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Health Headlines - January 3

Posted Oct 23 2008 2:24pm
Early Results Mixed for New Medicare Drug Program

The new U.S. Medicare drug program that began Jan. 1 is yielding mixed results so far, The New York Times reported.

While Medicare beneficiaries who applied to the program early and received their identification cards have been able to get their prescriptions filled, others have had trouble taking advantage of the drug benefit. In some cases, pharmacists have had to spend hours on the telephone or a computer to confirm a beneficiary's enrollment and eligibility.

"We have had difficulty processing claims for Medicare drug benefits. We will get through it, but at the moment, it's an awful mess and very frustrating for our patients," Tony P. Welder, owner of the Dakota Pharmacy in Bismarck, N.D., told the Times.

He said some people are "in a panic" trying to cope with the new drug program.

"Perhaps we should give out cell phone numbers for members of Congress so that our patients can call them for help," Welder said.

But a pharmacist at a Wal-Mart store in Melbourne, Fla., said things were going fairly well with the new drug program.

"The only problem is that the Medicare computer system is inundated. So when we check eligibility, it sends back busy signals or says, 'Try again.' That interferes with care for the patient," Kas Ghayal told the Times.

The Medicare drug program eligibility database is maintained by a contractor called NDCHealth, the newspaper said.

"We experienced slow response times because of the heavy volume of calls early (Monday). Throughout the day, we've been making adjustments to deliver faster responses to pharmacists," company spokesman Robert P. Borchert told the Times.

Obesity Increases Risk of Kidney Disease and Failure

Being overweight or obese greatly increases the risk of kidney disease and failure, says a University of California, San Francisco study.

Compared to normal weight people, those who are overweight have nearly double the risk of kidney disease. The risk is seven-fold higher in morbidly obese people, the study said.

The findings appear in the journal Annals of Internal Medicine.

These higher rates of kidney disease may be due to hypertension and diabetes, which are linked to obesity, which also makes the kidneys work harder, study author Chi-yuan Hsu, assistant professor of medicine, told Bloomberg News.

This is the first study to show "convincingly" the link between weight and kidney disorders and adds to the growing list of health problems -- heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes -- related to obesity, Hsu said.

He and his colleagues analyzed data from more than 320,000 people in northern California. Among those people, there were about 1,471 cases of end-stage kidney disease over an average follow-up period of 26 years, Bloomberg News reported.

Hsu said the findings suggest that weight loss may be one step in treating early stage kidney disease.

Art Therapy Eases Cancer Patients' Anxieties: Research

Drawing, painting or doing pottery appears to help cancer patients feel less tired and anxious, according to new U.S. research.

A group of 50 cancer patients who underwent art therapy also reported less pain, depression, drowsiness, loss of appetite and breathlessness immediately after their sessions, the Telegram reported.

Dr Judith Paice, director of the Cancer Pain Program at Northwestern Memorial Hospital in Chicago and one of the study's authors, said: "Our study provides beginning evidence for the important role art therapy can play in reducing symptoms. It provides a distraction that allows patients to focus on something positive instead of their health.

The researchers, whose study is published in the American Journal of Pain and Symptom Management, used one-hour art therapy sessions to measure nine symptoms on a 0-10 scale -- pain, tiredness, nausea, depression, anxiety, drowsiness, lack of appetite, shortness of breath and overall well-being.

Participants could choose from activities that included pottery, collage, drawing, painting and making jewelry. Those who were unable to use their hands or were not comfortable using the art materials were able to direct an art therapist to do the work for them.

All the patients showed statistically significant improvements in eight out of the nine symptom categories: The level of tiredness across the group dropped from 4.4 out of 10 to 2.9. Anxiety levels fell from 3.1 to 1.8. Pain, depression, drowsiness, loss of appetite and breathlessness all dropped by between six and 10 per cent, while overall well-being went up from 2.7 out of 10 to 3.7.

Accutane Registry Created to Help Prevent Birth Defects

A long-awaited national registry has begun accepting the names of Americans who take the acne-fighting drug Accutane, part of a federal effort to limit its use by pregnant women because the medication has a high risk of birth defects.

Doctors, wholesalers and pharmacies had until Friday to register with the computerized "iPledge" registry if they want to continue prescribing or selling Accutane and any of the three generic versions of the drug, known as isotretinoin. Generic versions are sold as Amnesteem, Claravis or Sotret, the Associated Press reported.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has tried for more than 20 years to limit fetal exposure to the drug. The reason: If a woman uses Accutane during pregnancy -- or becomes pregnant within a month of taking the drug -- her baby runs a high risk of brain and heart defects or mental retardation, the AP said.

The drug is prescribed to about 100,000 Americans a month; patients typically take it for five to six months.

To receive the drug, Accutane users must now enroll by telephone at (866) 495-0654 or through the Internet at They also must sign a document that tells them of the drug's risks, which also includes the chance of depression or suicidal thoughts, the AP said.

And women of childbearing age must undergo two pregnancy tests before they can be prescribed the drug, along with a monthly follow-up test before each refill. They also must agree to use two different forms of birth control at the same time or not to have intercourse for one month before starting the drug, during treatment and for one month after treatment has ended, according to the news service.

Some Canned Tuna Could Be Checked by FDA

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration will investigate a newspaper report that some canned light tuna contains a species of the popular fish that has higher mercury levels, the Associated Press reported.

The review was prompted by a recent series in the Chicago Tribune that found that, instead of the skipjack tuna commonly used, the yellowfin variety was present in some cans of light tuna even though the labeling did not say so.

Yellowfin tuna is considered by many in the fishing industry to have mercury levels that match those of albacore tuna. The U.S. government has advised high-risk people, such as young children, pregnant women and women of childbearing age, not to eat albacore tuna in large amounts, the Tribune reported. High mercury levels may cause learning disabilities and developmental problems in children.

Food Fact:
Be skeptical of "superjuices."

So-called "enhanced" drinks may have less than meets the eye. The amount of ginseng in your water, ginkgo in your iced tea or echinacea in your juice is far below the recommended levels claimed to affect energy, memory, immunity or anything else. The problem for drinkmakers: Often, adding enough would affect taste.

Fitness Tip of the day:
Viva variety.

Stuck in an exercise rut? Just because you have a regimen, it doesn't have to be routine. The more different kinds of activity you do, the greater the odds you'll find a way to exercise and not get bored. Switching between exercises may also reduce the risk of injuries from repeated stress on the same parts of the body. And, variety means that regardless of changing seasons, locales, availability of exercise buddies, etc., you're more likely always to find a way to keep exercising.

FAQ of the day:
Do children need whole milk?

Children only need whole milk until age 2. Up to that age, infants and toddlers need more fat, from a variety of sources, than the rest of us. One reason is that their brains are rapidly developing, and brains are made up mostly from fat. Let your infants and toddlers enjoy their whole milk, whole yogurt and other high-fat dairy foods, as well as plenty of other "good" fats in tofu, fish, nuts and seeds, for example, up to age 2. After that, gradually switch to dairy foods that reduce saturated fat.
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