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Global Health, Haiti, Infectious Disease, Public Health, Technology

A sanitation solution: Stanford students introduce dry toilets in Haiti

A sanitation solution: Stanford students introduce dry toilets in Haiti

sanitation-toilet-movedIn the United States, we often take for granted the relationship between health and sanitation. Not so in Haiti, where some people dispose of their feces in plastic bags they throw into waterways. As a result, waterborne diseases like cholera are common.

But what’s to be done? Flush toilets guzzle gallons of water and depend on an entire sewage system — an unfeasible option in many developing nations. To fill the gap, a pair of Stanford civil and environmental engineering graduate students have developed a program called re.source, which provides dry household toilets, and empties them for about $5 a month.

From a recent Stanford News story:

Unlike most sanitation solutions that only address one part of a dysfunctional supply chain, container-based sanitation models, such as the re.source service, tackle the whole sanitation chain. The re.source toilets separate solid and liquid waste into sealable containers, and dispense a cover material made of crushed peanut shells and sugarcane fibers that eliminates odors and insect infestations. The solid waste is regularly removed by a service, which takes it to a disposal or processing site to be converted to compost and sold to agricultural businesses.

The re.source students — Kory Russel and Sebastien Tilmans — work under the guidance of Jenna Davis, PhD, an associate professor of civil and environmental engineering. They started small, with a free pilot phase in 130 households in a Haitian slum, but the service has expanded to include 300 additional households with plans to introduce a service in the capital, Port-au-Prince.

The project is part of a larger Stanford focus on water issues ranging from safe drinking water to environmental concerns.

Previously: Waste not, want not, say global sanitation innovators, Stanford pump project makes clean water no longer a pipe dream and Award-winning Stanford documentary to air on PBS tonight
Photo by Rob Jordan

Global Health, In the News, Mental Health, Public Health, Research

Study links air pollution with anxiety; calls it a “leading global health concern”

Study links air pollution with anxiety;  calls it a "leading global health concern"

3280739522_c1f8001000_zI often find that natural spaces and fresh air have a calming, balancing effect, and judging by the cultural association between relaxation and the outdoors, I’m not alone. Now some new research backs up the connection. Yesterday, the British Medical Journal published an article linking air pollution with anxiety, as well as an editorial on air pollution’s health effects and another study elaborating on a previously-noted connection between pollution and stroke.

The anxiety study, conducted by researchers at Harvard and Johns Hopkins University, showed a significant connection between exposure to fine particulate pollution and symptoms of anxiety for more than 70,000 older women (mean age of 70 years) in the contiguous United States. Bigger particles appeared to have no effects, interestingly, nor did living close to a major road. The connection was present over a variety of time periods from one month to fifteen years, but was stronger in the short term. This evidence shows a clear need for studies to be done in other demographic groups, and to elaborate on the biological plausibility of the connection.

The stroke article, meanwhile, is a meta-analysis of 103 studies conducted in 28 countries and including 6.2 million events. Researchers found that both gaseous and particulate air pollution had a “marked and close temporal association” with strokes resulting in hospital admissions or death.

As stated in the editorial, particulate air pollution has already been shown to be a contributing factor in a variety of serious health conditions, including a well-supported link to cardiopulmonary diseases, but also diabetes, low birth weight, and pre-term birth. In fact, the World Health Organization estimates that one of every eight deaths is caused by air pollution. The body of research on the topic suggests that pollution may initiate systemic inflammation, thereby affecting multiple organ systems.

With such a broad range of detrimental effects, and because it affects such a significant percentage of the population, air pollution is becoming a top public health concern. As the University of British Columbia’s Michael Brauer, ScD, wrote in the editorial:

The findings of these two studies support a sharper focus on air pollution as a leading global health concern… One of the unique features of air pollution as a risk factor for disease is that exposure to air pollution is almost universal. While this is a primary reason for the large disease burden attributable to outdoor air pollution, it also follows that even modest reductions in pollution could have widespread benefits throughout populations. The two linked papers in this issue confirm the urgent need to manage air pollution globally as a cause of ill health and offer the promise that reducing pollution could be a cost effective way to reduce the large burden of disease from both stroke and poor mental health.

