Monthly Archives: July 2018

Health Insurers Are Vacuuming Up Details About You — And It Could Raise Your Rates

Source: National Public Radio
Author: Marshall Allen

To an outsider, the fancy booths at a June health insurance industry gathering in San Diego, Calif., aren’t very compelling: a handful of companies pitching “lifestyle” data and salespeople touting jargony phrases like “social determinants of health.”

But dig deeper and the implications of what they’re selling might give many patients pause: a future in which everything you do — the things you buy, the food you eat, the time you spend watching TV — may help determine how much you pay for health insurance.

With little public scrutiny, the health insurance industry has joined forces with data brokers to vacuum up personal details about hundreds of millions of Americans, including, odds are, many readers of this story.

The companies are tracking your race, education level, TV habits, marital status, net worth. They’re collecting what you post on social media, whether you’re behind on your bills, what you order online. Then they feed this information into complicated computer algorithms that spit out predictions about how much your health care could cost them.

Are you a woman who recently changed your name? You could be newly married and have a pricey pregnancy pending. Or maybe you’re stressed and anxious from a recent divorce. That, too, the computer models predict, may run up your medical bills.

Are you a woman who has purchased plus-size clothing? You’re considered at risk of depression. Mental health care can be expensive.

Low-income and a minority? That means, the data brokers say, you are more likely to live in a dilapidated and dangerous neighborhood, increasing your health risks.

“We sit on oceans of data,” said Eric McCulley, director of strategic solutions for LexisNexis Risk Solutions, during a conversation at the data firm’s booth. And he isn’t apologetic about using it. “The fact is, our data is in the public domain,” he said. “We didn’t put it out there.”

Insurers contend that they use the information to spot health issues in their clients — and flag them so they get services they need. And companies like LexisNexis say the data shouldn’t be used to set prices. But as a research scientist from one company told me: “I can’t say it hasn’t happened.”

At a time when every week brings a new privacy scandal and worries abound about the misuse of personal information, patient advocates and privacy scholars say the insurance industry’s data gathering runs counter to its touted, and federally required, allegiance to patients’ medical privacy. The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, or HIPAA, only protects medical information.

“We have a health privacy machine that’s in crisis,” said Frank Pasquale, a professor at the University of Maryland Carey School of Law who specializes in issues related to machine learning and algorithms. “We have a law that only covers one source of health information. They are rapidly developing another source.”

Patient advocates warn that using unverified, error-prone “lifestyle” data to make medical assumptions could lead insurers to improperly price plans — for instance, raising rates based on false information — or discriminate against anyone tagged as high cost. And, they say, the use of the data raises thorny questions that should be debated publicly, such as: Should a person’s rates be raised because algorithms say they are more likely to run up medical bills? Such questions would be moot in Europe, where a strict law took effect in May that bans trading in personal data.

This year, ProPublica and NPR are investigating the various tactics the health insurance industry uses to maximize its profits. Understanding these strategies is important because patients — through taxes, cash payments and insurance premiums — are the ones funding the entire health care system. Yet the industry’s bewildering web of strategies and inside deals often has little to do with patients’ needs. As the series’ first story showed, contrary to popular belief, lower bills aren’t health insurers’ top priority.

Inside the San Diego Convention Center, there were few qualms about the way insurance companies were mining Americans’ lives for information — or what they planned to do with the data.

Linking health costs to personal data

The sprawling convention center was a balmy draw for one of America’s Health Insurance Plans’ marquee gatherings. Insurance executives and managers wandered through the exhibit hall, sampling chocolate-covered strawberries, champagne and other delectables designed to encourage deal-making.

Up front, the prime real estate belonged to the big guns in health data: The booths of Optum, IBM Watson Health and LexisNexis stretched toward the ceiling, with flat screen monitors and some comfy seating. (NPR collaborates with IBM Watson Health on national polls about consumer health topics.)

To understand the scope of what they were offering, consider Optum. The company, owned by the massive UnitedHealth Group, has collected the medical diagnoses, tests, prescriptions, costs and socioeconomic data of 150 million Americans going back to 1993, according to its marketing materials.(UnitedHealth Group provides financial support to NPR.)

The company says it uses the information to link patients’ medical outcomes and costs to details like their level of education, net worth, family structure and race. An Optum spokesman said the socioeconomic data is de-identified and is not used for pricing health plans.

Optum’s marketing materials also boast that it now has access to even more. In 2016, the company filed a patent application to gather what people share on platforms like Facebook and Twitter, and to link this material to the person’s clinical and payment information. A company spokesman said in an email that the patent application never went anywhere. But the company’s current marketing materials say it combines claims and clinical information with social media interactions.

I had a lot of questions about this and first reached out to Optum in May, but the company didn’t connect me with any of its experts as promised. At the conference, Optum salespeople said they weren’t allowed to talk to me about how the company uses this information.

