Am I confident that I have complied with the nightmarish paperwork necessary to appropriately bill all of my visits?  No way.

Am I scared?  You bet.  The RAC will find anything wrong with my coding that they can – they are paid more if they do.

Dr. James Hubbard writes:

It would be fine if they were truly looking for fraud and abuse, but they look for some technicality or just a different interpretation. Forget about any recourse. A few years ago, I was asked to pay Medicaid back $5000. I protested they were completely wrong with their interpretation of their findings. The auditors said I had to pay it, but could argue for a refund by sending forms and proof to the “review committee”. I did that and received a reply that the $5000 was too small for the review committee to take up. I stopped taking Medicaid.

Sounds like the Spanish Inquisition, doesn’t it?

***

For more excellent analysis of the subject, I strongly recommend Dr. Rich Fogoros’ recent book: Fixing American Healthcare.

The “Dark Horse” Of HHS: Place Your Bets

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Merrill Goozner has been speculating about who will be nominated as the new Secretary of HHS. He reviewed his most likely candidates (David Cutler or David Blumenthal), and threw in a “dark horse” potential nominee: Ken Thorpe (whom I’ve interviewed several times on this blog and spent time with during Obama’s inauguration ceremony).

Tommy Thompson told me that the nominee is likely to be a current or former democratic governor (such as Kathleen Sebelius or Howard Dean).

But I’ve been pondering the “long shot” question and think that Goozner may have missed a more obvious choice – someone who works with Ken Thorpe at the Partnership to Fight Chronic Disease: former Surgeon General Dr. Richard Carmona.

Here are the 10 reasons why Richard Carmona would be a smart choice for Secretary of HHS (in random order):

1.    He was confirmed by the senate as Surgeon General in 2002 and lived under their scrutiny during his term of service, meaning he has no hidden secrets, tax or nanny problems likely to embarrass Obama and could be confirmed rapidly – perhaps in under a week.
2.    He has forged extensive good relationships with both parties over the course of his tenure as Surgeon General and is known internationally.
3.    He has been the CEO of a large, public health system (including hospitals, Medicare and Medicaid clinics, nursing homes, and emergency medical systems in Arizona).
4.    He has been a paramedic, nurse, and physician and understands the healthcare system from the inside out.
5.    He has a track record of leadership in prevention, preparedness, health disparities, health literacy, global health and health diplomacy. He has worked on both sides of the aisle, including assisting Senator Kennedy with issues of disability and socio-economic determinants of health.
6.    He is Hispanic, which adds additional diversity to the Obama leadership team.
7.    He has experience managing local, state and federal health programs, including significant experience in immigration and border health issues.
8.    He demonstrated competency and leadership as manager of the US Public Health Service of over 6000 uniformed public health officers both nationally and internationally.
9.    He has extensive military experience, and is a combat-decorated Vietnam veteran. He maintains a strong relationship with military surgeons general and the department of defense.
10.    The fact that he is a political independent might actually provide a middle ground for parties with differing agendas in health reform.

Is point number 10 a deal breaker? It may be, but Obama could look farther and do much worse. And while the clock is ticking and credibility is paramount (as Maggie Mahar wrote, “Reform needs to be overseen by someone who is perceived as being above suspicion—purer than Caesar’s wife”) I think the Obama/Biden team needs to take a closer look at Dr. Carmona. He’s actually the most experienced, low risk candidate under discussion – and could truly hit the ground running at HHS. And wouldn’t it be nice to have a physician who is also a health policy expert with advanced managerial experience at the head of the healthcare reform table?

Parents need to know about vaccine safety

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By Stacy Beller Stryer, M.D.

After my blog last week discussing the recent increase in Haemophilus influenzae B (Hib) cases in Minnesota, I received a comment from “Indian Cowboy,” who is a blogger and fourth year medical student. While Indian Cowboy admits that he isn’t completely against vaccines, he does question their safety and says that, “if my (future) patients were to ask me specifically, scientifically, what the risks of vaccines are, I would be forced to shrug my shoulders and say I actually have no idea.” He suggests that pediatricians, in general, are not open and honest with their patients about any side-effects associated with vaccines. Furthermore, Indian Cowboy comments that he is a member of the “current generation of medical students,” where evidence-based medicine is important. Does this mean that we old-timers (yes, I am an ancient 45 years old), don’t practice medicine based on results of quality studies and proof of what actually works?

 

That is far from the truth. My colleagues and I practice medicine based on what has been proven to work and not just what we learned on a whim. We continue to read reputable journal articles and other medical literature, often discussing treatment changes based on new research. And I do not know any pediatrician who makes a blanket statement that vaccines are 100% safe. Personally, I spend a fair bit of time talking to parents who question vaccine safety. I tell them that anybody can have a reaction to a vaccine, just like anybody can react to an antibiotic, food, or something in the environment. I also discuss more common side effects of vaccines, such as fever, redness, and irritation at the injection site. In addition, I mention that there are very rare, more serious side effects associated with some vaccines, such as seizures and encephalitis. I am certainly not the only honest pediatrician in the United States. In fact, reputable organizations such as the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), which are major advocates for vaccines, clearly state on their website that no vaccine is 100% safe or effective.

 

Just as importantly, and an absolute necessity is discussing that the risk of becoming seriously ill or dying secondary to a vaccine is much lower than the risk of developing a serious illness or dying if a child becomes ill with one of the infections for which they could have been vaccinated. Parents must be aware of the benefits of receiving these vaccines. And they should know that vaccines are one of the greatest medical discoveries of the 20th century and have increased life expectancy and quality of life significantly.

 

Back to Indian Cowboy – he also comments that we really don’t know much about vaccine safety because studies only last days or, at most, a couple of weeks. This is also far from the truth. Before a vaccine is licensed, the Federal Drug Administration (FDA) requires testing. Once the vaccine is being used, the CDC and FDA look for any problems and investigate them through the Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System. It’s true that this system depends on pediatricians and parents to report side effects. This was recognized as a problem, so in 1986 a National Childhood Vaccine Injury Act was developed which, among other things, required experts to intensively review any possible adverse effects of vaccines. In 1990 the Vaccine Safety Datalink project was developed, where researchers gained access to the medical records of over 5.5 million people to evaluate for common and rare side effects associated with vaccines. All of these different safety methods have led to changes in vaccines to make them safer. In 2000, children began to receive the inactive polio instead of the live polio vaccine due to the rare risk of developing polio from the oral vaccine. More recently, the pertussis vaccine was changed from a whole cell to an acellular one because of the increased risk of rare neurological side effects.

 

I could continue, but the bottom line is that immunizations have been tested extensively for safety and continue to be monitored by reputable, quality organizations. There is an abundance of information available on safety for every vaccine. It is true that we cannot assure parents that their child will not develop a severe allergic reaction or a rare side effect to a vaccine. And we cannot say that we are 100% sure that vaccines do not affect the brain or the immune system, such as we cannot assure them that they will not get into an accident when they step into a car or that they will not be hit by a car when they cross a street. But we can reassure them that the chances of such an event are rare and that the benefit of receiving the vaccine far outweighs the risk of not receiving it.

 

I certainly hope that the one case of epiglottitis and pertussis that Indian Cowboy saw last year makes him realize not only how serious these infections can be in infants and children, but also that he only saw one case of each whereas, without immunizations, he would have seen many more and, most likely, a few deaths.

 

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