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Shingles Recurrence: Can The Vaccine Help?

This month’s Harvard Health Letter has an article about getting shingles a second or even a third time. (Click here to read the full article.) The bottom line is that recurrence is a) certainly possible and b) if some recent research is correct, much more common than previously thought and about as likely as getting shingles in the first place if you’re age 60 or older.

I talked to Barbara Yawn, M.D., director of research at the Olmsted Medical Center in Rochester, Minn., for the article and mentioned results that she and her colleagues first presented at a conference several years ago.

Yawn reported a more complete version of those results in last month’s issue of the Mayo Clinic Proceedings (a favorite journal of mine). Full text of the study isn’t available unless you have a subscription to the journal, but here’s a summary (in medical publishing, such summaries are called abstracts.)

Melinda Beck, a health columnist for the Wall Street Journal,  had a column about shingles last week and this how she neatly summed up Yawn’s research:

For the new study on shingles recurrence, researchers at the Olmsted Medical Center in Rochester, Minn., examined medical records of nearly 1,700 patients who had a documented case of shingles between 1996 and 2001. They found that more than 5% of them were treated for a second episode within an average of eight years—about the same rate as would typically experience a first case.

And here is a link to the Journal Watch item of the study and a short comment by the Journal Watch editor. Journal Watch is a monthly newsletter published by the Massachusetts Medical Society that summarizes and comments on recently published research.

In the Mayo Clinic Proceedings paper, Yawn and her colleagues report that 95 of the 1,669 people with an “index” case of shingles got shingles again over the course of a follow-up period that averaged 7.3 years, which works out to about 5.6 percent of the shingles sufferers. Six people had two recurrences and two had three! The timing of recurrence varied from 96 days to 10 years after the initial episode. In 45 percent of those who got shingles again, the site of the recurrence was in a different region of the body than the site of the first case. They also noted that the single biggest risk factor for having a second case of shingles was having pain that lasted 30 days or longer during the first case. Read more »

*This blog post was originally published at Harvard Health Blog*

What “The King’s Speech” Teaches Us About Stuttering

The film “The King’s Speech” won the Academy Award for Best Picture [on Sunday night.] The movie has come in for some criticism for its depiction of the political machinations surrounding the abdication of Edward VIII  and Britain’s appeasement of Hitler. The British-born writer Christopher Hitchens, unsparing and deliciously eloquent as always, puts the politics of  George VI in a far less favorable light than the movie does.      

But ”The King’s Speech” has won almost universal praise for its portrayal of the reluctant monarch’s stuttering, a speech pattern that includes involuntary repetition of sounds and syllables and “speech blocks” that cause prolonged pauses. Many young  children who stutter grow out of the problem, but perhaps as many as one in every 100 adults are affected by the condition, 80 percent of whom are men. Stuttering clusters in families, so researchers have been searching for inherited genes that might cause the condition. Last year, in The New England Journal of Medicine, NIH researchers reported some success with results showing an association between three mutated genes and stuttering, although those mutations are probably responsible for a very small minority of cases. 

It’s been said that ”The King’s Speech” will do for stuttering what “Rain Man” did for autism: Plant a sympathetic view of a disability in the public consciousness. One danger of such a quick infusion of awareness, however, is that it can harden into a fixed, if largely favorable, stereotype. We are finding out — or are being reminded — about all the famous people who have stuttered (many of them writers). First-person accounts are popping up all over the place because of the film. The best I’ve come across is by Philip French, a British film critic, who describes vividly what it was like to listen to the radio broadcasts of the real King George VI, wondering if he would make it to the end “like a drunken waiter crossing a polished floor bearing a tray laden with wine glasses.” Read more »

*This blog post was originally published at Harvard Health Blog*

Top 10 Health Stories Of 2010

1. Health care reform

How could the health care reform legislation that President Barack Obama signed into law on March 23, 2010, not be the #1 story of the year?  Whether you are for or against it, the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act is nothing if not ambitious, and if implemented, it will fundamentally alter how American health care is financed and perhaps delivered.  The law is designed to patch holes in the health insurance system and extend coverage to 32 million Americans by 2019 while also reining in health care spending, which now accounts for more than 17% of the country’s gross domestic product. The biggest changes aren’t scheduled to occur until 2014, when most people will be required to have health insurance or pay a penalty (the so-called individual mandate) and when state-level health insurance exchanges should be in place. The Medicaid program is also scheduled to be expanded that year so that it covers more people, and subsidized insurance will be available through the exchanges for people in lower- and middle-income brackets. But plenty is happening before 2014. The 1,000-page law contains hundreds of provisions, and they’re being rolled out in phases. This year, for example, the  law created  high-risk pools for people with pre-existing conditions,  required health plans to extend coverage to adult children up to age 26, and imposed a 10% tax on indoor tanning salons. Next year, about 20 different provisions are scheduled to take effect, including the elimination of copayments for many preventive services for Medicare enrollees, the imposition of limits on non-medical spending  by health plans, and the creation of a voluntary insurance that will help pay for home health care and other long-term care services received outside a nursing home. Getting a handle on the complicated law is difficult. If you’re looking for a short course, the Kaiser Family Foundation has created an excellent timeline of the law’s implementation (we depended on it for this post) and a short (nine minutes) animated video that’s one of the best (and most amusing) overviews available. The big question now is whether the sweeping health care law can survive various legal and political challenges. In December, a federal judge in Virginia ruled that the individual mandate was unconstitutional. Meanwhile, congressional Republicans have vowed to thwart the legislation, and if the party were to win the White House and control of the Senate in the 2012 election, Republicans would be in a position to follow through on their threats to repeal it.   