It isn’t hard to understand the appeal of all this data to insurers. Merging information from data brokers with people’s clinical and payment records is a no-brainer if you overlook potential patient concerns. Electronic medical records now make it easy for insurers to analyze massive amounts of information and combine it with the personal details scooped up by data brokers.

It also makes sense given the shifts in how providers are getting paid. Doctors and hospitals have typically been paid based on the quantity of care they provide. But the industry is moving toward paying them in lump sums for caring for a patient, or for an event, like a knee surgery. In those cases, the medical providers can profit more when patients stay healthy. More money at stake means more interest in the social factors that might affect a patient’s health.

Some insurance companies are already using socioeconomic data to help patients get appropriate care, such as programs to help patients with chronic diseases stay healthy. Studies show social and economic aspects of people’s lives play an important role in their health. Knowing these personal details can help them identify those who may need help paying for medication or help getting to the doctor.

But patient advocates are skeptical that health insurers have altruistic designs on people’s personal information.

The industry has a history of boosting profits by signing up healthy people and finding ways to avoid sick people — called “cherry-picking” and “lemon-dropping,” experts say.

Among the classic examples: A company was accused of putting its enrollment office on the third floor of a building without an elevator, so only healthy patients could make the trek to sign up. Another tried to appeal to spry seniors by holding square dances.

The Affordable Care Act prohibits insurers from denying people coverage based on pre-existing health conditions or charging sick people more for individual or small group plans. But experts said patients’ personal information could still be used for marketing, and to assess risks and determine the prices of certain plans. And the Trump administration is promoting short-term health plans, which do allow insurers to deny coverage to sick patients.

Robert Greenwald, faculty director of Harvard Law School’s Center for Health Law and Policy Innovation, said insurance companies still cherry-pick, but now they’re subtler. The center analyzes health insurance plans to see if they discriminate. He said insurers will do things like failing to include enough information about which drugs a plan covers — which pushes sick people who need specific medications elsewhere. Or they may change the things a plan covers, or how much a patient has to pay for a type of care, after a patient has enrolled. Or, Greenwald added, they might exclude or limit certain types of providers from their networks – like those who have skill caring for patients with HIV or hepatitis C.

If there were concerns that personal data might be used to cherry-pick or lemon-drop, they weren’t raised at the conference.

At the IBM Watson Health booth, Kevin Ruane, a senior consulting scientist, told me that the company surveys 80,000 Americans a year to assess lifestyle, attitudes and behaviors that could relate to health care. Participants are asked whether they trust their doctor, have financial problems, go online, or own a Fitbit and similar questions. The responses of hundreds of adjacent households are analyzed together to identify social and economic factors for an area.

Ruane said he has used IBM Watson Health’s socioeconomic analysis to help insurance companies assess a potential market. The ACA increased the value of such assessments, experts say, because companies often don’t know the medical history of people seeking coverage. A region with too many sick people, or with patients who don’t take care of themselves, might not be worth the risk.

Ruane acknowledged that the information his company gathers may not be accurate for every person. “We talk to our clients and tell them to be careful about this,” he said. “Use it as a data insight. But it’s not necessarily a fact.”

In a separate conversation, a salesman from a different company joked about the potential for error. “God forbid you live on the wrong street these days,” he said. “You’re going to get lumped in with a lot of bad things.”

The LexisNexis booth was emblazoned with the slogan “Data. Insight. Action.” The company said it uses 442 nonmedical personal attributes to predict a person’s medical costs. Its cache includes more than 78 billion records from more than 10,000 public and proprietary sources, including people’s cellphone numbers, criminal records, bankruptcies, property records, neighborhood safety and more. The information is used to predict patients’ health risks and costs in eight areas, including how often they are likely to visit emergency rooms, their total cost, their pharmacy costs, their motivation to stay healthy and their stress levels.

People who downsize their homes tend to have higher health care costs, the company says. As do those whose parents didn’t finish high school. Patients who own more valuable homes are less likely to land back in the hospital within 30 days of their discharge. The company says it has validated its scores against insurance claims and clinical data. But it won’t share its methods and hasn’t published the work in peer-reviewed journals.

McCulley, LexisNexis’s director of strategic solutions, said predictions made by the algorithms about patients are based on the combination of the personal attributes. He gave a hypothetical example: A high school dropout who had a recent income loss and doesn’t have a relative nearby might have higher than expected health costs.

But couldn’t that same type of person be healthy? I asked.

“Sure,” McCulley said, with no apparent dismay at the possibility that the predictions could be wrong.

McCulley and others at LexisNexis insist the scores are only used to help patients get the care they need and not to determine how much someone would pay for their health insurance. The company cited three different federal laws that restricted them and their clients from using the scores in that way. But privacy experts said none of the laws cited by the company bar the practice. The company backed off the assertions when I pointed that the laws did not seem to apply.

