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Humor, Media, Medicine and Society, Neuroscience, Research, Stanford News

Did extraterrestrials chew up my news release, or does artificial intelligence still have a ways to go?

Did extraterrestrials chew up my news release, or does artificial intelligence still have a ways to go?

UFO

Almost two years ago, in a Scope blog entry titled “Can Joe Six-Pack compete with Sid Cyborg?” I posed the question: “Just how long will it be before we can no longer tell our computers from ourselves?”

I think it’s safe to say we’re not there yet. Either that, or extraterrestrials have been reading my news releases and finding them puzzling.

Last week we put out a news release I’d written about a dramatic discovery by Stanford radiologists Mike Zeineh, MD, PhD, Brian Rutt, PhD, and their colleagues. In brief, they’d analyzed postmortem slabs of brain tissue from people diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, compared them with equivalent brain-tissue slabs taken from people who’d died without any Alzheimer’s-like symptoms, and noticed some striking and intriguing differences. In a key brain region essential to memory formation, Zeineh and Rutt had spotted – only in Alzheimer’s brains, not normal ones – iron deposits engulfed by mobile inflammatory cells. This observation’s potentially big implications were plenty newsworthy.

It so happened that, on the day we issued the release, a high-powered five-day-long meeting on Alzheimer’s sponsored by the eponymous Alzheimer’s Association was in session in Washington, D.C. As a result, many of the brain-oriented science writers to whom my news release was targeted were preoccupied.

I was a little anxious about that. So, the other day, I turned to my favorite search engine to see if the release had managed to get some traction in the popular press. As I’d feared, the Washington conference had sucked up a lot of the oxygen in the earthly neuroscience arena.

But apparently, the release had done better in Outer Space. I saw that it had been picked up by, for example, Red Orbit (a website that I’ve always assumed, based on its name, emanates from Mars).

My eyes were next drawn to a link to an unfamiliar outfit called AZ News, which bills itself in a tagline as an “International Online News Site.” I clicked on the link, and saw a news report with the same title as my release. I started reading the text below.

The first words were: “In autopsy mind hankie from people not diagnosed with Alzheimer’s…” I don’t know what an “autopsy mind hankie” is, but I suspect it’s a mind-blower.

I checked our release. That’s not what I’d written at all. What I’d said was, “In postmortem brain tissue from people not diagnosed with Alzheimer’s…”

It seemed pretty clear that the release had been translated into some language – I had no idea which – and then, for some reason, reverse-translated back into English. I read on.

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Ethics, In the News, Medicine and Society, Science, Science Policy, Sports, Stanford News

Stanford expert celebrates decision stopping testosterone testing in women’s sports

Stanford expert celebrates decision stopping testosterone testing in women's sports

Female track and field athletes no longer need to have their natural testosterone levels below a certain threshold to compete in international events, the so-called “Supreme Court of sports”, the Court of Arbitration for Sport, ruled Monday.

Katrina Karkazis, PhD, a Stanford senior research scholar who was closely involved with the case, got the news on Friday, while she was in a San Francisco dog park. “What a day!” she said. “I was madly refreshing my email — I thought we were going to lose… I just started screaming and crying.”

Karkazis, who is an expert on ethics in sports and also gender, said she spent a year of her life working on the case.

She served as an advisor to 19-year-old sprinter Dutee Chand, who challenged the regulation that female athletes must have certain testosterone levels or undergo medical interventions to lower their testosterone to be allowed to compete against women in events governed by the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF), the international regulatory body of track and field.

The ruling suspends the IAAF’s testing regimen for two years, but Karkazis expects the decision will lead to permanent changes in women’s sports, including a reevalution by the International Olympic Committee.

“I’m thrilled,” Karkazis said. She said she was also surprised. “I didn’t think it was our time. I thought there were still too many entrenched ideas about testosterone being a ‘male hormone’ and it not belonging in women.”

Karkazis gained international attention after penning an op-ed in The New York Times in 2012 when the IAAF and the International Olympic Committee crafted a new policy banning women with naturally high levels of testosterone from competing.

“You can’t test for sex,” Karkazis said. “It’s impossible. There’s no one trait you can look at to classify people. There are many traits and there are always exceptions.”