Photo by Billy Wilson

Cardiovascular Medicine, Chronic Disease, Genetics, Public Health, Research

International team led by Stanford researchers identifies gene linked to insulin resistance

International team led by Stanford researchers identifies gene linked to insulin resistance

261445720_2f253a1336_zBack in the 1970s and 1980s, Stanford’s Gerald Reaven, MD, had the darndest time convincing others that type 2 diabetes wasn’t caused by a lack of insulin. No one would believe him that, as we now know, type 2 diabetics are insulin resistant — their cells no longer respond to insulin’s cue to take in glucose.

Fast-forward a few years. Insulin resistance has been implicated in a slew of symptoms such as high blood pressure and heart troubles known as metabolic syndrome — it isn’t just a problem for diabetes. Scientists knew that about half of insulin resistance was governed by weight, exercise and diet. But the heredity half was a mystery — until now.

Thanks to an international collaboration and many months of work, a team of researchers led by Joshua Knowles, MD, PhD, and Thomas Quertermous, MD, have found the first gene known to contribute to insulin resistance. It’s called NAT2, and when mutated, it leads to a greater chance for carriers to become insulin resistant.

From the release:

“It’s still early days,” Knowles said. “We’re just scratching the surface with the handful of variants that are related to insulin resistance that have been found.”

Researchers found NAT2 by compiling data from about 5,600 individuals for whom they had both genetic information and a direct test of insulin sensitivity. Measuring insulin sensitivity takes several hours and is usually done in research settings. No genes met the high standards demanded by genome-wide association studies. Yet NAT2 appeared promising, so researchers followed up with experiments using mice.

When they knocked out the analogous gene in mice, the mice’s cells took up less glucose in response to insulin. These mice also had higher fasting-glucose, insulin and triglyceride levels.

“Our goal was to try to get a better understanding of the foundation of insulin resistance,” Knowlessaid. “Ultimately, we hope this effort will lead to new drugs, new therapies and new diagnostic tests.”

Previously: New insulin-decreasing hormone discovered, named for goddess of starvation, Stanford researchers identify a new pathway governing growth of insulin-producing cells and Faulty fat cells may help explain how type 2 diabetes begins
Image by Andy Leppard

Health Costs, Health Policy, In the News, Patient Care, Public Health

Health-care policy expert Arnold Milstein weighs in on Medicare’s plan to prioritize “value over volume”

Health-care policy expert Arnold Milstein weighs in on Medicare's plan to prioritize "value over volume"

8266476742_4967a82707_zAmerican health-care spending is the highest in the world, yet some question whether that money really leads to improved patient outcomes. But significant reforms taking place within Medicare, the US’s biggest healthcare payer, over the next few years aim to quell these concerns and reduce costs while improving quality of care.

Health policy experts explained the context of these changes last week in a webinar hosted by Reporting on Health and supported by the NIH’s Health Care Management Foundation. The panel featured Stanford’s Arnold Milstein, MD, MPH, director of the Clinical Excellence Research Center, as well as health economist Austin Frakt, PhD, professor at Boston University School of Medicine, and Jordan Rau, a correspondent for Kaiser Health News.

Health-care’s dominant “fee for service” (FFS) model has been around “since doctors were getting paid in chickens,” said Rau in the webinar, but it has no link whatsoever to quality. Many think this model needs to be changed because it incentivizes physicians to do more (and more expensive) procedures, regardless of the effect they have on patient outcomes. “Better, less expensive care is a national imperative,” said Milstein. “The cost to society of inefficiently delivered care is creating enormous opportunity cost.”

Starting in 2011, Medicare began to tie payments to quality: Doctors get paid 2 percent more if quality goes up, and 6 percent less when it goes down, based on patient ratings and rates of readmission and infection. In 2014, quality-linked FFS accounted for around 80 percent of care, of which around 20 percent featured some more radical change. The new plan is that 50 percent of payments will be non-FFS by 2018.

Options to reform this model could include bundled fees (a flat rate per “episode” that includes all complications and follow-up care), accountable care organizations (ACOs) that take responsibility for all patient needs and costs, incentives for cross-provider cooperation, and population-based payment in which doctors receive a set fee for any patient (currently being pioneered in Maryland).