LexisNexis officials also said the company’s contracts expressly prohibit using the analysis to help price insurance plans. They would not provide a contract. But I knew that in at least one instance a company was already testing whether the scores could be used as a pricing tool.

Before the conference, I’d seen a press release announcing that the largest health actuarial firm in the world, Milliman, was now using the LexisNexis scores.

I tracked down Marcos Dachary, who works in business development for Milliman. Actuaries calculate health care risks and help set the price of premiums for insurers. I asked Dachary if Milliman was using the LexisNexis scores to price health plans and he said: “There could be an opportunity.”

The scores could allow an insurance company to assess the risks posed by individual patients and make adjustments to protect themselves from losses, he said. For example, he said, the company could raise premiums, or revise contracts with providers.

It’s too early to tell whether the LexisNexis scores will actually be useful for pricing, he said. But he was excited about the possibilities. “One thing about social determinants data – it piques your mind,” he said.

Dachary acknowledged the scores could also be used to discriminate. Others, he said, have raised that concern. As much as there could be positive potential, he said, “there could also be negative potential.”

Erroneous inferences from group data

It’s that negative potential that still bothers data analyst Erin Kaufman, who left the health insurance industry in January. The 35-year-old from Atlanta had earned her doctorate in public health because she wanted to help people, but one day at Aetna, her boss told her to work with a new data set.

To her surprise, the company had obtained personal information from a data broker on millions of Americans. The data contained each person’s habits and hobbies, like whether they owned a gun, and if so, what type, she said. It included whether they had magazine subscriptions, liked to ride bikes or run marathons. It had hundreds of personal details about each person.

The Aetna data team merged the data with the information it had on patients it insured. The goal was to see how people’s personal interests and hobbies might relate to their health care costs.

But Kaufman said it felt wrong: The information about the people who knitted or crocheted made her think of her grandmother. And the details about individuals who liked camping made her think of herself. What business did the insurance company have looking at this information? “It was a data set that really dug into our clients’ lives,” she said. “No one gave anyone permission to do this.”

In a statement, Aetna said it uses consumer marketing information to supplement its claims and clinical information. The combined data helps predict the risk of repeat emergency room visits or hospital admissions. The information is used to reach out to members and help them and plays no role in pricing plans or underwriting, the statement said.

Kaufman said she had concerns about the accuracy of drawing inferences about an individual’s health from an analysis of a group of people with similar traits. Health scores generated from arrest records, home ownership and similar material may be wrong, she said.

Pam Dixon, executive director of the World Privacy Forum, a nonprofit that advocates for privacy in the digital age, shares Kaufman’s concerns. She points to a study by the analytics company SAS, which worked in 2012 with an unnamed major health insurance company to predict a person’s health care costs using 1,500 data elements, including the investments and types of cars people owned.

The SAS study said higher health care costs could be predicted by looking at things like ethnicity, watching TV and mail-order purchases.

“I find that enormously offensive as a list,” Dixon said. “This is not health data. This is inferred data.”

Data scientist Cathy O’Neil said drawing conclusions about health risks on such data could lead to a bias against some poor people. It would be easy to infer they are prone to costly illnesses based on their backgrounds and living conditions, said O’Neil, author of the book Weapons of Math Destruction, which looked at how algorithms can increase inequality. That could lead to poor people being charged more, making it harder for them to get the care they need, she said. Employers, she said, could even decide not to hire people with data points that could indicate high medical costs in the future.

O’Neil said the companies should also measure how the scores might discriminate against the poor, sick or minorities.

American policymakers could do more to protect people’s information, experts said. In the United States, companies can harvest personal data unless a specific law bans it, although California just passed legislation that could create restrictions, said William McGeveran, a professor at the University of Minnesota Law School. Europe, in contrast, passed a strict law called the General Data Protection Regulation, which went into effect in May.

“In Europe, data protection is a constitutional right,” McGeveran said.

Pasquale, the University of Maryland law professor, said health scores should be treated like credit scores. Federal law gives people the right to know their credit scores and how they’re calculated. If people are going to be rated by whether they listen to sad songs on Spotify or look up information about AIDS online, they should know, Pasquale said. “The risk of improper use is extremely high,” he said. “And data scores are not properly vetted and validated and available for scrutiny.”

A creepy walk down memory lane

As I reported this story I wondered how the data vendors might be using my personal information to score my potential health costs. So, I filled out a request on the LexisNexis website for the company to send me some of the personal information it has on me. A week later a somewhat creepy, 182-page walk down memory lane arrived in the mail. Federal law only requires the company to provide a subset of the information it collected about me. So that’s all I got.

LexisNexis had captured details about my life going back 25 years, many that I’d forgotten. It had my phone numbers going back decades and my home addresses going back to my childhood in Golden, Colo. Each location had a field to show whether the address was “high risk.” Mine were all blank. The company also collects records of any liens and criminal activity, which, thankfully, I didn’t have.