She said that now women who have lived and competed their entire lives as women will be eligible to compete, a default policy she believes is sufficient to ensure a level playing field.

Previously: “Drastic, unnecessary and irreversible medical interventions” imposed upon some female athletes, Arguing against sex testing in athletes and Is the International Olympic Committee’s policy governing sex verification fair?
Photo by William Warby

Infectious Disease, Medical Education, Medicine and Society, Public Health, Stanford News, Videos

Online curriculum helps students and public learn about influenza

Online curriculum helps students and public learn about influenza

Stanford’s Flu Crew, which administers flu vaccines in and around the Stanford community, has had many successes over the last few years, which we’ll highlight in a post later this week. One achievement I thought deserved special attention is an innovative curriculum on influenza created by former medical student Kelsey Hills-Evans, MD, now an internal medicine resident at Harvard. Her online videos, such as the one above (which is the first in the series), are accessible not only to Flu Crew’s student participants but the public at large.

The videos were produced via a partnership with Khan Academy and built on the flipped classroom model championed by Charles Prober, MD, senior associate dean of medical education. They also received the Shenson Bedside Innovation Award in 2013. Rishi Desai, MD, a Stanford pediatric infectious disease physician and medical fellow at Khan Academy, supervised Hills-Evans’ efforts and told me in an email that Hills-Evans and the Flu Crew “put together some really amazing videos explaining everything from the basics of influenza to common misconceptions and fears that people have about the flu vaccine. They deserve all of the credit for the idea and execution of the project.”

Hills-Evans tried to keep each video under five minutes: “I wanted it to be a quick, high-yield snapshot of information that people could watch in one sitting and not easily forget.” She shared more details with me over email:

What did you aim to convey in these training videos? How did you imagine your audience? 

I wanted our student volunteers to come away from the training with enough general knowledge about influenza to answer nearly any question that patients might have. We equipped them with knowledge about its history, how it genetically changes over time, the clinical symptoms, the vaccine’s risks and benefits, specific patient populations, and even a section on flu shot myths. Our last video was meant for students to become public-health advocates equipped with facts and counter-arguments to some of the most common excuses people have for not protecting themselves with the flu vaccine.

For these general info videos, I was really aiming to be accessible to the general public. The topics are all applicable to the lay person, so I tried my best to stay away from clinical jargon. I wanted people to come away from the training with a better understanding of how dangerous influenza can be – many people shrug at the flu as a bit worse than a winter cold, but it kills tens of thousands of people every year. In addition, there are so many myths generated by popular media and the public about the illness itself (i.e., “I got a stomach flu” which is never actually an influenza virus) and especially about vaccines. It was important to me that we make these videos public so more individuals could be informed.

For the sections meant only for clinical personnel, our priority was to train the members of the Stanford Flu Crew, but I also wanted this component to be exportable to other medical programs. It was meant to teach students to deliver the best intramuscular (IM) injections possible. We’ve been told countless times that our method for IM injections yields extremely high patient satisfaction and nearly pain-free injections (some say “the best flu shot they’ve received”).

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Humor, In the News, Medical Education, Medicine and Literature, Medicine and Society, Patient Care

Graphic medicine takes flight

Empathy-Ian-Williams-510x438A recent blog post on Somatosphere sparked my interest in the role that comics can play in the study and delivery of health care, an emerging field called “graphic medicine.” The term was coined by UK-based Ian Williams, MD, who is an artist and independent humanities scholar as well as a physician. He recently launched a website of the same name.

The post introduces a few new books that just came out on the subject: Graphic Medicine Manifesto, a collaborative work by six health-care professionals and humanities scholars, and Ian Williams’ The Bad Doctor. It also describes how comics can open us up to new ways of seeing in ways that text alone cannot:

Comics allow us to ask how we can “orient” ourselves… toward the potentiality of images and away from the systematizing effects of text alone… [Comics use] images and imagistic thinking as a way to see a different mode of existence.