2. Smartphones, medical apps, and remote monitoring 

Smartphones and tablet computers are making it easier to get  health care information, advice, and reminders on an anywhere-and-anytime basis. Hundreds of health and medical apps for smartphones like the iPhone  became available this year. Some are just for fun. Others provide useful information (calorie counters, first aid and CPR instructions) or perform calculations. Even the federal government is getting into the act: the app store it opened this summer has several free health-related apps, including one called My Dietary Supplements for keeping track of vitamins and supplements and another one from the Environmental Protection Agency that allows you to check the UV index and air quality wherever you are. Smartphones are also being used with at-home monitoring devices; for example, glucose meters have been developed that send blood sugar readings wirelessly to an app on a smartphone. The number of doctors using apps and mobile devices is increasing, a trend that is likely to accelerate as electronic health records become more common. Check out  iMedicalapps if you want to see the apps your doctor might be using or talking about. It has  become a popular Web site for commentary and critiques of medical apps for doctors and medical students. Meanwhile, the FDA is wrestling with the issue of how tightly it should regulate medical apps. Some adverse events resulting from programming errors have been reported to the agency.  Medical apps are part of  a larger “e-health” trend toward delivering health care reminders and advice remotely with the help of computers and phones of all types. These phone services are being used in combination with increasingly sophisticated at-home monitoring devices. Research results have been mixed. Simple, low-cost text messages have been shown to be effective in getting people wear sunscreen. But one study published this year found that regular telephone contact and at-home monitoring of heart failure patients had no effect on hospitalizations of death from any cause over a six-month period. Another study found that remote monitoring did lower hospital readmission rates among heart failure patients, although the difference between remote monitoring and regular care didn’t reach statistical significance. Read more »

*This blog post was originally published at Harvard Health Blog*

Echinacea For Colds: Does It Really Work?

Does echinacea, the popular natural cold remedy, really work?

It depends on what you mean by “work.” Results [recently] reported in the Annals of Internal Medicine found that echinacea may reduce the length of a week-long cold by 7 to 10 hours and make symptoms a little less onerous. That can’t be characterized as a major effect, so many people may figure that the trouble and expense of echinacea just isn’t worth it (fortunately, side effects from echinacea don’t seem to be much of an issue.)

But others may decide that some benefit is better than none, and these results do fit with others that have left the door slightly ajar for echinacea having some effect as a cold remedy — a modest effect, but an effect, nonetheless.

A summary for patients published by the Annals summed up the situation nicely:

People who take echinacea to treat colds may experience a decrease in the length and severity of their cold symptoms but to such a small degree that they may not care about the difference. Although many studies of echinacea have been performed, researchers still disagree about its benefits in treating the common cold. This study is unlikely to change minds about whether to take this remedy.

Have you tried echinacea as a cold remedy? Has it worked? How do research findings, pro and con, affect your opinion of so-called alternative medicines?

Many of the echinacea studies, especially early on, were sponsored by companies making or selling the product. This study was supported by a grant from the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, which is part of the National Institutes of Health.

- Peter Wehrwein, Editor, Harvard Health Letter

*This blog post was originally published at Harvard Health Blog*

Painkiller Safety

Perhaps as many as one in every five American adults will get a prescription for a painkiller this year, and many more will buy over-the-counter medicines without a prescription. These drugs can do wonders — getting rid of pain can seem like a miracle — but sometimes there’s a high price to be paid.

Remember the heavily marketed COX-2 inhibitors? Rofecoxib, sold as Vioxx, and valdecoxib, sold as Bextra, were taken off the market in 2004 and 2005, respectively, after studies linked them to an increased risk of heart attack and stroke.

The nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), like aspirin, ibuprofen (sold as Advil and Motrin), and naproxen (sold as Aleve) seem like safe bets. But taken over long periods, they have potentially dangerous gastrointestinal side effects, including ulcers and bleeding. Kidney and liver damage are possible, too. More recently, some of the NSAIDs have been linked to an increased risk of cardiovascular disease. Low doses of aspirin (usually defined as 81 mg) is an exception and is often prescribed to lower the risk of heart and stroke.

Even acetaminophen, which is often viewed as the safest pain drug and a low-risk alternative to the NSAIDs because it doesn’t have their gastrointestinal side effects, comes with a caution about high doses possibly causing liver failure. Read more »

*This blog post was originally published at Harvard Health Blog*

Latest Interviews

IDEA Labs: Medical Students Take The Lead In Healthcare Innovation

It’s no secret that doctors are disappointed with the way that the U.S. healthcare system is evolving. Most feel helpless about improving their work conditions or solving technical problems in patient care. Fortunately one young medical student was undeterred by the mountain of disappointment carried by his senior clinician mentors…

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How To Be A Successful Patient: Young Doctors Offer Some Advice

I am proud to be a part of the American Resident Project an initiative that promotes the writing of medical students residents and new physicians as they explore ideas for transforming American health care delivery. I recently had the opportunity to interview three of the writing fellows about how to…

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Latest Book Reviews

Book Review: Is Empathy Learned By Faking It Till It’s Real?

I m often asked to do book reviews on my blog and I rarely agree to them. This is because it takes me a long time to read a book and then if I don t enjoy it I figure the author would rather me remain silent than publish my…

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The Spirit Of The Place: Samuel Shem’s New Book May Depress You

When I was in medical school I read Samuel Shem s House Of God as a right of passage. At the time I found it to be a cynical yet eerily accurate portrayal of the underbelly of academic medicine. I gained comfort from its gallows humor and it made me…

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Eat To Save Your Life: Another Half-True Diet Book

I am hesitant to review diet books because they are so often a tangled mess of fact and fiction. Teasing out their truth from falsehood is about as exhausting as delousing a long-haired elementary school student. However after being approached by the authors’ PR agency with the promise of a…

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