My report was boring, which isn’t a surprise. I’ve lived a middle-class life and grown up in good neighborhoods. But it made me wonder: What if I had lived in “high-risk” neighborhoods? Could that ever be used by insurers to jack up my rates — or to avoid me altogether?

I wanted to see more. If LexisNexis had health risk scores on me, I wanted to see how they were calculated and, more importantly, whether they were accurate. But the company told me that if it had calculated my scores it would have done so on behalf of their client, my insurance company. So, I couldn’t have them.

July, 2018|OCF In The News|

Cancer: Can testosterone improve patients’ quality of life?

Source: Medical News Today
Author: Maria Cohut

Cachexia is a condition characterized by loss of body mass — including muscular atrophy — that is usually accompanied by severe weakness and fatigue. Many people who go through cancer experience this.

Studies have noted that “[a]pproximately half of all patients with cancer experience cachexia,” severely impairing their quality of life.

It appears to be “responsible for the death of 22 [percent] of cancer patients.”

What exactly causes this condition — which appears in some patients but not in others — remains unclear, and options to manage and address it are scarce.

But recently, researchers from the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston — led by Dr. Melinda Sheffield-Moore, from the Department of Health and Kinesiology — have been investigating the potential of administering testosterone in addition to chemotherapy in order to ameliorate the impact of cachexia.

“We hoped to demonstrate these [cancer] patients [who received testosterone treatment] would go from not feeling well enough to even get out of bed to at least being able to have some basic quality of life that allows them to take care of themselves and receive therapy.”

Dr. Melinda Sheffield-Moore

The researchers’ findings — now published in the Journal of Cachexia, Sarcopenia and Muscle — confirm that administering testosterone to individuals experiencing cachexia can, in fact, improve their quality of life to some extent, by restoring some independence of movement.

Adjuvant testosterone shows promise

The most widely used approach to manage cachexia is special nutrition treatments, but these often fail to prevent or redress the loss of body mass.

So, Dr. Sheffield-Moore and team decided to investigate the potential of testosterone based on existing knowledge that this hormone can help build up muscle mass.

“We already know that testosterone builds skeletal muscle in healthy individuals,” she says, “so we tried using it in a population at a high risk of muscle loss, so these patients could maintain their strength and performance status to be able to receive standard cancer therapies.”

In order to test this theory, the scientists worked — for 5 years — with volunteers who had been diagnosed with squamous cell carcinoma, which is a type of skin cancer.

The patients received chemotherapy, radiotherapy, or both, in order to treat the cancer. For 7 weeks during their treatment, some also received a placebo (the control cohort), while others received testosterone.

Dr. Sheffield-Moore and colleagues noticed that the participants who had been given extra testosterone had maintained total body mass and actually increased lean body mass (body mass minus body fat) by 3.2 percent.

“Patients randomized to the group receiving testosterone as an adjuvant to their standard of care chemotherapy and/or radiation treatment also demonstrated enhanced physical activity,” she continues.

“They felt well enough to get up and take care of some of their basic activities of daily living, like cooking, cleaning, and bathing themselves,” says Dr. Sheffield-Moore.

This effect could make a world of difference to people with cancer, as it allows them to maintain more autonomy.

At present, she and her team are looking to describe cancer patients’ muscle proteomes — the totality of proteins found in skeletal muscles — so as to understand how cancer in general, and specifically cachexia, affects their composition.

According to Dr. Sheffield-Moore, “What the proteome tells us is which particular proteins in the skeletal muscles were either positively or negatively affected by testosterone or by cancer, respectively.”

“It allows us to begin to dig into the potential mechanisms behind cancer cachexia,” she claims.

The scientists’ ultimate goal is to be able to support individuals likely to experience cachexia in continuing to support standard cancer treatment, and maintaining, as much as possible, their quality of life.

July, 2018|OCF In The News|

Silent no more: Woman lends voice to hope after cancer

Source: health.ucsd.edu
Author: Yadira Galindo

Singing hymns in church has always brought Cynthia Zamora joy. Today, her once sharp intonation has given way to a raspy voice. But Zamora is thankful that she has a voice at all after spending three months without the ability to utter even one syllable.

“I miss going to church and singing with people,” said Zamora. “Although, if I am in the back I’m still singing. I’m just hoping they don’t hear what sounds like a 13-year-old pubescent boy back there, because that’s how I sound. I know God thinks it’s beautiful, so I don’t worry about it. I just go on with life.”

In 2017, Zamora bit her tongue while sleeping, splitting her tongue nearly in half. She was referred to a specialist when her wound would not heal. They found a 5.4-centimeter tumor that enveloped more than half of her tongue. To save her life, her surgeon, Joseph Califano, MD, delivered grim news: Zamora would have to undergo a glossectomy — the surgical removal of all or part of the tongue.