Since it’s an anthropology blog, it suggests that a “graphic medical anthropology” would be a great way to accomplish the anthropologist’s goal of “seeing structure, complexity, nuance, emergence, and multiplicity simultaneously.” We anthropologists often try to achieve this goal with complicated metaphors and theories, but perhaps the old adage about a picture being worth a thousand words holds true in this case.

The post notes that drawings can provide an experience of self-reflection for the artist, and can inspire readers to readily and easily respond with their own experience, making the work more of a dialog. They can introduce “theoretical orientations” in ways that are more accessible, and can expose power relations in ordinary lived experience. Ordinary lived experience is particularly well conveyed by comics; they showcase the mundane and make it meaningful. They can take those “ordinary, chronic and cruddy moments” and convey what it’s like to be part of our society.

Previously: Cancer Ninja fights patient misinformation, one cartoon at a time, Using graphic art to understand the emotional aspects of disease, A comic look at 12 medical specialties, Economist to explain health reform through graphic novel, and Webcomic xkcd gets medical
Illustration by Ian Williams, “Autography as Auto-Therapy: Psychic Pain and the Graphic Memoir.” Journal of Medical Humanities 2011, reposted from Somatosphere

Health Policy, In the News, Medicine and Society, Pediatrics, Stanford News

Stanford researchers analyze California’s new vaccine law

Stanford researchers analyze California's new vaccine law

CA vaccine photoWhat do California, West Virginia and Mississippi have in common? Stumped?

Thanks to a recent law signed by California Gov. Jerry Brown, these three states now have strict vaccine policies that require children to be vaccinated before entering school, unless they have a medical exemption. The new requirements eliminate religious and philosophical exemptions.

Stanford’s Michelle Mello, JD, PhD, and David Studdert, LLB, ScD, (along with co-author Wendy Parmet, JD) heralded the change in a New England Journal of Medicine commentary published this week. From a Stanford News release:

“The move represents a stunning victory for public health that affects not only California schoolchildren, but the prospects for strengthening vaccination requirements nationwide,” they wrote.

The new laws come in the wake of a measles outbreak that started at Disneyland last year. It fueled a nationwide debate about the merits of vaccines, and of the large number of children unvaccinated due to parental objections.

The new California law requires all children enrolled in private and public schools and day-care facilities to be vaccinated against measles, whooping cough and several other diseases.

Yet the law is sure to face challenges, particularly from opponents who say it violates their religious rights. In addition, a lack of enforcement may weaken the law’s ability to ensure widespread protection.

Nonetheless, California’s new law is worth celebrating, they say:

“Although California politics may be distinctive, its experience with SB277 teaches us that even strong opposition can be overcome with the right combination of astute public education, political strategy and legislative fortitude,” they wrote. “Fewer vaccination exemptions and vaccine-preventable illnesses would be accomplishments that other states would find difficult to ignore.”

Previously: A discussion of vaccines, “the single most life-saving innovation ever in the history of medicine”, Science Friday-style podcast explains work toward a universal flu vaccine and Side effects of childhood vaccines are extremely rare, new study finds
Image by Niyazz

Behavioral Science, Medicine and Society, Men's Health, Mental Health, Research, Women's Health

Living with a partner boosts your health

lonely-273629_1280Partners help. They help with daily activities like dishwashing and dog-walking, but they also provide the all-valuable emotional support needed to cope with everything from a rough commute to the death of a family member.

And those without a partner, perhaps due to divorce, are more likely to suffer from depression or anxiety, according to a new study (in Spanish) in the Spanish Journal of Sociological Research. Women have it the hardest, says lead author Carlos Simó-Noguera from the University of Valencia, who is quoted in a recent Medical News Today article.

Women who have lost their partner “show poorer health than men with the same marital and cohabiting status, and are more likely to suffer from chronic anxiety and chronic depression,” Simó-Noguera said.

Men are also affected, however. Separated or divorced men “have higher risk for chronic depression than the rest of men,” he said.

The team gathered data from the European Health Survey on people between ages 25 and 64.

“The key is not marital status per se, but is found in the interaction between marital status and cohabitation status. Therefore, living with a new partner after the dissolution of marriage preserves the health of the people involved,”Simó-Noguera said.

