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Chronic Disease, Health Costs, Health Policy, Nutrition, Obesity, Stanford News

Study shows banning soda purchases using food stamps would reduce obesity and type-2 diabetes

Study shows banning soda purchases using food stamps would reduce obesity and type-2 diabetes

soda

In the late 1800s and early 1900s, carbonated beverages such as Coca-Cola, Dr Pepper and 7UP were sold as nerve tonics and health drinks. But, we now know that sugary sodas contribute to obesity, type-2 diabetes and cavities. Still, most Americans drink more soda than they like to admit.

Even though sugar-laden soft drinks have no nutritional value, they are still eligible for food stamps. Nutrition researchers and some politicians have advocated for a ban on buying sugar-sweetened drinks with food stamps but the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which runs the program, is under tremendous pressure from beverage company lobbyists to keep the existing regulations.

Sugary drinks are especially concerning because too many liquid calories put consumers at a higher risk of developing type-2 diabetes. Some nutrition experts are concerned that taxpayers are subsidizing an unhealthy diet, which will result in higher medical costs for Medicare and Medicaid down the road, when food stamp recipients experience the health problems associated with obesity and diabetes.

In a new study (subscription required) published in this month’s Health Affairs, Sanjay Basu, MD, PhD, an assistant professor of medicine at the Stanford Prevention Research Center, and his colleagues created a computer model to simulate the effects of a soda ban on the health of food stamp recipients. They found that obesity would drop by 1.12 percent for adults, and by 0.41 percent for children, affecting about 281,000 adults and 141,000 children. Type-2 diabetes would also drop by 2.3 percent.

The researchers also calculated the effects of reimbursing participants 30-cents for each dollar spent on fruits and vegetables. The subsidy did not affect obesity or diabetes rates, but doubled the number of people who ate the recommended number of fruits and vegetables each day. A county in Massachusetts tried the same reimbursement system as part of the USDA’s Healthy Incentives pilot study, and saw a similar increase in the fruit and vegetable purchases of food stamp recipients.

“It’s really hard to get people to eat their broccoli,” said Basu in a press release. “You have to make it really cheap, and even then, sometimes people don’t know what to do with it.” But, with one in seven Americans receiving food stamps, he points out that these small changes can have wide-ranging effects.

“It’s very rare that we can reach that many people with one policy change and just one program.”

Patricia Waldron is a science writing intern in the medical school’s Office of Communication & Public Affairs.

Previously: Food stamps and sodas: Stanford pediatrician weighs inCan food stamps help lighten America’s obesity epidemic? and Stanford’s Sanjay Basu named a Top Global Thinker of 2013
Photo by Andy Schultz

Aging, Health Policy, Medicine and Society, Podcasts, Research, Stanford News

More on doctors and end-of-life directives

More on doctors and end-of-life directives

Earlier this week, my colleague wrote about a study showing that the majority of doctors surveyed said they would forgo aggressive end-of-life care for themselves. Now, in the latest 1:2:1 podcast, researcher VJ Periyakoil, MD, director of palliative care education and training at the medical school, talks in depth about the study and why doctors appear to want one thing for themselves at the end of life and quite another for their patients.

Previously: Study: Doctors would choose less aggressive end-of-life care for themselves

Aging, Health Policy, In the News, Public Health, Research, Stanford News

Study: Doctors would choose less aggressive end-of-life care for themselves

Study: Doctors would choose less aggressive end-of-life care for themselves

DNR bindersWhy do physicians continue to provide high-intensity care for terminally ill patients but choose to forgo such care for themselves at the end of life? That’s the question raised by a new Stanford study published in PLOS ONE today.

An overwhelming percentage of doctors surveyed for the study in 2013 – 88.3 percent to be exact – said they would choose “no-code” or do-not-resuscitate orders for themselves. And though other studies have shown that most other Americans would choose to die gently and naturally at home, that’s not what’s happening. As I describe in a release:

“A big disparity exists between what Americans say they want at the end of life and the care they actually received,” the study says. “More than 80 percent of patients say that they wish to avoid hospitalizations and high-intensity care at the end of life, but their wishes are often overridden.”

In fact, the type of treatments they receive depends not on the patients’ care preferences or on their advance directives, but rather on the local health-care system variables, such as institutional capacity and individual doctors’ practice style, according to the study.