“By the time I saw her she was really having a hard time speaking and swallowing,” said Califano, director of the Head and Neck Cancer Center at UC San Diego Health. “With Cynthia that was a difficult discussion because it was unclear how much tongue we would save and how good the function would be with the remaining tongue that would be preserved.”

A multidisciplinary team of experts that included medical oncology, surgical oncology, reconstructive surgery, radiation oncology, speech therapy, nutrition, psychiatry and a host of others came together to design a comprehensive plan to eradicate an aggressive, stage IV squamous cell carcinoma and deliver the best quality of life for a woman who was about to undergo a catastrophic surgery.

“The tongue is critical. It’s one of the strongest muscles we have in our body. In speech, our tongue is moving so rapidly within the confines of our mouth in order to generate and make certain sounds in conversation that we find it’s hard to grasp how complex that action is,” said Liza Blumenfeld, speech-language pathologist at Moores Cancer Center at UC San Diego Health. “Without a tongue you’re having to compensate for all of that movement with other structures, your lips, your cheeks and your jaw.”

During a 12-hour surgery, Califano would remove a large portion of Zamora’s tongue and place a breathing tube and feeding tube before a reconstructive microsurgeon would step in to replace the portion of tongue that was removed.

“The primary goal of surgery is to remove the cancer as best we can while sparing as much normal tissue as possible,” said Califano. “It was a challenging surgery in that we had to cut just right to save enough tongue so that she would have some function and we could still get well around the tumor. We were able to save less than half her oral tongue. That wasn’t a lot.”

Ahmed Suliman, MD, a plastic surgeon who specializes in reconstruction after cancer treatment, was tasked with reconstructing her tongue.

“When you remove the majority of the tongue you can’t really function,” said Suliman. “You can’t swallow and articulation is limited. We had to rebuild a tongue to provide bulk so that Cynthia could move food in her mouth in order to swallow and to speak.”

He used a method called anterolateral thigh perforator flap (ALT). Suliman cut a 6 by 8 centimeter tissue of skin and fat from Zamora’s leg to shape and create a new tongue. The replacement tongue does not move, but because Califano was able to spare the base of her original tongue, Suliman was able to reconstruct using the remaining tongue base to preserve some movement for Zamora. Suliman sutured the new tongue, attaching one artery and a vein from the neck using a microscope.

The reconstructive surgery and dissection of cancerous tissue in her tongue and lymph nodes left Zamora temporarily unable to walk, talk or eat. One of the advantages of performing an ALT is that minimal thigh muscle, or none at all, is cut when extracting tissue for the new tongue. This allows for a faster recovery because Zamora did not lose leg muscle function, so with physical therapy Zamora was on her feet fairly quickly.

Skin and fat tissue are more resilient to radiation therapy than muscle, said Suliman, making this tissue more ideal for someone like Zamora, who received treatment following surgery.

“The success of management of these advanced cancers rely on the coordinated efforts of a multi-disciplinary oncologic team,” said Suliman. “This leads to better planned surgery, good preoperative and post-operative care, and follow up. The success of complex cases is higher and outcomes are better, as demonstrated by Cynthia.”

While Zamora was undergoing physical therapy and speech therapy, she was also undergoing chemotherapy, radiation and was receiving an experimental immunotherapy called Pembrolizumab (Keytruda), an antibody that inhibits the abnormal interaction between the molecule PD-1 on immune cells and the molecule PD-L1 on cancer cells, allowing the immune cells to recognize and attack tumors. Pembrolizumab is FDA-approved for some cancers, such as melanoma but is still under a clinical trial for squamous cell carcinoma of the head and neck .

While Zamora continued aggressive treatment and attended physical therapy, she also met with Blumenfeld.

“Teaching somebody to regain their speaking and swallowing abilities during head and neck cancer treatment is really difficult,” said Blumenfeld. “Being able to understand what their abilities were like before, and being able to understand what their new normal looks like, helps us play on their strengths and their ability to compensate with other structures.”

Blumenfeld and Zamora worked together targeting the sounds that she had problems expressing. Zamora had to slow her speech and exaggerate each sound, compensating with her vocal chords for sounds she can no longer make with her tongue.

It is a tedious process but in three months Zamora was speaking well again.

“Previously, I was well pronounced with an expansive vocabulary. I had to be patient with myself and use more expressions in my eyes, hands and face. Sometimes I have to pick words I wouldn’t normally use because I can’t use my original vocabulary. Quality is better than quantity,” said Zamora.

“You have to want to be able to communicate in order to talk, and I wanted that more than anything, because I am a person who loves to communicate. I haven’t got singing down yet, but hopefully that will come.”

Zamora’s vocal chords are healthy and with time, patience and modifying her technique, Blumenfeld thinks that Zamora will be singing “proudly, loudly sometime soon.”