How will we know which changes to push? Milstein used a graph to indicate “positive value outliers,” institutions with high quality and low cost, whose strategies and techniques will be emulated to see if they can be effective elsewhere. He explained what researchers found makes them different:

[Positive value outliers] tended to have deeper, more personal relationship with their patients; their patients trusted that if they called these doctors on nights and weekends, someone who knew something about them would be rapidly responsive. Doctors’ vision of their responsibility to their patients extended far beyond producing a perfect office visit; it really meant being a steward for their patients’ best interests as their patients traversed emergency room doctors, hospitalists and medical specialists. And lastly, these doctors were not trying to be solo heroes – they did a wonderful job hiring and training medical assistants and taking advantage of a team… and it was associated with a substantial improvement in value. Our next step is to splice this DNA into average performing primary care practices and verify that this is indeed the right stuff.

Some other ideas for achieving the targets were mentioned, such as sending physicians to homes so patients don’t get admitted, or in the longer term, having an intensive-care unit (ICU) “airline control tower” with more perspective than those on the “frontline” of critical care, an idea Milstein said was studied across 56 American ICUs and resulted in a 25 percent mortality reduction.

Milstein said such approaches could lower baseline health-care costs by 30 percent, but moreover could slow the rate at which health-care spending outgrows the economy, which is the real measure of success. Innovators in this area, he said, will need to draw from behavioral and computer science to think about problems differently.

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Events, Pediatrics, Public Health, Research, Stanford News

Countdown to Childx: Q&A with pediatric health expert Alan Guttmacher

Countdown to Childx: Q&A with pediatric health expert Alan Guttmacher

jumpforjoyIt’s just a few weeks until the inaugural Childx conference, a TED-style meeting at Stanford that will highlight innovations in health problems of pregnancy, infancy and childhood. (Conference registration for the April 2-3 event is still open, with details available on the conference website.) Childx is attracting nationally and internationally prominent speakers: keynotes will be given by Alan Guttmacher, MD, head of the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, and by Rajiv Shah, MD, former head of USAID.

I spoke recently with Guttmacher about the upcoming conference. Because I spend most of my time working with scientists who focus their attention on specific research niches within obstetric and pediatric medicine, I was interested in getting his take on the “big picture” of these fields. An edited version of our conversation is below.

What are you planning to say in your keynote address at the Childx conference?

Children’s lives are about more than just health. While biomedical research is crucial to improving kids’ lives, we should put it in the larger context of kids’ lives and do not just research that has an impact on health, but also on children’s overall well-being.

Within the health sphere, I’ll talk about several areas where we need more research. We need to study how to do a better job of preventing prematurity, both to gain a better understanding of biological and environmental causes of preterm birth, and also of how to do a better job of employing the knowledge we already have.

Another topic I’ll address is vaccination: How do we both pursue the science of vaccination to figure out how to make more vaccines more effective, and also, how do we work with parents so they make decisions about kids’ lives that are in the best interests of the kids and are evidence based, rather than based on, say, something they recently read on the web?

I’ll also discuss the developmental origins of health and disease. Pediatricians have always been very invested in anticipatory guidance, telling families about the kinds of things to do to prevent future disease for their children. But this goes farther; this is the idea that health factors, not only in childhood but even in utero, have lifelong impact on health. For instance, what happens in pregnancy potentially has large impact on whether someone develops hypertension in their 60s or 70s. We’re beginning to do science that will tell us the connections between early factors and later health, that will actually influence health along the entire age span. It’s an area of very important research.

And I’ll address intellectual and developmental disabilities. We need research to figure out how to more effectively prevent intellectual and developmental disabilities, research to understand how to allow kids who have these disabilities to function more effectively in society, and also research to figure out how to have society function better in the lives of kids with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

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Big data, Clinical Trials, Ethics, Public Health, Research, Stanford News, Technology

Build it (an easy way to join research studies) and the volunteers will come

Build it (an easy way to join research studies) and the volunteers will come

stanford-myheart-counts-iphone6-hero

Just nine days after the launch of Stanford Medicine’s MyHeart Counts iPhone app, 27,836 people have consented to participate in this research study on cardiovascular health.