The study involved two sets of subjects – 1081 physicians in 2013 and 790 physicians in 1989 – which both completed the same 14-question survey on their attitudes concerning advanced directives. Stanford researchers hypothesized that attitudes would have changed in the 24-years since the passage of the Self-Determination Act in 1990, a law designed to give patients more control over end-of-life care decisions and requires health care organizations to inform patients that they have the option to fill out such directives.

Surprisingly, despite the law, physicians attitudes have not changed, said VJ Periyakoil, MD, an expert in palliative care and lead author of the study. More from the release:

As a geriatrics and palliative care physician who sits at the bedside of sick patients herself, Periyakoil said she understands the disconnect between the type of care doctors want for themselves at the end of life and what they actually do for their patients. It’s not because doctors are trying to make more money or because they are intentionally insensitive to their patients’ desires. At the core of the problem is a biomedical system that rewards doctors for taking action, not for talking with their patients.

“Our current default is ‘doing,’ but in any serious illness there comes a tipping point where the high-intensity treatment becomes more of a burden than the disease itself,” said Periyakoil, who trains physicians in palliative medicine. “It’s tricky, but physicians don’t have to figure it out by themselves. They can talk to the patients and their families and to the other interdisciplinary team members, and it becomes much easier.

“But we don’t train doctors to talk or reward them for talking. We train them to do and reward them for doing. The system needs to be changed.”

A touching first-person essay on this topic by Ken Murray, MD, a retired family practitioner has been popping up recently on various blogs and other internet sites. It describes how doctors don’t want to experience the kind of suffering that they see their patients go through. In the piece, titled “How doctors die: It’s not like the rest of us, but it should be,” the author mentions that he has even seen one medical professional with a “Do not Resuscitate” tattoo.

Previously: Communicating with terminally ill patients: a physician’s perspective, Asking the hardest questions: Talking with doctors while terminally ill, On a mission to transform end-of-life care, The importance of patient/doctor end-of-life discussions and A Stanford nurse shares her experience in talking to her aging mother about end-of-life decisions
Photo by Frank DiBona

Aging, Health and Fitness, Health Policy, Public Health, Stanford News

Moderate exercise program for older adults reduces mobility disability, study shows

Moderate exercise program for older adults reduces mobility disability, study shows

senior_dog_walk

A 20-minute walk each day could help older adults stay on their feet and out of wheelchairs longer, according to a multicenter study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association today and coordinated by the University of Florida.

Researchers showed that a daily program of moderate physical activity reduced the risk of mobility disability in older adults by 18 percent compared to those who did not exercise. They also found a 28-percent reduction in the permanent loss of the ability to walk unaided.

Mobility, defined in this study as the ability to walk without assistance for at least 400 meters or about a quarter mile, is critical for aging seniors to function independently. Loss of mobility can lead to higher hospitalization and institutionalization costs, and even early death.

“These results suggest the potential for structured physical activity as a feasible and effective intervention to reduce the burden of disability among vulnerable older persons, in spite of some functional decline in late life,” wrote the researchers.

“While people are aware of the benefits of physical activity, this study is the largest and longest duration randomized trial evaluating the effects of physical activity on mobility disability in older adults. It will provide the hard evidence needed to change health policy,” said Abby King, PhD, the lead investigator for the Stanford field center and a professor of health research and policy and of medicine.

For this study, 1,635 sedentary men and women, age 70 to 89, were recruited by eight field centers across the United States and followed for an average of 2.6 years. All participants were able to walk a quarter mile within 15 minutes but were at risk for losing that ability.

“These are the patients who physicians see every day. This is why this study is so important: It includes a population that is typically understudied,” said principal investigator Marco Pahor, MD, director of the University of Florida’s Institute on Aging.

During the study, participants were randomly assigned to one of two groups. The first group walked 150 minutes per week and did strength, flexibility and balance training. They were encouraged to stay on track with the program through weekly participation in two in-person exercise classes and several home-based physical activity sessions. The second group attended health education classes, including low-intensity stretching exercises.

King said one of the most important takeaways from the study was this: “It’s never too late to gain important benefits from increased physical activity.”

Study results are summarized in this JAMA Report video.

Previously: AAMC’s Health Equity Research Snapshot features Stanford project on virtual health advisers, Help from a virtual friend goes a long way in boosting older adults’ physical activity, Computer-generated phone calls shown to help inactive adults get – and keep – moving
Photo by hartcreations/iStock

Health Policy, Pediatrics, Research, Stanford News

Less burnout, better safety culture in hospitals with hands-on executives, new study shows

Less burnout, better safety culture in hospitals with hands-on executives, new study shows

walkroundsA specific method for fostering interaction between hospital executives and front-line health-care workers can reduce burnout and improve a hospital’s safety culture, new research from Stanford and other institutions has found.