Previously: Practicing forgiveness to sustain healthy relationships, “Love hormone” may mediate wider range of relationships than previously thought and Study offers clue as to why parents of daughters are more likely to divorce
Photo by cocoparisienne

Health Policy, In the News, Medicine and Society

Medicare to pay for end-of-life conversations with patients

Medicare to pay for end-of-life conversations with patients

800px-Doctor_and_couple_talking_(1)Remember “death panels?” In the summer of 2009, in the midst of the debate about the Affordable Care Act, aka Obamacare, a small item in the legislation allowing Medicare to reimburse physicians for end-of-life conversations with patients unleashed a tsunami of criticism. Opponents charged that so-called “death panels” – anonymous Washington bureaucrats – would be making decisions about rationing health care and ultimately deciding who would live and who would die. As foolish as that charge was, the Obama administration choose not to fight the opposition and the payment proposal was dropped.

Now, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services has announced a new policy. Beginning January 1, 2016, the government will reimburse voluntary end-of-life conversations that Medicare physicians have with their patients.

We asked Stanford’s VJ Periyakoil, MD, a nationally recognized leader in palliative care, for comment, and she said, “Medicare’s proposal to reimburse doctors to have a conversation with the patient about their values and preferences for care is a quantum leap forward towards the lofty goal of improving quality of care for all Americans at the end-of-life.” But she emphasized that this is just one part of the solution:

Advance care planning is not an event but a process. The key is having conversations in plural, over time as patients’ goals of care change as their illness progresses.

Early in the illness, most patients prefer to have a trial of high-intensity treatments including life support, and this is a very reasonable thing to do. However, there is a tipping point in the illness trajectory where we go from prolonging life with quality to prolonging the dying process. Beyond this tipping point, most patients, if given a choice, prefer to die gently and naturally at home minimizing the burden to their loved ones. But in order for this to happen, we need doctors who are well trained and highly skilled at conducting end-of-life conversations with their patients. We need to ensure that patients and their proxy decision makers are well supported to make end of life decisions. Finally, it takes significant support of both the patient and caregiver by a skilled team of clinicians to ensure a gentle and peaceful death at home.

Unless we have all these components in place, we can’t expect to see major and sustained improvements in end-of-life care.

Previously: “Everybody dies – just discuss it and agree on what you want”In honor of National Healthcare Decisions Day: A reminder for patients to address end-of-life issuesA call to “improve quality and honor individual preferences at the end of life”Study: Doctors would choose less aggressive end-of-life care for themselves and On a mission to transform end-of-life care
Photo by National Cancer Institute

Events, Medicine and Literature, Medicine and Society, Patient Care, Sexual Health

Surgeon-author: “My intent is to let people know that the person next door could be intersex”

Surgeon-author: "My intent is to let people know that the person next door could be intersex"

None of the Above“How many of you know what intersex is?” surgeon and author Ilene Wong, MD, (who did her residency at Stanford and writes under the pen name I.W. Gregorio) asked an audience of medical students, doctors and community members at a recent panel discussion on the topic on Stanford’s campus.

Since we’d gathered at the event, which was sponsored by Stanford’s Medicine & the Muse Program and Pegasus Physician Writers, to listen to a book reading and discussion about intersex — a term that describes sex characteristics that are neither all female nor all male — you might think we were all well-informed about the topic. We were not, and our fidgety response to Gregorio’s opening question hinted at the problem we came to discuss: a widespread lack of knowledge in the medical, and general, community about intersex individuals.

As Gregorio and her fellow panelists, Jeanne Nollman, founder of the AIS-DSD Support Group, and Hillary Copp, MD, a pediatric urologist at the University of California, San Francisco, delved into the discussion topic – “Has the medical community failed the intersex community?” – we gained a better understanding of what it means to be intersex, why so little is known about it and what can be done to remedy this.

“I met my first intersex patient when I was pregnant with my first child,” Gregorio told us. “It made me think of what it means to be a woman and how your chromosomes determine so much.” At the time, medical students received little training on intersex, Gregorio said. “There’s still a huge gap in medical education on what intersex is. Too often intersex is distilled down to one line on the chalkboard or one question on an exam.”