“To recruit that many patients into a traditional clinical trial would take years and hundreds of thousands of dollars,” said Michael McConnell, MD, professor of cardiovascular medicine and principal investigator for the MyHeart Counts study.

MyHeart Counts was built with Apple’s new ResearchKit, a software development framework that can be used to create apps that turn an iPhone into a research and data collection tool. Leveraging a smartphone’s built-in accelerometers, gyroscopes, camera and GPS sensors, medical researchers can easily and inexpensively collect streams of data on exercise, diet and biometrics. Unlike most traditional clinical trials, which capture only a snapshot of patient data, ResearchKit studies are able to collect data from thousands of participants simultaneously, over long periods of time.

While the potential for this technology to accelerate medical research is tantalizing, the ethical issues of this shift in researcher-volunteer interactions took Stanford researchers and collaborator Sage Bionetworks nine months to work out.

“One of the big challenges in designing this study was to develop an ethical mechanism for informed consent on mobile devices,” David Magnus, PhD, director of the Stanford Center for Biomedical Ethics, told me. “It was essential that volunteers understand the nature of the research and what it means for them.”

The concept of informed consent is an important tenet of any research institution’s commitment to respect individuals and to “do no harm.” Without face-to-face meeting between a researcher and volunteer, there could be misunderstandings about risks, benefits and time commitments.

Stanford bioethicists are on the leading edge of addressing the communications challenges of these new frontiers in medical research. Rethinking long, text-based consent forms, they are exploring alternatives, such as audio, video, animation and interactivity.

For example, a team of bioethicists from Stanford and the University of Washington recently released animated videos that explain comparative-effectiveness research within medical practices to potential volunteers. Next, they’ll be developing media-rich tools to explain the risks and benefits of research that uses electronic medical records and stored biological samples.

To solicit ideas on how to best regulate this brave new world of informed consent, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration just posted draft guidance on “Use of Electronic Informed Consent in Clinical Investigations.” Public comments will be accepted through May 7, 2015.

To sign up for the MyHeart Counts study, visit the iTunes store.

Previously: Harnessing mobile health technologies to transform human healthMyHeart Counts app debuts with a splashStanford launches iPhone app to study heart health and Video explains why doctors don’t always know best
Photo by iMore

Big data, Public Health, Research, Technology

Harnessing mobile health technologies to transform human health

Harnessing mobile health technologies to transform human health

McConnell-YeungAn estimated seven in ten U.S. adults say they track at least one health indicator, and 21 percent of this group use some form of technology to track their health data, according to data from the Pew Research Center. But these figures are likely to skyrocket thanks to health platforms such as Google Fit, Apple’s HealthKit and AT&T ForHealth, which use sensors built into smartphones and wireless fitness devices to record physical activity.

This data deluge is a goldmine for biomedical research and drug development, particularly with the introduction of Apple’s ResearchKit. The software, which powers the Stanford-developed MyHeart Counts app, allows users to better understand their health data while providing researchers the opportunity to access it for future studies.

In a recent Huffington Post article, Ida Sim, MD, PhD, professor of medicine at University of California, San Francisco, noted that such technologies hold the potential to encourage the general public to participate in medical studies and make the research community more collaborative and open. “There’s a new movement in academic research called participatory research, where patients are part of the groups that should be asking: ‘What questions are interesting? What should we test?’” Sim said in the piece. “The public could start seeing research as something that isn’t imposed on [them], but as an activity that we all do together so that we can learn together.”

This May, Sim, who co-directs of Biomedical Informatics at UCSF’s Clinical and Translational Sciences Institute, will speak at Stanford’s Big Data in Biomedicine Conference on how health information collected on mobile devices holds the potential to inform clinical decisions and transform health care. As a co-founder of non-profit Open mHealth, she and colleagues are leading the charge to build open source software that facilitates sharing and integration of digital health data.

Below she outlines how leveraging mobile health data can improve how physicians diagnose, treat and prevent disease and the challenges in facilitating the sharing and integration of this vast treasure trove of data.

What are the large-scale opportunities to harness the rapidly growing reservoir of information to improve biomedical research and human health?