“There are people that come into your life as patients and your mind is blown by their strength of character, their humor, their wisdom, and their willingness to fight. Cynthia really embodies all of those things,” said Blumenfeld. “From the first day she was insistent that she was going to come out of this as a stronger, better person. She has really shown me, even in my own personal life, to never give up and to set your mind on a set target, and you simply do not deviate from that.”

In addition to regaining her speech, Zamora would need to relearn to eat. This was her last hurdle to recovery. It was only in early 2018 that she began to eat without a feeding tube.

“I would encourage everybody to think for a moment of what life would be like. Grab your tongue with your teeth and try to talk without a tongue. Try to think about, when you take a bite of a sandwich, everything that’s going on in your mouth,” said Blumenfeld. “In order for us to be able to chew, we have to be able to manipulate food, move it from one side of our mouth to the other side of the mouth. We have to be able to organize all that food on top of our tongue and propel that food backwards in order to swallow it. Without a tongue that becomes almost an impossible task.”

Thankfully, Zamora mastered the ability to eat again and laughs when recalling eating half a lava cake in front of her shocked family during a restaurant outing. She eats crispy fried chicken and just about anything she wants.

“With a little patience and care, and one step, baby steps, along the way, you can do anything,” said Zamora. “Look at me. I had no tongue, and I’m talking. I’m eating. I’m drinking. I’m doing great. There is life after this surgery. Don’t give up. Keep going. Be strong. Be stubborn. You can do it, you can.”

Smoking warning labels could need a refresh to inform public of new health risk discoveries

Source: www.abc.net.au
Author: Tegan Taylor

When it comes to the health risks associated with smoking, most people know about lung cancer and heart disease. But less than a third of Australians realise it can also cause conditions such as acute leukaemia and rheumatoid arthritis, according to a new study, raising the question around whether current graphic cigarette warning labels need to be refreshed.

The study, published in the Medical Journal of Australia, asked 1,800 Australians about whether they thought smoking increased the risk of 23 conditions shown to be associated with tobacco use, such as lung cancer, stroke and diabetes.

While more than eight in 10 participants knew lung, throat and mouth cancers, heart disease and emphysema were linked to smoking, much fewer were aware it was associated with erectile dysfunction, female infertility, diabetes and liver cancer.

The results showed the current warning labels were doing their job, and that it might be time to expand them, said Michelle Scollo from Cancer Council Victoria, which ran the study.

“It was predictable and pleasing that smokers knew about the health effects that have been highlighted in the current sets of warnings and media campaigns,” Dr Scollo said.

“[But] fewer than half realised it could reduce your fertility, and that could have a really major impact on the course of people’s lives … There’s a lot that people need to appreciate.

Part of the reason the link between smoking and some of the conditions surveyed aren’t well known is because research into the health effects of tobacco use has advanced since the time the current warnings were developed, Dr Scollo said.

The current set of graphic warning labels have been in place since 2012.

“In 2014, the US Surgeon-General released a 50-year report — they released a whole updated statement of the diseases caused by smoking. Many more conditions were added to the list in 2014,” she said.

“These health warnings came into effect in 2011-12 and a lot more things have been established. Liver cancer, colon cancer … diabetes, erectile dysfunction.”

Dr Scollo hoped the research would lead to an expanded campaign including new graphic warning labels, showing more of smoking’s health risks.

“People need continuous reminders of these sort of things if they’re going to remember them but I don’t see why we need to be limited to just 14 warnings,” she said.

“I think we need as many warnings as we need to adequately warn people about the risks they face.”

Anti-smoking messaging doesn’t always resonate with people from marginalised groups. (AAP: Dave Hunt, file photo)

There is value in looking at people’s awareness of smoking’s risks, according to Australian National University anthropologist Simone Dennis, who researched the effects of the original graphic warning label campaign.

But she cautioned against automatically reaching for more graphic warning labels as the solution.

Health warnings about smoking were usually framed around a “particular middle-class version of health” and the assumption that more knowledge will change people’s behaviour, said Professor Dennis, who was not involved in the most recent study.

She said the original graphic warnings were effective in reducing smoking, especially among white, middle-class people, but doubted refreshing the campaign would see a similar reduction.

“I don’t know that the constant articulation of danger is doing anything for the people who are smoking,” she said.

The danger, Professor Dennis said, was that people whose behaviour wasn’t changed by the warning labels tended to be from marginalised groups, and pushing the same line risked marginalising them further.

“If you’re marginalised already, that’s a really heavy burden to bear because you’ve done something that’s perceived to be extraordinarily dangerous,” she said.

“[The campaign] missed them last time, they kept smoking, it’s probably going to miss them again. And that’s consequential because those are the people who are going to die.”

11 Things You Need to Know About the HPV/Oral Cancer Connection

Source: thirdage.com
Author: Dr. Susan Maples

Maybe you think that because you’ve been vaccinated against the human papillomavirus (HPV) you’re in the clear when it comes to cervical cancer. Maybe you think that since you don’t drink or smoke that you can’t get oral cancer. Here are some surprising and sobering facts.

  1. So much of what we hear about HPV has to do with cervical cancer;
    however, we have more adults with oral cancer from HPV than cervical cancer.
  2. Oral cancer from HPV affects both women and men.
    By 2020, the number of HPV-related oral cancers in middle-aged men is expected to surpass rates of cervical cancer in women. Both boys and girls should be vaccinated for HPV at age 11 or 12 to not only lower the risk of oral cancer, but also lower the risk of cervical cancer for females and penile cancer for males.
  3. Among newly diagnosed cases of oral cancer, the fastest-growing segment is people under 40 infected with HPV type-16.
    Even with this knowledge, in 2017, vaccination rates only rose to 46% in girls and 26% of boys. It seems that de-escalating this trend will take a very long time.
  4. Just because you’ve been vaccinated against HPV doesn’t mean you are in the clear.
    There are 200 known HPV strains, including the garden varieties that cause warts on your fingers and feet, and 25 types of HPV virus have been associated with oropharyngeal cancer. The most recent Gardasil vaccine (released in 2017) only helps protect against nine of the most dangerous strains. In addition, we don’t know yet when the protection drops off and if re-vaccination will be as effective.
  5. For decades, tobacco (smoking and smokeless) was the leading cause of oral cancer.
    Now, HPV takes the lead, by more than 10 times the risk of smoking. Other causes of oral cancer are alcohol, genetics and being over 40 years old.
  6. An early oral cancer diagnosis is absolutely critical for survival, otherwise you could be left unable to swallow or chew and suffer severe disfigurement from surgery to remove tumors.
    At your next dental checkup, insist that your dentist does an oral cancer screening.
  7. The number of oral cancers has increased over a seven-year period.
    In fact, one person every 20 minutes of every day, all year long, is getting cancer caused by HPV.
  8. Your dentist or hygienist should be checking your mouth for oral cancer, but there is no effective screening for HPV oral cancer.
    It is usually hiding behind the tonsil folds, in the back of the mouth, in the throat or at the base of the tongue. Your saliva can be analyzed for the presence of 51 HPV strains, and if positive you can build an individualized strategy for early clearing of the virus and/or early cancer detection.
  9. Unlike some viruses (like herpes simplex), human beings can “clear” an HPV infection, provided they have good “host immune response,” meaning good overall health.
    Clean living—meaning good sleep, a whole foods diet, hydration, refraining from smoking (of any kind), refraining from heavy alcohol/drugs, losing weight (if overweight/obese) and avoiding undue stress, may eliminate the virus. If your body doesn’t clear the virus on its own, you carry a persistent HPV infection, making you more susceptible to cancer.
  10. The HPV vaccine is covered by health insurance until age 21 in boys and age 26 in girls.
    Contrary to what you may have heard, if you are beyond the covered benefit age for vaccination, you can still act as your own health advocate. If you’re willing to spend $200-$300 out of pocket, you can get vaccinated at a local pharmacy.
  11. The average age of the first exposure to oral sex is now 10 to 13 years old.
    We need to spread the word among children, adolescents, teens and young adults that oral sex is not safe sex and can lead to HPV transmission.

Note:
Dr. Susan Maples is author of “Blabber Mouth: 77 Secrets Only Your Mouth Can Tell You to Live a Healthier, Happier, Sexier Life,” and an expert in the oral health and systemic health connection.

Changes in cancer staging: what you should know

Source: health.clevelandclinic.org
Author: staff

When you learn you have cancer, you want to know what to expect: How will doctors treat your illness? How effective is treatment likely to be?

Much depends on the way doctors first classify, or “stage,” your cancer, using the official staging manual from the American Joint Committee on Cancer. Staging guidelines continue to evolve as knowledge about individual tumor growth and innovative technologies come into play.

An ever-evolving system
“Historically, we staged cancers according to tumor size, lymph node involvement and the presence of metastases,” says oncologist Dale Shepard, MD, PhD.

“The latest staging manual incorporates new findings on the importance of changes in molecular DNA and tumor genomic profiling. This will affect many patients going forward.”

Among those most impacted by changes in staging are people newly diagnosed with breast cancer; head and neck cancer caused by human papillomavirus (HPV); or sarcoma.

How staging works
“Staging allows us to stratify patients into groups based on anatomic and other criteria. It gives us a framework for understanding the extent of disease,” Dr. Shepard explains.

Cancers are staged clinically and pathologically:

  • The clinical stage is determined during the initial workup for cancer.
  • The pathologic stage is determined by studying a surgically removed tumor sample under the microscope.

Adds Tumor Registry Manager Kate Tullio, MPH, MS, “Staging helps physicians and other researchers to compare patients with the same types of cancer to each other in a consistent way — so that we might learn more about these cancers and how to effectively treat them.”

Staging allows doctors to determine the best course of treatment for different types of cancer and helps families to understand the prognosis, or likely outcome, of that treatment.

It also allows doctors to offer patients a chance to participate in clinical trials of new therapies targeting their form of cancer.

The impact of DNA changes on breast cancer
In the past, most breast cancer patients with lymph node involvement were automatically classified as stage II or higher, and were often given chemotherapy.

“Previously, physicians considered only tumor size, lymph node involvement and spread of the cancer to distant areas of the body when staging breast cancer,” says Ms. Tullio.

Today, staging has improved with the addition of advanced multi-gene panel testing and specific information on the biology of the tumor.

“This incorporates what we have found clinically: that some patients previously identified with stage II breast cancer did better than others,” says Dr. Shepard. “In essence, patients with HER2-positive disease were more like patients with stage I disease.”

HPV’s effect on head and neck cancers
The classification of head and neck tumors has changed because of advances in genomic profiling.

“We now have a separate system for classifying head and neck cancer caused by HPV infection because we realize that, clinically, it is a different disease,” says Dr. Shepard.

Ms. Tullio notes that patients with head and neck cancers caused by HPV have a better prognosis — living longer, on average, than head and neck cancer patients without HPV.

“Patients with HPV-positive mouth or throat cancers usually respond well to treatment and may need less aggressive therapy than those who are HPV-negative,” she says.

Also new, adds Dr. Shepard, are separate classification systems for soft-tissue cancers called sarcomas. Doctors have found that, based on the primary tumor’s location, sarcomas will behave and respond to treatment differently.

How will these changes affect you?
The impact of these staging changes will be far greater for patients with cancers diagnosed on or after Jan. 1, 2018.

“If your cancer is new, then changes in classification may affect early decisions about your initial care and likely prognosis,” says Dr. Shepard.

If you received a cancer diagnosis before that date, the stage of your tumor will not change, Ms. Tullio notes. However, new data in the manual may allow your doctors to better assess and treat you.

Adds Dr. Shepard, “Talk to your doctor if you have any questions about the new staging systems. It’s important to be sure all the right tests are ordered to accurately assess your cancer.”

New mouthwash formulation may help to relieve symptoms of dry mouth, study finds

Source: sjogrenssyndromenews.com
Author: Iqra Mumal

Individuals with dry mouth, including those with Sjögren syndrome, may benefit from using a moisturizing mouthwash with cetylpyridinium chloride, a new study shows.

The study, “A randomized controlled study to evaluate an experimental moisturizing mouthwash formulation in participants experiencing dry mouth symptoms,” was published in the journal Oral Surgery, Oral Medicine, Oral Pathology and Oral Radiology.

Dry mouth is a common problem and has been reported by up to 47 percent of people at some point in their lives. Dry mouth tends to have a higher prevalence in older individuals and is more likely to occur in women.

Many factors can cause dry mouth, including Sjögren syndrome. However, many people, particularly those with Sjögren syndrome, may underestimate their levels of oral dryness and may never seek professional help.

Sipping water can temporarily help patients relieve the sensation, but it has limited effectiveness.

Researchers in this study set out to determine if symptom relief can be obtained from a newly developed moisturizing mouthwash. While the formulation used to make this mouthwash is similar to those previously available, a different preservative system that incorporates cetylpyridinium chloride (CPC) instead of parabens was used.

Researchers recruited patients with self-reported dry mouth, some of whom had Sjögren syndrome. To determine the mouthwash’s effectiveness, researchers used questionnaires both before and after use.

The product performance and attributes questionnaire (PPAQ) previously has been validated as an appropriate tool to determine the efficacy of dry-mouth products. Participants were randomized to receive either the experimental mouthwash or water only. For eight days, the mouthwash group used 1-2 doses per day at home. Both groups were allowed to sip water if needed.

Supervised treatment took place on days 1, 3, and 8. During treatment, before and after administration, participants completed the PPAQ, parts 1 through 4.

The primary endpoint of the study was relief of dry mouth symptoms, as determined by question 1 of the PPAQ3 — “Relieving the discomfort of dry mouth” — at 120 minutes after use of the experimental mouthwash or water, after eight days of treatment.

Researchers found that individuals in the mouthwash group had significantly more relief of dry mouth symptoms versus participants in the water-only group. Patients without Sjögren syndrome seemed to favor the mouthwash, but this was not the case in patients who had the syndrome. Regarding safety, eight non-serious, treatment-related adverse events were reported by the mouthwash group.

“The findings of a subjective questionnaire showed that an experimental moisturizing mouthwash provided greater relief than water only from dry mouth symptoms over 8 days,” investigators concluded.

“The study shows that efficacy and oral tolerance are retained with the use of CPC as a preservative and adds weight to the use of PPAQ as a measure to distinguish dry mouth remedies,” they added.