“Caregiver burnout is a huge problem for health care,” said Stanford’s Jochen Profit, MD, in a conversation with me about the new study, which he led. Profit is also a neonatologist at Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital Stanford. “Across the industry, a third to half of our staff are burned out. How do you maintain quality and safety in that environment?”

The method that Profit’s team evaluated holds an answer. Called executive walk-rounds, it consists of regular, safety-focused visits by hospital executives to the units where patients receive care. The study, published last week in BMJ Quality & Safety, evaluated the effects of walk-rounds on the staff of neonatal intensive care units, the nurseries that care for the sickest newborns. Walk-rounds provide doctors, nurses and other caregivers with an opportunity to point out safety problems, and, ideally, also give executives a chance to tell staff about resolutions used for the problems they’ve raised.

The study surveyed worker engagement and safety culture in 44 NICUs during a quality improvement project led by the California Perinatal Quality Care Collaborative. The surveys asked workers if walk-rounds were used at their institution and whether they had participated in the process. They also asked about caregivers’ levels of burnout, the hospital’s overall culture of safety and about feedback returned from hospital leadership to front-line caregivers to follow up on suggestions made during walk-rounds.

“Walk-rounds are a way for organizations to make sure they make the lines of communication open,” Profit said. “It can help show that they care for the people in the trenches.” Walk-rounds might help clear up confusion about the hospital’s chain of command or resolve difficulties with getting equipment or supplies in a timely fashion, to name a few anecdotal examples from the study.

Follow-up was the key to successful walk-rounds, the study showed. About 30 percent of the hospitals surveyed used walk-rounds, and these differed in the extent to which staff said they received feedback on how the safety suggestions they identified were resolved. Staff at hospitals with the highest levels of follow-up said they had lower rates of burnout, better communication about errors, and better teamwork and safety climates.

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Health Policy, Infectious Disease, Microbiology, Public Health, Stanford News

Microbial mushroom cloud: How real is the threat of bioterrorism? (Very)

Microbial mushroom cloud: How real is the threat of bioterrorism? (Very)

Dr. Milana Trounce, M.D. teaches a class on the the risks of bioterror at the Stanford School of Medicine. Photo taken on Monday, April 21, 2014. ( Norbert von der Groeben/ Stanford School of Medicine )

“What if nuclear bombs could reproduce? Get your hands on one today, and in a week’s time you’ve got a few dozen.”

That’s the lead sentence of a feature article I just wrote for Inside Stanford Medicine. The answer is, bombs can’t reproduce. But something just as potentially deadly – and a whole lot easier to come by – can, and does.

What I learned in the course of writing the feature, titled “How contagious pathogens could lead to nuke-level casualties” (I encourage you to take a whack at it), was bracing. Stanford surgeon Milana Trounce, MD, who specializes in emergency medicine, has been teaching a course that pulls together students, faculty and outside experts from government, industry and academia. Her goal is to raise awareness and inspire collaborations on the thorny multidisciplinary problems posed by the very real prospect that somebody, somewhere, could very easily be producing enough killer germs to wipe out huge numbers of people – numbers every bit as large as those we’ve come to fear in the event of a nuclear attack.

Among those I quote in the article are infectious-disease expert David Relman, MD, and biologist/applied physicist Steven Block, PhD, both of whom have sat in on enough closed-door meetings to know that bioterrorism is something we need to take seriously.

Not only do nukes not reproduce. They don’t leap from stranger to stranger, or lurk motionless in midair or on fingertips. Nor can they be fished from soil and streams or cheaply conjured up in a clandestine lab in someone’s basement or backyard.  One teaspoon of the toxin produced by the naturally occurring bacterial pathogen Clostridium botulinum is enough to kill several hundreds of thousands of people. That’s particularly scary when you consider that this toxin – better known by the nickname “Botox” -  is already produced commercially for sale to physicians who inject it into their patients’ eyebrows.

As retired Rear Adm. Ken Bernard, MD, a former special assistant on biosecurity matters to Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush and a guest speaker for Trounce’s Stanford course, put it: “Who can be sure there’s no off-site, illegal production? Suppose a stranger were to say, ‘I want 5 grams — here’s $500,000’?

That’s five grams, as in one teaspoon. As I just mentioned, we’re talking hundreds of thousands of people killed, if this spoonful were to, say, find its way into just the right point in the milk supply chain (the point where loads of milk from numerous scattered farms get stored in huge holding tanks before being parsed out to myriad delivery trucks). That’s pretty stiff competition for a hydrogen bomb. For striking terror into our hearts, the only thing bioweapons lack is branding – nothing tops that mushroom-cloud logo.

Previously: Stanford bioterrorism experts comments on new review of anthrax case and Show explores scientific questions surrounding 2001 anthrax attacks
Photo of Milana Trounce by Norbert von der Groeben

Addiction, Health Policy, In the News

Increasing access to an anti-overdose drug

In the past decade, the U.S. has experienced a surge of fatal opioid overdoses, driven partly by increased heroin use but mostly by the greatly expanded availability of prescription medications (e.g. Oxycontin). One important tool in combating this epidemic is naloxone, a drug that rapidly reverses the respiration-suppressing effects of opioids.  Expanding its use has been a goal of President Obama’s drug policy from the first days of the administration, and an increasing number of community members, health and social care workers and police have been trained how to administer it.  Some New York police officers give a powerful account of their experiences with the rescue drug in the video above.

However, with the increased demand for naloxone has come an increase in its price. It’s an off-patient medication, so in absolute terms costs are low (up to $40 for the nasal administered naloxone kits that police tend to carry and much less for the injected version distributed by many non-profit service organizations). But even low costs can be a barrier particularly if a drug is provided to cover an entire population (most of whom will never need it) rather than employed to treat an identified individual in need.

That’s why it’s encouraging that The Clinton Foundation has announced that it will attempt to lower the cost and increase the accessibility of naloxone, presumably using the same strategies that were employed successfully to achieve the same goals with HIV-related medications. Another potentially important effort, under consideration in the California legislature, is to allow naloxone to be distributed by pharmacists rather than requiring an individual prescription for everyone to whom it is provided.  Although the impact of this policy on public health can’t be known in advance, naloxone does not appear to have serious or common side-effects to weigh against it potentially life-saving benefits, which makes it more reasonable to have it be available over the counter.

Addiction expert Keith Humphreys, PhD, is a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Stanford and a career research scientist at the Palo Alto VA. He recently completed a one-year stint as a senior advisor in the Office of National Drug Control Policy in Washington. He can be followed on Twitter at @KeithNHumphreys.

Previously: How police officers are tackling drug overdose, Do opium and opioids increase mortality risk? and Prescription drug addiction: How the epidemic is shaking up the policy world

Global Health, Health Policy, Public Safety, Women's Health

Lobbying Congress on bill to stop violence against women

Lobbying Congress on bill to stop violence against women

capitol - smallWhen I walked into the U.S. Capitol building this week, it was with the weight of history – my own and my country’s. Years ago, I had walked these hallowed halls as a writer for a Congressional publication and had lived in a house just blocks away. But this time I was there for a very different purpose: I was going to try my hand at lobbying, plying Congress for a cause that had become dear to my heart.

I came to Washington, D.C. with nearly 150 volunteers and staff from the American Jewish World Service, an international development organization that promotes human rights and works to end poverty in the developing world. This year, one of the group’s legislative priorities is passage of the International Violence Against Women Act, now pending in Congress. In February, I had traveled to Uganda as a Global Justice Fellow with AJWS, learning first-hand why this bill is so crucial to the lives of women around the world. I met a gay woman whose life had become hell because of her gender identity; she’d been beaten, raped and robbed and was suffering the emotional trauma of being ostracized by family and community. I also met sex workers, many of them single mothers just trying to make a living, who had been subjected to unprovoked beatings and police brutality. And I met a transgender woman whose home had been burned to the ground and who had been terrorized by her community simply because of who she was. In fact, I would learn that one in three women around the world are beaten, abused or raped at some point in their lifetime – an appalling figure.

The bill would help combat this trend by using the full force of U.S. diplomacy, as well as existing U.S. foreign aid funding, to support legal, social, educational, economic and health initiatives to prevent violence, support victims and change attitudes about women and girls in society. When women become victims of violence, everyone suffers; gender-based violence can reduce a nation’s GDP by as much as 3 percent because women are so key to collective productivity.

“If you want to get a barometer on how a country will fare – its stability – just look at the way it treats its women,” Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Maryland) told our group as we prepared to head out to visit Members of Congress. “Women invest in children and family. Men invest in war.”

With the recent kidnapping of more than 250 Nigerian school girls, the need for the legislation has become all the more pressing. “This is the moment to strike,” Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) said during a meeting with 20 members of our group. We met with Boxer in the sumptuous President’s Room in the U.S. Capitol, adorned with gilt, frescoes and historical portraits and the spot where Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King once stood. Boxer had just come from a vote on several new judges and was gracious enough to stop by to spend 20 minutes listening to our pitch and discussing strategy.

A strong women’s rights activist, she has been an ardent supporter of the bill from the start. With 300 nonprofit groups now clamoring for its passage, she said she felt it was time to introduce it into the Senate, which she did a week ago. It’s now critical, she said, to enlist additional Republican co-sponsors of the legislation, particularly among members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, to give it greater weight and bipartisan appeal. In the House, the bill already has 63 Democratic and 11 Republican co-sponsors, with more being sought.

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Chronic Disease, Health Costs, Health Policy, Research, Stanford News

Keeping kidney failure patients out of the hospital

Keeping kidney failure patients out of the hospital

Keeping kidney patients healthy enough to stay out of the hospital certainly sounds like a good thing – both for the patients and the economy. Now there’s scientific evidence to show how this can be done.

Reducing hospital readmissions was a focus of the the Affordable Care Act, and Kevin Erickson, MD, an instructor in nephrology at Stanford, decided to study a group of patients who are often hospitalized. He and his colleagues examined whether an additional doctor’s visit in the month after hospital discharge would help keep kidney-failure patients on dialysis from being readmitted. He and his colleagues analyzed data collected between 2004-2009 by the United States Renal Data System, a national registry of nearly all end-stage renal disease patients in the country.

It’s nice to find something that may generate both cost savings and better health outcomes

Results showed that there was a significant reduction in hospital readmissions with that extra doctor’s visit in the month after hospital discharge. And while the percentage doesn’t sound all that significant – 3.5 percent -  in real numbers that translates to 31,370 fewer hospitalizations and $240 million per year saved, according to the study published this month in the Journal of the American Society of Nephrology.

“It’s nice to find something that may generate both cost savings and better health outcomes,” Erickson told me. “Patients with end-stage renal disease suffer from poor quality of life. Some of that I suspect is related to multiple trips in and out of the hospital.”

Patients with kidney failure are at a particularly high risk of hospital readmission: In 2009 patients getting dialysis were admitted to the hospital nearly two times per year, 36 percent of whom were rehospitalized within 30 days, according to the study.

Previously: Study shows higher Medicaid coverage leads to lower kidney failure rates; Study shows higher rates of untreated kidney failure among older adults; Study shows daily dialysis may boost patients’ heart function, physical health.

Chronic Disease, Health Policy, Nutrition, Obesity, Pediatrics, Videos

Fed Up: A documentary looks for answers about childhood obesity

Fed Up: A documentary looks for answers about childhood obesity

I can’t wait to see Fed Up, a new documentary about childhood obesity.

In the early 2000s, when I was earning a PhD in nutrition at UC Davis, I heard a lot of scientific debate about possible causes of the U.S. obesity epidemic. Was it too much fat in our diets? Too much sugar? Processed food? Junk food ads on TV? An “obesogenic environment” – one in which snacks are ubiquitous, adults drive everywhere and neighborhoods aren’t safe enough for kids to play outside?

Or was it something else?

“The message has been pushed on us: It’s your fault you’re fat,” says Mark Hyman, MD, chair of the Institute for Functional Medicine, in the Fed Up trailer above.

The movie assembles an impressive roster of experts in nutrition research, pediatric health and public advocacy to oppose that message. Michael Pollan, Mark Bittman, Robert Lustig, Marion Nestle, Harvey Karp, former President Bill Clinton and others say we should not be blaming individuals – especially kids – for struggles with their weight. Instead, they are taking a hard look for answers at the food environment.

“This is the first generation of American children expected to lead shorter lives than their parents,” says a voice-over in the Fed Up trailer. That definitely makes untangling the causes of the obesity epidemic worthy of the efforts of our best scientists. Like I said, I can’t wait to see it.

Previously: Childhood obesity a risk for imminent heart problems, research shows, Using hip hop to teach children about healthy habits and Sugar intake, diabetes and kids: Q&A with a pediatric obesity expert
Via Food Politics

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