We can use this data to do a variety of things like combining genomic information and behavior data from wearables to discover new insights into health and disease.

We can also move from what works on average to more tailored programs focused on the idea of what works for me. For example, if we employ A/B-like testing with digital health, genomics, and other data combined, we can understand which interventions work for an individual and under what contexts, allowing for more tailored healthcare.

Finally, we can learn about a person beyond their clinical visit – which is only a small slice of their “health pie.” By getting multiple health snapshots, doctors will be able to provide patients with better medical support and preventative strategies that support overall physical and mental well-being.

What are the major challenges in unlocking the potential of digital health data?

When we write a sentence, we construct the sentence with grammar. We use vocabulary to fill in the blanks to give meaning to the sentence. Meaning is lost when either the grammar or the vocabulary is ambiguous or not shared between parties. In a similar way, making sense of data from various digital health devices is challenging when the devices don’t represent data the same way.

Currently, wearable devices and other healthcare tools describe the data they collect using their own languages that are not shared or integrated with other devices. For example, a Wi-Fi enabled weight scale might represent data as “weight: 88” but we have no clue if that means 88 kg, femptograms, lbs, or stones. A calorie counter might represent calories as “calories: 400” but we have no clue if this was calories expended or calories consumed. For clinicians, these kinds of ambiguities are show stoppers that lock up the potential of digital health data.

In addition, data from the devices themselves are stored in silos, meaning that it is not easy for patients or clinicians to combine and view multiple data streams together. Blood pressure from one device isn’t syncing with weight data from another, which can lead to an incomplete picture of a patient’s health over time.

If we strive for greater interoperability with a common language and structure for both understanding and integrating digital health data, we can help to bring clinical and patient needs together for better health-care outcomes.

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Addiction, FDA, Health Policy, Pediatrics, Public Health

Raising the age for tobacco access would benefit health, says new Institute of Medicine report

Raising the age for tobacco access would benefit health, says new Institute of Medicine report

cigarette packToday, the Institute of Medicine released a new report evaluating the public health effects of reducing teenagers’ access to cigarettes and other tobacco products. Right now, in most places in the United States, you must be 18 years old to buy cigarettes and other tobacco products. But a few states and cities have higher minimums, and in 2013, the IOM convened a committee, at the request of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, to examine the potential effects of a higher minimum legal age for tobacco access across the country.

The committee, which was led by Richard Bonnie of the University of Virginia and included Stanford adolescent medicine expert Bonnie Halpern-Felsher, PhD, reviewed the existing scientific literature on tobacco use in teens. They also devised mathematical models to predict what would happen if the federal minimum legal age were 19, 21 or 25.

The report brief (.pdf) says, in part:

Based on its review of the literature, the committee concludes that overall, increasing the MLA [minimum legal age] for tobacco products will likely prevent or delay  initiation of tobacco use by adolescents and young adults. The age group most impacted will be those age 15 to 17 years. The committee also concludes that the impact of raising the MLA to 21 will likely be substantially higher than raising it to 19. However, the added effect of raising the MLA from 21  to 25 will likely be considerably less.

The parts of the brain most responsible for decision making, impulse control, sensation seeking, and susceptibility to peer pressure  continue to develop and change through young adulthood, and adolescent brains are uniquely vulnerable to the effects of nicotine. In  addition, the majority of underage users rely on social sources—like family and friends—to get tobacco. Raising the MLA to 19 will therefore not have much of an effect on reducing the social sources of those in high school. Raising the MLA to 21 will mean that those who can legally obtain tobacco are less likely to be in the same social networks as high school students.

Although it can take time to fully realize the benefits of reduced smoking, since heart disease, lung cancer and other diseases linked to smoking take decades to develop, the payoff would ultimately be significant, the report adds:

…if the MLA were raised now to 21 nationwide, there would be approximately 223,000 fewer premature deaths, 50,000 fewer deaths from lung  cancer, and 4.2 million fewer years of life lost for those born between 2000 and 2019.