Her experience inspired Gregorio to write None of the Above, a young adult book about an 18-year old girl who learns she is intersex. “Books help us think about and talk about difficult issues,” she explained. “My intent is to let people know that the person next door could be intersex.”

Intersex is more common than you may think, occurring in approximately one in every 2000 individuals. This means that a person is more likely to be intersex than they are to have cystic fibrosis – yet most people have heard of the latter condition.

So, why isn’t intersex more well known? Nollman and Copp offered some possible explanations. “Many people think [it’s] a dirty thing because it has the word ‘sex’ in it,” said Nollman. “They think it’s something shameful they can’t talk about.”

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Behavioral Science, In the News, Medicine and Society, Pregnancy, Public Health

Walking on sunshine: How to celebrate summer safely

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Normally, I spend the Fourth of July on the shores of a Wisconsin lake, getting eaten alive by mosquitos, burning to a bright shade of pink, lighting sparklers and eating potato salad that has sat in the sun for hours. Heaps of fun, but also plenty of opportunities to fall ill.

This year, I’ve been barred from that fun trip by my oh-so-practical doc, who thinks unnecessary travel isn’t the smartest option for someone who is eight-months pregnant. Instead, I’ll have to be satisfied with reading a Washington Post article, published earlier this week, about all the summer health hazards I’m avoiding by celebrating the holiday in my coastal California home.

First is athlete’s foot, a fungus that “lingers on warm, wet surfaces such as poolside pavement and the floors of locker rooms and public showers” that produces an oozing pus. Or its relative, a toenail fungus that leads to yellow, thickened nails. And I thought a big belly was a bit of bother.

There’s also coxsackie virus, known for causing hand, foot and mouth disease, which thrives in kids’ wading pools courtesy of the occasional leaky diaper. The virus usually causes blisters; in rare cases it can lead to heart failure, says Stanford pediatrics professor Bonnie Maldonado, MD. Note to self: Keep baby out of unchlorinated kiddie pools.

We’re just getting warmed up here. There’s the summertime regulars of food poisoning, heat exhaustion and heat stroke. So yeah, that potato salad, while still yummy, probably isn’t a good idea, nor is the all-afternoon exposure to 95-plus degrees.

Don’t forget swimmer’s ear, an infection of the ear canal that, according to otolaryngologist Richard Rosenfeld, MD, from New York can “really, really, really hurt and ruin a vacation.” And a walk in the woods can quickly yield a ravaging rash from poison ivy or oak.

Throw in insect-borne plagues like West Nile and Lyme disease and gee, I guess my front porch isn’t looking so bad after all.

Previously: As summer heats up, take steps to protect your skin, This summer’s Stanford Medicine magazine shows some skin and Stanford nutrition expert offers tips for a healthy and happy Fourth of July
Photo by Jordan Richmond

Medicine and Society, Stanford News

Actor Anna Deavere Smith on getting into and under the skin of a character

Actor Anna Deavere Smith on getting into and under the skin of a character

ADS - smallThe “skin” issue of Stanford Medicine magazine is out and online. In it, I have a Q&A with actor and playwright Anna Deavere Smith. TV audiences came to know Anna through her work as Nancy McNally, the White House national security advisor on the famed series “The West Wing.” And now, after seven seasons, she’s ending another acclaimed role, hospital administrator Gloria Akalitus on Showtime’s “Nurse Jackie.” Bur her seminal work has been in the theater, in two groundbreaking plays early in her career: “Twilight Los Angeles” and “Fires in the Mirror.” Her last theatrical piece, “Let Me Down Easy,” was a paean to the human body in its strength and fragility.

There are few actors who get into and under the skin of their characters more acutely than Anna. We thought it would be interesting (and different) for this issue of the magazine, which focuses on skin diseases, to talk with Anna and get another sort of take on skin. “In the early part of my career [my skin color] was a big stumbling block,” she told me. “There were stereotypes. As a woman, if you didn’t fit into the idea of a tragic mulatto or mammy it was really hard to situate yourself.”

Read on in the Q&A.

Previously: This summer’s Stanford Medicine magazine shows some skin and Let me down easy: A conversation with Anna Deavere Smith
Illustration by Tina Berning

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