Previously: How e-cigarettes are sparking a new wave of tobacco marketing, To protect teens’ health, marijuana should not be legalized, says American Academy of Pediatrics and UN’s top health official: Anti-tobacco efforts can lead to better health “in every corner of the world”
Photo by Thomas Lieser

Addiction, FDA, Health Policy, Medicine and Society, Public Health, Public Safety

To keep edibles away from kids, marijuana policies must be “fully baked”

To keep edibles away from kids, marijuana policies must be "fully baked"

sanfran031606_fig1_highresDepending on your position, legal marijuana might raise images of stoners on every street corner or of users enjoying a private puff in their backyards. However you probably don’t picture a child munching on a pot-laden brownie she found in her kitchen cupboard.

But as Stanford legal experts Robert MacCoun, PhD, and Michelle Mello, JD, PhD, point out in a commentary published today in the New England Journal of Medicine, the loose state regulation of marijuana edibles creates some unnecessarily and potentially serious public health risks that should concern everyone.

Packaged in brightly colored wrappers, edibles often mimic popular sweets, but they contain a powerful dollop of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the chemical responsible for marijuana’s psychoactive effects. Some edibles contain multiple “servings” of THC per package.

Both Colorado and Washington — the two states with legal recreational marijuana — require “child-resistant” packaging and a warning to “keep out of the reach of children.” But edibles remain quite attractive to children, who may confuse them with regular candies and snacks, and potentially deceptive to adults, who may assume one bar is a just one serving. “I look at these packages and I get hungry just looking at them,” MacCoun said.

The edibles are not regulated as either a food or a drug by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, because the federal government considers marijuana illegal. Legalizing states have been slow to fill the gap, and have done so incompletely, Mello said. “This is sort of a weird space that’s betwixt and between federal and state oversight,” she said.

It’s time for the medical community to get involved, MacCoun said. “Most people don’t understand the brain metabolizes chemicals ingested by mouth differently than those smoked.”

Ingested marijuana offers a delayed high, so people keep eating thinking they are fine. The intoxication lasts longer and is associated with more hallucinations and perceptual distortions, he said. “It’s almost like a different drug.”

For now, the issue is most pressing in Colorado and Washington, but many other states are considering legalizing recreational marijuana, including California, MacCoun said.

“We’re not taking some strong position these products should be banned. Sensible and fairly modest regulations would reduce the risk without greatly restricting people’s freedom to consume these products,” MacCoun said.

Previously: Discussing the American Academy of Pediatrics’ call to put the brakes on marijuana legalization, To protect teens’ health, marijuana should not be legalized, says American Academy of Pediatrics and Medical marijuana not safe for kids, Packard Children’s doc says
Photo by DEA

Cancer, Medicine and Society, Patient Care, Public Health, Videos

March marks National Colon Cancer Awareness Month: The takeaway? It’s preventable

March marks National Colon Cancer Awareness Month: The takeaway? It's preventable

What is the leading, preventable cause of death in the United States? I suppose the headline gave away my punchline, but remembering that colon cancer is both deadly and preventable is a timely exercise during March, which is National Colon Cancer Awareness Month.

Here’s what you need to know: Don’t wait until your colon hurts to come to the doctor. That won’t work. “Polyps and early tumors are often not symptomatic,” said gastroenterologist Uri Ladabaum, MD, in the above Stanford Health Care video.

It’s best to catch cancer 10 years before it appears, making 50 a key age to spot a cancer that often appears in the 60s,  said endoscopy director Subhas Banerjee, MD.

And a prime screening procedure, colonoscopy, “is no big deal,” said oncologist Mark Welton, MD. “They give you a little sedation and the next thing you know is you’re saying, ‘Are we done?'”

If physicians do spot the cancer early — or even later — they can often remove it, the physicians agreed. Chemotherapy and surgery are continuing to improve, making it more likely that patients can continue to live long, healthy lives.

Family history and race can leave you more vulnerable to colon cancer — African Americans are more likely to get, and die from, the disease — but in general, a fruit-and-vegetable packed diet, avoiding smoking and getting regular exercise can help stave off colon cancer.

Previously: The Big Bang model of human colon cancer, Stanford researchers explore new ways of identifying colon cancer and Study shows evidence-based care eliminates racial disparity in colon-cancer survival rates 

Stanford Medicine Resources: